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Dodging cancellation hurdles to make 50th marathon memorable

By R.L. Bynum

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — The pandemic and climate change sometimes make it challenging to just get to the starting line for a marathon.

I trained for months to run the Charleston Marathon, which was scheduled for Saturday, but it got canceled because of pandemic-related staffing shortages. I know of one runner who trained for Charleston and switched to Sunday’s Jekyll Island Marathon, only to have that canceled as well because of a terrible weather forecast.

I planned to run the San Francisco Marathon in 2020 and 2021 but it got canceled both years because of the pandemic. Hopefully, I get to run that race in July.

I was able to switch to the Museum of Aviation Marathon, which was scheduled for the same day as Charleston would have been run. I was fortunate in many ways. We got ideal conditions for the race, which was my 50th marathon, (38 degrees at the start and 46 degrees at the finish with partly sunny skies), and it would have been a cold, rainy mess if it had been run Sunday.

After getting temperatures in the 60s at the Battleship N.C. Marathon on Nov. 8, 2020, and rain with plenty of standing water at the Oak Island Marathon on Feb. 13, 2021, it was nice to get decent weather.

I was so bummed out when the Charleston Marathon got canceled because my training had gone so well. It would have been very frustrating if I didn’t have a payoff for my good training. And the payoff was thrilling.

I won my age group and easily earned a Boston Marathon qualifying time with a time of 3 hours, 47 minutes and 52 seconds. I finished 22nd overall and all 21 runners who finished ahead of me are younger.

It was the first time in 5½ years that I finished a marathon without walking and my best time since finishing the Sunburst Marathon in South Bend, Ind., on May 31, 2014, in 3:43:33.

While it was a longer drive to get to Warner Robins and the course wasn’t as scenic as Charleston, it was mostly flat and the organizers did a superb job.

The double-loop course starts and finishes outside of the Museum of Aviation, with nearly all of the course going through Robins Air Force Base. If you need crowds to keep you going, this isn’t your race.

On Friday, we got there early enough to tour the museum and I channeled Rob Gronkowski in those USAA commercials. I knew that packet pickup on Friday was only available to military and dependents. Since I was there anyway, I went over to see if I could get my packet and, as I expected, I had to wait until race morning.

You get the solitude of a solo long training run with the mentality of a race. There were times when I couldn’t see anybody in front of me or behind me, be it a runner, race official or base employee. That’s where my running mix of music was helpful.

Also helpful was the fast course. There are some decent and testing hills toward the end of each loop but nothing I hadn’t dealt with during my months of training on the hills of Durham.

Running marathons is always a balance between grandiose time goals and fear that going out too fast will lead to an unpleasant last few miles.

I’ve had my share of frustrating finishes in recent years, so I was determined not to go out too fast. Over the first couple of miles, it felt like I was driving 35 mph on an interstate highway. I was full of energy but also determined not to go out too fast, targeting an 8:45 per mile pace.

I started with miles of 8:41, 8:35 and 8:46, so I was happy to down-shift and not use too much energy early. I only ran eight miles slower than 8:45 pace.

There is a clear conclusion that also leads to much speculation from me because my two of my fastest three miles were mile 26 (8:21) and mile 25 (8:11). Not going out too fast paid off.

Logic tells me that going out faster wouldn’t have been good for me at the end of my race. But there is always that question: Could I have run a better time if I had shifted to a higher gear earlier?

I decided at around mile 18 that I was done holding back and started pushing. I ran an 8:18 mile 19 before dealing with the late-loop hills, which led to successive miles of 8:40, 8:37 and 8:50.

After running on those hills during the first loop, I knew that, if I was struggling, it wouldn’t be fun scaling them on the second loop.

It was so satisfying to crush those hills. While I have plenty of sympathy for the several people walking because I’ve been in that situation, it was nice to be the one running past the walkers rather than the reverse.

It was a fairly boring course for the most part, with large planes providing the most interesting views. On each loop, you also run across the runway. But at least the hills were coupled with the most scenic part of the course. There were two pretty ponds, a golf course, a horse farm (with a sign telling you not to feed the horses because they might bite you).     

After the race, it was another race to get a shower at the motel and start the drive back to the Triangle to cover UNC’s home men’s basketball game with Georgia Tech. The game started at 8 p.m. and I got there minutes before it started.

It was a capper to a satisfying weekend.

It feels good to be running back toward normal racing

By R.L. Bynum

We haven’t crossed the finish line, but it’s exciting that we are racing back toward normalcy.

I don’t know about any other runners, but my runs helped me get through the worst of the pandemic. One of the best parts of any day was my run. It got me out of the house while we were all in lockdown and, for an hour or so, I didn’t think as much about the suffering people were dealing with during the pandemic.

It was infinitely less significant than dealing with the sicknesses, deaths or job loss and comparatively minor, but seeing many races canceled and replaced by useless (to me, at least) “virtual races” was frustrating. I understand that some charities depend on proceeds from certain races, which is why I participated in the virtual “Carolina Food Run Challenge” that benefitted food banks.

Gradually, races are coming back.

Just this week, the Marine Corps Marathon (which I ran in 1994, 1995 and 1998) and the New York City Marathon (which I ran in 1996) announced that they would be back this fall. The parkrun in Durham, a free Saturday 5K at Southern Boundaries Park, returns this Saturday for the first time since March 7, 2020. The Running of the Bulls 8K is back in Durham as an in-person race in June for the first time since 2019, and the Bull City Race Fest (with a half-marathon and 5-miler) is back this fall.

