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Finding Heaven

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Have you ever been to Hyner?

Nestled in the towering mountains of central Pennsylvania and hugging the Susquehanna River is the tiny village of Hyner; population around 175. That population increased tenfold a couple of weekends ago for the 8th annual Hyner Trail View Challenge (HTVC). I was back to avenge my only DNF. My mindset was completely different this time though, not in quest of a finishing time, more just seeking the finish line that had eluded me two-years prior, here in Hyner.

There are three major climbs in the HTVC 25k that total about 4300 feet of elevation gain. These are sobering climbs. When at the bottom of the first ascent, Humble Hill, my first thought was of my grandfather’s encouragement he used to yell at me while shoveling snow, “All I want to see is elbows and a**holes;” because looking up at the others climbing Humble, that’s all I could see! From the top of Humble is the Hyner View which looks way, way down at the valley we started from. Beautiful.

From Hyner View it’s all downhill, literally. I think when someone does Hyner for the first time, or merely looks at the elevation map; most of the focus is on the ascents. Rightly so, because unless you’re from that area or the mountains of Colorado there are no hills that come remotely close to the climbs in HTVC. In fact, the last climb, aptly called S.O.B., averages a 20% grade and is 1-mile long! Most treadmills will go up to a 15% grade, so try that for 1-mile (without holding on) and you’ll be on your way to HTVC.

But, it’s the down-hills that will beat you up. There’s more than 3000-feet of elevation loss and over 5-miles of descent on long, twisting, steep, and very rocky single track, and they will destroy-your-legs. Trying to practice good downhill running form is futile; it becomes a matter of surviving the downhill. It is this combination of quad-searing climbs coupled with brakes-on, jack-hammering descents that make HTVC more of pilgrimage than just a great tough event.

My uncle and I have done HTVC together both times. We also became Ironman together. He’s a special guy and more of a guiding, older brother to me than a favorite uncle. He lives in Houston now so we don’t see each other much, so it was nice to have 4-hours in the car to chat about most everything on the way up. We had a great discussion about God/religion/science/evolution. We have a similar mindset on these topics so it really was a great discussion and not an “It’s like this, not that,” kind of debate that I sometimes find myself trapped in with others. So maybe this was in the back of my mind while enjoying this run.

Over the 12+ years of being an avid trail runner, I look at running trails as a very spiritual experience. I don’t adhere to any of the main religions and my core belief is that if God wanted us to go to church than surely He’d want us enjoying the one He created, the great outdoors! So as I was hopping over rocks in the creek “trail” that takes you up another mountain in a section called Johnson Run, I was marveling at the beauty of nature that surrounded me; the ferns, the pines, the fresh budding trees and ground cover, the unencumbered flow of the water, all of it, amazing.

As I neared the top of Johnson Run it flattens out a bit and meanders through some white pines. It’s quite striking, and I’m not sure if it was relief from being at the top of the second of the three large climbs of HTVC; knowing that the next aid station was just ahead; or if my focus on the way up this portion was mostly on the splendor surrounding me. Whatever it was I had an epiphany at that moment.

There is no heaven, in the sense that when we die our spirit floats away to some pearly-gates as a Saint ushers us in to paradise. There is no hell, no pit of fire, no devil with a pitchfork prodding because we were determined “bad” while living. No, heaven is right here, right now, right in front of me. From the soft earth beneath my struggling feet to the amazing blue-white sky that was gently blowing above me, I was in heaven. I am in heaven. We all are. Right now.

There are certainly some hellish portions of HTVC. But traversing this amazing course over several hours and the salvation I experienced crossing the finish line this time were true bliss. My uncle, already at the finish, handed me a locally brewed holy water equivalent, and we toasted to our accomplishment and the wonderful congregation we were with that day.

I know, without a doubt, that living right now, enjoying each step, marveling in the magnificence of nature, is heaven. It’s with us all the time. But if you want a closer view, just head up to Hyner!

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