2012 Laurel Highlands Ultra 70.5
My adventure began at 3 o'clock Saturday morning. I had everything packed and ready so that my hubbs and I could get out the door as quickly as possible. As much as I like trying to include my family in my ultra adventures, my experiences so far have typically been smoother and more successful when I go solo. This time our plans changed three times in the days prior to the race which added to the stress of tackling so many limits in one event. Regardless of the stress, we reached Ohiopyle in plenty of time to check in, grab a bite to eat and meet a few fellow runners.
With a 5:30 a.m. race start I didn't get to enjoy the view of the river before the race start. I spent my last stationary moments chatting with runners and getting words of encouragement from my husband. Before I realized it, the pack of runners was moving and off I ran into the hardest adventure I have yet endured.
Thanks Glenn for reminding me to stop and catch a photo!
Knowing that this race would present the longest stretches between aid stations of any race I have yet run, I had packed on my 100oz Camelbak. In hindsight, this would become one of many factors that played into how my adventure would unfold. Breaking all runners logic, this would be the first long run I had ever carried it and the only time with so much gear packed. When I ran much faster than a quick jog, the pack shifted on my shoulders. I was also unable to retrieve much of anything while running. That fact was first realized when I tried to catch a photo of this amazing view early in the race.
I ran this race wanting to take another step towards longer ultra events. Fate did not allow me into Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 this year so it took little encouragement for me to shift my plans and jump into Laurel Highlands with little regard for the details. Details like elevation profiles. And that would come into play over the first 11 miles of the race.
It felt as though I was climbing nearly the entire time before the first aid station at mile 11. The level of technical difficulty on a trail is very subjective. As one's fitness level and experience grows stronger words like runnable apply more often. Even though I have been running ultras for a while now I felt a bit under conditioned early in the race. The majority of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is for just that, hiking. Running is reserved for a minority of sections. Over 70 miles of climbs, descents, rocks, rocks, rocks, roots, squeezes, and did I mention rocks; the ability to suffer well begins to decline.
Even as the trail was taking a toll on my body it was also giving a bounty of inspiration in the beautiful views. Although I was feeling my effort early in the race, I was still enjoying the trails and the fellow runners who I shared them with.
As the day brightened and the forest reveled it's self, it was easy to only think about the steps I was taking at the moment and set aside any thoughts of the hours and challenges to come. Within the first four miles I found myself running without the runner ahead of me in sight. I could see several runners behind me and could hear their conversations but enjoyed the solitude of the distances when the only footfalls were my own.
Solo miles are also nice for those moments when stress, effort and just bad timing collide and you find yourself in need of a substantial tree. As luck would have it the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is very nature call friendly. The unfortunate cumulative effect of needing to find a welcoming tree far enough off the trail for repeated nature calls is you slide farther and farther back in the pack and closer and closer to cut off times.
As I emerged from a length visit with a particularly accommodating tree, I saw Diane run past. I hurried to catch her as we had just met that morning after chatting on line about the race. She had mentioned that she felt she would be "chasing cut offs" when we talked online (for the record, she ran to a comfortable finish time in a 70.5 mile event after starting ultra running this year! Congrats Diane!). When I caught up to her and check our time we were pacing for a 20-21 hour finish but it was much too early to know how things would go. We chatted and shared several miles.
As I ran into the first aid station with Diane, I was happily greeted by Kim who was spending the weekend enjoying the trails and volunteering. Kim had repeatedly provided me with great advice any time I had a question on a particular race with your lengthy ultra running experience. She had asked if I had any requests for something special to be available at the time I thought, 'it would "only" be mile 11 what could I possibly need so early', so I only mentioned ginger ale. In the end it was Kim's presence at that aid station that helped the most. Since I was dealing with stomach issues since the early miles without Kim's encouragement I would have skipped eating anything. Instead when Diane encouraged me to leave the aid station, I stayed and ate some banana pieces and pb&J. Of course it was all washed down with some stomach settling ginger ale.
Leaving the first aid station I knew that it was nearly 8 miles to the next aid station. That distance seemed more manageable. So with my stomach now settled and armed with the information that this next section would be more runnable, I set off.
Aid station 2 brought more of the same, bananas, pb&j, some salt, baby potato and top off my pack. Between station 2 and 3 lay another 6.7 miles. Between 3 and 4 another 6.3 miles. At 32.3 miles and getting close to 10 hours on my feet, I was already looking forward to my drop bag at mile 46+ at the 6th aid station. But that wouldn't come for another 14 miles.
Along the way between all these pauses at aid stations I did see some wonderful things. It is amazing how uplifting it is to see an unexpected friendly face. I was happily surprised by friends, Troy and his daughter Nicole out on the trail. They both got a big sweaty hug and I was refreshed by the mear exchange of a few words. After joking that I expected them to rest up and meet me at the last aid station to pace me in, I had to keep moving forward.
