By Jaret Seiberg
[Here is the photo attribution that Jaret sent: "The one of me, Kerry took with my phone. The one of Kerry, I took with my phone. The group shot was taken with Hunt's phone, but no one is quite sure who clicked the picture." Who needs a camera? ]
Kerry Owens and I this weekend conquered the Mason-Dixon Trail Longest Day Challenge, a surprisingly difficult 100K put on by Paul Melzer and Hunt Bartine of the Delaware Trail Dawgs.
Before getting into the details, I have to say that events like this are the reason I run ultras. This was an amazing experience on a highly challenging course that somewhat followed the Susquehanna River. I strongly suspect that many more VHTRC’ers will be journeying north for this event in the coming years.
So what is the Mason Dixon Trail Longest Day Challenge? Here is the premise: Start by the mill on the HAT run course and run the Mason Dixon trail 62 miles upriver to the Shanks Mare store, which is in Pennsylvania just south of where US Rt. 30 crosses the Susquehanna River. The challenge, however, is to complete the course before the sun sets on the longest day of the year. Hence, the Longest Day challenge.
I intended to join the group last year, but I had to beg off at the last minute. This year, when Hunt and Paul said they intended to try again, I had to join in. When Kerry Owens pulled out of Big Horn, I forwarded the challenge info to her and conned her into joining me on the trail.
Kerry and I met the night before to drop a car off at Shanks Mare store. This would allow us to get back to the start – and then home – a bit quicker the next day. Of course, finding the store proved a bit challenging, perhaps foreshadowing the day ahead. By the time we got to our motel in Aberdeen, it was midnight. That gave us about 3.5 hours of sleep.
Still, the hotel brewed us fresh coffee and we made it to the start around 4:45 a.m. Among those joining us were Paul – who would be our roving aid station – Hunt, Carl Camp, Margie Hughes, Jenny from Philadelphia, Brian from Arlington, and Nate, who must have been a local because he dropped some of his own supplies on trail. We began at 5:05 a.m.
This is a challenge of six sections. Section one covered a bit of the HAT course before joining a tow path that follows the Susquehanna River. We then had a detour around the Conowingo Dam that soon put us on single track. The views of the river were incredible and I figured this run would be a piece of cake. At mile 9, I had visions that we could be finished as early as 3 p.m.
That was a major miscalculation.
Section Two was a bit tougher. We ran for miles on dirt roads, often with steep ups and downs. We also had additional single track and we gradually made our way to the second aid station, which was just after a Boy Scout’s camp. With this section, the terrain was a bit tougher. But the course markings were easy to find and Kerry and I made great time. We had three folks ahead of us at this point: Hunt, Brian and Nate.
Again, I thought we would be done long before dinner. At mile 14, My new estimate was 4 p.m.
Another major miscalculation.
Section Three began with several miles on paved roads. At this point, I needed to pull out the map and turn sheet. Still, it was pretty easy to navigate on the road. We quickly passed Hunt on the road and Brian joined our group and stayed with us for the next 20 miles or so.
Trail soon took us to the Peach Bottom Atomic Power plant. We found it quite amusing that there were numerous signs informing us that we needed to evacuate quickly if the siren went off.
This is where the Mason-Dixon trail ratcheted up the pressure an additional degree. Suddenly, it became very difficult to stay on trail. We missed a few turns by the power plant and had to stop multiple times to figure out the right way to go. The elevation gains also started to increase. The hills were getting bigger. This was true on the roads and on the trails by the power plant.
We hit mile 25 aid at a kayak store. Paul was there to cheer us on. We filled up our Camelbaks and the three of us headed out on the longest section of the day. Our next aid would be at mile 38 (though Kerry and I believe it really was mile 40.)
At mile 25, I figured we could easily finish by 5 p.m. I actually thought I was being generous and thought there was a chance we could still hit 4 p.m.
Then the Mason-Dixon trail increased the difficulty level by several more degrees. We followed the river for a bit on a dirt road before turning inland. On the map, I thought we were on roads for the entire 13 to 15 miles. I was wrong. We soon entered a beautiful single track that headed up and up and up. We were following a stream that was a mini-version of Great Falls. It was a gorge, with rock face on both sides and many waterfalls. It was stunning and not anything that I was expecting.
A few miles into the run we found Diana Widdowson, who parked at the Lock 12 aid station and came looking for us. She estimated it would take three hours to get there. We mocked her. That would not be the last time we were so foolish.
We eventually exited the trail and began miles upon miles on paved roads. Our running joke was to ask Diana when the roads would end. She would keep saying not to worry because the next section was shaded. (It wasn’t.)
This was one of several instances where we would leave the river, go miles inland, and then return to the river. This gave us the chance to gain massive amounts of elevation. Yet we progressed very little up the river.
We finally started heading back to the river and I was overjoyed. I figured it was all downhill. Diana just looked at me like I was crazy. That is because we kept climbing and climbing.
