FKT Report: The Grafton Notch Loop in Maine by Ben Nephew
This was going to my bad weather backup loop when I ran the Swan Song (report), and that might have been the wiser choice on that day in hindsight. After recovering from the Swan Song, for the most part, I decided to head to Grafton, Maine to run this 36 mile loop that I heard great things about from Ryan Welts and Adam Wilcox (their report from 2014), who held the FKT at 9:29:30. They had not been expecting 13k of climb, which is more than any other single day FKT venture other than the Swan Song and the Hut Traverse. I had been on Old Speck with Ryan at the beginning of the Mahoosuc Traverse, and was looking forward to some similarly exposed alpine ridge terrain on the Grafton Loop. The weather was a bit warm in Westborough the weekend I headed up to Maine, but my hope was that things would be more reasonable 4 hours north.
The drive up went quickly, and it was definitely a bit cooler up there. This is a rural area with primitive trails to say the least, the loop has only been around for a few years. Other than the rather massive loop, there are not many trails up there, which is nice in terms of navigation. I strapped my Orocs on and got on the trail as quickly as possible in hopes of avoiding as much of the heat as possible. The first climb was a blast, with soft runnable trails buried in pine needles to start, leading to alpine slabs and ledges. As I peeked over my shoulder to check out the early morning views towards the top, I stopped dead in my tracks. I’m not one to hang out to take in the views during FKT attempts, but this was not an option; just incredible light and low flying clouds drifting through the Notch under the peaks on the other side of the loop with distant views to the Mahoosuc and Presidential ranges. It was hard to imagine this not being a good day.
The singletrack coming off of Puzzle was more of the same awesome trail, but I held back to save my legs for the later hours. 8-10 hours is a far different challenge from 5-6 hours and I wanted to be in at least decent shape for the second half of the loop. Long Mountain, next in line, was a gradual climb through open woods. I was surprised the trail was as clear as it was given how little traffic it sees. At the bottom of the descent from Long, you run next to a beautiful stream with several cascades for about a half mile, and I filled up my bottles here prior to the 4.5 mile grind up East Baldpate Mountain. I was looking forward to the views after the show on Puzzle, so I got a little aggressive on the climb which was probably not a great idea.
At this point, the loop intersects with the Appalachian Trail, and East Baldpate is a short hike from route 26 so I ran into my first humans of the day on the summit. Ryan had mentioned that the slabs coming off of East Baldpate were steep, and that would be accurate. The grade was quite insulting to the quads, and the legs in general. Great preparation for the 2500’ climb up Old Speck. It was also starting to warm up, and I was hitting my bottles pretty regularly. That descent goes on and on, and while I was ahead of FKT pace at the Old Speck trailhead, it was only by about 15 minutes and I was already feeling the effort after three big climbs and descents.
Starting the climb up Old Speck after 4 hours of mountain running differed greatly from climbing Speck at the start of the Mahoosuc Traverse. It was depressing to think about how the paces compared, but I knew trying to push too hard then would lead to disaster later on. I actually felt better as the climb progressed, probably due to recovering from the long and violent descent from the Baldpates. As I passed some seriously beat looking through hikers with 2000 mile stares, I realized that things could be much, much worse. I wasn’t as slow as I had feared to the summit, which was an encouraging surprise.
I was 23 miles in and only had one more major climb, so I started to increase the pace and try to shave more time off the FKT. Ryan had great things to say about the descent from Speck, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking at first. They may have done some trail relocation near the top because that section of the trail was peppered with 6 inch high stumps, reminding me of unpleasant sections of the Manitou’s Revenge course. Things improved as I descended, and I was soon rolling along a pristine ribbon of pine needles that wound its way down the mountain. As with many of the miles on the route, while it was quite runnable, these miles were still technical and twisty singletrack that was challenging to run quickly.
My legs felt ready to push the last big climb up Sunday River Whitecap, and I attacked the lower section of the climb. Then the upper section attacked me. I was too stubborn to walk, but calling my progress a run was debatable over the last half mile. The increasing heat was not helping. That climb exists in some sort of Twilight Zone time warp where it goes on and on like a treadmill as the peak recedes from you; Ryan was entirely right on that one. My legs were wobbly by the summit, and I appreciated the gradual grade of the initial descent after taking in the 360 degree views of Maine and New Hampshire. The loop sure does look impressive from that angle, and I was glad to be done with the climbing, or so I thought.
While there certainly are not any more major climbs, anything uphill feels substantial and drains the life out of you after 12k of climb, 30 miles, and 7.5 hours. I just kept telling myself that the climbs had to be short as I knew the route, even though they sure looked long at times. In addition to being down on climbing power, my legs were struggling with the extended steep descents. You always want and expect to make good time on downhills, and it is frustrating when your legs don’t allow for that due to cumulative abuse. I had to focus and try to avoid major drops, as I might have ended up on all fours due to the state of my quads. There was plenty of nice, rolling sections on the final descent, but sporadic steep inclines and technical sections made it difficult to end up with faster mile splits.
The Grafton loop doesn’t let you open up until you get out of the woods onto some ATV trails, when the markings then get a bit sketchy. There was certainly a decent chance of getting off course here, and I was relieved to reach the road, and then I was confused. The map I had showed the trail going right across the road, and other maps I had seen showed that the trailhead I started at was a couple of tenths down the road to the west. I ended up running back and forth under the hot sun before finally getting back to my car at 8:41:05, but I proposed that the FKT stop at the road at 8:30:42. The road section is not incredibly long, but it is unpleasant. I think I may have set a fluid intake PR at 8 liters over the 8 hours.
This route certainly deserves more attention. It is a rare thing to be able to run this many miles on such pristine, non-eroded trails. I enjoy a regular dose of White Mountain rocks of mass destruction brutality, but it is also nice to be able to cruise along smooth trails drowning in pine needles. Regarding this, whoever designed and cut the Grafton Notch loop did a fine job, and this is obvious from looking at the topographic map, such as the lines up Puzzle and East Baldpate. I do wish the route climbed Slide Mountain, though. The crux of the route is the consecutive climbs and descents of East Baldpate and Old Speck. If you are too aggressive before, or during this section, you have a long way left to suffer and slow. The fact that the trails are very runnable, combined with the length of the run, also makes it a particularly challenging FKT.