Hyner Trail Challenge Race Report

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Hanging with the girls at the race start.

I first heard about the Hyner Trail Challenge a little over a year ago. One of my running partners was preparing for the race by running endless hill repeats. Always curious about a new race, I looked it up online, and then quickly dismissed it when I saw the amount of elevation. At the time, I had been running trails for less than a year, and hills were still my weak spot. The thought of taking on a race with that level of challenge was ridiculous.

Fast forward a year, a year in which I spent most of my time training on trails, and Hyner began to feel a bit more attainable. In fact, when my friend suggested that we sign up as a group, and make it a girl’s weekend, I agreed without too much thought. I have pegged this year as the one in which I am not afraid to try big challenges, and Hyner definitely qualifies. I committed to running a lot of distance on the trails throughout the winter, and added in an elevated hiking workout once a week on the treadmill. To be honest, most of my time in the weeks leading up to the race was spent considering what food and clothing to pack, rather than what I was about to face.

As I drove myself up to the house that we were renting near the race start, the day before the race, reality began to set in. These mountains were no joke. I attempted to calm my nerves by reminding myself that the worst that would happen is that I would drop out of the race. It helped that I was with a group of good friends, so I wouldn’t have to go it alone. I was also relying on my training base. I knew that I hadn’t run as many hills as would have been ideal, but having completed a marathon just six weeks before, I was confident that the distance would not be a problem.

The morning of the race dawned cool and cloudy – nearly perfect race conditions. We piled into the car, drove the 30 minutes to the race start, and found ourselves a parking spot in the field with the other racers. As we pulled up, the 50K runners were just taking off for the start of their race. My friends and I checked in, received our race bibs and made the short walk to the start line. There, we found a place to drop our bags, made one last bathroom stop, and tried to keep ourselves loose by chatting and not thinking about the task that lay before us.

One of my favorite things about trail races is the laid back atmosphere. With about 15 minutes to go, we found ourselves a place at the start line. The other runners gradually filled in, and after a few brief announcements and a short countdown, we were off. My friend who ran the race the year before knew that the course tapered down to a single track trail about a mile into the course, and we quickly realized that we had started too far back in the pack. With her leading the charge, we pushed hard the first mile, passing about a hundred runners to get ourselves into a better position before we hit the trails.

At the start of the trail, we began a gradual climb along a gentle uphill slope. The trail was crowded and narrow, and I tried to just focus on the runner in front of me, as occasional bends in the course caused everyone to slow to a walk at a moment’s notice. After about a mile, we made a sharp turn to the left and found our first real hill. I know that Pennsylvania elevation doesn’t compare to the trails out west, but to call this just a hill is a bit of an understatement. The trail moved sharply uphill for the next ten minutes or so. The incline was steep enough that it forced you to stay on your toes, and with everyone in front of us pausing frequently to catch their breath, I found myself focused on leaning forward, lest I lose my balance and fall backwards. The thought was intimidating enough that I refused to look behind me, keeping my gaze on the shoes of my friend in front. I also found my thoughts drifting to negative places. “What was I thinking?” “This is ridiculous!” and “How am I ever going to make it through 14 more miles of this?” all floated through my mind before I got a hold of myself. We later learned that the first hill was the most challenging, but at the time, I couldn’t help by be intimidated by the unknown course that lay before me.

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That far away bridge over the river is where we started.  This is the view from the top of the first climb.

Fortunately, after that first challenge, the course leveled out a bit, allowing us to get in some running before returning to an uphill hike that was again long, but not nearly as steep. I actually found myself grateful for the number of people in front of me, as the slow pace forced me to rest in spots and not push too hard up the hill. As we neared the top, we were greeted by the cheering crowds and ringing cow bells. All of that wonderful encouragement was just what we needed to push up the final slope. At the top, we were greeted by gorgeous views that led back to the bridge where the race had started. It was incredible and humbling to think that we had climbed all that way on our own two feet. My friend and I paused to adjust our socks, snap a few photos, and grab some water before continuing on down the trail.

