Virginia Happy Trails Running Club: A Historic and Thriving Grassroots Community

A profile of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club.

By on November 23, 2023 | Comments

The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club’s core mission is to promote trail running in the Washington D.C., area, on the U.S East Coast. But while more and more clubs and groups are appearing around the world with a similar mission, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club predates most of them — it was first established in 1992 — and the vision of its founding members was in many ways ahead of its time.

Although the club operates twice-weekly social runs — Wednesday Wolfpack Runs and Sundays in the Park — and now boasts a membership of close to 600 runners, it came to be somewhat by accident.

Keith Knipling, the current club president, shared: “[The original founders] wanted to put on a race, that was their main goal. There was a really nice trail outside of Washington D.C., the Bull Run Trail, which they used to train on, and they thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to put on a race here. But to put on the race they needed insurance, and the easiest way to get insurance was as part of a club. So, they started the club really just to put on this race.”

The inaugural edition of the Bull Run Run 50 Mile was an immediate success, and has endured as a staple on the calendar for 31 years. Knipling explained, “Bull Run is a small river with a trail next to it. ‘Runs’ in Virginia are small rivers, so that can be confusing!”

Virginia Happy Trails Running Club - 2019 Bull Run Run

Runners getting their feet wet at the 2019 Bull Run Run 50 Mile. All photos courtesy of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, unless otherwise noted.

While the club started out as a group of five running friends — including the recently passed Chris Scott, Anstr Davidson, and Joe Clapper — it quickly grew to around 50 members, and it was clear that the demand was there for more trail running events on the often-underrepresented East Coast.

As Knipling said, “The ultra community was really small then. Every time you went to an ultra, you’d see the same people. It was kind of like a service to the community, they wanted to put something on to show off their local trails.”

Once the Bull Run Run 50 Mile was well established, as Knipling recalled: “It snowballed into, We could put on this 100 miler too. There weren’t very many 100 milers then on the East Coast, I think there were only two, and there weren’t really any true mountain 100 milers.” And so, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile was born. That too is still a staple on the calendar and is believed to be one of the hardest mountain 100 milers in the eastern United States.

Bird Knob on the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile course.

Another of the club’s earliest events, which has endured to this day, is the annual Women’s Half Marathon, which Knipling credits to the late Chris Scott, and said: “That was part of an initiative to encourage running events for women. Chris was very into that kind of thing, and it was his idea to put on a trail half marathon for women.”

Virginia Happy Trails Running Club - 2009 Women's Half Marathon

The start of the 2009 Women’s Half Marathon.

Although ultrarunning, like many sports, still has not yet reached gender parity, women are well represented in the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. Katie Keier, current co-race director of the Bull Run Run 50 Mile, said: “We have lots of women, it’s fabulous and one of the things I love about our club. I run with a group of 10 women or so on a regular basis, and I’d say the numbers of women are very high compared to other events and other running clubs.”

The club is generally inclusive in nature, and Keier added: “I like to think that we’re very inclusive in terms of bringing in beginner runners and younger runners. We have our Sundays in the Park runs, which are a shorter distance, about 10 miles, and that definitely is great for the newer runners. But I would say most of us, if we find someone who is even remotely interested in running, we’re saying things like … ‘Why don’t you do a 50-kilometer race?’ And before you know it, we’re talking them into a 100 miler. We’re a very persuasive group!”

Sabrina Little - Hospitality Sport

The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club before a summer run. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Little.

One such runner, who had his arm twisted into ultrarunning by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, was iRunFar’s founder, Bryon Powell. He shared: “I grew up as a trail runner and I moved to Washington D.C., after college, but I didn’t have a car. It was the early days of the internet, but I found out about the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club and contacted someone through the forum or email, and then found myself standing on a street corner in Washington D.C., some morning before dawn. Joe Clapper from the club came and picked me up and drove me 90 minutes out into the mountains. We went out with a group of folks and did about 18 miles. They were talking about ultrarunning — and that was probably my longest trail run up to that point.”

