Running is pretty awesome, but running in the forest and mountains? That is the bees knees! As always before a big race I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. I was in Johnstown on this particular Friday to grab my race packet and have dinner at the pre-race briefing for the Laurel Highlands Trail 70.5 mile ultra. This race spans the entirety of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail from Ohiopyle to Johnstown and while I had run sections and backpacked much of it this would be my first time covering the whole thing in one go. But the best laid plans of mice and men…
Start to Checkpoint #1
After crashing at a friend’s house a few miles from the finish area I awoke at 2:30 AM on Saturday morning, quickly got dressed and
hopped in the car. On the way I slugged back my pre-race drink of UCan superstarch mixed with melon Hammer Heed. The shuttle buses took us to the starting area and upon exiting the bus I quickly saw some familiar faces of friends and crew. We chatted for a little and soon it was time to line up for the start. Race start for the 70.5 miler was at 5:30 AM and the field seemed to be fairly large. In reality, with a fixed number of entrants I suppose it looked no different than other years. I heard someone yell TEN! Then nothing. And there it was , FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE! And we were off following the sidewalk by the waterfall. After a few turns and maybe 1/2 mile we were at the gate and on trail. I was feeling happy and excited to run. I had so much nervous energy built up I wanted to fly, but knew better.
Starting gear: BOA shorts, my Runderful NB singlet, Garmin 920XT, the Ultimate Direction PB 2.0 Adventure Vest, NB hiking poles, Luna Leadville Trail sandals with Injinji toe socks and leather laces, and a buff.
Once hitting the rocky trail it didn’t take too long for me to realize that, while I had run 30 milers in my Lunas, I hadn’t run terrain this rocky in them. And boy could I feel those rocks under foot early on. This was an immediate concern and I felt a little ridiculous for not heeding warnings from friends.
“Are you sure you want to run in those?” Yes , I am. I’ve run plenty of long runs in them. Doh!
The first 9 miles of the course are brutal. There are huge climbs, very rocky terrain, and the excitement of early race to keep under control. The first big climb was around mile 2. I didn’t use the poles for this ascent. I stopped at the overlook near the top of the climb to take a moment and simply enjoy the view. Soon I was off again. There is a flat and then a downhill followed by one more big climb and subsequent downhill. Those sections went well and I used the hiking poles for the climbs which allowed me to use arm power to ascend quicker.
Go to the Laurel Highlands trail and at mile 6 you will find the longest climb in the 70.5 mile traverse. It is roughly 2 miles with no switchbacks. Just a long up, up, up! Then, when you are getting tired it says , “haha fool!” and gets even steeper! I stopped a few times during the climb to rest my legs. The hiking poles certainly were helping me move faster up the hills, but I made two errors in their use:
- I hadn’t trained with the hiking poles. While I have used them many times hiking and was comfortable in their use I hadn’t used them much during runs.
- With the poles as a crutch I pushed to hard and fast on the hills.
Around mile 10 I stopped at a stream to dunk my buff. As I crouched down I felt might groin muscle almost spasm. I bolted upright with an audible, “That is not good!” And it was not good at all only 10 miles into a 70 mile run! Just before the 11 mile marker I tripped and as I hit the ground my right calf locked up. I have had plenty of cramps running in the past, but not during this training cycle. Why today?! Then I looked at my bottles. I had drank less than 30 ounces of water in 3 hours! Oh damn, I was in trouble. Dehydrated and cramping in the first 10 miles! How could I be so foolish? But, there wasn’t time to worry, only time to act. I started drinking frequently and taking electrolytes.
At mile 11.6 I reached aid station 1 and my crew. I told them what had happened. I was surprised to find I was 15 minutes ahead of schedule! How?
I had my Garmin in ultratrac mode which extends the battery life. I had hoped to have the watch alive and kicking for the whole race this way. I knew the mileage could be off a bit from my experience using ultratrac at the Burning River 50 last year and I figured with markers every mile along the trail it would not be a major issue. As I was happily plodding along and not drinking water my Garmin was doing an excellent job of not working. At mile 11.6 I had 18 miles registered on it! My pace looked way too quick on the Garmin so I disregarded it knowing the issue. Apparently, I was still pushing way too hard and moving way too fast on those hills.
After the crew gave me fresh bottles of UCan and Heed and I switched into Altra Lone Peaks I was off again.
