Thursday, September 22, 2016

Real Trail Running - Possum Glory 50K Race Report

September 10, 2016

The  3 Amigos - Al, Donny & Mike

Have you ever met a group of folks who you immediately knew were good people? That's the feeling I got the day I walked into The Tri County ATV Center to pick up my bib number for the Possum Glory 50K. While I had communicated with Mike Weaver, Donny Bowers and Al Lockard online, meeting them face to face was something special. A "hey let's go for a run" or "hey let's go get a beer" (or both) kind of special. Along with Al's Wife Candi, this friendly group made up the race director corps for this first annual event. (I unfortunately didn't get a chance to speak with Candi) While this was the first year for this race, these guys aren't rookies. Not only do they all have ultra finishes under their belts, they were the team behind the now defunct Punxsutawney Ground Hog 50K. I never got to run the Ground Hog before a property ownership change put it out of business so I registered to see what this first annual 50K had to offer (there were 25K and 10K events on the day's agenda as well).

I've used the term grassroots when describing another ultra I ran this year. This race was the next step from that and I'd have to label it simply as "real". The race was sponsored by Team Red White and Blue and from the moment I arrived at the ATV center, I knew that this event would have zero pretense. This would be "real" trail running. First, let me tell you a little about this Tri-County ATV place. The club was started 16 years ago and offers ATV enthusiasts a place to ride their machines legally. Most of the vehicles I saw were not your everyday ATV, these things looked souped up and capable of climbing a wall covered with mud. I was thankful they listed their coordinates on their web site as I was skeptical about finding the place using a "street" address. Yes, it was in the middle of nowhere. With that said, I couldn't get over how much I felt at home.

I arrived and there was a food auction taking place in the main building, so not to stroll through the auction crowd I walked around the building to find Al Lockard on a four wheeler. I knew I was in the right place.

In the back door and I quickly ran into Mike Weaver and Donny Bowers who made a bit of a to-do about the fact that I had been the first person to register for their new event. Yes, I was given bib #1 and they even gave me an additional t-shirt for being first. The race already was giving two t-shirts, so I walked away with a haul of three. The auction looked interesting, attended by a wide variety of folks from the countryside. I was tempted to stay and maybe bid on a case of Slim Jims, but I needed to go find supper so I headed back to Ebensburg where I had found a hotel room.

Pre-race early Morning At The ATV Center

The Possum Glory Mascot

Having visited Friday in the daylight certainly made the drive back to the ATV Center in the morning easier. After three stops for Deer in the road and a stop to give a fellow runner directions, I was soon drinking coffee and waiting for someone to say "Go!". The race directors buzzed about while radios crackled and volunteers loaded up aid station supplies. The food auction was gone and now the Possum Glory Endurance Runs had center stage. After some brief announcements we strolled up to the start finish and with little fanfare, Mike said go and rang a cowbell.

The course opened with a gradual climb away from the ATV center. It seemed like a nice way to get warmed up as I watched a few others ascend away from me. One runner in particular had separated from the bunch and when I arrived at the top I found a half dozen runners standing and wondering which way to go. Donny Bowers was there on the phone making it clear that the race markings had fallen down over night. He soon told us to turn left. By now we were all a bunch, less one who had seemingly disappeared into the forest going the wrong way. We made the left and toddled down a considerable downhill section only to be stopped at the bottom by caution tape blocking the trail. We could hear Donny yelling for Joe (the runner who had continued) and we yelled to him that we were stuck. In short order we were turned around and headed back up the hill. The left turn we were to take came after entering the woods, Joe had gone the right way. A couple folks bitched and they were quickly told to chill out as this was trail running. Back at the top, Donny was there and terribly apologetic for the mix up. I high fived him and told him it was an awesome start. I looked at my watch and estimated that the wrong turn had added about a 1/4 mile and for me had set the theme of the day.

The terrain that we would deal with all day was soon evident. These trails were built for rock crawling ATV's and not for running. If you run on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, these trails looked a lot the same, but maybe rockier. If we weren't picking our way through rocks, we were splashing through deep standing puddles. I decided early that fording the tiny ponds was better than trying to skirt them as they were surrounded by extremely slippery mud. The only other feature besides rocks and water was the hills. My watch recorded 5,000' of elevation gain which isn't a crazy amount, but it was the form of the hills that mattered. A few of them were like running up sliding boards and it seemed like they were at times one right after another.

During the race announcements an apology was given because it was advertised that there would be no loops. It turned out that maybe the ATV trails didn't exactly provide enough to host a 50K so we did end up retracing our steps in a couple of places. A short loop (about 1.5 miles) and a long loop (about 5 miles). Both included brutal climbs and I noticed something interesting, on both of the loops the second time through felt noticeably easier. On the first lap of each of those loops my brain knew I'd have to endure these climbs again. On the second laps I knew I was done. Each loop started with an aid station, which was cool and the volunteers kept track of your laps as well. I have to mention that both aid stations had watermelon, which is my favorite aid station food at summertime ultras.

