The drive was beautiful from northeast Ohio and down into West Virginia. Windy roads that made my family nauseous en route led to the small town of Davis, WV which is just 10 miles to the east of Canaan Valley Resort where the race headquarters was and the finish line. After checking in and familiarizing ourselves with the grounds, including the indoor and outdoor pool, we walked down the hill out the back of the lodge and found the finish line, ready for us on Saturday. Here is the view from the finish line on Friday night.
The HS 40-mile race is essentially two distinctly different "races" when it comes to the course. First off, the race is 41 miles, not 40. The first 19.7 miles which end at Aid Station #4 contain 3300 feet of elevation climb...yea...11 football fields. The first 2.4 are on the road as you run down an old country road and then the climbing begins. From what I heard through the day, it was dry last year. This year, the area received 2" of rain during the past week. That turned that elevation climb and 19.7 miles into the wettest, muddiest run of my life. While the climb "sounds" steep, it's a slow climb that just doesn't end through the forest. Heavily covered by bright green foliage, the trail is very narrow at points and always rocky or blocked by boulders. In the wettest of areas, there is only one way through. As I stepped forward, there were times that my foot would go down 3" and other times, the water was up to my knee! Sometimes I could see in the water and other times, it was black muck and shoe-sucking. A loosely-tied shoe would end in an epic fail on this course, no doubt. Luckily for me, there were several water crossings...or shall I say "swift moving creek crossings" to clean up in. They were also kind enough to stretch mountain climbing ropes across to help not slipping on the mossy rocks beneath the water. At the 3rd crossing, I nearly bathed in there due to so much mud being caked on me.
Aid stations were great. The first one was the only liquid-only station at 2.4 miles in. After that, it was the longest stretch between aid stations at 8.1 miles. If you're going to have a long stretch between AS's, then early on is best vs. late in the race. This 8.1 miles is also where the first 2100' climb takes place. The rest of the aid stations were very well stocked with typical ultra fare and very helpful volunteers. I continued to enjoy my new ultra-favorite...Pringles. They had potatoes/salt at each AS as well.
Here are photos from the first 19.7 miles. Note in some photos how the "trail" more resembles a common stream. This was totally normal. I don't recall a single dirt only section in these 19.7 miles. It was mentally exhausting as eyes-off-the-trail would have resulted in face-in-the-mud or in one runner's case, a nose cut on a rock after a face plant on the trail. It was a relief to arrive at Aid Station 4.
|1st Water Crossing|
|Aid Station #2 after the 8.1 stretch since Aid Station #1|
|Water Crossing #2|
|Water Crossing #3|
|Entry to Aid Station #4 at Mile 19.7|
From mile 19.7 to Mile 27, it is nothing more than a straight, rolling dirt road in full sun. Decades ago, you could see the mountain tops to the left and right but today, it's grown in with lots of trees. Also commonplace from here on out were lots of blueberry and huckleberry bushes everywhere. They weren't ripe yet but soon would be. This is also bear country and those bushes will be ripe for the pickin' very soon. Seen along this stretch were lots of people with their trucks and bear-tracking dogs heading onto the trails to search for bears. We can attest to the bear presence, too. On the way to the start that morning, we took a wrong turn and lo and behold, there was a GIANT bear going through trash by a cabin at the Canaan Valley Resort. I am big guy at 6'2" and around 200lb and this guy/gal dwarfed me! I had never seen a black bear in the wild before until then. Wow!
|Road Across the Sky|
|Road Across the Sky|
Arriving here at mile 32.9 was a relief. I was beat. Heck, I was beat at Mile 19.7 and the sun was full as could be now. But, it was a comfy temperature in the mid-70s and while I was tired, I couldn't be happier to charge on. At this point, I thought the course was 40 miles and not 41 so leaving here, I assumed I had 7.1 to go. Leaving AS #7, I headed to Timberline Ski Resort which due to requests from the local mountain bikers, the course was changed from running on the mountain bike trails and up the ski slopes to running DOWN the ski slopes...an event that this morning I still feel quite well. Showing up at the ski resort about a mile past AS #7, the steep decline began. I just knew as I went that I was thrashing my quads but I didn't care much as the end was near. I knew I'd suffer in the days following the race but for now, it was all good. Lots of expensive ski lodges paralleled the slope and it was a beautiful descent.
After leaving the resort, it was a mixture of gravel road both covered and uncovered. The one mental mistake I made here was thinking I was 3 miles from AS #7 to #8. Nope...more like 5 miles. I kept thinking I was about to arrive and didn't. Eventually, I arrived at AS #8 which was 4.1 miles to the finish. I was certainly mixing in walking and running for awhile now, depending on how I felt. I wasn't in pain but just at my energy's end. My philosophy during a race is to leave it all out there. I never, ever want to finish and think "I had more to give. I held back." I want to finish saying "I left it all out there. I have nothing left." So that's what I did and after being out there for about 9 hours at that point, walking certainly happened but it was "with a purpose" and done in strong, brisk, arm-swinging way. The clock was ticking away, after all! Leaving Aid Station #8, I had to snap this photo. Dang, I just wanted to curl up under there with him/her!
This is where I realized the run was 41 miles. The entry sign to this aid station said 36.9 miles and I confirmed the exit sign was correct. Oh well...better an ultra be long rather than short, that's for sure. The remainder of the run was mostly on uncovered asphalt with the exception of a short grassy section with 2 miles to go and another grassy trail section before the finish. Slow but steady was the theme. In the end, though, I got my finish and my wife and girls were there to greet me. It was a nice downhill finish to make even the weariest runner look strong and fast. :-) I distinctly remember giving my wife a bear hug and saying "I left it all out there." I sure did but I loved the race. It really was a fantastic event from start to finish. I really don't think I'd change a single thing. Here I am at the finish:
Full Results Here.
|Great Patagonia finisher tech tee given at the finish line|
1. Stay at the host ski resort. There aren't many options out there and there is a very reasonable group rate set up for runners. Plus, the finish line is there and the pre-race dinner and meeting. They are also finishing up a major renovation now. Next year, the whole resort will be like brand new.
2. Go to the pre-race dinner and stay for the meeting. Some races don't have good pre-race dinners and are a waste of money. Not the case here. Runners get the pre-race dinner free (family extra) and the meeting follows immediately. Lots (and I mean lots) of great sponsorship swag given away, too. I, myself, got a $50 gift certificate. I saw some awesome Patagonia gear given out.
3. Post-Race: there is a great burrito shop in Davis, WV, which is only 10 miles west of the resort. I highly recommend this for Saturday night's dinner. Local, great service, and if you're a craft brew fan, a small but very good selection. Afterwards, head back to the resort and relax. (Hellbender Burritos)
4. Sunday morning: instead of eating the buffet at $12 a person at the resort, head on out for the trip home via Davis, WV again and directly across from the burrito shop is a bed and breakfast which serves breakfast to the public. SUPER good! Good 'ol homecooked breakfast and my whole family loved it. (Bright Morning Inn)
Overall, I can't think of anything bad to say about the Highlands Sky race. With a trail race that often lacks a literal trail, the course was marked incredibly well. Every time I thought "Hmmm...I wonder where to go now?"...somewhere a red streamer was flying which marked the course and direction to go. From the pre-race dinner to the finish line, it was perfect. I really do like the bright yellow Patagonia finishers tech tee, too. Very nice quality and great artwork, too. Thank you very much to the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners for a first class experience. I have already planned that in 2014, my family and I will be spending Father's Day in the West Virginia mountains once again.
My entire photo album of the race: on Google Drive // on Facebook (with captions)
Run Happy, friends!