Early March can be a tough season for trail running. The snow is at its deepest on the trails, and runners are getting antsy for the arrival of spring, which is still two months away. Chatting with a fellow runner a few days ago, however, he shared his recent epiphany for good clear running – running on the ice covering local lakes to very thick depths this time of year. He suggested Lake Dunmore, so I thought I would give it a try. One prerequisite for this sort of running is a shoe with spikes, or some sort of runner’s crampon to stay upright moving on a mix of ice and snow, and since I had the former, I figured I was all set.
I have not spent much time on open water ice since playing pond hockey as a child. I was a little nervous at first about a longer run on a pretty big lake, but figured that with this year’s very cold winter, good thick ice could be counted on, right? Sharing my running plans with my family, the less adventurous of them (i.e. all of them) double checked to make sure that my will was properly signed, and then acquiesced to my departure. While I spend a lot of time running near, and kayaking on Lake Dunmore over the warmer months, I can’t remember the last time I had journeyed to the lake in the dead of winter. Once, in my young adulthood, I learned the misery of crashing through the ice in water which was not over my head, and a few hundred yards from my lodging. So, my life was never in danger, but it sure was cold!
Approaching the parking lot and launch on the west side of the lake, alongside the docks and beach belonging to Waterhouses, I could see that the lake was busy with the activities of ice fishermen. As you might guess, the calm and patience of the avid fisherman are not common characteristics of somewhat hyperactive runners. While I have not fished since I was a boy (about the same time of life that I played pond hockey!), I can see some of the allure of standing in a Rocky Mountain stream, flyfishing for trout, or perhaps surfcasting from a Gulf Coast beach for – well for whatever kind of fish live in those warmer waters. For the life of me, I cannot begin to imagine the charm and excitement of sitting out in the open, or even a small shack, huddled over a small hole or two in the water on a cold mid-winter day, waiting for the nibble of a lethargic, already half frozen fish. Despite the fact that I have lived in Northern New England now for 33 years of my life, not only have I never undertaken this sort of activity, I really didn’t have a good feel for the popularity of this sport until I saw all of the people out there fishing on Saturday, on this one, rather modest-sized lake alone. To each his/her (mostly his though, from what I see) own. I did get some comfort however, by the presence of such numbers of people, shacks, ATV’s and automobiles out on the lake. If the ice could support someone’s SUV, it could certainly support a scrawny trail runner, right?
I set off towards the southern end of the lake to start my run. Since both of the public landings for kayak access on Lake Dunmore were on the northern end of the lake (the aforementioned state landing alongside Waterhouse’s, and Branbury State Park on the east side), I am not as familiar with the waterfront sights along the southern shores, which require longer paddling times to access in the summer. My first destination however, was the small island in the middle of the lake. I have paddled around this small island on countless occasions, but have never actually stepped foot on it prior to this run. In the late spring, this island is a loon nesting site, and two years ago I had the unexpected pleasure of paddling by the island which was surrounded by birdwatchers armed with binoculars. I had lucked out, and come across that year’s loon chick birthday according to one birdwatcher I pulled up alongside. While I stayed a respectful distance away as required by law, even without my binoculars I could see the loon chicks floating in the water alongside their mother. Returning to the island the next day, excited for another glimpse, I was told by another kayaker that the loons typically move from the island to a quieter corner almost as soon as the chicks are born, and I never saw this family again. There were no loons on the island in early March, of course, but I did use the easy access as an opportunity to traverse this small piece of land before heading back on the ice.
With my spiked running shoes, most of the footing was surprisingly good. In most of the southern part of the lake which has had little vehicle traffic, the ice was smooth and covered by a half inch to inch of coarse windblown snow, which made for good footing. The occasional wind-scoured bare ice patches required that I slow to a careful walk, and on the places where early season car traffic had created ruts in what have been much softer ice (YIKES when you stop and think about it), the footing was also uneven and unyielding.
Continuing south, scooting past mostly well- kept, frequently modern homes which serve as vacation homes for those with greater financial resources than I, I came to one particularly quirky site. A piece of old driftwood at the lake’s edge was adorned with a variety of funky little stone cairns, and when I stopped to examine them more closely, I could see that the property just set back behind them was an uncharacteristically ramshackle log cabin, which looked like something from my old summer camp, rather than as a lake summer home. At that point I realized where I was – the shoreline alongside the “Point Counterpoint“ summer camp. This camp is a rather famous summer camp for talented and hard working young musicians.
I had hoped to completely circumnavigate Lake Dunmore on this run, but as I approached the southernmost inlet, I could see that too much of my path was ice, windblown bare, making for difficult footing. So, if you see a portion of the lake omitted from my run on the Google Earth projection down below, that was typically the case. The other major foray away from the shoreline on this run was when I had make a broad sweep away from the delta where the Sucker Brook empties into the lake. This, and the much smaller outlet not far from Waterhouse’s were the only sections of open water that I spied.
The lake, of course, was peppered with ice fishing holes, old and new. Most of the open holes in use were being watched by their owners, and I stayed away out of respect for their desire to actually catch fish. Would a runner plodding by create a racket to spook the fish? Somebody must know the answer to that question, but not I! I did come across a few recently abandoned holes, so my curiosity got the better of me and I peered inside. Peering down these holes, I was comforted to see how thick the ice was – well over a foot deep from what I could see. I briefly considered rolling up my sleeves and inserting my arm down a hole, to feel how deep I had to get before feeling the end of the ice, and then my common sense got the better of me. I also took comfort from the fact that these holes were quite narrow, indicating that there were no sharks to fish for in this lake.
