I stared up at the shadowy silhouette of the mountain looming against the clouded sky. My anticipation grew. I’m going to run up that? And then another 12 miles, up two more mountains, after running up that? I must be insane. And can I really do this?
I was going to find out.
It was the night before the 2013 Hyner View Trail Challenge. 16.35 miles. 4226′ of elevation gain. 3 mountains. Rocks. Mud. Stream crossings. You name it. There’s a reason it’s called a Challenge.
I woke up at 6am the day of the race, and immediately a thought popped into my head. What the hell am I doing today? Why am I doing this? Still in my sleeping bag, I sat up and looked up at the mountain again, this time the bare summit and overlook visible in the morning light. After a breakfast of a bagel, Clif Bar, and coffee, I deliberated over my wardrobe for the run. It was cold—much colder than the day before, with highs expected to only reach the mid-40s. But I also didn’t want to find myself overheating—there’s nothing that kills my energy faster. In the hours before the race, I wavered between the multiple layers I had brought along before finally making a decision.
Breakfast down, running clothes on, it was time to hit the bathroom. I walked over to the porta-pots and did a double-take when I saw the crowd of people milling around. I knew there would be over a thousand people racing, but there must have been a part of me that didn’t totally comprehend what that would look like. I regretted not using the bathroom earlier, found the end of the line, and stood there impatiently as the moments until the beginning of the race ticked by. With only 5 minutes left and at least 25 people still in front of me in line, I decided to give up and go find a tree away from the crowds of people. After a successful mission, I headed to the start and squeezed my way towards the front, not wanting to get stuck too far behind in the pack before the bottleneck at the beginning of the singletrack trail, a mile and a half into the race.
A few introductory words and we were off, the sound of 1200 runners, feet pounding on the dirt road. The adrenaline and excitement of the start of the race pushed me forward as I sprinted past people. The dirt road opened up onto the highway and the runners spread out. I began second-guessing my decision to gun it right from the beginning as my lungs struggled to adjust to the sudden exertion and my muscles began to feel the burn. I knew I had to push it though. I’d have time to rest at the trail. Before I knew it, we were there, and as promised, the runners bottle-necked as the two-lane road turned into muddy singletrack running along cliffs on the mountainside. The pace went from an all-out sprint to a slow trot, and sometimes even a fast walk, allowing me to catch my breath and let my body get used to the fact that we really were going to do this.
The moments of rest came just in time for the first mountain, appropriately named Humble Hill. I knew I shouldn’t push myself too hard on the first hill to risk burning out too early, so I didn’t attempt to pass too many people on the climb, even though I felt like I could. Probably due to all the hiking (and recently, biking) that I do, the climbs are my strength, compared to most runners. The hardest thing about Humble Hill for me was the mental struggle of the false summits. At the top of the first “hill,” I thought for a brief moment that we were done, that it wasn’t nearly as bad as people said it was. Then I saw the real summit in the distance and realized that we weren’t even halfway there…causing me to have a brief moment of doubt that this was really a good idea. But the moment quickly passed and I still made it to the top of the real summit feeling strong. A rather large crowd of people was gathered at the overlook, an area often used as a hang glider launch. Their cheering made me smile and gave me an extra boost and spring in my step as I made my way to the first aid station. A quick drink of Gatorade and a banana, and it was time to navigate the first downhill.
The descents weren’t as steep as I was expecting them to be, but they were rocky and muddy, and constant concentration and quick footwork was needed to avoid tripping over a rock or turning an ankle.
I found myself thinking as I ran down the mountain, that I had already run more distance (and WAY more elevation gain!) than my first trail running race, back in October. I smiled at that thought, realizing how far I had come in only 6 months (and how far I had come since the beginning of September, when I started running. I could barely run a mile back then…)
Johnson Run, which parallels the trail in the valley, from miles 6-9, was running high from the heavy rains the night before, and we found ourselves crossing the stream countless times (at least 30?) on slippery, mossy rocks and through puddles of mud. I tried to keep my feet relatively dry on the first few crossings, knowing that the water would loosen my shoes and cause my feet to rub, something I did not want this early in the race. But soon I had no choice, so I surrendered to the wet feet and just blasted straight through the rest of the crossings.
I was passed by quite a few serious runners, using the valley as an opportunity to get ahead, to make up time between the hills. Eventually, those who were going to pass me did so, and I found myself in a group of people going the same pace as me. We talked a little, about the race, the weather, the scenery, our running stories that led us to this point, led us to being all here together on this blustery April day.
The valley gave way to the second hill, gentler than the others, a slow rocky climb that led to another aid station at the top, another cup of Gatorade, some more food, and then another rocky downhill. This one offered the challenge of lots of loose rocks, and the ankle I had hurt last summer began to twinge again for the first time in months. I hoped it wouldn’t give me too much trouble for the rest of the race, and blocked it out, along with all the other aches and pains that were developing. The rubbing of my wet shoes on my feet (I have yet to find a pair of trail running shoes that really fit well), my ankle, my stomach cramping up from the water and sustenance that were suddenly introduced to it, my legs, which, at this point, were beginning to feel the effects of running farther than I’ve ever run before.
