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Published August 08 2011

Wagner: Eugene, Ore., a runner's paradise

EUGEGE, Ore. - The scent of black licorice hangs in the cool, motionless air. It’s early Saturday and the rain, after falling lightly for the past three hours, has stopped. The morning feels moist, yet intoxicating.

Ahead, a lone runner plods along a woodchip path known as Pre’s Trail, named for one of America’s greatest running legends.

In the distance, on a winding hill road, stands a monument to Steve Prefontaine, who before he died in a 1975 car crash, lobbied the city for a trail similar to those the Olympian had found in Europe.

The 4.84-mile trail bearing his name draws world-class athletes and everyday athletes from around the world. The woodchip- and bark-lined path provides a soft running surface in a diverse setting of grassland, woods and water. Its trail surface also keeps runners’ feet dry, absorbing the rainfall.

Here, in Track Town USA and home to the University of Oregon, an expansive network of paths, including Pre’s Trail, invites others to experience what Prefontaine inspired in thousands: the pure, simple joy of running.

In this city of 156,000, the sport of running is more than recreation. It is a passion.

And it’s a place where any runner, regardless of speed or ability, can run in the footsteps of legends without feeling out of place.

Pre’s Trail offers three pristine three loops where runners can wind their way beneath a canopy of trees and soon find themselves in pastoral, almost prairie, setting tucked next to the Willamette River. Ducks and geese call an adjacent pond home.

Eugene also serves as home to other exquisite trails, with 14 pathways sketched out on a map compiled by the Oregon Track Club. Among them are Hendricks Park, Rexius and Adidas trails, the latter perfectly suited for off-track intervals.

Just outside the city, paths traverse up the bluffs, where long distance runners can test their mettle.

A short drive away, the McKenzie River Trail has been named by Active.com as a top-25 recreational destination, a haven for mountain biking and trail running.

To the north, metropolitan Portland boasts an extensive system of trails and paths.

The jewel is Forest Park, featuring more than 70 miles of trails, fire lanes and gravel roads in Portland’s West Hills.

Switchbacks and hairpin turns help runners navigate the hills, ridges and ravines beneath a towering canopy of Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar trees. The lush vegetation provides an invigorating mix of purified air and sensory overload for runners snaking up the idyllic hillside, home to more than 100 bird species and 60 mammal species.

The 30-mile Wildwood Trail winds through Forest Park, its course linking a network of about 150 miles of trails and more than 30 separate parks in metropolitan Portland.

For solo runners and running groups alike, Forest Park provides a place to escape the city without leaving its urban borders.

Those who prefer an urban view also have options, particularly recreational paths buffering the Willamette River. With its balanced mix of modern and industrial architecture, the “city of bridges” and its downtown is visible from both sides of the river. Waterfront Park buzzes with runners and bicyclists throughout the week and weekend, both as a recreational playground and commuter route.

For those who believe running is the best way to explore unfamiliar places, trail running provides a window to the best of Oregon.

Forum News Director Steve Wagner writes a running blog, which can be found online at http://runningspud.areavoices.com/. He can be reached via email at swagner@forumcomm.com.