Before long, under the influence of his new running family, Powell took on his first 50k — the Promise Land 50k in Virginia in 2002 — and it was the start of a lifelong passion.

Powell praised the acceptance and encouragement within the group of runners from a range of sporting backgrounds: “The mentorship was incredible. Early on, I had all the questions. They would share their thoughts, and in conversational tones tell me about the sport, and why they made the choices they did.”

He added, “And then the races, they were no frills races that were impeccably produced. They had great prizes, and great food, and the aid stations were amazing. But it never felt like they were putting on a show — just the best grassroots racing you could imagine.”

Virginia Happy Trails Running Club - Wolfpack Wednesdays Run

A group assembled for a Wednesday Wolfpack Run, one of the weekly offerings of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club.

By the time Knipling became involved in the club, in the late 1990s, it had expanded into putting on “fat ass” events, alongside the more traditional races. A fat ass is a non-competitive, low-key ultra, generally free to enter, and they form a staple part of many trail running communities throughout the U.S.

Knipling said, “Back then, there were December fat asses everywhere, but then we evolved to having more and more throughout the year … We still put on the races, but I think people enjoy the fat asses just as much. For each one we have probably 70 runners. We have one more than one a month now, and it’s at least an equal mission to the races.”

As with everything else they do, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club goes a little above and beyond the usual fat ass format. As Keier, who also organizes the Magnus Gluteus Maximus 50k (latin for fat ass), the club’s main December fat ass, shared: “Traditionally in the fat ass format there’s no aid, but Virginia Happy Trails is known for its robust aid stations. We have someone that sets up an aid station at halfway with soup, and there’s the traditional bottle of bourbon or tequila hanging from a tree that people can partake in, as well as eggnog. And we have other aid stations set up with the typical aid station fare. So even though there’s no fee, or no real expectation that you complete the whole 50k — it’s an out-and-back and you can turn around at any point — runners are very well taken care of.”

Owing to the strong community spirit within the club, finding help to host the events is never a problem, and Keier shared: “It’s the beauty of our club, when the race was advertised, I immediately started getting emails asking if people could volunteer, before I even asked for volunteers. It’s how our community works!”

Acknowledging that there would be no trail running without trails, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club is involved in and promotes volunteering at trail maintenance. Although Knipling identified this as an area where they would like to do more, he said that the club is particularly involved in trail maintenance within the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest, which is host to the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile.

The work is done in collaboration with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the local section of the Appalachian Trail, that runs up and down the East Coast, and other trails within its catchment area. Knipling said, “We put trail work on the website to try and make it a priority and raise awareness. Doing trail work on a trail that you run a lot is really gratifying.”

Virginia Happy Trails Running Club - Trail work

John Stacy (left) leads a Virginia Happy Trails Running Club trail crew in the Massanutten Mountains on a cold January 2017 morning.

Knipling also put together an extensive trail guide on the website, an invaluable resource for runners looking to discover the local trails.

Over the years, the club, and the trail running community as a whole, has evolved and seen a lot of change. As Knipling shared: “When the club was smaller, 100 people or less, when life was simpler in a way, the events and the races were where you would go to see people. And this is true across the country — at the Western States 100 or Hardrock 100 — you would see the same core group of people. Growth is good, but it certainly changes things. Within the club itself, when it was small, if you wanted to see your friends you would come to the races or come to Bull Run. But with 600 people it changes. What we’ve seen in our club, which you can also see nationally, is that when a group reaches a critical size it breaks into subgroups. And we have that, there are smaller groups within the group that know each other and train together.”

And thus, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club continues to serve a growing community, in a way that feels warm and intimate. In an age of increasing concern over the commercialization of the sport, it is reassuring to see a grassroots, nonprofit organization not only surviving the test of time — but thriving.

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Gary Knipling, Anstr Davidson, and Chris Scott

From left to right are Gary Knipling, Anstr Davidson, and the late Chris Scott during the 1993 JFK 50 Mile.

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.