I wasn’t sure I was going to run Highland Sky this year until three weeks before the race. I had just run the Promise Land and Capon Valley 50Ks and didn’t think it was a good idea to press my luck (and my body) to try an ultra that was rumored to be incredibly challenging and hard. I also needed to make sure I wasn’t asking too much of my family to allow me yet another 24 hours away from home…but the stars lined up just right when Rachel Toor, my new ultra friend whom I had met last year at Masochist, invited me to stay with her, and Quatro Hubbard, my training buddy from Richmond, agreed to give me a ride. My kids were happily hanging out with their dad, who had been away on business all month, so I felt I could go guilt-free. (When you are a mom trying to do these crazy races, it’s hard not to feel guilty). My kids practically begged me to leave (“Dad is more fun than you, Mom”), so the weekend was on.
We arrived at Canaan Valley Resort just in time for dinner and I immediately saw Rachel, who was taking notes for an upcoming article she is writing for Running Times, where she is a senior writer. Dan and Jody gave us a warm welcome, and it was great to eat some good pasta and catch up with some of my Virginia Happy Trails friends, the most excellent and fun-loving group of trail runners on the planet (the WVMTR crowd is a close second). Dan gave us the briefing (“It’s wet. It rained a ton today.You will get wet.”), and after waiting for Rachel to get a play-by-play virtual tour of the course map by Bill Young, it was time to get some sleep.
The next morning, we boarded the bus at 5:00 am for the 30-minute ride to the start. I liked the idea of a point-to-point run, since it would mean we were actually going somewhere. The weather was cool and cloudy…perfect. I was a little nervous about my hip flexor, which had given me problems at Masochist last fall, and this would be my longest race since then. Gary Richwine, a VHTRC friend, offered me some Advil, which I took without hesitation. I was carrying 2 hand-held bottles, one of water and the other of half Gatorade and half water, and I carried a third bottle of water just in case. I have learned that I really need to hydrate well and not wait for an aid station, or else I bonk, big time. I also took 2 “S” caps right before the start and planned to take one every half hour. I did this at Promise Land and Capon Valley, and it worked well, so I was sticking to that game plan.
Rachel and I started together on the 2-mile road section. We went really slow and easy, catching up with one another and generally having a relaxed run together. She had told me she was not going to push herself too hard, since she would be pacing a guy at Western States the following week (Rachel is in big demand as a WS pacer, having done so once before and having written the best ultra article I’ve ever read on the WS pacing experience…and no, she is not paying me to write this race report!). As we began the first climb, Rachel went on ahead as I took a few photos with my disposable camera. I did this at Promise Land and really had fun with it since it helped me relax and keep my pace slow. The first climb got muddier and more slippery as we approached the summit, and I was grateful for the first rocky section at the top, since it gave us a break from the muck…or so I thought.
I passed a large group at the top, including Rachel and a few other women. I really enjoyed the Flat Rock trail section…it was rocky and wet but slightly downhill, so it was fun to let go a little. I came into aid station 2 (mile 10) at exactly 8:00 am, and was told that I was the first woman. With that suprising news, I pigged out on the fig newtons and PB &J’s, re-filled my bottles (both hand-helds were now empty), and started down the trail. I ran for a good bit with Rod Sparks from Cincinnati, who was training for his first Ironman in Wisconsin, so we talked about triathlon for a long time. On a steep technical section I passed another woman, so I figured I was NOW the first woman. This was a new experience for me, as I had never led an ultra…the closest I had ever come was second. But it didn’t really matter…I just wanted to run strong and finish strong, and let the chips fall where they may…
Coming into aid station 4 (mile 19), I was still with Rod and Chris from NC, and was looking forward to changing into dry socks. I was happy to see Dave Stuckey, another VHTRCer, since we always finish races together and seeing him here meant I was pacing myself well. Dave introduced me to the true first woman, Sarah Almodovar, with whom he had been running. (Note to self: take the aid station folks’ statistics with a grain of salt…they are awesome at helping re-fill bottles, but they may not always be accurate with runner placings!). Clean dry socks and some potatoes with salt did the trick and we (Sarah, Dave, and I) were off down the 7-mile “road across the sky”, which Dan had explained was the Eastern Continental Divide. It was a welcome change from all the standing water and rocks from the trail, and I really enjoyed hammering the downhills and running the flats, and power-walking the ups. And the ups we could see for miles. I was able to get into a goo! d groove and pull away from Sarah and Dave with this combo of running and walking.
