This posting covers the last remaining section of the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury) which has not yet been described in this blog. Most of this run proceeds through the open meadows to the west of Middlebury College, with a short loop on the Ralph Myhre Golf Course thrown in as a warm-up. Since my locker is at the college Field House, this made for a good start and finish point for a lunch break run on a warm early summer day. The first two miles of this run were pretty easy, consisting of the well-trodden two miles around the golf course. Unlike my earlier description of this section, I chose the clockwise direction, which necessitated entering the trail by the soccer goals behind the artificial turf field on the athletic grounds. Following the trail around the periphery, carefully dodging errant drives, brought me to the Rt. 30 road crossing at the two mile mark. Entering the woods on the far side led me to the section of the trail labeled as the “Colin O’Neil Class of 97 Trail”, built by the classmates of a student who passed away in a tragic auto accident when driving while intoxicated during his senior year at Middlebury College. This heavily wooded segment weaves between the trees while angling downhill, until it reaches the open meadows below and to the west. Although this has been a drier year than usual, it also passes through the first of several deep muddy puddles, making this a bad run to take the shiny new sneakers on. Reaching the bottom of the field, I took a left turn and followed the trail which ran at the periphery of several adjoining meadows. While this section is easy to follow, it can be surprisingly challenging to run, since the light traffic it receives leads to fairly high grass, slowing the running considerably. I was also careful not to accidentally bump into any of the clusters of the now all-too common weed “Poison Parsnip”, also known as “Wild Parsnip”. This weed looks much like a slightly larger version of the well-known “Queen Anne’s Lace” but with yellow rather than white blooms.
If you aren’t familiar with this stuff, it is VERY nasty, and should be avoided at all costs – fortunately alert runners can do so on this stretch of trail! This invasive species came to North America with the first European settlers, and its presence was noted as early as 1630. It is not apparent why it seems to have become so prevalent along Vermont fields and highways in the last decade or so, but the northern midwest, especially Wisconsin, seems to have been similarly afflicted. Unlike other better known toxic plants, like poison ivy, which depend on our immune response to cause their discomfort, this plant is just plain corrosive! When the tissues of this plant are broken open, it releases a family of substances known as “psoralens” which are initially harmless, but quickly react with UV light to take on their corrosive character, causing skin burns and discoloration which can last from weeks to months on human skin.
This nasty weed, like most invasives, has no natural enemies among our local fauna. Its natural predator, the “Parsnip Webworm”, also native to Europe, has found its way to some wild parsnip-infested areas in the US, diminishing the numbers and health of the plant in those locales. Apparently, the psoralens are not part of the plant’s biochemistry solely to torture humans, but to keep its naturally coevolved predator, the webworm, at bay. When faced with large populations of webworms, the plants generate higher levels of psoralens, which in turn stunts the plant’s own growth to ensure its survival. I say bring those webworms to Vermont and let chemical ecology run its course!
Getting back to the run before I get too distracted: The route crosses over College Street and passes just to the west of the Organic Garden, with excellent views of the Green Mountains, and my place of work, Bicentennial Hall. The organic garden is worth a trip by itself, with a mix of flowers and vegetables on a quiet knoll in the middle of the field.
After about a half mile in the open, the trail heads back into some fairly open forest before eventually joining Weybridge Street for the 2 mile return to the locker room and showers at the Fitness Center. I chose to take the shortcut through campus, entering through the Weybridge St gate, and passing through the dorms. Even with the shortcut, the run ended up at 6.6 miles, plenty of distance for this runner on a hot day in the early afternoon sun.
Jeff Byers is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Middlebury College. He also writes the Middlebury Trailrunner blog. We'll be periodically highlighting posts from his blog, but for more recommendations for trailrunning and cross country skiing in the county, head to his Web site.
This entry was originally posted on Jun. 24, 2010.