LACOMBE — The sudden appearance of newly-cut trail had people mystified in Town Hall. As fast as the work crews could block them off, some nervy soul was clearing the obstacles and cutting more trail.
Marathon runner Bill Nielsen retired from his job as a lab technician in Fort McMurray in 1996. He and his wife, Jean chose Lacombe after casting about for a place where they could put their golden years to good use. For Nielsen, that meant developing a trail system where he and fellow runners could train on soft ground rather than smashing their joints on asphalt and gravel.
Lacombe at that time had a much older population than it does now. While it scored highest on a matrix of towns the pair had considered, Nielsen felt its trail systems needed work — lots and lots of work.
He set out to carve new trails through undeveloped areas of the town, with or without landowners’ permission, and using an arsenal of hand tools to avoid detection. Chainsaws and other power equipment would have been much too noisy, says Nielsen.
It took the town six months to catch him.
When they did, Nielsen changed his tactics. He joined the town’s parks and recreation board and in short order was chosen as its chair, serving on the board for about eight years altogether. One of his first tasks was to set up a subcommittee that would work on developing a trail plan for the rapidly-growing town.
Born in the heart of Montreal in 1940, Nielsen had made friends as a teenager with skiing pioneer Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen. Although Smith-Johannsen was 70 years older than his new friend, he could still outpace 15-year-old Nielsen on cross-country skis and he instilled in him a sense of the value of having access to good trails.
Jackrabbit was 111 when he died of pneumonia in 1987. Even after his mentor was gone, and many thousands of kilometres from Montreal, Nielsen carried in his heart the inspiration he had gained from their time together.
Egged on by his son, Bill Jr., Nielsen ran his first marathon at the age of 40 — and swore after nearly collapsing toward the end that he would never run another.
Five years later, he ran his fastest time ever, finishing in two hours and 48 minutes, six minutes ahead of his son.
Nielsen got hooked on running, completing his 50th marathon in 1997.
“I said, that was easy, I can do 100.”
With his 100th marathon completed in 2008 and feeling the effects of Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed 10 years ago, Nielsen has stopped running because he can no longer maintain a steady gait.
But where there are trails to be maintained and developed, he is still one step ahead of the Town of Lacombe. Nielsen continues to cut trails in advance of the town’s development plan and he continues to go out every day to work on the 15 km of trail he has already cut. He says he doesn’t know exactly how far ahead he is, laying his trail in places where new homes will eventually appear.
Nielsen remarried after Jean’s death from a lengthy illness in 1999. He and Linda now live across the street from the Lacombe Composite High School, just a hop, skip and jump from the trails he started cutting when he and Jean first arrived in Lacombe.
Parked in his garage is a gas-powered lawn mower, its wheels jacked up to their full height and its blades kept razor sharp for cutting grass and weeds alongside the many kilometres of trails he maintains.
When his old lawn mower wore out, the Town of Lacombe covered the cost to buy a new one. But it wasn’t up to the task, so he gave it to a neighbour and replaced it with a tougher model.