Friday, May 18, 2018

Mine Ledge

From Brattleboro, Vermont, it's hard to miss the towering mass of Mt. Wantastiquet looming large above the town just to the east across the Connecticut River. The wooded slope of the mountain's west face rises very steeply up from the river's edge and owns the scene. Most people in Brattleboro are familiar with the hiking trail that climbs for just under 2 miles to a clearing with a ledge and view out over town. But fewer are aware that the trail continues east from there (for quite a ways now, as part of the Wantastiquet-to-Monadnock Greenway) past the communications tower to Mine Ledge, Indian Pond, Daniels Mtn., Bear Mtn., Pisgah State Park, and more. One of the most dramatic vistas along the route, Mine Ledge, is only half a mile or so further along the trail from the Brattleboro vista on Wantastiquet.

Mine Ledge pano, looking west across Wantastiquet towards Vermont

On the afternoon of May 17, Jen and I set out to do a light after-work trail run to Mine Ledge and back. Conditions were great for it: a light breeze, partly cloudy with warm temps, and generally dry conditions (I've seen this route be pretty sloppy and slick in places in past springs). The eroded old dirt road that you use to climb to the vista from the bottom is fairly wide in most places and doesn't really feel much like a hiking trail. From the communications tower west, though, it's definitely much more of a singletrack hiking trail. It's surprisingly rugged as it undulates with the terrain along the summit plateau, rarely offering runners a chance to open up and get a good stride going. A little under two and a half miles from the start you arrive at the short spur trail to Mine Ledge.

My brightly clad hooves

Jen at Mine Ledge

That's a pretty sweet view.


There's not too much more to say about this outing, other than we turned around after a brief rest at Mine Ledge and ran back to the trailhead. We were able to run pretty much the entire way, and the nearly 2-mile long descent from the vista ledge is actually pretty great, if a bit rough in spots. Afterwards we treated ourselves to a decent dinner at a terrific spot over at the Top of the Hill Grill just north of downtown Brattleboro.

dining on the outdoor deck patio of Top of the Hill Grill in Brattleboro

Monday, May 14, 2018

Taconic Crest Trail Run

A few weeks ago I received an invite to run the full 37-mile length of the Taconic Crest Trail from end to end. The distance actually fit well into my current training schedule and I'm so glad I said yes. It's not very often that I get a chance to take part in a legitimately "epic" adventure. When I do, though, it's always a good reminder to seize every opportunity to do it more often and just make 'em happen.

Getting There

On Thursday evening I drove out to the MA/NY state line with Jason Sarouhan where we met up with Peter "Rocky" Rockland and left a car at southern end of the trail (thanks for the loan, Sheldon!). Then we drove north to the next major pass through the range, in the relatively remote town of Hancock, MA, where we met up with our fourth member, Andy Wells. There we left a second car with mid-run drop bags and water (someone thought to put the water jugs in a stream, which was a fantastic idea). Then we all headed up to Williamstown in the northwest corner of MA, where Andy and his family now live. Andy had rented us a sweet cottage and stocked it with all sorts of carbs and such. After a good if somewhat overlong dinner at a pub in town, we headed to bed and got what sleep we could muster.

We rose around dawn, grabbed some breakfast, finalized our gear prep, and were driven north by Andy's super-helpful, star-athlete daughter Lilliana to the start of the trail just across the NY state line from North Pownal, VT. After applying some last-minute sunscreen and bug spray, and chugging some water and beet juice, etc., we set off up the trail at exactly 6:30 a.m.

Our crew: Jason, me, Peter, Andy (photo by Jason Sarouhan)


The First Section

About a tenth of a mile from the trailhead the trail started shooting straight up the super-steep slope and there was no question of running. Eventually the grade lessened, though, and we made pretty good time. And then the trail began its day-long habit of steeply rising and falling up and down every peak on the crest of the ridge. For the most part we hiked all uphills and gently ran most flats and all downhills.

one of the very steep climbs at the start

crossing a knob

descending the other side


Andy and Jason

Rocky on the road

After a few miles we arrived at a short (0.1-mile) spur path that led left/east down to a geologic feature called The Snow Hole. Plenty has been written about it elsewhere, but in short we all thought it looked pretty cool, and true to its name it was in fact still filled with snow at the bottom. It definitely invites further exploration, but we were on the clock with a mission for the day so we didn't linger long.

arriving at the Snow Hole

The Snow Hole

Knowing that we were in for an "ultra" day, we tried to eat something every half hour or so, and each of us went through 2 liters of water every 12 miles or so. Sometimes it was hard to eat when you just didn't want to, but everyone seemed to manage to do it anyway. I was pleased that my of-late perpetually tight hip and groin muscles, and upper hamstrings, were giving me no signs of trouble.

