Out Of Tragedy, A Future Path

Trail At Mount To Honor Student Killed In Accident Training For Marathon

August 05, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,candy.thomson@baltsun.com

EMMITSBURG -- Like hundreds of other runners and walkers, Elizabeth DiNunzio pounded out her exercise miles at danger's edge - local roadsides near the campus of Mount St. Mary's, where vehicles and people often come within inches of each other.

In April, a pickup truck crossed into DiNunzio's safety zone along Old Emmitsburg Road, striking and killing the 22-year-old Spanish major as she trained for the Pittsburgh Marathon. Police say she followed all the rules: running without headphones, facing traffic and staying as far from traffic as possible on a road with no paved shoulder. They charged the driver of the truck with negligence and failure to avoid an accident.

That might have been the end of the tragic story, except for a group of university officials determined to make things safer for runners and a Mount graduate and former world champion mountain bike racer who offered to draw up blueprints for a network of campus trails good enough to attract the best cyclists.

"We're responding to this tragedy by building something she would have loved," said Marla Streb, 44, who retired from racing on the LUNA Women's Professional Mountain Bike Team less than six months ago. "It's in the same spirit. Elizabeth was going for something pretty big, and this has the potential to do the same for the school."

A resident of the Pittsburgh suburb of Zelienople, Pa., DiNunzio was set to graduate with honors from the Mount on May 10 and had been offered a full-time job, teaching 10th-grade Spanish in Lake City, S.C. She had run a number of shorter races and was eager to try her first marathon.

Friends ran the marathon in her memory, some with her photo pinned to the back of their shirts. Her boyfriend wore her number as he ran his first marathon, paced by members of a local running club.

A tribute on the university's Web site called DiNunzio "poised, creative and professional - a true joy to watch. ... Elizabeth lived in the pursuit of generosity of spirit and knowledge, perfecting her athleticism as well as her teaching and language skills and, more importantly, her belief in the inner beauty of self."

When Streb, a three-time national mountain bike champion, heard of the accident, she contacted the university to offer her help. Officials decided to dust off plans for a series of trails and asked Streb for her input.

"We told her, 'Think big and think comprehensively,' " said Joe Lebherz, a university land-use official who sent her maps and topographical information. "Marla jumped right in."

Streb grew up in Baltimore and still keeps a boat tied up at Sparrows Point and a home in Fells Point with her husband and two young daughters. She studied classical piano for 18 years and didn't take up serious mountain biking until she turned 28. After graduating from the Mount in 1987, Streb received a master's degree in molecular biology from the University of Maryland. She lived full time in Costa Rica for several years while designing Singletrack Jungle, a mountain bike park for a seaside resort where she hopes to teach.

As someone who spent four years on campus, Streb knew the land well and realized potential that went beyond runner and biker safety.

"They can use the trails for 10K runs and mountain bike events. It can brand a school just like Harvard has the Charles [River] for rowing. It's another way to bring attention to the school," she said.

U.S. 15 acts as Main Street, cutting through the heart of the 1,400-acre campus as it runs north from Frederick to Emmitsburg and the Pennsylvania line. The land east of the highway is tree-dotted and flat, perfect for the first phase of 12 miles of trails. Land on the western side of the highway pushes up against the slope of 1,600-foot College Mountain, perfect for the more challenging trails of Phase II.

Streb's vision is to make the first trails welcoming to both walkers and bike riders by keeping them under the tree canopy as much as possible, with some twists and turns to prevent a feeling of monotony.

"You want something dynamic, something that gives you the feeling of being a Jedi warrior," she said.

Where possible, the trails will have spurs to challenge advanced riders. In addition, Streb wants "bombproof" construction that can sustain heavy use and resist erosion.

"A deer can build a trail," Streb said. "It's an art and a science to make a trail sustainable and fun."

Plans are being revised and a trailhead is expected to be built this fall with an eye toward opening Phase I in fall 2010. Lebherz said the project could cost more than $200,000, depending on amenities and the size of the volunteer workforce.

"We think if we can involve a lot of students in this, we can keep costs down," he said.

Eventually, university officials would like to add an environmental teaching component to the trails and connect their network to public land to create an off-road link to Emmitsburg and trails beyond.

"We think we can build a destination," Lebherz said. "We want to give people a reason to get off [U.S.] 15 and get to know us. Trails are a way to do that."

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