Highland Sky 40 Mile Race Report – Rachel Toor

Author: Rachel Toor

We negotiated an hour of whining. Whether it was to be running-time or stop-time was never determined.

My brother Mark and his wife Allyn live in Charleston, West Virginia, the home of the Rattlesnake 50 km and the Snowflake 50 km. Both are races I am delighted to drive five hours to run. Afterward my brother cooks a big dinner and Allyn’s two sisters and their families come over. I usually whine a bit and drive home the next day.

Mark called to say that he’d read in the local paper about a brand new event –

The Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run – at a place where they skied in the winter, and resorted in the fall: Canaan Valley. I had visions of wandering lost for 40 years, trying desperately to reach the promised land of a finish line 40 miles away. Until I learned that in West Virginia, Canaan rhymes with inane. If you rent a big house, I told my brother, we could all go up and I could run the race. (This is the same brother who, when I told him that I had bought a black leather jacket and needed a motorcycle to accessorize it, ha ha, got me a Honda Rebel 150cc.) Within a nanosecond, Mark had rented a big house and I was compelled to enter a race longer than I had ever run.

My sister-in-law comes from hardy Virginia stock. Her family history is straight Southern Gothic. One day I will write a novel about them and no one will believe it is anything other than fiction. The four sisters, three of whom now live in Charleston, are close and tolerant. Except that they do not tolerate whining, from each other or from others. When we decided that my brother, his eight-months pregnant wife, two sisters, one five-year-old child, my 16-year-old dog Hannah and her two canine cousins would accompany me to this race, they said I would be allowed an hour of whining, no more. The quarters were too close, the drive too long. I was lucky to get an hour, they said.

But, but, but, I said. I’ve never run that far. I don’t know if I can do it. It’s up a mountain and back down. It’s the first year of the race – things always go wrong the first year. I could get lost. I often get lost. It’s desolate and deserted up there. There are no previous times to try to gauge how long it will take. It could be wet. It could be cold. I will fall. (I always fall.) There might not be enough – or the right kind of – food at the aid stations. I haven’t trained enough. I’m scared.

You have 47 minutes of whining left, they said.

After the race briefing I thought I was going to have to plead for more time. Dan Lehmann, the race director, casually mentioned that there were cables across some of the stream crossings. He emphasized the rockiness of the course. He noted that it had been a rainy spring and that the peat moss sods were, well, sodden. The weather up there, a freak of nature kind of place, atypically bare and barren for lush West Virginia, was highly changeable. It could be cold. Windy. You will get muddy, he said. There’s a hose at the finish, he said.

I do not like stream crossings. I do not like being cold. I do not like losing my shoes in the mud. I particularly do not like point-to-point races. Except, of course, for the Boston marathon. As in Boston, we loaded buses. At Highlands Sky we loaded at 5:00 am to get to the start. We drove until it was light, and then, as in Boston, waited in line for the porta-potties. At 6:00 am, Dan said, not terribly loudly, “Okay, go ahead, have fun,” and we went ahead.

In the first few miles, I started a conversation with a guy my lawyer brother had pointed out. He does constitutional law, Mark said. I trotted up and asked the long-haired young man what kind of constitutional law issues arose in Charleston, West Virginia. Lots, it turned out. A number of us listened while making the first big climb. Con Law Man talked about defending a student who wanted to start an Anarchy Club in a local high school (the irony of forming an anarchy club seemed to get lost somehow), defending the KKK, and suing the state legislature. We joked that the state prosecutor was being prosecuted for sexual harassment (“It’s just how we talk to each other in this office,” was his defense), and that the governor’s love-letter emails to his mistress had recently been published in the newspaper. What kind of a state is this, I asked? One like any other, Con Law Man said. I guess. Then, as usual in ultras, talk turned to other races, other towns. As we climbed higher, we spoke less and spaced out.

After a long, steep, rocky downhill, a woman I’d passed caught up and commended me on my downhill running. Short legs and stupidity, I said, go a long way. I asked about her running history and she told me that she’d run five 100 mile races, winning or coming in second. I apologized for not recognizing her name. Most people know my name, she said, because of last year’s Vermont 100 mile race. Michele Burr told me that she’d finished the race and promptly went into a coma for five days, suffering from hyponatremia. I thought about drinking less water and trying to eat more salt after that.

We were running in creek beds, through water and on jagged rocks. The first half was billed as the hard part; after mile 19 or so, it was supposed to be easy. Maybe, if running 7.3 miles on a straight dirt road, where all you see stretching ahead is uphill miles and ant-sized fellow runners, can be considered easy. Maybe, if running for hours through bogs of standing water and knee-deep, shoe-sucking mud can be considered easy. Maybe, if climbing to the top of the world on rocks as big as your head and being buffeted by a strong wind can be considered easy. Maybe, if you don’t think running 40 miles is hard.

I crossed the line. That was hard, I said to Dan. I was smiling. It was hard. He said I looked fresh, happy. I was happy. How could I not be happy? The course was so well marked that even I would have had to work to get lost. The aid stations were not only well stocked, but well staffed. The volunteers were personal pit-crew for each runner, suggesting things that you didn’t even know you wanted until they offered. The course was not only beautiful, but varied; something for everyone to love, and very little not to like (though the 7.3 miles of road was less than lovable).
That night, soaking in the hot tub, the sisters said I had a lot of whining time left. I should feel free to let loose. But I could produce no whines, just kept smiling, feeling fortunate to be able to do something so wonderful, surrounded and supported by friends and family. It’s hard to whine once you’ve arrived in the land of milk and honey.