[I started writing this 6 months ago, post race, but needed some more marinating. regardless, here it is.]
Well, that was interesting! Going into Laurel Highlands 70, I figured I would take 2nd place (or even – gasp- 1st on a very good day), and top 5 on a bad day. It was a bad day. And I was right, I took top 5, 4th place to be exact. It was a monumental effort in patience and persistence, and having an amazing crew and pacer helped save the day.
I took the opportunity to fly home to Ohio and visit with my parents before this race. I hadn’t run an eastern ultra since the very first one (Run Woodstock LSD 50 mile in Michigan) and was interested to see how this would pan out. Plus, it would be a good way to get my parents to watch the first ultra they’ve ever seen and hopefully dispel some anxieties about running this long in one go (‘no… knees don’t blow out while running. no, we don’t typically suffer from heart attacks. no, we don’t traditionally pass out randomly…’).
We had planned on running LHHT as a Western States qualifier if we didn’t get into Miwok 100K via lottery… but we did get into Miwok 100K. And all of a sudden, we had a long ultra a month for a few months strait. Miwok was about 5 weeks before Laurel, which, looking back was not enough time to recover. I had high expectations for this race, since Miwok went so well and it was only 4 weeks after American River. I didn’t know much about the LH course, except that it was point to point, went wayyy up on a ridge and ran the length on an amazing historic trail down the other side. So minus the first 11 mile hill, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, right?
The course starts in Ohiopyle and finishes in Johnstown, PA (yes, yes, the FLOOD. everyone in the house was reading the book around the time we ran this race). Speaking of floods, the rain was relentless the few days leading up to the race, only stopping two hours before the race start at 5:30am. Oh yeah, and 5:30AM is actually 2:30AM for us west-coasters.
So: we started pretty early. There was a party at the Motel 8 that night, with pot smoking and a full rave going on to keep us up. I do remember seeing Bryon Powell at the start and sort of feeling bad for him because there were a few people trying to shake his hand and get autographs – which, I wonder if that bothered him much. Regardless, we stood in line for a while, it felt cold. I don’t think it actually was, just a wet cold, which we weren’t used to, coming from the high desert.
We didn’t have those headlamps on long. The race started after a brief talk and we ran through the parking lot, where Joe lost his nicely laminated LHT map that we worked on the night before. We quickly got onto the Laurel Highlands Trail shortly thereafter. A bunch of people took off and we tried to stay relaxed as it was going to be a long day. I figured I’d try to stay at 12/min per mile pace, as it seemed to work well for Miwok and I could have gone further that day. This was problem #1, picking a pace and thinking I’d stay on it. The big 11 mile climb came and Joe and I hiked together. We hiked and hiked and power hiked some more. I felt in good power hiking shape because of Miwok (problem #2, false confidence. problem #3, power hiking TOO FAST, if this is possible). We went up forever and went through a cloud. I was dripping, not with sweat, but condensation. I distinctly remember water dripping off my nostrils because of the condensation and fog we were plowing through. I also remember feeling like my heart was bursting through my chest. Nothing about that hike was easy – because I didn’t treat it easy. Everyone around me was hauling at the same pace, encouraging me to keep up. [I realized, one can actually hike too aggressively].
The first aid station arrived and I was looking forward to eating bananas and potatoes. Except, there weren’t any potatoes. When I asked, someone pointed to a large can sitting on the table – CANNED potatoes. I decided to try one, and I gagged trying to eat it. They were eyeball sized orbs floating in syrup! I didn’t know canned potatoes existed until that day. I couldn’t handle anymore of the nasty things, so I went on my way, hoping there would be real boiled potatoes further on. (problem #4, there wasn’t.)
