Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stumbling to Johnstown: A Race Report on the 2007 Laurel Highlands 70 Mile Ultra

This entry is almost a novel so hopefully you have a little time...


It’s around midnight. The stars are shining brilliantly through a gap in the forest at the road crossing. A light, cool breeze sweeps across the quiet woods. With Mark’s flashlight shining behind me, each of my steps is transformed into a dancing shadow on the trail ahead. It is beautiful, peaceful. I sip from my camelback bite valve, taking the edge off my thirst. And, for the ninety-eighth freaking time since the last aid station, I trip on a rock and -- yet again -- barely avoid a face plant on the unforgiving sandstones of the Laurel Highlands. There is only one way for me to title a report on a run like this… “Stumbling to Johnstown.”

The idea

It’s a cold Thursday night in January, maybe February, 2007, the memory is a bit hazy. We’re doing another of the weekly coffee runs from Starbucks on Main Street and the usual suspects are there -– Stumpy, Carl, Matt, and Greg. We get into a rhythm running down South College Avenue, looping around the south side of campus, our breaths leaving a vapor trail behind us as we chat. Carl, who must have dozens of ultras under his belt, chats about his recent hundred milers like they are as normal as a jog along White Clay Creek. And I make a serious mistake -- I think out loud about the idea of doing a really long race. “Really long” for me means something longer than 50 miles, my previous long run. “Maybe I’ll try the Laurel Highlands run. It’s seventy miles, only a little more than a 50.” Carl says he’s done it, that it’s really pretty and a piece of cake. Stumpy is jogging just ahead, listening. A real friend would say “I’m from Pittsburgh. I know that area, and 70 miles in those mountains is nuts!” Instead, he says “Hey, maybe I’ll run it, too!” Back at Starbucks, we do a pinky shake. It’s a plan. Laurel Highlands here we come.

Road trip

Stumpy pulls in my driveway Friday around noon, right on time. It’s hot, maybe 90 -– I’m really glad the race isn’t today. Stumpy is wearing his TrailDawg formal wear, a green polo with the Dawg logo. I’m more informal in my Dawg tee-shirt. We end up with half dozen bags of gear strewn around the floor of his van, drop bags for tomorrow’s run, smelly running shoes, luggage for the night in the hotel. Stumpy remembers the way to Angus’ place just north of us in PA. Angus alluded to a little flatulence problem as we planned the weekend -- we hope he was kidding. He hops in and another set of drop bags and smelly shoes joins the pile.

All three of us are excited for this road trip, but Angus seems the most charged up. It’s his first race over 50K. He’s fast, a real runner, and he’s ready. Stumpy has done a 50 miler, JFK back in 2002, but nothing longer. I am new to the long runs but have both JFK and Bull Run 50 milers under my belt in the last 9 months. Stumpy and I did some good training weekends in preparation for this, including back-to-back 20 milers in White Clay Creek State Park. But, none of this preparation approaches the difficulty of 70 miles in the Allegheny Mountains of western PA. We talk almost the entire trip, nervously anticipating the trail, worrying drop bags, fueling, hydration, pace. Angus mocks my excessively detailed (“anal retentive,” says Angus) written race plan -- then admits he has brought along a copy to study. Stumpy is the master of ceremonies, cracking us up as we barrel toward Lancaster, then Harrisburg, then Johnstown -- we nearly laugh ourselves off the road a few times.

We pull into the Johnstown EconoLodge. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Johnstown, since Jennifer went to school here in the early 1980s. It’s an old industrial town with closed mills and a scattering of government-funded medical and technology centers, all of which seem to be named after Congressman Jack Murtha. Guess he brings home the bacon. We quickly check in around 5 pm and dump our bags. Matters of utmost, pre-race importance are discussed and agreed upon -- in a room shared by three guys, this means we establish rules relating to bodily functions and room odors in ways that should not be discussed in polite company. However, we are not polite company -- we are trail runners.

The pre-race dinner is great. The race organizers hold it at a pasta restaurant on the east side of town. Rick Freeman, Tim Hewitt, and their family and friends hand out the race packets -- great shirts! -- and give the race logistics and orientation. These are really nice people, as are the many runners we meet. Carl is already there when we arrive, and we see a number of familiar faces from TrailDawg events, HAT runs, and VHTRC races. I carbo load on the abundant salad and pasta and a couple of pieces of cake. As we eat, the distant rumble of thunder outside grows into violent thunderclaps. The accompanying downpour arrives just as dinner ends, drenching us as we sprint to the van.

