Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gift Idea: Trail Running Western Massachusetts

To all readers of this blog, and other friends, family, and colleagues, I have a shameless request: please help me promote my new guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (which in about a month I suppose I'll have to stop referring to as "new"). If you know of any runners, hikers, adventurers, or trail enthusiasts in New England who might appreciate good intel about and maps of cool trails, please consider giving them the book as a gift. It's loaded with detailed information and features such as links to enhanced maps for profiled sites; it's affordable; and I'll admit, I'm really pleased with how it came out. I'd love to do more, and every sale increases the likelihood of updates and sequels (VT, NH, or eastern MA, you could be next!).

Here's the link for the book's page on Amazon:

Here is its Facebook page (please "like"!):

and here is an incomplete list of excellent local booksellers and retailers who carry it (definitely check ahead as they sometimes sell out):

Massachusetts: Amherst Books (Amherst), Arcadian Shop (Lenox), Atkins Farms (Amherst), The Bookloft (Great Barrington), Broadside Bookshop (Northampton), Cup and Top Cafe (Florence), The Old Creamery Co-Op (Cummington), Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley), Trail Head Outfitters (Orange), the UMASS campus center bookstore (Amherst), World Eye Books (Greenfield), and soon to be at Boswell's Books (Shelburne Falls).

Vermont: The Bennington Bookshop (Bennington), Bartleby's Books (Wilmington), and soon to be at Everyone's Books (Brattleboro).

New Hampshire: Toadstool Bookshop (Keene)

Connecticut: Elm Street Books (New Canaan)

It's also frequently in stock at Barnes & Noble (Hadley, Holyoke, Pittsfield). 

lower Roller Coaster trail at Bachelor Street in the Holyoke Range
lower portion of Roller Coaster at Bachelor Street trails in the Holyoke Range

As anyone who's already seen the book knows, it profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region, and provides maps, information, and more about each. There are scannable links to bonus content for each site, including color photos and full-page, very detailed pdf maps that you can either print or download to your phone to take with you. In many cases, these maps are the most detailed and accurate ones available anywhere. On top of all that, this blog offers occasional bonus site maps and profiles, like this one for the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. Trail. 

Trail Running Western Massachusetts book cover

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Northeast Race Photo 2015 Highlight Gallery

There's still a full month (plus a few days) yet to go in 2015, but I've thrown together a highlight reel from my Northeast Race Photo shoots. There's more shots than usual this year because I wanted to include a variety of shots from each race in addition to showing the variety of races. Probably the completist in me.

Partly the album is just for fun and partly its to remind everyone that there's still plenty of time to order race photo prints and merchandise for holiday gifts. There's tons of stuff available, from prints to posters to magnets to mugs and more. Plus digital downloads, of course.

Here's the link to the full album on Smugmug:

and some cool sample shots to tease ya with =)


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bonus Site: Ashley Pond area

My guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (click here to view the book's page on Amazon) profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region. It was a challenge to whittle down the final list to include in the book to just 51 sites, and some that I really like or that would have been nice to include had to be cut for space. I occasionally post profiles of some of those "bonus sites" here and link to them from the book's Facebook page. (see the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. Trail post for a previous example).

one of the causeway trails at Ashley Pond
one of the causeway trails at Ashley Pond

In this case, the bonus site is the Ashley Pond area in Holyoke and West Springfield. It includes the northern end of the Bear Hole Watershed (north of the Mass Pike) and the portion of East Mountain just south of the one profiled in the book (site #46). The reason for not including this one was a combination of a.) the book already having a number of sites right in that area, b.) the mix of land ownership and the closing of the McLean Reservoir area, c.) the inconsistent signage and marking of trails, d.) the fuzziness of parking legality (it's OK to park by the Ashley Reservoir entrances and at the south end of Millville Rd), and e.) the fact that the "trail" around the reservoir(s) is really more of a dirt road and arguably straddles the line between trail running and road running. That said, the trails to the south and west of the ponds are a mix of rugged old roads and winding singletrack, including a segment of the Metacomet-Monadnock (M-M Trail). Some of it is quite nice and fun to run on, while some of it is heavily eroded by many years of off-road vehicle use.

