First-Time Finisher: A Good Trail Is Hard to Find

Annie's tired of her city running routes. But where the heck can she find a good trail around here?

Isn't it idyllic?

For about a year, I lived (and ran) in Charlotte, North Carolina—a gorgeous, green, but largely suburban city. Its neighborhoods range from cozy, colorful blocks of bungalows to more unfortunate, SUV-lined cul-de-sacs with names like “Antelope Crossing.” You need a car like you need oxygen.

I’ve enjoyed and (mostly) adjusted to my new car-free existence in Philly’s Center City. Walking home from work, I see the city up close. Insurance is a non-issue. The local Shell station no longer inhales my paychecks. I’ve found many things to love about city living, with the exception of one, crucial routine: running.

My favorite Saturday ritual in Charlotte was driving, no more than 15 minutes or so, to a different park, trail, or greenway. There were plenty of options: Shady, root-knotted paths? Coming right up. Water fountains every couple miles? No sweat. A round of tennis afterward? Sure thing. The flexibility and variety made weekend long runs fun and refreshing.

In Philly, however, I’ve worn a little path between my house and boathouse row, where I start 99.5 percent of my runs. For the first few weeks I was here, there was nothing like watching the sun rise over the Schuylkill, lighting up the Comcast building.

Fast forward two months, and I am ready to hitch-hike up the Schuylkill Expressway for a different view.

I don’t know if other runners suffer from this same sense of claustrophobia, but this past weekend, lacing up for my first serious long run, I wanted nothing worse than to hop in my car and go someplace new. Any run I’ve tried through the streets of the city itself has wound up being a torturous stop-watch-start-watch affair, and I’m now confident that I could sketch every statue on Kelly Drive from memory.

I had to get out. I’d read great things about the Perkiomen Valley Trail. About Valley Forge. About Pennypack. Any place other than Kelly Drive.

I know as well as the next aspiring city slicker that being without a car requires a little resourcefulness; I figured my antsiness was nothing a train ticket and a fanny pack couldn’t fix.

Turns out, it is a nearly 90-minute train and bus trip out to Valley Forge park. Add to that a two-hour run, and another hour and a half home (in a sweaty T-shirt, no less).That’s a long way to go for fresh air and a Fairmount reprieve.

In the end, the run was long enough that I made it, at least for a while, into Wissahickon. Wissahickon, needless to say, is gorgeous. But not all trails are run equally. Even local running gurus who know all about Wissahickon’s lovely, accessible paths won’t hesitate to remind you about the park’s high creep-to-mile ratio. Call me a wuss, but even in the middle of the day, I find roaming Wissahickon’s shady, secluded paths–beautiful though they are—a little unnerving.

But like every other part of city living, the best way to start navigating the hardships of city running is with advice from the experienced. I plead: iI you know of any high-traffic (but pretty!) trails, a great stretch of city block, or even an easy train to the ‘burbs, don’t keep it to yourself. I need a change of scene.

For goodness’ sake, leave your advice in the comments. Annie needs you.

Research editor Annie Monjar blogs about her training for the Philadelphia Marathon each week here on Be Well Philly. Want to catch up on the series? Here are her earlier posts, starting from the beginning:
Taking the Marathon Dive
Running a Marathon is @#^%*! Expensive
The Great iPod Debate
Knowing When to Take a Day Off