Thursday, June 19, 2014

Laurel Highlands Ultra Race Report - 2014 - 70.5 Miles of Smiles

The Laurel Highlands Ultra seems to have become quite the popular event, selling out quickly with rumors of needing a lottery in the future. To make matters more urgent, it's now been given its overdue props by being added to the Western States 100 Endurance Run's list of qualifying events. I ran it last year. I finished, but with a terribly bitter taste in my mouth. Janice, my loving, loyal and overly reliable crew/life-mate had a horrible day driving in those mountains. I had enough things go wrong that I turned my day on the trail into a suffer-fest as well. Back in December when registration opened, Janice didn't know it, but I decided I needed to return to right those wrongs and have the fun in The Laurel Highlands we should've had last year. I'd do it one more time and give the future running of this storied event to the fasties attempting to be chosen for Western States.


Even though Dakota Jones doesn't think too highly of our mountains here in the East, The Laurel Highlands are nothing to take lightly. The roads commonly have extra lanes on the steep climbs so trucks can make it, cell signal is nothing more than a battery sapping dream in most places and resupply of any kind is sparse at best. In case you didn't notice, I'm not talking about the trail, I'm referencing just some of the pain you have to go through driving while crewing. Last year so many things went wrong for Janice while chasing me, I decided this year I would take an overkill approach to giving her the information and support she could rely on to get through the day. This year, the GPS had the aid station coordinates preprogrammed to eliminate reliance on smart phones. I purchased a Spot Messenger and I planned to send her a message with my position with two miles to go before each aid station. That way she wouldn't be guessing my arrival times. That would also allow her to hopefully get some sleep while waiting at the finish line. She had multiple paper maps and printed pages of addresses of food and gas locations in case the electronics let her down. I also didn't forget to refill the gas tank after dinner this year. Janice also claimed bedtime was too late last year so we got dinner done earlier and cut out our tourist visit to look at the falls (we did not however cut out our visit to the Christian W. Klay Winery next door to the hotel). Instead of after dinner, Friday morning I did stuff like mixing GU Roctane, prepping hydration vests and a crew bag. She stressed that last year her fatigue made her an exhausted mess by the time I finished. Hopefully this year with precautions in place, I'd be the only one too tired to function at day's end. We did repeat a couple things that worked well last year: we ate at Fabrizi's, and stayed at The Lodge at Chalk Hill.

Pop Robin delivering dinner above our deck at The Lodge at Chalk Hill


Last year, we went with a two vest system that worked so well, Janice more resembled an Indy Pit Crew than the typical ultra crew. I would arrive at an aid station to find Janice waiting with a full hydration vest, dropped the empty vest while she'd put the new one on me and off I went. Efficient right? Well yes, but maybe too efficient. I was flying through aid stations, in some places forgetting to eat and just not benefitting from a few moments of stopping. I also did not swap vests with her at the first aid station which proved to be a mistake so this year every time I'd see her we'd swap whether I was empty or not. Last year I saw a woman pass me more than once and I wondered, "why am I seeing her again?" I didn't remember passing her, "where'd she come from?" It dawned on me, she was actually taking a brief recharge break at aid stations, heck I even noticed she was dressed differently; she was changing clothes. Last year at mile 57 I simply changed socks and felt like a million bucks so this year on top of actually pausing at aid stations, I had a complete change of clothes(including shoes) in Janice's crew bag.


The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail has plenty of climbing and much of it's worst ascents are in the first 9 miles. There's a climb at mile 6 that much resembles a couple of hills I train on here at home. When I'm training at home, I charge up them in a strong power hike and I figured why not do the same on this climb? Well, when I'm "charging" up them at home, I don't have 60 more miles to go. That little stunt last year put me in such debt the rest of the day, the struggle just to finish was nasty. On top of the physical mess I created, last year my brain was fried as well. That nasty struggle mostly existed between miles 35 and 46, so on top of conserving on those early climbs. At the 32 mile aid station I had learned of all of Janice's problems on the morning and that weighed heavy on top of my own problems. I knew I needed to do something different this year in those middle-miles to keep my head out of a straight jacket.


Checked the weather a week prior to the event, 78° High Humidity & Thunder Storms was the forecast. I thought, "oh boy it's going to be hot this year". In most of Pennsylvania, pouring rains filled the week leading into the event. Even Friday night in Ohiopyle an impressive storm drenched the region and with it came a wonderfully cool forecast for Saturday. In fact the temperatures in the 60's much resembled last year's which were quite pleasant placing worries of heat firmly in the rearview mirror.

