Cliff notes at bottom..
For those that don't know about Laurel Highlands it is one of the older running ultras in the country, now in it's 34th consecutive year. It's a point to point race entirely on the Laurel Highlands Hiking trail with the exception of a half mile of road leading from the falls at Ohiopyle to the trailhead. It's all single track after that up to the Laurel Ridge summit where it meanders up and down through the forest to finally finish 70 miles away near the town of Seward. The entire hiking trail is traversed during the race and is blazed yellow so it's easy to follow and even has stone monolith mile markers to track one's progress. It's a fairly low key race with no mega sponsorship, no mysterious voodoo sports drink potions at the aid stations or any of that. Well supported but not overly so. Sometimes you travel 11 miles or more with no aid but seeing that it was once self supported the aid they provide is sufficient.
I am a bit surprised how my day went this past Saturday on the trail as I went into this run with much doubt and some anxiety.
The doubt. Training related. Normally I have trust in my training but not this time. My last 6 weeks leading up to the race went like so:
25.5 mi (5.5 long run), 23 mi (8.5 long run) , 8.5 mi (8.5 long run, only run), 26 mi (11 long run), 43.5 mi (23 long run), 36 mi (8.5 long run)
Clearly several of those weeks were not optimal training for a 70 mile ultra. The one positive spin to my "training" was a 50k the weekend before the downward spiral and a solid 10-12 weeks of running in February, March, and early April. Much of the low mileage weeks were caused by a crazy work schedule and hours that had me travelling and left me exhausted by the end of day. I had no desire to run after 14-16 hour work days instead opting for food and a cold beer.
But there is the anxiety part too. The anxiety brought on by a nagging injury. Piriformis, hip flexor, lower back, SI joint. who knows. Chiropractic adjustments would help sometimes, and not at others. At times I would go out for a 8 mile run to make it 4-5 miles before things tightened up and I pretty much had a sore back and butt with a slight hobble for the remaining miles. Not awful pain. Just nagging pain that added to the anxiety and doubt. THe pain did not happen every run which made things baffling. I was in pretty decent shape to run the dog for 60-90 minutes but 70 miles on the trail? Seems a bit of a stretch. Maybe not the wisest of plans.
After volunteering at MMT in mid-May I went out for what was the final test to see if I should give this race a go or not. I had the day off and hit the trails that Monday on a warm humid day and said to myself see if you can run 3-4 hours and make it to the end with no pain. I purposefully went out slow that day, with a jogging mindset, 5mph perhaps, run smooth and easy. Push nothing but maybe float the downhills. I had such a good run that day. Not fast by any means but I felt fine at the end and went home and mowed the yard which meant a few more miles of walking. I went nearly 5 hours that day and decided I would stay on course to the Laurel Highland's starting line. A few more bad runs happened between that last long run and the start but my mind at least had bought into the idea of running the race.
I ended up making a solo trip to Western PA this year as my normal running partner in crime was out with an injury and in not the best of moods to be around nutcase taper infused ultra-runners. I can find no fault in that, and it even gave me an extra sense of "suck it up on your own man" attitude. Thankfully I scored a last minute room near the finish in Johnstown and the RD said there was space on the magic yellow bus that transports unsupported runners from the finish to the start on race morning so I was good to go, er, well at least to start.
Morning dawned early for me just past 2am so I had time to arrange my gear one last time, get coffee, get things moving and catch the bus at 3:30am. The good thing about taking the bus is I scored a most choice parking spot at the finish. Now all I had to do was run the 70 miles back! Trust me, I thought about this on the bus ride and also early on during the race. I couldn't quite believe I would make it back without catching a ride and a DNF in my back pocket. I've never had a DNF and in my mind I was wondering if today would be my day.
Despite all the negativity I felt pretty calm one the race started. I just went out with a mindset of an easy nice 5mph jog like I did that last training run, figuring with that effort and some walking of steep hills I could cover 4 miles per hour and maybe get a sub18 hour finish. I've ran this race before, once in 16:11 and another time as a pacer for a friend in 17:55, so I thought it a reasonable goal. I really just wanted to finish today but one should always have some sort of time objective I feel.
