Friday, May 17, 2019

Middle Earth Trails

Every now and then Jen and I are able to match our schedules so we can meet up for an after-work outdoor adventure together, generally in the Brattleboro area. Yesterday we did a 6-ish mile trail run just across the Connecticut River in the hills of southwestern NH. Starting from the parking area for Madame Sherri Forest, we took a quick look at the awesome remains of the "castle" there, which basically looks like a forgotten piece of set from The Fellowship of the Ring.

After enjoying our fill of fake Middle Earth fantasying, we started jogging up the hill towards the ridgeline west of Mt. Wantastiquet. About half a mile up we stopped to enjoy the view at Indian Pond, then we decided to do a half-mile out-and-back up towards Mine Ledge. On our way up it started raining and we realized that the open rocky ledges would probably be pretty treacherous on the way back down, which they were. We turned back at what for lack of a better term I'm calling the easternmost summit of the Wantastiquet summit plateau, about half a mile east of Mine Ledge, which we'd run out to a year earlier.

Indian Pond pano

Indian Pond from above

Back down at Indian Pond, we started back out on the figure-8 of the Ann Stokes and Daniels Mountain loops. The initial climb up from the pond is steep and rugged, and we were barely able to jog it. But then once up and over the initial hill there was a really nice section beneath some hemlocks, and we enjoyed some roller-coastery swooping and whooping for a bit. After reaching an intersection, we continued east on the southern leg of the Daniels Mountain loop. There was a nice runnable section at first, with a couple of mossy boulder-strewn ravines and wet swales to cross, then the grade steepened for a steady ascent along the southern flank of the mountain.

a fun descent along the Ann Stokes loop

mossy boulder ravine along the Daniel's Mountain loop

approaching Moon Ledge on the Daniel's Mountain loop

The trail brought us to an intersection at Moon Ledge, which has a wide, sweeping view over Hinsdale, NH to the south. The rain had stopped and the sun was peeking out from between cloud layers, making for some pretty dramatic lighting across the valley below. We were thankful for the cool temps and light breeze that kept the bugs at bay. From there we headed about half a mile north to the actual summit of Daniels Mountain. The map didn't show any topo lines, but in reality not a single section of it was flat. The trail (mostly) gently rolled along the undulating plateau up there, with the occasional steep pitch to negotiate. 

pretty light after the rain

Jen at the Moon Ledge vista overlooking far southern NH and northern MA

The descent from Daniels Mtn. was super fun. There were a couple of slightly overgrown areas where the mountain laurel bushes could stand to be trimmed back a bit (they were wet and soaked our shoulders each time we passed through a thicket), but mostly the trail was easy to follow and very fun to run. A mile or so later we found ourselves. back at the parking area, where we decided to log a few extra training miles along the dirt road. Speaking of the road, there's a really scenic section along the lower part of Gulf Road where the winding road passes through a narrow forested canyon right next to the stream. Recent rains ensured the water was roaring, and there were even a few temporary waterfall chutes cascading down the ledges on the south side of the road. After our late afternoon activities we headed over to The Marina near the mouth of the West River in Brattleboro for some excellent dinner and drinks. Cheers to a rewarding mid-week adventure! 

Jen at a scenic ledge along the Daniel's Mountain loop

elevation profile of our run

our route

iconic Madame Sherri

Thursday, May 16, 2019


Every so often the weather is JUST right for a great trail run, and this year that special magic hit on the day of the Wapack and Back Trail Races on May 11. Overcast but dry and not humid, with temps in the 50s and a nice steady north breeze to keep the blackflies at bay. If only I'd bothered to get an even remotely sensible amount of sleep the night/week before it...

the 2019 Wapack cookie medal, designed by Caroline Shreck 
and baked by Christopher Agbay & Co. at Wicked Good Cookies

Jen and I got back from our super-fun but intentionally action-packed and exhausting Desert Southwest vacation week (blog post here!) on May 2, and I immediately jumped into a heavy week at work, with several different freelance writing and editing jobs at home on the side. And on May 5 I took race photos all morning at the Seven Sisters Trail Race (which required several days of processing afterwards), and I managed to get an armload of poison ivy doing that. And also I needed to finish and put out the latest SMAC newsletter, which ended up going out on the 7th. Anyway, blah blah the the point is I was basically working on various things non-stop all week before Watatic and barely got any sleep. Running on fumes. Not an ideal condition to tackle a notoriously tough trail race in.

We arrived at the Watatic terminus registration tent in Ashburnham, MA a bit on the late side (7:40) and had to park pretty far down the road on the side of 119, but it didn't matter. There was still plenty enough time to pick up my bib and unhurriedly hit a porta-potty there before I needed to jump on the bus, which left at 8:05. My bib was awesomely signed on the back by race director and badass ultrarunner friend Christopher "Christo" Agbay, who put together a terrific show for us.

