Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hickory Creek Wilderness Area & Hickory Creek Trail

The Hickory Creek Wilderness Area is nearly 9,000 acres of designated wilderness within the Allegheny National Forest.  The Hickory Creek Trail is a ~12 mile loop that meanders through the wilderness area.  Many people use this loop as a short, overnight backpacking trip or a long day hike.  The 12 mile loop has about 1,000 feet of elevation change, so it's not constant climbing, but the terrain changes enough to make it interesting.  Being a wilderness area, the trail receives very little maintenance.  This means that in many places the trail markers have faded, the trail is a little overgrown, and many trees have fallen across the trail. The Hickory Creek Trail was also recently mentioned in Backpacker Magazine.

On July 3, 2017 the Country Squirrel Outfitters owners, Steve and Miranda, decided to explore the Hickory Creek Trail.  A trail run / day hike was to be the method to tackle the trail.  Equipped with trail running hydration packs and some nutritional snacks, the "CSO Team" arrived at the trailhead around 10am.  There were 3 other vehicles in the parking lot.
CSO Owners, Steve & Miranda, at the trailhead
The journey begins with a 1.4 mile hike to the Hickory Creek Trail loop. At mile 0.7 you enter the actual Hickory Creek Wilderness area, which is indicated by a weathered wooden sign.  In another 0.7 miles (mile 1.4) you encounter a second wooden sign at the Hickory Creek junction.  This first section of trail is fairly flat with a few rolling hills.  The trail was marked with faded white/tan/yellow blazes on the trees.  It was pretty clear that the blazes hadn't been re-painted in recent years.  The trail also had a few trees that had fallen across it, but overall, this section of the trail was able to be run.  At the junction intersection, you encounter another small wooden sign that indicates the south and north loops.  We decided to begin the loop by heading south.
After beginning our trek on the Hickory Creek loop, we quickly realized that the running portion of the journey was going to be a slow one.  The first major obstacle we encountered was a very sizable patch of stinging nettle.  By "sizable," I mean about 2 miles worth of stinging nettle.  After tiptoeing our way through this patch of evil and wicked plant, we continued on our way.  The stinging nettle really slowed our pace as we tried to avoid touching the nettles as much as we could.  The trail would continue to wind through the wilderness area, which included a few climbs up and over rolling hills and a few jumps over some small headwater streams.  We would encounter another couple and their dog.  The couple was from Ohio and they had done an overnight backpacking trip on the trail.

Unfortunately, the stinging nettle would continue to be a theme throughout the day as we would encounter several smaller patches of nettle throughout the trail.  We would also find many, many down trees across the trail.  Many of these trees had recently fallen in one of the severe storms the area experienced.  Most of these trees were quite large and required a detour off trail to work your way around the fallen trees.  In some cases, we had to climb up and over the fallen trees. In some portions of the trail, there were so many downed trees that "trail running" became nearly impossible.  You could only run for about a hundred yards before encountering another fallen tree. 

Steve surveying one of the many large fallen trees and trying to locate the trail.

Miranda climbing over another one of the clusters of trees blocking the trail

Steve climbing through yet another large cluster of trees

We encountered another coupe of hikers around the midway point of the loop trail.  They had started the loop by heading north.  This was also the first significant stream crossing, which we surveyed with the other couple of hikers.  We all managed to find a safe crossing and keep our feet relatively dry.  However, dry feet would soon come to pass as we would encounter another significant stream crossing in another mile or two.  This is the location where we temporarily lost the trail for a few minutes and had to do some exploring to try to locate the trail.  We would cross the stream several times while trying to locate the trail and would eventually give up on trying to keep our feet dry.

Along the way we would encounter several locations that had been used throughout the years by backpackers as their campsite for the evening.  These were primitive sites, but a couple of them had included fire rings constructed of native stones.  One campsite location was also equipped with a table that had artfully been constructed of flat stones. (Note: This is a wilderness area, so impacts to the environment, including moving stones, should be kept to a minimum and avoided whenever possible).

Steve checking out one of the campsites, which included a rock "table"
Overall, the Hickory Creek Wilderness area is just that - a wilderness.  The trail is a relatively easy hike, but it is sometimes hard to follow and has a lot of fallen trees that are blocking the trail.  Being a wilderness area, I don't foresee these trees being cleared any time soon.  So, if you plan to hike, backpack or trail run this trail in the near future, expect to climb over fallen trees.  However, despite the fallen trees and evil stinging nettle, the trail is quite beautiful and we both greatly enjoyed our trail run/ day hike.

