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You’re probably familiar with the situation: You’re running along a major thruway when the sidewalk literally ends. To continue, you squeeze onto the shoulder of the road, dodging debris, garbage, and cars in the other lane.
For many runners in smaller towns, the lack of sidewalks restricts their space for exercise. Nikki Gilland can relate. She grew up in the tiny, mostly sidewalk-free town of Glen Rose, Texas, where the only refuge for runners was the local high school track—one of the few spaces where community members could safely break a sweat together.
“[My hometown] was all rural highways, so the track is where people went to get their exercise,” Gilland says. “We had senior walking groups and the elementary school kids would do activities there. It was really 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, doesn’t have a public track to unite the area’s 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 running as she is today. She chose the sport by default—it was either track or basketball in middle school gym class, and she knew she wasn’t cut out for the court—and didn’t care much for competition. “If I didn’t come in last,” she admits, “it was a really exciting meet for me.”
Gilland only returned to running after a post-high school hiatus 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 attainable. I wasn’t thrilled about 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 completing the Chicago Marathon in 2009 and crossing 26.2 miles off her bucket list, she turned to a new running pursuit: making a difference.
Yes, Gilland initially joined the Bluegrass Runners when she grew tired of logging long runs by herself. But she also treasures the camaraderie of the group and especially takes pride in its philanthropy. The club is a registered nonprofit, meaning its members raise money for several Lexington charities. For over 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 charity partners.
As the race director for this year’s edition, Gilland maintained the race website, coordinated with vendors, and even designed the official race T-shirt. She says she enjoys the challenge of pulling off a race, but it’s nothing compared to her long-term goal: securing funding for Lexington’s first publicly accessible track.
Although there are five standard 400-meter high school tracks in the area—in addition to the University of Kentucky’s state-of-the-art outdoor track—they’re all closed to the public. There are a few middle school tracks that are more accessible, but they’re irregularly shaped or they have non-standard surfaces. Gilland says she’s heard from people in the community who are frustrated with the lack of access, especially since the school facilities are funded by taxpayer dollars.
To build the first public track, Gilland has targeted Lexington’s share of funds from the American Rescue Plan, which Congress signed in March to revitalize the American economy in the wake of COVID-19. Lexington received $120 million in federal funds, and Mayor Linda Gorton has already proposed to direct $10 million to develop Cardinal Run North Park, which Gilland has identified as a potential site for the track.
In a proposal she submitted to the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council in August, Gilland laid out her case. She made it clear the track wouldn’t just be a place for local runners to run intervals, but rather, a community gathering space where people of all abilities and ages can exercise and play.
Disabled people need a literal level playing field, she says—that is, a place where they can exercise without worrying about uneven surfaces or tripping hazards. Gilland is primarily concerned with safety, and a public track would allow residents to exercise away from hazards like traffic, unlit areas, and icy winter sidewalks.
To demonstrate community demand, the Bluegrass Runners created a petition detailing the reasons why Lexington could benefit from a public track, which has garnered over 600 signatures so far.
Lexington, which Men’s Health named “The Most Sedentary City in America” in 2011, has struggled to solve its obesity problems. According to America’s Health Rankings 2020 report, Kentucky is the least healthy state in the U.S., with only 15.3 percent of adults meeting the federal physical activity guidelines. Furthermore, Lexington’s Fayette County reports 25 percent of its adult population hasn’t participated in any physical activity during the past month (above the national average of 23.1 percent).
Even if Gilland doesn’t secure funding via a public grant, she’s determined to find a way to finance the project, whether that’s securing corporate sponsorships or fundraising through clubs and local organizations.
Gilland credits running for getting her hooked on community building, which has led her to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in integrated strategic communications. She hopes to eventually work in public relations, specifically for running-centered nonprofits.
For Gilland, the goal remains the same whether she’s running or leading change. “I love that when I put in the work, I can see the results,” she says. “Sometimes it’s tough not having instant gratification, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment when I look back at where I was versus where I am now and see how much I’ve improved.”