Nipmuck Trail End-to-End Run

I missed blogging, so I did an adventure to have something cool to write about. Today Debbie and I ran the entire Nipmuck Trail from the southern terminus of the East Branch to the northern terminus. The run was just over 35 miles with a little under 5,000 feet of elevation gain and our total time was 7 hours 25 minutes and 29 seconds. Our Connecticut Walk Book says the distance is 36.3 miles but my Garmin GPS track measured it shorter. Since much of the trail is on private land, it changes from time to time and the distances can vary year to year.



The southern terminus of the East Branch starts in Mansfield Hollow State Park. The West Branch starts on Puddin’ Lane in Mansfield, but there is no way to combine a run of the full trail including both branches, without backtracking.

Screen Shot 2020-04-25 at 10.33.20 PMWe desired one continuous point to point run, so we chose to use the slightly longer East Branch since we recently hiked (with the kids) on the West Branch and wanted to see something new. The northern terminus is at the top of Bigelow Hollow State Park next to Breakneck Pond and on the Massachusetts state line.



The Nipmuck is part of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s 825 miles of Blue-Blazed Hiking Trails. The CFPA BBHT network is one of the finest in the entire country and are marked with blue rectangular blazes. This trail system offers a great way to explore the woods of Connecticut. I am a longtime CFPA board member and proud of the organizations amazing conservation history.



The CFPA’s official description of the trail is worth sharing:

The Nipmuck Trail extends from Mansfield north to the Massachusetts border. It is shaped roughly like an upside-down fork and has two southern branches: the West Branch starts on Puddin’ Lane in Mansfield; the East Branch starts in Mansfield Hollow State Park in North Windham. The northern terminus of the Nipmuck Trail is in the beautiful Bigelow Hollow State Park.

The trail crosses through a number of recreation and conservation areas including Mansfield Hollow State Park, the Natchaug and Nipmuck State Forests, Schoolhouse Brook Park, the Yale Forest, Bigelow Hollow State Park, and other lands owned by towns and land conservation trusts, most notably Joshua’s Trust. Highlights on the trail include Wolf Rock (an enormous glacial erratic), lookout over Mansfield Hollow Lake, 50’ Cliff, Pixie Falls, Ladies Room Rock, Coye Hill (highest point on the Nipmuck Trail), and the Fenton and Mount Hope rivers. The Nipmuck Trail crosses open field, follows along ridges and woods roads, and provides a continuous spine to which numerous other trail systems connect.



We are quite familiar with the trail. Four of our all time favorite races, and all of them classics, use the Nipmuck for some or all of their courses: Nipmuck South, NipMuck Trail Marathon, Northern Nipmuck, and Breakneck. Only the first two remain active. Nipmuck South is a relative newcomer, but NipMuck is the oldest and most famous trail race in New England. In 2020, it will celebrate 37 years of continuous running, assuming the Shenipsit Striders are able to host it in October as planned.



I’ve never run the 14 mile Nipmuck South, but Debbie has. I’ve crewed, watched, and photographed, and I’ve been on that section of trail a few times. I’ve run the 26.4 mile NipMuck Trail Marathon seven times. I first did it in 2004, and I last did it (on a relay with Debbie), in 2019. The 16 mile Northern Nipmuck is one of our all-time favorite races, but it is not held anymore. I did it eight times, between 2002 and 2010, though that first time was a 12 mile DNF that motivated me to train a little more (running) than I previously did in that era. I recall that day vividly. I had done very little trail running after a decade of competitive cycling. I figured I would give it a go at the April race, but halfway through the return leg, I couldn’t move my legs anymore. They were absolutely hammered. I got a ride back from the aid station on Barlow Hill Road.



I ran the 13 mile Breakneck six times between 2002 and 2009, but it is no longer held. The first time I ran it was also a DNF, but that was because I smashed and gashed my knee in a hard fall at the four mile mark. The wound required many stitches to close. Things were better the last time I ran it. It was one of my best and fastest trail races of all time. If Brian Rusiecki hadn’t shown up, I would have notched my only ever win in a long course New England Grand Tree Trail Running Series event.


With no races during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, we figured we would test ourselves on familiar trails that were at low elevations and close to home. Our intent was to push it. I still took a bunch of photos, but we kept moving. The Nipmuck Trail is about 95% rugged singletrack. The trail is amazingly beautiful and challenging. As noted, it winds through some lovely northeastern Connecticut towns including: Mansfield, Ashford, Willington, Eastford, and Union. There are about 17 road crossings, a few short road sections in the first half, and then a one mile off-trail section (dirt and asphalt) on Oakes Road at about the 20 mile mark.



Debbie and I had plans to run several ultras this spring including the Tammany 10 and the Traprock 50K, both of which were cancelled. I haven’t run an ultra since last July’s Never Summer 100K. I’m fit right now as I kept up my exercise regimen after the fall cyclocross season, and I’ve taken advantage of the mild winter weather in New England. I’m mostly cycling, but I’ve done a couple of 15+ mile training runs and have been averaging 20 miles of total running each week. Most of my riding has been accomplished by commuting to and from work. The lockdown has made that easier since I have no meetings after work. I’ve been feeling pretty good, but a pulled left “butt muscle” slowed me down over the last two weeks. It improved enough this week, so I was ready to do something big this weekend. Plus, I needed that adventure to write about.




