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                                            

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