I got through this course as fast as I could. I realized early on that it would be a day of grinding it out, certainly nothing pretty. I just had to keep finding ways to get through the rocks and up the hills. I also added a slight extra challenge by going off course a couple more times. I came to an intersection with signs that read "Outgoing" and "Incoming" with arrows. Because I didn't know the course I didn't know which I was. Was I "Incoming" or was I "Outgoing"?  I made the logical turn and began a muddy climb. There were "Two Way Traffic" signs on the climb and soon I second guessed myself, turned around and headed back down the hill. I got back to those signs that were mocking my ignorance and stood there a second until I said "F it" and turned around and went back up the hill. If it was the wrong turn, I'd probably find out soon enough. My other directional gaff was on the first lap of the short loop. I was on top of a hill feeling good and running along daydreaming. I was kind of in the zone and I did notice orange markings on two trees, but it didn't even register and I ran between them. After a short while of seeing no more orange markings, I finally woke up from my little trance and turned around. Now I was starting to wonder about making that 8 hour cutoff for the finish.

The long loop had a power line climb that was exposed to the sun. Oh yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that it was hot as hell too. The husband and wife duo at the aid station at the start/finish of that loop were great. They refilled my hydration bladder and stuffed me with watermelon. As much as I enjoyed them, I was stoked to not have to visit them a third time. As I exited that area headed for home, Al Lockard was there at a water stop and he had an obvious sense of urgency about him. He hustled me out of there telling me I had only 55 minutes to make the 3pm cutoff. He said I had about 3.5 mile to go, easy right? Well, it was 3.5 more miles of climbing in the heat and it opened with another uphill stretch exposed to the sun. Eventually I found my way through those last hills and I figured out where to turn for the finish. I must've been a pathetic sight running for all I was worth down that last hill trying to beat the cutoff.

Donny Bowers yelled "yes" when I asked if I was making it, but I didn't let up. I was worked, but I made it and a really nice guy standing there at the finish asked what I wanted to drink. He mentioned various things, but I only heard beer and he quickly produced an ice cold can of Busch Light. Best damned Busch Light ever...actually it was only the second one I'd ever had, the other was at the Mayor's House (a backpacker hostel along the AT in Unionville, NY) This being a Team RW&B event, the beer guy asked if I had run for someone. I said, "no". Realizing what I said, I quickly changed my answer and told them about my Dad; Marine Corps WWII Veteran who had just passed away in July. Donny kindly assured me that I had made my Dad proud and he hung a finisher's dog tag around my neck.

Donny asked me what I thought of the course and I told him this was my fifth 50K this year and hands down the toughest. The relentless rocky and muddy terrain and the short steep hills just one after another made for a thorough ass kicking. I ran it in preparation for the Oil Creek 100 and I believe it went as planned. Another oven-like day filled with stumbling up and down hills powered by ClifBar. A bonk on this course would've been disastrous and ClifBar Shot Energy Gels, Bloks Energy Chews and Organic Energy Food fueled me through to the finish.

Afterwards, the ATV Center was buzzing with volunteers, runners and ATV folks who were preparing for some upcoming event. There was acoustic music by Kevin Dale while food was served, washed down by some lovely craft beer by Levity Brewing from nearby Indiana Pennsylvania. Yes I went from Busch Light to a yummy IPA and a tasty Saison (if you're ever in Indiana, Levity Brewing is a must visit for sure). This was the first year for The Possum Glory and they definitely made their stamp on Pennsylvania trail running. Need a September 50K? An Oil Creek practice run? Go get your butt kicked at the Tri-County ATV Center. Good people and tough trails.

Justa' Pooch Hangin' At The ATV Center

Friday, September 2, 2016

On The Road To Recovery - MD H.E.A.T. Race Report

August 27, 2016

Not even a month ago the waters rose so fast that without warning the tragedy now known as the Ellicott City Flood ripped through the historic Main Street destroying properties, tossing cars, and mounding up silt. The truly tragic result of the raging Patapsco River was the loss of two lives. Two people out enjoying a nice evening with loved ones. It's reported that the waters came as if a dam had burst, many were able to narrowly escape the surprise attack, but two were not and their lives were taken.

Janice and I needed to eat dinner and we attempted to eat in Ellicott City, but it was impossible. We were turned away by police. Main Street was still blocked and the one restaurant we did see was packed. Hopefully no seats at The Judges Bench is a sign that the city is making strides toward recovery. The Ellicott Mills Brewery was having a fund raiser and that's where we were trying to go. Thankfully I read on Facebook that the brewery fund raiser was a success.

I found this info online:

•Donations for merchants and residents:
•More information can be found at

This old backstop near the start/finish tells the tale.
Those leaves stuck to the chain link show the high water mark.
Flood debris was all around.

That same Patapsco River formed the spine of the body that was the MD HEAT Race course. The race wandered the network of trails lacing up, around and across the Patapsco Valley State Park near Elk Ridge Maryland. I met Nick Yeates, the race director, 5 years ago at The Megatransect and we ran into each other again at The Tussey Mountainback 50 miler just three weeks later. Nick was a huge fan of the Megatransect and his hope was to create his own version near his home in Maryland. This was the 5th running of the MD HEAT Race. The course is a 16ish mile loop, twice for the 50K runners and one lap for the 25K crew. Terrain of all kinds to include a slippery boulder scramble through a stream and one climb that was kinda' nuts (I wonder if anyone was able to run it). There were three aid stations out on the loop and for the 50K, the start/finish was also an aid station. (Aid Station #1 wasn't in place for the 50K, so the first 8 miles you were biggy)

I had the luxury of having Janice with me as crew for this run. Due to parking restrictions at the park, runners and others were asked to park remotely at a nearby Park & Ride and use a shuttle bus to and from the race. Janice and I decided that dropping me off at the start and her meeting me at Aid Station #2 was our best plan of attack. It was a good plan until we found out how far into the park the start line was and we were greeted by a Ranger blocking the gate. He was quite nice though and he let us pass when I assured him that I was being dropped off and Janice would be on her way.

