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Just Say Yes! The Pemi Loop

13 Aug
Panorama from Mt. Liberty. courtesy J. Sanderson

Panorama from Mt. Liberty. courtesy J. Sanderson

I’ll start this post by saying, just say yes. Say yes, even if you are pretty sure you are not trained enough to tackle it. Say yes because this might be the only chance you will get.

This is turning out to be one helluva Summer Of Adventure. Between planning for and then executing the whole Dames Across Rhode Island run, putting our house on the market with another fantastic sell-everything-not-nailed-down yard sale, pacing at Vermont, dealing with a Prius that decided to shed its mortal coil (hybrid battery bailed at  250K miles – well WELL past its warranty) and discovering the newly opened DeKoppet Preserve (more on that in another blog post…), the summer has gone by in a whir. Back in June, my friend Janet asked if I would be interested in running the Pemi Loop. My first thought was, OF COURSE I WOULD! But then I looked at the calendar. We had another thing planned coinciding with Janet’s planned traverse. I put it out of my head for awhile as a maybe, while still staying in touch with the planning on Facebook. Mary, Janet’s friend and fellow runner, who ended up pacing my last desperate miles at Dames Across Rhode Island, would also be attempting the Pemi Loop, as well as fellow TARC runner extraordinaire Annette, as well as Laura, a runner from Connecticut with a 3:38 marathon time. This was turning out to be a good group of strong women. Janet recruited Brenda, a friend from Trail Animals Running Club (who originally planned to run Dari), and as the summer wore on, I had to make up my mind: should I go? When the Other Planned Event fell through, I had no more excuses. I should go.

The Pemi Loop traverse circles through the Pemigwasset Wilderness in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Starting and ending at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead off of the Kancamagus Highway, it can be run/hiked either clockwise or counter-clockwise. It is thirty two miles, and crosses about nine peaks, with the option of adding three more. Much of the trail is on exposed ridge; below the ridge, the trail is often rocky (it is the granite state, after all) and either descending or ascending one of its many peaks. The trail never goes around. The weather can be tricky and change quickly. Our forecast showed perfect conditions: a high pressure system would sweep out all the humidity and heat, bringing in clear, sunny conditions.


Adventure is one thing, keeping up with a group of strong fast women is another. This has been a cruelly slow summer for me. Sure, I have logged plenty of miles, but none of them have been fast. With nothing in particular to train for after DARI, I ambled from one trail race to another, to half marathon on road to long bike ride, training runs consisting of the odd eight mile dirt road commute to work, or a weekend 20 miler with plenty of walking; nothing terribly taxing, although the summer has been a hot one. While I knew I was going in to this under-trained, slow but strong, I had a deep desire to meet the challenge. I sent a message to Janet et al... I would be joining them!

In the weeks leading up to the traverse, we all did our homework. Annette messaged that she was a no-go; she needed time to heal an injury from her wicked cool adventure in Scotland. So now we were down to five of us. In a party-line call a few days before the run, we all laughed and planned for what we imagined would be a 12-14 hour adventure.  We weren’t shooting for any fastest known time, but we certainly could come in by sunset, in time for a nice dinner at the Woodstock Inn, and maybe a sit in the condo’s hot tub. I packed a bikini in my overnight bag. A little voice inside my head said, um, you know? This thing has mountains… lots and lots of them. Reading blogs by both mountain runners and hikers, I couldn’t decide if we were being overly optimistic, or whether I was being unnecessarily wary, but something worried me it was going to take a little longer. I had done, three times – once in very foul, cold weather – the western ridge trail from Haystack to Lincoln and Lafayette and down again – and all three times it had taken all day – eight or nine hours – to hike it. I wasn’t sure we would be much faster with the running, but I hoped we would. In fact, as I glossed over the elevation map, I had visions of the group of us gliding effortlessly across the ridge trail once we came out at tree-line. Because once we were up there, it would be flat and smooth ridgeline, right? Plus, I had the optimism of my fellow runners. We bolstered each other on the ride up, and over a great dinner at Portland Pie Company.

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Arriving at the condo, we made last minute preparations before going to bed. I packed everything into my “kitchen sink” Ultimate Direction SJ hydration vest. I probably had two pounds of food – sliced turkey smooshed between four slices of Italian bread, cut into eight squares. A bag of cheezits, one of fig newtons, one of dried fruit and nuts. Three Builders’ bars, some Honey Stingers’ chews, and extra NUUN caps for my many water bottles. My pack’s bladder leaked the moment I put water in to it; three distinct holes told me a fork must have been in the sink the day I washed it. Brenda loaned me two collapsible 16 oz bottles which I filled and stuffed in the big pocket on the back, and with two bottles in the front – one with a Katahdin filter – I had 64 oz of water. All told my pack, including above-treeline just-in-case clothing and emergency gear, plus styling 1980s fanny pack added 20 lbs to my summer-solid frame.  It was going to bounce. Oh well. We went to bed, sleeping a few hours before the alarm cut in to the dawn.

Flume (4,328), Liberty (4,459), Little Haystack (4,780), Lincoln (5,089) and Lafayette (5,260)

We set out at 5:39 from the Lincoln Woods parking area, everyone cheerful and ready for the day. From the flat, easy Lincoln Woods trail, after a mile or so we turned left to ascend on the Osseo trail, which gently climbs (until it’s not so gentle and your heart is going BANG! BANG! BANG!) a granite-bouldered trail, reaching the summit of Mt. Flume in about an hour and a half. The weather was PERFECT. The small summit boasted stunning views, just an appetizer to the main course. We paused to take photographs, take stock of how we were feeling. I could not help but admire the grace and ease Mary and Janet showed taking the lead on the climbs. Laura stayed not far behind them. Brenda and I brought up the back. Janet was so happy that this had all come together and that we were all out here enjoying it. That feeling was contagious – soon we were all skipping along the small ridgeline trail on our way to Mt. Liberty. At one point, an emergency beacon app I had bought for my phone suddenly went off. It sounded like a school fire alarm. What the hell is that? Is that coming from the valley? No, it’s coming from MY PHONE!  I struggled to turn the darned thing off and prayed it didn’t really send a signal but merely sounded an alarm. How random! Why had it done that? I put my phone in airplane mode and forgot about it.

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What a beautiful day. Sunny, 70 degrees, with light clouds riding the front. Ahead, the visible peaks of Liberty, Haystack, Lincoln and Lafayette showed us what was to come. It was hard to believe that from here, we would eventually be over there. Looking east, we could make out where we would be even later that day.

We actually ran some between Flume and Liberty. The trail stays fairly well at elevation, and was mild up and down, plenty rocky. It was walk, jog, run, step through some rocks, run a little, walk some more, for a couple of miles. Out along the knife edge of a cliff, into the low woods again. Suddenly, we emerged at Liberty, another summit that seemed less like a summit and more like the shoulder of the big summits to come. From here, we could see the ridge trail ahead, exposed and open to the weather, which fortunately was fine. We descended back down into the woods, and then down a steep side trail 800 feet to Liberty Springs campsite to get water. We were all pretty good with water at that point but the next water stop would be much further, so we chugged a few ounces to make room and then filtered some more to carry. Back up the side trail with mountain-cold spring water chill against our backs, we moved along. Soon, we ascended Haystack, and at that point, we were out on the ridge. On a bad day, this trail can feel like Siberia. Today, it was all skipping and hopping through alpine rock and granite-hugging stunted greenery. We stopped to admire the views, and I started my routine of eating something at each stop. Keep fueled, keep happy. I did not sit down. I generally don’t on these things. It is too hard to get back up. I tried to pay attention as my brain dueled with the two purposes of getting the trail done, and seeing the world around me.

From here, the trail from the junction of the Falling Waters trail (which ascends steeply from a busy parking area a couple of miles below) until the other side of Lafayette has often been described as “Grand Central station.” There were day hikers, AT Thru Hikers looking dirt-tatoo’d and weary, families with little hiker children, and runners like us. Although it was only Friday, I counted fifty people between Haystack and Lincoln. Conversations melded together as hikers and runners passed in both directions. Janet, Laura and Mary were up ahead; Brenda and I were laughing at some private joke, as if these crowds, this herd of people, were not all  around us. There were a lot of high-school groups. One young boy descending the rocks toward us with a sour look on his face had on a New Order t-shirt beneath his over-sized pack. I said hello, complimented him on his shirt. He said Thank you like a high schooler would say politely to his friend’s mother. “I hope he didn’t steal that shirt from his grandfather” I said out loud. Someone chuckled. We were in two lines: one going up, one coming down. Everyone was talking, everyone was snapping pictures, admiring views, shouting to friends, parents snagging the collars of over-zealous rock-hopping children. The land drops off on either side.  I recalled to Brenda my time up here in a storm. It seemed to take forever in the high winds and cold rain to get from one blasted rock to another. By contrast, today we easily climbed up the rocks and could see our destination. At some point, the stupid alert app went off again. I quickly shuffled off my pack, reached for my phone and pressed around until it turned itself off again. “If this thing does this again, I’m uninstalling it.” After a third false alarm, I uninstalled the app and shut my phone off.  Pay attention. I thought to myself. You’ve only been up here three times and there is still so much to see. See that slide over there with mica shining in the sun? See the clouds backed up against Mount Lafayette? Hear the breeze against the rocks?
It was all so pretty, overwhelmingly so.

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The atmosphere on top of Mt. Lafayette – a whopping 5,000 plus feet – was jubilant. Lafayette is a sort of a crossroads; turn left, and one can descend to Greenleaf hut, and eventually to the Lafayette parking lot and route 93 far below. Our option was straight ahead, continuing over the summit ridge to descend, open views all around, another tumble of rocks, as if a giant child had thrown a handful of boulders down a long alley. Most of the hikers were back at Lafayette. It was much quieter here. Brenda and I hiked with an older guy – maybe in his late sixties? – who reminisced about bare-booting the Bonds trail in the dead of winter. Those were the days. No one does that, now. He teased us about our long day ahead. “The Pemi Loop? Hope you brought headlamps!” We laughed. I glanced down at my watch and saw that we were seven hours in and not yet to our halfway point. So much for our 14 hour goal. But then, they said it was easier on the second half… I thought of this as I clomped down the exposed granite and looked around. Nothing but beautiful green wilderness as far as the eye could see, and granite trail beneath the toes.

Garfield Ridge Trail, Mt. Garfield (4,500) and the madness of PUDs

Now began the Garfield Ridge Trail, down from Lafayette, leaving Ted Our Old Timer Hiking Friend at the Skookumchuck trail (the word means, according to Wikipedia, “strong water’). Brenda and I descended into a series of PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs). We hiked fast, hoping to catch up with the other three. Time seemed to slow. Below treeline, the trail now offered less for views and our eyes were busy scanning the trail ahead for foothold and loose boulder. Being unfamiliar with this portion of the trail, I had little expectation, but it did seem to go on. and on. and on… Eventually it turned upward, and soon we summited Garfield. A guy at the top, munching on a granola bar with a handsome black lab by his side told us our friends had just been there before us. We took the quick side trail to inspect the base of what once was the fire tower and to listen to the wind against the rocks at the top. 360 degrees of gorgeous. A French-Canadian couple lunched at the base of the tower. Hopping down near them, we asked if they knew which way the trail went, since it wasn’t readily apparent. We spent a few minutes with them looking for it, and finally found we had to go back down to where we had gone off the trail to come up. Once there, we ran into another group of summit dogs. I love meeting the dogs.

