Mt. Summit Challenge: Epic Uphill Race Still Takes Grit to Finish

Think you're tough enough to take on an epic race that's been luring runners to the starting line for 40 years?

Go ahead. Step up to the starting line of the Mt. Summit Challenge in southwest Pennsylvania.

Here's what to expect...

It's one way...Uphill!

And the weather conditions in late April can be...unpredictable.

Veteran runner Brynn Cunningham showed up ready to take on the Mt. Summit Challenge...again.

Here's what happened...

Mt. Summit Challenge elevation profile: 3.5 miles with 1,270 feet of gain and 35 feet of loss.

The Mt. Summit Challenge race course

Distance: Despite its single-digit length of 3.5 miles, Pennsylvania’s Mount Summit Challenge is not a typical 5k jaunt around town. 

Elevation: It’s straight uphill, a road race that gains 1,270 feet of elevation on Route 40, the National Pike. 

Starting + Finish: Runners and walkers line up in front of the Hopwood Volunteer Fire Department and cross the finish line at the Historic Summit Inn Resort, the top of the mountain.

Start + Finish. The Mt. Summit Challenge begins at the Hopwood Volunteer Fire Department. The race ends at the Historic Summit Inn Resort at the top of the mountain.

Race Morning

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, May 1, thunder, lightning and rain were coming down hard in the small mountain town of Ohiopyle, Pa. 

My husband, Eric Harder, and I woke up our sons and readied them for the day.

Logistics: We dropped off Grey, age five, with my mom, while Avie, age eight, stayed with us, as we picked up my brother-in-law, Chuck Morris, and friend Andrea Detwiler, and continued the 35-minute drive to the start line of the 2022 Mount Summit Challenge.

Weather: As lightning lit up the sky at the top of the mountain where the finish line sits, I said to Avie, “This will be hard. The only option is to keep going.” 

He nodded. 2021 was the first time Avie participated in the race. He knew what to expect. 

And he knows exactly why I began running the race in the first place: for my dad, his grandfather, who died four weeks before he was born.

The 2022 Mt. Summit Challenge was held on May 1 in Hopwood, Penn.

The Race

8:45 a.m., about 50 degrees. I was the only person running around the parking lot warming up in the torrential downpour.  

8:55 a.m. Avie, Eric, Andrea and Chuck, who was running with Avie, and I lined up in the fire department with the other racers. The rain slowed to a drizzle then to a complete stop. Amen!

8:57 a.m. We emerged from under the roof to the start line 20 feet away. 

8:59 a.m. I started my music. 

9 a.m. The gun fired. 

The first mile: Exposed and open, we were running into a headwind, complete with whipping winds pushing me from all sides. About five minutes into the race, I had fallen in beside a male runner. We were alone, just the two of us, swapping who led and who followed.

Mile two: By now, I was spitting and blowing snot rockets every five minutes due to the seasonal allergies that had flared up a week prior. I’m pretty sure I spit on my race buddy (sorry, Matt!). The mucus was so thick it wouldn’t disconnect from my mouth, so snot and spit wound up sticking to my face and shoulders, which I attempted to wipe with my short tank top, in vain.  It was not pretty. 

Mile three: The strongest winds hit here, at the steepest part of the climb. “Punch your way up the hill,” I told myself as I swung my arms strongly forward like an uppercut into the headwind determined to push me back down the mountain. An invisible force pressed against my body, trying to hold me back I ducked my head, leaned into it and took deep breaths.

Half a mile to go: At the half mile mark is an overlook, where spectators typically line up to cheer on racers for the final straightaway toward the finish line. But the crowd was not there that morning. And I didn’t blame them. The thunderstorm from earlier and the current wind had kept everyone home. 

A quarter mile to go: My running buddy had taken off, and I was counting the orange cones in my head as I willed my legs to keep going, keep fighting the wind. 

The finish: I made the right-hand turn to finally sprint the short and only downhill to break the tape as first female and fourth overall runner in 33:13.

The 2022 Mount Summit Challenge was Cunningham’s sixth time racing in the event. She has won first female four times and second once, with a personal best of 30:29. Her husband, Eric Harder, was just two places behind her.

Thoughts and actions as I crossed the finish:

  • 33:13?! Slowest time I’ve ever run! 
  • That clock has to be wrong.
  • Nope, my watch says 33:13, too.
  • Funny, that’s Eric’s birthday (March 13, 3/13).
  • Oh well, it didn’t feel like a PR day.
  • My dad’s digits didn’t show up this time (keep reading to see why that’s important), but Eric’s did. 
  • Dry heaving, I clung to the woman trying to tear off the bottom of my bib.
  • I can’t believe I won after the winter I had (a three-month ordeal with shingles/ concussion/ COVID).
  • Wow, I am ECSTATIC to be healthy enough to be here. 
  • A lump formed in my throat and tears began to swell up in my eyes.
  • I stumbled over to the third place male, who ran with me until the end. We introduced ourselves, high fived and cursed at the wind (at least I did). I bemoaned my slower-than-ever time then laughed at myself: don’t be ridiculous, you won! 
Avie Harder, the author’s son, ran his second Mount Summit Challenge on May 1, 2022, with his uncle, Chuck Morris, who helped him beat his time from 2021.

