Monday, August 19, 2013

2013 Savoy Mountain Trail Race

After two unplanned, family emergency trips to MDI in one week (it's a 6-7 hour drive, one way), it's nice to be back in the Berkshires now. Or the foothills of the Berkshires. Or wherever one wants to conceive of Williamsburg being. Time to get back in the groove of race photo shoots and training for my first 50K ultra (only one month to go until Pisgah!).

Jen and I got home around 2 AM on Saturday night and then got up about 4 hours later to make the relatively quick drive out to Savoy for the Savoy Mountain Trail Races. I did the long course (15.7 miles) and Jen did the short course (4.6 miles). The longer one is part of WMAC's annual Grand Tree Trail Race Series. The route was new this year. I'd never run it in the past so I can't compare directly, but in my opinion this new route made for a really fantastic race. There's a hand-drawn map of it posted here.

The first few miles of singletrack near South Pond were the hardest for me, as there's a lot of roots and a bunch of those little low, cut-stump knobs that hurt like hell when you inadvertently kick them. It wasn't all that difficult and the ascents were fairly gentle, but you have to be very mindful of each step or you're likely gonna end up doing a painful mid-race faceplant. I was surprised that many of the intersections were completely unmarked, reminding me of some of the more confounding junctions in the Holyoke Range. This could be a tough race to scout out before it's flagged. 

After the first water station (at mile 2.7), the climbing got a little steeper but it was still pretty manageable and no one walked. A guy I was running near joked that it was "too runnable" and he'd like to rest a little bit by hiking some on the climbs. I mentioned that the trail reminded me of the nearby Monroe-Dunbar trail race, except the climbing was less brutal since it doesn't come in one giant 3-4 mile ascent; he said he'd been thinking exactly the same thing. During this section, the lead woman runner put the rest of us to shame on the downhills. She was so incredibly fast and surefooted, she'd zip right past us and disappear ahead while I much more carefully placed each footstep, not wanting to roll my frustratingly weak left ankle again.

At one low spot, a few foot-wide wooden stumps dotted the way through a mud puddle, as if daring a runner to test the slipperyness of their flat surfaces. I took the bait and promptly slid off, nearly tweaking a groin muscle as my shoe splooshed way deeper into the mud than it would have otherwise. Lesson learned? Probably not.

Just after the second aid station, at mile 5.4, the trail briefly gets MUCH steeper for the final ascent of Spruce Hill (2,566 ft.) and I even used my hands a little bit. Then suddenly we popped out on the peak and there was a fantastic view out across the valley below to Mt. Greylock. I'd been climbing next to the lead woman and she pointed along the rest of the Hoosac Ridge to the south and commented how sweet it would be to just go that way and keep running. No argument there. There were a few more vistas just to the north and then the trail plunged back into the woods again. 

The next 5 miles of the race were by far my favorite part. The course follows the Hoosac Range trail for 2.5 miles to a parking area on Route 2, where you then turn around and come back. There are fun rises and falls along the way but the footing seemed significantly better (with far fewer mid-trail roots) and for the most part it's very runnable. Even the grade along the mile-long drop down to Route 2 was gradual enough to make for both a very pleasant descent and mostly runnable ascent. The trail junctions in this section were all well-marked, too. There's a nice map here on the BNRC website.

It was nice to pass the competition in front of and behind me coming the other way in this section. Everyone was really good about making way for each other, even in the narrower spots. By the time I'd gotten back to the mile 11 aid station I was all alone. The guys handing out water and snacks there said there was a sizable pulse of runners just ahead of me but I never saw them again. My energy levels flagged slightly in the next section and my sweat-drenched t-shirt began to chafe around my neckline a little bit, but for the most part I felt pretty good. My lack of training the week before didn't hurt me too badly, it seemed. 

The final 1.9 miles from the last aid station are almost entirely downhill, with one short climb in the middle. This section is roughly divided into two parts: a roller-coaster descent of steep, smooth ledges and gravelly flats along Old Florida Road and a longer, more soft-footed descent along the lower part of the Blackburnian Trail. The race eventually finishes at a slight incline along the road into the North Pond beach area. My final time was 2 hours and 55 minutes, good for a mid-pack 26th place finish (out of 66 runners).

