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PROVIDENCE — As rush-hour commuters tapped the brakes on Route 95 recently, a trio of runners hit the trails at Roger Williams Park.
With bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling on the highway less than a mile away, the runners took off, crossing a footbridge, circling a series of lakes, slipping into a realm of budding trees and white birch, cascading water and serpentine dirt trials, baby ducks and cygnets swimming in their mother’s wake.
The most stressful thing was a pint-sized pooch yapping at the end of a leash.
“It’s a nice little oasis in the middle of the city,” said Jon Pincince, an avid runner who lives a short jog away in Cranston.
For the past two years, Pincince has been posting about his runs in the 435-acre city park. And now Kevin Essington, executive director of the Roger Williams Park Conservancy, has recruited him to lead a Tuesday Trail Run each week.
The group will leave at 5:30 p.m. each Tuesday from the Clark Dalrymple Boathouse in the park for a 3.2-mile run on the Big Lakes Trail, which circles Cunliff, Pleasure, and Willow lakes.
“It’s free and very informal,” Essington said as he joined Pincince and his 20-year-old daughter, Molly Pincince, on Tuesday’s inaugural run. “Come one, come all. All skill levels are welcome. Bring a mask and water. We want to make sure everyone has fun and gets some fitness after sitting on the couch during the pandemic.”
Along the way, runners will be reminded of the work that’s taken place since 2016, when the Rhode Island Foundation marked its 100th anniversary with a $10 million campaign to improve the park.
“The park means so much to those who don’t have a bit of yard or a natural area at their home,” Essington said. “Providence is densely settled, particularly on the South Side, and there are often treeless neighborhoods. The park is everybody’s backyard.”
Wendy Nilsson, superintendent of the Providence Department of Parks, keeps a pair of Saucony sneakers under her desk and enjoys hitting the park’s trails. “You feel like you are in the middle of the woods somewhere out in the country,” she said. “But in reality you are in the heart of the city.”
The city developed the trail system along old bridle paths, beginning about five years in partnership with the Rhode Island Foundation and the Roger Williams Parks Conservancy, Nilsson said. The park now contains five trails, of various lengths, that are maintained by the city forestry division and MET School students, she said.
The trail running group will help connect people to nature while also increasing a sense of stewardship for the park, making it safer and better maintained, Nilsson said.
Pincince moved from South Kingstown to the Edgewood section of Cranston two years ago and began logging miles in the park.
“I’ve heard from people who live in Providence and Cranston who hadn’t thought of the park as a place to run trails,” he said. “Around here, there’s lots of urban running – high traffic and high noise. But these trails are in the middle of the city, and you feel like you are away.”
During the pandemic, people were cooped up at home and public gatherings were restricted, Pincince noted, but the park provides plenty of personal space, even when it’s crowded. So now that Rhode Island has delivered more than 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, the time is right to get together for a run in the park, he said.
Pincince is training for a May 30 marathon in Schenectady, N.Y., and planning another attempt at running the length of Rhode Island in one day. Last year, he raised more than $13,000 for the Nonviolence Institute while running 74 miles on the North-South Trail – just short of his 80-mile goal.
But there’s no pressure to run far or fast during the Tuesday night sessions, Pincince said. “The goal is to welcome people who might not be familiar with the park or with trail running,” he said.
Pincince hopes to eventually see a new 5K trail race in Roger Williams Park. “But we’ll start with a very casual group run,” he said. “Over the course of the summer, we can build it up into something.”