The First Time I ran a mile without stopping, I raced home, bursting with excitement to tell my husband. He was equally astonished, and we talked at length about my amazing athletic prowess.
In the weeks and months that followed, every run I completed was a monumental achievement. I counted my breaths steadily—in two three, out two three. There was no space for observation or contemplation, only huffing lungs and burning legs.
After a year, or maybe two, I realized that I had stopped counting while I ran. Instead, my mind began to wander, and I noticed for the first time the birds perching in the trees and the grass bending in the wind. Running became a way to escape from a noisy, frantic world, and it was even better if I could find a trail leading off the road and into the wild.
Search of Solitude.
Many runners turn to trails in search of peace and solitude.
"It's my escape to get away from everything," says Erica Ellefson, a working mom with two young children. Most of the time, she runs a five-mile loop on country roads around her home, but she treasures the rare opportunities to traverse more rustic trails. "You could be running for an hour and it feels like only 15 minutes."
Amy Husveth and her sister Allison Carolan are longtime trail running enthusiasts. Husveth frequently participates in 15- to 25-kilometer trail races while Carolan often runs 50-kilometer and 50-mile events. Both of them appreciate the quiet they find when running on trails. "It's peaceful," says Husveth. Even in a trail race with lots of participants, Carolan says, she may run for more than an hour without seeing another person.
Rebecca Egbert, another avid trail runner, says, "When I go out there, I feel connected to nature in a completely different way. I look at it as time away from a busy world. I don't even know why I run except that it feels good. Running trails is a spiritual experience for me."
These parks and trails are favorites for many runners. Information for all state parks, recreation areas, and DNR-managed trails is online at mndnr.gov/parks_trails.
Afton State Park, along the St. Croix River in Washington County, is one of the most popular trail running locations in Minnesota. The Afton Trail Run is held every summer in early July. aftontrailrun.com
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, just south of Northfield, features big woods and hilly trails. The Big Woods Run in October includes Kids K, 5K, 10K, and half marathon distances. finalstretch.com/bigwoodsrun
The Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area stretches along the Minnesota River near Jordan. The trails meander through floodplain forest and are relatively flat and easy to run. It's a great place to see migratory waterfowl, as well as turkeys, deer, and coyotes.
The Superior Hiking Trail begins south of Duluth at the Minnesota and Wisconsin border and winds its way more than 300 miles through eight state parks to just south of the Canadian border. shta.org
The Paul Bunyan–Heartland, Root River, and Gateway–Brown's Creek state trails are paved trails that let runners experience nature without navigating puddles and tree roots. The Walker North Country Marathon in September traverses gravel roads, singletrack trails, and portions of the Paul Bunyan and Heartland trails. walkerareacommunitycenter.com/north-country-marathon
Connect With Other Runners
Upper Midwest Trail Runners—find races, trails, and resources for trail running in states including Minnesota and Wisconsin. umtr.net
Rocksteady Running—hosts the Endless Summer Trail Run Series, as well as four long-distance Minnesota ultrarunning events. rocksteadyrunning.com
Trail Run Project—offers photos and reviews of trails across the United States, including more than 200 in Minnesota. trailrunproject.com
John Storkamp is director of the Afton Trail Run, one of the most popular trail races in Minnesota, and a serious ultrarunner. Early on, however, he experienced Minnesota trails mostly as a hiker and backpacker.
"It took quite a few years before it occurred to me to merge running and trails—two things that I love," he explains.
He runs most often in Afton and Frontenac state parks, which are close to his home in Hastings, but Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore is his favorite running location. Running, he says, allows him to explore parts of Minnesota that many other people never see: "When you're running, you can see 20 miles of trails in only 4 hours."
State parks have well-marked trails with GeoPDF maps that you can download to your cell phone and use to track your progress. And though they contain some of the highest-quality habitat in Minnesota, state parks also offer bathrooms, drinking water in warmer months, and other civilized comforts.
Running makes it easier to find hidden gems in popular parks, Allison Carolan says. "Most people who visit Minnesota state parks never see more than the campground and first few miles of trails," she comments. "Runners get to see so much more." She also appreciates the variety that running in nature affords. "When you're running around [Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis], it's mostly the same. With trails it's different every time. There is always the opportunity for something unique and amazing to happen."