Laura and Mary descend. courtesy J. Sanderson

Laura and Mary descend. courtesy J. Sanderson

We were well behind the rest of our group, and it was getting on to late afternoon. Coming off of Garfield, a sign read 2.9 miles to Galehead hut, which is where we were headed to meet up with our gang. More granite bowling balls, a stop at the campsite to filter more water, another drop, and suddenly, just around a bend, the trail was IN a waterfall. I have hiked wet trail before, but this was exceptional. Steep, wet, with running water right down the middle, I had a moment of panic as I reached for a tree root and it pulled away from the rock. It took us nearly an hour to do that mile. Oy vey! Beyond that (finally!) we roller-coastered along rocky up and down trail. At one point, in the distance, we could see the Galehead hut, our next destination. It seemed incredibly far away from us. Around Garfield Pond we looped, and as the trail ascended again I thought to myself that this just HAD to be the ascent to the hut – because, well, it just HAD to be. My right ankle was twitchy and giving me some pain from turning it several times through the bowling ball trail. We passed a family with wee hiker children with their wee hiker backpacks. Up ahead, we came to a clearing, emerged from our climb to another juncture and there, there was the hut. Our halfway point, and we were nine hours in.

An AT thru-hiker hailed as I passed. “Are you coming from the South or the North?” I hesitated… didn’t we just come from the West? “uh, the West.” He scowled. “Yes but… on the AT it’s always North or South.” “Oh, then, uh, I guess the South.” He asked if we’d seen one of their friends, and we had, so we told him that we had seen her by the waterfall-trail and she had been hiking fairly well (as well as could be with a big AT pack and, well, the waterfall trail.) Brenda and I wasted little time getting up on the porch and inside. And there was Janet, Laura and Mary. Hugs all around. They had been worried about us. They had been waiting 45 minutes. They had had soup. There was no more soup, but I spied a coffee pot and went right to it. We refreshed, re-hydrated, re-fueled, and all caught up, and I insisted that if we happened again to get separated that they not wait. Brenda and I would be fine. But that’s not how Janet, Laura and Mary roll – they would wait for us on each of the following ascents and junctures ahead, because we were doing this together. As we talked and regrouped, I watched as families came in for the night, the end of their days and a good night’s sleep ahead. It was now 5 o’clock. Laura was feeling some stomach issues but was ready to press on.

South Twin (4,902), Mt. Bond (4,698), and Bondcliff (4,265)

We left Galehead hut to ascend South Twin Mountain. You know those stair machines at the gym? You know how they have like big, non-standard 14 inch steps? They would be perfect training for the ascent of Twin Mountain. The sun blazed on our backs as once again, we watched Mary and Janet glide on up ahead. Laura stayed back, dealing with her stomach, but soon found her wind and pushed out ahead of Brenda and me. Within minutes, they were lost to our view, and Brenda and I took turns pushing each other up the granite-strewn trail. I had known it was coming – I had read all about it – but it still surprised and humbled me with its relentless UP. At this point, we had been moving forward for twelve solid hours. It was pointless to whine, because we were all doing this together, we were all tired, but we were all amazingly strong and capable. And the best part was that we all knew it – for my part,  I felt secure in this experienced company of women – that Janet could not have picked a better bunch. If anyone was the weak link, it was me, because I was slow. But otherwise, there was no doubt we would all be able to handle what was to come.

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I have to admit it was hard at the top of South Twin when I saw how Laura, Janet and Mary had waited, yet again, for what looked like long enough to get cold, when we had barely gotten there and caught our breath. And I felt guilty about that. It was discouraging to feel that I was slowing them down. I had to take a moment to back it up in my brain and remember what we were doing this for. It was not a race! And some people are just naturally good at this, and dedicated to their fitness, and instead of discouraged I should feel inspired. Attitude change with altitude change!

Attitude summarily changed, we pressed on at a light jog to Bond on a truly luxurious softer trail just below treeline. What a beautiful, beautiful place to be. Finally finding flow on the quiet trail, the day’s frustrations left me. Quiet all around. Green summits in all directions. At the top of Mt Bond, a lone hiker took our photograph while we watched the sun get lower across the sky to the West, the way we had come. I fantasized momentarily about stretching out against the rocks, finding a good old rock pillow, and spending the night alternately sleeping like the dead and waking to watch the stars… ah… if only. We had miles to go. The hiker told us his brother was coming up the trail that we were going down, and to say hello. On the way down, we saw the brother, and I recognized the face – it was the one I had on earlier. The slow-hiker face. The holding-them-up face. I mentally wished him well, knowing he had a ways to go before their campsite. “Hope you all have headlamps” he said, as we passed.

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Descending Bond, Mary turned to us and said, part motherly, part efficient cheer-meisterly: “Now, see Bondcliff up ahead? That’s our last mountain.


We have to get over that before sunset. We DO NOT want to be on the hard part of that descent after sunset.” We worked our way along this very, very rocky trail. Our ankles were quite tired, and our quads were sore, and OH, the views. Oh. To sit, to stare off into the never-ending wilderness, the sun sinking just beyond a tall peak in the distance, was all that the heart desired. The siren call of summit views. To our right, just feet from where we walked, the side of the ridge dropped sharply to a valley below. Ahead, the impressive summit of Bondcliff loomed. All ideas of time and what could be accomplished seemed to be swept from my head. It was 7:45 and sunset was in 30 minutes, if that. Beyond Bondcliff, the trail would go down – at first sharply, then less steeply, then eventually “boring and flat” another eight or ten? miles. I didn’t see us finishing before ten. So much for dinner out. Someone joked about food at the 24 hour CVS.

Janet and Laura pressed ahead, following Mary, who was anxious and therefore moving fast. Brenda and I dawdled, not yet willing to give up what we had climbed so hard to see. To our left, shadowed by our own mountain, the closer hills hugged in varying shades of green. The granite looked scorched, reflected in the red of the dropping sun. A few minutes of running along a spine of ridge, and then another climb. Past cairns and between low stone walls, we made our way up Bondcliff. At the top, Brenda took a few minutes to climb out on the profile and I snapped her photo while she snapped mine.

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Up ahead, a man in a blue running shirt with a big camera took photos of the sunset from a daring position at the cliff’s precipice. The mother in me wanted to drag him back from the edge and lecture him on safety. I’m pretty sure that his photographs of that day are awesome and were worth his precarious perch. We hiked past him, once again finding ourselves descending a mountain, the last of the day. A very quick few hundred feet of serious downhill – hands required and granite-hugging, knee scraping drops –  and we emerged in a little clearing where the other three waited for us. “Yay!” we cheered, celebrating getting off of the mountain just before sunset. Headlamps on, we now prepared to descend the last of the trail, a few hours ahead of hiking by headlamp and stars. At one point, the photographer we had seen ran down past us. And then it was just us for a long time.

My headlamp is pretty strong*. At river crossings, someone would call me to the front so I could point the beam forward to see where the trail led. We crossed the creek leading to the East Branch of the Pemigwasset several times. In the dark, with rocks flattened by my headlamp, I lost my usual rock-hopping fear and found myself crossing with ease, despite being tired. I wanted badly for Brenda and I to keep up with Laura, Janet and Mary. We were moving in a train, down the hip of the mountain, easing our way back. Songs came into my head. Very bad jokes were passed around. I thought about how lucky I am. Truly. How many people can be thrown together like this, use everything they had for eighteen hours, and come out in the end with a smile? While we were all tired, and desperate for our sleeping bags, something in me wanted to bottle this moment of fatigue and camaraderie… five women walking in a line, in the footsteps of so many before us, alternately quiet and rambunctious on the night trail. At some point, this night would be over, we would be back at the car, back at the condo, showered and done and part of us wishing we were still out there.

The trail finally emerged back on the flat former railroad bed of the Lincoln Wood Trail, described by everyone we passed as “boring and flat”, and we resumed what we had left in our legs of a running pace. The job here was to avoid tripping on old leftover rail ties. Other than that, it was wide enough for a truck and good for running. We ran, walked, ran, walked. I got ahead, for the first time that day, and turned off my high powered coal-miner’s headlamp to walk blindly in the dark. On again, off again. I could hear the others behind me. What a day. Finally, after almost exactly eighteen hours, we emerged onto the bridge across the river, only a stone’s throw from the parking area. We turned off our lamps and looked up at the carpet of stars. Laura pointed, “a shooting star!” Lucky us. Make a wish. It might just come true.

* shameless, unsolicited plug for the Petzl Tikka R+, which has never failed me and goes hours on a charge.

Our Pemi Loop adventure came out differently in different measurements. I measured us at 28 miles, but Mary tells us it was 31 point something. In all, with stops of about 1.5 hours, our traverse took 18 hours. Out of the food I brought, I was left with three wedges remaining of the two sandwiches; half of the Cheez-its, most of the fig newtons, and a handful of nuts and dried fruit. All but one bite of the bars were gone. I had used two NUUN tablets and gone through about 5.7 liters of water. At different points, I wore all the clothes I brought except the tights. I did not need the backup headlamp but I recommend one anyway.

I want to say thank you thank you thank you Janet Sanderson for getting us all to agree to do it, for planning the adventure, and securing the awesome accommodations. Mary deserves mucho praise & hugs for her never-ending optimism and leadership. I am glad I got some time to hike with lovely Laura, whose still waters run deep, and whose persistence and strength in the face of feeling like crap is inspiring as hell. And many thanks to Brenda Morris, the most cheerful ultra-runner out there, who sure knows how to make a long slog the most fun thing ever. We went in smiling, and we came out smiling.


Vermont 100: Horses, Runners, Crew and Pacers

23 Jul

It is 3:00 a.m. on a warm, rainy Saturday in July. The showers have just let up, and now the rain is a steady pit, pat on tent flies across a muddy field in the Mount Ascutney region of Vermont. We are all here, and no one is sleeping, for the 27th annual Vermont 100 Endurance Run footrace and horse rider event, which takes place on mostly private lands and dirt roads in the Hartland/Woodstock area.  All day Friday, the weather was gorgeous, but the rains came at night, fast moving, making me double-cross thankful that I was not running, but would be pacing a runner, for this event.

Suddenly, headlamps on, the first runners emerge from sodden tents, firing up camp stoves and slipping into gear that will carry them for the next 100 miles. As the 100-mile runners swiftly make their way to the main tent below, the rest of the campers turn over collectively in their sleeping bags. The next to rise will be the 100-mile runner crew (if the runner has a crew), followed by the 100-kilometer runners who will start later. And between tent city and the main tent, the horses and their trailers begin to awaken. Out come curry combs, picks, owners looking disheveled, with bits of hay in their coffee mugs. In the parking area there are two or three campers – an A-Frame trailer, a small home-built box trailer, and our Airstream B-190 hippie van, complete with tie-dye curtains and dancing bear decals that we thought we’d leave on when we bought it, in the spirit of happy camping. The hard top was certainly appreciated when the skies opened, and water for coffee heats easily on its propane stove. From our elevated loft window, we have enjoyed a view of rain, mud, runners, pacers, crew, dragging gear back and forth across a rain-drenched gully.