With a little time to kill, we head west to try to find the race finish line. The rain eases as evening comes on; it has cooled things a bit, but made the night more humid. Steam rises from the roadway. Misty gray clouds hang onto the edge of the steep hillsides that line the Connemaugh valley. About six miles out of town, we find the trailhead where the race ends. This should make it easier to get to the bus pickup point in the dark of the early morning. Carl has planned to sleep there and promised to share his beer when we find him. But, he’s not there yet, so we drive beerlessly back to the hotel.

The Laurel Highlands Ultra is a classic point-to-point race that runs from the south end of the Laurel Highlands hiking trail at Ohiopyle State Park to its northern terminus at the trailhead west of Johnstown. An extra ½ mile of road at the start makes it 70.5 miles. The race requires an early start, 5:30 am; for the many runners without a crew or chauffeur, the day is even longer. The organizers are good enough to make a bus available so runners can leave their cars at the finish and ride to the start. However, this means we need to be at the finish line before 3:30 am. Sleep? Who needs sleep?

Back at the hotel, we’re in bed by around 9:30. Drop bags have been packed, double-checked. Running clothes and shoes are laid out and ready to put on when we wake up. With such personable roomies, it’s hard not to talk. We’re excited. Nervous. We chat. Ten o’clock goes by. Some quiet. More chit chat. More quiet. I snooze a little. I wake and look at the clock -- it’s eleven. Angus still seems to be awake. Stumpy snores lightly but then is awake, too. A group of loud drunks is out in the hall. It’s after midnight. Angus goes out and shushes them. Quiet again. Then the alarm at 2:30 am. Damn, time to get up. Angus thinks he got an hour of sleep; Stumpy, maybe a couple. I may have done the best, almost three hours total -– but I still feel like a zombie.

We check out of the hotel and drive west again, arriving at the finish line before the bus. Our ride arrives, a big yellow Blue Bird school bus. Brings back memories of high school, taking a rickety school bus to soccer games -- but those were never at 3:30 am. Experienced folks seem to know enough to get on the bus fast. I don’t know any better. By the time we load up, the bus is at least half full, so we’re two in a seat with a lap full of drop bags. The trip to Ohiopyle takes a little over an hour. The bumpy country roads make it hard to sleep -- or is it the butterflies in my stomach?

We soon arrive at a start area hopping with activity. Dozens of sleepy people wander around, checking in at registration and raiding the breakfast spread laid out on the tailgate of a couple of pickup trucks. It is cool and damp. Swarms of insects buzz like electron clouds around the portable lighting. I munch on a couple of mini donuts and muffins and drink a Starbucks Frappuccino I have brought for just this special occasion. I sit on a curb, lightly coat my feet with Vaseline, and put on two layers of socks -- a thin Nike inner polyester sock and a thicker outer SmartWool sock. I slip on my snakeskin-patterned DirtyGirl gaiters and then my shoes, a pair of Brooks Cascadia that I bought a month ago and are now my favorites. My hydration pack is full with almost 2 liters of water, and I have a couple dozen Clif shots and Clif blocks jammed in empty pack space and my pants pockets. After one of the nicest race blessings I’ve heard, it’s 5:30 and we’re off, heading down ½ mile of road for the trailhead.

Trot through the woods

My heart rate is 160. It’s around 7 am and the morning humidity hangs heavily in the air. Water droplets still cling to leaves from the rain last night, soaking me as I brush the plants along the trail. I passed the Ohiopyle hiking shelter about 10 minutes ago and haven’t seen the 7 mile marker yet, nor the promised water stop in this area. The trail has turned into an unrelenting climb, each yellow trail blaze higher and higher up the hillside. I’m huffing and puffing, trying to maintain a steady uphill walking pace, but enjoying the challenge. Not too slow -- don’t want to lose too much time or even miss the cut-off. Not too fast -- need to save the energy for later in the day, not burn it all on these early climbs. The line of runners has spread out a bit at this point, the speedsters significantly ahead, Angus surely among them. Then there are the folks like me just looking to finish, minding their pace.

After the top of the biggest climb, at around 9 miles, the trail levels and turns into a more rolling affair. My heart rate drops a bit, and get into the rhythm of an enjoyable jog at a 13 to 15 minute pace. The woods are beautiful. A canopy of big oak trees and flowering tulip poplars shades the woods, the poplar’s little yellowish flowers littering the trail in places. I notice the sounds of red-eyed vireos, the preacher bird, high in the treetops all over the woods, calling non-stop to their sylvan congregations, “You see it -- you know it -- do you hear me? -- do you believe it?”

