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…”
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.
UP ALL NIGHT
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 and 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.
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.
LITTLE RHODY IS NOT FLAT
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:
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???”
CLAIRE GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS
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.
RICE CITY TO ARCADIA
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
UP ALL DAY
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.
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.)
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.
NOW, IT’S A RACE.
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.
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.
ABOUT THE RUNNERS
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 gofundme.com 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.