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Epic Trail Getaway: Bend, Oregon

This emerging mountain town is home to some of the nation’s best endurance athletes, plus many top craft breweries, plenty of sunshine and a laid-back, multisport lifestyle.

A cloudy, threatening sky does nothing to deter dozens of people starting to gather outside the Footzone running shop in downtown Bend, Ore., on a chilly Monday night in early April. The chatty group totals about 75 runners of varying ability levels who are here to enjoy two of the finest things this high-desert mountain town has to offer: an enjoyable running experience and some of the country’s top craft breweries.

The Monday night pub run, free and open to the public, starts at the store and sends runners on a 3- or 5-mile loop that finishes at one of the 19 craft breweries in town. (This one is heading to Bridge 99 Brewery, one of the city’s newer beer makers.) It’s one of the many weekly group runs in Bend that fosters a sense of camaraderie and celebrates the supportive, fun vibe of this unique running community.

“It’s social and a great opportunity to meet people in a low-key, friendly atmosphere,” says Steve Anderson, an avid endurance athlete who moved to Bend last November. “It seems like there’s something going on here every day. And there are still so many things I can’t wait to check out.”

Situated at a moderate elevation of 3,623 feet on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, Bend has a seemingly endless array of running trails, not to mention a friendly, small-town atmosphere, fairly mild summer weather and a rich endurance sports community.

RELATED: Photos: Running in Bend, Oregon

While it has become the destination of choice for many professional middle-distance runners, marathoners, ultrarunners and triathletes, its base population is anchored by active, recreationally inclined folks who appreciate the many outdoor activities this gem of a city serves up on a daily basis. And it’s for those same reasons that visiting runners will also find Bend to be an idyllic summer vacation destination. “It’s just a really cool place,” says 2014 Western States 100 champ Stephanie Howe, a North Face-sponsored ultrarunner who moved to Bend from Eugene, Ore., in 2010. “There are so many opportunities to just do stuff from your doorstep. I was driving to Bend every weekend to mountain bike and paddle and run and ski. And I was like, ‘Why don’t I live here?’ ”

That seems to be what a lot of people have asked themselves, given that Bend’s population has more than doubled since 1999. Although still a small city just shy of 85,000 residents, it’s the recreational opportunities and quality of life that have attracted adventurous twentysomethings, active-minded retirees and just about everyone in between over the past 15 years.

While there are more than 65 miles of trails located close to downtown, hundreds more miles meander into the meadows, foothills and mountains that surround Bend. The most accessible of the routes is the Deschutes River Trail, a 15-mile stretch of runnable dirt that winds from the center of town all the way out to the breathtaking Dillon Falls southwest of town and beyond. There’s also 27 miles of the Brooks-Scanlon Trail, a mostly flat and wide gravel rail trail that connects Bend with the small village of Sisters northwest of town.

Local runners flock to a series of rolling dirt trails in Shevlin Park, along Tumalo Creek just west of town, and Phil’s Trail system, about 15 minutes from the city’s western boundary. A little bit higher up in the mountains is the 11-mile Green Lakes loop in the Three Sisters Wilderness area at the heart of the Willamette National Forest. Slightly farther out is Smith Rock State Park—a 30-minute drive north of town that’s full of incredible views, technical terrain and fun climbs.

A lot of places have great trails, but, locals say, it’s the cohesive community that makes Bend so special.

“I’ve lived in some other really cool places, but they didn’t have the community like Bend, and I feel like it’s just a good family,” Howe says. “I’ve never lived anywhere where people just bond together and not just for running, but for all these fun things like concerts and festivals. It’s pretty unique.”

Howe is one of numerous top-tier elite runners who call Bend home. Rod Bien, the owner of Patagonia Bend and winner of multiple ultra-distance races over the course of the past two decades, has called Bend home since the late 90s, along with one of his frequent training partners, Jeff Browning, who continues to win and set records in 100-mile races as a Masters runner. Reigning IAU 100K world champion and 2011 mountain running world champion Max King, perhaps the most versatile runner in the U.S., has lived in Bend for the past 13 years.

RELATED: USA Mountain Running Championships Heading to Bend, Oregon

In more recent years, Bend has attracted the likes of Howe, as well as Ryan Bak, a Nike Trail Elite athlete who was runner-up at this year’s the Way Too Cool 50K and Lake Sonoma 50-mile, two-time U.S. trail runner of the year Mario Mendoza, and Ian Sharman, a 100-mile British specialist who moved back to Bend this spring after living in the Bay Area for a couple of years.

“It’s the kind of place where your next-door neighbor is probably an Olympian of some sort,” says Bak, who lived all over the country before settling down in Bend five years ago. “People here just kind of go about their business and enjoy their sports and enjoy the outdoors, and it creates a really cool vibe in the community.”

