FKT Report: The North-South Trail in Rhode Island

Wide Angle Lens[Editor’s Note: Here is Ben Nephew’s FKT report from his April 6, 2013 outing on the North-South Trail in Rhode Island.]

I almost didn’t make it to the start. Both of my kids, Gavin and Aiden (then eight months), were on antibiotics for strep. The problem was Aiden still had a fever after about three days of treatment. My wife, Steph, and I are not neurotic, first-time parents anymore, but we were still concerned. I was expecting to have to call Bob Jackman and cancel when Steph asked me if I had everything ready. I didn’t, actually, and was a bit surprised at the question. Aiden had an appointment the next morning, so I decided to wait a bit longer while I watched him sleep before making the decision. His fever seemed to be responding to either the antibiotic or Tylenol and he was sleeping okay, so I finally packed my bag and bottles, set the alarm for 3:30 a.m., and went to bed at midnight, thankful to have an understanding wife that makes these things possible.

The entire run itself was the product of Bob Jackman, who emailed me one day asking if I was interested in an 80-mile run down the state of Rhode Island on the North-South Trail. I had actually been researching the route myself recently, and immediately expressed interest. The North-South Trail (NST) runs from Douglas State Forest in Massachusetts to the ocean at Blue Shutters Beach in Rhode Island. It includes 26 miles of roads, and all types of trails from extremely runnable to sections that can’t really be run at all. It only has about 4,000 feet of climbing, but much of the route is constantly rolling.

Ben Nephew - North South Trail 3

Bob (left) and Ben (right) at the start. Photo: Scott Mason

During the mild weather in December and January, Bob organized two training runs over the northern sections of the NST that totaled close to 50 miles. We were going to try and run the last 30-mile section in February or March, but the snow put an end to that. The training runs alone made the attempt worthwhile, as we had good fun with several famous, local Rhode Island runners on both outings.

While seeing those sections of the NST got me excited to run the entire thing, it also triggered some anxiety about how my legs would hold up on one particular 12-mile road section. I have been doing less and less road training over the years, and I was concerned that my legs would not tolerate 26 total miles of tarmac in an 80-mile run. I had never run over 55 miles, and Bob had never run over 65 miles. The good news was that Bob had basically run the entire trail in sections over the years, and knew many sections quite well. We were both nervous about the distance, yet at the same time we seemed to have some random expectations about finishing in 12 hours when the established fastest known time was over 19 hours.

I was okay with this until I started to look at some of my other FKT’s and races where my pace was around 9:00/mile, which is 12-hour pace for the entire run from Douglas State Park. My runs on the Tully Trail and Nehantic Trail were between 8:00 and 9:00/mile for about a marathon, and there was no way I was going to maintain anything close to that kind of effort for 12 hours, even with the road sections (assuming they were not going to destroy my legs).

The organizational key to making the run happen was Bob getting his wife, Jackie, and Scott Mason to crew for us. As my wife asked me, “They are going to follow you around all day?” Yes, we both thought it was crazy, especially after a one-day run on the Long Trail in Vermont a few years ago where Steph and my friend, Chris, had to drive all over the state just to meet up with me at a couple spots. The fact that both Jackie and Scott are great runners was awesome, as we all know runners understand runners.

I should get to the actual run. Scott, Jackie, Bob, and I ran the 2.5 miles to the Rhode Island state line and stopped for a few photos and to get all the watches set. My GPS was running from the start in Douglas, once again with the assumption that we could get the entire route with my 13-hour battery life. We started down the NST shortly after 6 a.m., and I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous about just finishing a run. The weather was a little cool, but almost perfect for an all-day run.

Bob was moving well, and my legs felt good and rested, which is all I could hope for. The Buck Hill section is consistently technical, and I was glad we were getting it over with at the start. It was light by the time we started on the NST, so navigation wasn’t too difficult. The trail is generally well marked, and any missed turns were more a result of our lack of attention than poor marking. The first 13.5 miles of mostly trail went quickly, and we started to get optimistic about our overall time. We refilled our bottles at Route 44 and started the next 12.7-mile section to Route 6.

