Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Horse-Shoe Trail - Speed Record Report

This past weekend I ran the 142 mile Horse-Shoe Trail across southeastern Pennsylvania with the intention of establishing an all-time speed record for completing the trail. I completed this run in Self-Supported fashion (carrying all my supplies in a 20-pound pack, but also stopping at two mini-marts and a restaurant along the way for some extra food). After all my research and investigating, I wasn't able to uncover any existing record of someone previously running the trail with the intention of doing it as quickly as possible. I don't doubt that many have covered the entire distance in the past (the trail is 74 years old, after all), but the only reports/stories I found involved people camping over a few nights along the way or running the trail in sections over the course of many weeks/months. I will readily admit I am not an expert on the history of the trail (heck, I didn't even know it existed until two weeks ago), so if anyone reading this knows of past attempts, I'd love to read about them and will properly honor their finishing time if it was faster than mine. That said, having just finished the trail under pretty ideal conditions, I feel my time of 32 hours, 43 minutes, 14 seconds is pretty solid time, even with a few navigational issues (and all the extra miles of running to correct them!). I consider myself lucky to have enjoyed a run over such a unique and beautiful trail, and I am happy to offer any advice to those attempting a run of their own on the trail in the future.

OK, with the official statements and disclaimers out of the way, let's get to the report!

The back-story behind this run is pretty short and simple: After the National Championships in Cleveland last month, I knew I wanted to do one more 100+ mile run this year, but the schedule of established races didn't leave a lot of options that worked for me. With my sights set on a Vermont Long Trail speed record attempt next year, I figure it would be smart to start the research now with a shorter trail run (VT is 273 miles) to iron out some of the details (gear, pacing, etc.) . My first instinct was to run the Mason-Dixon Trail since it's relatively close to DC and I could do it in a self-supported fashion. When I contacted Paul Meltzer, the current M-DT speed record holder, our conversation eventually led to him introducing me to the Horse-Shoe Trail.  With similar self-supporting capabilities on this trail (enough rivers for water and a couple passes through small towns for other supplies if needed), I decided to give it a go. With the weather getting colder in the Northeast, I figured I should plan my run as soon as possible...so just like that, two weeks later, I was headed up to PA to run the Horse-Shoe Trail!

Elizabeth and I drove up to Harrisburg, PA after work on Friday night. The hotel clerk at the Wyndham was nice enough to upgrade us to a suite for no reason at all. She was very nice, and if I didn't have a 4 a.m. wake-up call the next morning, I'm sure I would have appreciated it even more. After a short but satisfying night's sleep, we were up and on our way.

It was cold (about 30 degrees) and clear when we reached the Appalachian Trail head about  20 miles north of Harrisburg in Dauphin County just after 5 a.m.. After a quick photo at the trail head, I gave Lizzy a kiss and said I'd see her in Valley Forge!

Since the Horse-Shoe Trail starts at the top of a mountain, I had to first run up about 3.2 miles of the AT to get to the start. I had planned on just walking slowly up the AT to conserve my energy for the actual timed run on the H-S trail, but it was so cold I had to run right away to generate some body heat. As soon as I started running up the mountain I realized there would be two constants over my journey:

1) There would be a blanket of fallen leaves covering the trail the whole way.

2) Underneath those leaves would be 9 billion ankle-twisting rocks.

Oddly enough, possibly because I knew I had to focus on keeping my feet light when moving through the really rocky sections, I didn't fall a single time over the entire 142 miles. That might be what I'm most proud of from this entire adventure!

Once atop the mountain, I took my photo at the "End" marker of the Horse-Shoe Trail (I ran it West-to-East, but the course description is written for E-to-W). With a deep breath and a beep of my stopwatch, I then started down the backside of the mountain and was officially on my way.

The first 20 miles or so brought me through some remote stretches of land between (and over) ridges just northeast of Harrisburg. As I moved through the darkness, sloshing loudly through the sea of leaves, I startled quite a few deer along the trail...and let me tell you, these were some of the biggest deer I've ever seen. They looked more like Clydesdale horses wearing deer costumes for Halloween.

About 12 miles into the trail I came upon two hunters who I'm sure were not too happy to hear me bombing down the trail behind them. I felt bad about making so much noise, but the all the leaves made every step louder than Liberace's wardrobe...there wasn't much I could do but apologize and move through quickly.

