A Place to Call Home: Hartford Cross Country Set to Debut New Trail

  • Thomas Kasten, of Wilder, Vt., walks down a section of Hartford High School's new cross country trail on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. During construction Kasten would at times be at the trail at 8:00 p.m. digging out hillsides. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Brothers John and Thomas Kasten, of Wilder, Vt., stand on the new cross country trail at Hartford High School on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. The two are the architects of the new trail. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bea Wendling, of Hartland, Vt., uses a pickaxe to flatten out a portion of Hartford High Schools cross country trail on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, in preparation for the first race to be run on it taking place Tuesday. Wendling is looking forward to the elevated terrain the trail will provide the team compared to the roads they would be forced to run on before. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/16/2018 11:31:45 PM

White River Junction — Thomas Kasten needed a moment to think. How many hours had the Hartford High senior actually invested into the school’s new cross country trail, a stretch of three loops through the woods behind the school’s campus that, together with a few trips around Hartford’s athletic facilities, brings practices and meets home for a rejuvenated program?

Kasten didn’t dare guess. Designing and building Hartford’s first on-campus cross country trail was a labor of love, and time seems to go by much quicker when you’re having fun.

Kasten and his brother John, both Wilder natives, have spent their summer shoveling, raking and patching three routes in the woods behind the school grounds. Two — the Cemetery Loop and Maynard’s Loop — are located behind Wendell A. Barwood Arena; the third — Hagen’s Hill — is located near the entrance to the parking lot off of Highland Avenue. Two passes through all three loops, plus a circle around Hartford’s football and field hockey fields, make up the full five-kilometer distance, ending with a mad dash right in front of football field’s bleachers.

More than anything, Kasten is nervous to see his new trail in action. Hartford will break the new trail in with its first on-campus meet in 20 years on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s running in a different way,” he said. “When I was a kid, I used to not like running at all. It’s like, ‘Go run a lap.’ That’s not a fun thing. But coming out here in the woods, running as a team, being part of a team, everyone is going through the same thing. It’s a lot of fun.”

Kasten grew up playing football, but decided last year to switch to cross country. All of the meets he attended were on trails in the woods, groomed to perfection. All of Hartford’s practices were on pavement.

With his senior capstone project on the horizon, Kasten decided to do something to change that.

“Everyone else had these really nice trails and stuff; they could practice on the trail,” he said. “I thought, ‘Hey, that’d be cool if we had one.’ I needed a senior capstone idea. So I decided to build a trail.”

He had plenty of help.

Convincing the athletic department was easy: A quick yes from Hartford athletic director Jeff Moreno gave Kasten the green light, he said. The hard part was finding enough space on the property to make a full 5K, with enough time in the woods for a traditional cross country course. For that, Kasten employed the help of former Hartford history teacher and cross country coach Roger Maynard, who helped design the trail.

Once the design was settled, the Kasten brothers got to work. They dug up roots and branches, paved the trail with rakes and leveled uneven stretches, all with help from members of the Hartford team and their families, who brought chainsaws and other heavy equipment for bigger work.

On Friday, the Hurricane team was out raking a section of the trail in preparation for Tuesday’s meet. Hartford junior runner Aaron Mitchell said he can already feel a difference.

“I think it’s going to be really beneficial to be able to train on actual hills and surfaces we have during the meets,” Mitchell said. “It’s a lot different when you have to run with roots and stuff. ... It’ll feel so normal going to (meets).”

For Hartford co-coaches Katie Hluchyj and Mike Finley, watching the trail come together has helped rejuvenate the program. That it was designed by a student-athlete, built by him and his teammates, makes it that much more special.

The trail already feels like home.

“It’s a call to say, ‘Hey, we’re here. Cross country is not dead,’ ” Finley said.

Added Hluchyj: “To be able to train on this, mentally it’s really different to run on a trail, where you’re thinking, even subconsciously, (about) avoiding roots and stuff. Historically, we’ve been running to the Dothan Brook School or on the roads, which is very different from what we’re asking runners to do in meets.”

Hluchyj was a first-year coach last season, taking on an enthusiastic group that placed third at the Marble Valley League championship meet. Hartford was able to field a team score at the MVLs for the first time in a number of years.

A running enthusiast and Spanish teacher at the school, Hluchyj has learned a lot about coaching since last fall. Her program’s new trail has not only rejuvenated her team but makes its potential growth that much clearer.

“I think we’ll get more members after the meet,” Hluchyj said. “It’s not too late in the season to join. ... (Kasten) is a student leader in our school, too. This is unsurprising to watch him do this.

“I’m a little nervous,” she added. “This is the first meet I’ve ever organized. There are a lot of firsts.”

The course also could have lasting effects on Hartford’s track and field team, which, for at least the last three years, has been searching for a long-distance runner. Cross country success, Hartford track coach Mike Perry said on Friday, translates into distance success on the track.

“I think (cross country) prompts them to think a lot more,” Perry said. “That helps me with the track because then it’s easy to incorporate a race strategy.

“We’ve been lacking in distance parts of the meet. I think that with this renewed interest in cross country, that’ll strengthen it. It’s hurt us in the past couple of years. But between the course and the new coaching staff, I think we’re going to reap the benefits.”

Moreno, the athletic director, said on Friday that the trail cost a couple hundred dollars, mostly for soil and mulch. The construction and planning was done entirely by volunteers, organized by Kasten.

Kasten laughed when he asked when the trail was completed.

“It’s still not done,” he said.

That’s the beauty of Kasten’s creation. Hartford’s new trail will never be done. Branches will need to be removed, puddles will have to be patched and dried, sections of dirt will have to be made wider, turns less sharp.

Kasten planted the seed. It’s up to Hartford cross country to make sure it grows.

“It’s been one of those things in the back of our minds,” Finley said. “We have practice every day, but how much can we sacrifice so that we can keep working? I think after this meet, as good as it is to have the meet, the moment after the meet is really when our season starts.

“We’ll be able to take that breath. We have a trail. Now we can run. Now we can race.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

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