My Places: Potomac Overlook Park, Arlington, Virginia

One of the great things about running is that you end up exploring the areas where you live, work, and […]

By on January 23, 2008 | Comments

One of the great things about running is that you end up exploring the areas where you live, work, and visit. During these explorations, we come across places that we might not otherwise discover. Some of these places become treasured spots. We might use these places for escape, peace, quite, remembrance, reflection, dedication, perspiration, or inspiration. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to come across a number of these places wherever I’ve lived and in many places I’ve traveled. From time to time, I plan to share some own my own as well as others’ My Places with you.

Today, I share the My Place to closest to my current home, Potomac Overlook Park in Arlington, Virginia. I discovered Potomac Overlook not to long after I moved to Virginia in the summer of 2002. While I’ve moved twice since then, each move has kept me within three miles of the nearest access point to the park. POP is small in acreage and the trail system is rather small – but for this tiny treasure, size doesn’t matter. After exploring a few times, I quickly put together what I call a 4 mile loop, though it’s like a bit short of that. A few years later, I ran my first Potomac Overlook Trail Run and added it’s 4k loop to my repertoire.

I’ve gone through periods where I ran to POP at least once a week. As I’ve very rarely driven to run in the park, these runs necessarily came on weekends. This meant that I’d often do shorter long runs in the park – stringing together 4 mile and 4k loops, onto the 3 miles of road I log running each way to and from the park.

The trails themselves remind me very much of the trails I grew up running in New Jersey’s Washington Crossing State Park. They’re all single track under dense forest canopy. The trail itself is almost all dirty and there are more than enough roots to keep one focused on the ground ahead. As the name would suggest, Potomac Overlook is a rise on the edge of the Potomac River. This rise is laced with tributaries leading to the River, meaning there are many small valley’s to challenge one’s legs – you never have to worry about running on the flat for long in POP. The main tributary, Donaldson Run, created the deepest valley in the park, which provides for decent climbs up from the Run, including a longer, gradual climb up towards the visitor’s center; a short, steep climb up to a neighborhood street; and the Stairs of Death – a couple dozen steps that start really steep and then draw out the burn with shallower climb at the top.

The Potomac Overlook Park canopy during an autumn sunset.

While I love running in Potomac Overlook Park, it’s possible that I value it even more for the moments that I’m not running in it. Almost any time I’m running by myself in POP, I stop at a particular secluded location in park. Sometimes I stretch, sometimes I sit on a bench, sometimes I just stand there. One thing I always do is carefully observe – I’m paying heed to my father’s frequent childhood advice to “Pay attention!” To get a sense of what I mean, here’s what I recently wrote in response the Arlington Insider’s call for favorite spots to watch the sunset here in Arlington:

My favorite sunset spot in Arlington is a ridgetop bench overlooking Donaldson Run in Potomac Overlook Park. I stop and sit on it every time I am running through the park in the evening. In this urban forest, the silence is noticeable. Most importantly, you don’t see the sun itself at sunset. This fact allows you to concentrate on how the light filters through the trees and how this changes with the seasons: glowing golden sunsets through the fall leaves; muted leafless winter sunsets spiderwebbed by bare branches; chartreuse eruptions in early spring; and stabs of light penetrating the dense summer canopy – cutting deep into the haze below being enveloped by the weight of the air.

One thing I failed to mention is the pair of pileated woodpeckers that frequent this spot. I often see one or both of them in the park, but this is one of the two places that I most often spot them. There are a few huge dead or diseased sycamores where they sit and peck, not minding my gaze. I’ve stood there and watched them for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. In these longer observation spells, these huge woodpeckers sometimes come down the tree they’re working on (and under which I’ve placed myself) until they are no more then 10 feet above the ground and not any further away from myself. Most of the time, they don’t stick around for more than a few minutes before taking flight in their distinctive dart and glide pattern. It’s then that I leave one of My Places at peace.

What are some of your my places? Let me know if you’d be interested in sharing one of your places as a future iRunFar post.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.