Welcome to the Dark Side of Trail Running!
I have to admit that, once upon a time, I felt apprehensive about steep, gnarly trail races.
But I can still recall seeing an iconic photo of my friend Pete Kresock, cresting the hill as he reached The View at the 2021 Hyner Trail Challenge, and feeling a sense of awe as I perused the details of that image. To be able to climb something like that…and bear witness to the views that came with it… That image of Pete planted a seed in my psyche, and running steep suddenly became the goal. I was no stranger to hiking steep terrain and being rewarded with all the beautiful vistas, but now I intended to start running my way to them. After having explored increasingly longer but flat distances in 2021 and making it as far as 100K, I began testing myself more on steeper runs in 2022. Exactly how steep and how far could I go? What were my limits? There was only one way to find out, and that was to continually test them.
In 2022, I started my season in April with a moderately challenging Ridge Rumble 50K, followed by my own “training marathon” in late May, with over 5,500 ft of elevation gain. I would run this in preparation for the Cayuga Trails 50 in early June, in which I’d ultimately cover 50 miles with about 8,400 ft of gain. After completing this exceptionally beautiful race, with its seemingly endless stone stairs, I was hooked. So, in July I jumped into the Whiteface Marshak Mountain Race, with 3,965 ft over 7 miles of running (really just over half that distance, because most of the second half was all back downhill). And while Whiteface may still qualify as the wildest running experience I’ve had to date, the experience I gained from that course would impact me in everything I’ve run since then (read: few things phase me anymore). Running that race made me decide to withdraw from the Pine Creek Challenge 100-miler later that year and register for an epic 50 miles at Virgil Crest instead. But first, of course, there would be a DNF at Twisted Branch in August, which ultimately lit a fire under me that burned so hot, it burned right through Virgil Crest in September. With around 6,700 ft of gain over 40 miles, the Twisted Branch DNF had suddenly turned into an excellent training run and that effort paid off: my final stats for Virgil Crest were 50.39 miles with 11,362 ft of elevation gain in 14:31:01.
So maybe Manitou’s Revenge still scares me just a little.
But after finishing a race like Whiteface, and staying firmly planted in the middle of the pack at Virgil Crest, placing 2nd GP, there was confidence that arose in me…like a phoenix, I rose from the ashes of a DNF. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past year, it’s that you can prepare for even the toughest of races, simply by replicating the expected elevation gain per mile of your race in your workouts. In other words, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Then trust your body and trust the process.
Hyner Trail Challenge:
To be sure, the Hyner Trail Challenge 50K once intimidated me, but that lingering image of The View beckoned me for more than a year. And after finally running it, I would love to return next year. I had the privilege of running beautiful trails, demanding climbs (and descents), technical flats (it’s the new “runnable”), all while forming new friendships. And I experienced such a tight-knit community there in PA, really a trail family. We’re all out there working and growing from it all, together, at the same time. For some of us, that hard work occurs over a lofty 8 hours. But we get to spend a full day frolicking through the forests so really, it’s all good. Even if it does rain on you for the last ten miles.
My day began with a 2:30 am-race-jitters-wake-up (no need for the 3:00 am alarm I set) but I decided to lie in bed a little longer, just to give my legs a little tiny bit more rest because I knew it was going to be a full day. I finally stood up at 2:50 am, turned off my alarm, and immediately launched into race-day-super-organization-mode. Even though I gave myself an hour to dress, make coffee, and load the cooler, I was so eager to get going, I managed to finish in around 40 minutes and leave the house by 3:35 am. LFG!!
Three dark-ish hours of driving later, I arrived at the airfield and was directed to parking. I made great time and had more than an hour to pick up my race bib (always anxious about this), the hoodie I ordered (I wore that hoodie all week, thank you), get myself ready (I still fumble with race bibs), and use the porta-potty twice (had to be sure) before heading to the start line. After thinking about this race for more than a year, it was amazing to finally be standing at the start line with all the other 50K runners…all 399 or so of them.
After a few parting words from our race director, Craig Fleming, the national anthem was sung, and the next thing I knew, we were off. Time to send it! And while the first few miles of an ultra are usually the longest for me, I was so excited to be running this and it wasn’t long before we reached the first climb, so those early miles breezed by. Even with the bottleneck to The View (it looked a bit like the traffic to Everest), it was great to interact with the other runners (aka hikers in those early moments), though next year I think I’ll run a little faster over the bridge and dirt road to avoid the traffic jam. Nothing gets me feeling quite as restless as having legs that are eager to run over impassable sections I’m forced to hike. Lesson learned.
