Johnstown or Jamaica? With a vividly verdant forest everywhere and the oppressive humidity I was not sold I was actually in Pennsylvania. Only the ocean was missing. Many years have past since I was east during the summer. I quickly remembered why. Perhaps living in Colorado has spoiled me? No, I recall never liking humidity.
Ultrathoner and I found ourselves back in Old Penn’s woods for yet another ultra, our first east of the Mississippi, the Laurel Highlands Ultra. Smooth travel was not in the cards with bumped flights, misdirected luggage and rush hour traffic to overcome before arriving at the parent’s well maintained home, a private botanical garden nestled in the woods. Once we arrived the company, food and equally important blueberry pie, made up for all the travel delays. Whoever first coined the phrase “it’s the journey, not the destination” was not talking about modern air travel.
The pre race briefing and traditional pasta dinner was lively but quickly over since a 3:30 am shuttle bus departure mandated an early bedtime. The alarm ripped me out of a deep sleep at the same time other people were being kicked out of the local bars. Whether an ‘alpine’ start for a race or a climb a frequent my first thought is “And I’m doing this voluntarily?” or “I paid to do this…” This time was no exception.
More food and the normal pre race rituals behind us we were soon on our way to the finish line. The night was warm and moist with the nighttime sounds of the woodlands competing with slamming car doors, and the chatter of numerous runners. The overall vibe was of excitement. Being new racers to this region we quickly observed that many of the participants certainly knew each other. The chatter continued the entire drive.
Once in Ohiopyle the din of excitement grew with additional racers and their crews already milling around either warming up or standing in the queue for the bathroom. The facilities were inadequate for our numbers. In a rare role reversal the men’s line was longer than the women’s prompting many guys to make their bathroom co-ed.
The announcer started the race and we left in the predawn light running along the Youghiogheny which added its voice to those of the birds and insects as we quickly left the sleepy town and headed into the woods. The race, not counting seven miles of a detour, runs the length of the Laurel Highlands Trail which is mostly on the top of Laurel Mountain. Its terrain is quite beautiful with rocky outcrops, lakes, streams, swamp and what seems to be an endless field of ferns along the course. As an added bonus the mountain laurel were in full bloom adding both a lovely scent and a color contrast to the abundant sea of green.
The first eight miles present the most vertical gain on the trail. In just the first mile we doubled the altitude only to loose much of it on the subsequent downhill. This practice was repeated several times where we would power walk uphill for some time only to lose much of the gain. The trail profile reminded me of a rollercoaster ride. Since the trail is a popular backpacking destination and we were close to one of its ends it was in pretty good condition. Actually for a trail runner it was in excellent shape. The biggest issue in during this first stage was the number of runners on the trail. Being mostly single track it was crowded until time and distance spread the pack out.
With eight aid stations, four of which were required checkpoints, it was prudent to carry my own fuel and fluids since they were between six and eleven miles apart. My ‘secret weapon’ of the day was a batch of Mom’s pancakes made the day prior. I have found that I run best on real food over long distances so pancakes and mushroom pizza are two of my favorite ultra foods. I also had Sports Beans, Gu’s and ClifBlocks in my Nathan pack to get me through the day.
Once the vertical gain was behind me I then had to face almost 70 miles of rolling trail. It would have been easy to just run up the shorter hills to gain time and distance but I knew that would quickly lead to my demise. Being a recovering marathon runner I still have a hard time walking up the hills and found myself always evaluating if the hill was steeper than a driveway. I have experienced some steep driveways but also knew the advice was meant more as a mantra to keep me in check. But for every uphill there was often an equal downhill so I pushed it fast on the downhill frequently passing my fellow runners. Talking to others along the way really showed me the regional perspective. They often thought the trail was rocky, steep and tough. In many ways it certainly is all of those things but in comparing it to trails I run in Colorado I was not concerned. Truly it is all a matter of perspective and experience which certainly supports the point that races outside one’s home region are a good idea.
The race was just shy of three marathon distances so I broke the course into thirds as part of my race strategy. My goal was to run 12.5 min/miles which I came close to doing for the first marathon. At the time I thought I could maintain the pace since I felt pretty good even with the warm temperatures that early in the morning. Then the humidity really rose up and smacked me down. Since I run a lot during the winter to train for spring races I am most comfortable running in 30-50 F degree weather. Summer like conditions only arrived in Denver in the last three weeks so my taper runs were finally in shorts and a t shirt instead of tights, jacket and gloves. There was no way I could train for the humidity I suspected I would have to face on race day.
The middle marathon quickly turned brutal as the temperature and humidity increased. There were no cooling breezes to look forward to on the hilltops only the hot sun. The remainder of the time the forest canopy did help keep the sun’s rays at bay but it also trapped in the heat. My pace slowed in converse proportion to my sweat output. I was drenched. Even though I was drinking a lot between stations carrying 2 liters in my pack I did not need to pee, nor would I, for many hours. The only way I could rehydrate would be to stop, drink a lot and try to lower my core temperature. I did not have time for that so my pace was often a walk even on the flat stretches. I frequently soaked my hat and pack towel when I came to a stream to try and cool down. Thoughts of air conditioned movie theaters frequently came to mind.