The bus ride to the northern end of the Wapack Trail in Greenfield, NH took about 40 minutes. As soon it pulled to a stop at the parking lot there, everyone flew out the door and spread out into the woods. There's nothing like a collective need to pee to bring an entire group together on some level. After a few brief instructions, Christo's young son counted down from five and launched us off up the trail and into the wilds. 

The first 50-mile runner (they'd started at the southern end at 5 a.m.) arrived literally the exact minute we started, and he looked so fresh you'd think he'd only been going for five minutes. The next ones followed just a few minutes behind, and one of them was my old friend Steve Reed from the Concord, NH area! The first half-mile is steady uphill, but not super-steep, so you could safely run it at a very gentle pace. But then the grade increased noticeably and there was a nearly mile-long grind of a power-hike climb to the top of North Pack Monadnock Mountain. Look at that stupidly sharp spike on the elevation profile!

After summiting North Pack, the trail drops quickly (about 300 ft.) and then rolls up and down along the ridge for a bit before the second big climb of the morning (up Pack Monadnock itself). By this point I realized that my sleep-deprived fatigue probably wasn't going to go away, and my body just wasn't really loosening up the way I'd have liked. So I resigned myself to doing what my bud Mark Trahan had suggested at the start when I asked if he had any last-minute advice from a veteran of the event (keep the heart rate in check) and just tried to keep a steady slow pace most of the way, and enjoy myself as much as possible.

The descent of Pack Monadnock mountain was by far the most challenging part of the day. Gnarly and tough. The slopes of perpetually wet rocks (beneath dark conifers up near the top) are a wildly tilted jumble of big shards and boulders, and running down them would be treacherous even in the most favorable conditions. It felt like it took forever to get down. But there was an aid station at the bottom, and several friends were out there with their kids cheering runners on, which felt like a nice reward after the drop.

The crossing of Rte. 101 proved shockingly dangerous. Cars whipped around the curve (which is blind in both directions) at top speed and you kind of just had to pick a moment and go for it. On the other side, the Wapack Trail climbs a steep, stony access road (for the former Temple Mountain Ski Area) for about a mile. I followed close behind three other runners here. At the top the trail heads back into the woods again. A bit further along brought us to my favorite section of the day (partly because it was one I'd never been on before), the "Cabot Skyline" miles. Here the trail popped in and out of semi-open clearings (above Sharon Ledges?) and then eventually dropped gradually down the ridgeline to the road in Sharon.

A nice volunteer helped me refill my hydration pack bladder here, and handed me a banana, and then it was off for five minutes of easy paved road miles before heading back into the woods for my least favorite section of the day, the gradual climb along an old wet woods road towards (but not up) Kidder Mtn. It would be nice if someday the Wapack Trail could go over the mountain instead. Eventually the trail popped out on a dirt road where it leveled off. Then there was a fun descent through the woods, across a powerline corridor, through more woods, and past someone's rocky yard (possibly with an old rope tow line?) to the next aid station just off Rte. 124 in New Ipswich.

I grabbed as many salty snacks as I could, then accepted a helpful police officer's assistance across the road. Then I briefly followed the shoulder of the road north to the Windblown Ski Area entrance. I'd been there before. Back in 2013 I ran the Wapack Trail Race (see race report here) and have taken photos several years since, and was now officially familiar with the rest of the route. Nevertheless, I still managed to feel like I'd lost the trail for a moment when, after about a mile of running down a rough XC ski trail, I arrived at a powerline swath where there was a major junction but no yellow triangle in sight to point the way. Instinct and memory made me veer right, which thankfully turned out to be the right call.

Soon I arrived at what I knew was coming: the long, sustained grind back up to Barrett Mountain on the ridge. It was as tough as I remembered and expected. But I passed 2 runners on the way up, and managed to keep a steady pace for the next several rolling miles along the ridgecrest once I'd gotten up there. The weather continued to be perfect and the views from the many open ledges were terrific. This is a fantastic section of the trail, and I only wish my body had been in better shape so I could have enjoyed it a bit more in the moment. After a bonk or two I regained some steam (thanks, ViFuel!) and kept slowly jogging the flats and downhills, though on any steep descents my legs felt like they were right on the verge of cramping up. And my feet were starting to hurt too.