Afterwards we took a refreshing dip in the pond and enjoyed a bite at the amazingly bountiful post-race pot-luck barbeque. To anyone who ran this race in the past and got turned off by the mud of Tyler Swamp or the lack of sweet ridge running, definitely give it a try again in 2014; the new course is aces!

Monday, August 12, 2013

For Dad

Last Friday, I got one of those phone calls that you’re never really prepared for, even if you think you are. My father died. And the time came to wrestle with all the personal emotions that come along with a parent dying.

Although I’ve never said it quite this publicly, it’s not really a secret that I struggled with my relationship to my father over the years (I’m saying it out loud now because I’m finding it helps me to let go). From my perspective, he grew out of the person I knew and became someone I didn’t. It seemed like we lived in very different worlds. I won’t go into the details here, but I think it’s fair to say we each were somewhat disappointed in the other. We maintained a civil family relationship, but the truth is we just weren’t very close. 

I have one older brother, Alex, and two significantly younger twin half brothers, William and Andrew. While Dad was in the hospital, Alex and I discussed the best memory we had of him. He used to take us hiking in Acadia pretty frequently when we were little kids. Sometimes Mom came along (before the divorce, of course), but usually it was just the three of us, carrying a backpack stuffed with windbreakers, tuna-fish sandwiches, and sodas from either the Pine Tree Market or the Seal Harbor General Store. Dad's favorite mountain was Pemetic, but we went all over the island and hiked a wide variety of trails.

One day when I was maybe 7 or 8, we hiked up Dorr Mountain. From the summit, we descended the north slope. For the most part it was just a nice hike in Acadia, much like many others. But then suddenly we did something new. We started running down the trail, just letting gravity pull us along, flying down the open granite ledges completely unrestrained and making mid-air decisions about where each footstep should go. For almost a mile down to the saddle between Dorr and Kebo, we basically flung ourselves down that mountain. We whooped. We hollered. We laughed. And we loved every slightly risky second of it. It was absolutely exhilarating, to say the least. I kind of can't believe he did that with us (these days you'd have to wear a freakin' helmet or something equally idiotic), but he did. And now, as a 41 year-old semi-regular marathoner and very frequent trail runner, I think it's one of the best things he ever did for us. 

So on Saturday, Alex and I picked up William and Andrew and one of their good friends and hiked up the east face of Dorr Mtn. from Sieur de Monts. The views out over Bar Harbor, Frenchman’s Bay, and Downeast Maine were spectacular. A few clouds puffed around on the horizon and some leftover fog curled into coves up the coast, but otherwise the air was dry and it was pretty much a perfect summer day. Water cascaded everywhere from Friday's heavy rains, splashing down the sides and into the trail and over the edge towards the Tarn. You couldn't keep completely dry, but it was excellently refreshing in the warm morning sun. 

Partway up, Alex and I told William and Andrew why we had brought them there. That we wanted to honor a good memory of Dad, and that we wanted to share it with them. So we did that. Despite the slickness, we ran down the north face of Dorr Mountain, leaping down ledges and swinging from trees and making lots of split-second decisions. I think everyone enjoyed it, and hopefully we all have that good Dad memory now. 

During the last half mile or so as we walked back to the parking area, I lagged slightly behind for a bit (I didn't have to say anything; Alex got it and kept the others walking) and said my own personal goodbye. It just felt right to me. The exact place didn't matter that much. It was nowhere and everywhere, and definitely a thought-that-counts moment. 

And the best part, dippy as it sounds, is that in the telling of that story to my mom that afternoon, and then later to my girlfriend, it felt like I released a lifetime of built-up emotions. Which I’m so glad for because really, what's the point in keeping any of that stuff now? It just doesn't matter anymore, and I certainly don't need or want it. I didn't see that cathartic part coming, but there it was. And here it is. 

Goodbye, Dad. And for real: thanks.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Indian Ladder 15K Trail Race Photoshoot

More or less on a whim, I drove west out to John Boyd Thacher State Park near Albany, NY to take photos of the Indian Ladder 15K Trail Race. This is at the outer edge of my travel radius for most photoshoots, but it looked like a cool race in a cool place.

