I woke up at 3:25AM, dressed, drank half a cup of coffee, boiled some eggs, grabbed my gear and hit the road. I had a shuttle arranged leaving from the Teahorse Hostel in Harpers Ferry at 6:00AM. The drive took an hour and a half; I stopped at the gas station just before the Shenandoah Bridge, put my shoes on and ran to the restroom. I couldn't decide if I should wear my new Altra Lone Peaks or if I should stick with my well-worn (albeit on their last legs) Dynafit Feline Pros.
Once I had assembled my gear outside the hostel, I realized it was sprinkling. Odd, the weather was predicted as being clear a day ago; I double checked my phone and saw that there was a 40-60% chance of rain nearly all day. I grabbed my neoprene wind jacket. I doubted I would wear it while walking, but if I finished after dark in the rain, I might get cold. I changed out of my Altras and back into my Dynafits, deciding today was not the day to test out a new pair of shoes. I was ready.
The time was 5:59AM and I heard the strangest sound--a loud scraping and clunking--coming down the road. I searched the darkness beyond the dimly lit street for an explanation. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, nervously. Through the night, I saw a van approaching, it rumbled closer and pulled over just past me. The driver, an older gentleman, got out and began apologizing, I was sure it was Chris, Trail Boss, my shuttle driver; it was then I looked down and saw the flat tire.
"Oh no!" I said. We both peered anxiously down at the flat. He assured me he would still get me to Pen Mar, explaining we would take his wife's car. I gratefully hopped into the van and we took off down the road to his house at a snail's pace, scraping and clunking the whole way.
Once we were on the road heading to Pen Mar, we chatted about the AT and hiking in general, he told me stories about his many adventures in the Wind River Range and elsewhere; I was happy to listen and to not think about the 4 state challenge. 43 miles seemed so unattainable when the farthest I'd ever previously walked in a day was 30 miles, and that was in 2017. Around 6:30AM, I found myself wondering if it would ever get light out; it was still pitch black and I'd been awake for 3hrs already.
Chris dropped me off at exactly 7AM on the road just north of the Mason Dixon line. I paid him and thanked him and waved him off. I took a quick minute to pee across the road in the bushes and then marched towards the start of my hike. The sky was slowly beginning to lighten behind thick cloud cover.
At the border I recorded a short video, signed the logbook in the stone mailbox, and started my Strava gps tracker at 7:08AM. And then I began fast walking. My typical backpacking pace is 3-3.5 miles per hour, add in breaks and picture taking and I'm down to 2.8mph. I knew that couldn't be the case today, I would need to average nearly 4 mph if I wanted to achieve, or beat, my goal. Initially I had set myself a goal of 16hr, I knew if just walked as usual that's the time I would get, but then I started doing the math and realized if I ran some, power walked the rest, and took no breaks, I could finish in 12hr. 12hr became my new goal.
It misted on me as I jogged to the base of High Rock, I powered up the climb at a fast walk, once at the top, I started jogging again; I did not check out the view, there was no time to soak in the misty morning, besides getting soaked by it, that is. I passed Raven Rock shelter and ran down the fairly steep descent to a road crossing. The creek on the other side of it—a shin deep crossing in the spring—was barely flowing, now; I hopped across on rocks and swiftly climbed the hill beyond it. I crossed one even shallower creek on a long two-by-four and pushed onwards to the next shelter.
I paused momentarily to take a picture of Ensign Cowall shelter; knowing I needed to document my trip with time-stamped photos and videos. The videos I took were short and choppy, as I didn't stop running or walking to film. Beyond the shelter I passed a dried up spring, I didn't need water yet, but I would by the time I reached Pogo Memorial and I strongly hoped there would be water there.
A road crossing and then a good climb, up to the long ridge walk that I would traverse all the way to Black Rock Cliffs, Annapolis Rock, and then down to Pine Knob shelter. I jogged and walked alternately, it was raining now and Maryland's intermittently rocky terrain was getting slick. I ran down hill to Pogo and was crest fallen when I saw that the previously gushing spring was now totally dry. There wasn't even a puddle to scoop from. I was almost out of water and knew my next best bet was nearly 10 miles ahead at the George Washington Monument. I wouldn't count on the spring at Pine Knob, it was a small one at best, and with no solid rain over the last 6 weeks besides today, it would likely be bone dry too.
I stepped off trail to pee and apply body glide to certain areas of my body prone to salt rash. The rest of my walk down to I-70 went by in a haze. I had passed a few people since I started my walk and I passed a few more near Annapolis Rocks. The rain was steadier now and I trucked on towards the Monument. When I reached the top of the hill, I began searching for a spigot around the monument itself, forgetting that the pump was actually past the monument, down in the parking lot. There were three people exploring up there, that noted my anxious search, and stated they were glad to see another “crazy” person out in this weather. I laughed and jogged on. In the parking lot I skidded to a stop next to the water pump and chugged some electrolyte while I filled my camelback.
