Laurel Highlands Ultra 2010 Race Report
This being my first real “ultra-race” (assuming FA’s and 50k’s don’t count) the full length report from this race is destined to be a novel so I’ll start with an executive summary:
SHORT VERSION: For those who don’t know, this is a foot-race long the 70mi Laurel Highlands trail which spans from Ohiopyle to Johnstown. This year the race distance was increased to 77mi (from 70.5) to accommodate a detour around the dilapidated bridge at the turnpike.
Of course, my main goal was to finish the race without getting injured. But beyond that, I really wanted be able run “at-will” in the last 25mi of the race. I viewed everything up to 44mi was a warm-up. I ran the initial 44miles well within my self using my heart-rate as a tachometer.
The detour was hellacious: hot, exposed and left me wanting to crawl under a rock. After refueling and getting back into the shade, I recovered myself in the 12 mile section before the aid station at 30. From RT30 home I felt continuously better as the sun got behind some clouds and the heat dissipated. The last 12 miles felt great and I finished the last of the course in a dead sprint to the finish.
I moved from 7th place to 2nd place in the second half of the race and finished in an overall time of 15:33. I had an absolute blast in spite of the heat and humidity. I love the finishers trophy and hope to pickup a mate (maybe next year) to use as bookends.
LOONNNGG VERSION (You were warned): Saturday started the way every race day does for me: I woke hourly starting at 12:00am and looked my watch and tried to fall back asleep. I finally gave up trying to sleep at 3:45 and left my motel room and went for a stroll in downtown Ohiopyle to, errr… get my plumbing moving. After my usual ultra breakfast of pb toast and coffee I roused my roommate Andrew C, made ready and schlepped my stuff the start to mingle with the crazies.
We assembled at the starting area and at 5:30 we were off. My strategy for this race was simple. From my thinking, the starting line is at mile 44 and everything before was a prologue. The first half of the race went very well. I power hiked frequently (I’ve been working VERY hard on my walking since last fall when Jim H told me he thought it was the secret to fast ultra running) and chatted with lots of interesting folks. I tried to appreciate the conversations because I knew that as the race wore on, we’d all spread out and I was sure to be lonely and wanting company later in the race.
The highlight of the first half was a funny guy who was sitting shirtless in an umbrella chair with his very nice ‘mutt’ (his word). He was reading the paper at Lake Tahoe at Seven Springs and I remarked that his dog was very handsome and had a German shorthaired-pointer’s face (I love bird dogs). He thanked me and then said completely straight faced, “I’m not sure where you are in this little race your running, but it appears to me that the fellas ahead of you a running a bit faster.” I thanked him for the useful information and proceeded to bust a gut laughing as soon as I got around the corner. I wanted to tell him that he should expect those behind me to be running a bit slower than me.
After leaving Seven Springs I got separated from Rick from Hagerstown who had been very pleasant company for about 8 miles. Rick gave me a laugh earlier in the run when he remarked, ‘man buddy, you sure walk fast!’ in what sounded like a southern accent (though I don’t think he’s from the south.) I thought I heard banjoes as he made the comment.
The next 12mi were dedicated to the detour. I passed a couple of open runners and a couple of relay runners and found out I was in fourth place overall in the race. Since everyone unanimously HATED the detour, there will be plenty of sob stories about it in many other reports. I won’t write about it here except to say it delivered on all my expectations: hot, exposed, asphalt, down-hill for three miles and uphill for three miles. Not much fun.
As I approached aid station at mile 44 I saw Callie from Leadville just leaving. I had met her earlier in the race and knew she was the first woman. She jogged out of the station, which to me meant she was feeling good, and I cheered her on as she turned onto the trail. After a change of socks and some fresh ice and water in my pack and bottle I resumed running after walking nearly all of three mile climb from the turnpike bridge. This was the time I’ve ever changed socks mid race and let me tell you, there is no describing how good fresh socks feel in the middle race. I will do that again.
My legs loosened up and I caught up with a couple of relay runners. They told me that the two runners ahead of Callie were WAY out there. I caught up to Callie soon after and, since I thought I had no chance to catching the next guy, decided to travel with her for a while. As it turned out, she was in that bad place all ultra-runners go from time to time: the pain cave. So I told her I’d stay with her to the next aid station but that she needed to stay in the race and can’t drop out. There’s always time to rally after 50miles (as Rick F says) and she had plenty of time.
We traveled along for some miles and then, while we were talking, I took my only real misstep in the race. Distracted, I ran right past a fork in the trail. A bit later I stopped dead in my tracks, looked both ways and saw only BLUE blazes in either direction. The trail is blazed with YELLOW. OH NO, I thought we’re off the trail. I didn’t say this out loud, since Callie didn’t need to hear me panic. I backtracked about a half a mile and found my error. Luckily, she didn’t smack me in the head with a limb and took no fault in me for the goof, though I was leading when we got off course.
Back on the right trail and a few miles from the next aid station I decided to move ahead a bit and see if Callie’s crew was at the aid station. Getting to the aid station, I found her crew and told them to send a pacer back to help her in and was directing them to get her salt when I heard everyone in area cheer. Callie just popped out of the woods. As she plopped down in a chair, I had that feeling of inspiration in my gut. “Heck yeah, we don’t give up. Its time to DO SOMETHING!”
I let out a guttural yell as I left the aid station. It was in this next section that I really felt things click. I was now running all the flat sections and slight up hills and moving along at around 12:00 pace. I also caught up with some relay runners and another open runner who I urged to hang with me. After a few miles with them I moved ahead along the most run-able miles I had seen all day. When I reached the aid station at route RT271 (14 miles to the finish) a volunteer asked how I felt. “Pretty fresh, all things considered.” I changed socks again, got my head-lamp and rolled out running most of the way to the climb on the gas line road.
I reached the final aid station at around mile 68 or so of the race. A relay runner, Heather, caught me at this point and as we stepped on the trail together I told her that at that moment, I was in new territory. I had never run this far in a single effort in all my life. I chased her for several miles as she proceeded to drop the hammer to 10:00 pace! After a few too-fast miles I told her I’d see her at the finish and slowed a bit. The final few miles of the race were surreal. As I sprinted down the mountain, I crossed the finish line tired but not destroyed and absolutely ecstatic.
I learned so much in this race and had so much fun. Watching my friends finish was a cool experience. It’s a very strange brotherhood we share with other ultra runners.
I’m not a very affectionate guy but I wanted to hug every one of them as they crossed that line. (I refrained however so as not to creep them out or get my clean clothes all sticky!) Congratulations to every finisher and to those who didn’t, get back there next year.