This long, flat stuff is out of my wheelhouse. The Northern Rail Trail (NRT) has been on my radar as an FKT for a few years, and I’ve continued to be surprised that nobody had done it. So a few weeks ago with spring races canceled, I decided to do it. A few days later, I noticed it had been posted with a full self-supported effort! Then last weekend, a friend of mine did it unsupported; I had no idea he was gearing up for this!
So when time came for me to give it a go, it was no longer the sort of “casual” 100k OKT effort I had imagined where I would run-walk my way through it, then bike home. I had to actually make sure to keep moving well. To be honest, that actually deflated my bellows a little; I was excited to be the first to put this up, just because I knew others would throw down afterward. I wasn’t that excited about racing it.
The two previous times covered the whole NRT, and a bit of road to the trail kiosk near the Boscawen Park & Ride. There is another rail trail which continues west along the same old rail line on the other side of Lebanon; it’s paved, and is called the Mascoma River Greenway. Since it seems like a continuation of the rail trail, I decided to tack it on. That would bring the distance of the route very close to 100k.
The night before my effort, I drove to the Boscawen Park & Ride and stashed a bike, some food, and water in the woods for my return trip. When it took over an hour to get there, I realized what I was in for. This is a very long way to run.
After too little sleep, I packed up a lot of easy calories, and a little bit of real food, and my BeFree filter and some water bottles and set off from a parking lot a bit over a mile from the Mascoma River Greenway trailhead. I followed the old train tracks, crossing bridges with no railings and gaps between the railway ties. Cool!
After my meandering on the old tracks, I started later than I wanted around 6:08. Easy paved miles took me into Lebanon, and it started to gently rain. I hit the split on my watch at the NRT trailhead in Lebanon, snapped a pic, and started in on the bulk of the day’s work. Fortunately the NRT is unpaved, so my legs were spared some pounding. Before long, I passed my local trailhead and ran along Lake Mascoma. I saw a few people in Enfield, then no one until I ran into Jim Burnett, President of our local Upper Valley Running Club in Canaan. I only saw a few more people until Andover, at which point I saw a steady, if sparse string of people, mostly families out on bikes enjoying a nice spring day.
After I got through Enfield, I was into mostly new terrain for me; I had been on a few other short sections, but mostly it was new to me. The terrain through Grafton to Andover is mostly high-country bogs and wetlands, and there were tons of birds and bird song. There weren’t many sweeping vistas, but it was pretty. The rail trail mostly follows rivers, so there were frequent views of water, woods, ponds and marsh. From Franklin south, the trail is mostly along Rt. 4 on one side, and flatlands near the Merrimack on the other. There’s more sun exposure, and the cloud cover had lifted by the time I got there and it was kind of hot, and much less pleasant.
Around mile 19, my feet got wet in the only really chronically and unavoidably wet part of the trail, and I started to feel the first twinges of pain from tight IT bands. A few miles later and I was stopping once a mile to stretch the IT bands just to be able to keep running. I pushed through marathon and 50k distances, just to get the PRs (I never run those distances on such runnable terrain!). At 50k, I felt the wheels really coming off, and took a long break by a stream to regroup. I had only stopped one other time for water up to this point. I didn’t recognize it yet, but that was a problem. While I had been fueling wel with Tailwind and some homemade energy gel, my water consumption was too low. I noticed that my heart rate was quite high for the pace I was running, but chalked it up to just not being in good enough shape.
After a long rest and stretch, and fresh socks, I started back in, but my heart rate immediately spiked back up above where I thought it should be. I slowed down. I stopped frequently to stretch. I tried to keep taking in calories, but my stomach was uncharacteristically uneasy. The wheels came all the way off. I felt very unmotivated to continue to push, or to handle any real level of discomfort. I walked. I found a good stream, and drank all of my remaining fluids and filled up again, battling black flies while filtering. Walking, my heart rate settled, and my guts started to work again. The fluid started to get into my system, and I felt better. What’s more, the walking helped my IT band pain. It didn’t hurt my splits too much either, as I was typically walking about 14 min/mile for a few minutes, then I was able to run decently through the rest of the mile before allowing myself to escape the discomfort again and walk. I realized that I had been quite dehydrated, and kept drinking during my walking breaks. That helped my spirits a lot, and I managed to crack a smile a few times about what a foolish thing this is to do, but how lucky I am to be able to do it.
Before mile 40, I was very disheartened and thought I might have to walk it the rest of the way in, for a 12+ hour finish, and no FKT. With the magic of hydration and walking relatively quickly, things turned around after that, though, and I was able to keep moving decently. My stoke for the route was still low, so suffering through a lot of running wasn’t in the cards, but I was able to walk-run and avoid bleeding more time off of FKT pace.
One of the things about running so slowly over such incredibly flat and even terrain is that I could basically text and run. That meant lots of bellyaching and complaining to a group of running friends (which probably didn’t help my mood, honestly), and also let me arrange for a pickup at the end. Sure, it would have been much better style to ride home. And after pedaling around a little at the end, I actually think I could have ridden home, but it would have made the day into a bit of an epic. The odd thing about flat running like this for me is that my quads were relatively untouched, but all the connective tissues in my legs felt horrible. Biking home for the fully unsupported day would have been feasible. But with a baby at home, it just didn’t feel worth it. The whole thing felt quite silly. I could have had a nice morning run, eaten breakfast with my family, and spent a pleasant spring day with them. Instead I suffered through what was to me a fairly uninspiring route. I guess I learned that even without much stoke, I can push through pretty well. But wouldn’t it have been more fun to push myself with some excitement about what I was doing?
In the times of COVID-19, I think many people are struggling with motivation. My way through has been to set goals and steer myself on a crash course toward those goals. That has put me through some of those goals, but I can’t say I’ve had that much fun. Maybe it’s time to step back, and reassess what this is all about for me?
Back to the NRT FKT. The previous two times both had the NRT trailhead in Lebanon, NH as one endpoint, and a Park & Ride a short road run away from the NRT trailhead in Boscawen as the other endpoint. I’d suggest doing away with that road section as part of the FKT route. It’s not part of the NRT. Use it as a warmup if you like, but I think we should keep track of times from gate to gate, start to finish only on the NRT proper.
Here are my times:
MRG start: 06:08:14 (00:00:00 elapsed)
Lebanon NRT Trailhead: 06:33:18 (00:25:04)
Boscawen NRT Trailhead: 16:32:18 (10:24:04)
Boscawen Park & Ride Trail Kiosk 16:36:53 (10:28:40)
Boscawen Park & Ride 16:37:53 (10:29:40)
So my full time on the course of the previous FKTs is 10:03:36. My time for the full NRT was 9:59:00.