Returning to my car, a few hundred yards from shore, in a section of the lake with no fisherman shacks, by the old Sunset Lodge, I heard what I had been dreading the whole run – the sound of cracking ice, seemingly directly beneath my feet! Was it time to swim? I quickly put on my garishly ugly yellow hat as I sped out of that corner of the lake, hoping that if I crashed through the ice, my would-be rescuers would see my yellow-hatted head bobbing above the otherwise seamless white of the frozen lake, and pull me to my safety. Needless to say, I made it back to shore, my heart pounding a little, and had the courage to ask a returning fisherman about the significance of my frightening experience a few moments before. “Nah – ice makes sounds like that all the time – it’s more than two feet thick now, you were safe I am sure”. Oh. Whew. Relieved and a bit embarrassed.
Overall, this was a 6.6 mile run. It might seem superfluous for me to post my altitude profile for this run, as it was on a lake, and should be….well…flat. I am posting this to illustrate what I already knew about using GPS for altitude. While GPS is incredibly precise for finding locations based on NSEW coordinates, due to the limitations of satellite triangulation, it is not nearly as precise for altitude, as evidenced by the variation of up to 100 feet which it recorded on this run.
For many years, I fancied myself a passable cross-country ski racer. Despite an inauspicious start, finishing dead last as the anchor leg of the 1981 Hanover Relays, a race in which the anchor leg of the winning team went by the name of “Bill Koch” (yup – THAT Bill Koch, and I was attired in a fuzzy blue sweater, blue jeans, and bamboo poles), I gradually improved over the years until the demands of parenthood and other interests diminished my ski training time to the point where racing was pretty futile. At my peak in the late 80′s, I, and a handful of my friends made it our goal to ski 1000 km in a season, and with the mileage from three ski marathons in a month on top of a shorter race almost every weekend, several of us managed to reach our goal. One of the symptoms of this particular version of OCD was an obsession with ski waxes. I would wax at least one pair of skis every night (and yes, I had several pairs, almost always the latest and best) based on the next day’s weather prediction. The bane of the ski-waxer’s existence was the particularly goopy wax for warm or icy weather known as “klister“. While the stuff really does work, putting it on one’s skis is a real pain, and part of the reason why for many years now I have almost always broken out my skating skis, which do not require kick wax, on warm springlike days.
So, on an unseasonably warm and sunny Sunday morning, I found myself with my classic skis at the Rikert Ski Touring Center, and of course, my plastic bags full of every wax under the sun. Realizing, to my dismay, that it would indeed be a “klister day” I dug into my bag and pulled out a tube of silver klister wax which was probably older than most of the skiers out on that particular day. The best way to apply this sticky gooey mess is to squeeze a thick line from the toothpaste tube it comes in onto the kick zone of my skis, and then spread the wax by running my thumbs across the base. Then the fun really starts – as all this wax on one’s thumbs can’t be washed off ( I had forgotten how insoluble it is in water!), so I ended up shmearing streaks of silver goop on the sinks of the Rikert men’s room. Of course, it would not do to leave this for their staff to clean up, so I eventually settled on wiping it up with a generous stack of paper towels. The scene was actually reminiscent of the challenges of cleaning up the “pink goo” from the Dr Seuss book “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back“.
Skis all prepared, I set off up the hill, not really dead set on where exactly I was going. Taking the freshly groomed tracks on Holland to Frost, I came to the end of the Brown Gate trail, and realized that the section connecting this point and the trail to Blue Bed House was one I had never been on before. This two or three year old section of trail seems to be replacing the old connector from Holland, which seemed to be badly flooded in recent years due to beaver activity. This narrow trail, which wove through the hardwood forest was made more challenging by the darn klister – the conditions were an odd mix of powder, ice, and frozen granular snow, so I found myself intermittently flying, and lurching to a near halt when my skis chose to grab. Nonetheless, I plowed on, connecting to the Blue Bed house trail, and bearing downhill, to Wagon Wheel Rd.
The last time I had passed this way, the Wagon Wheel Rd. had been plowed, making for less satisfying skiing, but to my pleasant surprise, no plows had been this way since the last generous snow storm. So, I took a right turn at the blue gate, planning on following the old Middle Branch trail, which I knew would eventually loop back to the touring center. A few hundred yards later, I came to a surprise which forced me to re-evaluate this plan. While the Middle Branch trail, to the right, looked neatly tracked, I noticed a new, less manicured section, labelled as a segment of the Catamount Trail, bearing left. To the right – the comfortable trail I knew well. To the left, a trail whose known destination was…..Canada. Once again, I chose the road less travelled, and that made all the difference.
This segment of trail was totally new to me, and from the geography, I knew it would eventually lead me to Steam Mill Road (aka FS 59) but I had no idea how long or far away this would be. So, I just glided through the woods, gradually climbing,the klister working well in the rapidly softening snow, and enjoying being the only person for a few miles. And at this point, it hit me – I was reconnecting with a sport that has been shortchanged for quite a few years. After all those years of skiing an enormous amount in my younger adulthood, finding time to keep up with the sport has proven elusive more recently. I found myself suddenly reminiscing and reconnecting with a sport which at one point in my life was my favorite sports activity. This introspection aside, this is a very pretty section of trail, mostly through hardwood forest. The trail is at its most scenic in one segment where it hugs the rim of a rather dramatic broad gorge, with the Middle Branch flowing a few hundred feet below.
