So, why, you ask, did I decide to run an Ultra? Well, I would like to say it was part of my master plan all along, but it is more accurate to say, the Highlands Sky 40 mile race chose me as opposed to me choosing the Highlands Sky 40. Yes, once I started running marathons, I planned to run an ultra, but I did not plan to run one this year. Then back in January while looking around for a 5K race I happened on the Charlottesville Running Company 5K trail race. Well, always the adventurous type, I said, why not. How hard could it be and it just might be fun. I soon found out that trail running is a lot different than running roads and even though I posted my slowest 5K time ever (30+) I had an absolute blast. To make it even more interesting, the 5K was part of a race series called the Great Eastern Trail Run Series. If you haven’t already realized where I am going with this, the Highland Sky 40 mile race is one of 12 races in the series. Now I did not have to run this race to qualify for end year awards, but after reading about the race on the race website, the race kept talking to me. Next thing I know, I’d signed up! Training for the race was basically two training runs in Sherando Lake Park, plus a CRC 10K, the Bel Monte 25K trail race as well as a couple of 10 mile “tame/groomed” trail races in Northern Va as part of the Backyard Burn series. I had originally planned on doing another training run in the mountains, but instead ended up running another road marathon in Madison, WI.
The Highlands Sky 40 mile race is a point to point race finishing at the Canaan Valley Ski Resort. The race elevation map showed a 2,600 ft climb and 1,500 ft descent in the first 12 miles of the race, followed by another 1,000 ft climb and then a lot of roll from mile 15 – 34, a steep 700 ft decent at mile 35 and the last 4 miles flat. Total climbing 5,739 ft, total descending 5,121 ft. Sounds like fun? Right?
Saturday morning was perfect, with temperatures in the 50’s with some wet high humidity. I actually was a bit cold for the first couple of miles. The first two miles were on the road and the first aid station was at mile 2.2. After the aid station we headed into the woods and started the 2,600 ft ascent. It was lovely. Lots of small streams and waterfalls crisscrossed the trail. The weather was still cool, and great conversation with a pack of fellow runners made that major climb go by rather fast. Once at the top of the mountain the trail opened up and we were running through rocking trails open to the sky. At this time the temperatures started increasing and while I was carrying a .75 liter hand held water bottle, I was running out of fluid and was really looking forward to aid station 2 at mile 10.1. After running on the top of the mountain, the trail turned downward and finally, after 2:20+ minutes of running, there was the second aid station. I fueled up on Gatorade, PB&J and Pringle potato chips. (Ultra’s are cool, all kinds of munches at the aid stations).
The run to the third aid station was uneventful except for the time I was congratulating myself for running so far over very rocky terrain with out a fall. At which point I promptly tripped on a rock and fell on my face. The person behind me told me it was not the rock you tripped on that one has to worry about, it is the rock your head lands on that is the concern. Eh, if I have not mentioned it so far, this race is very very very rocky!!! Rocks everywhere. This is also where I met Jim. Jim is from Ky and his goal for the Highland Sky 40 mile was to finish under 10 hours. Jim was a wonderful running partner as he kept my mind off the miles with his running adventure stories. The next thing I know, we are pulling into aid station 4, the half way point. Yahoo!!! This is where my drop bag was located and how I wanted to change into my dry light colored fun poka dotted shirt! Well, I found my dry socks and red hat….but NO SHIRT!! Darn. Major moment of disappointment. But hey, I was feeling great, had a great running partner and was half done, so I did not let the shirt disappointment get me down. I changed into dry socks, shook out the sand and gravel in my shoes, added another layer of body glide and off Jim and I went on the road through hell.
The next 7 miles was on a gravel road almost completely exposed to the rising heat of the day. (afternoon temps mid 80s) You could see for miles and all you saw was the gravel road that just went up and up and up. On the road way up ahead you could see black dots moving along the road that were other runners. That road seemed to go on forever with the hills getting bigger and bigger. Finally we got to the end of the road from hell and turned back to the trails. This part of the race was mostly through high mountain meadows full of flowers, scrub brush, grasses, small trees and of course mud and rocks. You could see for miles and the view was beautiful. Again mostly exposed to the hot sun, but very runnable. Eventually, the meadow turned to mostly lush low land type grasses, with a few more normal sized trees but here I lost my running buddy as he started having leg cramp problems.
It was a bit lonely from this point forward. I was running alone and could no longer see any runners in front of me as the trail became extremely rocky. The boulders were the size of cars that tested our rock jumping abilities with tired cramping legs. It was a bit daunting, and the trail was a bit difficult to follow, but once through the first section of boulders we were all rewarded with a view of the mountains and valleys below. Absolutely spectacular!! Oh how I wished I had brought along a camera.
After another section of boulders it was back to meadows and the occasional wooded trail section. Just before the last aid station we had to run UP a ski slope. And it was NOT the bunny slope. Once we turned off the slope it was a 700ft “plunge” down the mountain to the final aid station 8. I passed a girl here whose boy friend said it was not safe to run. I told them I was going for it and I was sure the girl would catch me on the final flat 4 mile section. What fun, running on dead legs down the trail grabbing onto trees to keep from falling. 🙂
After the down hill section it was nice easy trail and then, thank goodness the final aid station and only 4.1 flat road miles left to run. I can not say I ran particularly well the last 4 miles as first the girl who carefully walked the last down hill section passed me and then two others, but the end was near and while I was tired and my legs were dead, I was very very pumped! The very last 1/2 mile was again on nice easy trail and then there it was the finish line!!!! I had completed my very first Ultra Marathon. Time: 9:43ish
So, back to the original question. Why run an Ultra Marathon. One reason is for the challenge. Another reason is for the absolutely spectacular mountain views. The number one reason…for the people you meet along the way. Thank you Dan, Jim, Ken, David, Eva, Northern Va girl, Beer Guy, Down Hill girl, Daisy girl, man with the stitches, Father and Son team, aid station people and all the rest. You all made it an event to remember.
Author: Marianna Inslee