For many, hiking the Appalachian Trail is a rite of passage. Spanning 2,180 miles from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Katahdin, Maine, the “A.T.” challenges even the most seasoned athletes with its untamable terrain and unpredictable elements.
Just 64 miles northwest of Washington lies Harpers Ferry, W.V., a small, historic town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley where West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia converge. It’s one of the few towns through which the Appalachian Trail runs directly. Just a few weeks ago, Dustin Meeker, of Baltimore, and Gaithersburg resident Conrad Laskowski descended upon Harpers Ferry for the second time that day, this time to celebrate completing the Appalachian Trail Four-State Challenge — a 42.9-mile trek traveling across the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.
That moment was over two years in the making. Meeker, a lifelong runner and lover of the outdoors, had just finished reading the books A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s tale about walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, and The Longest Race, Ed Ayres’s exploration of ultramarathoning. Then, an idea sparked. He decided to merge his two passions and run a portion of the A.T.
After some research, Meeker set his sights on the Four-State Challenge. Laskowski agreed to join him.
Months passed and goal races kept the two competitive runners from fully committing to tackling the trail. But finally, on Sunday, June 28, the time came. At approximately 8:15 a.m., Laskowski and Meeker took off from Pen Mar Road in southern Pennsylvania. A wrong turn in the first few minutes set them a mile off course, but they quickly recovered and soon the pair crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland. It would be another 40 miles along the backbone of South Mountain until they reached another state line.
The first four miles were business as usual for Meeker and Laskowski, who have each been running for two decades, but then the trail abruptly ended and they came face-to-face with a boulder field.
“It was no longer a distinguishable trail. You just came out to an open space where the ground was just rocks on rocks on rocks,” he explained. “You’d scan the horizon to see a tree with white glaze on it to see where you were supposed to be going.”
Reluctantly slowing their pace to 14-minute miles, they crawled forward, carefully stepping from boulder to boulder, making sure each foot landed on something stable. One wrong move could be detrimental and force them to pack up and head home barely a tenth of the way into their planned route.
By A.T. standards, the Maryland portion of the Appalachian Trail is easy and serves as a gut check to see if hikers are ready for more rugged areas. During training, Laskowski said, simulating the trail’s rockiness wasn’t accomplished other than during a 20-miler — 10 out, 10 back — they ran on a segment of the trail. But significant rainfall the previous day now had slickened the already challenging technical terrain. Quiet streams now rushed. Once-dry rocks became miniature waterfalls.
But throughout their journey, difficult, unrunnable areas quickly transformed into blossoming meadows and scenic overlooks, allowing the runners brief moments of euphoria. The A.T. wrapped through lush state parks crawling with wildlife as Laskowski and Meeker continued southbound through Maryland, feeling strong. Both were marathoners, so despite the stark difference in terrain from their typical road races, the amount of time on their feet was old hat. But beyond that, it was uncharted territory.
Just shy of the 50k mark, both Meeker and Laskowski hit a wall — hard — as they began an estimated one-mile climb up the side of a ridge.
“I went into a dark place,” Laskowski explained. “I convinced myself I was going to have to pull the plug.”
They agreed that once they reached Gathland State Park, roughly 10 miles short of their goal, they’d call it quits. “Psychologically, I was broken down,” Meeker said.
Meeker’s girlfriend, Melissa, was waiting for them at Harpers Ferry. He reached into his pack for his phone to let her know to pick them up within the hour. But his phone was wet and he couldn’t send the text. Frustrated, they continued their climb. When they reached the crest, they were relieved to have a long, gradual descent over a much more forgiving portion of the A.T. That was the second wind they needed.
“[The feeling] is common among ultrarunners, but something we hadn’t experienced,” Meeker explained. “It’s common for people to go through very dark patches and suddenly come out of it and feel rejuvenated.”
They continued to run due south through Gathland State Park with their sights set on reaching Harpers Ferry. As Laskowski and Meeker approached the footbridge stretching across the Potomac, they paused to take in the view. They had finally reached West Virginia.
Only about four miles of the A.T. runs through West Virginia proper and the elevation remains relatively fl at. As the pair exited Harpers Ferry and crossed over the Shenandoah River, they knew they were only a few miles from achieving their goal.
But just before mile 41, the trail turned sharply upward, ascending nearly 875 feet in less than a mile and a half. Meeker and Laskowski battled exhausted legs up the seemingly never-ending side of the mountain in desperate search of the Virginia state line — their finish line. It was their most grueling climb of the day, after running nearly eight hours. They began asking hikers heading north how far they were from Virginia. Some estimated a mile. Others replied, “It’s not much farther.”
In the final stretch of the Four State Challenge, the trail runs parallel to the border with Virginia, almost taunting runners looking for the proverbial finish line. It was just within reach through the trees, but where exactly?
They pushed on.
Finally, after eight hours and five minutes, Meeker and Laskowski stepped into Virginia.
[button-red url=”http://mountainpeakfitness.com/blog/2015-fkt-at-4-state-challenge-iain-ridgway” target=”_self” position=”left”] Ridgway’s account[/button-red]After pausing to cherish their accomplishment, sweaty and muddied from 42.9 miles of trail running, the pair turned around and descended down the mountain back toward Harpers Ferry. They had covered more miles in a single day than many runners do in a week’s time. And they’re already started talking about a second go at the Four-State Challenge, this time in pursuit of the fastest known time of 7:29:51, set by ultrarunner Ian Ridgway earlier this year.
For Laskowski and Meeker, completing the challenge was a joyful moment together and a significant personal achievement for each. There were no spectators cheering them on in the last 100 meters or medals placed around their necks.
Despite the lack of fanfare, it was pure bliss.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve had as a runner,” Meeker said.