Saturday, February 21, 2015

Embracing Winter

Deep in the woods on a cold, snowy night in south-central Massachusetts, a cluster of colorful lights quietly bobs in anxious anticipation. Most face forward, but occasional roving wayward beams pierce through the fuzzy darkness to the side, suggesting the moody atmosphere of a spooky X-files investigation. Amidst the static of the falling snow, the faint illumination reveals glimpses of last-minute lace tying, scarf adjustment, and binding checks. Then, the time comes. After a brief countdown and that familiar "Go!" they all surge ahead in a furious burst of snow spray.

racers ready to go 

When the last of the fading lights disappears around a bend in the distance, the race director starts to make his way back to the registration area where the finish line is located. "Gotta go stoke the barrels," he says cheerfully, referring to the several metal BUMDRUMs with roaring fires at which the returned racers will later be able to warm themselves. 

The event is the annual Wallum Lake Twilight Tour trail race hosted by the MRA Multisport club as part of their diverse, all-season DurtyFeets trail series. Held about an hour after sunset in Douglas State Forest, the event attracts a wide variety of participants, from competitive runners to local outdoors enthusiasts just looking for another fun way to enjoy the long New England winter. A common trait to all of them is a lively spirit of adventure, along with an obvious determination to get the best of winter rather than the other way around. 

The only gear that's mandatory is some kind of headlamp. Beyond that, runners get to choose whatever type of footwear they want to race in, from regular snowshoes to running snowshoes to Yaktrax to microspikes, or even just running shoes if that's what they prefer. 

The region received several feet of snow a week before, and the trails are still completely covered in it. Snowmobiles packed it down somewhat beforehand, but it never really hardened and running on the surface feels like running in sand on a beach. In such soft conditions, the snowshoe-clad runners clearly had an advantage. 

Out on the course, all turns at intersection are well-marked with glow sticks placed inside see-through water bottles. No one takes a wrong turn or gets lost, though at some point nearly everyone experiences that adrenaline-raising sense of dread that maybe they might have. 

a runner returning at the end of the race

By the time the racers return from their four-mile trek, the falling snow has stopped and the orange glow of a nearby town brightens the eastern sky. One by one, headlamp lights bound back across a small open field to the finish line. Hearts race, sweat pours, and smiles flourish in the flickering light of the barrel fires. For these exuberant athletes, there's no better way to warm up on a frosty early February night, or feel like you've earned that hearty bowl of hot chili later. And to everyone else, they exhibit an excellent, all-in example of the full spirit of embracing winter. 

full photo gallery by Northeast Race Photo

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Henhawk in February

2014 was a very up-and-down year for me. I had initially planned to run 2 ultras, a 50K and a 50-Miler, but in the spring I developed a nasty groin pull injury that lingered for months. By late summer it had cleared up and I was running again. Maybe too much. I was running well and getting back up to speed quickly. I did a few short races and had great time exploring some new trails. Then in mid-November I ran an unofficial 15-mile trail race with my local trail running club on Mt. Tom. At the end of that run, my left foot felt "tight," and it turns out I'd given myself a stress fracture.  Cue "das boot" and a winter of alternate exercise.

Of course, it's been as good a winter as ever for that. Very cold and lots of snowstorms making the roads dangerous and not very pleasant. I've been plenty happy picking up the swimming (which I hadn't done much of lately), popping the bike on the trainer, and getting back out on snowshoes and cross-country skis once my foot felt somewhat better.

Today I skied an out-and-back on the Henhawk Trail, an old woods road that leads up to Conway State Forest from a small trailhead about 5 minutes up the hill from where I live in Williamsburg. I've never been a huge fan of this trail in any conditions; it's very rough, eroded, and wet in summer, too leafy in fall, and in winter there needs to be a ton of snow because there's a bunch of small rill streams that don't seem to freeze (maybe coming from springs just upslope?) and you need to constantly find ways to get across them on skis or snowshoes. Also, there's one slightly steeper pitch that's just on the edge of control on cross-country skis, even backcountry ones with edges.

However, after recent snowfall, the conditions today were as good as I've ever seen them there. It was very cold, only about 6 degrees at most, and the wind was whipping a steady 20-25 mph, but I was thoroughly suited up and went at a pace to keep the cold and my internal heat in balance (mostly). I used my trusty Karhu 10th Mountain backcountry skis, and they worked perfectly. There were only two flowing stream crossings, and the steep part had enough snow to slow the descent on the way back. I skied out about 2 miles up to the first major signed junction (it's occasionally used as a snowmobile corridor), just north of the Conway State Line and the boundary with Conway State Forest.

The Henhawk Trail in winter (photo by Ben Kimball)
The Henhawk Trail in winter

I hope my Henhawk Trail appreciation is on the rise. It's a very nice undeveloped area with lots of potential for good running and skiing. Apparently repair of the roadbed has begun, with some new loose gravel added, and a bit more work (such as a few small bridges over the rill streams) would open it up to being a really nice all-season trail.

Henhawk Trail map
map of the Williamsburg portion
of the Henhawk Trail in western MA

Sunday, February 1, 2015

TRAIL RUNNING Western Massachusetts

I'm very excited to officially announce that I recently created a trail running guidebook for western Massachusetts. It features 51 in-depth site profiles, with descriptions, route directions, maps, and scannable/clickable links to "enhanced" maps and color photos. The project was a lot of work (especially exploring and mapping all unmarked side trails and mystery paths), but it was also very rewarding, and I really hope others enjoy using it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

The print edition comes out in three months (though it is now available for pre-order on Amazon), and the digital version should be available a few weeks earlier. In the meantime I've started a Facebook page for it here. I'll be adding a bunch of cool stuff to the FB page in the coming months, including highlights, previews, bonus sites (sort of like deleted scenes, that got cut for various reasons), trail trivia, and more. If you live in the area or are just a fan of trail running in New England, please check it out, and help me spread the word about it by liking the Facebook page, sharing it and the Amazon link (and this link too!), and letting me know what you think. If it's successful... maybe more to come? Thanks, and see you out on the trails!

If you would like to receive updated information about the book or would just like to add a drop in the bucket to help me promote it (every drop counts!), please "like" its Facebook page here.