 The sun rises as I march through the frosty grass on the first morning

After finishing this remote section and popping out on a road crossing, I had my first issue w/ trail markings. I ran a mile down the road in the direction I assumed was correct, but I didn't see any trail markings. So then I ran a mile back to where I came out of the woods and then ran another mile up the road in the other direction searching for the yellow blazes that mark the trail. Still no luck. I made my way back to the trail again (that's 4 extra miles run here, if you're keeping track). Finally I cracked out my compass and ran back in the direction I first went. The street I was looking for was about 1.5 miles down the road, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I was back on track.

The reason for my confusion was one of the land owners in the area probably wasn't too happy w/ the trail passing through his backyard and blacked out some of the yellow blazes. I saw some of this in various sections over the course of the trail, but for the most part new yellow blazes have been put up to re-route the trail. Anyway, in this case I didn't see a blaze to turn left just before coming out of the woods, so I just stayed straight on the suddenly incorrect trail and hit the road a little early. Sure, it took 4+ miles to correct this tiny .1 mile error, but I was so happy to be back on track I got over it quickly.

**My advice to anyone planning on running this trail: While 95% of the trail is well-marked, the official maps are hand-drawn and wildly out-of-date in terms of re-routed sections and new road developments. They don't show any crossing trails (and trust me, there are many), and they list only a small percentage of cross streets. If you lose the trail at all, it can be tremendously difficult to find it again. You'll be OK if you carry a compass, the guide book (which has a trail update sheet included in it every year), and the creativity to invent hundreds of new curse words while you wander helplessly up and down the trails and country roads. That last part is very important for your sanity: If you just end up using the same swears over and over, you'll just bore yourself. Trust me, I speak from experience.

As I made my way over the next section of country roads, I quickly realized that the state of Pennsylvania has the most crowned streets I've ever seen. With no shoulder or sidewalk on most of the roads, I was forced to run on the ankle-bending slopes for way too many miles. I did my best to switch sides every so often to even out the damage, but my ankles took one heck of a beating no matter what I did. Right around mile 25 the dull-but-manageable pain that had slowly developed on the outside of my right ankle was accompanied by a sharp and wince-inducing pain on the inside as well. This pain was legit, and every 20 steps or so it would stab at me. I was almost certain I'd need to end my run and call for Elizabeth to pick me up about 117 miles early, but I figured I might as well continue to the next town which was about 3 miles ahead and see how things felt then.

This town also marked my first Mini-Mart stop, and between all of the excitement of buying some water and getting my supplies in order for the next 20 mile push, I completely forgot about my ankle pain. Shortly after the stop, I was back on the trails and everything felt fine. I would deal w/ my ankles off and on for the rest of the run, but only when I had to run on the roads.The good news for most of the overnight hours was the lack of cars on the road allowed me to run down the middle of the road where the surface was flatter. I also kept my shoes tied pretty loosely to allow a little more freedom for them to bend w/out taking my ankle with them.

This is probably a good time to mention that I'm pretty sure there's no one perfect shoe to wear on this course. I went with a road/trail hybrid (Saucony Excursion), and while they kept the debris out on the trails,  they were just horrible in the roads after a while. The heavy-friction soles generated so much heat that I had stray dogs barking at me from 2 towns over. On the long stretches of pavement, especially between miles 120-127, my feet hurt more than ever before in a run. Mercifully, every time I got back on the trails my feet immediately cooled down and felt 100% better. If anyone has had a positive experience w/ a hybrid shoe on really long runs like this, I'm all ears! 

With my ankle situation figured out, I relaxed a bit off the panic button and enjoyed a brilliantly beautiful fall day in the countryside. I passed this cool house (see below) somewhere around mile 30; it reminded me of a Buckminster Fuller Geodesic Dome (like the big Epcot Ball)...I think it was at about mile 35 when I finally stopped trying to figure out what their ceiling must look on the inside.

As I continued on toward mile 40, I realized that Nebraska isn't the only place with a serious amount of cornfields. I particularly enjoyed passing through this one that covered the side of a huge hill. I'm accustomed to seeing them on flat surfaces only, but it was quite a climb to the top here!

Happy to be at the top of Corn Mountain 

All that climbing really worked up my appetite!

