you just aren't very good at this, are you?

John Muir would've turned 175 years old yesterday IF physiology hadn't had its way, as it always does, and now long ago carted him from the planet and a civilization that was already careening further and further away from the beliefs he clung to so steadfastly.

He died in 1914 having barely caught a glimpse of what modernity and its technological breakthroughs could and would wreak and how broadly their impact would be felt by the natural world, but his words in many cases have hardly aged in the nearly 100 years since his passing.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...”

Amen to that, Mr. Muir, and by the early evening hours of Friday, April 20, this tired, nerve-shaken individual was "over" civilization and trying desperately to leave the world behind for a time.  Several hundred other minds and bodies were headed home to the mountains too, destined for either a 25 kilometer or 50 kilometer venture through the lovely deciduous forests of Clinton County, Sproul State Forest and Hyner View State Park.  Regardless of the distance covered, the individual journeys would be mercifully free of pavement, billboards and the endless stream of we-interrupt-this-broadcasts that had monopolized a soul-crushing week back in the "real" world.

The Hyner View Trail Challenge began back in 2007 as an as-demanding-as-they-come foot race/hike, boasting over 4,300 feet of gain (with just as much give-away in the quad-demolishing downhills) spread over 3 major climbs and 16 miles.  In 2012, an additional 25K loop was added for those folks who just felt there wasn't a high enough degree of difficulty, I suppose, on that original course.  Though the additional loop saves runners/hikers from having to retrace their steps and tackle those same 3 climbs twice around, it also adds two more significant uphill sections (another 3,200 feet of gain) and two punishing descents.

To say it more simply, it's brutally demanding at either distance and is softened only by the incredible beauty of the surroundings, the trails and the views provided at the top outs as well as, if you make it the whole way around the course, a rewarding finish line reached. 

Coming into the weekend, I couldn't have attested to the rewarding finish firsthand as my only prior attempt (back in 2011) ended prematurely when the Achilles issues I tried to ignore in the days leading up to Hyner were fully exposed and then amplified by all of that up and down.  My day ended 11 miles after the start and the only reward I received from the Pennsylvania DCNR-truck ride back to the finish was motivation to seek out a PT, Michael Beiler of Drevna Physical Therapy Associates, who helped put me back together and pass along advice and positivity that has stuck with me ever since.

Last year, I missed out on the inaugural 50K and a chance at redemption due to a too-good-to-pass-up canyoneering invite.  Even though that trip to southeastern Utah was one to remember, a little bit of my psyche ached during the several hours that I knew folks were grinding their way up Humble Hill, navigating Johnson Run, plowing down the Post Draft and approaching the final steep section known as the SOB.

Now, at last, it was my turn and I was pretty pumped to have another go at the Challenge.

My pal Jefferson, who was running the 25K, and I had tented at the Western Clinton Sportsmen's Association the night before which meant being able to sleep almost right up to race time, wake up, lace on shoes and walk a few hundred yards to the starting line.  The finish line sits on the WCSA property and our tent would be less than a football field away in case returning immediately to bed seemed like the ideal post-race option.

There were so many familiar, friendly faces waiting for the gun that it was almost hard to keep in mind that this was a "race", but eyeballing the couple of speedsters also gathered there, it was comforting somehow to know that the rest of us could actually just leave the racing to them.  Discovering that my children were there too, having spent the night before with my mother, stepfather, aunt and uncle at the cabin my uncle owns a few miles south of nearby Renovo, I really felt as though my "homecoming" was complete.

Eight o'clock arrived and off we went over the bridge that crosses the west branch of the Susquehanna River and then hung a sharp right, put a few hundred yards of pavement behind us and began working our way back along the north bank of the river on a narrow stretch of singletrack for a mile or two.  Laughter and chatter accompanied the tightly-clustered pack behind the leaders and as often happens the initial pace was brisk.

Humble Hill has a way of snuffing out brisk.  Rising steeply, immediately steeply, from just before mile 2, this climb takes you from 620 or so feet above sea level to right around 2,000 feet before you reach mile 4.  I'd brought collapsible Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles with me, something I've never used before during a race, and I was glad to have them.  While they didn't make me go any faster, they allowed me to take the "hunch" out of my back on ascents and by being able to stand more upright I could top out not nearly as fatigued as I suspect I would have without them.

Hell, I was still smiling as I neared the Hyner View vista that gives the park its name.

Photo courtesy of Peter Lopes
My family, having hopped in the car and taken the easy route to the summit, was waiting with smiles and heads shaking at how ludicrous it was that us bib-wearers had opted to trek there on foot.  After hugs all around, I got back to work.

