Taking the scenic route

Taking the scenic route

Julie Sweet of Savoy became intrigued with Yosemite National Park when she got into rock climbing.

“We had been watching a lot of movies about the birth of climbing in Yosemite. I wanted to see the big walls,” she said.

So when she started seeing advertisements on her Facebook timeline for half marathon races at various national parks, she knew which race she wanted to run — the Yosemite Half Marathon, which she ran on Oct. 8. Running a race at a national park was especially appealing to her this year, which is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

“I wanted to go because of the 100th anniversary, and because my grandma was always a big fan of national parks,” Sweet said.

Blog PhotoThe Yosemite race is one of nine races in the National Park Race Series. The series of half marathons (two locations — Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain — also include 5Ks) is organized by Vacation Races. It began in 2012 with the Zion Half Marathon. The newest race, the Everglades Half Marathon, will be run for the first time on Nov. 19. Other race locations are near the Grand Tetons, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Lake Powell.

A portion of the registration fees from the races is donated to the National Park Foundation. The goal of the race series is to get people to visit the national parks. The races aren’t run within the boundaries of the parks, however, but just outside them.

“It’s the same forest, the Sierra forest. You do get an idea of what the landscape is like. It was beautiful,” Sweet said of the Yosemite Half Marathon.

Her race started at 5,500 feet. Runners were bused to the start before dawn, and they ran mostly downhill to end at an elevation of about 2,000 feet. The first few miles were on a dirt trail through the woods, then the runners turned onto a road that featured a steep downhill. The last three miles of the race circle a lake just outside the park.

“Running down the road, there were really beautiful views of really tall trees, sequoias and evergreen. And the sun was rising as we ran. It was just spectacular,” Sweet said.

The race organizers make an effort to get runners to visit the parks afterward. Participants get a park pass good for a week, and the race sets out challenges in the form of hikes to complete.

“I love that they try to incorporate the parks as much as possible,” Sweet said.

She didn’t do the challenges, but she did hike in the park after her race and she saw the big climbing walls that captivated her, watched climbers and met other hikers.

Blog PhotoMichael Healea of Bondville also found out about the National Park Race Series from Facebook. He was looking to run a half marathon last year and decided he’d combine the Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon with a vacation.

“I thought it would be neat to do a run in a national park, and the Smoky Mountains would challenge me as a new runner,” Healea said.

It was so fun, he ran it again this year with two friends, on Sept. 10.

Healea’s race had rolling hills and a long, gradual elevation gain over the course of the race. It was run on country roads, with trees on one side and an open field with a view of the mountains on the other in the early part of the race. As the route rose into the foothills, Healea was running with a mountainside on one side and a stream on the other. The race finishes on a paved walking/running/biking path.

Both runners said the races were well-organized. Sweet particularly liked the emphasis on leaving no impact on the land. For example, runners were given a small, reusable pouch they could fill with water at aid stations rather than using disposable cups. The post-race area had recycling and compost bins for trash.

Sweet also liked the “homey” atmosphere: The race expo was in a campground and offered s’mores, and the event included an outdoor movie on the evening after the race.

Healea said he’ll do another national park race — either the Smoky Mountains or the race at the Tetons or Lake Powell.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said of the race series. “It got the three of us to go there and look. They had people from all over the country coming there.”

Sweet has become interested in visiting more national parks, and she plans to go back to Yosemite with her family.

“It was definitely a memorable experience,” she said. “To be able to see these magnificent landscapes, that has been really inspiring. I’m glad to see there are more activities within them, especially related to running.”

 

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

 Photos: Top: Julie Sweet of Savoy recently ran the Yosemite Half Marathon. Bottom: Chrissy Mucciolo of Tennessee, Kasey McMullen of Missouri and Michael Healea of Bondville at the Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon, and the race medal.

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