Wye Island NRMA

Wye Island NRMA

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Four State Challenge: Part I

We decided to quit during a long, rocky climb between the Washington Monument and Gathland State Park.  After passing 26.2 miles in approximately 4:30:00 - a time that includes our extensive breaks - we found ourselves in a dark place.  Conrad bonked after struggling to digest the food he ate at the halfway point, and I suffered from a throbbing headache, most likely a result of psychological fatigue and caffeine withdrawal.  "I can't take these f'ing rocks anymore," I groaned.

Quitting was logic.  Neither of us were ultrarunners, and, even if we stopped at Gathland, we would have run over 33 miles.  The previous day's deluge made the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Trail (AT) more treacherous and painful to traverse  As we power hiked over ground that was too rocky to run across, we contemplated our failure.  I removed my phone from my hydration vest and attempted to text Melissa to notify her that she should pick us up soon at Gathland, not our intended destination of Harper's Ferry.  Another frustration: the screen, like all of my garments and appendages, was wet, preventing me from texting.  So we ran on.

I first conceived of running the length of the AT in Maryland in the late winter of 2013.  After a weekend long run, Conrad handed me Bill Bryson's cult classic A Walk in the Woods and Ed Ayres' The Longest Race.  In the days that followed, I devoured both books.  It was then that I began to consider a future in ultra and trail running.  I suggested to Conrad that we run the length of AT in Maryland, a journey of 41 miles, before the end of 2013.  He enthusiastically committed.  But our fall racing schedule precluded an attempt.  The following fall we again targeted road marathons.  Another year passed with our adventure deferred.

After spending early 2015 nursing injuries and increasing my trail running, I decided to attempt the AT run before beginning a fall marathon cycle.   Although our initial goal was to cover Maryland's portion of the AT and end after crossing the West Virginia line in Harper's Ferry, we learned of the Four State Challenge.  This popular AT challenge entails hiking the 43 miles of the AT between Virginia and Pennsylvania in 24 hours.  Thus, we extended our proposed course to cover the additional mileage through West Virginia and invade Old Dominion.

Our goal, however, changed not only length.  In late spring, I discovered that Iain Ridgway, an ultrarunner who has competed for the British national team, set a new fastest known time (FKT) for the Four State Challenge in early May, completing the segment in 7:29.  Would we, road racers with no ultrarunning experience, be so foolhardy to attempt this AT speed record?  Of course.

Throughout late May and June, I balanced my road racing goals with my preparation for the AT, completing my typical fare of intervals and threshold workouts while running long runs over rocky and hilly terrain at Patapsco Valley State Park and Loch Raven Reservoir.  The day after our one-two finish at the McVet 5K, Conrad and I completed a long run on the middle portion of the Maryland AT, covering nearly 20 miles.  I often ran in a hydration vest laden with fluid and food to practice carrying added weight and eating on the run.  During these long runs, I experienced euphoric sense that, if required, I could run all day.  I simply didn't fatigue and was seemingly impervious to the rocky trails and steep ascents that had once trashed my legs.

We targeted June 28th for the "attempt."  I began referring to it as "the attempt," perhaps because I subconsciously could not state definitively that we would complete the challenge.  So much could go wrong during a daylong run on a mountain trail.  Despite road racing credentials, we were inexperienced and would likely commit the common beginner's errors enumerated in articles for ultrarunner wannabes.

As the weekend approached, the forecast was mixed.  The heat and humidity I feared would not be factors, but severe storms projected for Saturday would likely leave the trails in poor condition on Sunday.  It seemed a fair tradeoff: the temperature would not exceed 70 degrees, and we would navigate slippery rocks, muddy trails, and fallen trees.  We met on Saturday morning and nervously debated whether to proceed.  Conrad's hesitancy was heightened because he was getting over a severe cold that struck earlier in the week, likely the result of the big mileage days he done in preparation.  Our sport can be cruel in its irony.

After weighing the risks, our deliberations ended with the decision to attempt it.  We worked out logistics and then parted ways, excited and apprehensive for the new frontiers awaiting us on a mountain ridge beyond 26.2 miles.