Monday, June 27, 2016

Falling Apart on Greylock

"I don't always fall during trail races, but when I do I almost always write about it..."

They can’t all be good ones. Sometimes I feel guilty of tending to write primarily positive blog posts or articles, maybe due to some neurotic need to fight my innate cynicism and pessimism with intentional optimism, or a desire to not offend certain race organizers, participants, or volunteers. If so, well… this should begin to set things right. Sometimes the glass is genuinely just half full of disappointing emptiness. And it’s best to tell it like it is. This is one of those times.

I got my ass handed to me at Greylock last week.

To be clear: it was all my fault. The Western Massachusetts Athletic Club (WMAC), awesomely salt-of-the-earth folks that they are, put on as excellent an event as ever (and that’s not me blowing sunshine for an article; I really love their races). The Mt. Greylock Trail Race half marathon (13.5 miles) is a well-organized, highly affordable, and hard-as-hell New England run, just as I’d hoped. And though it was warm, the weather wasn’t too bad either. Sunny and clear with a bit of a breeze up top. The race starts at 10 am, which is kind of late for a June race, and temperatures did climb into the low 80s by the time I was finishing, BUT… it wasn’t humid. At all. Which is huge, especially for me. And the field of runners is small enough that getting blocked in on singletrack trail is no excuse here; you can pass when/if you want to. As it turned out, that wasn’t an issue for me anyway.

My first mistake was simply being heavy. Or more accurately, heavier than I used to be. I weigh 10+ pounds more than I did last fall. Not fully accepting this fact, I set my hopes too high. I knew better, but didn't admit that there was no realistic way I was going to claim my “usual” spot near the top quarter-to-third of the pack.

My second mistake was starting too close to the front of the pack. I’m not yet fully recovered from taking most of the winter off due to an Achilles injury and subsequent PT, and my pace simply is not what it was even a year ago. 

Start of the 2016 Mt. Greylock Half Marathon. (Photo by Scott Livingston)

The race begins by a picnic pavilion in a flat field at Greylock Glen, but you immediately need to bunch down where the trail becomes a 2-person doubletrack path as soon as it enters the woods. The grade is gentle for about 500 feet, then starts shooting straight up the side of the mountain. I could tell right away that something was off. My stamina and lungs felt fine, but the power wasn’t there and I felt every extra pound on my frame. People started to pass me right away—a warning flag.

From the Glen the course ascends the Bellows Pipe, Bucket, and Whitetail trails before eventually coming out onto the upper part of the Thunderbolt ski trail. After a relentless series of sustained power-hiking grinds up steep switchbacks (and some occasionally runnable less-steep sections), I reached the summit. My watch said 55 minutes, which was exactly the time I’d secretly been aiming for. Momentary sense of relief and reassurance. The climb had been tough, but I genuinely felt pretty good.

Alternating grades along the ferny Thunderbolt Trail

top of the Thunderbolt Trail on Mt. Greylock

crossing the road just below the summit

Clearing at the summit of Mt. Greylock

The course swings around the path that circles the tower up there, bypasses Hogwarts, then drops past Bascom Lodge and reaches a water station. I quickly refilled my carry bottle and then took off again. The course then drops over exposed ledges in the forest to the road, then begins a grueling traverse of a very rocky and rooty section along the Overlook Trail on the mountain’s west flank. Really adept technical trail runners can excel here, and some did, but I just felt clumsy and decided to let the pack I was with slip away from me in favor of keeping my front teeth intact.

a highly runnable section of The Hopper Trail, a little over a mile from the summit

Eventually you reach a runnable stretch of the Hopper / Deer Hill / CCC Dynamite Trails, then you have to ascend the Sperry Campground access road for a bit to a second water station. I walked that uphill. After that there’s about a mile and a half out to Jones Nose. Compared to the first three miles it’s mostly flat, but there are lots of small dips and climbs along the way, and after catching a toe on a rock I fell hard while crossing a small stream. I let out a loud "Ow!" when I landed. The guy ahead of me pulled away out of sight, and the woman just behind me checked to make sure I was OK. I was—mostly just pride. But my pace slowed even more afterwards.

The descent off Jones Nose was steeper than I’d remembered and I was surprised that I wasn’t running faster as I picked my way down the ledges. Coming out into the spectacularly scenic open field section, a woman passing me exclaimed, “now THIS is bucolic!”; she was not wrong. 

The view that greets runners coming down off of Jones Nose during the Mt. Greylock Half Marathon. (Photo by Ben Kimball)
The view that greets runners coming down off of Jones Nose during the Mt. Greylock Half Marathon.

Just after the final staffed water station (where I first realized how far behind my goal time I was), I recognized my final mistake: I’d forgotten to bring any salt tablets. It had gotten pretty hot by this point, and I felt the first familiar hamstring twinges soon after. Despite chomping on some cran-razz Clif shots and glugging as much water as I could, the actual cramps kicked in about a half-mile later, and they persisted for the rest of the race. As if on a schedule, my hamstrings seized up about every half mile, making me slow way down and occasionally walk to make the cramps go away. Frustrating.

I can’t say I love the final four miles of the course. It follows old fire roads down, then up, then dowwwwwn, and frankly the eroded ruggedness of it gets a little old, especially compared to the fun narrow singletrack trails earlier on. Another runner/blogger referred to it as "relentless loose-rock doubletrack"; not a particularly appealing description, right? Around mile 12 it gets nice again, though. There were a few steep drops, a couple more cramps, and a brief ascent before the final descent to the finish. My time was 2 hours and 56 minutes. A solid half-hour slower than I’d estimated and should have been capable of. I was disappointed in my time and pretty taken aback by my final place in the pack. 

