If We Are Being Honest...
I stood there in my front yard thinking it over. Or rather, just kind of staring blindly at the pallet and wondering how did I get to this place. How quickly things have changed. I didn’t think about it long, and grabbed at the plastic cover and starting to pull the bags off. Two bags at a time, 40 lbs each, I’d spend the next hour taking 25 trips to the basement to re-stock my wood pellet supply to heat my house.
Not exactly something that pops up as a regular household task as a resident of Phoenix the last 16 years. Moving 2000 lbs of tiny compressed sawdust pellets into a basement. Heck, they don’t even have basements in Phoenix. Yet, its exactly those almost routine tasks that remind me of what New England life is all about. Shoveling snow, pulling weeds, raking leaves, cutting wood, and moving bags of pellets. It’s what gives Mainers and other cold weather states that edge many softer (see: winter free) states just don’t have. In Phoenix you just pay your bills and go about your day, all year round. There is literally nothing to worry about beyond making sure your AC is working. No grass, no leaves, no weeds, no wood. You can just be as lazy as you want. Its why so many people retire there, they are sick of the work it takes to live in a cold weather state.
Lazy doesn’t have much place here in Maine though. If you don’t put in the work, you might just freeze. But if you put in the work, and you prepare for the conditions that come at you, you are rewarded with one of the most magical places you could ever live.
Much can be said about the running experience you get here on Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park (or most of it) and the town of Bar Harbor, Maine. We’re on an island with a population that has less than most Wal-Marts on Black Friday and despite Acadia National Park being one of the top ten most visited national parks (3.5 million visitors last year, another new record) you rarely see anyone on the trails. (At least everything outside of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard and the easiest to ascend with that convenient pavement leading its way to the top for all those visitors seeking instant gratification without any of the work.) This is particularly true in the offseason here whe visitors drop to under 500 a day spread over 46,000 acres. Last year I saw not a single person on the trails for 47 straight days. I was starting to think I moved to a deserted island, not Mount Desert Island.
I soon figured out why. It was winter when I moved here last year.
Winter in Acadia
March 6th last year it was -15 with the wind chill. I wore a coat. Several of them.
Before I had even moved from Phoenix I spent almost equal amounts of time preparing for my new position overseeing operations at the iconic and historic Bar Harbor Inn as I did pouring over topo maps of Acadia. I scoured the map and countour lines to understand how each unique path connected to one another, how to string together larger runs, bigger runs, steeper runs. I knew the entire trail system before I crossed the border into Maine. But I was 16 years removed from winter conditions and it quickly showed.
My first runs were in shorts. Because naturally I didn’t own any leggings/tights or anything remotely close to “winter running gear.” I resorted to my trusty 15 year old Adidas wind pants trying to see if there was also some magical way they would protect me from the inevitable mid section freeze I experienced with each and every run. The park is stunning in a fresh coat of snow and the ice covered rock walls. The unique way mountains light up in the low lying light of winter was enough to get me out the door every morning. And opening the front door every morning and feeling the brutally cold wind was amost enough to get me to turn right back around and go back to sleep every morning. I froze morning after morning trying to figure out the right number of layers to stay warm. (I settled on 19.) But more of what got me out the door was a new trailhead every morning, and the mystique of what I was going to find every day. I was addicted to the unknown, how much I could cram in before work, how much changing terrain could I handle.
“Can I connect the Gorge trail with Cadillac and down the Featherbed and not fall to my death on the ice?” These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I shivered in my truck driving to the trailhead. Often I had to alter the course mid-way through, or sometimes I pushed through and it was the adventure I didn’t know I was looking for that day. Every time it was spectacular, and immediately I fell in love with the area. While my wife and kids were still assimilating to the area, I was already hooked.
Spring in Acadia
Running in the winter here isn’t all rosy Instagram posts. Every mile takes the effort of three and the time I spent doing the extra laundry was excessive at best. After awhile you’re just excited to see some dirt. Any dirt.