Just beyond the aid station tables, a right-hand turn leads you back into the woods and onto singletrack that actually descends 1,000 feet in less distance than it was gained in the preceding miles.  It's a nice change but there's no shaking the fact that you are giving away nearly everything you just worked so hard to conquer.  Determined to keep my quads intact, I fell back quickly on the group that I'd stuck with on the initial climb.

The route levels out for a bit down in Reickert Hollow but the going is still challenging as miles 5-7 force you to cutback and forth across Johnson Run more times than I managed to count.  Back in 2010, I bagged the crossings and stayed in the creek to relieve the swelling that was building in my damaged arch and heel.  I gained some confidence this year in not having to seek the same solace.

Somewhere in the hollow, the 50K course splits away from the 25K course and begins another long and steep climb up the Sledgehammer.  I'd stashed my poles in my Gregory Tempo running pack after reaching Hyner View but quickly pulled them back out for this stretch.  An aid station was mercifully waiting at the top and I wolfed down PB & J's like they were a rarely-tasted delicacy.  The next mile-and-a-half was one of the few rolling-to-flat sections on the course, following one of the broad cleared-for-pipelines sections that lurk atop a staggering amount of northern Pennsylvania ridgelines.  It was easy running and a welcome reprieve following the effort already demanded and ahead of what was to come later in the day.

We hit another beautiful downhill that seemed to go on forever, switchbacking over and over again and it was in this section that I began feeling as though I just wasn't getting anywhere.  I wasn't particularly fatigued and the body was holding up nicely, but I just couldn't seem to move along at the pace that it seemed this stretch of the race would allow.  I was struggling to keep up with other runners even when the shared conversation was of interest and would've been great distraction.  Periodically, someone would pass me and every now and then I'd be caught from behind by two or three runners who seemed to be out for an afternoon jog.  I wanted to be THOSE guys.  Some days I am, but not today.

Not here at Hyner.

A low mental patch was threatening when I had a clear, liberating thought.  "You just aren't very good at this, are you?"  I'm not sure what brought on the question but I laughed aloud and immediately felt the blahs seep away.  The answer, of course, is/was "no, not really", but that's not what had brought me there in the first place.  My mind was back where it needed to be.

Moments later, I'd reached the bottom of the descent and turned left into the absolutely stunning Ritchie Run.  Aesthetically, this was my favorite part of the entire course.  The trail meandered its way from one side of the creek to the other and back again.  And again.  It was a really technical, wet uphill but I just marveled at how beautiful a place in the world it was and here was the first time that the "wilderness is a necessity" line began echoing in my consciousness.  I'm not sure I needed to be there, but I was so thankful that I was.

After leaving Ritchie Run behind, I auto piloted for a few miles and, frankly, don't recall many of the details.  I might have if the hospitality at the West Branch Nature Conservancy Camp aid station hadn't flushed everything from my short term memory, replacing it was carbonated beverages and hot, delicious soup.  Roughly twenty miles into the race at this point, I was craving sustenance, whether I knew it or not, and that soup was heaven sent.  As I think about it now, the glory of mid-race soup is a reoccurring theme for me at ultras.  Here's hoping that never changes and that the kind, selfless souls who have come to my rescue so many time either continue to be out there or have like counterparts on every long course I find myself.

The next few miles passed pleasantly as the little bit of climbing paled in comparison to what had come before and then we returned to the lollipop stick that had led away from the 25K course and were able to take the Sledgehammer down instead of up.  My quads still felt surprisingly good and I ran this section fairly well, actually passing a couple of runners and catching up to another.

I'm pretty sure I gave all of those positions right back after returning to where we'd left the 25K loop earlier in the day and having to creep up the narrow, messy, technical trail that climbs up along Johnson Run to the highest point on the 25K course.  The poles really shined in this section.  Again, they didn't actually haul me up the hill or quicken the pace but the balance and stabilization they provided my tiring legs was much appreciated.

At the top out, with the penultimate ascent out of the way, I made sure to drink a lot at the awaiting aid station.  I knew that I was about to hit another rocky, rooty downhill before tackling the final climb of the day and reaching the last aid station before the finish.  The Post Draft trail cuts downwards steeply along the side of a ridge and has tricky footing the entire way.  It had signaled the end for me two years ago and I was curious to find what it had to tell me now.

Mere moments after leaving the aid station, I was caught from behind by Robert Gusztaw who is headed to TransRockies (http://transrockies-run.com/) this summer with his wife, Janine.  Knowing I'd run the 6-day stage race last year, they'd introduced themselves briefly at the starting line.  It was nice to spend the Post Draft descent talking of the Rockies and I found myself excited anew for my August return to TRR.