The new visitor center in Ohiopyle is now complete, so parking at the start was much easier than last year and like last year we were greeted with a misty morning fog, but thankfully all the storms had bid us farewell. Even in the 5am darkness, the rapids and falls at Ohiopyle were a powerful sight to see (and hear) with the recent influx of rainfall. It was cool to see Bryon Powell with iRunFar ("here") at the start line, I was hoping I'd get a chance to meet him, but oh well it didn't happen. Check-in/number pick up was easy and at 5:30am after a prayer for all of us we a simple "go".

The rain swollen Youghiogheny at Ohiopyle.

Trotting easily through Ohiopyle on about 3/4 mile of road, I felt odd like it was going to be one of those runs that takes me a forever to get warmed up. My knees felt grumpy and my breathing was a mess, but I at least know to just ride it out because both will settle. Todd Lewis passed me like I was standing still right at Wilderness Voyageurs. Knowing that our finishing times are often similar, I wondered, "wow, just how slow am I going?" I talked myself out of concern remembering my plan to cruise easily up the mountain as a plan to have a better day later and I relaxed. I watched numerous folks attacking those climbs wondering if I'd see them later. I never did feel good until the check point at 19 miles so perhaps my inability to get warmed up was a blessing in disguise because arriving there 13 minutes slower than last year was exactly what I was looking for.

At the 11 mile aid station I met Janice and swapped vests, ate food even though I didn't feel hungry and she sent me on my way. I was already drinking a lot of GU Roctane and into my hourly Gel/Electrolyte Capsule schedule and a salt tablet every other hour. I felt like I should worry about the cut off at the 19 mile check point, but I wasn't as slow as I thought. Besides, along with Janice, the effervescent Leon Lutz was there as well; so I knew if they tried to pull me I could sneak out while those two discussed the matter in depth with the check point boss (just kidding). For those who don't know my girl Janice or Leon, getting supported by or just running into personalities like theirs in a difficult event like this one can be an enormous shot of positive mojo. They don't even charge for the love they exude - pretty cool!


Another PA runner Ben Mazur was there crewing for Todd Lewis and I ran into him at the 26 mile Seven Springs Ski Resort Aid Station. It very cool to see a familiar face there considering Janice would be skipping this one, waiting for me at the next. Todd had breezed through there way ahead of me, so Ben was just chilling at the aid station - I reminded him that he had passed me near there last year, his iPhone App was talking to him as he went by me. Approaching the aid station at 32 miles, three or four 50kers swept past me. Those kids were cookin'! (along with the 70.5 mile race there's a 50k as well and team relay events in each distance - so four races in one really) The aid stations at this event are staffed by caring and knowledgeable volunteers who refuse to let you go with unmet needs.  While I don't recommend it, the well run, well placed aid stations and the ability to use drop bags at two later locations allow runners to go without a crew. This is a difficult trail that no matter how you look at it, it's 70 miles long, Janice has crewed for me both years and if for nothing more than piece of mind; having that support is invaluable.

An aid station open for business & buzzing.

Well, I guess I couldn't get through a blog post without complaining about runners who babble loudly while running. This event had them too.

I learned something here though:

1. When runners are talking(yelling), if you're behind them they're not as loud. 
2. I also learned (especially later in the day) I'm not alone when it comes to being annoyed by those who clamber on loudly about mundane crap while they're running.

NOTE: Janice will tell you, I talk way too much and it's probably true, but when I'm in the forest, the forest is why I'm there - I'm not there to hear about your kid's bad grades, your expensive new mountain bike that almost got your thrown out of the house, the fact that your cat can't have bowel movements without having Vaseline on her butt, etc. (or any of that other stuff that if any runner ever reads my blog and recognizes my examples will probably get me punched at the next run).

Like the last race I ran though, I found good company in another runner and he couldn't have appeared at a better time as a young guy named Victor, who I learned is a middle school teacher in Erie. Our paces became joined just after the 32 mile aid station and the friendly banter for the next miles was just what the doctor ordered. We didn't talk loudly or continually and we talked to amuse ourselves, not to hold conversations that belong at Starbucks. Running with him was like having a pacer and it was right where I needed one. These were the miles that chewed me up last year. I told him how I struggled there last year and every time we approached another dreaded hill, it really wasn't that bad. I was benefitting from my conservative start and my mental state stayed level and I was getting through with little suffering. We were in and out of the 38 mile aid station at the same time, but he needed to pull off to answer the call of nature and planned to perform some basic toenail maintenance at the 46 mile aid station so I never saw him again or more importantly thank him properly for pacing me through the mental-mess miles - I'm sure he had no idea how much he helped me.
Oh look, another hill.

