Trail running in Portland (or, why urban planning rocks my socks)

I harbor this fantasy in life about living somewhere with trails and wilderness just outside my door. From my little cabin in the woods, I would step out and breathe fresh air, hear my resident varied thrush, and start running for miles on end, never setting foot on pavement, not hearing cars, just me and the trees, all from my back door.

When I was running yesterday, on the miles and miles and miles of trails in Forest Park, I realized that this fantasy — in some ways — isn’t so super far from my reality. I may hear the #2 bus on Division Street drive past our house when we have the windows open, or hear the late-night Division businesses dumping their glass bottles into the recycling between 10:20 and 10:40 every evening; the space surrounding our house may be paved urban jungle, but with 40 minutes of biking, I can actually feel like I’ve lost myself in the forest for minutes or hours on end.


(magical misty Forest Park trails, great in any weather:)


Recently I’ve been trying to keep up with my friend and adventure soulmate Marisa, who decided to run a trail marathon at the end of March. When I saw her around Christmas, she asked me to join her, and a few weeks ago I thought that maybe I should at least be running the long runs of her training schedule to make sure I can actually run that far. So, yesterday was supposed to be an 18-mile day, but with 19 miles I could make a much more elegant loop than 18, and thus it was that I set out from the Lower Macleay trailhead into Forest Park, ready to run for however long it took me to get back to where I started, 19 miles later.

And as I was running — the ferns dusted with just a bit of snow from the night before, the park empty and quiet on a Monday morning — I realized I was so, so happy, and so grateful that this kind of thing exists so close to my house. Literally, it is possible to hop on my bike, pedal down and across the Willamette River (a lovely bike ride, much of it on bike paths), and 40 or so minutes later lock up and go for a 3.5-hour run. All on soft-surface trails, without even having to run on the same part of trail or make weird contorted loops around and around. Heck, I could run a whole 50k on the Wildwood Trail from start to finish without setting foot on the same part of ground more than once, and that’s only one of many trails in the park.


(Balch Creek is pretty full these days)


Parts of it, of course, like the stretch right from the Lower Macleay trailhead up Balch Creek, are super popular and full of people. But get just a few miles down the trail, and it’s like having the woods to yourself. And as I was running, I was so thankful to the Portland of the past that decided to preserve this huge chunk of land for recreation and habitat and urban wilderness. I know that not everything was this rosy, but I hope that we of the present can be as good to our future, can set aside things for more than just profit or development, as past Portland in this case was to us.


(this one’s not from Forest Park but from Silver Falls State Park, another excellent trail run that I biked to last weekend (I camped for that one, though;)


And speaking of past, present, and future. The last (and only) time I ran an official marathon was in 2006, I think, not too long after college. I was living in Lake Oswego and running mostly on pavement, though sometimes I would venture into Tryon Creek State Park (but since I was trying to keep track of my miles, I mostly ran things that I had previously biked and measured with my bike odometer, since I had one of those back then, which meant mostly pavement). What I remember most was feeling semi-injured most of the time, and dreading my long runs. This may not be an accurate reflection of the past, but that’s how I remember it now.

This time, I’ve been excited at how readily running seems to come. I wouldn’t call myself fast by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t want to jinx myself here, but I jumped into Marisa’s long run schedule at 12 miles, and have since done 14, 16, and now 19-mile runs, and they’ve been downright pleasant. I’ve been excited to do them. And my joints have been so much happier with all the trails than with all the pavement.

So while I’ve been feeling thankful for baseline fitness that allows me to jump in on a 12-mile run fairly easily, I’ve also been feeling thankful for all the trail running potential so close to my house. And it’s been so refreshing to think of all the ways that my sort of untenable cabin-in-the-woods fantasy — untenable in no small part because it would be really hard not to have a car in most of those distant cabin scenarios, and I’m not really interested in that — anyway, I’ve been happy to think of all the ways that my cabin fantasy actually plays out in my urban world.

What a lovely place to be:)

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