“Just twenty miles west of Boston lies an oasis for wildlife – Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Roughly 85 percent of the refuge’s more than 3,800 acres is comprised of valuable freshwater wetlands stretching along 12 miles of the Concord and Sudbury Rivers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protects and manages Great Meadows as nesting, resting, and feeding habitat for wildlife, with special emphasis on migratory birds. The diversity of plant and animal life visible from refuge trails provides visitors with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and nature study.” (Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge brochure)
I don’t remember the first time I ran at Great Meadows, although I feel sure it was before 2007, since that was the year that I started coaching at Concord Academy, and I remember being familiar with the area before that. I have a dim recollection that Terry “discovered” Great Meadows while searching for a way to extend our Sunday Long Runs. So ingrained is the habit now, that it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when we weren’t meeting at the Minute Man Visitor Center, traversing the Battle Road Trail to Merriam’s Corner, cutting through the cemetery, and heading out to and around the gravel path that encircles the refuge.
As far as topography goes, Great Meadows is pretty boring. If you’re running there, you’ll approach the refuge along a trail that follows the route of an ancient railway bed with the Victorian-era name “Reformatory Branch Line.” This flat path leads to the even flatter gravel path around and through the wetlands. There are other paths through nearby woods, but these are for walking, not running, and we never take them. Some days, when we really want to go a long way, we skip Great Meadows and follow the old railway bed all the way to Bedford, a sixteen-mile round trip, but these occasions are rare.
The Great Meadows loop is also a staple for my high school runners. From Concord Academy, it’s roughly two miles to the refuge, and another 1.5 miles around, making for a tidy run for an easy or moderate day. Because there isn’t the whisper of a hill on the way there, even novices find it a pretty easy workout.
Over the years, my affection for Great Meadows has grown. Like old friends, we have known each other in every season, and have learned to appreciate rather than judge each other’s moods and shortcoming. I have run Great Meadows on lush summer days when the sun beat down upon the path and the high reeds were thick with clouds of insects. I have run there on October afternoons when the light filtering through the Fall foliage was enough to break your heart. And lord knows, I have run there in winter, when the open meadows were barren and the path was cold and hard as rock.
I have been there with running buddies more times than I could possible count. On those runs, I’ve focused more on our conversation than on nature viewing or Thoreau-like musings. Group runs are social, and the meadows feels like a highly social place. Runners, birdwatchers, and critters all share the paths, and we’re all happy to be part of the general hive of activity.
But I’ve also been there alone plenty of times, and on those occasions, I’ve felt quite content letting my thoughts run where they will. Maybe it’s the way the meadows are constantly changing with the angle of the sun, but mostly those thoughts are about time and the rhythms of life and death.
A couple of years ago, one of my students at Concord Academy admitted that it would be perfectly OK with her if every run included a visit to Great Meadows. At first, I thought this was amusing, but then I realized that actually I felt the same way. If there were no other place to run, I don’t think it would bother me all that much.
This summer, when I could barely run, I adopted the following routine: I would drive over to CA, spend 15-20 minutes doing dynamic stretches and drills to make sure all my running parts were in working order, and then set off at 10-minute mile pace towards the old railroad bed. It was about a half mile to the head of the trail, which I took at a slow shuffle. Once I reached the trail, I would tell myself that I would make it to the big open field. Once I made it to big open field, I would tell myself it wasn’t that far to the gate. And once reached the gate, I would run a final tenth of a mile to viewing tower at the edge of the meadows. Day after day, I did that four-mile round trip, and gradually the discomfort diminished. I was more than grateful for the routine, and for the anodyne path I trod each day.
I sometimes wonder how much of an intrusion it is for the non-running nature lovers to have gangs of runners circling the paths, scaring the waterfowl. As the route has become a more popular destination for running clubs and teams, I’ve wondered if we’ll be banned one of these days. Although it would be unfortunate, I would actually understand such an action. Running at Great Meadows doesn’t feel like something I’ve deserved or am entitled to; it feels like gift.
I hope to have many more years of visits, but if today’s run, or even yesterday’s, turns out to be the last one, I’ll still be grateful.