After a while, however, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into, as I was somewhat directionally disoriented (albeit not “lost” – the trail was well marked) until I came upon a group of skiers coming down the trail from the opposite direction. One of this party was a friend I had not crossed paths with in a few years, Andy, and as we stopped and conversed, I learned that he was responsible for the layout of the trail we were on! Pressing him for information on his other trailblazing activities, he offered to share some of his favorites in exchange for some help with trail maintenance. Sounds like a good deal to me! I also learned that I was a short distance from Steam Mill Road, which is closed to vehicular traffic in the winter, and maintained for snowmobile use. I joined this road at the broad clearing which in the summer is near to the popular trailhead to Breadloaf Mountain. I found it curious that there was a large sign, standing in the middle of this field proclaiming “WILDLIFE CLEARING”. Since the only tracks I saw in the snow were of human origin, I guess the sign was right – the wildife was cleared!
At this point, I was still a few miles from the Rikert Center, but the return was easy, following the road in the tracks of numerous previous snowmobilers, and getting onto Upper Gilmore near the Brown Gate, and following the obvious downhills back to the touring center.
On the technical side, this ended up being a slightly more than 9 mile route, with about 700 feet of altitude difference between the low and high points. I am also looking forward to checking this out on foot this summer as well. The soul of this day however, was how invigorating it felt to just get lost in something that I really enjoyed. So, take the time to reconnect with something ( or someone I guess!) you love.
I spent much of the morning on Sunday, potentially the best ski day in years, at a family gathering in Massachusetts, but as this get-together wound down, I realized that I just might be able to squeeze in some skiing in at the end of the day, if I could get home early enough in the afternoon. Fortunately, the other members of my family accompanying me on this trip fell asleep shortly after departing Massachusetts, so I took this opportunity to drive a little faster than I might normally. While I missed the banter of my family on this several hour-long trip, they did manage to sleep through my driving back to Middlebury at a pace which might have made them a little bit nervous, and indeed, when they awoke a half hour from home, I was implored to continue at or around the speed limit. Nonetheless, I pulled into my driveway with just enough time to take advantage of the sunny day and spectacular conditions, and headed up to Breadloaf!
In my most critical views of the Rikert area, my only complaint over the years has been that while there is a lot of good skiing here, it seems that a lot of it is in small, tight loops, never getting far from the touring center itself. When snow is good, I frequently hit Forest Service 59 in order to get deeper into the forest. When I arrived at the touring center however, I noticed some new trails on the map, some of which were rarely groomed, and another which until this year never existed. In particular, I was intrigued by the new trail, labelled “Upper Gilmore”, which ran along the eastern periphery of touring area, paralleling, but never quite contacting FS 59, which serves as a snowmobile trail on the VAST network.
I started this particular ski, warming up on the loops on and around the Battell trail, before turning onto Freeman to access the old Gilmore trail. Previously, this trail has served primarily as a connector to the forest service road and the Norske Trail, but as I cruised by Gilmore House (one of the more out of the way dorms at the summer Wordloaf Conference) and neared the road above, I saw the anticipated new trail veering to my left, and headed up it. This is a great new addition to the trail network – it went on for close to a mile, and in sections had the feel of a bobsled run before connecting with the better known Brown Gate trail. Kudos to Mike and his work crew for putting in this great trail last summer!
After enjoying the easy downhill shuss on the Brown Gate Trail, I was treated to a second surprise. The primitive trail leading towards the pile of rubble known as “The Blue Bed House” was also groomed and maintained! Don’t expect much of a house, let alone a blue bed – the eponymous bed probably hasn’t been there for 30 years, and I think the last wall of the house fell 10-15 years ago! Jokes about the condition of the “house” aside, this is a pretty section of forest, which was skied somewhat in the past, but was not made part of the Breadloaf touring area due to property line issues with one of the private land owners. I am glad to see that this has been worked out! The trail then snaked its way into a beautiful open meadow, offering another easy descent and more great winter vistas. Like most abandoned meadows in Vermont, this one had a few ancient apple trees left behind long after all other farming here had ceased. I know of some local hard cider brewers who are interested in heritage apple varieties – perhaps they should explore here! I also couldn’t resist the temptation to make my initials in the otherwise virgin snow, and squared them for good luck – after all I AM a science nerd!
Following the signage to get back to Rikert in time for closing, I enjoyed another particularly pretty stretch of skiing through the tall narrow pine trees that line the trail for a short distance right above the Robert Frost Cabin, and after a loop through these fields, I headed back to the touring center more out of respect to the workers who undoubtedly bad put in a long day, and probably wanted to go home, rather than wait for the stragglers (like me) who didn’t want to quit!
All in all, this made for a slightly longer than 8 mile loop, and brought me much farther into the forest than most skiers at Rikert usually get. There will be no more “not enough long loops” complaints from me, at least as long as the great snow holds up.
Last winter, while recovering from injuries, I snowshoed a route along a VAST trail at the higher altitudes of Ripton. This route, which begins at the end of the plowed section of the Natural Turnpike in Ripton heads south along the snowmobile trail marked as “7A” towards Robert Frost Mountain. My trip along this route was limited by the slower pace of snowshoe travel, and I have been looking forward to returning to explore it a little further on ski or on foot. The limited amount of snow on the ground made a run the obvious choice for now. To get to the trailhead, I drove up to Ripton, then took a left turn on the road across from the Ripton Country Store. A short while later a right turn up the hill on Robins Cross Road and a left turn on the Natural Turnpike followed by a few minutes’ drive brought me to the trailhead parking lot near its confluence with FS 59. In every previous winter trip to this spot, the Natural Turnpike was blocked at this point by a forest service gate, but this year, with the meager snow, the gate beyond this point was open, and the road was freshly plowed.
