One Foot in Front of the Other

When Seabeck ultramarathoner and endurance athlete Becky Rogers told me trail running felt like “breaking all the rules,” I knew I needed to know more. I’ve been running for years, but my trail runs have until recently been relegated to urban trails, and does Discovery Park really count?

Kirkland’s Bridle Trails State Park, Rogers told me, is the best place to get to know the sport. So on a recent weekday, I breezed through some guidance on trail-running technique, drove to Kirkland and put it to the test.

It was the best decision I’ve made in weeks. Because it’s in Kirkland and geared toward equestrians, I often overlook Bridle Trails when deciding where to put One Foot in Front of the Other. But it turns out these are also some of the best things about it — Kirkland’s an easy drive from Seattle, and if you have an inner horse girl, she will delight in the surroundings.

I ran the 3.5-mile Coyote Trail, which skirts the perimeter of the park, with views of grazing horses, a shady canopy of trees overhead (Bridle Trails would be a fine place to walk on a rainy day) and low traffic. I passed very few other people and the only horses I saw were off in a field away from the trail.

Trail running is different from running on the street in a few key ways, but you don’t really need new gear if you’re just starting out. I have trail-running shoes, but at Bridle Trails I ran in my usual Adidas Supernovas and, frankly, anything more heavy-duty would’ve been overkill.

What you do need is a sense of direction: While the trail guideposts at Bridle Trails are easy enough to follow (the Coyote Trail symbol is a pawprint), they only face one way. The Washington Trails Association’s guide to Bridle Trails notes this, and recommends going clockwise. I’m glad I took their advice, and I suggest you do the same.

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I also snapped a photo of the trailhead map before I left, which was helpful to have when, at one point, I accidentally ran into an adjacent Kirkland residential neighborhood, a surreal experience I don’t normally have in state parks.

There are also some technical considerations: Trail running requires more ankle stabilization than running on a road, and the beginner guide I read suggested keeping as much of an upright position as possible, with your arms held close in to your body.

I found all these technical details useful, but the main difference between road running and trail running is that trail running by nature requires a slower pace. I am the kind of recovering cross-country runner who, pre-COVID, used to “compete” with other people on the treadmills next to me at the gym by making sure my machine was always on the fastest setting (yes, this is rude AND insufferable!), so any activity that forces me to slow down is probably a good thing.

And you really do have to slow down. You have to be more mindful of your surroundings, which means it’s a bad workout for speed day, unless you want to trip over a root and eat it (to be honest, though, I’ve done this on Seattle’s notoriously uneven sidewalks, so, you know, paying attention while running is never a BAD idea). I scanned ahead (it’s the freeway driving of running) and reduced my mile pace by about a minute.

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As I ran, I thought of a question readers asked me after we ran the story about Rogers’ attempt at an unsupported speed record on the Washington segment of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. Why would you want to run in nature — doesn’t it make it harder to appreciate your surroundings? Why even bother if you’re just rushing past?

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But because I had to go more slowly than usual, I found that trail running actually enhanced my appreciation of those surroundings. “Rushing past” wasn’t really possible.

It’s true that running for time necessitates a certain kind of tunnel-vision focus, and the exertion doesn’t really lend itself to slowing down to enjoy the scenery. But trail running is different. There’s something about the combination of the physical challenge, that reliable source of endorphins, with deep-green pine needles and rustling animals in the bushes, that delivers a temporary sensation of transcendent presence. I entered the woods harried, stressed and anxious (take your pick: pandemic, politics, driving in the suburbs). I returned to my car cheerful and calm (and also tired; I recommend a post-run snack of the highest order).

If trail running doesn’t interest you (and it doesn’t have to!), Bridle Trails is still worth a trip — for one thing, if you live in Seattle, it’s probably the closest state park you’ve never visited. The Coyote Trail, while a perfect trail run, would also be a pleasant walk, and the park’s small but mighty network accordions easily. The Trillium (1.7 miles, interpretive trail) and Raven (1 mile) trails are shorter, and the elevation gain for Coyote is 450 feet; these routes are all a good fit for families or hikers looking for something on the easier side.

And there’s no shame in that. If I learned anything from my experiment in trail running, it’s that sometimes it’s more fun to go slow.

Bridle Trails State Park

Distance: 1, 1.7 or 3.5 miles

Good for: Entry-level trail running (follow the Coyote Loop!), families, leisurely hikers

Parking situation: Easy. There’s a large lot a short walk from the trailhead. Discover Pass required.

Terrain: Easy and flat, with a few uphill scrambles (nothing technical).