In early August, eager to get away from the crowds the Coronavirus had brought into the White Mountains, my partner and I took the dogs up to Grafton Notch to hike Bald Pate. It was love at first site. Quiet and remote, with an open rock face and sweeping vistas of Western Maine, I was eager to explore the area more. Not long after that a friend told me about backpacking the Grafton Loop Trail, a 36 mile route traversing 5 (notable) mountains, many of which require 14+ mile hikes just to access. The route is rugged, with over 11,000 feet of elevation gain and only one exit point (where it crosses route 26 approx. halfway through.)
When my plans to run the Bear 100 this fall fell through (again, thanks Corona!) I found myself searching for a big project to cap the 2020 running season. I considered a few local races but felt that the risk was too high given my regular exposure to pregnant folks and infants. A single day Grafton Loop seemed like the perfect 2020 adventure.
With minimal convincing, my friend Eva agreed to join me. We didn't have any specific time goal in mind but my coach Hilary suggested we push to beat the mixed gender FKT time of 13 hours 26 minutes. No women's time had been officially recorded on the site but Strava tells me it has been done twice. We knew a 22 min/mile pace would be pushing it for us but agreed it was worth shooting for.
After an early September chill and a few nights of hard frost, the morning of September 27 was unseasonably warm. I felt nervous about the high humidity predicted for the day but was grateful to have a season of hot summer training runs under my belt. Eva picked me up at 3:15 am and we headed to the Puzzle Mountain trailhead in Newry. After final preparations (including each carrying 3 liters of water!) We were off!
I've never been a fan of the dark, and as we summited Puzzle Mountain and began our descent into the wetland below I felt my anxiety starting to rise. I just kept reminding myself that we were well prepared and it would be light before we knew it. Dawn came quickly and we were able to pick up our pace as we jogged along the Chase Hill Brook. Eva was skeptical of our ability to stay on our A goal timing, as she was struggling with a high heart rate through our second climb up Long Mountain, but we made good time.
Long Mountain may not have the views of the other peaks, but the soft dirt trail is surrounded by neon green moss, which combined with the brilliant red and yellows of the leaves, made the miles pass quickly. As we crossed Lightening Ledges the fog began to lift and we got our first views of the day.
At mile 13 we began our 2 mile ascent to Bald Pate. The climb felt much easier to me than it had when we had run the eastern half 3 weeks prior, and we were rewarded with incredible views. The mountains surrounding Grafton Notch were ablaze with peak fall foliage, while the valleys still sat in a thick undercast. While nowhere near the 60 mph winds we had experienced a few weeks prior, the breeze broke the stiff humidity and we attempted to admire Old Speck without feeling overwhelmed by our impending ascent.
After a quick climb up to West Bald Pate and a mile of steep down the trail becomes soft and flowy. We began to see day hikers and backpackers after 15 miles of complete solitude and we came to the road crossing just 6 minutes behind our A goal time. My friend Abby was there with her friend Tyler and the drop bags we had left with her the day before, so we could avoid doing a car shuttle. We ate a snack, filled our water, restocked our packs, put on clean shirts and headed out to tackle the 2500 foot climb that faced us over the next 4 miles.
Within a quarter mile I knew our run had shifted. Loaded down with a fresh 3 L of water (due to the current drought in the Northeast we were skeptical of having reliable water to filter on the second half), and 19 miles/7,000 feet of gain on our legs, the climb up Old Speck was brutal. We bitched and moaned and cursed and hauled ourselves up the mountain. The ascent had taken us much longer than expected and knocked us off our goal time by about 30 minutes.
Diving off the summit into the western half felt like a big leap of faith, knowing we either had to make it the 13 miles back to the start or we would have to turn around and attempt to hitchhike back. The trail morphed into a fun descent and we found ourselves quickly ticking off miles, while a cool breeze encouraged us on. We saw a group of backpackers, the only people we would see on the entire loop, apart from the 8 miles it overlaps with the AT. Unsure of what the climb to Sunday River Whitecap would bring, we began feeling wary as we jogged through Miles Notch. The stone steps to begin our conquest of this final mountain were not a welcome site. The air was still and humid in the forest and while Eva was pushing ahead, now I was the one struggling with breathlessness and a high heart rate.
The cruel blow of multiple false summits on our beaten legs was softened by the best views of the day. We could look back over the entire 30 miles we had covered, every mountain draped in brilliant reds and golds. The open rock ledges of the summit were accented by blueberry bushes showing their fall finery and our friend, the autumn breeze, had returned. Seven miles to go over what we hoped and imagine would be more dirt single track but we were in for a surprise.
Soon after leaving the summit the descent began with a series of wooden and stone steps. On shaky legs we descended, our quads screaming with each step. Seven miles felt like an eternity at this snails pace but Eva kept encouraging us on. After a few miles the trail blissful flattened out, and with some strong encouragement to our tired legs, we were able to jog out.
The loop ends with a short snowmobile trail section, crossing the Bear River on a sketchy suspension bridge and then a 3/4 mile road run. My partner, Ken, was waiting with the dogs to cheer us into our finish line, cold seltzer and beer in hand.
We finished the loop before dark, 14 hours,1 minute and 53 seconds after we started. The humidity caused more chafing on my body than I've experienced in a long time. I have a few blisters and one very banged up shin, but it was the perfect day. We may not have met our lofty A goal but I am proud of the effort we put in and excited to end my 2020 running season on such a high note.