Mt. Summit Challenge: Can You Run This Difficult Uphill Race?

Think you're tough enough to run uphill for 3.5 miles and climb 1,270 feet?

Here's what it's like to run the Mt. Summit Challenge in southwest Pennsylvania.

WeeViews Ambassador Brynn Cunningham started running the Mt. Summit Challenge eight years ago.

😲And this year, something unexpected happened just before go-time.

Wondering what it's like to take on the Mt. Summit Challenge and run uphill?

In this article, you'll get Brynn's take on this difficult race + hear from 6 runners who made it to the top.

Mt. Summit Challenge elevation profile: 3.5 miles with 1,270 feet of gain and zero to 35 feet of loss (watch has clocked slightly different numbers each year).

📈The Mount 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 point-to-point road race that gains approximately 1,270 feet (each year my watch clocks something slightly different) of elevation on Route 40, the National Pike. 
  • Start + Finish: Runners and walkers line up in front of the Hopwood Volunteer Fire Department at the base of the mountain and cross the finish line at the Historic Summit Inn Resort, the top of the mountain.
Brynn Cunningham was the first overall female in 33:13 at the Mt. Summit Challenge in 2022.

Run to Win: Reflections on the Mt. Summit Challenge

I began running the Mount Summit Challenge in 2015, and it’s fun to look back at the memories made each year.

🏃‍♀️2015: 

  • My first!
  • And my first race as a mom and after my dad’s death
  • Still breastfeeding my 22-month old baby boy, who waited at the finish for me with his dad, Eric 
  • Our first experience at a race as parents!
  • I ran four to five days per week pushing my baby in a jogging stroller, three to 12 miles at a time, plus weekends solo on trails
  • Cloudy, calm, high 40s
  • Dad’s birth year was my bib number for the first time (52) 
  • Second overall female in 30:31, my first time ever on a podium outside of high school

 🏃‍♀️ 2016: 

  • High 70s, humid, sunny
  • Dry heaved at the finish
  • Dad’s birth year in my bib again!
  • First overall female in 31:24

 🏃‍♀️ 2017: 

  • I had a second baby and brought him, 20 days old, plus his older brother, to the finish line to cheer for the racers
  • The winning female had my dad’s birth digits in her bib

 🏃‍♀️ 2018: 

  • Happy to be healthy enough to participate 12 months postpartum! 
  • Slept one hour, up all night breastfeeding
  • Hot, sunny, 70s
  • Exhausted
  • My husband, Eric, ran for his first time
  • Fifth female in 32:39

 🏃‍♀️ 2019: 

  • Trained hard
  • Cloudy, 60s 
  • Felt amazing 
  • Still breastfeeding but sleeping more
  • Boys ages two and five
  • First overall female in 31:04

 🏃‍♀️ 2020: 

  • Race canceled

 🏃‍♀️ 2021: 

  • Avie, my oldest son at age seven, ran for his first time! 
  • I ran as fast as I could, motivated by my desire to turn around and run back down to Avie
  • Eric ran his second Summit
  • Fog obscured the finish, misty, no wind, 40s
  • First overall female in 31:02
  • 2021 Mount Summit Challenge Recap

 🏃‍♀️ 2022: 

  • My mantra was: “This isn’t going to be a PR!” 
  • Post-shingles/ concussion/ COVID but cleared to run
  • Mucus clogged my nasal passages and throat, an after-effect of COVID, plus the threat of a splitting headache if I ran too fast due to post-concussion syndrome, on top of post-herpetic neuralgia acting up (damaged nerves due to shingles). 
  • Thunder, lightning and heavy rain stopped 30 seconds before the starting gun fired, heavy headwinds
  • Blew snot rockets and coughed up flem from miles two to 3.5
  • Avie ran his second Summit
  • First overall female in 33:13
  • 2022 Mount Summit Challenge Recap

 🏃‍♀️ 2023:

  • Finally back to the health and running shape I was in before shingles/ concussion/ COVID
  • Finally hitting solid paces 
  • While riding my gravel bike eight days prior to race day, my crank and pedal flew off, sending me flying forward, slamming into the saddle
  • The result: pubic bone, sciatic joint, sit bone and iliac all askew, strained ligaments and tendons
  • MRI coming soon
  • Did Not Start 

What's it like to take on the Mt. Summit Challenge?

8 runners share their stories from this difficult uphill race

Brynn Cunningham with her son Avie at the Mt. Summit Challenge.

1. Brynn Cunningham

I was SO READY! 

I was hitting all the paces! 

But things (in this case, freak accidents) happen, and life is too good to dwell for too long.

So I vented my frustration and got on with life. 

  • After all, Avie was running his third Summit, and Eric was, too
  • Friends were coming to stay with me for the event
  • And we were meeting more friends at the start line. 
  • My role switched from racer to support team and cheerleader, and I made the most of it.

What the Mt. Summit Challenge means to me...

Like most runners, those of us who tackle the Summit do it for more complex and visceral reasons than personal bests and accolades, though personal bests are always a respectable goal, too.

For my family, it’s become an annual event, like Christmas, a permanent fixture on the calendar, rain or shine.

To make a long story short, my Summit story began in 2012 with...

  • My dying dad, telling me to run this race...
  • That it was tougher than any ultra or marathon. 

Indeed, if you run it hard enough...

  • Recruiting short-twitch muscle fibers
  • Tapping into the anaerobic system
  • Leaving no gas left in the tank...
  • It is absolutely an equally arduous endeavor.

He died before seeing me race, and afterward his birth digits began appearing in my race bibs, countless times.

If you’re up for an awe-inspiring and possibly tear-jerker story, read the backstory of what the Summit means to me.