On my way up to The View, I rang the bell for Carl Undercofler. Carl was a legend in the PA trail scene but collapsed and passed away in 2021, just as he was reaching The View, at the epic age of 83 years young. Though I didn’t know him personally, I am inspired by how others remember him. This was his race, and I wanted to honor him. Everyone did.
Upon cresting that climb, it was finally time to resume running! Yay! I did not pause to take photos at the top, as I’ve stopped taking them during races and opt instead to wait for any race photographer’s images to post. But I had promised myself I would turn around as I crested, just to see that amazing view in real life, and with my own eyes. Finally. My legs immediately recovered from the climb, and upon reaching the first aid station, I simply kept on running, but was sure to say “Thank youuuuuu!” to all the friendly smiles and many offers of Gatorade.
I was excited to open up and run, which I did for a few seconds. And then it became a bit technical…soooo many rocks in every shape and orientation… I began a process of run-shuffling, alternating with power hiking, based on the density of these irregularly placed rocks. Can’t say it was pretty, but I was redefining for myself what I considered to be “runnable.” No smooth, buttery singletrack here, but I had to move forward as quickly as possible, without rolling an ankle. While I wasn’t worried about cutoffs, there’s no sense in lingering when there’s still so much ground to cover. Eventually, however, the rocky terrain evolved into smoother singletrack, and of course, a downhill. In fact, the next 26 or so miles would consist of lots of uphills, followed by downhills, and all day long the theme was to go up and then down and then up and then down. In total over the 50K, there would be five major climbs, with over 6,300 ft of elevation gain. Whew. But this is exactly what I came here for.
Somewhere around mile 20 it started to rain and it would continue to rain on me for the duration of my race. It was wet but not too cold and so I wasn’t quite motivated enough to put on my arm sleeves or my gloves. And as someone with Raynaud’s, I trusted my judgment (though my perspective on this would later change). Ultimately, I would not feel too chilled during the latter part of the race, as the climbs helped to elevate my heart rate just enough, forcing just enough warm blood into my extremities, but my hands did become puffy and cool enough that they soon refused to work for me. Simply attached to my arms as they pumped by my side, they seemed to work just fine; however, upon attempting to open my Tailwind packet and pour it into my soft flask my second time stopping, they refused to work at all. While it only slowed me down some around the Dry Run Road AS (mile 17), at the Hyner Run State Park AS (mile 24) my hands had become completely useless for anything requiring fine motor skills. My brain and fingers seemed to be speaking different languages to each other. Well, David Walker and Benjamin Mazur were there and came to the rescue, though even they struggled with the stubborn Tailwind stick. David was able to secure some scissors to open it and poured the powder into the flask, and Ben poured in the water. It was the simplest of gestures but made all the difference for me. Those electrolytes are instrumental in getting me up and down those hills. David and Ben were so easy to talk to and wished me well when I finally got out of there. Thankfully it was just a couple extra minutes at the AS. I still had plenty of time.
Just before reaching that AS, my new friend Colleen had caught up with me, and together we ran the last seven miles with new friends Marie and Brady. We leapfrogged each other while taking turns leading. We laughed about life, about all those hills, and about the mud, which seemed to be increasing by the mile with the rain that was falling. By then, my legs were coated with mud, and that was pretty funny too. Together, the four of us ran up some pretty steep sections like the S.O.B., aptly named because you gain more than 400 ft over half a mile, and at mile 25 of all places. You are certainly not running on fresh legs by that point. Brady led the way, followed by Marie, then Colleen, and finally, me. The upper several hundred feet are steep, offering a generous 40% incline. Needless to say, there may have been a couple of pauses while maneuvering S.O.B., and hands may have been used to scale to the very top.
After cresting S.O.B., we reached the last AS (mile 27) but continued past it, having adequate fluids with us and feeling eager to tackle the ridgeline and the final descent that would soon follow. From there, Brady continued in the lead until we stopped so she could offer Gatorade to a fellow runner who was cramping, then I assumed the lead and we headed downhill for home. Colleen followed behind me, with Marie and Brady following behind Colleen.