Setting off on the trail heading to the left (north in absolute coordinates) I could see that the snowmobilers had been faring about as well as the skiers this year, as the trail had been virtually stripped of its snow cover by previous snow travelers. I set off, as in my previous exploration, following the marked snowmobile trail, which crisscrossed a few Forest Service Roads over the course of the first mile. Between the thin snow cover, and my Asics Gel Arctic running shoes, equipped with short spikes making them the “studded snow tires of the running world”, I had very solid footing all the way, except for two easily traversed frozen-over waterbars. As I proceeded further into the woods, snow had covered over the most recent snowmobile tracks, and not much later, I could see where the trail had been bereft of human travelers all season, leaving the tracks of animals as the only sign of previous passage. One set of tracks were particularly interesting – I could see that what at first looked like one set of old tracks, soon diverged into two sets, which looked to be about the same age. Following them, I could see that the parallel sets of tracks stayed apart, as if the two animals which set them were going about their travels as partners, perhaps even mates? They seemed too big and deep for a squirrel, and squirrels never seem to travel as if they are actually going somewhere. I am going to guess that they were foxes, although they had faded enough that I could not have made out the fine print in them, even if I were a more knowledgeable animal tracker. I like to think that these two nocturnal animals had shared a long moment in the moonlight together on the way to whatever their final destination might have been. As I followed their tracks, I made sure not to step in them, leaving my record of passage between theirs.
Eventually, I reached a point where the animal tracks became more complex, and their unique trail became difficult to discern from other animals who had passed through. Not long after, I came to an open meadow which had been my turnaround last winter when I passed this way. Last winter, this quiet spot had the equipment of an active logging site, but this winter, the snow surface was unblemished, except for my footprints and a few tufts of grass poking up through the snow. It looked almost like I would envision beach grass poking out of the fine white sand of the Gulf Coast, although I have never been there.
At this point, continuing on, I was into new territory, and about a mile later my trail reached the Lincoln-Ripton road, a few miles north of the Ripton School. I could discern that the trail recommenced across the road, heading uphill along the eastern flanks of Robert Frost Mountain. I could see that I had found another short section of trail to connect a run on my bucket list – I had heard that is was possible to connect trails from the top of Middlebury Gap, to East Middlebury by a route which included the snowmobile trail up and over Robert Frost Mountain, which I have ascended from the west. The point at which my trail (which merged with a plowed road over the last few hundred yards) met up with the Lincoln- Ripton Road, was labelled as the “Norton Farm Road”.
Turning to return, my attention turned two the many crossing paths and abandoned logging roads I came across. One, which looked sort of interesting, and was labeled as “Rd 235A”. This one ended in about a hundred yards at a small clearing, so returning to the main snowmobile trail, I checked out another side trail about a mile further along. This right turn led to a huge clear cut in about a quarter mile, with outstanding views of Worth Mountain, and the rest of the nearby ridge of the Green Mts. I found it curious that a small stand of mature hardwoods had been left behind by the timber cutters, but they added to the beauty of the views.
Closing in on my parked car, I could hear that I was getting closer and closer to a “sportsman” who was blasting away at something with what sounded like a semiautomatic weapon. While I never actually saw this person, I felt like shouting something along the lines of “Is there ANYTHING left of that squirrel?”. Reaching my car, my GPS indicated that I had traveled 7 miles on this run, and had dropped about 500 vertical feet on the way out, and gained it on my return.
Saturday brought the long looked for break in the ski conditions thus far this year: It finally started to warm up to the mid-teens, and there was enough (I hoped!) snow to do my first backcountry skiing of the year. I knew the cover would be a little on the thin side (That always seems to be the case, somehow), so I headed to the higher elevations and a place where there was a high likelihood of being ample cover. Once again, I found myself drawn to my favorite trailhead, the parking lot off of Brooks road, found on the south side of Rt 125, midway between Breadloaf and the Snow Bowl. The Brooks Road itself, which climbs up the hillside to pretty high altitudes becomes part of the VAST (Vermont Association of Snow Travelers) trail system during the winter. As such, it benefits from the regular grooming offered to regional snowmobilers, making the VAST trails also ideal for skiing deep into the mountains, even on skating skis, which demand a wide groomed path. This excellent grooming makes high altitude forest roads, like the Brooks Road, some of the best places to ski early in the season before the first dumpings of snow come our way.
Setting off from the parking lot up the hillside, the late afternoon sun filtered through the branches arched over the road created the sense of trees covered with diamonds. I was surprised by the degree to which some of these trees were still encrusted with ice from the storms of the previous week or two.
Continuing upward I also came to a section where a stand of beech trees s flanked the road, the the husks of beechnut shells littered the snow. Looking at them more carefully, they kind of looked like a bunch of bearded little Pac-men. What do you think?
