Monday, April 15, 2013

Changes in Season

I realize that the last time I wrote anything in this space I had just finished perhaps one of the toughest races and experiences of my life as a runner.

I have been thinking about that experience, as well as this blog.

I have thought about ceasing this blog and starting something new, something more befitting of my aspirations in running.  In fact, yesterday, while showering after my run, I knew I wanted to write again, but I wondered if this space had too much history and too much personality, that my new endeavors and ideas could only exist in another space.

After rolling this idea around in my head for about the 10th time in the last month, it finally dawned on me that this couldn't be further from the truth.

As people, we all change.  Our thoughts change.  Our values change.  We are changed by the experiences we have to endure -- things that we may see coming, but mostly, and most profoundly, those we do not see.

So with this blog, I embrace the change.  Know that I am a runner who loves trails, and trails will still be a big part of the blog.  But also know that I am an ultra runner, too.  I am also a runner interested in running faster and getting stronger and improving myself as a person.  These things may show up here, too.  So, yes, I want this blog to be about trail gear, trail shoes, and trail adventures.  But this blog is going to also serve as a sounding board for speed work, road work, and other things that may not fit a 'totally trail' theme.

So where have a been since last summer?

First, I had the honor of helping a good friend of mine train and complete his first marathon.  I gave him the plan, he did the work, I taught on the run during our weekend long training runs together with regard to pacing and fueling, and then we ran together during the big day (sort of, a long story there) at the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon.  We conquered...


I could write another three posts about this experience and what it meant for me to see one of my friends go from a prospective marathoner, to a finisher.  There was absolutely a moment during the training where I wasn't sure if he'd be able to do it, but the next weekend I did one of those coach, 'why don't we try this', and it made all the difference.  It was actually only a few weeks before the marathon, and I was mulling over the thought of talking with my friend about deferring to next year and taking a shot a doing a longer training plan.  Thankfully we never had that conversation, and now he's a marathoner!

Second, following Rockfest, I helped pace another friend for a bit of Stone Cat, and generally spent the time being around the race and not IN the race.  I learned that pacing isn't just about showing up and going along with your runner.  I also learned that as much as you THINK you know a course like the back of your hand, you really need to make sure you know what you are doing.  Again, another blog post could be dedicated to that!  In the end, I spent the day seeing people accomplish great things there at the finish line of Stone Cat, and it really made me appreciate the trail running community more.

Third, I found myself trying to be a runner on vacation in Florida and failing.  I had hoped that I'd be able to soak up the sun at Disney, and start each day running around the resort.  Instead, I found lots of late nights, lots of really good food, lots of walking around theme parks, and very little time to actually run.  It was mostly a time for family fun, and I was so very happy to have the experience of a lifetime during a very good week in Florida. 

Finally, shortly after arriving back from Florida I developed a nasty injury in my back.  I spent 6 weeks trying to figure out the injury myself - FAIL.  Then I went to my doctor, go it checked out, made sure nothing was broken, and then found my way into 6 weeks of physical therapy.  Thankfully, I found the right physical therapist for me, who was not only focused with treating the symptoms, but also FIXING the issue and teaching me how to do things to make sure I don't get injured again.  The 6 weeks of PT got me started on strengthening muscle groups and correcting muscle imbalances. 

Since 'graduating' from PT a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about what will be next.  To tell you the honest truth, I am not all that concerned.  I am signed up for the TARC 100 Miler in June, but I am not sure there is any way I can show up and cobble together an effort worth of a finish. 

Aside from TARC, I committed to do the Ragnar Cape Cod Relay with some friends from college, and am ELATED that I'll be showing up with enough fitness to do my job for the team.

Honestly, the last three or four weeks have been all about loving the run.

Four weeks ago, I forced myself to spend three hours in the woods on snowy trails, three weeks ago I ran the same course, and the trails had been ravaged with recent snow and it was hard and cold and fantastic.  Two weeks ago I ran the same course, and managed to cover 20 miles in what was likely a PR for me regarding time on trails (I was also in LOTS of pain afterwards).  Last weekend, I spent some great time running long in the dark at Lynn Woods with some of my trail friends, and then the highlight of this weekend was running a simple 12.5 mile Stone Cat loop at Willowdale with another good trail friend.

With all that said, I am learning to embrace the changing seasons of life as a runner, and, most importantly, I am learning again to simply love the run!


Happy Trails!


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Race Recap - Around the Lake Ultra - 24 Hours


On July 27th I toed the line at the ‘Around the Lake’ Ultra in Wakefield, MA, with aspirations of completing my first 24 hour race.  A couple week removed from the race I continue to ponder the question of whether or not timed races are harder than those that have a set distance.  After dropping in this race, just shy of the 12 hour mark, I have another bit of evidence that timed races are indeed harder.  So why do I keep signing up for them?  I guess the answer is simply that my life as an ultra runner started with a timed race, and as much as I want to stay away from timed races, there is a part of me that feels a loyalty to the race format.