The beauty of The Laurel Highlands Trail is immense and difficult to describe and unfortunately most of it is missed when running. Ferns line much of the trail and the further went north, the ferns seemed to increase to monstrous sizes. The trail sneaks through boulder piles, around a lake, right through Seven Springs Ski Resort and over The PA Turnpike. There's a section of side-hill that cuts across the face of a hill lined by ferns and they seem to grow parallel to the ground beneath them. So imagine that there are ferns on either side of a trail on the slope of a hill, they're above and below you and because of the way their frons hang above the earth, they create optical illusion that makes you think you need to lean with them (maybe I was just hallucinating) - in any event, I made myself focus on trees; knowing they were indeed growing vertically/no more leaning required (I'm sure not a single reader at this point believes I have an ounce of sanity left - you really do have to see it for yourself). I've read the trail guide and I know I missed so much of it's beauty, so I plan that the next time I visit I'll be carrying a camera, wearing a legit backpack and taking days instead of hours to complete its 70 miles.

An ancient cemetery along the trail.

I can't talk about the trail without this year mentioning the mud. It rained across Pennsylvania most of the week leading up to the event. Friday as we headed into Ohiopyle, we had a local radio station on that was announcing an approaching damaging storm. The commentator described down pours and damaging winds and they were now on their way to the area. So just like last year, when we checked into the hotel, it was pouring and man did it pour! All that rainfall combined with the Friday afternoon grand finale guaranteed 70 miles of mud on Saturday. Some of it was slippery, some of it was puddles and some of it was that ankle deep stuff that pulls at your shoes as you slop through it. I was following a guy up a steep climb who had zero traction in his Hoka's and kept slipping. I passed more than one runner sitting on the ground putting their shoes back on after retrieving them from the mud that had just removed them. One runner, who this was his 8th running of the event, said this was the muddiest he had ever seen it. Yes, mud is part of it, you  have to expect it to some extent. The Salomon Speedcross shoes I wore were perfect for those conditions so I thankfully kept the mud at mostly an amusement level.

In the 50's, I was slowing slightly, walking the steeps, but mostly still running. I did begin to recognize runners I remembered leaving me on those initial climbs. Unfortunately, one of them was Todd. We weren't far from the 57 mile aid station, he was walking and told me he had bonked, needing some solid food. I moved on knowing that Ben would be waiting for him up ahead. I could to give Ben the heads up to make sure Todd could refuel and keep going. Soon I ran into Danny Mowers(not running it this year) instead and he was looking for Todd who was past due. I gave him the details and he was off to find him. Janice was waiting at the aid station and I told her that I agreed that dry clothing was a good idea. The breeze had cooled the air and wet muddy clothing was beginning to bother me in a cold kinda' way. She was happy I saw it her way and when I told her I'd also like to change my shoes, she replied confidently "I have them too". While changing, Todd and Danny strolled in. Janice had found the Sheetz (convenience store) that apparently time had forgotten and she had chicken tenders. I had one and she offered the same to starving Todd. With just a shirt change he was out of the aid station well ahead of me. Sitting down and taking my time to change everything except my compression shorts turned into an excellent break from the perpetual movement. I added a light wind jacket over a sleeveless and I was back on the trail, encouraged that it still wasn't quite dark yet.

Smiling, I know I only have a half marathon to go.

Dry clothes at 57 miles.

One last gulp of Coca-Cola while Danny Mowers chills
and waits for his next friend to arrive.

I soon realized I forgot two bottles I wanted to carry, but decided I'd be fine without them(my only real mistake on the day- I think). Not much longer and I saw Todd again and he was sort of stopped talking to another runner. When I passed he reached out and said hello and I almost lost my balance(klutz). I was anxious to reach the gas line road and the next aid station at mile 62. Just knowing I would be soon be under 10 miles to go had me stoked to keep moving as quickly as I could. I did soon reach the road and the aid station. In the darkness at the aid station I recognized Charlie Ellis requesting a grilled cheese to go and he reminded me that he told me he'd see me later. Charlie had introduced himself to me on the big climb at the beginning of the day, telling me he not only read my blog, but remembered me finishing last year and recognized me this year. I was astonished by all three facts. Through much of the next miles we stuck together with another runner keeping our distance from a pair who were a talking machine up ahead of us. Charlie ducked into the ferns for relief and not much further I was eaten by a climb at the 65th mile. I felt spent. Charlie caught back up and passed with ease and I couldn't match pace with the other fella either. I was now in bumbling and stumbling mode, tripping over everything. My stabilizer muscles were fried and my lack of any existing coordination seemed much worse in the shadowy darkness. Charlie had spoken of a sub-19 hour finish for us and I watched as that became more and more unrealistic for me. Before too long I was surprised that I caught back up to the other runner who I eventually learned his name was Marvin and he was from the Baltimore area. He was now in the same condition, hoping the finish line would come to us. I promised him that I had probably tripped over 2,000 rocks since we had parted company. We laughed off our struggle together and found our way through the rocks to the finish. He had said at one point, "I'm barely moving" and approaching the finish I told him I'd give him space so he could run it in alone. When I said run, I think he thought I was nuts. He finished and got his hand shake and 70 mile post trophy from the race director and I followed shortly after. Our running day was done.

