Capital Striders Weekly Trail Run

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Editorial Review

DC Capital Striders don't always pound the pavement

By Barbara J. Saffir
Friday, August 5, 2011

Tom McNulty’s mud-caked, neon-yellow trail-running shoes show his passion. On Wednesday evenings, the 34-year-old dons his trusty shoes, spritzes bug spray into his fawn-brown hair and then lopes into the woods to lead fellow runners on the DC Capital Striders’ weekly trail run.

“This is all about having fun,” says McNulty, a Navy chef from North Bethesda. “It’s about meeting new people and enjoying the outdoors.”

The running group welcomes everyone from newbies to ultrarunners on its Wednesday outing along scenic but sometimes mucky Difficult Run trail near Great Falls.

Before the runners head out on their hour-long run, they huddle in a parking lot tucked along tree-lined Georgetown Pike. They fill their water bottles and adjust their techie tools — GPS watches and iPhones loaded with run-tracking apps — while debating whether they’ll head west toward Route 7 or east toward the Potomac River. West is flatter. But even that skinnier section is jutted with roots and rocks as it hugs the curvy Difficult Run.

About a half-mile into the run, the adventurers cross 16 boulders to ford the stream. The easterly direction has a hilly leg, but it leads to some of Washington’s most jaw-dropping scenery.

“There are spectacular views of Mather Gorge and the [Great] Falls themselves,” says John Fennell, 42, who lives nearby.

Other natural wonders soothe the runners’ souls: There’s a thicket of native pawpaw trees, sycamores, wild grapes, wild roses and gardenia-like honeysuckle. Runners typically spot great blue herons on their stiltlike legs fishing for dinner and hear the “peep-peep” of red cardinals, the whooshing of the creek and the splash-splash-splash of mini waterfalls.

“It’s a hidden gem in here,” says James Brennan, 32, an Alexandria lawyer who started running with the group two years ago.

Brennan and his buddies say they run trails — like graceful deer and carefree kids — for the nature, the exercise and the camaraderie. It’s also easier on their bodies than pounding on concrete.

For women running on a trail, “there’s safety in numbers,” adds Erica Wang, 33, a recent MBA grad from Vienna.

The club’s trail run began as a training run for Washington’s North Face Endurance Challenge race two years ago, says founder Rick Amernick. Now it’s one of the group’s 12 weekly runs — the only one on unpaved trails.

Amernick helped inspire other runners, including pal Christopher Goetzman, who says he was a “lazy couch potato” before he discovered trails in April 2009. His inaugural run enticed him with a picture-perfect setting of Virginia bluebell wildflowers and mist rising over the Potomac River.

“I was hooked from then on,” he says with a grin.