Saturday, October 17, 2015

Run for the Pumpkins TRAIL 5K!

Westerly, RI
Saturday, October 10, 2015

Wow, what a day!  The event went off without a hitch and far exceeded my own expectations!  Where do I start to write this tome?  Normally, that would be arriving and warming up, but in case, as Race Director, I've invested months in helping to bring this new trail race to fruition, so I'm going to have to go back a little further. 

When I was six ...   (OK, maybe not that far back.)  The Run for The Pumpkins was a hilly road race for the first 12 years.  From 2003 to 2010, the event was run exclusively by the Town of Westerly Recreation Department.  In 2010, the field size reached its nadir with a mere 17 runners (Steve S joked that it was a group run!), and the Rec Department asked WTAC if we could team up and try to help manage the event.  While we did increase the numbers, they still averaged about 50 and fell as low as 36 last year.
The old course.  Chris and Jonny leading it out in the 2013 road edition.

Cute age-group awards made by the Town Recreation Director's mother
in the early days of the Run for the Pumpkins race.

Time for a change ...
After the 2014 (road version) of Pumpkins, we polled participants on changes they would like to see to keep the race interesting and sustainable.  The Town Recreation Director was very interested in any changes to bring the numbers up, and had himself asked "what about a trail run"?  The runners had no shortage of feedback and suggestions, with the majority indeed being change to a trail.  Local road 5Ks in mid-fall are ubiquitous and ours was in need of a differentiation.  Other suggested changes that we agreed to incorporate were adding a kids' run, incorporating real pumpkins, moving to Saturday, moving away from Run for the Penguins weekend, and moving to an earlier start time.

Grills Preserve (site of current WHS home XC course) and Wahaneeta were both considered for their established trails, but in the end rejected due to parking constraints.  With the town's blessing, we settled on Bradford Preserve with a parking lot accommodating 300 cars, town-owned, and abutting 400+ acres of newly acquired town open-space land and 800+ acres of Woody Hill Management Area.  Now the only problem is that no trails connected to Bradford Preserve, and I needed a potential course and map before even approaching the town and state for permission.

I spent many hours and visits in December and January bush-whacking (of course typically in shorts getting my legs cut up!) through the town land trying to envision a 5K course.  There was an old but overgrown trail running from horse fields and barns on the old Lucey farm property, running in the woods behind Bradford Preserve fields, and running southerly behind houses along Route 91.  Despite the briers and brush, incorporating part of this trail would make the most sense, and by planning to cut three short sections of trail, each 0.1 to 0.2 miles, I could form a running loop:

Sounds good, but measuring it yielded just over 2 miles.  I considered two options to add the additional mileage:  1) running loops around Bradford Preserve, and 2) cutting a new trail through deep pine forest just before the horse field section.  I'm glad I arrived at the second option!  By now, it was mid-January and all I had was a course vision and many GPS and GIS maps.  With a major snowstorm looming, I went back for my final bushwhacking, armed with spools of green ribbon, a knife, and a GPS watch.  Timing was fortuitous, as feet of snow would soon be on the ground for two months, and I now had what I needed to print up a course map to start the approval process.

Permits and clearing:
During the winter months, I got buy-in and suggestions from the club, wrote up a safety plan, presented the plan and details at Town Hall, submitted paperwork to DEM and spoke with them on the phone numerous times, and about four months later, got permission from both.  The rest was "easy" - moving branches off the course, hauling in a chainsaw for the downed trees I couldn't drag, multiple trips with loppers, and two heavy-lifting days walking the course with power equipment.  Huge kudos to Mike B for all the help, along with newest WTAC member Jeff Huckle giving up the better part of a Sunday to help clear and haul decades-old debris out of Woody Hill, as well as to the Westerly Municipal Land Trust then loading it on to a truck and getting it out of here.
Some of the junk we hauled, dragged, and carried out of
Woody Hill Management Area

... and now, finally, the race!
The rain ended and the sun came out!  A beautiful, sunny, 50 degree fall morning.  Having marked the deep pine forest the night before, I arrived over two hours early race day to get setup and ready.  Thanks to an awesome and capable all-volunteer WTAC team (Muddy, Jonny, Crutch, Matthew, Jana, John, others) we divided and conquered tasks of course marking, table setup, registration, parking, and got it done!  John and Tom brought the food, Jana the cider, Tom's parents helped setup, and even my Mom came and volunteered!
Leaving the house race-day morning.  How much stuff can you pack into a car?
Are we going on a week-long vacation?  No, just to a trail race!

