Pittsfield State Forest – Prepping for Free To Run 50M

“We’re screwed.”

That’s what I told Jesse when he asked how my reconnaissance run at Pittsfield State Forest went. Maybe it’s an overstatement, but that’s how I was feeling as I rolled out of my car after a 3-hour run and then an hour of driving.

Let me back up a little. I’m registered for the BURCS “Free to Run” 50M ultramarathon in September– my first ultra. So, I drove out to Pittsfield State Forest yesterday to check out the course and run a loop. It was 85 degrees with a chance thunderstorms in the forecast, but I had my hydration pack, a salt lick, and figured the rain would feel good.

Here is my route (red) and the race course (blue dashes). The race will go out for a few more miles on the Taconic Crest/Skyline Trail and rejoin my route near Berry Pond. The red star is my start/finish, the blue star is the race start/finish.

MyCourseOverRaceCourse

After a little bit of a search, I finally found the Lulu Brook Trailhead. There is a little cascade at the bottom that is very pretty, with moss and dappled sunlight, mist and sparkly water. Then the trail follows Lulu Brook up Honwee Mountain. It’s narrow, with lots of slick shale sloping off into the gorge. As it goes up, there are constant rolling ups and downs, quite steep at times. I second guessed myself and thought, “This can’t be the trail we’re starting a race on– It’s so narrow!” so I hopped up to the Honwee Loop Trail where it veered in close to on the right. I should have stayed on Lulu Brook Trail. It was smoother, if a bit narrow. The recent rain has left gouges in the HLT and the deep piles of leaves made it quite treacherous.

At the top of the Honwee Loop Trail, I had to make a choice. I was soaked from the humidity and sweat, and it was sunnier than I expected based on the forecast. Deciding that, with the heat and only 2L of water, I should cut my run a little shorter than 12.5 miles, I dropped down onto the southbound Taconic Skyline Trail, which then meets the Berry Pond Circuit Road to finish the climb to the top of Berry Mountain. And what a climb it was!

 

At the top, I dawdled, taking photos and chasing the first blazes I’d seen (blue squares with white diamonds with “Skyline Crest Trail” written in tiny letters). I took a long moment to admire Berry Pond, the highest natural body of water in Massachusetts at 2150 feet. It was quiet and windy and so tranquil.

Even though it looked like rain, I wasn’t hearing any thunder and figured it would be just as fast to continue off the far side of the mountain as to go back down the way I came. So, I continued on to the Taconic Crest Trail, which is the only trail that had blazes the whole day. It was like the rainforest– all overgrown with fields of ferns, raspberries, and grasses on either side. And it finally did start raining. I giggled a little every time I pushed aside a branch or frond, just to get sprayed in the face with rainwater. If I hadn’t been soaked before, this would have done it. By the time the rain started in earnest, I was laughing to myself like a maniac. I’m starting to see why outsiders think trail runners are a little bonkers.

Ferns2

After rolling through the woods and ferns briefly, you pop out of the woods at a gravel parking lot with an overlook. I scared a lady there, who was admiring the view with her family. She said she thought I was a bear. Mmm hmm.

View1

The whole Taconic Crest Trail from there on in was dramatic and gorgeous and… overgrown with prickly raspberry bushes! And not a single raspberry to reward my suffering. (When I washed the mud off my legs later, I was able to finally see how sharp those little buggers really were!) There were blueberries, too, but not ripe. I had to wash my mouth out it was so sour. All in all, I’m not very impressed with this so-called “Berry” Mountain. Pssshh.

Blueberries

After a little confusion at an unmarked intersection of the TCT, I made it down to Mountain Road and back onto the Skyline Trail, through Tilden Swamp. This area was a good reminder that you never know how deep the mud goes just by looking at it. As I was hopping around, trying to put my shoe back on without falling into the mud, a horsefly decided to join me on my run. Now, I can usually outrun mosquitos, but horseflies are devilishly persistent. So, that was my fastest section, despite the mud. It was actually fairly flat, trending toward downhill, and wide enough for whatever truck left those deep wheel ruts.

I never saw the radio tower that is marked on the map, but I did spot the wooden Turner Trail sign nailed to a tree (I dare you to find it in this picture). I made my turn and escaped the horsefly.

Turner3

The Turner Trail was really the section I most wanted to reconnoiter. I need to work on my downhill speed, especially on technical single track trail. Now, it was not what I expected, but it was so much fun! The old Turner Trail that matches the map, runs straight down the hill. It’s all overgrown, with fallen trees and branches across the trail. The new trail is marked fairly well with little wooden signs and zigzags back and forth across the old path. It’s become much narrower, but what a blast! It crosses another trail called Upper Rollercoster, but the whole area could accurately be called a rollercoaster.

TheRollercoaster

I think that, on the first two loops of the race course, this will be fun and fast, but in the dark when we’re exhausted, I’m worried that it will be pretty treacherous. I took out my trekking poles to explore whether they will be helpful, but I’m not so sure. They make me much wider and less agile side to side, though they did give me confidence on some of the rockier, steeper sections. So, the jury is still out on that one. I’ll have them at the race and will just have to play it by ear. Here’s a taste of a wider, less technical section.

One disadvantage of the switchbacks on the Turner Trail is that it is much longer now. After thinking to myself, “I must be pretty close to the bottom” for about a half hour, I finally stumbled out onto the paved campsite road. Turning left, I jogged off downhill, watching families set up their tents and relax in lawn chairs with their kids and dogs. Unexpectedly soon, my car appeared in front of me. Even though it was hotter than blazes, I was a little sad to be finished. I sucked on my water, though, and realized that I had made the right choice at the top of Honwee Mountain– my hydration pack was empty. I guzzled the extra water I had left in my car and drove back up to the Lulu Brook parking area. After peeling my shoes off, I flip-flopped down to the brook to rinse off the worst of the mud. For such a hot day, the water was shockingly cold! It felt great, though, and I made a little friend.

Frogger

This run was quite an adventure! I have to say, if you are going to the PSF for the first time, they map is not extremely helpful. The scale is too big for the trail lines to be useful for navigating intersections. The landmarks, streams, ponds, and topo lines are what I used to figure out where I was. Those seemed pretty accurate. On an overcast day, a compass is helpful.

Despite the bugs and prickers, I would go back in a heartbeat. The $5 parking fee (for MA vehicles) was worth it, of course, and the rangers were very friendly and helpful. There was a little beach and swimming (well, more like wading) area at Lulu Brook. I bet it would be fabulous to camp here. The facilities were very tidy. I really am excited for my race in September. Absolutely terrified I won’t finish in time because of the ascent up Honwee Mountain, but still excited to come back to these trails again!

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