Miranda taking a quick break under a few hemlock trees along one of the many beautiful sections of the trail.
Steve running through a large patch of ferns along the trail
When we reached the end of the trail, my Suunto GPS watch indicated that the entire journey was 13.95 miles in length.  Much of the literature and online information indicates that this is a 12 mile hike.  My distance included the navigation around many of the fallen trees and a little bit of exploring when we temporarily lost the trail near the midway point. Regardless, the entire hike is definitely a little longer than 12 miles and would more accurately be 13 to 13.5 miles in total length.  It took us 4 hours and 32 minutes to complete the trek.  The Hickory Creek Wilderness Area and Hickory Creek Trail are definitely something that you should put on your "to do" list.  In our journey, we managed to see abundant amounts of wildlife (a young black bear, several deer, two turkeys, a garter snake, and many, many chipmunks).  It's a beautiful area and if you are okay with a remote trail with minimal maintenance and minimal trail markings, it's a great trail for a day (or two) of adventure. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Gnaw on This: "Dances with Dirt" Trail Marathon

In my continued search for new adventures and new trail races across the US, I came across the "Dances with Dirt" series of trail races.  The one in Gnaw Bone, Indiana (yes, that is actually the name of the town) caught my particular attention.  How could I resist a race called "Dances with Dirt" in a town called Gnaw Bone?  Besides, the state of Indiana was still on my "to do" list in my quest to run a marathon or ultra-marathon in every state.  As I read more into the race details, it became clear that this was the type of event for me - lots of hills, lots of mud, and all sorts of "this race is not for wimps" warnings on the event website. Sign me up!

Marathon elevation profile for the Gnaw Bone race.

Only three weeks removed from the Hyner Trail Challenge 50K, I still felt that my body had time to recover.  However, I hadn't done any long runs since that 50K race.  My weekly routine had become a series of shorter 4 to 6 mile trail runs and nothing of any significant distance.  Regardless, I felt that I was still in a good position to give the Gnaw Bone trail marathon a good effort.

Due to obligations at Country Squirrel Outfitters, Miranda was unable to accompany me on the trek to Indiana.  So, I would have to fly this one solo - something I hadn't done in several years.  I made the 8 hour drive to Gnaw Bone and found my way to the registration and packet pickup location the evening before the race.  Mike's Music and Dance Barn was the staging area for the race packet pickup and would also be the site of the start and finish of the race.  Mike's Music and Dance Barn is precisely as you would expect.  It's a good 'ol country honky-tonk barn with line dancing and live country music.  Not really my thing, but to each their own.  After-all, I'm in a town called "Gnaw Bone," so who was I to judge.

The race would feature several different distances for nearly every level of runner - 10K, Half-Marathon, Marathon, 50K, 50 Mile and a Relay event.  The lists of folks that had per-registered for the various distances were hanging at the registration table.  Upon examination, I discovered that it was pretty clear that the marathon distance was the least popular.  The 10K and half-marathon each had over 200 runners.  The marathon had a measly 35 pre-registered runners.  Even the 50K had more registered runners than the marathon.  I guess if you are going to run 26.2 miles, why not run a few extra miles for the 50K, right?  Truthfully, I kind of felt like I was wimping out a little bit by only running the marathon.  I signed the "if you die, we're not responsible" waiver and picked up my registration packet and bib number.  The young man at the registration table explained to me that my meal ticket and beer ticked were attached to the bottom of the race bib - what an evil thing to do to a runner.  So, you're telling me that not only do we have to run a 26+ mile race, but we also have to make sure that we don't accidentally loose our beer ticket?  That's a lot of unnecessary pressure and responsibility to put on a runner.  I made sure my beer ticket was firmly attached, then I inspected the race shirt.  The shirt featured a sweet design on the front, which featured a skull and cross bones type of logo.  The back of the shirt, well, that concerned me a little:

The back of the Dances with Dirt, Gnaw Bone, Indiana race shirt
The morning of the race I arrived at the "Dance Barn" in ample time prior to the start of the marathon.  I actually made it in time to see the start of the 50K race.  The 50 mile runners had already departed for their own journey.  After the start of the 50K there were a lot less folks hanging around.  A few of the half-marathon and relay runners had started to arrive, but it was mostly just the 30 or so marathon runners that were making some last minute adjustments to their shoes and hydration packs.  After some really brief announcements from the race director who explained; "Sorry about the trail conditions. We had some storms here recently and a lot of trees came down on the trail.  We didn't have time to clean them up.  There's also a bunch of mud.  So, the first part of the race is going to suck and the trail conditions are shitty. But, after that, you'll be running on some really nice trail." The race director then said "Hold on a second. ___ will start the race.  I'm going to pull my truck up the road here and make sure you all find your way through the junk yard."  Junk yard? He must be joking, right? After the race director pulled away in his pickup truck and out of sight, one of the other race workers started the race with a simple "Go." 

