Thursday, March 7, 2019

Winter's Finest: A 25K Snowshoe Race

By late February a lot of people here in western MA were ready for spring. Not because it had been an especially snowy or cold winter, but because they were just understandably sick of icy sidewalks, AWOL road shoulders, and muscles that won't loosen up sometime in the first mile or five. Many of our trails lacked snow cover but featured exquisitely treacherous ice ribbons better suited for skating than running or even hiking. It had definitely been THAT kind of winter.

But it was a different story just across the border up in Vermont. The southern Green Mountains and adjacent northern Taconics (see regional map) kept collecting snow, as they often do in later winter. Ski areas did well, and snowshoe races continued quietly (too quietly, I fear; I hope they see a bump in numbers next year) throughout the season. Which of course made ME happy, as I'm a well established winter lover.

On Sunday, March 3, I ran the 25K race at the Merck Ultra snowshoe races (formerly advertised as the "Mystery Ultra" earlier in the season) at Merck Forest near Dorset, VT. The race was part of a series put on by Nor'East Trail Runs. The weather was perfect for it, with a few inches of fresh fluffy snow on the ground covering up the occasional icy patch, and the temperatures hovered around 30 degrees.

The Sap House at Merck Forest

The course consisted of two out-and-back segments, one long and one short (both hard). The longer segment climbed steadily up Old Town Road and Antone Road to a cabin in Clark's Clearing, then up a steep part of Antone Road, then down Wade Lot Rd to the cabin in the clearing at Ned's Place, and then up a convoluted series of trails (including a really steep singletrack section) to the top of Antone Mountain (2600). And then back. The shorter segment rose briefly from the aid station at the start/finish area, passed across an open field, and then descended (gently at first and then steeply), to Stone Lot Cabin. And then back. The 25K race included 2 of each segment. Official trail map for the property here.

Snow conditions were really good. You could usually get pretty good purchase on ascents, and you never slipped around too much on descents. Probably the first people out on the 50K race, which started 2 hours earlier than the 25K, had to break trail a bit, but there wasn't that much fresh powder and I'd imagine that it wasn't too much of a hardship for the leaders. I didn't bother wearing gaiters, and didn't need them (although there were a few descents where I kicked up enough powder to get some in my socks and shoes).

gorgeous frosted forest on the way up Antone Mountain

panoramic shot from a vista on Antone Mountain

dropping into Clark's Clearing (photo by Jennifer Garrett)

good snowshoe running conditions! (photo by Jennifer Garrett)

Bernie Gee (winner of the 25K race)

While I was out running around the white woods with tennis racquets on my feet (for over FOUR HOURS), Jen moved about the property on her backcountry skis and apparently had a terrific time on her own adventure. Her circuit coincided with our trail for about half of the big out-and-back to Antone, and she took a few photos of us when our paths crossed.

Since there were so few runners in either race, and each person went at their own pace and took different amounts of time at the aid station, etc., it was an inherently solo affair for most of the time. But I still spent a few moments with fellow runners Bernie Gee (who won the 25K), Ethan Nedeau (who was a really fast 25K as a drop-down from the 50K), and Candi Christenson (who has run four other snowshoe and/or mountain races this winter right around the same pace as me), as well as a friendly guy named Matthew and a young guy who'd never run in snowshoes before but did quite well, considering. There were a few guys doing the 50K who astonished me every single time I saw them because they seemed to be running really fast, even up the hills; those are some TOUGH dudes (I saw the leader sitting on the picnic table bench at the aid station with just 3 more miles to go, sighing about being pretty deep in the "pain cave.")

the field with a view near Ned's Place

finishing (photo by Jennifer Garrett)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Winter Wild: Ascutney

It's been a long time since I participated in one of the Winter Wild events... dang, it's been a REALLY long time. Like, since before I moved away from New Hampshire back in 2011, I think (see old blog post here). I guess that's one of effects of moving south. That and having only hiked in the White Mountains once since then. Anyway, this past weekend I broke the dry spell with Winter Wild Ascutney, a 5K night race in east-central Vermont.

On February 16, Jen and I headed up I-91 to the mountain in late afternoon, and I signed up in time to allow myself a good mile-long warmup jog on a loop road at the base of the ski area. I also took a second warmup once I'd put my spikes on. It was pretty cold out, so the warmups were essential for getting me warm enough to consider removing my jacket. Which was totally the right call as you definitely don't want to be wearing too much once you start running up a ski slope.

