Every year DCUL Backpacking sends forth a group of brave and/or crazy members to attempt the 4 state challenge. Which involves hiking the entire stretch of the AT connecting Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania - all in one day. This adds up to 44 miles (70.8km) and 8,000 feet (2480m) of elevation gain.
It’s important to stress that this is a backpacking challenge. All participants must carry everything they need to be self-sufficient, and they must spend the night on the trail before and after the 44 mile day.
It’s pretty hard.
This would be the 4th consecutive year we’ve done it as a group, though one year we actually had two runnings.
I had last tackled this event 3 years prior, setting a good time of 14 hours 36 minutes, just 3 minutes behind Beastmode and Faceplant who I hiked with for the entire stretch. I had a mega blood-sugar crash a few miles from the finish which forced an unscheduled 10 minute break. But I was pretty darn happy with that time.
Last year, we actually had to cancel the event due to a hurricane. Karan led the make-up event, which I couldn’t attend. And he went total B.A.-Mode, smashing the previous record with a time of 13:26. So this year, I went out with the goal of cracking 13 hours. I figured this was doable based on my first experience and a slightly different strategy: going balls to the walls and not stopping for nuttin’.
The original list of ten potential attendees was whittled down to just 4 due to various reasons; including several pre-event casualties like flu and a kitchen knife incident. In the end I set out with EZbake and Sophie Friday afternoon to set up the shuttle and bail-out cars. Heavy D joined the event at the last minute, hopping the train directly to Harper’s Ferry from D.C..
As we shouldered our packs at the National Park gated area, we hadn’t heard from Dan yet so we hit the Lower Trail to connect to the AT, and started the climb up to Loudoun Heights. It was much less miserable than my previous attempt, with it not being rainy and dark. We knocked out the 2ish miles and plopped down directly on the VA/WV border. I sent Dan a text so he’d know where to find us.
We chatted for a few minutes until the sun dipped, then climbed into our bags to try and get a solid 8 hours of sleep before our 3am wake up call. We had our first “Where’s Dan?” moment, but figured he was probably chowing down in Harper’s Ferry.
My cell rang an hour later as I sat reading in my hammock - it was Dan! He had blown by our camp having missed my text. I gave him directions then met him at the trail. He threw down his pad and settled in for the night.
I woke up at 1am to the wind howling and branches falling. The moon was incredibly bright, making it hard to sleep (I hadn’t bothered to put up my tarp). After an hour of restlessness, I heard Dan stirring. Soon everyone was up, not having any better luck with sleep. I ate a pop-tart to get some fuel onboard. Dan hit the trail, and the rest of us followed shortly after. It was 2:21am.
Everyone got bogged down at the typical spot on the rocky trail. Going up, the route is clear, but going down, there isn’t a blaze. The path is hard to discern over the solid rock. But I remembered vaguely that is was straight across the slab, and found the bright white blaze.
This put me in front of the group, and as I hit the 340 bridge I went full-stride. Soon my companion’s headlamps faded behind me. I wouldn’t see any of them again for almost 15 hours.
I got sweaty climbing the hills above Pulp Mill, then cruised through Harper’s Ferry like a ghost. Having been through once before really helped me stay on trail. Spotting the white blazes of the AT by headlamp can be tricky at times.
I cruised over the slick rail-bridge, and blasted out the 2.5ish miles on the C & O. Deer and rabbits jumped away from my headlamp beam. I pounded another 500 calories or so while the walking was easy. The turn off the canal trail was easier to spot this time, as someone had nailed up a couple of reflectors.
Next was the un-ending climb up to Weverton Cliff; I got to the overlook about 2 hours in. After that the climbing continued but it wasn’t as steep. I ate spider webs continuously, and washed them down with Doritos.
I felt like I was moving pretty fast, but my footing was somewhat hampered by the occasional rock I missed with my headlamp. I still felt like I was making good time when I rolled into Gathland State Park, where I took a 5 minute break and stepped into the bathroom.
All was quite still in the pre-dawn darkness. As I climbed further north my right gracilis muscle locked up, rendering that leg useless. I did some figure-4 stretches and verbally berated it until it got back in line, then kept walking.
I was finally able to turn off my headlamp as I was on the climb up to the Washington Monument, and saw other people for the first time since the start. At the top I refilled my two 1.5 liter Smart Water bottles and pounded a Gatorade. It was 8:30am , 6 hours and 10 minutes in. About 20 minutes faster than my previous running. I ate my reward twinkie as I moved on after a 10 minute break. 20 miles down. 24 to go.
