Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Goat of a Different Color


1996, The New England branch of USA Track & Field started a challenging race
series called the “Mountain Circuit”. The brain-child of legendary mountain man Dave Dunham, the circuit initially consisted of three all uphill mountain races: Wachusett, Kearsage and Pack Monadnock. All 3 races were run primarily on paved summit roads and varied in distance from 4.3 to 10 miles. Over the years new races were added such as: Ascutney, Northfield, Cranmore & Loon. And some were taken away, such as: Kearsage & eventaully Northfield. Some of the newer races featured courses run on hiking/skiing trails and a few of them added the extra challenge of having to run back down the mountain! In 2006, I finished the entire circuit (plus Mount Washington) and wrote about my experiences HERE.

This year, the USATF-NE Mountain Circuit consisted of 6 races: Sleepy Hollow, Wachusett, Bretton Woods, Ascutney, Loon & Cranmore. And had a good mix of: road, trail, all up, up/down & down/up. Pretty much all you could ask for. Also, any runner who completed all 6 races received a coveted Mountain Circuit T-Shirt, a By-Pass to the 2014 Mount Washington Lottery and the all-important designation of “Mountain Goat”.

Having completed the Mountain Circuit once before, but still wanting a good multi-race challenge, I set sights on another legendary off-road series called the Grand Tree. The WMAC-GT starts in April and doesn’t wrap up until November. During that 8 month stretch, the series hits 19 different locations with race distances ranging from 7 to 26.4 miles. You can run as many (or as few) races as you like and can accumulate points proportional to your pace as a percentage of the winner's pace. Your best six races determine your final standing for the series.

This past weekend, I just completed my 6th (and final) Grand Tree race, and here’s a brief look at how they all went:

Merrimack River - 10 miles - April 13th
A simple out and back course. The first 3 miles are on flat/fast trails, followed by 4 miles of challenging hilly terrain and then 3 more miles of flat trail. It’s run entirely along the south side of the Merrimack River – from Andover to Tewksbury and back. And, is probably the fastest of all the 19 Grand Tree races.

Summary: I averaged 6:33’s for the first 3 miles but after all the flat/fast ground, I had trouble switching gears into climbing/descending mode.  During the next 4 miles (half of which with people running full speed at you) I ran some ugly 7:56’s. The last 3 miles were run in 6:38’s despite a calf /achilles issue with 2 miles to go. All in all, not a bad start.

Time: 1:11:18, Pace: 7:07, Place: 20th, AG: 5th, Points: 83
Full race report – HERE.

Seven Sisters – 12.5 miles – May 5th
An out and back course, that’s run along part of the Monadnock-Metacomet Trail in the Holyoke Range State Park. The single-track path snakes east-west along the ridge between Amherst & South Hadley, MA. It goes over seven rocky outcroppings (known as the 7 Sisters) including Mt. Holyoke. The footing is mostly on very sharp and/or loose Basalt rocks. And, once you’ve gone over all seven of the sisters, then you have to turn around and run back over them again! That’s like, um, 14 Sisters!

Summary: I was VERY careful through the first half of the race - picking my way down the steep embankments, hand-over-hand up the rocky ledges, tip-toeing along the knife-edged ridges, and zip-zagging around the roots/rocks and over the fallen trees. My race truly began at the turnaround as I threw caution to the wind and set about trying to mow down as many runners as I could. Turns out, I was only a minute slower on the way back and passed about 20 runners. Success!

Time: 2:27:44, Pace: 11:49, Place: 52nd, AG: 12th, Points: 75
Full race report – HERE.

Mount Greylock – 13.5 miles – June 16th
This race was one of the first trail races I ever did (back in 2001) and featured a 10.5 mile ramble up, around and over the Bay State’s highest peak followed by a terrifying 3-mile, free-fall down a black diamond ski trail. This year, the course was run in reverse, with the steep, black diamond UP coming first!

Summary: The average grade for the first 5k at Greylock is 14.6%. So, needless to say it was pretty slow - 43 1/2 minutes! The rest of the race went well, relatively speaking. I ran with another tall-ish runner and we picked our way carefully through the very-wet trails. I passed a TON of people over the second half of the race I was able to finish strong, despite the slippery conditions.

Time: 2:12:52, Pace: 9:50, Place: 38th, AG: 12th, Points: 76
Full race report – HERE.

Blue Hills – 7.5 miles – July 7th
The elevation gain/loss for this race was pretty low (relative to Greylock) so assumed it would be a pretty quick race. I was dead wrong! Other than the last grassy descent and a little fire road section in the middle, this race was very technical. Meaning, there were rocks and roots EVERYWHERE with really no place to “open it up” and run fast. Even on the “flats” I always had to be focused on the trail ahead and see where I was going to put my foot next.

