trail race is a
70.5 mile race in southwestern PA. It
travels northeast along the entire length of the Laurel
trail, a trail whose every mile is marked by small cement markers shaped somewhat
like mini Washington Monuments. The race
award is a wooden replica of the mile markers. Laurel Highlands
A year ago, my buddy Joe did this race in its relay format. Relay teams can have from 2 to 5 members, and Joe’s team was a 2-person team. Joe loved the race and talked about doing it on his own this year. My schedule is usually tight in June, but due to doing a September 100 this year, I found myself with time to squeeze this race in. Joe and I both signed up months ago and discussed the race by e-mail for months.
We’d been warned repeatedly that it’s a tough trail and the race is more like a 100 than a 50 because of the difficult nature of the trail. My per-mile pace ended up being the slowest I’ve ever run in a race other than a 100.
So, on Saturday morning, June 14th, as soon as it was light enough to run without lights, we were off. There were just over 50 people doing the ultra and perhaps a dozen or so relay teams. The course is divided into five major segments of approximately 19, 13, 14, 11, and 13 miles. The first segment is easily the most difficult and it was a tough way to start the day.
We did half a mile through a park to the trail and then immediately headed up. We started at about 1200 feet and the trail peaks in the 2700-2800 range. By mile 3, we’d done a major ascent followed by a major descent. I had been thinking about shooting for four hours for this first segment, but decided to focus on an easy effort rather than time after seeing the course. This paid off later in the day. Joe, meanwhile, had left me behind after half a mile or so. I wouldn’t see him for a long, long time.
Soon, we started the biggest ascent on the course, climbing to about 2600 feet just past mile seven. By mile 10, we’d climbed 3000 feet. By the 19 mile aid station, it was 4000 feet.
I had my dad along crewing for me. He’s going to crew for me at Wasatch and he’d never been to an ultra before. Because he lives in PA, this was a great opportunity for him to see a race and learn a little about crewing. Plus, I could use the help.
I first saw him at 11 miles and was glad he was there. My shoes were giving me problems and I needed to change to protect a hot spot that was developing. I next saw him at 19 miles and there I needed to tape the hot spot. He was more concerned than I was about my feet. I’m used to dealing with these sorts of things, but I could hear the concern in his voice as he asked me about my feet later.
As I left the aid station, I saw my first runners in hours. This is a small race and the field spreads out quickly. I passed three people from 19-22. Two of them would pass me back; one more than once, but I would always return the favor. At mile 22, I saw a runner in front of me suddenly sit down. He told me he was “crashing hard.” I offered him food and electrolytes, but he mostly seemed like he wanted to just sit down and be left alone, so I took off.
The running through here got easier but there were still some significant climbs. Overall, my altimeter registered just over 10000 feet of climbing and descending with 17 climbs that counted as “laps” on the altimeter. A climb only needs to be about 150 vertical feet to show up as a lap, but a 150 foot climb and a 1500 foot climb each show up as one “lap”.
I was averaging about 4 miles per hour overall, walking the ups, the steep downs and the tougher sections of the trail. Overall, I may have walked 50 or so of the 70 miles. My goal was to make 4 mph for 10 hours and then slow down as little as possible after that. Before the race, I’d thought that making the old cut-off of 18 hours would be possible. After just a few hours on the course, I told my dad that I was estimating 20 hours as my finishing time. I’d end up pretty close on that one.
Around mile 26 or so, near a ski area, it started to rain. Easy at first and then harder. I found my dad just past the official aid station. He told me that Joe was about 25 minutes ahead and running well. I was happy for my friend to be having such a good day in his first attempt beyond 50 miles.
I got to the 32 mile aid station in about or so and was surprised to see that my dad wasn’t there. I grabbed aid station food and Powerade instead of Gu and Succeed and headed out quickly. Before I left the aid station, I told the volunteers that when a guy wearing a cowboy hat and an orange shirt turned up, they should tell him he was in trouble.
Soon, I was starting the 35th mile and I’d be halfway there. The mile took forever, it seemed. This mile spawned a thought in my head and I was soon compiling a list of “Miles from Hell”. The list ended up including 35, 39, 44, 50 65 and 69 by the time the race was over. I hit the halfway point in and my estimate of 20 hours still seemed plausible.
