For Barry Dana, Running the 100 Mile Wilderness is More Than a Sufferfest

The former Penobscot chief tackles the famously grueling stretch of the Appalachian Trail to test his body and spirit and connect with his ancestors. And no, he won’t be needing any fancy apps or gear, thanks very much.

By Jaed Coffin
Photographed by Chris Shane
From our May 2022 issue

Just after 4 a.m., still more than two hours before sunrise, 63-year-old Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Nation, pulled into an empty Appalachian Trail parking lot in Monson, at the southern boundary of the 100 Mile Wilderness. It was late September of last year, and for the previous three days, a steady rain had turned the trail to mud. Local friends who knew about Dana’s impending trek had swamped his Facebook with warnings: “Everything is rain swollen.” “Highest water in two years.” “It’s gonna hurt.”

Even when dry, the 100 Mile Wilderness is regarded as one of the Appalachian Trail’s most hazardous sections. The terrain is both rugged and isolated, crisscrossed only by logging roads. If a hiker gets hurt, help is nowhere nearby. And while most hikers tackle the section in seven to ten days, Dana, who’s also a whitewater paddler and dogsled musher, had arrived with a different vision: to run it in a single push.

At the trailhead, he went over plans with his one-man support team, Roger Johnstone. The two have known each other since childhood, and Johnstone’s father was a beloved teacher of Dana’s at Old Town High School. Johnstone planned to drive ahead in his pickup truck, with food and water, to resupply Dana at logging roads. Dana shouldered a backpack with a 1.5-liter hydration bladder, which he had filled with an energy drink made with birch syrup, from trees tapped in his backyard. While most trail runners use tracking apps on their smartphones or GPS watches to log routes and splits, Dana was wearing what he calls his “Walmart special” — a cheap wristwatch with a timer function. “I’m 63 years old,” he said. “If they don’t take my word for it, shame on them.”

Dana and the author on the trail, last summer.

After gathering up the trekking poles he carved from hophornbeam wood (the carbon-fiber models sold at gear shops are too unreliable and too clangy for him), he adjusted a sheath knife that hung from his waist. He tied on an orange headband that matched his orange T-shirt — the color has, in recent years, come to signify the many Native children forced from their families and placed in residential schools in the U.S. and Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hanging from Dana’s headband was an eagle feather, which he wears for spiritual connection to his forebears. “When I run,” he said, “it’s not just for me. It’s for my people.” Then, he clicked on his headlamp and plunged into the dark woods.

First to run the 100 Mile Wilderness, as far as anyone knows, was a trio from Alna, who, in 2011, did it in 39-and-a-half hours. (The actual distance is a shade less than 100 miles, but rounding up has a better ring.) When members of a southern Maine running club, Trail Monster Running, caught wind of the feat, a dozen of them arrived in Monson to give it a shot, and Ian Parlin, the club founder, awarded belt buckles to the five runners who finished in less than 48 hours (the fastest time was 30 hours, 48 minutes, and 30 seconds). Parlin chronicled the run on Trail Monster’s blog, and word started spreading online.

Dana heard about Trail Monster’s exploits in 2016. The idea stuck in his head, and he started training on a stretch of the AT that passes near his home, in Solon. Runners differ on whether it’s better to head north or south: Take on the biggest mountains early and finish across the relatively flat stretch that ends near the southern boundary of Baxter State Park? Or save the grind of the climbs for the end? When Dana was ready for his first attempt, in 2017, it made sense to him to go northbound — toward Katahdin, a sacred Wabanaki landmark and Maine’s highest mountain. He finished in just over 46 hours and posted his time online. Parlin sent him a belt buckle. A year later, Dana shaved six hours off that mark. In 2020, though, he and his support team failed to link up as planned, and he pulled the plug early.

Meanwhile, the self-administered 100 Mile Wilderness challenge has continued to gain visibility. Finn Melanson, a Cape Elizabeth native who lives in Utah, broke the 30-hour barrier two years ago, running without a support team. Barry Howe, from Rockport, subsequently bested Melanson’s record by 12 minutes while running with support. Melanson, the host of a trail-running podcast, has announced that he’ll attempt to crash the 24-hour mark this summer. Lidia Gill, from Portland, set the best time among women (and third best overall), 33 hours and 19 minutes, without a support team. Since bringing the 100 Mile Wilderness to the attention of the running community, Parlin says, he’s had to order a new supply of belt buckles.

Dana’s goal, this time around, was to beat 36 hours, which would be a personal best. It was clear from the start, though, that trail conditions were as messy as advertised: slabs of slick rock, submerged bog bridges, deep troughs of thick mud, rock stairs turned into waterfalls. He hoped to cover roughly three miles every hour, no more than a walking pace on a track but a hard grind in the 100 Mile Wilderness — in the first 50 miles, the trail traverses eight significant peaks, with a total elevation gain equivalent to scaling New Hampshire’s Mount Washington four times. As Dana skipped from stone to stone — and as I tacked along behind him — he told stories about growing up on the Penobscot-tribe’s Indian Island Reservation, where he’d run with the Andrew Sockalexis Track Club (named after the celebrated Penobscot marathoner who finished fourth at the 1912 Olympics and twice placed second in the Boston Marathon) before joining the University of Maine’s team.

