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Finding Strength on the Trails: The mountains of Central PA offer challenges, but runners love them

by on June 29, 2018 2:29 PM

The trail comes fast when you’re running down a mountain in central Pennsylvania. You don’t have time to think, and it is a good thing, because if you did, your brain might tell you to slow down.

Loose rocks are a sprained ankle waiting to happen, tree roots jut out to trip you, and who knows what creatures might be hiding behind the trees and bushes.

But if you are a trail runner, you go for it, and as you pick up speed and move down the trail, your body knows what to do and the seemingly impossible becomes instinctual. Your senses tell you where to plant your foot three steps ahead of the next rock, and your mind is somehow aware of everything around you as you fly down that mountain like a deer.

It is amazing how the body navigates the trail. And while it is awesome to feel at one with the mountains, there is a whole community of like-minded trail runners out there to pick you up when you fall, to give you water if you run out, and to lift you up if you are feeling down.


Every June features the Rothrock Trail Challenge, a grueling 25K trail race through Rothrock State Forest. June 9 was the 10th running of the event, and race director Craig Fleming sent runners off by announcing the course is about 17 miles, maybe a little less, leaving around 300 runners not quite sure how far they would be traveling that day.

That is just the way it is for a trail race, as it is almost impossible to get a precise reading on a course distance while traversing up and down mountains and through meandering single track trails. Every GPS watch tells a different story.

For the past few years, many of the local trail events like Rothrock were part of Trail Runner magazine’s Trophy Series, which gave points to runners who placed well in trail events around the country. After Pennsylvania runners dominated the non-ultra standings for years, Fleming and other local race directors started a competition called the Rocksylvania Trail Series to establish Pennsylvania as a class of its own. Fleming takes pride that the series has distances that are doable for all runners, with 10K, half-marathon, and 25K divisions.

The start of something good

It is funny how a life-changing moment can happen when you least expect it. For Fleming, it happened when he took his dogs out for a hike at Shingletown Gap about 20 years ago. Fleming couldn’t believe it when he saw a man running up the trail over all the rocks and roots through the woods.

“I never realized you could do that, and I thought, man, that looks like fun,” Fleming says. “So I gave it a try and I just loved it. It made me feel like a kid running next to streams, up mountains to beautiful vistas. I was hooked.”

After participating in some trail races, Fleming founded the Hyner Trail Challenge in 2007, a 25K race near Renovo with a group called the PA Trail Dogs, who work together to maintain the trails and put on challenge events. Along the way, Fleming made some of the best friends he’s ever had.

“It has changed my life; I am surrounded by the best people you can ask for,” he says.

The sport has become so popular that the Hyner Challenge for 2019 sold out its 1,300 spots in less than a day.

“When I first started there were no trail running shoes; now, it is one of the fastest growing recreational sports,” Fleming says. “It is just seems that all the good runners come from central Pennsylvania.”

The face of the trail

Brock Rider has a face that you can’t forget. Well, maybe it is the beard that covers that face.

“It is kind of a Forrest Gump kind of thing,” says Rider.

After some health problems, Rider felt he wanted to run more to get back into shape. He decided he wasn’t going to shave until he missed a day running.

By mid-June, that was 520 days ago and counting. “Now I have a beard and I run every day.”

Rider works at Rapid Transit Sports in State College and has become a go-to source for trail running shoes.

“We used to carry maybe two pairs of trail running shoes; now we have seven or eight. It has increased dramatically, especially in the past few years,” Rider says.

He, more than most, can understand why.

“The trails in Centre County are some of the best, [most] diverse trails. I think you can get to eight state parks within a two-hour drive. And the family, the trail family, that is what it is all about,” he says. “I have made friends who remember my birthday when even some of my family doesn’t. Trail runners are like a family.”

Getting stronger

It isn’t easy pushing up mountain trails as fast as possible. The heart pounds, the legs burn, and the mind asks over and over again, “Why are you doing this to me?” Where trails out West might meander gently up switchbacks, trails in Pennsylvania tend to take runners straight up the mountain.

Most runners power-hike up the big climbs.

Eric Marshall makes it look like a walk in the park. A health and physical education teacher at the Delta Program in State College, Marshall is one of the top runners in the area. In July, he is headed to Colorado Springs to compete in the USA Track and Field 30K Trail Championships. It didn’t come easy for Marshall at first, but he trained his body to do it.

