Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hyner Challenge 50K - Epic Entry for an Epic Race

3 weeks. It’s been about that long since my last entry. Normally, I would regale you with all the fun under the sun as a lead in. But we all know the truth. I’m going to mostly talk about the Hyner Challenge 50K.

Hyner has been on my radar for a couple of years now. Last year, I didn’t think I would be recovered enough from Umstead to justify doing it. Once it was announced that a PA Triple Crown of Mountain Running was being organized and that Hyner was one of the events, I signed up quick. If I recall, it might have been the first race of 2016 that I registered for. Clearly, the Hyner Challenge was going on the schedule as my first A race of the year.

Given the manner in which I epically destroyed my confidence as a competitive runner last year, I had to game plan how to get it back. That work started way back in October at Steamtown when I was so broken mentally that I opted to not start the race. I realized where I had fallen. Through a series of small races I began to refocus. I publically admitted my state. I got pushes from my friends. One of the biggest pushes was from Pat McCloskey, the RD of the RunBucks series. If he didn’t encourage me to run the Bucks County Marathon the way he had, I might be in a different spot right now. It was a good boost and led to me ending 2015 strong with BUS Trail Mix-Up, Bryan Court and Winter Solstice. Still, work had to be done and I go off on the right foot with Phunt. I began to feel a little like myself. But I knew something was missing so I began adding road 5Ks in the past couple of months. I needed a gauge and those have always been a nice measure for me. Two weeks out, I had what I considered a bad time at the Oreland 5K, clocking a 16:49 on a hilly course. My 5Ks were going the wrong way each getting around 10 seconds slower. (Oreland was my third of the year.) As a result, the week before Hyner, I wavered about what to run but opted to run the Ronald McDonald House of DE 5K down along the riverfront in Wilmington. Much like HAT was the ultra performance I needed, this 5K was the short performance I needed. I ran a 16:16 with some headwind. I was at a good point……

Lately, I’ve gotten really good about having my race gear all set aside in advance and that really was helpful going into Hyner Challenge week. Directions were printed. What I was going to eat the night before was decided. Thanks to the generosity of the RD, Craig Fleming, I had a place to sleep. (One of the things I neglected was getting my lodging in order in a timely manner. Hey, I was working on me for the race.) You could say, I was dialed in. I even adjusted my schedule so I could work a half day remotely on Friday so I didn’t have to come into the office and make the drive as relaxed as possible. (I even packed the car, Thursday night of 95% if what I was bringing to reduce my nerves.)

Friday, I got up to the Eagles Nest packet pick-up location around 5pm. On the way out of pick-up, I saw Maggie and Ryan pull in. It was nice seeing them briefly. I could have hung out some at their campsite but I opted for the quiet hermit route to the evening so I drive over to the Hyner Run Lodge (aka the only cabin in Hyner Run State Park). It was really nice and roomy. Upon arrival, I said hello to some of the others staying there. For dinner, I had Saag Paneer with Rice. After that, I curled up with a blanket in a chair and read a little of Empire of Mud. (It is a book about the early days of Washington DC and it’s development.) I would have read more but an influx of people arrived after pick-up closed for the day. After all, I was staying where race staff were. The remainder of the evening involved lots of wonderful conversation. And it was all very calming. Ok…maybe not all of it. There was talk of rattlesnakes maybe being out in nice hot weather.

We're going up that?! (Courtesy of Momentum Photography)

My sleeping set up was an IKEA mattress on the floor of the living room with my sleeping bag and pillow on top. I’d say it was the ideal way to go. I could have had a bunk but I didn’t expect one so I went with the set-up I had in my head. It was the way to go as I ended up getting a fairly good night’s sleep.

While I didn’t have the luxury of rolling out of bed right at the start, I wouldn’t have traded the 3 mile drive for anything. My morning was as chill as could be. I listened to a little combo of Brandon Flowers/Killers before the drive over at which point I switched to some Clutch. As I pulled into the parking at the Eagles Nest, I spotted one Bryan Slotterbach prompting me to roll down my window and yell to him. At this point, I park, grab my stuff and walk over to the start area. Now is when I start to see people I know. For me, I feel very low key. I’m socializing but not panicky about anything. I chalk this up to having planned gear out well. When I left the cabin, I already had my racing socks and shoes on. (Smartwool Run and Montrail FluidFlex II) I knew I was using the Nathan Peak Insulated waist pack. Because of that, when I woke up, I made sure to put on the Nathan Hipster at the same time. Personally, I have a weird fit on most things and I have to use the Peak all the way down at its smallest to get no bounce. Since it could dig into my skin a little, I use the Hipster as a buffer layer. It’s what works for me. Knowing, the 50K is a one loop course, I wanted to have the Peak for later in the race and not need to mix any Tailwind on the fly, so I had a handheld as well. Normally, I use a Nathan Speedshot Plus. However, with the amount of climbing and downhills, I wanted to actually get lighter during the race. That meant throw-a-way. So I went old school and took a 20 Oz soda bottle and made a tape handle/grip. For my shot blocs, I had a baggie taped to the front. Everything was in order. Now all I had to do was run the darn thing…..