The only thing I remember about the first few miles was being a bit annoyed. It was barely light, I was stuck behind a small pack on the first climb, and those people just kept yacking away. I just wanted to dwell on my poor decison to try this race in silence thank you very much! After the first climb I jogged around this small pack but most of them caught me on the next climb, however things had spread out a bit by then. The biggest climb of the day sets in around mile 6 or 7 and goes up about 1,200 feet. Two people accompanied me during this climb talking away about this race and that race and blah blah blah. I apologize if you are reading this but I felt like the 3rd wheel during this climb. I'd mumble something about "yeah I ran this race in the rain one year" and they went on and on ignoring me. Finally we reached the top of the climb and they took off running and left me to my miserable self. Ha. What a day I was having!
Once on the summit and having been left in the dust I took to a bit of slow running, cautiously at first as the rocks were more abundant then I remembered up here and they were rather slippery from the mist and rain. The weather so far was a carbon copy of yesterday. Grey, foggy, misty with light rain at times. Cool temps too. That was a blessing. I made it through the first aid station at 11 miles and my hip/back was not hurting and that was good thing. I went back and forth with some runners here, marveled about how amazingly brilliant green the woods along the trail were and started to feel better about things. I started thinking "hey, maybe I will make it to checkpoint 2 or even checkpoint 3 where my dropbag is located". Yes, still a bit Mr. Negativity. Of course a few minutes or mile later I get a weird painful burning feeling in my back. "Here we go", I think, but the pain does not worsen and does not radiate down my legs at all. I pop an Advil with some salt tabs and a few miles later forget about the whole incident. Some dude is bonking just ahead of me with a few miles to go to the mile 19 checkpoint with some hip issues and asks me for something. What do I look like, the local trail pusher? I offer him an Advil and he thanks me and says I just made his finish. He is a 19 mile relayer, but I can certainly relate to the hip problems.
I check my time at checkpoint 1 (about 4:20) and am under my projection. That enlivens me some and after a few snacks from the aid station and chatting it up with the high schoolers who are all bundled up with blankets I make my way down the trail. I guess it is chilly out here today if you are sitting and not running. Somewhere in this section a woman dropped trowel just ahead of me and was just pulling up her shorts as I approached. "I'm so sorry so sorry", she blurts out. Like I'm offended by a woman's behind?! I pass her as she makes her adjustments and after a few miles start feeling pretty good. Thoughts of finishing the race begin to fill my head. As I enter the aid station at mile 26, Seven Springs, I think to myself "I have no right to feel this good at mile 26".
The run to the next checkpoint is uneventful. THere are nice views of the PA countryside as we leave the Seven Springs Resort area, the highest point of the course. The trail rolls up and down, through some muddy sections, and I go back and forth with a few runners here. Not real chatty but feeling good. The 50k turnoff comes up before checkpoint 2. That race starts off 2 hours later than the 70 miler but I've held off the lead 50k'rs again. I guess no one is breaking 5 hours in that race today. I think about my friend Angus here for a bit as I feel if he'd been running the 50k today as planned he would probably have caught my sorry ass. LOL. I'm doing all right out here after all my friend. Oh, and I have no right to feel this good after 50k.
Leaving checkpoint 2 I have a few quarters of bologna sandwiches to snack on. Damn, pretty tasty. After snacking the trail drops and climbs like it always does and then the running becomes very good for a few miles and the sun even starts to make an appearance. It seems the longer this race goes on the better I am feeling. Crazy. My longest run in training was a 50k+, just under 6:30 and I have surpassed that now but am still moving relatively well. It's here I thank the weather gods as surely the lack of heat and humidity is helping. I actually think to myself, for a summer weekend in June it's a good day for running but not a good pool or beach day. Too cool and chilly for that sort of activity. I guess it's a good thing I decided to run. It's deja vu a mile or two later as the same woman who partially mooned me 10 miles ago is up to it again and apologizing away. No no no... it's all right really. Down the trail I go, past a few runners and across the new bridge over the PA turnpike heading towards the next aid station. The new bridge is a pretty impressive sight, but more impressive is that it somehow got completed in just 2 years time. Sort of a political miracle if you ask me. Crossing the bridge I am now past the halfway point and am going to finish this thing unless something awfully bad happens. I am sure of it now... 39 miles in the books.