I went into this ski with delusions of a long a glorious exploration of mountain trails, but my late start (It is scary how starting a ski tour at 2:30 in the afternoon is late this time of year!) and the realization that the trail coverage wasn’t quite as good as I hoped it was forced me to reconsider my plans when I reached a trail confluence about 2.5 miles up the mountainside. To the right, I saw the much narrower trail which I knew would bring me to the Sugar Hill Reservoir, but looked rather bereft of snow. Straight ahead, on the continuance of the Brooks Road, but on a section which is not regularly maintained for winter travel there was more snow, but since I was touring on skating skis, this section’s loose ungroomed snow felt like a bit of a slog when I very briefly considered continuing further. And it was getting colder, fast! So, at this point, I turned my heels and sped back down the mountainside to the warmth of my car. Of course, in this fast snow it provided an opportunity to use my Garmin GPS and see what sort of speed I could generate on the two relatively steep descents. On the first steeper drop-off I became so enamored of staring at my watch that I had my first crashandburn of the season! Only slightly less worse for the wear, and covered in white I brought myself back up to speed and held a tuck without distraction for the second, and longer fast section of the descent, and after finishing discovered that I had gotten my speed up to 25 mph! Not exactly olympic downhill speed, but not bad for inch-wide racing skis with detached heels!
All in all, while this was a shorter than planned ski outing, measuring in at slightly less than 5 miles and 500 ft of climb and descent, it was a great way to spend a small allotment of time on a cold but pleasant weekend day
Up to this point, the post has had little to do with the title of the post, so I guess it would be time to conclude with a resolution. These solo skis or runs in the mountains leave plenty of time for quiet, introspective thought. Readers of this blog can probably tell that I enjoy setting myself up for personal physical challenges, and then meeting those challenges, but this resolution is a little different. While the personal accomplishments will hopefully continue, what I really want this year is to make great new memories with those who I care most about.
While running on the trails of Addison County still makes up the bulk of my posts, readers will notice that I also enjoy sharing my discoveries when I get the opportunity to run in other locales, sometimes on the trails, sometimes not. Trailrunning is indeed among my favorite ways to set myself up for adventure, but experiencing new places or new running events, and sharing them here, is also something I find quite rewarding. With this in mind, I am going to share a personal first – a short trip, including a commercial airline flight, for the sole purpose of going running. I guess this is the conclusion to the saying “You know when you are getting hardcore when….”
So, last Sunday, very early in the morning , I was milling around with 30,000 of my newest closest friends, awaiting the start of the Philadelphia Marathon. As this was my second marathon this fall, I was in new territory regarding distance events – never before had I done two such road races in such a short period of time. This particular race was of interest to me due to the easy access and inexpensive nature of flights to Philadelphia, combined with a sister who lived in the area, who for some unexplained reason was eager for my company and eager to transport me where I needed to be! Also, there was this little idea I had, about a year ago, when I first learned of the “50 States Marathon Club“, a club which requires that members do at least one marathon in each of the 50 states in order to gain admission. The fine print, however, says that you can get the T-shirt for it after only 10 states, and after all, that is the important part, right? I was further intrigued to hear that there is a local runner (who to the best of my memory I have never met) named John Lent who has actually completed all 50! So – off to Philly I went, working on state number……4. Yeah….a long way to go still for this trailrunner.
In any case, the race information made it quite clear that, in the aftermath of last year’s Boston Marathon incident, there would be an extensive series of security checkpoints before the start of the race, and runners needed to be at the start area by 5 am in order to ensure that they had enough time to clear the inevitable long security lines. Well – there I was in front of the famous Philadelphia Art Museum on the banks of the Schuykill (pronounced “Skookill”, derided as “Sure-kill” on the adjacent expressway) River, with about 20 other runners, who walked into the start area without so much as a check over from the bleary-eyed security forces standing around. Comforting. Having two hours to blow before the race start was actually kind of fun however, as it gave ample time to walk around, and strike up short impromptu conversations with other racers. I could offer my sage advice to those running their first ever marathon, as well as comment and learn from those runners who were clearly far more experienced than I.
The race went off without any real hitches, however! The last time I ran in such a large race was the NY Marathon, in 1992, and during that race it seemed as if there was no room to run until the race was more than halfway done due to the crowds. At that time, when the gun went off – the race started for everyone – if you were a few hundred yards behind the start line, it was more or less tough luck. As a result, all the runners crowded the startline as much as they could, and were more than happy to trample each other to get underway, with resulting crowding that took many miles to disperse. The advent of chip technology, where a microchip embedded in your race number ensured that your own clock didn’t start ticking until you crossed the start line led to a much more genteel start to the race, and people were far more willing to let things spread out. So, while the first few miles were pretty dense with runners, I never felt like my pace was dictated by the pace of nearby runners.
The first half of the race went through a series of neighborhoods in downtown Philly. We passed by the art museums, into the downtown business district, through Philly’s Chinatown, alongside the Delaware and Schuykill River, and through numerous residential districts. Other than brief slowdowns to grab water or Gatorade, the only stops I made were to take a picture of Independence Hall as all the other runners sped by, and find relief in a porta-potty. I had grown accustomed to long races in far more rural settings, and there weren’t exactly a lot of discretely wooded sections along the way in the course of this race! Frustratingly, this particular pit stop was complicated by the fact that the occupancy of each individual porta-potty was indicated by a small red or green sign by the door handle, and my red-green colorblindness forced me to try doors until I found an empty one, as other runners zoomed in on the correct choices much more readily.
The second half of the race was a long “out and back” along a city parkway road adjacent to the river. Just as I was leaving town, I saw the fastest athlete – a wheelchair para-athlete wheeling his way back into the finish area, and not long after that, I saw the first of several fleet-footed men of African, presumably Kenyan descent sprinting towards the finish line at a pace I could not match for one mile, let alone 26.2. The race course turned around in the formerly gritty factory town of Manyunk, which now is apparently quite gentrified. Curiously, despite the fact that I was wearing a Middlebury track singlet for the race, it gathered no recognition from the crowds of onlookers who lined the course until I hit Manyunk, where it garnered me many “shout-outs”. Must be a lot of former Midd-kids who are now yuppies living there!
