Left to Right - Adam McGinnis, Sandy Evans, Joel Noal, me, Gary Frisco

Left to Right – Adam McGinnis, Sandy Evans, Joel Noal, me, Gary Frisco

Lets begin with a slight confession. Even though I consider myself an avid trailrunner, I never raced in the two crowning jewels of northern PA trail running – The Hyner Challenge and the The Megatransect. Now that I admitted to the sacrilege, 2013 is the year to scratch those races off the list. Fast forward: I was now in a crowd of about a thousand runners and it is about a minute before ”go time”. I can’t really tell if I am in the mid-pack or maybe a third from the start line. Somehow walking to the starting area, I lost track of most of my friends and only friend Frisco was there with me. Then on an embankment I see Don Longstreth and Tyler Pepper. About a month and a half ago, they brought me and another friend, Tim Sheehan, to a preview training run of the course and we ran about 65% of the course that day. Don, reiterated some last bit of advice, “run as fast as you can so you can get in front of the bottleneck” he said.
I have been plagued by a temperamental left quad muscle all Spring. Furthermore, I had the Pittsburgh Marathon coming up in two weeks and the Laurel Highlands Ultra in June. I don’t want to over-exert myself or get injured. Also, my training lately was more focused toward long-distance and, frankly, I have been a lot slower than last year. My “comfort pace” and fast-interval times is about 90 seconds per mile slower than this time last year. So I decided not to push it. Granted, I would run harder than I did at Dam Full Marathon back in September when I was recovering from an Achilles injury three weeks prior to the Dam Full. I decided to run smart and give it about 85% to 90% effort. In the days before Hyner I told myself that

Frisco and I just before the start

Frisco and I just before the start

I’d be very happy to be placed in the top 200 of almost 1000 runners in a time between 3:30 and 4 hours.
Craig Fleming, the race director, was perched on a balcony looking above his congregation of trail runners. His sermon was a simple countdown to zero and we are off. The mass of people moved forward in an avalanche of legs and powered by grit and I immediately lost sight of Don, Tyler and Frisco. I assumed Don and Tyler, heeding their own advice, were sprinting toward the front. Frisco, who was just beside me was gone but my guess was that he was either a few steps behind me or just ahead. I had no idea where other friends, Adam McGinnis, Joel Noal or Frank Sanders were – I lost track of them even before we walked to the start. Tim Sheehan and Sandy Evans said they will be starting from the back.
Before the bottleneck, we ran on a hard road (Route 120), over the West Branch of the Susquehanna, then onto a small township road before reaching the bottleneck. Though I was told to sprint to the bottleneck, I was apprehensive in striding too much and stretching my quad too far. I got into a comfortable pace (low to mid 8’s) as I crossed the river and made a right onto the township road and the bottleneck.
Reaching the bottleneck, it wasn’t as bad as I feared, taking less than twenty seconds or so to funnel down to a single file on a section of singletrack called Cliffhanger.
For many, they loathe Humble Hill, or curse at S.O.B. or wince at the downhill along Huff Run. For me, I am the most fearful of Cliffhanger. I have a fear of heights. As the name implies, this section of trail is along a steep cliff face with a railroad bed far below. There is a metal fence about five to ten feet below the trail but looks like it is about a hundred years old. Rusted and brittle, my assumption that instead of stopping you it would be either be like a pasta strainer — with your body embodying a limp strip of fettuccine or wrapping you up into bale of hay before tossing you to your death onto the tracks — at places maybe as much as a hundred feet below. Several ago during Don and Tyler’s training run, a jagged rock on the uphill side of the cliff grabbed my jacket and pulled me on the shoulder. When the snag let go, into snapped my back toward the downhill side of the ledge and I almost went over the edge. During the race, I focused on the trail ahead of me, trying to keep the precarious drop out of my head. Soon enough I made it to Humble Hill.

The West Branch of the Susquehanna River from Hyner Point

The West Branch of the Susquehanna River, looking downstream from from Hyner Point

Me, climbing up to Hyner View. The river is behind me.

Me, climbing up to Hyner View. The river, looking upstream, is behind me.

Humble Hill

Finally Reaching Hyner Point.

