Monday, December 31, 2018

Enduring the Earlydark Days

Technically the darkest day of the year is the one with, naturally, the least amount of daylight (i.e., Winter Solstice), which was Friday, Dec. 21. But for those of us in the Pioneer Valley region of western MA, the earliest sunsets of 2018 fell on Dec. 8 and 9, when the daytimes ended at 4:16 p.m. For the six days before and the six days after, the sunsets occurred at 4:17 p.m. And for those of us who are in no way morning people, that two-week window from Dec. 2 to Dec. 15 was the true darkest time of the year. I do my runs in the evenings after work, and I’m more affected by that early December time of earlydark than I am by the upcoming mid-January days when it may seem darker (likely due to the limiting factors of ice and snow on our regular running routes).

To be clear, I’m not complaining. I actually like the dark, and don’t mind if I need to bundle up, pop on a headlamp, or don reflective bands to finish a run. It’s just part of life here in New England. And I quite like life here in New England. We come up with ways to motivate ourselves and keep training, and before we know it the earlydark days are done.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t still other challenges. Last year I wrote an article in my running club's newsletter specifically about how I generally don’t find November as tough to take as many others seem to (see p. 28 here). It probably helps that it’s my birthday month, and I’m more or less at peace with aging (we’re human; it’s what we do). This year, however, November tested even me.

With weeks of below average temps and several early snowfalls that took their sweet time melting, we runners had to tap into our Winter Motivation reserves about a month or two ahead of time. Thanksgiving morning races in particular presented an existential conundrum: get up and overdress for running because it was ten degrees out and windy with snow/ice on most surfaces, or, you know... don’t do that. To their credit, many local runners chose the admirable, tough-as-nails option and got out the door. That is a tribe I want to be a part of!

NOTE: This post is an excerpt from a column in the latest issue of the newsletter that I'm the editor for, The Sugarloaf Sun (a publication of the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club). See the rest of that issue here on the club's website:
cover of The Sugarloaf Sun (1/1/19 issue)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Renewal at the Ray Brown Memorial 9K for K9 Trail Run

[Wendell State Forest, November 18]


The start pistol cracked (loudly) and our huddle of warm-hat wearing runners suddenly sprang to life. Surging forward, we passed scenic Ruggles Pond on the right, blissfully calm and breeze-free at that time of the morning, and then an impressive (given the chilly conditions) throng of cheering volunteers and spectators in the icy picnic area to our left. 

The first hundred feet or so of the course were flat and everyone moved swiftly, but then we abruptly began ascending the first hill. I watched several of the obvious race leaders pull away, including Mark Rabasco, Barney Collins, Garth Shaneyfelt, Sean Dacus, and Patrick Pezzati. I briefly kept pace with Mike Barlow and Brian Williams, but soon they too pulled away ahead of me. Part of me wanted to give chase, but I kept my speed in check (which was not hard to do), and honestly, I was happy to just be there.


In late summer I found myself experiencing a severe pain in my ribs and had trouble taking complete breaths. I even spent 2 nights sleeping upright in a recliner. I also developed a bad cough, and after a worrisome but inconclusive chest x-ray was treated for probable pneumonia. The prednisone made me feel better and I tried some runs, but the slightest uphill made me feel like I’d never run a single step before.

When I didn’t really get better after 5 or 6 weeks, I went in for a CT scan of my chest. On my drive home to Greenfield from Cooley-Dickinson in NoHo, I got a call from the head pulmonologist telling me to immediately turn around and go check myself into the ER. It turns out I had several blood clots and fluid buildup in my lungs. So that was a little scary.

Between blood thinners, rest, and natural dissolving, the clots began to go away and by mid-November my recovery was well underway (though I still needed to go in for echoes, ultrasounds, a repeat CT scan, and a full-body bone scan). So this race was meaningful. It was my first real hard effort since the summer, and it felt good to be among my tribe again.


