The Maryland Challenge: Covering every foot of the Appalachian Trail through the state of Maryland – 41 miles from Pen-Mar, Pennsylvania, to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia – in a single day.
For years the Maryland Challenge held a place of reverence for my brother and me, ever since I read about it on some dark corner of the Internet and mentioned it to Stephen during one of our annual adventures. From that first moment it was inevitable that we would attempt it, even if we didn’t know it at the time. We’d come home exhausted from a two-day, 23-mile hike and wonder how on Earth we would ever cover 41 in a single day.
But the more we talked about it – slipped into quiet asides during family gatherings or mentioned boldy during less taxing endeavors – the more it became apparent that we would, in fact, actually attempt it one day. We also understood that it would likely never be something that we trained specifically for – whenever it happened, it would be a spur-of-the-moment decision.
And that’s exactly how it went down. I had an open weekend coming up on my calendar and wrote a quick email to my brother asking if he would be up for some kind of outdoor activity – “Downtown trail run? Pocahontas [State Park]? Hike? Maryland?” His response – “You thinking about 40 mile Maryland hike? You’re crazy. I’ll do it.” And so it was set. Less than two weeks later we were driving to Maryland with no real idea of what we were getting in to.
The plan: We were extremely fortunate that our dad was also available on the days we had chosen – he agreed to drive us to the trailhead and then meet us at a handful of designated checkpoints where the trail crossed roads along the way. That way we would only have to carry enough fuel to get us to the next checkpoint and not have to lug a day’s worth of supplies all 41 miles. We could also have backup supplies – first-aid, extra clothes – in the car if we needed them.
We approached this endeavor as a trail run – planning to cover the distance as fast as possible. We would run the flats and downhills and walk the uphill sections. While the climbs are not particularly challenging relative to other sections of the AT we’ve explored, we were expecting a decent amount of elevation gain. (What we were not expecting was the amount of very technical trail that would make it impossible to run or even walk with a normal gait. In the end, we probably only ran about a quarter of the distance.)
For fuel we would rely mainly on Perpetuem, which claims to provide all the nutrients needed for endurance activities. We would also have plenty of snacks in the car but would only carry a few basic morsels – Shot Bloks and bite-size Snickers bars – to get us through.
We drove up on Sunday and stayed at the Super 8 in Thurmont, Md., only about 11 miles from the trailhead. Our alarms went off at 4 a.m. Monday morning and we were taking our first steps on the trail at 5:30.
Miles 1-10: Having familiarized ourselves with the trail’s elevation profile, we knew at the outset that the first 10 miles would be among the toughest of the day. After an introductory mile or two – which we covered at a brisk jog – we encountered the first big climb, made more challenging by the rock-strewn ground that would become the trademark of much of the trail ahead. But, obviously, it was early and we were full of energy and excited about the challenge at hand.
After the climb we hit a section of gorgeous trail – mostly dirt and pine needles and relatively flat. But somewhere in mile 8 Stephen took a high-speed tumble when his foot hit an obscured root or rock. He landed hard on his knee and elbow and I knew it would likely become an issue later on, particularly when he stopped for a rest and then started to move again. We were close to the first checkpoint (at 8.5 miles), so we jogged it in and he got things cleaned up. I was also happy to be hungry at this point, knowing that I would need to keep well-fueled to complete the day. I had popped a couple Shot Bloks on the trail and, once at the car, ate a banana and some other snacks. After chatting briefly with a through-hiker who strolled out of the woods as we refueled we were off and running again.
Miles 10-20: Mile 10 started at the bottom of the second steep climb of the day, and I was heartened by the map’s depiction of several miles of relatively flat trail after the initial half-mile ascent. What the map didn’t show was the treacherous nature of the trail along this section. At least a full mile was gnarly rock gardens – an ankle-twisting, toe-banging, rock-hopping slog that just never seemed to end. It was frustrating to have to concentrate on our footing so closely, and whenever we slipped on the wet rocks or stubbed our toes on a jutting root it only made things psychologically worse. I also developed a blister on the inside of my heel during this section, and the trail was taking its toll on Stephen, too, as he started to complain about shin pain and his own blisters.
When we thankfully reached smoother trail we quickly fell back into our running pace. The effort was easy but it was here that I first started to feel unsettled in my stomach. I know the feeling all too well, having experienced it during my marathon and my 35-mile birthday run. I was curious how it would play out this time since I was going so much farther. All I could do was try to keep taking in the Perpetuem and nibble snacks when I could.
At last we cruised in to the parking lot near the I-70 footbridge – at 18.6 miles it was the psychological halfway point of the hike, if not the mathematical one. We stopped here for about 45 minutes to tend to our blisters, change into a dry shirt and refuel. I was able to eat another banana here, but not much more. The act of sitting for so long made Stephen’s aching shins and knee only more stiff and ornery, and it took us a bit of walking after our break before we could resume anything of a faster pace.
Miles 21-30: The hike up to Washington Monument is not dramatic on the map, but at this point of the day even the smaller climbs were having a pronounced effect on us. The heat was also picking up and I was starting to get a little worried about the fact that my stomach didn’t want to accept any more fuel – either liquid or solid. I was worried about sweating too much and becoming dehydrated.
We pushed ourselves up the hill to the monument, where we threw a cursory glance across the valley spread before us before turning and continuing on our way. We signed the guestbook at the small museum there and slowly resumed our hike, thankful that the next checkpoint was less than 3 miles away.
