What Goes Into Planning an Epic Run: The Route

The Objectives

Your objectives are going to have a big influence on the tactical choices you make for your run. For instance:

  • Fastest Known Time: Optimize for the most direct route (if that’s an option) and shortest travel to accommodations.
  • Meeting people / sharing your story: Optimize your route for stopovers, meet-ups, non-running days like TV interviews or speaking engagements, and plan or delays.
  • Running while the running’s good: If you’re trying to get across the desert (and the western third of the US is mostly desert), optimize for a route that doesn’t flood in rainy season or bake you with 100+ degree F temperatures in the summer. Likewise, if you’re trying to avoid narrow mountain roads during winter, optimize for lower elevations.
  • Avoiding mountain roads: If this is one of your objectives, you may want to optimize four a route across the desert southwest. You’ll still encounter mountain roads, but they won’t be as high or last as long.
  • Bucket list / retirement dream: You may want to optimize your route for the greatest opportunity to see America’s Back Yard.
  • Non-crewed solo run: Almost certainly, your route will have to be baby-carriage friendly (many transconners use them to carry supplies) and not go for too long without encountering a water or food source.

For example, for our 850-mile run across Texas, the objective was simple: Take the longest distance across the state and traverse it in the shortest time possible without entering any other states. For my USA run, it was to be the first person to run from Disneyland to Disneyworld, and secondarily to touch the closest oceans near those points.

Perhaps you have other objectives. But whatever they are, they’ll push your decisions during route planning, as will practical considerations like safety, navigability, and your choice of hundreds or thousands of mid-points.

The Questions

Regardless of what criteria your objectives prioritize, if you’re planning a self-routed run of more than a few hundred miles, sooner or later you’re going to run into the Big Questions. As with your objectives, your answers to these questions help determine your route at a tactical level:

  • What’s the most direct route? But be careful what you wish for: some roads are so straight they can hypnotize you into zoning out.
  • Is it safe? Look for paved paths, quiet roads, or roads with a wide shoulder. NOTE: Some highways in CA-AZ-NM are 2-lane mountain roads with no shoulder and 100-ft+ drop-offs, and east of Bisbee and Superior there are narrow mountain tunnels.
  • Is it busy? (I’m looking at you, US-67 east of Mount Pleasant, TX)
  • Is it legal? (Definitely NOT if it’s the actual Interstate, unless it’s the only way between point A and B)
  • Is this road really open to the public? (NOT the south roads around Salton Sea, north I-20 frontage road near the Nolan County Rest Area west of Trent, TX, and most local roads in north and central Arizona through or near the Gila River tribal lands)
  • Is the road actually there? (Ahem…CR-182 between Lorraine, TX and Roscoe, TX.)
  • Is it passable? On my run across Iowa, one road on the official route was classified as a “Class B Unmaintained Service Road”, meaning it was passable only by large farm equipment with massive tires.
  • What’s close to hotels, RV parks, gas stations, food, etc.? In the desert southwest, not much, so plan carefully.

The Roads

My first self-mapped run was my run across Texas. There was no race director telling us not to take shortcuts, and planning a safe route was entirely up to us. Suddenly it was OUR problem.

When picking your route, you’ll want to consider the tradeoffs among:

  • Two-way Interstate frontage roads often double as local, state, or US highways, where you can see approaching traffic and never be very far from food and lodging. Because they generally run the same routes as older public highways and are required to service the same areas, it’s generally legal to run on them. But pay attention to traffic exiting the highway, or you can be hit from behind.
  • Well-paved US highways often run the path of least resistance between major metro areas, and in some cases where there isn’t a nearby Interstate, the only direct path between two major cities. Shoulder width, quality and speed limits tend to vary quite a bit. Some are 4+ lanes, busier, and have higher speed limits.
  • State highways follow pretty much the same profile as US highways but tend to be in poorer states of repair.
  • County roads (CR-xxx) are often very quiet, often gravel or dirt, but also often in disrepair or reclaimed by nature or nearby property owners.
  • “Farm to Market” roads (FM-###) are usually quiet and often have wide shoulders and low speed limits to allow for slow-moving agricultural equipment. They aren’t always the fastest way between major cities, but they offer a good network of roads through agricultural areas, which is often where you find the quietest roads. Over time, some FM roads have become busy highways in metropolitan areas, so always drive your route before you run it.
  • Local roads in metropolitan areas often have sidewalks or multi-use paths nearby.

To keep our TX and USA routes short, we decided to follow a combination of legal interstate frontage, historic US highways, Farm-to-Market, and county roads that kept us relatively close to civilization.

In the end, we made some compromises: quiet roads when possible, plus a handful of busy roads during quiet early morning hours, avoiding night running, and never allowing traffic at our backs.