My legs were feeling decent on the roads during this stretch, but I did keep noticing that we were running close to 7:00/mile pace on the easier road sections, which seemed a bit too quick. Bob agreed and backed off in the name of self-preservation for the latter miles. The trail section leading to Route 6 was very runnable, and our overall pace continued to decrease as we met up with Jackie and Scott after running the first of our three marathons for the day. At some point, I saw some large tracks in the mud I was sure were from an ostrich. Bob thought it was too early to be hallucinating, and I then realized they were turkey tracks. In all the years I’ve been running trails, that was the first time I’ve seen turkey tracks.

Next up was the dreaded 12-mile road section. I tried to focus on staying relaxed and finding dirt to run on as often as possible. The asphalt and dirt roads themselves are very scenic and we saw virtually no traffic, which made it easy to actually enjoy these miles. Several miles are gradual downhill, and we once again had to keep an eye on the pace, which would drop below 7:00/mile pace without monitoring. At this point, we started seeing Jackie and Scott every few miles even if we didn’t need refills, but it was nice to have the insurance in case we needed something. Bob and I were starting to get a bit stiff after stopping once we hit 40 miles, but it wasn’t too bad.

The singletrack through Arcadia was some of the nicest on the entire route, but it was starting to become difficult to enjoy the more technical sections that I would normally favor due to stiff hips. I was actually looking forward to dirt-road sections! Bob announced we were pretty close to his 50-mile PR as our overall pace continued to drop despite the rocky terrain and some wet sections that were awkward to get around.

We were still moving well as we worked our way through Arcadia past 50 miles, but I could tell Bob’s stride was shortening. He had been leading most of the way, and I made sure he was leading at this point to avoid unintentionally forcing the pace. As we approached the boulder field, he seemed to get a second wind and I was wondering if I should have stayed in front to avoid getting dropped! The first section of the boulder field wasn’t too bad, besides forcing us to basically hike, but we then realized there were two more long sections of boulders. All the awkward strides needed to get through this section aggravated Bob’s already sore knee, and the plan suddenly changed as we stopped at 58 miles to refill. Bob decided to stop to prevent any serious damage, and let me know that he would prefer it if I continued. I still felt decent and decided that I should try and finish given all the work that went into planning this very long day. I was seriously worried about losing the route as I started out on the last 22 miles, though.

The next three miles were easy roads, and to my surprise the stiffness that had been progressing throughout the day in just about everything from the waist down was subsiding. My stride felt almost normal, and while I still had 20 miles to go, I figured I should get this done as quickly as possible. There was some welcome downhill between miles 60 and 70 on a mix of roads and trail, and then I headed towards Burlingame State Park.

Ben Nephew - North South Trail 4

Ben and Bob cruising the roads. Photo: Scott Mason

The most terrifying moment of the day came when I approached the end of a farm field that was about three quarters of a mile across, and there were no markings anywhere. As I imagined a search party combing the fields for my dehydrated corpse, I remembered Bob telling me to stay left. Despite a marking leading into the field that looked like a right turn, I put my faith in Bob and went full speed ahead left. When I finally spotted some markings, the relief was immense. I should mention that Bob gave me incredibly detailed route info over those last 20 miles, and although I could only process about 10 percent of the info due to my fatigue, I was extremely grateful. While not large, the hills in the Burlingame trails were quite challenging at that point in the run, and I was relieved to finally hit some flat and easy sections. Of course, this did not last, and there was a maze of wooden bridges and small hills to negotiate before finishing the last trail section of the NST.

I passed the trail register, which led to the delusion that I was almost done, but I still had 1.2 miles to go to get to Blue Shutters Beach. Jackie, Scott, and Bob were there to make sure I made the last few turns and cheer me on, and as the traffic light turned yellow as I approached the last intersection, there was no hesitation. As my brother-in-law would say, “You hesitate, you lose.” I was way too tired to stop and wait for the light, and it was a good thing traffic was clear because I had the reaction time of a sloth.

