AT Memorial Day Weekend 2013 – The Four State Challenge
After five years of hiking and camping on the Appalachian Trail for Memorial Day, for 2013 the group decided to try something a bit different: a long-distance single day hike. Since I live so close to Harper’s Ferry, WV, the so-called “four state challenge” was a perfect fit for us. The challenge is to hike the 42 miles from the Pennsylvania-Maryland border to the West Virginia-Virginia border in under 24 hours. This is normally done with a ground support team to provide food and water to the hikers at the road crossings, so we secured some (gracious) help from our friend Jeremy P. Everything was set to kick off early on Saturday morning.
Unfortunately the trip began with a little frustration for me. With under twelve hours to go before our start and after having cleaned my house and car in preparation, I received a phone call from Phil that the group wasn’t going to stay at my house after all. They were instead heading straight up to Harper’s Ferry to take advantage of camping for at least one night. In retrospect I can’t fault them for that, but I would have liked a bit more notice ahead of time. The change left me stressed out and jittery in my house. I’m sure Kristin got sick of my pacing! Knowing I had a solitary drive to Harper’s Ferry ahead of me, I grabbed as much sleep as possible shortly after receiving the call. I hit my bed at about 10 PM.
I woke up not-so-bright and early at 1:30 AM and made myself a delicious pour-over coffee using hand ground Wegman’s beans (which I highly recommend for a mega-jolt of caffeine early in the morning). I set out for Harper’s Ferry just after 2 AM, hoping to hit my target of a 3 AM meet up. I made great time in the pitch blackness, having only the occasional deer for company. I’d honk at them to force them to scatter, also hoping that I wouldn’t wake up anyone around the area. I arrived at Weverton just after 3 AM and stepped out into a near-40 degree morning. It was immediately apparent that my short sleeve dry-fit shirt wasn’t going to cut it. I put on a thicker shirt and hopped back in the car, and with a couple of short honks of the horn brought out my groggy hiking mates. They had been staying on some flat ground just off the parking lot. We quickly loaded up the car and made way for Pen Mar.
We made it to Pen Mar in the pre-dawn darkness, striking off on the trail at 4:30 after a brief goodbye to our trusty driver. Most of us had our headlamps on full blast, which led to some interesting creature sightings if we glanced to our left or right. We stopped only to take a quick look at the moon over the High Rock area before moving on.
As we’d soon come to find out, Maryland is chock full of sizeable rocks that are more than willing to roll your ankle or batter the soles of your feet. As a testament to the evilness of the rocks, Jeremy M. rolled his ankle several times during the initial 6 miles and was suffering from some back pain as a result. When we met up with Jeremy P. at Raven Rock Hollow after 5 1/2 miles he decided to become our navigator. We’d been whittled down to three.
Tommy, Phil, and I started the next section as the sun finished making its way up. Phil and I alternated between being cold and sweating, depending on the incline and whether or not our outer layers were on. Each of us hadn’t expected it to remain so chilly throughout the mid-morning (it stayed in the low 60s for most of the day, with a strong breeze). We chatted briefly with a few other hikers heading the other way and generally kept up a cheerful spirit. After a decent amount of tedium we came upon an open field which raised our spirits even more. There’s just something to be said about such a sight at 8 in the morning:
An old, rusted-out bike that someone had left out for no particular reason also sparked our interest along the way:
Our 5 mile section went by quickly, and before we knew it we were reunited with our driver and navigator at Wolfsville Road. We’d done 10 out of the 42 miles. We munched on some protein bars and gatorade, made some grocery requests, and chatted with some other folks doing the same trip before heading onto the next section: a bruising 9 miles to the I-70 footbridge.
The next section started off with a side trail, which we traveled on for about a half mile before deciding to strike off into the raw wilderness to find the AT. Using Tommy’s GPS, we climbed through ragged terrain and fallen trees to eventually land back on track with little time lost.