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Note how sweaty we are after all that uphill hiking.

After all that climbing, you would expect a downhill to be a welcome sight, but our first downhill was so steep that I quickly found myself wishing we were still climbing. I’ve never been the best downhill runner, as I get nervous when I get going too fast, and the sharp decline and dry dust made it difficult to regulate speed. Add in the loose shale that we encountered, and it took every bit of focus I had to stay on my feet. I was managing okay until the course began to level out a bit, at which point I promptly caught my foot and found myself tumbling to the ground. Fortunately 20 years of gymnastics training had me instinctively ducking my right shoulder, which allowed me to execute a fairly smooth side roll. I ended up sitting along the trail, covered in dirt, but with only a slight scrape on my elbow. Best of all, I didn’t take anyone else out along the way, which is always a concern in a race with this many participants. This was my first fall on the trails in several months, so telling myself that I was due for one, and feeling thankful that it had come in an area with relatively few rocks, I picked myself up and moved on along the course.

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The creek that we crossed some 87 times.  This picture doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the area.

Trail runners tend to be a friendly group and I soon found myself chatting with another runner who was out for his second Hyner. He informed us that the first hill was the worst in his opinion, both going up and coming down, and with that cheerful piece of news, we continued on in optimistic spirits. My new friend also warned me that we were headed for multiple creek crossings and we should be prepared for wet feet. He couldn’t have been more on point. Over the next several miles, we ran under towering pines, crossing the creek over a dozen times. I was initially cautious on the crossings, but after soaking my left foot when I slipped on a rock, I accepted that wet feet were inevitable and moved on. We ran where we could and hiked when the trail became too rocky, knowing that a twisted ankle would make it extremely difficult to make it to the finish line. By now, our group had split in two, and as we started the long climb up the second hill, I gradually realized that my one friend had fallen behind.   I pushed on up the hill, hoping to catch up with her at the top, but when I reached the second aid station, I realized that she was nowhere in sight.

I have to take a moment to give a shout-out to the tremendous volunteers at the aid stations. When I reached the second aid station, there were numerous volunteers on hand to pass out cups and refill water bottles. One kind volunteer even grabbed my second bottle to fill while I worked on replacing my first. I quickly downed half a banana, grabbed a handful of peanuts and some water, and continued on my way. Along with the fruit and nuts, the aid stations were stocked with Gatorade, PB & J, energy chews and gels, and an assortment of sweet & salty snacks including pretzels, M&Ms, and Swedish fish.

The second downhill was relatively short, and at the bottom, the course immediately turned back uphill for the third and final climb. We snaked back and forth up the side of the mountain, once again in a single-file line. It was clear that the group had less energy than before, as everyone was much quieter than in the first few miles. The top of the hill contained one last ball-busting section, affectionately known as “SOB.” This hill was again ridiculously steep, but fortunately it was fairly short, and when we reached the top we found ourselves at the third and final aid station. I grabbed a bit more water and a sodium tablet, before stretching my legs out on some relatively easy trail sections ahead.

I was happy to find that in spite of all the hills, my legs still felt pretty strong, and knowing that we only had about 4 miles left, I tried to push ahead with a steady pace. After nearly two miles along the top, we headed back down for our final descent. Either this one was a bit more gradual, or I had gained more confidence, and I managed to keep up a pretty good run along the way. At the bottom of the final hill, I was thrilled to hear a cheer coming from my friend, who was injured but had graciously come along to support the rest of us. She biked me across the bridge, and it was an incredible feeling to be heading back towards the finish after all that climbing and descending. After one final short uphill, I had the finish line in sight, and I was thrilled to cross just under the 4:30 mark.