We get up around six o’clock, realizing that already the 100 milers have been on the trail two hours. A second round of activity erupts around seven o’clock as the 100 kilometer runners make their way to the start line. We watch. There are maybe thirty runners for the shorter distance, which still, at sixty odd miles, is a challenge and takes on much of the hardest part of the overall course. Off they go, skies cloudy but the rain holding off, for now. We mosey back up the hill, then out for breakfast. Up in Hartland, the Bassett family (a local family very involved in the race) owns The Hartland Diner that serves knock-out Vermont maple sausages. We each had three. A Bassett youth with red braided hair and “VT 100” in glitter on her cheeks serves us eggs, toast, sausages, and for Tom, big Vermont pancakes. As a pacer, I had the leisure of hanging out. Most of the pacers would not join their runners for several more hours. In the meantime, we finish our breakfast and joke about the diner’s decor, which consists of many plastic diner-saurs on the counter. Clever. The Bassett waitress asks if we were involved in the race. “I’m pacing” I reply. “Oh! I’m pacing too!” A brief exchange of smiles, pleasant see-you-theres.

The weather really starts to clear on our return. With the exception of backing into a fence (it was me), stopping to knock on the door, pay for the fence, the drive to and from breakfast was uneventful.

Back at camp, the sun came out strong. The 100 mile runners had been out for about six hours at this point. I estimated the mid-packers to be about mile 40. Nap time.

Pacing at Vermont 100 is a curious job. The pacer is picking up his or her runner, for the most part, at mile 69.4 at an aid station called Camp 10 Bear (or Bear 10, I’m not really sure.) The runners are tired. They have just run 70 miles. At six-thirty p.m., Camp 10 Bear was a very busy place. The two port-o-lets doors were constantly locked. Crew, most looking like bedraggled family members, stood around car hatches gaping with gear. When would their runner arrive? Did someone see him at the last aid station? I heard so-and-so dropped. Here come some horses! This is how conversation goes at 10 Bear. Runners, riders, crew cars arrived in trickles, each time an occasion for applause, cheers, families running forward to take water bottles and find out what their runner needed. The crews looked as tired as the runners and had been up driving back roads since five. A scan of the food at the Trail Animals Running Club Aid Station told me that, as usual, the best of the aid stations was right here.

I go from spectator to evaluator to friend to big sister in a fell swoop at 7:30 p.m. as I spot my runner. He is shaking his head as he comes down the hill, not smiling. I greet him and we move to get him weighed in. Then he immediately sits in hopes of recovering from a sour stomach, and after a few minutes, taking some time to lie down on one of the aid station cots, under a pop up tent. There are two other runners there – one with trench foot, one with severe chafe. They commiserate. I am anxious and want to get us moving, but I know that I have to be patient. Then the skies open. Sheets of rain come down. We are for the moment barely covered by the tent. We wait to run. Run? Off we go.

Crews cannot help after the aid station. This is now the pacer’s job. While we can’t carry gear for the runners, we can “hold on to” a bottle or jacket while the runner adjusts her pack, or headband, or while he tries to eat. Pacers can try to make conversation. Sometimes, this is not effective and is even annoying to the runner. A good pacer needs to know when to shut up. A great pacer can sense when to pull out a good story after a long silence. Mostly it’s a guessing game. A pacer needs to be thinking for his runner, willing to let a fart happen without comment, be ready to run ahead to aid stations to get water, or saltines, or to shout out a runner’s number. A runner just needs to at most run, but at best, by this time, walk efficiently. Each step forward is further than the last one. Sunset happens. The runners look hang-dog while the pacers try to be perky, taking in the view before everything goes black.

At dark, headlamps come out and bop along in front and behind, picking up sparkling sodden leaf reflection and mud spatter. At one point, I go down so fast I barely feel the landing as my butt slides in the mud. Hopping up, I am covered from ass to shins in Vermont’s finest.

Pacers from 10 Bear only cover the last thirty miles. Much of this is walking and fast hiking, but nothing too technical. Someone says this is the hardest part of the whole route because of the unrelenting mud and hills. Aid station, big hill, enter trail, mud, slide, down, out onto dirt road, a few miles, aid station. Several moments of bliss as we bop down a mud-covered trail when my runner is feeling well.

At the next aid station, Spirit of ’76, a volunteer remarks that they have seen many, many upset stomachs all day. Could it have been dinner the night before? No, probably not, he says. It was the rain and then the sun that came out, and the humidity. It is humid, still. Maybe seventy five degrees, at night, and the air is like breathing a cloud. I remark on the jazzy patriotic decor and pretty lights. A time-wizened volunteer tells me one runner came through and asked, “What does Spirit of ’76 mean?” I laugh. Probably wasn’t born yet!

The runners look battle-worn. Some lie down on the ground napping and alternately shivering. A couple go and retch up whatever is in their stomachs – not much. Hard to eat on a sour stomach. Hard to catch up when you haven’t eaten. Can I help? Would you like some soup? Soup seems to do the trick for now.

Crews look worried. They have been following – and then waiting on – their runners all day. Some of their runners have not come in yet. Even though the cut-off is a long way away, did they get caught in that awful storm? Are they somewhere out there being sick? Are they in a ditch? No, not likely. Just making their way, one foot in front of the other.

I have that go-go-go-go need in my legs. It’s one thing to have only gone seven miles when your runner has gone 76. Let’s find some compromise. I hear other pacers making the same case on either side of me. The pacer also has to continually assess the situation. Shivering is not good. Here, I say, hold this soup. The shivering stops. I get drillmaster big-sister bossy. This is not well received. But cajoling does nothing. Only time fixes this.

A pacer is fortunate if she has made sure to catch sleep for several hours before going out to pace, because a pacer needs to keep a clear head when the runner starts to get bleary. I am reminded of college drinking days, walking home from a party with someone much drunker and much more prone to be just about to puke than me (we all had that friend, right?) Trying to distract. I look around at what scenery I can detect in the dark – grassy hillside, wet tree limbs dripping, some animal crashing through the woods ahead. We come upon a pacer-less runner we had spent some time with before. She is off-and-on. She does not want a pacer. She is stubborn and resolute as she stumbles forward. I am beginning to think this 100 mile thing is for the birds, and I am glad I did not sign up to run it. (Nor will I ever. Tom jokes I will be online signing up for my first within days of Vermont… it’s been four and I’m still never doing it. Eighty is plenty for me.)

There are fleeting moments of great revelation between runners and pacers. I see a pair of headlamps ahead and hear laughter as we climb a hill. Laughter is good. We are catching up, and I strain to hear the conversation. On and off we pass people, and they pass us. In my head I have an image from my runner’s story that won’t go away. A good story to remember to tell Tom later when I get back to the hippie van.

An unmanned aid station and several hills later, I am beginning to school-nurse worry about my runner friend. We discuss the situation. Things get better, but then slip back to worse. The words “not sustainable” are uttered and I wrack my brain trying to think of every anti-nausea solution out there that hasn’t been tried yet. It is three a.m. and I know from studying the elevation that we have a couple of good dirt road hills ahead. I have a tin full of first aid but none of it will work, unfortunately. At Cow Shed Aid Station, I know we are just down the road, down the hill, from headquarters and the campground. From here the route goes out away from headquarters and back again in another part of the clover leaf. Runners at this point, mile 83, are either jubilant or simply done. There is a nice campfire here that seems to dry the humid air. A man tending the fire asks questions and talks a lot. The chairs are all taken. One runner snores, given in to sleepiness.  This aid station has COFFEE, which I take, black please and thank you! Soup for my runner.  The volunteers quietly chat as runners come and go. A decision is made. We are Calling It A Day at mile 84. A respectable distance but nothing much registers except weariness for my runner. I offer myself to pace a new runner but I know that at this point, every runner who wants one has got one. I will jump in the van with another pacer and runner who are CIAD. The van arrives. The pacers climb back to the third bench back, since the driver wants the sick runners to sit near a window, just in case. I greet my fellow pacers, one on either side of me. The woman on my right says, “My runner already got taken, but I had to wait.” We are all quiet. “You guys should check in with medical.” It is a short drive back up the hill to the campground and the big tent. We stagger out of the van and into the tent. Now I get to be runner, if needed, for dry clothes, cell phone, wallet? Then I am released from duty. It is a little less than 24 hours since my runner started. I go back and forth in my head as I walk back to the car. Should I have not let him quit? Should I have not insisted on the medical tent check? I get into the van and Tom is sleeping. He wakes up when he hears me. Another adventure over. Now we can sleep. In the morning, I will find out how my runner fared, but for now, it’s lights out.

Sunday we rise bright and early to another gorgeous sunny day. Oh, had the weather been like this yesterday it may have meant a little less trench foot, a little less chafe, a little less sick and shivering. Horses, Runners, Crew and Pacers start to pack up. You know the runners because they walk funny. Crews sleep in. The horse owners are taking down temporary fencing and brushing everyone down. There are still runners out there.  In order to be official finishers, they must finish by ten. I wonder when my runner would have finished had he felt better. I am guessing 25, 26 hours, enough for a coaster but not a buckle. It will take time for him to get back into the swing of things, to find and sign up for another 100 attempt. This distance is not for sissies. Even the 30-hour folks are tough as nails and determined as the horses that joined them on the trail yesterday. We see them stagger in, the sun at their backs, a day and night out there behind them. They are all heroes to me, course finished or not.

Photo courtesy

Dames Across Rhode Island – an 80 mile run on the North-South Trail

11 Jun

The beginning

As a kid growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, the extent of my outdoor time was spent at the beach. For any excursion “off island” the joke was, you would need to pack a lunch. For hiking, there was not much available except for the much beloved Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown. To find hikes in nature when he was home from sea, my father had to look farther afield. In the 1970s, Ken Weber produced his first “Walks and Rambles in Rhode Island” book, and my dad picked any available kid not at the beach to join him on hikes off-island. I was often that kid. At the end of some thirty- or forty-minute drive over one or the other bridge, we would end in a dirt lot with a trailhead which would be the beginning of a day of discovery. Acres of club moss disappearing into stands of young pine… glacial erratics leaning haphazardly into hillsides of mountain laurel… hidden ponds with burping bullfrogs and elegant, prehistoric looking egrets… who knew such mysteries of nature existed in Rhode Island? As an adult, I continued the tradition, leading friends on Sunday hikes through strange little towns and management areas with names like Wood River Junction, Rockville, Summit, and Wickaboxet. And on some of these hikes, I learned that many of the trails were connected to create a trail across Rhode Island, called the North-South Trail. Starting in Burrillville at the Massachusetts border, the North-South Trail crosses Rhode Island vertically, ending at the beach in Charlestown.

I dreamed of a thru-hike. Perhaps a mountain bike attempt. Later, as a runner, I wondered if it could be run straight through. And then, Ben Nephew and Bob Jackman did it. In 2013, beating a previously set fastest-known time (FKT) of 20 hours, Ben Nephew completed the entire trail in 12 hours and change. 78 miles in less than 13 hours. It was inconceivable and took my breath away when I read about it.