Once we traversed the ridge and began the final descent, it felt like we might go on forever. It was long, narrow, straight, mud-splattery singletrack that seemed to extend into the future – my future – one in which I would emerge fully changed. At mile 28, I knew we were in the home stretch, and just focused on my footfalls, maintaining a conservative but consistent pace. I fell into a rhythm and might have actually gone on forever, had I not seen the runner ahead of me turn onto a small bridge, and that’s when I realized our time on the trail was coming to an end. When we came off the trail, we took off running together at a good clip, but as we turned back onto the road and crossed the bridge, my adrenaline kicked in. I was going to finish this thing and I just couldn’t hold back. I sprinted.
There might have been some arm pumping at the finish line…
Unfortunately, we got separated from Brady at the finish, so we weren’t able to celebrate together with her. I remember her superb sense of humor, her taste for peanut butter cups, and her strength climbing up the S.O.B., as well as her caring nature when she stopped to offer the other runner some electrolytes. But we’ve since reconnected over social and because she has run Hyner before, maybe I’ll see her again in 2024. Colleen, Marie, and I got a photo together at the finish line and then got in line for food. After shivering through our hot dogs and catching up with other runners we had seen on the trail, Colleen, Marie, and I parted ways, as we all had several hours of driving ahead of us.
Of course, I grabbed a beer from New Trail Brewing Company to bring home to Jeff. You all should know that he moved his field trip so I could do this run and he handled two soccer games, so it was the least I could do to bring him a beer called the Trail Runner Hazy IPA. You know, the perfect beer to remind him of his wifey.
Because of the rain and slick sections of some trails, and because I spent some extra time at the two aid stations, I did not get my sub-8-hour finish. My final time was 8:12:02 for 30.53 miles and 6,354 ft of elevation gain. But I’ll take it. This race was simply great and may have unleashed something in me I can’t fully articulate just yet.
More New Friends…and Old Ones:
I ran into old friends, like Nora Jodrey, who I met last year at Whiteface. We were able to catch up before the race, and we also passed each other on an out-and-back section during the race. Nora is so good at her craft but remains under the radar… Here at Hyner, she finished in 6th GP (she finished 3rd GP at Breakneck Point in 2022). After I picked up my bib, I ran into my Ithaca friend Ashley, who introduced me to her friend Jeff. We chatted for quite awhile before parting ways. And there were others, like Matt, who passed me during the race and recognized me from the Nature Preserve of all places, and Sean Blanton, who I teased about missing the Trails Collective show. Turns out Colleen has run his Quest for the Crest race. He was so easy to talk to and I’ve known for awhile that he is a race director south of here, so it was great to finally meet him.
I love connecting with other runners at races for reals, not just over social.
Looking back, forgoing the arm sleeves and leaving them in my pack was a foolish decision. With the rain it was cooler than it had been in the morning, and getting rained on can increase your risk of hypothermia. In the future, I’ll do otherwise. Hands that refuse to work when you need to refuel are a real problem and may suggest your core body temperature has already begun to drop. Realizing after the race that I wasn’t even registering it was Colleen talking to David Walker at the Hyner Run State Park AS as he assisted me, and finding myself shivering uncontrollably by the time I finished my hot dog, also give me pause. As a seasoned runner, I should definitely know better.
The Morning After…
I was greeted by two VERY tight Achilles tendons when I awoke the next morning, and I found it nearly impossible to walk. It’s hard to lift a foot when both plantarflexion and dorsiflexion are nonexistent, and so I started to semi-shuffle my way to the bathroom. Halfway I gave up, and crawled the rest of the way there. But upon my arrival on all fours, I found it even more difficult to get back onto my feet. Apparently the Achilles tendons and calf muscles are also paramount to standing up. So that idea was one and done, and I would semi-shuffle around the house in my Crocs for the rest of the day (barefoot was impossible). My regimen that first day consisted of frequent, short sitting breaks because standing too long was uncomfortable, but no long breaks, otherwise I’d find my legs and Achilles locking up again. I took one Advil in the morning, and applied Blue-Emu cream to my Achilles tendons, area of my left calcaneofibular ligament, and area of my right anterior talofibular ligament, twice that day. The latter two areas showed some mild bruising over the skin.
On Day 2 post-Hyner, I was already much improved. I woke up around midnight and struggled to walk to the bathroom once again, but I attribute the severity of the tightness in my Achilles to going barefoot. Wearing my Crocs was proving to be hugely beneficial, so when I got out of bed later that morning, I immediately put them on. My Achilles made it hard to walk for only the first few minutes, and after that improved so quickly, I actually put away the Advil I had set aside to take with breakfast (turns out it’s ineffective anyway, for what would turn out to be Stage 1 tendinosis). On Day 3, my bathroom visit and morning wakeup were slightly improved once more. And On Day 4 post-race, I was walking almost normally in my Crocs within minutes (barefoot first thing still wasn’t ideal).