I crushed the 4ish mile descent to I-70 where Shane was waiting. He had kindly offered to be our emergency cut-out since he had to bail from the event himself. We chatted for a minute, though I’m not certain I said anything intelligible. Dave and Sophie sent a text that they were at the monument. They were making good time! I signed the check-in sheet, and accepted some potato chip trail magic. I inhaled them as I pressed on.
I started blowing by scores of day hikers and a few backpackers as I tried to knock out the next 10 mile section as quickly as possible. My legs were already feeling some pain but I pushed out a fast pace. The rocks were definitely getting to me. I felt a few blisters I didn’t know I had explode on my toes.
By the time I rolled into Wolfsville, real pain was setting in. I wasn’t sure my legs had enough life in them to get me to the finish in 14 hours, let alone 13. Shane hadn’t gotten there yet. So I plowed on with only the slightest pause to sign the check-in sheet.
I had been rolling with a 5 mph pace on most of the flats, but I just didn’t have that in me anymore. I managed 4mph most of the time when I wasn’t climbing or stumbling over rocks. I knocked out the first two climbs, but knew I had Raven Rock ahead of me. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all.
I practically crawled my way up its numerous switchbacks and was ever so glad to reach the top. It wasn’t pretty, but at least I hadn’t crashed out like last time. My legs were feeling unreliable and weak - both screaming that they wanted to stop.
I ignored them and blasted out the next section as fast as I could - at least until I reached the rocky hell of High Rock. Maybe I was just cranky and delirious, but following the trail proved even harder than I remembered. There is no discernable path, and blazes are missing in key places. Several different times I came to a complete stop next to one blaze and couldn’t find the next one. I barely managed 1-2 mph pace through this section.
I wasn’t able to judge time or space anymore and thought I was still several miles away from Penmar - but suddenly the rock turned to a dirt track and I rejoiced, knowing I had maybe a mile left. I willed my legs to keep moving and slowly worked my way back up to a descent pace.
I rolled into PenMar on the last of my legs to find two weddings going on. I walked by the first pavilion and was greeted by the smell of BBQ. It was torture. I briefly considered trying to scam some food. But first I had to get to PA.
As I made the last few hundred-foot walk to the Mason-Dixon line, I realized I was just over 13 hours, and had likely beaten Karan’s time. I found it hard to believe since I was nearly ready to lay down and die 30 minutes prior.
I checked into the mailbox register with a time of 13:15, just glad to be done - except now I had to reverse back to the park! It took me 15 minutes. I found Shane who dropped off a bag of snacks and Gatorade before he had to head out for work. Then I sat around staring into space to wait for my compatriots.
Dave rolled in looking pretty fresh with a solid sub-15 hour time and a new PR. It was also his third finish! Another DCUL record. Not long after Sophie also arrived, looking strong, with her first finish!
We had our second “Where’s Dan?” moment, then I went to fetch pizza from Rocky’s.
The weddings were winding down when I returned. We watched sunset and ate. The pizza was glorious, and I felt life returning to my body. Eventually we wandered up the trail to see if we could spot Dan coming down.
A little past dark, we saw his headlamp bounding down the trail. He rolled in, moving fast! We were 4 for 4! He signed his name in the register, securing a victory on his first attempt. He then attacked the lukewarm pizza.
We slept the sleep of the dead that night. The next day, we retrieved all the cars and hit Cracker Barrel for our victory breakfast.
Big thanks to Jen for helping to coordinate all the drivers, and Shane for coming out to support us. Huge congrats to Dave, Sophie, and Dan for an epic completion of a such a challenging event!
Notes for next time (if there is a next time!):
-Do better on the pre-hydration.
-Sport beans are king!
-Front chest feed bag worked well. It and my ginormous hip pockets held all the food for the day.
-Gatorade for the half way point was a good idea, and a nice change from guzzling water.
-Chips and Bridgeport meats sticks broke up the sugar high nicely.
-Need more protein - some sort of chocolate milk concoction or protein shake. Soy milk so no spoilage?
-Ham sandwich? Menu felt ok but something more substantial with protein might have helped.
-Body glide in between toes. Rest of feet were ok. No blisters on heel or soles.
-Double headlamps, one for hips for prolonged night hiking.
-Don’t ride 110 miles the weekend before (or be getting over a crash injury).