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4 Reasons You Should Run on America’s Rail-Trails

Outdoor spaces became more crowded as the global pandemic surged, but trail advocates are making space.

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Even while the novel coronavirus seemed to halt nearly everything, new trails across America are continuing to be built, opening more space for runners. The new Elk River Rail-Trail in West Virginia, for example, was able to open in June of this year after a short delay from its original spring launch date.

During the pandemic, communities realized just how needed those trails were. “We’ve seen across the country, on average right now, over the course of the pandemic going back to March, it’s been a sustained 75 to 90 percent increase in trail use,” says Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for the Rails to Trails Conservancy. RTC is an organization that advocates and raises funds for building rail-trails.

Rail-trails are multi-use trails that utilize space previously taken up by railroad lines. As the railroads began to lose services and decline between the 1960s and 1980s, advocates stepped in to make sure that land could be set aside for a more sustainable and accessible form of transportation: pedestrian use.

“We’re learning through this that while we have 40,000 plus miles of multi-use trails in our country, it’s not nearly enough,” says Horton. Of those miles, 24,000 are rail-trails. RTC has identified 9,000 more miles that can be converted for pedestrian use.

If you’re looking for a new running route, here are some reasons to find a rail-trail near you:

You get to run along a historic path.

Since rail-trails all follow old railroad paths, there is bound to be history surrounding when and why that railroad was built or historic voyages across that land. Some of the most notorious have interpretive signs, statues, or artwork along the way that allow you to learn while taking a water or walking break.

The Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh, for example, runs along landmarks tied to the Revolutionary War, the Ice Age, Native American settlements, and the Lewis and Clark expedition, to name a few. Along the Guadalupe River Trail in San Jose, California, there is a mammoth statue to commemorate real mammoth remains found there. You can take a passing glance at a 76-foot-long viking ship replica on the Illinois Prairie Path that was built for the 1893 World’s Fair. Or learn about the history of the Hoover Dam along the Historic Railroad Trail in Nevada.

They are accessible.

Just as the railroads used to be, rail-trails are everywhere. “There’s more than 24,000 miles of rail-trail across the U.S.,” says Horton. “There’s at least one rail-trail in every state and Puerto Rico.”

They provide a natural respite for people who live in urban areas and offer long stretches of connected paths for distance runners to train on. They are also well-suited for beginner runners, anyone coming back from an injury that needs a mellow space to train, or for cross-training on a bike.

“We often talk about rail-trails and multi-use trails as being the most inviting and accessible for all ages and abilities because of the gentle grade,” says Horton. “Many are paved or a very packed surface which makes it a lot easier for new riders, people in wheelchairs, or different mobility challenges to get out there and experience nature and access that in ways they might not otherwise be able to.”

It’s a safe spaces for runners.

Another huge benefit of rail-trails to runners is that they are almost all built completely removed from vehicle traffic. According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities have increased 32 percent since 2008. While there are a number of things runners can do to keep themselves safe when running on roadways, it’s also nice to just avoid that stress.

Coronavirus has created new safety challenges as runners have struggled to find places to run while social distancing. RTC has been integral in advocating for street closures to allow more space for pedestrians to have more spaces away from vehicles. Check out their interactive map to find streets near you that have been converted to temporary safe-havens for runners.

Photo: Courtesy Rails to Trails Conservancy

New trails mean new challenges.

The most exciting project that RTC is currently working on is The Great American Rail-Trail, which will allow trail users to traverse the nation, coat-to-coast, completely removed from vehicle traffic. Once completed, it will connect Washington State to Washington, D.C., with 11 states in between: 3,700 miles in total.

“It’ll take years,” says Horton. “We expect within the next two decades we’ll be fully done, but what’s really exciting is that the vision alone has inspired and unlocked trail development that has been really hard to move forward.”

It has also inspired ultra-athletes who are eager to make the journey. “People are wanting to do those real extreme distance running and cross-country bicycling or the cross-country skateboard route,” says Horton. (Yes, they have been contacted by a skateboarder who plans to skate across the country on the Great American Rail-Trail.)

Another opportunity for runners comes from the Trail Nation project which focuses on connecting existing trails and allowing people to get from point A to point B uninterrupted.  “Whether that’s trying to increase your running mileage without having to interact with traffic or trying to be able to use those routes for commuting to get to important destinations,” adds Horton.

Just as the running community has seen a resurgence during the pandemic, so too have rail-trails. And for runners, the growing connectedness of trails can open up new opportunities. “It really shows that close-to-home trails are essential, and they’re as important as libraries and parks and other amenities that are in our communities,” says Horton.