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Trail Running: Hot New Trend That’s a Part of State Park Recreation Expansion

For those who think state parks are just places to camp and picnic, think again. In Michigan, they are turning into health and recreation centers.

From hosting triathlons and ultra marathons, to teaching people how to get an extra thirty to forty yards in their disc golf throw, state officials have spent years evolving ways state parks get used.

“Ninety percent of people use 10 percent of the park they are in,” said Tim Machowicz, the park director for Sleepy Hollow State Park in Laingsburg, Mich.

This year the park is hosting more than 300 events to open people’s eyes to what they can do at their state parks.

“We focus on those activities that introduce people to a natural resource,” Machowicz said. “That’s different from people just coming in to use the picnic area; they’re coming in but not learning about resources.”

Sleepy Hollow programs teach people to use the woods and water: kayaking, paddle boarding, snowshoe-making. Outreach programs teach inner city kids to fish and swim.

“We have kids who never swam in a lake in the past,” Machowicz said. “It’s a good experience for them – an introduction at an early age of what state parks have to offer.”

But perhaps the hottest trend in state park recreation is trail running.

With 16 miles of looped trails, Sleepy Hollow is built for running events.

“You need loops,” said Randy Step, the owner of Running Fit, a running company that sponsors a multitude of races throughout Michigan, including at Sleepy Hollow called The Legend. “A lot of trails are point-to-point, and that’s a huge expense if we have to shuttle people.”

The Legend is the third leg in a three-part trail race series.

“We put on a series of different trail races in different state parks,” Step said. An avid trail runner, the parks provide him the space to create the kind of trail races he wanted to run in Michigan but couldn’t find.

Races help the state, he said. “I talked with the DNR about their goals, and one of them is to get people from urban areas out there in nature to enjoy it.”

Through the hosting of trail races, “we create users for the park,” he said. “People continue to go out there because they found a loop of trails they can run around in. Before an event, the park sees people and groups training on the loop.”

With more than 25 years hosting trail races on state land, Step has seen how his runs bring people back.

“We put on races in Pinckney Recreation Area,” he said. “Groups are there every single weekend of the year training on the loop because of the event.

“It’s a catalyst for getting people into the park and back to the park.”

This year’s race in Sleepy Hollow brought more than 800 participants. That was enough people to fill the rarely used back parking lots. Park staff had to mow the grass coming up through the pavement before the race set-up, Step said.

For park faithful, the change is noticeable.

“My wife and I come up once a month or so with the dog, said Ian Wright, the overall five-miler winner at this year’s race. “There are usually only four to five cars in the parking lot.

“It’s good to see them filled.”

Running state park trails was a new concept for Grace Michienzi, 14, her brother Andrew, 18, and his friend Alek Zapata 18, first-time trail runners at The Legend.

When asked what they normally did when they visited state parks, Zapata quipped, “Not run.” The Michienzi siblings laughed. Before this race the activities they associated with state parks were camping and swimming. The trio noticed mental and physical benefits to trail running.

“I like it because of the scenery, said Grace Michienzi. “It kind of distracts you from your running.”

She started running a year ago, when her friends talked her into joining their middle school cross country team. “They all quit after the first year, but I found a love for it so I kept going,” she said.

Andrew Michienzi and Zapata are training for their first triathlon. They favor running on trails because it’s easier on the body. The few sections of the course were on pavement, and they could feel the difference.

“When we hit the road sections, I could feel it in my shins and legs,” Zapata said.

Their experiences weren’t surprising to Step.

Hydrocarbons from cars and roads eliminated his ability to mentally enjoy his run. Running on trails gave him the meditative, peaceful environment he wanted. He also believes trail running is easier on the body.

“Variation in surface is healthier for body,” he said. “The exact same surface uses muscle and joints in the exact same way.”

One of the worst running surfaces is the treadmill, he said. “Knee and joints are used in exact same way, with a narrow range of muscle use. Once you start and get on trails, uneven ancillary muscles come into play.”

Fishing pier at Sleepy Hollow State Park

Dora Leonard recently noticed that change when the long-time runner shifted from the road to the trails. Having run six marathons on the road, she completed her first trail marathon this summer.

“It’s definitely a different set of muscle groups [that are used], your lateral, back-to-back ones, Leonard said. “Because you’re stepping over stones and maneuvering over wash outs.”

She also noticed other changes.

“I would have sore knees after 20 mile training runs on the road, and they would hurt for days,” Leonard said. That ailment disappeared on her trail runs.

“I would have sore muscles, but not sore knees,” she said. “It’s good for the wear and tear on my body.”

Another benefit of the trails is that runners get to explore miles of parks.

Leonard’s marathon was held on Grand Island, a designated national recreation area in Lake Superior.

“You’re running on tops of cliffs, and get to see Lake Superior,” Leonard said. “The water was crystal blue and clear.

“I could go there on a day trip, but I wouldn’t see 26 miles of it,” she said. “There are parts of the island that I would have never seen if I hadn’t have run this race.”

This article originally appeared on Great Lakes Echo and is republished with permission.

Image from Grey Wolf1 on the flickr Creative Commons, Image from lululemon athletica on the flickr Creative Commons, Image from cgeith on the flickr Creative Commons

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