It’s Boston Marathon weekend. As runners stream into Boston for the historic race, the air is electric with positivity, sportsmanship, and achievement. On Friday, needing new road flats, I head over to the marathon expo in the Back Bay to try on a few pairs and breathe in the sites and sounds of Boston at its best. The global running community, speaking many tongues and from many places, has taken over Copley Square. Smiles abound.
The next morning, 30 minutes north of Copley, a friend and I encounter another, much more local running community. We’re in Andover, Mass., for the annual Merrimack River Trail Race—almost always run around marathon weekend. As we pull off of I-93 and head to where the race is supposed to start, we wonder if we’re in the right place: This is the land of office parks, hotels, and subdivisions, not to mention the steady hum of interstate traffic. The trailhead and starting line is in the back of a DoubleTree Hotel—not exactly the definition of remote trail running.
But once we leave the parking lot and begin venturing northeast into the forest, toward the river, we leave corporate America behind and enjoy a truly hidden gem among Greater Boston’s running trails. Beginning at the hotel trailhead, Merrimack River Trail is a roughly 11-mile out-and-back (the race course runs along 9.5 miles of it), featuring a wide, lollipop turnaround beginning at 4.9 miles and roughly 475 feet of elevation gain. The trail is quite muddy on race day, as it was pouring just an hour before the start. This is especially true near the trailhead, but well-maintained bridges and wooden walkways provide dry passage over some of the wettest sections. Most runners take the bridge over the muddiest portions, while a few prefer braving the knee-deep puddles to jockeying with crowds on the narrow bridge.
The trickiest footing, for me, comes when we pass under I-93 a half-mile in, running over slanted, uneven rocks in the darkness of the tunnel. The next obstacle comes a few minutes later, when we must cross a small spillway running into the Merrimack. I’ve seen photos from past races where a log or pile of logs was placed in the middle as a jumping off point, but no such luck today. I must clear the water or risk running in wet shoes for the next hour. The route passes through Deer Jump Reservation and joins a section of the Bay Circuit Trail & Greenway, the 230-mile system of green spaces circumventing Greater Boston, from Newburyport in the north to Duxbury in the south.
The course hugs the Merrimack for the first few miles, providing nice views of water and Methuen on the opposite bank. Things starts to get interesting between miles 3 and 4 when the course turns more inland. This is when we encounter the first of two, 100-foot “peaks” that define the middle of the route. Where runners may have clicked off relatively quick splits over the first 3 miles, the next several slow that pace way down. I manage to maintain a tired trot going up the first hill, but many runners around me are power-hiking. The downhills offer some relief, but I am careful not to air things out too much, given the steep, rocky terrain. Plus, I remember, the downhills become uphills on the return leg.
Merrimack River Trail has something for everyone: hills, flats, views, trees, mud, bridges, fields, and forests, all within a 40-minute drive from downtown Boston. Regulars report the trail is rarely crowded, is dog-friendly (if that’s your thing), and remains well-maintained year-round. Its downside—that it’s an out-and-back—could be one of its upsides, giving runners more distance options than they’d have on a static loop.
As I approach the hotel parking lot and the race’s finish line, a feeling of gratitude sweeps over me—gratitude for hidden trails in unlikely places, for a trail running community that supports quirky races like this, and for being out here this weekend instead of pounding pavement between Hopkinton and Boston with 30,000 others.