Snow conditions were highly variable, with everything underfoot from bare ice to a few inches of powder to glazy crust over half a foot of super-soft fluffy stuff. Most of us opted to wear microspikes, though some wore nanospikes, Yaktrax, or snowshoes, and a few brave souls even didn't wear any traction at all (I have no idea how that could have worked). Normally you can choose to use all sorts of gear at the Winter Wilds, but no one was allowed to use skis here at this one since it was a night race and only the lowest portion of the slope was lit up. Headlamps were required the whole way.

 headlamps in the twilight

 that's me in all black near the right edge of the photo

and they're off!
(photos by Jen Garrett)

The start went off right at twilight. The crowd of about 90 racers surged up the slope towards the vague outline of the mountain looming above us in the darkness. Within about a quarter of a mile the leaders had sprinted well ahead of the pack, but most of us remained clumped together as we ran out of breath and slowed to a mere jog.

In retrospect I wish I'd spent a little extra energy to get further ahead here. I didn't have much more in me, but soon we hit a switchbacky section on narrow singletrack and the pace slowed significantly as many of us got stuck behind people who'd gone out too fast. I didn't want to go a lot faster, but I did want to go a little faster. A consolation, however, was that the sight of dozens of headlamps winding up the slope through the trees ahead, lighting up the snow as they went, was an absolutely gorgeous sight. Magical even.

Eventually we reached a long, steady, curving climb up ski slopes, and the line stretched out slightly. I passed a few people but then got passed by a few others, including a couple of awesome young kids (maybe 10 years old?) who were running up with their parents. My watch told me it took just over 20 minutes to climb the first mile. The traction was generally pretty good, though sometimes our feet slipped backwards and the occasional patches of glare ice were a bit disconcerting.

The climb continued, and the grade steepened slightly near the top. It felt like we'd slowed to a crawl. The top of the climb was about 2/3 of the way up the mountain; we began descending from it very quickly once we reached it. The descent was definitely faster, but it took some effort to ensure safe purchase even with the spikes. I could have run with wilder abandon, but I kept thinking about how I've been on blood thinners since November (full story behind that here), and I'm not looking forward to my first bloody injury on them. My second mile actually took 22 minutes.

The final mile was far and away the most fun. Most of it was on swoopy, switchbacking singletrack trail, and again it was a delight to see the lights ahead (fewer this time) bobbing through the woods below. It was a little hard to find the right way when we came back out onto ski trails (and viewing the Strava flyby video reveals a few wrong turns in this area), but I was keeping pace with a young woman named Paige and between the two of us we managed to stay on course with no time lost.

descending under the moon; that's actually me during a warm-up jog

I finished in just under an hour, and had a blast. Jen was at the line, shivering almost uncontrollably as it took me a bit longer than I'd estimated and she'd been standing out there in the cold night air for quite a while. She got some great (if a bit understandably grainy) shots of the start on her phone, though, and I'm really grateful that she was there to support me.

start and finish were at the base of the ski trails (upper left on the map)

There seemed to be a fairly boisterous social scene in the lodge at the end, but we left before the awards. I came in about mid-pack and had no chance of winning anything, but mostly we left because we were chilled and hungry and wanted to head to a restaurant on our way home (we ended up stopping at a place in Bellows Falls). Overall it was a very well run event and I have no complaints at all. If it's on again next year, I'd definitely consider going back for more!

Monday, February 11, 2019

a snowshoe half marathon

Yesterday I ran the Nor'easter Snowshoe Half-Marathon at Viking Nordic Center in Londonderry, VT. Jen came too, and ran the 10K race, and our friends Tom and Laure also did the half. Though it was sunny out, temps were in the teens and there was a steady breeze the whole morning, so it felt quite cold and never really felt like it warmed up much. We had run a 10K race there under similar conditions a few weeks before, however, and dressed accordingly.

finishing loop 3 at Viking Nordic (photo by Jen)

The half marathon was supposed to be 4 laps of a winding course around the Nordic center (with the 10K being about half that), but due to a communication mix-up that I won't dwell on here, the course markings got switched at the last minute and no one ran the first lap correctly. At the next intersection after the mis-marked one runners had to choose which way to go, and then again at the next one, etc. I was in a small cohort of runners with one guy in sight about 50 ft. ahead and the lead woman usually just out of sight around the next curve. I followed them, hoping they were following someone ahead of them who knew where they were going. It wasn't too be, though, and my first "loop" ended up being about 5 miles.

