D.C.’s park trails offer runners a welcome respite from city life

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The C&O Canal towpath is a popular jogging route. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)
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Keith Knipling — a Naval Research Laboratory scientist and ultra-marathon enthusiast who serves as president of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club — openly admits that 100-mile races “can suck.” But the source of his motivation is simple, he told The Current: “Not finishing is a lot worse.”

This level of commitment requires hours and hours of training, so Knipling and his fellow club members meet on Wednesdays and Sundays, often venturing into Northwest D.C. to train on its wealth of leafy, historic trails.

Knipling runs about four or five times a week. Knipling runs his 8-mile commute from Northern Virginia to the Naval Research Laboratory in Southwest, and other times he will run during work. While joint pain is common among runners, Knipling opts for wooded trails and said he is rarely injured. As a former D.C. resident, Knipling has lists of favorite city trails, and his club has devised a number of District courses of a range of distances.

One Happy Trails favorite is the 9.3-mile Boundary Bridge Loop, tracing the outskirts of Rock Creek Park. The loop begins and ends at Peirce Mill, following the Western Ridge Trail up to the Maryland line, and then descending to the Valley Trail. A similar, slightly shorter version is called the 6.8-mile Lucky Seven that starts at Peirce Mill, follows the Valley Trail toward Maryland for 2.2 miles, crosses Broad Branch Road NW, meets Milkhouse Ford and finishes at the mill.

Another of the club’s go-to trails is the Virginia-based Potomac Heritage Trail, where runners can log 19.5 uninterrupted miles along the Potomac River. The track begins at Roosevelt Island across the river from Georgetown and stretches just over 7 miles to Cabin John Bridge, where members usually turn around and come back.

Runners interested in shorter distances might favor the compact Glover-Archbold Trail. The popular 3-mile track is nestled among several apartment complexes and busy roads, stretching from the corner of Upton and 40th streets down toward the Potomac River at 3600 Canal Road NW. The trail is rocky and steep in parts, so sturdy shoes and sunshine are essential for safety. Dogs are permissible if they’re kept on a leash.

For a longer, 10-mile version of the Glover-Archbold route, runners should begin at the C&O Canal in Georgetown, heading west down the towpath. After half a mile, turn left, descend a flight of stairs, and then take a right, enter a tunnel, ascend a ramp, and meet the Glover-Archbold Trail. Continue along the Glover-Archbold Trail for about 3 miles before meeting Van Ness Street. From here, runners should proceed on Van Ness until reaching Connecticut Avenue, turn right, continue two blocks and turn left on Tilden Street. At this point, participants can run into Rock Creek Park, turn right on the bike path, follow the National Zoo, continue along the path and cross Calvert Street NW before exiting at Pennsylvania Avenue NW. To finish, runners turn left onto M Street and finish at the 3300 block. Or, for a straight and fairly flat shot, the C&O Canal towpath extends 184 miles westward — plenty of space for even an ultra-marathon.

A section of the Rock Creek Trail reopened in August following the first phase of Beach Drive NW’s reconstruction. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

Meanwhile, the 10-mile Rock Creek Trail is a city track that is loved by many. The route is separated into two sections divided by Peirce Mill. The southern half runs 5 miles, beginning at the mill and finishing at the Arlington Memorial Bridge. The northern part is slightly shorter, spanning 4.6 miles from Peirce Mill and concluding near the Maryland line.

Another popular route is the 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail, running between Georgetown and Silver Spring, Md. A segment of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad until 1985, the trail’s land was purchased by the National Park Service within D.C., while Montgomery County acquired the remaining half. The path is fitted with crushed stones, making it suitable for walkers, runners and bikers. Managed by a neighborhood group, the Capital Crescent Trail is frequently updated. A segment of the track east of Bethesda closed this month as part of the construction of Maryland’s upcoming light rail line. The segment is set to reopen, paved, in four to five years. A detailed explanation of the alternate route between Bethesda and Silver Spring is available at cctrail.org/news.

Runners in the Georgetown area can also pursue the slightly hilly 7.2-mile Klingle Road-Cathedral Loop. This scenic route includes wooded tracks as well as busy streets, making it both accessible and interesting for District residents to run. The loop begins at 3300 M Street NW, and from there runners will cross Wisconsin Avenue, veer right, exit onto the Rock Creek Parkway, take the bike path and proceed into the National Zoo. (Gates are open until 5 p.m. October through April, and 8 p.m. in the summer.) Runners cross the Zoo and emerge onto Klingle Road NW, turn right onto Woodley Road and head back to Wisconsin Avenue. Participants will descend Wisconsin and finish at M Street.

Those who favor efficiency will appreciate the Dumbarton Oaks-Georgetown 4-mile loop. Also kicking off at 3300 M St. NW, the track follows Rock Creek Parkway, veers left on the Whitehaven Trail and continues south parallel to Rock Creek. The trail crosses Dumbarton Oaks Park, turns right on R Street NW, left on 31st Street, and finishes where it began, on M Street. It’s a neat 30-minute track that ticks many Georgetown sightseeing boxes along the way.

Finally, the District’s man-made treasure — the National Mall — mustn’t be forgotten. While crowded with tourists most days, runners who venture out early will be rewarded with flat terrain accented by sweeping, iconic views. Running alongside the Washington Monument with the gleaming Capitol dome on the horizon is an experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

The 700-member Virginia Happy Trails Running Club is open to runners from any state and of all endurance levels. More information is available at vhtrc.org/news.