I first learned about the Hills to Sea trail a few weeks ago through the awesome local trail running group I've become involved with since moving to Maine, Trail Runners of Midcoast Maine. The route goes from Unity, ME at the west side to Belfast, ME on the east side and covers some 47 miles of trail by running across over 60 privately owned lands. The trail opened in fall of 2016 after completion of the last section. After doing some asking around, I heard that two others have completed the traverse from east to west, though without sufficient GPS data to support an official FKT (as official as that gets). One runner in about 17.5 hours doing the traverse overnight and self supported, and another in 13.5 hours. I reached out to both in the hopes of finding a GPX file to program into my watch, but no such luck.
My plan was to run the trail in 8-9 hours with my Woo driving along to the various trailheads along the way for support. I had never run these trails, but have run many rugged New England trails in the past and have been running around the Camden Hills State park as well quite a bit since moving up here. The trails here by the coast are generally hard packed ice/snow if not mostly cleared of snow on the lower trails and for the most part quite runable. Though, I quickly found that the trails on the Hills to Sea route were anything but.
We arrived at the parking location about 6:45am after making a couple of circles around. The map says to park at Unity Barn Raisers, and the place comes up on Google maps, but nothing in the area has any signage to match. We found a place to park, I got situated, and then walked down the street a bit to find the trailhead and starting location. The starting location is on the west side of Rt. 9/202 and just down past a little coffee shop.
At 7:10 am I pressed start on both my Coros Apex watch and my Garmin Fenix 5x. I didn't particularly want to wear 2 watches all day, so I slid the Garmin into my waist belt. Later, about 20 miles in, I checked the Garmin to make sure it was still running, but it was a little over a mile off from the Coros. I guess it wasn't getting the best signal under my jacket and on my waist. At that time, I put it onto my other wrist where it then maintained a pretty consistent signal/distance with the Coros.
After the first couple of miles, which were mostly runable, brought me to the Unity College campus, where I made my first and only wrong turn of the day. I went up the campus road instead of the walking path to the soccer fields. Upon arriving at the soccer fields, I doubled back and then went up the walking trail on the proper course, as can be seen in the map below. The next few miles were pretty uneventful just trying to get into a rhythm. Though, it was pretty tough with the trails being significantly snow covered. What's worse is that it was soft and unpacked, thus making nearly every step a post-hole. What's even worse than THAT is that when trying to run trails and then stepping into a big post-hole then face-planting into said snow. I stopped counting after falling 20+ times, mostly not bad, but a couple of hard ones. Once fell and smacked both knees on ice and later was running hard down a jeep trail and sunk in and fell hard on my shoulder. At that point, I just laid there staring up at the sky for a minute to catch my breath after yet another increasingly frustrating fall.
Anyway, after running through the Unity campus, I made my way to the MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association) campus where they host a big organic festival every year. This was a really fun section of trail with lots of switchbacks and turns, even if they were mostly ice/snow. About 5 miles in, I got the first taste of how the rest of the run was going to go when I came to a river crossing at the Sandy Stream with quickly moving water. As you can see below, the trail leads directly across, from this sign to the steps on the opposite riverbank. I stood there a few minutes contemplating my choices and if I should take the alternate high-water route or not. I came there to complete the actual H2S trail, not to take any auxiliary or alternate routes. So, I found a couple of hiking sticks to help stabilize myself in the water and ventured across. In the middle there were a couple steps of waist deep water (mind you it was only 35*F outside and the river probably wasn't too much warmer than that) before getting to shallower ground and to the steps. Once I got out of the water my bottom half was pins and needles quickly and I needed to start moving. Luckily I had brought extra pairs of socks, though I only brought one pair of pants. Once I started running again, my body warmed up surprisingly quickly and I never needed to change any socks or layers.
