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Western Kentucky's outdoor 'jewel'

By JOSHUA ROBERTS jroberts@paducahsun.com

Mike Howard, a Marshall County resident, was a man on the move in late September and early October.

The 63-year-old ran marathons on the East Coast, West Coast and a point in between, recording his 35th such endurance run in a different state.

A Crittenden County native, Howard has been a runner off and on since high school, but began dialing in more seriously in 2002. Fortunately, and this is important, he's remained injury-free.

"That would hurt my feelings if I got injured and had to sit on the sidelines," he said.

Still, for all the miles Howard has covered at different destinations in the U.S., he has a soft spot for one practically in his backyard -- Land Between the Lakes, the sprawling, scenic recreation area in western Kentucky and Tennessee.

"Fall, winter and early spring are the best times to be out there in my opinion," Howard said.

"It's such a nice venue. It's not an overly challenging trail, and the views, the scenery, are spectacular. From looking across at Kentucky Dam, looking at the lake and the canal, there's always something new. And the change of seasons we have here is another plus."

Howard's view certainly isn't a minority opinion regarding LBL, which encompasses more than 170,000 acres. With hundreds of miles of well-maintained and relatively easy trails, it's a popular destination for runners, cyclists, hikers, horseback riders and nature enthusiasts. Also, its shifting terrain is a welcome contrast from Paducah's pancake elevation.

The area is worth citing this time of year given now, and then again in the spring, is optimum for LBL activities, as insects and hot temperatures recede.

Steve Durbin, a Paducah native, president of the West Kentucky Runners Club, and owner of Durbin Race Management, is one of the area's best authorities on running LBL.

He and volunteers host two runs there each year: the half- and full-marathon in the fall (this year's event was Oct. 22) and the trail run (23K, marathon, 50-miler and 60K) set for March 11.

"People don't realize what a jewel it is," Durbin said of LBL. "Just in terms of the sheer beauty, LBL is as pretty of a place as any we host a race."

"The trails are great, they're not too hilly for a trail run, and they don't have as many big rocks and huge roots. You can run the whole thing without tripping if you just watch what you're doing. A lot of courses you can't do that -- you have to stop and walk because they're too steep, either uphill or downhill. Not at the Canal Loop and LBL."

Durbin said area volunteers put in a lot of time keeping the trails well-groomed.

"You can thank the local bike clubs for that," he said. "They do a lot of maintenance. Fortunately, runners maintain the trail just by running."

His next words are not only wholly true, but worth remembering: "The worst thing you can do to a trail is not use it," Durbin said.

He said the two annual LBL runs draw hundreds of runners from around the U.S., people who make a habit of returning each year.

"People that come here, they come back year after year to enjoy Land Between the Lakes, the trails and then to hang out around the area and Grand Rivers for a while," he said. "There are so many other things to do there besides run."

Howard has his own wrinkle for people looking for something new at LBL.

"If you haven't, put on a head lamp and go out there at midnight one night," he said. "It's cool to experience running the loop that way."

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