The Route Planning Software

The route planning software you choose will, oddly, affect your route.

We initially chose RideWithGPS because it was literally the only tool among a small number of nav software vendors that could support an 850-mile (and then, a 2845-mile) multi-hundred-cue route.

But sometimes the route planning software would act strangely:

  • If we told RideWithGPS it was a running route, it would maximize use of local roads to the point of adding hundreds of miles of turns.
  • We switched to telling it that it was a bike route, but it still put us on highways with no shoulder—a big problem for a running route.
  • We finally told RideWithGPS we were driving the route, and then examined every mile of it separately on Google Maps Street View to make sure it was runnable.

Just looking at the route in Street View forced some changes. For instance, We discovered narrow tunnels and steep, narrow, winding mountain roads with no shoulder and terrifying drop-offs.

Points of interest

RideWithGPS has two features of interest that we used extensively: Points of Interest (POIs) and Cues.

Points of Interest are noteworthy locations that may or may not be on the route: for instance, a nearby hotel or grocery store. We took advantage of POIs to document off-route locations where we might stay or replenish supplies.

Sometimes we nudged our route just a little to get it to closer a Wal-Mart we knew we’d need to visit for supplies.

Cues

Cues are noteworthy locations along the route. Some cues are generated automatically, and for a long route, it’s very advantageous to have most of your turn-by-turns already written for you.

We made some modifications:

  • We removed some automated cues that made no sense, such as abundant instructions to continue straight. We embellished the existing cues with photos and landmark notes, so we’d recognize them when we got to them.
  • Next we added our own cues for gas stations, truck stops, picnic areas, grocery stores, restaurants, day start / end, and any lodging that were on the route or within sight of it.
  • We marked dangerous areas such as narrow bridges, and added notes as to why we had chosen a particular turn over another with problems.

Customizing cues allowed us detailed turn-by-turns for the runner and spoken cues for my wife Leslie (the driver) so she could drive ahead and set up an aid stop.

However, one of the things we discovered about cues is that when the occur in abundance, there is a delay in announcing them, and the more turns there are in rapid succession, the more confusing it is for the driver.

So we were forced to straightened parts of the route to reduce rapid-fire cues, and combined some cues into a single cue: for instance, “KFC, McD and Taco Bell.”

The Results of Route Scouting

Even after scouting we encountered private roads, gated roads owned by the state forestry department, impassable dirt paths through cornfields, nonexistent roads, seasonal washouts, and native lands not clearly marked No Trespassing. We encountered months-long road construction, 20-mile detours, and highways that were a lot busier in reality than they seemed to be on Google Street View.

Some things you just don’t know about until you’re standing right there.

As before, we returned to the “drawing board” and made more route modifications.

The Planning Spreadsheet

Once we had a relatively stable route in RideWithGPS, the next step was to export the cue sheet into an Excel-compatible format that would allow us to separate the route into logical running segments of roughly equal distance for each day, ideally from one town to another.

But towns aren’t always spaced that way. Sometimes we’d get a 26 mile day followed by a 40 mile day, and there was no reasonable way to split it into two 33-mile days. Gradually, our DAY START / STOP markers in the cue sheet drifted away from the TOWN markers and things got messy.

We were forced to make several attempts at reconciling this.

We needed predictable text patterns for our markers in the cues in order for Excel to use the LAT / LON coordinates of towns to predict sunup, weather, lunch breaks, arrival times at lodging, and so on while acknowledging that we didn’t always end each day in such a location.

Once again, this required new route markers and little nudges to the actual route to take us someplace “known” at the end of each day, and this time ended up with something that looked a bit like a denormalized database.

It was complicated, and I didn’t like the route changes, but in practice it worked quite gracefully.

The Final Criterion: Common Sense

Above all, sensibility should dictate your route. Make the best choices you can and keep your safety and mental alertness a top priority. Don’t take risks, especially if they violate the Big Questions mentioned above.

  • If your only choice is to run on the Interstate in an area where runners are known to have been pulled over by cops and told to take a 100-mile detour, that’s not safe OR short.
  • Don’t run on that 3-mile bridge betting you won’t see traffic at 3 AM.
  • Don’t follow that dirt mining road through the Mojave Desert at sunset.
  • Don’t take that jeep trail just of NM-9 where Border Patrol is actively looking for human traffickers.
  • Don’t run on the Moreno Valley Freeway at rush hour, legal or not.

Be patient. The best route is not always the shortest. Think ahead; yet also think of your route not as a static thing, but as an evolving journey guided by good decisions, and and try to enjoy taking the road less traveled.

It’s what I’ve had to do.

What was it Robert Frost said? That has made all the difference.