Sure enough, about a quarter mile up a dirt road, we found ourselves running through a junk yard.  After finding our way through the junk, we were immediately greeted with some muddy trails.  Less than a mile into the race and soggy socks syndrome was upon us.  The first 3-4 miles was mostly a gradual incline with muddy trails.  There were also many down trees, which would set the stage for the rest of the day.  After leaving the Dance Barn and junk yard behind us, we would leave the private property and connect onto the trails within the Brown County State Park system.  For the better part of the next 25+ miles, we would run within the State Park.

Although the race didn't feature the intense, long climbs that I have grown accustom to in my training runs and recent races, the course did feature sufficient amounts of rolling hills and short, steep climbs.  What the trails didn't offer was any rock.  Any of you that run/race in PA know that we have plenty of rocks - small rocks, medium sized rocks, big rocks, boulders and giant rocks.  In fact, some of the trails more closely resemble boulder fields than any type of "trail."  It was actually refreshing to have trail surface that was actually relatively rock free.

A scramble up the slope
Being that much of the race course was within the Park system, that meant that it also featured a variety of obstacles and a variety of terrain.  This ranged from stream crossings, wooden stairs, wooden bridges, fallen trees, mud, short sections of gravel roads, steep climbs, and even a few sections of paved road through a campground area.  However, overall, the trails were largely smooth, rolling and winding single track.

Around mile 15 we encountered what some would call "bushwhacking," but I prefer to call "orienteering without a map or compass."  After descending down a steep section of single track and then crossing a small stream, the race course flagging had us head up a steep slippery slope of leaves and mud.  There was no trail.  Just a forested hillside and the evidence of other runner's failed attempts at finding traction on the leaf littered, wet and muddy surface.  After clawing my way up the forested slip-n-slide, I crested the top of the ridge and found nothing but more forested area.  Again, no trail.  You could occasionally see some pink flagging hanging in a few random trees off in the distance.  This "orienteering" section would last for another 2 miles.  It required a lot of concentration as you had to keep an eye open ahead to make sure you could find the flagging to keep you on course, but you also had to keep an eye on the ground to make sure you could find your way over the vegetation, tree branches, logs, and other woodland features as you scurried your way through the countryside.  Eventually, we would follow the flagging to a fence.  After scaling the wooden fence, we would find ourselves back on some established single track trail.

A view of the stream channel "trail"
After several more miles of rolling hills, mud and varied terrain, we would find ourselves nearing the last few miles of trail before the finish line.  One word to describe the last section of the race would be "wet."  The last few miles would include some swampy areas and about a half mile of stream running - the act of actually running up a stream channel.  After emerging from the water like a mayfly, we made the final run across the grassy field to the finish line.  My finishing time was 6 hours and 14 minutes.  I was 10th overall out of 30 runners that completed the marathon distance.  Maybe more importantly, I was able to hang onto my beer ticket during the whole race.  After crossing the finish line, I made sure to cash it in for an appropriate beverage from Big Woods Brewing Company.  Overall, my Dances With Dirt experience in Gnaw Bone was a good one.  I'm glad that I chose this event for my Indiana running.  I may consider one of the other Dances With Dirt events in the future.
Steve, crossing the finish line of the 2017 Dances With Dirt Marathon in Gnaw Bone, Indiana

Monday, May 15, 2017

1st Annual Eternal Tap Group Ride

The group of cyclists at the start of the ride
To kick off the Country Squirrel Outfitters group rides for the 2017 season, we put together the 1st Annual Eternal Tap Ride on the morning of April 29th.  The ride began at CSO and riders pedaled their way to Straub Brewery for a visit to the "Eternal Tap" and the Straub gift shop. 

