Note: It's somehow been eight years since Mike and I did the Great Range Traverse. They haven't been "dormant" years – 2 of 3 mtns of the Algonquin, Iroquois, and Wright trilogy in the ADKs held back by weather (2013); an attempt of 7 of the highest mtns in VT in a single day (2015); and a run/hike up Mt. Baker with maple creamee's for reward (2017).
Mike, Rita, and I have been friends since high school in Bennington, VT, where we were members of the nordic ski team. The enjoyment of activities like running, hiking, and skiing, and doing these things competitively, was forged early, and we each continue to race from time to time. Even among competitive athletes though, we understand ourselves to be part of a unique subset of people that get excited about pushing physical limits beyond what our training should support and willingly entering territory of assured pain for the adventure and challenge of it. This is what led me to think I could handle something beyond the standard edge of reason.
Ideas for this trip began as my strong desire to run/hike VT's Long Trail. Many people take upwards of a month or more to do the 273 miles, but the combination of wanting to minimize time taken away from family, work, etc. and my strong preference for trail running over hiking, makes me want to do it in 7 or 8 days. This means high daily mileage totals (34-39mi/day), but I figure that a 3–3.5 mph pace maintained throughout the day – running/hiking being the sole focus and activity – would make it possible to log some serious mileage. My attempt to get Mike on board met with his firmer grasp on the physical implications of such a feat, and I realized that aside from Ray Coffey's and my successful hikes of the five highest mountains in VT in a single day on two occasions (2003, 2006), I'd never covered more than 30 miles at once and didn't know what that felt like in my body. I needed some experiential research.
I read about the 4-State Challenge in North, Scott Jurek's account of his run up the Appalachian Trail. He mentions AT thru hikers and others trying to span the 4 states within 24 hours, and it seemed appealing. Mike was receptive to the suggestion, and we began preparations, including training runs, logistical scheming, and reading different accounts of the hike/run online [including John Kelly's remarkable FKT (fastest known time) in 2018]. One account recommended a southbound direction, so we planned on starting in PA. Rita, who had indicated interest in joining for part of the Long Trail endeavor, jumped in on the challenge (which is much closer to her D.C. home), and we aimed for a meetup in Harper's Ferry, WV late in the afternoon on Friday, June 21st.
Mere moments after giving welcome hugs, I found myself hastily divvying my stuff up into bags to place at our planned drops. In hindsight, I still have no clue why I didn't use the extensive packing list I'd made that lay on my front seat OR pre-packed by drop the way I'd intended. Semi-satisfied with the quick sort, we left my minivan in the Harper's Ferry parking area and headed for a fairly early dinner at The Anvil, where I ate cautiously, still nursing a tender gut from foolishly consuming a full package of Trader Joe's Chana Masala for lunch two days earlier (followed by quite a few pieces of pizza for dinner).
Initially planning for a 5am start on the trail (which was overruled by the silent minority favoring 5:30am), the alarm clock rang early and no one was moving quickly. It was a 30min drive to PenMar Park, and laces were tied, bowels coaxed if not emptied, and we began, opting to approach the AT via the park roads option. A downhill "easy jog" commenced the trek, and we crossed the railroad tracks and entered the woods close to the Mason/Dixon line. Our feet made the obligatory steps into PA, and we eventually and officially started south at 5:57am. We chatted and rotated the lead continually, jogging when the trail was pretty flat and smooth and hiking the uphills and rocky bits. Rita kept track of the number of hikers we saw, most of whom were heading in the opposite direction. Mike remarked at the different forest looks we went through and pointed out some trees and bushes along the way ("Spice bush!"). There were a couple times the trail brought us through fields, and we were glad we were hitting those in the relatively cool morning air.
The trail crosses Rt. 40 via an overpass and then re-enters the woods, meandering with little significant elevation rise or fall. We continued alternating between hiking and jogging and reached the first monument made for George Washington after a couple miles. The monument itself was closed for repair, so nothing that notable. Just shy of 25 miles Rita communicated the pain she was feeling in her IT band, making things uncomfortable. She passed us the key to her car, letting us go on a bit faster. Mike and I continued running for a while and then walking for a bit when footing or effort level were dicey. I took in water more aggressively, noticing I'd become dehydrated despite my efforts to drink. This added a background concern, as we discussed dehydration likely being the cause for many a "wheel coming off".
