Fall Running: The Green Monster Trail Challenge 'Miracle'

When you sign up for some fall running at a race like the Green Monster Trail Challenge, you're expecting highs and lows, peaks and valleys.

After all, this race borders the Pine Creek Gorge, also known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania that's 50 miles long and 1,000 feet deep.

  • Run hard. 
  • Tough it out. 
  • Have fun. 
  • Expect the course to test your limits.

That's what runner Brynn Cunningham thought when she clicked the button to register.

But that was just the beginning of some unexpected events tied to this race, maybe even a miracle.

Here's what happened...

Runner Brynn Cunningham gets a little love from her kids at the end of the Green Monster Trail Challenge 15K in Pennsylvania.

Fall running: You never know what might happen

Britannica defines the word miracle as: 

  • an extraordinary and astonishing happening that is attributed to the presence and action of an ultimate or divine power

When I signed up for some fall running at the Green Monster Trail Challenge 15k, miracle was not the word on my mind. 

Rather, I signed up because the race:

Author with sons at the Leonard Harrison State Park view of the Pine Creek Gorge, also known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon (Photo/Eric Harder)

The beginning of the miracles

It began in 2015, when I ran my first race after two significant life events that occurred within four weeks of each other: 

  1. The death of my father, on June 1, 2013
  2. The birth of my first son, on June 28, 2013

The early father/daughter days

As a young girl, my dad was my biggest running fan, from the time I swept all the sprint events at a fifth grade track meet.

Two years after that first meet, our relationship became rocky.

  • Throughout junior high and high school, he began experimenting with hard drugs (cocaine, heroin, who knows what else)
  • Combined with his already daily habit of smoking two to two and a half packs of Kool cigarettes and drinking three to six Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) beers.

Fortunately, I didn’t live with him full time, since my parents had divorced when I was eight years old, but when it was his weekend for partial custody, he began forgetting to show up. 

Despite his absent parenting, he managed to attend my high school track meets, and I resented him for it.

  • What if I wasn’t a runner? 
  • Would he NEVER be there? 
  • Would his drugs matter more?

I’d hold back tears before my 100, 200, 4x100 and 400 meter races and keep my head high, refusing to let him see me cry, attempting to hide the pain he caused.

When he would first walk into the stadium, I would avoid him and feel utterly embarrassed by his presence while fearing what drug he was on or how many beers he drank on the way.

I wanted to scream, “you are not welcome here, you reek of cigarettes!” 

Though my heart felt like it was breaking into a million pieces, when I ran, the anger and confusion dissolved. 

I had a choice…

The choice

With great effort, I reframed the automatic, reactive thoughts of…

  • “He only loves me because I run,” into
  • “Running is the only thread that binds us, and I will fight to keep that thread from snapping.” 

Perhaps he wasn’t the best father figure, but he was the best cheerleader.

He shouted “Go Brynny!” loud and proud, drowning out the crowd, always standing directly across from the finish line, so that his was the first smile I would see at the race’s end. 

Initially fueled by disgust, rage, sadness, I ran with all my heart, channeling the darkness into light, allowing the necessary but negative feelings to coalesce into a singular emotion: love. 

Love & forgiveness

Eventually, my dad’s drug phase ceased, though not his drinking and smoking, and I looked forward to his presence at my track meets, acknowledging it as the best way he knew how to support, care and love.

Running and racing became a way to process how I felt about... 

  • being the daughter of a once active, handsome, happy dad...
  • who turned into a temporary deadbeat during a crucial time in my growth and development, the teenage years. 

Unknowingly, I ran to see if I had any love left for him, and finally ran not only for me but for him, and consequently, for us.

In my choosing forgiveness and in his choosing to finally show up, we formed an eternal bond. 

From those days forward, we celebrated running together...

  • United...
  • Until death do us part...
  • And even after (keep reading to get to that part).

For that, I am forever grateful. 

Moving home

Fast forward 11 years…

On February 15, 2012, my now-husband, Eric, and I drove to my dad’s house to surprise him on his 60th birthday. 

“Happy birthday!” I exclaimed when my dad answered the door, shocked to see me back from a three-month stay in New Zealand with Eric, a man he’d never met.

“Brynny, what the hell are you doing here, and who’s this!?” 

“I’m back from New Zealand, this is Eric, my boyfriend, and we’re moving to Ohiopyle for the summer!” 

The summer

My dad was a white water river guide, and I a kayaker, so we spent the summer on the river, reuniting after I had lived away from home for a decade. 

At the same time, I began training for three races set to take place in the fall. My dad planned to act as my main crew. 

Yet, he became ill and was admitted to the hospital mid-October, missing the races.

Though he was at first diagnosed with pneumonia, a litany of other issues ensued, including meningitis, until his immune system shut down, and he deteriorated for eight long months.

