The shorter version
This is not the trip report that I had mentally written over the last 6 months leading up to my self-supported attempt of the Mason-Dixon Trail. That one ended at Chadds Ford and not at mile 99 on Cold Cabin Rd. If you had told me going in this would be the result, I would have told you it would be a disappointing non-finish. There was always a big risk of failure considering how far outside my comfort level I was adventuring, but I thought I had the training and experience to complete the task at hand. I put in a lot of time, effort, and research into this project and to come up short would be . . . deeply unsatisfying.
But a funny thing happened between my decision to quit (man, I hate that word) and when I finally reached the end of this adventure: I found complete and utter peace with myself. I consider myself a process over results type person and this was my proof. I loved the entire process of putting together this FKT attempt. Everything from figuring out the logistics of a self-supported attempt to section running the entire M-DT over the past 2 years. I even enjoyed the 33+ hours I spent out there. Well, most of those hours anyways. The effort and execution were there (mostly). I just wasn’t able to close the deal.
The much, much longer version
My wife dropped me off at Whiskey Springs a little before 8am. My goal was to start out ridiculously easy and then slow down from there. My strategy was to walk all uphills, flats, and trail sections and gently run everything else. I was so focused on planning out which sections to run and which to walk that I almost missed the first turn onto Coffeetown. Yikes. Not even 2 miles in and I’m already almost off trail. Time to focus here.
I had a bit of a challenge getting into a rhythm early. Part of it was definitely the sheer scope of what I was trying to accomplish. I do best when I can just zone out and run from one point to another, but I kept thinking much farther ahead than I needed to. It also didn’t help that my morning coffee was still working it’s way through my system. Luckily, there was a porta potty right as I got to Franklin Township Park. Just past here was Warrington Farm Meat’s where I grabbed a soda to top up my fluids. This is where I was able to finally settle down and just move forward.
I texted my wife as I turned onto the first section of trail 11.2 miles in. She was manning my newly created Twitter account to provide updates on my run. It was starting to get pretty hot out at this point. Towards the end of this 3 mile trail section, there is a couple large meadows. As I’m walking through them, I look down and saw a bunch of mud flecks on my legs. Hold on a second, that’s not dirt . . . ticks! I had a good 4-5 ticks on both legs, which I was able to knock off. I checked again when got to the road, but no more had climbed aboard. OK then. One more thing to manage as I continue on.
By the time I reached the end of map 1, I was slowing down much more than expected. My pace had started out in the 14 minute range, but I was now already up to 15-16 minute miles. The heat was really starting to get to me. I refilled 2 bottles with water at the rest rooms in Gifford Pinchot, but I was still a little worried about making it to my first “aid station”. This was a Rutters at mile 33. 72oz of fluids should have been plenty for the 15 miles, but I felt like I still needed to conserve fluids. This had the knock on impact of me not eating enough.
So here I am; overheating, low on calories, and only about 25 miles into a 200 mile adventure. Not good. My motto in long summer ultras is just to survive the day. There have been many times when the cooler overnight temperature have revived me and there was no reason not to expect this to happen again. I just needed to make it to those cooler temperatures.
I made it to the Rutters a little before 5pm. I was looking forward to a nice air conditioned store to cool off in for a bit. Unfortunately, they appeared to be skimping on the AC that day. Sigh. I grabbed some calories and an extra bottle of fluids (orange juice) and was back out onto the trail.
The remaining 7 miles of map 2 were on roads. Many of them where fairly exposed so even though it was only 21 miles to my next resupply in Wrightsville, I was concerned about my fluids lasting since I wasn’t sure if there was any water sources along through here. Luckily, the pro shop at the Royal Manchester golf course (mile 40) was open and I bought 2 bottles of cold water. I chugged one and immediately felt a bazillion times better. I started eating more consistently from this point on. It may have taken me 11 hours to get to this point, but the game was most assuredly back on.