The running was really good in this section, and we were able to keep going at a pretty decent clip for the most part, though every now and then there'd be one of those super-steep uphills to slow us down, or an emergency quick trip off into the woods for some fertilizing. For the most part the route was pretty dry despite recent rains, though we did run across the occasional seepy slope and get our shoes sucked in by muddy ATV ruts.

Andy Wells

Peter Rockland

Jason Sarouhan

Around eight miles into our journey, we reached Route 2 where it crosses through Petersburg Pass and took a quick snack break out of the breeze on the far side of the huge dirt parking lot there.

The Middle Section

Leaving the pass, the trail immediately shot straight up in what felt like the steepest ascent of the day. I brought up the rear here, feeling acutely aware of the effort and wanting to keep my heart rate at a somewhat reasonable level. The grade soon lessened and the trail began to rise and fall along the crest of the ridge again. It continued to climb steadily, though, and after a fairly extended grind we finally topped out at the mostly open summit of 2,700-foot Berlin Mtn, the highest point along the Taconic Crest Trail.

approaching the summit of Berlin Mtn. (2,700 ft.)

Dropping down off the peak, we ran through the shade of some pretty green softwood stands. A mile or so later we reached a junction with a steep, 1.9-mile side path called the Phelps Trail, where Andy's daughter and some of her friends had hiked up several gallon jugs of water for us. For real. How awesome is that???

I didn't take many photos in this section; the next few miles were all about feet, trailfinding, and forward progress. And maybe a few more backwoods fertilization stops. Everyone's got a GI tract; best to just deal with it and move on. I'm afraid I wasn't much of a conversationalist on any of the uphills. I was close to my physical limits and needed every breath of oxygen I could get. I hope I was able to make up for my apparent unsociableness on the flats and downhills later.

For the most part the trail continued to rise and fall along the crest of the ridge, passing over peaks like Misery Mountain and Rounds Mtn. Early on, you could catch occasional glimpses of Mt. Greylock across the valley to the left, and later the windmills of the Brodie Mountain ridge. Temps were very pleasant and a cool north breeze at our backs provided a bit of a spring tailwind all day.

random ridgecrest bench: there's room for you!
(photo by Jason Sarouhan)

We took a (very forgivable) wrong turn for about a mile and then put our heads together to figure out what we'd done wrong and bushwhacked cross-ridge to get back on track. Then we did it again about a mile later, though all we had to do was backtrack about a quarter of a mile the second time. We were well aware that each of these accidental incidents added extra mileage to our already long day.

The trail has recently been re-routed in a few spots along this stretch, and the new path is really more of a notion of a trail at this point, mostly well-signed but very hard to follow otherwise, especially with lots of last year's dead leaves and branches still covering the ground. The Velcro kind. Andy noted that he was amazed by "how many times sticks on the ground stuck to the laces on my shoes for several paces."

There was one particularly grueling stretch, near what would have been mile 22 but was now mile 23 or 24 for us, where for about a mile the re-routed trail traversed the west side of the ridge at a decidedly off-camber pitch. (Interestingly, I later learned that at that point we were just upslope from a nudist resort called Berkshire Vista Resort; I didn't even know there was such a thing!)

pay very close attention when you see
TWO diamonds (photo by Jason)

At last our descent brought us to the upper reaches of Madden Road, which was basically a rugged old woods road at that point. Turning left, we dropped down about half a mile and arrived at our "mile 24" water drop. Everyone stayed admirably on task as we scarfed sandwiches (Jason had made a whole bunch to share!), addressed gear needs, and generally assessed ourselves. I had been feeling pretty knackered by this point and in some low moments doubted both my ability and/or desire to keep going, and I nearly admitted as much to Peter when he asked how I was feeling. But it's amazing how much the sandwiches, cookies, and rehydration adjusted my attitude about things. Before I knew it I was back in the game and ready to go. We did spare a few minutes to soak our sore feet in a small stream, but soon we packed up and set off again for the third and final leg of our journey.

The Final Section

descending to the valley from the mile-24 water drop

The road was paved below our car spot, and the initial drop was a bit of a quad-killer. But it soon leveled out in the valley below. We crossed Rte. 43 and then started up the gentle, lower slopes of Potter Mtn. Rd on the other side, passing several large pastoral pastures along the way. Hello cows. Soon that climb steepened as we re-entered the woods, and eventually we arrived at the turn back onto hiking trail.

The climb from Potter Mtn. Rd (a section that used to be called "The Thrasher" in earlier versions of the Free to Run Trail Races) steeply switches back and forth up a tough, recently logged slope. At the top the trail levels out and heads south along the ridge. I started to bonk a bit near the semi-open summit of a peak on Pease Ridge, feeling very low-energy all of a sudden. Fortunately I ate a chocolate Vi Fuel gel and chugged a bunch of Gatorade, and rebounded almost immediately.

