Running 23 Miles Through The Appalachian Trail

I’m grateful for the support and help of friends

Ryan Fan
Ryan Fan
May 9 · 5 min read
Photo of Harper’s Ferry from the Appalachian Trail — from Mark Fickett on Wikipedia Commons

Man, what did I get myself into? I asked myself.

I fell and scraped half my body several times, still having cuts on my hands, knees, hips, and thighs. Some of those times, I fell on rocks. I had to watch every step I took to see I wasn’t stepping into a slush of mud with my shoes with terrible footing. It was cold. It was raining. Every other step I was encountering either a rock, root or huge puddles.

This was half my day yesterday. Yesterday, I ran 23 miles through the Appalachian Trail, starting at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border and then heading south into western Maryland. Some of my friends were running about 46 miles through four states — Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.

Screenshot from author on Strava

The run would start at the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and end at Harper’s Ferry, which straddles the border between West Virginia and Virginia. I would have done the whole run with them, but I had an obligation in the afternoon.

I would finish 23 miles in about four hours and 19 minutes, ascending more than 4,000 feet in elevation. I only joined in on the excursion a couple of days before, and thought to myself: it’s only 23 miles and these guys are running 46 — how bad could it be? I asked zero questions. I didn’t even know they were mostly running trails with a significant amount of rocks and awful footing. I thought most of the runs would be on roads.

When I showed up to drop off my car at the 23-mile mark, I was late. My friends agreed to pick me up so I could stop at my car to make an arrangement later in the day. But trouble brewed quickly. While the forecast gave hope we would avoid the rain, we did not. It wasn’t like it was pouring, but it rained enough to make the footing very slippery and the rocks especially treacherous. For significant portions of the run, especially un-runnable hills and portions with a lot of rocks, we had to walk — and although I’m just a mediocre hobby jogger, I was running with some of the best marathoners in Baltimore.

The first ten miles were especially rocky and hilly. Three of my five falls came then, mostly as I was running up hilly slopes full of mud. I initially tried not to get my feet wet early in the run, but eventually, I started to try stepping into the puddles. At least if I was stomping my foot into the puddle, I wouldn’t slip and fall in the mud. I was feeling pretty tired and taxed at that point, but that wasn’t even the worse of it.

I learned falling up a hill was much less painful and bruising than falling down a hill. Usually, running isn’t a contact sport. But on my 23 mile run through a hilly, rocky, and wet Appalachian Trail, I made a lot of contact with the trail. At some points, my entire right side of my body was covered in dirt. We had a couple of walk stops, only when going up especially taxing hills. For four guys in pretty good running shape and who can regularly run marathons, it was a very difficult terrain to run through. While we weren’t running especially fast, we were running really long.

I thought this was going to just be a long run, without significant sightseeing. I was just going to be in and out and get my training in for the day. But running that long through almost the entire Maryland portion of the Appalachian Trail ended up being a significant amount of sightseeing and a very different kind of challenge. For parts of it, I felt like I was navigating an obstacle course.

I was also very lucky I was not alone. I had the blessing and the help of my friends. I came into this run with no gel, no food, no water, and no way of contacting anyone. The three other guys supplied me with all that and I will most certainly have to pay them back, or I might have been in trouble and had to beg strangers for help in the middle of nowhere. I also did not have trail shoes and do not own trail shoes, which would have helped me not slip and not fall so often. Regular running shoes would have been fine had it not been raining and muddy, but in my case, they were not.

I couldn’t have learned my lesson any other way. Running is not a one size fits all sport, especially not in trails.

For the reader, it’s important to be well prepared, of course, but it’s more important to be adaptable and ready for the unexpected. I did not expect so many hills, so many rocks, and so much rain. Once I stopped, actually, I felt very lucky. Rain that was just coming down at a moderate rate started pouring. 30 minutes later, hail started coming down aggressively on my car. I couldn’t imagine finishing in those conditions, but my friends were able to run 42 miles with all those challenges regardless.

The most important thing about running those 23 miles was not just getting it done or having the challenge. The most important thing was how fun it was. It was great to just talk for a long time and have the time pass, and fun to be adventurous and explore a part of a trail, or the world that I never experienced before. It was more traveling than exercise for me. I found out there was another Washington Monument in western Maryland, for example, and I even learned Harper’s Ferry was on the border of Virginia and West Virginia.

Last night, I slept 11 hours. I’m still tired. I was going to run today, but I ran 10 steps and between all the bruising and pounding I put on my body, my legs couldn’t take it. After a once in a while effort like 23 miles through the Appalachian Trail, it’s important to rest. And most importantly, it’s essential to be grateful for the support and help of friends, especially in my case, where my friends helped me get out of the whole situation okay.

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