Last weekend, I ran my fifth marathon of the pandemic and I hope that my next marathons might be closer to normal.

I remember standing in a crowd of packed-in runners March 1, 2020, before the One City Marathon in Newport News, Va., as the pandemic was starting to get worse. (If you count that as a pandemic marathon, then I’ve run six during the pandemic.)

I had doubts about this being a good idea. I was glad to finish that race, though, considering all sorts of races got canceled after that, including several I was going to run: the Tar Heel 10 Miler in April, the San Francisco Marathon in July, the RDC Marathon in November and the Charleston Marathon in January.

Among the first to cancel was my favorite marathon, the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary, a mid-March tradition that also includes a half-marathon. It felt like a step back to normalcy Saturday when I ran Tobacco Road in the event’s return after 26 months.

Imagine not being able to run your favorite race for more than two years!

Because government officials only approved the race after the all-volunteer board for the non-profit event agreed to restrictions, it was different. It was like going to a game to support your favorite team and missing a lot of the energy because the stadium/arena capacity is extremely limited.

Usually, the half-marathoners and marathoners start at the same time early on a Sunday morning. Your adrenaline is flowing as you hear the national anthem and anticipate the sound of the starting gun. You then go off with hundreds of other runners.

There usually is a lot of hooting and hollering. It feels special that you’re with a bunch of people who love running, and that race, as much as you do.

There were plenty of people who love running there this year, but it was different.

The marathon was on Saturday and the half-marathon was on Sunday because of the restrictions. We signed up for one of the various starting times to begin our races in small groups. I was a few minutes late for my scheduled start, so I had little running company after I got my temperature check and set out onto the familiar TRM course.

It felt more like a training run until I reached the American Tobacco Trail and started seeing more runners. The pockets of enthusiastic supporters along the course still made it a special day.

TRM always has a railroad theme to its medals and this year was unique with a train that moves along the tracks.

The half-marathon was a one-time loop course to eliminate some of the congestion on the ATT and meet the restrictions.

North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, lifted mask restrictions for fully vaccinated people a couple of days before the marathon. The race experience probably would have been markedly different if he made that change a month or so earlier. (I’m not saying that he should have done that.)

Many who hadn’t raced since the pandemic started probably were nervous as they prepared to run one of the Tobacco Road races. I wasn’t one of those people since I had previously run four of them.

I had those nerves June 27 when I ran the Jackson River Trail Marathon in Covington, Va., in my first race since One City. They encouraged runners to space out at the start. I wore a mask before and after the race and had a gaiter that I would pull up whenever I got very close to another runner.

This isn’t a race that likely attracts a lot of spectators, so I’m guessing my experience wasn’t that different than during most years, other than getting water in bottles instead of cups.

For the Battleship N.C. Marathon in Wilmington, (a one-time addition to the traditional half-marathon) on Nov. 8, they did a good job of spacing out groups of runners who went off at staggered times. By that time, I had a good mask that was made for runners and pulled it up often when I was close to another runner.

At the Oak Island Marathon in Oak Island on Feb. 13, they encouraged runners to space out. On a rainy, nasty day, my wife dropped me off near the start. I walked to the start line and had little company as I got my race started. Again, I had that mask designed for runners and used it a lot when I was close to others.

At the Northern Trails Marathon in Greensboro, N.C., on March 13, I had to pick up my packet on race day. They put everybody’s bags on the grass and packet pickup happened without having contact with anybody. Again, runners went off in small groups of runners who were socially distanced. Again, I pulled up my mask when I was near other runners.

Tobacco Road was like many of those others in that the water and Gatorade were only handed out in bottles. But, given the changes in guidance from the CDC and Gov. Cooper a couple of days earlier, I didn’t run with a mask. I wore a disposable mask before the race per race rules.

I didn’t run with a mask because I’ve been fully vaccinated since April 8. I received my first Moderna dose two days before running Northern Trails.

That San Francisco Marathon I wanted to run last year? That will happen in 2022. Hopefully, I can run the RDC Marathon in November and the Charleston Marathon in January.

I can’t wait until racing is back to normal and there are no restrictions.

It’s coming!

Top photo courtesy of the Tobacco Road Marathon

Stumbling upon a different trail marathon that didn’t fit my running style

By R.L. Bynum

I’m always eager to try different sorts of marathons to enjoy the experience, even if the challenges might be high.

Those have included a race that started at midnight (the Loonies Midnight Marathon in Livingston, Tenn.), one run entirely indoors (the Indoor Insanity Marathon in Winston-Salem) and another that started and finished at a NASCAR track (the Darlington Marathon). 

For a few weeks, I had my eye on the Northern Trails Marathon in Greensboro. I was going to be in Greensboro anyway the night before to cover North Carolina’s game against Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals, so I decided to get a motel room and registered for the Saturday race Friday.

The single-track trails were beautiful but so narrow that it was very difficult at times to pass slower runners or to allow faster runners to pass me.

I knew full well that I have a classic marathon shuffle with my feet never getting too high from the ground and only mildly wondered if that would be a problem in a trail race. I greatly underestimated the challenges given my running style.

I’ve run the Grandfather Mountain Marathon twice, but this was the toughest, most challenging marathon I’ve ever run.

About 90% of the course is over single-track trails with plenty of tree roots to deal with, a few streams to leap over and tree-root packed short hills that stop you in your tracks. I never imagined the challenge.