Team Little Wing, a group of Oiselle-sponsored middle- and long-distance track athletes coached by two-time U.S. 5,000-meter champ Lauren Fleshman, has been based in Bend since 2013. The group often practices on the track at Summit High School, running some of their workouts alongside the school’s track team.

Professional triathletes Linsey Corbin, Heather Jackson, Matt Lieto and Jesse Thomas (married to Fleshman) also live and train locally, not to mention a smattering of snow sports stars who take advantage of Mount Bachelor and its 9,000-foot peak 20 miles west of town.

“It has been fun starting to learn about the different disciplines,” says Kate Grace, a Oiselle-sponsored middle-distance runner who spent 2014 training in Bend with Team Little Wing. “It brings an energy and adventurous spirit to the town.”

In addition to the Footzone runs, Fleet Feet Bend also provides top-notch running products and outstanding service, and hosts Wednesday night and Saturday morning group runs, as well as various training programs based out of the store. Between the two shops, there are plenty of events for both local runners and visitors passing through town to take advantage of throughout the year.

“We try to bring energy, help facilitate everything we possibly can, and just be a space where active people can find community,” explains Teague Hatfield, owner of Footzone. “Through all our weekly runs, workouts, training groups, programs and clinics, we hope we create an opportunity for everyone to engage where they feel comfortable and can enjoy fitness.”

On this April evening, Howe isn’t running hard, but she actively encourages other runners at Max King’s Tuesday Performance Group (TPG) while jogging laps on the grass around Drake Park adjacent to the Deschutes River.

“We suffer together,” Howe says of the appeal of the group workout. “There’s tons of great training partners here and we push each other and make one another better. And when you travel to races all around the country, there’s always people from Bend there and there’s a kind of camaraderie I haven’t experienced anywhere else. It’s like our ‘Team Bend.’ You do these workouts together and you want to see people do well in their own races.”

King’s TPG group, which can attract as many as 50 people during the warmer months, includes all levels of age-group athletes—King notes there’s even a race walker in the group—and the occasional elite who is in search of a quality speed workout.

“Everyone can come out and everyone can feel comfortable getting in a workout,” King says of the group. “Everyone can have a goal of getting faster than they currently are and I really just wanted it to be very inclusive and welcoming, so that’s the way I’ve structured it. The longest loop we ever do is about a mile long and we keep it in a park area so everyone feels like they’re part of a group and nobody really gets left behind.”

Racing In Bend

While the tiny college town of Eugene two-and-a-half hours to the west annually attracts some of the nation’s top track meets, Bend is quietly establishing itself as a go-to spot for all manner of off-road competitions.

In 2013, Bend hosted the USA Club Cross Country Championships at Rivers Edge Golf Course, the same venue that will host to the 2016 and 2017 USA Cross Country Championships—events that will decide the U.S. teams for the world championships each of the next two years.

The challenging course, a 2,000m loop designed by Max King that always seems to be going up or down, is a located in a spectator-friendly venue complete with tight turns and tricky footing. Despite its difficulty, it was a huge hit two years ago with athletes and fans alike.

“I’m excited we’re hosting [the cross-country championships] here the next two years,” King says. “It’s a slightly different course than 2013, but it will still be challenging and the event will have the same exciting feel to it. It will be true cross country.”

Of course, the mountain, ultra and trail folks have their share of fun too. The Flagline 50K hosted the 2014 USA 50K Trail Championships last fall, while the Dirty Half formerly hosted the USA Half Marathon Trail Championships. On July 25, Bend will host the U.S. Mountain Running Championships for the first time on another Max King-influenced layout, this time on Mount Bachelor. It’s the sole selection race for the U.S. team that will compete in the World Mountain Running Championships on Sept. 19 in Wales.

“As Bend has evolved as a recreational paradise, these events are a great way to introduce new participants to our community as well as get Bend into the national spotlight,” says Kevney Dugan of Visit Bend, a regional tourism agency. “These athletes often turn into frequent visitors as the lifestyle of Bend typically fits their desires as well.”

Getting There: Located in west-central Oregon, Bend is about a three-hour drive southeast of Portland. Direct flights into Bend are available from Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

Where to Stay: Bend offers a wide range of lodging options from inexpensive chain motels to refurbished boutique properties like the Oxford Hotel and Wall Street Suites to more exquisite resorts like Brasada Ranch, Mount Bachelor Village Resort and The Riverhouse Hotel.

Where to Eat & Drink: Known as Beer City USA, Bend is home to 19 craft breweries and many of them offer tasting rooms or brewpubs such as the Deschutes Brewery & Public House, Riverbend Brewery & Sports Pub and Cascade West Grub & Ale House. Top restaurants in town include SporkZydeco Kitchen & Cocktails and Ariana Restaurant.