It was 2 in the afternoon when we finally put our packs on after our amazing break and headed back to the AT. We had an 11 mile half day planned to get us back in the groove. The next day we would begin the Marathon Week Challenge.
What’s a Marathon Week Challenge? As if thru-hiking the AT wasn’t a monumental task in and of itself, there are a few extra challenges some hikers put themselves through. The Half Gallon Challenge, for example, involves eating an entire half gallon of ice cream in a single setting near the half way point of the AT. The Four State challenge is completed by hiking from Virginia through West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania (about 43 miles) in 24 hours. There’s even a challenge to hike 24 miles in 24 hours while drinking 24 beers. But BigFoot and I were somehow most intrigued by the Marathon Week Challenge – averaging a marathon (26.2 miles) per day for seven days.
Before our break, we had been averaging 18-22 miles per day. Our largest day so far was 26 miles. While in DC, we checked out the guidebook and decided the terrain through Maryland and pre-boulder Pennsylvania could potentially accommodate us completing the 184 miles in a week. Hiking 11 miles out of Harpers Ferry would put us 184 miles away from Port Clinton, PA where we could get a hotel, rest, and recuperate.
Well… now or never.
On your mark.
Day 1. The key to completing high miles in a day is to start as early as possible. On day 1, we hit the trail at 6:40 am from Crampton Gap Shelter with a goal of 25.6 miles for the day. We hiked through the morning stopping once for second breakfast and ate lunch at Washington Monument State Park. By noon, we had somehow only completed 8.7 which still left a daunting 17 miles. After our snacks, we continued on our way, crossed over I-70, and appreciated the relatively easy terrain.
At about 5:30, we had made it 20.7 miles to a shelter’s nearby spring and decided to cook dinner before finishing the final 4.9 miles. By the time we had finished filtering water, dark clouds had rolled in, and the rain began to fall. Thankfully, the shelter was very close and had a roof over the picnic table. We made and ate our dinner and considered calling our first day short. And potentially calling off the marathon week before it really began. At about 7, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun rays began to make the woods shimmer. We packed up and went for it. Thankfully, we finished the remaining 4.9 miles dry and ended our first day at the beautiful two story Raven Rock Shelter. And really, we were there just in time. We arrived as the sun was saying its goodbyes for the evening, and soon after the rain began to fall once more. We fell asleep to the lullaby of rain hitting the tin roof. 25.6 miles.
Day 2. We awoke at an impressive 5:30 am and were packed, Poptart-ed, and ready to hike by 6:15, a new record. Today we were shooting for 25.4 miles. Yesterday’s rains had stopped over night and miles sure do fly by in the dawn. The first five miles were done by 8:00, and we stopped to enjoy second breakfast in Pen Mar County Park. We did our best to keep the break short and continued on our way. Just outside the park, we crossed the Maryland / Pennsylvania state line which is also the Mason / Dixon line. Let’s just say, these Yankees are happy to be back in the North.
By noon, we had completed “12 (miles) x 12 (o’clock).” The AT crossed a creek with a convenient picnic table just begging us to keep it company. We obliged and enjoyed a long lunch knowing we had “only” 13.4 miles remaining for the day. At 1:00, we were off again keeping a steady 3 mph pace. Hours and miles ticked away. By 6:00, our bodies were running out of fuel for the day. We had about 3 miles to go including a 600 ft climb to get us to the shelter. We continued on the AT a bit further when the trail met a state park. Caldonia State Park was buzzing with families enjoying the trails, swimming pool, and picnic area. Suddenly, it dawned on BigFoot to suggest we eat dinner here before we finished the hike. Ahhh food… just what I needed! We even made coffee taking advantage of the convenient water spigot. We finished the remaining miles in considerably better spirits and were delighted to arrive at the shelter. Actually, one of the nicest shelters we’ve seen yet. This shelter was two shelters connected by a long roof with a big covered porch and picnic table. The shelter is decorated with no less than six hanging plants, complete with flowing spring and even a checkers board. We enjoyed all of this ambience for maybe 15 minutes before unrolling our sleeping pads and quickly falling asleep. 25.4 miles. 25.5 mile average.
Day 3. We began our day at 6:40 am. By 9 we had completed 7.4 miles, and by 12:30 we arrived at Pine Grove Furnace State Park (PGFSP). That means we completed 16.9 miles by midday. Even writing this now I’m somewhat blown away by that figure. PGFSP is also just north of the official half way point, and now we are officially closer to Katahdin than Springer. Woah.
PGFSP is home to the Half Gallon Challenge which we decided to forego in order to hike more miles, though we did enjoy quesadillas and chicken fingers for lunch. Despite wasting probably too much time, we hiked on killing 11.5 more miles that day for a total of 28.4 miles. 26.5 mile average.
Day 4. It’s always a little harder to get going early from the comfort of your tent. We still managed to hit the trail by 6:45 and continued on our way. That morning we got the joy of a rock maze before crossing corn fields into Boiling Springs, PA. While in Boiling Springs, we resupplied on groceries and headed to a local restaurant / resort for a lunch buffet. Unfortunately, the lunch buffet was a myth, but we were determined to get a hot lunch. We waited around for a bit, enjoying not hiking and eventually got our tasty lunch. In town, we actually had phone service, and we received a text from Sean’s cousin exclaiming that she and his mom were coming to see us Tuesday, our planned zero day. Excited, we inadvertently killed about 3 hours at the restaurant and then headed back to the trail. The guidebook boasts a very flat trail in this section of PA, and we thought we would conquer a big day. In reality, the flat trail through farm land bored us both to tears and a blanket of lethargy set in. We made it to a shelter and called it quits for the evening hoping to make up a few miles over the next three days. 22.4 miles. 25.5 mile average.