My next landmark was Dahlgren Backpacker’s Campground, where I promptly made use of the bathroom and washed the salt from between my butt-cheeks. It burned like hell. I quickly reapplied body glide and moved on, passing a gentleman in a yellow rain shell.
I jogged past Rocky Run Shelters and continued onwards up a long climb, which felt like a death sentence at that point. I was definitely exhausted; my face was crusted with salt and the remnants of unnecessary sunscreen. No breaks, I told myself, just keep walking at break neck speed and don’t—for the love of all things good—break your neck. I crested the climb and passed by a lovely view spot that I had sat at in the spring, but today it looked out into a white curtain of fog. I pressed on, up and down the undulating ridge, past Crampton Gap shelter, all the way to Gathland State Park. I crossed the road and headed towards the bathrooms, knowing there was a water pump there. Three backpackers lounged under the awning out of the spitting rain. I dropped my trekking poles, quickly slung off my vest and filled my water bladder, chugging more electrolytes. The woman asked me how far I was running today, and when I told her, she said I should try running a marathon, it would be much easier. I laughed, they were nice, and being social—even if only for 2 minutes—was also nice.
I jogged away and continued along the ridge to Brown’s Gap, up and down and up and down, small hills on a wide trail. I began to wonder if I had somehow already passed Ed Garvey Shelter in the fog. My tired brain wondered exactly where I was in relation to Weaver Cliffs. It turns out I had yet to pass it at that point, and once I did, the descent took ages; my joints were screaming with every step downwards.
I reached the Park and Ride off hwy 340, and slipped back into the woods; I crossed under the Potomac River Bridge and limped stiffly over one more road crossing which would take me to the towpath. A train flew by as I approach the tracks. I waited listlessly for it to pass. I needed to rally; I still had 7 miles to go. But 7 might as well have been 100.
Once on the towpath, my feet started to ache, the skin on my soles burned and stung like I was walking on cheese graters. I knew the hard-packed, flat path would be a death sentence for my body at this stage in the game. I tried to walk in the rutted grass next to the path as often as I could. Under the Sandy Hook Bridge, halfway, onwards to Harpers Ferry. I tried to think about other things besides walking, like my upcoming trip to Patagonia, or my recent trip to Yukon and the Canadian Rockies, but all of these trips involved more walking. Finally I saw the metal cage of the Potomac River Bridge clear the trees up ahead. I picked up my already fast-walking pace and climbed up the see-through, steel-grate steps. I was almost mowed over at the top by a man recording a video while walking backwards. I skirted around him and filmed my own quick video as I walked. Once in town, I looked for the faithful white blazes to be sure I was on track and climbed the endless cobblestone stairs up alongside the church.
The trail along the Shenandoah is like a roller coaster, steep, short ups and downs, with climbs over a few rock piles and then a sharp descent down to hwy 340. The traffic shook the bridge beneath my feet, reminding me of the terrifying bridge walk over the Susquehanna River outside of Duncannon. That river, unlike the Shenandoah, is seamless and deep and dark and far wider, and the bridge itself has a very narrow “side walk” for hikers that slants down from a daunting height, over the water. The surface of the Shenandoah is punctuated by rocks and rapids and the water is see-through when the sun hits it just right, the bridge is shorter and the walkway seemingly much more protected, but I was still relieved once I was across safely to the other side. And then there was the final climb up to Loudon Heights.
Once in the woods, I checked Strava, though tired and dragging I was ahead of my goal! I had over an hour left before I would hit the 12hr mark and only about 2 miles to go. Seeing my progress renewed my enthusiasm for the hike and I took off at a descent clip up to the final road crossing before the border. I knew from another hiker’s blog that after the road I still had one more agonizing mile to go before the border, but even that knowledge did not reassure me as I stumbled through the dense fog. It was just before 6:30PM and dusk was upon me; I worried I would miss the small sign that marked the crossing into VA.
I kept walking. I’d seen many deer throughout the day and welcomed the sightings, but now, as they chuffed and snorted, dashing away from me in the fog, they made me uneasy. I tried talking to them and then ran out of energy. Aside from the spitting rain and my uneven footsteps, the forest was silent.
Finally, through the tiny liquid filaments floating in the air before my face, I saw the sign. I marched passed it and hit “finish” on Strava. My hike was over. I felt tired but accomplished; every step had been worth it. I hung out to eat a fig bar and then began to retrace my steps, pulling out my headlamp along the way. The fog made the beam glare awfully as it tracked down in front of my eyes, but it served to light the way for my tired feet. I called my mom from the Shenandoah Bridge, tired but happy. What a day: 42.7 miles in 11 hours and 34 minutes. I’d been awake since 3:25AM and now it was almost 8PM. My car waited for me where I had parked it this morning in the dark; it was just under a mile away; all I had to do was keep walking.
This was my first time doing anything like this! And I am so glad I did. I would not consider myself a runner, so much as a fast hiker, and I really hope more women declare, record, and report their hikes of the 4 state challenge because I know there are some really fast women out there that deserve the recognition!