I was training for something else last summer, an ultra by the name of Wakely Dam, a self-supported 33-mile run in a remote area of the Adirondacks. I decided to do part of the North-South Trail from Route 6 to Arcadia as a trial run, using my water filter, and packing food to carry on my adventure. Tom dropped me at Route 6 at six a.m. one Saturday morning and six hours later I was in Arcadia with an idea in my head. I bet I could do this whole thing, I thought. I could set a fastest known time for women to run this trail. It wouldn’t be twelve hours, like Ben Nephew, but there was a chance I could do it in 20. I could carry much of what I needed and have Tom meet me every ten miles with the extras. Never  mind I hadn’t yet run anything over 32 miles. I had a 50-mile race planned for the fall, and I knew if I built up to it, I could at least attempt it.

The planning started. Tom mentioned it might be worthwhile to open this up to trail running-friends. I sent a few e-mails out, and a feeler on Facebook. I had some tentative interest from some girlfriends. In the meantime, I spent the fall examining the trail in more detail. By January, it grew by word of mouth and within a few weeks, it had exploded into this event I had never really imagined it would be. Frankly, I was quite worried.  “I wonder if…” turned into “I will have to…”


The original crew. L-R Alison Cleary, Claire Gadrow, Brenda Morris, Anj Shaw.

Tonight, coming home South on the bus, in which I traveled 30 miles in less than an hour, it seems unbelievable to me that just last Saturday, I ran the length of the state with two other women, one of whom set the fastest-known-time for women on the North-South trail of sixteen hours, fifty two minutes.



We arrived at the Park-and-Ride at the Towers on Route 1 Friday, June 5th, at 10:15 p.m. Three of us – Claire Gadrow, myself, and Alison Cleary – quickly pulled out our drop bags (we each had two) and put them into Eric Winn’s car. Eric would serve as overall Crew Lead for us, driving us up to the start of the trail, running us to the Massachusetts border, and then driving his car southward to the various trail / road intersections to allow for mobile aid stations.  It was dark up in Buck Hill Management area. Eric parked and we piled out, making last minute adjustments to packs and filling water bottles. Around 11:55 we headed up the Prosser trail, negotiating a few intersections and relying on memory (Claire had been the one to run this section most recently) to get us up to the border. It was a fairly fast run/hike up to the state line. I had hiking poles with me and used them intermittently, trying to get used to them again, as I had not used them in over a year. Our headlamps created bobbing tunnels of light. Eric kept a flashlight as well, to see the trail junctions. Once at the border, Eric snapped a photo of the three of us aaanst12and we leapt off down the trail into the dark at 12:25 p.m. A mile further, we signed in at the trail register. I think I forgot to put the date but I did state it was the Dames Across Rhode Island, signed my name, and passed the book to my right. We ran on.

At the junction with a trail back to his car, Eric left us. I was glad to have the poles as we slalomed along through basketball sized rocks along a singletrack hugged by fern overgrowth. My eyes stayed on the two women in front of me. I didn’t like to be first, because I knew that they are both faster than me and it was better that they set the pace and allow me to fall back a bit. I am used to running alone, and was comforted just by their lights and conversation ahead. I was feeling pretty good, but I did wish Brenda, our fourth Dame, was there. She was home with her daughter and had written that she may join us the next morning (she unfortunately was not able to join us for the run at all.) Morning seemed a long way off. I knew that my pace would seem snail-like to the girls ahead of me, and felt bad that maybe they didn’t want to leave me alone. We had all agreed to stay together until dawn, but it was clear that had Brenda been there, it might have been possible to split into groups of two. Oh well. I did my best to keep up, determined to save some in the tank for later. Alison was good about reminding Claire to walk the ups. Alison and I both seemed to bomb the downs, which helped me catch up to Claire, who was more evenly paced with both up and down.

We were having a heck of a good time for one a.m. An owl swooped low into the beam of my headlamp. We came along by the pond and heard big bull frogs singing. Pretty soon, the trail popped back out onto Buck Hill Road, which we crossed, and then ran down Staghead Lane through a quiet neighborhood. A lemonade stand from the day before stood at the end of one driveway. Most lights were out. A long uphill, a last turn past the house at which, during one training run, Alison and I had seen a big german shepherd. It was good he was asleep inside. Soon we were under the power lines. Claire told us that during her training run she had been lost somewhere here. I looked down the power lines and the moon briefly came out from the clouds, illuminating the long grasses beneath the lines. Ahead, Eric’s car was parked at the base of the dirt road. We quickly grabbed more water and moved on.

The next section was a few miles of a zig-zag of dirt road, which we quickly traversed. At mile seven, the markers abruptly turned left into the woods, onto the Walkabout Trail. The Walkabout Trail – more affectionately known as the Stumbleabout Trail – was designed by 300 bored Australian sailors waiting for their ship to be repaired, back in the 1960s.. At night, the footing can be tricky, and the trail markers, interspersed with red, orange, and blue local trail markers, are hard to spot. Luckily for us, Claire and I had run through this section only a few weeks before. The poles helped me a lot here. Crossing a little brook was a hop, skip, lean on a pole, and jump. There were campers here, and I reminded Claire and Alison, like some old granny, to keep their voices down. Quite suddenly the trail emerged by the pond and the bathhouse where we knew there was a spigot.

photo by Claire Gadrow

photo by Claire Gadrow

We refilled water, went to the bathroom, and returned to the trail. We got turned around in the campground and added about a half of a mile. We rejoined the trail just north of the campground entrance, coming out onto Route 44. A car passed by honking its horn. We crossed, and headed down Durfee Hill Road. The trail tucked briefly into the woods here, emerging once again onto the road, where Eric’s car waited. I re-watered, and grabbed more food to carry. I tried to open a package of Tailwind, but I couldn’t, and asked Eric for a knife. “This would be a great time for the cops to come by, eh?” I joked. Eric, with a knife, and three women on the side of the road.

I was hungry. Claire leaned in and mentioned she was going to take off, because she needed to stretch her legs and go a little faster, but that Alison would stay with me. I mentioned that the trail went up Durfee Hill and was trail for awhile, but it would be fine. I said to Alison that I had food to eat, and would walk a bit, and she should go on ahead. After a couple of minutes, both Alison and Claire were far ahead, and I was finishing my first breakfast. I picked up my pace and began to run, watching Alison’s red flashing backlight recede ahead of me.


Resigned to running alone, I kept vigilant about trail markers. I had tossed my poles into Eric’s car at the last stop, believing I would not need them. The trail, a double track with loose stone and sand, rose gently at first and then began the climb up Durfee Hill. I power walked and looked up at the moon and trees. It was anything but quiet. Crickets, frogs, the wind in the trees, owls, all entertained me as I climbed. I had my powerful handheld flashlight in addition to my headlamp to check markers. I saw no sign of Claire or Alison, but I wasn’t too worried. This section was familiar to me from our training run, so I followed along and let the miles pass.

At the top of the hill, the trail leveled for awhile. I could no longer see a moon, as either the clouds had thickened or the moon had moved to make way for dawn or both. I thought about where I was. The trail runs along a ridge, and has several intersections. Eventually it goes through a gravel pit, then descends as the road turns from dirt to paved, into civilization. From there, a few miles of paved road roll south and southwest toward the Connecticut border. A right turn up Snake Hill Road slowed me to a fast walk. The road went on. Along the border, it curved around a pond, revealing a lightened sky to the east. At the dike at Killingly Pond, I snapped a photograph of the emerging day. It was a bad photo. As it turns out, Alison snapped the same scene, so here is hers:

Killingly Pond. Photo courtesy Alison Cleary.

Killingly Pond. Photo courtesy Alison Cleary.

I could have stood there much longer. I wanted to linger, but the ultrarunner in me nudged me to move move move. I wasn’t tired, but maybe a little dismayed that all I was doing was running through, not seeing or really experiencing what was around me as the sun came up. I also realized that to do that would require much more time than I was willing to give to the endeavor. Perhaps a future through-hike over more days would allow for more sitting and experiencing. I moved ahead back into the woods. Another mile or so, and it was fully light. The trail jogged left and I remembered Claire looking at the guide and saying, during the training run, that we weren’t far from Shady Acres now. I got halfway down this juncture when I saw Eric up ahead, running toward me. Hey! Hi! I expected him to turn and run with me but he just said, “where are the other two?” I said I didn’t know — I had been far behind them, and I hadn’t passed them. He had been waiting at his car on Riley Chase Road, and when they didn’t arrive, he got worried. We ran along, wondering what could have happened. The trail went out onto a road, then left over the border, onto Pond Road. I mentioned that maybe they had been talking and missed that turn (it turns out that this is probably what happened.) We ran along til we got to the car on Riley Chase Road. I put on bug spray, mixed some Tailwind, grabbed a half a sandwich, and kept going. I crossed Route 101 where the CT welcome sign is, and now was on road for awhile. After a couple of miles, the road went right, then the trail turned left into the woods on this beautiful old road (now just a trail) with rhododendron, an old mill, mill race, and pond. I had really dug this spot during the training run and now picked my way up the wet trail. At some point, I had to pee, and did so among the greenery. As I came out, I heard voices behind me. Claire and Alison caught up as the trail turned south. We reconnected and the pace picked up as we were not far now from Shady Acres, our first marathon done. Eric stood at the base of the trail and said “where were you???”


We came out to the parking lot of Shady Acres. It was 6:15 and Claire was ready to run. She switched into road shoes and grabbed some Tailwind and was gone. I told Alison to go ahead, that I was fine running alone, but she wanted to stay and run with me at a slower pace. Apparently when they missed the turn, they were doing eight-minute miles! My 5K pace – not something I could maintain for more than a few miles. I told Alison she had nothing to worry about. We crossed Route 6 and I ate an apple. Soon we turned off of Route 6 and headed down some very pretty country lanes in Foster.


Alison and I chatted as we ran. She is a scientist, and we talked about her upcoming six month stint in Norway. The miles went along. Now it was warming up, and the roads were more exposed. Johnson Road in Foster took about forever. We passed Amber Ridge alpaca farm, friends of ours from our farming days. Then along came the the golf course, and miles of hay field. Eventually, this road ended on Moosup Valley Road, which we took west, and then after a half mile, south again on a gravel downhill. This road snaked around past a cemetery that read “Coventry” and I thought to myself, we are already in Coventry??? Finally, after nearly running out of water, we came upon Rice City Baptist Church, where Annette, our second crew lead, was waiting. She took our picture, her dog offered us kisses, and she basically got our water bottles filled and us on our way.

Coming in to Rice City. Photo by Annette Florciak

Coming in to Rice City. Photo by Annette Florciak

We crossed Route 14 and ran along down the narrow shoulder. I have biked this many times. It is one of my favorite bike routes. At the bottom of the hill, the road crossed an old bridge and, ahead, the trail turned south again, into a lovely pine-carpeted trail. Easy running for a bit, into a field of wildflowers. Alison skipped while I sang. A narrow deer path crossed the field to the woods on the other side. When I had run this alone the summer before, this field had stumped me. Now, knowing where the trail lay, I felt freer. Back in the woods, the trail came out at a little falls at Carbuncle Pond. I stopped to look. Alison kept going. I have to appreciate this, I thought. I have to give it some time.