Before the Dance (Courtesy of Bryan Slotterbach) 

Am I playing soccer? (Courtesy of Steve Goss)

Going into the race, thanks to the internet, I had a general idea of who my competition was. From what I was able to garner, Cole Crosby and course record holder Adam Russell were the two to beat. Adam had been on a tear coming in running some tough courses and performing really well. Cole has PR’s of 5:47 – 50M and 3:11 – 50K. He’s got wheels and can run well on tough courses. My race strategy was to stay close to Adam or Cole early on and hope I could pull away later in the race. Everything doesn’t always go as planned. To evidence this, the tape handle of my bottle broke within the first few steps of singletrack on the day. I had a decision to make. Decide to hold the bottle or ditch it way sooner. Neither was ideal. However, I did know if I ditched, I had a sleeve of Tailwind I could might in the zipper pouch of my Peak belt.

Holy Hills, Batman!

Hyner View (Courtesy of Momentum Photography)

Starting out, there was a good pack of 8 or so running together along Cliffhanger before we kick up Humble Hill as we trek to Hyner View. We started to shuffle around here. It was here, the wild card element came into play. Tommy Darlington took the lead towards the top. None of the rest of us matched the maneuver. I knew nothing about him prior. Turns out, he finished 2nd at Tussey Mountainback last year in 6:31. As Tommy disappeared, eventually Adam, Cole and myself settled into a sort of pack. I’d say it was a great group to run with. A lot of the credit for the vibe has to go to Cole. We were workmanlike and fairly communicative. It said we were all comfortable. My thinking this early on was that Tommy would come back to us. Hyner 50K has 5 major climbs so it was sound thinking. All three of us were running sensibly. At a few intervals we would stretch out some but always come back. Adam would smoke the technical steep downhills. Cole could open on the long straights.

And this was only the 1st climb! (Courtesy of Erman Anthony)

Dynamics of our group changed at the base of the third climb (mile 16) which really was an inclined along a rocky stream run. At the bottom, Adam dropped back a little. Cole was powering ahead in a running motion anytime he could. In my head, I told myself, I had to match Cole and not let him get away. I stayed close and we regrouped on the steepest part of the climb before some runnable trail leading into the mile 18 aid station. Another change took place here. Since I still had plenty of fluids on me, I kept going. See, I managed to get comfortable holding the 20 Oz bottle really early so it felt like no work to use it. Plus, on the sections I needed to powerhike, I was able to use the tie-band on the peak to hold it. Now coming down Sledgehammer (our 2nd climb) instead of going up it, I was expecting Cole to catch me by the bottom. To my surprise, he did not. However, our quiet all to ourselves trail time was about to end as we slammed back into the 25K course. (Hyner’s 50K course, runs the same loop at the 25K but around 6.5 miles does it’s 25K loop.)

I say slammed into the 25K because before my eyes, I saw a conga line of runners at a hiking pace along Johnson Run. Here, I did everything in my power to keep churning and moving. I was tired and doing a bad job calling out to pass. (For the record, it does not help when some participants have headphones in.) I took whatever lane I could. If it was a tight pass, I tried to say sorry. A few times, I glance back and saw Cole having to deal with the same issue. I was wondering if the leader was up ahead. I had failed to ask for any leader information at the prior aid stations. Clearly, this was not going to help if he was far enough ahead. Eventually, things began to thin some. I started moving a little better into the Team RWB aid station. (Recalling, I’m a bit foggy whether it was before or after but I saw Ryan during his 25K and asked if 1st came through. He said ‘nope’. I said something like ‘damn’.) Here, I finally finished off the 20 Oz Bottle and disposed of it in a waste bin. Now, it was time to run downhill calling ‘On Your Left’. Let’s just say, passing on single track that is on an edge of a run can be tricky dicky. Here, I thought I was doing it well. However, not as well as…….ADAM! Towards the bottom, right before the long switchback climb up to the top of S.O.B., I caught sight of him. He apparently caught and passed Cole gaining on me by crushing the downhill like Adam demonstrated earlier in our run.

