In order to expand the readership of this blog I'm writing an incredibly long post about something that is of interest only to the few people who visit from the Baltimore area. Yes, to attract readers from around the globe I'm going hyper-local! Smart blog-growth strategery is what I'm all about.
Anyway, as I've written time and again the majority of my long runs are done on the NCR Trail in northern Baltimore County, MD. The NCR is a 20 mile long rail trail that runs from Cockeysville, MD up to a little beyond the PA border to the north. But I've also recently discovered and run the BWI Trail, which I guess is actually built more for bicycle commuting than leisurely strolling, hiking, running, dog-walking and such, although all of those non-wheeled adventurers seem to be welcome (by the builders of the trail at least, if not so much the cyclists on it). It runs about 10.6 miles around Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
While the NCR Trail is 20 miles long I've only run along the lower 11 miles. So when I write about the Trail I'm only talking about between Ashland/Paper Mill Rd. to the south and as far as White Hall to the north. Anyone who wants any info about the Trail beyond that has to inquire elsewhere.
Anyway (again), here is a compare/contrast for anyone interested in running either the NCR Trail and/or the BWI Trail:
NCR Trail: Crushed stone. It's easier on the knees, but the trail gets pretty messy when it rains. It's also subject to settling and shifting and annoying puddles.
BWI Trail: Asphalt, although there are a few short wooden bridges and a concrete overpass. This surface better approximates what you run on for races, unless you're running a trail race or something.
NCR Trail: Mostly flat. There is a very slight incline headed north that becomes somewhat noticeable after around the Mile 5 marker, but you can never really see or feel an upcoming hill or incline.
BWI Trail: Has some small hills and inclines, but nothing major. In fact, I appreciate the changes in elevation because it provides some changes of pace and challenges.
How It's Run
NCR Trail: Out and back. The Trail is a trail. It goes from one point to another. There's little variation of what you can do other than starting at different points along the trail. But unless you have a ride back you're going to run past everything twice no matter how far you run.
BWI Trail: Loop. You can start at one point, run in a big circle and finish where you started without seeing anything twice. Provided you don't want to run any futher than 10.6 miles.
NCR Trail: With its out and back make-up you can run over 40 miles on the Trail. It's a pretty good place to train for anything from a 5K to a 50K to a 50 Miler.
BWI Trail: 10.6 miles, but there is a ~2 mile long off-shoot between the BWI Trail and another trail, the B&A Trail, that's 13 miles long, so, theoretically, with the loop and the out and back on the connector and the B&A Trail you could also run about 40 miles.
NCR Trail: Very little. There are two or three roads you cross on the Trail where you have to keep an eye open for cars, but we're talking about two-lane little country roads and the cars will generally stop and let you cross without slowing down.
BWI Trail: You have to cross a couple major roads and you may be stopped at a crosswalk for a time waiting to get across the street. I can't speak for anyone else, but nothing is worse for me when I'm running than stopping and starting. Jogging in place doesn't really help, either. The best way to avoid getting hung up by traffic is by getting out there as early as possible, and on a weekend morning, if possible.
NCR Trail: You will hear the sounds of nature, your feet and your own breathing. Or none of that if you listen to an iPod/mp3 player when you run.
BWI Trail: When you run the BWI Trail you're running around the perimeter of a major metropolitan airport that has airplanes coming and going every few minutes from every direction. You're going to hear them.
NCR Trail: Except for those couple of road crossings you run through nature on the Trail. You can see one house along trail, but besides that you see nothing but trees, shrubs, greenery and a river. It's nice, although during the summer all of the vegetation traps humidity, even if it provides some shade from the sun.
BWI Trail: A significant portion of the BWI Trail runs right along the road, highway, or around parking/storage lots. You also run over a freeway via an overpass. There are some nice wooded stretches and there's a neat part that goes through a horse pasture (with the un-neat corresponding horse smell), but it's not as naturific as the NCR Trail by any means.
NCR Trail: None, essentially. There is a port-a-potty every few miles and a real bathroom at the Monkton parking area (along with a visitor's center and a coffee shop), and you might find an occasional bench to sit down on on the trail, but there's no water, no trash cans, no nothing on the trail itself (there is a water fountain at the Paper Mill Rd. trail head).
BWI Trail: You can park/stop at the Thomas A. Dixon Aircraft Observation Area and enjoy use of two pretty clean port-a-potties, a large number of trash cans, and even a small playground for the kids while they wait for you to get back from your run, but on the trail itself you'll find an occasional rest area that features a bench or three, a trash can, and maybe a water fountain (not sure about the water but I think I saw at least one fountain out there). No matter which place you run you'd be wise to wear a fuel belt or carry a water bottle, at least (depending on distance run).
Ease of Use
NCR Trail: It is not possible to get lost on the NCR Trail. There is nothing that can possibly throw you off or cause you to make a wrong turn somewhere. You follow the white(ish) trail until you decide to turn around and go back. Then you follow the white(ish) trail back.
BWI Trail: You have to pay attention. I got lost the first time I tried to run it, and there were a couple times where I just took a guess about which way to go and hoped I was right. I was, but I was worried for a minute there a couple times. Obviously, the more you run it the easier it becomes to navigate.
It's not really possible for me to decide which is the better place to run. They're both pretty darn good options, if you ask me. If you want to run on a paved surface that's a little closer to civilization the BWI Trail is your place. If you want to run on a slightly softer surface and commune with nature the NCR trail is for you. Both offer the ability to run significant distances so you can use either to train for any distance or just for fun. I think in the end we're lucky in this area to have the options of running on either the NCR or the BWI Trails.