Anyway, at the top of the initial climb the course leveled off and continued along the rolling dirt roads of Wendell State Forest. This portion had been plowed, so the running was fairly easy, though there were occasional slick muddy spots. I found myself among the three lead women, each of whom seemed surprised and delighted to be the possible lead woman. They chatted with each other for a while, until everyone eventually went silent and saved oxygen for the task at hand.

After passing Wickett Pond there was a steep climb for a quarter mile or so, followed by a more gradual rise, and then a right turn onto an unplowed dirt section where the going got tough. A truck had driven through earlier and the tire tracks through the two inches of snow frequently created an icy slick for us to run on, which was especially treacherous on the downhills. I’d seen earlier that Jodi McIntyre had screwed bolts into her shoes, and at that point I felt pretty jealous as I slid all over the place trying to keep my balance and maintain some semblance of speed. Also, the narrowness of the tracks made me realize just how duckfooted I am when I run (kick, kick, kick).

The course featured one more really big climb (up Brook Road), and two of the lead women, Nicole Duprey and Molly MacMunn, left me in the dust on it. Then it was basically downhill and rolling all the way back to the finish. Crossing the line back at Ruggles Pond, I took a popsicle stick for 13th place from Laure Van den Broeck Raffensperger and then handed it off to her husband Tom over at the results board. 

Finishing feeling... fine! (photo by Chandra Hancock)

This brand-new mid-distance race on the rolling dirt roads of Wendell State Forest attracted a sizable crowd of runners ready to take on the challenging conditions. With start-time temps in the 30s and several miles of the course covered in a few inches of snow, no one was likely to PR yet nearly everyone probably did, because I mean when was the last time you raced a 9K? Event MC and co-RD Patrick Pezzati planned and marked the course, announced at the start and awards, and even ran the race himself (4th place overall, in 42:54!). The event was a fundraiser for Friends of the Franklin County Regional Dog Shelter, and held in memory of Ray Brown, who was Superintendent and CFO for the Sheriff’s Office in Turners Falls.

the course

I love running trails at Wendell, but it turns out I also enjoy racing on the dirt roads there. It’ll be interesting to see how much times improve next November if there’s no snow; I hope to be there to improve my own time either way. Full Results 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Going Up: Mountain Climbing for Runners

Before I was a runner I was a hiker. My father took my brother and me hiking in Acadia nearly every week when we were little. The park was literally in our backyard, so getting to trailheads didn’t take very long and we knew how to avoid crowded areas in the summer (though it was a lot less crowded in general back then; it was the ‘70s after all).

The hikes made for some of our best family time. My brother and I really enjoyed the cold sodas that Dad bought and packed to the top for us (Orange Crush! RC Cola! Mello Yello! Just plain Coke!), and those pink granite summit ledges quickly became my favorite place to be as a kid (well, after the Star-Wars-toy aisle up at Woolworths, that is).

By fourth grade I’d made it to the summit of nearly every peak in the park. By fifth grade I’d climbed Katahdin, and by the end of high-school I’d made it to the top of every mountain in Acadia (and obsessively set foot on every foot of every trail on the entire island; I still have the old AMC map full of orange magic-marker lines that I used to track my progress). The thrill of making it to the top of new peaks never got old.

All of which is just to say that the climbing came first for me. Running started as a lark one day when, as Dad and my brother and I descended the north ridge of Dorr Mountain, we decided to just let gravity win. Instead of carefully stepping as we made our way down, we just did what our bodies wanted us to do: we stopped braking and ran. Down the open ledges, flying over occasional drops, leaping off rocks, and sometimes swinging on tree branches. Dangerously but thrillingly, the precise placement of a next footfall was decided in mid-air. We whooped, we hollered, and we laughed, and it was so much freaking fun. At the bottom, we knew we’d just established a grand new family tradition. The climb, which did come first, led the way to superb descent delights.