The start area was buzzing as the first shuttle bus had just dropped off a load of 50Kers. Volunteers were setting up as Nick and his Dad circulated ensuring everything was in place (with the awesome hats they were wearing, they were easy to pick spot - sorry I don't have photos to share)  I stashed a drop bag at the pavilion as we'd pass through there to start lap 2. Janice sat in the Jeep toiling over maps. Trying to make sense of a map of the park compared to the map of the race course. We weren't real sure where the aid stations were and if they were even accessible by car, so as Nick said "Ready, Set, Go!" I was just hoping I'd see Janice somewhere around the course. I really wasn't concerned, she's a pro at this crewing thing, I'm no longer amazed when I see her pop up in the remotest of spots. Besides, if she couldn't  find me, cell signal was good here so I'm sure she would've just practiced her Pokémon hunting skills playing Pokémon Go.

Through this tunnel the first climb awaits.

The race rolls out through some easy park grounds and on a park road before making an abrupt right turn through a cool little tunnel and into the forest. The short stretch on the road was funny (for me), I had a guy running right on my heels breathing forcibly...kinda' like an old locomotive. I moved to the other side of the road and he matched my steps and stayed right behind me breathing like a Heifer next in line at the slaughter house. Annoyed, I stepped off the road into the weeds and stopped. It was fun to watch the twisted look on his face go by, seemingly wondering what I was doing. Not sure what that was all about...maybe he thought he was drafting...I just have to laugh at some people's running habits.

Hills came early and often, but the majority of the trail was runnable and shaded. The trail does pop out onto power line clearings where the sun was brutal, especially as the day went on. Numerous stream crossings became welcome allies as I was carrying an old bandanna and dipping it in the cold water and squeezing it over my head became the day's air conditioning. It did get hot, I believe we ventured into the 90's and the humidity wasn't far behind.

The trail dumped us out onto this paved path for a
short distance till we reached the Swinging Bridge Aid Station.

Crossing the swinging bridge.
Dirt + Sweat = Mud

In my last few trail events, I've been doing a fine job of finding things to trip over and this day was no different. I heard someone approaching fast behind me on single track. I looked over my shoulder to see if they needed to pass and in no time I was tripping and rolling on the forest floor. That was around mile 7 so when Janice met me at the swinging bridge/the 8 mile aid station, I was covered in dirt adhered by sweat. She was quick to tell me I stunk more than normal leaving me wondering what it was I actually rolled in. The road to that aid station was actually closed and Janice whispered to me that she had "sweet talked" her way past the road block and drove in. Janice got me quickly back on the trail, climbing the hill behind the aid station.

The swinging bridge through the trees.

For me, the swinging bridge leading to the aid station was a highlight of the course. The Orange Grove Flour Mill operated along the Patapsco River from 1856 until it was destroyed by fire and effectively put out of business in 1905. The factory was then crushed by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 (I'm old enough to remember it's rage when it passed through my hometown of Harrisburg). Today the one cool remnant remaining is a swinging bridge over the river very near where the factory operated. The factory workers' homes were on the opposite side of the river and the original bridge was constructed by the company to make it easier for them to get to work. The current restored bridge was constructed by the Maryland DNR in 2006. It's certainly worth seeing and crossing. It's a suspension bridge with a wooden plank deck hanging from thick steel cables and couplings. Janice met me on the factory side and we bounced across to the aid station together.

The second half of the loop seemed to have less climbing and around mile 13 there was another aid station staffed by colorful volunteers. Their theme was from the movie Cast Away complete with inflated Palm Trees and Tom Hanks' buddy Wilson keeping watch on the goings on. Janice met me there as well, she said it was an easy park and walk into the forest. I swapped out my hydration bladder and had some yummy frozen Mango concoction at the aid station and I was on my way again.

Just a cool tunnel.

My nutrition had been going quite well until now, fueling with ClifBar Gels and ShotBloks and washing them down with Tailwind, but at this point I made a huge mistake. The bladder Janice gave me was right out of our cooler and the Tailwind in it was ice cold. It was now pretty hot and I was like an addict, I couldn't get enough of this ice cold drug. About 3 1/2 miles later I was at the start finish where I had stashed 2 frozen bottles of Tailwind. By now they were cold liquid and I chugged one, downed a ClifBar Organic Energy Food pack and a Mama Chia Squeeze and stashed the other bottle in my vest and started lap two. Janice wasn't there and I soon saw why, the road to the pavilion was now blocked and only those with reservations were allowed entry. The course pops out of the woods into a small parking lot and I saw our orange Jeep and Janice was there reading the map, what else? I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I decided to finish that second bottle and threw it in the Jeep. That's about 40 ounces of Tailwind I drank in just a matter of minutes. It was hot and it felt good, but now my stomach felt like a fish bowl and I couldn't make myself run. The discomfort from the bloat was immense and I ended up walking much of the next mile or more. I started OD'ing on cold liquid around mile 13 and I was a wreck until about mile 18 or so. Aid Station 1 (mile 20ish) was in place for our second visit and I actually felt like I could actually run again. I drank far more than my body could process, I didn't drive myself to Hypernatremia, but that stupid rookie mistake took a major chunk out of the middle of the my run.

Applause for the "Trail Banditos" - excellent course markings!
Didn't go off course once.

The second lap was a quiet adventure as I found myself leap frogging with a young guy and gal for much of the remaining mileage, but the trail otherwise seemed empty.(I learned later that 21 of the 50K starters decided to call it a day after the first hot hilly lap.)