A beautiful sunny fall day awaited us at Bradford Preserve!
Setting up course marking with WTAC comrades.

Mile 1:
Changed into dry socks and trail shoes (thanks, Jana, for that suggestion! - the grass was pretty wet at 7:45AM), and was ready to go.  The race went off on time at 10am, as 111 runners toed the line!  Places shifted around during the first 1/4 mile on the field, and then it seemed that two packs of four emerged:  the lead pack of Jonny, Muddy, Brightman, and Matthew, and then Tommy and me and two guys I didn't recognize.  Into the woods, I could see Jonny leading the charge up the hill.  Tommy was just ahead of me on the hill and I wanted to yell to him to go catch the leaders, but nothing came out other than my heavy panting.  Exiting onto a short gravel road section in Woody Hill, we ran past course marshal Mike B (thanks Mike!) and back onto the trails.  It was on this section that I came up to and passed Tommy just before the Mile 1 mark.  He gave me some encouragement to go after the lead group, but they weren't even visible to me now.  Mile 1 split 6:37.
Field start of the 2015 Run for the Pumpkins
(Most photos by Jana)

1/4 mile, leaving the first grass field section
Short Woody Hill gravel road section;
Tom on right, me on left
(Photo by Mike B)

Mile 2:
Saw no one ahead of me as I finished the double-track Woody section, passed course marshal Joe Light, and then the final short gravel road section before entering the pine forest.  Early in the pine forest, I was excited to see Jonny ahead of me.  At times it seemed he was just a few feet ahead, but that illusion was really due to the switch-backs, which unfortunately also revealed to Jonny that I wasn't far behind him.  Twisting trail ensued on pine needles, as did jumping over logs, and a short rock scramble.  This is by far my favorite part of the course, and judging by the feedback to date, the favorite of most runners as well (although clearly not all!)  The pine forest ends as you come up to Mike B's Mile 2 pumpkin marker.  Mile 2 split of 7:49 only serves to demonstrate this is the most challenging section.
Keeping it varied and interesting with
a rock obstacle to go up and over.

Entering the former horse-farm field section at the end of Mile 2

We got lots of compliments on Mike B's mile markers

Mile 3:
120' of fun and fast downhill awaits you on the final mile of the course.  While a year ago much of this last mile was overgrown and brier-strewn, this part was well cleared and fast.  I was hoping my downhill gazellin' skills would close the gap with Jonny, but unfortunately he was running really fast and uncatchable for me.  On the final downhill trail section, I could see the leaders returning home on the grass field and was thrilled to see Matthew in 1st place ahead of Brightman.  I ran hard around the field section, finishing 11 seconds behind Jonny.  Mile 3 split 6:23.
Ghosts marked the low overhanging branches
Starting the final downhill section
(Photo by Mike B)
Last section of trail, before exiting back onto field for the finish.

Final results:  20:50, 5th overall, 1st in age group.  Full results here.
A great showing by Team WTAC.

Post-race, we served cider, pumpkin muffins, and apples, trying to return to a fall theme.  A kids' 1K race ensued, and as they crossed through the finishing chute, they got a mini-pumpkin handed out by my Mom.  I'll compile the feedback and review with the club, but thus far it is almost entirely positive on the venue, the course, and the obstacles intentionally left on the course.  Alas, my "what keeps you up at night" fears never materialized:  it will be pouring rain, people will get lost, someone will steal flags.  I've tweaked and adjusted race courses and features in the past, but this was by far the largest race project I had undertaken, and seeing it come to fruition was extremely rewarding. Thanks to all the WTAC volunteers and town and state officials that helped make this possible!
Highest number of finishers ever!
Let's hope this 2015 trend continues.


  1. Well done Jeff and Team! I'd be happy to volunteer if asked! Very well thought out and put together race and course. Super Kudos!

  2. Congrats Jeff. I'm glad all the hard work paid off. Sounds like a great race - hopefully I'll make it next year!

  3. Jeff-congratulations on a great new event and race! This blog posts provides a nice dialog of WTAC and your efforts. Great race venue and excellent fall atmosphere.

  4. This might be my favorite WTAC blog post of all time. It was great to read about the work you put in to get this ready, and even greater to see how well it went on race day. I know this was a labor of love for you, but you should be proud of what you did. I just wish I could have been there to experience it in person.