It all started with the G.A.C. Mother’s Day 6-Hour back in 2009 (Has it really been three years???).  It was my first official attempt at becoming an ultra runner, which was moderately successful, covering 27 miles – above marathon – but not exactly what most would consider a true ultra distance (27 can be construed as running a marathon and getting lost for a couple minutes and retracing your steps).  Either way, I was on the course for 5 hours and 57 minutes, which was nearly 2 hours longer than any long run I had ever attempted.  Distance wise it was barely a keeper, but the time on feet made it harder than anything I had ever done, which, in effect, made it an ultra for me.

Since then I have only run one other timed race, the TARC Spring Thaw 6 Hour this past March.  Much like my experience at G.A.C. Mother's Day, I was out there for nearly all of the six hours, but I only covered 25.5 miles.  I am not about to dignify running two timed races and four distance-oriented ultra marathons (two 50k’s & two 50 Milers) as an adequate sample size, but I have had far more success enduring to the end of races where I know the finish exists at a certain mile marker.

This made a race strategy for the 24 Hour Around the Lake next to impossible to generate. 

Nevertheless, in training runs before the race I did all of the needful things, like experiment with different foods and run-walk strategies, and came to the race feeling like I knew what to do, even if I didn’t have a set plan.

Waking up the Friday of the race I felt like I had so much left to do ahead of the start.  I had spent the past two weeks making lists and gathering supplies, but everything was basically piled up in a corner in need of some organizing.  To make matters worse, I kept finding random items that I knew I'd need and hadn't yet gathered or bought.   All day I was under the strange feeling of trying to prepare, knowing the whole time that there would likely be no night of sleep, restless or otherwise, between race prep and the start.  In fact, I had hoped to get a nap before heading to Wakefield, but standing in line at the grocery store at 2 p.m. I knew that nap just wasn't going to happen.

A view of Lake Q...
We left for Wakefield at 4, stopped briefly to buy a cooler and a tarp, and eventually landed at the lake slightly before 5:30.  I wasn't dressed in my running gear yet, and my first tasks at the lake were to get the tent put up and try to organize base camp a little... sure, race related, but it just felt like this was 'other' stuff I had to get done before I could get myself squared away.  To  top it all off I was not in my running gear yet.  All things seemed rushed; I didn’t want to be rushed.  Not tonight.  

Welcome to the Hotel Shamrock
Thanks to some great help from Mike St. Hillaire and his family, eventually ‘Hotel Shamrock’ was set up and organized.  I quickly got geared up and made sure I had bottles of Perpetuem made up for laps 2, 3, and 4.  
 
As I readied the aid table in the Hotel Shamrock, a familiar face appeared in the entry way – Jeff Lane!  Okay, so admittedly this made me a little star struck, because Jeff is one of those super cool trail folks I know, but didn’t really think knew me all that well.  His and Greg Esbitt’s Fells video from a few years ago is legendary to me as it made me want to be an ultra runner even more, and I really respect the 'Nougats'.

Nougats Fells video here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_GopmtHzUU&feature=plcp 

Getting 'Hammered' before the start!  
So yeah, a little ‘fan boi’ moment for me when Jeff says, “What’s up Rob?”  We chatted for a little while and he offered to join me for a few laps later on in the race.  This started a theme of me coming to the race woefully unprepared as far as things like crew and pacers were concerned, but the kindness of friends proved to eclipse these shortcomings.  If I accomplish anything from this post and race report, I want to thank Jeff, Breakheart Dan, Keri Haskins, Glen Green, Bill Howard, Steve Latour, Julie O’Mara, Mike St. Hillaire, and my wife, Jen, for their assistance with pacing, moral support, and putting up with me during this event.

As the time drew near for the race briefing and the start, the gloom of the day’s overcast began to break and give way to evening sunshine.  The temperature was nice, in the upper-70’s, but the high humidity made it very soupy, and we hadn’t even started running yet.

Standing and chatting with Julie O. before the race I felt ready, but still had that nasty feeling of being rushed.  I hoped this feeling would pass after the gun went off.  

The start was minutes away and I made sure I had my timing chip (check), race number (check), tunes (check), and water bottle.... AND WATER BOTTLE!?!?  Rushed indeed, as the most important item I'd need was sitting back in the Hotel Shamrock, which thankfully wasn't too far from where we were gathered for the start. 

ALL SYSTEMS GO!!... and we were off.

During the initial loop everyone follows the same add-on out and back off of the actual race course to get the marathoners their extra distance, so at the completion of their 8th and final loop they have exactly 26.22 miles.  I heard some of the 12 and 24 hour runners complaining about this, but I figured a marathon split time would be a good indicator of what kind of day I was having.  Not to mention, everything after that 8th loop would in the realm of ‘ultra’ and for the 12 and 24 hour participants the question becomes, ‘how deep are you willing to go?’