The group of 11 cyclists visiting the Eternal Tap at Straub Brewery

The ride concluded with a rainy jaunt back to Country Squirrel Outfitters for the conclusion of the 22 mile ride.  Despite the rain, the cyclists had a great time and we thank Straub Brewery for hosting the group and allowing a bunch of spandex wearing cyclists to visit.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hyner View Trail Challenge: Eight Years, The Return

Since the first running in 2007, the Hyner View Trail Challenge has become one of the marquee events in Pennsylvania trail running.  At the time, it was one of the area’s first of its kind in the blossoming sport of trail running.  A sport that would, in the subsequent decade, explode in popularity.  “Hyner” as it is referred to, is a grueling 25K (16+ mile) trudge up, over and through some of the finest landscapes that the Pennsylvania Wilds has to offer.   Participants are faced with three challenging climbs, each a mile or more in length, with names like; Humble Hill and S.O.B.  Total elevation gain for the 25K is more than 4,200 feet.  If you are able to survive the relentless climbing, you are greeted with wicked descents on gnarly, rock and root laden single track, and even some stream crossings.  Atop the Hyner View, if you can gather yourself together for a brief moment, you have the opportunity to take in some of the most spectacular vistas that Pennsylvania has to offer. 
50K Race Profile, which includes over 7,200 feet of climbing
Hyner has become to area trail runners what the marathon is to local road runners.  It is the bench mark at which you judge yourself and, in many ways, others judge you.  Regardless of your other accomplishments, athletic accolades or finishing times, you can’t consider yourself a hard-core Pennsylvania trail runner if you’ve never done Hyner.  Everyone in the trail running community knows about Hyner.  Regardless of whether you’ve personally run it or not, you know about Hyner.  Among trail runners, Hyner is talked about like it is a magical or mystical place.  A place where one goes to seek their rights of passage or to enter into trail running manhood.  A place where, if you choose to challenge the mountain, there is a chance that you will never be seen or heard from again.  The Hyner aurora is strong in all of us.  Those of us that have “done Hyner” feel a sense of accomplishment.  Time isn’t important.  No one ever cares what your Hyner finishing time was.  In fact, a true measure of your Hyner finish time should be how long – hours, days, sometimes even weeks – it takes you to be able to walk normal again after you cross the finish line.  Finishing time is not relevant.   If you’ve lined up at the starting line, traversed the magical mountains, and returned to the finish line in one piece, bloody or not, you’ve earned your Hyner badge.  You can then, and only then, consider yourself a trail runner and proclaim “I’ve done Hyner.”

My first Hyner experience came in 2009.  That’s right, I was running Hyner before Matt Lipsey was even old enough to crack open a post-race beer.  Hyner was a newer event, only 2 years old.  It didn’t carry the same distinction that it carries today.  Not many people were familiar with the event.  Frankly, there were a lot less trail runners back then too.  Still, that 2009 Hyner race included over 600 trail runners and hikers.  I was in the midst of training for my first 50K trail race – the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  Hyner was to be a “training run” as I prepared for my larger goal.  It was a last minute decision to run Hyner.  Back then, registration could be done a few weeks out.  I figured it would be a good test of my fitness level and training.  It also looked like a pretty fun event and I noticed that Troegs brewery was one of the major sponsors.  I figured that probably meant free beer after the race, so I decided to give it a try. 

Steve at the top of Hyner View in 2009 (Race Bib #551)

Personally, things were much different for me back then.  I was in that 30-something age group.  I was about 15 pounds lighter and I had a lot more free time for training runs.  I had a little less hair on my face and a lot more hair on my head.  I went into that race, much like I do every race, unfamiliar with the trails, unfamiliar with the terrain, and unknowing of what was about to smack me in the face.  I approach every race that way.  For me, the unknown is part of the fun.  I don’t dwell on race statistics, or previous finishing times, memorize trail maps or study elevation profiles.  Sometimes I think runners tend to over-analyze all of that data.  Regardless of what the data says and what the elevation profile looks like, everyone that steps foot on the starting line has the same task at hand – we all have to traverse the same terrain and get to the finish line.  However, I do have an uncanny ability to remember details about trails and remember races that I’ve completed.  I’ve been running in trail races for nearly 20 years and I can remember specifics about every race that I’ve completed.  The memories from that Hyner race stuck with me.  My finishing time in the 25K in 2009 was 3 hours and 6 minutes.  It was good enough for 25th overall out of 652 finishers.   After Hyner, I went on to finish that 50K trail race that I was training for and added a road marathon and a 50 mile trail race to my portfolio over the next few months.  2009 was a good running year for me. 
Those that know me, know that I rarely compete in the same race more than once.  The thrill of a new adventure is part of the lure for me.  With hundreds, even thousands, of trail race events across the US every year, I tend to seek new challenges instead of trying my hand again on the same trails.  I don’t fault those that do the same events year after year.  There are good reasons to do that – challenge yourself to set a new PR time, support a specific cause or organization, or for the awesome post-race beverages, food and camaraderie.  One could certainly argue that every year Mother Nature changes things up, so you are never really running the same trails. I would certainly agree with that.  However, I have always been a “been there, done that, what can I do next” kind of runner seeking new adventures and new trails. I would put those Hyner memories in the vault and continue on with many other races over the next several years.  In the following years, I would spend time residing briefly in Maryland and then a few years in Colorado.  Hyner never really crossed my mind again.