We made great time and soon enough found ourselves popping out along the Berry Pond Circuit Road at Azalea Field and the big vista at the hairpin turn just beyond. I'd photographed and run at these spots for and with the excellent BURCS runners for several years and it was nice to be on familiar terrain for a few miles.

 a relatively nice section of well-groomed singletrack

We quickly passed Berry Pond and the campground, then headed back out on singletrack (at a sign that said 6.5 miles to the end at Rte. 20) towards Tower Mtn. I felt especially good along this well-maintained stretch of trail and even led the way for a bit, filled with energy and enjoying the high spirits as I chatted with Andy.

The descent from Tower Mtn. was also quite fun to run, and we continued to make good time all the way to a big beaver pond (that didn't show up on our maps). At the pond I darted out ahead and pulled out my iPhone camera and treated Peter and Andy to the way I all-too-frequently treat Jen on our trail runs: "Run FASTER! Open it UP! Go go go!" (sorry, everyone; I can't help myself)

late day strides at a beaver pond about a mile south of Tower Mtn.

The low point of the day for me came at mile 34 or 35 when we arrived a junction with the Lebanon Springs Trail, where Jason audibly let out an uncharacteristically dispirited, "oh, that's not good." It seemed like we'd been making such good time and we thought we were almost done, but in reality there were still about 3 miles left to go. That was a bit demoralizing for everyone. Our feet were really starting to hurt.

Continuing south, the trail actually steadily regains elevation as it traverses the west side of the ridge. It passes the very pretty Twin Pond, then subjects you to some more of the standard steep ups and gentle downs that we'd grown so familiar with throughout the day. This section of trail was probably the least well maintained we'd seen all day, and doesn't seem to get a lot of traffic. There were numerous blowdowns to skirt and many, many, many downed sticks and branches to kick up with one foot and smash into the other leg.

Botanically this section was fairly nondescript, but every now and then we'd pass across a nice rich slope filled with spring ephemeral wildflowers (trilliums, blue cohosh, waterleaf, etc.) and the occasional cove of fragrant ramps. The leaves and flowers of spring beauties and trout lilies seemed more or less ubiquitous throughout the day, though considerably more were actually in bloom later in the afternoon.

The battery on my GPS watch ran out a little over 2 miles short of the end, and I switched to tracking the final few miles on my phone. Jason and Andy somehow found some extra gas in the tank and ran all the way to the finish, even running most of the uphills, while Peter and I brought up the rear at a slightly less speedy but still enjoyable pace. Finally, we arrived at our car at Rte. 20 where we ripped the running shoes off our super sore feet, scarfed salty snacks, and cracked open well-earned celebratory beverages.

trail sign at the tail end of the trek 

Summary

By the end, we'd covered over 38 miles, climbed more than 9,000 feet of vertical, and burned dog only knows how many calories each. No sunburn (except on the back of Jason's knees and a bit on his arms), very few bugs, and no injuries. Total time from start to finish was about 12 and a half hours (maybe about 11 moving time). It was definitely harder and more rugged than I'd expected.

Overall, I have to say I probably wouldn't choose to revisit this route due to the general sketchiness of the trail re-routes in some spots (hopefully they become more "established" over time), though some sections, such as the part above Williamstown and the bits within a few miles of Berry Pond, are absolutely terrific for running. But I am super thrilled to have explored it and proud to have finished the trek. A zillion thanks to Jason, Andy, and Peter for making it happen, being a damn fine group of determined dudes, and for letting me join the fun.

our route
(map by the Taconic Hiking Club)

elevation profile (minus the "descent" of the last few miles)

Friday, May 4, 2018

cover shot

Hey I just made the cover photo of the new issue of Vermont Sports! I also got some photos in the article about the Vermont 100 ultramarathon and wrote an article about running (and love) along the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Ridge Trail.


https://www.facebook.com/VermontSportsMagazine/


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

West River Trail to Black Mountain and Back Run

Whenever we can, Jen and I like to go for mid-distance trail running adventures on weekends. It satisfies several of our desires at once: exercise, exploring, and outdoor activity excursion, all while spending some quality time together.

