Yesterday I ran and finished the Mason Dixon Longest Day Challenge 100K in 15:58. I really wanted to make up for my Laurel Highlands DNF and signed up for this race pretty last minute. Longest Day Challenge is a damn accurate description, and this race was insanely tough for me. Here are a few reasons why it is so tough:
- Reportedly has 15,000 feet of climbing
- There are no course markings, and you have to navigate the whole time following inconsistent & spotty trail blazes (aka you will be lost a lot)
- Hot weather
- Relatively few aid stations
- Plenty of rocky, gnarly terrain
We started off at 5:34am from Susquehanna state park. Why 5:34, you ask? The major goal of the race is to finish within true daylight, which had us starting at 5:34 and needing to finish by 8:35. We took off in 70 degree temperatures, and it was humid from big storms the night before. My feet were wet from a stream crossing within ¼ mile, and I was lost within ½ mile. Excellent start, Will!
After some brief navigational challenges, I started running with a group who knew the trail well. The rest of the first 4 miles went smoothly with a couple of quick, easy miles on a railroad trail. We were running along the Susquehanna River, and it was a really beautiful sunrise.
We all took a nice little detour shortly after mile 4, and then the blowdowns started. There had been a huge storm the night before, and apparently this section was the hardest hit. There were trees down all over the place, and we were spending lots of time slowly going around / over / under / through blown down trees. This section was all trail, and we also had to negotiate these rather unhelpful ladders over pasture fences as we crossed a few farms.
So far things were going just fine, and I was having a lot of fun despite the road blocks. Then I took a very hard fall just before the mile 9 aid station. My legs went out sideways on a wet rock, and I crashed down on my left hip. My right leg and arm took some of the impact and had some cuts. I also somehow nicked my nose. But the worst was by far the hip, which was extremely painful.
I shook it off and picked my way to the aid station. They helped me clean up the cuts, but I couldn’t do anything about the hip pain. Sometimes these kinds of things loosen up and feel better after a while, so I figured I should at least give it a shot and go to the next aid station. This section was all trail with a decent amount climbing & rocks. My hip was bad and getting worse, and I was really starting to get into a quitting mindset.
A guy named Gary caught up with me, and I decided to try and hang with him for some company and a welcome distraction. I was still hurting, but it was very nice to have someone to talk to. We rolled through the mile 15 aid station, and I decided to keep going. Shortly after we ran into his crew, and they were able to hook me up with some IB profin. Ahhh, that’s the stuff! I quickly started to feel much better, and the easy road section helped me loosen up. A huge thanks to Gary and his crew. They helped me multiple times throughout the day, and I couldn’t have done it without them.
I started to hammer out a good pace on the roads, and before long it was time to cross through a nuclear power plant. I know that sounds like all fun and games, but one stretch was incredibly overgrown, and I got about a million little cuts from briars and thornbushes. Well at least my cuts from the mile 9 fall had some company now.
After the power plant we ran some more overgrown trail (more cuts) and then some roads up to the mile 25 aid station just under 5 hours into the race. I refilled the Nathan pack, drank some ginger ale, refilled my bottle, and got my butt back out there. I was back in a positive mindset and was planning to see it through to the end. The next stretch had some really nice trail. There was a good amount of climbing and descending, but I really enjoyed the streams and running alongside the creek. This was my favorite section of the race by far.
(Muddy Creek. We ran alongside it for a while. It was much prettier than its name would imply.)
I made good time on this stretch and popped out of the trail for a long road section. The hilly roads were very exposed to the sun, and it was starting to get warm out there. I ended up missing one of the turns and stopped to ask for directions. The dude gave me the wrong directions! I’m having a hard enough time navigating on my own without someone actively making it worse.
That ended up adding a good 2 mile detour before I got on the right track back towards the river. I assumed the lock 12 aid station would be right where we hit the river, but sadly that was only lock 15. We ran another trail section and then crossed over a creek to this little island with a trail section that was hard to navigate. After some slow wandering around, I finally came to the mile 38 aid station at a little over 8 hours.
That last stretch felt longer than 13 anyway not to mention by 2 bonus miles, so I was very ready for some aid. I was overheated and put a lot of ice under my hat and in my pack. I had more soda, more food, and geared up to get back out there. I was getting tired, and my hip still was slowing me down, but I was definitely prepared to see this thing through to the finish.
After a bit of flat trail running, we hit a big climb up a waterfall. The waterfall was awesome. The climbing, not so much. I finally made it through the tough trail section, got to a short road section, and promptly got lost. After some backtracking and a bit of cursing, I found the poorly marked trail turn off and got going again.
After we left the road, I got lost again before hitting a trail section that wound towards the mile 50 aid station. I was not feeling great on this stretch, and the running was a little tough. I started hitting the S-caps more, and that brought things back in focus fairly well. Right before we turned off towards the mile 50 aid station, we were supposed to dive off the trail into a gully to cross a bridge and climb out the other side. I was not aware of that. A nice little girl who lived nearby gave me directions, though, and I finally found mile 50.