I had 8 miles to cover before reaching Checkpoint #1 / Aid Station #2 at Route 653. I used this stretch to take it very slow and easy with a focus on rehydrating. I made two stops for less than 5 minutes to enjoy an overlook and grab a pic. It was a beautiful morning. As I approached mile 18-19 and closed in on the aid station the 50k leaders were passing me! I knew I was moving slow when this happened so early on! I was happy to see Elijah zoom by saying hello. Shortly thereafter I heard a voice. A very loud voice! And this exceptionally loud voice was cheering Elijah on. There was a short, but steep little rocky climb and as I came around a rock sure enough Alyssa was perched atop it! As I climbed up I saw John was there too. We all chatted very briefly and Alyssa gave me a few mustard packets and sent a message to my crew with what I would need from them. A short way from there was the crew and some other SCRR people cheering. It was a welcome sight to see so many friends on the trail. The checkpoint was only a few hundred yards away. Upon arriving Lisa got the stick roller out and started rolling my legs. I asked her to stop. The rolling was good, but I could not move my legs into certain positions without triggering cramps.
Checkpoint #1 to #2
In the next 7 miles to an aid station Aaron flew by and said hello. David, of the Philly Runderful crew, came by as well and we chatted for a few moments before he quickly made his way along the trail. It really was great seeing these guys run. They are skilled and fast runners, but more importantly in my estimation they are all good humans.
I was at the Seven Springs Aid Station (Mile 26) with crew waiting at the Mile 28 road crossing. The woman at the aid station looked so familiar, but my attention was quickly diverted when I saw a bowl of bacon! BACON! AT AN AID STATION! Yet another reason to run ultras. I grabbed some boiled potatoes and bacon and ate. At each aid station I was taking in more fluids as well. This section of the course was mostly out under the sun. I made my way around the lake taking in the sights of paddleboarders and enjoying the heavy breezes on the mountaintop. The few open areas were broken up by short stretches of younger growth forest. Younger than the rest of the trail at least. I would guess most of these areas were 20-30 years old.
Before coming to the crew there was a good downhill drop. The downhills were getting very difficult due to pain in the vastus medius (VMO) muscles, part of the quadriceps, which connect to the knee at the inner side of the thighs. For those of you who run distance these are the muscles typically responsible for making stairs hell after a long run or race. Pro Tip: Walk down the stairs backwards. This area was where I had my first hallucination. I saw a man in a neon yellow shirt standing behind a tree on the trail. As I got closer I couldn’t see him behind the tree and bellowed a hearty “hello! How’s it going?” Upon passing the tree I realized no one was there.
Finally meeting up with the gang again I changed out shirts at their request, and by request I mean demand. Bottles were swapped, gels acquired, and it was off again with 5 miles to cover to Checkpoint #2, the route 31 Aid Station and finish for the 50k runners. I was really wishing I was a 50k runner that day. This next section was not going well. The uphills were draining, the downhills were paining, and I had enough! At Mile 29 I sent a message to the crew. I was done. I would be dropping at the mile 32, Checkpoint #2 aid station. I arrived at the checkpoint 10 minutes before the cutoff. My friends had me sit down and asked what I needed to continue and what was going on. I was periodically getting a little dizzy, which could be dehydration or low blood sugar, my legs were shot, and I didn’t see how I could make the cutoffs. Tom Mangan had reached the aid station as well and was sitting down. Another guy there talked with me also. I had some coke and m&m’s and explained that the Burning River 100 is coming. Battering myself further when I was sure I couldn’t make the cutoffs wasn’t going to serve anything except lengthening recovery time. Well, my team….my most excellent team of friends somehow talked me into going forward. I’m not even sure how looking back. But soon I was smiling and heading up the trail.
Onward to Checkpoint #3 and My Pacer
After about 50 yards I stopped and turned around and marched back to the checkpoint to the confused looks of everyone. I hadn’t filled any of my bottles! Now, fully restocked I headed out. Someone mentioned that the trail is much easier from here out and the hills were mostly done. Bullsh*t! Within a mile I was climbing a beast of a hill and cursing the guy who said that. Then there were good
downhills after. Not long after things did flatten out considerably though and I was able to start running more. I was making up time where I could without pushing hard. Just running when I could and walking when I couldn’t. Around mile 40 I came upon a girl in the race. We chatted briefly. I asked her if she was on track for cutoffs and we put our heads together to figure out where we were and what we needed to do. We had passed Beam’s Rocks and were coming up on mile 42 and in great shape. Then we saw it. The mile marker! Except one thing. It was mile 41! Shit! I crunched numbers and figured I was still in god shape though it was tighter now. I soon hit good runnable stretches and left my new friend behind. This is where I had my second and final hallucination. I watched a wild turkey go behind or possibly inside a log near the trail. Once again, no turkey! Around mile 43-44 I took another fall and as I hit the ground my right calf cramped tight and something in my left leg did the same causing my ankle to turn inwards. I applied pressure until it subsided a little and pulled myself to my feet with arms only thanks to a downed tree nearby. Then it was back to walking. The time I had made up was slipping away fast, but I was happy. Why? Because this stretch of trail was unlike any other on the Laurel Highlands trail. It was full of rhododendrons and little streams and was beautiful. I took it in and kept moving towards mile 46 and Checkpoint #3 where my first pacer , Seth, would be joining me. I made it there with 5 minutes to spare! As I arrived it started raining. The crew reloaded me quickly and I shoved food in my face. The rain was now torrential with thunder and lightening and off Seth and I went.
