by Jim Flint
HAZEN’S NOTCH — The small village of Wells River lies on the west side of the Connecticut River in the town of Newbury. Some fifty miles to the northwest, as the crow flies across northern Vermont, is Hazen’s Notch, a mountain pass in the town of Westfield. Connecting these two points are the remnants of the historic Bayley-Hazen Military Road.
On October 24 at 4:56 a.m., a trio of ultra-marathoners set out from Wells River. Some 135,000 footsteps lay ahead for April Farnham of Plainfield, Mark Howard of Marshfield, and Ira Wheeler of Danville. By day’s end, they intended to reach the stone at Hazen’s Notch, which marks the terminus of the Bayley-Hazen Military Road.
In 1776, General George Washington ordered Colonel Jacob Bayley to construct a wilderness road connecting the town of Newbury, on the Connecticut River, with St. Johns, Quebec. The road would follow sections of a trail blazed by a small party of men including Col. Thomas Johnson, a local landowner, and Joseph Supap, an Abenaki known locally as Indian Joe (for whom Joe’s Pond in West Danville is purported to be named).
Beginning in April 1776, Hazen and a crew of 60-plus men completed the first section of the road to a point six miles north of present-day Peacham. Construction was then abandoned for three years for fear that the British Army might use the trail and new road as an invasion route from Canada.
Construction resumed in the spring of 1779 under the direction of Col. Moses Hazen. In late August of that year, Hazen and his crew stopped work northwest of Lowell, 40 miles short of St. Johns. Rumors had circulated that a British force was preparing to attack.
After the Revolutionary War ended in 1781, the Bayley-Hazen Road provided access for settlers to the interior of northern Vermont. The route winds its way through the present towns of Newbury, Ryegate, Barnet, Peacham, Danville, Cabot, Walden, Hardwick, Greensboro, Craftsbury, Albany, Lowell, and Westfield to Hazen’s Notch. Stagecoaches traveled the road starting in the early 1800s. Portions of the old road today go through meadows and forested land, while several dirt roads along the route still carry the Bayley-Hazen name.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Mark Howard, 58, had already begun training for a 100-mile ultramarathon in Pennsylvania. April Farnham, 52, planned to be his pacer for 40 miles of the race. When the event was canceled, Farnham texted Howard to ask him if he wanted to run the Bayley-Hazen route as an alternative. Farnham also reached out to a fellow ultramarathoner, Ira Wheeler, 41. Both said “yes,” and Operation Bayley-Hazen was launched.
Howard and Farnham trained together, often in the predawn hours starting at 5 a.m. Howard planned for support stations every 3 to 3-1/2 hours along the 67.8-mile route. Their goal was to finish in 19.5 hours. In the true spirit of adventure, the trio agreed to the date of October 24, regardless of the weather conditions.
“It was certainly colder than expected,” said Howard. “We had some heavier rain, sleet, and crazy winds going over Cabot Plains, which was challenging. We also had some good winds on the northwest side of the Lowell Mountains. I had enough clothing to stay warm, but I used almost everything I packed and the chill lingered for a couple of days after.”
“My biggest challenge was self-doubt, even after all the training I put in,” said Farnham. “We did question the weather with pouring rain and gale-force winds. One of the best investments I made for this adventure was my rain poncho from the Dollar Store.”
The trio used a proven strategy of walking the hills and running the downhills and flats. They used the 30 seconds run / 30 seconds walk approach on the more gradual hills. Friends and spouses supplied a variety of food at the support stops, including peanut butter and jelly, chicken broth, grilled cheese, egg sandwiches, Snickers bars, and root beer. Energy gels and shot blocks provided fuel in between stops.
“The scenery was absolutely beautiful and the company was amazing,” said Farnham. “There wasn’t any pressure. All we had to do was put one foot in front of the other.”
The adventurers reached Walden Station at 11 a.m. They were 29 miles into the journey and 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Randy Rathburn, athletic director at Danville High School, joined them for the next section to the 40.5-mile mark at Tolman Corner, in Greensboro. The 50-mile mark was reached at Mill Village in Craftsbury, at 4:15 p.m. Justine Franco, from East Montpelier, accompanied the original trio for the final 17-plus miles, infusing new energy.
The foursome continued north on Wylie Hill Road to Route 14. Just before Albany village, they took the “Sawmill Shortcut,” a trail through the Goodrich Sawmill which connects Bayley-Road East and Bayley-Hazen Road West. Climbing in the shadow of the Green Mountain Power wind towers, they entered the “Hero Section” – a rugged Class 4 road and ATV trail up and over the Lowell Mountains.
“Running into the dusk was awesome,” said Farnham. “It somehow makes running easier. You can’t see the hill that’s looming ahead.”
“I caught up to April toward the top. We descended together, mostly staying upright on the slippery rocks,” said Howard. “The wind picked up again and we were all chilled by the time we exited the trail onto the pavement and a two-mile descent to Lowell village. There was just a five-mile climb to Hazen’s Notch left, so we resupplied quickly and carried on.”
The adventurers reached the end of the Bailey-Hazen Road at 9:30 p.m. The journey had taken 16 hours and 29 minutes, three hours shorter than originally planned. Howard’s GPS watch recorded 7,600 feet of elevation gain. Farnham, Wheeler, Howard, and Franco celebrated with pizza at the top of Hazen’s Notch.
“This run was my favorite ultramarathon thus far, even though it was my first point to point,” said Farnham. “The other ultras that I have done were all loops. We had a fantastic support system of friends and family, and truthfully, things couldn’t have gone more smoothly.”
“This was a group adventure where you are sticking together and the primary objective is the journey,” said Howard. “There is not much of a trick to it, you just keep moving forward, it doesn’t matter how fast.”