Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Laurel Highlands Ultra Race Report - Running With/From The Old Man Of The Mountain

Growing up in Central PA, the land of Park Barner, I have known the word "ultra-marathon" since my youth. I remember my Dad pointing out Mr. Barner in the grocery store one time . Back then the idea meant nothing to me. I had no clue. Fast forward to 2008 and Karl Meltzer's Appalachian Trail
attempt and that "ultra-marathon" word came back to me. At that time I started reading all I could about trail and ultra running and of course I stumbled upon the 70.5 mile Laurel Highlands Ultra. Back then I was loving backpacking taking an annual section hike on The AT, about 100 miles in 6 or 7 days. I thought, certainly The Laurel Highlands Trail sounds beautiful, but who would be insane enough to cover it end to end in one day. I had only thru-hiked one trail and that was the 31ish mile West Rim Trail and I did it leisurely over a weekend. My backpacking was evolving into something
strange, I'd finish each day in my tent wishing I had gone further. It came to a head when I
hiked The AT section from The Delaware Water Gap to Bear Mountain and I had miscalculated
everything and finished a day early (no I didn't figure it out, it was pointed out to me over the
phone by Janice as she told me which hotel to check into so she could come retrieve me the next
day) That was 2009 and in 2010 I ran my first ultra length trail race (The 28.4mi Susquehanna
Super Hike & Ultra Trail Run), I hadn't even run a marathon yet, but I was hooked. So here it is
2013 and I have run a few 50k's, a couple 50 milers and I was looking for something a little
longer that wouldn't conflict with Janice's softball tournament held annually on the first weekend in June. Well there it was, the historic Laurel Highlands Ultra; the second weekend in June and in Pennsylvania. Who was insane enough to try to cover it all in one day? Me.


Janice checking out The Youghiogheny River.


The falls in Ohiopyle, PA.

The race starts in beautiful Ohiopyle, PA. A haven for outdoor play. The raging white
water is the main lure, but the lands surrounding the roaring Youghiogheny offer endless
possibilities for outdoor fun. If you haven't visited, you need to. Stop at Wilderness Voyageurs
and arrange a white water trip. I recommend shooting the rapids in a "Duck", it's a hoot! You'll have a blast. We found a place to stay at the nearby Lodge At Chalk Hill, an old motel that was being refurbished even during our visit. Our room had a brand new TV, fridge, microwave and toilet. For 80 bucks a night, it was exactly what we needed. Right next door is the Christian W. Klay Winery, perfect for a pre-dinner wine tasting. The weather was pretty crappy or we may have returned to see the live band later. Looked like a good time. Hidden back a country road was Fabrizi's Restaurant which made for a perfect fueling place. I highly recommend finding it and eating there. We made a quick trip to Ohiopyle to play tourist and check out the rapids and the falls and then it was back to the lodge to pack up hydration vests before trying to get some sleep.

At The Lodge at Chalk Hill. That deck overlooked a small lake.

A new visitor center is being built in Ohiopyle on the location used as the start line. That made
for minor parking mayhem, but it was no big deal considering the 70.5 mile field is limited to
130 runners and there were only a few relay runners starting at the same time. Janice was perched
up on an observation deck meant for viewing the waterfalls and I was positioned near the back of
the pack determined to not get in the way of the fast folks. There was a brief prayer said and the
next word was "Go".

As I took my first step and I realized I hadn't taken allergy medicine or Ibuprofen. Janice said
the Jeep was unlocked so I stopped and gobbled it down. I was now the absolute last runner out of
Ohiopyle. No big deal, I had all day to establish a position/catch up. Little did I know I was
about to get caught behind a traffic jam when the trail kicked up just past the guide shop. I was
behind guys who were talking about where to get breakfast after thy finished at 3am and another
couple who wondered if they'd make the time cutoff at the first check point. I'm not fast, but I
knew I didn't want to be starting this way. (mistake)

5:30am start...at the back of the pack.

I had done some homework on this trail, but I never found a worthy elevation profile. Elevation
gain is very important to this old guy's planning. I knew there were 2 small climbs followed by a
much larger climb all in the early miles. I thought I was prepared for these hills and I felt ok
even as I charged up the big climb. The big climb ended up being longer than I expected and I
needed to back off on my pace before the top. There was an aid station at 11.6 miles. I have 2
Nathan hydration vests and Janice was prepared to swap out my empty for a full one at the check
points. She stood ready with a full pack at that aid station and I told her I'd hang to the one I
had till the checkpoint. With 2 miles left to the checkpoint, my bag went dry.(mistake) I had
hoped to reach the first checkpoint (19.6mi) in four hours and I arrived about a half hour late,
but I was still ahead of the cutoff and I felt fine.

My job on the day was easy, all I had to do was follow a well blazed trail with every mile marked with a cement pillar for 70 miles. Janice on the other hand had to find her way up and over the Laurel Highlands Mountains. Janice had her GPS with her, but we were relying heavily on the locations I had saved to the mapping software in my phone. (mistake) The remote region provided no cell signal in most places and roaming in all the others, draining the batteries in no time at all. No problem, we have one of those power inverters you plug in your cigarette lighter and it provides A/C power, so she could charge batteries right? Well that inverter decided to die a smoky death as Janice was now also running out of gas because I hadn't filled the tank (mistake) after the trip from Harrisburg. Needless to say when I met up with her at the second checkpoint (32.3mi), she had the most sour look on her face and I knew the day had become a nightmare for her.



