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!


  1. Anonymous29/6/16 14:20

    Just visited Davis and nearby Thomas last month. Gorgeous! I highly recommend the "bed & cocktail" lodging in Thomas. I'll have to check out the Road Across the Sky next time I'm out there!

  2. Hey, thanks for checking out my blog post! It sure is a beautiful place!!! :-)