Keystone Trails Association Trail Challenge

Keystone Trails Association Trail Challenge

Before too much time goes by, I want to tell you about my experience at this wonderful and well-organized event. Held on September 9, 2017 and also known as the KTA Trail Challenge or the Susquehanna Super Hike, this event offers challengers a 25K or a 50K along the banks of the beautiful Susquehanna River in South Central Pennsylvania. Participants can trail run or just plain hike depending on what kind of a challenge is desired.

The event is organized by the Keystone Trails Association, “keystone state” being a nickname for Pennsylvania. The KTA “protects hiking trail lands through support and advocacy and educates the public in the responsible use of trails and the natural environment.” Through their website and Facebook page, members and hikers are kept informed about hiking-related activities in and around Pennsylvania (KTA website).

One of the tributaries of the Susquehanna.

I had heard about the “Susquehanna Super Hike” before but never thought about doing it. This year, a friend of mine posted the registration site on a Facebook group I follow. I’ve been feeling more and more drawn to hiking, trail running, and long-distance hiking, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I debated over whether to sign up for the 25K, which totals approximately 15 miles, or the 50K, which is double that. I decided that since I was a first-timer, and since I have not actually done any recent 30 mile hikes, I’d go with the 25K and see how it felt. I didn’t know if this an event where trail runners would push me over trying to get to the finish line, or if the climbs and terrain were very challenging, or if it was even something I would like.

As a frequent hiker and backpacker, fifteen miles to me is not huge, but it’s not small either. It takes a certain strength and toughness to wake up one morning, drive an hour, and say I am now going to walk fifteen miles through creeks and hills and valleys, bugs and sun, rocks and mud.

On the morning of the KTA Trail Challenge, I woke early, dressed in running gear and packed a small backpack with a water bladder and a good amount of snacks. I wore my Dirty Girl Gaiters (pro tip: you don’t have to be a girl to wear them), which I wear pretty much whenever I’m going to be walking or running on dirt. I brought a long-sleeve layer but figured I’d shed it before I even started. I tend to run warm and can run in shorts and t-shirts even in the dead of winter, or at least, once I get started.

I arrived at Susquehannock State Park, which was back a few remote rural roads after leaving the main road. The day was shaping up to be a good one. The sun was out, no rain forecast, and the temperatures were wonderfully on the cool side. Parking was well organized, and no sooner did I park and use the bathroom and pick up my registration than it was time to start. I waited with a crowd of about 250 people (the final roster says 267, to be exact) while the Keystone Trails Association organizers made some announcements. Then, “On your mark, get set, GO!,” and just like that, I was off.

I decided I would run when I felt like it and walk when I felt like it, and overall just try to enjoy the event without being too stressed out about running. I fell in with a group of chatty people who knew each other, right from the start, and the group was keeping up a good pace of approximately speed-walking.  The trail wound in and out of the woods, climbed a ravine, and hit a road. I don’t really like being directly in front of or behind anyone closely, so once I hit the road I decided I would like to leave the small talkers behind and I took off running. I had no idea how long the course would follow the road, but I figured I would run on the road as much as I could.

The road crossed a little valley of a creek leading to the Susquehanna River, giving great views and scenery all around. I waved to myself as I snapped a photo.

Crossing the road above Muddy Run.

The road started to climb, slowly and gradually, but sustained. This is where I passed a lot of people. I figured I could take advantage of running here because I had been training since July for a half-marathon, and had been doing a lot of running. At the precipice of the hill, the road turned left and started down toward the Route 372 Susquehanna River bridge. The bridge was not closed to traffic, but safety cones had been strategically placed to allow room for the hikers and runners. This was a very beautiful spot, and I stopped to snap another photo, then continued my pace across the bridge.

As the road crossed the river and started back up again, the course took a sharp right to the first rest stop, which meant that I had made it approximately five miles. Five miles! I looked at my watch and gauged how I felt and thought, “I can do this!” I scarfed down a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, grabbed a sports drink, hit the bathroom, and kept on running.