It took me a little under 11 hours to get to this point, which is by far my slowest 50 ever. I felt good though, and I was optimistic about finishing before 8:35 and making it with some daylight left. I had 4 hours to cover a mere 12 miles. No problem, right? I mean I only needed to just under 20 minute miles. Psshh, come on. How about a challenge? I told the people at the aid station that I would see them again before sunset. Woops.
After leaving the aid station, the trail bombed down into a ravine and then had and a steep climb out. I started to really hurt around this time and was just trying to make progress. I had heard about the 4 huge back to back climbs in the last 12 mile section, which are lovingly referred to as the “4 raging bitches.” I really hoped that this climb had been one of them, but alas it was not.
I kept slowly plodding along, got lost again, and finally reach the mile 54 water drop. My watch read 1:18 from the last stop. Are you kidding me?! That was barely better than 20 minute miles, and apparently the worst was yet to come.
Short after the water drop I hit a section where I totally lost the trail. Some lumber company had cut down a massive amount of trees, and it completely obscured a huge section of the trail. I climbed around the fallen trees and branches for over 20 minutes and simply could not find the trail. I started to panic and despair. I was so tired and just couldn’t find the way forward. It was incredibly frustrating. I calmed down and got more methodical and logical about my trail searching, and I eventually found a trail blaze. From there it was still tough to navigate, but I finally got through this god awful section.
We descended down to a ravine, and then the 4 nasty climbs started. Whatever I write here, I cannot possibly describe how insanely hard these climbs were. Words will not do it justice. The first climb started from a stream with scrambling / climbing up from the bank. From there it was a punishing and rocky long climb upl. Apparently whoever marked this trail did not believe in switchbacks and was a huge fan of rock climbing. It was just crazy steep.
After some slow trudging and stopping a few times to catch my breath, I finally made it to the top. That couldn’t possibly be the first of 4 climbs, right? Some of the prior climbs must have counted. Yeah, that’s got to be it.
After rolling along the top for a bit and some more rocky sections, the trail descended down to another ravine. I looked up the climb that was waiting for me and blurted out “you’ve got to be f-ing kidding me!” to no one in particular.
I crawled and dragged my way up climb # 2. Somewhere around here Jen gave me a call. I had texted her when I left the last aid station. That had been about 2.5 hours ago, and Jen was wondering if I was done yet. Yeah, not so much.
I was just so tired at this point. My legs were shot, my hip was flaring up again as the IB profin wore off, and I was covered head to toe in cuts. Despite filling my 2 Liter Nathan pack and 20 ounce bottle at the last aid station and topping off my water at the mile 54 water drop, I was somehow almost out of water. Fantastic …
I got a bit lost trying to find the third climb. There was a bridge type of thing that had been destroyed in a flood, and you had to climb around for a while to get to the trail. The fact that there was still one more climb left after this one was just too much to contemplate. I was maybe doing 30-40 minute miles at this point. I am pretty sure I can swim faster than that. Towards the end of this climb it was close to 8:30, and I got my headlamp out of my pack. It looked like the fourth climb would be done in the dark. That would mean that I would somehow being going even slower than I already was.
I honestly cannot even remember the start of the fourth climb. I was happy it was the last one, but man was I dragging along. The whole climb was crazy rocky, and it just kept dragging on. I was paranoid about getting lost, as I just really wanted this thing to end. There were huge spider webs all over the trail, which managed to add even more insult to injury. Jen called again thinking that there was no way I couldn’t have finished yet after over 4 hours to do 12 miles. She gave me some positive encouragement despite the fact that I was barely moving forward.
This section just kept on going. After picking my way around the rocks in the dark, I finally finally finally got to the last < 1mi road section. I managed to get myself running again and was just thrilled to be almost done. I asked someone along the road how far it was to the finish, and they said it was two blocks. Naturally, I didn’t believe them and assumed the trail would either divert for one more big climb or possibly take me through the river.
But sure enough the cheering group of people at the finish came into sight, and I was finally done! I was dehydrated, hungry, battered, bruised, and exhausted. But done. It felt so good to sit down, drink some soda, and eat some pizza.
A huge thanks to all the folks at the finish who took amazing care of me (Roxanne, Dave, Jack, others I am forgetting). I was woefully underprepared and didn’t have anything with me at the finish. They gave me food, drinks, and a blanket to keep me warm on a cool night. They were also kind enough to let me nap in the car while we waited for Brigitte to finish and drive back to the start. Jack, thank you so much for driving us back to the start in the middle of the night. Thanks to all the crews out there who helped me out. Thanks to Hunt for putting on an amazing event. And thanks to Taco Bell for being open at 2am. I can promise you that no one has ever been happier to see a Taco Bell.
This report is way too long already, so I will wrap up quickly. It was a beautiful trail and a fun experience. It was also unbelievably difficult. I have never had to dig so deep and endure so much to finish a race. I had something to prove to myself after Laurel Highlands, and I was able to prove it and then some. Hunt and others put on a great event that is truly unique and a memorable experience.