What the Summit means to us...

Runners come together to grind up the mountain for infinite reasons. 

Perhaps it’s to:

  • Test themselves after or through personal hardship
  • Explore physical and mental limits
  • Discover things about oneself within a safe environment
  • See old friends, run a unique course, or feel alive

Maybe it’s because humans are social creatures who rely on one another for love, compassion, encouragement and fun, and races are the perfect scenario for all of those things. 

It’s most likely a beautiful mixture of all of those things, and more. 

Now, let’s hear what some racers who lined up at the 2023 start line have to say.

We asked seven runners this question: What does the Mt. Summit Challenge mean to you?

Here's what they said...

Jody Best, bib 631 (Photo/ author)

2. Jody Best

 “I appreciated the community component of the race," Jody said.

"I heard a lot of runners bantering about their previous Summit Challenge races, and it was evident that the Challenge was an annual event that local and regional runners were excited about returning to year after year."

"The race had a good small-town, big-mountain energy, and it’s understandable why folks would want to make the Summit an annual event. The National Road, the historical Summit Hotel, a demanding climb—there’s lots for local runners to be proud of.” 

-Jody Best, walker, age 60, finish time 52:18, Confluence, Pa. 

Amanda Love (Photo/ Josh Lawrey)

3. Amanda Love

“My favorite thing about the day was the amount of friends that were running and seeing my former high school cross country coach Joe (Everhart) and old high school running friends who I only really see at races," Amanda said.

"All the friends that came to watch and support and all the friends that ran really make the Summit special!”

-Amanda Love, age 41, runner, finish time 38:48, Ohiopyle, Pa.

Christi Pletcher (Photo/ Josh Lawrey)

4. Christi Pletcher

“The after party… It has a lively atmosphere with music, food and lots of awards," Christi said.

"This isn’t your run of the mill race…you definitely get bragging rights for running up the mountain."

"It’s so unique that when runners learn of it they always say, ‘That’s really cool. I’m going to have to run that one.’”

- Christi Pletcher, age 44, runner, finish time 44:52, Hopwood, Pa.

Avie Harder, author’s son, age nine (Photo/ Josh Lawrey)

5. Avie Harder

“Getting the sweatshirt, pizza at the end and just doing it, because I like running it," Avie said.

-Avie Harder, age nine, runner, finish time 50:15, Ohiopyle, Pa.

Patrick Foster, age 11, bib 269 (Photo/author)

6. Patrick Foster

“My favorite thing about the Summit is that not many people can say they’ve done it," Patrick said. "And even fewer in my age group compared to other racers."

"It’s special because it’s longer than the average 5k, and it’s all uphill. You never realize it, but the Summit is way longer than it seems.”

- Patrick Foster, age 11, runner, finish time 37:06, Ohiopyle, Pa.

Bob Baker

7. Bob Baker

“My favorite thing about it is the uniqueness that we have to provide an event of this difficulty level in Fayette County," Bob said.

"It sets itself apart from many of the other races that are available throughout the country. Fayette County is truly amazing. People just need to discover all it has to offer.”

-Bob Baker, age 50, runner, finish time 33:34, Uniontown, Pa.

Joshua Nichelson

8. Joshua Nichelson

“My favorite thing about the Summit Challenge is that it is, in fact, a challenge," said Joshua.

"Attempting to run 3.5 miles of a continuous gain in elevation with unpredictable weather creates a truly unique event that tests your body's endurance."

"I've been running for two years now. This is my second Summit Challenge race event and sixth time running the Summit. I always make it a point to take part in this event even though I was scheduled to run the 5K and 26.2 mile Pittsburgh Marathon a week later."

"I think what makes the Summit Challenge such a special event is that it seems to attract runners and walkers from different states."

"It is home to our little city of Uniontown and hosted by one of the area's smallest, but close knit running club, the Fayette Striders, and is managed by the local racing management company, SERJ Racing Services.”

-Joshua Nichelson, age 35, runner, finish time 37:15, Connellsville, Pa.

How to sign up for the Mt. Summit Challenge

  • There’s no runsignup.com link, and their web site only seems to work half the time. On top of that, results from the 40 or so previous years are difficult if not impossible to find, so be sure you keep your own records.
  • For a few years, past participants were mailed the registration form, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, that seemed to fall by the wayside. 
  • In 2021, the race was announced two weeks prior to the selected date in the local newspaper, the Herald Standard, and the news spread by word of mouth. 
  • This year, we periodically checked the website and our mailboxes for the registration form, and eventually it was posted online, so we printed it off and mailed it in. 
  • One year I mailed $100 cash (not recommended, but it made it safely!), because I was out of checks. 

Sure, this lack of information and behind-the-times registration process can be frustrating, but for some of us, it’s exactly these types of things that make this local race so endearing. 

Looking for more races in southwest Pennsylvania?

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Fayette County is host to many races, from 5K to ultra distances, kids races to relays. Some of the most popular and unique events include the:

Afterthoughts: Mt. Summit Challenge 2024 or bust!

No matter what life throws at me, I plan to be at the Summit, whether I’m racing a perfect race, a mediocre race, or a downright painful one, or cheering for my people, my family, and all the participants. 

One day, my youngest son will be bounding up the mountain, and he, Avie, Eric and I might all be racing each other, making it a full-blown family competition! 

I know that whatever the future holds, we’ll be ready with open arms and smiles. 

Because races give us more than trophies and race times. They fill our lives to the brim with special memories and happy moments with loved ones and the community that we call home.

Summit 2024 or bust!

Have you ran an uphill race like the Mt. Summit Challenge?

Tell us about it in the comments.

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, triathlete, cross country and backcountry skier...

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