“See, this is why Galen could never beat Kilian in a mountain ultra. When has Galen ever walked one of these hills?”
I remember after running the Hyner 50k two years ago, I told myself “never again.” The course was too hilly, the terrain was too technical, and the people were too many. But alas, it’s a race that is put on fantastically in a gorgeous part of the state that draws some of the best runners in this region of the county. The allure of this race was too high, and since I wasn’t running Boston this year, I felt like this was the perfect opportunity for me to sign up and race it.
I drove up to the race (about an hour from State College) with Boggs and Steven Hanna the morning of, and we got to the parking lot about an hour before the race was starting (8 am). We checked in and went back to the car to put our bibs on and get ready for the race. The forecast all week hadn’t been calling for rain, and for this, I was happy. It had been a pretty wet spring already, and any more rain would have just made the trails slicker and the streams flow harder. So, of course, since there was no call for rain in the forecast, it started to rain about 20 minutes before the start. The rain was coming down pretty heavily and was pretty cold, so I threw on my arm sleeves and light gloves to wear in addition to my singlet. Even with the extra warmth, I was still chilly.
Nonetheless, the race must go on, so we headed to the start line to get ready. After a few words from the RD (don’t littler, etc. etc.) and a slightly confusing countdown, we were off. Despite this being a pretty technical trail race, the start began with about a mile of pancake-flat road. There was a good group of us moving out on the road, staring at the massive ~1500′ climb to our right that we knew we were going to have to go up very briefly. If I had to guess, I would say that we started at around a 6:30 to 6:45 pace.
Once we hit the trails, there was probably about a group of about 10 of us who had separated from the other 290 runners in the race. It’s always a cool feeling to be able to run in a lead group in some of these large races. We stayed together pretty well on the trails until we hit the first of five massive climbs. This climb is by far the highest on the course, taking you from road-level all the way up to the level of the peaks (~2000′). Once we hit the climb, the group instantly thinned. Going into the race, I told myself that if I was going to have any chance at winning, I was going to need to get out quick and try to pad some time for myself for some of the steeper climbs and the more technical downhills and creek traverses. I made sure that I was first going into the climb and that I tried as best I could to push myself pretty hard going up.
About halfway to three-fourths of the way up, Clayton Bouchard, a guy I met at the Tuscarora Trail 50k a couple years back, came up behind me. While I was hiking the majority of the hill, he was running it, meaning that he was going a tad faster than me. Even though I wanted to push as hard as I could up the hill, I knew that trying to run it at all wouldn’t give me all that much extra speed and would spike my heart rate too much for being in the first 10% of the race. So I let him go past me and kind of lead me up the hill, knowing that if I was somehow able to keep him in my sights for the remainder of the race, I’d probably be able to outkick him in the last 4 miles of downhill trails and roads.
We got to the top of the climb within about 30 seconds of each other. I grabbed some Gatorade and some Swedish Fish (I had two Hammer gels in my pocket from the start) and then started down the first decent. I would say that this first decent is of medium steepness and medium technical-ness; certainly runable, but there’s still a couple sections where you have to watch yourself and kind of pump the breaks from going too fast. At the bottom of the decent, I could still see Clayton about 50 feet ahead of me, and since we were now kind of able to open up, I passed him for a brief moment. Again, I felt like if I could just keep him in my sights, I should be able to do this all morning.
At ~mile 6.5, we started our second long climb, this time up the infamous “Sledgehammer.” This is kind of a wonky climb since it’s very un-technical and right at that perfect un-sweet spot of being steep enough that you’re not really gaining a lot of time by running, but shallow enough that you’re not really working hard enough by hiking. Since Clayton wasn’t getting too far ahead of me by running, I decided that I would save myself a little bit for the last climbs in the race and power hike. While I was hiking, another runner, Andrew Simpson, came jogging up behind me. I wasn’t too concerned since I was still running well and there really wasn’t anyway that I was going to run up the hill. So far, I was still making good decisions and executing them as I wanted to pre-race.
On our way up, we exchanged pleasantries, eventually contrasting the differences between Galen Rupp’s speed turnover with Kilian Jornet’s climbing prowess, agreeing that people who think that Galen could beat Kilian on a mountain race are out of their mind; when has Galen even power hiked a hill or crossed a stream mid-race? We eventually got the top of the climb and refueled at the aid station with some Gatorade (they had no Swedish Fish). After this aid station, we had some pretty easy miles of grassy trails with rolling hills, allowing me to put some distance on Andrew and close in a little bit more on Clayton. Eventually, we hit a decently technical downhill where Andrew blew past me, and we returned to essentially road-level back next to the creeks.
Two years ago, the creek sections (Ritchie Run and Johnson run) tore me up; this year would be no different. Ritchie Run is about a three mile section that claims it involves “numerous stream crossings,” but in all reality, it involves essentially running up a creek. The water this year was high, fast, and frigid, making this a very technical section. Very quickly, Andrew and Clayton pulled away from me, leaving me along to struggle with the creeks and the downed trees. At this point, I thought that there was no way I was going to be able to hold on for third, as I felt pretty terrible. My legs felt heavy, and seeing the two leaders pull farther and farther ahead of me didn’t help my psyche. I pounded my two gels in a span of 15 minutes and continued to take slow steps, about half walking and half running, through the creek.
