Stories from the Parkway: “I have built my career on this trail.”

Thousands of people visit the Parkway each year to run, bike, paddle, and enjoy. We’d like to share a few of their stories with you.

Our first story is from Kim Conley – US Olympian and professional runner.

It’s a warm morning in early July as I set out from William Pond Park for an easy run on the American River Parkway. I am headed in my favorite direction, running downstream with the river. There is something about being out here that feels like an escape from the rest of the city of Sacramento, and the narrow ribbon of the Parkway setting makes one feel entirely surrounded by nature. Even in the depths of summer you can feel a coolness blowing off the water and the tall grasses and wooded oak area provide homes for a variety of animals that dart across the path from time to time.

From William Pond I climb up and over some rolling hills to a higher vantage point over the river. I soon come upon one of the many pink stone benches that dot the Parkway. This one stands in the shade of a tall oak tree that overlooks the river and on this morning Terry, one of my favorite parkway fixtures, is sitting for a break during his morning walk. I first met Terry three years ago, finally stopping to introduce myself after years of waving and saying “good morning” every time I ran by him. I learned that he has lived along the Parkway for over fifty years, before it was even the Parkway. Terry has seen the area transformed from a flood plain surrounded by orchards to the twenty-three mile network of connected regional parks that exists today. He started as a regular cyclist on the path, but more recently, since hip surgery, he walks once or twice daily from his house out to the river.

Today I stop for a brief chat, and like the last time I spoke to him, our interaction has me impressed by his long-standing connection to the area and prompts me to reflect upon my own developing history. I’ve lived in Sacramento ten years now, since graduating from UC Davis in 2009, and at every turn I am reminded of how I have built my career on this trail.

Not long after seeing Terry this morning, I pass by a fellow alum from the UC Davis Cross Country and Track and Field program. My history with the Parkway actually begins before I lived in Sacramento, when I first arrived at UC Davis and our team would travel for weekly long runs on the Parkway. It always felt exciting to me to leave the confines of Davis to explore new, beautiful sections of the Parkway. Eventually, as my years of crossing the Causeway added up, and the length of my long runs simultaneously increased, I began to connect different trail sections from various starting points. These trips developed my appreciation of the extent of the Sacramento area encompassed by the Parkway and always left me eager to keep exploring and pushing the boundaries of my experiences there.

This morning I continue my run along the granite shoulder, eager to move out of the sun and enter the shaded area up ahead. I briefly move right, onto the bike path and around two runners in front of me who say hello as I pass. One says my name, and I turn to realize that it’s a board member from the Sacramento Running Association, an organization that played a defining role in my career in 2012. The president at the time, John Mansoor, created an elite training grant to help support developing post-collegiate runners in the area. Later that year I made my first Olympic team and was off to London to represent the US, and in turn, the Sacramento area. I often see John and current SRA board members running out here, and each time it evokes a sense of gratitude for their willingness to help catapult me onto the 2012 Olympic team and launch my career as a professional runner.

From 2012 on, the American River Parkway became my regular “office,” and as I’ve amassed week upon week of training out here I have also developed a comfortable familiarity with each hill and bump of the path as well as its users and wildlife. There are many familiar faces along this path, from bird watchers, to dog walkers, to cyclists and fellow runners. On this summer morning the wildlife remains out of sight, but it’s not uncommon to see a coyote scampering amidst the golden grass along the levee or an egret silently grazing for a meal. And there is nothing that brings the diverse users of the Parkway together like a rattlesnake crossing the path, holding up traffic as we make sure it completes its journey without incident.

I’m nearing the turn around point of my run, grateful to be in the shaded tunnel of oak trees that line the path here. I check for oncoming cyclists, and then cross to resume running on the left-hand shoulder. I retrace my footsteps, heading out of this shaded haven and back in the direction from which I have come. To my left, roof tops poke up over the levee, a subtle reminder that rest of Sacramento still exists just a stone’s throw away.

I climb up and over the rolling hills to get back to William Pond. Terry has long since departed his bench for home, and I am nearing the end of my run. A cyclist whizzes past and calls out my name in encouragement. It’s Jim Wachter, a local runner and cyclist that logs many of his own Parkway miles and won’t hesitate to stop and chat if the opportunity presents itself.

Even in a profession where ritual and routine provide a good recipe for forward progress, sometimes my training and competition schedules take me on the road for weeks or months at a time. Seeing familiar faces on the Parkway reminds me of how grateful I am for every run along the American River. Today, as I slow to a walk at the parking lot at William Pond, I realize that everything about my run this morning captures what I love about being on the Parkway. It’s both a beautiful training environment and a community of people that I love being among, and from whom I derive the inspiration to continue pushing my boundaries both out here and beyond.

Kim Conley is a US Olympian and professional runner. She lives and trains in Sacramento, CA and Flagstaff, AZ. To learn more about Kim and her career, visit her website.

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