The sage advice for hockey players is to keep your head up so that you are prepared for (or can avoid) a hard check. For this trail race, the advice is quite different. I stopped looking too far ahead and kept my head down to inspect the trail for roots that might trip me up.

This was different than any of my previous 47 marathons and I was was embracing it as we left the area of Northern Guilford High School and started onto the trails. This was going to be a neat experience and maybe single-track trail marathons are fun.

But this shouldn’t be confused with other trail races I’ve run. I’ve run the Salem Lake 30K and Frosty 25K on the Salem Lake Trail in Winston-Salem multiple times. That trail is wider and there are few roots to avoid. 

Most of the route of my favorite marathon, the Tobacco Road Marathon, is on the American Tobacco Trail, but this also is nothing like the Northern Trails Marathon course. Much of the ATT is paved and very wide, without the same elements.

It took about four miles for me to stumble and hit the ground. A fellow runner asked if I was OK and I said yes, adding that this probably wouldn’t be the last time that happened. 

That turned out to be quite an understatement.

I lost count of the number of times I hit the ground over the 26.2 miles and I have the scrapes on both knees and both arms to prove it. There were also several other times when I thought I would hit the ground but managed to regain my balance and avoid falling. 

On a fall at about mile 10, I hit the left side of my head and was woozy for a few seconds.

That wooziness subsided quickly and I went on my way, but noticed that blood was coming out of my left ear. At the 13.1-mile aid station, there were some concerned looks from the volunteers, one of whom took a photo of my ear to show me what it looked like. After using some wipes, the bleeding finally stopped and I was on my way again.

I think my Powerbeats ear buds were pushed into my ear and scratched my ear canal. After that fall, I got no sound from the left side of my Powerbeats. After the race, I had to use wipes to get clean all the dried blood out of it and the left side worked fine after that.

I found myself rejoicing when there were short stretches on highways because I didn’t have to worry about stumbling on roots. 

At one point early in the race, I turned my right ankle slightly stepping on a root. For a moment, I thought my race was done. But the ankle felt fine in seconds and I never had any issues.

My legs felt fine over the last 10 miles or so but I got paranoid that I might stumble and fall on a large stone or something else that would cause an injury. So, for most of those miles, I would only run in stretches that looked fairly free of roots and walked most of the way. Even when I walked, I tripped a few times but never hit the ground.

The main photo at the top was from the early, pre-scrape miles. It’s a different story for the below photo as I’m running on a grassy field toward the finish.

The result was the worst time of my 48 marathons at just over five hours, more than 24 minutes slower than my previous personal-worst time (4:36) on a steamy November morning last year at the Battleship N.C. Marathon in Wilmington.

Obviously, stopping for 10 minutes to stop the bleeding in my left ear at that aid station isn’t going to help your time any more than walking a lot.

Thanks to being old, I managed to finish third in my age group. It was just a matter of finishing, though, since there were only three runners in my age group!

I was chatting with another runner after the race and pointed to my skinned knees and arm scrapes and quipped that I got the full trail experience. She quickly deduced the obvious and said, “you don’t have much trail running experience, do you?”


The folks who put on the race did an excellent job. They had a non-contact packet pickup in which they placed a bag with your name on it within your wave start location.

But, given my running style, this isn’t the course for me.

I’d consider doing a midnight marathon again and would run that indoor race again (unfortunately both of those races were discontinued). I’m one and done with a single-track trail marathon, though.

Tired of your usual running loops? Strava and RunGo help you discover new routes to run

By R.L. Bynum

Many of us run in familiar areas and often repeatedly use the same loops. That can help gauge your fitness level by comparing your times to previous runs on those routes.

Let’s be honest, though: It can get boring running the same loops all the time. 

I’ve found a way to discover loops I’d never lay out otherwise and also create a bit of a race feel at one level along the way.

If you are a Strava premium member, the “Explore Routes” feature helps create new routes. If your experience of using this is anything like mine, this will turn up routes you’ve never used in areas of your city that you have never or rarely have run.

You can adjust the preferences for the loop you want it to create for:
Length — You can toggle for loops with mile lengths of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 13, 20 or 30. The actual length of the loops it creates might be a little less or a little more than that. If you choose “ride” instead of “run,” the length options are 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 or 100. The lengths on the “walk” option are the same as the “run” option.

Elevation — You can choose any, flat or hilly. If, like me, you live in a hilly city, good luck with that “flat” option.

Surface — Your choices are any, paved or dirt. If you prefer road running over trail running (which is a common preference during the pandemic), you’ll want to select paved. 

If you like what you see, tap on “Save.”

You, of course, need to use your local knowledge to reject routes that have you running on roads where there is way too much traffic with no sidewalk options, or in areas that may be known for a lot of crime.

Running a new loop in an area you’ve never seen — either running or driving — has somewhat the feel of running a race (something we can’t do that often during the pandemic) in that everything is new and you wonder what you’ll see when you turn the next corner.

The advantage of running an old, familiar loop is that you remember every turn and every hill and know what to expect. With a new loop, it’s always a challenge to remember where and when to turn onto another street.

The good news is that technology has you covered there as well.

Once you save a new loop on the Strava app, you can go to the desktop version of Strava to view the loop. Go to the “Dashboard” tab and click on “My Routes.”

Yes, reviewing your new loop there can help you learn every turn. Many of you may have watches that allow you to upload the loop and have it give you turn-by-turn directions. 