I now have bookends (with Rick Freeman, Race Director)

Janice collected me promptly and I asked her if she had gotten my last Spot message or any sleep. She said "no" to both. Knowing we were now to somehow get to Pittsburgh to visit Niece Katie, I asked, "so what's our plan?" She said, "let's go to Katie's!" Janice had already had one highly caffeinated coffee drink from the Sheetz with the chicken tenders and she was ready to go. She had also gotten ice and the beer in the Jeep was cold! She drove and I enjoyed an ice cold celebratory Yuengling Summer Wheat. After one more stop at a Sheetz for another high octane coffee drink we were in Pittsburgh in no time flat. After such a long day, it was great to see Katie. I was embarrassingly filthy so it was especially great to see her shower...that showerhead is amazing, but that's a blog post all its own(I'll let Janice write that one - she installed the shower head after all).

This year's trip on The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail was magical. It was so good that it makes me forget the pain of the previous year. Sure I finished 30 minutes faster than last year and that's cool, but most importantly I feel I ran much smarter and we had a good day. Janice was as usual the highlight of my day. Knowing that I'm running in beautiful mountains with her waiting for me at each checkpoint makes me smile. That was pretty much my theme on the day. I caught myself smiling all day long - pretty good sign that you're either really enjoying yourself or you belong in an institution. All the smiles on the volunteers faces made it easy as did seeing new and familiar smiles, like Leon, Todd, Ben, Danny and meeting new ones like Charlie, Victor and Marvin. And when you cross the finish line at whatever hour you arrive, Rick Freeman the Race Director is there waiting for you and he's smiling too.

The smiles continued into Sunday at lunch with Katie at The Porch in Pittsburgh.

My only real let down of the day was a technological one and I didn't really let it bother me. At the pace I'm able to maintain over this type of terrain and distance, it's difficult to find a GPS watch with battery life long enough. I've been wearing the Ambit2 S watch by Suunto, it's an excellent device with different level GPS settings to provide longer battery life. The pinging of the satellites is what saps the battery so lessening their frequency allows the battery to go longer. The downside of that is that the watch is reaching out to space for a position update less frequent thus rounding off corners, etc. The result being that, yes my watch stayed on all 19 hours, but when I stopped it, it thought I had only traveled 63.42 miles vs. 70.5. No big deal, it's more important to me to have an unbroken track and time than the perfect distance. Besides, the little cement mile markers along the way tell the real tale. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a Suunto watch and I'm confident that some day they'll make a watch with longer battery life for us slow guys.

If you can travel 70.5 miles up and over mountains in less than 22 hours, then I greatly recommend this top notch challenge. No other event has given me anywhere near the sense of accomplishment as The Laurel Highlands Ultra.

Note: I find it funny to learn that now that this event is a qualifier for The Western States 100 Endurance Run (one of the most respected ultras in the world) finishing Laurel Highlands under 20 hours is qualification to enter the lottery to run it. I've never qualified for The Boston Marathon which if you believe the media is every runners Mecca, but now I've qualified for what I consider a truly big deal...sadly most of those misguided media folks have probably never even heard of Western States. [No, I have no plans to enter, but it feels good to know...]

Stuff I used:

Salomon Speedcross 3 Shoes
Salomon XR Mission Shoes
The North Face GTD Sleeveless Shirt (2)
The North Face Better Than Naked Wind Jacket
Brooks Rogue III Running Shorts (2)
Under Armour Seemless Compression Shorts
CEP Compression Calf Sleeves
Zensah Ultra Compression Calf Sleeves
Injini TRAIL 2.0 Midweight Mini-Crew Socks (2)*
Headsweats GU Energy Labs Race Cap
Headsweats Race Cap
Headsweats Supervisor
Nathan Performance HPL 020 Hydration Vest
Nathan Performance Endurance Hydration Vest (discontinued)
Suunto Ambit2 S GPS Watch
Spot Messenger GPS Transmitter
Body Glide Anti Chafe
Body Glide Skin
GU Roctane Ultra Endurance Drink
GU Roctane Gels
GU Electrolyte Capsules

*Injinji socks were a change for me for this year and I'd be remiss to not mention them. Last year I wore DryMax and Darn Tough socks and all 10 of my toenails were damaged and eventually lost. This year with Injinji, I have one toenail that's a little sore, but I attribute it to toeing a large rock in full stride. Injinji socks work, try 'em!

Fun photos from Janice's day crewing:

Old School/New School


The other covered bridge...

You lookin' at me?


Cool rock.

~4 ultras in 4 months - time to take a break!
~ nothing more for me till The Susquehanna Super Hike in September

Obelisk Head

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