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.

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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…

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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.