If you’re like me (I have a Forerunner 25) and your watch doesn’t have that option, the RunGo app does that for you. Just click on your loop in Strava on your computer and click on “Export GPX.” On your computer, go to RunGo, click on create a route and click on “From GPX File” to upload your loop.

It shows you each turn. If you think the turn direction is to vague or could use clarification, you can customize the dialogue after clicking on the turn.

When you’re ready to run, tap on your loop in the RunGo app and it gives you turn-by-turn directions.

While RunGo is very nice, don’t be surprised if it either misses telling you to take a turn or tells you to turn left a few seconds after you’ve already passed the intersection in question. It could be my phone or GPS issues in areas with a lot of trees, but that invariably happens.

Because of this, it’s still a good idea to review your loop so that you have a general idea about where the loop goes in case there’s a glitch. Sometimes you’ll get the dreaded “off course” message and “trying to rejoin at nearest waypoint.” If you go off course and rejoin the loop, you get a message such as, “rejoining course at 8.2 miles.”

It’s always a good idea to know the main routes back to your house so that you can improvise if RunGo becomes balky. I’ve had instances where it just stopped giving me directions.

If the loop includes a lot of turns, it might be a good idea to write the turns on an index card to carry along the first time you run it.

On my long runs, I listen to music. But for all other runs, I listen to podcasts. It’s nice that when RunGo gives you directions, the audio stops. When RunGo finishes the direction, the audio resumes a second or two earlier than when it stopped so that you don’t miss anything.

It will usually say, “in 100 yards, turn left on Main Street,” then when you get to Main Street, it will say, “turn left.” 

Unlike when you are driving using Google Maps or Waze, it doesn’t tell you how to get back “on course” or provide an alternate route. That’s when you have to improvise.

The RunGo app is also handy when you’re traveling. Open the app on your phone and it will give you routes near your location. You can do that for Strava as well. But you’ll need to follow the aforementioned saving and uploading procedure to get the loop on RunGo to get its turn-by-turn directions if your watch can’t do that.

On Strava and RunGo, you can also create a route. This is much easier than the old days when I’d use the odometer on my car to measure a route. With the feature on both services, it’s easy to create routes for exactly the lengths you desire.

If a Strava friend runs a route that you’d like to try, you can save it by clicking on the “Try this route” tab that shows up when hover over a map of that person’s run.

For more on Strava’s Explore Routes feature, go to its blog post about it.

Enjoy exploring new loops!

A hilly run through memory lane in Chapel Hill — and terrific training for a hilly marathon

By R.L. Bynum

Whenever I need a challenging 20-mile training run, I go on a run down memory lane.

When preparing for races such as the Grandfather Mountain Marathon (which I’ve run twice) and the San Francisco Marathon (which I was supposed to run in 2020 and hope to run in 2021), hilly long-run training is smart.

There are plenty of hills near where I live in Durham. But there are some mighty steep hills of Chapel Hill that probably offer the best hill training in the Triangle for a relentlessly hilly marathon.

I grew up in Chapel Hill, which also makes it a run down memory lane.

Here is the elevation-grade chart for the 20-miler

I park in the parking deck next to the School of Government. (You’ll probably get a ticket if you park there during the week.) It’s next to Dorrance Field, where the UNC soccer and lacrosse teams play.

Not too long ago, and when I was a kid, it was Fetzer Field. I once saw Chapel Hill High School, my alma mater, win a state boys soccer title there in the 1970s. I also vividly recall watching Tony Waldrop run the mile at a track meet there. That was back, of course, when the facility included a track.

The 20-mile loops starts on the deck and, after right turns onto Raleigh Road and Ridge Road — make the first of two runs past Boshamer Stadium.

That’s a place full of baseball memories. When I was a kid growing up in Chapel Hill, the Durham Bulls didn’t exist. There also were only one or two baseball games on TV each week. I was there the day the stadium opened in 1972, for many spring games and summer action in the old North Carolina Collegiate Summer League. The stadium wasn’t nearly as nice in those days, of course, as it is today.

I fondly recall running the old electronic scoreboard during games when I was in a junior in high school, and watching the New York Yankees play exhibition games there in the 1970s.

After continuing on Ridge Road, I take a left on Manning Drive and, after a big downhill, take a right and head for the Smith Center and take a loop around the arena. I have plenty of terrific memories of the Smith Center.

After climbing the Bowles Drive hill back to Manning Drive, I take a left and go by where Chase Cafeteria used to be located. I lived on North Campus, but that was the place to go for an all-you-can-eat meal that was covered by the meal plan. It also generally was much tastier than the Pine Room.

On the way to taking a right on South Columbia Street, I go by UNC Hospitals (but for many years was only called N.C. Memorial Hospital), where my mom worked and by the School of Dentistry, where my dad worked. After the turn onto Columbia, I quickly pass the School of Nursing, where my dad worked when he left the School of Dentistry.

I do like walking through the main part of the UNC campus. But I avoid the brick sidewalks when I’m running because I don’t trust the footing and the tendency for a brick to stick up slightly. With a classic marathon shuffle, those bricks have tripped me up in the past.

With a turn onto South Road, I go past the Bell Tower, the libraries, the UNC Student Stores and the Student Union before taking a left onto Raleigh Road. There, I pass Alexander Dorm (they now call it Alexander Hall), where I lived for four years, and met my future wife. We named our oldest son Alexander.

