FKT: Rick Stahl - Darlington Trail (Pennsylvania) - Western Terminus to Eastern Terminus - 2023-05-12

Route variation
Standard route
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
1h 16m 51s

Every year on or around my birthday I try to do an athletic based challenge to keep the spirit alive. Some years it is a hiking challenge but more recently I do something trail running related.

This year I decided to attempt a Fastest Known Time on a trail in my area and decided on a route that had yet to be documented on Fastest Known Time nor Strava - The Darlington Trail. 

Years prior, the Darlington Trail used to connect the East and West Shore of the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg, PA. It's been shortened over the years and is now entirely on the West Shore side of the Susquehanna. I was not sure exactly how long the trail is these days as I had seen conflicting reports of the mileage. This FKT attempt would put that little debate to rest though I expected 8 miles or so, one way.

So I went out for a recon of about 2/3 of the trail the week prior just to get a feel for the condition of the trail and make a final determination of the planned outing. I decided to go for it on Friday, May 12th - my actual birthday! Since I expected the trail to be no more than 8 miles, I decided to do the run with just the water and gels I could carry in my pack - I would not need support of any kind for such a short distance.

Friday morning I drove out to the nearest trailhead and hiked a mile or so in to the start of the Darlington Trail, which shares a trail intersection on top of a ridge with the Appalachian Trail and Tuscarora Trail. Upon arriving at this western terminus of the Darlington Trail I took a picture of the trail sign and started to warm up for the ensuing effort. Just then a section hiker on the Appalachian Trail happened by on his way northbound and I got him to take my photo with the sign. What a nice coincidence to cross paths with someone right before the start of my attempt. He even knew what a "FKT" was since his son is a trail runner!

Once the section hiker was out of view I finished up my warm up and got to it, right before 7:30 am. I kept the effort honest but within a certain range that I knew I could tolerate for the next 75 minutes or so. 

Nothing of interest happened until the 25 minute mark or so -- I reached for my first gel and right after I grabbed it from my pack and transferred it from one hand to the other I veered off the trail ever so slightly and caught myself by grabbing on to an apparently dead tree that snapped as I grabbed it. I suppose a branch or some thorns were disrupted as the tree pushed over and I gashed my left thigh just above the knee and blood immediately came to the surface. I felt no pain and hardly even missed a step as I pressed forward. I was on the clock and the seconds ticked away whether I was moving or not.

Around that same time I realized as I took a drink from my water bladder that the drinking nozzle was separating from the reservoir tube as I took my sips of water. Finally, the nozzle actually came off completely and water began to drain on to the front of my shirt. I was able to catch the nozzle and force it back on without stopping. It's funny the things that can go wrong when you are "on the clock" that never seem to manifest themselves when out for an easy run. :)

Kept pressing on and feeling quite good but then shortly after the 1 hour mark a mini-disaster occurred. This was an area of trail I had never been to and so I was hyper-vigilant with following the trail at this point. I descended in to an area called Bryson Hollow near a stream crossing I had been expecting and noticed two trail blazes arranged on a tree in a pattern I had never seen before. I've hiked and trail run many trails in my life and do not recall ever seeing a pattern like this: two blazes directly on top of each other complete with arrows pointing in a downward direction like an upside down horse shoe. I included a picture. I now know it means the trail abruptly turns behind you, essentially a 180 degree turn. But in that moment I panicked and thought it meant to "go around" since I saw a felled tree in front of me. So I climbed over the tree and then noticed a faint trail on the other side of a stream. So I crossed through the stream and followed the trail. That trail led to much of nothing, aside from a discarded bong from someone else's previous adventure.

Now feeling distressed, I crossed the stream again and then followed it downstream until it was clear there was not much of a trail there either. At this point I recall shouting out some obscenities since I was losing time. :) I briefly thought about calling off the attempt but then decided to go back to the spot where I first got confused so I could look upstream and sure enough there was the continuation of the trail!

While I only lost about 90 seconds at this spot, it felt like much more in my distressed state. I decided, foolishly, to try to make up this lost time by picking up the pace drastically. Unfortunately, the trail at this point led to 250 feet of climbing on which you should never try to increase your effort so drastically. I held on as long as I could and then had to start hiking.  Shortly after reaching the top of the last climb, I made a small descent to the eastern terminus and stopped my watch upon setting foot on Tower Road several paces beyond the Darlington Trail sign.

Caught my breath, appreciated the effort I just gave, and eventually started the hike/slow run return back to the trailhead some 6 or so miles away. While on the way back, a hiker saw my bleeding leg and asked if I was okay. The scratches resembled a bear paw's scratches and I briefly thought about making up a comical story about fighting off a bear but thought better of it. Instead, I told her that it looked worse than it felt.

All in all, I had a lovely time planning and executing this FKT attempt. Things rarely go perfectly and so you accept when things go wrong, attempt to self-correct, and then move on. The same applies to life in general. :)