Trailrunning On Mount Ag
Growing up on the Hilltop in Somersworth, I'd never noticed or wonderered about the massive hill in the distance with the buildings on it until a few years ago. Turns out it's this thing called Mount Agamenticus. Then I ignored it because the name is weird. What is that, some Greek word? Nah, it's an Abenaki word – probably spelled like the white guys heard it. I dig it, though. Mount Ag is a great series of hills to climb and explore. So off I go now and then into Maine to get some easy hiking with the pup, or do some trail runs, like I did this time around.
Almost everyone who goes up Mount Ag will drive its Auto Road, or walk the very popular Ring Trail to the summit, then Blueberry Ledge down, or vice versa. When I began talking about running around the trails there, I imagined it on the Ring Trail, a wide path with just enough incline to offer some challenges for kiddos and soccer moms. But I was so happy to discover there are miles and miles of trails back there, crawling all over Mount Ag's three hills.
The Mount Ag parking lot is always crowded, but I parked there anyway and started running down the dirt road to warm up before sneaking into the woods. I felt like I morphed into the eighteenth century. The woods out here still retain that old, untouched quality, which is ironic because there are stone walls everywhere. It's old re-growth. At any moment I expected to hear a musket shot and see a plume of gunsmoke. I felt like an Abenaki might, mindful of my surroundings and dancing between the rocks. I think that's why I like trail running so much more than road running: mindfulness is key. And connecting with nature in the most human way possible: running through it.
I followed the dirt road for about a mile and a quarter, before turning onto Cedar Trail, a long logging road around the western backwoods. There were very few people back here, and lots of rock walls and old trees. I got to run over some great wooden bridges and jump a lot of rocky areas. Two people passed me in full bug-suit regalia, complete with face netting. I waved hello, anyway.
Before I realized it, I had run three miles and was already half done, but the fun part was still ahead of me. I turned onto another logging road called Norman Mill Trail, though this trail had the marks of ATVs. There were lots of mountain bike tire marks, too. I even ran past some sort of camp. I imagine the hippie kids in York know their way around these woods. Years ago, I hung out at an all-night party in the woods with a huge bonfire back here somewhere. As long as the cars are parked in the right spot, no one will follow 'em out. We'd wander back to our car as the sun crept up and sneak home. Those were fun days.
All this reminiscing and I almost missed my turn onto the Notch Trail, which leads back southeast toward the parking lot area, but while studying the map, I saw switchbacks and couldn't refuse. Up, around, up again, repeat. I wanted my muscles and my lungs to burn and gasp. Everytime I run a race, I get to a hill and slow right down. At my fiancée's suggestion, I hit a hill everytime I run my neighborhood, but it's easy climbing now that I know it pretty well. These switchbacks were pretty good. Not too steep. And the trail was beautiful! It's obvious that not too many people climb the Ridge Trail, a seven-tenths-of-a-mile stretch that switchbacks four times, then climbs moderately to its end. I had to walk much of the last half, huffing and puffing, but loved it. It was a serene, peaceful area, but with the feeling that ledges were around every corner.
I reached the Hidden Trail, a fun little scrap of path that led back to a main trail, which began climbing the real mountain, with plenty of narrow trail through older trees. It felt intimate and secret. But soon the Ring Trail met up and there were crowds again, so I took the first turn to the summit, onto Sweetfern Trail. Straight up some rock slides. It was an excellent way to power to the top, though I hiked much of it. My 5.6 mile run ended in about 57 minutes.
I walked across the open summit, ocean views to my left, hills and woods and little clusters of cities to the north and west. The skyline was so hazy, I couldn't tell what was bird or boat, sky or salt water. There's an interactive nature center sorta place up there, and lots of sitting areas and old skilift infrastructure rusting alongside the wildflowers and blueberry bushes. The goldenrods are out in full force and the butterflies are taking samples. There was a crowded parking lot with cars from every New England state – and don't forget Quebec – and lots of people taking selfies above the ocean. I hoped they'd all mind me on their drive down while I walked the Auto Road.
I passed a very old lady on my walk down. She was about a third of the way up the six-tenths-of-a-mile road from the parking area where my car was. She cheerfully waved to me. The road has some steep turns, so she was my hero for the day. At the bottom I had a few sips of water and watched a teeny-bopper with a clipboard ask people questions. With the thick-framed glasses and tightly-tied-back hair, I imagined it was a political thing and I cringed, but she left me alone.
Then I hit my timer and ran up the Auto Road as fast as I could without keeling over. When I felt like dying, I imagined the people in the cars driving down being impressed. I made up a gentleman with boat shoes tapping the brakes, man-nodding to himself as he crept down the hill at ten mph. The first turn was tough, but I was distracted by the lack of the old lady. Where was she? Then I saw her before the second and final turn, the steepest part – in the sun, no less. She was pounding the pavement and I passed her again. The final stretch was the hardest. I ignored a few people watching me and ran past the end of the parking lot, hitting my timer. Six minutes and four seconds. For .6 miles straight up, I'm happy with my inaugural Mount Ag Auto Road PR.
I spent last week looking at pictures and times from the Mount Washington Auto Road Race, which happened last June. The winner ran the eight-mile-plus climb in under an hour and has won it three years in a row. The guy flies in from Colorado and has sponsors like Merrell. Lots of people get to run the race and get times in the two or three hour stretch. I daydream about getting a sub-90 minute finish on my first attempt. It'll take some training, I think, and lots of hill climbs and switchbacks and baby Auto Road runs.
I walked down the Auto Road again and saw a guy muscling a wheelchair past me. We exchanged helloes like it was nothing. Just some dudes out for a beating.
I got back to my car and the teenybopper with the clipboard beelined toward me, even though I kept my head down. She had just been refused by whomever she was talking to and I was the only other person around. I eased up when I saw her York Parks & Recreation t-shirt on. She asked me if I would answer a few survey questions, which I thought was pretty cool, so I said yes. Stuff like my favorite parts of the woods (the switchbacks, duh) and if I thought the trails were well-marked enough, or over-blazed. I think they're just right, especially since there are so many trails back there with so many intersections. Better safe than sorry.
How often do I come here, she asked. Well, this is only my third time here, but I plan on coming back more often, I said. She seemed real happy to write that on her clipboard. I looked back to check the date on a sign near the Auto Road promoting a trail race here in September. Go figure. Totally penciling that run in.
Now I just gotta figure out the backroads that lead here, because driving Rte. 1 through York is a summertime debacle.