The next section of the course to the route 30 checkpoint (46+ miles) was the closest I came to a low patch again, but I bounced out of it just before the end. Something about the mile posts climbing in number as I progress down the trail helps enliven me. It wasn't that I felt bad, I was just struggling with the trail here or so it felt. The rocks seemed more prevalent, little twists and turns, patches of trail where the foliage crept in and hid the rocks. It went on and on it seemed. I was keeping up with a guy in a very bright orange shirt and managed to catch him and some other runner just before we finished this part of the course. Rolling into checkpoint 3 I was glad to hear they had some soup as I was getting a bit tired of sandwiches. I took some time at this aid station as it was the only drop bag location I had. I relubed, reloaded my gel/salt stash, changed shirts, talked a bit with my friend Swamp who was pacing someone later, and finally got out of there after 9 minutes. I had been averaging about 1-2 minutes an aid station so this was sort of long but time sure can fly plus they kept pouring me icy cold coke. Pretty awesome at this point.
Down or should I say up the trail I went scarfing on some sort of food and then I let the running commence. David one (I'll call him that as another David joins me soon) storms up the hill ahead of me and he loses me soon. I've settled in here now for the finish but it's still a ways to go. 11 miles to the next aid but it's one of my favorite parts of the course. I bounced back from a physical (foot) meltdown here a few years ago when I first ran here and I remember looking around at all the mountain laurel blooming a brilliant white in the rain and just feeling good about things despite it all. This year unfortunately a cold spring has put the laurel behind schedule but the memories remain. Last year as a relay runner I chose this section in particular as I wanted to visit it again and on fresh legs. It goes a bit quicker that way most definitely.
As I was making my way down the trail I can hear a runner approach from behind. I ask if they want to pass, and he asks if he can tag along for awhile. Sure why not. I will be running the flats, cruising the downhills, and walking anything that feels uphill if that's ok. Sure he says. He'd been having a rough patch in the last section (join the club) and felt I was running a good pace with a sure fire finish. Works for me. I am sort of ambivalent about the company at first but as the miles click by it turns into a good thing. We chat about running, our dogs, stuff like that. Our lack of training, experience, whatever, it doesn't matter. We exchange names. David, er "I'm Dave, that will be easy!" No complaints when I run nor when I slow down to walk for a hill either. I get a feeling that I'm the wily veteran helping a runner out today though none of that is true. Maybe it's vanity, but it's a good feeling. It's likely helping me focus as well.
The mile markers begin clicking by fairly quickly during this section. We pass a few runners during this part of the course but not many. The fields is separated now mostly doing their own pace. I am in that ultra running zombie mode now where I just cruise along at a nice pace considering the miles on my feet and take those little walk breaks when the terrain dictates, which is often now, as even a tiny hill is sort of a chore. Despite a bit of tiredeness I feel strong, powerful, almost invincible. Stupid I know. Surely I am about to trip and fall! Mile 50 goes by and I say to myself again "you have no right to feel this good after 50 miles".
Evening and sunset is coming and I'm very pleased to be in this place at this time. Evening. When I almost always run. In the middle of nowhere it seems. Just cruising along when I was thinking earlier today this was a bad idea. Ultrarunning can be a funny thing. We catch the other David just before entering checkpoint 4 at mile 57. More soup, grilled cheese, fruit, turkey rollups await us. I fuel up and am ready to finish this thing up now.
Light is still shining in the woods as we make our way towards the final aid station at mile 62. The gas line aid station. More chatter with David. More running, more walking, more of taking what the trail gives and letting it not take back too much. The trail is easy here. With fresh legs one could blow away these miles. We pop out on the gas line road (the only dirt road on the course) for a mile or so of what looks like uphill running but it's pretty simple to jog. One more meal of soup, grilled cheese, strawberries, and cold soda from the happy volunteers before we pop into the woods for one more time and I say to myself "I have no right to feel this good at a 100k".