The next few miles leading up to the Goose Ridge Trail were pretty standard. Run where I could, make up time on the short road sections, and fall on my face a few times in the snow. Curse a lot at the snow holes. Move on. I made it to the Goose Ridge trail, also maintained by the MIdcoast Conservancy and this too would have been a really fun trail to run, if it hadn't been completely covered in snow. By this point, I realized that this was just going to be the way it would be the rest of the day and mentally tried to make the best of it. It was a nice day out, I was doing what I loved, and had my amazing wife crewing along for me along the way. Though, I had hoped that after getting through the "hills" section that the last 15 or so miles would be more cleared getting closer to the coast...HA...not so much.
Overall the trails were extremely well marked and often times I could see 2-3-4 trail markers ahead, problem was that I couldn't get to them as quickly as I wanted to. One fun thing was how narrow and twisty the trail was. I had to be diligent about watching the trail markets, if I wasn't paying attention for 1 minute I'd end up a few steps off course and have to backtrack. That was also a great thing about how well the course was marked, if I didn't see a marker for a few steps I knew I was off. Though, I'm sure in the summer on such a narrow trail finding them may be much more challenging.
The Goose Ridge trail over Stevenson and Whitten Hills then Hogback and Frye Mountains was a mental battle. The climbs were slow and windy and there wasn't anything I could do with the snow. Every time I'd try to run I would sink and/or fall into the snow. There were also MANY many trees down along the course which also made it challenging to get into any sort of a rhythm. Every time I'd get a few strides in and moving along I'd either come to snow or down trees and have to climb over/under them.
It was up here though that I saw the best view of the day from Hogback Mountain (I think it was) looking across toward the east.
Finally after about a 10 mile stretch and a few hours, I saw Woo again at Mixer Pond Road which was not a moment too soon as I was out of both water and my Maurten nutrition and was super thirsty. I sat down a minute and switched from my Orange Mud double barrel shoulder pack to a lighter Salmon s-lab pack as from there on out I would see her more frequently and wouldn't need to carry as much nutrition on me. From here, I switched to the 2nd page of the map, the east side, where I had hoped against hope that I would see better trail conditions, but alas it was not to be.
The last few sections on the Trail Descriptions page were all marked as "easy" so I had hoped to be able to make some time up and start running again better, but due to the snow and trees again that wasn't the case (seeing a theme here yet?). The first section after Mixer Pond road had a steep short climb up icy rocks. This was the first time I've ever had my Kahtoola spikes slip on me. I was stepping carefully across the ice when my feet slipped and I slid 4-5' down the rocky ledge until my foot got caught on some roots. Phew. If not for that it would have been a long fall and likely the end to my running for a while.
From here on out it was just a "get it done" mentality. All my time goals were out the window and I was mentally beat, just wanted to finish and get an accurate GPX file that I could use to go back another time and push the pace when the trails are in better shape. I got through them after seeing Woo a couple of more times and filling up waters. I did hit a long dirt road section where I was able to actually run some easy 9 minute pace until ducking back into the woods.
Overall the trail was spectacular. It was really quite awesome to think about all 60+ of the landowners who came together to make such a spectacular thing happen and allow the public to use it most of the year (some sections closed for hunting seasons). You could see the evidence of the landowners as you traveled by, over, through many old stone walls along the property lines that were really cool. I had hoped to see some of them along the way to thank them for use of their land, but it didn't look like that was going to happen until I got to the very last section and saw Woo speaking to the land owner there. I thanked him for allowing me to run on his property and kept moving to get the last part done.
Though, the trail finish, I would say was pretty anti-climactic. I got to the last trail kiosk and there was no SEA anywhere to be seen. There was another 3 miles of the Belfast Rail Trail that would lead you into downtown Belfast and to the water, but not part of the official Hills to Sea route, so I didn't bother. I met Woo changed into some warm socks and sweat pants and we headed home.
It wasn't really the day that I was expecting, but to see what I could do out there operating on maybe 70% physical effort and 60% mental capacity on a rough day was a good learning experience. I'll definitely be back on those trails again and moving much faster next time! Writing this a day later, my legs feel pretty good with little fatigue. It was good training for my upcoming Riverlands 100 mile race in May which was the main reason to do this run this particular week instead of another time.
In the end, my official moving time was 11:46:03 and my Coros had me covering 47.79 miles of distance from Unity to Belfast, ME.