Before I knew it, it was mile 26, and it was time to enter the famed Dolly Sods (a.k.a. “Dolly Bogs”) Wilderness. I knew that Sarah was still close, and I was trying to enjoy myself, but now the added stress of keeping a lead was beginning to wear thin. The Dolly Sods were beautiful, so I snapped a few more photos and plunged into the muck. No use trying to go around the muck…it was just best to plow through and enjoy the cool mud and water. A climb out of there a few miles later brought me to mile 32, but not before I saw a sign where Dan had written “You ARE An Ultrarunner!!! Aid Station Just Ahead.” I laughed out loud at that wonderful sentiment. I emerged from a rock bed to find the aid station overlooking the gorgeous valley, and saw the nicest young man (Dan’s son, I later learned) who yelled “You are the first girl!!!!” Wow, did I love that! The first 41-year-old girl! It made my day.
As I cruised down the ski slope I thought I heard the whirr of a waterfall…alas, it was not to be. Instead, it was the roar of the ATV race, which Dan had warned us about. The quiet of the forest was replaced by mud-slinging, toxic-fume emitting, noise-polluting motorized vehicles…on top of that, Sarah was making her move about 200 yards behind me. I had a serious discussion with myself. I considered my options: I could: a). continue at this comfortable pace and let her pass me ( “maybe we could cruise in together?” I thought), or b). I could put the hammer down and see what I was made of. I also heard, in the back of my mind, the stern voice of a certain training partner asking me, “Are you going to win this race, or what?!” That was it. I chose option “B.”
Enter the Lehmann Butt Slide. Having never run The Barkley (and never planning to), I have only read about Leonard’s Butt Slide. This Highland Sky version was a real treat: Dan had basically re-routed the original course (because of the ATV race) into the woods and it was a steep, twisty, butt-sliding ritual of trying to catch a glimpse of the next ribbon before you hit the next tree limb with your head, or go off course all together. One nice volunteer told me “be aware of the motorcycles!” just as one plowed into mud yards away from me. Needless to say, it was a test of patience to get through that section with all the noise, mud, and the non-trail that one had to run. Thankfully, I saw the aid station at the bottom, yelled out my number, and kept going. It was great to see a dirt road, which led to a real road, and I was beginning to sense that I was almost home. But not before more wet marshy trail to run…
Entering the Canaan Valley Resort, with 2 miles to go, I started to reflect on the day. I had accomplished my goal of running strong and finishing strong (OK, I ended up walk/running the last 2 miles since my knee was sore). It was exciting to think I would finally finish first in an ultra, and I was so grateful to have had the awesome opportunity to push my body and spirit beyond their comfort levels, and to have a family that supports me as I pursue this wacky dream. It was a beautiful course and I was having the time of my life! But strangely, I also felt that something was missing… and I realized, as I was running those last few yards in the rain, that what I truly love about ultras are the people, pure and simple. I love the challenge and the adventure that I am faced with every time I start a race, but I also love to run with my friends, to make new friends while on the course, and to share the experience with someone! I didn’t know before the start. For the last 4 hours of this race, I was by myself, and it was hard to concentrate, to remain focused, and to keep a positive attitude. As I ran down the hill to the finish and hugged Dan, Jody and Rachel (who had dropped to save herself for WS), my thoughts were of my friends still out on the course, and I couldn’t wait to see them finish. One by one they returned, covered head-to-toe in mud. Some (Dave Stuckey, David Snipes, Jim Cavanaugh, Frank Probst) sprinted in. Dru Sexton and Graham Zollman jogged in and happily yelled “we LOVE this course!!” Quatro came in with a huge smile declaring “keep the Lehmann Butt Slide!” All had accomplished an incredible feat under very tough conditions…and I was happy to be among them once again, where I belong.