The first loop was filled with a lot of the same experiences as other races – jockeying for position early, trying to find a groove, and getting to know the personality of the course.  Mike St. Hillaire and I started the race together, and his plan was to use a 10 minute run, 5 minute walk approach for as long as he could sustain it.  I, on the other hand, had little in the way of an allegiance to any run-walk ratio.  I stuck together with Mike and his friend Keri, for the first couple of miles, but eventually Mike’s running pace, and my lack of commitment to 10-5, saw Mike pulling ahead.

One down.....?? to go!
Around the Lake for the first time, I came into the timing chute and crossed the mats with a group of other runners.  Looking down at my watch I saw just over 48 minutes, which was just about 12 minute per mile pace.  Not exactly the 13 minutes per mile I had hoped to start off at.

Once across the timing mats I ran over to Hotel Shamrock to find that my crew had already abandoned me.  I marked off the time on my lap board, grabbed a couple stinger gels and a new bottle of Perpetuem from the cooler, and headed out on to the second lap.

Loops two and three were right around the same pace, as I was still trying to work out a strategy and get into a groove.  As I was finishing loop two I ran right by Breakheart Dan and Jeff Lane, only realizing it was them a few hundred meters after I had passed.  Thankfully I caught up with them on the other side of the lake on loop three, and was able to stop and chat with them for a few minutes.  Seeing Dan out there was also a really big boost for me.  He has been down with injuries for months now, but he is one of the people I met early on in my career as a trail runner.  He knew me before I was even a marathoner, and has been one of the many friends, including all of The Ultra Gang, that has served as a source of inspiration and support throughout my journey as a runner. 

As I started the fourth loop, I noticed my split was about 2 hours and 10 minutes for 10.36 miles, which was well below the 13 min. per mile pace.  I also found myself running on my own and, thus, itching to get to the iPod for support, then, as I increased the volume on a song, my iPod blinked out!!  A minor inconvenience for most days, but during a race, this was bordering on devastating.

This loss of tunes led to the first low moment of the day.  I am not sure if it was the setting sun or the loss of music, but as I made my way around the lake I was left to my thoughts.  I kept thinking about the time and how much longer I had to go, and how I hadn’t been using much of a strategy.  I was definitely my own worst enemy here.  As I started feeling slight discomfort in my legs, my mind made this more epic than it should have been, and started to dread the night… and the next day.

Darkness took over quickly during this loop, and even though Wakefield is a suburban community with well lit streets, there are places where a head lamp was helpful.  I finished this loop in the doldrums, handed off my iPod to the wife to see if she could get it going with the car charger, grabbed another bottle of Perpetuem, and started off on loop five.

The next few loops continued in a seemingly uneventful manner.  I was lucky to have support from others that helped me click off the miles.  Jeff joined me as a pacer for a while, which was absolutely a huge benefit to me.  Prior to the race I had seen pacers as being highly over-rated, but nothing makes the mileage slide by when you have someone to chat with, taking your thoughts away from every little discomfort or negative thought.  Jeff’s pacing was huge for me, and those laps of the race were not the fastest on the clock for me, but they were certainly the easiest.  Jeff volunteering to run a number of laps with me was even more of a classy thing to do considering he had run and finished the Vermont 100 the previous weekend!

Around 11 or 12, Jen eventually had enough of the Hotel Shamrock and the crew life and I told her I’d be able to get by through the night on my own.  She made up a few bottles of Perpetuem and put them on ice so I could simply grab and go over the next few hours, and headed off to her Mom’s for some better accommodations than a mummy bag.

Instead of going lap by lap, here are a few bullet point items and thoughts from the 'through the night' portion of the race.  Nota bene, most of these are garbled in my mind as ‘god-knows-what-loop-it-exactly-happened’ format.  I remember:

-  *  Catching back up with Mike at about 4 or 5 hours. He looked like he was tired and hurting.  This troubled me because it was way too early for him to look tired or hurt.

-  *  Bill Howard showed up and joined in the fray, helping to pace me and Mike in the early a.m. hours. Bill was more awake and speedy after midnight than anyone out there, and walking with him was a challenge.  He and Mike left me in the dust.

   *  Speaking of walking fast, Jeff and I caught up to G.A.C.ers Norm Sheppard and Melanie Haber.  Norm was pacing Mel during the 12 hour, and Norm was telling me about his VT100 race, and all I could do was half listen because their walking pace was faster than a slow jog for me!

-  *  I note my marathon split time was 6:05, which is damn near 14 minutes a mile... not a good sign considering I had a 'fast' start.

