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!


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:

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!


pathfinder said...

great report Rob....keep up the running. I wish we had interconnected trails like that here, though the Eastern trail is trying to do that (it takes a long time)

Dan said...

I'll be checking this trail out once I'm running again. Don't worry about your time. You could have done it 30 minutes faster if you didn't take some many picture. But we like pictures so keep doing it!