A few years later, my wife and I would move from Colorado to the town of Ridgway, PA.  The move to Ridgway was, in large part, due to the outfitter business that we own, Country Squirrel Outfitters, and the vast outdoor recreational opportunities that the area offered. In Ridgway, we would find a higher than usual population of runners.  It wouldn’t be long before I started to hear chatter about “Hyner.”  In those few years that I was removed from Pennsylvania, Hyner had become THE trail running event in the Pennsylvania Wilds.  It had grown from that little known trail event up there in the little known town of Renovo (or “Renov-Ah” as the locals call it), to the bar at which local trail runners are measured.  People would begin asking “have you ever done Hyner?”  Yes, I had done Hyner, but was I missing something?  I recalled Hyner being a wonderful event, being challenging, and well organized.  But, I had done events that were more challenging, more miles, and at higher elevations (over 12,000 feet in Colorado).  No one cared about those events or even asked about them.  All people talked about was Hyner.  Many of my running friends would run Hyner.  Many of them make the annual trek to Renovo and run Hyner year after year. More and more people I knew were running Hyner.  Everyone was talking about Hyner and training for Hyner.  Hyner was the focal point of trail running existence.

The very things that make Hyner so wonderful are also the things that, in some ways, makes me dislike Hyner. Craig Fleming, the PA Trail Dogs, the Western Clinton County Sportsmen’s Association and others that have a hand in organizing the event do an absolute fantastic job in organizing, hosting, supporting, and advertising the event.  The post-race party is right there among the best that I have ever experienced and the aid stations are top notched.  The pre and post-race trail running camaraderie at Hyner is exciting enough to bring you back year after year.  Unfortunately, the awesome job that those folks do, along with the magical allure of Hyner, also creates an unbelievable demand for registration.  The current event caps at 1,000 25K runners and 300 50K runners.  That’s 1,300 people on some pretty narrow trails.  This creates a significant amount of congestion along much of the race course.  So much so that, if you find yourself in the wrong pack of runners, you will actually be reduced to standing and waiting for runners in front of you to get through the congestion.  Standing and waiting isn’t exactly how most runners envision a “race.”  This can be incredibly frustrating for those of us that, more often than not, are accustom to running alone.  Additionally, the event sells out 5 months or more before the race date.  This is a significant hurdle for those of us that are race registration procrastinators.  That said, the race organizers do a terrific job of best managing 1,300 runners on race day.  My only other criticism is that trekking poles should be abolished in trail running events of this size.  I came to this realization after being stabbed by a trekking pole and tripped by another set of poles along my 2017 excursion.  You might as well hand everyone Samurai swords and let everyone battle for their position.

I hadn’t even considered running Hyner again until 2016.  With so many of the local running community talking about Hyner and with so many of my running friends training for Hyner, I considered giving it another go.  The 2016 race quickly sold out and the decision was made for me.  I missed out.  No worries, it wasn’t high on my bucket list.  I had done it once before and that was good enough for me.  As 2016 was coming to a close, I didn’t even think much about Hyner in 2017 until, much to my surprise, my wife started talking about it.  Miranda, my wife, isn’t much of a runner.  At least she proclaims that she isn’t a runner.  She had previously completed a half-marathon trail race, but she didn’t run regularly nor did she enjoy running all that much.  I was pretty shocked when Miranda told me that she wanted to run Hyner in 2017.  It was then late November or early December and the open registration spots had already dwindled.  She promptly registered for the 2017 event before it sold out.

