There are races that you enjoy from the start to the finish. There are days that you feel good for the entire length of the race, and then there are races that are best enjoyed after several days of reflection. The Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Race falls into the second category. It is a tough course that will test your physical and mental endurance During longer races, I usually experience an extended period of “trail elation” where I feel great. The feeling of “I could run all day” hit me at the top of the first climb where the trail opens to the sky. That lasted about two minutes. Before I get into that however, let me back up a bit.
I signed up for the Highlands Sky way back in late 2005. My friend, Thom Cole, had told me about it, and the race looked terrific. The two of us had recruited two other local hikers/runners for this event. The four of us drove down from the NY/NJ metro area on Friday morning. Coming through the mountains of western Maryland and then into West Virginia, we knew this would be fun. In our group was Lisa Madden, an experienced mountaineer and about the toughest person I know. What she lacks in pure running talent, she more than makes up for in enthusiasm and grit. She started trail racing last September, and she’s already completed 3 50K’s and 2 trail marathons. Also, Donna Graham-Finan was with us. Her first ultra was HAT in March, and she’s a very good runner. Tall and thin, she has the “look” of an endurance runner.
Thom and I had run our first 50 mile race in May. The Ice Age 50 in Wisconsin would be quite a contrast to this event, This would be my ninth marathon or ultra this year, and my 27th overall since I started racing in June of 2004.
Race morning broke clear and cool. A good day to run. I let the fast guys and the young kids go ahead. I hung back around 15th place knowing I would see a lot of these speedsters later. It was going to be a hot hot day, and the price for going out too hard was going to be costly. I have blown up at too many marathons and ultras to charge out at a sub-7 pace.
The first major climb was peaceful and enjoyable, except for the nettle patches. We had hiked this section on Friday afternoon, so we knew what to expect. I ran/hiked up the hill to the first overlook where it was cool and beautiful. It was time to start really running hard, as I felt great. The long climb was over. Now, I could extend my stride and pickup the pace. Then, I saw the two trillion white rocks, any one of which could roll your ankle and end your day. Oh well, my thin 6’4″ frame was going to have to pick my way through the rocks. I kept a group of three runners in sight as I crabbed my way through the stone mine field. I kept expecting hordes of runners to pass me by, but no one did.
When we hit the steep downhill after Aid Station 2, a runner came flying up behind me. It was Greg Zaruba, who I had met at Seneca Creek 50K in February and HAT 50K in March. He passed me at an impossibly fast clip, moving at about my 5K pace, and saying over his shoulder how much he liked the downhills. My quads would have exploded, and my head would have served as a permanent planter if I tried to match his speed.
On the subsequent uphill, I began to pass several runners. I caught back up with Greg and Chris Palladino. We chatted for a while on the climb up. Greg started to pull away again at the top as I decided to back off the pace and conserve my energy. I felt like I was starting to tire way too early in the race. Better to slow down now, than blow up later.
I hit the mid-point and the drop bag Aid Station in 12th place. I changed socks to a thinner pair hoping to alleviate some blister pain on the right big toe. When I fell to the grass to replenish my Gu supply and Succeed pills, I noticed a can of Red Bull in my bag. I hadn’t drank it prior to the race like I had planned. Sweet nectar from the gods could not have tasted better. I hopped up ready to go, and then I noticed the dirt road stretching on to eternity. I asked a volunteer, ” We have to run up that crap?” To which she replied curtly, ” Just start running”. I laughed and moved out.
I could see moving specks in the distance which got closer and closer as the Red Bull pumped through my body. I caught up to Kevin Lane, a 21 year old who amazed me with his guts and demeanor for such a young guy running an ultra. I couldn’t imagine attempting such a feat at 21!! I passed another runner and then caught back up to Chris Palladino, who was suffering from an upset stomach. I could tell what a competitor he was, but he was hurting.
We finally finished the long dirt road, and it was getting really hot. I was hoping to get back into the woods with some tree cover, but the oven effect was just starting. As I pulled out of that Aid Station, Chris came in and told me to start running as he was going to be coming after me. I know there were too many miles remaining to start racing now. It was quickly becoming a survival contest, not a race.
That long 5.8 mile section contained the prettiest scenery of the day. Beautiful fields, giant rock sculptures, far reaching vistas. However, the openness of the course was making it too hot. I began to catch several runners who were slowing, cramping, and fighting the elements. I kept repeating a Steve Pre quote to myself. ” I don’t race to see who’s the fastest, I race to see who has the most guts” I felt that I was kidding myself with this mantra, but it was working. When I finally reached that Aid Station on top of the hill, I was in 5th.
The last 8 miles were a mix of “heaven and hell”, as I started to call it. Heavenlike scenery blended with the awful ski slope downhill; cool shaded dirt road with the hot open asphalt; the wonderful people at the Aid Stations with the last isolated miles of self doubt.
I caught sight of the 4th place runner, but never caught up to him. The Steve Pre quote of having the most guts was replaced by a whimpering “Mommy” as I ran/walked the access road of Canaan Valley. The last short trail section revived me enough to finish in 7:23:24 and in 5th place.
Greg Zaruba had finished in 3rd. He ran a great race and is primed for a great run at the VT100 this July. Chris finished two places behind me. Without his stomach issues, he would have beaten me easily.
I sat down and waited for my friends to finish as I downed Pepsi after Pepsi. I was elated to see Lisa and Thom finish together. Lisa was the 3rd female. Superwoman! Donna was right behind, finishing 30th overall.
What a terrific race, especially after a couple of days of recovery. I’d like to thank all the volunteers and the race director for such a memorable day and event.