Starting at 7am on Friday July 10th, I ran the 140+ mile Horse-Shoe Trail from east to west to establish a women’s FKT for the route. I ran the trail supported by crew and pacers, and completed my run on Sunday morning July 12, after 49 hours, 23 minutes, and 46 seconds on the trail.
I had initially planned to run the Vermont 100-miler as a goal race in July 2020, but when the race was canceled due to COVID-19 I started exploring some less traveled trails in my area. I had been on portions of the Horse-Shoe Trail previously, and the more time I spent on this quirky trail the more interested I became in completing the entire route. At the same time, I hoped to establish what appeared to be the first women’s FKT for the trail.
In preparation for the FKT attempt, I covered at least 85% of the trail in my training. While the trail is marked with yellow rectangles, it is notoriously difficult to follow its twists and turns in various sections, especially as it runs through a variety of remote woods, private property, roads, and public lands.
While the initial weather forecasts looked for the entire weekend to be hot and humid (it was July in Pennsylvania, after all), a few days prior Tropical Storm Fay decided to move in for the Friday portion of my run to keep things interesting. When the weather app on my phone started predicting a “tropical rainstorm” for the first day of my run, I knew I was in for some added excitement. In parts of Pennsylvania Fay dumped over 5 inches of rain throughout the day on Friday, and my waterlogged pack, clothes, and shoes can attest to how long and hard it rained that day.
I started my run at 7:01 am at Valley Forge National Park, at the Henry Woolman Monument at the intersection of Routes 23 and 252. I was grateful to have a number of friends and much of my crew see me off, and the rain held off for the start. I started my hike up Mt Misery, then continued on to the rolling hills (both road and trail) of Chester County.
The first time I saw my crew was a little over 12 miles in, at a friend’s house who happens to live right on the trail route (on Bodine Road). It was around 9:45 am, and the rain had started coming down steadily at that point. This was a quick in and out stop and then I headed back to the trail. I knew the next section especially well after covering it multiple times in recent weeks.
It was another 12+ miles before I would see my crew at French Creek Elementary. A few miles in, I started feeling a little punky, for lack of a better descriptor. My stomach was already a little off (even though it was early and not hot), and I felt a little winded and fatigued. I tried to put it out of my head, thinking it was just the overwhelm of knowing how many miles were ahead of me. I was still moving ok, running where I could and hiking some of the many hills in this section.
A run in with a skunk by the Dunn Farm made me do a little tip-toeing around to avoid him as he was smack in the middle of the trail, and not in any hurry to move. But he seemed entirely unbothered by my presence as he ambled off, and we parted ways peacefully.
The day prior to my start I had announced my plans on the Horse-Shoe Trail Facebook page, which has a small but active following. A kind woman who lives along the trail offered to leave me some goodies, and I was on the lookout.
About a mile prior to seeing the skunk another runner passed and asked, “Are you Christine? There’s some trail magic up ahead for you!” I was trying to watch carefully despite the downpour and was worried I missed it when I came to a container FULL of snacks at the Bartlett Lane Trailhead. It was one of the few pictures I took in the heavy rain and I was overwhelmingly grateful for all she left there.
About a half mile later I came across more trail magic! This time a cooler with cold water and more snacks, as well as a sign cheering me on. The support encouraged me (and quite frankly made me a little emotional) as I headed onward to my next crew stop.
Coming into French Creek Elementary around 1 pm I was worried about the creek crossing ahead. In fact, given the “tropical rainstorm” forecast I had woken up worrying about it. I asked one of my pacers to cross with me, worried the water would be high and moving fast after all the heavy rain. Thankfully, it turned out to be nothing. No raging water - just a steadily running creek.
Shortly after the crossing, I stopped again at Warwick Park. Since I wasn’t feeling well and was already struggling to eat enough, my pacer Dan offered to continue on with me. I was so thankful as the miles went by much more quickly with company. At the next stop on Harmonyville Road, another one of my pacers, Jess, offered to jump in early with me for the next 7+ miles.
We rolled into Scotts Run Lake at French Creek a little after 6pm on Friday. The rain had FINALLY slowed down at that point so I made a complete shoe and outfit change and tried to eat what I could. I was way more successful at eating when I was seated and not moving than when I was out on the trail!
Of course the rain started again as we headed out, but fortunately it was short-lived and finally stopped for good during this section. We saw a friendly German Shorthair Pointer on a landowner’s property as we followed the trail down their driveway, and I worried as he continued with us toward the next road crossing. I really didn’t want to backtrack to take him home (it’s a long driveway!), but fortunately he got distracted while we tried to quietly slip out without him noticing.
During this section I experienced a first. My nausea hit its peak and while trying to stomach an Endurance Tap gel I got sick. Despite multiple ultras and two 100-mile races, this had never happened to me before. Unfortunately Kristyann, my pacer, had to be the one to experience it! But I felt better almost immediately and was able to get moving again after a short break.
I picked up my next pacer, Don, Friday night at mile 49. After a short road section the hills began in earnest. Even though I felt less nauseous, I still was struggling to eat enough. Nothing tasted good. I had to stop and eat since eating during any sort of effort made me nauseous again. I hated going so slowly and losing time to eat, but it was the only way to continue to get in some calories.
Don had the longest pacing stretch, and he hung in there with me for a very long night in the woods. We were cheered on at a midway crew stop at the slightly sketchy Adamstown Park and Ride commuter lot, and finally finished this section just before dawn.