My creaky finish. (Photo by Jen Garrett)

So how did I lose half an hour off my pace between the summit (when I was right on target) and the finish? I'm guessing 1/3 insufficient training, 1/3 hamstring cramping, and 1/3 plain ol' spare-tire-induced inefficiency (reality check: it's probably time to ease off the Newman-O's and goldfish, self...).

A guy I've seen at a bunch of Grand Tree trail races said to a friend just after finishing, "there is nothing easy about that race."

By the food at the finish, I spoke briefly with the winner of the race, all-around good guy Tim Van Orden of Bennington, VT, who must have not touched the ground much during his mere 1 hour and 43 minutes(!) of sprinting on the course (that is an astonishingly fast time). He suggested I try swishing some relish around in my mouth to make the cramps subside (something about the mix of vinegar and sugar). And by golly, he was right about that.

Again, the organization is great, the company top notch, and the scenery as good as it gets. And there’s a post-race barbeque. Plus I got to wash off in a waterfall about a quarter mile down the road, and Jen and I went to the nice outside patio by the bike path at CJ’s pub in Adams after that. But it simply was not the race I’d imagined.

So yeah, not my finest 3 hours. But, a silver lining: I set the bar pretty low for myself for next year.

For a more consistently runnable 13-mile loop on Mt. Greylock (except for the very steep ascent of Mt. Prospect), check out site #3 on p. 18 in my guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts.

An abridged version of this post appears as an article on page 21 of the July/August issue of The Sugarloaf Sun, the newsletter (that I am the current editor of) of the Sugarloaf Mtn. Athletic Club (SMAC). 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Here Be Tygers

Source of All Waters. Here Be Tygers. Hell, Michigan. Nothing. Zap. People have put some pretty intriguing place names and labels on maps. Some that have caught my eye and piqued my exploratory interest over the years include Lost Pass, Ice Gulch, the Sluiceway Trail, Castellated Ridge, Titan's Piazza, Tumbledown Mtn., The Horn, The Knife Edge, Pumpkin Spring, and the Sinks of Gandy. All worth the journeys, for various reasons.

The area called Satan's Kingdom is located just south of Vermont in the northwest part of Northfield, MA, between Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River. I first became aware of it about ten years or so ago while perusing a USGS map of far southwestern NH with a co-worker at the NH Natural Heritage Program. The name immediately leapt out at us, as did the crazy patterning of the topography of part of the area. I'm sure there's a neat story behind the geology, and a "that makes sense" story behind the name.

Satan's Kingdom on a USGS topo map (CT River on right)

Fast forward to two years ago when I was researching good trail sites to include in Trail Running Western Massachusetts. The area certainly came to mind as a possibility since much of it is state-owned and it seems like a place where there should be good trails to run on. I ruled it out as a profile site pretty quickly, however, because I couldn't find any evidence of public trails or access or parking there.

Fast forward again to a few weeks ago. I've been living just south of the area since last fall, and recently found a map for a recommended 3-mile hiking trail there posted on the Town of Northfield's website. Well, I can't report that the map offered there is as useful as it might be. It shows a suggested lollipop route but doesn't show any topography or any of the connecting side trails or spur paths, etc., which makes it very challenging to use in the field. That said, it got me out there exploring and mapping on my own, and for that I am very grateful.

singletrack section of trail along an upland "bench" in Satan's Kingdom

Starting from a parking area with room for 10 or so vehicles just off Old Vernon Rd, the way in is through the closed metal gate and down a wide dirt road. After passing a small wetland, the road quickly begins a steep ascent to a junction with a snowmobile trail network leading off to the left. The road veers right and levels off, then undulates for a bit as it heads northwest into the property just uphill from West Wait Brook. There are several more junctions on the left, and soon you pass through some partially open areas and cut-over areas. The grass in these spots was about ankle-high when I went, but I would imagine it gets taller in summer.

After ascending through the first open area, the trail splits with one fork going sharply left up the hill towards an old cabin, and the the other leading more or less straight along a somewhat overgrown route. From here you can either go left for the 3-mile lollipop option or straight for the 4+-mile lollipop loop option (keep taking lefts if you choose this second way). Both routes will/can bring you up to to a forested "bench" along the hillside. A pleasant singletrack path leads north along the bench, and a short spur path to the left brings you to a partial view southeast out over a cut-over area to the mountains on the eastern side of the valley.

Land ownership there appears to be as complicated as the topography, but much of it seems to be either a WMA or Northfield State Forest. I did not explore on any non-public properties, though I didn't see any No Trespassing signs either. Hunting is both allowed and popular here, so be sure to be aware and wear bright orange during hunting season(s).

Here is a map and photos of the routes I've explored at Satan's Kingdom:

entrance to Satan's Kingdom (the parking area is in a bit from the road)

ascending the access road at Satan's Kingdom

access road at Satan's Kingdom

the dilapidated old cabin along the old road in Satan's Kingdom

singletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

singletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

singletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

doubletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

the partial view southeast across the CT River Valley to mountains above Northfield, MA

In the end, there's nothing particularly hellish about this part of Satan's Kingdom, though I can imagine the mosquitoes, blackflies, and deerflies all getting pretty bad at times. Worth a visit sometime, and hikers and trail runners alike can make challenging 3-ish or 4-ish mile lollipop loops out of it.