The miles started flying by as I moved pretty quickly over the trails and I perfected the art of running in the middle of the road until I heard cars coming. The weight of my pack was definitely noticeable, but also completely manageable. Sure, its bouncing hurt my shoulders a bit when I ran fast, but I was able to minimize the damage: In my training runs w/ the pack I noticed that the friction between the top of the arm straps and my shoulders was potentially my biggest area for concern during the run. The Gregory Miwok pack straps have a great quick-dry mesh material on the inside surface, but that mesh is also a bit abrasive when bouncing/rubbing on shoulders for hours and hours on end. How did I solve this potential problem? Drymax Socks, of course. Knowing that these socks would add a nice layer of non-abrasive cushioning while also retaining the moisture-wicking properties of the shoulder straps, I cut the toes off a pair of trail versions and slid them into place before the run. I knew my Drymax Max Protection socks would keep my feet blister-free for 142+ miles (and they did!), but who knew the Trail socks would work so well in keeping my shoulders from being shredded too?! You can see my creation pretty well in this shot from the finish:

Even though I was running without any support, that didn't mean I was without friends on the trail. This filly ran along side me for a short stretch (which was really cool) before I stopped at the end of her gate to say goodbye and give her a quick rub between the ears.

...and this guy, well, I was more than happy to see his smiling face welcoming me to the "Sweetest Place on Earth" in Hershey, PA!  To show you the power of positive advertising: I stopped at two Mini-Marts after seeing that billboard, and yes, I bought a Hershey bar (w/ Almonds!) at both. Well done, Mr. Smiling Chocolate Kiss Man, well done.

As much fun as the first 60 miles were, I will admit I had one true focus and goal on my mind the whole time: Go fast enough to get to the Pretzel Hut by dinner time. Things worked out perfectly as I made the climb up to Eagle Rock (mile 58) just in time to see the sun set. From there it was a quick shot down the back of the hill to where the trail pops out in the parking lot of the Hut! It was such perfect timing.

I placed my order for a double California cheeseburger, a whoopie pie (special seasonal flavor: Pumpkin!), and a large Barq's rootbeer. Normally I couldn't even look at any food like this during a race, but with my pace being much more relaxed on this journey, I had quite an appetite and everything tasted so good!  I also used this time to change out of my wet shirt/hat/sleeves from the first part of the day and put on warmer clothes for the cold night ahead. The folks working at the restaurant couldn't have been nicer to a freaky-looking dude like me (they even filled my Camelback w/ fancy spring water for free so I didn't have to use the bathroom tap), thanks guys!!

For as fantastic as the Pretzel Hut experience was, my luck turned on me as soon as I stepped back outside. Simply put, I couldn't find the trail on the opposite side of the road. I'll spare you the necessary 100,000 word story to fully explain what happened, but I ran 3+ extra miles and wasted 45 minutes trying to find the trail. The problem this time was the map has the trail incorrectly placed in relation to a sub-divison street across from the Pretzel hut. Long story short, I was looking in the wrong place for looong time. I'm sure when heading in the other direction on the Trail it's easier to just pop out on the road and run toward the Pretzel Hut, but heading east under the cover of night (and with a bad map), I had a bit of a struggle finding the blaze.

When I finally did find the trail, I was more than happy to translate my anger into an absolutely blazing stretch of running. It was only 6:30 p.m., but with the sun long gone, I was able to take advantage of my favorite time to run (night) without the usual fatigue that I have on my legs when the sun sets during most races. I treated the next 15 miles of hilly trail like they were a 10k and put the hammer down for the first time in my adventure. By time I popped out of the trail at mile 75, I was feeling much better again and was pretty proud of the speedy effort I just put in (must have been a result of that whoopie pie fuel!).

Once I slowed down a bit I started getting cold, and right around midnight I put on my winter gloves and cracked open a couple chemical hand-warmers (total life-savers). I kept moving to generate heat, but right around 2:30 a.m., I was getting super sleepy and decided I should find a place to take a little nap. I was way ahead of schedule for my mile 127 rendezvous with my friend Malia (I told her I'd be there around Noon-ish, but even with my delays I was on pace for more like 8 a.m.), so I figured it would be doubly beneficial to grab a 30 minute nap...I didn't want to have to wake her up too early on a Sunday morning!

I covered a couple miles of trail trying to find a good spot to lay down (preferably off the ground for better warmth), and as luck would have it, the trail crossed through a gun range before too long. A picnic table next to the main building looked perfect (the building was blocking the wind too), so I curled up and started to drift off. Soon thereafter a couple nearby deer were a little too interested in my passed-out self and decided to come in for a closer look. When I heard them creeping up I yelled something with far too much respect for their ability to understand English like, "Hey Deer! What's your problem? I'm trying to sleep over here!" and they scurried off. About 30 minutes later my watch alarm woke me up, so I know I got some actual quality sleep out there regardless of my animal friends wanting to say hello.

