The sore throat on Tuesday morning should have been a warning sign. I ran anyway, with Dennis and Lil, through the woods, doing our hill repeats in the soft sand, over the tree roots, in the early hours before work. All morning I felt fine, then the chills set in. I thought crossly of the patient who had come into the office a few days prior, with a surgical face mask on, then pushed her out of my mind as I snuggled under the duvet clutching a hot steamy Theraflu®. I needed my energy to get better for the weekend, theHyner challenge was coming.
All winter I had been looking forward to the Hyner challenge. As my buddy Jen said, any race that has “hike” in the name sounds like more than just running. She was right. The off-road trail race was in deep central PA, or “Pensylltucky” as our Mike called it. It consisted of 25k entirely on single-track, rocky ancient terrain, up and over 1500 meters via three mountaintops and back to the beer at the finish line.
I had drawn up my own training schedule and had been running regularly over the winter, two mornings before work then a long Saturday run, sometimes in snow, sometimes in snowshoes, always in the cold, often in the dark. I had grinded out hill intervals on the treadmill in the office, and had gagged on the Lighthouse lane/ Harrison street loop at lunchtimes. Weekly plyometrics, TRX and weight training had hardened my quads and core, there was no sign of any of my old injuries. I had gone through two pairs of trail shoes in the prior four months, and was ready. Well, apart from the scratchy throat, the sinus headache and the deep chill in my bones, I was ready.
We loaded up the “bus” and Captain Kevin pointed her west. Our crazy group was missing a few of the original gang, (namely, Eddie, the instigator who had convinced us all over a couple of pints of Guinness to sign up) but we were a merry seven. A brief stop for Emi in Westchester, dinner on the road, a Theraflu brewing as we crossed the George Washington bridge, and we were underway. Captain Kevin and Dennis the navigator guided us along I-80, deep into PA and the eventual refuge of a parking lot outside a community hall in the middle of nowhere. We set the stabilizers on the bus, pulled out sofabeds and hit the sack, with some traditional camp farting and giggling keeping us awake into the wee hours.
The next morning, true to form, began with rain. We wrapped up in our raingear, hats, and gloves and headed to the start line, eventually getting off to a start in less than stellar conditions. Wind howling, rain pelting, we chatted our way along the Susquehanna river ledge, single file only in the “no passing zone” as on one shoulder there were rocky cliffs, and by the other foot, a 500m drop to the river shores. First “hill” was Hyner, the 1000 strong field quickly thinned as the running became jogging then hiking then scrambling. The crowds were super supportive at the ruins on the top, and if you had a chance to look back over your shoulder, the view was amazing. The backside of the Hyner, while pointing down, was no less treacherous than the frontside.
A solid mile of rocky descent, not a second to rest the brain, full focus needed to prevent the ankle roll, the superman slide, the quick ticket out of the race. My Inov-8 sneakers were fabulous, while I was passing guys slipping and sliding in the mud, I never missed a single step. The treads on these things look like mountain bike tyres, with no crevices to fill with crud, just sticky, pointy nubs that gripped this crazy mountainside like floor suckers.
What goes down, must come up, as the saying doesn’t quite go.. The next rise was a long climb over and back through an ankle-to-knee deep river. Three miles of passing the “sheeple”, the runners that stop running as soon as the person in front stops running. (Sheep /people). I promised myself I would not hike until I had to, there would be plenty of that. I hoarsely whispered “on your left” and clambered past the hikers, jog-hike-scrambling up the riverbed until I had to resort to short strides, power climbing. I checked the GPS for distance, it was set to automatically stop once reading a pace slower than 11 min/ mile, and I had forgotten to change the settings on it prior to the race. I was scrambling at 13-14’ per mile in sections, sometimes slower, and the Garmin was cutting out. I took it off, stowed it in my jacket and kept going. I was having fun, feeling strong and didn’t really want to know the time anyway. At about 2 hours and 30 minutes, I began to feel a bit of a fade settle in. “What would Jen do?” I thought..Surely she would have a mantra to repeat, a visualization to focus on, I racked my brains for something to help me through the doldrums. Bing Crosby singing “Hark the herald angels sing” popped into my head, as I had been listening to Kevin Barry’s ipod playing the crooner just a few hours ago, it had been stuck under the sofabed for hours, and I had been trapped in my sleeping bag and this song was stuck in my brain and that was that. Oh No..For the next hour, I had comfort only from Berry sport beans and the never ending dopey song repeating. Not quite Zen but it would have to do… Down another rocky road, another Quad cruncher, this one even steeper, the going was almost as slow on the downhill in sections as the climb..and onto the final climb. I finally caught the girl in the pink jersey that I had been focusing on for the past hour, and we chatted as best as we could on the approach to SOB. I told her how our gang had come in the big fancy RV from New York, and she told me that people had been wondering who that was, whether it was some rock star or other, come to the country bumpkin cousins for the weekend. We laughed, then were silenced as we tackled SOB, on hands and knees in sections.. to the final rest stop, for refuel and a quick look back at this amazing countryside.
Wonderful views even while anaerobic, in the howling wind and the pelting rain. Chugging Gatorade or whatever was in the tank, I downed a half bag of sportbeans and hit the trail. Four miles of mud, roots and rocks, mostly downhill, to the finish. I was elated, exhausted, and finally thinking of my sleeping bag. While I was wet through on the run, I had been fairly warm in the 40degree rain, but as soon as we crossed the finish line (3:22, 1st in 40-49 AG, 7th woman, 70th OA), my bones reminded me of the sick person within. I limped with Mike to the RV, gave a cursory wipe of my legs with my socks, and stripped quickly, into the bag and under multiple layers. Each of the muddy runners returned to the bus, laughing, limping, swapping stories of the days struggles, the near misses, the athlete sagas.
We had hardly stopped shivering before we hit the road, celebratory Guinness in hand while under the blankets. We warmed up dancing on the crumbling deck of Mike + Eddie’s old frat house in Log Haven, and laughed our legs off the whole way home. The Long Island flatlanders did well, fourteen times 25k, (seven pairs of ankles) and not a single injury amongst us. We survived the mountains of Pensylltucky, and are already planning to return for more next year. www.hikerun.com