Finally Reaching Hyner Point.

I have worked hard in the last year on my hill climbs. Last season I did pretty well by being able to run up a just little farther than the other runners and then being able to start running sooner at the crest of the hill. This has worked well for me but it comes at a price of expelling too much energy. This season I have trying to improve my uphills by running smarter. If a hill is still run-able, I shorten and lighten my strides to conserve energy, use my arms to maintain momentum by moving them forward and keeping a steady pace. When the hill gets steep enough to walk, I retry to straighten my posture, shorten my steps even tighter and either use my arms either by spinning them like the drivetrain of a locomotive or clawing at the air, or at times planting my hands on my knees to help push on my legs. Humble Hill is actually two climbs – first 495 feet in 0.27 miles and then a 787 foot climb in 0.6 miles. While passing quite a few people at the beginning of Humble Hill, I was able to pickup some hitchhikers and tow them along with me up the hill. “Hey, let’s follow this guy”‘ one of them said behind me. In the end there was a group of a half of dozen runners, all of us keeping up the pace, as we all scaled up Humble Hill in a good time. At the top at the lookout, I heard my name but I could not see who it was but assumed it was Colleen Sheehan, Tim’s wife, cheering me on.

Downhill into Reickhert Hallow
After getting a quick drink and some gummy fish, I headed back down the mountain, through several switchbacks, and down into Reickhert Hallow. At the top through the switchbacks I kept things conservative, running this section slower than the group training run a couple months earlier. On that run a few weeks past, I took off and began to feel my quad muscle protest. Today, my speed was steady and at the same pace as the runners around me until inevitably the person ahead would hesitate and slow down, usually apprehensive in a particularly steep section. After passing one person, I heard footsteps behind me when he decides to pass on the right in a part of the trail that was covered in blueberry bushes. Not seeing the broken limbs in the bushes, he tripped and falls forward. As he falls he slashes his poles toward my calves. Instantly I jumped over the poles, surprising even me the quickness of my reaction time. That was a close call.

As we reach the small stream in Reickhert Hallow, I suddenly found myself with a lot of running room and spread some distance from me and the rest of the pack until I caught up with another pack. Seeing the trail marshal at the hard left toward Johnson Run, I tripped and fell to the side of the trail. I got up before the back of the pack that I left behind had caught up. This was my first and only fall during the entire race. I had dropped 1066 feet in just 1.52 miles. It was also noticeably warmer in this ravine. While climbing toward the top at Humble Hill, it was lightly sleeting for a few moments.

Up Johnson Run
After making the sharp turn, the trail at first was high above Johnson Run for half a mile before dropping into Johnson Run. In its entirety Johnson Run is a slow climb up along, over, through and into the stream a countless number of times amid a canopy of pines and hemlocks, climbing almost 1300 feet in 3.43 miles. This is the exact type of trail that takes full advantage of my strengths and where I hoped to excel. That I did. With the slow grind uphill over the craggy rocks and exposed roots from the spring melt, and add the stream crossings, I knew this would wear down lesser runners who often stopped at each stream crossing hoping to step across stone to stone. I would keep my pace at each crossing, sometimes passing two to as many as four runners at each crossing. As the steady climb began to test many of the other runners, myself and two other runners behind me (I had no idea what they look like but one was from Ithaca and the other from Williamsport) passed a lot of people in this section. Things slowed down when we made it closer to the final hill out of Johnson Run called Psycho Path, we caught up with a large group of runners and could not advance since the trail become steep, narrow and rocky with nowhere and too many people to pass.

A group and me coming into the second aid station after the Black Forest. I just passed over the ditch behind me.

A group and me coming into the second aid station after the Black Forest. I just passed over the ditch behind me.

The Black Forest
The Black Forest was scenic yet all too short section of trail that meandered at the top of Hyner Mountain through some mountain laurel and dark pines. The pack I found myself in where all running at a good pace and I was happy to take a break (and check out the two blondes running just ahead of me.) As we were coming to the aid station, now about mid-pack, I started to repeat to myself, “don’t trip in front of the spectators.” Then as we cleared the woods, I did not see the ditch in front of me and my left ankle tweaked to the outside as it landed. “Dammit!” I thought but quickly recovered with a slight wobble. At the aid station, I gulped down two small cups of Gatorade and took off with a handful of trail mix. Back in the woods and after a quarter mile I finally took a moment to piss which I wanted to do since climbing the second half of Humble Hill. I was glad I have chose to empty my bladder there because it was there that “the real race” began for me.