The trade off for the sleep was about 20 minutes of shivering as I tried to warm back up again. Once I did, I was amazed at how great I felt after only such a short nap. I was wide awake and my legs felt light and fresh. I resumed my running up, over, and around all sorts of trails, fields, and roads for the next couple hours until I popped out at the Hopewell Furnace National Historic site (somewhere around mile 105).

Now, I don't have anything against Mr. Hopewell, his furnace, his family, friends, or any of the fine workers and scholars of this Historic site...but after searching for the trail for 1 hour and 9 minutes at this location, I will admit I might smile just a little bit if I heard a couple of the Earth's tectonic plates opened up and swallowed this place whole.

When I stopped seeing the yellow blazes upon arrival there, I was a bit concerned, but I knew it was only .3 miles to the street crossing ahead (I even heard a truck drive by so I knew it was close). The problem was, I found random yellow blazes and yellow-painted horseshoes all over the grounds of the Furnace, but they all ended up bringing me back around in a circle...talk about frustrating! Every time I'd find a new blaze I'd say "Finally!" and start running that way only to lose the trail immediately. After the sun started coming up, I could see the general direction of where I needed to go to meet up with the road, and my frustration was enough that I decided to simply blaze my own path there. As most of you probably know, this is never a good idea. Especially w/ the questionable terrain between me and the road....here's what that terrain looked like:

The first step was to hop over an electric fence, then run across a pasture which featured a quarter-mile mix of tall grass and mud, then bushwack through a 20-foot stretch of tangled thorns, then walk through a 6-foot stream, then a little more fun w/ the thorns before jumping over the other side of that still-very-electric fence next to the road. Before you question my decision to do this, just remember I'd been on the move for 24 hours at this point and refused to listen to any reasonable thoughts in my head after having been lost for the past hour and nine minutes.

So, how does one jump over an electric fence? That was the question my frozen brain was trying to figure out while wiping the frost off my brow. I was wearing thick winter gloves and rubber-soled shoes (obviously), so I figured if I moved quickly I might have enough protection to be OK. I'll fully admit at this point I have no clue how electric fences work, but I was willing to convince myself that if it didn't touch my skin and I moved quickly I'd survive.

Here's how it worked for me (don't try this at home, or on the farm, as it were): I was able to put a hand on the top of a wooden post and then quickly step on one of the wires next to where it was nailed into the post. This gave me enough leverage where I was able to jump up and over the fence while using my hand to support my weight. When I landed on the other side, the elation over my successful jump was quickly erased by my sudden recall of this famous sign next to a similar fence on the Vermont 100 miler course: 

...suddenly the idea of an 8 second crossing sounded really good to me! By time I reached the other side of the pasture, I was so happy to have made it that I didn't care about having to walk through the stream and the thorns to get to the road. I correctly picked the right direction (finally!) to head on the map and found the trail about .2 miles down the road. It was clearly marked for folks heading west, but I'll swear on the grave of the guy who tried to cross that pasture in 10 seconds that a crucial blaze (or two) is missing for folks coming from my direction.

With that .3 mile stretch taking over an hour, I was once again fueled by anger and took out my feelings on the next 10 miles or so. There were a couple big climbs in this stretch, but with the adrenaline rush from my bull-field crossing still fueling my legs, I was moving pretty darn quickly. When I reached Knauertown I was hoping for a resupply of water at the market, but they didn't open for another hour so I had to head out back to find the hose. Lucky for me, my hope that the water didn't taste like rubber was hilariously crushed when I saw the word "Goodyear" stamped on the hose. Seriously. Even I had to laugh at that. Who knew they made hoses? The good news was, after 120 miles everything tastes pretty bad anyway, so I just mixed in some Perpetuem and started the next 7 mile leg to reach Malia at Opperman's Corner.

If there was a physical low-point to the run, I guess this section would be it. My legs felt OK, but with so many road miles in this stretch, my feet were begging for mercy. I texted Malia when I was about an hour away so we could meet up at the same time. My arrival ended up being at about 10:45 a.m., which considering all of my navigational delays, wasn't too shabby at all. Malia's brother Dan was super nice to take time out of his Sunday and drive his sister to meet up with me. He also took my bag of left-over Perpetuem powder to the trash when I realized I wouldn't need it and there was no reason for me to carry it anymore...Every ounce off my shoulders meant a lot at that point, Thanks Dan!