My second visit to the Swinging Bridge Aid Station,
that injured runner shuttle wasn't there for me.

Janice met me again at the aid station at the swinging bridge and this time she had figured out the trails and had walked. I gobbled another ClifBar Organic Energy Food pack and a Mama Chia Squeeze as an injured runner was picked up by the Race Director. Janice and I agreed that she should go to the finish area as I'd be ok with the ClifBar food and Tailwind I was carrying and the support from the Cast Away Aid Station at mile 30. The Cast Away crew did me a solid and refilled my bladder enough to get me to the finish and it felt good to know the day in the heat was over as I crossed the line (It didn't hurt that the "coolest" volunteer of all was there waiting with a freeze pop).

I've forgotten to mention "The Wall". No, not the Pink Floyd album, but an actual stone wall that stood between you and the finish line. With a bout a tenth of a mile to go the course settled right in close to the river and I haven't learned why it's there, but there's this ancient stone wall that seemed between 10 and 12 feet high. It runs perpendicular to the river from a rock outcrop so my guess is that it was built to manage rising waters. Yes, runners were expected to get over it. On the first lap I crossed it with two other runners who told me it was much easier this year due to the river silt mounded up by the flooding. That fact didn't make it any easier getting down the other side, especially on the second lap on tired legs. I wanted Janice to see the wall, so afterwards we took the short walk there. She not only got to see the wall, two finishing runners appeared as she was snapping photos of the monstrosity. We switched quickly to cheering mode and I think the one woman really appreciated the help getting down off that thing without incident or injury.

The Wall

The fun at the finish line was unrivaled by any other event I've run. It started with a freeze pop, Janice got to hose me down and there was abundant yummy food along with various ice cold craft beers. This is the only race I've ever run that actually has its own Brewmeister. Hat's off to Jeremy Swan and his home brews that worked so well after 32 miles in the heat. If you've been wondering about his race, wonder no more, go run the damn thing! Cheers!

**********MY YEAR SO FAR***********

It's been an interesting year for me. I've crossed a bunch of finish lines and I can't thank Janice enough for putting up with me through everything.

I've joked that for 2016 I bought a membership to the Ultra-A-Month club and it's been a fun challenge to attempt to complete one per month. I'm not fast, in fact some of my finishing times have been laughable, down right embarrassing. Embarrassing or not, I'm proud that I've finished every race I've started this year.

Huge thank you to ClifBar for their amazing nutrition support. I know that no matter how bad it gets, if I just keep eating ClifBar stuff, I'll have the fuel in the tank to survive to the end.

The year hasn't been all happy finish lines. My heart decided to remind me that I'm 55 years old and surgery was required to stop the episodes of SVT that were stopping me in my tracks. A heart rate of 260 bpm is pretty darned scary...glad it's gone. Huge thank you to the doctors and nurses at Hershey Medical Center, I now feel like I've got a brand new heart. Wednesday before this race I had a follow up appointment with the Cardiologist, my BP was 120/80, HR 52 bpm and I had an EKG and an Echo Test that the doctor said showed my ticker was good for at least another 50K.

My heart was a challenge, but the ground shaking event of my year has been losing my Father. At 93 years old Dad passed quietly one night in July. For 55 years I called the most kind supportive man  I've ever known, Dad. He's gone from this planet now, but he's now more present than ever. My Dad's death could've been a setback I guess, but instead I saw it as inspiration to live on as strong as possible knowing he's over my shoulder keeping watch every step of the way.

This year my running has had numerous interruptions and set backs, but I feel my training is getting back on track and I'm well on the road to recovery.

2016 Events:

1/16/16 Phunt 50k Trail Race Elkton, MD 6:26:09
1/23/16 Frozen Snot 13.5 Mile Trail Run McElhattan, PA 5:52:29
2/20/16 Frozen Heart 50k Callaway, MD 6:14:38
3/06/16 Naked Bavarian 40 Mile Leesport, PA 8:11:23
4/30/16 C&O Canal 100 Mile Knoxville, MD 29:03:26
5/14/16 Glacier Ridge 50 Mile Portersville, PA 13:24:26
5/16/16 Cardiac Ablation Hershey Medical Center Hershey, PA
5/25/16 My 55th Birthday
6/18/16 Highlands Sky Trail Run 40 Mile Davis, WV 11:14:36
6/4/16 Colin's 5K Run Central Dauphin HS XC Course Harrisburg, PA 27:05
7/14/16 Daniel Eugene Ligon passed away after an amazing life here on God's Earth.
7/30/16 Allegheny Front Trail Run 50k Philipsburg, PA  8:16:34
8/6/16   5th Annual CD/CDEast High School XCTeam Challenge 5k Harrisburg PA 27:49
8/13/16 Chiques Challenge 4.5 Mile Run/2.5 Mile Kayak Columbia PA 1:22:12
8/27/16 MD HEAT Race 50k Elkridge, MD 7:56:32

Next up:

9/10/16 1st Annual Possum Glory 50k Ebensburg,PA
10/8/16 Oil Creek Trail Runs 100 Mile Titusville, PA
11/12/16 Stone Mill 50 Montgomery Village, MD

One more 50K in preparation for the Oil Creek 100 and a 50 miler after that to round out the year.
I guess my Ultra-A-Month membership was only the 11 month package...

Colorful Patapsco Valley Mushrooms - crewing an old slow
ultra runner can be pretty boring...