After a turning left at Cameron Avenue, I pass plenty of buildings where I had classes, the iconic Old Well and where the old Scuttlebutt snack place used to be located at the corner of Cameron and Columbia. I continue down Cameron and onto a trail that leads to downtown Carrboro.

Running down East Main Street, it turns into Rosemary Street and the memories become how it used to look. There are lots of tall, newer buildings that have changed the appearance of that stretch, and not for the better. I guess that’s allegedly supposed to be progress.

After a left on Columbia and a quick right onto what now is MLK Boulevard (it was Airport Road when I was a kid), there is a big downhill and a big uphill before I take a right on Piney Mountain Road and head for the Lake Forest neighborhood. As a kid, I had lots of friends in that area. I remembered that the hills were challenging on my bike back then, and they bring plenty of running challenges as well.

Eventually, after climbing the big Curtis Road hill and taking a left on Elliott Road, I’m on a path I took numerous days walking or riding home from (or going to) Estes Hills Elementary School and Phillips Junior High School (now it’s Phillips Middle School).

As I take a right onto Franklin Street, I pass the first place I voted, fire station No. 3. I then pass where I lived for 18 years before my family moved to Pittsboro just as I was starting college. Sadly, the house (which was about halfway between the fire station and where the Siena Hotel now sits and near where Brady’s Restaurant used to stand) is no longer there and is the site of a professional office complex.

From there, I follow the alternate route I often took to and from school as I take a right onto Estes Drive. Compared to many other hills on this loop, that hill doesn’t seem that bad. But I remember hating trying to ride my bike up that hill to school.

Once up the hill, I pass two of the four schools I attended, Estes Hills and Phillips (the other two are Chapel Hill High School and, of course, UNC).

After taking a left and running on MLK Boulevard for a short stretch, I take a left and run through the nice Bolin Creek Trail. (I wrote a separate post about that trail here.) After a couple of rights, it’s one of the top climbs of the run: a left onto the historic hill up Franklin Street toward downtown that locals like to call Stroud Hill. It’s certainly long and sustained.

I remember dreading going up that hill on my bike, but enjoying that I could ride my bike above the posted speed limit of 35 mph when I was whipping down that hill. And, of course, in those days, I was doing that without a helmet.

After that climb, comes some relief as I go down Park Place and Boundary Street, then around the sharp left turn to pass the front of the Forest Theatre. Then I get a long downhill after the left onto Raleigh Road before going by the Anderson Softball Stadium and then taking the biggest climb of the loop: up the always-challenging Laurel Hill Road.

I had not made that climb before I first ran the Tar Heel 10 Miler many years ago. But it’s a significant challenge and a nicely placed — in a masochistic sort of way — toward the end of a 20-miler.

After a couple of lefts, there is the relief of a downhill stretch on Ridge Road before taking a right on Stadium Drive for a small climb. There are plenty of memories as I look to the left to see Kenan Stadium and the Bell Tower.

But the best part comes next: After a right onto Raleigh Road, my 20-miler ends in front of my favorite place in Chapel Hill. That would be the facility where I loved watching Carolina basketball as a kid. And it’s a facility that I refuse to refer to by its current name. It always will be Carmichael Auditorium to me!

That loop is always a challenging run down memory lane.

Bullish on hills, variety? Plenty of Durham running options

By R.L. Bynum

In some cities or towns, it might be hard to find good places to run. In Durham, there are so many nice running options that it’s hard to choose.

One certainty with Bull City running: You are going to encounter hills and, in some cases, lots of them. Anybody who has run the half-marathon at the Bull City Race Fest, which usually runs in October but is only virtual this year, can attest to that. The Forest Hills neighborhood has many beautiful places to run, but “Hills” isn’t in the name by accident.

Bike lanes on many main Durham streets provide safe places to run where you don’t have to worry as much about traffic or the uneven footing of roadsides or sidewalks. The beauty of Durham is that you can run for miles on a trail, and only occasionally need to cross a street as you traverse the American Tobacco Trail or the North/South Greenway.

You can improvise many different beautiful running routes on the Duke campus. While Duke Gardens might be pretty for a walk, the quick turns on sidewalks don’t make it the best place to run. It’s closed indefinitely during the pandemic, anyway.

Depending on where they live, Durhamites may never have to drive anywhere to take advantage of the many trail options.

There are probably other good places to run that I’ve not discovered. But here is a rundown of, in my opinion, the best places, based on thousands of miles run since moving to Durham more than 10 years ago.

American Tobacco Trail

This is one of Durham’s great treasures for walkers, cyclists and runners.

You can’t mention the trail without noting that there have been attacks along the trail, but fortunately there have been few in the last couple of years. Four video surveillance cameras were added along the trail in 2014 between Morehead Avenue and Enterprise Street, and there also is an emergency call box near Otis Street.

I’m an early-morning runner and never have had any issues on the ATT. I’ve occasionally seen Durham police officers on the trail, including on a brutally hot day earlier this summer when two officers on a motorized cart handed out bottled water.

With the 2014 addition of the bridge over Interstate 40 near the Streets at Southpoint, you can start a run at the trailhead near Durham Bulls Athletic Park — at the intersection of Morehead and Blackwell streets — and go for miles. By the first quarter of the eighth mile, you cross the bridge, run past Southpoint mall and can keep going into Wake County and, eventually, Chatham County for a total of 22.6 miles.