Over time, however, the running spread to more than just downhills. Hiking boots gave way to trail shoes. And the big backpacks of yore evolved into hydration vests while Nalgene bottles morphed into handheld carry bottles. It was the mid-90s, and I learned about trail running. The national magazines and websites didn’t exist yet, but a now-defunct regional journal called Running Wild chronicled all aspects of the northeastern trail running scene.

Today, runners here where I live in the Pioneer Valley area of western Massachusetts are fortunate to have a bounty of appealing local peaks to scamper around on. Among the mountains that offer enjoyable runs (both up and down) are Mt. Warner in Hadley (a 2-mile loop); Mt. Tom in Holyoke/Easthampton (many miles of options); Mt. Toby in Sunderland/Montague (run up the fire road, soar down the RFT on Cranberry Ridge); Sugarloaf; Pocumtuck Ridge; Greenfield Ridge; Northfield Mountain (the Rose Ledge Trail loop is terrific); Mt. Grace; and Moore Hill in DAR State Forest (try the lovely NEMBA Trail). So many fun options.

Mountain running basically combines nearly everything I love into one enticing activity. I run roads and tracks too, for variety and training, but my heart is still out in the hills, freely flowing up and over those peaks with wild abandon and joy.

Ben is the author of the guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts and the editor of the newsletter of the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club, The Sugarloaf Sun

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Wet Hot American Summer

Somewhere around late July it started to get a bit old. Earlier in the summer, I raved glowingly about the near-perfect weather we’d been having here in western Massachusetts (see the From the Editor column in the July/August issue of SMAC's newsletter, The Sugarloaf Sun. Well. What a difference a few months make.

After a brief early flirtation with drought conditions, we endured several heat waves, multiple deluge-like downpours, and long stretches of high humidity and sticky surfaces. And while it might not have been the most consistently stormy summer on record, thunderstorms were not uncommon. In mid-August, a disenchanted running friend was observed forlornly posting online: “Cloudy, muggy, chance of rain... like every day before and every day to come…”. Many local runners training for the first New England Green River Marathon found it a challenge to pick out sensible or comfortable windows for getting their long runs in.

But still, it was summer. And for my part I know I did my level best to live it up while I could. Mountainy trail runs, cool dips in rivers and lakes and ponds, bike rides just for the bit of breeze you could get on them, and warm dinners outside in the twilight at any restaurant with a patio. I may like fall the best, and hey maybe I do play 2nd favorites with winter, but I firmly believe there’s much to be savored in every season, and I don’t plan to start actually complaining about any of them now. Not for more than a few sentences, at any rate. Life’s too short for whining any more than that. As I heard a woman on the radio say, “It’s just weather; you like it or not.”

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The First New England Green River Marathon

On August 26, several hundred smiling athletes ran the first ever New England Green River Marathon. I'd been on the planning committee for it, and was also the official race photographer (see the full photo gallery here, or a highlights album here). Now, a week afterwards, I'm so pleased to report that overall we can call it a terrific success.  

Runners responded to a post-race survey with lots of rave reviews, heartfelt kudos, and helpful suggestions. The weather cooperated and on race day we had a rather pleasant morning with mostly overcast skies for the first part of the run. The temps never rose too high, and the humidity wasn’t crushing. The sun came out in full force for the final road miles where it did warm up, but by then runners were close enough to taste the sweet thrill of victory awaiting them at the finish line at Greenfield Community College. 

the start at Marlboro College (photos by Ben Kimball unless otherwise noted)

the bridge at mile 10 (photo by Matt Cavanaugh)

L: Overall race winner Meg Brockett in full stride at mile 12.
R: Erica Belanger finishes at Greenfield Community College.

cooling off at mile 23

Race directors Tom and Laure Van den Broeck Raffensperger deserve heaps of praise, not just for making it all happen but doing it in style. The whole thing felt very professional and the overall eco-friendly vibe was unmistakable. Asked afterwards for a quick overview statement, Tom said: “Despite a few harrowing moments, the race went better than I could have hoped for, and the credit goes to the all-volunteer race committee, our community partners, and all our race-day volunteers.” 

