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.
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.
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.
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