I wet my Trail Animals Running Club Buff and put it back on my head. I ran to catch up to Alison. A box turtle was in the trail, so I stopped to pet him. The trail climbed straight up a bank. Alison, from California, cannot understand why New Englanders do not know about switchbacks. At the top, a doubletrack road gently descended, banked for mountain bikes. We flew.

The fields are alive!!! Photo by Alison Cleary

The fields are alive!!! Photo by Alison Cleary

The trestle trail eventually becomes the bike path I take to work from Coventry a few days a week in summer. Here, it was a pitted track humped by motorcycles’ tire-digging jumps. A high trestle crosses the river. We stopped to take a picture, and then came out on the roads.

Dirt road brought us to Nicholas Farm Preserve. This trail was fun because they were foresting a big swath in the middle, making way for deer and bird habitat. I called this section “low-tech” and it was trail I could have run all day long. Slightly technical, downhill all the way, Alison and I took a slightly faster pace and rumbled down. We passed the halfway point sign of the NS trail (“39 miles to the Atlantic Ocean!”) and I was feeling pretty good. We came out onto a dirt road, one which I had forgotten was quite long. In fact, it was about four miles of dirt and paved road, little shade, hot late-morning sun. Alison and I were nearing to be out of water again. The road discouraged me. Two motorcycles passed us, the lead rider looked like a guy who, just the week before, had sold Tom and me our new-used van. I waved, just in case. Small world.

“I think it’s just around that next curve.” I said for the third time. Alison wasn’t having it. This part was slow going.

Finally, the trail turned left off of the road. Into the field I remembered from last summer. We go straight – NOT up the hill. Down left into the ravine, along the barely walkable stream-trail. We passed a snapping turtle laying eggs in the sand. It was surreal.

At this point, we were both out of water, my shorts were quite swampy from chafe and the little red cousin, and for the first time, I thought about quitting. We weren’t quite at 46 miles. I knew we were close to Arcadia and the next water stop, but I was cooked. I groaned a little. Alison plunged forward. Then, in the distance, we saw Eric. “Come on. Come on!” he hollered, and we ran.

At Stepstone Falls: “Eric I am seriously done. I might not finish.” “You’re fine. Get moving.”

Home trails. Arcadia is just a few miles from home. Maybe that’s what did it. We edged along the stream, in the shade, and the trail got easier. With some food in my belly, the cranks disappeared. I ran again.

Sweet trail dawg. Photo by Annette Florciak.

Sweet trail dawg. Photo by Annette Florciak.

Four miles later, Annette was waiting at the white church on 165. A couple of weeks prior, I had parked here and run trails. There was no sweet ride home waiting for me there today. Fifty miles. A few steps more would be the furthest I had ever run. I crossed 165 behind Alison and we went up the Bald Hill trail at a fast hike. At Annette’s car, I had switched out my backpack for the one that holds a big water bladder on my back. It is not the best for trail running, but the way I was drinking water, the other pack with the little bottles was just not cutting it. It turned out to be a wise decision.

I love this part of Arcadia. I have a history with it. I lived on Arcadia Road with Zoë for about two years in my first house. I explored all of these trails with her, and with Tom, too. The dam at Browning Mill, gentle Arcadia trail, just nice stuff to run on, soothed my frazzled nerves.

I was actually looking forward to the boulder field and rock garden. After all, we had plenty of water, and I was running with one of the best trail runners in Rhode Island. Alison was feeling much better and I marveled at her quick stepping ahead of me, trying to mimic her. I found I could keep up. This is my favorite kind of trail. We were light and sure-footed. It was a great couple of miles.

photo by Claire Gadrow

photo by Claire Gadrow

Another stop at Baker Pines, at route 3, still home turf. We picked up Janet for the final 23 miles. I was happy to see her, but once again felt like the slow-man out. I don’t mind, really, but it takes some adjusting to go from running two to running three. Janet had fresh legs and was really enjoying herself. I love people who love the trails.

This part is part of my run commute to the bus. At any time, I could turn left and be home within the hour.

After another pit stop, I came out behind Alison and Janet onto Buttonwoods at the dog run. We walked up the hill in the hot sun, right onto Carolina Nooseneck and into some shade, again. This road is lovely… Old Meadowbrook Farm and the cows. Janet texted Tom for me to let him know where we were. This was starting to feel achievable, like I just might finish this thing. We got out onto route 138, and I just got into a groove, and we trucked right along. I surprised myself here as I thought it would be pure drudgery. Left on Meadowbrook Road and then back into the woods. Wheeee!


I was feeling pretty good but I was in a zone. Meadowbrook trail is just a straight shot south on soft dirt. The sun was high and clear. No more clouds. I wondered whether I was going to lose my stride and have to finish in the dark. This started becoming an obsession with me. What time was it? Was it four o’clock? Because if it is four, I want my fucking headlamp. That’s what I kept thinking. It was weird, a dreamlike state. I was so sleepy, suddenly, like I could just lie down on the side of the trail and nap.aaamonkeysleep

I wasn’t paying any attention to Alison and Janet. I was on a track. Moving moving moving.


We came out into Carolina and up ahead, I see this group of women, and Eric, and I hear Janet call hellooooo! I was not prepared for this, and I am trying to think of why there are these women here, and my mind cannot put two and two together. Janet and Alison stopped to talk but I slipped around the bunch and kept moving, afraid that if I stopped, I couldn’t go again. Eric ran a little with me, asking how I was. I told him I was really beat. Then all of them were running alongside, and Janet, Eric and Alison moved ahead. I started feeling a little discouraged. How long ago had Claire passed through? About an hour, they said. Wow. Wow, I thought. I really suck. I’m so slow. A woman beside me said, “Oh no way. You guys are incredible. You are doing great.” I looked sideways at her and slowed to a walk. “You can go ahead” I said. “I’m really tired and I am going to walk.” “That’s okay.” she said. “I’m Janet’s friend Mary.” Mary walked with me, and when I ran, she ran with me. We were far back now from the other women and Eric. “I’m sorry I’m so slow.” I said. She said, “well, I have nothing else to do all day.”

We all congregated at the Pine Hill Road stop. We were nearing the final miles. My friend Tina from work showed up with orange slices. Eric made me take 3 Aleve. “But I don’t take this stuff normally” I said. “Shut up and take it. You’ll feel better.”

How do people know these things?

Mary stayed with me the next couple of miles. She has long, graceful legs, and a light, sunny complexion that makes her look a little like a fairy with a ball cap. I kept it at a run, knowing it was downhill to flat to the field and Alton Pond Fishing Access area on Route 91. I think I walked a little as we came out to the field. It was breezy on the field, with crows circling, and nothing growing yet. Stumps of brown, and the dirt track down the middle. I listened to Mary tell me about herself and her family. It helped me not think about what I was doing.

Suddenly, Alton Pond appeared, and more people. Sara and Aaron were there, Sara ready to run in a sparkly running skirt. Aaron held their baby and offered me neatly sliced peanut butter and jellies. I ate one and instantly felt guilty and nauseous. Guilty because I had recommended what he should have at this stop (not really understanding that by that late in the game, food is just… not. for. me.)

with my RISD Balls snot band. Ready to go from Alton Fishing Access / Meadowbrook Pond.

with my RISD Balls snot band. Ready to go from Alton Fishing Access / Meadowbrook Pond.

He poured me a cold Coca Cola. Coke and V8 had been magic potion from mile 46 onward. It kept me from quitting, and gave me legs in the boulder field. I downed the Coke, thanked him earnestly, and… ready? Sara, Mary and I crossed Route 91. Once again, a steady plonk plonk plonk as we ran down the highway. Left on New King’s Factory Road with an unfortunate slight uphill. Not made better on Shamunanunanunanunanunanunuck Hill Road (seriously, I don’t know how we pronounce half the roads in Rhode Island.) I think we just walked that whole thing. Maybe I half-heartedly jogged a few feet. What time was it? Is it five o’clock? Because if it is five, I really, really want my headlamp. I do NOT want to be stuck out in the woods at night without it. This road is so pretty, so charming, so New England. No time for views, we pressed on.


At Burdickville, once we turned back into the woods, Mary meant business. No more coddling. Not quite mean, but a little more than suggestively, she turned up the pace and started to holler at me to get it in gear. I don’t think she once stopped coaching me down the rest of the trail. Sarah ran behind me, her GPS beeping encouragingly every so often. “Keep up this pace” she said, just above a whisper, “and you will totally be under 20 hours.” Really??? Really. But I still want my headlamp! The doubletrack that seemed eternal a month ago in training now just flies by as we once again meet up with Eric at a road crossing. “I want my headlamp!” I yelled. He yelled back “You don’t need it!”

On the Vin Gormley Trail, home trails once again. Tom and I run here all the time. We just ran it last week, as a matter of fact. In a low voice, Sara mentioned, from behind, that I am trucking. I felt it. I felt disembodied. The sun was getting low behind the trees. I raced along what I know of the trail, all memory, not really seeing. I stumbled a bit here and there on roots. Walk the ups. I thought of Claire, who does not like to walk the ups, and who by this time must be already finished. Amazing. We came out onto Buckeye Brook Road and far ahead I could see Tom! He was our last aid station. I know I had to run then, especially if he was taking a photograph. Also, I could not hug him, or I might not keep going. He filled my water pack and I retrieved my headlamp-safety-blankie from Eric’s car.

We jetted along the trail in Vin Gormley. It was probably the fastest I had run all day. A mile from the end of the woods, once again, Eric joined us. Now it was both Mary and he coaching Sara and me along. We were nearing the end… the trail at this point goes on forever and ever, around the campground, over a hillock, through some piney woods, and finally, finally, out onto the road.

I put it in gear and off we went. Mary shouted to some people in a house “this woman just ran 76 miles across Rhode Island!!!” I ran, without looking, without thinking, just running. “Here we go!!! Across Route 1!”

The last mile, I became very un-tired and very straight-going. Just run. Mary alongside. I felt Sara back there but couldn’t turn around. I had to had to had to keep running. I was almost done. Keep plonking down that road. Counting. Thinking, I did NOT need my headlamp after all. Not wanting to guess the hour. One more turn. We came around the corner and the smell of beach roses hit me hard. I could see people up on the rocks and I could hear them in the parking lot because they were cheering! It was so cool! Claire was already dressed, had had time to go and get her beautiful dog Pearl, having finished a couple of hours before. I was suddenly quite weepy. Very proud of Claire. Tom was clapping and I just passed them all, ran across the sand, and right up to my knees into the surf.

Coming in with Mary at the finish. Photo by Janet Sanderson

Coming in with Mary at the finish. Photo by Janet Sanderson

photo Nancy Freeman.

photo Nancy Freeman.

photo by Tom Shaw

photo by Tom Shaw

It was a good finish.

In some ways, it seemed like it happened too fast. Like a wedding, or Christmas vacation, or that first kiss.

But now I know I have crossed the state on foot, beating sunset, beating 20 hours, beating my own doubts.