The day became worse because of the detour. Since a bridge on the trail over a highway was condemned last year a seven mile detour was added to the course after mile 37. A mix of asphalt and rough gravel road segments with little shade was the next challenge. It was equally split between a downhill and uphill grade which due to my decreased energy levels meant I walked a lot of it even though getting through it faster would have reduced my sun exposure. It was brutal and to up the ante I was almost out of water with three miles to go. As I started to evaluate the cabins I was passing for outdoor faucets to resupply I noticed a woman up ahead holding a white gallon milk jug. As I approached she reconfirmed that I was on the correct gravel road and that she had plenty of water to share from her well. I quickly filled up and thanking her shuffled off wishing for the shaded green of the trail. Truly a trail angel.
The next checkpoint was at the end of the detour at mile 44. It was also the first with my drop bag. Not knowing what to expect from the day I stocked each of my bags with a complete change of cloths, more food, RedBull and Gatorade. It was while I was taking ten minutes to sit, change, eat and drink that I knew the worst was behind me. While I was behind my estimated pace and even my contingency plan was shot I knew I still had enough time left on the clock to finish the course. Taking the Gatorade with me I gladly returned to the trail to attempt the final 50 k.
In retrospect carrying the Gatorade as a handheld bottle got be back into the race. Once back in the woods I increased my pace with longer segments of running. Before and after each attempt I took a swallow finally draining the bottle as I neared the 53 mile checkpoint. I still was not peeing. With almost 12 miles to the next station I took some time to sit, eat and drink before heading out feeling even stronger.
The constant hum of the forest started to change as the shadows lengthened and the forest darkened. During the day the woods were filled with the buzz of insects, bird song and the chirps and rustling of leaves from a multitude of chipmunks. While not silent it was noticeably quieter with only some insects adding the background music to my run. This section of the course had less tree cover with a solid carpet of ferns that were waist to chest high. The trail was just a slight crease in this carpet as the ferns pressed in on both sides. Following it was not hard but it did require a slowed pace since my foot placements were by feel and not by sight. Several times I stubbed my toes on an unseen rock or branch which then added a loud yelp to the insect symphony. It was this stretch of the course where I felt fully renewed and started running 15 min/miles–a solid pace.
I soon reached the next checkpoint having passed almost two handfuls of other runners, many of whom I had been playing leap frog with for much of the day. This time they were walking and I was running. I was feeling strong and they were having stomach issues. Perhaps my slower pace earlier in the day allowed me to conserve energy for the later in the day? That is the interesting thing about running ultra distances. It is hard, if not impossible; to have a predictable formula to plan from as each race has so many variables to consider which contribute to your success or failure. At this point with the trail markers steadily increasing and the psychological boost I felt with each person I passed I arrived at the 64 mile checkpoint feeling good. Well as good as one can feel for having run 64 miles. My second drop bag was now available. A quick inventory showed I didn’t need anything but to change my shirt. The helpful station volunteer filled my pack with water, quickly gave me chicken noodle soup to eat as well as a turkey sandwich for the final segment. The energy that each volunteer at every station gave to helping the runners is really important. Without them these races would be much more difficult if not impossible. I tried to loudly thank each station crew as I left for the next segment.
Humidity when added to cooler night air in the mountains of PA turns into mountain mist. Running through ferns, in the dark, with a headlamp in the fog certainly was a pain. At this point I just ran and trusted my feet to tell me if I left the trail. Since the trail is well used there is a groove 8-10 inches wide and a few inches deep that is worn into the earth. Stray from the groove and the feel of the soil and the growth is actually noticeable. A few times I had to stop where the trail turned rocky to check for yellow blazes on the trees along the trail to make certain I was still on track. I did not want to get lost and spend the remainder of the night in the woods!
My legs started a rebellion, actually just the left one. The last three miles is notably downhill; unfortunately it is fairly steep. Earlier in the day I rolled my ankle and determined it was just a minor sprain or at the time I mentally categorized it as an ankle stretch. This was mile 13. I was not going to quit that soon so on I ran. Once I hit the 60s in mileage my left calf muscle started to knot and spasm ensuring I took some walk breaks. As the trail became steeper my legs were not happy. Bursts of downhill speed were far behind me as I used the trees and branches along the path to check my descent. During these last few miles I started to see lights through the forest other than the many lightning bugs. A few were runners and their pacers and some were from the surrounding towns.
Mile post 69 was certainly a welcome sight. I ran past then stopped and went back for a picture. Only one mile to go! Another 12 minutes of downhill travel quickly brought me to the lights and sounds of the finish line. With a surprisingly loud level of applause I crossed the line just under 20.5 hours.
Ultrathoner was already there having been cut at an earlier checkpoint but I’ll let him tell that story. I was happy to see him and gladly gave him all my gear while I accepted my trophy, a wooden replica of the trail marker with 77 carved on one side.
With almost four hours left of the race we soon headed home. We latter learned that the humidity, heat, distance or time reduced the initial 116 starters to only 58. It was a rough, but beautiful, day in the woods.
Get out and explore the World!