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Runner Finds Art Inspiration on the Trails

For Karen Hanke, trails are for both training and inspiration for her job as a children’s book illustrator.

For 54-year-old ultrarunner Karen Hanke, the trails and the office each demand a lot of her time. Luckily for this award-winning children’s book illustrator, the trails double as her workplace.

As Hanke works through her freelance life, she often looks to the trails of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park just east of her home in Santa Rosa, Calif., for creative freedom and inspiration. As her body moves through the terrain, her mind wanders in a way that keeps creativity and inspiration fresh.

“Ideas come to you at different times,” Hanke says. “I’ll be going along and it comes … and all of a sudden everything is better.”

Hanke got into running while in college when she entered a 10K with her sister—and finished dead last together. After that, she decided to tackle the marathon. She followed the written plan in a beginner’s book and ran the Napa Valley Marathon.

Her Santa Rosa neighbor Rod Dickenson noted her athletic build and suggested she sign up for the Quad Dipsea, a hilly 28.4-mile trail race starting and finishing in Mill Valley, Calif. She had never explored the ultra world before, but in 1998 decided to give it a try.

She hasn’t missed the Quad Dipsea race since then (despite one unfinished year due to illness), giving her some distinction in the race’s history. She’s completed four 100-mile races: two Western States finishes in 2003-2004 and one apiece at the The Bear 100 Mile Endurance Run in 2013 and the Santa Barbara 100 in early July, not to mention dozens of sub-ultra trail races.

One children’s book that Hanke has illustrated, The Jazz Fly, garnered distinctions like “America’s #1 Recommended Children’s Book” from Children’s Book Sense, Smithsonian’s Notable Books for Children, the Writer’s Digest National Self-Published Book Award, and a host of others.

And when inspiration strikes, she captures it anywhere she can, often on the back of a receipt or a discarded envelope in her car at a trailhead.

She recalls running in Sugarloaf with a friend when he urged her to stop. As they stood still on the trail, they watched a mountain lion emerge, majestically situating on a rock for a couple minutes and licking a paw before slowly retreating into the grass nearby. Hanke dashed back to her car.

“I was so excited that I ripped off this grocery list to draw on and scanned it for myself,” she says. “I framed it and wrote the date, time and trail on there.”