When my pacer Dan joined me I made the mistake of asking about the current time vs my “predicted time.” I had given my crew a 40-hour timeline, not really having any idea how long this might take. I needed to give them some guidelines, however, and early on I was ahead of that schedule. But now I was several hours behind. I was bummed for a moment but realized that a specific time truly didn’t matter - moving forward and finishing did.
Dan and I started out on a section of road near the town of Denver just as the sun was starting to rise, then eventually turned back into a really pretty section of trail. Dan was gently bullish about my calorie consumption, and I kept trying to get in as much as I could. Nausea was still an issue, and some foods (and even my go-to liquid fuel) triggered a terrible gag reflex where I just couldn’t swallow.
Sections started to become a little less distinct to me after being nearly 24 hours in. We met my crew for a quick midpoint stop and then continued on through more hilly trails. The final mile and a half was a long slow descent to the Pretzel Hut on Furnace Hills Pike.
I knew I’d need a nap at some point, and decided this was the best place to do it. I completely changed clothes, rinsed off my legs and feet, and let them air out while I tried to nap. This was one of my best decisions as my feet were getting cranky at this point between the rain and long miles and now the oncoming heat.
I told my crew "No more than 25 minutes!" and climbed in the air conditioning in Dan’s truck. It felt amazing to lay down, even briefly. I didn’t sleep much longer than 15 minutes as a truck came by and the loud rumble woke me up, but the short respite from putting one foot in front of the other was well worth it.
I regrouped then headed out with my next pacer, Jess. We wouldn’t see my crew again until the end of our section at Governor Dick Park in Lebanon as this part was fairly remote. This stretch included the Powerline section, which was beautiful and one of my favorites in training, but became my nemesis as the day wore on. It was hot, exposed, and never ending. My legs -- which were a wreck with scrapes and scratches from briars on the previous day -- got further beat up by the overgrown grasses which felt like they were slicing my sweaty legs.
Slowly but surely, we made our way through. We finally rolled into Governor Dick just before 5 pm. I sat, regrouped, tried to get in some more calories, then prepared to head out with Mark. I was just under 100 miles in at this point and a little daunted at having 40+ to go. But I also knew from training that this section was runnable and I wanted to take advantage of it.
If I had been on my original timetable this section would have been hot and exposed. But with sunset approaching, my legs felt a little more refreshed and I was able to move well along the roads and trail, putting in faster miles than I had for much of my journey so far.
My stomach continued to give me grief, but I was trying to get in whatever I could on these remaining miles. Who would have known that tomato pie, Cheerios and Triscuits would become my go-to fuel?!
After running through the grounds at the Milton Hershey School, we stopped at Palmdale Park to pick up my next pacer, Jon. This was the only full section I hadn’t done in training. With a fair amount of road and some smoother trail, we were able to continue to make good time despite the minimal trail markings.
We had a “Children of the Corn” moment trying to navigate through a corn field where all I could do was follow Jon’s light - thank goodness he’s much taller than me! Other than the corn and navigating through some downed trees, we rolled along nicely through Hershey, heading toward my final pacer pickup location.
My final crew stop before the finish on the Appalachian Trail was at the intersection of Route 443 and McLean Road, near Manada Gap. We arrived well after 2am on Sunday morning. This was a tiny little parking area and was pitch black without street lights. We had moved from neighborhood roads to feeling like we were suddenly in the middle of nowhere!
My pacer Royce and I had done this section together as a training run without trouble. But in the dark, it became far more challenging. Add in a distressing number of downed trees from storms over the past 6 weeks, and it was barely navigable. We added a silly loop, missed a turn, and had to do some backtracking, but once we hit the first long climb we were back on track.
Unfortunately, the nice runnable section after the climb was covered with at least 10-15 more downed trees. Progress was slow, and we nearly stepped on a porcupine trying to climb over and around all the branches. After so many miles, it felt never-ending.
Finally, finally, we hit the gravel road that I knew would take us to the last climb and then up a short but gnarly path to the finish. I was quite proud of still hitting a sub-12 minute mile 140+ miles into my adventure.
We made a left to head up the Rattling Run Trail, watching carefully to make sure we didn’t miss the sneaky Horse-Shoe Trail turn to the finish that we passed on our first time here. This steep, rocky climb was a fitting finish to a 49 hour, 23 minute and 46 second adventure.
As we got closer, I could hear my crew starting to cheer. They had been following me on my tracker and knew I was almost there. It was an emotional finish as I headed to the monument that marked the end of my journey.
I passed my crew to officially touch the Cyrus Sturgis Monument at the end of the trail. I was so grateful to be done, but even more so to be surrounded by so many of the friends and family that had supported my journey. After all those hours cheering me on, they had also made the final 3.2 mile hike up from the parking lot to be there for me at the end. After a few photos, I made my entry into the final Horse-Shoe Trail Register.
Every ultra run is an adventure, and having the time and resources to lose yourself on the trails is a privilege. I try never to take that for granted, even when I’m tired, my legs hurt, or my stomach is giving me grief. This was my longest run and time on my feet by far, but I never let it cross my mind that not finishing was an option. I committed myself, leaned into those supporting me, and at times had to get a little creative with my motivation and fueling, but I was determined to see this journey through to the end.
Thank you to everyone who encouraged me on my 140+ mile adventure. I couldn’t have done it without you.