-  *  I believe I changed my shoes at 23 miles, which ironically is when the real 'BIG' mistake happened because my feet were swollen, and I could not get them back into a pair of trainers.  I had to resort to a pair of racing flats, which helped with the soreness in my foot for a little while, but eventually, after 22 more miles in their relative light cushioning, brought me to my end.

-  *  I met a 'Marathon Maniac'.  We talked about how I-95 in Connecticut is awful, because she was stuck in the traffic their Friday and she was a 1/2 hour late to start.  We also had a 'small world' connection regarding Bucks County in Pennsylvania.  We shared stories about Peace Valley Park.  That was a good conversation that happened at a very early hour of the morning, it was sort of surreal, and I never once asked her what her name was...I feel like a dufus for this!

    *  There is a Honey Dew Donuts on the course... I could smell the fresh donuts being unloaded at 3 a.m. from a quarter mile away... it was delightful. 
 
Beyond the Bullet points, here is a little more about some of the bigger moments of the through the night and into the dawn portion of the race.

After doing some serious work for me, Jeff decided he had to get back home and get some rest.  At this point I was on my own, as Bill and Mike were working well together, and I was still having some general foot and stomach issues to work through.  I will take this opportunity to say that pacers and crew are also valuable from the standpoint of getting you in and out of the aid stations.  Once Mike and I were back together on a similar pace during the middle of the night I think we subconsciously were using each other to linger during the times of changing gear and refueling.  It sort of reminded me of a night out with the guys, when mass quantities of certain beverages had been consumed.  There was much laughter and joking, but little in the way of purpose and progress.  It wasn't a bad thing, because the night can be the toughest part, and the company and help Mike provided was great, but we definitely were violating one of the principles of ultra running:  Relentless Forward Progress.  Then again, at that point we had another 17 or 18 hours to go, so there was plenty of time to make up the lost time! 

Eventually the sore feet made me think a lot about dropping out of the race.  These thoughts started trickling in my mind around the marathon split at 6 hours, but I tried to push that away and keep moving.  As the next two loops rolled by, and Mike and Bill seemed to push further ahead, I started to feel the next low point settling in.  Then suddenly, somewhere on the loop where we made it past the 50k mark, I got a surge of energy.  My running intervals became more effective, and in no time I could see I was gaining ground on Bill and Mike.  Mike was wearing sun glasses with multi-colored, blinking LED lights, and even with my visual impairment I could see him off in the distance.  Holding on to this new found energy I surged by Bill and Mike, and kept efficiently moving forward.  I wanted to slow down and run with them, and I certainly was not interested in competitively putting distance between myself and them, but I wanted to ride the wave of energy as long as I could. 

When I finished this loop I didn’t even think about stopping by the Hotel Shamrock.  Instead I filled my bottle with Heed from the race's aid station just after the timing chute, grabbed some Hammer Gel and Endurolytes, and made my way out on the course for the next loop. 

This strategy worked well because it got me back on to the course without any thoughts of dropping as I marinated in my own sweat and self-loathing in the tent.  In fact, as I started this next loop I decided I would dedicate the next three laps to my Grandparents that have passed away.  No thoughts about dropping because no matter what I owe loops to Nana and Grandpa O'D, and Grampa Mac.  Along the lake I kept looking back expecting to see Mike’s glasses advancing toward me like some ‘Christmas lights’ version of the Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship, but to my amazement there were no signs of them.

As the hours passed and the world started to slowly go from the suspended animation of overnight, to the slow and sporadic trickle of folks waking in the pre-dawn hours, my feet were getting progressive more and more sore.  Upon completion of the next loop I tried to find a remedy back at the tent and the race aid station, but it just seemed like I’d have to bear it.

The next loop was progressively slower, but I could see the horizon beginning to change from the tar paper blackness of deep night to a dawn-harbinger purple.  It was a good sign, and I had hoped all the stories of runners getting a lift at dawn were true.

As I finished this loop, I ran into a familiar face climbing out of his car – Steve Latour!  It was awesome seeing Steve, as he is another old trail friend that I don’t get to see often enough, and it helped me to not think too much about my feet.  Steve was looking to pace Julie O. for the last couple hours of her 12 hour run, but also offered his pacing assistance later on if I was interested.  I certainly was, but I was not sure my feet were going to allow many more miles.

Once again, I used the 'avoid Hotel Shamrock' strategy, and just relied on the aid station’s Heed and Hammer Gels to get me through the next loop.  About halfway through the loop I noticed a familiar sight off in the pre-dawn light – Mike and his Technicolor glasses!  As I pulled alongside of him, he was not in good shape, he looked ragged and worn out, and he admitted he fell asleep a couple of times, nearly ending up in the lake on one occasion.  We walked along together for a little while, but after a while it was clear he was in need of a nap or some caffeine.  As for me, my feet just wanted to be done with this loop, and I did my best to just shuffle along during what was supposed to be a running interval.

