I'm standing on a patch of dirt high atop a hill rarely visited by people. A creek bends gently around its base into an inviting stand of trees to one side. Birds circle overhead, squirrels dart in and out of the brush. The blue sky above is cloudless, beautiful.
Then there's the stuff in between.
Power lines run from the substation in the valley to the metal tower that dominates the hilltop; Interstate 495 curves away in the distance, trucks and cars merging noisily into a slowdown on the other side of the beige "sound wall" that's entirely below me; maintenance vehicles and building debris pepper the broad, bare patch that sits at the convergence of a gravel-strewn concrete slab and a double-track access road just across the creek.
This is my urban home turf.
It's a strip of parkland less that two miles long and maybe a few thousand feet wide that holds more than a dozen miles of trail swerving between and over creeks, through slender forests, and across overgrown fields. These paths also loop around the high-voltage towers, trace the edges of parking lots, and cross the paved road. Most of the trail is out of sight of the main park attractions -- baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a skate park, a rec center. It's a relatively calm respite, all things considered, and near enough to my house that I run these trails several times a week. I wear them like a favorite shirt.
Urban trail vistas don't appear on the cover of Trail Runner Magazine. They rarely grace the homepage of iRunFar. They are not how you advertise to dirt fiends or sell adventure. And I get it -- I really do! They're often a little ugly, usually just queer bends or folds in the development strata repurposed for a small but insistent crowd. In that way, though, they're perfect for trail training.
I first scuffed up my soles on secluded forest paths in upstate New York, where the Finger Lakes Trail forms the backbone of a network that rarely approaches civilization. These natural playgrounds are amazing, thrilling, sometimes breathtaking. They're a delightful daily habitat.
But here in DC such complete seclusion is unrealizable. Instead, tiny strands of urban dirt are tightly packed into city reality: the unnoticed dips and rises between poured concrete, the ignored back woods abutting railroad storage lots, and the unprofitably valuable flood land below million-dollar developments.
Subtle brushstrokes of trail can nestle in almost any awkward notch or nook. They cross verges or duck under clover leaf ramps or wind and twist through mini-biomes before spitting a runner out on a busy road or forgotten junk pile. Sometimes they're a splash of relief, like the short dirt path that follows the 3/4 of a mile of creek bank between two highway connectors in my neighborhood. Other times they're miles long, like the Fort Circle Parks Hiker/Biker Trail that slashes through southeast DC by joining ribbons of greenery, some of which were (and probably still are) segregationist barriers; just watch out during the morning commute, when impatient drivers stack up at the road crossings.
Still others are downright extensive. The Potomac River trail system offers all manner of urban views heading along the Virginia side of the river, immediately moving under and over junctions of multi-lane highways, then following the contours between these heavily trafficked roads and the wealthy users who usually want to forget them; you can carry up the Potomac here and out of the urban landscape or dip south into the dense suburbs of Northern Virginia, finally (after 20-ish miles and about 3 blocks on pavement) settling into a corner of development in Falls Church behind the bus depot, Metro rail storage facility, and on-ramp from a major highway onto the interstate.
If that final locale sounds less than charming, consider the approach: cross a main commuter cut-through road, tiptoe across planks and stones set into a muddy creek overflow, head a few hundred yards south, and duck under an interstate thickly undercoated in graffiti; follow the trail for a mile or so along the concrete river drainage that runs 50 feet behind houses on either side; clamber into this drainage for the one property owner who has (illegally, perhaps) claimed the lot all the way to the concrete; then traverse the 4-foot-wide, rooty ledge behind chain-link fences until the trail widens and finally turns to poured blacktop near the back side of a school maintenance building.
Just because it's ugly doesn't mean it's not there. And after a decade of these kinds of trails, I've found a charm to their gritty determination to exist against what seem overwhelming odds.
On vacation in new cities, I seek out these unique urban venues. One day in Chicago, I hopped off the L at a commuter stop, crossed a cemetery, and vanished into the forest at the foot of a bridge off a city street. I did a 15-mile out-and-back toward the airport, almost always on a soft, muddy path within sight of a half dozen houses. There were wrong turns on mudflats and creek branches. There were alternate routes along soggy, stagnant mounds. There were road crossings and railroad crossings and short but discomfiting stretches along pedestrian-unfriendly shoulders. And there were places where the trail seemed to shatter into a dozen deer paths or fall prey to the underbrush. When I got back to the train, a longtime resident stared wide-eyed at my mud-caked limbs; he had no idea what lay in his backyard.
In other cities, these urban trails are perhaps neater but no less fascinating. Like Dublin, where I ran north from our city-center digs and squeezed between a bollard and a chain link fence onto several miles of straightforward dirt path along the river to its outlet; I won a beautiful sunrise and even found a bizarre statue to watch it with. The next day I spent 40 minutes running through and across the extensive trail networks of Phoenix Park, ending the event by nearly entering someone's back gate. (She helpfully pointed to the sign that read "This is not a park." I rather believe I'm not the first then perhaps.)
Even in dense cities where many urban "trails" are no more than a block or two without pavement, longer options are usually within range of public transit. Central Paris features a semi-paved path along the Siene as well as a couple very large parks (Jardin du Luxembourg and Jardin des Plantes) that include dirt, but the more wide-ranging will find Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes. New York City's Riverside Park is the city's longest contiguous park, but it's paved; stringing together Central Park's trails, Morningside Pond, and St Nicholas Park offers a more diverse dirty urban experience -- or the slightly less time-strapped can take the Subway to the cloisters and pack down the extensive network of trails on Manhattan's north end. You'll find little in central Boston, but the T will take you to Oak Grove and the reservoirs near Spot Pond, a vast city-ringed greenery bisected by I-93.
Most cities have their own, built in the urban null space where expansion couldn't or wouldn't accept human homes. These voids are being reclaimed around the world by both runners and mountain bikers ready to escape the sidewalks and roads without spending hours in transit. They're a boon to trail hounds living in urban enclaves as well as those just visiting.
Whether you're making tracks through other cities or living your own metropolitan life, interesting trails are probably closer than you think. Instead of taking that hour drive to the perfect trail or heading to the latest pop-outdoor town, maybe it's time to seek out your own urban home turf.
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.