PREPARE TO EXPLORE
Choose your own adventure travel blog
The idea had already been developed: Run one mile at every Pennsylvania State Park in one year. It sounds like a very easy concept. But there was a lot to start thinking about. It included setting aside weekends for runs, packing essentials, planning overnight trips, identifying routes and gathering information on every park.
Luckily, I love planning. So, planning to run a mile at all 121 state parks should be a piece of cake….
Spoiler alert: It was not.
Looking at a map of all the Pennsylvania State Parks is a bit daunting. There might be 121 parks but it feels like 1,000. They are everywhere. Every corner of the map. Maurice K. Goddard, the first director of Pennsylvania’s Department of Parks and Forests, had a goal of having a state park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvania resident. By looking at the map, he looks to have achieved it.
I started with a spreadsheet with all the parks. That’d be my master list where I’d keep track of individual state park runs. I’d track my distance, time, pace, calories burned and a short blurb about every park. I figured, the parks would kind of bleed together after a while and I’d want to remember what every park looked, felt and smelled like. I decided to do a short voice recording after every run. What the park was like, where I ran, animal encounters, nice scenery, running conditions and things like that.
At the outset I knew I couldn’t spend much time in any particular park. This was not a sightseeing challenge. This was a running challenge. Run one mile at a park and leave. I didn’t have time to see waterfalls or hike to an overlook or spend hours exploring.
While I honed my process over months, it was pretty much this from the beginning.
Find my running area (trail, road, parking lot, monument or whatever), run one mile, find a PA Parks Stamp, take a photo of me in front of the park sign and leave.
Park, run, stamp, photo and leave.
I was pretty loose with planning my runs when I first started this challenge. After coming off of one of my best years of running, I was comfortable running on trails and roads. I was confident that I could run one mile in any condition and most elevations. Boy, was I wrong.
I did limited planning when I started this challenge on Jan. 2, 2021. I just wanted to find one mile loops. I like running in a loop. I like seeing a broad area but never being too far from my car. Loops, I’ve found, tend to be the most traveled and are the best kept by park rangers. They are usually flat with limited rocks and roots.
But, most parks don’t have loops. They have out-and-back trails. They have trails that connect to other trails. They have trails that lead you in the middle of the woods with no explanation of where to go next. And some have no trails.
So, for the first couple parks, I just decided to wing them. Go to a park, find a map, pick a route and go for a run. The amount of time I prepare would change greatly over the course of this adventure.
I’d be tracking my runs with my new Garmin 945 running watch. This watch tracks everything, from calories and VO2 max to effort and fatigue. All I ever needed it to do was provide GPS tracking. When it said I ran a mile or a little more, I knew it was accurate.
I should say this about my running, and I’m sure I’ll go into more detail about this in future blogs, I didn’t care about how fast I went. This challenge I created wasn’t about running fast. It was about running. So I had no problems running a 16-minute mile. I had no problems stopping and taking pictures. I had no problems walking over roots and rocks. I had no problem taking a breather and walking a few steps. This was a challenge of my own making and I did not need to live up to anyone else’s standards.
That said, I liked pushing myself. I liked setting a fast time. But that wasn’t a requirement or focus. My focus was on having a “good” run not a “fast” run.
So there may be times reading this that you may be thinking, “I could run faster than that!” Yes. You probably could. That’s the point. Challenge yourself. Set your own standards.
The stamps (these friggin' stamps)
Leading up to this challenge, I found out about the Pennsylvania State Parks and State Forests Passport. This helpful little guide from the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation provided an easy and fun way to visit Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests.
All 121 Pennsylvania State Parks and 20 Forest Districts have a stamp. Each park stamp is designed to highlight a prominent feature or activity in the park. For example, Hyner View State Park stamp features a hang glider since you can hang glide off of the mountain top.
My wife Abby bought me this passport for Christmas, adding a fun layer to this running challenge. Wherever I would go, I’d be looking for a park stamp. Forest district stamps would be bonus but not my main priority. I was after park stamps.
Little did I know that finding stamps from each of these parks would cost me so much time, energy and effort and lead to so much happiness and frustration.
After every successful run, I’d take a photo in front of the state park’s sign. For nearly the entire challenge, this was the easiest portion of my running trips. There is ALWAYS a park sign at the beginning and end of the park boundaries. Well, almost always. The few and far between exceptions and don’t even need to be mentioned.
Sometimes for brevity, I took my photos first before runs. After my first 40 parks or so, I was joined by friends and family. That turned my solo selfies into mostly silly pics with my guests.
There is no possible way I would remember what a trail looked like two months after I ran it. I wouldn’t remember small details like what the forest smelled like, how the light shimmered off the ferns or what the hell that guy said to me in the parking lot.
From the first park I ran, I did a brief voice recording of my experience. After I was done running for the week, I would type up my notes in my spreadsheet. I would talk about how I felt that day, what the park looked like, if I wanted to come back again. Lots of short, brief details.
As it turns out, I’m glad I did that. I would not have been able to remember everything I did over the course of nearly 8 months. Without those recordings and my notes, the parks would all be a blur.
When you're visiting parks one after another, never spending much time in any of them, you forget most. You remember the peaks and the valleys -- that's to say the really great and the very bad.
Be sure to read my future #121In21 Challenge blog posts!
Hey! I'm Christian.