The road that led to the beach seemed to never end, and while I knew I was getting close, I never saw the ocean once all day until the last tenth of a mile. This is one thing that makes the NST special, and I had been looking forward to the ocean finish for quite a while. I was a bit early for the sunset, but I wasn’t too sad about that and still enjoyed the incredible views. Bob had a bottle of champagne for all of us to toast the run, which was a nice surprise. I would have rather finished the run with Bob, but I’m glad he didn’t force anything. So now it looks like I owe Bob, Jackie, and Scott a fully supported run somewhere!

In addition to thanking Bob and the crew for all the work, the Greenways of Alliance of Rhode Island did a great job establishing the trail and maintaining it. Scott deserves additional mention for photographing the run. That worked out well getting him on the team considering he is pro!

I debated on several shoes for the run, and ended up going with Inov-8 Terrafly 313’s in a size nine, which is a half size larger than I normally wear to allow some extra toe room. I also put an extra footbed in them to maximize the cushioning and prevent any movement on technical terrain. They worked well, and my recovery went surprisingly well. My nutrition was double-strength Gatorade and flat Coke all day long, with a couple S!Caps about every hour-and-a-half. No stomach issues or cramping during or after the run at all. From my GPS data, our 20-mile splits were about 3:05, 2:45, 3:35, and 3:17. For the 77 miles of the actual NST, my time was 12:13:26.

Ben Nephew - North South Trail - Finish

Ben after finishing the run. Photo: Scott Mason

Now that I’ve done 80, will I do a 100? No. I’m glad I did the run, but it hurt. The type of hurt where your body is angry at you for trying to get it injured, not late-race-effort hurt. My body has been good to me over my 25 years of running, and I don’t like disrespecting it. For me, the longer races and runs involve too much discomfort relative to the joy of running fast and pain-free. The opposite example would be a three-hour race where I’ve had one of those days where I could just hammer from start to finish, almost not being able to run hard enough, or even some of the six-hour FKT runs I’ve done where I’ve been able to drop the pace down to 6:00/miles and enjoy it.

I’m sure 100 miles is a great challenge, but I already know I can take as much pain as needed to get the job done, and I’d rather spend my time being happy while I run. I’ve had my share of pain, and then some. I’m looking forward to some nice, shorter trails in Connecticut at a faster pace. Having said all that, there is a unique type of satisfaction to be garnered from completing something like the NST. This satisfaction is based on my initial doubts about finishing, the crossing of a state to the ocean, and the team effort involved. Dave Dunham already sent me the guide for the Midstate Trail in Massachusetts…

Ben Nephew - North South Trail 2

Ben cruising the roads along the way. Photo: Scott Mason

Ben Nephew

is an 11 time winner and course record holder at the Escarpment Trail Race. He has PR's of 3:10 for 50k and 5:47 for 50 miles and holds the fastest known times for the Adirondack Great Range Traverse, the Devil's Path in the Catskills, and the Pemigewasset Loop in the White Mountains. He has been running in INOV-8's since 2004, and is also sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

There are 36 comments

  1. Tim

    Ben,

    Great article and run! The Westerly Track Club's Lil Rhody Run Around race at Burlingame always fell in the break between college cross country and indoor track seasons and was my first real intro to trail running. RI has some great, if overlooked, trails. I need to get back up there to explore some more. Thanks for sharing!

    Tim

  2. Milsom

    Great run and recap. I've run sections of the NST (Arcadia and Burlingame) and have considered doing the whole thing in one go since I moved to RI a few years ago. I might need to move those plans off the back burner.

    Also, it's refreshing to see someone say "nope, not for me" when it comes to hundreds. It's rare these days, as people seem to jump into that distance before they can barely do half that.

    1. Ben Nephew

      I've probably focused too much on 50 milers at times due their popularity and prestige compared to 50k's when I'm probably more suited to the 50k distance. With some people, it does seem like they move up to ultras without even getting to experience the benefits of shorter trail races. While my progression to ultras was probably too slow, I think it helped me to avoid injuries and really bad races.

