Last year, the lodge was in the middle of a major construction project and renovation. When I say major, I mean we were walking on plywood and struggling to navigate around all of the projects. This year, it is all done and 160 brand new rooms are finished. The lodge is absolutely fantastic. The rooms, the decor...it's all top notch. Plus, we all got the rooms for only $99 a night thanks to the race organizers setting up a block rate. Check-in went perfect as did the drive down from NE Ohio and true to last year, the pasta dinner and pre-race meeting all went really well. It was great to see so many familiar faces from last year and races like the West Virginia Trilogy and Frozen Sasquatch 50K.
Race morning, the race began at 6am. At 5am, shuttles were provided to get runners to the start and many (like us) followed in the convoy out to the remote start, about 25min away. We got there about 30min prior to the start and after getting a head-to-toe coating of bug spray, taking a few family pics, and giving out goodbye/good luck kisses to my 3 girls, it was time to go.
At Highlands Sky, the race is divided into a few major sections. For the first 19.7 miles, we climb a LOT and have a good dose of downhills that do a number on the quads. LOTS of rocks and boulders, a plethora of shoe sucking mud and standing water, 3 water crossings where climbing ropes are stretched across to assist runners, and a constant canopy of green foliage over the trail. There was one section that is filled with rhododendrons left and right. It felt like a rain forest! This whole section, while rough, rugged, and very challenging, is also beautiful. As for the aid stations, the first major aid is provided at mile 10.5 and then most aid stations are 4 to 6 miles apart from that point out to the finish. Standard ultra fare provided at each aid station, along with Hammer Nutrition products. Below is the course map that lays out how the aid stations are spaced.
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As for nutrition, I employed the strategy from my last two ultras, that being using only Hammer Nutrition products and not eating at the aid stations except for the occasional piece of fruit. No more PB&Js, Pringles, M&Ms, etc. I've been trying to fuel with only what I need and cut down on aid station time. For this race, I took a Hammer Gel at the top of each hour, an Endurolytes Extreme at the :20 and a Perpetuem Solid at the :40...while drinking Heed the whole time. I stuck to the plan except for the last hour or two. I couldn't stomach another Perpetuem Solid.
Overall, I am happy with how the race went. I ran strong, even while taking a beating, for all the climbs, descents, and messy trails of the first 19.7 miles. Arriving at my drop bag and aid station #4, I definitely was tired and pretty worn down. I was ahead of last year's pace, though. I shot off a text to my wife (I finally got a signal) to let her know how I was doing and where I was. The next section beat me down big time. The Road Across the Sky is almost entirely wide open in the sun and is nothing more than a gravel road. Here is where I took one of my few photos. Last year, I never got a photo that really summed up this section well but this one does. Imagine this...over and over again. That's the Road Across the Sky...for 7.3 miles to Mile 27.
Pictured there in the red shirt is a girl I met today (Amy) and we ran together, off and on, for the rest of the race. We definitely were having our mental/physical ups and downs at the different times but eventually one of us kept catching the other. It was good to give the encouragement when needed and pass the time through conversation in the rough patches.
Once I got to mile 27 and aid station #6, I was thrilled to finally enter Dolly Sods. Just the most beautiful section and so much to look at. The wind was really blowing hard here but it felt great in the full sun. It was bit cool, too, so perfect. As I neared aid station #7, I passed over the "Moon Rocks" which are essentially massive boulders, some as big as a house. Cleverly placed orange streamers to mark the "trail" led us through them and on towards mile 32.9. (again...lots of great photos in my photo album) Throughout this section, I was doing better than I was doing on the "Road" but still walked a fair share. It wasn't hot out but the sun was taking its toll. Once at 32.9, I shot off another text update and let my wife know only 8.1 miles remained.
Heading on down the trail, I was now behind the Timberline Ski Resort and I'd soon pop out of the woods right on the ski slope. Last year, due to heavy rains pre-race, I went down the slopes (and therefore truly destroyed my quads) to the bottom. That was a one-time deal and not the original course. This year, we turned UP the slope and well...it was steep. It's a ski slope! After climbing for awhile, I again turned left into the woods, en route to something known as the "Butt Slide." I had no idea what I was in store for. Well, thank goodness I didn't have to literally slide down on my butt but I can see how it got it's name. Imagine a very steep downhill with next to nothing to grab on to, loose dirt, and lots of loose rocks everywhere. Tough to stay vertical! This whole section to the last aid station is lots of down hill running, making the quads all the more grumpy. Eventually, a long gravel road led me to the final aid station with a sign reading 4.1 miles to go at the exit. They had fresh strawberries and blueberries here (a first!) so I grabbed whatever I could hold and head on out.
Maybe a quarter mile down the road after texting another update to my wife, Amy caught me yet again. I had lost her back in the Butt Slide area as she was fighting through a rough patch. She was smiling now and ready to finish this! For the final 4.1, we stayed together, mixing up a run-walk routine while also motivating each other to keep on moving. At this point, I was thrilled with the time. I was definitely going to better my time from last year's 10hrs, 25min...even if I walked all the way in. Still, we kept on going and finished strong back at the lodge. The finish is pretty sweet as runners emerge from the woods and then take a steep asphalt path down the hill and across the finish line. I finished in 9hrs, 40min and was 79th out of around 200 runners who started the race. Last year I was 120-ish out of about 200. This was ultra marathon #30!!! (how in the world did THAT happen?!) Thanks to my wife for catching this great finish line photo.
|Proud to wear the eagle for Team Red White and Blue!|
Many thanks to Dan Lehmann (Race Director) and his army of volunteers. He and the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners did another spectacular job and I wouldn't change a thing nor do I have a single complaint. So 2015? Ummm...yea! Where do I sign?! (oh yea, for the record...this race is 41 miles...but Highlands Sky 41 just doesn't sound right, now does it?!)
|Sweet finisher's Patagonia long sleeve tech tee!|