After passing mile 35, the terrain got easier and the weather worsened. The mud from the first rain shower had mostly dried and the footing was better. I had a couple great miles into the aid station at mile 38, passing three runners in the couple miles before the aid station. One runner pretty much jumped out of his skin as I startled him while passing. I think people were very much expecting to be alone out there and another runner passing was a surprise.
Suddenly, the skies opened up. I was raining hard. Just as I was thinking that this was the hardest rain I’d seen in a while, it started raining harder. I found my dad at the aid station and he apologized for missing the previous station. He’d gotten lost and arrived minutes after I left. The rain led to some chaos that would cause some problems later. I got out quickly and started a nasty, muddy descent. Suddenly, the rain ended and we spent a few miles on nice easy trails. Until mile 44. That serpentine mile wound through jungle-like foliage up, down, up, down and around. I thought it would never end. But of course, it did, and suddenly, I was at the mile 46 aid station.
I grabbed my lights, knowing that it would probably get dark before I made the next aid station at 57. I also wanted to take extra Gu and Succeed here in case I got nauseous as the miles accumulated a common problem for me. Where’s the food bag? It wasn’t there. All of my food and Gu were gone. They’d apparently been left behind at the mile 38 aid station in the rain. My dad hadn’t gotten any water for the Succeed. I could tell that my dad felt bad and I didn’t want to make him feel worse. I did make a comment before I realized what had happened that the one thing that I absolutely needed was the Gu and now I didn’t have it.
I crossed the highway to the main aid station, which was off limits to crews. They offered me some Red Bull. No thanks. I went with Powerade, fig newtons, salted potatoes, and hit the trail. The next couple miles were mentally tough. I had a limited amount of food to get through 11 miles and I was worried. I had some Pringles, about 5 fig newtons, and one precious Gu. I rationed them carefully and was thrilled to find that the unmanned aid station at 52 had Gatorade. Normally, I wouldn’t touch Gatorade in an ultra, but at this point, it provided calories. I pressed on.
At about mile 55, I pulled out my LED light. Twenty minutes later, I added my halogen lamp as well. I pulled into the mile 57 aid station at about or so. I heard a familiar voice. Joe was there. When he saw me arrive, he got out fast.
My dad had some good news for me. He’d scrounged a few Gus from other runners and a protein bar. I took the Gus and the burger that he’d gotten for me and passed on the protein bar. I grabbed extra batteries for my halogen lamp, re-filled my hydration pack, grabbed a turkey sandwich and set out for the last 13 miles. By now, I was simply power-hiking. I ran a few more short stretches but fast walking was the norm.
I needed to average 18 minute miles to break 20 hours. It was going to be tough.
I caught Joe about mile 57 and stayed with him for about ¾ of a mile before passing. I made one pit stop and he re-passed me briefly, before I moved past again. At about mile 60.5, we went out on a dirt road for about a mile and half. Here, I thought, I can make up some time. But, it was mostly uphill and I barely held my pace. At the top was our final aid station. I had a quick bowl of soup and hit the trail. Like I’d done at least 3 times earlier, I tried to leave the aid station going the wrong direction, but the guy manning the station straightened me out quickly.
I hit mile 62 two minutes off pace for 20 hours. I tried to make it up in mile 63, a fairly easy downhill mile. I lost another minute. Then two minutes in mile 64. Twenty hours was slipping away. But, I stayed focused on getting to the finish. I was in my last two hours. One foot. Then another. Repeat. Mile 65 was tricky and I had to be careful to make a few correct turns. The next mile was easy.
When do we start the descent?
We needed to drop about 1300 or so feet to get off the ridge we’d been following all day. I’d been hoping it would be over 6 long easy miles, but at mile 67, we were still way up there. I was caught off guard by the sudden appearance of red lights in the distance through the trees. It turned out to be radio towers. Then, under some crackling power lines. Now we were going down. Mile 69 was all down. There it was – the mile 69 marker. One to go. It was an easy mile but through a labyrinth of trails, some marked with glow sticks and others that left me searching for the omnipresent yellow trail blazes.
Lights in the distance. Voices. I was done. I made it in .
This is one tough race, truly 70 miles of technical trails. Unique in distance. It’s a beautiful trail, but the view doesn’t change very much. You’ve got to watch your step all day long. Great aid stations. And, the 22 hour time limit makes this race much more accessible to the middle and back of the pack runners than the old 18 hour limit did. It’s well worth the trip to run this one.