The dirt trails around the Ashley Pond reservoirs are wide, flat, and generally out in the open with great views across the water. Some of them are on causeways that remind me of a landscape out of Middle Earth. These are excellent trails for anyone looking for an easy introduction to trail running. A weekly series of alternating 5K and 10K cross-country races use the trails around Ashley in the summer, and several races take place here throughout the year, including the Jonno Gray 5K, the WMDP XC festival, and the 6-mile Talking Turkey Race on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

A few notes about trail closures and off-limits areas: the trail that leads up to McLean Reservoir is currently closed to the public, as are all of the trails around it, probably due to security concerns? Also, there are a number of unofficial paths leading through the woods just southwest of Whitney Ave and the Elks Lodge, but visitors are asked to stay on the major trails in that area, and actually there's quite a bit of poison ivy in those woods anyway so, you know... not worth it.

nice sinuous singletrack trail just south of Ashley Pond
sweet, sinuous singletrack trail just south of Ashley Pond

At the southern end of Ashley Reservoir, a narrow foot trail leads across the railroad tracks (be VERY careful crossing the tracks) to a junction on the other side. From here, Millville Road (dirt) leads to the right and heads south, while a rough dirt road leads left towards the end of Quarry Road. In between is a segment of extremely fun, sinuous singletrack trail that curves back and forth on itself for nearly a mile until it ends at a wider path about a quarter of a mile to the south.

M-M Trail ascending East Mountain just north of the Mass Pike

Southwest of the ponds, a network of old roads threads through the northern half of the Bear Hole Watershed, and the M-M Trail runs along the crest of East Mountain. Many of these trails are in very rough shape due to years of heavy off-road vehicle erosion, and in some spots there are deep, near-permanent(?) pools of stagnant green water. They are now officially closed to such traffic, but they are still used sometimes. I once even saw a Subaru Outback station wagon driven by two young men improbably make its way almost to the crest of the East Mountain ridge. The trails are also well-loved by mountain bikers, who have maintained various sections and named certain segments (Cauldron, Lower Yeti, etc.) and marked them with green trail signs. Some segments of the M-M Trail have also been  marked with green signs (White Lightning, Armageddon, Widow Maker, etc.). One or two of the trails currently dead end where sections have been flooded by beaver activity.

While researching and mapping these trails, I came across several very confusing online posts suggesting the existence of newer singletrack trails that either aren't there or are very hard to find, or possibly are alternate names for parts of the M-M Trail. I wasn't able to find them despite several attempts. If you know anything about such trails that might be helpful to people out there, please share in the comments below!

Cauldron Trail east of the main East Mountain ridge
Cauldron Trail east of the main East Mountain ridge

While a good percentage of the trails in this area are heavily eroded, you will still come across the occasional very fun section of narrow singletrack trail, particularly just south of Ashley Reservoir. It's worth exploring (this map should help) and making a several hour trail running excursion of out it.

If you have any comments, complaints, corrections, praise, or suggestions about this bonus site or anything related to the Trail Running Western Massachusetts guidebook, please comment below or drop me an email with your thoughts!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

12 Marathons

I've now run 12 official marathons (not counting the 2 ultras I've done in the last few years, and one that I ran/hiked in the mid-90s). Finishing times can't be reliably compared to one another since there are so many variables, including: how hilly the course, weather, temperature, nutrition, fitness level, terrain/course surface, number of tight turns, and quality of training. But it's really hard to not compare anyway.

Reflecting on the four that took me longer than last weekend's 4:01:53 trail marathon (which clearly OUGHT to take longer than a road one for the simple reason that it's trail not road), here are my reasons/excuses for why they were slower:

1997: Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon, Anchorage, AK (4:19:00)
During the training for this one, which took place on the June solstice, I pulled a hamstring around mile 18 of a 20-miler about 3 weeks beforehand, and didn't run a step during the 21 days in between. Not too surprising, since the race came only 3 months after my fastest marathon, at the Shamrock Sportsfest Marathon in Virginia Beach (3:22:00). I cramped pretty bad somewhere around mile 19 and basically limped to the finish.

2006: Key Bank Vermont City Marathon, Burlington, VT (4:03:29)
I blame this one on the heat. After a record cold spring where I don't think I got to run in shorts and a t-shirt more than once, this Memorial Day race took place on a sweltering day where the temperatures climbed well into the 80s. I started well but suffered greatly in the later miles. Basically, I melted.

