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The National Parks Project: Running a Marathon in Every U.S. National Park

In the spring of 2016, Bill Syalik ditched his 9-5 job in busy New York City to start a new adventure, which has since become the National Parks Marathon Project. Bill plans to run a marathon in all of the current 61 U.S. National Parks, and he's already knocked down 53. The project started in June of 2016 at Acadia National Park in Maine. He hopes this project will be a celebration of the restorative power of nature and the joy of running. Bill is one of Balega’s Impi brand ambassadors, and we were excited to have the opportunity to chat with Bill about his National Parks Marathon Project.

Balega: What made you ultimately decide to leave the corporate world, and set off on a new adventure?

Bill: Honestly, I was kind of burnt out. I was living in New York City doing the corporate consulting gig for five years and realized NYC wasn’t feeding me anymore. I think NYC can do two things, it can either feed you or feed on you. I had transitioned from the former to the latter. There also wasn’t access to the outdoors. There are parks in the city, but they aren’t very big and they get repetitive. I decided that I wanted to move somewhere that I wanted to live and then find a job when I got there. I decided to leave New York City, quit my job, and then I took a little time off before settling in Denver.

Balega: Do you have any advice for others who are on the edge of throwing in the towel?

Bill: First of all, have a plan. I’m not one of those people who would say just quit and figure it out. I’m sure that can be successful for some people, but I prefer to have a plan so when you do quit your job, you're not trading one stress for another. Secondly, if you’re looking for some quick change in you or your life, have an idea that it will take longer than you expect.  When I left NYC, this was after a long 20-year corporate management consulting career. I thought I would go on this grand excursion and immediately feel that change. It took around seven months for that to actually happen for me. That constant pressure to succeed and achieve doesn’t just go away magically.

 

Big Bend National Park

Photo from Big Bend National Park

Balega: Where did the idea come from for the National Parks Marathon Project?

Bill: I read that it was the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service and thought ‘maybe I’ll take the summer off and see some of the National Parks.’ I first thought about visiting some of the parks, but that didn’t seem compelling enough. Then I thought, ‘I like to run, wouldn’t it be cool to do some trail runs in the national parks as I go to visit them?’ It sounded cool but for me, still wasn’t compelling enough. I kept noodling on it.

Then I thought, why don’t I make it hard? Why don’t I run a marathon in all 59 U.S. national parks? (now 61.) That idea kind of grabbed me. I did some math and planning and then instead of just taking the summer off, I took close to 18 months off. I completed 51 marathons in the first 18 months.

Balega: How would you describe the transition from the hustle and bustle of NYC to hours of running in the wilderness alone?

Balega: For the first 6-7 months, I continued to run it like a project. I was trying to succeed and go from park to park and check them off the list. I ran marathons with only three days of rest in between in the early days of the project. I was so caught up in the project.

Once I learned to relax, it got a lot better. I was able to enjoy it more and was less focused on achievement and more focused on enjoying the moment. The only drawback is that I spend about three quarters of the time alone. That has been probably the hardest part of the whole trip. I do stay at hostels often, where I met a ton of people who are now friends, but that's only a point in the trip, not for a long period of time.

Hostel at Virgin Islands National Park

Hostel at Virgin Islands National Park

Balega: What made you decide to go vegan?

Bill: About 7-8 years ago, I was trying to improve my running and was looking more into how to do that through nutrition. I read a couple of books that were written by vegan athletes and some others on nutrition. The claims that these guys make in the books seemed outlandish - once they went to a whole food plant-based diet they recovered faster and were able to do another hard work out sooner than before. It didn’t seem like that could be possible without having a steak sandwich or cheeseburger.

However, I was already lactose intolerant, so the only other things I really had to give up were chicken and fish. So, I decided to try it, thinking the worst that could happen is I go back and eat the way I used to eat.

I replaced meat with rice, beans, vegetables, tofu, tempeh, other plant-based alternatives. As it turns out, I recovered faster, rarely get sick, my health has improved, and most importantly, my performance has improved. I feel so good, there’s no reason to go back. So, I’ve just stuck with it.

Balega: I’m sure this is a tough question for you, but which park was your favorite run?

Bill:  Very true, that is a hard question. They’re all my favorites, and I don’t want to make any feel bad...But if I really had to choose, it would be Kings Canyon National Park in California. It wasn’t an overly involved run, not a massive loop or anything. It was an out and back that I ran right next to the Kings River, which was raging and there was water everywhere, so my feet were wet the whole time. It was a dense forest in the valley with granite on either side. It was very intimate. Like Yosemite, but without the crowds.

If I picked a few more, they would be Lassen Volcanic National Park in California and Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Lassen has active thermal features, and not nearly as many visitors as the popular parks. I got to see all four types of volcanoes and lava beds, which was very, very cool. In Canyonlands, you go up on the red rock, marked by cairns. You’re running on the rock, so it was like nature’s parkour, jumping from rock to rock.

