Active Living in the Great Lakes State

by Eric GollannekEric post-Bayshore half

Working at Gazelle Sports has helped me see how ‘movement across the Mitten’ defines my story. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan is a place I’ve always called home, even as a long-time resident on the East Coast and living abroad in England and France. Circling back to West Michigan eight years ago, I immediately felt reconnected to the mitten state,  where I bonded with my new friends through stories of trips ‘up north’ and obscure home places immediately made known through a raising of the palm and a pointing finger.

What is it that makes a place distinctive?  Given my passion for history, I am drawn to context as a way to feel grounded in life.  Through my travels across the Mitten, I have come to better understand myself as well as what makes this place special.  Experiencing the land in all its layered complexity requires movement and contemplation.

I became interested in running and cycling about the time I moved back to Michigan in 2008. That wasn’t coincidence. Landing in East Grand Rapids, I fell in love with the 4.5 mile trail around Reeds Lake. That spring, with some encouragement from my friends, I went to Gazelle Sports to get fitted for my first pair of running shoes (a red and white pair of Nike Structures) and started training with a couch to 5k program I copied out of a book from the Kent District Library. As the running segments grew longer and walks shorter, I began to contemplate my long term goals. Somewhere around Reeds Lake, I dreamed that someday I might obtain a level of fitness so I could run five miles with ease at any time. Not on a treadmill but on the rolling hills on the north side of the lake as well as the steep climbs at Hall Street Hill and Hodenpyl Woods.  This was my training course; could it be a yardstick of my success for the long term as well?

The trail, however, offered more than just miles of asphalt and topographic challenges. The variety of the course sustained me through those run/walks: red wing blackbirds and painted turtles in the reedy lowlands, picturesque stands of maples and oak on higher ground. As I ran through late spring, the hot humid days of July made those hills feel higher and longer just like the days themselves. I found myself running at five in the morning with purple and pink skies overhead and often ended my day riding my bike for one last look at dusk near the ten o’clock hour. The trail offered variety and subtle beauty right outside my door, open 24/7, 365 days a year.

Running cleared my head, figuratively putting out a do-not-disturb sign as I strapped on those Nikes and headed out the door. Running forced me to think about my breathing and my feet, my body in space in that moment. My body served as an index for every change in grade and the distance around this place. My pace (slow!) also afforded me lots of time to look around, to see the trees and not just the forest speeding by at 25 or 55 miles per hour.  Taking in the varieties of house types, road and trail features, the trees and landscaping, my learning to look became a full body, multisensory experience!

In the years that followed, I spent two glorious summers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula conducting historic preservation fieldwork. My experience running and cycling came back to me as a stress-reliever for sure, but also as a way of understanding Michigan’s history. I ran over the dense basalt that gave clues to the origins of Michigan’s rich veins of copper; running on those roads in Vibram Five-Fingers also gave visceral understanding of the hardness of mine rock! The rugged topography that made the Keweenaw one continuous hill workout allowed me to understand the lives of miners who lived in a landscape defined by its vertical dimensions as they climbed hills on their walk to work and then traveled as much a mile underground to get to their dark and dangerous worksites.

I biked and ran trails for the first time that summer at Swedetown, Maasto Hiihto, and Copper Harbor. I fell in love with the quiet of the north woods, the sound of wind rustling through maple forests. I saw wildlife up close and on their terms: great owls, pileated woodpeckers, raccoons, and deer far from paved roads. I took in the distinctive sounds and textures of streams and rivers, rushing water over rocks, edged with carpets of ferns and moss. Passing into a stand of white pine, greeted by the sweetness of the air from trees bathed in sun along the forest’s edge.

I joined the team at Gazelle Sports one year ago, in need of reconnection to these passions. While my earlier movements across the Mitten had been a solitary journey, I found renewed energy as part of a community committed to healthy and active living. This past spring I trained for and completed my first half-marathon at Bayshore in Traverse City. Recently, I have thought a lot about the distances I’ve traveled over the last eight years. I appreciate how fortunate I am to have my health and the support of so many to get out and run whether it’s one mile or ten. I think back to the hope I had that I might achieve a level of fitness to run that Reeds Lake Trail with confidence whenever I choose. I’m proud beyond words to say I have met those personal goals.

Reflecting on the journey itself, however, reveals the interconnectedness of our lives and the power of place in it. My adventures and successes came from the support of many people in ways most of us acknowledge. The notion that ‘events take place’ is a common expression, though few of us stop to reflect on the ways that ‘place matters’ in our life story.  As an historian with a deep love of context, it’s second nature to me that the details of place profoundly affects who we are and how we live our lives.  It took the training and discipline of active living for me to truly feel what that means on a physical and emotional level. Michigan is my physical home, but the experiences of the land and its people have shaped me and continue to inspire movement and contemplation every day.

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Eric Gollanek is a Sales Associate at Gazelle Sports Grand Rapids.