Your Silly Road Race 10:23.11

October 23rd, 2011 in Articles by 0 Comments

When the residents of tiny Norwalk, WI (pop. 650) saw the success of Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN, they caught the distance running fever and decided to jump on the ‘marathon train.’


Famous for its three-quarter-mile railroad tunnel incorporated into the course, the Rails to Trails Marathon was recently named one of the Midwest’s Top 25 marathons by Chicago Athlete.

“We decided to incorporate the tunnel because we really wanted to utilize our best resource, the Elroy-Sparta National Bike Trail, and logistically the tunnel fell into place,” says race organizer, Kelly [no last name given]. “It has been a logistical challenge but a blessing as well.”

The tunnel is illuminated with various lanterns and battery powered lights, and runners are given a flashlight that they can discard after they exit. Despite the obvious issues of maintaining a steady pace over such unusual terrain, the race is recognized as an official Boston Marathon qualifying event.

“Most are okay with the flashlight. Some come prepared with a head lantern,” says Kelly. “Most athletes maybe don’t ‘train’ for this part of the course, but they do [understand] that their pace may be off on this section and plan to make up for it before or after.

The biggest complaint is that their GPSs don’t work in the tunnel!”

For less than one mile of a 26.2-mile race, the tunnel may be a welcome mental release – an encouragement to take a few minutes to enjoy an uninterrupted stretch of running. And, other than the tunnel, “R2T” boasts a relatively fast, pleasant course made of crushed limestone. Because the trail is an abandoned railroad bed, none of the hills have more than a 3% incline.

Race registration includes complementary pre- and post-race meals. Prior to running, athletes can chow down on spaghetti with homemade sauce. After the race – runners leave with their stomachs full of Norwalk’s famous Charcoal Chicken dinner, a complimentary drink from a local brewery and a wide variety of desserts baked and donated by locals.

However, like the race itself, organizers took an unconventional path to making Rails to Trails a reality.

“Here’s the real scoop: Not one of the organizers is a runner, had ever attended a marathon or really had much interest in running,” says Kelly. After realizing how hosting a race could raise money for the community, Norwalk locals proposed Rails to Trails. Fellow residents were initially reluctant to get on what Kelly calls the ‘marathon train,’ but the area’s running groups were supportive.

“We made some mistakes, but we corrected things each year and had to have a thick skin,” says Kelly. “Our group looks a little bit like the women from the movie Steel Magnolias!

With everyone now on board, R2T has enjoyed increasing success. Since it debuted in 2008, the race has grown by 30% each year.

“On race day the population of Norwalk quadruples,” says Kelly.

This year, “Rails to Trails” will be run on November 6th . Racers intrigued by the tunnel can choose between a full and a half marathon. The day will also feature a 5K run/walk and a 1-mile fun run. The full marathon kicks off festivities with a 9a.m. start.

Kelly Laffey ran cross country and track at Wake Forest University. A 2010 graduate, she is pursuing a career in journalism. She loves the freedom associated with running and hopes to compete in her first marathon later this year. Contact her here.

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Author: FasterThanForty

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