Most everyone who did not live under a rock for the last year and a half can list off a number of routines that changed because of the pandemic quarantine. Silly pastimes like baking sourdough and playing board games; positive changes, such as working from home or the expansion of the social safety net; and then seriously negative ones like depression and cabin fever. Something that all of us endurance athletes experienced is a change in how we train, compete and travel. Sure, the world is opening up now, races are happening, and most of the people are vaccinated. However, for a while, getting some exercise was limited to just road running, as far away from others as possible. Do we remember when Forest Part was closed in 2020?
This is where I found myself last summer: without any sort of group trail runs possible and a planned thru-hike canceled, I was limited to running in my neighborhood, accompanied with Zoom strength workouts. These limitations on my endurance pursuits got me jonesing for something-anything to take the edge off, some sort of an active challenge I could take on. Walking around Portland popped into my head, and I plotted a few routes in the Gaia app on my phone, trying to use as many walking paths, trails, sidewalks, and pedestrian ways as possible. The first route I walked started from my house in the King neighborhood in Northeast Portland. I took off east towards the I-205 Multi-Use Path, crossing north over the Columbia river over Glen L. Jackson Memorial Bridge into Vancouver, WA. I then turned west and walked along the river through neighborhoods and riverfront parks, then headed south over the I-5 bridge, and finished the 20-plus mile loop back in Northeast Portland. It took about 8 hours total, maintaining 20-30 minute miles while stopping for food and rest breaks.
As it turns out, urban walking is a great way to supplement ultramarathon training or prepare for a thru-hike! You can experience a day of walking very similar to a day on the Pacific Crest Trail, logging 20, 25, 30, or even 35 miles and spending up to 12-14 hours on your feet. Really, it is like the Camino de Santiago: walking on pedestrian paths and trails with cars separated from you by a sizeable barrier; getting food at convenience stores, food carts, and cafes, and having a chance to shower and sleep in a bed at the end of the day. As the old maritime saying goes: “any port in a storm,” I happily embraced urban walking.
Since last summer, I have expanded the routes significantly; nowadays, I have a few options. A loop of 30 miles that starts in the Northeast of Portland goes north through St. Johns, Kelley Point Park, and returns back to Northeast Portland via Leif Erickson drive in Forest Park and the Broadway Bridge. A 35-miler from the Boise/King neighborhood goes south to the Moda Center, along the Willamette on the Springwater Corridor, meets the I-205 path, and then heads north to Vancouver, following my initial jaunt’s return to home. I have also mapped out plenty of shorter options.
You may ask yourself – “what should I bring on such an adventure?”(and you may say to yourself, “my gawd, what have I done?!”) I say, treat it like any other long-distance run or walk. The only difference is that I would highly recommend max cushion road shoes (my personal favorite is Hoka One One’s Bondi), as you end up pounding a lot of asphalt and cement. Bring a backpack of any kind, though something you would use for a thru-hike or a trail run would definitely work best; a trail running vest should be just fine. In your pack, you should have your phone for navigation and entertainment (I have listened to so many audiobooks over the last fifteen months! Just bear in mind that you may have to pause it when crossing bridges, as the wind and traffic noise make it nearly impossible to hear anything), a headlamp, a pocketknife, a small first aid kit, a pair of one-liter water bottles, and a power bank to charge up your phone, should it die. Recently I have gotten into endurance fanny packs; they are great for keeping your frequent-use items within reach and they eliminate the need for a hip belt on your backpack. A word on tracking your excursions and logging the route on Strava – be mindful of your device’s battery life, you may need to charge it up during a break.
My urban walking wardrobe includes the same time-tested trail running/backpacking getup I have been rocking for a while. Tech shorts and a t-shirt, a wind shirt (I like Patagonia’s Houdini), a neck gaiter and a hat for sun protection. Sun exposure is a real thing, as asphalt, concrete, and water reflect the sun fiercely. You could consider using arm and leg sleeves, gloves, or a solar shirt (like UShood, which covers every possible inch of your upper body skin with fabric). Sunglasses and sunscreen are a must.
When it comes to fueling yourself on an urban walk, the world is your oyster! Stores and cafes loudly announce their presence along the way. I have enjoyed lox bagels at Cartlandia, 7-11 taquitos chased with an energy drink, Carnitas al Diablo burritos from Xavier’s tacos, and posh noodles and dumplings from XLB on Williams. Do not forget to bring snacks and electrolytes of your choice to tie you over just in case.
A final factor to consider is safety. I try to avoid walking in the dark and try to maintain awareness of my surroundings as much as possible. Carrying pepper spray is not a bad way to go, along with having your phone handy. Walking with a friend is even better.
All is fair in love and war; my passion for endurance burns hot. Among many other impacts, the pandemic certainly took a jab at the usual way I spend my free time, though urban walking has become a decent way to crush some miles. Moreover, I have seen Mount Hood over the river from the I-205 bridge more than a few times and it is quite a sight. You will just have to see for yourself. Go ahead; try walking the 20-mile loop!