Post Draft to S.O.B.
When someone says “I had a good first half of the race and then the second half I started to suffer” I would argue that the “real race” didn’t start until that second half. For me, the race is not the point where you get tired or being to suffer (though it might) but it is a point that things either gest interesting or an event happens that sets the tone for the remainer of the race. Last year at the Pittsburgh Marathon the real race occurred at mile 20 when up to that point I was running low nine-minutes miles and then decided to run the final 10k with paces in the low 8’s to high seven minute miles. At the Stone Mill 50 in November, the real race started at the aid station at mile 35 when I realized my ankle, which I tweaked earlier, began to protest in pain. At the Hyner Challenge, this was where my race began for two reasons:

One: So far I have been running at about 75% to 85% capacity. After the aid station, I decided to turn things up a notch. I felt good and I decided to up my output.

Two: This was all new territory. In the training/scouting run several weeks before the race, we turned for home at the aid station. Only in vague generalities did I know what was ahead. Somehow in my mind I thought I had about four to five miles to go. Now in hindsight, it was much longer than I thought. I was at mile 9 in a 16+ race. After my quick piss break, I started down Post Draft. A little more than a mile long, Post Draft is a fast and rocky downhill which tests your entire mental capacity as you become extremely focused in the trail ahead, making sure every foot plant is on something that would not cause your ankle to buckle or twist. Adam McGinnis best described it as this:

I had enjoyed every second of the race. Except for Post Draft. I still hate Post Draft. There is nothing redeeming about that section of trail. By that point, even the fact that it is a downhill grade is utterly discouraging. Throw in the most unseemly gaggle of odd shaped and loose rocks, and you have what I consider to be the worst section of trail I’ve come across. It’s placement in the middle of the Hyner Challenge is perfect [sarcasm].

On this trail, every step posed a risk. I ended up tweaking my left ankle slighty three times. Little more than halfway down, a runner in front of me said “I can’t take it anymore! My eyes are drying out! My mind is fried!” as he stepped away and allowed me to pass. After dropping 1005 feet in 1.53 miles, Post Draft intersected with Cleveland Hallow. At first it is a climb up a dirt road until it beared left along the side of the mountain on Garby Trail. A steep yet beautiful section of trail, this was where “the men were separated from the boys” when three of us (when I said about “separating the men from the boys” it is a poorly chosen idiom since one of the three was a woman) felt strong enogh to keep up the pace and we passed more than a dozen runners. I even passed a friend a knew from years old and he said he was surprised how fresh I looked.
The three of us made it to S.O.B. and for all intents and purposes it is a nearly straight climb up a pipeline. I can’t say it was easy but it was far easier than I anticipated. The flatten footholds up the side of the mountain seemed to haave been dug out perfectly for my gait and we climbed the face one foot at a time in no time at all. At the top was the final aid station and my last drink and two cookies. From the bottom of Cleveland Hallow to the top of S.O.B. is 814 feet in 0.73 miles with SOB just 0.01 mile but a 200 foot climb. Whew!


Spring Trail

The Last Quarter – From S.O.B. to the Finish
Uncharacteristic of me, I didn’t study the map very well prior to the race and for some reason I thought I only had about about a half mile to run before I would be headed down the last downhill. Also, I had my GPS in my fuel belt and since it was behind my lower back so I could not hear the mile alerts, pace or running time. I was running “by feel” and mistakenly thought I was only moments away from heading downhill to the finish. I was wrong. After the aide station at the top of S.O.B., I continued to run and immediately was thankful of my training. I looked around me and saw most walking even though we are on a gentle grassy forest road. A couple runners were cramped up like pretzel, lying on their back and wincing at the pain. Except for one other runner, a woman with striped socks and a white hand print on her face, it was just the two of us that had the legs to kept going. And going. And going. Like I mentioned, I thought I had just a quarter mile or so before the downhill. But first came the Horseshoe and then Spring Trail. It wasn’t until 2.2 miles before I crossed Hyner Road and down into Huff Run. But even though that section was four times longer than I thought it would be, it was relatively flat and herre was my fastest quarter of the race at a pace of about 10-minutes a mile.