I had just come off of some of the worst running training in recent years.  June through August of that year, I was running a measly 4 to 6 miles per week.  I had lost motivation to run, was burnt out on the sport, and was really enjoying the extra time I was able to spend on the bicycle(s).  All of that cycling kept me at a pretty good fitness level, but it wasn’t quite the same as running fitness.  Just as I was starting to get back into running in late August and early September, I suffered a bicycle accident that left me with a broken clavicle. Doc’s orders were no running or cycling for 10-12 weeks.  So, when Miranda told me she wanted to run Hyner and registered for the event, I was faced with a tough decision - to Hyner, or not to Hyner.  That was the question.  With open registration spots continuing to become scarcer, I decided that I would give it another run.  In what can only be explained by the consumption of a good Imperial Stout, I made the decision to register for the 50K instead of the 25K this time.  It was justified by me telling myself that I had never run the 50K Hyner before, so it was like running a new race.  My running fitness was pretty much at rock bottom.  After 3 months of cycling and nearly no running, which was followed by 2 and a half months of broken clavicle – no running or cycling, I was in no position to be sanely registering for a 50K.  Regardless, I threw together a couch to 50K running plan – google didn’t seem to have any suggestions for that plan, so I just made stuff up.

I had been running pretty constantly over more than 2 decades.  During that time I had completed something like; 15 marathons, several 50Ks and a 50 mile race.  I wasn’t exactly a newbie in distance running and I had a lot of base training miles under my belt.  Fortunately, my body responded well and I was able to build up to some respectable mileage in several weeks.  I also had the luxury of living in an area that has some pretty awesome trails and a lot of running community support.  Group runs and group hill repeats kept me motivated and on track.  Terrain that is home of the local race event, the Elk County Boulder Dash, was my playground, which gave me an ideal venue for training runs and long runs.  It also helped that Miranda was also training, so occasionally, we, along with our dog, would get to enjoy running together.  Again, to my surprise, Miranda seemed to actually enjoy (some of) her training runs.

Training for the 2017 Hyner Challenge was going well.  I was up to 20-22 mile weekly long runs on the Boulder Dash trails when Miranda and I both came down with some sort of flu/cold.  I missed an entire week and a half of running and the nagging cough hung on for weeks following.  Not exactly what you wanted to have when you are supposed to be at the peak of your training leading up to a race event.  Regardless, I managed to salvage what I could of training opportunities in the few weeks prior to the race. 

The morning of the 2017 Hyner was upon us and we made the 1.5 hour trek from our home to the start of the race.  The drive in to the event was pretty amazing in itself.  We saw elk grazing along the road, whitetailed deer running across the road in front of our Subaru, a porcupine doing what porcupines do, gray squirrels bouncing here, there and everywhere, and a raccoon scurrying along.  All of that in less than a 2 hour drive.  The very essence of what the Pennsylvania Wilds Region is all about.  As we pulled into the registration location with Hyner View looming above, the folks parking vehicles had it down to a science.  They were well organized and knew exactly what needed to be done to jam some 1,000 vehicles into a grassy field.  Upon our arrival, it wasn’t long until we started to see familiar faces.  Bob Bauer, Josh Brock and Jason Lang were among the first to greet us.  Folks from the local running club, The Elk County Striders, came out in vast numbers for the event.  It’s a pretty tight-knit group and includes some pretty badass runners.  The Elk County Striders were well represented at Hyner 2017.  Miranda and I found our way into the registration building and eagerly accepted our race packet, which included a Hyner logo tech shirt, the coveted Hyner socks, personalized race bibs with the runners name, and some other goodies.
Miranda & Steve in the Pre-Race Photo

The 50K race was to begin an hour before the 25K and the start time was fast approaching.  As the rain drops began to fall, we pinned our race numbers on our Country Squirrel Outfitters tech tees, had another participant take our pre-race photo, and walked our way from the parking/registration area to the starting line.  The 50K runners huddled under the pavilion to stay dry, which, in retrospect, seems kind of pointless considering we were all about to embark on a journey that would make us drip in sweat and traverse many stream crossing.  Regardless, we all congregated under the pavilion.  After some pre-race announcements from Craig Fleming, the race director, and Cindy Adams- Dunn, the Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the 50K race began. The start of an ultra race is usually pretty anti-climactic.  Aside from a handful of elite runners, the rest of the field usually starts with a slow waddle or what most runners would describe as “jogging.”

Steve at the top of Hyner View in 2017 (Race Bib #218)
It had been 8 years since I was in this position.  Traversing the magical mountains and challenging myself against everything that Hyner could throw at me.  What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, right?  The first 6 miles or so of the 50K course follows the same trails as the 25K course.  This includes the big climb up Humble Hill to the top of Hyner View.  I managed to tackle Humble Hill with little problem, aside from the congestion from some slower runners ahead.  Atop Hyner View I heard a familiar voice, Jason Lang, who was wearing a Country Squirrel Outfitters hoodie, had found his way to the top and was taking photos and videos.  This was the last time I would hear a familiar voice or see a familiar face until the finish line.  

