This is what this trail event truly is. The Hyner Trail Challenge has been around now for 5 years and up until this year has only had a 25k (16.4 mile) event which has grown immensely in popularity since it began. They have sold out the last few years with over 1000 participants. It is arguably the most popular trail event in central PA. The Megatransect, affectionately known as the “Mega”, is another popular event which sold out this year within hours of registration opening. While Hyner cannot boast that, it still sells out and gets 1000+ participants. The trails of Hyner are remote and very technical located in the “middle of nowhere” in central Pennsylvania. This event has attracted folks of all ages and abilities from hikers to the some really strong trail runners. Take for example the winning time last year of 2:22 (in bad conditions) and the last person came in at 7:42 (and 9+ hours in years past). But yet at the start, everyone is equal.
In 2011, I entered in this event and ran (well ran some, hiked some, slogged some) a time of 4:21 in what has become known as “the year of the monsoon”. The conditions were cold, rainy, windy and mud beyond mud. For trail runners, it’s just another day on the trails but truly not ideal. It certainly didn’t slow the front runners down but by the time I got through the trails (with 300 or so in front of me) it was a royal mess. I vowed to be back someday and prove I could run a much better time on a brutal and beautiful course.
In the summer of 2011, a rumor was spreading that the folks that put on this race (the trail dawgs) were working on putting on a 50k version. My first thought was “No Way!” As I read more about the rumors, it soon became a reality. They opened registration in August 2011 for a course that wasn’t even finished. The more I thought about it, the more I was scared to even become serious about it. This was also during the time I was training for and running my first ultras (two 50K races in October and a 50 miler in November). I thoroughly enjoyed those experiences and then got serious about doing what I thought would be an epic event. I signed up in January and solidified my place in the first running of the Hyner Trail Challenge 50k.
Training: For me all I wanted to do was to continue what I had going for my ultra experiences in the fall of 2011. After I ran the Stone Mill 50 in November, I eased up my running in December to “recover”. I was in good shape from the 50 except for my right hip. I had taken a nasty fall early in the 50 and it remained sore (mostly on runs) for months. In January, I ramped up the long runs again and made sure I got out to some similar terrain as Hyner. I used some trails north of Harrisburg which has become known as the Buzzards Marathon Course. It contains a series of trails linked together with big climbs. It was just what I needed. With the warmest and driest winter I can remember, I was getting in some decent runs. I wasn’t pushing my weekly mileage but on weekends I was able to get out for easy 2-4 hour runs. I worked my way up to March 11, 2012 where I did what is unofficially known as the Buzzards marathon. It essentially was a training run for me – 6 hours, 26 miles, rocks, climbs, downhill, and a chilly creek crossing. What a nice run except for one thing. My knee had really been bothering me during the second half. I had no choice but to continue. To make a long story short, this was the beginning of a bout with tendonitis. After that 26 miler, I had intended on getting in another 22-26 mile run on the same trails. But no dice! I reluctantly had to dial down the mileage and long runs and ended up even taking a week off from running. A week before Hyner, I felt mentally unprepared. It had been 5 weeks since my last real training run – nothing over 11 miles since that 26 miler. So I went out for a 19 mile trail run. Felt pretty good up until I fell at the halfway point. I landed on – wait for it – my ailing knee. I am unsure if the blow to the knee or the tripping over the rock with my right foot which sent a vibration through my joints caused the pain but the rest of the run was hampered by the same tendonitis pain. No runs for me the week leading to Hyner. I look back and ask “was it worth it?” to get out and run 19 miles because my weak little mind needed it to feel confident again?
Fast forward to race day: Because Hyner is in the middle of nowhere, runners either camp near the start/finish, get a hotel in Lock Haven (30 minutes south) or drive to the site that morning. Last year I stayed with a friend 40 minutes north of the site. I didn’t sleep – at all. So this year I made the decision to just drive the 2.5 hours in the morning. It’s not ideal but I don’t sleep well anywhere but my bed. So at 4am, I left the house and made the boring drive north. Fortunately, I had learned that I could do such a thing when I drove in the 2 hour range to two previous ultras. So what does one do on a 2.5 hour drive to a race? Eat of course. I spent the drive thinking about what the day had in store and feeding my face full of yummy carbs, protein and powerade.