We move along as before, until finally my toe gets snagged by a rock and down I go. David takes the lead for awhile after this and I start falling behind. Sort of a role reversal. Now he drags me alongs as darkness falls, my glasses fog up, making the trail harder to see, and dang it he won't stop running. LOL. By mile 64 I think we both realize it's time for the flashlight and headlamps. I had to stop and wipe sweat off my glasses anyway as I was nearly running blind. It takes awhile to learn the night running thing again. Thankfully we start uphill at a walk. A flashlight with 2 handhelds is just a tad tricky for a clutz like me but I work it out. We start running off and on again, more uphill than not here it seems which always confuses me. Where is the downhill dangit? We should be coming off the ridge. Around mile 67 David steps back and asks me to lead the way again. I thought he was doing a fine job but sure I don't mind. There is some black abyss off to our right and a time or two I send the flashlight out that way and see much of nothing. Someday I need to finish this race in the daylight to see what I am missing, or maybe not!
The lights of Johnstown shine brightly way down below and loud trains echo up from the valley at an alarming steady rate. They sound very close. Just like the finish. I look my watch and it says 16:10. We have 50 minutes to cover 3 miles and break 17 hours. Sounds easy doesn't it? But the trail does not let up. The foliage creeps in, the rocks keep coming and the next mile post takes longer than anticipated to arrive. Past 68 now, and out through the power line cut and then into the last thicket of rhododendron and rocks. I start cursing the course here and apologize for my language. Bleep bleep bleeping rocks. The feet skidding and slipping on the rocks now elicit grunts from both of us. We spy a headlamp up ahead and mumble "good job, almost there" as we go by. Moments later some other dude blazed by us at 10k pace, asking if we saw mile marker 69. Yep, right back there. Good job. Nice work.
We are in the final haul, the rocks let up but I have nothing in the tank but the cruising jog. It's fine though to finish this way. A day ago I figured I wouldn't finish this race and here I am making my way towards the claps, the lights, and the fire. We bust out of the woods, the RD's shake our hands, congratulate us on our run, and I'm beaming inside. A great day on the trail. Thanks guys for another great event. A beautiful day, I'm done and I finally have the right to feel good after 70.5 miles!Cliff Notes:
Mile 1-10, my hip or back should be acting up any time now I am sure of it.
Mile 11-19, hey, I am going to make it to checkpoint 1 at least!
Mile 19-26. Plodding along feeling better. I have no right to feel this good at mile 26.
Mile 26-32. Another checkpoint. I have no right to feel this good after 50k.
Mile 32-39. Geez. I am going to finish this thing. Wait wait you idiot. There is still a 50k left.
Mile 39-46. Ok. Cristen said this section sucked ass a few years back and she was right. Rocks rocks everywhere. Ugh.
Mile 46-57. Good running here. I ran this in less than 2 hours with fresh legs you know in the relay last year. David from Titusville joins me for the run. I have no right to feel this good at mile 50.
Mile 57-62. It is still light. We cruise the downs and flats and walk the ups. Sub18 is in the bank. I have no right to feel this good after 100k.
Mile 62-70. Darkness falls at mile 64. Headlamps come on. Titusville David is still with me. I tell him with 3 miles left we are going to break 17 hours. 15 minute miles is all we need. We do it to quite easily.
Mile 70.5. Finish done. 16:48 and a few seconds. My car is close by. Time for a cold beer and chili. WTF just happened? I am beyond pleased.
Life is uncertain. Don't sip.
I think I've expressed this before, but I'll say it again. These reports are just fantastic. On a personal level, I really appreciate the honesty in discussing the doubts as well as the success. It's helpful to know other people have the same doubts and fears in these races that I do, and that they can be overcome.
It gives me hope for the races I have coming up.
Trail and Ultra Running User Group
Great job, XT. Glad you had a nice race. Looks like the steady training you had in early 2013 really helped you out.
When I saw the results, I thought maybe you out leaned the guy behind you to move up a spot in the classification. Always nice to have company late in the race and I'm sure it helped you both pass the miles along.