Most long-distance runners go through a strict regimen of training runs to prepare for something like the 100 Mile Wilderness. Dana’s last major outing was the Katahdin 100, a pilgrimage Penobscot-tribe members make every Labor Day weekend — by canoe, bicycle, and foot — from Indian Island to the base of Katahdin. In the several weeks since, he had been out hunting moose on tribal land. Pushing himself with long runs, he says, fosters a deep link to his ancestors, who, in oral record, were known to cover great distances in pursuit of game or to carry messages. His cousin, a tribal linguist, once told him that the title of sagama — a Penobscot word for “leader” — could be translated as “hardheaded” or “hardened.” A leader, Dana thought, must have the mental toughness to go beyond “the comforts most people enjoy.” Sometimes, friends and family ask him to carry their prayers on his runs.

“When I’m 85 or 90, I’ll saunter,” Dana says, “but until then, I’m gonna hammer.”

At mile 10, where Canadian Pacific Railway tracks cross the trail, we passed a thru-hiker in the last stage of her four-month journey north from Georgia, and Dana paused to chat about upcoming stream crossings. Later, we passed a bunch of thru-hikers in rain-soaked tents, the campsite adorned with sagging clotheslines of wet socks. Eight miles farther on, approaching the fire tower atop Barren Mountain, we stumbled upon another group — they’d passed Johnstone at our first meet-up point a little before us, and he’d given a hiking pole to a woman who’d lost one of hers. Sounding glum, they said they’d had enough of wet feet and soggy sleeping bags.

The Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains all 267 miles of the trail in Maine, is wary of exploits like Dana’s. One issue is safety. Running is more likely to result in injury than walking, the group says, and wilderness rescue requires lots of manpower and entails hazards of its own. On a philosophical level, MATC president Lester Kenway adds, running and record breaking clash with the spirit of the trail, which a foundational AT document describes as “a means of sojourning among these lands.”

Dana can’t recall an interaction that has been anything but positive. He once even asked a passing thru-hiker to carry cedar up Katahdin for him, not long after ultra runner Scott Jurek, in 2015, completed the entire AT in record time and held a champagne-soaked celebration on the summit. Baxter State Park officials fined Jurek $500 for public drinking, but for Dana, the issue was less the policy violation than the act of disrespect — cedar is, among the Wabanaki tribes, a sacred plant for communing with ancestors. He doesn’t see running itself as a problem. “I love the fact that this is a renegade thing,” Dana says. “It’s primitive: you go out and do it, no insurance, no bullshit. Running mountains is a natural thing we’re born to do. When I’m 85 or 90, I’ll saunter, but until then, I’m gonna hammer.”

Come midafternoon of the first day, some 30 miles in, I was following Dana downhill toward the West Branch of the Pleasant River. The gray skies had given way to bright blue, but the trail remained swamped, and we were already significantly off his intended pace. After meeting Johnstone for a quick break, Dana sprung back to his feet and headed toward the most arduous series of peaks, which we’d have to tackle overnight.

A few hours later, after skirting the roaring falls of Gulf Hagas, dusk had turned to dark, and we switched on our headlamps. The air temperature dropped, and we pulled on gloves, hats, and fleece jackets. Despite the extra layers and the exertion, it was a struggle to stay warm, and even at higher elevations, the trail was riddled with puddles. On the way up White Cap, I watched snow flurries dapple Dana’s shoulders. We fell into a zombie-like march to the summit, where we found a ripping wind and more snowfall. When we met Johnstone again, past midnight, we were even farther off the pace. I was falling asleep on my feet when I heard Dana call out, “We aren’t dead yet!” After a few gulps of Coca-Cola pulled from the back of Johnstone’s truck, I followed the beam from Dana’s headlamp back onto the trail.

Over looking Lake Onawa and Borestone Mountain, from Barren Mountain.

The rising sun brought new life to our effort. For the next 15 miles, we took turns leading, averaging up to 4 miles per hour for stretches, desperately trying to reel back lost time. As the terrain dropped into the gentle grade along Nahmakanta Stream, the segment that many runners call the “green tunnel” — on account of long hours spent passing under a thick canopy of trees — started to do strange work on my sleep-deprived brain. White sailboat masts were merely dead trees. A group of fly-fishermen turned out to be a cluster of boulders. Dana and I laughed about the absurdity of our hallucinations. While I saw a beautiful golden retriever, he saw a series of black dogs. As we approached our next road crossing, at mile 73, Dana paused.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” he said.

Going the rest of the way would push us into another round of darkness. I told him that I had left my ego back on the snowy summit of White Cap. At that, we shook hands and congratulated each other on the miles behind us.

The next day, Dana called. He was feeling great: his legs were fresh, he’d slept well, and he was prepping for another week of moose hunting. “You know,” he said, “we did the right thing. Finishing at all costs, that’s a younger man’s game.”