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Allegheny Front Trail Run - Seneca 50K Race Report

July 30, 2016

Show up unprepared and you've prepared yourself to suffer. That's just one of many lessons I've learned from ultra running. I've also learned that suffering isn't necessarily a bad thing and in ultra running it comes in many manifestations and always results in personal growth. The sooner you realize that ultra running is nothing more than maintaining forward movement through highpoints and lows, the better off you'll be.

This was the fifth year for The Allegheny Front Trail Run. In previous years the event has conflicted with Janice's State Softball Championships so I've not run it. This year they fell on opposite weekends so a week ago I got to watch Janice and her Ridgerunners Softball teammates take 3rd in their ASA Class E Women's tournament. The heat the women endured was immense. That heat lasted into the week to follow and finally broke at week's end. Race morning it was in the 60's, a welcome change from the 90's we had been living with. While I'm talking about weather, I'll just cover it all and get it out of the way. The temperatures weren't bad, but the humidity was an obvious reminder that it was indeed July in the Pennsylvania mountains. Around 10am it started to rain lightly and all that seemed to do was contribute to the humidity. A couple hours later a legit thunder storm blew in and the large rain drops and breezes provided a little relief from the humidity. The thunder storm passed and the humidity returned and it even got warmer for the end of the day.

My running in preparation for this event has been a mess. I'm not one to follow any training formula, I've always refused to take it that seriously. I run for fun and the stuff I experience along the way. I know all the words that runners use, how can I ignore them? Fartlek, Tempo Run, Hill Repeats, Recovery Run, etc. are terms I hardly understand so I certainly don't use them. Speed work out? Intervals? You have fun with that, I'm just going for a run. I'd rather spend time talking about the deer I saw during a run than regurgitating my PR's. I guess I do sort of have a simple formula, I try to run a lot and in the past few months; that formula has been interrupted quite a bit. Life in the form of family, work and health stepped in and made sure I couldn't get in the runs I've needed to show up at Black Moshannon State Park prepared to run a 50K. It's ok though because I knew that going in,  I had zero delusions. I also knew that I'd learn nothing from not showing up. Running the Seneca 50K would be a fun training run on a new-to-me trail and I'd get a nifty t-shirt too.

Black Moshannon State Park is part of the 43,000 acre Moshannon State Forest and it's located in the next valley over from State College. The park is 3,394 acres of forest with stream fed bogs and Black Moshannon Lake. The natives named this watery place “Moss-Hanne,” which apparently means “moose stream”, couple that with the blackness of the flowing bog waters and you've got the park's name.  Driving to the start in the morning I could see the valley was filled with a magical thick cotton ball fog. I stopped three times for deer in the road. The third stop the deer wasn't much of a deer at all, in fact it was just a tiny fawn. It was unique in its markings as well, it's entire hind end and back legs were white. After checking me out for 30 seconds it finally bounded off into the brush.

The race is truly a grass roots event. Information on the web site is sparse and participation has been just as sparse. Last year only 29 ran the 50k and in the prior years, the largest field of runners was only 18. More folks need to check out this mid-summer run. It starts and finishes at the Mid State Airport and circumnavigates the park on mostly single track trail I would describe as 100% runnable. There wasn't much info listed about the aid stations, in fact they're called check points. With support on the course being questionable, I used a hydration vest ample enough to carry everything I needed to complete 31 miles. I carried ClifBar Shot EnergyGels, Bloks Energy Chews and a couple Organic Energy Food packages (THANKS CLIFBAR!), just like I would if I were running 31 miles back home in Stony Valley. Knowing the area was networked with flowing streams, I even packed a pre-measured package of Tailwind if I refilled my bladder. I basically prepared myself to run self supported. Upon arrival I heard other runners asking about  the aid stations and there was a map showing that the longest distance between aid was about 6 miles. It really could be run with a handheld. It was going to be hot and humid and I knew to survive I'd need to keep hydrating so I stuck with my self supported plan. It might've been over kill, but I wanted to finish.

Two cars were parked over the chalk on the parking lot that read "50K Start" so we started next to them and with little fanfare we were off. The connecting trail leading to the Allegheny Front Trail was a mellow grassy path. The Allegheny Front Trail offered passage through all the different environments that make up the park. I consider the majority of it runnable with just enough climbing and technical stuff to make it challenging. I started out feeling fine, but after a fall I took on an extra-cautious approach and really backed off my pace. It was probably for the best anyway, in my poor state of fitness; that slow pace was my sustainable reality and probably ensured I made it to the finish line. The last mile offers a boardwalk through a bog filled with Blueberry bushes and yes, it's July and the berries were ripe for the picking. Single loop or point-to-point ultras are tough to find and this one's a gem, it's one big loop that brings you right back to the airport for a lunch and cold beer afterwards. I couldn't be happier with the result of my training run in Black Moshannon State Park. Everything I do between now and October is targeted at finishing the Oil Creek 100 and this was my first step in that preparation.