2008: Around the Lake Marathon, Wakefield, MA (4:12:38)
This one was a "novelty" race that I didn't really take seriously anyway. For one thing, it takes place at night, in the middle of the summer. For another thing, it was really just an extra-long long training run that I was using as build up for the Clarence Demar Marathon 8 weeks later. (photo from a later year here)

2008: Clarence Demar Marathon, Keene, NH (4:10:17)
I actually don't know why this one was so slow. Maybe it was the extreme humidity. Or maybe I was just taking it super easy to make sure I finished; I had to pull out of this race at mile 19 in 2007 due to a stress fracture in my foot, and I really wanted to complete it. I needed to finish it, for lots of reasons. (photos here)

Still, Stone Cat featured rugged trail terrain and endless twists, turns, and short, steep hills. Plus I fell/crashed hard, twice. And there were no mile markers. And I went into it with a seriously compromised Achilles. It should have been my slowest marathon. Which makes me feel extra good that it wasn't.

The other seven, from first to last:
1995: Marine Corps Marathon, Washington DC (3:44:00)
1997: Shamrock Sportsfest Marathon, Virginia Beach, VA (3:22:00) PR
2004: Mount Deserst Island Marathon, Bar Harbor, ME (3:44:15)
2005: Tucson Marathon, Tucson, AZ (3:42:59)
2006: California International Marathon, Sacramento, CA (3:33:22)
2010: Marine Corps Marathon, Washington, DC (3:36:50)
2012: Jacksonville Marathon, Jacksonville, FL (3:36:11)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Stone Cat Trail Marathon recap

The Stone Cat Trail Marathon had been on my radar for decades but I’d never had a chance to try it until this year. It has a lottery that usually fills quickly but for whatever reason I got in easily when I signed up a few months back. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to run it due to a persistent, often painful Achilles tendonitis injury that had been dogging me since the summer, but my fall training and racing went well and it seems like I've able to “manage” it (with the promise to myself that I’d take a month or two off this winter to just bike and swim and let it heal). So today I gave it a go.


My good friends Micah and Kristen kindly allowed Jen and me to crash at their place in Newburyport, MA the night before. We rose at 4:30 a.m. and spent about an hour eating, dressing, toe lubing, Body Gliding, and making frequent visits to the bathroom, then zipped south the twenty minutes or so to the Doyon School adjacent to Willowdale State Forest in Ipswich. Registration was a breeze, and the bathroom lines weren’t too long, so without much ado and before I knew it I was out in the playing field behind the school watching the 50-milers take off at 6:15. The weather was incredibly nice: 60 degrees, light warm breeze, and not too humid.

Loop 1

At 6:30 we were off. I decided to start close to the front and go out strong to avoid getting stuck behind slower runners in the eventual pinch-down. The strategy worked well; we ran around the field once and people seemed to spread out sensibly according to their comfort level. Then we looped around the school and back into the woods on a narrow dirt lane. I didn’t feel boxed in at all.

Several new singletrack sections were introduced into the course this year, and it was run in the reverse direction as years past, so there wasn’t the big hill to climb in the early miles that veteran racers would have been used to. Instead, we mostly swooped around low hills on meandering mountain bike trails en route to the first aid station. It was very fun, and allowed for a decent pace. Except for a few wider sections, most of those miles were on that kind of singletrack. My Achilles was tight and my shoes felt like they might have been a bit snug (my right foot in particular felt disconcertingly close to numb), but for the most part it seemed like I was going to be OK.

Stone Cat Marathon course map
general map of one loop of the course

Leaves weren’t super deep, but there were enough to obscure occasional roots and rocks that you absolutely had to keep a constant look out for. About 3 miles in I caught a shoe-tip on a small root and did that violent lurch-forward thing and let out a sound that must have sounded like I was hurling, but I managed to catch myself and not fall. We passed the first aid station around mile 5(-ish), after which the course followed a 50/50 mix of singletrack and doubletrack. By this point, I was more or less settled in with a loose group or marathoners, many of whom I would recognize throughout the rest of the race, but we also were starting to catch up with some of the slower 50-mile racers, who we generally caught and passed very quickly.