“At first I would tell myself I am going to run to that tree, and would try to go a little further. Then the next time I would try to go even further, until I finally made it all the way to the top,” Marshall says.

Marshall competed in his first trail event about 10 years ago. He came to the course expecting to hike, but when he got there his big boots seemed out of place among all the running shoes. Marshall’s friends saw his competitiveness kick in and warned him not to try to run when he wasn’t prepared. He walked the course at first, but after a couple of miles he couldn’t take it anymore and started running.

That was a long day, with a long recovery, but he was hooked.

Marshall says he cherishes the relationships he has made on the trail and feels that being in the woods allows runners to break away from distractions caused by cell phones, computers, and TV.

“Trails allow me to relax,”  he says. “Many of my strongest relationships were formed while running. Running in nature somehow allows me to be more vulnerable with others, too, and this is how meaningful relationships are formed.”

Family matters

Luke Ebeling was never much of an outdoors person.

His mom, Jane Cone, can attest to this. When he was a teenager during a family trip to Acadia National Park, Cone says Ebeling stayed in the car the whole time.

“I am the last person you would think would get into trail running,” Ebeling says. So it is funny that Ebeling is now the director of The Frozen Snot trail challenge held outside of Lock Haven on the coldest day in January.

He got into trail running with his sister Rachel and later they inspired their mom.

Now Cone is an age group winner in the Trail Runner Trophy Series, and the family has gained a new “trail family” that they see throughout the year.

Ebeling’s 11-year-old daughter, Piper, even gets in on the fun, having run in multiple trail races herself. “It is fun. I will always be a trail runner,” Piper says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

The family was always close, but all agreed that getting out on the trails brings them even closer.

“It is something that we share. A nice quiet time, and I love getting out with the grandkids, too, and share something that I love,” says Cone.

A whirlwind on the trail

“There are two reasons this area is so great for trail running. Number one is the awesome trails,” says Larie Hall. “Number two is the people.”

It seems like everyone at a trail race knows Hall, a former Trail Runner magazine Trophy Series winner for her age group. On the trail she is a whirlwind, encouraging everyone she passes and bouncing over rocks and logs with her dog Mega often by her side. Just before she started trail running, Hall was going through a divorce. When she began running on the trail at 43 with the encouragement of her brother, she found her strength.

“Confidence. Trail running gave me the confidence that I can do it. As long as I can just be myself, I know I can do it,” Hall says. “There is just something about being out there with my trail family in these beautiful woods we have in this area. I have a wonderful family and have found a great boyfriend now, but my trail friends, they are my family, too.”

What’s age got to do with it?

Carl Undercofler does not back down from a challenge.

An 80-year-old Clearfield county native, Undercrofler didn’t start running until he was 62 and a co-worker challenged him to run a triathlon. He said he would only run one if he didn’t have to swim. He thought that put an end to the argument, but his co-workers found a race with a paddling element instead of a swim.

He completed that triathlon, and hasn’t looked back since. He eventually found trail running, and now uses that determination to run up those mountains.

“Trail running is tough; it’s tough at any age. But I have always done things that were a challenge. Everything in life I always look at on the bright side,” he says. “That helps me keep going.”

Undercrofler, who is married, runs most of his races with Cone, whom he calls his “trail wife,” all in good fun.

“People think we are married, but he is just my trail husband,” says Cone with a laugh. “He is entertaining, that’s for sure. It is helpful to have someone out there with you to offer that extra encouragement when you need it.”

‘Bestie power’

In the days leading up to the Rothrock Trail Challenge, Meira Minard was out helping get the course ready with Fleming and other volunteers. On race day morning, she was up early handing out bibs to runners. Later that morning, she was the first woman to cross the finish line.

Not far behind was her favorite running friend, Carole Dudukovich. For years, these two State College area trail runners and mothers have been coming in together at races and encouraging each other on the trails. They say it is “bestie power” that helps them stay strong on the trails.

Both enjoy the competition but are not obsessed with it. This is common among trail runners. During a race, runners try their best, but if they are passed by another runner, they almost always offer words of encouragement.

“Well, that is why so many trail events are called challenges, not races,” Minard says. “Because we are all out there together taking on the same course that day. You never know what you are going to run across out there, downed trees, wet conditions, high stream crossings, animals, snakes. But trail runners are all in it together.”


Vincent Corso is a freelance writer from State College.
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