Speaking of volunteers: they came out in droves on race day, doing everything from from getting runners to the start, to staffing aid stations, to working the finish line. Several people even toiled tirelessly from well before dawn in a big rental truck dropping off (and later picking up) supplies at all the aid stations. It was so heartening to see so much vigorous support for the event. Help came from afar too; the wife of a runner from Maine even volunteered for several hours handing out cups of water and Gatorade at the mile 10 aid station. A huge thank you goes out to everyone for giving it their all and making this first year a real success.

 Runners on Green River Road alongside the super-scenic Green River at mile 12

Make sure to read Patrick Pezzati’s awesome article the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of SMAC's newsletter in which he shares his unique perspectives on the marathon, both as lead bike ahead of the runners and as the announcer at the finish line. His guidance was crucial during the race for first place, and his enthusiastic fervor as MC at the finish line was greatly appreciated by everyone involved. [EDIT: Another excellent article about the event was written a few months later by Jennifer York, who ran the race; see it on p. 4 of the 2018 Annual issue of SMAC's newsletter.]

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Trail Running Acadia, Part 3

Three years ago I wrote a post about trail running in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine (see it here), and then a few months later I had an article published in New England Runner about running on the island in general (see the article here). And then, last year, I did a follow-up post called Part 2. Keeping that same running commentary going, here's Part 3.

dropping down the south ridge of Gorham Mountain in Acadia

Once again, Jen and I took an August trip to Acadia to visit family and seek out fun summer adventures in the park (preferably away from crowds as much as possible). This visit was a super-abbreviated one because, although we planned to stay with my mother for a full week, Jen's 96-year-old great aunt out on the Cape was in her final days. Jen had been going out there to help take care of her for years, and this wasn't a surprise but it was a surprise that it happened just as our vacation started. Oh well, what are you gonna do. Anyway, the downshot was that we only had 3 days on the island. The upshot is that we made the most of it and really enjoyed ourselves while we were there.

Run 1: Mansell Mountain / Long Pond

On day 1 (August 6) we returned to a known fun section of trails on the western side of the island where we knew the crowds would be light. It turned out the crowds were REALLY light, and we had the Pine Hill parking area entirely to ourselves again.

we found a spot

We ran up the Great Notch Trail to the first junction, then turned left and descended Great Pond Trail to the western shore of Long Pond. The drop to the pond took longer than I remembered, and the footing was pretty rough at first. But it got more fun the lower we went, and by the time we were nearing the lake we were flying along in full stride down the delightfully soft trail, past mossy outcrops, and over occasional bridges and boardwalks. It was the middle of a heat wave and I melt in heat, so we stopped at one of the awesome ledges and I swam around in the lake for a bit. Then we continued south along the edge of the lake to the base of the Perpendicular Trail. After a brief wetting of our caps in the water, we took off up the talus slope and climbed the endless stone steps to the vista ledges a quarter mile or so below the top.

dropping down to the lake

dry boards

dry creek

swimming ledge

lakeside stroll

more lakeside stroll

climbing the Perpendicular Trail

most of the way up Mansell

From the ledge, we jogged up and over the top of Mansell Mountain and down to the Razorback Trail. At this point, we realized that it was really hot out, and we were both nearly out of water in our hydration packs even though we were only a few miles into the run. So we decided to abbreviate our run and head back to the car. Which was fine; we enjoyed ourselves and went for a nice cool-down swim in Somes Pond afterward.

Run 2: Ocean Drive at Dawn

On day 2 (Aug. 7), we got up before dawn (a miracle for me) and headed over to Ocean Drive to beat the heat and the crowds. We started our run from the empty parking lot at Fabri and did Ocean Drive in reverse to where the Shore Path starts on the southwest side of Otter Point. The sun rose over the ocean as we rounded Otter Point, and it was as majestic as we'd hoped. Up and over Otter Cliffs and then down and alongside Ocean Drive to Sand Beach, with a little side trip to Thunder Hole (which was doing nothing as the tide was all wrong at the time). One more climb and then a drop down to Sand Beach.