After the second aid station there’s a stretch where the trail crosses an open wetland on a narrow low dirt causeway, which was a nice visual break from the woods of the rest of the course. Just on the other side, I took a second to glance at my watch--the wrong second. I kicked something unseen and fell down hard, gouging a chunk out of my right hand and crashing on my left hip. Much to my relief, I was able to get up quick and keep running. I looked for what tripped me at that spot on the next lap, and sure enough there was one lone nasty double-knob root thingy down there looking all evil and mean.

After that the big hill began. It’s not really that high, but it does switch back and forth rather steeply for a bit. I'd run consistently 'til then, but allowed myself to walk that part. I was still passing 50-milers, but the catch and pass time was taking longer as our paces grew closer and closer to being the same. After some fun rising and falling along the side of the hill, the trail dropped steeply to the north and then rejoined the doubletrack trail that led back towards the start/finish. I pulled into the halfway mark back at the school right exactly at 2 hours, feeling good and strong.

Loop 2

After quickly switching out the GPS unit I'd carried on the first loop (I map trails obsessively) for a hand-held water bottle, I ran under the timing arch and headed back out. The second loop felt slightly slower, but in general it was easier running in terms of being able to go at exactly the pace I wanted since the pack had thinned out a lot. When I caught up to 50-milers I would usually keep pace with them briefly and then pass them as soon as we reached an uphill.

The distance between the first and second aid station felt interminable this time, with multiple déjà vu moments where forks in the rolling doubletrack felt exactly like forks I’d turned at mere minutes before. Just as my mind began to wander away from the trail to think about how nice it would feel to finish another marathon, I took a second fall, this time along a slight downhill on doubletrack. I must have toed another root or something, and I pitched forward hard. My arms splayed out and I landed on my right shoulder, then somersaulted around and, to my astonishment, sprang back up on my feet, mostly unscathed other than minor abrasions and some soreness. The guy right behind me said, "Impressive tumble."

There were no mile markers out on the course, and one nice thing about that is that I ran by feel rather than by strict pace. No obsessing about exact pace per mile, and no real sense of exactly when I reached mile 20. My second time over the big hill in the final miles went well, and I felt thankful to not experience any of the late-race hamstring cramps that I’ve so often been afflicted by in marathons. My Achilles gave me an occasional sharp pain, and every now and then my shoe would slide sideways on some leaves or something and cause me to wince with an unpleasant foot pain, but those moments were mostly few and brief.


I felt strong at the end, and was able to fly fast across the field to the finish. My final time was 4:01:53 (22nd place out of 206 finishers). Full results are posted here. I felt pretty pleased with my performance, all things considered. It was my 12th marathon, and my 8th fastest. Stone Cat featured rugged trail terrain and endless twists, turns, and short, steep hills. Plus I fell/crashed hard, twice. And there were no mile markers. And I went into it with a seriously compromised Achilles. It should have been my slowest marathon. Which makes me feel extra good that it wasn't.

photos that Jen took about 200 feet before the finish 

As with most marathons, it felt extremely good to simply stop. I shuffled my way through the short chute, collected a Stone Cat vest (they ran very large and looked comically big on each runner I saw wearing one afterwards), grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich wedge, and sat down on a bench to just chat with Jen for a few minutes. But I felt remarkably good, considering. I’ve had one or two road marathons where everything worked and I felt great afterwards, but they’ve been exceptions. Except for my Achilles, this was one of the better ones in terms of how wrecked my body felt. I’m not saying I wasn’t beat, or walking stiffly and slowly, but for the most part this one left me relatively unscathed. I think most of the ache I felt was a result of the two big falls more than the cumulative effects of 26 miles. We hung around and watched finishers and 50-milers come through, then headed home to western Massachusetts and a 100% guilt-free dinner out on the town.

Shoes worn: ASICS Fuji Racers
Gels used: 3 chocolate Vi-Fuels
Salt tabs: 4 endurolyte tablets
Driver all the way to and from race from western MA in her new wagon that has HEATED SEATS: Jen

Sunday, November 1, 2015

a sort of a comeback

In 2013 I ran 15 races, including my first ever 50K and 40-mile ultras. That was on the heels of 21 races in 2012. But things slowed down after that. Way down. Battling both a string of injuries and a storm of financial hits, my racing schedule took a pretty big tumble in 2014, and I only ran 5 races total:

2014 races

The Traprock one barely counts, since it was really nothing more than a test to see if I could run a race at all, post-injury. That said, the final 2 were actually pretty good showings.