Arriving at Checkpoint #1.


At that point I was at about seven and a half hours. I was almost at the half way mark and still
under 8 hours so I assured her that I was still after a decent finishing time and I took off
(mistake). Back to that elevation profile I never really got a good look at. The hills between there and
the next checkpoint hit me hard. On the tiny little DCNR elevation profile image they looked like
little rollers, but in reality they were serious hills (for me anyway). The time added as I
neared the fourth check point (46.4mi) plus the look on Janice's face equaled this race just
wasn't worth it. I love running, but I consider it an extremely selfish act and if I get the hint
that my running is ruining someone else's day, I have a tough time continuing. Going home happy
is far more important than making it to any finish line. I knew what I had to do so when I
arrived at the checkpoint, I explained to Janice that if I wanted to drop out I had to do it at a
check point. All I had to do was unpin my number and we could go the hell home. I had just
traveled the last 14 miles at a snail's pace and she was having a crappy day, but she refused to
support my dropping out. She said, "if you feel good enough to continue, you need to finish".

I had a hot spot on my left foot so a volunteer gave me some duct tape and I was good to go. A funny thing happened at this checkpoint, I sat down on a metal folding chair (the kind you might see in a school or church) to take off my shoe and the chair sunk about six inches into the mud. (Oh well, I thought it was funny. Guess ya' had to be there) Janice made a plan to meet me with dry socks at the next checkpoint and I was back on the trail. I was in no way assured that I was doing the right thing by continuing.

Happy to have survived to another checkpoint.


Checking the aid station for something good to eat.

The trail leading to checkpoint #4 (57.1mi) was far more welcoming (with less hills) and I was back
to running consistently. As I arrived at that last checkpoint it was getting dark and with 13
more miles to go I again suggested calling it a day. Again, Janice was having none of it. At this
spot she had one of our camp chairs and I changed my socks. I started the day in Drymax and would finish the day in Darn Tough - seemed appropriate. I had gone all day in a pair of Salomon XR Mission shoes and the thought of changing into a dry pair of Mizuno's seemed like a good idea, but my feet were a bit swollen and the fit is different and they weren't going to work so the Salomon's went back on. I had run all day with GU Roctane in my hydration vest, but for the last section I had asked Janice to fill two Nathan bottles with NUUN. One bottle was in a handheld carrier and I stuffed other in the pocket on my vest. There was one more aid station at 62 miles, but crew didn't have access. My plan was that I could drink those bottles and still have a full hydration bag to get me down the mountain to the finish.

Off I went, 13 miles to go in the dark following the beam of my Black DiamondStorm headlamp. I
had never run this far in the dark and I was now running when I'm typically in bed falling asleep
to the news. I was concerned I'd meet the sleep monster everyone talks about, but instead running in th edarkness turned magical as I lit up the dense forest. I had been eating a gel on the hour and taking a Hammer Nutrtion Endurolyte electrolyte tablet(or two) on the half hour. GU Chomps and PowerBar Gel Blasts filled in the gaps in between. I ate whatever looked appetizing at the aid stations. I like peanut butter and jelly and I reached for what I thought I thought was PB&J and it turned out to be bologne and cheese. It was in the same container with peanut butter and jelly and I obviously didn't look close enough. Nope I didn't barf. In the last hours I just couldn't stomach anymore gels. I ate only one more between the last checkpoint and the finish.

Running in the dark I paced along with a woman in a Newton hat for a while until I had a clumsy
painful fall at about the 65 mile mark. After getting going again I fell in behind 3 guys who had
made a wrong turn. They were walking and I joined their walking parade on a little climb, but
after that the trail leveled out and I had promised myself (and Janice) that I was going to run wherever I could so I told them I was going to run. Two of them (a runner and his pacer) went with me, friendly guys from Ohio. They chuckled at me when I told them I was running this event because I wanted to go further than 50 miles. I was asked "why didn't ya' pick some easy 100k instead of this tough thing?" We caught back up to the woman in the Newton hat, she had had enough of the rock dance in the dark and was walking in hopes of finishing healthy. We all understood. Soon the lights of the finish line were glowing through the trees. The fellas with me were psyched to pick up the pace to the finish. I wanted to finish on my own so I let a little gap open and finished a few seconds behind them. I got to take in that "I did it feeling" and before I knew it the race director was reaching out his hand in congratulations and handing me the coolest wooden trophy with a "70" on it.

It's after 1am and the race director was there to greet me with a hand shake & huge smile.

I made a lot of mistakes with this race, but the biggest was that I didn't do thorough research
on this trail. I knew about the early ascents, but I thought it would be easy sailing after that. I've since learned that the LHHT climbs more than 11,000' and descends the same amount across it's 70 miles, sapping your energy on the way up and chewing up your quads and your toenails on the way down. I have since decided that LHHT really stands for Laurel Highlands "Humbling" Trail. I obviously read too many flowery blog posts about wonderful days on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail with the beautiful ferns and sweet smelling Mountain Laurel. I should have checked those authors' finishing times. Well here's mine, it took me 19 hours 34 minutes and 23 seconds to reach the 70.5 mile finish line. The old man of the mountain who lives somewhere between Mile 34 and Mile 48 kicked my butt for not paying him the respect he deserves. I'll never go to an event without knowing everything I can and I'll always respect the mountain or the mountain will eat me.

All done & more than ready to be collected by an equally exhausted Janice.
Now I could quit.

Posted By Blogger to Perry's Trails at 6/18/2013 06:41:00 AM