And eventually, spring arrives in Bar Harbor and the park. Its certainly not in March. The first day of spring on the calendar is meaningless. We had 20 inches of snow on the ground when it hit “spring.” April saw several small snow storms but was also 72 degrees on Easter. But it sure wasn’t 72 degrees the next day. As any good self respecting New Englander says about the weather, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” Most of April is spent with wet shoes as everything is melting so eventually it just becomes an accepted part of your run. That eventually gets old too but the excitement of seeing dirt patches and slivers of green peeking through, certainly reigns supreme. I ran almost every day of April and soon had covered a huge portion of the 120+ official trails of Acadia and beyond. It became a fun game to find the route that could connect me to a new section I hadn’t seen yet, without repeating any prior segments. It was a game I thought and planned out often and called the “Acadian Pac-Man Project.” The Pac-Man project soon took over as my primary motivator when the alarm clock went off at 4:30am.
With spring also comes the pure discovery of sections that previously were covered in snow. What was originally a trail I had covered, now looked totally and completely different in the spring. Norumbega mountain was completely ice covered on the Goat Trail every time I took it, and the descent was always ice and snow. Yet in spring it became this stunning mass of bright green moss covering huge granite boulders amongst the tall pines. Light was peeking through on early morning runs and lighting up the wet moss like lanterns. It became a wonderland of color and life. You felt like you were in The Hobbitt every time you visited.
With spring comes more than just newborn wildlife and fresh vegetation. The runners on the island come out of their winter hiding spots and you start to see cars in the parking lots and even occasional hikers around the more popular peaks. While local runners certainly do run in the winter here, very few actually run the mountains and trails. (Clearly all of which are wiser than I am.). Yet with spring comes a new collection of “regulars” that increase your chances from 1% to 5% in seeing another trail runner in the woods. The 46 miles of crushed granite carriage roads are closed for several weeks in April as the imprints during the mud season can ruin the roads, and that pushs people out on the trails. The 20 mile driveable park loop road that circumnavigates a large portion of the national park opens up to traffic in the spring and with that comes Cadillac Mountain access. The park is open for business and that brings out the hikers, runners, andadventurists. Come May 1st, the park is open for business usually and active again.
In May I was fortunate enough to connect with Tom St. Germain, author of an incredible resource “A Walk in the Park, Acadia's Hiking Guide” as well as the best map available of the National Park. (He also co-authored the fascinating "Trails of History; The Story of Mount Desert Island's Paths from Norumbega to Acadia." Tom was someone I found online prior to deciding to move to Maine and interestingly (see: stalker) enough I found him through Strava.com. In researching Bar Harbor and the area as a potential new home, the running community I came to love in Phoenix was something I didn’t want to give up. Finding a similar community in Bar Harbor was a key aspect of the decision and I found Tom through activities he’d run in Acadia over the years. As it turns out, Tom is as experienced a runner in Acadia that likely has existed for decades and he’s published the literature to prove it. Reaching out to Tom via social media as a total stranger prior to moving to Maine proved to be a pivotal reason we did move. Come May of 2017, I was fortunate to go for a tour of the park with Tom starting from the west side in Seal Cove and finishing after Pemetic Mountain. That came after this 27 mile solo adventure the week before. Reading my comments on that run last May still ring true, "I thought I was a tough trail runner. Then I moved to Maine. Didn't even do 6 other peaks, didn't have the five extra hours to get it in. Or the heart to endure more rocks. 7:44 total time on feet."
That's the challenge of Acadia. As with any trail system, you quickly discover your biggest adversary after you spend enough time on the trails. In Phoenix, and Arizona in general, it was always about the heat and exposure. A long run in the desert was always planned around the available water, or how much water needed to be carried to make it through the chosen trails for the day. Here, water is abundant, particularly when the park is fully open and water fountains are functioning a several trail heads and parking lot locations you come across along your route. While the weather is ever changing, there isn't really much to worry about for the seasoned trail runner in these mountains. What will get you are the rocks.
