Easing in to trail running and ultras

Ten years ago I became a trail runner.

I got started the way that most people do: I found a trail, then I ran on it.

(And then I probably fell down, more on that later.)

I was lucky enough to find myself on trail that day in May 2009 with two very experienced trail runners. I didn’t know either them when we met by accident in a parking lot, but after 10 miles of casual conversation (them), and some wheezing and shortness of breath (me), I had their contact information and plans to meet the following Saturday for more miles. I was hooked.



Those two runners became the foundation of my trail family, sources of infinite trail wisdom (and some definite trail BS), and my motivation to run farther than the marathon. Now, 10 years later, my ultramarathon finish count is 50+ races long.

The D.C.-area has a robust trail running scene, and not far outside the Beltway are dozens of trailheads with a diverse variety of surfaces. DMV runners have access to anything from Cedarville State Forest’s friendly bridle paths to Catoctin’s gnarly, rocky trails — and everything in between — within 100 miles of the Mall.

You don’t have to aim for ultra distances to be a trail runner, all it takes it one foot after another, on dirt. That’s it.

Here’s the quick (and dirty) on how to get started:

Don’t worry about trail-specific gear

You don’t need anything trail-running specific to go off road, especially if you’re just trail-curious and just want to dip your toes in the mud before jumping all the way in. Your road shoes will get dirty, but they’ll be just fine on most of the D.C.-area trails.

All in? Then you might be more comfortable in trail shoes which have a little more traction, ankle support, and sometimes more cushion than their roadie counterparts. Pacers Running, Potomac River Running, and Metro Run & Walk are great local places to pick up a pair. When you start going longer you might want to carry safety gear, we’ll have more on that in a later column.

Don’t keep a close eye on your watch

You will most likely be slower on trail than you are on the road — so don’t sweat it if your pace is slower by full minutes. Most runners have to slow down by two or three or five minutes per mile, especially when you’re getting used to running on uneven terrain. Especially you’re first few times out, shorten your stride more than you would on the road and run, jog, or hike the pace you need to go to feel comfortable and confident.

Do keep a close eye on your feet

Trails are full of things to trip over: Rocks, roots, more rocks, your own feet … so keep an eye on your toes and be deliberate where you’re putting your feet. The scenery is very pretty in the woods, but if you want to admire it for longer than a split second consider walking — or stopping completely. Trust me, it’s worth the extra time to avoid face-planting in the dirt.

Don’t worry about walk breaks

Experienced trail runners will let you in on a little secret: Sometimes trail running is actually hiking, and that’s ok! If you can’t see over a hill, go ahead and hike up it. The time you save by jogging up is not always worth the extra effort it takes. As you get more trail miles on your legs you might find you can walk less, but know that experienced runner you see power hiking the hill up ahead might be on to something smart. Follow their lead.

Do learn to follow trail markings

Deer trails or even washouts from rainwater can look like your trail. Keep an eye out for “blazes,” paint stripes on trees, or markers in the ground. One blaze means you’re on trail, two blazes usually mean there’s a turn coming up. Think you’re lost? Backtrack until you find your bearings. Apps like Avenza Maps or even Google Maps can help you find your way, but be sure to familiarize yourself with a trail map before starting. Taking a picture of the route with your phone helps too.

Don’t litter

Practice “Leave no trace” habits. Pack out all your trash, including banana peels and other food waste.

Do use common sense

All the same general safety tips and rules apply to trail running as with road running. As a lady runner, I always have safety concerns in the back corner of my mind. But in my 10 years of trail running I’ve only had a few occasions when I haven’t felt comfortable. In general, I’m more likely to fall victim to a tree root than have an issue with another human or even an unfriendly dog. But trust your gut, it’s usually right.

Go run!

Want to go get your shoes dirty? D.C.’s very own Rock Creek Park is a fantastic place to get off road and in just a few minutes you’ll forget you’re only a few miles from the Capitol. Trails inside the park aren’t super “technical,” with occasional rocks and roots, and well marked and easy to follow. Added bonus: Peirce Mill has parking, water and bathrooms.

My favorite loop in RCP is the 9-mile Boundary Bridge loop from Peirce Mill, though the current closure of Beach Drive will force you to do some light trespassing to complete the loop. For shorter suggestions, check out this National Park Service guide.

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