It was awesome to be out in nature for the better part of the day and we had the warmest temperature of the week. We are fortunate that our kids are self-sufficient and it benefits the whole family when Debbie and I can get away for can short trip. Speaking of nature, the day started off with four deer sprinting across the field that is just beyond the trailhead at the southern terminus There was low fog, and the deer were a good omen for the day. We also saw a beautiful Great Blue Heron in the Fenton River. We saw many squirrels and other critters too. We didn’t see any beavers, but we saw their handiwork.



I had another hectic work week, but the weather forecast for Saturday was better than Sunday, and I wanted a recovery day before returning to work on Monday. So, after a short night of sleep, we drove to Mansfield and started just before 6:00 A.M. Debbie and I both wore our UltrAspire packs (vests) with 70 ounces of water. We each carried a bottle in our vests that had a concentrated mixture of Un Tapped Lemon Tea Mapleaid. I brought three Go Macro Bars, a Clif Z Bar, a fruit rope, and a Clif Shot gel. By the end of the run, I was hungry and thirsty, but I was still effectively hydrated and fueled. We both wore Altra Lone Peak shoes. I think hers are the 4.5 model and mine are the older 3.5 model. I opted for shorts and a short sleeve shirt with a base layer, while she used knickers and a long sleeve shirt. We both started the day with our Air Shed pullovers and after it warmed up, we switched ear warmers/bonnets for trucker caps.



We only had a few problems finding our way. The delays and turnarounds didn’t cost us too much time; maybe only a few minutes each. The blazes and signs were very good. Much of the trail work was done by NipMuck Dave Raczkowski, the legendary former Race Director of the NipMuck Trail Marathon. He and other CFPA trail maintainers have done an awesome job with the trail. This trail has been his passion for much of his lifetime. I think I’ve heard him joke that he was “married to the trail.” It was easy to recognize his handwriting on the signs. Thank you NipMuck Dave for all you have done! Note the upper case M is a touch he added to the name of the race (and his name), many years ago. That’s not how the trail name is spelled on maps, but any time I refer to the race or Dave, I follow his preference.



In addition to the great signs and markings, there were awesome stone and bridge work for much of the way. There were muddy sections and a fair amount of standing water. The Nipmuck is quite challenging with lots of rocks and roots that are typical of Connecticut trails. I think it is more rugged and hiller than our other favorite, the Shenipsit Trail. The full distance of the Shenipsit is just under 50 miles, so it is longer, but the terrain is a bit easier with more dirt roads, roads, and less pure singletrack. It isn’t as hilly as the Nipmuck, but it is still a tough trail. I like them both, but I think the Nipmuck is prettier.



The hills really start to hit you after Perry Hill where the second part of the NipMuck Trail Marathon course begins. Those hills get more and more severe until they reach the high point on the trail at Coye Hill. The Northern Nipmuck section has the toughest inclines and declines. By the time we got there, around 26 miles, I was really starting to fade. I was stronger in the first half and led Debbie, but her endurance and running skills shown at the end. She led the final six miles because I had cracked. I revived a bit in the last mile as we neared the finish, but credit goes to her because she could have easily dropped me. The good news is that we were aiming to make this adventure a Fastest Known Time (FKT) in the Unsupported Mixed Gender Team. Debbie has one official FKT from her 2018 Appalachian Trail/Mohawk Trail Loop. The Mohawk is another great Blue-Blazed Hiking Trail. As for this FKT, I’m sure others have done this route before, but I don’t know who. The official record is void of an official FKT, so we will submit ours. Given the East vs. West branch issue and the clear difference in running this south to north vs. north to south, I hope they permit some variations of this iconic trail route.



With our early start, we didn’t see many people in the first five hours. We saw one trail runner at Mansfield Hollow, and several fisherman along the Fenton River and the New Hope River. We didn’t see any hikers until we got to the section of the trail that goes from Boston Hollow Road to Bigelow Hollow. Once we got to Bigelow Hollow, the trails were more congested with lots of hikers and walkers. That part of the trail is narrow, so we did our best to social distance from the other folks. The distancing is a challenge with so many people spending time on the trails. The last three miles of trail are some of the most difficult. There isn’t much elevation gain, but the trail hugs Breakneck Pond and is very challenging with repeated short and steep ups and downs.



Unfortunately, the northern terminus is 2.5 miles from the nearest parking lot at Bigelow Hollow. That meant that after running 35+ miles, we had to hike a few more. A big thank you to our friend Laura Becker who hiked out to meet us and then helped us get from Bigelow Hollow back to our car in Mansfield. We were home by 3:00 P.M. and then spent the rest of Saturday hanging out with the kids. Their dinner request was pizza, so we safely picked up two larges at Mulberry Street in Manchester. We ate one and saved one for tomorrow when I’m sure I’ll be hungry again. After that, I’m sure to be hungry for our next running or cycling adventure.




7 Responses to “Nipmuck Trail End-to-End Run”

  1. 1 Steve Levandosky 28 April 2020 at 9:12 am

    This is awesome! Great run. I’ve been thinking of doing this for a while, just never built up the courage! I’ll probably go N to S to get the hike out of the way first. Thanks for posting.

  1. 1 Fastest Known Time (FKT) | Life Adventures Trackback on 9 May 2020 at 1:22 pm
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