Specifically the abundant supply of granite rocks. Entire mountain tops of pure granite, stairs of made of granite, boulder fields of granite. I remember finding the first person on an actual trail last winter on Dorr Mountain and even in that brief conversation he mentioned, "Be careful with stress fractures." My first thought was, "Oh please, I'm from Arizona. Land of the Rocks."
He was right. It's an entirely different running experience bounding between loose rocks, and running down granite bedrock for miles. Literally, for miles. It's stunning, rugged, and wild while you are doing it, but it takes a toll on your legs. So running Acadia in the spring, coming off the usually soft and forgiving snow packed trail, becomes an effort in easing into the Acadia Pounding that is the granite cliffs and rocks. Later in the season, with more conditioning, and rotating in carriage roads and soft mossy trails, my legs can handle it. But early on, it's a bruiser. For the casual visitor or runner they'll probably be fine for a weekend trip to Acadia, but week after week, it'll break you down.
Somewhere around late May comes the first leaves on the trees and like the flip of a switch in June, we're in summer.
Heaven on Earth.
Summer in Acadia
Long in daylight, yet short on time sums up the nature of summers on the island. Ranked by National Geographic and the Today Show as one of the best places to visit for the Fourth of July, it's the kind of place you dream about for summers. Time slows down, Saturdays become Tuesdays and weekends become weekdays. Nobody seems to be working and everyone seems to be on vacation. The streets are packed, the parks are full of people hiking, biking, running, and just experiencing the area. It's the busiest time of the year for a lot of residents, particularly those of us in hospitality, so it also limits how much free time there is to enjoy the area. Luckily, the sun is out until after 9pm so even after dinner we'd sneak in hikes or runs before the sun went down. The sun is up at 4am too, so there's plenty of no-headlamp time on the calendar!
Summer in Acadia also brings a lot of visitors you may even know, and with that brings some running companions. One of my favorite things to do in Acadia is show fellow runners the local trails here in the park, and then to see their reactions as we pass through one mountain range after another, up a sheer granite cliff and down a mossy one, and along a river to the Atlantic Ocean. Very few places can you smell the mountain air and ocean air in a few short miles and it provides for some incredibly scenic, and memorable routes that I'll never tire of showing people. Likewise, it brings a greater awareness to the difficulty of the trails in Acadia, often overlooked due to its shortage of elevation. At 1500 ft, its not exactly an imposing mountain on paper, but the grade up several of the mountains here, and quick accumulation of elevation gain, make any run in Acadia extremely difficult, and rewarding. It isn't difficult to put together a 7000 ft gain 20 mile run here, and you could do it a number of different ways covering a variety of different trails. It's part of what makes Acadia such a fascinating running paradise, you're not committed to any one trail for more than a few miles, and always have several options to add, delete, or edit any planned run based on your mood, the conditions, or how much caffeine is racing through your veins at that particular moment. Feel like going straight up a 30% grade? Just wait half a mile, you'll find one. Want to run along a fern covered single track in the woods? Take a left on the Jordan Stream Trail. Feel like running through maple and oak trees? Follow the Kebo Trail to the Gorge. You'll see plenty.