Somewhere between 10 and 15 miles, I greet Carl as I slowly pass him. I figure I’ll see him later when he re-passes me. Onward, on a nasty, steep little uphill around 18 miles, I am surprised to see Stumpy just ahead. Damn. He is faster and should be well ahead of me. When I catch up to him, it is clear he is suffering. He says that his knees and his back are really hurting. I try to give a few words of encouragement and tell him I’ll see him at the checkpoint coming up soon.

Checkpoint 1, just before the Route 653 crossing, is the second aid station. The morning mist has begun to lift and it looks like the sky is giving some thought to letting the sun appear. The first 19.3 miles has taken me 4:40. I am a little worried because this is well ahead of the 5:07 time I had targeted -- maybe I have burned too much energy on the uphills? I have been taking a gel or a few Clif blocks every ½ hour or so, and religiously taking an S!Cap for electrolytes on the hour, but definitely need extra calories and fluids here. As one of the aid station volunteers (bless them!) kindly fills my hydration pack bladder with water, Stumpy comes into the station. He’s still hurting and thinks he’ll get some ibuprofen and take a break. I try to be encouraging and tell him he has plenty of time for this -- an hour until the cutoff -- take time, relax, let the “Vitamin I” do its work, get some food, and you’ll be good to go. I head out of the station with a handful of pretzels and a cup of gatorade, wasting as little time as possible. [Soapbox -– what in tarnation is so difficult about carrying trash to the next aid station? After this stop, as well as most other aid stations, I saw cups on this beautiful, otherwise clean, mountain trail]


Still short of mile 25 and all is not well. I left Checkpoint 1 feeling pretty good and got some needed extra calories and drink. But, six miles further, on an uphill towards Seven Springs ski resort, my feet are headed north as my energy is headed south. I am walking an uphill and not enjoying it. I slow down as I fall into a funk, then slow even more. “Why in hell am I doing this?” I ask myself. I realize that this race was a stupid idea. I am tired, hating each step even more. The mile markers -- one numbered concrete icon every mile -- have turned into a constant and cruel taunting, rubbing in the reality of the distance yet to cover. I am nearly overwhelmed by the realization that I still have 45 miles ahead of me. The preacher birds are still calling from their pulpits high in the trees “You see it -- you know it -- do you hear me? -- do you believe it?” No, I don't believe it, and shut the hell up already!

The sun has come out and it is beginning to get warm, almost hot. People are passing me. I don’t care. I get to the aid station at 26 miles. Just in time. Maybe a break and some more food will help. The aid station volunteers are really nice. I take a few minutes more than I have at other aid stops, but I remain in foul humor. I leave with a handful of pretzels and a cup of Gatorade, and refueling as I walk, but continue in my funk. I am nearly despondent as consider the fact I have 44 miles left. I want to quit -- but at the same time don't want to quit. Much of the trail through the Seven Springs ski area is very runnable, but I'm not in the mood to run. I have visions of the relief it would bring to drop out right here -- a nice nap on a soft bed of oak leaves would feel so good.

I am passed by a guy who I’ve been leap-frogging all morning. He asks how I’m doing, probably clued into my funk by the big frown on my face. I tell him that I am struggling and having to talk to myself, not telling him it is to keep myself from quitting. Another example of the kindness of ultrarunners, he gives me some encouragement as we walk along. “Just shoot for the next aid station… that’s all you need to make, the next aid in 5 miles... the weather is great, not too hot, a beautiful sunny day… keep moving, you’ll make it.” All I can say -- whoever you were – is a sincere thank you!

The pep talk helps me get the left brain to reason with the right brain. All you need to do is keep moving, I keep thinking. I remind myself that, in the other ultras I’ve run, I’ve almost always hit a rough patch between 25 and 30 miles. I try to reason with myself -- it’s just my body is switching from carb burning to fat burning mode. “Relentless forward progress,” I chant to myself, over and over. Keep moving, even if it’s just walking. Don’t think about the whole race, just the next aid station. The funk will pass. And, actually, it is a beautiful day.

I gain a little energy and walk the next uphill (mile 28 to 29) with a little more purpose. When the trail levels off, I fall back into a jog without thinking. All is well. Got my mojo back.

