FKT Report: Appalachian Trail Four State Challenge by Iain Ridgway

Date: May 5th, 2015
Location: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania
Adventure: 43 miles, 7000 feet elevation gain

My wife loves a romantic weekend away so when I offered her the chance to spend the night camping on the banks of the Potomac River, roasting marshmallows on an open fire she jumped at it, I then introduced the: ‘well you have to wait for me here, here and here’ concept…

This was to be my first attempt at a Fastest Known Time (FKT) after moving to the US last year. In the North East racing in the main mountainous areas and National Parks is fraught with conservation and erosion issues compared to other areas and so FKT’s have arisen in place of races in many areas. I was pleasantly surprised how keyed in I was in the morning and was basically treating it like a race, even being quite nervous on the drive out because I wanted to set a solid time and get a good hard training run in for the World Trail Running Championships later this month in Annecy, France.

We left South Jersey shortly after 6 am and drove out to Pen Mar County Park, luckily getting there just as the caretaker opening up the facilities. The forecast was good, almost too good; with temperatures pushing towards 80F by the afternoon.

At the car park I quickly found the AT (Appalachian Trail), used the restroom, and then walked out past the rail tracks to the first state boundary at the Mason Dixon Line, marking the PA/MD state boundary.

At the PA/MD border and Mason Dixon Line marking the start of the challenge

At the PA/MD border and Mason Dixon Line marking the start of the challenge

After a quick photo I set off, passed the rail tracks and steadily plodded along a good trail feeling pretty happy. I was actually really looking forwards to just a long day on the trail. The first few miles were fairly quick then there was a fairly rough boulder climb but the route from there to the first road crossing at Foxville road was pretty nice and I arrived there already 10 minutes up on the previous FKT schedule. The early miles were all pretty steady but already I was sweating heavily and after approaching the 10 mile point on the second major climb I started to get concerned about water. Again the trail improved and I was back steadily running at 8-9-10 minute miles and was soon at Pogo’s Memorial Campsite. Here I grabbed some water but then realized I was at a campground so poured it away and refilled from a stream a few hundred yards away but again questioned its quality so thought that may mean I’d have to reach the 21-22 mile resupply point with just the 1 liter of water I was carrying in my Ultimate Direction running vest. Thankfully at the I-70 crossing I hit a support station for the ‘Hike Across America’ (HAM) challenge hike and after much confusion that I wasn’t showing my number they allowed me to fill up.

The profile does not show that there is actually a fairly steep climb up to Washington Monument but that went quick enough and soon enough I could see Gwen parked in Washington Monument State Park and grabbed food and re-supplies.

This was almost the halfway point and I was already 40 minutes up on the previous FKT and knew they slowed a lot over the second half so was pretty confident I’d get close to the 7:30 I was aiming at. During the first half I ate 1 gel, 2 bananas, 2 kind bars and a block of cliff shots and at the car I had a smoothie, 2 sandwiches and drank some coke.  

The plan was now to meet Gwen somewhere in Harpers Ferry in another 20 miles. This gave me a good chance to get used to running for 3+ hours unsupported which I may have to do at Annecy as re-supply points are much less frequent than at other ultra’s.

Setting off again I felt good but Gwen came sprinting after me with her GPS watch as I was concerned mine would run flat so we had planned that I would take hers from half way. The next stage went through to turners gap and then joined the JFK section of the trail through to Weaverton and then down to Harpers Ferry. Having ran JFK I was therefore confident I’d take a chunk of time over the next few miles but what I didn’t realize was the JFK route takes minor roads to avoid the roughest climbs on the AT section here. Although the climbs are only 800 feet at a time the trail is exceptionally rough here and very slow going. Pushing 26 miles in and it now getting to the hottest part of the day I was really chugging through the water.

But soon enough the trail improved and I was back making good time as I descended down to Crampton Gap and again was offered water supply by the HAM group, but again they couldn’t seem to grasp that I was just someone out for a run and not part of their challenge hike.

Mentally I’d broken the run into sections, run the first 21 miles to Gwen, then to the 31 mile point at the Gap, then to 37 mile point after Weaverton, then to mile 40 in Harpers Ferry then the last section up to Loudoun Heights. Getting to the Gap and feeling good on the penultimate climb of the day I felt I’d broken the back of the challenge now and made good time to the long descent from the top of Weaverton cliffs and down to the rail crossing.

From here it’s a quick flat 2-3 miles to the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, over the Godwin Byron Memorial footbridge and into Harpers Ferry where the fun began.

The HAM group called me their way so I went over and they just could not understand that I was not in their challenge, so eventually they pointed me on my way but not on the AT, a cut through to save time, so realizing that I then backtracked into the center of Harpers Ferry and picked up the trail along the cliffs towards the next bridge where I met Gwen on the trail again.

With just 2-3 miles to go I grabbed some Gatorade, water and a few bars and set off for the final climb but was delayed by being chased by 2 big pit bull/boxer things that were off the lead and chasing me. Obviously just being playful but I was running towards a major road and had to double back to return these dogs and gave the owner a few words about having his dogs under control. I don’t mind dogs but those who aren’t so keen would not have been happy with 2 big dogs chasing them and nipping at them, playful or not.

The final 800 foot climb is short, a tad rough and I broke into a walk in places but soon touched the border post after 7:29:51 of being on the go. There is a fair bit of debate about where the challenge actually ends. The previous FKT stopped at the signpost at the top of the climb with a sharpie ‘WV/VA’ border sign marked on. Others say it continues another kilometer to the remains of an old post where you can see down left into Virginia proper. After finishing I continued on to see if I could find that point and went up the next day to check. On hiking up the next day we found a National Park Warden erecting a ‘Virginia/West Virginia State Line’ sign on to the post which I originally stopped the watch on so that makes a nice obvious finish location to this FKT. So for now I think that is where the FKT should officially end.

I think sub 7 is possible on knowing the route and better conditions. The AT is fairly well sign posted but before and through Harpers Ferry the sign posts get infrequent and especially in Harpers Ferry itself it is easy to go astray. I think 7:30 is a nice solid time and hopefully it encourages a few more to try to better this time and create more of an FKT scene in the mid-Atlantic States more similar to those in the Catskills, Adirondacks and North East where many FKT’s have now been established.

My watch made it 41.4 miles but all the way through I was coming up short on my GPS mileage against posted mileage in various guidebooks so I think the challenge is nearer 43 miles.

The old border sign marked by a sharpie now replaced with an official sign.

The old border sign marked by a sharpie now replaced with an official sign.

Kit worn:

Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Vest with 2 x 500ml water bottles
Scott T2 Kinabalu trail shoes

Food eaten:

5 bananas
1 peach
1 strawberry and banana 500ml smoothy
750ml coke
3 x 500 ml Gatorade
2 x ham and cheese sandwiches
2 x GU gels
3 x Kind bars
1 set of cliff Shots