By mile 15 – yep – I felt the tell-tale lactic-y feeling of the legs. “my legs are already shot” I said to Joe. I slowed my pace down to try to conserve what I could for the last… 55 miles… ughhhhh. It was fun, running with east coast runners and chatting with people. There were a lot of people from the SW area of Pennsylvania that were were in and there were a few from Ohio. A few people knew (of?) my friend Peter Hogg, and these were the same people who knew/run with Zach Bitter. I noticed the style was slightly different, too. Far fewer Hokas and maximalist shoes, fewer UD packs, and more waist packs. Whenever I run races in the Bay area, it seems everyone is wearing a version of the same uniform 🙂 and out east, everyone had something different on.
Back to the race: I kept on keeping on, slowing down on purpose to preserve my failing legs. Joe left me and continued on at his pace. The course was soooo rocky. And slippery, and muddy. Every step I felt like I was balancing from rock to rock, then would slide off of the rock into the mud. My ankles were wiggling everywhere, my knees were knocking, my hip flexors were getting tired… over and over again. I sort of forgot that the Appalachians were a pile of rocks.
As I entered the next aid station on top of the hill, someone said I was 1st female. I said, no I’m not. I truly believed I was not. But I got nervous that I was, so I just tried to put the thought out of my head and convinced myself that they didn’t know what they were talking about – since there was a 70 mile relay also going on at the same time and it very well could have been another female just running the relay.
I kept running, with every aid station passing and having people tell me I was solidly #1. My parents were at every aid station they could drive to and they were thrilled that I was in 1st. I just shook my head and tried not to say anything negative, even though my legs were so fatigued. I ran with a bunch of different guys and enjoyed the conversations to pass the time, as I didn’t feel awful the whole time, just half of it. It was SO humid and wet feeling, even though it was partly cloudy. I was loving looking at all the greenery of the eastern deciduous forest again, though, and spend many hours identifying every tree and shrub that came to view. I miss leaves. All I see are needles in Oregon!
Eventually, with the pressure that I was 1st female and knowing I felt like crap and couldn’t keep it up, I slowed and slowed, eventually to an utter crawl. FINALLY, at mile 51, another woman passed me. Not just 1 woman, but 3 IN A ROW. I was hoping someone would come, but I didn’t necessarily want all 3 to flit by me like I was moving backwards. Which I was, essentially. I took that as a great sign to walk. I walked for a few miles. This was through a prescribed burn and open understory. I read the signs explaining the forest management project – I was walking, so I could actually read the information presented. I probably walked for 7 miles strait, trying to use my watch to gauge how fast I could walk – 15 min miles was my goal, as that was what I walked in the required yearly pack test for firefighters. If I could do it with 45 lbs in my backpack, I could do it with a litre of water! I worked myself into a tizzy, trying not to be too upset, but obviously I was. My legs were unable to move and this was the worst bonk of my entire life. My digestive system halted and I couldn’t take in any more calories. I figured, since I was walking, who cares about digesting at that point. Whatever I ate just sat there in my stomach, getting fuller and more bloated.
I finally reached the next aid station, willing to drop if anyone mentioned anything about it. My parents and my good friend Tiffany were there. Tiff was going to pace me in the final 13 miles. My eyes started welling up with tears and I said it would be 11:30 before I finished at this rate… My mom said, “We’ll be there. Don’t worry.” My mom said that! I was convinced she would hint that I shouldn’t finish, that I could just get in the car. But she held strong, likely against whatever she was really thinking when she saw her crying 29 year old, struggling to walk and eat. Joe was well on his way with Tiffany’s boyfriend, Stephen (now fiancé!) and apparently was looking strong and hauled out of there.
Joe WAS feeling strong, but then had a pretty good bonk as well, but he finished SO so well – in the time I was hoping for, 15:09! Stephen ran with him the last 24-ish miles, an incredible pacing effort. I told my parents to hurry the heck up, as Joe was probably finishing as I was standing there like a wet mop, crying into my chicken broth.