Grinding away the miles

Rockin’ and rollin’ -- I’m not exactly rockin’ and rollin’, but the trail is, for sure. After reaching its high point in the Seven Springs ski area, the trail bounces up and down, with rolls of 50, 100, 200 feet -- lots of ‘em -- and rocks, wobbly, ankle twisting rocks that seem to be an ever-present feature of this part of the Allegheny Plateau -- lots of ‘em.

I am steadily and determinedly moving forward again, grinding away the miles. As I approach the aid station and checkpoint at Route 31, I am feeling better and better. I’m now jogging more than walking, making better time. A few fast-moving 50K runners pass me, and soon I see the signs for the turn-off of the 50K course. Cutting my day short at 50K? I don’t even give it a thought. Really. OK, I lie. I give it a brief, thought, imagining the relief -- but I am determined to do the whole 70 now so press on.

I cruise into the Route 31 aid station (32.3 miles) at just after eight hours into the race. I am a little ahead of my target time of 8 and a half hours. I stick to my planned routine of a brief stop, topping off my water pack, and taking some pretzels and Gatorade to consume as I walk. I keep grinding away the miles, walking the uphills, jogging the flats and downhills.

Ahead on the trail is another of the ever present mile markers. As the day has gone along, each marker seems to take slightly longer to reach. But this marker is a real milestone and not just another marker -- it is the 35 mile marker. With one step, I am over a psychological barrier. I congratulate myself for having passed the halfway point. Sure, there are a lot of miles to go, but I know I have completed more than I have left. The thought gives me an extra burst of energy.

Soon I hear traffic. As the sound gets louder, the pedestrian bridge over the Pennsylvania Turnpike becomes visible ahead. I wish Stumpy were here. This was supposed to be a highlight of the run -- Stumpy promised to “moon” the turnpike traffic! I hope he is doing OK and worry about the back pain forcing him to stop. I take a break to watch the fast moving cars below, the diesel fumes and the din of tractor trailers making a jarring contrast with the fresh air and peace of the woods.

Onward beyond the bridge, making sure to follow the not-so-obvious trail instead of the very obvious (but wrong) dirt road on the other side. Back in the quiet of the woods, another climb, at least 400 ft and rocky. I hike steadily upward, trying to keep good posture and some power in my uphill walk.

At the 39-mile aid station, another quick refueling and I press onward. The trail -- mercifully! -- levels a bit, but it becomes rocky as hell, negating the advantage of the flatter terrain. I settle into a steady slow-but-careful jog, making sure to pick up my feet as I dodge and dance across jagged and wobbly rocks. It’s hard to take my eyes off the trail too much, but the scenery is great in this stretch. The trail winds, zigging and zagging through narrow slots between rock walls in a pretty area called Beam Rocks. There are also some soft sandy stretches interspersed with little boardwalk-type bridges -– it is flat and different. Following the main Laurel Highlands Trail becomes a bit confusing in this area. A network of other trails cross it here, but the trail becomes less defined and the yellow blazes harder to see in the understory of the shady, deep green hemlock woods.

Soon enough I hear traffic and know the next aid station is near -– the Route 30 checkpoint, which means 46.4 miles done and my drop bag! I am more than 20 minutes ahead of my target time (12 hours 34 minutes vs 13 hours) and almost 90 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. I take a nice, long, relaxing break. Friendly volunteers take care of everything -– they offer me a chair, retrieve my drop bag, bring me pizza, treatment I don’t even get at home! The pizza seems to be just the kind of calories I need -– somehow, two slices of a simple pepperoni pizza become one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. A number of support crews meet runners at this stop, and I chat a bit with the runners and their friends. I take off my shoes and socks, clean the grit off my feet, let them breathe for a bit, recoat them with a thin film of vasoline, and put on a fresh set of socks. I make sure my hydration pack is topped off and stuff four more hours worth of gels and blocks into the pockets of my shorts. My plan has me getting to my next drop bag just after dark, so I also take the headlamp and small handlamp I have stashed in this dropbag. The break gives me a bit of extra energy. After tying a windbreaker around my waist, I am off.

Day becomes night

I realize that the clock is rapidly ticking away on daylight. It is almost 6 pm when I leave Route 30, solo, and I know I won’t be at the next manned aid station until after dark. Although I am not moving especially fast at this point, I also don’t feel bad. I am jogging when I can, but the uphills provide a good excuse to walk, as do the rocky parts -- I just don’t trust my tired legs to pick my feet up high enough to avoid tripping. In a little less than five miles there is supposed to be a self-serve water stop, but at this speed it will take an hour and a half to reach it.