So far, this year has actually been pretty good, considering. I'm still trying to manage a newly chronic achilles tendon ache, but otherwise I seem to be gradually coming back. It's a bit hard to tell because the difficulty of each trail race is so different than the others, but my pace has generally steadily improved. Most of the races have been trail, which I love, and I've really enjoyed exploring some that I'd never tried before, like the Busa Bushwhack today in Framingham:

2015 races so far:

I'm hoping to cap off the season with my first go at the Stone Cat Trail Marathon in Ipswich, MA this coming Saturday. After that, if I'm still on my feet, all else is gravy. 

2015 Busa Bushwhack 10-Mile Trail Race

Part of what I like about trails, races, trail races, and trail race series is the opportunity to explore new terrain and experience different places. The Busa Bushwhack, with a twisty 10-mile course at Callahan State Park in Framingham, MA, has one of those names that beckons beguilingly to people like me. The race had been on my bucket list of regional events for a few years now (though as I write that I suddenly realize I'm not all that partial to the concept of a bucket list; I'm more in the camp of hoping to savor the experience rather than checking something off a list), and I was looking forward to trying it. 

There were 155 runners in the 10-miler, and another 160 or so in a 5.3-mile version. Conditions were very nice, with overcast skies and temps in the 50s, and the course was well-marked (except for one arrow near the end that was clearly pointing the wrong way, I think because it was on an out-and-back portion and it wasn't clear on the return that you were supposed to ignore it). 

After pre-race announcements by the Greater Framingham Running Club and Rich Busa himself at the Brophy school, we all jogged about half a mile north through residential streets to the starting line on Major Hale Dr., right where the road crosses an underground aqueduct. We took off en masse and stayed on pavement for about a quarter of a mile. Then we veered right onto a wide path in the woods. Following signs, flagging, and the directions of volunteers, we wound our way around mostly easy trails for a few miles. 

Callahan really seems to be A Tale of Two Parks. The property is more or less evenly divided into two halves, north and south, by a paved road. The south half has wide, gentle, rolling doubletrack trails with easy hills. The northern half has narrower, more rugged trails with harder hills and tougher terrain. 

I had taken photos near miles 4 and 7 of this race in 2013, and at that time the downed leaves were pretty thick over portions of the trail, enough so that I was concerned about hidden rocks and roots. But there were many fewer leaves this year, and everything seemed to be visible. At about mile 3 we crossed the road and hit the first water station, then climbed a sharp hill and headed out for a very meandering tour of the park’s northern half. 

With only six days left until my A-race of the season, the Stone Cat Trail Marathon, I’m in full-on taper mode, and as such I chose to keep my pace firmly in check despite feeling like I could have gone a good bit faster. Or at least a little bit faster. Early on I found myself keeping pace with fellow western MA trail runner Carolyn Stocker, but I soon realized that the pace wasn’t meeting my “take it easy” taper week rule, so I eased up and held back some. She kept flying and finished 6 minutes and 20 places ahead of me. 

There were other familiar faces along the way too. At about mile 7, I passed and said hello to fellow trail runner and photographer Anthony Tieuli, who I’d met briefly before. And I passed Amy Rusiecki directing racers as I exited the woods at mile 9.25, a surprise recognition that I was only able to acknowledge with a belated wave about 50 feet further along. 

trail sign in Callahan State Park

The course grew progressively easier after re-crossing Parmenter/Edmands Rd around mile 7. We flew back along Rocky Road, Pine Cone, and Coco Ridge Trails, which seemed to be mostly flat, doubletrack paths, and most of the final mile back to the school is on pavement. As I approached the end, I picked up the pace slightly, but not enough that there was any danger of overdoing it. I finished in in 52nd place in 1:21:34 (an 8:09 pace). 

finish line photo (courtesy of Manos Tsagarakis)

Afterwards, I chatted briefly in the school cafeteria with Carolyn and her father, Wayne, as well as Grand Tree series regulars Eric Wyzga and Kehr Davis; self-described new trail runner(??) and the winner of the women’s race, Kim Webster; and a representative of Sudbury Valley Trustees, a strong conservation land trust organization responsible for protecting lots of properties in the area (and the publisher of a great new guidebook: 40 Walks West of Boston).

