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Rail-Trails: An Ideal Marathon Training Course

By Sara Rae Lancaster

If you've ever spent any time on a rail-trail, chances are you've seen them. They run by, giving a quick nod of the head followed by a breathless

Summer Marathons

Grandma's Marathon
Location: Duluth, Minn.
Date: June 16, 2012
Description: Held on a relatively flat, point-to-point course that wraps along Lake Superior's north shore on Old Highway 61, Grandma's Marathon is a popular race among newbies and elite runners alike.


Fall Marathons

Wineglass Marathon
Location: Bath, N.Y.
Date: September 30, 2012
Description: The fast point-to-point course starts in Bath and ends in Corning, N.Y. Along the way, runners pass through the countryside, colorful with fall foliage, and several small towns.

Bank of America Chicago Marathon
Location: Chicago
Date: October 7, 2012
Description: Ranked as one of the five most popular marathons around the world, along with the Berlin, Boston, London and New York City marathons, Chicago's fast and flat course attracts runners from all 50 states and more than 100 countries.

Baystate Marathon
Location: Lowell, Mass.
Date: October 21, 2012
Description: Known for consistently qualifying a third of its finishers for Boston, the Baystate Marathon features a fast and flat, primarily double-loop course that starts and finishes in Lowell.

Rails to Trails Marathon
Location: Norwalk, Wis.
Date: November 3, 2012
Description: A certified course that produces qualifying times for the Boston Marathon year after year, this marathon follows the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in western Wisconsin. The crushed-limestone, out-and-back course even takes runners through an old .75-mile-long train tunnel.

Northern Central Trail Marathon
Location: Baltimore County, Md.
Date: Traditionally the Saturday after Thanksgiving (November 24, 2012)
Description: Recognized by Running Times Magazine in 2008 as a Top 10 Marathon for percentage of finishers qualifying for the Boston Marathon, this flat and fast rail-trail marathon course runs along the Northern Central Railroad Trail (now Torrey C. Brown Trail), for the majority of the race. Train-shaped trophies create added motivation to finish.


Winter Marathons

Chevron Houston Marathon
Location: Houston
Date: Typically the second Sunday in January (Jan. 13, 2013)
Description: Ranked the "fastest winter marathon" by The Ultimate Guide to Marathons, the Houston marathon boasts a flat, scenic single-loop course. It's also known as having some of the most supportive spectators—more than 200,000. This course was used for the 2012 Olympic Trials.

Walt Disney World Marathon
Location: Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Date: Typically the second Sunday in January (Jan 13, 2013)
Description: Run through all four Disney theme parks along the 26.2-mile course. Although the course is relatively flat (with the exception of a few "hills" up highway overpasses), the tight turns and crowded corridors through the theme parks might make achieving a personal best or qualifying time something to be saved for another race.


Spring Marathons

B&A Trail Marathon and Half Marathon
Location: Severna Park, Md.
Date: Typically the first weekend in March
Description: A rail-trail marathon, runners follow the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail, part of the East Coast Greenway. The asphalt path runs along the B&A Trail Park and features one hill at mile seven.

Bob Potts Marathon
Location: York County, Pa.
Date: Typically the third Sunday in May
Description: This rail-trail course was voted one of seven fast and flat races by Created in memory of a founding member of the York Road Runners, the race features an out-and-back course that follows the Heritage Rail Trail County Park and features a crushed- and compacted-stone surface.


A full marathon is 26.2 miles, and during training, the average marathoner runs 30 to 50 miles each week. If you're an elite marathon runner, like Olympian Ryan Hall, that number is closer to 100 miles per week.

When the 29-year-old American runner scouted training routes for the 2012 Olympic Trials, held this past January, he set out to find his training "sanctuary." On his wish list: a route that simulated the pancake-flat Houston Marathon course (on which the trials would be held), aesthetically pleasing surroundings and long, uninterrupted stretches. Hall never expected to find all three in one place, but then he stumbled upon the Sacramento River Rail-Trail, located near his home in Redding, Calif.

A Runner's Sanctuary
"I was looking for that perfect workout spot, and for me that's what the rail-trail is. It's quiet, there aren't a lot of people out there, and it's beautiful," says Hall, who did the majority of his training for the trials on the Sacramento River Rail-Trail—and consequently earned a return trip to the Olympics with an impressive 2:09:30 second-place finish.

© George Roberts
Ryan Hall competing in the 2009 Boston Marathon; he
finished third.

Described by Hall as "a jewel," the 11.1-mile paved trail follows the Sacramento River and offers stunning views of the water, nearby mountains and pine trees. Along with the breathtaking scenery, the rail-trail provided Hall with the perfect training surface for two key workouts necessary for a successful marathon: long runs and tempo runs to help with pacing.

"What I really love about the trail is the little shoulder on the side. That's one of the unique things rail-trails offer—that opportunity to hop on and off dirt so easily," he says.

One of Hall's favorite workouts on the trail involved a three-mile warm-up, then one hard mile followed by an easy mile, a pattern he would repeat for the duration of the run.

"When I'm warming up and cooling down, I don't like to run on concrete or asphalt," Hall explains, "so I would just hit up that dirt section of the trail for my easy parts. Then when I was running fast, I was back on the asphalt to get my legs accustomed to the pounding."