Not too surprisingly, this has been a gradual process of recovery over a period of days, and each morning I’m finding it increasingly easier to walk the moment my feet touch the floor. So, I’ve been happy to take some additional time to recover, before ratcheting things up again (I have another race right this weekend). All bruising quickly disappeared after the first day, and I resumed my proprioception PT on the night of Day 2 (involves hopping on each foot), so pretty quickly I was heading in the right direction. CBD salve may have been a game changer for the early days, as I noticed a step-change in improvement on Day 4, when I started applying it.
Still, this had me rethinking my choice of footwear, particularly after reviewing Tim Noake’s section on Achilles tendinosis in his book The Lore of Running, 4th ed. (ch. 14). After my 18-mile birthday run a few weeks ago, I awoke to very tight Achilles tendons the following morning and had trouble walking then as well. The morning tightness lasted a few days before resolving on its own. As a precaution, I decreased the elevation gain on my 22-mile run the following week, as I did not want to risk compromising myself just a week before Hyner. I believe two factors are at work here: (1) I’ve noticed that, in response to my change in terrain, my foot strike is evolving and I’m no longer landing on my toes as much. I find myself landing midfoot, as I subconsciously try to stabilize myself over increasingly technical trail (or icy trails in the winter); and (2) with so much uphill running, I am spending a much greater percentage of my running time on my toes. I’d started allowing my heel to extend toward the ground more while hiking up hills (also recommended by this timely UR magazine article), but in a lower shoe drop (i.e. my 4 mm Speedgoats), in spite of my best efforts to fully extend my heels to the ground, they don’t reach as well, and so I am effectively still spending a good percentage of my time running or hiking on my toes. Of course, my Achilles were fine after Virgil Crest and all my other races in 2022. But I began to feel these tendons talk to me here and there by late last summer, and just as with my IT band flare up years ago, I feel as though I better start paying attention, before they start screaming at me for attention.
So, on Day 5 post-Hyner, I went for my first run, and my plan for all runs between now and my next race two weeks after Hyner was to keep to my standard base runs, which had been around 9-10 miles and 2,000 ft of elevation gain. But on this day, I left the house in a pair of Salomon Pulsar Trail shoes, and at a 6-mm drop, these would offer some relief to my achy Achilles tendons. Though still a bit tired and sore, I felt pretty good overall on this run. On Day 6, I again ran in the same shoes and felt great, with my Achilles whispering to me only occasionally on both days. I applied CBD salve to both Achilles on both days but was finding less of a need for the salve.
After resting that weekend (Days 7 & 8), I went for my run on Day 9 post-Hyner, and left the house in Salomon Sense Ride 4 shoes (8 mm). I’ll admit I may have been somewhat terrified…if you recall from this article, I had sworn off any shoes with a drop higher than 6 mm…but everything I had thought through carefully was corroborated by Tim Noake’s book, and his experience with the sport has helped me on numerous occasions in the past…so I trusted my body and trusted the process. And not only did my run go well, my whole body ached much less than it had in weeks…seems several aches and niggles seemed to have vanished overnight.
After resting on Days 10 & 11 post-Hyner (and feeling incredibly antsy,) I ran again on Day 12 in the Salomon Sense Ride 4 shoes. Everything felt good and my Achilles were silent for the first time in weeks. Day 13 would be a final day of rest before the next race…
I have covered so many miles in the Speedgoat (4 mm drop), but if my gait is evolving in response to the change in terrain, then I’ll need to continue listening to mremain flexible in my approach.
Still Processing The Race Days Later…
There really is something magical about running on the toughest trails, about testing your limits, about going into the zone and finding your “why”… And also about connecting with others… It’s so easy to find your community out here… And as someone with a wild streak, one I’ve tucked away and become quite adept at controlling, I find that running hard becomes the outlet. When my mind is racing or I feel troubled, the trails reset me. Everything makes more sense out there in the woods.
Upon connecting with Sean on social, I shared my enthusiasm around running the Hyner Trail Challenge and affirmed that I am now officially hooked on this race and others like it. I feel it every time I run. This is what I was meant to do.
His response? “Welcome to the dark side of trail running!”
I think I’ll stay awhile.
“You don’t know my mind, you don’t know my kind, Dark necessities are part of my design, Tell the world that I’m falling from the sky, Dark necessities are part of my design.”
~Red Hot Chilipeppers