My Father passed away two weeks ago. Someone told me, that the busy time that surrounds a loved one's passing negates your ability to grieve, to really take it in, to come to grips with it. I didn't grieve, hell no I celebrated my Dad's incredible life, but I probably needed some time for taking it in and coming to grips with it. This 31 mile run in the forest would be the time I needed with my Dad, my thoughts and our memories together. Moshannon State Forest is a beautiful place, I'm not sure if my Father ever visited there, but I know he would have been in awe as I was with the diversity it presents. I started my day there getting stung by a bee. It didn't just sting me, it clung to my leg and continued to do its thing. Instead of stopping and pulling the angry little guy off my leg, I tried to do it and continue to run. I'm sure you know where this is leading, yes I caught a toe and face planted. I landed heavily on the ribs already aching from a bruising fall a week ago. While on the ground the little bugger continued to sting or bight me. My Dad would've been shaking his head, laughing and saying, "all you had to do was stop a second and pull it off your leg...". Yeah my dad appeared every where along this course. There was even a rock that was in the shape of a classic head stone that someone has scrawled R.I.P. on it in chalk. There were neat little sections where the forest canopy was so dense with a cloud cover that matched that the result was near darkness on the trail. I once visited Lithuania and there I was told a tale that these dark spots in forests were havens for the little people(Elves/Fairies), spirits and especially spirits of loved ones. While the little people were there for mischief, the spirits of your loved ones were there to safely guide you through that dark region. Dad loved ferns and the trail cut through numerous stands of tall pines and the forest floor was filled with beautiful ferns growing in a carpet of Pine needles. In that setting Dad had me surrounded. The perseverance I learned from my parents got me through a tough day. I can't recall anything my Father ever quit, he was a firm believer in keeping commitments and follow through. If you start it, finish it. Give it your best and be certain not to miss the lessons any endeavor provides. Dad wasn't a runner, but he is now as he's keeping pace with me every mile; in my heart, in my head, right over my shoulder. Sweating, stumbling, laughing and bleeding right along with me.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run - A Run Across The Sky - Race Report

June 18, 2016

Obligatory Pre-Race Photo With The National Forest Sign
The Highlands Sky 40 is one of those events that's been on my radar since I first learned about ultra running. The race site says, "this is not an easy ultra" and it boasts of the varying natural beauty on the course. Challenging, beautiful and add the fact that it's a point-to-point event and I'm there. It's an extremely popular race and it's registration was filled soon after it opened on New Year's Day.

The Monongahela National Forest near Davis West Virginia provided the setting for the day. If you think Davis is in the middle of nowhere, you should see where the start line was. Janice and I left the Canaan Valley Resort in the dark valley mist and headed out in search of the grey metal bridge where we were told the trek would begin. [Janice made the trip this time, meaning I would have her support as crew on the course. The last three ultras I was without her and that sucked.] After a short drive down a narrow winding road we came upon the bridge, found a place to park and waited for the start. Shuttle buses from a local guide shop dropped off the rest of the runners and soon we were running down the road headed to the trail head.

Smile For The Caamera

I was a little anxious about this course, after 2+ miles on the road, the course climbs significantly until it reaches an aid station at about 10 miles. After that initial big climb and a brief descent, the trail climbs again. Those two ascents really weren't complete until we reached the aid station around 20 miles in. After seeing that elevation profile, I decided to use trekking poles.

Just A Little Climbing To Start The Day

Much to my surprise, the initial climb was pretty manageable. Much of this climbing featured switch backs. Yes we were gaining a good deal of elevation, but unlike back home in Pennsylvania, we were switching back instead of going straight up and over the mountain. I opened up my trekking poles, but I was in such a close bunch that I couldn't use them effectively. After a couple of attempts, I ended up stowing them in my pack.

I was going good on the first climb, until the grade kicked up steeply around six miles. The next mile or so bit into me nicely and my pace was slowed. I also started to realize something didn't feel right. My right foot felt like it was sliding around. First I thought my shoe had come untied. I tried to look at my foot, but no problem was easily visible and it was tough to look as I moved with the pack up the single track trail.

The First Water Crossing

I then slipped in some mud as I was entering a stream and I could've sworn my whole foot had come out through the side of my shoe. I kept moving and decided to figure it out when we reached the aid station.

Coming into the aid station, I was feeling good again after that bad patch in that steep stuff. I was feeling strong, but at the same time I was noticing odd pain in just about everything on my right side. My right toes, foot, knee, hip; hell my right shoulder was even hurting. I stopped at the aid station and took off my pack so I could make sure my poles were secure and that's when I looked down and noticed the hole. The inside of my right shoe from just behind the ball of the foot to just in front of the heal cup had torn in a line. It looked like a defect in the fabric because of its straight line. The side of the shoe had completely failed and the shoe was now providing almost no support and my foot was clearly visible through the gaping hole.

This was a remote aid station and no crew was allowed. No one had any duct tape or a spare pair of size 12s. This sucked, I try to anticipate everything that can go wrong, but I didn't see this coming. I expect my shoes to get soaked and muddy, but not fall apart. The Altra Lone Peak 2.5 is my favorite and I consider it extremely reliable. This pair had just over 200 miles on them so I in no way expected them to meet their demise 8 miles into a 40 mile run.

I Took A Dip At This Water Crossing When Tension Came Off The Rope
The Ice Cold Water Felt Great :-)

I'm not sure how many total ultras I've run, but this would be my sixth this year. After so many you come to realize that the challenge isn't actually in the distance, the terrain, the course conditions or any of that other naturally expected stuff. The true challenge seems to come from those extra twists that life throws into it.

Life had already done a good job of setting me up for failure heading into this event:
  1. I had been experiencing Supraventricular Tachycardia(SVT). May 16th I underwent a Cardiac Ablation to alleviate that condition. My condition required my being awake during the procedure and to tell you it was painful and uncomfortable doesn't do it justice. It was a success and after that I couldn't do anything physical for a solid 7 days. My heart felt brand new and the real recovery was the healing of the tiny incisions on my thighs.
  2. Just as I was feeling about 98% healed, I got a stomach virus that took me out of commission for about 36 hours. I got so dehydrated, I dropped 12 pounds. Two weeks before an ultra and I'm sick as a dog and can't run.
I weathered both of those storms and with a lot of rest and just a tiny bit of recent running, here I was in the mountains of West Virginia. So now I guess life was pissed that I had beaten the heart surgery and the ugly belly draining virus so my shoe exploding was my karma twist for the day. Today's "real challenge" would be to run 30+ miles with just one good shoe.

