Bill Sycalik is the Founder and Chief Running Officer of the National Parks Marathon Project. He’s on a mission to bring people together and experience nature through running. He’s running a marathon in all 59 American national parks and documenting his journey in photos and on his blog. We interviewed Bill earlier this year to learn how he uses social media and visual influence to connect and inspire people all over the country.
Mission statement from the National Parks Marathon Project website
We love what you’re doing with the National Parks Marathon Project. Can you tell us about the moment you realized you were going to bring this idea to life?
I was most recently living and working in New York City. While I do love the energy of the city after five years I realized it just wasn’t feeding me anymore. I longed for easier access to the outdoors and nature.
My lease was up in May 2016 and I was planning to move to the Denver area. I was going to take some time off before I settled but hadn’t determined what that would be. I wanted to do something experiential and not just about drinking cocktails on a beach.
As I was surfing the ‘net one day I came across info highlighting this year being the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. My first thought was that I would visit some of the National Parks on the way to Denver.
But that itself wasn’t compelling enough for me. I wanted to experience the parks differently.
I enjoy running long distances completing both marathons and ultramarathons up to the 50-mile distance. I thought that it would be amazing to run 26.2 miles in every national park. That would be an incredible way to see the parks, challenge myself, and inspire others to really get into the parks, not just see them from the overlooks.
Thus, the National Parks Marathon Project was born.
What inspired you to start running marathons in the first place?
I ran my first marathon at the age of 33. I will be 45 years old on 8/17 so while I’ve been running for 12 years I can be considered a late starter to running. I never ran in high school or college and always thought I would hate it. But, I was living in Detroit and wanted to do something to get in better shape and tick “run a marathon” off the bucket list.
Like many I felt it out of reach — something only extremely fit people do. But, I thought, if Oprah can run a marathon so can I.
On October 29, 2006, I completed the Detroit Marathon in 3:49.08. Once I finished I thought to myself, “Oh, I can do better than that….” And that started my interest in marathons which then expanded to ultramarathons.
Any favorite trails so far?
Of course I don’t want any of the National Parks to feel bad because they are all different and amazing in their own right. I will say that Theodore Roosevelt National Park was the most difficult to date. Everything from navigation issues, heat, elevation, water crossings, animals and complete solitude challenged me thoroughly. TRNP is extremely beautiful, diverse and remote.
The sunrise and sunset at Badlands National Park ended up being beautiful despite choppy clouds.
Had any crazy experiences on the trail?
At Wind Cave National Park I fell. Just tripped and did a roll. Bruised my shoulder but otherwise came out unscathed. I figure that if I fall like that every seven marathons plus 21.5 miles I’ll take it.
Voyageurs was interesting. I had highlighted a trail that I was planning to run. When I asked the ranger about it, she said that the trail is on the map but most of it is underwater. Between the recent rain and the beavers building dams, I wouldn’t get too far before I would have to swim. She suggested another route which required me to hire a water taxi to take me 35 minutes across Lake Kabetogama to another trailhead.
We see you’re posting a lot of photos of the parks, and your runs on social media. How’s sharing the journey been going?
I’m now a little over seven weeks into the trip. I am still trying to find that balance between sharing and enjoying. I want people to realize through my example that it is OK to take some time off. It is not crazy to stop working for a while and enjoy nature, enjoy life! I don’t want people to live vicariously through me. I want them to create their own experiences.
I hope my photos and reports can help do that. I also use HootSuite to schedule posts. When I have good internet I schedule a bunch of posts so that I don’t have to do it every day.
How do you think platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter can help Americans value and appreciate their parks more?
Social media allows people to share ideas and information more easily than any time in our past. I have received and given recommendations to other travelers and visitors to the national parks.
Social media is a great way to learn from others’ experience and mistakes. And best, social media enables connection in person easier than ever.
All the people who have run with me on this trip I met through social media. It is a way to bring people together around a subject or activity they care about, in this case running and our national parks.