I had been told that the post-race party was worth sticking around for and I definitely found that to be the case. Runners and families were sprawled in the grass and on picnic tables, enjoying the plentiful sunshine and near-perfect temps. Grilled chicken, hot dogs, veggie burgers , and baked beans helped everyone to refuel. There were also a variety of drink options, including water, chocolate milk, soda, iced tea, and beer. Of course, with my sweet tooth, my favorite discovery was the seemingly endless dessert table covered with a variety of cakes, cookies, brownies, and cupcakes.

I found my first Hyner experience to be humbling, challenging, and awe-inspiring. I was blown away by the beautiful course, the friendly runners, and the wonderful perks, from the well-stocked aid stations to the finisher’s hat that we were handed at the end of the race. I’m already looking forward to a return trip in the future

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Two Week Test Food Breakdown

When researching the Two Week Test, it was hard to think about how to approach it as a vegetarian.  I had previously relied a lot on whole grains and legumes in my diet and the thought of eliminating those and still eating enough calories was daunting.  In the interest of sharing my experience with other vegetarians, here’s what I ate to make it through the two weeks and still feel happy and satisfied.

Breakfast:

omelet with mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, and swiss cheese with chopped avocado on the side

OR

almond pancakes with almond butter and unsweetened whipped cream

I ate the omelet almost daily, but the pancakes were a nice change when I felt like I just couldn’t stomach another egg.

Lunch:

large salad with mixed greens, cucumber, carrots, pepper, feta cheese, olives, and almonds and two hard-boiled eggs on the side

Once or twice, I had a bit of leftovers from a previous dinner, with a side salad just to mix things up.

Snacks:

full fat yogurt with vanilla, cinnamon, and pecans

cheese

cut up veggies or almond herb crackers dipped in guacamole

mixed nuts

green olives

Dinner:

veggie pizza made on cauliflower crust

veggie lasagna made with zucchini noodles

pesta sauce over spaghetti squash

fajita tofu kabobs

tofu “fried rice” served over cauliflower rice

I really just rotated these five meals, and ate each with either a side salad, or a side of roasted vegetables such as broccoli or brussel sprouts.

Drinks:

I mainly stuck with water, though I had a glass of plain seltzer mixed with lemon or lime juice each night as a treat.  I drank tea each morning on my way to work, and indulged in two glasses of dry red wine over the course of the two weeks.

 

Two Week Test Final Thoughts

I did it!  I managed to complete my two week test.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that it was actually just short of the two weeks – 12 days for me instead.  We ran into my husband’s birthday at the end, and I decided that while I valued the test, I also valued the opportunity to share in celebrations with my family.  Because running is awesome, but so is the rest of my life as well.  Regardless, I found the test interesting in what it taught me.

The first revelation is that I was relying way too much on carbs.  As with most athletes, I had bought into the need to “carb load” to support my training.  I figured that since I was running so many miles, it made sense that I was eating so many carbs.  Plus, I took great care to eat almost exclusively whole grain carbs, and to make sure I had ample variety, so it seemed like a smart choice for me.  The thought of eliminating all grains was terrifying.

The reality?  It wasn’t as hard as I thought.  I substituted omelets for my daily oatmeal, ate a lot of salads, and found lots of ways to get creative with vegetables, especially cauliflower.  The biggest surprise was that at times, I found myself preferring the veggie substitute to the original carbs, such as when I had tofu fried rice with cauliflower rice in lieu of brown rice.

My biggest motivator for trying this, outside of curiosity, was the desire to get my energy levels regulated.  I try to prioritize sleep, but like most working parents, there’s only so much you can do.  I get up prior to 5am almost every weekday in order to get in my workouts.  Before the TWT, getting through the workweek was a struggle.  I would find myself dragging each day between 12-3pm, and by Thursday, I often felt as if I could lay down and fall asleep at any given moment.  After years of feeling this way, I just chalked it up to an inevitable side effect of so much training while leading a busy life.

