A long day South – Running the 4 State Challenge on the AT
Date: May 2020
Start Location: Pen Mar County Park Maryland
Finish Location: West Virginia/ Virginia Border Appalachian Trail
Total Time: 11:22
Total Miles: 43.5
Elevation Change: 8100 Up and 8300 down
Weather: Humid, Warm, & Sunny
Just before the start of sunrise on May 16th I pulled into the gravel lot just outside Pen Mar park. Once I shut the lights off in my wife’s Subaru I noticed another five or so cars parked in the lot. I packed up, locked up, turned on the head lamp and disappeared onto the hard-packed trail of the small county park. I made my way about .35 North, over the train tracks, and soon found the PA/MD state border. I snapped a quick picture and then started my long day south. About a mile or so into the journey things started to get pretty rocky, like destroy your shoes and legs rocky. I soon took a faceplant after tripping over a small rock that I missed in the early morning darkness. I got up quick but ended up losing a bunch of water in my handheld bottle. I thought to myself “good start”.
For the next couple miles, you traverse up and down a series of rock garden laden hills that ultimately lead to the top of High Rock. Truth be told I don’t remember much from this predawn section except for lots of rocks and a decent number of hills. Shortly after crossing Warner Gap road I was rewarded with a beautiful break from the green tunnel. The AT snakes through a few fields before heading back into the woods. Somewhere around mile nine I felt the all too familiar feeling of “its time to find an outhouse………………NOW”. Luckily the Esign Cowell shelters has a decent (I use that term loosely) outhouse. The Cowell shelter is hard to spot when traveling from the North and just as I was thinking of heading a few hundred feet off trail and digging a cat hole, I looked up and was at the shelter. I expected to not see anyone there due to the Rona but the thing looked like a dorm room after a late night college party. Campers were sleeping on every surface of the small shelter. After a quick chat with a camper I was soon on my way up the steep hill on the other side of MD 17. Outside of some rocks this section on the Appalachian Trail is super runnable and I was making great time. I stopped at the small spring just down the hill from the famous POGO campsite and filtered some water. I should have been patient and waited because I was soon crossing a creek and could have filtered there rather then head down the short hill to the spring. O well that’s how it goes sometimes. By the time I was approaching the cut off for the trail to Annapolis Rocks I was already passing tons of people causally hiking to the cliffs. My legs felt great as I picked up the pace on the downhill to the I70 bridge.
After some uneventful miles I made the gradual climb up to the Washington Monument. If I remember correctly this is just off the AT. I took a few minutes enjoying the views and filling my handhelds from my filter bottle while baking in the hot spring sun. At this point I was at mile 21 and feeling pretty good. I pushed the pace down the road to the park and was happy to be back on the trail. If I remember correctly, I passed a small creek that would have been a good opportunity to filter water near Monument Road. Call it a brain fart or laziness but I kept pushing on with about 1/3 of my water left from the last filter near POGO. Looking back, it was just under 7 miles since last filling up which is not unreasonable. However, I should have realized that it would be a while before I got another solid opportunity. About a mile and a half later I came to the Dahlgren Backpack Campground. This is a bunker looking building with various tent spots and tables sprinkled around it. Again, I should have stopped here to check for water but I was still feeling decent and had a half bottle left so I kept pushing. I am not sure if there is water here or not but it would have been worth a look.
By the time I was approaching Crampton Gap I was getting desperate for water and starting to gain admission to the pain cave. I was near the 31 mile mark and approaching my longest run ever. My legs starting feeling heavy and overall fatigue was growing. My pace slowed to a slow jog with some sporadic walking mixed in. I felt really dyhrydrated and when I came to the cut off for the Crampton Gap shelter and spring I decided to take the side trail down to it. Down is the key word here as the trail dropped a few hundred feet down until it reach the spring. All in all I added about 20 minutes and some unneeded hill climbing to the trip. If I had waited it out I could have made it to Gathland State Park and likely found some water. I pushed up the hill past many day hikers and made my way towards Weverton Cliffs. When I got towards the Weverton Cliffs the trail got very congested with day hikers. However even though I was well over my longest run ever at 36 miles I was starting to feel much better. I think the water and fuel stopped really helped. I pushed hard down the steep switch backs and passed at least 75 people making their way to the views. I am not sure if people where just overly courteous or could smell me from afar but they certainly got out of my way quick.
Soon after the down hills I hit the C/O Trail and was still feeling pretty good. The plan had been to push the pace hard once I hit the gravel C/O trail. This didn’t happen. By the time I reached the C/O I was back into the pain cave. I was baking in the late afternoon sun, low on water, and questioning why I decided my longest run ever needed to have over 16000 ft of elevation change. I tried my best to run but settled for a moderate run for two min followed by a very slow walk for three. I had to look pretty funny filtering water in the river while droves of tourist walked by. At least the walking gave me time to communicate with my ride across the river that I was behind schedule. I finally reached the closed footbridge (Now open) and called my ride. Because most of the lots had been closed due to the Rona the plan was to meet Marty on the road and just jump in the jeep. I called and he let me know he was one minute out. Then I realized that I had to get up to the road which was about 25 feet above me. I gingerly climbed what I remember to be two sets of old stone walls which led me to the guard rail. As soon as I pulled my aching body on to the road the jeep was suddenly there and I hoped in. Sitting down was a poor idea.
As we drove into Harpers Ferry, we passed droves of people fresh out of quarantine undoubtfully enjoying the beautiful day. Some of the bars had even opened for outside seating and the air smelled like summer BBQs. Marty pulled the jeep as close to the small park near the other end of the bridge and I got out. I remember saying don’t wait for me to eat this could take a while. It did. I made my way through the streets of Harpers Ferry feeling and looking like death. I even got asked if I was a thru-hiker which is odd since I had a very small hydration pack. I eventually made it down to the bridge and over to the last climb to the VA border. The climb to the WV/VA border seems endless. I have been a runner for many years but the fatigue felt on this climb was unlikely anything I have faced before. I felt so sluggish, I check the GPS to see how close I was at least 10 times in the last mile. When I finally reached the border sign the joy was like I had summited one of the world’s 7 summits.
I spent the evening at the Harpers Ferry Campground drinking whisky and eating BBQ shrimp that Marty and JC made. I was happy for it to be over but very grateful for the experience. Huge thanks to JC and Marty for picking me up and shuttling me over the river. Needless to say, I slept like a baby in the Jeep that night!
More training needed; I will be back.