This event was awesome and horrible all rolled into one. Here is why:
The weather was close to perfect. Forecast of rain said it would hold off until midday. But the funny thing was – the rain never came. It stayed in the 50’s – maybe crept into the 60’s the whole day. Beautiful day to be on the trails.
Met up with some fellow trail runners prior to the race – Kelly & his wife Jo, Marie, & Pat. It was very nice to meet them. Also caught up with a few runners I quite often see at some other events.
Normally I would give a blow by blow description of the race and describe how I was feeling and how I dealt with various aspects. But I can summarize the race very shortly: monster steep climb, followed by gnarly downhill, followed by long slow trudge up through a hollow. Repeat x4 with occasional flat trail. Lots of rocks – big, little, pointed, round, crushed – you name it, we ran/hiked over it.
Elevation Profile (for 25k only)
That was my day. This event is not a running race. Let me repeat. This race is not a running race. It’s a test of endurance. I chatted with many 50k participants who consider themselves good “runners” but on this day and on this course, they were struggling. I am not sure if they underestimated the course or were just used to plowing through 31 miles. This was not that kind of course. It took more than physical conditioning to get through this. It took mental and emotional fortitude. I really was at a loss of how to predict a time on this thing. I have run a 50k two others time - a 5:50 on a rolling hill trail course (Blues Cruise) and 7 hours flat on a bit more challenging trail course (Fire on the Mountain). I finished in around 8:20 or so. It was a long day. There are no excuses that can be made. My knee held out ok (probably thanks to ibuprofen). My lack of training the last 6 weeks may have contributed but realistically maybe I shave 20 minutes off that time if I had been able to run more. It was, simply, what it was on this day.
I have a few lowlights on this day. I don’t like to complain so I will keep it short. The aid stations had a poor variety of food. I ate way too many bananas and PB & J squares. (If you want to see an ultra with good food – see Blues Cruise 50k). Secondly, these hollows we have to meander ourselves through really sucked! They were the worst part for me. I could deal with the big climbs but a slow trudge in and out of the creek beds over and over (and over) again with blown over trees was just so slow and annoying. That’s it. I can’t complain about anything else. Ok maybe just one more – to the Trail Dawgs (who put on this race) – can you please remove some of those darn rocks! Haha.
I have a bunch of highlights. First was meeting some fellow Runners World trailers. Kelly and Marie had good days on the trail – both are strong runners and humble. Also got to meet Pat – unsure how he did in the 25k. One of the things I looked forward to most for this event was the amazing scenery. It did not disappoint. I only wish I had brought a camera out with me (the pics below I stole from someone else). There were beautiful waterfalls, flowering trees, brilliant colored rows of wildflowers trail side and the views – oh the views! My second favorite part of the event was coming to a vista about the 10 mile mark where you see for miles. To the right, you could see the first big ridge we climbed. I almost think I saw the 25k participants making their way up (since they started an hour after us). But right in front of us was a mountain that had three ridges coming out towards me all in a row – it almost looked symmetrical. I stayed for a couple minutes just to take it in. But my favorite moment was another mile down the trail – I got to see a black bear – my first. I had heard something rambling down the ridge in the leaves toward the trail. I looked up and thought I would see a deer. Nope. It was a young black bear playing around. He clawed a tree a bit and then made his way back up the ridge. He was probably 100 yards away or so. The best part was that I told myself the day before this event that I wanted to see a bear – not actually believing it would happen. My last highlight was finishing. This was such a tough event. It was literally half hiking, half some kind of running. I beat the down hills to death and they beat my quads right back. (There was one stretch of 2 mile downhill that was simply awesome! No other words for it.)
Back to a “Kick in the Hyner.” That is what they refer to the 25k version. But the 50k… let’s call the 50k a double kick in the hyner, or flat out just sick.
My recommendation is only do this event if you are a demented & sick person who loves to inflict self-pain. Or as an easy training run for an event such as Hardrock 100. Ask me if I would do it again? I think I distinctly said "no way" during and right after, but you never know.