Overall, it felt like a solid effort that I was well trained for, and at the risk of tempting fate, I feel confident about the marathon ahead. Oh, and I came away with a sweet Busa Bushwhack pint glass for finishing!


full results here

generalized course map

my 2013 Busa Bushwhack race photos here

Scott Livingston's recap of the 2011 race here

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bonus Site: Catamount State Forest

My guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (click here to view the book's page on Amazon) profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region. It was a challenge to whittle down the final list to include in the book to just 51 sites, and some that I really like or that would have been nice to include had to be cut for space. I occasionally post profiles of some of those "bonus sites" here and link to them from the book's Facebook page. (see the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. Trail post for a previous example).

In this case, the bonus site is Catamount State Forest. It wasn't included in the book for a couple of reasons: 1.) It is an especially undeveloped site for a state forest, with no official map or parking, and no blazed or named trails. 2.) Several of the trails appear to be brand new, and either weren't there when the book was created or they hadn't been cleared and thus weren't visible. 3.) Most of the old road trails are pretty eroded. 4.) The singletrack trails, while wonderfully laid out, can be extremely challenging to navigate, especially in early spring and late fall when leaves are down (and some of the junctions can be hard to spot even in good conditions). Other factors of note are the fact that portions of the site are often used by off-road vehicles and it can be a bit of a backwoods party spot, and the fact that during wet years the bugs are notoriously brutal. Despite these notable drawbacks, however, the site can be a very fun place to explore and run.

a gentle stretch of singletrack at Catamount State Forest

The recommended route (highlighted in yellow) shown on the map below utilizes a combination of dirt road, old roads, woods roads, and newer singletrack trails. It is only about 56 miles total following the suggested route, but it will likely feel considerably longer the first time you go. You will need to look hard for junctions and turns, and paying careful attention to the map will be essential. There are also a number of optional extensions, depicted with light red highlighting on the map. Many of the trails on the northern and eastern boundary of the property continue onto private property and thus are not mapped here.

Starting at one of the small pullovers (with space for 23 cars) along the left side of Stacy Road (a rough dirt road that ascends north from Charlemont Rd just west of Rte. 112 north of Shelburne Falls), continue climbing up Stacy Rd to its end at a turn-around bulb just south of McLeod Pond. At the bulb, look for a trail that leads sharply at a diagonal up the hillside to the right. This trail quickly becomes a meandering singletrack path that winds past a number of old bicycle parts. After switching back and forth through the woods, it drops down towards the eastern shore of McLeod Pond. Follow it south along the shore to the southern end of the pond, then follow a path across ledges and an old dam to the western shore.

From a ledge at the southwest corner of McLeod Pond, follow a faint path north along the west side of the pond, just up from the shore. This trail soon swings left and climbs uphill, then swings left again and heads south. After taking a tight left turn near the height-of-land along the ridge, it meets up with a wider old woods road right where it crests the ridge. Turn right on this wide trail and begin descending. You will immediately come to a deep, eroded puddle (one of several along the trail in this vicinity). Go around it on the right. This trail soon levels out and heads north, with another short high-water bypass on the right that avoids a perpetually wet area, before veering west again and meeting up with S Catamount Hill Rd just east of an open wetland. One of the optional extensions in this area makes a tough 3-mile loop by heading north around the wetland and then climbing the slope to the west, going over a peak with an old chimney on it, and returning to the wetland.

Follow S Catamount Hill Rd north. In just under a mile, you will need to bypass to the right around a beaver flooded portion of the road, crossing over the outlet stream on some stones. Very soon you will arrive at a 4-way junction (where a different optional extension goes left). Continue straight for about 0.3 miles, passing a neat little spot where a stream flows underground on the left side of the road only to emerge from the base of a cliff on the right, to a ledge on the left with a cave called the Bear Caves. Yet another optional extension makes a very fun twisty horseshoe arc around the north side of the Bear Caves. Continue north from the caves for about about 0.1 miles along Catamount Hill Rd. At the top of a short trench-like, eroded section of the road, look for a faint trail leading sharply off the right up a small ledge.