Lessen Volcanic

Photo from Lassen Volcanic National Park

Balega: Do you have a running partner?

Bill: My normal process before I get to a National Park is to find a coffee shop and look on Facebook to find running groups that are close to the park. I reach out to the running groups to see if anyone wanted to join me. A lot of times, the parks are in remote locations though, with not a lot of people close by. It is also difficult for people to take off for a day and to be in shape to run 26 miles on trails to join me. A quarter of the time I get someone to run with me.

Balega: Surely you see quite a bit of wildlife on these runs, but what’s one of the coolest things you’ve seen on a run?

Bill: I’ve seen lots of animals that I’ve never seen before, due to the fact that I’ve never lived further West than Detroit before moving. I’ve now done extensive exploration in the forest in the West, so have seen lots of animals, including some of my favorites, prairie dogs, Pronghorn (antelope), and bison. In my fifth park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, I had to adjust the route to go around a herd of bison. It was either I moved or got run over.

Balega: Have you ever gotten lost on a run?

Bill: No, I’ve never gotten lost. At least not anything extensive. I made a couple of wrong turns but recognized I was going the wrong way. The worst was in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was difficult because there were so many bison in the area, and they make their own game trails. Also, the trail markers at that park are wooden stakes that help determine the route and that you’re going the right way. Well, the bison like to use the stakes a scratching post, so you could come to an interception where there seem to be three trail options due to the game trails. The game trials are often more traveled than the hiking trail. I knew that would be a problem because I did a bit of research prior to running in that park and was glad that I programmed a GPS to keep me on track. These marathons are meant to be a joy run through nature, not a survival exercise.

A side note, my recommendation for people running in the backcountry: carry a GPS safety beacon, SPOT Gen-3. This is a way to call for help in the event you’re injured or lost in the backcountry. Safety is important.

Selfie from Bill before running Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Selfie from Bill before running Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Balega: When is your next marathon, and which park will you be visiting?

Bill: It is still to be determined at this point. My remaining eight parks are all in Alaska. I am still in the midst of planning the Alaska trip because it is more expensive and more logistically challenging. I have to take the time off work to do these.

Buffalo at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Photo from Theodore Roosevelt National Park

My plan though, is to do 2-3 of them at the end of August 2019 and then the next five in an extended 2-3 month trip during summer 2020. Four of the National Parks in Alaska require a bush plane to get to. Once you land there, there’s no established trails or roads, so it’s a combination of running and navigation. Bush planes drop you and leave, so you need to make sure you’re in a location where they can then pick you up. There’s really no communication at the point, and you do have an animal concern as well (the bears will get you!).

Balega: What do you carry with you on a typical trip?

Bill: I pack for a trip with three things in mind: food, hydration, and safety. Here’s a list of things I most commonly have in my pack.

  • Salomon Trail 20 hydration pack
  • 3-liter hydro pack bladder
  • 2 Ultimate Direction bottles
  • Hammer energy gels
  • Indru light salt capsules
  • Patagonia Ultralight Shell jacket
  • Long sleeve thermal shirt (always pack your clothing in plastic, since it will get wet from sweat)
  • Balega Enduro Crew socks
  • Arm warmers
  • Sol emergency bivvy
  • Knit beanie
  • Toilet paper
  • SPOT Gen 3 GPS Safety Beacon
  • 1st aid kit
  • Firestarter supplies
  • A plastic bag containing my driver’s license, a $20 bill, and my car keys

Balega: You’ve written a haiku about every National Park you’ve ran through, how did you come up with this idea?

Bill: I honestly don’t know where the idea came from. A friend of mine has been doing Haiku Wednesdays on Instagram, which might have been where it started. It’s been a nice way to describe the parks in a very condensed, pointed way. It’s fun!

Kings Canyon National Parks

Photo from Kings Canyon National Parks

Balega: Do you have a timeline for when you think you’ll complete the National Parks Marathon Project?

Bill: I plan to finish by next summer. The final chapter is the Alaskan adventure. But also, I hope never. I would love to see our government continue to create National Parks and protect public lands for people to enjoy and for our earth to remain how it is. I think the most impressive display of power is to not do anything. We could develop land and mine it for oil, log it, do all of these things, but sometimes the greatest degree of strength and power is to leave it alone. And if we continue to do that, we’ll have more National Parks, like the most recent two new national parks, Gateway Arch National Park and Indiana Dunes National Park. If Congress keeps creating them, I’ll keep running them.

Balega: Any last thoughts to leave us with?

Bill: I always tell people just to try to get outdoors and spend time in nature. I believe it does two seemingly contradictory things for you: it calms you, and it gives you energy at the same time. Walking to a forest and getting away from the city will calm you, but it also gives you this different energy. I believe more people need to experience this.

Oh, and make sure to do it in Balega socks.

Check out Bill’s website to learn more about the National Parks Marathon Project, follow Bill’s journey on his Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram or check out his hashtag #runningtheparks.