National Park Week: Seize the trail

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~ Aldo Leopold, father of ecological ethics and true Wisconsin hero

Along Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail

May’s Running Times has a 4-page commentary in which founder Ed Ayres reflects on the state of running since the magazine’s launch 35 years ago. Since then, running has boomed from being a favored endeavor of a few thousand ’70s enthusiasts to becoming an essential part of tens of millions of lives.

Unquestionably, long-distance running — especially road and trail running, at distances from 5K to ultramarathons — has profoundly changed our understanding of physical and mental health, the athletic capabilities of women, and even human nature itself. …

From the time of Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 story, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” [film adaptation] to the scores of festival-like running events that take place every weekend today, the story of distance running has become a more epochal phenomenon than any of us who were on the scene in the ’70s would have dared imagine.

Running has become big business.

According to Running USA, active runners in America today are more likely to be college-educated and affluent, buying an average of 3.2 pairs of running shoes annually ($2.32 billion were spent on just over 37 million pairs of shoes in 2010 alone). Another $1 billion plus was spent on jogging/running apparel. The sport continues to add races (a record 22,800+ last year), and even appears to be recession-proof. In 2010, over 1.3 million runners completed half marathons (the most ever); a record 13 million pinned a racing bib on of one distance or another (well over double the number from two decades ago).

Racing has also become a big donation-driver.

The Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council reports that the top 30 athletic events raised “$1.69 billion in gross revenue for charity last year, up $40.8 million or 2.46% from 2010 levels.” Running USA lists the Relay for Life series as the most successful fundraiser, collecting $416.5 million in 2010 for the American Cancer Society. The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure events, which account for 8 of  the top 15 running festivals for 2010, raised $121.9 million for cancer research. Millions more were raised for MS, diabetes, leukemia, lymphoma and heart disease research.

One might think all of this activity would translate to a healthier overall population, but it hasn’t according to Ayres, who points to our current obesity epidemic and the fact that heart disease and diabetes remain mass killers.

Ayres wonders: Have we lost our way?

And yet, I have to wonder, just how much have the changes we’ve helped to foster actually improved the condition of society as a whole? A global consensus of environmental, biological and climate scientists has warned repeatedly — though largely to unhearing ears among politicians and media — that the world has entered a time of escalating ecological crisis.

What we’ve learned as runners, not only about health and fitness but about our relationship with the planet we depend on for every breath, could have critical importance in reshaping the lifestyles and policies of our country.

While we runners/walkers/riders are clearly a charitable bunch when it comes to raising funds for medical research, why aren’t we doing more for our natural spaces?

As an avid trail runner and hiker, being outdoors exploring parks and preserves in my local area and beyond is pretty routine. Most weeks, I volunteer with my local conservation district. And my husband and I donate to several environmentally-focused nonprofits. (Runners being such a giving bunch, I don’t doubt you do similar things.)

But, environmentally-focused races are hard to find.

Green racing events are popping up around the globe (see the San Francisco Marathon, Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Eye-Q Two Cities MarathonLondon Tree-athlonRun for Central ParkPfalz Point Trail Challenge). And (this past weekend being Earth Day), the Nature Conservancy’s new Team Nature initiative gave racers in the Northeast a chance to raise funds for the organization.

These developments are a match made in heaven…on earth.

My only wish? More such partnerships! I’m hoping to seek out more of these types of events and add them to my race calendar. In the meantime, the one thing we can all do is appreciate these amazing natural resources. And now that National Park Week is here, there’s really no better time to immerse yourself in such beauty. Presented by the National Park Service and National Park Foundation, admission to all of America’s protected public parks is free now through April 29, 2012.

Last May, my husband and I took a stroll along the National Park Service’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail as it sprang to life. Met by a friendly neighborhood dog (not many national parks come equipped with such guides, but the charming Chippewa Morraine segment did that day), we first checked out the Interpretive Center.

We learned that 600 (of 1,200) footpath miles run the length of moraines marking the furthest advance of Wisconsin’s last glacier. Divided into nine units, our section offered us 23 miles and three trail loops (Dry Lake, Mammoth Nature, and Circle) to explore.

Our new four-legged pal literally showing us the way, we stepped into our outdoor classroom and set out from the trail head situated atop a hill (or hummock) created by glacial lake sediment deposited some 12-15,000 years ago. After making our way past a grassy plain, we enter a forest paradise and see a showy snow trillium bathing in the sun.

We walk by myriad blue lakes and a tree snapped by a recent storm. (Can you spot our furry black guide dog below making his way from the lake to the grassy shoreline?)

While I stood snapping away at the scenery, our furry friend showed that runners and hikers aren’t the only ones who understand what fun blasting down a dirt trail can be! Ooooo, boy!

Of course, he didn’t know much about how the pristine lake he’d just taken a dip in first formed (blocks of glacial ice buried in deposits melted, leaving depressions called kettles); but, that didn’t seem to bother the old guy.

He showed us around an old abandoned logging road, and over a footbridge between two lakes. We stopped for a while at a bench at Horseshoe Lake to see a heron rookery (a colony of large stick nests in the trees) and wildflowers painting the landscape.

Atop an esker, an S-shaped ridge of sediment left along the bottom of a melt water stream (the stream ran through a tunnel beneath the ice), a stunning vista.

Although we were hiking this day, running these lanes requires extra attention and fancy footwork to navigate safely around the many erratics (large boulders) jutting out of the dirt. Dragged and polished by the glaciers so long ago, they remind middle-of-the-pack/slower runners like me how powerful slow and steady really can be.

Other than old blackie, the trail was all ours that day. So, I give a mighty oak a little love back for serving us up such fine air and scenery. Tree-hugging’s not only for hippies!

I’ve been lucky to hike and run this section of the Ice Age Trail a lot. This weekend, I’ll be back on it again (for the first time this year), racing in the Chippewa Moraine 50K/10K Trail Race. One day I may ultra. For now, the 10K will be plenty challenging. And immensely rewarding.

My experience on that special glacial terrain, working my way up and down rocky and rooty paths that whisper their secrets in my ear with every stride, will give my heart and legs a great workout. But, it will give my spirits a terrific boost, too. Running in amazing natural spaces such as this connects me to the land in such a significant way. To take part in the ebb and flow and history is education and appreciation rolled into one.

Wisconsin’s “Gift of the Glaciers” offers residents and visitors the perfect opportunity to reconnect. If you want to give it some loving care, see the Ice Age Trail Alliance for volunteer opportunities (and trail maps and current conditions).

Ed Ayres challenges us:

[W]hat have we runners done to help our troubled society find a more enduring and sustainable course? In some respects, it appears that we runners have simply gone our own way and now live in a parallel universe. We buy our high-tech shoes, Garmins and Gore-Tex gear and fly around the country (or take the Prius) to running events that are celebrations of the good life, but I wonder if we’ve become a little too disconnected from our origins–and our future. …

[W]e runners have a moral obligation to take more initiative to share what we’ve learned — about our interdependence with the natural world and each other, and about the critical importance of keeping our bodies and minds well-exercised.

Where do you connect with nature? What kind of charge do you get out of it? How do you use what you learn outdoors and/or share it with others?

About Ilona M.

A Midwest-based digital journalist, author and 2011 dailymile team ambassador, Ilona loves trail running, forest hiking, road biking, open water swimming, free weights, meditation and yoga. Aiming to balance her love of motion with the sedentary and still pursuits of research and writing, she hearts dailymile because it keeps her moving, laughing, learning and growing.
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