You can also use social media to learn about issues concerning the parks like proposed construction, logging, pipelines, etc. You can help take action where you feel inspired to help protect these fragile places. The National Parks Conservation Alliance is my recommendation for learning about how you can help.
All that said, it is very easy to get caught up in social media. Putting limits on checking and posting when in or around the national parks is a good idea. That way you don’t get distracted from the experience.
On so many of your posts, you’re inviting people to run with you, or just spend some time in nature with you. How’s the engagement been from this offer?
I’ve had people run with me at six of the nine parks. For three of those parks I had someone do the entire marathon with me. Those are strong runners! It looks like I should have some company for Yellowstone as well.
In addition, at Badlands, someone I met through Instagram wanted to run with me even though he wasn’t going to be there for the marathon day. He and his family were staying in the same campground so we ran our own off-trail route around the buttes and spires near the visitor center. Despite loving both distance running and our National Parks, he said that he would never have gone on that run if I had not been there but was so happy he did. He said he’s definitely going to try to run at future parks as he can.
This is what it’s about — meeting new people and experiencing our National Parks through running.
Marathon #13 @olympicnationalpark complete! My new friend Josh (@sutcliffejosh) and I ran a 13.5 mile out and back on the lush Hoh River Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest. Gorgeous green, green, green! And oh, the oxygen! Quite a contrast from @grandtetonnps! Loved it. #runningtheparks #runnersofig #trailrunning #vegan #veganathlete #seeamerica #adventure #roadtrip #dirtbagrunners #optoutside #natureisrad #naturerocks #loseyourself #nature @trailrunnermag #peninsuladailynews
You mention on your website that one of your core values involves “contribution and impact”. What impact do you hope to make with this project?
There are three things I would like to contribute.
- I want to serve as an example to those who might feel trapped by their job, location, or lifestyle that it is possible to make a change. I want people to recognize that it is OK to take some time off and you don’t need a lot of money to do so. I want people to know that recognize their happiness is not measured by the number of things they accumulate.Trying to keep up with what other people have is exhausting both for the person and their bank account. Have what you need, save prudently and use the rest to experience the world.
- I want people to be inspired to get out of their cars and see our national parks on the ground. Even if they don’t run, I hope people will at least get out and do a long hike. I want people to see that moving in our national parks is possible for everyone. By getting closer to nature, hopefully people will recognize why these places need to be protected.
- I also want people to see that a plant-based athlete can accomplish great things. One of the very few things that an adult human has full control over is what they eat.It is time for the country to take ownership of what we eat, reach out to organizations which can provide less crazy dietary guidance (like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) and become collectively the healthiest nation on earth. We are far, far from that.
So, what happens next? You talk about being a “recovering management consultant”. Do you ever see yourself going back to corporate America after this?
While I never say never, I don’t see myself ending up in another traditional consulting or corporate position.
My current thinking is that I would like to work in product development and marketing in the outdoors or athletic industry. This could be gear, footwear, clothing, or nutrition for instance. I would like to work with athletes and users of the products to make them stronger, faster, better. I would also like to leverage my running coaching certifications so maybe I’ll pick up some clients as well.
The other option, which I could do in parallel, is to be an educator in diet and exercise. I choose to eat fully plant-based (vegan) and I feel it would benefit most people to eat the same. I can be an example of what is possible.
However, I know that it is a process to get to that point and my feeling is that we’re lacking proper education. I used to think people just chose to make bad decisions. Now I’m beginning to believe they don’t know any better — which is an education problem, not a willpower problem.
Thanks for taking the time to answer all of our questions, Bill!
You clearly have such a passion for what you’re doing, and that really comes across. We love your vision behind the National Parks Marathon, and especially the way you’re bringing awareness to it with visual influence. Your photos and blog are inspirational. Best of luck!
Connect with Bill
Follow his progress! Yellow pins mark completed parks, and red are still to go.
- Official website
- Twitter: @runtheparks
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/runningtheparks
- Instagram: @runningtheparks
Header image from the National Parks Marathon Project website