As soon as Malia and I started running together my feet felt 100% better. Having gone so long alone, it was a great distraction to chat with someone as cool as Malia. To prove her family is totally awesome, her dad also met up with us at various points along the way to bring Malia Gatorade and leave little messages of support along the road. This is me laying down on the street next to one of the turns back onto the trails. Talk about awesome support!

The miles flew by as we ran by some beautiful mansions in the Valley Forge area, many of which were amazingly built by none other than Malia's awesome dad! No kidding! With a mile or two to go I could smell the finish and started to pick it up a bit. This last stretch is quite similar to the rocky Massanutten trails, so I felt right at home and decided to hit the gas to drop a 7 minute mile at the end (sure, it was downhill, but still!). My stopwatch read 32:43:14. Not too shabby on such terrain, even w/ my substantial delays (I figure I ran about 150 miles total).

Malia pulled up right behind me with a personal record of 14-15 miles covered herself (the course was re-routed in this section and added at least .5 miles to the listed distance of 14.2). She was originally planning on stopping after the first 6, but I think our easy pace and good conversation had the same beneficial affect on her as they did on me - It was too much fun to think about the pain! Congrats to you and Thanks for keeping me company, Malia!

Triumphantly posing at the end of the trail w/ Malia...I wish it was still only 121 miles long!

It was such a beautiful day in Valley Forge there was no reason but to smile and realize how lucky I am to be able to have crazy adventures like this (and have a wife who still loves me!!)

I'm pretty sure we set some kind of record on the ride home as well: Even though it's only 2.5 hours from Valley Forge to DC, we stopped at a McDonalds AND Cracker Barrel for meals in that stretch. I guess I was hungry!  Speaking of eating, with my trail-loving soul fed for a while, I can now focus on lots of road work in training for the World Championships in France next year. 2009 certainly started off on a bad foot (or shin, to be accurate), but what a fun rebound it has been over the past couple months. Thanks to everyone for their support along the way, I can't wait to see what great fun 2010 has in store for us!


JW said...

Glad your ankles didn't tear themselves off you in protest. Great job on the trail, and great story! Happy road-running!

Casseday said...

Great stuff...on the trail and the write-up. Keep hittin' it hard!

Amelia said...

I love the chalk messages on the road to you. How incredibly nice!!!

Stanley said...

What's the word? A word up!

nmp said...

Sounds like it was a good run.

PA seems to be really bad at marking trails (or making maps). A lot of that run was through state gamelands which always seemed to be the worst for this sort of thing...

Looks like you are ready for a good 2010!

Chris Roman said...

You are the man Dan, great report and gongrats!!!

Mike Bailey said...


Congrats on the record! To think you would have easily broken 30 hours, if not for the mapping anamolies. Glad to see you got in some "bonus" miles. Annoying in their own right, but on the bright side you probably logged over 150 miles. A perfect training run for any day. Glad you got to pet a horse...on the Horseshoe Trail. Coincidence? I think not. Keep the amazing performances coming!

Aaron said...

Nice! I hiked the trail E->W this summer in day hikes and I can commiserate with you on the markings. I lost the trail many times. Mostly due to the constant re-routes because of development.

The rural parts of this trail are very nice. The parts that barrel through sub-divisions I could do without. Still, its not the trail's fault.

I averaged about 3.1 mph over the distance doing about 8hr at a stretch. You did considerably better! I'll keep that as a goal for next time ;-)

Dan Rose said...

Great work, Aaron! You and I know how tough it is to find the route in sections where the re-routing has been done...nice work making it through the tough spots (and through all those sub-divisions in the east...ugh!). I hope you at least got a chance to hit the Pretzel Hut and grab a snack before heading up to Eagle Rock! Keep up the good work w/ the long trail hikes, and I hope to meet you out in the hills someday!

CCCooperAgency said...

I loved the hilarious write up on your enjoyable "feast" throwing you in a dither. That "connection" of the trail is extremely easy to miss because it is near a very small pull off (1 vehicle!) by a guard rail and to say poor marked is an understatement. I hike the Horseshoe Trail especially the Furnace Hills section frequently and can just imagine you on SOME of those sections blazing along. Good thing you had come out of Governor Dick well before dusk as it is "off limits" after sunset and the section bypassing Spring Hills development is "rough" in patches.
Fun write up!
With all this practice maybe you'll be interested in running the 2nd annual Susquehanna Super Hike in September?