Valley Trail, Rock Creek Park

It has happened so many times now that I don’t even notice it.

“I tend to run trails most of the time.”  I casually say to someone I’m speaking with about running.

They chuckle, look at me like I’m crazy, and say, “Trails?  Don’t you live inside DC?”

It does seem a little funny.  Here I am sitting in my apartment in the middle of a major city, all the while dreaming about running outside, digging the soles of my feet into the dirt, and soaking in every quiet mile under the trees.  But to me, it doesn’t seem that unusual.  Isn’t that what we are all dreaming of?

My two worlds have collided in a wonderful way.  Along with the tall buildings and crowded Metro platforms, Washington, DC has nearly 30 miles of dirt singletrack or horse trail within the city limits.

I know what some of you are thinking, and I’ll be the first to admit it.  Few sections of these trails rid themselves of the noises of the city.  The sound of a passing fire truck or police helicopter that are typical sounds in this city, seem to also be typical sounds of District trails.  At the same time there are several one, two, three mile stretches of trail that never cross a road, pass a house, or pause for a stoplight.  That is not your typical city run.  That is my escape.

Mine, and the thousands of others who use Rock Creek Park each week.

When I sit down to think about it, I can’t help but wonder why it is that so many of us are drawn the woods, when we choose to live in the city?  I love living in the middle of the city.  I’m crazy about the action, convenience, and happenings.  I usually don’t mind the noise or the people, and I have no problem spending more money on rent in exchange for a short bike commute.  So if I love living in the city, why am I joined by so many others in desperately fighting for any free time amongst the trees?

Forest Bathing

While waiting for a flight a few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Outside Magazine.  Flipping through, I came across an article by Florence Williams titled, Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning.  The article chronicles Florence’s (who happens to be a DC area resident, btw) firsthand experience as she travels deep into the Japanese forests where a team of researchers are trying to prove that simple exposure to nature can heal the mind by eliminating stress and fighting depression, and heal the body by lowering blood pressure, and curing diseases like heart diseases and even cancer.

In Japan they call this practice shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.

It is simple, really.  They aren’t asking you to skinny dip in glacier water (although that sounds kind of fun) or scramble up massive mountain peaks (also fun).  Instead, you sit, listen, taste, admire, and feel nature in its most natural state.  According to these studies, just experiencing, for a few short minutes, the stillness and tranquility that our natural world has to offer can drastically improve your mood and stress levels.

I believe it.  I know it.

A 10 mile run can do a lot for my stress levels and release a lot of built up tension.  But not all 10 mil runs are created equal.  A run through the city streets feels a lot different than a run through a forest.  I end my trail runs with tired legs but a refreshed and rejuvenated mind.  I often end my city block runs just flat out tired.

Find Your Forest

Western Ridge Trail, Rock Creek Park

Like most people, I spend far too much time hanging out inside.  Eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer at work.  At least an hour each day playing, writing, or e-mailing on a computer at home.  An hour of TV after dinner?  Maybe an hour of reading before bed?  That’s at least 11 hours of doing nothing but sitting inside.  Mostly in front of a screen.

No wonder my body is yelling at me to get outside.  And no wonder it is yelling at me to leave the crowded sidewalks and actually experience something natural.

It is time we all start being even more conscious about our need to get outdoors.  Instead of having a lazy Sunday reading the paper on the couch, what if I had a lazy Sunday reading the paper on a rock out in Great Falls National Park?  Or better, just sitting and soaking in the enormity of that natural wonder.

“But it is winter!” You might be thinking.  Well according to this Japanese study, spending time outside even in the blistering cold helped people perform better on the study’s tests.

Encourage others to come along.  Make it a norm for your family.  We can do it together.

We are all going to go for another run pretty soon, and I’m probably going to have that conversation where I tell someone I have a trail running blog, yes even though I live in the middle of a major city.  But this time, instead of sheepishly changing the subject, I’m going to embrace the dirt, defend the trees, and know that even if my trails are in the middle of the city, I’m embracing my nature bath.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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One thought on “Bathing in My Urban Forest

  1. I left my bills and moved into the woods. I had better plans of living out of my car first to better my knowledge of foraging and water sources until my significant other took my car into a snow storm and flipped it over a bridge. Since i had given up most of my self employment and now had no car, i was forced to do as i had wished.
    I am in a tent now instead of the home i was to build and on my last bill, thus cell phone, which i charge at a starbucks.
    All water is polluted and ticks keep me in a tent. I had moved to virginia from colorado to hope a parent might help me sleep while i continued to study foraging. I should have known better than to trust either of my parents though since i was put out on the street as a kid.
    Here in va, i rely on my passive income for grocery store foid until i again, gain more knowledge in foraging.
    In colorado, there was mountain water by cities. In virginia where i am, there is polluted creek water around cities. In colorado, there are no ticks. In virginia, i am tent ridden because of ticks.
    I have become “homeless” and a way to bathe is not easy. Drinking water is not easy. Food is not easy.
    All jobs on earth today are for leather, meat, plastic, tar and toxicity.
    I am a vegan and i rid myself of most plastics while in colorado and i know of many who are having back surgery from the pain they conduct onto their bodies.
    I write of my lessons to others on and i write of my journey on
    I seek to change the mindset of man but have always been given the simple statement of “i enjoy the convenience”.
    Good luck in finding true peace.
    Peace is in nature with food growing for all and surrounding waters kept naturally clean.
    We all deserve home at no cost.
    What more could anyone seek? Pure happiness.
    Peace and happiness, though, is not found in a tent with ticks and dirty water and no food just to look back onto the world and the enraged machine that people are.

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