Saturday, April 20th, 2019
Cover photo cred: R. Bugay
Huge climbs and descents coupled with warm temperatures and heavy rain the previous day combined to form a Hyner year unlike any in recent years according to the vets there. On a good day the Hyner Challenge is one that will test the body and mind. This truth is made more manifest when weather conditions create the perfect setting to elevate that challenge and even more so when one has hardly run or trained at all in close to half a year. I could have dropped to the 25k the morning of the race and I knew it would be the prudent thing to do, but I had other ideas and damn the consequences. I wanted to see what I had for a base to start training again and more importantly wanted to enjoy a day in the mountains of central PA. Despite a DNF I had a great day and a challenging 35k run. I walked away confident that I made the right choice for myself on this particular day…..
Tim, Erin, and I piled into my Subaru XV Crosstrek, affectionately named Liz Lemon, and hit the road a little before 5:00 PM. An accident on I-80 slowed our roll for close to an hour and by the time we were in the mountains the sun was down and the fog hung heavy on those windy roads. Turning off the main road we found ourselves following single lane dirt roads for about 10 miles. Unsure if we were even on the right course we continued on occasionally checking notes provided by Vicki to help us find the place. The road was passable, but we all agreed we were glad to be in my Subaru.
Our friend Vicki had found a mountain cabin tucked away above South Renovo. Placed on the mountaintop overlooking the town and river valley of the West Branch of the Susquehanna the group of us staying there all would agree, too bad we didn’t have a few more days to spend here.
There was enough time to chat with friends, have a beer or two, and try to get some sleep. The beer and race night nerves has other plans for me and I would be up every two hours making my way to the lower level bathroom. I finally crawled out of bed just before sunrise. Tim was already up and moving about, but the rest were enjoying some shut eye.
The cabin had come equipped with two large French presses and some Folgers. While it wasn’t my favorite coffee I was grateful to have any. Taking in the sunrise off the back deck with a coffee was one of many highlights that day. The 50k runners loaded up and hit the road around 6:45 AM. Plenty of time, we thought. Coming off the mountain was slow going. Halfway down a tree had fallen overnight and took a section of road away with it. Fortunately the three vehicles managed to barely squeeze around it. It was a real good thing because the only other route would have taken a full hour and we simply didn’t have that much time.
After parking we made our way to the start area. I dropped off my post-race bag and chatted with a few friends until it was time to go. Choosing to start about 3/4 of the way back I planned to take the run as leisurely as possible. With no training behind me and hardy any running this would be a daunting enough task without foolish pacing mistakes early on.
As the “GO” was issued I found myself running with Kelly. I thought back to Burning River in 2018. Kelly and I had started and finished the race together, but we hadn’t run it together. It just so happenned that we had run the first and last miles together. We would only run the first mile or so of this one.
A mile of road allowed the faster runners to jockey positions and the rest of us to ease into a comfortable pace leading to the first climb. Entering the appropriately named Cliffhanger Trail the next 3 miles would be all climb with the final mile being fairly steep. Atop the climb sits Hyner View. Accessible by car and overlooking the river valley this spot was one I knew well from photographs, but was absolutely awed in person. The fact that the view was so hard-earned lent more meaning and more enjoyment to that view. Moving through the aid station volunteers topped my bottles and I continued onto singletrack happy to see descent laid out before my feet and already tired legs.
After a mile and a half of down hill we crossed Johnson Run. A Park Ranger was here giving encouragement and tips.
“Make sure you are drinking enough and eating! It’ll be a long day out here.”