The rail-trails, he adds, offer more than just excellent conditions for training the body. "A lot of training is getting used to focusing for the amount of time you need to complete a marathon," Hall says. "Rail-trails give you the opportunity to not have a lot going on around you and develop the mental stamina it takes to run a marathon."

But you don't have to live on the West Coast—or be an elite runner like Hall—to appreciate the great training opportunities rail-trails offer. With more than 20,000 miles of rail-trails located throughout the country, there's likely one a few miles from your home.

Easy Access
"That's the thing about rail-trails," says avid marathon runner Chris Russell. "They're just easy."

The 50-year-old Bostonian has run more than 30 marathons, including Boston on several occasions, as well as a few ultramarathons and trail races. For all of them, he made use of his local rail-trails during his training.

The rural Nashua River Rail Trail, Russell's rail-trail of choice, stretches 12.3 miles through several northeastern Massachusetts communities before extending into Nashua, N.H. Tree-lined corridors, nature conservation areas, marshes and ponds are some of the sights along the trail, which was once the route of the Hollis branch of the Boston and Maine Corporation railroad.

Another of Russell's preferred routes is the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway, which passes through the area where the Revolutionary War began in what is now suburban Boston, including the community of Lexington. Along the way, the heavily traveled pathway offers connecting points to other trail systems. The Bruce Freeman Rail Trail—a short path that begins in Chelmsford and dead-ends in a business district—is another rail-trail Russell uses, though less frequently than the other two.

All great options, Russell says, but the Nashua River Rail Trail, which is less crowded and closer to Russell's home, gives him the opportunity to integrate his training schedule with his home life.

"I can run on it with my dog," Russell says, "and when my kids were little, I would put them on their bikes and they would ride at about the same pace that I ran my long runs."

© Blythe Keller
Andy Lin out for a run along the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle, Wash.

A Different Type of Commuter Rail
On the opposite side of the country, some 3,000 miles west of Boston, lies one of the busiest commuter rail-trails in the country, the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Seattle-based runner Andy Lin, 32, frequently uses the Burke-Gilman to commute to work or squeeze in extra mileage during his lunch hour. Extending from Seattle to Bothell, the 17-mile asphalt path blends a mix of urban, suburban and rural vibes. When Lin's office changed locations, he continued his running habit along the short (just 3.35 miles) but picturesque Elliot Bay Trail.

"I think being able to run on my lunch time got me into running more competitively," says Lin, who, prior to moving to Seattle, ran two marathons, New York in 1999 and the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2001.

Recalling each experience as "miserable," Lin had vowed to never run another marathon. Discovering rail-trails changed his mind.

"Having the trail right there, that's when I feel I started running every day—and feeling guilty when I didn't," says Lin, who has since completed the Seattle and Portland marathons twice, as well as the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon and the Vancouver Marathon. "No matter where you are, there is a trail nearby you can access."

Fewer Distractions, Better Training
Even in smaller cities, like Racine, Wis., rail-trails are just a short run or car ride away. Jeff DeMatthew, 57, lives about a mile from the North Shore Trail, a three-mile rail-trail that connects with the Lake Michigan Bike Path to the north and the Kenosha County Bicycle Trail to the south.

Simply put, rail-trails make it easier to focus on what you are there to do: run. "It's just a great place to do a long, uninterrupted run and not have to worry about traffic," he says.

© Mark Albertini
Jeff DeMatthew, 57, trains on the Kenoha County
Bicycle Trail near his home in Racine, Wis. 

DeMatthew, who has run Boston, the Fiesta Bowl Half Marathon, the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon and several other Midwest regional races, knows the key to a strong marathon is building a solid base. (He boasts a 2:27 marathon personal best.) When he's chasing that higher mileage, he prefers to run with music, something that isn't always safe along busy streets.

"On the trail, I'm not worried about cross traffic or whether this car is too close to me," he says. "It's just so much more enjoyable."

The Perfect Rail-Trail Race
Beautiful scenery. Ideal running surface. Minimal distractions. Easy access. Commuting option. No cars. What's not to love about training on rail-trails?

"The only thing you're not going to be able to do on these trails is your hill work," Russell says. "It's one of their big pros and cons."

While on one hand, accumulating the mileage required of marathon training is incredibly enticing and easy on the flat, seemingly endless stretches of rail-trail, "if you do all your training on the rail-trail, you'll get busted up in a hilly race," Russell cautions.

So which marathons are conducive to training on rail-trails?

"Chicago Marathon," Hall says. "It's really flat and really fast."

Lin's vote goes to the Walt Disney World Marathon, while Russell recommends the Wineglass Marathon in Bath, N.Y., and the Baystate Marathon in Lowell, Mass.

If you're planning on using rail-trails as your main training route, it's probably wise to follow Hall's example and match your training course to the specific marathon's course as closely as possible.

"For whatever marathon I'm training for, I'm always looking for courses that are going to simulate that marathon," Hall says.

Running the marathon in 2:09:30, however, is optional.


A long-distance runner who is going after her 10th marathon finish this year, freelance writer Sara Rae Lancaster ( lives in Union Grove, Wis., where she frequently trains on the nearby White River State Trail.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The Duke Ellington Building
2121 Ward Ct., NW
5th Floor
Washington, DC 20037