Says Egbert, "I've been able to go into some amazing parts of this country with just my shoes and a backpack."
Friendship on the Trails.
While many runners may turn to trails in search of solitude, they often find friendship as well. When Egbert was living in Colorado and Montana, she built strong relationships with other trail runners, especially the people she trained with most often. "You become family with one another when you're out on the trails together so much," she says.
When Husveth met her husband, Jason, in 2007, he was training for the Superior 100-mile Trail Race. She hadn't run any races since her sophomore year on the high school track team, but she began to join Jason on trail runs. She and her sister then volunteered to be Jason's pacers, who accompany racers to help them set and maintain their pace, and Amy ended up running 17 miles overnight on the race route along the Superior Hiking Trail.
"Back in middle school, running always felt like punishment," she says with a laugh. "But now it's something fun to do with my family and friends and a nice way to enjoy the outdoors."
Storkamp sees a growing interest in trail running in Minnesota. "For a while, running in general was growing more popular each year," he says. "Now road running has started to plateau while trail running continues to grow."
He has also noticed that many people are looking for shorter, less intense trail running experiences. "Ten to fifteen years ago, there were maybe 100 to 150 people in the Minnesota trail running scene, and most were serious ultrarunners," he says. "Now, with the increased popularity, more people are wanting to try it."
Despite the hardcore nature of the Afton Trail Run, the race still attracts roughly 900 participants each year who are willing to run 25 or 50 kilometers through St. Croix River blufflands in sweltering July heat. What's more, the race has gained a following over the years and participants now hail from 25 states.
On the lighter side, Storkamp's company also offers a more approachable trail racing experience through the Endless Summer Trail Run Series. The races are only 5 kilometers to 7 miles long and are held at parks in the Twin Cities area.
Stewards of Resources.
Trail runners often develop intimate connections with the parks where they run. "Every time you run, you notice new things," explains Carolan. "One time it's the sweeping views, the next time a rock outcrop, and after that maybe the plants in bloom." This emotional connection drives many trail runners to become stewards of their favorite parks and trails.
Storkamp's organization helps maintain trails at Afton State Park. "We try to chip in," he says. "When trails get clogged with buckthorn, we'll organize volunteers to go in and clear it out."
Donald Clark, one of Afton's trail-running enthusiasts, recently volunteered to build a new trail in the park that leads to campsites. Working with park staff and other volunteers, Clark led the effort to remove trees, stumps, and large rocks and make the trail 10 feet wide.
Grab Your Shoes and Find a Trail.
Though a few Minnesota parks and trails are especially popular for running, I've found that just about any natural space can become a haven for running if there's a trail and you bring your shoes.
I like to bring my running gear along on family camping trips so I can sneak away in the early morning or late afternoon when everyone else is resting. I rarely see people on the trails once I'm outside the campground, and I'm often surprised by the wildlife I encounter. During a recent visit to Schoolcraft State Park in northern Minnesota, I saw two skunks, a porcupine, and a deer during a quick two-mile run. I've also found unexpected treasures during these short runs, such as a pocket prairie in full bloom, deep in the rolling hills of Beaver Creek Valley State Park.
Amy and Jason Husveth most often run at William O'Brien and Afton state parks, which are close to their home in northern Washington County. When they have a chance to get away, however, they head for the North Shore. The two have participated in dozens of races along the Superior Hiking Trail, where they relish the steep terrain and beautiful scenery as the trail winds through seven state parks along the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Allison Carolan has run in 25 Minnesota state parks in the last five years and jokes that her Instagram account is basically a collection of curated trail-running photos. Rebecca Egbert has discovered dozens of places to get away and connect with nature, even in the Twin Cities area. Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan and Apple Valley is her favorite running spot close to home, but she also heads to William O'Brien, Afton, and Frontenac state parks on weekends.
Meanwhile, Erica Ellefson is hooked after her first visit to Afton State Park last fall. I invited her to meet me there for a run, and we both left our kids and husbands at home in pursuit of a rare morning away from the hustle and bustle of life. "This place is really amazing," she gushed as we skipped over earthy trails dusted by a late October snow. "I'm definitely going to come back and run these trails again."
The trail had worked its magic. We found beauty, peace, and, literally, a breath of fresh air.