Hills Creek Endurance Challenge
Two aspects of running that I love are exploring nature and testing myself. Running the Hills Creek Endurance Challenge was going to give me the chance to do both.
The Hills Creek Endurance Challenge takes place at Hills Creek State Park in Pennsylvania. The event is a 3 mile trail loop. There are options to run the loop for 3, 6, or 12 hours.
I have only ever run one other timed event before and I have run that race twice. That is the Sunfish Shuffle. That race is a 1 mile loop you run for 3 hours. I have enjoyed Sunfish Shuffle more than I had anticipated.
I was excited to see how running a larger loop would feel physically and mentally. And I wanted to make this as unique an experience for myself as I could. To accomplish this I chose to run the 12 hour version of the event.
The goal was to see and do new things. I had only ever been on my feet that long a few times. I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
It was exciting to be able to test myself and see new trails.
TESTING, TESTING, 1 2 3….
I sought this race out as a way to test myself. I have set big goals for myself this year. Training for a 100 mile race in the summer. I need to train hard, push myself, and see where I am at during training.
No better way to see where your training stands than setting a lofty goal and taking aim at it, right.
My goal for Hills Creek was to reach 50 miles in 12 hours. Not an unattainable goal but a very difficult one for me to reach.
When I started planning my training I thought about how long I would need to train to be ready for a 100 mile race. I thought 4 months should be good enough to get me through the race. That meant I started training the first full week of April.
What I did not consider, is what amount of training do I need to complete 50 miles in 12 hours at a race the first week of May. It didn’t help this race kind of snuck up on me too. I had it on my calendar and was aware of it being “soon”. But I didn’t realize how soon until I was running with my friend and she said “Don’t you gave a 50 mile race this weekend?” Yes. Yes I do.
So my training was going well as far as my main goal if running 100 miles at the end of July. But how would my current level of training fair in a 12 hour event where I would have liked to get to 50 miles remained to be seen.
Race day arrives. The weather forecast was looking like a possibility of rain all day long. And it was not likely to be warmer than mid 50s for the temperature. This concerned me more than anything else. I was not sure how I would respond physically or mentally if it came down to running for 12 hours in the cold rain. Especially with the start/finish line in sight every 3 miles. I could stop whenever I wanted.
I obsessed over this concern. With the amount I sweat (which is A LOT) there is no raincoat that will keep me warm and dry if it rains for a long period of time. I determined the only way to survive the impeding rains was to have clothing that would insulate me from the outside temperature, hold in as much body heat as possible, and be as light as possible keeping as much wet clothing as possible away from my skin. Over the past year I’ve accumulated quite a collection of puffy coats. They’ve proven to be perfect for long sweaty, soggy, soggy cold runs in the winter. They seemed like the best option. I packed every one I had. Then I could change every few hours if I got cold. I felt prepared for this eventuality.
Funny thing is. This weather I spent so much time preparing for never materialized. Instead it was mostly just cold and dark. Very little sunlight for warmth. Somehow I was unprepared for this.
It was pretty cold at the start of the race. I had a tech t-shirt on and I had puffy coats and light shells for if it got warner or to repel wind and rain. The weather just being moderately cold was a factor I simply hadn’t planned for. I opted to start the race with the lightest of my puffy coats.
This was not the best choice. Before long I was hot. Unzipped my coat. Sweated through my shirt even in the cold. After one lap I was soaked and needed to change into a lighter jacket.
I had run myself so hot I couldn’t slow down my sweating and quickly sweated through this jacket as well. Then it was just a matter of enduring the cold.
This was a day of the everlasting wardrobe malfunction. By hour six I had worn 4 different clothing options. Non of which really worked great.
I spent most of the day just trying not to be cold or enduring the cold.
The rains never came. It was just cold. I should have been fine. But I was unprepared because I obsessed over one possible outcome.
The running aspect of this event actually went pretty well. At least for a while.
I started off at a comfortable pace. The pace I was running didn’t feel like I was running hard. I passed a few people. Lots of people passed me.
I felt like I was running well. Pace was good. Breathing and heart rate felt comfortable. I was not exerting myself too hard. But my legs just never felt comfortable. Maybe it was my lack of trail running so far this year.
I really enjoyed the loop format. It was nice to catch up to people and be caught by people and say hi and even chat a little from time to time.
Occasionally someone would pass me and it would catch me at a time when I was feeling pretty good. I would just draft with them. It’s like their vibe was contagious and pulling me along for the ride. I would keep up for a little while then return to my regular pace.
I felt pretty good through the first half of the race. But there were signs that things were not great. The most obvious sign for me was when my legs started balking at the idea of running any downhill sections.
Normally I love downhill running. They are the part of trail running I live for. Especially if the trails are nice and runnable. The downhill sections on this course were perfectly runnable. But my legs said no thanks.