This past weekend's adventure took us to a pair of relatively local gems in southeastern Vermont: the West River Trail in Brattleboro and Black Mountain in Dummerston. The West River Trail is a terrific multi-use rail trail that heads upriver from Brattleboro and ends in South Londonderry (minus a missing section in the middle that hopefully can be added to connect the upper and lower ends). Black Mountain is a conservation property owned by The Nature Conservancy, focused on a geologic feature known as a ring dike (other examples of which can be found at Pawtuckaway, Cape Horn, and the Ossipee Range, all in New Hampshire).


striding it out a few miles from the start on the West River Trail

Starting from the eastern end of the trail (actually, from the Marina itself, a few hundred yards southeast of the Marina trailhead), we headed northwest at an easy pace. My legs were really wrecked from a 50-mile training week capped off by a 19-mile trail run the day before, so as far as I was concerned the slower the better. Jen was testing out some new orthothics, so she was OK with the gentle pace as well. We'd waited as long as we could as we watched a big blob of green and yellow swirl around on the radar, but it seemed to just keep filling in so eventually we just threw out the towels and set out in the rain. It was about 50 degrees out, and we felt a bit chilled.

This section of the trail is quite pretty as it variously hugs the side of the valley wall, passes right next to riffles in the river, and goes under the new bridges for I-91. All of it is flat. At one point a short spur trail branches off and crosses a floodplain section in the Riverstone Preserve; we took this worthwhile alternate route on the way out. Around mile 3 we left the cover of the woods and the next three quarters of a mile to Rice Farm Road were in the open along an old dirt road. Then we ran about a half mile along the dirt road to the trailhead for Black Mountain.

crossing under I-91

right between the rocks and the river

along the West River Trail

For the ascent of Black Mountain (a little over a mile of hiking trail), we slowed to a hiking pace, and as usual I kept pausing us to take pictures with my phone. Just before we reached the summit the rain began to let up and we could see spots of blue sky peeking through the clouds to the south. At the top, we enjoyed the limited view to the southeast, but didn't linger too long because the breeze made it a bit chilly up there and we didn't want to cool down too much.

climbing Black Mountain

nearing the summit of Black Mountain

view from the top

Speaking of down, we opted to take the new leg of the loop trail for our descent. It looks to be a little longer than the way up, but not by much. At first it seemed like it was going to be great, but then there was a quarter mile or so stretch where it just dropped on a straight diagonal down the slope and the water followed the same path so it was really sloppy and unpleasant. That section could really use some switchback re-routes. By the time it leveled out and turned right on a rocky old woods road we were regretting our decision to explore it.

But then it got a LOT better. It was super fun to run, and TNC work crews had clearly put a lot of time and effort into creating a great new trail. There were quite a few elaborate wooden structures that crossed streams and helped avoid sensitive wet areas. By the time we reached the bottom of the loop we were really glad we'd done it.

crossing the streams

passing by a pond

The return trip back along West River Trail was fairly pleasant and uneventful. It even got a little warm towards the end. My legs were really ready to stop. We changed in the car and capped our afternoon adventure off with what turned out to be a really terrific early dinner at The Marina restaurant. Our table was right above the river with a great view, and the food really was fantastic. All in all, another successful and enjoyable New England trail running trek.

 our route

elevation profile; guess which part is Black Mountain...

Running along the West River Trail in southeast Vermont

Monday, March 12, 2018

2018 U.S. Snowshoe Nationals

By mid-to-late February of this year, you'd be forgiven for thinking that winter was long gone and spring was just around the corner here in west-central New England. On one particularly toasty day I think I was sweating up a storm in shorts and t-shirt on a run with temps in the high 60s. Snow was long gone, and most of the last few scheduled snowshoe races morphed into regular trail races out of necessity. You'd be right if you guessed that most of us outdoorsy types enjoyed the oasis of warmth, even if we still gazed longingly over at our running snowshoes and cross-country skis. You'd still have been wrong about winter though; it definitely wasn't done yet.

Strong storms in early March dumped tons of snow in the highlands of the Berkshires and Green Mountains, with some areas getting several feet in a single day. Just in time for the 2018 U.S. Snowshoe Nationals races at Prospect Mountain Ski Area in Woodford, VT, just east of and up the hill from the town of Bennington in the southwest part of the state. The event weekend took place March 10-11, 2018. I had photographed at the event when it was held there in 2014 (see my snowshoe racing blog post from that era), and was fortunate enough to get to shoot there again this time around.

A racer summits the mountain in the Women's 10K championship race. 

Here is a representative sampling of the various races that took places over the weekend, including a Citizen's Race 5K, a kids race, the mens and women's 10K championship races, and a trail marathon and half-marathon (all photos copyright Ben Kimball Photography):

Start of the 2018 Women's 10K championship race. 







 










Elena Betke-Brunswick (left) with Laure and Tom Van den Broeck Raffensperger,
all from the happy Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.

Bob Dion (left), founder and owner of Dion Snowshoes and sponsor of the event, with two strong guys from South America (who had never run in a snowshoe race before!).