This stretch drags on… “where the devil is that water?” I keep wondering as my watch ticks past an hour and a half since Route 30. It turns out to be a lonely unmanned water drop, some water bags placed where the trail crosses a dirt road. I drink a little of this water but don’t top off my water pack (I should have). This part of the trail is a bit different than earlier, less natural. The woods are almost eerily quiet -- few birds are around, perhaps due to the disturbed vegetation. There are more frequent lumbered areas -- long stretches where the trees have been thinned, replaced by fields of ferns in places and brush in others -- and an area where the trail parallels a ten-foot high fence, outside of which the woods are nearly a wasteland. There is an upside to being in this area as the day ends, though -- the clearings make for a nice view of the sunset. As the sun slowly drops below the western horizon, the air quickly cools and I begin to feel chilly for the first time since I started.

I am glad I have experimented with different light options in nighttime runs the last few months. The combination of my excellent (and outrageously priced) Petzl Myo headlamp and a small Craftsman handlamp show the irregularities of the trail surface reasonably well. I find myself having a hard time judging the terrain in the twilight when contrast is poor, but visibility gets better as the sky becomes completely dark. I jog along in the darkness, alone, playing it safe and walking where the trail is most uneven. After carefully navigating a boulder field, I begin to hear the sound of people and soon see distant lights in the darkness. Civilization! Or, at least, my next drop bag.


The aid station near Route 271 arrives. My target time is 16 hours and 17 minutes and I arrive just ahead of it, at 16 hours and 10 minutes. Volunteers, tables, and chairs line both sides of the trail in the middle of the woods, the lantern light making it feel like a tunnel through the trees. I take off my windbreaker and change into a silk-weight long-sleeve shirt and a fresh short sleeve shirt and try to get warm. I get some hot food -- soup is the answer -- and drink a frappuccino from my drop bag. After three lonely hours since the last manned aid station, I finally have people to talk with. Besides the nice volunteers, Mark McKennett is here. Mark is a enthusiastic young ultra runner from Maryland and easy to remember. He is usually the guy sporting a hairdo distinguished by a shaved head -- shaved except for hair spelling out race initials. I first noticed him at JFK and had a chance to say hello at Bull Run. We chat a bit and Mark offers to wait a bit so we can run together.

As I try to eat some more, one of the runners sitting across from me is suffering immensely. He is cold, shivering, and nauseous. He stumbles away from the aid area as his stomach erupts. His running partner tries to help him get it under control, but he hurls violently, again and again. It is painful to watch -- and difficult to imagine how he will finish. It makes me thankful that my stomach is stable when I run.

I am dog tired at this point and the break at this aid station has helped recharge my batteries. However, even after I am done with the essential refueling, I am dawdling. The prospect of going off into the cold, dark woods makes it easy to hang around this welcoming aid station, with its comfortable chairs, lights, and cheerful conversation. The length of my stay borders on loitering -- I think it was at least 20 minutes. Mark looks ready to go. OK, it’s time to go. We head northward on the trail.

Though cold, the night is clear, pretty. Mark and I get into a good conversation and hit a steady, albeit modest, pace. I am truly thankful he was interested in running together -- not only is the company good, but he’s enjoyable to talk with, and the conversation makes the miles pass more quickly. I am most of the time in the lead. My handheld flashlight provides helpful contrast at my feet, negating the camouflage that darkness provides for the unpredictably scattered rock hazards on this part of the trail. My headlamp seems as bright as a searchlight. At times, I feel like I am running in a tunnel of light, the light beam creating a narrow, shimmering corridor ahead in the otherwise all-engulfing darkness. Mark’s light from behind makes it look like my shadow is running away from me, dancing back and forth across the trail but not managing to get away. I have run plenty of times at night, but tonight, the combined effects of the lighting and fatigue give the trail an especially surreal feel.

As we round a turn, chatting away, I seek a large dark figure ahead, rapidly moving from right to left across the path. My heart skips a beat and the hair on the back of my neck instantly stands on end. “Holy crap!” I yell as I turn to Mark -- “A bear!” My heart is racing, nearly pounding out of my chest. I turn back ahead, take another step, and am hit in the face by a bunch of leaves on a small branch. I realize then that the bear was only the shadow of this branch ahead of my light. I laugh nervously, relieved, as I mumble to Mark something about ignoring my hallucinations.