I decided the only thing to do was to keep moving, so off I went. It felt like I was wearing a sandal on my right foot. If you know that flexed state you might keep your feet in when wearing sandals, that's what I was doing with my right foot. I was trying to avoid my big toe or really, my whole foot from pointing out through the 6" hole in the side of my shoe. Going downhill, when putting the most strain on the shoe, was the toughest. This added stress on my foot was obviously the source of all the right side pain. My swollen IT Band looked like a fist on the outside of my knee and my hip felt like I had been hit with a baseball bat.

Arriving At Aid Station 4 - 19.7 Miles
And The Beginning Of The Road Across The Sky

I met up with Janice at the 4th aid station just shy of 20 miles. She swapped out the bladders in my hydration vest and reloaded my ClifBar supplies in her true Indy Pit Crew style. I showed her my shoe and she couldn't believe I didn't have another pair in the Jeep. In fact, I had only brought one other pair of shoes and I had no intention of needing them so they were left in the hotel room. Yep, brand new Altra Lone Peaks back in the air conditioned comfort very near the full roll of duct tape I had left there as well. The shoes on my feet weren't old or already damaged, this shouldn't have happened; but it did and to make it worse, I was not prepared. I know what you're thinking, Janice could go get the other shoes and meet me with them at the next aid station. The race only allowed crew at two aid stations and our next meeting would come with only 4 miles to go.

After asking unsuccessfully for duct tape at the aid station, I took off on "The Road Across The Sky". It's a forest service road across the high valley and the race director had forbidden crews from driving across it to eliminate traffic around the runners. That driving prohibition also ruined any hope of Janice getting the shoes to me. the insulting part was while Janice followed the rules and didn't drive on that long dusty forest road, the general public never got the memo and we were passed by dozens of cars. Trucking along, a runner came up along side of me and asked if I was the guy looking for duct tape and handed me a few feet of duct tape.

If any of you are ever in King North Carolina shop at By Foot Sports and tell him I said hello and thanks again for the duct tape!

Thankfully, aside from being hobbled by the exploded shoe, I was feeling ok or I might've considered dropping. I've learned that no matter how bad I'm feeling or how bad things are going, if I keep eating and drinking I can keep moving forward. I did do something a little different this day. I was drinking Tailwind and eating ClifBar ClifShot gels and Bloks Energy Chews as usual, but for this run I decided I'd prefer to rely on more substantial food from the ClifBar menu. At aid stations 3, 4, 6 and 7, I ate ClifBar Organic Energy Food. I alternated between the Banana Beet With Ginger and Banana Mango With Coconut and at Aid Station 7 I ate one of the larger meals; Sweet Potato Sea Salt. The calories and nutrients those meals pack augmented the days nutrition nicely and they're an excellent alternative to all the sweet gels and chews  - THANK YOU ClifBar, I'm not sure how I ever fueled without you! I've also discovered how much I love Chia Squeeze energy packs by Mama Chia. Janice found them for me somewhere and they're now a favorite on the trail and they pair perfectly with the ClifBar organic goodness. I hardly used the aid stations' supplies at all. I ate their watermelon and drank coca-cola, but that was it. I'd be remiss if I didn't say thank you to the nice gal who wrapped my shoe with duct tape at Aid Station 5(it stayed wrapped for a few miles). And for the record, the watermelon at Aid Station 6 was the best...bright red and ripe...yum!

The Dolly Sods Was In Bloom

Once we were off that hot dusty road, we turned out onto the Dolly Sods High Meadow. It was sunny and in the 70's. The constant sun exposure was starting to wear on runners around me. I noticed more lingering at Aid Station 6 than at the previous stops and even with my altered stride, I was catching and passing others as we headed towards Bear Rocks. Then it was my turn, I popped out onto an enormous boulder and couldn't find a trail marking. I wandered in a circle briefly and was soon joined by another semi-lost runner. After a few minutes and a few dozen curse words about the missing ribbons, we both saw a ribbon blowing in the hot breeze way off in the distance across some more boulders. That slow time in the brilliant sun hit me hard and nothing seemed to be helping me through it. I made it up to Aid Station 7 and we were high above the Canaan Valley below. I could see the ski slopes that were near the finish line and that was encouraging, but I still needed to shake the sunshine induced fatigue. I ate more watermelon and drank coke. The coke was actually hot and I nearly barfed. I reloaded my bladder with their Tailwind and it was semi-chilled. I drank a lot of it as I descended away from their little mountain-top oasis. I also found some shade, so I stopped running and walked briefly while out of the sun. The hydration and cool shade combo brought me back and soon I was running again.

After a mild climb up the back side of a ski slope, passing under the snow making jets, we turned back into the shady forest. After seeing only one initial ribbon, all I saw was white wooden signs with red arrows painted on them. I followed them, but the longer I didn't see a ribbon, the more my confidence that I was on course dropped. I had gone for quite a while with no trail marking and I was just about to turn around to back track when I saw a ribbon blowing on a tree limb in the distance. That feeling when you think you're off course sucks. Soon I was descending a hill known as "Butt Slide", making my way over and around mountain bike terrain features built into the hill. I eventually popped out onto a gravel country road heading to Aid Station 8. Janice was there waiting for me with a hydration refill and most importantly, a shoe swap.