Sand Beach and The Beehive from Great Head

climbing The Beehive Trail

summit ledges of The Beehive

The Bowl, with Champlain Mountain behind it

Gorham Mtn. summit

flying down Gorham Mountain

On the far side of Sand Beach I anticipated needing to cross the brook, but it was all dried up due to the drought. We climbed up Great Head and navigated the very rocky trail around the perimeter. The footing was tough but the scenery is so worth it. The heat was intense, though. The temps were already in the 80s and the humidity was so high the air itself seemed to be sopping wet even though it was sunny out. It was barely an hour into the day and we were sweating buckets.

Jen had never climbed either The Precipice or The Beehive, so I made the call that she really needed to at least do one of them, just... because. So up The Beehive Trail we went. The initial climb from Ocean Drive was slightly longer and steeper than I'd remembered, but we worked our way up and then started up the side of the mountain proper.

Now, I'd hiked both The Precipice and The Beehive many times in my youth. Not once do I remember ever actually being scared or anxious. It was always just thrilling and cool. And in the case of The Beehive, I had it in my head as the easy younger sibling of The Precipice. Well. I don't know if I just got older, or if it was the combination of our sweat and the gallons of slippery sunscreen that we'd slathered on and that was making our hands so slippery, but dang. The Beehive was kind of freaky! A few of the iron rung sections, and definitely the iron bridges, seemed especially vertiginous and dangerous. But eventually we reached the top and I could tell that Jen had quickly transitioned from fear to enjoyment, and she was already plotting our return visit on a drier day.

On the other side of the summit, we took a quick dip in The Bowl to cool off. Then we made our way over to Gorham Mountain for the final climb and ridge descent of the day. On the other side, we took the new-to-me spur trail west over to the Fabri road (this trail serves as a connector to Blackwoods Campground and keeps hikers off the busy road; a very nice new addition to the trail network).

Run 3: Loop of Great Notch Trail and the Razorback Trail

On day 3 we split our running into two parts. Part 1 was a return to Western Mountain because I wanted Jen to see the southern part of the Razorback Trail (which we had originally planned to include as part of our route on day 1). So we did a little 2+ mile loop starting and ending at the small and relatively remote Gilley Field parking area. We slowly climbed up the south end of the Great Notch Trail, then climbed to the top of Razorback and enjoyed the hell out of the super-scenic descent along the semi-open ridge. The only not-good part is at the very bottom where the trail is basically just a bunch of loose small boulders and cobbles.

descending the Razorback Trail

Part 2 was a loop at Flying Mountain. It had been a long time since I'd been there, and it seemed like a nice short trip that fit well in our day. It was very hot again, so we didn't want to be out long anyway. So we slowly climbed up the south side, took some photos at the top, and dropped down to Valley Cove on the north side. The descent was quite fun. Normally I find the ocean super cold at MDI, but man it was really hot out, so we stripped to our shorts (and jog bra for Jen) and took a quick dip in Valley Cove. Which felt fantastic! I'm not sure I'd ever actually swam there before. After splashing about and watching hermit crabs for a while, we eventually returned via the fire road trail through the notch between Flying Mtn. and St. Sauveur.

summit of Flying Mountain

approaching Valley Cove

Valley Cove panorama

And then we had to leave. Jen got word that her Great Aunt was probably in her final days out on Cape Cod and we made the decision to abandon our vacation early the next morning. We made the right call, as she passed away only a few days later, and Jen was there for it with her sister, as it should have been.

On our way back to western Massachusetts, we stopped in at my friend Molly's ice cream place just off the island in Ellsworth, to say hello and treat ourselves to some terrific treats. And about an hour later we drove straight into what really looked like a tornado on the highway near Newport (it was just a shelf cloud in a really powerful weather front that was moving through).

a real pulse-quickener