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...
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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...
I believe in miracles, I’d tell myself.
Yet, the miracle of my dad battling his way out of his demise did not happen.
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.
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.
By April 2015, I was ready to run my first Mount Summit Challenge.
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?
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.
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
Have you ran the Mt. Summit Challenge? Tell us about it.