Map 3 starts very easy with 4.5 miles of flat to slightly downhill road section. I was even managing to mix in some running through here I felt so good. You then turn right at this yellow gate and then climb your first decent hill in a while. This is where I busted out my trekking poles for the first time. I flew up this climb, which seemed much harder when I ran it before. At the top, the gravel River Farm Road gently climbs for a couple more miles. A short asphalt section later, I texted my wife at mile 47 as I entered the Hellam Hills Nature Preserve relocation. It had just passed beyond dusk at this point so I pulled my headlamp out of my pack. This is a pretty 3 mile section with the first third smooth single track, a second third downhill gravel road, followed by a technical downhill mile before turning back onto River Drive.
It’s then a nice long, flat road section next to the Susquehanna River until you reach Wrightsville. I dimmed my headlamp about all the way down partially because it wasn’t needed and partially because the bugs were swarming my light. Once into town, I made a right on Hellam St. and took it 3 blocks to Turkey Hill (mile 54.6). This was my most critical resupply stop as I needed to get enough calories to last me until Havre de Grace, MD 75 miles away. I walked into the store and then spent the next ten minutes or so walking around trying to find 3400 calories of various flavors in addition to the soda, milk, and orange juice I purchased. My math skills had deteriorated fairly significantly by this point so it took about 3 trips around the store. Eventually, I was reduced to counting 17 items with at least 200 calories before I was satisfied. I then took everything outside and sat down on the curb to get my pack organized. A guy was nice enough to offer me a ride, but I declined as that’s only slightly against the rules of these kind of adventures.
It was about 11pm as I left the parking lot. I had grabbed my MP3 player and was feeling great as I headed out of town. A couple short streets leads to a little park, which has a nice trail up and over a hill. This leads you down to a culvert under Rt 624, which someone has graciously lined with rocks since my last trip so you don’t even have to get your feet wet in the 3-4 inch stream of water that flows through it. A couple more hills takes you to the top of York County Heritage High Point park where it was a little chilly due to a nice breeze off the river. Dropping down off the hill takes you directly to the end of map 3.
A mostly downhill road mile, leads to a short trail section next to someone’s driveway. This takes you into Kline’s Run Park. There’s no discernable trail or path through the park so you’re running blaze to blaze, which is virtually impossible to do at night considering how far apart the blazes are spaced. I knew approximately the right direction so went up the right hill, but came down a hundred yards or so too far to the right. I immediately knew I missed my mark and quickly found the small path exiting the park. If I hadn’t run this section in daylight, I’d probably still be circling around looking for my way out.
There’s a decent sized meadow section after this that was a little chilly with the breeze out. It wasn’t long enough for me to pull the gloves or extra shirt I had packed out. A short road dumps you out onto Rt 624, which you’re only on for a short spell before you turn right. This is the only place I got truly lost as I couldn’t find the trail here. I knew you followed the edge of the field till you got to the back, however there was no path. I bushwhacked my way back and forth through thigh high weeds looking for it until I finally got back to a well mowed path. Ten feet further along I found my first blue blaze and let out a sigh of relief. That lasted 30 seconds until I noticed my legs aflame from all the nettles and brush I had been wading through for the prior 5-10 minutes. Luckily, the discomfort went away after a couple minutes.
A couple pleasant miles of trails dumps you down onto Fishing Creek Road, which you take down along the river past Shank’s Mare store. A half mile later leads to this wonderful sign.
As I passed Shank’s Mare, I started getting myself psyched up for the next section. It’s hands down the hardest part of the M-DT. The trail goes straight up for 400 feet, then straight back down 400 feet. Then does that four more times over the next couple miles. It was the last drop down, which about unhinged me. I was thinking very uncharitable things towards whoever mapped out this section. It probably didn’t help that I covered this section between 2-5am. At least the temperatures were cool and comfortable. Finally you reach a run and the trail heads up next to it.