My energy levels while on the TWT were drastically improved.  I can’t say that I every felt particularly “energized,” but I also never felt tired.  Even putting in weeks with 35-45 miles of running, I was able to continue throughout my day feeling sharp and alert.  What an improvement!

The other noticeable improvement was in my appetite.  Before the TWT, I ate constantly.  Literally, every 2-3 hours I was having a meal or a snack, and even with all that eating, I was hungry more often than not.  It was incredibly frustrating.  I was eating high quality whole foods, and I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t satisfy my appetite.  At the same time, it was impossible for me to drop any weight.  I didn’t usually gain it, but I wasn’t often able to lose it either.

During the 12 days that I followed the TWT, I found that I was often able to make it from breakfast to lunch (6 hours later) without the need for any snack.  Likewise, I was able to go to bed at the end of the night feeling sated, not starving.  It was so noticeable that two of my colleagues even commented on the change, as they are so used to seeing me snacking at every opportunity.

Not only was I feeling full, but I was eating less and I dropped weight without even trying.  On the first day of the test, I weighed 137.8lbs, with 22.1% body fat.  On the final day, I weighed 133.0lbs, with 21.0%.  I changed to eating a diet almost exclusively full of veggies, full fat cheese and dairy, and high quality fats such as avocados, nuts, and olives, and I dropped weight.  I know that many people will claim this was just water weight, but my scale also measures hydration levels, and my levels actually rose slightly by the end of the two weeks.

So what now?  While I’m pleased with the results of this test, I know that it’s important to find a way back to a slightly more balanced diet.  I’m now in the midst of slowly adding back in foods to see how they effect me.  I’m hoping to reach a point where I can balance all of the healthy fats and veggies with some legumes, fruit, and whole grains, albeit at much lower levels than before.  I’m looking forward to continuing to enjoy some of the new recipes that I’ve discovered, such as cauliflower pizza crust, cauliflower rice, almond pancakes, and zucchini lasagna.  I feel confident that now that I am aware how good it feels to have balanced energy levels, I can play around with my diet until I am eating a rich variety that continues to allow me to feel good.  I’m also looking forward to continuing with my heart rate training.

An added note: One of my biggest concerns was trying to make it through this test and remain a vegetarian.  I’m happy to say that I was completely successful.  If you are in a similar boat, and want more details, look for my follow-up post here, which shares a more detailed breakdown of what I ate over the two weeks.

Halfway Through the Two Week Test

Well, I’ve made it to Day 8, and I have to say that the Two Week Test is going better than I thought it would.  Here’s a quick breakdown.

The Challenges:

  • It takes a considerable amount of time to prep food for each day.
  • I’m getting a bit tired of eggs and salad.
  • I’ve discovered that a side effect from the past few days is a constant dry mouth/thirsty feeling.

The Benefits:

  • I’ve found that cauliflower is an incredibly versatile vegetable.
  • The constant hunger that I used to experience has vanished.
  • I have more energy, especially during what used to be my “afternoon slump.”

 

In addition to sticking to the strict food guidelines, I’ve been tracking my training with a heart rate monitor.  The first two days were actually fairly easy, and I was surprised to find that I seem to have a decent aerobic base already.  Day three was a bit tougher, probably because my legs were a bit tired, but I was still able to stay in my range without a problem.

Saturday was another story, when I hit the trails for a long run.  The flats were okay, and I cruised easily on the downhills, but whenever I hit the slightest uphill, I almost instantly went above my upper limit.  This resulted in quite a bit of walking on even the smallest of slopes.  A bit frustrating, but not at all surprising.

My favorite new recipes from the past week?

  • Cauliflower rice for both kabobs and a tofu fried rice
  • Herb crackers, which go great with guacamole
  • Vegetarian lasagna with zucchini noodles

I’m off to try an almond flour pancake recipe, in the attempt to get a brief break from my usual omelet in the morning.  So excited to be on the back end of this test!

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Wednesday night’s Fajita Tofu Kabobs over Cauliflower Rice