Saturday, June 14, 2014

Race Report: Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run

Last year, I traveled to and took my family to eastern West Virginia to the town of Davis. Just west of downtown is the Canaan Valley State Park and lodge. This is race headquarters for the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run, run in the Monongahela National Forest and Dolly Sods Wilderness. It was the most picturesque race I had ever run, hands down. From showing up at the lodge, the race, the course, the was all awesome. Excellent family mini-mini vacation and a race I wanted to do again. Last year's race report is here so for a ton of photos and that report, please visit this link. I took well over 200 photos last year but this year, I only took a couple.

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'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.

Click on photo for higher resolution/larger image.
After 19.7, the ability to have a drop bag staged is offered which I highly recommend. After the messy first half, most runners' shoes are filled with all kinds of grime. I learned a lesson from last year and packed bottled water and a towel so I could wash my feet off before lubing them back up and putting a fresh pair of socks and shoes on. It worked perfectly. The next section is the Road Across the Sky which is 7.3 miles of gravel road. Lots of flat areas and climbs mixed in. After that, the next 5.9 miles are spent in the Dolly Sods area..the most amazing place I've ever run. Absolutely breathtaking. (here is my photo album that includes photos of this section) After this section, runners find themselves at mile 32.9. For me, this is the beginning of the end. Only one aid station remains. 4 miles later after more rugged, quad-beating trails, runners come out on the road where it's 4.1 miles to the finish behind the lodge, and mostly road.

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 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!
Afterwards, I caught up with a few friends who finished before me then crashed on the lawn for a bit along with hosing off both pairs of Brooks Pure Grits that I wore. Not much longer after that, I headed on back to the room and made up a batch of Hammer's Recoverite, mixed with chocolate milk. A hot shower, a failing attempt to really clean my jacked up toes, and we were off to Davis for a great meal at Hellbenders Burritos. After dinner, we went and checked out Blackwater Falls. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the sign that read "214 steps to the bottom"...yikes! Did I mention my quads were trashed?! Well, we only went halfway and still got a great view. Beautiful falls!

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!


Eric R. said...

Great recap of your run today. I'm truly in awe of ultra runners and what you do. Only completed half marathons myself and hope to do the half portion of the trilogy in Oct. Great run and congrats!!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the 2013 pictures last year and forwarded the link to many others. 2013 was my first time running HS40 and loved it. I ran it this year again and shaved off about 30 mins. Looking forward to running it again next June. The family loves the trip also.

I'll be signing up for the trilogy 50 miler and the 1/2 on Sunday.