Then came the steep descent from Pratt Mtn to Binney Pond, the awesome aid station (blew through it fairly quickly), the clearcut area, and the long steady climb up and over Nutting Hill towards Mt. Watatic (leapfrogged with Chris Libbey here). The final drop down Watatic to the finish was grueling, mostly because my legs were thoroughly shot by that point but also because the trail is just so heavily eroded by zillions of users there (it is a "blowout zone" of overuse). I jogged into the finish in a time of 5:51:57.

the final few feet (photo by Jennifer Garrett) 

Many thanks to the dozens of volunteers at the aid stations, as well as Jen (who ran 12 fun trail miles of her own at the southern end during my point-to-point journey) for being there for me at the finish. And huge congratulations to the 50-mile runners, most of whom looked shockingly spry and nimble after so many difficult miles. Seeing them finish their feat in such spirited form could easily fool you into thinking this wasn't an incredibly hard race. Overall this was a highly enjoyable event. I wish I had been a bit more rested and fit for it, and given myself the leisure of stopping to take photos along the way (there were a LOT of photogenic moments), but I'm also OK with how it went, and really relieved that the weather was as great as it was.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Interlude: Southwest Adventures

Stepping off the plane in Vegas, I saw slot machines and a strange skyline simulating other world cities. I'd been there previously, though. And just as before, the idea was to grab that rental car and get the hell outta Dodge as quickly as possible. Actual adventure awaited...

Standing on top of Star Dune in Death Valley

I'm planning to flesh this blog post out with more text soon, but for the moment here's our quick vacation itinerary and a whole lot of photos.

Flight Night: Mt. Charleston to the northwest of Las Vegas (starry skies and snow-capped peaks!)
Day 1: Snow and trails and vistas up around Mt. Charleston; Zabriskie Point; Badwater Basin walk; Natural Bridge hike; air b&b in Beatty, NV.
Day 2: Morning hike out on the dunes at Mesquite Flats; Afternoon hike around the rim of Ubehebe Crater in the northern part of Death Valley; night 2 in Beatty.
Day 3: Drive day. En route to Zion. Dinner at a sub-par Mexican food restaurant. Night 1 at resort in Springdale, UT.
Day 4: 15-mile trail run up Angel's Landing and out the West Rim Trail, around the loop and back Telephone Canyon Trail and back to the valley floor. Dinner at the new brewpub. Night 2 at resort in Springdale.
Day 5: 10-mile trail run up on Kolob Terrace on the Connector Trail to Northgate Peaks. Dinner at Oscars (really good). Night 3 at resort in Springdale.
Day 6: 4-mile hike on East Rim Trail, dodging thunderstorms. Dinner at Whiptail Grille during a rainstorm. Beers with Jason and Anne at their place. Night 4 at resort in Springdale.
Day 7: 2-mile hike on Canyon Overlook Trail; 1-mile poke up a slot canyon, avoiding quicksand traps; drive back west; coffee and lunch at River Rock Roasters along the Virgin River; 1-mile hike at Valley of Fire SP.
Flight back: all day.  

Badwater Basin

 West Rim Trail in Zion

 Along the Connector Trail in Zion

Snow on Mt. Charleston, to the west of Las Vegas

first short hike of our trip, to Robbers Roost climbing area

we more or less had the place to ourselves
after the first half mile or so at Badwater Basin

out onto the flats in 106 degree temps... because Badwater

salt polygons

salt polygons

downcanyon breeze coming out of the Natural Bridge hike

Natural Bridge

view out over Badwater Basin from the mouth of the canyon

our awesome airb&b cabin in Beatty, NV

the owner had left out a bottle of wine

morning dune trek

me at Mesquite

Mesquite Flats sand dunes, Death Valley

 Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley

desert blooms at Ubehebe

along the rim trail at Ubehebe Crater

How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us


heading up Angels Landing Trail

Walter's Wiggles

Zion Canyon and the Virgin River

desert wildflowers

West Rim Trail

up the West Rim Trail

climbing the West Rim Trail

climbing the West Rim Trail

running along the West Rim Trail

our highest elevation of the day, along the dry, upper plateau on the West Rim Trail

dropping down the Telephone Canyon Trail

easy running down the Telephone Canyon Trail

coming down some slickrock on the West Rim Trail

passing back through Refrigerator Canyon

descending the middle part of Angel's Landing Trail

westward view up on Kolob Terrace

running along the Connector Trail in Zion

running along the Connector Trail in Zion

stream crossing along the Connector Trail in Zion

running near Northgate Peaks

desert bloom

post-run liquid refueling at Oscars

stormy morning on the Canyon Overlook Trail

Canyon Overlook Trail


Canyon Overlook Trail

Canyon Overlook Trail, not for those afraid of heights

Wading to avoid quicksand traps in Shelf Canyon

Avoiding quicksand in Shelf Canyon

adventure girl

dropping down out of Shelf Canyon

getting back around the quicksand traps

Need COFFEE!!!

This place is all kinds of terrific.

Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada

 The girl liked the desert. 

slot canyons are the coolest

Leaving Las Vegas: Zion from Above