Surviving One of the Most Difficult Ultras on the East Coast

Nicholas A. Tonelli
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_Don't throw up, don't throw up, don't throw up—_the phrase ran through my mind endlessly on a loop during the last 8 miles of the Hyner View Trail Challenge 50k. My heart beat recklessly and my legs burned fiercely as I ascended yet another 1,200-foot climb. My body begged and negotiated with my mind with every arduous step to give into the ultra-runner's nemesis and relief—the DNF. Did Not Finish.

But I did finish. And it was the hardest race of my life.

The Course

Widely recognized as one of the East Coast's most difficult 50 kilometer ultras, Hyner is a beast that forces even the most seasoned trail runners to their knees. The race takes place in Hyner View State Park , which is about a four-hour drive northwest from Philadelphia. While 1,200 runners sign up for the challenging 25k (16.5 miles) each year, only about 200 runners are brave enough to take on the 50k. This year, only three-quarters of those 50k runners finished. With nearly 8,000 feet of elevation gain and five major climbs over 31 miles, Hyner is not a race to be taken lightly.

Nick Kirk

To reiterate the difficulty of the course, race director Craig Fleming posted a special message on the race website warning racers of the challenge ahead. He wrote, “I want to be clear that our course was not designed for the ‘leisure’ runner or hiker. Nor was it designed so that ‘everyone’ can easily finish. I worry about the people who take our course lightly. Know what you're signing up for.”

Needless to say, when I signed up for Hyner I knew what I was getting into. My goal going into Hyner was to finish under the 9-hour cutoff. But no one was prepared to race on the hottest day of the year to date.

Race Day

The day started off at perfect race conditions, around 50 degrees and cloudy. As the small group of 50k runners gathered, I waved goodbye to my friends and family and set off with the nonexistent fanfare of an ultramarathon race start.

The first couple of miles flew by as we traversed a skinny singletrack along the side of a mountain. Then we hit the base of “Humble Hill,” and things slowed considerably as the course climbed 1.5 miles straight up the mountain face. As we ascended through the eerie, early morning mist one runner wondered aloud, “Are we going to heaven?” A disgruntled racer replied, “No, this is definitely hell.”

Dani Graham

As the runners emerged from the mist, we could see our friends and family waiting on top of Hyner View, the race's namesake. I quickly waved hello to my crew, kissed my husband, and departed down the trail.

The next section of the course traversed down switchbacks into Reichert Hollow, a glistening oasis of moss-covered logs and tall trees budding spring leaves. The race crisscrossed numerous times through Johnson's Run, forcing runners to splash through the babbling brook full of slick stones and ice cold spring water. There was no way to keep feet dry in this race, and I liked it that way. While traversing back and forth across the stream, running in and out of the cool water, I remember thinking, “This is what trail running is meant to be.”

Dani Graham

Then we hit the second major climb, aptly named “Sledgehammer.” This is the kind of climb trail runners despise—a wide, gradual climb, with no end in sight. After 1,000 feet of climbing over a mile, I was very glad to see an aid station as I turned the corner. A handful of Pringles later, and I was on my way.

At the next long downhill, around mile 14, my quads started feeling the effects of thousands of feet of elevation change. The sun also started showing it's full strength and the temperature slowly creeped into the 70s and higher. While this might be a delightful day in August, 80 degrees in April will give quite a shock to a winter-trained body. I tried to stay hydrated as best I could, but soon began falling behind on my fluid intake, which also happened to be my main source of calories.

Dani Graham

As my hydration and caloric deficit slowly increased, the third and fourth major climbs absolutely crushed me. My heart rate spiked, as symptoms of heat sickness and dehydration took hold of my body, but I refused to give up. Thankfully, I wasn't the only runner who slowed significantly at this point, which made for a sick sense of camaraderie as we death-marched up the mountains again and again.

Then around mile 24, the nausea set in.

I alternated hiking, running, and walking to keep my mind off of my sour stomach. Having finished three ultras previously, including a 50 mile race, I knew this feeling well and pushed through, trying to focus on the beauty of my surroundings.

After scrambling on hands and knees up the fifth and final climb—appropriately named “S.O.B.”—I knew I would finish the race. Instead of grabbing pretzels at the mile 27 aid station on top of S.O.B., I rinsed my whole body down with cold water from a hose and trudged on along the ridge.

Dani Graham

The last downhill on Huff Run killed my quads, but seeing family and friends at mile 29 brought a smile to my face and made my fast-beating heart feel lighter. I made easy conversation with another 50k runner suffering the effects of the heat as we stumbled down the mountain, each step closer to the relief of finishing.

In the last half mile, as I crossed the long, paved bridge across the Susquehanna in the glaring sun,  I cursed the race director for designing such a brutal and sadistic course. Then I entered what I thought to be the finish area and was faced with one, final, steep hill. I chuckled and climbed the hill slowly, then charged across the finish line with my hands above my head.

Post Race

I felt too sick to drink my free beer or eat at the post-race party, so I found my crew and sat down on the cool grass in the shade. While gulping two bottles of water, I reflected on the last 8 hours and 14 minutes. I felt awful, but the sense of pride and accomplishment was well worth the misery.

What I learned from racing Hyner is that sometimes we need to put ourselves through the temporary pain of immense suffering to realize how far we can push our physical limits. I had doubts going into this race that I wouldn't finish at all because of the huge elevation gain, but it turns out the hills weren't even the biggest issue on that hot April day. There will always be unexpected obstacles that arise during a long race, and it is up to us how you deal with those surprises that matters most. We can quit and be comfortable, or we can push through the discomfort and reap the rewards of finishing what we once thought was impossible.

Josh Graham

After slurping down a cool, blue-raspberry ice pop, my stomach finally settled and we drove back to our quiet cabin in the woods set on the Pine Creek. As soon as we got back, I cracked a Bell's Two-hearted Ale, waded into the frigid creek, and took the best post-race “ice bath” I could could have ever imagined. I sipped my beer and smiled, thinking about how I couldn't wait to come back for Hyner in 2016.

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