Take a right on the faint trail, and follow it south above the eastern side of McLeod Pond for about 1.52 miles back to Stacy Road. This appears to be a newer section of mountain bike trail. It can be extremely hard to follow at times, but it is definitely there and it is very, very fun to run on, particularly in summer.

There are a number of other unmarked trails at Catamount State Forest, and aside from a few sections that may be rough or muddy, they're almost all fun to run. Some of them do lead off the property, however, and you must obey all posted signs (most notably along the trail that leads upslope to the west towards the summit of Pocumtuck Mtn.). Regardless of what route you choose to run, make sure to pay a visit to the ledges at the south shore of McLeod Pond. This remote and scenic spot is a true gem of the western Massachusetts wilds.

singletrack trail at Catamount State Forest
autumn along the trail at Catamount State Forest

singletrack trail at Catamount State Forest
along the "bike parts" trail at Catamount State Forest

a new bridge along the south shore of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest
a new bridge along the south shore of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest

Bear Caves at Catamount State Forest
 checking out the "Bear Caves" at Catamount State Forest

Sinuous singletrack trail above the east side of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest
Sinuous singletrack trail above the east side of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest

Sunday, October 18, 2015

2015 Groton Town Forest Trail Races

"Don't go out too fast," warned a race director.

"It's pretty flat to begin with, but around mile 7 or so you hit some kettles with short but steep hills that you'll want to save for." He was referring to a series of wetland depressions in the otherwise well-drained upland landscape, and his advice was sound. The hills hit hard and fast, and they definitely required quick surges of energy to power up.

With 3 weeks to go until my A-race, the Stone Cat Trail Marathon, I wanted to run a mid-distance "tune up" trail race that would serve as a 20-miler (when combined with generous warm-up and cool down runs), and not be too hilly. The long course (9.5 miles) at the annual Groton Town Forest Trail Races fit the bill. The alternative that day was the 14-mile Mt. Toby Trail Run, which is much closer to home but has that very significant thousand feet or so of race climbing to need to recover from afterwards. So early Sunday morning I headed east for Groton.

Race day was chilly and raw, especially on the heels of the previous weekend at Monroe, which had been amazingly warm and pleasant. It felt like late fall, maybe even early winter. I still wore shorts and a t-shirt (long-sleeve) for the actual race, but I was right on the edge of being too cold.

The race starts along an old rail bed at the northern edge of the forest, about a quarter mile south of parking and registration at a town senior center. The first mile follows a flat, straight stretch on dirt road. It was leaf-covered, but otherwise bore little resemblance to the rest of the course in terms of terrain and forest type. It crossed and re-crossed some live(?) rail tracks, then veered onto a winding singletrack path. From there, the course followed a mix of singletrack, doubletrack, and woods roads through the oak and pine forest. Except for a few rough eroded parts (usually on short, steep hills), it was great for running.

I started out slightly optimistic, hanging out somewhere around 10th place for a while, but eventually I got passed by a pack of people I couldn't quite seem to keep up with. They disappeared from my sight at the first water stop, where I lost some time fumbling to tear open a gel packet. After that I mostly found myself running alone, except for one guy who slowly reeled me in.

The sinuous singletrack portions, clearly designed with mountain bikers in mind, made for fantastic trail running tracks. They curved organically back and forth across the dry hilltops and roller-coastered up and down steeper slopes, generally making excellent use of the natural terrain. A few sections right along the Nashua River were pretty scenic too.

By the time I got to them about 2/3 of the way through the race, the kettle hills that I'd been warned about, along with some associated eskers and side ridges, definitely felt like obstacles in the path that took some wind out of my sails. I wasn't exactly well-rested for this race, as it fell at the tail end of one of my highest mileage weeks in ages. But they were fun nevertheless, and I only got passed by one person in that section.