We come out of the woods and turn left on a dirt road, following the occasional glow stick that lights the way. Mark and I turn off our lights for much of this, jogging under a clear starlit sky. We see the light beam of a runner ahead of us and make it a game to catch him before the next aid station, sneaking up with our lights off (the game making me forget, momentarily, about my fatigue). To our right, the sky glows dimly, reflecting the lights of the city of Johnstown just below the horizon. This is a welcome sight. It makes me feel like I am getting closer to the end. We catch the runner and jog along with him. A car passes us, we think someone involved with the race. Soon, there are voices and lights ahead. The final aid station, I think -- I am ready for the food, drink, and chance to rest. As we get closer, there is music and the flicker of a campfire -– but it is soon clear that the activity is off the road and just a bunch of weekend partiers. False hope behind us, we continue northward in the dark.

Another quarter mile -- it seemed like miles -- and we arrive at the real aid station, where this dirt road interests another and ends. There is chili, mountain dew (I think grilled cheese sandwiches, too), and very comfortable -- too comfortable -- chairs. It is 11 o’clock, late on a Saturday night, and the folks volunteering still manage to be cheery as they provide comfort to exhausted, hurting, thirsty, hungry, semi-dazed runners.

Actually, at this point, I don’t know that I qualify as a runner. Jogger? Slogger? My legs are sore and a bit wobbly, but more than anything my feet are really beginning to hurt. I can feel hotspots developing on the balls of my feet and this is making a fine excuse to not push myself. As I sit in a nice comfy chair eating a warm cup of chili, I consider taking off shoes and socks to check out my feet. I know I should at least armor the hot spots with duct tape -- if they are beginning to form blisters (I don’t think they are), I could use the moleskin I have with me. But I am so dog tired that I am unwilling to make the effort to deal with it. I figure that I am almost done, and the feet will be fine these last 8 miles. So, I enjoy my chili and have another drink.

As we are eating, I am surprised to see the sick guy from the last stop come running into this aid station. Inexplicably, he looks strong and seems to be almost completely recovered. He quickly grabs his food and drink and is, in short time, back on the trail with his friend. Mark is also looking like he is getting ready to go, so I muster the energy to get out of the chair and throw back on my refilled hydration pack. Thanking our hosts, we resume our northward slog.


Mark and I are moving along slowly. Although the trail is relatively level for a while after the final aid, we are alternating between jogging and walking. I think Mark could have kept jogging when I walk, but he is nice about it and sticks with me. He says that he’s in no rush, as he doesn’t care about his time at this point as we know we will finish. So, we keep forward progress but don’t push too hard.

The trail begins to roll a bit more, more downhills than uphills, but there are a few short climbs. We pass across a clearing, I think for electric lines, looking up at a large power-line tower with eery blinking red lights, the first major man-made structure we’ve passed since dark. Back in the woods, in a valley, I realize that the trail blazes are a bit dull looking. Maybe my light isn’t reflecting off of them well. Uh, actually, they are a faded blue. Crap! I’ve led us down the wrong trail. I think someone else followed us, too. This is a spur to a hikers' shelter, as it turns out. Where did we miss the turn for the main trail? We backtrack and find the trail junction, only a couple of hundred yards back. A few other runners are near the same junction and run past us on the significant uphill leading away from it.

At the top of this rise, about five miles from the finish, the trail turns into a nearly unrelenting downhill. With every step, the balls of my feet yell louder at me. Damn, I should have taped them. They hurt. I can feel that squishy sensation of a nasty blister on the ball of my right foot. Each step hurts more and more. Not only do the blisters hurt, but my feet ache deeply, seemingly all the way to the bones. There are more rocks than before. I know I need to stay alert on this dark rocky trail -- it would be hell to break something in the middle of nowhere at 1 am. However, my tired legs aren’t too interested in helping me pick up my feet and my brain isn’t too sharp either. I trip on a rock but manage not to fall. I trip on another. Between the pain of the blisters on each downhill step, and my fear of a doing a spectacular face plant, I am having a hard time maintaining a jog. I tell Mark I need to walk and, nice guy he is, he walks with me.

The trail passes in and out of openings in the forest cover. There are occasionally open views of the starry sky over the distant hills to the right. I’m focused on where I put each step, not looking too much at the scenery. However, at one point I shine my lights to the right and see nothing -- and, swinging the beams downward, only more nothingness -- as it dawns on me that I am at the edge of a major drop off! It is a steep slope of more than 1000 feet into the Connemaugh Gorge. Another excuse to walk -- and to stay on the left side of the trail.