Runners in the Indian Ladder 15K Trail Race

The park (and therefore this race) is all about location. It's situated at the northern edge of a forested plateau, with a sudden escarpment overlooking the broad valley below. From the top of the cliffs, you can see downtown Albany and all of the surrounding towns. Looking at the course map online, I saw that the race route comes out into an open grassy area near mile 1 and I thought that this spot could make for some particularly attractive photos that showed both the runners with good morning light on their faces and soaring scenery suggestive of the race's name.

Unfortunately, I had a miscommunication with the police about parking, and ended up missing the shot I actually wanted when they came out to make me move my car (I'd parked it along a roadside because the gates to the parking areas were locked until 9, which was when the race started). Adapting, I got some less attractive shots of runners in the woods at mile one and a half. Many thanks to the helpful volunteer directing runners at the junction there. Once they'd all gone by I went back to the original spot and managed to salvage the shoot by getting some nice photos of each runner with the escarpment in the background at about mile four and a half The full photo gallery can be seen at Northeast Race Photo

Afterwards, I took a brief hike along the actual Indian Ladder Trail (which the race doesn't use, for obvious reasons as it's quite a popular tourist attraction) and was very pleasantly surprised at how cool it was. 

Cool cliff cove along the Indian Ladder Trail

The slowly-eroding escarpment at John Boyd Thacher State Park in New York

Saturday, August 3, 2013

2013 People's Forest 7-Mile Trail Race

I drove down to the People's Forest just west of Barkhamsted Reservoir in northern CT, unsure of whether I was going to photograph the trail race or run it. When I pulled into the parking lot a good half hour before the start and got a quick sense of the route, I made the call to run and then shoot what I could after finishing.

At the start, no one wanted to be at the head of the pack and only one guy actually went up and toed the line. I thought this was somewhat surprising since I recognized at least a couple of guys I knew were pretty fast. Maybe there were enough unknowns to them that even they were skittish? Anyway, I wasn't shy and went up to the front, knowing there was plenty of room and time for people to pass me in the first 400 meters.

With a "go!" from Will the race director we were off, zipping quietly along a wide, soft, flat stretch between rows of towering pines. Even keeping myself way in check I still found myself in second place. Those experienced fast guys apparently really know how to not go out too fast on a tough course (the director told me there's 1500 feet of climbing in the 7 miles). I slowed way down and let a few pass. Soon we veered right into an open grassy lawn/field, crossed the road with an assist from a volunteer, and got onto the singletrack trail network where the climbing began.

About a quarter mile further along there were about 10 people ahead of me and suddenly someone behind us called out that we'd all taken a wrong turn that hadn't been marked. We all turned and came back to the junction. For me it was only about a 20 second loss but for the leaders it must have taken minutes off their finish time. They all re-passed me in the next mile. Everyone seemed pretty relaxed about it though; just part of the game with trail racing, and to be expected from time to time. But still. Ouch for them.

Perhaps a mile and half into the race, there's a slight break in the climbing and you get to descend for a bit before beginning the steeper climb up to the scenic view ledges. Most of us slowed to a power hiking pace here. I felt strong despite having moved several days before and missing a couple of training days in favor of lifting boxes and cleaning apartments. I found myself loosely settling in with a group of five or six people who I would occasionally pass and/or be passed by for the rest of the race.

From the scenic viewpoints the trail gradually descends to an unmanned water station at mile four. I noticed that the people just ahead of me passed it by, but I took a quick sip here. Unfortunately, this required some fumbling to get a cup out of the packaging and I kind of wish I'd just sucked it up and gone on. After that there's some more climbing but nothing too strenuous. In general, I really enjoyed the course. Lots of variety and a great example of fun, somewhat challenging but not too brutal trail running. There was one lengthy section where three of us hadn't seen a marker in what felt like far too long and for a few minutes we kept running ahead thinking we might have to turn around. Finally we came up one of the white lime arrows on the ground and were able to breathe easier. Around mile 6, you begin a cruising descent through a conifer forest. There are a couple of twist and turns in the trail, along with a few rooty sections, but for the most part you can really let loose here.

I finished strong, with enough energy for a good sprint kick back down the pine rows, and took thirteenth place. Then I immediately went to my car and grabbed my camera and was able to take photos of all the rest of the finishers after 16th place. Full photo gallery at Northeast Race Photo.

People's Forest 7-Mile Trail Race
a father/daughter duo on the last stretch of the 2013 People's Forest 7-Mile Trail Race