Highland Sky 40 Mile Race Report – Tod Massa

Highland Sky 40 Mile Race Report – Davis, West Virginia

Author: Tod Massa

Well, the Highlands Sky Ultra 40 in Canaan Valley State Park West Virginia was everything I was told it would be: Hard, and perhaps too much for a first ultra.

First, let me say that West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners, Dan Lehmann, and all the volunteers put on a helluva race! While this was only fourth race, first ultra, I didn’t see anything to complain about. Well-organized, well-planned out, everything done to the smallest detail from what I could see. The aid station volunteers were wonderful – can’t say enough about them! The trail was also really well marked. A lot of effort had gone into staging this race.

I got up to Canaan Valley State Park Friday afternoon, a bit later than I intended after a series of sub optimal routing choices. While I was in the parking lot I saw a man in shorts with very muddy legs and a handful of surveyor flags. I went up to him and said, “You look like a race director.” He allowed he was and we introduced ourselves and he explained he had been out marking the last couple of miles and that it would be a bit muddy out there. Dan then excused himself to get cleaned up before the dinner and briefing.

During the dinner I met a number of runners who were all very supportive and encouraging of my first ultra attempt. Really, it was a bunch of great people. It was clear though from the briefing that this was not going to be an easy race…that iterated and reiterated. I was already convinced of that from studying the topos, but I was not going to be dissuaded from the attempt. After dinner and the briefing, I packed and repacked my Camelback and my waist pack. I laid out my clothes and set three alarms for four, four-ten, and four-fifteen.

It was a humid and foggy morning when we loaded the old school buses with ski-racks for the ride to the starting line. Afterwards it was a half-hour of general milling and potty stops. Six o’clock came soon enough and we were off. It was a fast start on roads for two miles and change through the first aid station and then across a grassy field and into the first ascent.

Did I mention it was muddy? And steep? No? Well, it was. Rocky, too. At each aid station, there was a sign with a time on it that represented what time we would be there on a 16-minute pace. This was really key since we had to make station #6 (26.7 miles) by 1:10 pm in order to be allowed to keep going. The difference between station #1 and #2 was about 8 miles and a 2300 ft climb over less than three miles. We had been advised not to worry too much about our times at stations #2 and #3 as we could make up quite a bit of time between #4 and #6 since that was a seven-mile stretch of forest road. It was a demanding run but I got there only five minutes off that pace with a couple of runners I had hooked up with along the way (Maria and Charley). A few minutes of eating and drinking and then off again, feeling pumped about the race and my time. Things went well, until the next major climb, 1200 ft that just kicked my butt. We made it to #3 and were now 30 minutes off the pace, trying to figure out where we lost the time (I learned today that the distance between #2 and #3 was more like 7 miles instead of the 5.5 we were told). Anyway, it was somewhere in there, at 3.5 hours that the first cramps started -right on time, left thigh, just like back in Tybee during my first marathon back Feb 1st. I swear I had been doing everything right…hourly gels and Enduro-Caps, drinking, eating, trying to maintain an appropriate pace for my abilities and the terrain.

Rocks. Mud. Steep ups, steep downs. Narrow trails, logs. Everything you could want, except in my case, speed and endurance. For the next a few aid stations all I was able to do was make up a few of the 30 minutes I was behind. My right foot was in pain, and I was getting hit with serious cramps in my thighs every 20-30 minutes. I got to the midpoint and headed for my drop bag. I swear, I never realized how wonderful it could feel to pull on a pair of clean, dry wool socks. It was pure heaven! My feet and legs were black from the churned mud of the heather on top of the mountains we had climbed. The pain in my right foot was, I realized, from a huge blister on the end of my second toe that had ruptured and torn on both sides. So, I quickly bandaged it up, grabbed some grapes and moved on.

It was to no avail. I could not run enough on the road to make up any time. The road was straight, unyielding, and hilly. Every time you crested a hill, you saw the next one…and the next one. I began to accept a DNF. But even then, I refused to give in. I made it to #5, ate, drank and kept moving.

And soon it was over. I made it into #6 at 1:39….29 minutes too late. DNF. The volunteers were apologetic about having to enforce the cutoff, but I had agreed to the rules in signing up. Wasn’t their fault at all. I had done my best and simply fallen a bit short.

And that’s my story. It was great challenge in a beautiful place with a lot of really great people. I had done everything I could to make it, but just didn’t have enough to go all the way…at least not in time. I figure, that I at least finished a marathon, and that makes three for the year so far….and I really only started learning to run again a year ago next month. So, I feel pretty good, despite the DNF. Not happy mind you, but it was quite an accomplishment for me.

So, next year, I’ll try it again. In between now and then, I’m pretty sure I’ll find something else to try….probably the Great Eastern 50k in September.