Thanks to the conversation and the little psychological bump that came from catching 25K participants (they'd started an hour behind us that morning) from behind made this stretch go quickly and we continued to chat in the first portion of the climb out of Cleveland Hollow.  I couldn't help but notice the spot at which my Achilles had finally called it quits two years ago and while my mind stayed there for a minute or two, I fell behind a few steps and was again on my own.  There were quite a lot of 25K hikers on this climb and did my best to politely sneak past them without taking away from their experience or forcing them to step into inadvisable positions on the steep, narrow trail.

Practically on all fours, I scrambled the dreaded SOB at the top of the hill and stumbled on to the flat above, instantly struck by the gusting winds buffeting the volunteers staffing the final aid station nestled there.  The idea of them sitting there for hours in those conditions was humbling and I took a few moments to thank each and every one of them.

There was another mile or so of slight uphill that seemed like flat after the SOB and then the Spring Trail led straight down the mountain.  In two miles, the trail loses somewhere in the vicinity of 1,300 feet as it follows Huff Run toward the Susquehanna and I was thrilled to have quads enough to really power through it.  It was too little too late to make my overall time very impressive but I would rank that downhill in my own personal top 3 for both my performance and the fun that was had while doing it.  Didn't expect to feel that good after 28 miles at Hyner, but, man, I was glad I did.

I spent just about everything I had left there in Huff Run and found myself alternating between shuffling and walking back across the bridge before turning down the lane toward the WCSA.

Spirits were high at the finish line and it was awesome to be reunited with most of the friends who I'd started with or who had seen us off so many hours earlier.  Learning that my speedy friends, Jesse Johnson and Derek Schultz, had finished first and second with Jesse cracking 5 hours and establishing a pretty stout 4:55:19 course record.  The soon-to-be-ultra-running-household-name Ashley Moyer finished third overall, just 43 seconds behind Derek's 5:15:07 and nearly an hour ahead of the second-place female, Sheryl Wheeler.

My 7:29:12 put me right smack in the middle of the pack, a cozy position I've come to love that came without a trophy but secured the same finisher's medal as everyone else who made it the whole way 'round the mountain.

Most of the race participants departed a few hours later, but Jefferson and I again spent the night at the WCSA after driving back up for another, less taxing summit of the Hyner View vista.  Very early Sunday morning, I reluctantly snuck from the tent to relieve myself of some of the prior day's hydration.  The sky, free of ambient light pollution, was bursting with stars and whether from my emergence from the tent or something else entirely, a coyote's cry pierced the silence.  The call was answered by another and then two more in some sort of wild nocturnal responsorial that fell silent moments later, leaving only the distant sound of the waters of the Susquehanna seeking the Chesapeake Bay.  I remembered John Muir, grinned and returned to the tent, falling almost instantly back to sleep.

 I can't wait to go home to Hyner again next year.


axis mundi.

I've spent a good portion of the last few days shooting video for my place of work, Backcountry Edge.  These clips are basically short duration demonstrations of various tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and other outdoor gear or, as I prefer to think of it, filming these bits is a cross between playtime and learning, for me, and, eventually, for someone trying to get a more multi-dimensional view of a given item than a flat, lifeless product page on a retail website can provide.

It's fun, really, and serves as a nice physical escape from the office which is especially convenient when the weather decides to take a significant turn for the better, as it has this week.

But, this go round, the entire process has made me oddly restless.  Putting up a tent and expounding on its finer points has me wanting to be in that very tent somewhere a bit more exotic than a mile away from my desk.  Blowing up a sleeping pad, I find that I want to spend the entire night on the pad, preferably under a Western sky full of stars, stars, endless stars.  And the sleeping bags, the backpacks, the trekking poles, the you-go-ahead-and-name-its, they've all got me wanting to not just talk about their functional aspects but to put them to good and practical use somewhere far away from an all-too-handy and invasive cell signal.

All of which adds to my current longing for mountains and reminds me of a paragraph from Gretel Ehrlich's Questions of Heaven:

"Are mountains really mountains?  Are mountains a form of enlightenment?  Are rivers a mountain running?  Can we walk through them?  Why do mountains walk through us?"

I don't know the answers and, like all my favorite questions, they may not even have one or, at least, JUST one.  What fun is a question, anyway, if it's too easily answered?  Not as fun as one that isn't, this I know.

Today the mountains are walking through me and yet remain all too distant.  I miss them immensely.   I want to go to them.  To BE with them.  Not to race through them and head home, but to race to them and make them home.

I don't even need the gear.  Gear without the mountains is just trappings.  Mountains without the gear are still the connection points between earth and sky that pull me like so many magnets.

I'll get there...and when I do, I won't be back.