This past Saturday, I participated in the 6th annual Keystone Trails Association Susquehanna Super Hike and Ultra Trail Run. Participants had the option of two distances (23.4 or 29.6 miles) on a course comprised of sections of the Conestoga and Mason Dixon Trails. At the close of registration, 454 people had signed up.
I’d never done any kind of race or trail challenge event, so this was all new to me. I wasn’t in any danger of winning the thing, but I signed up mainly to test my stamina under somewhat controlled conditions. Exactly how fast could I cover 23.4 miles, if speed was my goal?
Of course, 1 week before the race, I came down with a bad case of bronchitis. I started eating Mucinex like candy just to get through my days (don’t try this at home). I was truly worried about what effect this would have on my hike. By race day, I was feeling 80-90% better. Only a minor cough and a little chest congestion remained. I got lucky.
388 people started the race with me that day. Hiking with so many people made me apprehensive because I have a bit of enochlophobia (fear of being in crowds). I managed to suppress that anxiety and focus on something just as troubling: the heat. If i had to guess, I’d say it was in the low 70’s with a billion percent humidity at 7am (the temperature allegedly hit 90 at some point during the day). I was sweating before I even started moving.
Right out of the gate, I decided to run for a bit. The trail started off flat, so I figured I’d take advantage of that. Of course the “real” runners pulled well ahead of me, but I was able to separate myself from the slower part of the pack. I wasn’t all that worried about getting ahead of people, but I really wanted to get out of the crowd. I ran about 3/4 of a mile until the trail and then slowed to my hiking pace when the trail headed uphill. I battled with the crowd for the first few miles, but everyone started spreading out after that. I’d never really be alone, but I often had a 100-200 yard buffer between me and the next hiker. I was OK with that.
The first ten miles looked like they were going to be the hardest. There were no truly brutal climbs, but there were a LOT of moderate ups-and-downs. My problems started around mile 3. While hiking downhill, I noticed that my insoles were sliding and bunching up at the front of my shoes. Before long, hot spots were forming on my heels and toes. I had to make an unexpected to fix my shoes around Mile 5. This problem would recur all day, but I decided not to stop again. I could power through blister pain for one day and nurse them back to health after the race. Normally I wouldn’t have such a cavalier attitude towards foot health, but I didn’t want to waste any time.
The first checkpoint was at the Holtwood Pinnacle. I decided not to waste time refilling my hydration reservoir, which by my best estimation still contained just over a liter of water. I grabbed a cup of Gatorade and a Clif bar and got back on the trail as quickly as possible.
After the checkpoint, the trail got a little easier. There were still a few climbs here and there, but not as many as before. I managed to regain a little speed. Around the 11th mile, we hopped on a road and crossed the Susquehanna River on the bridge. Shortly after that was the next checkpoint.
I lingered at the second checkpoint a bit longer than the first. The first order of business was refilling my hydration reservoir, but that was easy thanks to some young volunteers who did the work for me while I headed to the snack table. I enjoyed half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a few cups of water (fortified with electrolytes from Elete). This checkpoint even had loaner trekking poles from Leki, but I had my Gossamer Gear LT4‘s and didn’t need to borrow a set.
Stopping at this checkpoint caused my muscles to start tightening, so I was stiff for the next mile or two. This was particularly painful when the trail started going back uphill. Luckily, I got warm again and loosened up before too long.
The trail meandered through the woods, along a dirt road and past the Holtwood Dam. Just before the third and final checkpoint, the race route took us up a long, grassy incline. The heat and humidity of the day had started to become oppressive, and this hill, which wouldn’t have been very challenging on a normal day, became brutal. Every single hiker slowed to a crawl and looked half-dead as they death-marched up to the checkpoint.
The checkpoint itself was very hot. I heard grumblings that it was 101 degrees in the sun there. I helped myself to water and a banana or two and then started walking once more. I heard that the next section included road walking, which I was not looking forward to. I imagined that the asphalt would be brutally hot, but it turned out that it actually gave me a bit of a reprieve. Even though we were exposed to the sun, there was a beautiful breeze blowing through the corn fields. The smooth road was hard underfoot, but the smoothness was a welcome change after hiking on rocks most of the morning.
The trail went back into the woods for the last 2 miles or so. By this point I had started hiking with 3 or 4 other people. I was nice to have someone to talk to. I was alone most of the morning, and the conversation made my brain forget how tired I was.
As the trail entered Otter Creek Campground, I knew that my hike was almost over. When I saw the finish line, I broke into a dead sprint. I wanted more than anything to finish this race strong, and I did. My final time for the 23.4-mile course was 7:30:21 and I placed 51 out of 205 finishers. There was tons of food for the participants at the finish, but I wasn’t very hungry. I only had a hot dog and an iced tea before boarding the shuttle bus and heading back to my car. Despite the heat, I had a great day on the trail, and I’m looking forward to coming back to the Super Hike next year.