The Mount Summit Challenge

During one hospital visit, he challenged me to run the Mount Summit Challenge, a 3.5-mile uphill race, held in April, just 15 minutes from my hometown. 

I agreed, and we chatted as if he would be there.

Soon, our hope-filled plan was disrupted by a surprise event.

The surprise

A month after committing to train for the Summit, I brought him some news:

“Eric and I are having a baby!”

He was barely conscious, lying in the hospital bed, but I think he understood.

Of course, the surprise pregnancy curtailed my Summit training.

Instead, I became engrossed in the joy of expecting a baby and simultaneously distressed at my father’s decline.

  • On June 1, 2013, he died at the age of 61. 
  • On June 28, 2013, my son arrived four weeks before his due date.

The first race & miracle

Nearly two years later, when I picked up my bib for the 2015 Mount Summit Challenge, the race my dad had wanted to see me run, a miracle happened.

My bib: 52. My dad was born on February 15, 1952 (2-15-52).

Rattled, mystified and awe-struck, I floated to the start line in a befuddled trance.

I won second overall female, the first time I ever made the podium in a race (since high school track).

And then the miracles kept happening…

19 miracles so far...

They have happened so many times that I often lose count. Thus, a list:

Miracles #1 & #2: April & June 2015 - Spring Race Recap: How Death, Childbirth & Injury Made Me a Stronger Runner (Mount Summit Challenge bib #52 & Ohiopyle 25k bib #252)

Miracle #3: Sept. 2015 - Running My Fastest 10K in the Wisconsin North Face Endurance Challenge Trail Race (“I Am My Father’s Daughter” was the song that came on the radio as we pulled in to park the car - we waited and let it play out)

Miracle #4: April 2016 - Dad, I Won the Mount Summit Challenge For You (bib #152)

Miracle #5: May 2016 - Magic Number Marathon: Running 26.2 Miles with My Dad's Spirit (Pittsburgh Marathon bib #2517)

Miracle #6: On February 15, my dad's birthday, the 2017 Mount Summit Challenge registration form arrived in the mail. I was seven months pregnant and did not plan to race but cherished the sign from heaven. 

Miracle #7: May 2017 - Running Up That Hill: It All Started With You, Dad (at four weeks postpartum, I took my new baby to watch the Mount Summit Challenge first female come across the finish line; she wearing bib #152)

Miracle #8: Sept. 2017 - Dad, I'll See You at the Race: 5.22 Mile Rick O'Donnell Memorial Trail Run Recap & My Race Angel's Nine Miracles (bib #521)

Miracle #9: Sept. 2017 - From Birth to 5K: Running My First Race at Four Months Postpartum and Five Tips to Get There  (Laurel Hill 5k time: 22:55

Miracle #10: Nov. 2017: Turkey Trot Recap: My Dad Meets Me AGAIN! (bib# 1925)

Miracle #11: April 20218 - Dad, I Ran the Mount Summit Challenge For You, and You Showed Up in Three New Ways! (5th female/ 20th runner)

Miracle #12: May 2018 - My Dad, My Husband, & Winning Second Overall Female in the Coopers Rock Half Marathon (this time he showed up via Eric’s finish time: 2:15:02)

Miracle #13: June 2018 - Winning Second Overall Female in the Vermont Infinitus Trail Marathon, with a Little Help from Race Angel Dad (at mile 18, I pulled away from a group of women, questioning whether to go hard or hang back, and came up on a man with his bib, number 215, pinned to his upper back. I had never before and never after this seen a bib pinned to anyone’s back. I took it as a sign and flew, winning second female)

May 2019 - Dad, I Won the 2019 Mount Summit Challenge For You  (race directors gave me bib #252 to wear as a gift)

Miracle #14: June 2019 - Mom, Why Did You Run a 50k? An Answer to My Son’s Question, Part One (Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k bib #520

Miracle #15: Nov. 2019 - Red River Gorge 25k (2nd female/ 15th runner)

Miracle #16: May 2021 - North Fork Mountain Trail: One Runner’s Long-Overdue Solo FKT (uphill record time: 5:02:14)

Miracle #17: Sept. 2021: Running Together: How to Train + Race with Family & Friends (Eric’s Odyssey Trail Half Marathon bib #255 and finish time 2:50:50)

Miracle #18: August 2022: 11 Things to Love About the Cook Forest 25k+ (finish time 2:52:17)

Miracle #19 occurred on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022, at the Green Monster 15k fall running event…

Brynn’s late father’s birthday (2-15-1952) has appeared 19 times in her bib number and other ways at races since his death in 2013. (Photo/ author)

The 19th miracle

Rececving a race bib containing my dad’s birth digits hadn’t happened for three years, since the 2019 Laurel Highlands 50k. 

