Man aims to run in all 59 national parks, looks for friends (and love?) on the way

Many people dream of quitting their office job and going on the run. One man recently left New York City to do just that.

Bill Sycalik is taking a long break from ordinary life to run a marathon in all 59 U.S. national parks. The 45-year-old left his management consulting job and Queens apartment in May and has been traveling ever since, often sleeping at campsites in a tent attached to the top of his Subaru. He plans to spend 18 months to two years on the project and then relocate, maybe to Denver, to find a job related to the outdoors.

Jennifer Weiss / NBC News
Bill Sycalik is a man on a mission: to run a marathon in every U.S. national park -- and make some connections on the way.

But as anyone who lives in transit knows, the road can get lonely. And Sycalik’s pursuit — 26 miles or more in each park, at a comfortable pace, about once a week — seems to be a solitary endeavor, indeed.

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But he would rather not do this alone. Sycalik aims to get more people #runningtheparks (that’s his hashtag, and his website) to encourage them to see more than just popular, scenic vistas, and to make new friends so he’s not always on his own. (And if he happened to find love along the way — an outdoorsy gal to join him in all of this — he wouldn’t mind at all.)

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One Man's Quest to Run a Marathon in all 59 National Parks

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One Man's Quest to Run a Marathon in all 59 National Parks

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“Things like this are possible and within everyone’s reach, both physically and as a way to break away from normal life for a while and recharge,” he told me when I met him last month in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Jennifer Weiss/NBC News
Sycalik slept in a tent on top of his Subaru at a Badlands National Park campsite.

And while not everyone can follow Sycalik's lead, financially, or because of family or other obligations, he believes we can all push our boundaries a bit.

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He started what he calls the National Parks Marathon Project in Maine’s Acadia National Park, and has already crossed the country, with plans to run his 12th marathon today in North Cascades National Park in Washington state. He keeps a working copy of his schedule on his website.

And so far, he’s had some success attracting like-minded folks. He had company for part of his marathon in Badlands: Jerry Dunn, 70, a veteran runner who lives in South Dakota and found the project online. I chased them with my camera on a road and trail, and they chatted as they went.

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After that experience, I was thinking I’d go for a hike the next morning. But I’m also a runner, with plans for my first half-marathon this fall. I normally run on roads and paved paths in parks in and around New York City, sometimes over bridges — once in a great while, on a trail. I thought I could run a portion of the marathon I’d just shot, and was intrigued by the Mars-like beauty of the Castle Trail. Why not see more of the park at a faster pace?

Courtesy of Bill Sycalik
Before Sycalik embarked on his national parks project, he worked in management consulting.

Sycalik was more than happy to get up early the day after his marathon and join me. We ran a little over 5 miles, and I enjoyed the shift from the usual city sights and sounds to the flat-topped buttes, jagged rock formations and relative quiet. I looked down more than usual to avoid holes left by animals, and the occasional crater. At one point, we waited for some bighorn sheep to cross.

Jennifer Weiss/NBC News
Sycalik jogged up an overlook on the evening of his marathon in Badlands National Park.

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We saw another jogger on our way — the third random runner Sycalik had encountered by that point in Badlands. He gave her an “All right!” as she passed, happy because he hasn’t seen many runners at the parks he's visited so far.

Jennifer Weiss/NBC News
Sycalik said he plans on spending 18 months to two years on his bid to run in every national park in the U.S.

He prefers trail running to roads, and after our 5 miles together, I could see why. Badlands is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, with an otherworldly oddness I hadn’t seen before.

I’ve since returned to ordinary life, which some days involves a Central Park loop, and other days, a treadmill at the gym. But Sycalik plans to keep on running the parks, and after today, he has 47 to go.

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