I usually don’t care to talk explicitly about my running pace when authoring this blog, as it is primarily about sharing the joys of running and the out of doors, rather than as an online training log. And besides, my times are not that impressive, as befitting my age and modest training relative to most people who run longer distances. That said, I was very pleased with my performance in this race, in that I started off appropriately slowly, and accelerated throughout the race, finishing my final 10 Km at a pace which was pretty close to the pace at which I usually run a normal 10 Km race! Finishing a long race like this strongly is also one of the most empowering feelings in running. I might even call this my best marathon ever, with the aster-isk that it was the best I had ever performed relative to my age group, and frankly only a few minutes slower than a few marathons I did as a much younger man in my early 30′s. Yup- it felt good!
Finally – one of my goals for this race was to have someone get a picture of me running up the famous “Rocky Steps” of the Philly Art Museum, to post in this blog. Before the race, well it was just too dark! When I passed by these steps at the half way point, I realized that I was putting in a good time, and didn’t want to stop and mess around with a picture. By the finish, well the best I could muster was to stand in the foreground of the steps, raise my arms in victory, and let them frame this famous building, maybe with a little hop in my tired, sore legs. Of course, with the finish, my day was not yet complete – after a few hours of recovery, including a shower, nap, and a good meal at my sister’s house in the suburbs, I had to complete the short flight back from Philly and seemingly endless ride home from the Burlington airport before fluffing my pillows and collapsing to get a little sleep in before classes the next day.
While most residents of northern New England mention mud season as the most challenging time of the year to live here, the almost equally bleak month of November, less well-known as “stick season” also has it’s challenges. It has the same bare trees and overcast sky, but never quite brings out the worst in us like mud season. Perhaps we are all still feeling good after a great fall foliage season, and are anticipating the excitement of the first snows of the season? Perhaps it is because…well…it just isn’t as muddy, and the trails are arguably at their best for running, with soft leaves underfoot, and great views through the surrounding forest? In any case, I got together with two other local runners, Josh and Ben, early on a Saturday morning to do the grand loop around Middlebury, our own beloved TAM. Bits and pieces of this convenient and scenic gem have been the frequent subject of blog posts, but it has been a few years since I last described a complete circumnavigation of the village, and that was much earlier in the fall, prior to the peak of foliage season. We met up shortly before sunrise at the parking lot by Batelle/Means Woods on Quarry Road (at about 3 o’clock on the loop shown in the Google Earth projection included below), just east of town, and I convinced my running partners that we should take the loop counterclockwise to put the most challenging part of the run, the 300+ foot ascent of Chipman Hill, early in the run. We also had the additional benefit of catching a great sunrise over the mountains from the east side of Middlebury’s downtown summit! While most of the leaves were long gone from the limbs of the deciduous trees on the flanks of the hill, I was touched by the stubbornness with which a few trees clung to their leaves and to life when other sources of warmth and the ephemeral beauty of autumn was fading.
Continuing on down the west side of Chipman Hill, we wove through the village streets for a few minutes before heading north through Wright Park, and the longest contiguous section of trail not intercepted by roads. When we reached the northern suspension bridge crossing over Otter Creek, instead of taking the section of the TAM heading due west, we decided instead to take the last short loop to the north, heading into the gorge, and adding a mile or two of extra running to our proposed loop. The thick green moss alongside one particular section of trail led for Josh to christen this short passage “The Shire”. After a short section along the creek, the trail started its gradual loop back to the west, and then the south, emerging back into a meadow just to the west of Morgan Horse Farm Rd, where I managed to grab a quick photo of my fellow runners before they disappeared in the distance, forcing me to pick the pace after grabbing a photo, if I wanted to stay with them. That, and they also waited for me!
Crossing over Morgan Horse Farm Road, and veering south through another meadow and pond, we briefly considered leaving the TAM to seek out the entrance to the nearby Weybridge Cave on Cave Road, but decided against it on this day, as all of us confessed to having seeked out the cave’s entrance in the past, and all had failed. Someday we have to invite a runner who knows where exactly it is to show us. Any takers? Eventually, our counterclockwise circumnavigation brought us to the most civilized section of trail, the part circling the Middlebury College Championship Golf Course, where the TAM also serves as the running course for the college cross country races. The morning was getting a little later at this point, and we started to see other runners and walkers out for their Saturday morning strolls. The last few miles brought us back to the Batelle Woods, where I let my partners for almost 3 hours pull ahead, and I took a shot which I think exemplifies November running – grey skies, the trail softened by falling leaves, and of course, muddy sneakers.
As we returned to the parking lot where my car was, we high fived on a good long (almost 18 miles!) training run, we commented on how fast the time flew by. This almost 3 hour run seemed rather timeless due to the good company, and fun terrain. As my fellow (much younger) runners headed home, on foot, I sat my tired butt down in my car, and made a beeline to Middlebury Bagel where I treated myself to a cup of coffee…..and the most sugar- encrusted donut left on their shelves.