Three dames ran across Rhode Island, establishing the fastest known time for women on the North-South Trail. Claire Marcille Gadrow killed it with a time of 16 hours 52 minutes, followed by Alison Cleary in 19:37, and myself in 19:44. It was amazing, beautiful, and the hardest run I’ve ever done. 80 miles for Claire and Alison (since they lost the trail around 5:30 a.m.) and 78 for me. And 2 from the trailhead to the Mass border. Pretty awesome.

Claire Gadrow is a sub-three hour elite masters marathoner from Narragansett, Rhode Island. After being seriously injured while competing at a horse show in October, Claire decided to sign on for Dames Across Rhode Island to see if ultras are REALLY what she is built for, as people have told her. In the process of setting the fastest known time for women, Claire made some new friends, fought with boulders, and learned to use swear words in new and interesting ways.

Alison Cleary competes with the Shenipsit Striders and has won or placed in her age group in several challenging trail races around New England. A  recent PhD graduate from URI whose research will take her to Norway this July to further her work in zooplankton ecology, Alison chose this adventure in order to give one last shout of appreciation to her adopted state of Rhode Island. Between skipping through fields of wildflowers and talking about how the first thing she will learn in Norway is how to avoid being eaten by a polar bear, she is perhaps the most interesting woman one could ever choose to run with.

Anj Shaw has been running and biking since 2005.  The furthest she had run before this was 50 miles in 11 hours at the November 2014 Stonecat Trail races in Ipswich, Massachusetts. She organized and planned Dames Across Rhode Island, raising $450 through for her friend Tyson Cluever, who was diagnosed recently with brain cancer. Now that she has run across the smallest state, what’s next for Anj? ‘Maybe I’ll run across all 50, starting with the next smallest – Delaware!’ Anj lives with her husband, Tom, and two corgis on a little farm in West Kingston, Rhode Island.

Dames Across Rhode Island event on Facebook

Wapack and Back from the Back of the Pack: 21 miles journeying Greenfield to Ashburnham

12 May


It is two o’clock in the afternoon, a hot Saturday in May, and I am climbing again. I am down to a sip of water in each of my two six ounce bottles; on my back, the collapsed bladder inside my pack has the residue of water mixed with lemon/lime NUUN “pixie dust” electrolyte flavoring. I have been passed by a woman who was playing slingshot with me most of the day, and my legs are burning. The trail, rocky the past mile, has opened up to reveal another peak of some sort – hill or mountain, everything I’ve climbed today is higher than I’m used to in little Rhode Island. I wonder about the water. I wonder how much further the next aid station will be. I take a moment to check the view, but just a moment. I don’t have a lot of time and I need to keep moving. The pressure to move is always there. It seems a shame to pass the views by, but the brain takes on a linear focus of moving moving moving, of getting some water, and moving until you don’t have to move anymore.

I was pretty sure when I signed up for this race in January that I didn’t really think much about the words “elevation gain” or “challenging.” Somehow, sitting in the safety of a cold winter day with a hot coffee in one hand and a laptop open to ultrasignup… this can be a dangerous thing. The ideal of a community, the comraderie, of a beautiful May day doing something you love with a hundred or so other like-minded people is very fetching. The reality is somewhat more like a terrifying middle school dance mixed with being chased by slow demons across beautiful trail that you can’t spend a lot of time with. Speed dating the trail, sort of. You discover as you go. You wrestle major anxiety leading right up to the very start. You resign yourself to a steady state of urgency for the next several hours. You finish, usually, to little fanfare but plenty of kind words and quiet slaps on the back.

Wapack and Back (because, yes, there are these ultra-godlike humans who somehow think it is fun to go in one direction for 21.5 miles, but turn around and do it AGAIN, and then, a few of them turn around and go BACK OUT another 3.5 miles [this includes 2 “hills” for a total of 4 climbs in addition to what they did x 1 more than you did]) is put on each May by Trail Animals Running Club. For a ridiculously low entry fee, runners are treated to all the royal treatment one can expect from TARC: outstanding volunteers and race directors, most of them very talented runners themselves, fully stocked aid stations, and serious trail.  I signed up for the 21.5 miles, thinking that the “and back” was going to be more mileage than I needed at this time, or had time to train for. Once again, I paid no attention to the elevation profile. Like, I was in denial. I knew from glancing that it had lots of pointy tops. Since I am an analyst, I look at lots of charts like this (none of them having anything ever to do with elevation, so I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I blew off the elevation chart like, huh, you can present data in any way and elevation charts are no different.) I just remember filing away in my mind that there would be some up and down and I would have to walk some ups, and that this would somehow make me enjoy it more, like, this isn’t a race, just a fancy training “run” with fully stocked food stops so I wouldn’t have to carry my own snickers bars!  Except one doesn’t take into account that despite the desire to treat it like a Sunday jalopy ride in the country, it IS a race, after all, and one has a bit of a competitive (and altogether unrealistic) streak and there was no way I was not going to do my very best to “race”, since damnit, I paid to do this.  Also, my ego thinks that since I have done a few races at this point, I could handle whatever this thing threw at me. I did make the mistake of reading some blogs. Even fast, elite people were saying it was hard. I told Janet, my fellow Rhode Island runner, not to read the blogs. Of course, she read them, so that morning we were both a little bit worried.

It was quickly apparent what kind of race this was when we arrived at the Finish, where we were to leave the car and board the bus for the start. I saw some serious trail people, including some whose names appear regularly in the top ten winningest winners for these races. I immediately felt klunky, like a freshman sitting at the wrong lunch table full of the cool seniors who know exactly what to say and wear and eat. Then I remembered that these people are seriously real, and kind, and that while it was appropriate to be awed in their presence, it wasn’t polite to stare. I yanked my eyes from examining the shoes of a fast looking blonde, and made a mental note that she, too, is a fan of Cascadias.

We took the big yellow school buses up to the start. Too soon, we were let off at another parking lot where GOD, REALLY?, the first runners who had started at 5 AM were passing through for the turnaround. Shirtless wood nymphs flying through the aid station, bandanas and black shorts, unearthly gliding through, back out, up the hill. Running. Someone shaking a cow bell. Uh oh.

I go and pee from being nervous, and then we get together to start. The race director gathers us and sends us down the road and into the woods. Up the trail. It starts uphill pretty much immediately.

I am thinking about what Wendy, a Trail Animals Running Club regular and all around nice person, said in the parking lot when speaking of her first Wapack and Back. She said, “I thought to myself in the first mile, Oh my God What In The Hell Have I Gotten Myself Into?” We are all in a conga line and Wendy is up ahead, somewhere. Obviously, she has come a long way since then. Should I be worried?


I am at the back of the line. I’m pretty sure I’m the last runner. My first experience being dead last. I am taking it easy, holding back, because we still have like twenty miles, right? So it’s just ridiculous to run at this point, right? And someone has to be last. You know. Like maybe I could be the sweep, which is a very important person, if you ask me.

But up there, see? They’re running.

I run a little. Now I am hot. Off comes the pack as I walk, off come the two thin top layers.

I hear panting behind me. I run a little.

The panting one runs a little. So now, I can’t really walk, can I?


We spread out. So, I haven’t been passed by the panting one, and I am panting, so we two are in a tandem place of acceptance. We will be winners today because we will finish this thing, but we will be last. I have passed no one at this point. Janet and her friend have moved ahead, out of reach. I settle in to a run-where-I-can, hike the ups, skedaddle the downs. During a skedaddle session, I passed three people. I tried to stay consistent on the climbs, keeping my steps small and billygoatlike, my breath even and full. The trail here is big slabs of granite. We are in New Hampshire, after all. I finally catch up to Janet and Laura. But not for long.

phone-spr-2015 271

I stayed with these awesome chicks just long enough to be like, guys? guys? Hey I’ve been chasing you like forever and I finally caught up, guys? Hey, wait for me!

And just on the other side of this, we entered this clearing and there was Aid station number one. All I had to do was glance at my watch to know that this wasn’t quite a third of the way in. In fact, one volunteer loudly proclaimed, we were one lifetime yet only five point five miles in. I did that cartoon head shake thing, gave some love to the volunteers as they filled my bottles, and processed that I had sixteen odd miles to go, and wouldn’t it be strange if they were as hard as the first five?


Just after the aid station, we crossed a road and then went up this dirt road that was quite steep. Disliking the direct sun and no shade, I power walked and kind of tried again to stay with Janet and Laura, who were talking and neither one was panting. And I was like, pant, pant, um guys?

Not sure exactly where I lost them. they lost me.


Alone for awhile, I took a moment to pee. One nice thing about trail running is peeing in the woods. One eye on the trail, the other on my shoes, I hear some panting and see a woman come up the trail. I am being passed as I pee.

Let me just say that this section, the ridgeline between those first climbs and the next climbs, was pretty stunning running. Pocahontas light feet, a swell view, the promise of a sunny day, birds singing.

phone-spr-2015 273

Except that if you stop to take this picture, you risk slipping back to being last, again. Or, there is always this moment that you think, am I even on the right trail? Sometimes, it’s just better to keep moving.

phone-spr-2015 268

I am feeling pretty good at this point. I’m maybe two and a half hours in. I am not hungry, and not thirsty, and the day is perfect, and while I wish I wish I wish I were a little faster, because wouldn’t it be nice? I accept the fact that I am not, but I am something that is pretty cool: tenacious. I am dedicated and have good stick-to-it-iveness. I love being out here and I know I will finish. I won’t be first and maybe I’ll be last, but I am steady and determined. That’s a skillset!


I could have stayed up on that ridgeline forever. It began to descend fairly gently (compared to some of the others.) I heard some fast feet behind me. It was two of the “and Back” fellas, and boy, were they speedy. I hooted and clapped and pretended to chase them like some annoying old lady. They kind of laughed. At the bottom of this wonderful long flowy mountain bike downhill doubletrack dream, the trail abruptly ended at a road and this vision of a woman with her kid surrounded by about forty gallons of water. I stopped, refilled, and asked her which way? She said, go to the road, down the hill, and the trail is at the end. THANK YOU!!!! Real tears.

It was here that I caught? two people and passed them. On the road. I know a lot of trail runners don’t do a lot of road running and dislike it. I moved across the road into the shade and trucked along, knowing if it was the only place I was going to all out run today, I might as well go for it.

When you do that, it means you have to maintain it. At least until they can’t see you anymore, and then you can stop and pant for a bit.

At the end of the road, the trail collapsed into the forest and turned into a muddy doubletrack leafy ATV trail. I pretended I was awesome and ran for the next few miles, mud, ruts and all.


I have stopped running. This is interesting, this trail goes straight up. Like, normally, wouldn’t there be switchbacks? I really, really need to keep moving though because if I stop to catch my breath those two people who I passed on the road will pass me, and I will be close to last or even last, again.

Suddenly, at the top, I am dumped out at a road, a couple of roads, and I lose the trail.

I head down this long dirt road, knowing I am stupid to do this because I have not seen any trail markers.

It is now officially hot out.

Wait – is that a person? Coming toward me?

She has a number!

I run faster to catch up. She looks pissed. She is shaking her head. She has gone to the bottom of the road and there is no trail marker. Together, we shuffle back up the hill.


