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.
If it wasn’t for the eastern screech owl with one bad eye, I might still be unaware of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge’s North Tract and its many miles of undulating dirt roads, a mere 25 minutes south of my home in Baltimore. An unseasonably hot and humid day in October 2017 resulted in a shortened run at Greenbelt Park. My wife and I had driven south on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway intent on logging 90-minute runs on Greenbelt’s principal loop and adjacent athletic fields, but the conditions exacerbated our training fatigue. We decided to cut our losses make the most of the afternoon by exploring the area.
There is a hidden gem for Washington-area runners in the heart of Loudoun County — Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve. Over 20 miles of well-groomed grass trails traverse the 725 acres of grassy fields, hardwood forests, wetlands, and creeks. It’s a wonderful cross-section of the beautiful landscape that can be found in Northern Virginia. The picturesque scenery is an ideal backdrop for logging miles on soft trails. If you’re the type of runner that likes to connect with nature, this place is worth the trip no matter where in the metro area you live.
The first thing that may stand out to you is the odd name, the origin of which goes back to the early 19th century. Once you experience this place, the second word of the name makes sense, given “reeks” is a Gaelic word referring to hills and dales, which are abundant. The term “banshee,” Gaelic for female spirit, begs for further explanation. A local farmer, likely resulting from an intoxicating visit to a local saloon, came back home one windy night and claimed he heard a banshee on the reeks. The farm animals and wind were the likely culprits for the sounds, but over the years the story was repeated, and the area became known as Banshee Reeks.
Little Bennett Regional Park in Clarksburg is the largest park in Montgomery County, encompassing over 3,700 acres of Maryland wilderness. The good news for runners is that this green space also boasts approximately 25 miles of trails, all of which have natural surfaces. Countless loops and out-and-backs make Little Bennett the perfect place to get lost on a weekend when trail running is on your schedule.
In addition, you won’t have to compete with mountain bikers, because they’re not permitted on any of these trails. Horseback riders, however, do frequent some parts of the park, so it’s best to use caution when approaching.
The loop outlined below provides a small sampling of what the park has to offer, including thick wooded forests, brilliant meadows, vibrant streams and boggy wetlands.
There was no medal, no bib and no race director. But for Silver Spring’s Adrian Spencer, none of those things mattered as he attempted a run to Washington, D.C from Gettysburg.
Spencer had not always been a runner. He started running six years ago while on a beach trip with his family. Back then, he was 50 pounds heavier and could not even run a mile. Quickly approaching his 30th birthday, Spencer decided to give running a shot, hoping it would get him in better shape.
Real estate developers may have their eye on Calvert County, Md. land, but at least 3,000 acres is safe.
The American Chestnut Land Trust protects hardwood forest, wetland and farmland. In the process, those lands offer 19 miles of trails that make it the ideal running spot in the county.
It’s off the beaten path, about an hour’s drive from D.C., but it’s not hidden. Signs on U.S. Route 4 point it out to anyone who passes, a turn onto Dares Beach Road, past Calvert High and Double Oak Road.
Update: Of the 14 local-ish Western States entrants, 13 finished, led by Jared Byrd’s 22:09:10.
Last year, my sister, Sarah Mercer-Bowyer, graduated from veterinary school in Southern California. She then accepted an internship at an equine medical center in Northern California. This required Sarah and her husband, Greg, to move.
I have a feeling, though, that Sarah didn’t have to twist Greg’s arm.
Their new home is in Auburn. It’s a town of 13,000, founded by gold miners, located approximately 35 miles from Sacramento, and it’s a great place for them to live.
It takes an hour to get here from Washington, D.C.
You head north on Interstate 270, pass by the main exits for Frederick and continue onto U.S. Route 15. Catoctin Mountain comes into view. And as Cactus Flats Roadhouse passes by on your left, be on the lookout for your exit: Mountaindale Road.
You wind down through fields, passing by Mountaindale Convenience Store. When you have to choose right or left, choose left, and continue on what is still Mountaindale (Putnam Road is to the right). If you start seeing log cabin-inspired homes and the Cold Deer Hunting and Fishing Club, you chose correctly, and are almost there.
Patuxent River Park in Upper Marlboro, Md. boasts more than 6,000 acres of nature trails and wildlife just ten miles off the Beltway.
I ran by it dozens of times on my routine eight-mile loop on Great Falls and Westmoreland. Down at the bottom of the hill near Lemon Road, it looked like nothing more than a neighborhood shortcut..
I don’t remember what prompted me to actually check out what turned out to be the Pimmit Run Trail, but I do remember the odd sense of wonder that took hold when I did. I had some exploring to do.
That, understandably, sounds strange. How lost can you get in McLean? It might be counterintuitive, but the prospect of somehow losing my bearings inside the Beltway only made the prospect of exploration more interesting. It wasn’t so much about charting new territories, but seeing where I’d end up. I knew the path from Great Falls Road would eventually get me to Westmoreland. When I saw that the trail continued on the other side of the street, a little to the left, all bets were off.
I’m not a fervent trail runner. It’s not that I dislike them, but my body has always held up well on pavement and I figured I had better things to do than spend time traveling to run in a park when it was all the same to me. Well, now I didn’t have to choose. Rather than tearing through the trails, the mildly technical terrain, especially north of Old Dominion Road, forced me to savor the experience.
The fun for me became finding out where I’d pop out if I left the park.
“Tucker Ave? I don’t even know where that is!“
I fancied myself looking for a route to the Potomac River. I knew I was headed in the right direction, there had to be a way…
There is, but it’s tricky. And although I fear I am ruining the experience you could have exploring for yourself – for me, the trial and error was half of the fun – here’s some specific direction to keep you on track.
If you reach the Highlands Swim and Tennis Club, head up Bryan Branch Road to Linway Terrace. After a quick left on Kirby Road, you have a choice. Keep going on Kirby, head into the Marie Butler Leven Preserve and take one of the wooded trails until you reach Maddux. Or take a right on Chesterbook and left on Maddux.
On your right, shortly after 1607, you’ll see a path to the downstream section, which will bring you along the George Washington Parkway and onto the Potomac Heritage Trail, where you can get off at the Chain Bridge.
There are some creek crossings, and sometimes your foot will have to take the plunge to take the next step. But each next step will make you appreciate what you’ll continue to find.
The Pimmit Run Trail is a 1.5-mile run from the West Falls Church Metro Stop. One section of the trail that purportedly connects to Olney park in Pimmit Hills is impassible because of fencing under the Dulles Toll Road.