Concrete posts indicate each mile marker, counting up from the trailhead, and painted markings on the trail note each quarter-mile. The trail is entirely paved in Durham County, with a dashed line in the middle.

Generally, your run won’t be delayed much, or at all, by the streets you must cross. The exceptions, depending on the day and time you’re running, are the two times the trail crosses Fayetteville Road (near Elmira Park and near Solite Park), and when it intersects MLK Parkway, N.C. 54, Renaissance Parkway and Massey Chapel Road.

For Durham standards, the hills aren’t too bad. There are exceptions, most notably the extended hill southbound that takes you just beyond Hillside High School to Riddle Road and the big hill as you approach the bridge from the Southpoint side going northbound.

I routinely use the ATT for my 20-mile training runs. Because the hills are fairly gentle, I’ll usually head to Chapel Hill for more challenging hills when training for a hilly marathon.

There are also short spurs along the ATT: The Rocky Creek Trail (0.75 of a mile) and the Riddle Road Spur (1.45 miles), the latter just beyond the crest of that Hillside hill.

If nature calls, there are restrooms at both of the aforementioned parks and stores with restrooms at Southpoint Commons, which the trail winds behind just before you reach N.C. 54 going southbound.

There are several races each year run entirely on the ATT, over parts of it or using large chunks of it, including the Tobacco Road Marathon, run on March 21 next year. One of TRM’s two turnarounds is in Durham County.

North/South Greenway

If you head northbound on the ATT to the trailhead, there are more trails a few blocks away on the North/South Greenway for nearly seven more miles. It shifts from the Downtown Trail (0.9 of a mile) to the South Ellerbe Creek Trail (1.4 miles), Duke Park Trail (0.3), West Club Boulevard Trail (0.3), Ellerbe Creek Trail  (1.4), the Stadium Drive Trail (1.9), and finally the Warren Creek Trail (0.75), which ends at Horton Road.

Some of those trails are integrated into the half-marathon and 10K courses for the Race 13.1 Durham event that debuted in 2015 and is scheduled to be run again Dec. 5. Some of those trails weren’t quite wide enough to handle that kind of up-and-back volume at times during that race. There’s plenty of room for a daily run, but the trails aren’t nearly as wide as the ATT.

The greenway provides sidewalks and paved trails, with interesting scenery as you pass the Museum of Life and Science. Be prepared for some big hills on the Stadium Drive Trail. There are streets you have to cross, the most major being the five-lane North Duke Street near County Stadium.

The footing isn’t consistent over parts of these trails.

Third Fork Creek Trail

You can easily shift from the ATT to this trail by going west on MLK Parkway and running on sidewalks on either side of that street. Parkrun, a free 5K every Saturday at 8 a.m. that’s on hiatus during the pandemic.

Read more about this trail in this post.

Woodcroft Walking Trails

At the Garrett Road Park end of the Third Fork Creek Park, you can add miles by running the Woodcroft Walking Trails. These are mostly narrow paved trails that feature lots of rolling hills and plenty of alternatives once you learn the maze of available trails.

There aren’t many places where you have to deal with traffic, and you can use the Woodcroft trails to get from the end of the Third Fork Creek Trail to the ATT where it intersects Woodcroft Parkway.

Al Buehler Cross Country Trail

Named after the legendary former Duke and Olympic track and field coach, this is one Durham trail where the only traffic you face is minimal: when crossing a small road leading up to the Washington Duke Inn.

You can read more about this trail here.

East Campus Loop

This 1.6-mile mostly soft-gravel trail loops around Duke’s East Campus, and you only have to deal with minimal traffic from a couple of places where cars enter the campus.

Here is a photo gallery of the loop, which is a good running spot just about any time of year. If it’s hot, there’s shade for about half of the loop. On a typical weekend morning, you’ll see more people on this trail than just about any in Durham. You have to watch out for tree roots in some places and ruts, but the footing is usually pretty good.

You can add some scenic miles by turning onto Campus Drive until it ends at a circle, then running an up-and-back on Chapel Drive, turning around in front of Duke Chapel. Picture-postcard running.

An advantage this trail has over many others: There are emergency call boxes and decent lighting to help with safety during those evening runs after sunset.

If you drive to run there, don’t park in the Bull City Market shopping center, which includes Whole Foods. The tenants monitor the lot to make sure only customers use it. There is parking available on neighboring streets.

Sandy Creek Trail

It begins at Pickett Road near U.S. 15–501 Bypass and ends at Sandy Creek Park, but you can add length to the 0.65-of-a-mile trail by continuing on Sandy Creek Drive for a little longer loop.

This is another trail to avoid after it rains. Sand tends to collect on this trail to give it the feel of running on a beach in spots, and that can turn into a muddy mess.

You’ll probably see more bird watchers than other runners on this short trail near Durham Academy.

Options in northern Durham County

There are other options that are a short drive from downtown Durham.

  • Duke Forest trails offer an extensive number of dirt trails with miles of options and entry points along N.C. 751, west of the U.S. 15/501 Bypass. The network of trails also stretches into Orange County.
  • Eno River State Park has several trails that offer plenty of climbs and the true trail-running experience, with trails ranging from 1 to 3.75 miles.
  • The Little River Regional Park has seven miles of trails.
  • The West Point on the Eno Park has trails of between 0.15-of-a-mile to 1.8-miles long.

Note: This post is repurposed and updated from one that I wrote for Raleigh & Company, a website that was discontinued in 2017.