The trail steepens. My feet hurt like they have never hurt before -– the ball of my right foot feels like raw hamburger that has been generously seasoned with salt and vinegar. Mark is doing better than me, but clearly exhausted too. I have never in my life wished so fervently that I could just be done with something. Every part of my body is bone tired -- even my hair hurts. God, I want this to end. The trail gets steeper and steeper, seeming almost a scree slope of rocks in places. Here and there I hang onto trees to keep my footing -- my legs feel like they barely have the strength to brake my fall. Mark is slowly getting ahead of me. I think he is staying close enough to make sure he sees my light but, with only a mile or so left, has to smell the finish line. Finally, the marker for Mile 69 – not even a mile to go, as the last mile on this trail is blessedly shorter than a mile.

The steepness of the descent mellows a bit, giving my blister and quads a little relief. Mark waits for me and I try to jog a little. We hear people, then see light. The seventy mile marker appears, then the finish-line chute and the sound of hollering and cheering for us. We put the last steps of these 70.5 miles behind us just as the race clock ticks past 21 hours and 17 minutes. We’re done! At the end of chute is race director Rick Freeman with a smile and our finishers awards, beautiful miniature wood replicas of the trail’s 70th mile marker. I smile and thank him -- and confess to all in ear-shot my rock-solid conviction that the Laurel Highlands Ultra is undoubtedly the stupidest thing I have done in my entire life. I am pleased to have completed this race, but it is probably fair to say that, above all, I am relieved to be able to stop and sit down.

As we hobble toward a line of lawn chairs, Angus comes over to congratulate us. He has smoked the course. He finished more than six hours ago and has even had time for a nap. He is doing that normal, funny, post-marathon walk but otherwise looks good. I ask him about Stumpy and Carl -- were they picked up from an aid station or are they still running? I tell him about how much Stumpy was hurting early on. He hasn’t seen either of them, so we are hopeful. Not more than two minutes later, there is more whooping and hollering as another pair of lights come through the woods. Son of a gun, it is Stumpy and Carl together! This makes my day.

This is just the type of closing scene we had all hoped for. Mark, Stumpy, Carl, and I are reclined in lawn chairs, in a pretty park woodland, smiles on our tired faces. Angus and race volunteers run back and forth to bring us food, drink, blankets, jackets. For four of us -- me, Stumpy, Angus, and Mark -- this race represents the longest distance we have ever raced. We trained hard. We prepared well. And we all finished. As we sit recovering, feeling our exhausted muscles and joints begin to stiffen, we all know it is an accomplishment that each of us can remember with pride.

However, another major challenge is now in front of us. Stumpy, Angus, and I didn’t get a hotel room. How in the hell are we going to drive home after this?

The Ride Home

It’s just after sunrise, but already we’ve made someone’s day. In the darkness, up in Johnstown, we determined we would try to drive home -- we could stop to nap if needed. Now, after a couple hours on the road - Angus at the wheel, looking like he has toothpicks holding his eyelids -- me, talking to Angus in between narcolepsy-induced head-bobs -- Stumpy, sleeping like a baby, stretched out on the back floor of his minivan -- we decide we need gas and a java-and-potty stop. We pull off Rte 283 somewhere between Harrisburg and Lancaster, find a Turkey Hill quick-mart, and attempt to get out of the car. From a distance, you’d have thought we were a field trip from a geriatric home. We groan and delicately ease ourselves out the van doors, muscles spent from the run and stiffened from nearly three idle hours in the car. Slowly we make our way, three waddling figures, across the parking lot and into the store. The clerk looks at us with a foggily confused, early morning, “what-in-the-hell?”-expression on his face -- understandably wondering what these three smelly guys with muddy legs were doing shuffling around his store at 6:30 am.

We get our coffee, take care of essential bio-matters, and head out the door -- only to encounter the Grand Canyon. Yes, it was only little curb stepping down to the parking lot, but to three guys who just ran 70 miles, that three-inch step down may as well have been a thousand-foot chasm. We each try to step, and groan in pain, pulling our feet back up onto level ground. We stand there, laughing at ourselves, making more pathetic attempts to step down, moaning as we try, all while the clerk stares at us through the glass storefront, clearly with no idea why anybody would be behaving so strangely at such an early hour. Finally, we all make the leap down -- me using the old down-the-steps-backward trick -- and feebly waddle back to the van for the rest of the ride home.