When I completed my second to last loop I noted it was approaching 5:40 in the morning, or 10:40 in race time.  This was about the time I realized I was not going to miraculously make it to 24 hours, and 100k seemed very much in doubt. 

Steve was there to pace, and as I prepared what was to be my final bottle of Perpetuem, it was hard to answer Steve when he asked how I was feeling.  Sure, I want to be tough, but I felt broken inside, and I just wanted to push myself out for another loop.  As a matter of perspective, my split times for each loop had started in the low 40’s and since the 'inspired' loop when I passed Mike & Bill, my splits for the 3.17 mile course were as follows:

- 45:35 'inspired loop'
- 58:08 
- 60:24
- 76:19, final loop

Steve fought like a warrior-poet to keep me going past this last loop, but ultimately the degree of pain that was being inflicted on my feet simply from walking was too much to endure and at 45.25 miles and 11 hours and 52 minutes I called it quits.

As I sat there in the lobby of the Hotel Shamrock I was disappointed, but satisfied that I endured the sore feet that started nearly 6 hours and 19 miles earlier.  Even with the satisfaction amid the disappointment I have been left in a world of wonder…  I wonder how much more I could have given; I wonder how much more I’ll ever be able to endure; I wonder if I’ll ever be strong enough, physically and mentally, for a 100 miler.    

Jen arrived about 15 minutes after I dropped, and was amazed that I was done.  She looked like she was dressed to join me for a loop or two, so that made me a bit disappointed that I dropped.  Then again, my feet, even with shoes off, were in howling for cushioning.

All told, I loved the experience of running through the night and seeing all of the changes from dusk until dawn.  I also learned the importance of pacers and crew, and how I have way more support and friends out there than originally thought.

In a purely evaluative moment, when I look at how I fueled during the race, I feel like I had lots of success with everything I ate.  The Hammer Perpetuem seemed to work really well for the majority of the race, though, at about six hours the bland taste was too much for me, and I drank a bunch of Gatorade for some added sweetness.  Oddly enough, I had very little of the burritos I made, and got by through the night with Honey Stinger gels, Hammer gels, gummie bears, and chocolate covered coffee beans.  I also had a couple quarters of peanut butter and jelly early on, but relied on the other items above for the majority of the rest of the twelve hours.  I was drinking about 24 ounces of fluid an hour on account of the humidity, mostly Perpetuem, with a couple bottles of Heed, one mixed with Coca-Cola.  I was clearly hydrated the whole time.  Since I was fueling with mostly Hammer Nutrition products, I stuck with Endurolytes during the race, too, which I hadn't really used before, but seemed to do what they needed to do.  Unfortunately, nothing I ate or drank could cure sore feet!

As I have said above in a few different places, many thanks to everyone that supported me; Your assistance and friendship are things that are priceless in my eyes, and are appreciated more than you can know.

Also, congrats to Mike St. Hillaire, who came back from his zombified form early in the morning to finishing the 24 hour strong, completing 80+ miles in 23 + hours, and, most importantly, raising over $1,000 for Children’s Hospital.  Here’s a link to his account of the day:  http://runsultras.blogspot.com/

This ragged trail animal is done with the road ultras for a little while.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in redeeming myself around the lake, but I need better cushioning for my paws the next time around (and around and around....).

For now, I am going to curl up in the corner and dream of the next trail ultra….

Until next time, (shhhhhh….) Happy Trails!      

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pineland Farms 50 Miler - Short Version

I have not been very good to my blog, I know.  It has been over three months since posting, but I have really had a 'shut up and train' attitude.

In the past three months I have run two races, including the Pineland Farms 50 Miler in Maine a couple days ago.

I owe the readers of this blog a couple posts in greater detail about where I have been and what I have been doing leading up to Pineland, but in the interest of time I'll give you some quick notes on my Pineland Farms experience.

Finish - 10 hours, 46 minutes, 56 seconds -- new trail 50 mile PR by 55 minutes!

First, it is a fantastic event!  Even for runners like me that do their 50 miles over the course of hours that number in the double digits, you still see the festival at the start finish area when you complete the various loops of the course that make up each 15.5 mile lap.

Second, I am not sure there is such thing as a 'perfect' day when it comes to running 50 miles.  Once the dust settled, I am VERY happy with my finish and my time, but the day was one that had so many challenges.  Then again, for those that have run ultras, I think we understand that over the course of 50 miles you will be challenged.

Third, the word of the day for me, especially given my comment above, was adaptation.  I came into the race with a plan... scratch that.... I came into the race with a well thought out plan, and as the day unfolded - even within the first 3.5 miles - I needed to re-evaluate and make decisions on the spot that were vital to my success and survival.

Fourth, finishers are winners.  I don't say this in arrogance at all, but the 50 miler at Pineland Farms seemed to have about a 33% rate of entrants that DNS'd, DNF'd, or dropped down to another race distance.  I think I finished 109th out of about 120, but am not disappointed at all, because I know how freaking hard I had to work just to get there.  There is NO fudging your way through 50 miles.

