Groton Town Forest Trail Races – size isn’t everything
Posted Wednesday, 17 November, 2004
What do you do when you’ve grown tired of the ‘same ole, same ole’ weekend 5k? Grab some trails, head for the forest.
Most of us have seen too much asphalt in our lives. More and more we gravitate to wilder spaces to get our runs. I do almost all my training on trails now. The impact abuse is substantially less, the woods make me feel good and it is interesting.
You can extend this logic to your weekend race as well. Last week I didn’t run, but I worked for the Groton Town Forest Trail Races. It is a 3.4 and a 9.5 course through the town forest in West Groton Mass.
I have run it in previous years and it is one of my favorite races. I like it because it’s interesting. Like many trail races it uses the natural topography to challenge you. It throws some different things at you that you won’t find running in the neighborhood.
The Town Forest is a big chunk of acreage along the Nashua River in West Groton. It is mostly pine and oak forest perched on sandy ridges. There is no tarmac and no asphalt. The last tar you see is when you cross Rte 225 and head down a dirt road to the start. It was one of the first town forests established in the country in 1922. MAP
The race crisscrosses the forest on a combination of dirt roads and single path trails. It is a truly interesting course. The primary cool feature, that you won’t find in any other race are a set of glacial kettles. A glacial kettle is where the receding glacier scooped out a bowl shaped gouge in the earth. More specifically, it’s where a big chunk of glacier melts and leaves a big void.
It’s easier for me to describe it from first hand experience. Picture this: you’re cruising along at the 8 mile mark along a ridge trail and all of a sudden the trail drops straight down at 70+ degree (ok, it’s more like 45+ degrees, but it feels like 70!) for 50-100 feet, there is a 10-12 foot flat spot at the bottom and then it shoots straight up a corresponding slope on the other side. It is a compliment to your conditioning if you can keep running through them.
The 9.5 mile course puts you through them twice, once on the way out and once in the late miles. The final pass around 8 miles is a killer. Your legs are already rubbery and you pitch off the ridge into free fall, swinging from tree to tree, and then jam up the other side, piston pumping legs driving you straight up, striving for decent grip among the leaves, rocks and dirt. Your quads and calves are screaming for mercy if you manage to keep your legs moving. As you crest the top you stumble-run for a dozen feet trying to get the muscles to unfreeze and the blood to start circulating.
It’s a hoot. No, really, it’s a blast. I love it. After all the miles we’ve logged it’s great to find something different, something out of the ordinary.
I don’t want to give the impression that this race is some sort of extreme running event. It is not. There are lots of families and kids running the 3.4. It’s homey and friendly that way.
In addition to kettles and ridges, the course also skirts some interesting swamps and runs for a stretch along the Nashua River. There is one part of the Nashua called the ‘Dead River’ because it was isolated like a billabong sometime in the past and is now just a long skinny pond.
There is actually a lot of forest along the Nashua River. This would seem odd. Wouldn’t nice river views have been an attractive chunk of suburban real-estate in the 60’s and 70’s when suburban sprawl from Boston started taking over Groton?
Yes, but having grown up in Groton, I know why no one built there and all that land became conservation land. Basically, no one built there because it smelled bad.
The Nashua was one of the Eastern rivers that was despoiled by the industrial revolution. Specifically, the shoe, paper and textile mills upstream. When I was young the river would actually be a different color depending on what kind of paper they were making that day. It was gross. It was a big open industrial sewer.
It blows my mind that this river that was pink and blue in the early seventies now has people swimming and fishing in it. There are American Eagles living in the tall pines nearby. It’s a great success story.
You can look at the before and after pictures I’ve included from the NRWA (Nashua River Watershed Association). They were the organization that spearheaded the cleanup.
The native wildlife is making a come back too. Along with the above mentioned patriotic raptors there are plenty of deer, wild turkeys and even the occasional moose. The thriving population of prey has started attracting some of the old predators back. The eastern coyote has been making a living in people’s back yards, stealing chickens and kidnapping cats for over a decade now. We have some black bear too. Just this week a mountain lion was causing a stir in the next town over. (Like we don’t have enough to worry about, now I have to watch out for a 200lb cat!)
But, back to the race… Our running club runs on these trails day in and day out, so we all pitch in when the race comes around. It’s a small race. Just north of 200 people show up to run both races.
The race starts on a slender, leaf-strewn dirt road. It hops a set of railroad tracks in the first mile and then goes on to ridges, swamps, river pathways and kettles.
These days the race course is well marked. It’s triple marked, with wrong turns blocked off for good measure. The first couple times the race was run some folks ended up going on extended adventures in the woods and search parties had to be sent out to retrieve them. (Yeah, we laugh about it now!) You would know you were in trouble when you met someone running the other way on the same trail. I was worried the first time I ran it that I was lost. With such a small field I was all alone for the last 20-30 minutes of the race and wondering if I was still on the course.
When you trail race you learn about other people’s paces and strategies. Some people run faster up hill than others and some run faster down hill than others. This causes an interesting accordion effect early in the race with people passing and re-passing each other depending on the incline.
Experienced trail runners seem to have definite strategies. One is to use your arms on the down hills to grab bushes and trees, swinging like Tarzan and saving your legs. On the very steep up-hills, they power-walk with hands on thighs instead of running, again saving strength without sacrificing pace. Another thing that they do is to hang back until they hit a dirt road and then accelerate when the path is relatively clear and fast. It’s interesting to see racers adapting to their environment.
You see people coming out of trail races with bumps and bruises. It is common for folks to ‘catch a root’ and go for a tumble. You have to learn how to roll, use the momentum to pop up and keep running. You get hurt trying to ‘catch’ yourself. You see the runners covered with mud or with dripping bloodied knees. It’s all part of the mystique of the trail runner. This year the winner came in just under an hour for the 9.5. That’s pretty darn fast given the landscape.
The race is put on by Paul Funch who is a champion and chairman of the Groton Trails Committee. The race benefits the trails. The race is low cost, low tech and low impact. There are home-baked goods at the finish, donated by volunteers. I donated a couple boxes of Twinkies, (ok so I have a strange sense of humor). It’s all volunteers, with a goodly contingent from our own Sqannacook River Runners. (www.sqrr.org)
I met Paul for the first time around mile 12 of the Wapack Trail Race. He used to be a very competitive racer. Now, like many others in the sport, he plays race director to give back to the things he loves; running and trails.
Groton, like many of the towns in the area, has done a good job of preserving wild spaces for the public. Many times in the teeth of unbalanced school budgets and tax overrides, the towns have had the foresight to set these parcels aside and save them from the ravenous developers.
The Groton Town Forest Trail Races celebrate these bastions against sprawl. They give us a way to remember what New England was like before it was overwhelmed by crops of three bedroom ranches and split level colonials. It allows us the opportunity Thoreau once had to commune with our nature, and perhaps learn something about ourselves in the process.
In conclusion, go find an interesting trail race. Run it for fun and enjoy the experience. Remember to lift your feet over those rocks and roots and if you stumble, roll with it. Careful not to twist your ankle and watch out for hungry felix concolor. And don’t run the Groton Town Forest Race next year, because I want to keep it to myself!