Stephen and I both began to wrestle with our own specific issues, which would eventually define our individual memories of the day. It was interesting to me that our experiences were the polar opposite in this regard: Stephen was dealing with mechanical pains – shins, knees, hips, feet – but his energy level was high and he was devouring food at every checkpoint. On the other hand, my legs and joints were feeling well-oiled and smooth but I could not take in food no matter how much I wanted to. Even the first sip of water would make my stomach churn. Stephen had to push through pain that shot through his legs with every step, and I was haunted by the frightening possibility of simply running out of fuel for my body to operate.
We finally made it to the checkpoint at mile 24.5 and things were not looking good. We had more than 16 miles still ahead, including the last big climb of the day. That climb mocked me from the map – two solid miles of climbing along more of the same rocky trail. We rested for a bit and I tried to drink water and eat a few Pringles before setting off to tackle the six miles until the next checkpoint.
The climb started almost immediately. Stephen and I grew separated as he felt stronger on the inclines because they made his legs hurt less. I, on the other hand, fell behind as I trudged along. I was alone with my thoughts, which were growing increasingly darker – I knew that there was still a lot of trail in front of us and I was losing energy quickly and unable to refuel. I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish. I so badly wanted something cold to drink to bring down my internal temperature, and I knew it was still miles before I could get some water – the Perpetuem was revolting to me now and I only sipped it out of bare necessity.
At the top of the climb the terrain evened out but the trail was still very rocky. I caught up to Stephen near the top and we silently navigated the rocky path. It opened up in places and we were actually able to jog for brief periods. Then, with about 2 miles to go before the next checkpoint, the skies suddenly opened and unleashed a downpour. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at that point. The temperature cooled off and I suddenly felt refreshed and recharged. My pace quickened and I pulled away from Stephen, who was in much more pain on the downhill section. At last I cruised into the checkpoint and headed straight to the car to get water. My dad looked almost confused as he asked, “Is Stephen with you?” I realized I was probably a bad brother to leave him behind but I was so thirsty that all I could think about was getting to the water.
Miles 31-41: At this checkpoint I made the decision to empty my Perpetuem and just carry water. I knew that would mean I would be getting no nutrients during the next few hours, but I just couldn’t stomach it any longer. I ate about ten grapes and a few Pringles, and despite my great thirst for water I could only drink a few sips. (Stephen, however, was eating like a horse, and I was jealous that he could eat so much – I wanted to eat but couldn’t.) We rested for a while and I actually felt somewhat ready to take on the next segment.
Stephen had a lot of trouble getting started because of his pains, but I felt OK and started jogging ahead. But my heart rate increased quickly and after a half-mile or so I had to dial it back to a walk. This was the last time I ran on the trip. In fact, my pace continually slowed, eventually to a shuffle as my energy level plummeted. Stephen had the misfortune to take a pit stop along the side of the trail and end up standing directly on top of a hornet nest. When he felt the first stings his adrenaline kicked in and he was able to run – fast – and finally catch up to me again (thankfully the bees didn’t follow him too long).
He found me in rough shape – I was again questioning how I was going to finish. With 5 miles of trail left until West Virginia, I couldn’t understand how I could keep pushing myself. It was just too far and I had nothing left. My calorie intake had been next to nothing for many hours, and my stomach felt horrible. Finally I just sat on the trail – I couldn’t take another step and I had to rest. Stephen offered some encouragement and after a few minutes we were moving forward again. The trail was rocky and frustrating and I was moving very slowly.
Finally the trail started heading downward along the last descent. As I came along one of the last switchbacks my stomach finally revolted and I threw up several times along the side of the trail. After recovering for a couple minutes I stood and realized that I actually felt better – at least my stomach was empty and was not churning with each step. I took advantage of the relief and made my way down the last few switchbacks to the final checkpoint, 3 miles from the finish.
My dad had found a convenience store and, for the first time all day, we had fresh ice and cold water to drink. We dipped a shirt into the cold water and draped it over my forehead and neck, which helped a lot. I lay in the grass for a while and tried to eat a banana. But once I stood up again that old familiar feeling was back. However, there was nothing left to do but continue on. We were only three miles from the finish, and those last three miles follow a flat towpath along a canal – the easiest miles of the day.
Because of Stephen’s injuries and my stomach, it took us almost 90 minutes to cover those last interminable miles. We watched the sun fade behind the trees and it was black night by the time we reached the footbridge into West Virginia. We were so far away from excitement or happiness at this point – all we wanted to do was stop walking. We crested the bridge at 9:26 p.m. – 15 hours and 56 minutes after we started in Pennsylvania.
Lessons: I want to avoid falling back on a platitude, such as saying that I “tested my limits” with this adventure. I may have found a limit, but it was an artificial one. Or perhaps you could say I neared the limit of how far I could go without adequate nutrition. The fact is that I could go farther – and faster – if I could unlock the secret of how to fuel my body for this kind of endeavor. I realize that it’s a science and not a matter of simply being mentally strong enough to will myself forward.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s still plenty of room for willpower. It’s a necessity, in fact. But when your body is done, it’s done – no matter how mentally strong you are. In the days since our adventure I’ve done some trolling on endurance sites and, happily, found that there have been many others who have walked in my shoes and it’s uncanny how similar their experiences have been to mine. I’ve found a ton of tips on how to manage nutrition for endurance events and it makes me excited to attempt the next challenge, whatever it might be.Bike: 80.1/535.6 miles Run: 174.8/864.9 miles