I agree about chatty people in a conga line. I don;t mind some chit chat, but constant chatter drives me crazy.
Your race reports are always some of my favorites, XT. Loved it. And hot damn, congrats on your non-trained-awesome-timed-finish!!!I really, really hope to join you and run this race some day.
Huh, I have a blog?
Sounds like you had a great race! There's no doubt in my mind I want to be there next year, though I may have a wedding to attend One of these days I'll make it out there!
My Blog: trailsandcocktails.com
I Run for Oiselle
Uh oh... now what?
Shades of Warren Finke... good writing. I listened to him describe Laurel Highlands
once at Mudderfell and you hit several of his thoughts. Good regrouping and believing
in the things that might still be there if you can just coax them out to help.
Good story, thank you for sharing... chii and a beer? At the Finke's house
Very inspiring ... sometimes when you are lucky it all comes together
Awesome report and a great race. Congratulations!
7/27- Virtigo Night Run 41M
8/2- Jupiter Peak
8/9- El Vaquero Loco 50k
8/16- Leadville 100
9/5- Wasatch 100
Le professeur de trail
Yes it did come together for you. That's great. Maybe your "lack of training" the last 5 weeks was a blessing in disguise.
BTW - your friend Angus - he is a fast runner right? I think I know who that is. He won Hyner 50k last year? Or maybe I am confusing him with another Angus.
The incarnation of peacefulness and patience
Birdwell - Thanks, the doubts make the successes a bit sweeter I think. Glad you enjoyed the report. I find it cathartic to write up the big races.
ATRunner - Eh, photo finish indeed! David set out with a 16 hour goal and when he joined me he just wanted to finish. Turns out he ended up in the 16's anyway. I think playing the lead role for so many miles really kept me focused so he helped my race tremendously as well.
Mandy - Thanks. I hope you make it out here someday. There is the relay you know to get a taste of the trail but it's not quite the same. Keep your chin up... my issues started and late 2010 and here it is 2013 before I could run this race again but I did and I did just fine.
Trails n' Cocktails - Sketch this race in the books for 2015 then! I had to miss it one year for a wedding and was sort of bummed.
Watoni - Thanks... luck... it's part opportunity and part good planning you know.
JohnM - Not a music listener on the trail but my theme song one year for this race was "In the Light" by Led Zeppelin. There is a line in there... "just believe, and you can't go wrong". I muttered that to myself a few times early on.
Lace - Thanks. I saw your buddy Leon out there but not sure if he finished. I went back and forth with him a few time before checkpoint1 but never saw him again.
BoyJame - Thanks, put this race on your bucket list someday. The under-training part worried me some but not as much as the nagging injury the past 6 weeks. I just did what I had to do those last 5 or 6 weeks. Oh, and you are thinking of the same Angus. He's won LH before as well. One time in my past we ran nearly the same pace.
Follower of Forrest
Really enjoyable race report...it got me thinking big (like twice as far as I've ever run big). Maybe 2014. I love the idea of a point to point race on one trail like that...get driven 70 miles away from your car, dropped off, and have to run back...that's pretty cool. Glad the day worked out for you and you got some enjoyable company for the 2nd half. Too bad your buddy couldn't make it...I'm sure that gave everything a little different vibe than you anticipated going solo and all. Glad you held together for the whole thing too...must've been some race day magic.
6/21 - Manitou's Revenge 54mi
A man may never run the same trail twice for it is not the same trail and he is not the same man
Way to go XT !!! Congrats !!!
I guess you did put that "extreme taper" to the test. Sometimes it is mind over matter.
BT survivor since 2003. Trail runner since 2009.
I think brain surgery stimulated my running nerve and made me into a trail runner. I'm grateful for both.
Jamezilla - Thanks. I am a big fan of point to point or big loop courses. I knew there were plenty of crew and relay teams on the course should I need to drop so the solo thing was no concern. I did pack a $20 though!
Sandy - Just livin' up to my name! Good to be out there again and good to writing reports again too.
Erbur - Thanks!