NORWALK—The Rails to Trails Marathon in Norwalk is back for year 10 ... just a bit earlier than normal.

The race date was changed from November to Oct. 8 due to the endangered northern long-eared bats, which hibernate in the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail’s tunnel.

The bats are susceptible to white nose syndrome, in which a fungus triggers the immune systems to heat up their bodies and wakes them from hibernation with no food or water in sight. Energy stores are quickly used and the bats die.

About six million bats have been killed nationwide by the disease.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service suggested closing Tunnel No. 3 by Oct. 15, a month earlier than usual, so the marathon has moved to an earlier date, Janelle Stoikes, media and marketing coordinator for the marathon, said.

Stoikes said the Department of Natural Resources has asked that the race abide by special rules to allow the race to continue to happen.

“We’re trying to do the best we can,” she said.

Some of the rules include special lights and minimal noise, committee president Theresa Lehner said.

“We have lanterns with special bulbs or red or amber so we don’t disturb the bat, and we ask people to not run through (the tunnel) screaming or yelling,” she said. “(Runners) go through the tunnel twice, toward Sparta and then they turn around and come back.”

While the date has changed, almost everything else has stayed the same, Stoikes said, except for the addition of a DJ at Norwalk Village Park and gifts to celebrate the race’s 10th year.

“We’re going to have a special day in the park and then hand gifts out to the runners and … I think they are a bracelet, key chain and a t-shirt,” she said. “There’s a homecoming parade for Brookwood (High School), and we’ll have a DJ in the park, and we always have free popcorn and free beer − people really like that.”

It’s a fun community event, Stoikes said.

“It’s the community that makes this happen − we couldn’t do it without the community,” she said. “Even if someone’s not participating in the race they should come to the park because it’s a real special day. My favorite part of it is that everybody cheers for everyone at the start and ... at the end of they cheer just as loudly for (the last people) as they do at the start.”

Between 700 and 900 people participate annually, Lehner said.

The people are Lehner’s favorite part of the event.

“I don’t run the race, never have, but what I like about it is the people that run it are so nice, they’re very courteous, very clean and don’t clutter the place up,” she said. “They’re fun to talk and visit with.”

Proceeds generated from the marathon go back into the community, Stoikes said.

In the past nine years some of the donations to the community include flower baskets on Main Street, three $1,000 scholarships to graduates from Brookwood High School, new equipment for the fire department, lights for a ballpark, playground equipment in two parks and the Norwalk Library addition.

Stoikes said organizers have yet to determine how this year’s funds will be used.

“We don’t really decide ahead of time,” she said. “We wait to see what the needs of the community are.”

Good weather is expected for race day, Stoikes said. She hopes it stays that way.

“This time of year is always beautiful, and that’s kind of why we stick around,” she said. “It has never rained on us.”

She did recall one year when the temperatures dipped to the freezing mark.

“I thought that’s a good thing, because we can always put layers on in Wisconsin,” she said.

Stoikes hopes race-goers experience the beauty of the region.

“One thing that makes the race special is we’re in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin,” she said. “It’s so uniquely beautiful around here, and I’ve traveled and there’s no place like this with the hills and valleys and fall color. It’s a beautiful place, and people come from all over to experience it, then with the sense of community it’s what the runners like.”

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