It’s mid-morning, and the early fog has burned off, giving way to bright sunshine and cool ocean breezes. I’ve heard rumors that heat and humidity are tormenting Boston, but that’s of little concern to me here in Maine where it’s a comfortable 70 degrees, and a breeze is blowing off the ocean.
In one of the most beautiful corners of the State of Maine, surrounded by mountains that command gorgeous views of the sea, I am running on the Long Pond Fire Road. There is absolutely nothing picturesque about the Long Pond Fire Road, with the possible exception of the hundred yards or so when the road bottoms out and offers a brief view of, and access to, the chilly waters of Long Pond. Other than that, the road is undistinguished by vistas, scenic or otherwise.
I have been running the Long Pond Fire Road on my visits to Mt. Desert Island since I was a teenager. I can still remember the astonishment and sense of accomplishment I felt the first time I actually made the complete round trip from our cabin to the Pond and back. I had risen early, before any of my siblings were up, and set out down the road at a cautious trot. With a teenager’s ignorance of time and distance, it seemed like it took me an hour to reach that clearing in the woods. I stopped briefly to gaze at Long Pond, and then I turned around and ran home, expecting to find everyone wondering where I could have been for so long. Actually, my entire family was still asleep; the entire round trip had taken me less than 55 minutes. I wondered down to the ocean and stood on the dock, vaguely conscious that something important had happened.
Any run to the Fire Road begins the same way, with a few humble steps up the dirt road away from the house. Those first few steps are always taken with an excess of caution. This is because before you’ve run even a hundred yards, you are met by a short, steep hill that checks your momentum and forces you to take deep gasping breaths to meet the sudden demand for oxygen. It takes thirty seconds or so to get up this nasty escarpment, and then you’re on the flat again. As your stride and your breaths return to normal, you notice that it’s significantly warmer here out from under the ancient pine trees that surround the cottage. You run gingerly along the dirt road, avoiding rocks and ruts that are filled with muddy water from the overnight rain. You pass other driveways that lead to other summer cottages, unseen but announced by the names that have been hand-painted on small wooden signs planted at each fork in the road.
As for distances, it’s four-tenths of a mile from our cottage to the end of the private dirt road and the beginning of the town dirt road. It’s another four-tenths of a mile to where Turner Road comes out onto Cape Road, which is the first pavement your feet have touched. It’s barely another tenth of a mile to the main road, a quiet strip of rural highway that’s almost always empty at this time of the morning, and then one more tenth — exactly a mile from where you started — to reach the entrance to Acadia National Park and the beginning of the Fire Road.
The Fire Road itself is about four miles long, with one end across from Cape Road, and the other a mile North off the main road. The fire road winds through the woods, dipping down to pass between Hodgdon Pond and Seal Cove Pond, and then rising up and over the flank of Western Mountain. From there is descends again, dropping nearly 200 vertical feet where it touches the edge of Long Pond, and then tediously regains about two-thirds of that elevation as it exits the park to the North. There are only a few basic runs that are possible with this arrangement. There is the complete seven-mile loop, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, but this involves running a mile on the soft shoulder of the main road. So I prefer to do some sort of out-and-back, keeping to the dirt road as much as possible.
Although I started running the Fire Road as a teenager, I only got serious about it several years later as an adult and a more serious runner. By my mid-twenties, I had fallen into the habit of coming to Mount Desert Island for “vacation” and using the time to hammer out daily hard training runs, almost all of them on the Fire Road. The first couple of runs would always be especially challenging. I would have to struggle through those runs learning how to handle the constantly shifting grade and the relentless hills. By the third or fourth day, I would feel deeply tired at the start of my runs, but would somehow work my way into running even faster than the day before. I would mentally divide the run into segments, and I would give each segment a name and a reputation. Each run became a story, a competition between me and the course. One summer I ran seven straight days on the fire road, doing the long ten-mile out-and-back (the mile from our cottage to the near fire road entrance, the four miles to the other entrance, and then turning around to run back). Ten hilly miles a day at about 6:30-6:40 per mile. I suppose I wasn’t much fun that week.
Although those days are long past, there’s still something of the old challenge and the old training effect of running the same damned route every morning. There are no “quality” days and no real easy runs. The difficulty of a particular day is in the mysterious intersection of how I feel that day and how much I’m willing to push myself. Some days feel great, for no particular reason, and some feel really rough, for equally obscure causes. But the trend is unmistakable after only a few days. The Fire Road is doing its work on me and my body is responding.
On this particular morning, I run three miles out and three miles back. I keep it to six by eliminating the long downhill that leads down to and back up from Long Pond. In the past, I might have felt it was a wimpy choice, but doing more than six feels like a little too much after what’s already been a long week. Six will do, and will provide enough challenge, after all.
Soon enough, we’ll be packing up and heading home. I might get back up to Maine later in the summer, but maybe not. In which case, I’ll have finished with the Long Pond Fire Road for another year. I hardly dare to think how many summers it has been since the first time I ran it. I wonder, not for the first time, why I don’t make more of an effort to get to other spots on the island where the runs are more scenic and varied. It’s hard to imagine a run less likely to inspire aesthetic pleasure than the fire road. But maybe that’s part of the reason I value it so much. There’s something deeply satisfying about mastering one’s desire for reward in the form of aesthetic pleasure from a run. Sometimes the best reward is just going out your front door, running the road in front of you, and recognizing for what it is, which is hard work.
And my favorite kind of vacation.