Running the Parks

Former management consultant sets out to run self-styled marathons in all 59 U.S. national parks

By Tristan Scott
Bill Sycalik near the entrance of South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park. Courtesy Photo

Running a marathon and visiting a national park are both bandied about as frequent “bucket list” items, falling right in line with skydiving and traveling the world on the popularity spectrum of once-in-a-lifetime whims.

That’s how it all started for Bill Sycalik, who 12 years ago ticked off his objective of running 26.2 miles by completing the Detroit Marathon. After that, he became hooked on the sport of distance running.

Now, he’s scratching away at another lifetime goal — to run the length of a marathon in each of the country’s 59 national parks, his own self-styled salute to the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary this year.

He’ll come one step closer to achieving that goal this week when he checks park No. 11 off his list by running the marathon distance in Glacier National Park.

At 45, Sycalik is in the midst of a dramatic lifestyle change. Earlier this year, he was toiling away as a corporate technology information manager in New York City, running marathons and ultra-marathons in his spare time to slake his craving for adventure, but more often mired in the workaday rat race.

Then the lease to his apartment came up, and he was overcome with wanderlust.

“I just kind of got tired of corporate America and city life,” Sycalik said. “It was difficult to get outdoors and connect with nature, so when my lease was scheduled to come up in May I decided to move west.”

Having never been west of Detroit, Sycalik wanted a sabbatical between leaving New York City and settling in Colorado, and what better way to explore the country than by visiting a few national parks along the way.

“I read that it was the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, and I started wondering how I could incorporate that into my time off,” he said. “And my idea was, ‘Well, why not run a marathon in every park?’”

On June 18, he kicked off the project in earnest when he ran Acadia National Park in Maine before picking his way across the country in his Subaru, which he retrofitted with a rooftop pop-up tent.

An accomplished marathon runner who has twice posted speedy enough finishing times to qualify for the Boston Marathon, Sycalik is eschewing time goals on his park adventure. Instead, he’s taking time to enjoy the parks while encouraging others to join him along the way.

In Badlands National Park, he hooked up with a running partner with a lengthy resume of unique running feats. Jerry Dunn, or “America’s Marathon Man,” gained prominence in the running world in 1993 when he completed 104 marathons. In 1998, he ran the New York City Marathon course for 28 consecutive days, competing in the actual event on the 29th day.

In 2000, Dunn dispatched 200 marathon-distance runs, but his most treasured accomplishment is running the fabled Boston Marathon course on 26 consecutive days in 1996, with the 26th day being the 100th running of the oldest marathon in the country.

When the 70-year-old Dunn caught wind of Sycalik’s running adventure, he couldn’t resist the urge to join him.

“This is the original marathon man,” Sycalik said. “He ran the first half of the Badlands run with me and half of the Wind Cave route, and he let me stay at his house. He’s just a super guy.”

The objective of Sycalik’s project is to showcase the beauty and import of national parks, as well as the sport of running, and he’s reached out to running clubs in each of the communities he’s visited.

“This is a way for me to see every park at the ground level in a relatively short amount of time,” Sycalik said, adding that he expects the project to take between 18 months to two years. “But I also wanted it to be community oriented, and hopefully people will be inspired to run in their national parks. The idea is to get people inspired to hike or run or just get out and move.”

Follow Sycalik on Instagram at @runningtheparks, on Twitter at @runtheparks or on his blog at

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