Fifth, I am starting to really like the experience of doing the 50 mile distance... this could be a problem.

Finally, I am so blessed to have the ability to do these, and am blessed twice to have friends and family that support and enjoy these events with me.

Hoping to do a more detailed post later...

Happy Trails!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Danvers Rail Trail Marathon… or ‘Spring Forward’… or ‘Lazy Sunday’


First off, no, this was not an official race.  In fact, after slightly over five hours on my feet, it felt more like penance than accomplishment.

Nevertheless, this past Sunday I decided I’d take my long run to a network of paths and trails that I had yet to experience in the immediate area.  Living in Essex County in the northeast corner of Massachusetts offers runners and cyclists a plethora of conservation areas, state parks and forests, as well as quiet country roads.  Often times we find ourselves in a niche, experiencing the same locations weekend after weekend.  Though our ‘old reliable’ recreation areas might be infinitely better than what we might have if we lived in other parts of the commonwealth - or even other parts of the country – it is very important to get out and experience other areas that we may have only heard about.

For me this was the case when it came to the Danvers Rail Trail, as well as the Topsfield Linear Common - the two trails that were the setting for my run on Sunday.  Planning for the run I knew the distance I wanted to cover would absolutely be a marathon, but I felt like I knew so little about the details of both paths.  I knew in Topsfield I’d have ample opportunity to re-fuel with locations like Gil’s Grocery and Cumberland Farms literally steps from the path, and the detailed maps of the segments of the Danvers Rail Trail (links at the bottom of the article) were an excellent source of information regarding places to find restrooms along the southern span of the trail.  In addition to the information I found online, I had a very ‘Beatles’ moment when I received an unexpected email from trail running friend Karen, who had heard about my planned marathon the following day, and gave me some more information about what to expect along the route, as she had done parts of the trail earlier in the month.

Equipped with the knowledge from the preparation for the expedition and loaded down with a couple Odwalla Bars, a Nutella sandwich, and my two bottle hydration belt, I was ready for the journey!

As I stood at the northern terminus of the trail – currently at Washington Street in Topsfield – I basked in the warm midday sun enjoying the late Winter tease of the forthcoming Spring.  I only stood by for a few moments, and gave a little hoot and holler as the excursion began.

Looking North, potential expansion beyond?

Start of the Trail – Topsfield Linear Common – Heading South
The opening stretch of trail is fairly consistent with what one should expect for pretty much the entire stretch of trail in Topsfield – packed, crushed stone.  I cruised along this stretch of trail, trying to keep my heart rate below the border between my aerobic and anaerobic zones.  The first mile consisted of road crossings at Main St. and Route 1.  Both were actually fairly quick and easy.  Beyond the Route 1 crossing the hard-packed gravel extended south along the Topsfield Fairgrounds and one could clearly observe why this is called the ‘linear’ common.


This stretch of trail ends with another road crossing, this time MA-97, and I was pleasantly surprised with the extremely visible crosswalk and signage, and even more elated when the on-coming motorists actually observed them!

After crossing 97, the trail passes over the Ipswich River via a very nice bridge:


Taking a picture of a bridge, while standing on a bridge… This one’s for you Mr. Latour!
Over the Ipswich and further down the trail I heard my Garmin click off another mile, and I looked down to realize I was already up into the 10’s for my mile pace, which didn’t bode well for the rest of the run, but I took it all in stride and remembered it was more important to keep with the heart rate game plan.

After passing over MA-97 a second time, the trail enters a long section that runs along the Great Wenham Swamp.  This is a very neat section of trail because it offers views of the swamp on either side.  The birds and other critters that call the swamp home are only feet away, and at one point I felt like an intruders as the cacophony of creature sounds seemed to pay little attention to my presence. 

The surface of the trail changes here as well, as the packed gravel ends and a softer dirt surface begins.  The softer surface was actually nice for me because it felt more like trail I might find in Bradley Palmer or Willowdale and less like a bike path.

Beyond the Great Wenham Swamp, the trail becomes much more rugged with a flat, yet loose surface of small rocks and dirt.  Nothing too technical by any means, but probably more suited for bikes with knobby tires and a little suspension.  I continued to cruise along here, about 3.5 miles in, when I noticed one of the first ‘mile markers’ on the trail:


 These mile markers actually are ‘tenth-of-a-mile’ markers, and are found all the way from the Danvers-Wenham border, south to the end of the trail.

As I started passing more of these markers, the trail became less secluded, with the trees thinning out to reveal more and more houses.  Eventually I arrived at the first road crossing in Danvers at Wenham Street.  After crossing here I got a little mixed up because my natural instinct is to follow the trail and not the gravel.   