This is how these road climbs would work. Diana and Kerry would power walk the hills as if they did not exist. Brian and I would struggle to keep up. Then we would go down hill and Brian and I would catch up only to see them take off again.
My water ran dry at least two miles before the aid station. There were some blazes on this section and Diana knew the trail. Or at least we thought she did. She did try to lead us astray at one point. Fortunately, Brian and I saw a blaze before we went out of our way.
The road finally went downhill to the river. I thought we were at Lock 12. We were not. Instead, we did an idiot loop through a park, rejoined our road, and then followed a single track along the river. This trails was similar to the infamous Billy Goat trail on the Maryland side of Great Falls. We did more climbing than running.
Yet we survived and made it to Lock 12. The section we finished involved far more climbing than any of the other sections. Yet we also had a lot of road, which meant we could make good time.
I still thought we could finish by 6 p.m.
Lock 12 was an oasis. Paul was there with lots of water, Coke, and munchies. We sat and rehydrated. Kerry really put Brian and me to shame on this last section. She was just cruising.
We left Lock 12 for what Paul said was 12 miles to Owens Creek campground. Kerry and I put it at 10 miles. Our theory was that the map said it was 10 miles so it would be 10 miles.
The section along the river was quite pretty. We had some dirt road and some nice single track. Then we started climbing again on single track along a stream bed. This led to a very long climb up an overgrown grass road. That led to more roads before we hit a dirt road and then a power line trail.
This is where the Mason Dixon trail threw us our next challenge. Navigation became quite challenging. There was one section in the woods where we had no idea where to go. Up to this point, we had a pretty good system. Kerry would set the pace and I would stare at the turn sheet and map. That worked great until we ran into multiple trails, all unmarked.
Still with trial and error – lots of error – we finally made it into Otter Creek campground.
Once again Paul and his merry band of volunteers were there waiting for us. We filled up on water and then hit the Otter Creek campground store for slushes and began the final 12 miles.
Before we left, Paul said this would take at least 4 hours to complete. Kerry laughed and put it at three hours. I thought our worst-case scenario would be 3.5 hours. We found the tricky turn just past the campground and headed off on trail.
This is where we passed Nate for the final time. Nate was cruising for much of the run. But he must have run past us at least four or five times. This is because he would get off trail, which was pretty easy to do. Kerry and I would then catch up. Then he would pass us. This time, Nate did not pass us again. We later learned that he called his wife and bailed out at the next road crossing.
Once again we started climbing. Only now the climbs were even steeper and our legs were more tired. We knew we had two loops away from the river. The first one involved some insane navigation challenges and we struggled at points to figure out where the trail went. We found the unmanned water stop at mile 54 and solved another tricky navigation issue there. This actually got amusing as the Mason-Dixon trail turn sheet described turning when a planted field veered sharply to the left. The only problem: the entire field was not planted.
Still this was nothing compared to the sections to come. We finally got back to the river only to head inland one last time in a county wilderness park. The trail started to get very rocky. This was beautiful, but represented another challenge. We entered a stream valley and had trouble following the washed out trail. Then the trail leaving the wilderness area had been washed out. It took us a while to figure out the detour.
Despite this, we were pretty positive when we got to the start of the so-called escarpment. We knew it was a straight shot to the end. No more inland jaunts. We actually figured we would easily finish by 8:15.
Boy, were we wrong. This final six mile stretch is far more difficult than any other on the course. There are many long and steep climbs, which are followed by long and steep declines. It is also very rocky. Plus, one must navigate through this.
It took forever, but we finally got to a dirt road. From there, it was only one more trail section to the finish. Forget Short Mountain. That final trail section was closer to Old Rag Mountain. After a long climb, we were scrambling up boulders and navigating jagged edges that were sharp enough to cut you.
Finally, we heard volunteers Dave and Roxanne yelling to us and we knew we were almost finished. Another slow and steep downhill led to the final half mile on the road to the Shanks Mare store.
When Kerry and I finished, the sun was still setting. So we declared ourselves victorious and plopped down on the ground. (I think we made it with four minutes to spare, though I defer to Paul on that.) Paul was there with snacks and pizza while Dave and Roxanne offered us cold drinks and sandwiches. It was a wonderful finish. We stuck around the end for about 45 minutes. I understand from Paul that Margie and Jenny finished about 90 minutes after we came it. Even though Margie said she knew the course, I find their finish particularly impressive as they covered the toughest part of the run in complete darkness. Brian and Hunt dropped at mile 50, which still represents an impressive performance.
This is clearly an event – not a race. (Mike Bur would love it; John Dodds would probably drive himself nuts studying the maps trying to prepare for it.) It reminds me of the original Cross County run when you needed the map and turn sheet to stay on trail. If we go back, Kerry and I could easily take 90 minutes off our time just because we are familiar with the trail. Still, it wouldn’t be as fun
A huge thank you to Paul and Hunt for coming up with the Longest Day Challenge. This was an adventure that was well worth undertaking.