07/31/2013 03:05 EDT | Updated 09/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Lace up, see sights, break a sweat: Guided runs offer alternative take on tourism

TORONTO - There was no need to fumble with a map, navigate an app or even glance up at street signs: Christiane Nilles simply laced up her runners and let Sue Pulfer lead the way.

The Luxembourg resident decided she wanted to tour Toronto in much the same fashion as she had traversed such European hubs as Berlin, Rome and Lyon: as a sightjogger. To do so, Nilles enlisted the help of Pulfer, founder of Toronto Guided Runs, who crafted a personalized tour of the city for the pair to travel together.

Amid the relative calm of an early Saturday morning free from the clog of traffic congestion that typically clutters the roads, the duo set off to see the sights and break a sweat in the process. Pulfer acted as both running partner and tourist guide, highlighting distinctive neighbourhoods and landmarks dotting Toronto's downtown core.

Along their journey, the pair threaded their way swiftly along University Avenue, past the University of Toronto, through the eclectic enclave of Kensington Market and alongside the sprawling exterior of the Art Gallery of Ontario with its notable wood and glass facade.

"I think it's much more personal than going on a bus tour," Nilles said following her nearly hour-long guided run.

"It's nice jogging along and looking at all of the sights. And another reason is I remember much better when I jog along the streets and look at the monuments, at the buildings. It's much better than just walking."

Pulfer learned of sightjogging during a visit to Berlin in 2009 where she took part in a running tour in the German capital and relished the experience. The retired software executive started to research whether anyone was offering a similar opportunity for tourists in Toronto.

Pulfer aims to lead guided runs between five and 10 kilometres that usually take between 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the speed of sightjoggers.

"We're not racing — we're just jogging. We want to chat and see the sights."

Pulfer said she's found most clients are more interested in taking part in a "beautiful run," like travelling along the water. To that end, she seeks to highlight scenic and historic areas that may not be as recognizable to outsiders as other familiar landmarks.

The running enthusiast counts the Leslie Street Spit among her favourite routes: a man-made peninsula that extends five kilometres into Lake Ontario with Toronto's famed skyline as a backdrop.

"I think that anybody that comes to town, they know about things like the CN Tower or the Rogers Centre. But what they don't see is some of the more beautiful little neighbourhoods whether it be Rosedale or Cabbagetown ... or along the Beaches where there's a beautiful boardwalk," Pulfer said.

"Those are areas that people wouldn't normally see if they were just here staying at a downtown hotel. I try to take them to some of those out-of-the-way spots that are also beautiful to run in."

Chris Kennedy of Whistler Running Tours said he has little time to jog for leisure as he leads guided runs, logging in the vicinity of 60 to 70 kilometres a week on foot.

Visitors from across Canada, the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Europe and South America have signed up — and laced up — for treks Kennedy rates similarly to ski runs in town: green circle or beginner-type runs from five to seven kilometres to the double black diamond run of 20 kilometres and up.

The avid runner said he fields many requests to see the real wilderness trails, old-growth forests and glacier-fed lakes in a bid to experience "the true Whistler."

"I have a number of customers who've indicated that they just wouldn't feel safe exploring the wilderness areas that we do if they were by themselves," said Kennedy. "Some of the best places to explore in Whistler are off the beaten path that only the local folks would know about."

"We use just two feet and a heartbeat to get out there and explore, which is nice," he added.

Dan Craig runs roughly 10 kilometres daily and his wife has participated in several marathons. So it was a natural fit for the couple to fuse their planned workout with a little sightseeing during a guided run of New York.

With City Running Tours, first-time visitor Craig was able to eye iconic landmarks and learn details about the Big Apple from their guide as they travelled across the Brooklyn Bridge and through several hotspots including Chinatown and Little Italy.

"There's no better way than to get on the streets and walk the streets to get a real feel for the geography and the smells and sights of the city than to be right on the ground," said Craig, who hails from Richmond Hill, Ont.

"If you're a runner at all and you're going to hop out of a hotel in New York and go for a run, half the time you'd be worried about getting run over, and the rest of the time, you'd be worried about: 'Did I leave a trail of breadcrumbs and do I know where I'm going back here?' And with this, the guy knows all the areas and you do this sort of massive loop, and you get a bit of a history and a lesson at the same time."

Karl Pawlewicz has been with City Running Tours since 2007, which operates in 11 different U.S. cities. The New York City manager said the company has seen an increase in the number of runners signing up each year, which included 60 Canadians in 2012.

He believes the appeal stems from the popularity of the sport, and a desire among people to find ways to stay healthy and active while travelling — beyond the hotel gym.

Pawlewicz said his company has seen clients with experience levels that have spanned the spectrum from seasoned runners training for marathons to a recent visitor from California who had just started running five weeks prior and participated in a seven-kilometre tour.

"The nice thing about tours — running tours in general — is that you have somebody to go with you, whether it be a group or a guide, so it helps make the time and distance go by faster," he said from New York.

"A lot of the times I take runs out and we'll finish and the person running goes: 'Wow. That was eight miles? It didn't even feel like it.'"



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