Though his digits have appeared in finish times and even in Eric’s bibs and races, I thought the major string of miracles had ended. 

I was wrong…

Green Monster Trail Challenge 15k: Race morning

My husband, two sons and I camped at Leonard Harrison State Park, which sits on the east rim of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, a 15-minute drive to the race.

When we arrived at the start/ finish area, I picked up my bib. “25!” I squealed excitedly to Eric as I took the bib from the volunteers. 

25, my dad’s birth year (‘52) in reverse. 

The same awe-struck feelings I felt the first time, back in 2015, filled me up, reminding me that perhaps the miracle of my dad’s love, the “extraordinary and astonishing happenings that I attribute to the presence and action of an ultimate or divine power,” will never end.

Everlasting miracles, sparked by love.  I’ll take it. 

Green Monster Trail Challenge start/ finish line for three race distances: 15k, 25k and 50k. (Photo/ Eric Harder)

My fall-running race plan

I went into it with a did-that-really-just-happen surreal feeling, but despite the excitement, I had already decided that in this race, on this day, I was not going to run an all-out effort. 

No, I had little desire to push it, break PRs, make the podium, set records or to run until I vomited. 

Going all out was getting tiring, and I felt as if I were on the edge of pushing my limits too often. 

After all, this year I had already: 

My relaxed approach looked something like this...

  • Walking up hills I’d normally run
  • Jogging down hills I’d normally bomb
  • Maintaining a slower pace than the Cook Forest 25k, or most of my 25ks and half marathons, for that matter, even though this race was shorter 
  • Picking up speed in the last three miles to finish strong
  • Finishing with lots of gas left in the tank, feeling as if I could keep running, with no vomiting or collapsing

The course & conditions

The trails were beautiful, covered in dry autumn leaves, no mud, with good climbs and descents, flowy single track, rocky, technical as well as fast, flat sections and five to seven creek crossings, making me feel right at home. 

  • Elevation gain: 1,827 feet
  • Elevation loss: 1,779 feet
  • Distance my Garmin fenix 6s clocked: 9.6 miles
  • Weather: 
    • 32 degrees at 7 a.m.
    • 45 degrees at 10 a.m.
    • low 50s by noon
    • cold wind
    • Sunny
    • dry
The Green Monster Trail Challenge starts out on a three-quarter mile long dirt road. Author Cunningham runs toward the finish line. (Photo/ Eric Harder)

The results

  • Third Overall Female
  • Seventh runner out of 128
  • Time: 1:41:44
  • Pace: 10:36/ mile, according to my Garmin

Official results

The finish line runs straight into the cheering crowds and festival grounds. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Cunningham was cheered on by her sons, Avie (left) and Grey, who said this was the most fun race they’ve ever attended. (Photo/ Eric Harder)
The women’s 15k podium: First place (middle), Katie Jury, 1:31:49; second place and 2021 winner (right), Isla Twoey, age 12, 1:38:46; and third place (left), author Brynn Cunningham, 1:41:44. Winners received no plaque or trophy with their place on it; instead, they got a neck gaiter. (Photo/ Eric Harder)
First, second and third place winners received a wool neck gaiter as their trophy. (Photo/ Eric Harder)
The Green Monster Trail Challenge 15k, 25k and 50k races begin in a valley surrounded by the Tioga State Forest on the outskirts of the small, gas-lamp town of Wellsboro, PA. (Photo/ Eric Harder)

Highlights of the post-race party and start/ finish area:

ReVibe Gear - running gear such as hoodies, short and long sleeve shirts, tank top and hats created by PA trail runners, along with other products like Goodr sunglasses 

Purchased from the ReVibe table at the start/ finish area. ReVibe sets up at many Pennsylvania trail races, including the Cook Forest 25k. (Photo/ Eric Harder)
  • Other local artisan vendors
  • A hay bail podium
  • Bluegrass and similar music streamed and played all day
All racers receive a super soft long-sleeve t-shirt. (Photo/ Eric Harder)
The Green Monster sponsors (Photo/ Eric Harder)

The swag

Racers received:

  • A long-sleeve t-shirt
  • Darn Tough socks
  • A Green Monster Trail challenge sticker
  • A Mountain Graphics bag
  • Nuun tablets
  • PowerBar gel
  • Two instant Starbucks coffee packets (not pictured because my husband snagged those right away)
  • Information on the Tyoga Running Club 
15k Swag Bag (Photo/author)

Fuel

Pre-Race Breakfast, 7:30 a.m.

A 10:45 a.m. start time meant I had time to eat a solid breakfast:

Pre-Race Snack, 10:15 a.m. 

Running on empty has never worked for me and is not good for performance or post-race recovery, so I had a pre-race snack:

Race day gear

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

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