Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Race Report: 2013 Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run

Months ago, I was looking for my "next big race" but hadn't yet caught the "100 mile bug" that I once had back in 2009. In the good days, I think I'm like many runners who feel they can conquer the world and run forever and I begin "100 mile race shopping" but in the end, my passion for it just isn't there...and if I don't want it bad enough, I sure am not going to devote the training time to it while stealing the time away from my family. Enter "something in between." I've done many races since my 100-mile finishes in 2009 but none over the 50K/31.2 mile mark. Other races out there over 50K are the 50-mile, the 100K, and a few oddball distances, like 40 miles. My good friends at NEO Trail (Northeast Ohio Trail Club) who love rocks and old-school ultra running recommended I look at the Highlands Sky 40-Mile Trail Run, the "40-miler that runs like a 50-miler." Set in a national forest in eastern West Virginia, a small amount of research showed me 1) it's a relatively short drive, 2) it would be a great family getaway...wife and kids hang out at the ski resort/pool while I play in the mountains, 3) it was breathtaking with regards to scenery, 4) that I could head to a race and be anonymous vs. knowing everyone (it's nice to do that now and again) and 5) it looked like a heck of a challenge. I think it was only minutes later, several months ago, and I had booked a room at the ski resort and registered for the race, my first 50K+ race since October 2009. And that's pretty much the last time I looked at the race until last week.

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.
Race Start

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
At this point, I had heard that a shoe change was advisable. I am not a fan of changing shoes ever if no problem exists. In ultra-running, "managing" your feet is an art and when things are good (e.g. no blisters, hot spots, etc.), you don't mess with it. However, I had gone through so much crap that undoubtedly, my shoes were holding a lot of it and I had a solid stretch of dry road in front of me. A warm, dry, clean pair of shoes sounded magnificent so after refueling at the aid station, I shed my Brooks Cascadias which were full of grime, pebbles, and grit for a clean pair of Brooks Pure Grits. I had some powdered lube already in a new pair of socks ready to go and I was carrying BodyGlide to re-lube my feet. It was the right choice, for sure. I spent probably 10min at this aid station due to the change but I was soon on the "Road Across the Sky."

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
This was a long stretch and whatever clouds we had dissipated along the way. I did meet a fellow runner from Pittburgh (Brian) and shared lots of great conversation with him. He knew the area well and told me a lot about what we were running through. This area of Dolly Sods is protected. Not even powered chain saws are allowed in here. It's classified as a National Wilderness area. As we ran, we got one aid station about halfway across the "Road" before arriving at Mile 27, the exit off the gravel road and onto the single track trail which ran across the plains until Mile 32.9. This section was my favorite, hands down. So many chances to stop and just soak it in. I tried often to shoot a text off to my wife to let her know I was good and my status but not even a slight signal could be found. It was the epitome of what I think of when I think of "God's Country." I truly felt blessed to be able to run through it and soak it in. I had turned off all data on my iPhone 5 during the run so I could take photos and it was working very well. I received a waterproof case...a slim one...for my birthday in April and it was the perfect companion for this run. I took a lot of photos along this section which had mostly dry trail but sections of water as well. The funnest part was when the trail disappeared and boulders as big as houses became the trail. Here are the highlights from this section.

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 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:
Afterwards, I relaxed for awhile which equated to telling stories to my family while laying on the ground. I wanted to hang out at the finish until a fellow Team RWB (Red, White, Blue) athlete finished. She flagged me down early in the race and mentioned getting a finish line photo together. She didn't finish too far behind me and we did get together for our finish line photo. We both run for Team Red, White, and Blue. Team RWB is composed of athletes across the world who are veterans and run for wounded veterans. Once she finished, we both found out that we both are in the Navy. She happens to be a doctor who works directly with wounded warriors. Here is Rupa and me at the finish.
Afterwards, it was back to the room for a hot shower and dinner. Results did come out today and my official finishing time was 10hrs, 25min, 9sec and out of 163 finishers, I was 117th. Nearly 200 started the race. Full Results Here.
Great Patagonia finisher tech tee given at the finish line
In closing, I thought I'd share a few thoughts if you might be considering this race in your future:

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!


Kim said...

Yay! AS both a WVMTR and NEO TC member, I am glad you liked Highlands Sky.

I've swept the course, and worked Aid at the Last AS on the course. Mebbe in 2014 I will actually run the course.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic race report! It was my first time running HS40 as well, and I will definitely be running it again in 2014! Congrats!

abbi said...

Great report! Highlands Sky is such a beautiful course and definitely worth it for anyone considering. Congrats!

Scott McMurtrey said...

love the pics and those water crossings. looks like a great trail race!

Katie said...

Fabulous report! HS was my first "official" ultra, and I absolutely loved it. Tough, beautiful, challenging and FUN - your pictures & words captured it perfectly. Congratulations on a strong finish!

Matt Y. said...

Great run, report, and pictures. Your words and pictures captured the day very well but there's still nothing like being out there doing it to get the full effect. See you next year hopefully.

Tony Mollica said...

Great RR Nick! It was good to see you and get a chance to talk with you! Thanks for all the great pictures. Hopefully I won't get timed out next year and I will get to run the whole course!

JNo said...

I really enjoyed your race report! I'm a trail runner but not an ultra runner but I totally admire you all for what you can do out there. Way to rock it out!!

JNo said...

I really enjoyed your race report! I'm a trail runner but not an ultra runner but I totally admire you all for what you can do out there. Way to rock it out!!