We get to the top of this road and I see the guy I passed earlier heading right, where we missed the turn. I follow him, eventually passing again. I am ahead of the guy and the lady who I had met at the bottom of the wrong road. We come in to aid station two (I don’t want to know where we are in the run, because if they tell me like, seven miles? I will lay down and die), and I am feeling devilish and a little hyper and fun, and grab my M&Ms and make idle chitchat while I notice the wrong turn woman had come in just behind me and gone. So I skedaddle, trying to stay with her. I get ahead of her on the climb, a beautiful, sweet staircase of a climb. I stop to take this picture at the top:

phone-spr-2015 277

See that person? That’s the wrong-turn girl who just passed me. Ah, well. She looks strong, doesn’t she? That’s because she is.


I can’t even. I am out of water. How did that happen. Wait, I’m five hours in? How long since the last aid station?


A photographer. How’d he get up here? I wonder if he has any water?


Somehow, I never expected this Adirondack scene in the middle of this trail on the NH/MA border:

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I am tempted to strip and swim.

And then goodness, some nice boring safe flat stuff for awhile. The stuff that makes me think of my Dad, of how he loved being out hiking… all the wonderful things to see and here… you feel secure enough to try to identify whether that wuk wuk you heard was a bullfrog or a juvenile pileated woodpecker and then BAM! Down you go.

Okay, so that’s good, I got that out of the way. I’m tired. I fell. At least I didn’t open that knee I always seem to skin. I just have pine needles up my shirt. Get on up. Get moving. I reach for my water and shake the empty bottle. I wonder whether that last aid station was the last aid station. I check the other bottle. Empty. I check the bladder on my back. I can taste NUUN fumes. I’m also a little peckish. And hot. I have a GU in my pack and a melted snickers bar, but both require water because otherwise GUH! So I run and worry.


Two guys and a dog. Water! I get my refill, and venture the question. Hey guys, I have like, five miles or something left? Nah, more like three. Oh, I think. Like a 5K. They ask, so how do you like it so far? I say, this is the hardest thing I have ever done. Then I say, I think I am close to last, guys, so you won’t have to be out here much longer. And the one guy goes, for the 21.5? No, it looks like there’s about fifteen people behind you. So you better get moving.

This next part is a dirt road, so I get to think, again. And I’m like, duh! I totally forgot that they have yet to see some of the 43 and 50 milers, so they will have to be there even after the last 21.5 miler kindergartener has gone through. You know, it is really a big deal to volunteer. They are out there all day long. They are there to help you. They are awesome. I am going along thinking this and then BAM! Down I go again. This time, I hit knees and elbows. I don’t even have to look to know there’s blood. Ow. I sit there for a moment. I am not going to go crying back to the aid station, now a half mile back. I get up, squirt some of my precious water on the knee, and shakily start jogging.

CLIMB 9/10

I begin to see some signs of civilization, or at least, that I am nearing the finish. It seems that way. I am seeing people as I climb. These are people not decked in spandex or carrying water and so that means these are normal people out for a nice hike with children and stuff. I get to the top and this woman, she has an umbrella stroller she is dragging, and this toddler, and two bigger kids, and she says, “does this trail go down to 119?” and I said, yes, that is where I am going. And she says, but we just came all the way up here, I thought!” She was all turned around. I said, well, I just came from the other way and 119 is not that way.” Then she got a look at my blood and was like, uh, are you okay?

I chucked down the trail, thinking, that must have been the last climb, right? Well, actually, it kind of was, but it wasn’t. The trail started back up the other side of the saddle. I could see what must have happened to the woman. She had already been to the top of THIS part, and had gone down the wrong way, and ended up at the top of the other one. I felt badly that she would have a couple of miles or so to get her and that stroller back down. At this point, there were more people. Everyone I encountered stared at my bloody knee.

And then it couldn’t be anything but the last descent.

Lovely piney woods, big rocks.

I saw more of the 50 milers coming back for their last seven.

Families with children.

My last fall, this time, on my ass.

And finally, finally, the down turned to slightly down and then to flat, and I knew the finish was just ahead because I could hear 119. I pulled whatever energy was left out of my rear end and “sprinted” to the finish. wapackfinish phone-spr-2015 285 phone-spr-2015 284

I love trail running, because everyone so mellow and nice and easy going. Let’s get a picture of that awesome carnage before we find some peroxide to pour on it, shall we?

I found Janet asleep in her car, having finished over a half an hour earlier. As she drove us back home, I thought about the day, and how my expectations have changed the more of these things I do. How I am never as sore as I was the first time I did one of these crazy trail races. How quickly I take it all for granted, and how easily this trail humbled me. How while I was not dead last, I was close to it, and that was okay, all ego aside. We need people like me in these things. We turtles who are out there twice as long as the winners, who stop and take pictures, who play catch up only to lose any gains joking around at the aid stations. How strong I’ve become, even if I’m slow. How some people wish they could do what we do.

Back home, after this simean princess took a long bath and ate an entire Pizzeria Uno Potato and bacon pie, alone (Tom had taken the pups up to Grammy’s for a mother’s day overnight) with my battle wounds and twitch-inducing memories of the day, I thought about something my brother had said to me when I saw him last, in March. We had been discussing smoking and other little or big (however you might want to look at it) habits or addictions, something I used to do a lot of. Like, a pack a day of. It’s been years and I don’t miss it. He raised an eyebrow. One could argue, he said, that your trail running is just an addiction replacing another addiction you gave up? Nah, I said at the time, it’s nothing like that.

I take a bite of my potato-bacon pie and glance at the mud covered shoes in the corner. Maybe, I thought. I didn’t really have time to think of it, though, because I was logged in to ultrasignup, checking out this race in South Carolina in the fall.

I will never, ever do that again. Until next time.

I will never, ever do that again. Until next time.

I’m here to tell you about this little tramp called Stone Cat Trail Race

15 Nov

I am not going to tell you why I ran fifty miles over eleven and a half hours in the woods last Saturday. I’ll leave it to you to conjure in your head an image of me, whatever context you normally see me in – a sensible wool skirt and boring grey sweater… and now picture me in some tatty Nike shorts over a pair of underarmour tights, a black “Run With The Beavers Trail Race” T-shirt, plaid pink arm warmers and a pink “Pinnacle Trail Ultra” Smart wool hat. If this does not jibe with your usual Curious Monkey sighting, then you are in for a treat, because this is the me I sometimes refer to on Monday mornings. Now you will know the secret of why I come in to work with glowing eyes, scraped knees and bruised elbows. Yes. I run (and often trip and fall) in the dirt. Often far. Mostly slowly.

Stone Cat Trail Races happens every year, usually the first or second Saturday in November, and features two races: a trail marathon (26.2 miles), and a fifty miler. A few months ago, after finishing Wakely Dam Ultra, in one of those punk-post-ultra fevers, I placed my name in a lottery and out came a spot to register for this puppy. So yay. Which now meant that all of my training focus had to somehow incorporate a lot more miles beyond the Portland Marathon. Well, O.K. then!


we do 4 of these loops.

I just want to say before any of this that I really dug the training for this race, especially the last intense month of late September and October where for four weekends straight, Tom and I got out on the Vin Gormley (Little Rhody Runaround route) trail in Burlingame. I got to know that trail very, very well. One fine Saturday I did it four times. I think this is the thing that made Stone Cat so great for me, because Burlingame is physically and mentally demanding, as well as beautiful. It’s not hilly, but it’s unforgiving and complex and stippy-steppy. And although I rarely see Tom while I run, because he is far ahead of me and much faster, there was something about being out there and knowing he was also out there that was very cool.  I also got out on some nice road runs with my road pals, a couple of good long rides with my bike buddies, ran a “destination” marathon with some other good friends, and was inspired by incredible endurance feats by a couple of Trail Animals I look up to. Surrounded by so much girly (all of these friends are girls, btw) goodness (the toughest goddess kind of goodness) gave me some awesome pocket superpowers to pull out when shit would inevitably get low at Stone Cat. In addition to the mental game being strengthened by all that, I spent those two months eating some heavy duty carbs and not feeling anything weird about it… I just ate like an offensive lineman and no apologies for it. Learning to run with a fistful of oreos, half a banana, and a few chugs of gatorade is an acquired skill.

The day of Stone Cat arrived and I was prepared. Because I was going to a conference and flying out of Boston the next day, I had developed a very complicated spreadsheet packing list and nothing was left off of it. I was a crew of one, a project manager and narrator of this very silly story. As my alarm clock beep-bop-blee-nee-weeeeeee-doo‘d, I rose quickly and barked at my crew in the mirror to get her shit IN GEAR. Within a half hour I had gooped my feet and chafe-prone bits in diaper creme, dressed, pinned my number on, and gone down to the Comfort Inn’s dining room, where the good staff, indubitably jazzed up on Red Bull, had opened four or five bags of bagels and plugged the waffle makers in.  It was 4 a.m. and that place was hopping with Runners and Their Handlers, including dogs (I love a dog-friendly Comfort Inn). Sleepy children and partners-of-runners sat bleary eyed over coffee while their Runners picked at oatmeal. I sat where I could and nibbled a plain bagel with peanut butter. Janet, another awesome trail runner from Rhode Island, came to say hello and introduce her friend who was running the marathon. I didn’t hang out too long, because I just can’t. My crew lugged her gear up and headed out. I sure hope she didn’t forget to print out the DIRECTIONS! Sigh.

At the start, after parking, my inept crew lugged my crap to the left of the ball field, which, now I know, would have been better on the other side, but whatever, I forgive me. Then my crew complained that she couldn’t see shit and WHERE IS MY HEADLAMP? I set everything up, and without warning, the sun popped up and it was almost time to go.


crew monkey tells me I pack all wrong.


My friend Liana, who was running her second fifty in as many weeks, was nowhere to be seen. The night before, she had texted that she was waiting on the mail for her headlamp which still had not arrived, even though she’d had it overnight shipped. I sent a wish to the gods that she managed to get it, and that she would get to the start in time. I recognized a couple of TARC folks at the start, one who came over to say hello and wish me luck, who was doing his nnnnnnth? Stone Cat. His kind smile put me at ease. I patted myself on the back and told myself “Good Luck! See you at the end of the loop!” and the crew in me went and sat down in a chair and took a nap. The Runner Monkey me lined up, listened to the good man tell us some last minute race details, and we were off.

I sat back a little to let the fasties go first. We all ran across the field and then stopped at a bottleneck in the woods. I’ve read that in years past, this race started in the dark. Well, since it was after daylight savings, it was light out, making it certain we would be ending in the dark. I thought about this and tried to calculate at what point or loop this would occur for me as I listened to two women chatting ahead of me. I introduced myself and the three of us ran together the first few miles.  The route comes up a double track, hooks left into the woods, and heads up an incline for the next mile or so. We all walked fast for that mile. At the top, one of the girls and I broke out in a light (very conservatively paced) run, which I maintained for the rest of the day, for the most part.

At two miles in, I got passed by Liana. She was heading up a hill. HEY! I yelled. She slowed a little and explained she had been late to the start. She then took off ahead taking my new friend with her, and I hung back, thinking I would see her on the downhill. I did, but then not again for a long while.

At four miles in, the first aid station was playing Tom Petty. They were already partying although it was about seven thirty in the morning. I clapped with delight when I saw they had cheez-its, fig newtons and oreos – exactly the foods I had been training with the past two months. I loaded up, drank a cup of gatorade, topped off my water, and ran on.