Tiff got me a Cup-o-Noodles and forced me to eat and walk. The MSG was fantastic and the broth helped too. Tiff forced me to drink every few minutes and kept reminding me to eat. She also encouraged me to try to keep jogging, even though I felt like we were walking fast. So after many miles of walk/jogging, stories, laughs, the sun finally set and the moon rose. I wish I had a picture of this: that weekend, there was an amber moon, called the ‘honey moon,’ which is a honey/amber colored moon. This thing was enormous, and rose out from the ground and shone on us like some crazy colored spotlight. It also happened to be Friday the 13th the night before, adding to the creep-factor of the woods at night. Tiff says something along the lines of “what city/building is that?” as it was in the direction of Johnstown, should we ever reach there. I died laughing and realized it was the moon she was talking about.
There were deer everywhere and the woods were so dark. I saw kangaroo mice hopping across the trail (Tiff doesn’t believe me, but I swear my wits were with me the whole time). I was so glad to have her there. The last 5+ miles were supposed to be all downhill, but I had to walk nearly half of it. The downhill hurt like hell on my peg legs.
There were mile markers every mile – part of the historic trail. I didn’t mind seeing them the whole way, it was neat. Except when I was walking and it took forever to get from one to the next. Tiff and I finally passed the mile 70 marker and cheered, knowing the finish was only .5 miles away (it was actually a 70.5 mi race!). We launch into a sprint (ok, like 10 minute pace haha) and run all the way down this dirt road in the direction where we heard people and saw floodlights.
Except…. no. We ran into a dead end on the road with an RV parked there. I yelled out – what the HECK???? and some people came to the door of the RV. “Are you in the race?” they called, “You took a wrong turn.” WHAT THE HECK! We heard Stephen calling for us from the finish line (apparently he may have heard us yelling) and guided us the correct direction. We ran back UP the damned hill and realized we were supposed to cross the dirt road, not turn onto it. The flagging had been hiding amongst the leaves and branches inside the corner and there was a huge mud puddle that distracted us from seeing the true way.
“HURRY someone’s coming!!!! it’s a girl!” Tiff yelled – quite possibly not knowing if it was or was not another female. I lock into a dead sprint and finally finish – in 18:01, far from the original 14-15 hrs I had planned. It turned out to be the next female runner, who I beat by a mere 20 seconds. I would have been devastated to take 5th after getting lost (no offense to 5th pace female!). We likely ran an extra half mile or so, which totally sucks when you can’t move anymore. So 71 miles it was.
My parents were there and Joe was too, happily eating away at some amazing chili. I don’t remember if I ate any or not, but I think I was very cold and wanted the heck out of there. The finishing plaques were the 70 mile markers from the LHT, which are so cool! I was so happy to have finished and persevered through the worst race-feeling I had ever had.
In hindsight, this race was much too close to Miwok to have been executed well. I just wasn’t recovered after that type of effort. I wouldn’t have expected to hike too aggressively, although now I know it is possible, especially when going from an elevation of 400 feet to 3000 feet in 11 miles. The course, although gorgeous, lashed out in the form of rocks and mud in the first half, which I didn’t consider beforehand. The canned potatoes were so terrible and likely contributed to me not eating enough during the race and becoming nauseous and unable to digest. I should have boiled my own or eaten something else.
For people running the race or considering running the race – PLAN for rocks and mud and humidity (especially if coming from the west!). The course had some great vista points and lots of leaves, but was incredible rocky and slippery in the first half – akin to running up a riverbed without the river. Take it out conservatively. The aid station volunteers were SO great and helpful, especially when I rolled in, quite a mess, pale and discouraged looking – everyone wanted to help! The race was very well organized and well marked (minus the part at the end – cross the road, don’t turn on it, but that was definitely our fault, not the race’s). I highly recommend the race to anyone, especially people who haven’t been to that area before. I was lucky to have grown up a mere 2 hrs away, so it felt like home in a way.
I could not have run 30 more miles after this. The LH 70 broke my heart a bit, and I was exhausted. Time to go back to the drawing board, and I want a break. I definitely have some work to do before running 100, but this was a great exercise in what not to do! On to the next…