Coming into the RWB station. Notice the Fancy Bottle. (Courtesy of William Bo Hagaman)

So after 27 miles, second place was going to come down to the last 4. Not only that but down to the last ‘hill’. Surprisingly, I was moving at a good clip. People were totally encouraging. They were even trying to tell me, I was the 1st from the 50K to come through. I always responded with someone else was ahead. Yes, I was being crushed and I knew it. Still, I was running the race according to plan. I was feeling good and when we hit the kicker on S.O.B., I was excited! Mainly for the fact that this was it for climbing. I scrambled up that sucker like I never scrambled before. Looking horribly pathetic on hands and knees trying to not slide backwards. After what seemed like the longest 100-150 meters, I made the top, took a brief pause, dumped a cup of water on me and then ran off. What I was doing, I would not really call running. My legs felt dead. The wide open trail was failing to rejuvenate them as fast as I needed. And I needed them to do it NOW! I knew my place could be lost once Adam gets to the top and moving. He knows this course. He has the Course Record. And most of all, he can fly on downhills!!!! Gotta get moving.

Eventually, my legs came back to me. Much slower than I wanted but I had not been passed and in a quick glance back, I didn’t see Adam. At this point, I was not thinking about Cole. Not so say, he could not be the one rolling up on me but I didn’t see him anywhere up S.O.B. Finally, I got moving again right before hitting Huff Run. Yes!!! Huff Run was the big downhill portion. I knew I had to pull out all the stops here. My pace became the fastest all day. Huff Run was fairly straight allowing to get a good bit of momentum. And since it was not full of a ton of 25K runs, I did not have to throttle back much. I tried to shout as much as possible that I was approaching to pass. I took gambles. I lived life on the edge. It was exciting! All I had to do was have some distance and 2nd would be locked up. I had no idea what it was because if I glanced back I was going to seriously get injured. After not enough fun downhill, Huff Run spit me out onto the road to lead me back to the start at the Western Clinton Sportsman Association club. As I made the left onto Rt120 to go over the Susquehanna, I glanced back to see if Adam had hit the road himself yet. I couldn’t see him. I had a sigh of relief. I could enjoy the final stretch. It was here, I looked at my watch. I was definitely going under the course record by a lot! However, going under was not going to set it today. Never did I see Tommy on the trails following Hyner View. As we hit the last little bit of single track up to the finish, I said screw it and hike the last incline. I jogged over the line in 4:32:12.

Maggie (she ran the 25K) greeted me at the finish. She thought I won. I told her no. Someone else was ahead of me all day. I tell a few more people this. Then a few questions appear because I was given the wrong finisher hat. I was handed the 25K one. Finally, everything gets cleared up when Tommy comes over to the bench I am sitting on. He tells me that he did 25K! Turns out he missed the turn up Sledgehammer. And nobody told him at the following aid stations. That meant…..I WON!!!! Holy cow. I took 17 minutes off of Adam’s CR and won an AX!!!!

Courtesy of Sophorn Choup

Totally put me on cloud nine. As I wobbled about, getting numerous cans of Orange Crush, both Adam and Cole came in. Adam finished just under 5 minutes back while Cole was 15. All three of us went under. Sadly, I missed watching them across the line. (On the women’s side, Rebecca Lewandowski took 5 minutes off of the existing women’s 50K record.)

I’m honored to have shared the trails with both of them. Adam, I get to see in a few weeks at Worlds End 100K. Cole is off to tackle Cayuga Trails 50M.

Sadly, there is only so much time in the weekend, so instead of another night up at Hyner, I had to drive back home to Philadelphia. Thankfully, the drive home went smooth.

In the it takes a village portion of this recap, I have to thank some folks: Craig Fleming, RD and his staff of volunteers who made this event so outstanding. Also, thanks to Craig again for the generosity and hospitality. Cole and Adam. I hope we brought out the best in each other on the trail. All my friends for putting up with my running. Thankfully, a lot of you do these crazy runs too. (Maggie, Ryan S, Bryan, Ryan E, Kiran, Casey, Jim…so many more)  All the fellow runners who offered support and encouragement telling me something I didn’t believe was true. Wissahickon Wanderers and Trail Whippass. Do I even need to say why? Nathan Sports. All about the Peak Insulated here from my hydration company of choice. Tailwind Nutrition. Never have to worry about bonks with you in my bottle and belly. Montrail. Many thanks for believing in this Flatland East Coaster.

None of this would be even remotely possible without Peg. No words can do justice. She allows me to do these silly things. Maybe I should blame her because she helped me tap into the types natural environments these races are run. On the other hand, maybe she deserves all the credit.


  1. Great recap man and well deserved CR and win!! love following you!

  2. Chills reading it! Awesome report! Well deserved CR and amazing performance.

  3. Congrats Michael! Excellent race report. Such vivid descriptions and amazing recollection.

  4. Great race and race report Mike!