Trail Running in the City

IMG_3181I’m not much of a trail runner. I wish I was, and I’d like to be, but I haven’t done enough trail running to bestow that title upon myself. Perhaps if I had gotten more into it before I started having knee problems, I’d be able to call myself a trail runner today. Instead, I am a road runner (not to be confused with a roadrunner) who loves a good hike and will occasionally run – slowly – on a hiking path.

The irony in this is that in three weeks, I will be toeing the start line of the JFK 50 Mile Run. The country’s largest ultra marathon, the JFK 50 includes a section of about thirteen miles on the Appalachian Trail before flattening out onto the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath for a while. I am feeling more than a little bit anxious about this section of trail, as the course gains and loses quite a bit of elevation in those thirteen miles, and I know it will be challenging. I’ve done a small amount of trail running in preparation for JFK, but have in recent months generally focused more heavily on road running as I prepared for last month’s Steamtown Marathon. This morning, M., Frieda, and I headed out for a trail run to work a bit on footing and keeping concentration while negotiating tree roots, rocks, and big, colorful leaves that have a tendency to cover up the roots and rocks and generally make navigating the trail a little trickier.

For years while I lived in the Washington, DC area and ran the Mount Vernon and Custis Trails regularly, I always passed by the trailhead for the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT), but never actually ran on it. We changed that this morning.

We drove to and parked our car in the parking lot next to Theodore Roosevelt Island. Then we jumped on the PHT along the river at the north end of the parking lot. Our plan was to run north about four miles on the PHT to Chain Bridge, cross the river, jump on the C&O Canal Towpath on the DC side to head back to Georgetown, and then cross the Key Bridge and take the Mount Vernon Trail back to the car. In total, about 8.4 miles.

PHT Beach

The “beach” along the Virginia side of the Potomac River, from the Potomac Heritage Trail.


One of many streams that we crossed on our run. Fortunately, this one had a bridge over it.

As we headed down the dirt path and under the traffic moving swiftly across the Key Bridge, I thought to myself that maybe I should incorporate more trail running into my training. I had loved it back in high school and college when we ran trails for cross country practice. In my twenties, road running simply seemed more convenient when I lived in an urban area. After I had knee surgery, trail running was out of the question. My knee couldn’t handle the rough terrain. Today, though, I felt strong as we started our run at an easy pace.


Several small waterfalls like this one dotted the trail and made our run even more picturesque.

The first four miles were a challenge. The trail followed the Potomac River, offering gorgeous views of colorful leaves and Georgetown University on the opposite side. We moved along the route slowly, sometimes running, sometimes hiking, and sometimes climbing over huge boulders. About a mile into our run, we felt pretty confident that we were the only ones out on this blustery November morning, so we let Frieda off the leash so she could run ahead and scamper over the rocks. We followed the trail, which took us across streams, over large, sharp rocks, and up and down steep switchbacks, until we reached Chain Bridge, well over an hour later. I was enjoying the experience, but couldn’t help wonder if the trail section of the JFK 50 would be as difficult (M. assured me that it wouldn’t be)… and if it was, meeting the time limit for that section seemed impossible.


View of Georgetown University from the Potomac Heritage Trail.

Once we crossed the Potomac on Chain Bridge, Frieda back on her leash, we hopped onto the C&O Canal Towpath, a crushed stone trail that parallels the C&O Canal and stretches 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. The section we ran today is not the same section that I will run in the JFK 50, but the terrain was the same: flat and straight. We made it back to Georgetown in less than half the time it took us to cover the first four miles. From there, we crossed the Potomac again, this time on the Key Bridge, and ran the quarter mile from there back to the car.

Chain Bridge

Overlooking the Potomac River from the center of Chain Bridge.


The C&O Canal Towpath is a great alternative to road running, but if you really need some pavement, the Capital Crescent Trail runs parallel to the C&O.

Our trail run today was a great way to spend the morning and get some quality training in at the same time. It was a refreshing alternative to the usually crowded, paved trails in the area and gave us the sense that we were far, far away from the city. Our little Frieda, who probably ran at least one extra mile through all of her off-leash exploring, is one content pup this afternoon, still resting by my side as I write, more than five hours after we came home.

If you’re looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of our nation’s capital, but don’t want to drive very far or deal with the crowds at Great Falls Park, consider the Potomac Heritage Trail, and remember to bring your camera!

Thank you for reading!

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