The miles began to wear on us as we worked our way through the section. Though nothing too serious yet, each of us had our own aches and pains to deal with. The incline from Smithsburg, MD up into the woods was brutal, adding additional fatigue to already-tired muscles. We passed the time by picking categories and trying to find a item in the category starting with each letter of the alphabet. We started with movies (easy) and finished with television shows (hard) before retreating back into our minds for a bit. We broke out of the funk by taking a much-needed break at Black Rock Cliffs a little after 10:20 AM:
Continuing on our section, each of us experienced increasingly painful muscles. Phil’s IT band was acting up by this point, and Tommy’s calves were burning. The soles of my feet were battered and bruised and starting to swell. Wishing not to waste any time, we hurried along the trail towards our next rendezvous point at the footbridge. At least we had good scenery along the way!
We arrived at the footbridge at exactly noon to meet the Jeremys. They had gotten us some treats from the grocery store, and to say we enjoyed them greatly would be an understatement. We dominated that food like we were breaking a four-day fast. That poor bag of popcorn never had a chance, much less the bag of snickers minis! For 15 minutes we were in heaven sitting by the side of the road on a gorgeous day, not minding our aching legs and feet. We’d traveled 18 out of the 42 miles.
Having been through the area before with Tommy, I had suggested earlier that we break for lunch at the Washington Monument, three miles further down the trail. We hitched up our water packs, stuffed some sunflower seeds in our pockets, then hit the trail with that in mind. It was about this time that we encountered a group of boisterous senior citizens outright flying down the trail behind us. As we stepped aside to let them by, we determined that they were doing the exact same trip as us. We were floored. Here we were - three reasonably young guys in pretty damn good shape – getting destroyed by retirees. We certainly picked up our pace after that encounter, but we also paid the price of that speed with currency of pain. By the time we saw the monument looming in the near distance we were exhausted, and just about collapsed on its front knoll.
We ate our food at the top of the monument and attempted to prepare ourselves for the next section, which would be from Monument Road to Crampton Gap in Gathland State Park. Phil caught some sleep in the spare 7 minutes he had at the top while Tommy and I sat incapacitated on the floor. We went down the spiral staircase of the monument, stopped quickly at the car for another gatorade, then hit the trail.
At this point all of us were in pretty bad shape physically. While it wasn’t surprising that we were sore, what was surprising was how acute the pain was becoming. Phil’s IT band starting giving him major trouble on one of the big uphills, and I quickly came to realize that the soles of my feet were turning into swollen balls of agony. The more I walked, the more they screamed at me. Their domination of my mind was complete, so I could no longer ignore them. Tommy wasn’t immune either – he was having some trouble with the downhills and was getting more and more quiet as the time went by.
It was around this time that I started worrying that I wasn’t going to make it. We had a hard 9 miles to go before seeing the Jeremys and I was deteriorating at an alarming rate. I slogged through those miles in every way that I could, from cursing the rocks to talking about our upcoming (fatty) dinner. In the end I made it to Gathland, but the moment I arrived at the car and sat down I knew I wasn’t going to get back up again. I’d gone 33 out of the 42 miles and I was done.
Fortunately for me, Phil wasn’t moving either. He soon came to the same conclusion about his legs. He took some Tylenol and collapsed on the curb, asleep in what seemed like seconds. Tommy thought about it for a bit, then decided to stay back as well. I can’t blame him – a solitary three miles in the woods when you’re already feeling like crap doesn’t exactly sound like fun, even if you’re physically able to complete the mileage. We all considered 33 miles formidable for a first attempt. It was, after all, the furthest we’d ever hiked in a single day.
Seeing the carnage in the parking lot, a kind woman offered us some fresh watermelon slices. They were divine! After talking with her for a bit we found out her husband was in the group of retirees who passed us earlier. She told us to not let them get us down because every one of them do the four-state challenge every year. She also mentioned that most of them were ultramarathoners (one even had done the Badwater ultra). I guess we shouldn’t have been so discouraged after all!
After going back to Weverton to pick up the other cars, we all gathered back in Sterling for a wonderfully decadent dinner at Sweetwater. Greasy burgers, fries, and several micro-brews capped off a day that I won’t soon forget. After dinner the Jeremys went back to Fredericksburg and Tommy, Phil, and I went back to my place for some much needed rest. I gave Kristin and Layla (who was still up at 9) a kiss goodnight, set up the guys with bedding, then hit my bed like a sack of potatoes. My four state challenge was over.