The trail climbed a bit, but nothing major. I congratulated the 200th hiker (give or take, without Rita keeping count). Then, mere moments after feeling confident I'd only taken one fall tripping over a rock or root, I hit the dirt a second time, protectively rolling upon impact as I'd done the first time. The trail opened into Gathland Park, which we recognized from the night before, though the "shady" parking spot in which we left the car had it in 100% full sun.
After shifting the car to the shade, we both removed our shoes and socks as we sat in the grass. A woman lay lounging on a blanket along with her caged birds, and Mike joked that if he gets to choose our next joint activity, we'll head to a park and read. I quickly drank another mixed Propel in my race to rehydrate, and we were a few bites into our snacks when Rita arrived! She'd covered the trail faster than we expected but was still complaining of pain shooting into each step.
Rita decided she'd stop there and talked a big ice cream game, but she agreed to go pick up the bins at our first drop and meet us 3hrs later at the minivan. She offered us food from her stores, but I stuck with the applesauce/ pack bar/ mini Snickers ration I'd established. We encouraged her to plan on hiking the last section to the state line with us and asked someone to snap a picture before Mike and I hit the trail again (another 40min stop).
Now with fresh socks, we crossed the road, found the trail up a park drive and to the right, and regained the pace with more than 30 miles on our legs. I chatted Mike up about a tree-related question that came to mind (about seed delivery methods and how the Maple in my side yard so aggressively drops whirligigs). Mike told me about non-native invasive species like the Norway Maple and other seed-related info and, when finished, asked me to check the time. 35min had elapsed since the stop. Jogging, walking, jogging, walking – there were few notable landmarks, but we stopped to talk to a woman out testing a new pack. She gave us general information about the trail to the canal, but it was tough to know what she considered a "hill". The spur trail to Weaverton Cliffs finally arrived, and we wound the hairpin turns back and forth on a notable descent – likely the biggest bonus for going south. No cutting corners!
The bridge dumps directly into the historic town of Harper's Ferry which, as the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail, has remarkably poor signage indicating where the trail actually goes. This was the most confused we were during the entire trip, trying to find the trail as it wove through the town, up a good number of steps, and then back into the woods. We knew the car was close and got frustrated with continued uphill climbs, considerably higher than where we though the parking lot would be. In actuality, the "land below" and our ridge met up pretty closely, and we exited the woods and followed the road slightly downhill to the lot, the car, and Rita.
It felt good to stop, eat a bit, and stretch, but Mike and I wanted to keep it moving, harnessing any inertia that still remained in our bodies, so we urged on after 30min.
Back to three-strong, we followed the sidewalk up around the corner and onto the bridge, crossing the Shenandoah with a surge of enthusiasm we hoped would carry us up the steepest climb of the challenge that awaited on the other side. Luckily, years of hiking in the Green Mountains and Adirondacks has given us a high standard of elevation, and the "big climb" was much easier than expected, even after 40+ miles. It contained a few switchbacks, but nothing like Harmon Hill, which is a comparison nested in our quads.
We knew to expect a flat section after the hill from others' accounts of the hike and hoped we'd see a clear sign indicating the WV/VA border. Luckily, and to our proud surprise, the sign arrived sooner than expected, and we congratulated each other on the wacky things we find "fun", while eating smushed, melted Fun-size Snickers courtesy of Mike's pack. We reached the 4th state 14:20 after setting off, which was in line with our overall 3mph intended pace, including stoppage time.
Photo documentation complete, Mike jumped on the horn to let the hotel I'd booked in Frederick, MD know not to give away our room, and we retraced our steps back down the hill, back across the bridge, and triumphantly back to our cars: 45.5 miles from PA to VA in 15hrs. One notable stop on the descent was to remark at the sun's rays as they cut through the forest and painted parts of the forest floor in a dark orange.
Following check-in and showers (Rita's the longest, but who is counting), there was little discrimination involved in choosing a dinner location. Mike and I were happy to introduce Waffle House to our friend, every calorie being hard-earned and fully worth it.
Stiff bodies awoke to the alarm the next day, and we hobbled to a delightful breakfast at an outdoor table at Frederick Coffee & Co. before driving up to PenMar to retrieve Mike's car and our stashed gear. Weekend adventure accomplished, almost exactly as planned. Until the next one! (And why do PA interstates cost so much?!)
ª One of my worst occurred during another crazy scheme Mike and I attempted in 2015: to hike 7 of the highest mountains in VT in a single day. I got dehydrated and developed a bad cramp that day as we reached our 4th summit and jogged down dirt roads on Sugarbush, followed by a 3 mile run in the rain back up to the "North" parking lot (I'll aim to put up a post on that trip soon).