"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.