When I came to a hill, I hiked up, and then bombed down. It is my way.

I started running with a dude called Loring, who was tall with grasshopper legs. He had a pretty good pace going and I got behind him and tried to stick it out. Eventually, I realized I would not be able to keep the pace up, so I hung back. After awhile, all the runners became fairly spread out. We were still running with the marathoners, so occasionally I would be passed by a fast one, or I would pass a slower runner. Sometimes, I would catch up with someone and we would talk briefly. But mostly, I just ran my own thing. I had a nice flat fall somewhere around here, but I was lucky, there was no horse poop and the ground was soft.

I came in to the second aid station blowing snot rockets, and I guess I must have impressed them because they all cheered wildly. “Oh My God Look At Her Shirt!” said one and then next thing you know I was surrounded by all of these people who wanted to know about my Run With the Beavers shirt. I told them it was a great trail race in Rhode Island but it was like they weren’t listening, they were just laughing at my shirt. I extracted myself from their grip, afraid they might tear my shirt off, grabbed my cookies and split out of there. Whew!

I caught up with Carin, the girl who had run away with Liana, and she ran me the next five miles. I was glad to have her with me when we ran in to the evil clown on the trail. I don’t know why race organizers think it’s cute to place people in the most terrifying costumes out in the middle of nowhere… no. Nothing wrong with that. Right? I might have overreacted a little but nearly punched the poor guy when he revealed himself to be animated and not just the stuffed shape of an evil clown.


photo courtesy from a 2013 race.

The photo above is not my clown, but you get the idea. I screeched, much to his satisfaction, and Carin and I boogied to get past him onto the right turn onto single track. Carin stayed with me all the way to the end of the loop. She was great company and I liked talking and running with her. I hoped we would run together again, but for the rest of the race, we just saw each other in passing.

As we came down the last half mile of the first loop, I saw first Liana, then Janet, then some of the TARC people who I don’t know that well, but know their faces, heading out for their second loops. I hooted and hollered good wishes, excited to see them and anxious to be done with the first loop. Soon enough, we came down the field, into a chute, across the mat, and around a little horseshoe.


photo courtesy Stone Cat Trail Races. Me coming in from a loop.


I came out of the chute and went down the side of the school to the porto, where I very efficiently took care of business while removing my long sleeved underarmour and replacing my t-shirt. It crossed my mind briefly to change into a different shirt, but I thought those aid station ladies would probably leave me alone the second time around, so I left it on. I ran back and now to the left of the chute to get a Gu out of my bag. All in all it was first loop in 2:33 and out of there by 2:39. As long as I kept these things under three hours, my crew reminded me, I would be all right.


I thanked me, gave me a big hug, and off I went, eating a banana and some cheezits.

The second loop was all on me. At the end of the first big hill, about two miles in, I ate the Gu, thinking it was safely far enough away from the next aid station that I could then have Gatorade (because Gatorade and Gu is like drinking wine and then vodka, and then more wine, and then more vodka…) I met a nice girl with a hydration pack in the next section, and we stayed together awhile. She was exceedingly nice and very cheerful, and this was also her first fifty. We spent the rest of that loop leap-frogging one another. This was also when I got passed by a few of the leaders, which was so cool and also a little demoralizing, but mostly cool. One sprite nearly ran into a tree trying to politely pass me on a downgrade. Before I could ask if he was okay, he was gone. These frontrunners are amazing.

At the first aid station they took my water bottle from me, filled it, and told me to take some pumpkin pie because I only live once. I skipped the pie and took their cheezits, a couple of oreos, a half a banana, and some pretzels. Must appease the monkey.

I got into the flow between the two aid stations and was feeling great. Coming in to the second, I got the same shit all over again about my shirt. “Would you LOOK at her shirt? That shirt is AWESOME!” I thanked them all, because really, THEY were awesome, and we all basked in mutual adoration for one another. Because the volunteers are everything. I wasn’t at the point yet that I was like, I love you guys!!! But I think I knew it was coming. I got my food and skidaddled.

In the last mile of loop two, I suddenly felt what had been a developing hot spot in near my big toe go raw and I knew I had a blister that must have busted. I made a mental note to change my shoes before the next loop, and hoped that would fix the problem. As I passed by the scary clown, he had his mask up and was offering runners Pellegrino. I declined and boogied, still mightily afraid.

And before you can say apes agape at the gate three times fast, I was back at the start/finish. I came out of the chute, ran to my bag and changed into different shoes. I texted Tom and before the siren song of the chair could start calling, I headed out for three. Once again, I did the Gu in the first two miles, and mentally checked that the Hokas seemed to be better than the Cascadias because I no longer felt the blister.

Loop Three was that loop that we all do this for. You know, that blissed-out Pocahontas Nike commercial rolling across hill and dale for miles and miles and miles.  It was groovy and fluid. I ran alone and I ran with people. The marathoners were pretty much all done, so it was really quiet out there. Stone walls, leaf-colored trail, rubbly up-trail, some logs to step over. My legs grew tired, like, late afternoon tired, the drowsy tired you get when lying on a beach blanket after a long swim tired. I didn’t see people for long sweeps of time, and when I did, they were also in their zones, so we all respected that and kept to ourselves, for the most part. I noted the trees swaying above me in the wind, the angle of the sun, the beautiful pond, marsh, cattails, woods. In passing a runner, coming down a hill, I fell for the second time that day, this time, a comical face-forward first base slide. I immediately got up and said, I’m OK! And asked the guy I had just passed if he would check to see if my nose was scraped. He said it looked okay. I was worried about showing up all beat up at the conference.  Dusting myself off, I thanked him and moved along.

Coming in after the third loop, I got pysched. Because I knew I was going to finish. I had done three, I had survived, I was over the hump. Sure, I was tired, and I had a few hours ahead of me, but I felt pretty good, notwithstanding. I hadn’t really eaten any real food, though, and I was a little dizzy and nauseous. At the start-finish I must have looked pale, because someone plied me with noodle soup and a grilled cheese. I ate that, and started out, but realized I forgot my headlamp. I ran all the way around the chute, back to my bag, texted Tom I was on the final loop, got my light and a long sleeved shirt to wrap around my waist, and off I went. I think it was like 2:45 in the afternoon. Knowing I would be out past dark was weird, because it was still sunny. But it was cooler. As I headed up the hill in the first mile, the nausea disappeared, and I got back into a groove. However, I was definitely tired and I could feel the miles beyond what I had ever done before. At this point I was about at mile 40. Now I wasn’t seeing anyone on the trail. I wondered if I was DFL (Dead Last.) The first aid station was sort of wrapping things up. I thanked them and told them I’d miss them and mentally said goodbye aid station, I wouldn’t be back again today.

In another few miles, I ran in to Liana. It was getting dark, and we didn’t have our lights on yet, but I was just about to put mine on. She was walking, because she had injured her foot. It was painful for her to run downhill. I walked with her a bit and asked her what she wanted to do. She told me that Tony would meet her at the next aid station and walk with her to the finish. She told me to go on ahead and she would see me at the end. She didn’t seem overly upset, but resigned at the fact. She had run a good race up to that point, but knowing she had run fifty at Ghost Train not two weeks before in nine and change hours, her body was likely still recovering from that effort. I ran ahead, popped on my light, and watched the sun go down. At the second aid station, they told me they all voted and my shirt won best shirt at Stone Cat. So while I can’t win the race, I can win the fashion show. It was at that point I got very emotional and was all, I love you guys. Because really. Those volunteers. I am getting choked up just writing this.

Five miles left. Out of the aid station, it got really, really dark all of a sudden. I pulled my overshirt on, took my bearings, and headed out into the night. Without light, the woods took on a new shape, and it was hard to know where I was on the trail. Some landmarks appeared in my headlamp, others completely eluded me, making me constantly second-guess the trail. I looked and looked for those pink ribbons. They were few and far between. At one point, feeling hopelessly off-trail, I noticed a bobbing light ahead and headed toward it, hoping the runner in front of me was on the right track. And then I heard coyotes. first far away, and then much closer. It was both really cool and a little scary. My quads were burning and suddenly, I was pretty much done with the trail. This always happens to me, this moment of being so over a run. But I was prepared. This was the low I had trained for. I conjured images of my friends and family who had sent me wishes for a good run, and thought about them one by one (and you guys seriously I felt like I was receiving telepathic messages so if you were thinking of me around four thirty, then I was receiving.) I thought about a family friend who was sick. I thought about my Mom.  I thought about my Dad. I thought about Tom, and how he’d probably like running in the dark and tell me “what’s five more miles?”. Suck it up, Buttercup. I thought about a project at work. Not noble or poetic but it would have to do. I thought about those cute freaking dogs of mine. I thought about LMB, or rather worried for her, because that is what we mothers do. But she is tough and honest and creative and I know deep down that she is just fine, because we raised her that way, right? So run along, Mom. And in thinking all of these things, and all of these people, I must have picked up my pace because I caught up with the bopping light, and found myself running with Christy and her pacer. I had run with her earlier. Her pacer was on Twitter updating her friends on her progress. While he ran! Incredible. Where was my tweeting pacer??? We shared a laugh and I stayed with them for the next couple of miles. As we came closer to the end, I noticed that they had put glow sticks along the trail. We had one section of single track left and then it was double track all the way. We cruised through it, considering we were all tired and a little slower from it being very dark. The double track seemed long. I said goodbye to it, I wouldn’t be seeing it again today. We flew down the last hill and Christy picked it up and pulled ahead, leaving me and her pacer to try to keep up. I wasn’t sure I had enough in the tank for a sprint that far out, so waited until I knew the field was in sight. I could hear cheering (still? It felt like nine o’clock or later) and then suddenly, finally, the cones for the field and I was home free. I pumped my arms and with quads burning like hot coals I pulled down the long, dark field toward the lights at the end by the school. I had a big grin on my face knowing I would not have to go back out there. Someone shouted my number and they were all clapping. I sprinted across the timing mat, smiled broadly, and then burst out in tears. Christy gave me a big hug. I told them all it was my first fifty. They gave me some pizza and pretty much fawned over me for a couple of minutes. Normally, I have a big appetite when I cross a line but I wasn’t hungry. I was very sniffly and emotional. I was happy. I did fifty!


Curious Monkey comes across the finish line at 11 hours, 27 minutes and change.


Later that night, as I lay on Liana’s couch in Malden, awoken with a start by a falling dream, I thought about the day and something I had been thinking about. People ask me why I do these crazy things, and I don’t have what I think of as a good “reason.” I don’t run for a person or cause. I run for entirely selfish reasons. It is not necessarily for recognition, because mostly, people think you are insane when you tell them what you are up to. Mostly, I don’t tell people, because it involves answering that “why????” question. Because really, I have no reason that I can readily explain. There is something really primordial about pushing physically and mentally, and the healing that takes place afterwards, including insatiable hunger and need for sleep. These are things that come from living life fully and being exposed to extremes. And when you work in a cube all day staring at a computer, that’s where the real crazy is. And exposure to extremes and elements and the power of achievement can keep those crazies somewhat at bay.










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