The wet trail was slick in spots and we slowly meandered up the hills. I stopped more and more frequently mid-climb to rest against a tree. The rain felt great , but soon passed. I popped a Hammer electrolyte fizz in my water as I had been doing for the last 5 or more hours. It was getting harder to drink or eat anything. I knew I needed calories and fluids, but my body said “no, none of that!”
I was happy to have made it so far, but knew time was slipping away. We needed to cover almost 11 miles in 4 hours, which should have been plenty if I could still run. But, I couldn’t. I walked all but 100 yards or less. This was forest I had been in many times. Back in my days as a counselor for Outdoor Odyssey we took the kids and mentors backpacking on this stretch many times. Some areas were familiar while others seemed totally foreign. Usually we hiked in the opposite direction so that accounts for some of it. At times I was walking fairly quick and other times I could hardly move. Now on each hill I had to stop a few times to rest on the way up and even sat down once or twice. Seth kept chatting and kept me laughing and engaged, but even that couldn’t help as I slipped further into fatigue. I asked him if he could call an uber for us. We caught an amazing red sunset through the trees and then the darkness descended. I was getting dizzy on every climb. On flat ground I as okay still, but there is not much of that to be found on the Laurel Highlands trail. Soon the sweep caught up to us. The sweep is the person bringing up the rear making sure all the runners are off the course or that they stay ahead of this person. The three of us chatted and kept moving. On the next hill around mile 54 I became dizzy again and sat down on a log. Then the dry heaves came. I laid down on the trail in the fetal position for a bit until it passed. In the meantime the trail sweep called the RD to find out if there was any early point I could get off trail without going all the way to mile 57. There was something between 54 and 55 and I opted to get off trail if we could so when we hit that gravel road crossing Seth and I walked the road until someone from the race picked us up.
My crew and pacers; Vicki, Jason, Seth, Lisa, Calvin, and Josh were amazing out there. They were pros on their first time crewing. They took care of me very well and I am grateful for such amazing friends and for their excellent work. Without them, I surely would have dropped at mile 32. Instead, I was able to see some beautiful sights on the trail and get 17 hours and 30 minutes on my feet to put in the 100 mile training bank and hobble away with a PR of sorts; Longest run ever at 54.5 miles and certainly the longest time on my feet for an event. Am I disappointed? A little. But mostly I am happy for the opportunity and the lessons I learned along the way. I am grateful for good friends. Also, I am feeling more confident about the 100 miler. Why, you ask? Because after everything went wrong by mile 10 and I was dehydrated with shot legs I was able to hang on for 45 more miles! Come mile 50-60-70 at Burning River that knowledge will be valuable. This failure may have ensured my success. Will I be back next year to get my LHHT 70.5 mile finish? Damn right!
What Went Wrong and Lessons Learned
- Wrong footwear for the terrain. While my Lunas treat me very well on most road and trail for long runs my feet were destroyed within a few miles on that rocky, ankle turning, unforgiving trail. Could I use Lunas on that trail and be ok? Absolutely, if I had trained on that terrain with them.
Next time I will wear the right footwear for the terrain.
2. Hiking pole use. Hiking poles are a great aid for hill climbs and technical terrain, but I hadn’t practiced running with them. As a result, aided by arm strength I took the early climbs much too quickly.
Next time I will train with the poles and watch my pace or I will leave them for the late stages of the race.
3. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Damn right I will stay on top of my hydration in hot and humid conditions and always.
What Went Right
1. Nutrition. I stayed on-point with calorie intake throughout the day.
2. Choice of Friends. Yup, I have some great friends helping me along! Smart, caring, industrious, and silly.
3. A beautiful day and evening spent in the forests. Yes, it was a great day out there despite the hardships and suffer-fest.
I mentioned above I will definitely be back at this race next year.