Washington, DC

When Kerry O’Brien woke up on Friday, March 13, she hadn’t expected to have an entire day free, because she’d been planning to go in to school to teach her 6th grade special education class. When she got the memo that her school would be closed for at least the next several weeks due to COVID-19, she seized the opportunity to tackle her bucket list of local trails. O’Brien set a goal to run a new trail every weekday she is out of school, which Governor Northam just announced will now be until the end of the school year in June.

O’Brien has an inspirational notebook where she keeps lists of places she wants to travel, books she wants to read, and of course, trails she’d like to run. When she first moved to the DC area from upstate New York in 2012, she craved community, so she joined a Meet-Up group that met every Saturday morning at Teddy Roosevelt Island for long runs.

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The Neabsco Creek Boardwalk. Photo: Myla Neal

As a new resident of the Woodbridge and Occoquan River region, I was eager to explore what the local running trails had to offer this past summer. On one early morning run in June, I passed a freshly paved blacktop trail veering off from the sidewalk along Rippon Blvd., which hadn’t been there the week before.

I followed the trail for a few minutes to discover a spacious parking lot and a playground. As I continued, I came around a bend in the trail to discover a wide, pristine boardwalk winding like a serpent over Neabsco Creek and the surrounding wetlands.

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If you complete different challenged along the Potomac Heritage Fat Ass 50k course, you can take minutes off of your finish time. Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McNulty

Trail races are already pretty chill, but those looking to take low-key to an even lower level should go find a Fat Ass.

Fat Ass events are free, loosely organized group runs that focus on trail community and camaraderie over competition. Depending on the organizer, races will sometimes have aid, sometimes swag, and sometimes course markings, but an entry “fee” is always a donation of food or drinks to a communal aid station.

“My first true experience into the real-world culture of trail running and the ultra family was at Halloweeny FA put on by VHTRC,” says D.C. resident Thomas McNulty. “My race entry ‘fee’ was two bags of potato chips. There was no judgement on whether I had run fast, slow, run the whole distance, run part of the distance or didn’t run at all. New friends were made, laughs enjoyed and I quickly realized that this was the people that I wanted to surround myself with.”

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The Powerline Trail as it is best enjoyed, under cloudy skies, shortly after opening in October 2018. Photo: Charlie Ban

After years of dedicated planning and construction, Montgomery Parks opened the Powerline Trail, also known as the Pepco Trail, in October 2018.

The 6.8-mile trail, which kicks off from South Germantown Recreational Park in Germantown, Md. and terminates at North Potomac’s Muddy Branch Stream Park, marked the first use of power corridors for recreational use in Montgomery County. In my final days before shipping out for my freshman year of college, I decided to hit the trail to see if it would live up to the hype. 

The origins of the trail date back to 2015, when power companies Pepco and Exelon were nearing a merger. Dave Magill, the Maryland advocacy director for MORE (Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts), remembers first hearing of the possibility of including the construction of a trail as a condition in the merger.

“A bike advocate, whose name I cannot remember, was chatting with me and said, “you know, Pepco hasn’t been very good with allowing trails of any kind, whether bike or hikers, either on or even across their power lines. Maybe to get an approval, they’ll have to go before the public utility commission (PUC). This is an opportunity to intervene in the merger and ask for them to change their policy about trails. That idea really resonated with me.”

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Bernedette Kilcer says to dress for what works for you, not someone else, when prepping for an ultra. Photo: Courtesy of Bernedette Kilcer

My first ultramarathon was supposed to be the North Face 50K in September of 2009. 

My actual first ultra was the Rosaryville 50K that July. Then the Catoctin 50K in August. Then The North Face 50K in September.

All because of Bob Gaylord.

I’d met Bob and his long-time running buddy Stan the previous May, the way I meet all my trail friends: Randomly in a parking lot at a trail head. Then, at some point between May and July, Bob convinced me that the best way to train for a 50K was to run a different 50K. You know, as a training run. And oh by the way, Catoctin is one of the tougher courses in our area — but it’ll be fun.

So … sure … what could go wrong?

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Pictured with Tracey Dahl is Furbutt, the VHTRC mascot, who she bought for the 25th Women’s Half Marathon in 2017.

Putting on a race is no small task.

Race directing usually involves hours (and hours) of prep work to scout course routes, secure permits, find and order materials on time, and coordinate an army of volunteers. Not to mention scrambling to make last-minute adjustments for terrible weather or missing volunteers.

Even with all the logistical gymnastics and giant drains on free time, most race directors certainly arent in the game to make money.

We talked with four local trail RDs about how they got started with their events, why they keep at it, and how every single one believes race directing is a team sport.

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Sara Davidson cruises through mile 29 of the Old Dominion 100. Photo: Karsten Brown

During the pre-race brief, organizers of the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Run described the race as a battle of the runner against the course against the clock.

Runners have to conquer 100.01 miles of all types of terrain, 14,000 feet of elevation gain, all in Virginias oppressive early June heat and humidity. To count as a finisher, they must complete the course in less than 28 hours; but those who want to go home with a coveted silver belt buckle must do so in less than 24.

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A visitor photographs the columns that serve as a centerpiece to the arboretum. Photo: Charlie Ban

I don’t know what was wrong with me. I had this beautiful gift, and I had been ignoring it for years.

The last time I remembered running in the National Arboretum was right before Thanksgiving 2014. Then, for some reason, I just stopped running there. It wasn’t until the end of this past January, after months of me telling myself I should go back there, that I actually did.

What a treat.

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Members of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club trim back vegetation.

Last month, a major outdoor magazine published a clickbait column pointing fingers at groups the author didn’t think did enough trail work.

This dispute made the trail runner internet community very angry, sending heart rates higher than a super sweaty mid-summer speed work session.

Not up for dispute? Trails take precision, experience, and hard work to build, then once built, require some quality maintenance to keep them fit for all kinds of use.

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Ajani Simmons and Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid at the Athletic Equation 24-Hour run.

Trail racing doesn’t always mean running an ultramarathon.

In addition to various shorter races, DC-area trail runners can look to timed races to run as little — or as much — as they want.

Timed races are a great alternative to traditional set-distance events because the format means your finish line is where ever you want it. Runners have a set amount of time to complete as many — generally short — loops as possible;  who ever runs the farthest is the winner, but everyone is a finisher.

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