Day 5. Sore and tired, we still managed a 7:00 am start time. We were 11.3 miles from Duncannon were the trail walks through town. The guidebook warned of a seven mile “very rocky” stretch preceding town though we have previously traversed far more difficult terrain without warning.
We had just left the shelter when the rain began, a wonderful motivation for the 27+ miles ahead. The rain ceased right at 11 when we arrived in town. Realizing it was the fourth of July, we decided to get gas station hotdogs to celebrate. During the three mile stretch through town, we ran into some familiar faces and couldn’t help but waste some time loitering. We hopped into The Doyle, an infamous hiker hotel and bar and had a couple beers. Sigh. We still had 16 miles to go to camp. No sooner than the beers were put in front of us were they gone and it was time to hike on. We said our goodbyes and continued down the trail.
We made the 700 ft climb out of Duncannon, and 4 miles later we made it to a shelter. 12 more miles to go. Bigger sigh. By this time, a blister on my heel was absolutely relentless and every step was painful. I stopped twice to fix the shifting bandaid. No luck. This was one I’d just have to tough out.
We made it to another shelter, and I popped my second dose of vitamin I (ibuprofen) for the day. Just 5 more miles and 2 more days of this nonsense. Though the terrain wasn’t too difficult, the blister on my heal, my wet socks scraping the tops of my toes, and overall wear from the previous days were building up. Those five miles, which ended up taking 2 full hours, dragged on to an eternity. Honestly, the pain felt like a lighter burning the tops of my toes and my heal on every step. The mirage of a campsite was around every corner. I was done.
And, as always when you walk far enough, the destination appeared. As soon as the tent was up, I crawled in for the night skipping dinner in favor of sleep. If you know anything about hikers, foregoing a meal is some variety of sacrilege but laying down was that important. It seemed as if all 5 days of this had caught up to me all at once. My socks were carefully peeled off my feet, the burns and blisters purposefully exposed from my sleeping bag. Pain radiated out of my hips tired from carrying near 30 pounds over all these miles. It spread down to my toes, reminded me of the sores, then circulated back up and ended with a pounding in my head. I’m not sure how long I laid there before sleep captured me. It felt like an hour or more though I’m sure I couldn’t have been awake that long…
27.4 miles. 25.8 mile average.
Day 6. My eyes opened and I checked the time. 5:33. Nope, not happening. It seemed BigFoot agreed, and we slept in. 7:00 rolled around and we begrudgingly began to move. By 8 we had broken down camp and started moving. Thankfully, the sun was out, and my feet were much happier in dry socks and shoes. A mile later, we stopped for water, ate snacks, and spent time dawdling, and it was already 9. Shit.
On we trudged, grateful for smooth terrain. At about 1 o’clock and 13 miles later, we stopped at a beautiful campsite with a nearby stream and made a hot lunch making up for skipping the previous night’s dinner. Fueled up, we set out for the other half of the day. On we walked. And walked. And walked.
Eventually we crossed an interstate which left 7 miles left to go. It took every ounce of energy to keep walking. Exhausted is an understatement. But still, somehow, we walked. Looking back, I don’t exactly know where that strength and determination came from. But, on we walked.
And, of course, we came upon our shelter for the evening. This two story shelter had a 16 person capacity and we were about numbers 13 and 14. We asked fellow hikers were to get water and were obviously disappointed when we heard the water source was a quarter mile away. Luckily, two fellow hikers offered us a liter (definitely out of pity), and we were spared the trip.
We again skipped our hot meal, glad we had made one for lunch. I flipped my phone on and received a text from BigFoot’s cousin, Beverly. Beverly and his mom were currently en route to PA. They were hoping to help us slack pack the next day before our scheduled zero.
What’s slack packing? That’s a beautiful stretch where a car carries your pack from one road crossing to another while you hike *ahh* pack free. While some consider this cheating, I consider this a reminder of why I love to hike. 30 pounds sure does make a hell of a difference.
We fell asleep quickly, excited for the next day, our final day of the challenge. 26.3 miles. 25.9 mile average.
Day 7. We somehow managed to awake early and hit the trail by 7. Our previous night’s plan gave us 13.5 miles to hike with packs and a remaining 14.8 without. Despite all of the built up pain in our feet, bodies, and minds, we walked on. Miles and hours ticked by and we could hear the anticipated road crossing ahead. All of the sudden, we exited the woods and there were Beverly, Jo, and Rusty the pup. Ahhh free at last from our packs.
Our trail angels even brought us lunch from Five Guys which we devoured at record pace. Thankfully, they even thought to bring some cookies for fellow hikers. Eventually, we put on a day pack they had brought for us and headed back into the woods.
Woah. This is AWESOME!!!
Every step felt different, lighter and bouncy. I felt like I had more energy to enjoy the woods around me. BigFoot and I along with our friend Red Pepper hiked quickly, frolicking through the forest. 14.8 miles went by in record time. Literally, we hit about 4 miles per hour at some points which is absolutely impossible with packs on.
Our slack pack half day came to an end after an incredibly steep decent into Port Clinton, PA. 28.2 miles. 183.7 miles in 7 days for an average of 26.2 miles per day.
Marathon Week Challenge complete.