The Mount Summit Challenge: Why I Love This Race

On April 10, a friend sent me a photo text of the newspaper article announcing that the Mount Summit Challenge would take place in just 15 days.

The typically annual race, organized by the Fayette Striders, was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the last minute, they got the go ahead for 2021.


I was stoked to receive the good news.

As a trail runner, the 3.5-mile uphill, point-to-point course, which takes place on Route 40, the National Pike, is the only road race that I run these days.

“What do you love about the Mount Summit Challenge?” the local newspaper reporter asked me after the race, which took place on Sunday, April 25.

My reason for loving the Summit course itself is far from complex.

“I’ve always loved running uphill,” I answered.

And this hill gains 1,270 feet of elevation, climbing gradually from Hopwood, Pa., getting steeper and steeper as the finish at the Historic Summit Inn Resort comes into view, though it was not visible this year through the thick fog.

Mount Summit Challenge elevation profile (3.5 miles long)

Furthermore, I love the race because of its uniqueness – not many point-to-point uphill courses exist – as well as the connection it gives me to my deceased father.

“You need to run the Mount Summit Challenge,” my dad insisted as he lay in the hospital six months before dying in 2013.

I made a vow to run it for him. He died, four weeks later I had my first baby, and I finally ran it for the first time in 2015.

My bib was coincidentally my dad’s birth year. I won second overall female.

The next year, in 2016, I got his birth digits again. I won first overall female.

To date, his birth digits have miraculously appeared 14 times in different races and four times at the Summit.

So, yes, it is an easy answer. I love toeing the line at the Summit and running with the same wild and free spirit my dad embodied in his life.

Running in this way is my ultimate devotion, something that feels like a feeble afterthought yet the best way I can say, “dad, I miss you, I tell your grandsons about you all the time, I am doing this for you, we love you!”

This year was my fifth time participating in the Summit, and the first time I didn’t receive his birth digits for a bib.

What now? Could I run with gusto without my race angel’s messages from heaven?

Of course! He is there, always.

Full of excitement, I jogged to the start line with my all-female trail running group and son, age seven, who was running the race for his first time.

At the start line with my son, Avie, ready to run his first Summit. By half a mile, motherly instinct set in, and I yearned to finish as soon as possible in order to turn around and fly back down the mountain to him. (Photo/Kristen Muscaro-Winters)
Leading the females from the start. (Photo/Steve Barber, Unit4 Media)

“What were your expectations for today’s race? Did you go into it wanting to win?” was the reporter’s next question. 

I don’t remember what I said, and he didn’t print this part of the interview in the newspaper, but I’ll tell you now that I do not go into races with the one-track mind of wanting to win. 

I go into races with the intention of doing my best, of running a strong, steady, upbeat pace that if set any slower would feel torturously artificial and awkward, unexpressive, even oppressive. 

A race is a celebration, as all runners can attest. If expressing my joy and gratitude by running as fast as I can is enough to reach the podium, then so be it. Undeniably, winning is the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, something that surprises me every time. 

Finishing as first overall female and seventh overall runner in the cold, stunning fog in 31:02. (Photo/Eric Harder)

“The male winner thanked his dog for helping him train. Do you have someone to thank, or something that inspired you today?” 

Of course, I told him I have my father to thank, but this year, I was running for my son, too.

Heck, who am I kidding? I ran my heart out for so many people, so many reasons…

I ran it for…

…that ear-to-ear grin to erupt uncontrollably, because running as fast as I can releases all tension and worry from my mind, body, soul

…my youngest son, husband, sister and friend freezing in the fog while waiting at the top

…my five trail runner girlfriends who were racing 

…Kristen and Travis who escorted Avie up the hill, making it possible for me to run my own race

…the race directors whom I adore

…my mom and husband’s parents

…my brother-in-law who always believes in me even when I’m scared

…the talented male record holder who couldn’t be there

…my alma mater high school cross country team and coach, who serve as volunteers

…the friends I see only once a year at this event 

…the spectators cheering from their vehicles along the road

…friends taking photos across the highway

…that heavyweight cotton sweatshirt, the best race swag around

Race swag of 2021 and years past

…and for myself, because running makes me feel alive.

The list could go on, as there are infinite reasons to push physical, mental and emotional limits, to max out, to explore the potential within. 

It takes courage to test yourself, to lay it all on the line, in front of people. Sometimes the process of getting there isn’t pretty. Often, you have to look your worst, make yourself vulnerable, feel pain and ditch the ego to go to deep, dark places to achieve your best. 

The fulfillment of knowing you had nothing left to give and finishing with a smile, no matter the results, is one of the many life lessons I hope my sons take from participating in and watching the Summit and all races.   

Avie finishing the Summit with me, on the left, and Kristen, right. (Photo/Eric Harder)

This is what makes the Mount Summit Challenge wonderful, worthwhile, a race that will always be near and dear to my heart. 

Now on to the awards…

We spent the awards ceremony outside – typically it is held inside the hotel. 

As my first place trophy, I received a leftover age group award from previous years. At first I was confused, because I have two large, striking first place Summit trophies that I love, for which the race is known, and I was expecting something similarly grand. Even my second place trophy is a special, beautiful piece of art. Yet, I understood why it was less ornate and much smaller this year. Perhaps ordering big, custom, locally designed trophies from artisans is not possible with a two-week turn around. 

At least we Summit lovers got to rally together at the last moment to run this mountain together. And at least we received our sweatshirts! 

In my hand, given to me as my first overall female trophy, is the years-old leftover age group award, a cream-colored ceramic milepost. I guess there wasn’t enough time to make new overall winner trophies. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Pictured is Travis, one of Avie’s escorts, with his age group award, a mug, which he gave to Avie. (Photo/Eric Harder)

Like the race itself, the funny little trophy makes me smile, and even laugh a little. Perhaps I’ll paint over the age group winner words with the correct label so that when I’m old I can recall what actually happened on that day in 2021.

Regardless, I hope I always remember the 39th annual Summit as the one with the fog, as Avie’s first, as the post-hiatus race, the one for which the community was most thrilled and thankful to have back. 

I am so looking forward to the Mount Summit Challenge’s big 40th next year! 

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Brynn Cunningham
15 Following

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


Rob Myers The hits keep coming! Great Rundown...

Brynn Cunningham Thanks, Rob!

Marci McGuinness Coolest kid ever!!! You too, Brynn!! Lol I marvel that he climbed that mt! Good genes!

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