On a beautiful October Sunday, during peak foliage season, it was a great day to enjoy my first trail run in a few weeks. October has been a fun month! Not only has my birthday recently passed, but I also ran my fastest marathon in 22 years (fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon) a few days before said birthday, and have found that my recovery was easy enough to continue my running without a long layoff! Chatting with fellow middle aged runners, especially those who have stayed fit for all or most of their adult lives, it seems that I am not unique in my ability to run long distances without the excessive training regimens usually associated with marathon running. I guess our old bodies have learned how to go the distance? In any case, I just wanted to get out and enjoy the color, the scenery, and the fresh air on this run, so I returned to an old favorite, the Silver Lake trail, with a few variations. October is all pleasure!
The trailhead for this run is at one of the most popular trailheads in Addison County, the Falls of Lana trailhead just past Branbury State Park on VT Rt. 53. Fall foliage weekends are typically among the busiest days of the year on Vermont trails, and this day was no exception – the usually overly generous parking lot was nearly full, and there were even some cars parked on the apron of the road. Nonetheless, I found a corner in the lot where my rustbucket vehicle would fit, and started up the Silver Lake Trail. As expected, I passed numerous parties heading up and down the trail – and who could blame them? Nonetheless, at one of the short trails connecting the Penstock (fancy speak for “pipeline”) trail, I veered to the right connecting this in order to avoid the other hikers on the main trail. Realistically, the trail wasn’t that crowded – it was nothing like the conga line seen hiking up to, say, Tuckerman’s Ravine in the spring, but given the option to run away from others, I chose it. I also enjoyed the softer ground, and the sounds of the longer end-of-the-season grass rubbing against my leg as I ran. After a short distance on the Penstock trail, I took a right turn up to the Lake Dunmore overlook, a short ascent under the power lines. The view here was great in both directions – west, out over Lake Dunmore, as well as back towards the main ridge of the Green Mountains back to the east.
After soaking up the views from this vantage, I returned to the Silver Lake Dam, and took a right turn over the dam to return to my old nemesis, the Chandler Ridge Trail. The Chandler Ridge Trail runs along the hills separating Silver Lake from Lake Dunmore down below, although some topo maps apply this name to the ridge to the immediate west of Silver Lake. Semantics aside, I refer to this trail as my nemesis due to challenges I had running it during an ultramarathon last year, which left me fighting a hip injury for many months. I have also wondered how the views would be from this scenic wooded ridge during the foliage season, so I gave in to my curiosity. I was hoping that enough leaves would have fallen to open up the views towards each of the flanking lakes, but the mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, combined with the still intact colorful leaves left most of the views partially obscured, but shrouded in color. After heading about a mile south, I turned around and retraced my path back to the shores of Silver Lake, and followed its shores to the right, and spent a few minutes enjoying the late afternoon sun dancing on the water of this back country lake.
Circling through the campground before descending on the main trail back to my waiting car, I noticed the following sign of the times on one of the usually well-maintained remote privies. Needless to say, I didn’t check out the TP situation!
Returning to my car, with the parking lot thinning out as the afternoon turned to early evening, this made for a roughly 6 mile run, with about 750 feet of vertical ascent and descent. While this probably also marks my last trail run before the leaves are gone, it reinforced my sense that yes, October is a great month for running, birthdays, and pleasure!
One of my all-time favorite short trail runs is the popular dash up to the summit of Snake Mountain, with its panoramic views to of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west. Each September, I also like to present an easily accessible run for the benefit of Middlebury College freshman who might be looking for nearby runs or hikes that can be reached quickly from campus. While this trailhead requires (for most people) a short drive, there are enough snazzy SUV’s on campus (and we aren’t talking 10-year old Dodge pickup trucks -go Lexus!) that opportunities for transportation are not hard to come by. I have blogged runs up this mountain a few times in the past. From the well known western route, I have described the run under both midsummer conditions, as well as during Mud Season. I have also described the lesser known trail ascending Snake Mountain from the east side. Nonetheless, there were still some trails on this well trammeled mountain which I have not described, or even explored, and so I thought it would be fun to make them part of a new entry.
Rather than describe in detail the driving route to the trailhead, I will refer my readers to a previous posting with detailed instructions on how to get there. Setting off from the parking lot, and shortly before heading up the mountain trail, I noticed that the old building across from the end of Wilmarth Road at the trailhead had been repainted a bright red, and with this new paint job, it looked a lot like an old one-room schoolhouse. I have never thought of this abandoned building in this regard, but now I wonder if it may be an old schoolhouse. Does anyone know of the original purpose of this building?
The first section of the run involves a straightforward run up the broad trail, which was dry on this run, but can be a pretty major quagmire in the spring. As this section of the trail ended, it reached a “T”in the trail. It is pretty obvious to that a left turn takes you up towards the summit, but I have always wondered where I would end up if I were to take the right fork? Maybe on the way down? Staying on the obvious trail, through a series of switchbacks gets you to the main summit after about 2 miles. Many visiters to this summit have been under the impression that the large concrete slab at the summit is left over from the former small summit hotel which operated around the turn of the 20th century. This slab is actually of more recent origin, although I don’t know the exact decade in which it was built. It apparently is the result of someone’s aborted attempt to build a home on the summit, and the real foundations of the hotel can be found not far from this viewpoint in the woods.
Most hikers and runners don’t come up here for the history, however. They come up here for the spectacular views. Even though the day of this run was pretty cloudy, the views were still excellent – I could easily make out the smoke from the Ticonderoga Paper Mill, about 15 miles away.