Due to my delays early in the race I was quickly chasing aid station cut offs. My garmin had died at just over 13 hours and while it wasn't tracking 100% it was an easier way to check pace instead of doing the math off my regular watch and the concrete mile markers. I didn't see them all and in fact, completely forgot to take a photo of one but they were an amazing thing later in the race. The uplifting feeling of seeing them and looking forward to the next one.
As our little group of runners; Leonard, Minnie, Sharon and myself entered the 6th aid station we only had about 6 minutes until the cut off. We each had planned to at least partially change clothes and shoes. I know that the volunteers have given of their entire day. Their work is the reason why we all can safely do these things. But this was the first time I was running at the back of the pack and have never had the volunteers telling me I had to leave. I pulled all the gear out that I could quickly think I wanted and offered to set my things up the trail and change "out" of the aid station. The volunteers brought me pbjs and filled my pack for me. I know they were only trying to adhere to the rules but in hindsight I should have skipped the shoe change and spent with little time I had eating. After hustling out of the aid station way under fueled, we continued on our way together.
Backtracking a little bit here but I have to mention a few more amazing sights along the way. One of the few times we were out in the open, we were running through Seven Springs Resort. We ran around a lake and then down and under ski lifts. Given the need to run quickly when the terrain allowed, I didn't get a photo from the slopes or of the snake that I almost stepped on but both added to a running experience filled with firsts.
Another first was finding a milebox as we can up yet another climb. Of course, we spared a moment to each sign it.
I was surprised to see that no other runner from the race had signed it. I already look forward to going back next year and seeing if I can find my first entry.
We now had 11 miles before the 57ish mile aid station. It would get dark before we got there and we were all wanting to keep our pace quicker before it got dark. We took turns taking lead and allowing everyone else to simply follow. It is remarkable how much energy you can save by simply following and not having to watch for the blazed trail markers.
Along this section before it got dark I found a walking stick. Someone had left it propped up again a tree at the bottom of a climb. Odd. But it turned out to be a lifesaver. Maybe a slight overstatement but I will be getting hiking poles soon!
At the 7th aid station I questioned if I should continue. Sharon and I had been sharing fluid because the volunteer had not filled Sharon's pack and it was completely empty. We only had about 3 minutes to cut off at this aid station. They filled my pack and I took a cup of soup which helped me realize that I was completely under fueling. But we pushed on with 5 miles to the next station.
The Laurel Highlands trail did not provide many opportunities to cool my feet. I wish I had stepped into the few creeks that had running water in them to simply cool my feet. Even though I had changed my shoes, I was attempting to suffer well through several issues. My feet had given me another first. Blisters on the soles of my feet. Rarely do I ever get blisters anywhere but I have never gotten them on the bottom of my feet. Every step was a concentration in foot placement to avoid hitting them on any rocks I might have to step on.
At one of my many nature calls I realized that I was chafing on the inside of my right leg. Although I had noticed it was hurting and I had used wipes to attempt to remove some salt build up, since I was unable to change my shorts at my drop bag the chafing was deep enough that my leg was now covered in blood and was swollen. I tried to adjust my CEP short tights to keep the seam from doing any further damage but I knew there was little hope of that.
Surprisingly the dark was less of an issue than I thought it would be. However it did reduce our pace to a level that we were stressing over making the finish within the time limit. I am so thankful that Sharon was running with me. The hours of night trail running at Laurel have helped me overcome a lot of fears I had about my ability to handle this added element.
Over the 5 miles many things happened. I saw Sharon someone who I hadn't even known before this race, push herself to a point where she was literally walking off trail and falling asleep on her feet. I knew that my discomfort from what I thought was just chafing had reached a point where it had become pain. I was worried that pain meant I had hurt myself on one of the many trip and stumbles along the trail. I wasn't feeling tired but knew that Sharon was. She was not eating so I gave her my GU Roctane thinking it might help her make the cutoff.
I should remember his name but I was simply functioning on moving forward at this point. His added conversation was welcome but it couldn't keep my mind from questioning if I was making a good decision and each step was telling me something was wrong.
As we entered the 8th aid station at mile 62.5, after a mile on a rocky jeep trail, the sweeper asked me how I was doing and I replied, "terrible." He told me I was supposed to lie. I knew that if I had to talk too much the tears would come. Because I knew that with only 8ish miles to go I was going to do what I had never done before.
There were tears as the amazing aid station workers helped me work out getting my hubbs to the remote place I was. I gave Sharon the walking stick that had worn three holes in my hand over the miles I had carried it. I felt she could make the cutoff without me because in my exhausted mind I was holding her back. But the biggest factor was I simply didn't feel that those extra 8 miles would mean any more to me than the almost 63 that I had already endured.
It was a day of many firsts, some more positive than others but all of it has helped get me to a place that is closer to where I want to be. A place where I can push myself even if sometimes I get pushed back. I will never get pushed down.
Thanks to all the volunteers, DCNR, my friends ( new and old) on the trail, the race directors and my husband for making this race one I will be eager to return to next year.