After crossing Wenham, you continue past the Agway and have to turn right and keep on the gravel.  At this turn, I kept going straight along the ‘trail’ into the woods.  After seeing one of the markers along the adjacent gravel path, I realized I was in the wrong spot and had to bushwhack and leap a rock-lined moat… no alligators detected… to get back on the trail.

From here the trail becomes much more suburban, with the scenery changing from swamp and forest to backyards and parking lots.  The surface also becomes more ‘gravel’ in composition.  In addition, there are a more frequent road crossings.  The only crossing that seemed slightly dangerous was the one at Burroughs St., where the crosswalk is not perpendicular to the sidewalk.  Rather, it is angled, and pedestrians should be extremely cautious of traffic here because it does take longer to get across and I found this was one of the few intersections where motorists were less likely to yield.   

After surviving the various road crossings I found the numbers on the mile markers were getting smaller and smaller until eventually I reached the southern end of the trail!

0.0??  Now what??
After a very brief moment of reflection, I realized that it had definitely been dryer and warmer than anticipated, and I was nearly finished with both bottles of water.  As I plodded north I took stock of the dusty trail that awaited me, as well as the ample areas of commerce where I might be able to fill my bottles:

Dusty Trails!

Well, it isn't exactly the Grand Canyon...
I considered hopping the trail to get down to Wal-Mart, as I was sure to find some suitable beverages.  Then I realized I’d probably need a pit stop as well, and didn’t exactly feel comfortable spending more time in Wal-Mart looking like I was on an expedition for low, low prices with all my gear, not to mention the appearance that I shouldn’t be there and the suspicion that would likely follow.
   
Moving further up the trail I saw the All-American symbol of the ‘Golden Arches’ and quickly realized that my need for a pit stop was growing more and more dire.

Another Bridge!

More Commerce!
After taking care of business in what was likely a better choice of commode when compared to what I’d find in Wal-Mart, I bought a large beverage and topped off my water bottles.  If you are keeping score at home, you are probably asking exactly what my beverage of choice was from a place like McDonald's, and the answer to that is a cocktail of Hi-C and Minute Maid Lemonade… I should have gone with the hemlock, I would have been better off!

‘Quenched'… more like a trip down the bad decision highway!
After climbing the steep grade back on to the trail, I resumed my northerly heading back to downtown Danvers. 

Scenes of Suburban Running!

Crossings!

Trail Right of Way through a Parking Lot
It is definitely weird at times heading down a narrow corridor of rail trail and seeing people’s backyards, but it also reminds me of how much of a benefit having access to a trail like this would be for an active person.   

I would also add that if you do decide to check out the Danvers Rail Trail, there is a very nice lot in this section that was specifically created for those utilizing trail.  It is located near the Hobart St. and Maple St. intersection.  Google Map ‘7 Hobart’ in Danvers and that will put you in the general vicinity.  On a beautiful Sunday afternoon there were plenty of open spots in the lot both times I ran by.  In addition to the ample parking, this is actually a really good spot to begin from because you are at the 'two mile' marker on the trail and can head south to the end of the trail for a couple miles, or go north for slightly more distance and come to where the mileage markers end near the Great Wenham Swamp.

Leaving Danvers Center, and heading toward St. John’s Prep once again, I finally clicked over to 10 miles on the day.  I realized that I was pretty close to broaching two hours and was not even close to being halfway done.  This certainly caused a bit of an initial low point because it made what was shaping up to be a long afternoon that much longer… although I suspect it could have also been a crash after sipping Hi-C and Lemonade for a couple miles!

As I strode along I came to what appeared to be one of the many remnants from the railroad, in this case what I believe is concrete mile marker:


I found a second one just outside of downtown Topsfield

Another remnant of the old railroad is contained within a section that felt a lot more like some of the trails I am used to running in places like Bay Circuit and Willowdale, with lots of rocks and mud.  I can imagine the amount of TNT they must have used to clear the way here:


More Mud as the trail moves onward toward the swamp!
Back in the peacefulness of the woods that precedes the Great Wenham Swamp I started feeling that urge to slow down even more than I had been already.  My legs started to get heavy, plus my monitor was making more noise as I was going over my targeted ceiling heart rate for the run.  I tried not to think about how I was only just approaching the half marathon mark, and tried to use one of the mental ‘ultra’ tricks that seem to help in these situations.  I resolved the first goal would be to get back to the first crossing at Route 97… check.  Then from there it was all about making it to the Ipswich River and the next crossing of 97… check.  Then on past the Fairgrounds to the Route 1 crossing… check.  This worked like a charm to handle things mentally, but again my heart rate was spiking above the target and I was going crazy from the constant alerts and incessant chiming from the Garmin!

After a while I decided I wouldn’t turn off the heart rate monitor, but would instead raise the ceiling by 10 beats per minute.  No, it wasn’t part of the training plan, but it was for my mental health at that moment and seemed to take care of the constant alerts.