Around mile 6, the 50K course breaks away from the 25K course and follows some different trails.  This terrain isn’t much different from the 25K course.  It’s much more of the same - climbing mountains, descending mountains, and traversing stream crossings.  I felt good throughout the race.  I managed to stay upright and was able to maintain a nice steady pace.  The aid stations were well stocked and I took every opportunity to consume as much as I could at those wonderful buffet stations.  I have always been fortunate and my stomach is as tough as nails.  I don’t suffer from the gastrointestinal issues that many runners experience.  I’m probably the only person I know that could actually gain weight during an ultra event. 

Around mile 21, the 50K course re-joins the 25K course (around mile 9 for the 25K runners).  This is where we started to intermingle with the 25K runners.  “Passing on your left” followed by “good job, keep up the good work” became the standard greeting that I would proclaim as I approached other runners.  The 25K runners that were still out there on the course were more than happy to step aside and let the 50K runners pass.  Many of them would also offer their own return words of encouragement.  As we continued to climb up the Johnson Run stream valley, it became quite interesting and, at times, comical to see the different methods and techniques that the runners and hikers used to deal with the vast amounts of water and multiple stream crossings. If you didn’t have them already, soggy socks were inevitable.   

The final significant climb, takes you up Cleveland Hollow and just as you think you are about to summit, you are greeted by S.O.B.  The appropriately named S.O.B. is a nearly vertical section of trail.  It’s short, but it is steep.  This is where I tapped into my scrambling, bouldering and rock climbing experience.  Hands and feet working together are much better than just a single set of feet.  Many tired and weary runners struggle with this section of trail.  Once you reach the top, you pretty much have it made.  The final 2 miles is relatively flat, which is followed by a descent down Huff Run to the paved road.  A final mile jaunt down the road, and across the bridge takes you to the last little climb to the finish.

As I crossed the bridge and rounded the corner to the final little climb, I noticed another familiar face.  Aimee Kemick, one of the 25K runners and a fellow Elk County Strider, had already completed the race and was walking back to the parking area.  I gave Aimee a high-five and continued my way up the trail to the finish line.  The finish was pretty much as anti-climactic as the start.  I crossed the timing mat and stopped my Garmin.  I was handed the coveted, much talked about and often photographed Hyner finishers hat – a tan and navy blue colored one to distinguish me apart from the 25K finishers that received a navy blue and lime green colored hat.  My 2017 Hyner 50K finishing time was 6 hours and 44 minutes. I was 104 out of 243 finishers in the 50K race.
After receiving my finishers hat, I look around for more familiar faces.  Searching for Miranda to see how her race went.  I heard a voice call my name.  Joel Noal, a fellow 50K finisher and a blast from my past, stuck out his hand to greet me.  I had first met Joel some 15 years ago when I lived in Hollidaysburg, PA.  At the time, we both worked out at the same YMCA and we had occasionally done some training runs together.  I hadn’t seen or spoken to Joel in nearly a decade.  After talking with Joel for a few minutes I continued on, searching the crowed for Miranda and also eagerly searching for the beer tent.  I managed to find both within a few feet of each other.  Miranda was with the Lampman family – Kathy (a Country Squirrel Outfitters employee), Gary and their daughter, Abbie, along with Bob Bauer, and Kevin Brunner – all of which were 25K finishers. The group swapped battle stories.  Abbie even had some battle scars.  I then inhaled 2 pieces of pizza, chugged a bottle of water and enjoyed a nice cold beer.  It was a good day.
The race was pretty much what I expected and what I remembered from my experiences 8 years prior.  It’s a wonderfully organized and supported event with loads of people.  The terrain is challenging, but not the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It can certainly eat you up and spit you out if you are unprepared, undertrained, or inexperienced.  Does Hyner deserve to be on the pedestal and carry the distinction that many runners give it?  I guess that is for each runner to decide.  Either way, Hyner is Hyner and it is something that all trail runners should put on their bucket list.  I’m just happy to be able to proclaim “yeah, I’ve done Hyner.”

-        Steve Putt
Owner, Country Squirrel Outfitters
2009 Hyner 25K Finisher
2017 Hyner 50K Finisher                                            

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Ghosts and Goblins Night Ride

Front row, left to right:David Votano, Shawn Whitaker, Bev Yates, Aimee Kemick. Back row, left to right: Mitch Powers, Steve Putt, Rick Gabler, Bill Granche, Kathy Lampman, Jerry Stewart, Bill Gerber.