On the Donut Hole trail now runners climbed gentle uphill until Sledgehammer laid before me. Sledgehammer is a Peter Gabriel song about overcoming a cocaine addiction and subsequently ED, but that’s not important right now. What is important presently is that Sledgehammer is one continuous uphill, quad trashing, hammy bashing mile gaining over 1000 feet! This climb was worthy of any of the big mountains of the west. At the top is the aid station manned by Clinton County Search and Rescue. Eating a little and pouring a bag of Hammer Heed powder into my bottle and topping off I made my way out slowly. My legs threatening to cramp as I tried to not waste the easy trail of the pipeline. The view at the end of the pipeline was amazing, but I was moving slow and didn’t want to waste time. As I calculated the mileage and compared it to the pace I was moving at only 1/3 of a mile in I had my doubts. Those doubts manifested into certainties. I could finish, but not in time.
At the mile 12 aid station I grabbed a drink and ham sandwich loading it up with mustard. I took a bite and asked the volunteers what way is the quickest way back…I was dropping. My Garmin said 10.8 miles. If I knew I was at 12 would I have changed my decision? Maybe, but probably not. The volunteers directed me up a hill a shortways to the mile 8 Aid Station where I promptly sat down and ate my sandwich. Cam came flying through the aid station. He was already on mile 21! I wished him well and set off not long after thinking I had 5-6 miles to go. My brain was clearly addled. There were 11 miles for the return following the remainder of the race course.
The descent of Johnson Run Trail felt great. I cheered the faster runners on as they flew by and when the trail joined the 25k course I fell in hiking with a group.
With each downhill I thought to myself I shouldn’t have dropped, but every uphill confirmed my decision.
I had a lot of training ahead of me and a fair measure of fitness to re-establish. This race was the eye-opener I needed.
There was enough beauty to kindle the spark in my heart for trails and friend time and enough brutality to wake me up from the lethargy and sadness I had wallowed in for too long.
Along the way I enjoyed the terrain and company very much. It was a beautiful place to hike ,and when I felt able, to run.
I came upon a number of 25k challengers that were ill-prepared for the difficulty of this particular trail. A couple of challengers in front of me had no water bottles, no food, no electrolytes. Nothing but the clothing on their backs. At a hiking pace aid stations were hours apart. Soon the couple stopped, both doubled over. I knew that look. I stopped to offer help and ask a few questions.
“Do you have any water?”
“Have you been taking electrolytes?”
I had some Gatorade at the aid station and four cups of water.
“Take these and my water”
I gave them each Hammer Nutrition’s Endurolytes Extreme caps and a bottle with grape Fizz to wash them down. Arriving at the Post Draft Hollow aid station I took a seat on the ground and had more food and drink. When I heard a volunteer say in a panicked voice, ” We are almost out of everything!” I knew I better get going. I was concerned knowing how many people were still out on the trail, but trusted they would get more supplies sent up. I saw the couple I had helped out earlier and they thanked me profusely saying how much better they felt almost immediately after electrolytes and more fluids.
It was an easy run out of the aid station until arriving at Cleveland Hollow, the last major climb of the course. Climbing through the switchbacks leading to the final challenge, S.O.B., I chatted with a new friend, Christy, providing some encouragement and general ramblings. S.O.B. lived up to it’s name and reputation, but I was heartened by the thought that it was the last real climb. At the top I had some more fluids and snacks and headed out with Christy. I ran into Heidi at that aid station also. I met her at a company Christmas Party. We chatted briefly and soon after the downhill took my legs with it. I hammered the downhills like I had fresh legs. Running along the stream was so much fun! Not long before coming back out to the road I caught up to Chuck, Yoda hanging from his backpack guiding him, mudbeard in full effect. This Jedi Master was always great to see in any race. Positive and always fun we chatted a bit until we were on the road. I made my way in skipping the final hill to the finish line. I wouldn’t cross a line I hadn’t earned. However, I would gladly avail myself of the showers, food, and beer available after the race. All said I had a great day and got close to 22 miles in.
All the hype about Hyner holds up. The beauty, the brutality, the after party; this is truly a special event and has secured a place in my heart. The race sells out the same day it opens so get your credit card and trigger finger ready for 2021 (2020 is already sold out).