As I strode toward the Main St. crossing in Topsfield all I could think about was water and Gatorade, and joyously dumped the half bottles of high-fructose corn syrup madness I chose miles earlier.  I made a quick stop, refilled the bottles and finished up the last bit of the trail to the Washington St. terminus - completing the first 'out and back' of the day.  I checked my mileage, and I was at about 15.85 miles.  I decided to run along Washington St. for about .2 of a mile so I could arrive back at the path to run the remaining 10 miles of the journey as an exact five miles out, 5 miles back segment. 

This segment began again with another mentally challenging moment or two for me because my legs were sore at this point and all I could think about was the miles and nearly two hours I had remaining.  At the thought of it all, I could have very well have called it a day then and there.  Nevertheless, I knew I wanted the marathon distance for the day and did the best I could to simply continue south for another out and back one step at a time.

The second large mistake of the afternoon came shortly thereafter, as I had an Ensure meal replacement shake with me, which had been an awesome choice during Stone Cat.  Thinking nothing of it, I drank the Ensure as I started the next out and back, and it took about .3 of a mile for me to regret every last drop.  I should have known better!  It was like a chemistry experiment in my stomach with the Hi-C, lemonade, Gatorade, water, and now chocolate meal replacement shake!

I lost count of how many times I yet again thought about turning around and calling for a ride home.  If the upset stomach wasn't enough, over this mile I also started feeling the blisters I had developed in three different locations on my feet.

‘Turn back, the rail signs are red, my son!’

Between Route 97 crossings I again tried to corral my mind with more positive thoughts, and realized just how busy the trail had been all afternoon. 

I saw lots of people out walking and cycling in the great weather, and it was nice to see that all the time, money and effort that has, no doubt, been put in by many, many people to make this trail a reality is absolutely paying dividends.  The various organizations in Topsfield, Wenham, and Danvers should certainly be commended, and I hope members of the surrounding communities are appreciative of this wonderful space and are active in the stewardship of these paths and trails.

I slogged on, feeling like I had pulled myself out of the mental hole, and made my way to where the ‘tenth of a mile’ markers began after the swamp.  Psychologically this was an additional lift because I figured, at the very least, I could start clicking off tenths of a mile with every marker… having been by this point reduced to a steady run-walk strategy.  I figured running and walking alternating tenths of a mile was doable and at least made me feel like I was making progress. 

Just about the time I hit 20 miles I felt one of the blisters on my left foot give way like a compromised dam, bursting and shooting pain through the length of my leg.  I sort of figured this was coming, as it took about three miles for the Ensure to settle in my stomach, and I had been feeling slightly better.

Blisters aside, the five mile ‘out’ leg brought me all the way back to St. John’s Prep., and I got a lift when I looked down and saw 21.2 miles were in the bank.  It was all gravy from here!  Well, maybe not gravy... maybe a little something more settling to my stomach!   

At this point I was still VERY much in that ‘more of a walk, less of a run’ mode, and I felt each running bout over the last 5 miles were futile attempts at keeping each mile in the 12 minute pace range.

This seemed like a place fit for a trail animal, hopefully no one is home!
As the final five miles passed by, I got to see the light once again change the scenery - which I find to be one of the perks of endurance racing.  What started as a landscape flooded with bright light became a scene of fading light and shadows from the setting sun. 


My last pass of the Topsfield Fairgrounds came just as the sun dipped below the horizon, which made my 26.2 miles feel that much longer than it had already been!


As I arrived at the end of the trail at Washington St., I stopped the watch and felt very satisfied that I was done.  I was not happy with the time, I was not happy that my plan to stick with my heart rate training was basically in the can at 16 miles, but I was satisfied that I had spent the afternoon on my feet for over 5 hours, which is a huge plus for my ultra training plans this Spring.

I also found that where my new training shoes – Saucony Triumph 8’s – caused significant blisters, I didn’t feel any tightness or discomfort in my lower abs, hip or IT Band, which have been regular old nagging pains for me lately - Another VERY good sign!

The irony here is that I have reached a point in my athletic life where I am allowing myself to get depressed over running a marathon!  Especially when running a half marathon a few years ago nearly put me in traction!  I am not fast and I am absolutely carrying some extra pounds right now, but I can cover distances that many consider to be impossible.  I need to remember this every single time I get down on myself about a long run!

It was fantastic running this ‘new to me’ trail, and I look forward to sharing the Topsfield Linear Common, as well as the Danvers Rail Trail with family and friends over the next few months and years.  I encourage everyone to check both out!  For more information click the links below.

Topsfield Linear Common: http://www.topsfieldtrail.org/



TARC Spring Thaw 6 Hour Trail Run is coming up next weekend, and hopefully I can follow up this five hour effort with a six hour triumph in the land of the Yeti!

Until next time, happy trails!