The end of the downhill immediately transitioned into the last climb, starting out as relatively-gentle switchbacks. But I knew better than to think this was it. I had heard about the last hill, and I knew it wasn’t called SOB for no reason. As we climbed the switchbacks, someone below shouted, “3 hours.” We’ve been doing this for 3 hours. That’s it? This realization, along with a conversation with folks I had been running alongside since Johnson Run, made me think that maybe I could really do this thing in about 4.5 hours. That was the number in my head that made sense, was realistic for me to accomplish.
A few more switchbacks and we emerged onto a powerline cut, and I saw why SOB is called SOB. Straight up the powerline, at the steepest part of the mountain. If you fell here, I’m pretty sure you would roll the entire way down to the valley below. I found myself saying to the guy in back of me, “Lots of people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I do this for fun.” And it’s true. This, to me, is fun. He replied with, “Yeah, and people who don’t do this have no idea what it’s like. They think, oh, you’re just going out for a little trail run. No, there is a trail run. And then there is this.” And then there is this. And I’m doing it.
The top of SOB came quicker than I expected, and then it was “all downhill to the finish”—but not really. At this point, even the smallest climb felt like a mountain. My lower back started cramping and screaming at me as I tried to run around the relatively-flat curve along the top of the mountain known as the horseshoe. I settled for a brisk walk for a while in an attempt to loosen things up. C’mon Helena, you can do this. 4 more miles. It’s nothing. More people passed me, including some of my buddies from earlier. People who I wanted to keep pace with. Alright, maybe under 5 hours isn’t realistic anymore. But remember your own words, the time doesn’t matter. Are you still having fun? Yes. Then so what? Just keep moving forward…
As I ran the last few miles along the top of the mountain and then down the last hill, along Huff Run, I barely had enough leg strength left to keep myself from tumbling down the hill on the rocks. I began to dread the last mile, the road, which, theoretically, is supposed to be easy. Running on flat concrete compared to over rocky, muddy mountains? Should be a piece of cake. But I knew how tired I was, and I was scared that I would have nothing left to get me to the finish. And I told myself that under no circumstances would I walk at all on the road, and definitely under no circumstances would I be walking to the finish line.
I ran the last of the trail, my feet hit the pavement, and though the end was in sight, I felt like I could never reach it. The bridge over the West Branch of the Susquehanna felt like it was 10 miles long. It took every ounce of both physical and mental strength to keep running, and even then, I think my run looked more like a pathetic limp at that point. Everything hurt. Just keep going, just keep going, just keep going…. I repeated over and over in my head.
Finally, the bridge was over and I was back on the dirt road where we had begun. Several people lined the road, cheering as I passed. Their encouragement made me smile, helping me trudge through the last stretch. I nearly crawled up the final hill to the finish, as earlier finishers lined the trail, clutching plates of food and cups of beer. Where is that damn finish line? Then I saw it, and just beyond, the time clock. I read my time. 4 hours, 13 minutes. What?!? I couldn’t believe it. I thought there was no way I had done the course in under 5 hours. I suddenly forgot all the pain, forgot how tired I was, and I ran those last 50 feet as hard as I could, a giant grin plastered on my face. The crowd cheered, a medal was placed around my neck, and waves of adrenaline and happiness washed over me as I realized that I had done it. I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life. I gave that course everything I had, had fun doing it, and I was still smiling at the finish line.
I limped to the beer tent, grabbed a pale ale, and hung out by the finish line, celebrating and commiserating with friends and strangers, sharing battle stories, all of us ecstatic at what we had accomplished. 1200 tired, happy people.
The results were posted and I went over to look, curious about how I measured up.
16.35 miles (and not just any 16.35 miles!) in 4:13:36. 15th out of 67 in my age group. 327th overall. I’m more than happy with that. But what I’m even more happy about is the fact that there was not a single moment in the race when I thought, this sucks. Not a single moment when I questioned why I was doing it, or wished that I wasn’t. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the entire thing. Through all the pain, through the exhaustion, I found moments to smile all the way to the end. I looked around and took in the scenery, the beautiful Pennsylvania mountains and valleys I was running over and through, the clear streams flowing down the mountainsides, the gamut of weather that we ran through, from sunshine to snow flurries to icy wind. I socialized with my fellow runners on the trail, sharing in our experience of both hardship and elation. I didn’t give up when everything screamed that I should. Time and time again, I found that mental place where the pain almost disappears and all that remains is intense concentration and a euphoric high and feeling of pride.
Today, I’m still pretty sore and walking still hurts, and I’m still smiling every time I think about Saturday and my first Hyner experience. Next year? I’m going for under 4 hours. And I can’t wait.