The rest of the crew:

  • I ran over to congratulate the first place male then saw Eric and ran with him as he crossed the finish line. 
  • He confirmed that I was covered in snot and spit and attempted to wipe me clean as we chatted with my former high school track teammate/ coaching partner, Matt Girod, who came in right after me and before Eric. We laughed, and I ran back down the mountain to Avie and Chuck to finish with them. 
  • Eric recovered and showed up near the half-mile mark to run in with me, Avie and Chuck. 
  • Avie took five minutes off his time from last year.
  • Andrea crossed as third overall female, her first podium finish ever.
Brynn Cunningham from Ohiopyle, Penn., finished the Mt. Summit Challenge in 33:13.

The question from a news reporter...

“What kept you going in this weather today?” asked the Herald Standard reporter after the race.

I told him that I run trails year round in all types of weather and typically farther than 3.5 miles. Anyway, besides the wind, the weather turned out fine.

But the truth is, something deeper than my consistent, outside-in-all-elements, no excuses training kept me going.

Because in order to do difficult things, we need more than just a logbook full of miles and elevation stats. 

We need a compelling reason.

Brynn Cunningham was also the first female finisher at the Mt. Summit Challenge.

The compelling reason

Throughout my dad’s eight-month battle with death, I thought that the hope of meeting his first grandchild would become enough to keep him alive.

It had to be enough. I was only 29 when he was hospitalized and had just moved back to my hometown after traveling for a decade. When my then-boyfriend/ now husband and I found out we were pregnant, I was ready to stay and settle down. 

My dad COULD. NOT. DIE. Not now. 

I’d visit him in the hospital and discuss baby names.

He’d forget I was pregnant most of the time, so we had lots of the same conversations: “Dad, I’m having a baby!” It was like a fun, surprising announcement, a hint of joy that I could bring him each time.

Except it was far from happy.

It was downright depressing to watch my 61-year-old fit, tan, father wither away.

My unborn child/ his grandchild was like a beacon of light I waved before him...

  • Sometimes calmly, serenely, full of hope that this could not be the end...
  • And other times, desperately, maddeningly, as if the mere words held the power to undo the irreversible damage of three decades spent smoking two and a half packs of Kool cigarettes a day, plus smoking joints and drinking five or six PBRs on top of it all.

I believe in miracles, I’d tell myself.

Yet, the miracle of my dad battling his way out of his demise did not happen. 

The challenge

On one of our early visits, before I found out I was pregnant and prior to my dad losing his memory and ability to speak, I was telling him about some ultramarathon ideas.

He laughed and put me up to a challenge:

“You need to run the Summit. Now that’s a race!” 

Happily accepting, I asked him when it was.

  • April, he answered, and he would be there this time. 
  • It was late October, plenty of time for him to overcome his health issues and for me to prepare for the Summit. 
  • We would do this together.  
  • After all, he had already missed three of my races that fall due to hospitalization, and we both silently vowed that it would never happen again, at least not anytime soon. 
  • We were a team - I was the runner, and he was my crew and cheerleader.  

Yet, things sped up and slowed down all at once. He deteriorated while I was growing, expecting my first child. 

On June 1, 2013, he died. On June 28, I had Avie, the grandson he never met.

Gone but not forgotten

By April 2015, I was ready to run my first Mount Summit Challenge.

The complete answer to the weather question...

So, what was the reporter’s question again? 

“What kept you going in this weather today?” 

As he asked, I took a long pause, deciding whether to go into detail about my father as I have here, for you. 

I had told the same reporter my dad’s story before, so instead of repeating myself this year, I stuck with something logical: that as a trail runner who trains year round, less-than-ideal weather is in my favor.

However, as you can clearly see,  it’s only part of the answer, the easy, simple side of things. 

The complete answer involves raw emotion, human connection, love, death, new life and, dare I say, even a miracle?

A miracle & a tradition

Yes, I believe in miracles. 

And my dad, my race angel, has shown me that miracles do come true. 

They may not happen when we beg for them, when we put all our faith into praying for one, crying for one, not understanding why the miracle won’t happen at that very moment of despair, but they happen. 

Even in something as basic and ordinary as a race bib, and always in ways we never could have dreamed. 

In that way, the challenge my dad set before me transformed into the inspiring miracle that keeps me going, which has transformed into the family tradition that encompasses the grandchild, and one day both grandsons, that he never got to meet. 

Eric Harder (left), Avie, age eight, and author Brynn Cunningham, all ran the 2022 Mount Summit Challenge in honor of Cunningham’s late father, A.J. Cunningham.

The swag

Each year racers receive a heavyweight cotton crew neck sweatshirt in different colors. Check out colors from five different years in the 2021 Race Recap: The Mount Summit Challenge: Why I Love This Race.

Race Gear & Clothes

The Playlist, which I’ve listened to on shuffle for the 2019, 2021 and 2022 Summit races

Mt. Summit Challenge finishers received awards and T-shirts.

Have you ran the Mt. Summit Challenge? Tell us about it.

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

Comments

David Moore Congratulations on another 1st place at Mount Summit Brynn! And Avie, Eric and Andrea, nice work!! Thanks for sharing

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