By the time we reached Hyner Road, Hand Print Girl and I had caught up to three other runners but as soon as we began the downhill the three started to gain ground away from us, leaving Hand Print Girl and me behind. I think she started to lose confidence on the downhill while as for me my quads finally started to ache from trying to brake on the downhill. The hill was too steep, my quads too tight, my cadence too slow to turn over,, and my stride too short for me to lean forward and let gravity, luck and recklessness to take over. Running Huff Run once before in a training run. I knew that a particularly

Not sure what I am doing with my arms, but I am running down Huff Run past the switchbacks.

Not sure what I am doing with my arms, but I am running down Huff Run past the switchbacks.

steep section was up ahead before a switchback. Then, at the crest of the steep grade, and probably the funniest reaction I have seen, Hand Print Girl stopped dead cold at the top, held her arms in the air and said “Oh, hell no! You go first!” and stepped aside. I continued down Huff Run without her, then crossing a short footbridge to the other side. Now, a little less steep, I open it up a little. Being able to run a little little faster without pounding my quads which immediately improved my spirits. Soon I was passed by two other runners who were more brave and had longer legs than me. Before getting to the end of Huff Run, there was a short rise before the drop down to the hard road. On the uphill, I had caught up with the two runners than passed me – obviously better downhill runners than uphill – before we spread out again during the short drop onto the hard road. Before running the race I wondered how my legs would feel on the hard road after running on trails. Though my legs were tired and worn, it was easier running than I thought. Usually when running on roads, my right leg pronates slightly. Looking down, they are straight and neutral. After running the entire race, I just realized that my left quad did not bother me at all. I took a deep breath, focused on my form and tried to dig deep to find some energy to increase my pace. All spring I have been discouraged that I had lost a lot of my speed. Luckily, I was able to muster a pace in the low sevens. After the bridge the course dips down on a dirt road then onto a singletrack — a little tease or an insult-to-injury — and up a tiny hill to the finish. The hill was probably no higher than 40 feet in elevation and less that 0.15 miles long but as soon as I got to the bottom of the hill and began to climb my right leg starts to cramp up! Argghhh! So close! WHY!? My forward momentum is instantly sucked away. Climbing on the hill, suddenly hit by a leg cramp and panic-sweat, I told my left muscles to do the heavy lifting while my right leg muscle dragged along, not encouraging it enough to seize up. I saw the red inflatable finish line. As I looked up, the guy beside me, who looked like he was in the same physical state as I am, said “there is a finish. I think we better make this look good.”
“Yes, sir” I said and made a final push to the finish.
My predicted time was just four hours orr placing in the top 200. Before I started the race, Colleen asked me how long I would take me and I guessed between 3 hours and 30 minutes to 4 hours but in my head I was thinking it would be close to four. Looking at the clock, I read it out loud “3 hours…. 30 minutes…. and… 5 seconds! SO CLOSE!” As I crossed I saw Don Longstreth cheered me on. Still going through the chute, I held out my hand with all five digits in the air and yelled “5 seconds!”. I thought to myself, if I ran 10 or 20 minutes under 3:30 in a first time at Hyner would have been mind-blowing. Still, I was probably the happiest at the finish than any other race thus far. Knowing what I went through, my expectationss, and the type of race that I ran, I was extremely pleased with my time. I ranked 118 out of 954 finishers. (The clock said 3:30:05 but the official result is 3:30:07).

Post-Race and Other Thoughts
After the race, my legs did not cramp up like in other races and focused on cheering on friends and enjoying the post-race food and beers. Surrounded by friendship and comrades and despite the unseasonable cold late-April, the post-party capping a solid performance during this challenge, it was probably one of the best times I had running.


Sandy, me, and Tim Sheehan post-race.