My favorite run of the summer last year was a 41 mile jaunt through the park, hitting most of the peaks, and all in the name of a 40th birthday for the super strong local runner Jen VanDongen. We hit 15 of the 26 peaks in the park and had 9000 feet of gain to show for it. Finishing the route in a dive into the frigid Sand Beach was a truly memorable way to end a 12 hour day in the woods. For the ultrarunners out there, the accessibility of this park is truly unique and almost perfect for these kinds of adventures. I left my truck at Jordan Pond the night prior (parking is very difficult in the summer, planning ahead is key,) a very central location on the eastern side of the island, and stocked it with water and food supplies. Then the following morning we kicked off from the Visitor Center and proceeded with the route. Every few miles we'd pass by another trailhead for parking, most of which have restrooms and some have water fountains. So even what you have to carry is quite limited, because there are frequent re-supply points along the way. To top it off, as Cadillac Mountain is a premiere destination for all visitors of Acadia, they have a gift shop at the top of the mountain! True story, I'm not even making this up. I started to bring a zip lock bag with $6 so I could get a coconut water and a Mexican Coca-Cola when I ran through the top of Cadillac. Literally, nothing on this earth exists that is better than a Mexican Coke at mile 20 something of a summer afternoon. (For those that don’t know the difference, Coca-Cola made in Mexico still makes it like Coca-Cola origially did. Before high fructose corn syrup.) It's incredible and became my go-to visit I'd look forward to each weekend trip up there. Best of all, you can finish your runs in the town of Bar Harbor quite easily as well, as it's only 1 mile from the trail heads to town. Finish at the Village Green in the center of town and there are 15 places to buy a beer, poutine or a lobster roll within 15 feet.
Fall in Acadia
Fall for many of the locals autumn is their favorite time of the year. Traditionally it was when the tourists would start trickling out after Labor Day (now it's Veteran's Day), and that quintessential crisp autumn morning air starts to greet you as you head out the door for your run. And with the change in weather, comes the change in scenery and as the month progresses you see the transition on the trails. As we enter October the leaves are sharp red and oranges, drawing you to a full stop at every opening in the trees. Your pace on any run slows considerably in the fall, it's just spectacular outside and yet again, the trails seem new again. As the leaves fall, the trails become a tricky set of rocks and roots, guesswork of where your foot is actually falling. But you don't really care because you still can't believe how beautiful it is outside and that you are running through this forest and nobody else is out there.
Fall also brings a number of races in the area, most notably the MDI Marathon & Half Marathon (www.runmdi.org) which has been named one of the most beautiful marathons by Runners World and I'm sure other publications and articles. It runs along the coast of the island through the various villages and towns and really highlights all that you can see in the island. Held in mid-October, it's often during foliage season and great weather for a marathon. It has a unique feel to it you won't find at many of the bigger marathons and the charm of the villages and people cheering you on is really something special. And unique, there are some interesting characters you see along the course that capture as much of your attention as the actual scenery. If you're going to come to Acadia to run, and road running is your thing, the MDI Marathon is special and a worthy reason to visit Maine in and of itself. I mean, you get a lobster claw medal. I probably could have just skipped that entire paragraph and just left it at that.
Run MDI. Always & Whenever.
It's been almost a full year of running on the island for me. I haven't done everything, I haven't seen everything, but I've seen a lot of the island. What I've seen, I've fallen in love with. It hasn't all been an easy go of it though. The winters have beaten me up bad and I've paid the price physically for some of the routes I've tried. One bad fall after another on the ice has damaged my motivation at times and contributed to the deep, dark "winter blues." Now in my second winter, I yearn for those clear trails again and the impending snow storms aren't quite as charming as they were leading up to Christmas. Yet, it's a part of the lifestyle here and I'll grab my drill, my box of screws, and set a new pair of running shoes for the ice. I'll throw on my running tights, my four layers, hat and mittens and dive out into another negative wind chill morning for a trip through the mountains. If we’re being honest though, I don’t really like it.
Spring can't come soon enough though as its truly a reward for fighting through these winters. Normally I would be anti-entitlement for any aspect of life, but I feel like I've EARNED the spring this year. We ALL earn these springs and the eventual summers. I've taken more falls, slips, smashes, trips, and pure pain and bruising from these trails than any combined five years of trail running in my life. Every step is an effort, every mile is a battle, and every mountain ascent comes with its own risks.
Spring brings with it new changes, new life, and a literal and psychological rejuvenation. While the winter is beautiful and welcomed on some levels, I'm more excited to repeat this cycle and seeing that green moss poking through the waning snow cover...and sticking around for the summer.