Most of my training and races are on the roads. But a couple of weekends ago, I ran a half-marathon on wide, grassy, hilly trails in northern Wisconsin. It was a beautiful fall day, the trees were turning colors and I was running through woods the entire way.
There are plenty of reasons to get off the road and onto a trail: beautiful scenery, being in nature, the quiet, getting away from car traffic and a softer surface for running. And there are plenty of opportunities for running trails in central Illinois, some of them surprisingly hilly.
“People from the Chicago area or adjacent states come out (for races), and their view of Illinois is beans and corn and flat,” said Bob O’Brien, who is the race director for 10- and 30-mile trail runs at Clinton Lake and the 5-mile and 50-kilometer trail runs at Forest Glen Preserve in Vermilion County.
“Clinton is a never-ending series of small hills. It’s a very difficult course when you do three loops for the 30-miler. Forest Glen is very intense with amazingly steep hills,” O’Brien said, adding the Forest Glen trail has about 2,000 feet of elevation change in the 5-mile portion of the trail where the race is run.
Forest Glen and Clinton are two of the most challenging trails in the area. But for a good introduction to trail running, try the grass trails at Lake of the Woods in Mahomet, west of Illinois 47, O’Brien said. The trails are grassy and gently rolling, winding through meadows and woods. A group of local trail runners known as the Buffalo run there every Thursday evening from spring through fall.
“The nice thing about running on trails is it changes all the time. From month to month, the trail changes. From early morning to sunset, it looks different,” said Debra Studniarz of St. Joseph, whose favorite place to run is the 7.45-mile Out and Back trail at Kickapoo State Recreation Area. “Sometimes when the sunlight comes in, it almost looks enchanting to me. I love running that trail in the late afternoon.
“I love that single-track, the mindfulness of what you’re doing, where you’re stepping. It’s peaceful. It’s quiet. You never know what you’re going to see.”
The challenge of trail running, especially on technical trails with roots, rocks and hills, appeals to many trail runners, as does the attention required to run such a trail.
“It’s a much bigger challenge to run trails than roads,” Studniarz said. “It’s more interesting.”
“I like that you have to be fairly mindful of what you’re doing,” agreed Ellen Byron of Urbana.
Others like the low-key, laid-back attitude of trail runners and trail races.
“It’s kind of subjective, but other people who like to run trails tend to be really pleasant people to be around,” said Bill Dey of Champaign. “They tend to be a little less competitive, a little more likely to drop their pace down to have a conversation.”
Don Frichtl of Paxton takes time to enjoy the scenery, especially when he’s running a trail race in the West. There, he’ll run with a camera and stop to take photos.
“You’re changing up the pace due to varying conditions of the trail. There’s curves, there’s hills, there’s rooty sections where you’re forced to slow down. Other times you can run faster,” he said. “I’ve noticed over years, I’ll be less sore from running a trail 50K than from a road marathon.”
A runner’s ankles need to adapt to trail running, though, where the trail isn’t always flat and the footfalls aren’t consistent.
“When you’ve run more trails, you do start to develop a better technique that makes you better at running on trails, so it becomes more fun as you go along,” Byron said.
Jen Burton of Urbana has gradually migrated from road running to trail running, and she’s found she gets injured less, even when she is running marathons and ultramarathons.
Burton said she had to change her expectations of how fast she’d run on a trail.
“It was harder. I needed to slow down, take time to enjoy the scenery, walk the hills if I need to,” she said. “Road running is about the run itself and, at times, not a lot else. There’s not a lot of conversation. Trail running can be a lot different. You can take the time to make the run pleasant, slowing down, carrying a camera, stepping off the trail to enjoy a great view.”
She recommends trail shoes — “They might not look that different, but on a slippery hillside, they make all the difference,” she said — but Dey doesn’t think the local trails require any specialized footgear.
Burton said trail runners need to take enough water to drink on a run, as there won’t be a place along the trail to get fresh water.
Runners should also let someone know where they’ll be running and when to expect them back if they are out on a trail alone.
In addition to roots and rocks, trail runners need to be aware of the “environmental hazards” such as bugs and nasty foliage like stinging nettles and poison ivy, O’Brien said. He and a few others have been maintaining the Forest Glen and Clinton Lake trails by removing overgrown weeds and downed trees so they remain runnable in the summer.
The trails at Forest Glen and Clinton “are really a joy for me,” O’Brien said. “It’s all about the course, the appreciation of being out there, the beauty of it, the feeling that you really need to take care of it and that it’s an important part of your life.”
East Central Illinois running trails and races include:
-- Grass trails at the Buffalo Trace Prairie at Lake of the Woods in Mahomet. This is the site of the 5-mile Buffalo Trace Trail Race in mid-May.
-- The trails at Kickapoo State Recreation Area near Danville include the 7.45-mile Out and Back trail and the 3-mile Clear Pond trail. The Wild Wild Wilderness race is on the Out and Back trail the last Sunday in September, and the Siberian Express race is on the same trail on the first Sunday in January.
-- Allerton Park near Monticello has the Schroth trail on the south side of the Sangamon River and a series of trails on the north side that run along the river. The Allerton Park Trail Run, on the trails north of the river, is the last Sunday in October.
-- The 10-mile trail at Clinton Lake loops around a portion of the lake and is mostly single-track and hilly. The Clinton Lake Trail Run in late March includes a 30-mile ultra and a 10-mile race.
-- Forest Glen Preserve, near Westville in Vermilion County, has the 11-mile Backpack Trail. It includes some steep hills, stream crossings and single-track trail. The second Forest Glen Trail Run will be Oct. 20, with 5-mile and 50K races.
-- The trails at Kennekuk Cove County Park in Vermilion County include the Lake Mingo trail. The 7.1-mile Lake Mingo Trail Run is in June.
-- Comlara County Park, north of Bloomington-Normal, has a series of trails near and along Evergreen Lake. The Evergreen Lake Ultra and Half Ultra are 31- and 15.5-mile races around the lake in September. The Fisherman’s Trail race is a technical 7.5-kilometer trail run in July. For more information on trails at Comlara County Park, go to www.shtrs.org/#!trail-heads .
For more information on other local trails, go to www.secondwindrunningclub.org/trails .
Warning for trail runners
Runners who are on the local trails in the fall need to be aware of the dates for deer hunting season.
Most trails remain open, but archery season began Monday and goes through Jan. 20. Firearm season includes youth firearm season on Oct. 6-7; Nov. 17-19; Nov. 29-Dec. 2; and muzzleloader season Dec. 7-9.
Even if hunting is not permitted in a park, some trails go along the edge of a park and hunters could be nearby but just outside park boundaries.
Photos: Runners tackle the Birkebeiner trail near Hayward, Wis., during the Birkie Trail Run & Trek on Sept. 22. Photos by Jodi Heckel/The News-Gazette