      1. Adam

        I'm one of those guys who jumped into 50 milers when I probably couldn't even have run a 6:00 min mile, and I have to say I wish I knew this then. Every distance has its challenges, but running 50 miles with 10-15,000 ft of climbing when you can't manage a 1:30 flat half-marathon seems a bit like going to graduate school before you've finished your BA. And there are lots of people like that out there now. I'm now focusing on supplementing all the long, slow, climby trail mileage I've done with more short, fast stuff on road and track, and getting great results. Ultimately, I'd rather be out on the trails every day hauling my ass up and down hills, but it's not very efficient for those of us who want to do something with their time in addition to lots of running, and I find the shorter, faster stuff gives me a much clearer and unambiguous indication of where my fitness is at. I'll also add that your attitude towards 100s (an attitude which Sage Canaday wisely shares) seems very sane, and that as a young academic trying to balance dissertation writing and a huge amount of running, you're something of a role model.

  3. Shaun

    Congratulations on your FKT! Thanks for putting that little bit at the end about caring for your body. I believe that you are right to know yourself, to push it but not so much that you continually break it. Great write up!

  4. Mike Crutchley

    Ben,

    Great run and outstanding writeup! I heard about this run from some of my WTAC crew after it happened, very impressive…even Bob getting as far as he did, and smartly ending the run when he did, is a great accomplishment!

    Mike

      1. Mike Crutchley

        As the trail manager for 7 miles of the Narragansett trail (Lantern Hill to Wyassup), I'd say shoot for a thru run there, or fashion a course out of the Pachaug trails…limitless possibilities here, I love that it's in my backyard!

    1. Ben Nephew

      Thanks, Steve. Just 95 or so New England miles on the midstate trail, maybe, which will probably be more like 105 miles. The terrain is a bit more rugged on that one. There are obviously people who do great with 100's, but I've heard far too many horror stories since they increased in popularity. The contrast between the consequences of a rough sub ultra or shorter ultra trail race and a longer ultra is severe. The surprising thing is that these stories are definitely not limited to novice runners. Several of the smartest runners I know have ended up in the hospital, or DNF'ing with "medical issues" at 100s.

      1. Steve Pero

        FWIW, I'm not planning on running any more 100's, Hardrock just took too much out of me this year and after running them for 15 years, it's time to return to shorter and quicker. Deb and I will be moving back to New England and I'm looking forward to running Seven Sisters again!

        See you soon…

  5. Greg Hammett

    Ben,

    Congratulations to you and Bob and your awesome crew on the great fkt. This is something I've always been interested in doing (but it's so damn loooong!).

    I agree with what others are saying about knowing and listening to your body. You could write the book on New England trail running. I admire and respect everything you've accomplished.

    See you on the trails!

    1. Ben Nephew

      Thanks, Greg, I appreciate the comments. You've had some pretty solid runs yourself. I used to think 1:33 was quick at the Pisgah 23k! It's not as long as you think when you do it as a fkt with crew. The transitions between road and trail help quite a bit, too.

  6. Patrick

    Ben: congrats on this super FKT and many of your others – especially recently retaking the Presidential Traverse — Patrick

    1. Ben Nephew

      Thanks, Patrick. While I was worried about finishing the NST at times, I was able to relax and enjoy most of the run. That Presidential Traverse was a race from start to finish!

  7. Andy

    Congratulations Ben. Great run and report.

    You mentioned "shorter trails in CT at a faster pace." FKT plans for the Metacomet or Shenipsit? They are a bit shorter but the technicality may slow the pace. Hope to see you out there!

    1. Dana Royer

      The Mattabesett is another beautiful blue-blazed trail in CT. It's connected to the Metacomet and the newly-established New England National Trail. It's ~57 miles and has lots of technical sections and elevator shaft hills (classic southern New England terrain). I ran it in 13:18 (an "OKT", as far as I know), but you could do it in under 10 (probably under 9).