After taking a couple near-falls and one actual fall, I was able to slowly move myself out of Ritchie and climb away from the creek up the third large climb of the day to some meandering mud and grass trails that run along the top of the ridge. I couldn’t see Andrew and Clayton ahead of me, so I tried pushing it a little bit to hopefully try to catch them when we would be heading back down Sledgehammer. The gels changed my mental and physical state 180 degrees from the bottom of Ritchie; I was able to move my legs and actually started thinking about how I was going to move through Johnson run when I was going to have to start passing all of the 25k runners.
Right before starting the downhill on Sledgehammer, another runner, David Lantz, came up behind me, breathing pretty heavily. He indicated that he was going to try to catch the leaders, who, according to the last aid station, were about 5 minutes ahead of us. Judging by the state that he looked, I kind of doubted that he would be able to do that, but crazier things have happened in trail races. I bid him good luck and kept on keeping to my race plan. Although I had fallen all the way to fourth, there really wasn’t anything that I could have done to improve my position or my time up through this point, so I wasn’t all that upset. I also knew that I had some areas where I could make up time on the last ten miles of the course.
I started down Sledgehammer, really trying to open up my stride on the non-technical downhill. After rejoining the 25k runners down at Johnson Run, I started to try to move as best I could while passing about 300 hikers through creeks. At this point while you’re passing so many people who are moving slower than you are, it’s hard to gauge effort and pace, so I just tried to feel not-quite-comfortable-not-quite-uncomfortable and push the pace a little bit out of the creek. While the water was flowing faster and higher than two years ago, I was able to feel much better and got out of Johnson still with positive thoughts and a good outlook for the rest of the race.
A side note through this section is that I was told that I was either in second or third place. All the 25k people mentioned that they saw the “dude with all the tattoos (Clayton)” ahead of me, and a couple people said that the guy in green (Andrew) was in front of me, but nobody mentioned anything about David. I found this a little weird, but I kept on moving forward nonetheless.
After climbing out of Johnson Run, I got to the first aid station that we shared with the 25k race. I went straight to the Gatorade, pounded a couple half-cups of it, grabbed some Swedish Fish and started to power down the downhill. All of the 25k runners were more than willing to give me plenty of leeway when I would say/yell “on your left” as I flew down the hill, trying to makeup time on the two/three people who were in front of me. Once I got to the bottom of the hill, I made a left turn and immediately started climbing up the last of the big climbs.
While this climb is only ~1000′, it’s probably the hardest climb on the course. You’ve already run ~24 miles, and it’s decently steep with only a few areas to try to pick up your speed. I power hiked past the 25k runners, running during the few flat sections that I could. Right before the top of the climb, we came to the last little push, known as “S.O.B.,” where you essentially climb up some sand and mud, hands and knees while grabbing on to a few saplings. I tried getting up that short section as fast as I could, but had to stop and catch my breath for a 10 seconds shortly before the top with my heart rate racing and my breath becoming pretty labored. I regrouped, got to the top, grabbed a couple Gatorade cups, dumped some water on my head, and started the last little bit before the finish, trying to close the gap on the people in front of me and not letting anyone from behind catch me.
There’s a mile or two of rolling, easy terrain at the top of the ridge that I tried pounding as hard as I could, opening up my legs knowing that I had no more climbs to save to save them for. After leaving the doubletrack service road, you enter some singletrack in the woods very briefly before starting a decently technical downhill that, this year, included lots and lots of mud. Determined to not give up my position and hoping to catch someone in front of me, I let loose with abandon, blowing by the 25k runners as fast as I could down the hill. Even though the decent was a bit longer than I remember (it’s about a mile or so where you lose close to 1500′), I eventually came to the road, where a sharp right onto the pavement meant that I was almost done.
During the last mile on the road, I continuously looked over my shoulder, making sure that nobody was coming up behind me. Even though I couldn’t see any 50k runners behind or in front of me, I still pushed it as hard as I could on the roads, eventually coming to the last little climb before the finish. I powered up this last, steep climb (with only a little bit of walking), crossed the finish line, and promptly just kind of toppled over to a surprising lack of cheering, applause, or any human contact whatsoever. But hey, it’s a trail race, so you don’t really run them for have human interactions.
I ran 4:55:01, 18 minutes faster than two years ago, and ended up finishing third. Although I still have no idea what happened, David must have dropped since he didn’t finish ahead of me and there is no finishing time for him. Clayton ended up winning by pulling away on the last two climbs with a time of 4:47, and Andrew came in second at 4:51 (full results here). Fourth and fifth ended up coming in 4:56 and 4:59, meaning that the top five were pretty close and very competitive. I honestly don’t think that I had 4 or 8 minutes on that course to catch Andrew or Clayton that I could have run faster, so I was very happy with third, and also pretty relieved that I wasn’t caught by 4th or 5th since they were apparently right on my tail.
All in all, I was very happy with my race. I worked through my mid-race bonk while I was going up with Ritchie Run (~mile 15), and also staved off a couple leg cramps that I felt myself start to get from mile 20 on. I executed my pre-race plan to the best of my ability, giving a little bit of time on the steep uphills and the technical sections while getting time back on the more runable parts. Obviously, I have to work on uphills and rocky trail running, but I knew this going in. Third place and a huge course PR on a very competitive race during a difficult year for the course is something that I’ll very gladly take away. Now it’s just time to get ready for the Kettle 100 during the first week in June.