Summary: Despite the 8am start, the temps at the beginning of the race were in the high 70’s with nearly 100% humidity. Over the course of the race, those temps would climb to the mid 80’s. It was not pretty, at least for this “super-sized” runner - and my results reflected that! I ran as hard as I could for most of this12k race, but could only manage a paltry - 11:00 min per mile pace. Yuck.

Time: 1:22:27, Pace: 11:00, Place: 15th, AG: 3rd, Points: 79
Full race report – HERE.

Wapack – 18 miles – September 1st
The race route is an out-and-back that follows the Wapack Trail between New Ipswich, NH and Ashburnham, MA.  There are four major mountains in between: Barrett, New Ipswich, Pratt, and Watatic, from north to south.  Total climb and total descent are each about 3,000 feet.  This is a very tough trail race and the only one where I’ve ever had to stop, sit down and collect myself.

Summary: I ran well for most of the race but bonked HARD with 4 miles to go. The heat and very high humidity took a huge toll on me and I lost a lot of time (and places) over the last couple mountains. Eventually, I crossed the blessed finish line 24 minutes slower than last year and a whopping 17 minutes slower on the back than the out. Not pretty!

Time: 3:37:10, Pace: 12:03, Place: 21st, AG: 5th, Points: 74
Full race report – HERE.

Pisgah – 14.3 miles – September 15th
This is a loop course in New Hampshire’s largest state park. It begins and ends in the center of Chesterfield and runs on paved roads, dirt roads, double track trails and single track trails. In short, a little bit of everything. None of the trails are too steep or technical – not flat, mostly just rolling. There is also a 50k as part of this event which starts at the same time.

Summary: I got stung by some bees during mile 4. Other than that, the race itself went pretty well.  I fell twice and puked once, but still finished strong.  I ended up 17th overall and just squeaked under my reach goal of 2 hours.  The weather was near perfect and the 14.3 mile trail was mostly dry & completely runable. I also won a huge jug of NH’s finest maple syrup and enjoyed a great post-race spread. A great end to my foray into the WMAC Grand Tree Series.

Time: 1:59:25, Pace: 8:21, Place: 17th, AG: 7th, Points: 85
Full race report – HERE.

Note: My 79 point average for the 6 races currently has me in 4th place overall for the Grand Tree. We’ll see how well that holds up as the rest of the series continues on without me.

After doing both series, it’s difficult for me to say which one is harder. The Mountain Circuit
draws a lot of the faster road runners, so your perception of how well you did can sometimes be skewed by how far back you finish. The Grand Tree races are typically longer, more technical and have more elevation gain. But, they are also more low-key, fun (for me anyway) and draw a more laid-back “Ultra” kind of crowd. In short, exactly what I was looking for this year!

Finally, there was one race I did this year that was actually part of BOTH series...

The Mount Cranmore Hill Climb. The only previous time I ran Cranmore, the downhill running was so steep and jarring that I puked at the bottom of my first of two laps. This year, Cranmore was the site of the 2013 US Mountain Running Championships AND we had to do 3 laps! Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to run this race. More specifically, my legs weren’t ready to run this race. I had done 108 miles in the 7 days preceding - including 22 of the 48 NH 4k footers and really had no business toeing the line. I did OK for the first lap and a half, and then the power went out. Long story short, this race knocked me down, stole my milk money and I’d rather forget it ever happened.

Anyway, below is a side-by-side comparison of each of the two series:
Mountain Circuit:

Race Type Dist. Elev. Climbs

(miles) (feet)

1 Sleepy Hollow Trail 6.2 2,400 3
2 Wachusett Road 6.2 2,072 2
3 Bretton Woods Trail 7.9 3,395 3
4 Ascutney Road 3.7 2,266 1
5 Loon Trail 5.5 2,152 2
6 Cranmore Trail 7.5 2,519 3

37 14,804 14

WMAC Grand Tree:

Race Type Dist. Elev. Climbs

(miles) (feet)

1 Merrimack Trail 10 1,456 2
2 Seven Sisters Trail 12.5 3,700 7
3 Greylock Trail 13.5 5,600 3
4 Blue Hills Trail 7.5 3,608 4
5 Wapack Trail 18 6,000 8
6 Pisgah Trail 14.3 4,900 4

75.8 25,264 28

Still not sure which one is right for you?
Why not run them both and find out for yourself?


  1. Wow, that's a lot of mountain running! I was pretty proud of the one time I ran Mt. Washington! ;)

    1. Thanks. I was hoping all this mountain training would make me a super-runner. But, mostly it's just made me tired. :)

      See you at Baystate.

  2. Nice recap, Mike! Great job on all the races and peaks so far this year.

    1. Thanks JV. Only now, after having completed it all, is it really starting to sink in. Not sure what I'll do next year (ever?) to top this.

  3. Seriously impressive Mike! And inspiring! Reading your race reports make me want to give a try to a mountain series - all except for the puking part.

    1. Thanks Beth. Each series has a very different feel to it. Right now I'm preferring the longer, slower races. But, maybe that's because I'm long and slow. :)