This runner is fighting to build her city’s first public track

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You’re probably familiar with the situation: you’re running along a major highway when the sidewalk literally ends. To continue, you hug to the shoulder of the road, dodging debris, trash, and cars in the other lane.

For many runners in small towns, the lack of sidewalks limits their space to exercise. Nikki Gilland can understand. She grew up in the small town of Glen Rose, Texas, mostly without sidewalks, where the only refuge for runners was the local high school track, one of the few spaces where members of the community could sweat together in completely safe.

“[My hometown] were all rural highways, so the track is where people used to go for exercise,” says Gilland. “We had senior walking groups and the elementary school kids were doing activities there. It was truly a community gathering place.

Gilland, a 37-year-old software systems administrator, has since moved to a much larger city, but despite its population of 322,570, Lexington, Kentucky, lacks a public track to unite area athletes. Now, with the help of her local running club, the Bluegrass Runners, she hopes to change that.

Gilland wasn’t always as passionate about racing as she is today. She chose the default sport – it was either track and field or basketball in college gym class, and she knew she wasn’t cut out for the court – and didn’t care much about the competition. “If I hadn’t come in last,” she admits, “it was a really exciting encounter for me.”

Gilland only returned to running after a break after high school when she decided she wanted to run a marathon before she turned 30.

“Honestly, I can’t say for sure why I thought I should,” she says. “It seemed like something ambitious, but achievable. I wasn’t thrilled with running in middle school and high school, but when I started a desk job, running was the easiest way to get some exercise back into my routine.

After finishing the Chicago Marathon in 2009 and completing 26.2 miles off her to-do list, she turned to a new race: making a difference.

Yes, Gilland first joined the Bluegrass Runners when she got tired of running long runs on her own. But she also cherishes the camaraderie of the group and is particularly proud of its philanthropy. The club is a registered nonprofit, which means its members raise funds for several Lexington charities. For more than 35 years, the club’s racing season culminates with the annual Thoroughbred Classic 5K, a Thanksgiving Day road race through the grounds of Keeneland, the local horse racing complex. Over the past five years, the race has donated an average of $36,000 to its charitable partners.

As race director for this year’s edition, Gilland maintained the race website, coordinated with suppliers and even designed the official race t-shirt. She says she loves the challenge of winning a race, but that’s nothing compared to her long-term goal: securing funding for Lexington’s first publicly accessible track.

Participants in the Thoroughbred Classic run through Keeneland land

Courtesy of Nikki Gilland

Although there are five standard 400-meter high school tracks in the area, in addition to the state-of-the-art University of Kentucky outdoor track, they are all closed to the public. There are a few college tracks that are more accessible, but they are irregularly shaped or have non-standard surfaces. Gilland says she’s heard from people in the community who are frustrated with the lack of access, especially since school facilities are funded by taxpayer dollars.

“I like the fact that when I work I can see the results.”

To build the first public highway, Gilland targeted Lexington’s share of U.S. bailout funds, which Congress signed into law in March to revitalize the U.S. economy in the wake of COVID-19. Lexington has received $120 million in federal funds, and Mayor Linda Gorton has already offered to spend $10 million on developing Cardinal Run North Park, which Gilland has identified as a potential site for the trail.

In a proposal she submitted to the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council in August, Gilland made her case. She said the track would not just be a place for local runners to run at intervals, but rather a community gathering space where people of all skill levels and ages could exercise and play.

People with disabilities need a level playing field, she says, meaning a place where they can exercise without worrying about uneven surfaces or tripping hazards. Gilland is primarily concerned with safety, and a public trail would allow residents to exercise away from hazards such as traffic, unlit areas, and icy sidewalks in winter.

nikki gilland
Gilland proposed to build a track on the north side of Cardinal Run Park

Courtesy of Lucy Connor

To demonstrate community demand, the Bluegrass Runners have created a petition detailing why Lexington could benefit from a public track, which has garnered over 600 signatures to date.

Lexington, who men’s health named “America’s Most Sedentary City” in 2011, has struggled to address its obesity issues. According to America’s Health Rankings 2020 report, Kentucky is the least healthy state in the United States, with only 15.3% of adults meeting federal guidelines for physical activity. Additionally, Fayette County in Lexington reports that 25% of its adult population did not participate in any physical activity in the past month (above the national average of 23.1%).

Even though Gilland does not secure funding through a public grant, she is determined to find a way to fund the project, whether that means securing corporate sponsorships or raising money through clubs and associations. local organizations.

Gilland credits running for getting her hooked on community building, which led her to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in integrated strategic communications. She hopes to eventually work in public relations, especially for nonprofits focused on running.

For Gilland, the goal remains the same whether she leads or directs change. “I love the fact that when I’m working I can see the results,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard not to have instant gratification, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment when I look at where I was compared to where I am now and see how much I’ve improved. ”

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