The running tracks at Harford County's 10 public high schools get plenty of use from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students almost every day.
Whether it's groups of teens in gym uniforms being herded out for their physical education classes or athletic teams training for their competitions, the tracks see a steady stream of foot traffic.
In recent years, the tracks have gotten more attention when Harford County Public Schools began outfitting each of the fields inside them with artificial turf and, in most cases, putting all-weather surfaces on the tracks, allowing for more reliable, year-round use.
But the students enrolled at their respective schools aren't the only ones who use the tracks.
Residents from the immediate area, or even farther away, regularly take advantage of the rubberized, circular all-weather tracks, as well as the fields inside them, for a variety of fitness-related and recreational needs.
Many say having the access to a free space that's open to the public is a great amenity, whether it's for serious runners working on their speed and/or endurance, or for people just looking for a safe, relaxing place to take a stroll.
Matthew Gravens, a local public defender who lives in Bel Air, added the track at Bel Air High School to his regular workout on a recent weekday evening.
"Because it's a quarter-mile [long], it's really easy for me to break up [the length of a run]," Gravens said, while training for his third half-marathon. He said he has lost 160 pounds since he began running five years ago.
Although Gravens had only been to the track at the private John Carroll School before, he said he would probably come back to the one at Bel Air High.
"I also like that I can race other people on the track, although they don't know I am racing them," he noted.
Besides allowing him to do speed work, Gravens said, the track is helpful in that it has no hills, gravel or other obstacles that are on regular roads.
More than a dozen runners practicing for the Baltimore Marathon, which was on Oct. 17, agreed with Gravens' general sentiment. They were out after school on Bel Air High's track along with three coaches from Bel Air's Charm City Run.
Charm City Run brought out three groups, practicing for the full marathon, the half-marathon and a 10-kilometer race, on a weekly basis.
Endurance coaches Kevin Hennessey, Jeff Burger and Denay Gray said the track allows the runners to compartmentalize parts of the race. They regularly practice on hills and other terrains, but mix in the track.
"It's always open," Hennessey said about the high school track, pointing out many of the runners are "tackling these distances for the first time."
'Keeps the youth out of trouble'
The county school system said the tracks are generally open to the public if they are not being used for school activities.
"The general practice is that people cannot use the track during an event because it is a safety issue," Harford County Public Schools Manager of Communications Jillian Lader said. "Most tracks are available during the weekend for people to use."
"If there isn't an event or practice on the stadium field, the track is open to the public," she added. "We do not encourage the public to utilize the track during the school day as we do have physical education classes using the fields and track throughout the day."
Lader also said some tracks are less accessible than others.
"If a school has a walking path, the track may be closed to people, as is the case at Edgewood High School," she said.
Joe Dietrich, who was using Bel Air High's track with the Charm City Run group, pointed out he lives right by Patterson Mill Middle/High School but cannot get into that school's track.
"That kind of stinks," he said, adding about Bel Air High's track: "It's kind of nice that this is open, actually."
Dietrich said he looks for school tracks to practice on while traveling beyond Harford County, too.
"Whenever I can find a school, I always look it up," he said about a track.
Most recently, Dietrich was training for a half-marathon. He said he has also run in half-marathons in Baltimore and Chicago.
Running on a track "is a little more structured," he said. "It is definitely easier on the feet than running on concrete."
Practicing with a group, like his Charm City Run peers, also keeps the track from getting too boring.
"With these guys, it makes it more fun," Dietrich said. "Running with a group also helps you perform a little better."
The Charm City coaches did say it would be even better if the track was better lit, especially since it's getting dark earlier in the fall.
Carrie Fowler, of Bel Air, agreed doing speed work on the track has been useful.
"I think this has made me faster," she said while taking a break with some other Charm City runners.
On a recent weekend, the track and field at Aberdeen High School were busy with a large group of neighborhood football players, along with some children and assorted walkers.
JB Brown, of Aberdeen, said the football players are "friends of friends" who have especially been grateful for the new turf field and regular open hours.
He has been playing with the group every other week for the past year or two.
"It's been a really decent school ever since they put the turf field in," he said about Aberdeen High's facilities. "It actually keeps the youth out of trouble, for real."
A sign outside Aberdeen's track warns joggers and walkers to use outside lanes, and it does ask people not to use the turf game field.
Another resident, Dennise Davis, was walking around the track with her headphones on and her young son by her side.
"It's not too crowded; nobody really bothers you," she said about the track, noting she was walking three miles that day. She also likes the facility "because I can track [the miles], it's easier for me, because I don't have a pedometer."
She does have one request.
"During the summer, they didn't have the bathrooms open at all," she said. "Other than that, it's pretty good."
The tracks attract other residents who want a reliable spot to be outdoors and move their feet.
Ali Khan and his wife, Lina, were strolling around Bel Air High's track as the sun went down on a weekday evening. The Bridgeport, Conn., residents were visiting a relative in Harford County and were just looking for a place to take a walk.
"It's more convenient," Ali Khan said about the track, adding the weather was nice.
His wife said: "It always helps to walk. The track is nice, especially during the evening time."