My Lone Peaks RIP

With just 4 miles to go, I now had a complete pair of shoes. I was now running better than most of the day. The irony was the pain that came from the ripped shoe was now replaced by a different pain that came from adjusting to the new shoes. Thankfully it didn't last and soon I was heading down the last short downhill to the finish line behind The Canaan Valley Resort.

Sunburned & Done For The Day
(Check Out Those New Shoes!)

This was the only event I've been to where you get 2 t-shirts. One comes with your race packet and you have to earn the second one by finishing. I was impressed by the pre-race dinner that was served at the resort, but conversely there wasn't much to eat at the finish.  I didn't care, Janice and I headed to the cooler in the Jeep for an ice cold Mountain State Brewing Co. beer of our own.

Bonus Bloggery:

I need to talk about the place where The West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners choose to host this run. Arriving Friday, I was struggling to keep my eyes on the road as the scenery was quite distracting. The Canaan Valley Resort is recently renovated and proved to be a beautiful place to stay. I knew we'd want to see the area too so instead of driving 4 hours home right after the race, I had booked an extra night's lodging. It was a very nice new room with a little balcony overlooking the valley from the third floor, so the view was great.

As we entered the grounds we were greeted by these two young Bucks drinking from a mud puddle along the road. Deer were everywhere, hunting was not allowed in the park.

The big deal about the place is certainly not the resort hotel, but the natural beauty of the area. Nearly all of the race takes place in the Monongahela National Forest. The race traverses basically two different sections of the forest. The start occurred in a deep valley at a bridge across the Red Creek near Lanesville. The climbing out of that valley was full of Spruce, Fir and Ash Trees, Stinging Nettles and stream crossings with ropes. Side hill trail was lined with ferns and steep drop-offs and the canopy above was thick. The rocky trail reminded me of home in Pennsylvania in many spots, but in other spots it was truly unique. Much of the trail was a deep rut with a mineral soil bed, lined with Mountain Laurel and that deep rut held lots of water. We ran through varying depths of water and wet mud in many sections in those first miles.

While the first half of the race rose up through dense forest, the second half emerged on a forest service road known as the Road Across The Sky. While the first miles were mostly under thick tree cover, most of the remaining miles were exposed to the sun. The Road Across The Sky passed numerous trail heads and vistas. When we reached the other end of our 7 mile traverse, we left the road onto The Bears Rocks Trail and we were now in a completely different environment, The Dolly Sods. The Dolly Sods is a high meadow with open rock formations, named for a German(Hessian Soldier) named Dahle who settled there after being released as a Revolutionary War Prisoner. This high plateau did not disappoint, like the forested section, it also had many water filled bogs. The rock formations were stunning with their odd shapes formed by thousands of years of wind. The cool rocks were only rivaled by the stunning vistas. When we reached the northwest rim, the view of The Canaan Valley Resort State Park and The Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge was pretty darned amazing. During that entire trip across what seemed like the top of West Virginia, the popularity of the Dolly Sods was evidenced in the dozens of hikers and backpackers exploring this high plain. They seemed to be everywhere and mostly stopped in the shade reading maps as it looked like the network of trails across that high flatland could get pretty confusing. The environments experienced during this race made it quite clear why I choose to run in events like this.

After the race we went to downtown Davis, a small town that's center of this outdoors universe. Most vehicles had racks with mountain bikes, kayaks or both. We ate burgers at the Black Water Brewing Company (the beer was ok and the food was bad, but they're new so hopefully it'll improve) and we stopped at Stumptown Ales (cool place with great beer) for a brew and some good conversation before heading back to the hotel.

The Start Line - A Sleepy Place The Day After The Event

The next day we went exploring. Janice wanted to see the Road Across The Sky and Black Water Falls State Park. We drove the forest service road I had run the day before and stopped along the way to take in a vista looking to the south over what seemed like endless valleys and mountains.

Janice Practicing Her Selfie-Stick Skills
Along The Road Across The Sky
Checking Out The Vista
Along The Road Across The Sky

We descended down off the mountain adjacent to where we had turned onto the Bear Rocks Trail the day before. What we didn't know was that by driving down into that valley it would take an hour to get back to the resort. The cool thing was that during that drive we saw the crazy looking Seneca Rocks which looked like a haven for rock climbers. After circling back to the Canaan Valley we made our way down to Black Water Falls State Park.

Black Water Falls

If you visit the falls, be sure to stop at the lodge and pick up a map. You have to ask for the map, not sure why, but they're kept behind the counter. We played around at a couple of vistas overlooking the gorge and then we made our way down to the spots where you can view the falls close up. Certainly a must see when you're there.

The Security Guard at Hellbender Burritos

Last, but not least and certainly a highlight of the trip we made one last stop in Davis for lunch. Hellbender Burritos is the spot to eat in Davis. Saturday night after the race, we drove by and there was quite the crowd outside waiting to get in. I'm sorry we didn't stop and get in line as I would've gladly eaten there twice. Sunday at lunch, there was no wait and man oh man was it good. (Thanks for the recommendation Leon!) We even got a burrito to take home for Cody.

Throw your kayak and mountain bike on the car, throw in your trail and climbing shoes and head to's a paradise!

Thanks For Checking Us Out
See You On Our Next Adventure!