Unlike my previously blogged runs on this small summit, I decided to take a different route on the way down. So, on this run, I took the first obvious right turn on the descent, and in a few short minutes arrived at the other, less frequently visited vista. During some summers, this other viewpoint has been closed due to peregrine falcon nesting, but apparently there wasn’t a nesting pair there this last summer. This “South Summit” (OK – stretching the Everest analogy here a little bit too much?) also has another curious feature. Directly behind the rock where most hikers enjoy the view, there is what appears to be a small marshy pond. What most people don’t know is that this is actually a man-made pond which was created to provide swimming opportunities for the guests of the long gone summit hotel! It’s anthropogenic origins are more obvious if you notice the man-made earthen berm along the east side of the pond. I might also add that this pond, now rather shallow and mucky, shows no sign of whatever appeal it might once have had to summit visitors!
Continuing on, the descent from this summit takes you down a trail which is steeper and narrower than the ascending trail, and eventually returns you to the main trail. At this point, you can simply retrace your steps to complete a 4 mile run, but as alluded to earlier in the posting, I decided to explore the continuation of the summit trail which goes straight, where most hikers and runners turn right. Not having the slightest idea where I might turn up, I headed down this trail, which eventually brought me into a lovely meadow, and shortly thereafter, to the side of the road known as Mountain Street Extension, where I took a right turn, followed about a half mile later by another right turn which returned me to my car, adding an additional mile to the run. The five mile run, combined with nearly a thousand feet of ascent and descent makes for a fun, and pretty intense mountain run. But remember, like a lot of fun challenges, it is only hard the first time!
On this, the last weekend before the start of my school year, I was looking for a good long run to complete the summer running season. August had been a disappointing month for running, due to back spasms which slowed me for most of the nicest days of the summer, but after a month of recovery, I felt up to a longer run than I had done in a while. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to revisit a route which I last ran (and blogged) three years ago under very different conditions, and entitled it “Stick Season above the Snow Line” This loop involves considerable time on the Long Trail along the Worth Mountain ridge, and when I last checked it out I was running through a bit of snow, and racing to get back to my car before darkness. While snow at the higher altitudes may not be that far off, this was most definitely a late summer run – the leaves are still all there, and mostly green, at least to this somewhat colorblind runner. Cooler temperatures also made for pleasant conditions on a cloudy September afternoon.
This loop is also of a length, and on terrain which most people would call “a hike”. While I love a long hike in the mountains, one of the great pleasures of trailrunning is that it can get you out in the woods covering a lot of terrain when you don’t have time for the more leisurely pacing of a day hike. So, before this run, I mowed the lawn, played the piano for a bit, read a few papers, and enjoyed a leisurely late lunch before setting off, and still got back in plenty of time for dinner. Live life to the fullest!
Setting off from my favorite running trailhead, the Brooks Road Trailhead (also known as the Chatfield Trailhead), located off of a short dirt road a mile or so below the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, I started up the comfortable climb on the dirt road. While this road is open to car traffic, I rarely see any motor vehicles on it. The road climbs steeply for the first mile and a half, rising about 400-500 feet rather abruptly, but climbs more gently most of the rest of the way to its end, 3.7 miles up into the mountains. When you get to the end of the road, follow the well worn path over the obvious footbridge over Sucker Brook, until you reach the Long Trail Spur trail on your left. Take this trail, which also climbs pretty gradually with a lot of easy running terrain for another mile or so, until you reach the Sucker Brook Shelter, found in a saddle in the Green Mountains known as “Romance Gap”. I met a small group of hikers, one of whom was a Long Trail through-hiker, and after exchanging pleasantries for a few minutes, headed up the hillside, and joined the Long Trail itself in a few minutes, turned left, and headed north towards Middlebury Gap.
As expected, the running on the Long Trail was more technical than the rest of the run. As mountain ridge trails go, this was more runnable than most, with long sections of gradually climbing and descending dirt or mud path to run on. In the rockier sections, the running becomes more akin to skipping, with your feet doing all kinds of crazy things in order to maintain a decent speed! In sections where the climbing or descending got steeper, or potentially more slippery, I slowed to a fast hiking speed. This section of the Long Trail is not known for its sweeping vistas, although there were a few limited views through the trees in places. What I do love about this section are the more subtle sights one comes across when traipsing through the forest at around 3000 ft elevation. I have always been particularly fond of the shelf fungus growing out of the side of some of the older hardwoods, and one which I came across looked so sturdy that it was begging for something to display. So, I set up a small rock cairn on it, which will no doubt puzzle or amuse subsequent passersby if they have the presence of mind to look beyond their own boots or running shoes.
Not long after this, I reached the high point of the run, the summit of Worth Mountain (~3200 ft) and began the gradual undulating descent to the top of the Snow Bowl. I was amused to meet a hiker, who seemed so happy to get a signal on his cell phone that he couldn’t resist the temptation to check his facebook page. To each his own…. The wooden walkways signaled my approach to the Snow Bowl, and shortly thereafter, I broke out into the amazing view towards the east from the top of the Bailey Falls lift.
From here, I scrambled down the steeper upper sections of the Voter Trail at the Snow Bowl, named after Old Professor Perley Voter, one of my predecessors in the Chemistry Department at the college. He must have been great, as there is also a building named after him, Voter Hall! As I reached the bottom, I passed a fellow middle-aged trail runner on his way up the mountain, and after the mandatory exchange of complaints about our aging bodies, headed across the parking lot, and descended on Rt 125 to return to my car just as the drizzling rain started to get just a little bit heavier.
According to my GPS, this was a 10.5 mile run, with an 1800 foot ascent, probably closer to 2000 feet with the undulations along the way. Not a bad way to end the summer. Now, time to prepare for Monday classes……And bring on the Fall!