So eventually I was down to only running in the flats and slight inclines. Hiking the couple of steeper climbs. Them very gingerly descending after each climb. I don’t even know how to describe what it was like going down the hills. It wasn’t like I was injured but it just made everything hurt in a way it wasn’t any other time. It was a strange experience for me.
The pain and discomfort reached a point where I was forced me to make a choice. Push through and endure the pain and run wherever I can or back off let the pain subside and save myself for another day?
It wasn’t that I physically could not run at all. I wasn’t injured. I was just very tired and sore. Why run when I could just hike the rest of the time.
This is what I was worried would happen. Would I have the desire and will to push through the pain to reach a goal that may or may not be attainable for me?
Is it even smart to do that right now?
I was determined to keep going for the full 12 hours. How hard I needed to push how fast I needed to be going may or may not be relevant.
I set a goal for myself to reach 50 miles. It was a big goal for me. I have only run that far 1 other time and it was at the culmination of a training cycle at my goal race.
This race was essentially at the beginning of my training cycle. The most important part of this challenge was being in my feet for 12 hours no matter how fast I was moving or how far I went.
I did not want to get injured. It wouldn’t be helpful to achieve this goal only to be too sore to continue my regular training plan and stay on track for my main goal for the year.
The clear decision was to shift my focus away from this event and towards the future. What would be the best outcome of this event that would do the most good for my long term goal? Keep going but minimize risk of injury.
After about 30 miles I decided to shift from doing any running to just hiking at a good sustainable pace. This was the decision that made the most sense for me. Plus then I could take some photos, because of course I had my camera with me.
If the running had gone a little smoother maybe I could have reached 50 miles. Maybe it would have been worth pushing a little harder for. But I am happy with the results of this test.
Another great part of signing up for this event was having a reason to revisit a nice state park I enjoyed but haven’t managed to get back to in years.
I visited Hills Creek State Park once or twice to hike a little and do photography. The trails and wildlife and plant life made for good photography. I have always wanted to go back but for one reason or another never got back there.
I have wanted to return to the park to explore more of what nature has to offer at this park. And one of the reasons I love trail running is because it is a fun way to explore nature and see things I otherwise would not see.
Check ✔ and check ✔.
I think the scenery at this event is pretty hard to beat, especially for a loop course event. The three mile trail course circles the lake. Runners are rarely far from the water. And the water is always in your right during the race.
Being in such close proximity to the lake provided almost constant beautiful lake view scenery. One could easily get distracted and just stop running and stare off over the lake. On one loop I was looking out at the lake and I almost ran out on a dock, which is not where the course goes. Luckily I realized I was off course or I might have gone for a swim.
For most of the course while enjoying the lake the trails wind through and along the forest. There are sections where the trail runs between rows of majestic pines. Even the poor weather and dreary skies couldn’t take away my enjoyment of the woodland trails.
When I am not running I can often be found wildlife watching and that includes birds. It was so cool to see all the birds inhabiting this park over the course if the race.
Before the race even started I had my first bald eagle sighting.
During the first mile of the course your on the road for a minute to cross a small dam. On one side of the dam is a beautiful view of the lake. On the other side of the dam is a nest pole with an active Osprey nest. Every lap around the lake I was able to say hi to the Osprey sitting on the nest. I also had several opportunities to see the other partner in the Osprey pair as the made appearances and perched in nearby trees.
Osprey have become one of my favorite birds as they have been making a great resurgence in our region thanks to many dedicated wildlife conservationists.
During one lap I saw another bald eagle. There was a point when I saw a couple of small sandpipers along the lakeshore. Unfortunately I couldn’t help but scare them off as I moved on by. And on one end of the lake there was a flock of Cormorants. They periodically moved from fishing the lake to perched on snags and downed trees protruding from the water. They were a welcome sight on most laps.
There were some sections where the trail passed through the woods and there would be a flurry of action among the tree branches. Birds flitting about in every direction. It was impossible not to see the tiny birds zipping along.
I wasn’t able to positively identify many of the birds in these fast moving groups but it was pretty clear that at least some of them were warblers. I did definitely see at least one American Red Start.
There is also a section where it looks like a beaver may have dammed up a stream. And put in one corner of the lake there is what looks likely to be a beaver den.
And these are only the sights on the one trail I was on that day. There are other trails awaiting exploration. They might hold the key to even more fun nature finds.
IN THE END
Even if my day hadn’t gone as well as it had I would still have been happy to get out in the woods and enjoy nature. All the sights and sounds if nature are things I don’t get out to enough.
It was also great to be back among the trail community.
I enjoyed my visit to the park for this race so much that I’m strongly considering returning the next weekend. If not then in the very near future.