A few years ago I was listening to a yoga podcast where the instructor repeated a few times, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Later, I would read an article about an older female racer who said the reason that she did so well in her age group is because she never cut corners when she trained. Those things resonated with me, and I often repeat it to myself, cheesy as it is, when I am doing something that requires endurance or stamina. I can’t truly attribute the quote because the internet gives a lot of different attributions, except to say it’s not my own, and I heard it from Dave Farmar on his yoga podcast. I suppose you could say this is my mantra that I repeat to myself to get through races, or even life.

As the course now followed the western side of the Susquehanna River, it again wove in and out of smaller tributaries, climbing a few times to lookouts over the Holtwood Dam.

Other runners passed me, some fell behind, and I continued here mostly walking and jogging a little when the terrain was easier. It was along this stretch that I started to hear people talking about getting stung. “Did you get stung back there?,” someone asked. “Only six times!” was someone else’s reply. I am deathly afraid of being stung and grew concerned that I might inadvertently step on a ground nest, but thankfully I had no such encounter.

The Holtwood Dam.

The trail meandered out of the woods and up a long, open hill. I heard someone call it “the Green Mile.” It was a narrow break in the forest that just went up, and up, and up. Here, too, I decided to run a little bit, hoping to end the tedium sooner rather than later. As I reached the top, a race volunteer was cheering people on and said “Congratulations! You made it to the second rest stop! Only you should have run faster because it’s closed!” I thought I was doing okay with pacing and was actually ahead of where I planned to be. He must have seen the look on my face because he promptly said, “Just kidding, I am only an a**hole.” What a relief that was to me. The rest stops would close after certain points in the day as the last racers came through, so for a second there I wasn’t sure and thought I was too late.

I scarfed another snack and some drinks, then kept on moving. At this point, I don’t recall if I was running or walking. The trail left the woods for good and entered a farm lane. Anyone can tell you that Pennsylvania farms are beautiful. Historical, clean, and well-kept, and as the sun shined down on them that day, I snapped a few photos. I was missing the shade of the trees but enjoying the scenery.

Pennsylvania farm scenery.
Runners of the corn.

I was trying not to think too hard about distance or time, so I was just enjoying the course. I don’t remember too much about this point except one place nearer to the end where the course followed a power line for about a mile. It was kind of magical because the sun was shining on some of the distant hills and I could see runners in the distance, tiny little points on the horizon, covering the ground that I would get to eventually. I didn’t snap a photo here, but I should have since it was so pretty.

Finally, I felt that I was nearing the end. Some runners near me were talking about how we were on the “home stretch.” This gave me a second wind. I decided I was having fun — a continual decision in my life — and started running. I fell in with a group of what seemed like experienced and friendly trail runners. They were keeping a good pace and they were not stopping for anything. I let them pass me then followed in their wake, seeing how long I would be able to keep up.

I think this is where I maybe got a runner’s high? Or my adrenaline levels kicked in? I just wanted to keep running. I didn’t want it to stop. I banged my toe hard on a rock and exclaimed loudly that I probably lost a toe nail (which was true). I sloshed through a creek and slid down the side of a metal pipe. But I kept up with those trail runners. One by one, they started dropping behind. Eventually it was just two men, a woman, and me. And I ran. I ran and ran. And all of a sudden, there was the finish line. I could hardly believe it. My little group of found trail runners carried me through to the finish. My GPS read 14.80. I slid through the finish line corral. Apparently, there was a cookout, but I was too excited to eat (which turned out to be an unfortunate decision for later when I quickly became hungry). I snapped a few photos and boarded the shuttle bus that would take me back to my car at Susquehannock.

The finish line.

It turned out that I came in 76 out of 267 trail challengers that day, and I was on the first bus back to the cars. The bus driver didn’t know the way back and she stopped a couple times to get directions.

Next year, perhaps I’ll double the fun by signing up for the 50K. I remembered how good it feels to just run, to just walk. To sweat. To do something.

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