Head to the Bolin Creek Trail for a short, relatively flat run in Chapel Hill

By R.L. Bynum

If you’re in Chapel Hill and not in the mood for the challenge of a hilly run, there aren’t a lot of good options.

One fairly flat choice for a short run, though, is the 1.5-mile Bolin Creek Trail, and there are several places to access it. Keep in mind that much of the the trail is narrow, making social-distancing during the pandemic difficult.

One end of the trail is at Community Center Park near University Place (formerly University Mall). From there, you run under a Franklin Street bridge (below photo).

The other end of the trail is at MLK Boulevard (formerly Airport Road). That’s where you’ll deal with the only real hill on the course, a short incline for runners headed toward MLK or a short downhill when you run down from MLK (below photo).

If you are driving there, the best place to park is in the lot for Community Center Park. Bathrooms are available. Closer to MLK, you can also park on Bolinwood Drive.

You can run down from East Franklin Street onto Elizabeth Street and reach roughly the midpoint of the trail by way of a short connector trail. There are steps (seen to left in below photo) next to Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen that you can take down from Franklin Street to near the park end of the trail.

The 10-foot-wide trail alternates between a concrete sidewalk surface and a paved surface, and includes a couple of bridges. Coming from MLK, the creek is to your right until midway through the trail when you cross a bridge over the creek. Then the creek is to your left the rest of the way.

It’s best to avoid this trail after heavy rain because large puddles can develop.

If you would prefer to go longer than the three miles an up-and-back run of the trail gives you, there are plenty of ways to add on miles. Just be ready for some hills.

Heading toward Community Center Park, for example, you can continue onto the unpaved Battle Branch Trail to eventually reach the UNC campus at Battle Park after 1.5 miles. If you extend your run onto sidewalks on MLK in either direction, be prepared for some daunting hills.

There are lots of ways to use this trail as an add-on to a longer run.

I live in Durham but head to Chapel Hill when training for a hilly marathon. I’ve integrated the Bolin Creek Trail into a 20-mile loop that starts and ends at the School of Government Parking Deck on the UNC campus.

The Bolin Creek Trail provides a short break from the hills … because the rest of Chapel Hill is full of them!

Note: This post is repurposed and updated from one that I wrote for Raleigh & Company, a website that was discontinued in 2017.

The Third Fork Creek Trail another nice running choice in Durham

By R.L. Bynum

Looking for a good place to run where you barely have to deal with traffic and there are easy places to park? The 3.6-mile paved Third Fork Creek Trail, mostly in the Woodcroft neighborhood of Durham, is a good option.

There is ample parking at one end of the trail at Southern Boundaries Park, the staging area for the weekly parkrun, and near the other end at the Woodcroft Shopping Center. There are bathroom facilities at Southern Boundaries Park and, at the other end of the trail at Garrett Road Park, near the shopping center.

Be advised that the trail is not that wide, which makes social-distancing during the pandemic a challenge.

The trail, shown on the below map courtesy of, features several wood bridges and is fairly flat except for a big hill near Southern Boundaries Park. Since you go under the MLK Parkway bridge, you only have to deal with traffic crossing South Roxboro Street and West Woodcroft Parkway.

This trail isn’t used as heavily and isn’t as popular among cyclists as the American Tobacco Trail.

Avoid it after it has rained much, though, because it floods easily, leaving muddy puddles that can be messy and too large to run around. Erosion forced the temporary closure of the trail in 2013.

Parkrun, which is on hiatus during the pandemic, normally uses a two up-and-back course, but its course becomes three loops of a shorter up-and-back when those puddles become impassable.

The City of Durham has replaced some sections and restoring others.

If you don’t want to drive to the trail, you can easily shift from the ATT to this trail by going west on MLK Parkway and running on sidewalks on either side of that street.

Note: This post is repurposed and updated from one that I wrote for Raleigh & Company, a website that was discontinued in 2017.

The Buehler Trail is a nice running option in Durham that’s almost traffic-free

By R.L. Bynum

If you like a hard-packed dirt trail, the challenge of rolling hills and avoiding vehicle traffic, the 2.91-mile Al Buehler Cross Country Trail is a good fit.

The only traffic you face is minimal: when you cross a small road that leads up to the Washington Duke Inn as you traverse the trail, which goes around the Duke University Golf Club.

Something to keep in mind during a pandemic, though, is that the trail has parts that are fairly narrow, making social distancing a challenge.

It’s convenient for Duke students to run to the trail and there are a couple of parking options along Cameron Boulevard.

Here is a photo gallery of the trail, which was named after the legendary former Duke and Olympic track and field coach. It features several emergency call boxes, three bridges over creeks, distance markers every quarter-mile and two water fountains. Without lighting over the vast majority of the trail, you shouldn’t run there before sunrise or after sunset.

You can detour on a 0.11-of-a-mile connector trail to take the 0.58-of-a-mile Sally Meyerhoff Fitness Loop. It has stations where you can stop and do specific exercises, if that fitsinto your fitness plan.

There are some challenging hills but none more daunting than when running counterclockwise into a severe uphill near Cornwallis Road. It forces you to run on your toes and your heartbeat to rise quickly if you try to push your pace.

This is a trail to avoid the day after it rains a lot because it will get muddy in places. Ruts form in spots when it rains for a number of days.

This is a particularly appealing running option when it’s very hot because of the shade that the trail offers.

One negative to the trail is that there are no easily accessible bathrooms.