The final mile was mostly flat, and ended back at the start. I finished in 1:16:20 (full results here), which comes out as just a few seconds over 8-minute miles. I felt pleased with my time and effort, and, most importantly, gained an extra boost of confidence for Stone Cat.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Finding Negus

For years I'd been hearing whispers of a neat trail on a peak called Mt. Negus (a.k.a., Negus Mountain, pronounced "knee-gus") in the Zoar region of northwestern Massachusetts, just north of and across the Deerfield River from Mohawk Trail State Forest. But I couldn't find much information about it. It wasn't in any hiking guidebooks and it didn't show up on any maps and there didn't seem to be any official trailhead. I couldn't even find much on the internet. Eventually, though, I pieced enough together to figure out where to park and where to start walking. And naturally it really wasn't all that hard to find once I knew where to look and where to go.

Parking is along a short section of paved road on the right side of Zoar Road immediately before it crosses the Deerfield River and becomes River Road. Elevation here is about 750 ft. You walk down the road until you reach a yellow metal gate just before the railroad tracks, at which point you should see the trail start into the woods on the other side of the tracks. It has recently been blazed with blue paint markers, and there are occasional round white signs with a blue bear paw symbol saying "Bear Swamp Hiking Trail -- Brookfield."

the trail at Mt. Negus
the trail at Mt. Negus

The trail is steep right off the bat. Really steep. Really, really steep. As in, you gain hundreds of feet of elevation in the first quarter mile or so. That said, it's not so steep that it requires ladders or rungs or ropes or anything. But you'll probably need to use your hands to scale some of the rocky ledges, especially while the trail is still down in the woods. When I hiked it, I was scouting to see if the trail could be used for trail running, and my general assessment is that I think it would be just over the edge of being too dangerous and probably not all that much fun to run, especially if the rocks were at all wet or icy, or if they were covered in leaves. The day I did it was dry and the colorful autumn leaves were mostly still on the trees, but I still wouldn't have wanted to run it. 

the steep trail up the southwest ridge of Mt. Negus
the trail up the southwest ridge of Mt. Negus is very steep to start with

Before long, the trail emerges out into the open along the narrow spine of the mountain's southwest ridge. Just past a large boulder perched right out in the open on the crest, it swings slightly right and climbs the semi-open ridge to the first peak. This section is remarkably dramatic and scenic, feeling much more like a wild White Mountains trek than most places I've been to in Massachusetts. 

dramatic scenery along the semi-open ridge of Mt. Negus
dramatic scenery along the semi-open ridge of Mt. Negus

Just before the first peak, the grade lessens slightly and you get some views of the reservoir to the north. At this point you realize that the mountain is really less of a peak than the edge of a broad upland plateau covering much of this far corner of the state, and that over time the Deerfield River has carved a pretty deep, now-wooded canyon out of it. Then the trail crosses over the wooded knob and makes its way north towards the actual summit. 

For the record, the next quarter mile or so of trail IS quite enjoyably runnable, as it gently meanders through the woods between the two peaks. Then it comes out at an old jeep road just west of the higher summit (which it does not cross). The road ends at a bulb here, and there is a limited view to the west, but the better summit was definitely the first one. From the bulb, the rough road descends towards Steele Brook Rd / Tunnel Road and the reservoir to the north. This was where I turned around. 

ledges partway along the narrow ridge of Mt. Negus
 bony ledges partway along the narrow ridge of Mt. Negus

far-reaching view from Mt. Negus
a far-reaching view that feels as wild and remote as anywhere I've seen in this state.

Overall it's really not a very long hike, hardly 2.5 miles round-trip. But it's challenging, especially in that first quarter mile or so near the bottom, with about 1,000 ft. of elevation gain in total. And it is exposed, and could be cold and/or tricky when it's windy or stormy out. On the day I did it, however, the afternoon sun warmed the ridge exquisitely, and there was a light breeze, so I just took my time and snapped some photos and sat in various spots along the way and admired the view. I've since heard that my friend Jeff incorporated it into a longer run that started at Mohawk Trail State Forest, which sounds like such a fun trip. All of the trails are on the scannable QR code map for site #8 in Trail Running Western Massachusetts.

map of Negus Mountain
map of Negus Mountain

Great Stuff Nearby: Mohawk Trail State Forest just to the south across the river; Monroe State Forest (with Spruce Peak, Raycroft Lookout, and Dunbar Brook) a few miles to the north; the little-known gem of Pelham Lake Park a few miles northeast in Rowe; and the Charlemont Trails network and Thunder Mountain Bike Park at Berkshire East.