When Kendall McDowell takes to the path to run, she can often hear the voice of her legendary track coach from Ursuline Academy,
Lou Olivere, in her head. “I always say everything I learned in life, I learned from him,” says the 41-year-old Wilmingtonian. “Running up hills, he would make us say, ‘We love hills!’ while carrying each other on our backs. I still hear him in my head. The mental game in running transfers over to life so much.”
McDowell, a psychiatric mental health nurse at ChristianaCare, is one of thousands of Delawareans who love to explore the First State by foot. The sport is said to build cardiovascular strength, endurance and mental prowess, among many other benefits. “One of my favorite parts of Delaware is that we have so many amazing state parks,” she says. She’s found her favorite trails at Brandywine Creek and Bellevue state parks.
Whether you’ve just purchased your first pair of running shoes or you’re a veteran of the path or trail, one of the best ways to pursue the sport is through a running club, which offers runners camaraderie, training and friendship in addition to a fitness regimen. Here are a few we tried out.
When Vicky Sullivan, of Wilmington, ran her first 5K race, she thought she was going to die crossing the finish line. She’s since progressed as an athlete, ultimately trading the road for nature trails. “[Initially], I didn’t realize you could run in the woods,” Sullivan says. “But it’s such an empowering experience to conquer the elements out there—the hills, the roots, the rocks.”
But she would often hear other women say they were scared to go out by themselves, so she decided to form a group of women runners who could venture out in the woods together. Groups often include experienced trail runners (some regularly tracking 50 to 100 miles in a week) as well as those who are just lacing up for the first time. Most, she says, end up coming back again and again.
“We pack a lot of water and running nutrition and go out and get lost,” Sullivan says. A typical outing might start at Brandywine Creek State Park, near Mt. Lebanon Road in Wilmington, and continue past Ramsey Farm and all the way into Pennsylvania. White Clay Creek State Park, in Newark, also offers long stretches of trail surrounded by nature, as well as other hikers, trail bikers and horseback riders.
Like McDowell, Sullivan is quick to point out the mental health benefits of running. “I was always second-guessing myself and pleasing others,” she says. “I have learned to find my own voice, understand my body mentally and emotionally, and know that I can do hard things. I have learned to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and I’ve seen how it can bring other women self-awareness and confidence as well.”
For more than 30 years, the Seashore Striders have been a vital part of the Rehoboth Beach and Lewes communities, bringing together people of all backgrounds with a common interest: running. As both an event business that hosts races and a nonprofit arm that raises charitable funds through those races, the Seashore Striders offer less competitive runners another option: The Grove Club, which meets up weekly for casual runs.
“It’s so much easier to run with a group,” says group president Tim Bamforth. “It’s more social, more friendly, and it seems like in a post-COVID world, more people want to run together, to get out and be around others.” Both groups consist of runners (and even walkers) of all shapes, sizes, abilities and ages, he points out. They have runners as young as 8 and as old as 82. They also have a youth cross-country team.
Because the group is located in a beach resort community, membership swells during the summer months with runners from as far away as Illinois and Iowa. “People come for the camaraderie and tend to stay,” Bamforth says.
Founded in 1982 by four friends who really loved running, Pike Creek Valley Running Club has since blossomed into a nonprofit with memberships in the Road Runners Club of America and USA Track and Field. Over the years, the club has hosted the Delaware Distance Classic (held each October, it features both a 5K and 15K), benefiting Nemours Children’s Hospital orthopedic division.
Alison McCann, the club’s vice president and a member for more than six years, knows that joining a running club could be intimidating for someone just starting out. “When a potential member contacts us, we try to explain that we have all types of runners—long distance, short distance, first-time runners. We want them to know that our club is inclusive of everyone,” she says.
Organizing weekly group runs at both Delcastle Recreational Park in Pike Creek and White Clay Creek State Park, the club also offers weekly track training sessions and group runs on weekends. Because of its membership in USATF, runners from Pike Creek Valley Running Club represent the club at races across the mid-Atlantic, earning points for the club that result in a financial reward, which the club then uses toward expenses and supporting its nonprofit arm.
Brandywine Creek State Park
Bellevue State Park
White Clay Creek State Park
Fusion Running Club
Hunn Nature Trail
Brecknock County Park
St. Jones River Greenway Trail
Gordons Pond Trail
Junction Breakwater Trail
Cape Henlopen State Park
Brew Pub Run Club
Dewey Beer Run Club
Downstate Delaware Striders and Riders
Runners High Delaware
She Runs This Town/Moms Run This Town
Related: A Complete Guide to Outdoor Adventures in and Around Delaware