I hadn’t laced up my trail running shoes in nearly a year when I dug them out of the back of my closet on a recent Saturday.
I tracked down my GPS watch, filled up a water bottle and prayed I’d make it through this run pain-free. I used to love running -- especially in the wilderness -- until a pain in the side of my knee flared up right before what was supposed to be my first marathon last year.
I lost all motivation when, three months later, I still couldn’t make it through a mile without limping back home. That was early this spring. So much time has passed that when I stumbled across the “Coffee & Cardio Trail Run Series” at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park on Facebook the other day, I knew I needed to at least give it a try. I figured it might help me get back into this sport that once kept me fit and kept my anxiety in check.
The idea of trail running will sound foreign to some. I didn’t know it was a thing until I took up running in 2017. It’s somewhat of a niche sport, and it can be intense. Western States, one of the world’s most prestigious trail races, involves running 100 miles through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. This year’s winner finished in just 14 hours, 9 minutes.
But the sport can also be laid-back. That’s the impression I got when I called up Matt Schanandore, interpretive events coordinator for Fort Lincoln. He leads each trail run. He said participants run about 4 miles through a different route each week at whatever pace feels comfortable, then gather after for coffee.
He tells people that if they can complete a 5K comfortably, then they should be OK on a trail run through the park.
The group was small the Saturday I joined: just Schanandore, the coffee supplier, a man who was camping with his family and me.
We took off next to the commissary and immediately hit singletrack as we made our way up the hillside to the site of the military fort. Right away, I spotted two deer hopping in the distance, moving a lot faster than my legs would carry me uphill.
The four of us spread out quite a bit in the mile or so to the old blockhouses, but we regrouped at the crest of the hill, where Schanandore explained the route for the rest of the run.
“The best part was when we got up on top and could see down the Missouri River,” Chad Hatzenbuhler, the camper, told me after we finished.
He was right. In the minute or two it took us to circle the blockhouses, I kept stealing glances at the water as the early morning sun glinted off the surface. I felt winded, but the scenery was serene.
Trail running requires you to pay close attention to your surroundings. You have to watch the trail for roots, rocks, holes and snakes. Despite the constantly changing terrain, I eventually felt my legs and breathing sync into a rhythm. This happened at the same time for both me and Hatzenbuhler.
You have free articles remaining.
“Once I hit the 3-mile mark, I finally found my groove on the trails,” he said. “I felt like I could run another 3 miles.”
The run wrapped up after about 45 minutes back at the commissary, where we gathered on the deck for coffee. This Saturday’s brew came from the Phu Tub Berk region of Thailand.
Travis Helfrich works with an importer to bring in coffee that isn’t widely available in North Dakota. He started Coal Country Coffee Company a year and a half ago after picking up coffee roasting as a hobby.
“I buried myself in my garage and made coffee for a few co-workers,” he said. “It was better than Folgers, so people started buying it.”
Helfrich is a mountain biker, but he’s been running at Fort Lincoln most Saturdays since agreeing to supply coffee at the end. The beverage has a long history here.
“Coffee was a big staple of the military fort here back in the 1870s,” Schanandore said. “Soldiers were rationed out coffee.”
You can sample some of Coal Country’s coffee and hit the trails at the last run of the series this year on Aug. 31. The series is expected to pick back up again next summer. The runs are free, though participants do have to pay the $7-per-vehicle park entrance fee. If you want to join, meet by the commissary near the Custer House at 7:45 a.m. The run starts at 8 a.m.
If you can’t make it, grab a map of the park and run on your own anytime. Or, give it a try at another state park. Schanandore says all have well-groomed trails.
You don’t need any fancy gear, just a pair of running shoes. Major running shoe brands make shoes specifically for trail running that have a better grip than ones you’d wear on the road, but they aren’t necessary if you’re just getting started.
I do own a pair, and I plan to wear them a lot more as the summer turns into fall. Schanandore assures me you can even run on the trails at Fort Lincoln in the winter through the deep snow.
“You get a real nice workout lifting your legs up,” he said.
I hope to find out for myself.