Unlike some other trails in Durham, you rarely hear reports about attacks, although there was one a few years ago. And the only traffic you’ll hear is when running on the portion of the trail that is close to the U.S. 15–501 Bypass.

Note: This post is repurposed and updated from one that I wrote for Raleigh & Company, a website that was discontinued in 2017.

Runners are luckier than other athletes, but the dearth of races is frustrating

By R.L. Bynum

There’s no doubt that runners are luckier than a lot of other athletes who used to work out at gyms before the pandemic. That option was taken away for most while the roads and trails are still open for running.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of reasons for runners to be frustrated during the pandemic. Hopefully, most of us aren’t dealing with the bigger concerns of battling health issues, maintaining a struggling business or trying to find a job after getting laid off.

Group runs that are always fun to join really aren’t that smart these days. The parkrun at Southern Boundaries Park, a Saturday staple for many Durham-area runners, has been suspended.

The tradition of the Carolina Godiva Track Club’s Summer Track Series on Wednesdays is only a sweaty memory for 2020. It has a Selfie Tour Edition that has averaged about 50 runners a week. The club marked distances at six popular running locations in the Triangle so that members could run those distances.

The club, which has made dues optional this year, is sponsoring a one-hour virtual run Saturday.

Perhaps the biggest frustration is that the races that we love to train for are, for the most part, being canceled, postponed and/or have become “virtual races.”

One after the other, the major marathons — Boston, New York City, Chicago and Marine Corps — were canceled. 

I was lucky to discover the Jackson River Trail Marathon about 10 days before that race and was thrilled to run it. (I wrote about my race experience here.) It was a substitute race after the San Francisco Marathon that I had been training for was postponed.

Unless you can convince me that there is a major charity element, I have virtually no interest in paying money to run a virtual race. 

The Raleigh-based Capstone Event Group has canceled two fall Triangle running events — the Raleigh City of Oaks Marathon (with the companion half-marathon, 10K, 5K and 1-mile fun run) and the Bull City Run Fest (which includes a half-marathon and a 5-mile race).

I’ve run the City of Oaks Marathon and the Bull City half-marathon. It was fun running both races and taking on the challenges of the hills both courses feature. Well, at the time, the hills didn’t seem fun. I also volunteered for the Bull City half one year.

Many of us look forward to running in both of those events in future years. But I have no desire to pay $50 for a medal and a T-shirt to participate in the “virtual events.” Yes, that’s what Capstone is charging, and there doesn’t appear to be a charity element.

I was happy to pay $25 to be part of wave 1 (from Mother’s Day until Father’s Day) of the Carolina Food Run Challenge because it raised money to support food banks and hunger relief programs. There were 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-mile options. I finished my 120 miles (I ran many more miles than that) and received a T-shirt and a magnet. That wouldn’t be worth $25 to me if proceeds didn’t go to a charity.

I’ve got enough T-shirts and medals that paying money to a for-profit entity to go on a random run isn’t appealing.

I’d love to again run the Running of the Bulls 8K , a Durham race that fine folks at Bull City Running Company put on. It’s traditionally a spring race, but was postponed until Aug. 29 this year. I didn’t register because I was told that if the race gets canceled, I wouldn’t get my money back and it will become a virtual race. Sure enough, that’s what happened Thursday.

I understand that most of the money was probably spent in the run-up to the original race day. But it has to be frustrating for registered runners that registration can’t be deferred to the 2021 race. They are charging $25 for the virtual race, which gets you a technical T-shirt, a medal, a coupon for a free beverage at Fullsteam Brewery and a chance to win prizes. For a virtual race, it’s not a bad deal considering how much a technical T-shirt alone costs.

Another classic North Carolina event I’ve run before — the Ultimate Runner in Winston-Salem — also has been postponed from the spring to this month and, as of this week, still is on. The event, in which each participant runs a mile, 400 meters, 800 meters, 100 meters and 5K, is taking COVID-19 measures, including capping the field at 75 when it is run Aug. 29. Although I was very tempted because the Twin City Track Club does an excellent job with this, I’m going to pass on it this year since social distancing might be a challenge over the hours it takes to complete.

I’ve registered for the Nov. 8 RDC Marathon, which starts and finishes at the Streets of Southpoint in Durham. It raises money for the Team Drea Foundation, which funds research for cures and treatments for ALS. If the race is canceled and my money can’t get deferred to the 2021 event, at least much of it goes to a worthy charity.

The Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary, which also has a companion half-marathon, donates all proceeds to charity. It canceled in March but allowed everybody who registered to defer to either the 2021 or 2022 event. People who bought parking passes also had that deferred and registered 2020 runners still get 2020 medals and T-shirts.

The plus side of registering for a Capstone event is that it offers “worry-free” registration. If you register for one of its races and it is canceled, you can use that money toward registering for one of its other races. The Bull City Race Fest and City of Oaks are two of 11 running events Capstone owns, in addition to the entire Race 13.1 Series.

I registered to run last spring’s Tar Heel 10 Miler, which Capstone owns. When it got canceled, I used that money toward registering for the Jan. 16 Charleston Marathon. It only cost me another $29. That was cheap compared to the $39 I paid to the San Francisco Marathon to defer to the July 2021 race rather than run the postponed 2020 race on Nov. 15.

We all look forward to a time when you can register for a race, start training and begin counting down the days until the big day with certainty that the race will happen.

As we all know, certainty is an alien concept in 2020.