Mari Balow is at home on the trails.
An avid trail runner who lives in Portland, Balow puts in solitary miles through the woods at Knight’s Pond Preserve and runs alongside a crew of quick-footed friends at Fore River Sanctuary.
She has welcomed weekday mornings from the gravel around Back Cove and conquered ultramarathons on out-of-state terrain. And she is encouraging more women to feel at home on the trails as one of the organizers of the Portland chapter of Trail Sisters, a run group that encourages and empowers more women to get on trail.
“My passion is being outdoors,” Balow said. “I run because I enjoy it.”
Balow is also the sort of athlete who’ll stop mid-run to snap a photo of trailside wildflowers or to cheer on a fellow runner as she charges up a hill.
It’s not that she isn’t competitive (there’s a time and a place for that), but because she simply loves the experience of running through the woods. She digs the elevation shifts, the leaping over roots and rocks, the shadows cast by tall trees onto a dirt path.
It’s that affinity for off-road running that she and co-organizers Alexia Christy and Kristen Michaud want to share with other Portland-area women.
Trail Sisters is an organization with a national reach. Launched in 2016 in Boulder, Colorado, by professional trail runner Gina Lucrezi, the initial goal was to “provide more female voice and perspective to the male-dominated sports of trail running and hiking,” according to the organization’s website.
What began as a place to share stories of trail-running women quickly turned into a larger movement, including Trail Sisters chapters around the country where women could meet up and run together in an environment where they felt welcomed, safe, and inspired, whatever their running level.
“Women don’t always feel comfortable going by themselves trail running,” said Balow, who followed Lucrezi’s work on social media and jumped on board with the Trail Sisters mission early on.
“I grew up outside … that’s how my mom got rid of me every day,” she said. “I don’t have that fear about being outside, but I know it’s a barrier for a lot of women.”
Being unfamiliar with the local trails, not feeling safe running alone in the woods, or simply feeling like they don’t belong keeps many women from trail running.
“How do you help people feel comfortable being able to go out on trail and experience it for themselves?” Balow said. “Because it’s an amazing experience.”
Trail Sisters aims to trample those barriers, one trail run at a time.
Balow, Christy, and Michaud launched the Portland chapter two years ago. The group meets weekly and is open to anyone who identifies as a woman, Balow said. All ages and run levels are welcome, and all runs are no-drop runs, meaning no runner ever gets left behind.
Most importantly: the vibe is upbeat and welcoming (on-leash dogs are welcome, too).
“It’s a chance to run together with other women,” Balow said. “Some run faster, some run slower, but the faster group always stops to wait.”
There’s always a planned route of around four miles, give or take, and there’s someone in front and someone in back to make sure the group sticks together.
“We regroup before we restart, and there’s a lot of socializing,” Balow said. The on-trail camaraderie is a big part of the experience, and runners don’t have to worry about being super fast or whether they’re going to get lost. It’s a trail-running confidence builder.
“You can feel comfortable that you’re with other people who know the trails and where they’re going,” Balow said. And they’re always happy to see new runners.
“We’re all just in different places any given day,” she said. We beat ourselves up for not being better or faster, and that’s ridiculous.
“It’s important to be in your body, be yourself in a way that’s positive,” Balow said. “To know that here you are, and that’s really cool.’”
Group runs are free to join and take place Mondays at 6 p.m., throughout the year. The location changes monthly, but is always in the Portland area. In the icy months of late fall and winter, runs take place on the roads. (For those who don’t love winter, Balow has a survival tip: “I’m not a winter person, but I’ve figured out how to become one: run outside all year long.”)
Just come run and see for yourself.
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.