As big an accomplishment as this race was, I was not in the best frame of mind about running this kind of distance after finishing. In fact, my dominant thoughts in the few days after were: 1) this was the stupidest thing I have ever done; and 2) never again.

The physical toll was part of it. Sunday was miserable. I was exhausted and terribly sore. Monday was unpleasant as I hobbled around the office, but surprisingly better than 24 hours earlier. Tuesday was only mildly uncomfortable, with the afternoon noticeably better than the morning -- I even jogged on the beach a little in Ocean City, NJ. Wednesday was not at all bad and by Thursday I seemed to have only lingering faint calf tightness.

I think the psychological part may have been as tough as the physical. This run was overwhelming at times, like nothing I have experienced before. Miles 26 to 29 were very, very hard. This range is always a challenge for me but in this case I went through that “zone” with the knowledge that I was tired had more than 40 miles to go. The last 5 miles were also tough -- both Mark and I remarked several times how we just wished it could be over right then. My pace really slowed in this stretch, but there was no longer a question of finishing -- we knew we could finish well within the cutoff even at a slow walk. I was surprised to find that the finish line was more of a relief than a joy -- none of the same adrenaline surge as finishing JFK or Bull Run, just a desire to rest and eat.

This run also, once again, convinced me how tough ultra runners are. Angus was truly amazing. This was not just his first race of more than 50K, but a 70 mile beast with significant climbs and lots of rocks, and he aced it. Stumpy and Carl showed real mental toughness in finishing this together. Stumpy was hurting by the 15 mile point, but was able to regroup, pick up the pace, and almost catch me. He's an animal (and I mean that in a most complimentary, TrailDawg way).

My obsessively detailed race plan served me well, in the end. I ran this race about as fast as I expected: a 21 hour goal, a 21:17 race. I had mentally broken the race into three parts -– nine miles of climbs, 50K in daylight, 50K in the dark – and set a target time between each aid station based on research I had done about the course. I ran each section but the last in less than, or just over, my goal time. However, I was not really satisfied with how I ran it. It was the first race in which I had not beaten my time goal. Only six of the seventy finishers did the last timed section slower than me (I was slow but also wasted too much time in the two aid stations on this stretch -– maybe 40 minutes). And, the last five miles felt like a death march, the fatigue reducing me almost entirely to walking.

What went right and what went wrong? My fueling/electrolyte/hydration plan went pretty well. I never felt either dehydrated or bloated (25 oz fluid and 1 S!Cap per hour). I never had any real stomach problems, no nausea. My caloric intake seemed adequate (250-300 cals per hour) -– I ended up being able to eat more solid food than I expected so ate fewer gels and, except for perhaps at the end, I never bonked. So, why was the end so hard? Of course, the stupid decision not to take care of my feet at the first sign of trouble was a major part of it. However, it is clear to me that fitness also was a factor, especially strength for the hills. Stumpy did fewer training miles than me before the race but spent serious time in the weight room working his legs. I probably did more miles, including hills, or at least what we call hills in our area. The result got him the same finish time as me. So, it looks like his idea to work leg weights is a smart one.

So, what have I learned from this run, with a few months to reflect and the pain just a memory? I said that I wanted to do the Laurel Highlands Ultra to test my limits of endurance, limits I felt I had approached but not really confronted in 50 mile races. Well, this run tested my limits for sure. It taught me that the Laurel Highlands 70, and any race over 50 miles, is a truly difficult challenge for someone of my modest running abilities. It was the stupidest thing I have ever done. So, of course, I’ve signed up for a 100 mile race.


Cat said...

Inspiring. :)

I found this article through 'Running in the USA' link to Stumpy's Marathon and from there, to Trail Dawgs.

I'm a new runner... really only about three weeks in and have never run before that, but I've begun training for the Steamtown Marathon in October.

Anyways, I've book marked your blog and look forward to reading through your old and new posts. Thanks for taking the time to write down your story, as I said above, it really is inspiring.

Pete McLaughlin said...

Thanks for the nice comment! And good for you, taking up running and targeting a marathon. Have fun and be patient as you build up to longer and longer distances. I highly recommend Jeff Galloway's marathon books as a good guide to how to get ready for a first marathon and, especially as a new runner, minimize injuries.

If you are close enough, please join us for one of the TrailDawg events. Nice folks and good times. Best of luck!