 The first ever Ghosts and Goblins Night Ride hosted by Country Squirrel Outfitters this past Thursday night (October 30th) was well attended, and all that we had hoped for. Eleven courageous night riders cleared the way from the Trailhead of the Clarion-Little Toby Trail all the way down river to the overpass crossing the railroad tracks making it safe for Halloween, ha. Eleven bold riders rode 17 miles and braved the chill, the night and the ghouls haunting the night. In the beams of their headlamps and head lights, some swore to have seen a wisp of movement within the whirl or winds, and the rattle of brush. One rider heard an unearthly hoot, that when he turned to locate the sound, sent him careening into the ravine (Actually, a large stone had been unearthed, and the rider swerved to avoid an endo). What a sight to see lights and reflectors rolling along in an almost silent, magical, rhythm. The chill was nothing but invigorating, and all returned unscathed in a refreshed and satisfied mood. Half of the group celebrated a Thirsty Thursday at Jordan's Bar and Grill on Main Street where the 3rd Annual Winter Solstice Celebration was planned for December. The first was a winter ride on the trail, but the second was a run due to the in-climate weather. Be watching the CSO page to learn the specifics.  

- Submitted by "Wild Bill" Granche, CSO Staff Member

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A North Carolina Adventure

In October of 2014 the CSO owners, Steve and Miranda, along with their energetic adventure dog, Scout (a one year old English Springer Spaniel), headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for some adventure and gear testing. The primary goal of the trip was to climb Mount Mitchell, which is the highest mountain peak east of the Mississippi River.  However, before heading to the summit of Mount Mitchell, they made a brief stop in West Virginia to explore some trails in and around the New River Gorge.  This weekend also happened to be Bridge Day, which is the one day per year that the Gorge bridge is open for base jumping, rappelling and other adrenaline junkie activities. After taking in some sites at the bridge, they took a short day hike on the Grandview Rim Trail which was a good opportunity to stretch the vehicle cramped legs after a long drive.  The Grandview Rim Trail offers some great views of the New River and the valley below.  This trail is highly recommended for anyone that is visiting the area.

(A view of the New River valley from the Grandview Rim Trail)

After leaving the New River Gorge of West Virginia the three travelers headed for Black Mountain, North Carolina.  In Black Mountain, they explored the local establishments and The Dripolator Coffee shop, the Trailhead Restaurant, and the Black Mountain Running Company were among the favorites.  Just beyond town there are many trails that visitors can explore.  They decided to explore the Lookout Mountain Trail.  Again, this is a short 3.8 mile round-trip day hike to the summit of Lookout Mountain, which provides fantastic views.  The trail actually proved to be a little more challenging than was initially expected.  In addition to the step elevation gain, there was one slightly technical section of trail, near the top, where hikers had to scramble up some rocks.  It wasn't anything that the CSO group hadn't tackled before, but a few other hikers on the trail were a little less experienced and had some difficulty with this section of the trail.  The views from the top of Lookout Mountain proved to be well worth the effort to get to the top.

(A view from the summit of Lookout Mountain)

After spending some time in and around the town of Black Mountain, the group headed to the Black Mountain Campground, which would be the basecamp for the hike to the summit of Mount Mitchell.  Mount Michell stands at 6,684 feet, which makes it the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains and the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.  There are a few different ways to reach the summit and most choose the easiest route, which is to simply drive your car to the summit.  Yes, there is a paved roadway that goes all the way to the summit of this mountain.  But what fun and what kind of challenge would driving be?  Of course the CSO crew took the less traveled and more challenging route to the top, which is hiking the 11.2 mile (round-trip) Mount Mitchell Trail. Aside from the 4,000+ feet of elevation gain in the 5 mile trek, the trail is not real technical.  The challenge isn't a technical one, but it does take persistence and determination.  Scout, the Springer Spaniel, would make this his first official "bagged peak" and it was also his birthday.  The trip to the summit took about 3.5 hours and the trip back down took about 2.5 hours.  It's a nice hike that doesn't require a lot of technical mountaineering or climbing expertise.  It's certainly a much better way to experience Mount Mitchell than driving your car to the top.  A "must do" for any adventurer.
(The Country Squirrel Outfitters trio on the Mount Michell Trail)

(Miranda and Scout a the summit of Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet)
(A view from the Summit of Mount Mitchell)

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Keystone Edge: Choosing the Commonwealth over Colorado

The link below is a great article written by Ta Enos, which was published in the Keystone Edge.  The article covers the story of Country Squirrel Outfitters and what brought us to the PA Wilds region. The Keystone Edge Article