      1. Andy

        Sorry I omitted the Mattabesset — have also run sections of it but never a thru-run. I've heard that if you add up all the blue blazed trails in CT it's something like 600 miles of trail (though that could be a non-urban legend). Now that would be an FKT!

  8. Gump

    I did my first and possibly last 100 last spring. It was the greatest feeling ever to finish what I thought might have been out of reach. I doubt that I'll ever match that feeling again but the toll on the body is somewhat harrowing. Being the father of 2 young children, I did not like the feeling of being useless for the next 2 days as I recovered a bit. That problem never comes up when I do 50K or 50M which are done by the end of the day AND I am good to go the next day for whatever the family is up for. I admire your stance as alot of runners feel like they must do 100s to be a true ultrarunner. Good Job!

  9. Ben Nephew

    It is tough to fit in the longer races with young kids. It's not exactly a riveting spectator sport, and the time commitment gets excessive. Once you start doing 20-30 mile FKT's it makes even some short ultra races tough to justify if they involve substantial travel. As someone who studies physiology, I find the long recovery from some of these ultras interesting. Not exactly in a good way. Training for all races involves cycles of abuse and recovery, but at some point, and that point is different for each of us, severe insults are going to have much longer lasting effects.

  10. Ben Nephew

    Thanks, Andy. Those are definitely two trails of interest, but I was thinking of shorter trails that can be done out and back. The great thing is that the trail season in CT is so much longer than farther north! We almost ran the NST in the middle of last winter before we finally got some consistent snow.

    1. Andy

      Let me know if you want any recon on the Metacomet, having thru run it (albeit in two sections a few weeks apart) last June. Matt Estes' FKT is begging to be broken :)

  11. Ben Nephew

    I'll have to look into the Mattabesett. There are so many good options in CT, I'm surprised that FKT's aren't more popular. You could make non-race series at multiple distances! That New England National Scenic Trail is a long haul, 215 miles!

  12. Ben Nephew

    Other than weekends, I've rarely been able to fit in more 60-70 minutes a day for running, and with a family, I don't spend my entire weekends running. I basically do marathon training with longer long runs or regular longer races. I probably should hit the track or roads more often, but I'm not willing to sacrifice trail miles for it, so I do my speed work on easier trails. It is probably not as effective as track or road workouts, but the benefit is fewer injuries. I have trail sections of different lengths that I do intervals on. No idea how long they actually are, but I know what times I've run when I've been racing well. If I want to consistently race well on a reasonable range of terrain, I find I have to keep up with everything; hills, speed, and long runs all the time. Whenever I start to neglect one aspect, I'll notice it in my races.

    I don't think races are doing runners any favors by having little to no qualifications and/or liberal cutoffs. Having some reasonable qualifications and stricter cutoffs might encourage more runners to move up in distance more gradually.

    Thanks for the kind words, I'll have to tell my relatives, who all think I am nuts! I try to convince them I'm relatively conservative compared to all my friends who run hundreds, 24hrs, etc., but it doesn't do much good.

    Best of luck with the writing! I took a bit of a break from running as I neared my defense, but I probably should have kept running. Excessive writing plus no running equals anxiety and poor productivity. It becomes harder and harder to find quiet time to think as your career progresses, so that benefit of running becomes increasingly important.

  13. shaun

    This comes at a perfect time as I begin to hash out my 2014 plans. So close to home and could probably be done sans crew if stealth drop bags are used. As a first timer, is the trail blazed well enough the whole way or would I need to study maps the whole way?

    1. Ben Nephew

      It is marked well, but that opinion is coming from someone who previewed a large percentage of the route, and had an expert wingman for most of the run. I think previewing as much of the route as possible makes the experience more enjoyable due to not worrying as much about navigating. The tricky sections are when the route switches between route and trail, and reading over the guide helps in that area. If you are going without a crew, I'd definitely bring the maps.

  14. Andy

    I haven't seen it posted but I recall hearing it was around 11.5 hrs. My Garmin showed 56 miles total but I recall Matt's route clocked in over 60, so there's some question about actual start/finish spots and there has also been some trail re-routing since then.

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