Ben Kimball has been a recognizable presence on the New England road-, trail- and ultrarunning scene for more than a decade as a photographer, capturing memories for runners at events ranging from local 5Ks, cross country races and track meets, to the gnarly trails of the Seven Sisters Trail Race and legendary events like the Vermont 100.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of many races throughout New England, Kimball’s photography workload diminished. Rather than panic, he pivoted and dedicated his time to a project years in the making: he wrote his second trail-running guidebook, “Trail Running Eastern Massachusetts.”
“The book was created entirely within the window of the pandemic,” Kimball said. “I spent a lot of time, especially early on, sweating it out in masks and buffs. Oh, and local case counts peaked when I was out on the Cape, which made getting dinners a special exercise in self-preservation.”
This is Kimball’s second trail guide book. His first, “Trail Running Western Massachusetts,” was published in 2015 by University Press of New England. It features 51 trail venues, including popular locations such as Mt. Greylock, Mt. Tom, Mt. Toby, and Pittsfield State Forest, as well as multiple parts of the Holyoke Range and a variety of small, lesser-known destinations in the central and western part of the state.
“It was always my hope that there would be more volumes, that it would become sort of a series of guidebooks for runners,” said Kimball, who is an avid trail-runner himself. “It just took a while for the first one to sell enough copies to prove concept viability.”
As sales of Kimball’s first volume grew, University Press of New England shut down in 2018. That put his hopes of creating a second volume in jeopardy, at least temporarily, as he was forced to search for a new publisher to pitch his next edition.
Searching for a publisher is a time-consuming process, and Kimball found time hard to come by for several years given his busy workload–especially given the passion he brings to his work.
Kimball’s photography work can be all-encompassing at times. When working as the race photographer for a trail race or ultramarathon, he is known for going all-out to get the right shot at the perfect location for runners. Whether it’s trekking into the woods of Pittsfield State Forest to get the ideal shot at the Free to Run Trail Races, perching alongside a tree to capture runners with a panoramic background at the Vermont 100, or lugging his camera gear up and down steep climbs, through drizzle and mud, putting his ankles and lenses in danger to find just the right spot to photograph runners at the 7 Sisters Trail Race, Kimball puts a lot of sweat and endurance into his work – and that’s just to take the photos. The post-production editing process for thousands upon thousands of photos takes even more time, the equivalent of a multi-day stage race in the photography world.
When the pandemic began, Kimball went from having no free time to diving head-first into the new project. He found a new publisher, Bright Leaf of the University of Massachusetts Press, and went straight to work.
The format was nearly identical to the first book – 51 sites, detailed maps and written descriptions, helpful tips, and notable additional trails near each featured location – only this time the focus was on the eastern half of the state. The challenge, Kimball noted, was whittling down the list.
“The biggest surprise was just how MANY great sites there are,” Kimball said. “I was limited to profiling only 51, but there’s literally hundreds of excellent choices. For this book, I was able to include robust ‘Nearby’ sections at the end of each site profile. Sites I particularly enjoyed that get nearby mentions include Tompson Street Reservation and adjacent Red Rocks Conservation Area on the North Shore, for the occasional bare granite balds the trails run over there; Vaughn Hills in Bolton, for hilly but very scenic and runnable trails; and the Little River Reserve in Dartmouth, for the really long boardwalk sections out over scenic salt marsh coves. Also, shout-outs to Wheelwright Park in Cohasset and North and South Monoosnoc Hills up above Leominster. There’s so many!”
Kimball lives in Greenfield, Mass. – in the northwest part of the state – which made developing a guidebook dedicated to the eastern half logistically more difficult. He navigated that challenge by tapping into his personal experiences and assortment of friends and family in the region to assist.
“Fortunately I have friends and family in eastern Mass, and I have run a bunch of local races there, so I already knew the area and how to avoid (Interstate) 495 when it’s a pahkin’ lot,” Kimball noted.
Still, two things tripped him up in his research. First, more venues require payment to park than they used to, and some locations required parking reservations to be made in advance during the early days of the pandemic. Second, the five-month window to develop his draft overlapped with the Winter Solstice.
“That definitely put a premium on exploring during daylight hours, which meant I had to be super-efficient with my day trips,” he said.
Kimball’s research for the new book took him to a wide range of locations throughout the eastern half of the state. Some, such as the popular and often crowded Blue Hills Reservation, Middlesex Fells, and Wachusett Mountain, may come as no surprise to readers as they browse the list of site profiles. Mixed among the bigger names are dozens of lesser known locations. It’s those hidden gems that Kimball says he’s particularly excited to share with readers.
“There’s more than I can count on both hands for sure, but to name three favorites that come to mind: 1) Ward Reservation in Andover, 2) Borderland State Park in Easton/Sharon, and 3) Leadmine Mountain Conservation Area in Sturbridge.”
Of the 51 eastern Massachusetts locations profiled in Kimball’s book, one stands out to him as a personal favorite.
“The 3.7-mile Pine Trail Loop at Four Ponds Conservation Area in the Pocasset area of Bourne is a wildly pleasant, rolling, sandy singletrack ribbon winding around the oak-and-pine covered hills of western Cape Cod,” Kimball said. “It is just magnificent.”
On March 20, Kimball received his personal copy of the book in the mail from his publisher. Eleven days later, the first pre-ordered copies of “Trail Running Eastern Massachusetts” began arriving in mailboxes throughout the region. Copies also were delivered to local bookstores, where they will ultimately find their way into the hands of trail-runners and hikers.
For Kimball, there is a sense of satisfaction that his work on the book is done. Now, it’s the book’s turn to do the work, educating runners on new destinations to explore and inspiring them to plan their spring and summer adventures.
“It’s such a relief that the book survived all the COVID-related supply chain issues and delays and ended up looking and feeling really good in the hand,” he said. “I will be so pleased if it helps runners find new fun sites to run at, places they might not have thought of or known about otherwise.”