I admit, it felt a little frustrating to be out there climbing up and down steep hills not knowing whether we were even remotely on course, but fairly quickly I adjusted my attitude and tried my best to explain what seemed to be going on to one of the race directors. The faulty marking wasn't their fault, and they rallied and corrected the course as quick as they could. Some people used their GPS watches to adjust one of their loops, though it seemed like no one ended up with the same distance (though who ever does, trail racing?). I decided to just run my next 3 loops as designed, and ended up with a 14.25-mile half marathon. Oh well. We were all just out there to have fun anyway.

(loop 2 photos courtesy Nor'east Trail Runs)

I actually felt really good most of the way. I did need to make an unfortunate time-consuming pit stop after the first lap (TMI alert!), and my energy gel break after the second lap took too long because I needed to cross an icy patch to get to my stuff, but my fitness seems to have returned (see previous blog post) and I never bonked. When I completed my third lap I passed by Jen and her phone camera at the start/finish line; she'd finished her 10K and was standing out in the cold taking pics of the other racers as they came in (getting pretty chilled in the process!). By mile 14 or so I was all alone out there, and I think I might have actually been the last person out on the course.

the first 5 miles are all loop 1

round and around them thar hills

starting out on the last loop, feeling good

I think that might have also been the farthest I've ever run on snowshoes, and I'm really pleased that I came away spent but not destroyed. I did sleep for 10 hours last night, though.

The race directors fully acknowledged the course-marking issue and actually went well out of their way to make it up to us. I'd still highly recommend making a trip to one of their events. The vibe is great, the swag is top-notch, and the snow conditions were and have been some of the best around this winter.

neato icejam scultpure along the West River
on the way home

medical stuff

At some point I need to write about a medical mystery thing that happened to me last year (because this is kind of therapy for me). As it's been an ongoing assessment, I've held off. Comprehensive answers have proven elusive. But recently a few of the component pieces have cleared up and I suppose now's as good a time as any to plunk down a synopsis.

So. The story so far:

In late summer of 2018, around Labor Day, 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. It was a weird fall.

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 Northampton, 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 (pleural effusion) in my lungs. So that was a little scary.

me, hooked up to more wires than I generally prefer, and sporting some sweet hat-head hair

I have to note, the staff at the ER at Cooley-Dickinson was incredibly awesome, and they really made me feel like a rock star. Several of them recognized my name from the trail running guidebook, and I actually got asked, "so, are you THE Ben Kimball?" Day: made. Trail runners are my tribe, and they are AWESOME.

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). I ran a test "race" (the Ray Brown 9K for K9 at Wendell State Forest) that seemed to go OK. I started to monitor my estimated VO2 Max levels using my Garmin watch and the corresponding app (now I'm addicted), and the number was slowly but steadily inching its way back up from a level that might as well have been labelled "sad / rather mediocre."

The next round of scans looked promising. The clots were definitely shrinking on their own and the pleural effusion was shrinking. By the start of the new year I could run hills again, though I was stopping a lot to let my HR recover and make sure I didn't overdo it. So far so good. Today I feel pretty close to being back to normal, though I'm still carrying around some extra weight from all the lack of exercise in the fall.

Last week I had another follow-up chest x-ray and the pleural effusion appeared all but gone. Whew. I still have one more round of scans in another month, but for the moment it looks OK. The big question remains, though: why did it happen? There's no obvious answer. I take diggers occasionally while trail running, but I don't recall anything too acute last year. What I DO remember was hitting my chest with the corner of my car door, hard, when I opened it while parked on a slope. The door flew back at me and the sharp metal top corner hit me right in the side. Ouch. Maybe a fracture? Who knows. The bone scan didn't show anything conclusive. My blood didn't show any tendencies towards clotting and there's nothing in my family history. And I was told at my most recent visit to the hospital that I "have the vitals of a teenager" (which made me feel really damn good). 

So, an "unprovoked" blood clotting episode then. Basically for me that means that I get to be on blood thinners for life. Which is fine. I can deal with that. Better than the alternative of another clot. That said, I've already done what I do very often, cut myself on a briar while on a trail run, and this was how I bled for about half an hour: 

my blood is really watery and orange now, and even small cuts just won't stop bleeding

I'm not sure what happens next. I've got my fingers crossed that it was a one-and-done episode, but the case isn't closed just yet. Time will tell. Maybe. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Another Year Around The Sun

collage of covers of all the 2018 issues of The Sugarloaf Sun

This collage of covers of all the 2018 issues of The Sugarloaf Sun, the newsletter of the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club, brings back a lot of memories for me. Mostly good ones, too, fortunately. You can browse many other back issues of the newsletter from the archive list on the club's website here

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.”