The trail started to get easier as the sun started coming up. This was fortuitous as my Garmin battery was about dead so I was able to put away my trekking poles and charge my watch up. I also grabbed the sandwich I had bought and spent about twenty minutes slowly eating it. I was still feeling halfway decent here and was able to run some of the more benign downhills as I made my way past Urey Overlook and then along Otter Creek, which takes you to the end of map 4 at Otter Creek Campground.
At this point, I’m about 24 hours into my adventure. My hydration had recovered overnight with the much cooler temperatures even with a much reduced fluid intake and I had been able to get calories down steadily. There’s quite a bit of climbing to start map 5, however nothing is overly steep or technical. It seemed rather easy after what I had just covered. About a mile of roads, takes you to State Game Lands 181, which provides a wonderful downhill section to Oakland Run.
There next little bit gets a little hazy for me. There’s some decent climbs up and back down to the river. Eventually, you get to PP&L’s restored Lock 12. This leads to a fairly challenging section of trail around Peavine Island. There’s a bunch of intersecting trails with continuous 5-10 foot scrambles up and down rocks. Over and over again. It definitely didn’t help that it was starting to heat up and again.
After passing Lock 15, you climb up the steep River Road which seems to go straight up. It’s then 5 miles of roads until you get to Muddy Creek. I started to get overheated again at the top of River Rd, but decided to push onwards as I thought the creek at the end of this section would be a better place to cool off. I didn’t check my maps though and it ended up taking me longer to get there than I thought. Frankly, this should be the tl;dr of my entire adventure.
Towards the end of this section, coming down a steep section of Gaging Station Road, my left ankle started hurting out of nowhere. I was in so much pain, I could barely walk. I started shuffling side to side, back and forth, and eventually discovered that walking backwards was pain free. I turned my music off at this point so I could hear if traffic was coming. Luckily it wasn’t busy and no one saw how foolish I looked moonwalking down the road.
I got to Muddy Creek (finally) and dipped hat and buff in the water. I sat down and felt almost 100% after a couple minutes. I rested for a bit longer then decided to press on as I wanted to get up to a small stream to refill my bottles before taking a longer break. Of course, it ended up being much farther than I remembered. And again I didn’t bother to check the maps before I left.
It was a very slow crawl for me along Muddy Creek, which is a shame because it’s an absolutely gorgeous section of trail. Or maybe it’s not a shame as I got to spend more time enjoying the scenery. I kept trying to loosen up my ankle, but nothing I did seemed to help. I eventually made it up to where the trail crosses a small stream. I filled up my bottles here and then dipped my hat and buff in the water to cool off. I rested here for a bit longer hoping this is all my ankle needed. It felt fine on the short climb up from the stream, but then continued to hurt as soon as the trail flattened out or when downhill.
The next half a mile consisted of me moving very slowly and attempting to decide whether the pain was getting worse or not. I eventually decided that I couldn’t tell whether it was getting worse or not, but it was definitely not getting better. At the next stream, I sat down on this huge rock in the middle of the stream and considered whether to continue on or call it a day. I sat there for about 20 minutes, but didn’t really spend much time thinking about my decision. It was already made. I just looked around and appreciated the beauty of the woods miles from civilization.
As I got up, I called my wife and had her meet me at the end of Cold Cabin Road (98.9 miles). It was slow going dropping down to the river and my ankle started bothering me more and more, which only reinforced that I was making the right decision. By the time I got down, I only had to wait 15-20 minutes before my wife pulled up. I would like to thank Robert Bartholomew from the M-DT Facebook page who helped my wife track down coordinates to where I was waiting. Also, thanks to all the entire M-DT organization and volunteers who maintain this wonderful trail. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend getting out to experience the beauty and variety it has to offer.
Will I try another attempt at the FKT? I thought about this on the ride home and decided this was a one and done thing for me. I gave it everything I had, yet just wasn’t able to finish. I’m relatively “comfortable” at the 100 mile distance (maybe unironically where I stopped), but 200 miles is just too far. Everyone has their limits and that’s obviously beyond mine. Then after a couple days, I started thinking. Well, it was really, really hard. And the attraction isn’t because they’re easy. So who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be back.