HS 40M 2006 – Randy Witlicki

Executive summary: I finished the beautiful and challenging 40.7 mile Highlands Sky trail race in Davis, West Virginia on June 17, 2006. My time was 11:18:00 (103 out of 125 finishers). The weather was a clear blue sky and the temperatures climbed into the 80s. The second half of the course is mostly out in the open, so the sun and heat had a big effect. RD Dan Lehmann and his volunteers put on a great race.

At five AM, a line of school buses and various crew vehicles left the front of the Canaan Valley Resort for a half hour curving, climbing, and descending ride in the pre-dawn glow to the start line. At six AM we were off on a easy couple of paved miles. My quads reminded me that I had pushed the pace on a 3+ hour rock and roots hiking trail run six days before, but soon they gave up complaining.

All of this course was new to me, so I settled into the back of the pack as we cruised along, people were chattering and birds were chirping as the sun came up. After a fluids only aid station at 2 miles, we entered the woods for the biggest climb of the day, about 2,300 feet, on trails and old woods roads. June is prime growing season in the eastern U.S. mountains and it has been a good year for stinging nettles which crowded the sides of the trail. Want to step around a muddy spot or pass somebody? Expect to swipe your legs on a nettle patch. Luckily, the nettles were only in this first climb. Mud? The trail by my eastern forest experience, was quite dry. The wet patches were small “hillside swamps” where there was ledge or clay keeping a spot always moist. Some people who had run this race before said they had never seen the course this dry.

Towards the top of the big climb it was running time as the trail became rocky ups and downs on top of the ridge before reaching Aid #2 at about 10 miles.

Between Aid #2 and #3 is a gorgeous downhill stretch along a narrow trail
between laurel bushes towering over our heads. In the deep shade, if
suddenly felt tropical. All downhills must end and soon we were climbing
again on the second big climb, but only for about 1,200 feet. After a
pause at the wonderful Aid #3 (aid stations during climbs are always
wonderful because you get to stop. The people here were great, as they were
at all the other aid stations), it was a little more climbing and then more
open rocky running on the ridge.

I arrived at Aid #4, almost the mid-point of the course and found my drop bag with socks, shirt, food bars and gels, sunscreen, and a hat. The honeymoon of the first part of the course was over. I like ups and downs in the shade. I was back on the trail at about 11:35 AM.

For about a half mile leading up to Aid #4 we had been on a forest service road with some vehicle traffic and this road continued for seven more miles with two 3 mile sections that were straight as an arrow but dipping up and down. Every quarter mile or so, an overhanging tree gave a tiny bit of shade. Mid-way down this long road section, the road bent a little to the right and there was Aid #5. I filled my water bottles, re-wet my hat, used the sponge from a bucket to cool my legs, and then headed back down the road. This was a shift in gears from the pay-attention-to-where-your-feet-land of the single track and it would have been fun if it was cloudy. It was a grind. Must stop whinning. Think positive thoughts. Most people, including me, throttled back their effort levels under the shadeless blue sky and temperatures that seemed to be in the 80s. In hindsight, seven miles on a road out in the open isn’t anything epic, but I wasn’t ready for it. Now I know.

Memo to self: If I don’t start out wearing it, have my neck drape hat and a nylon long sleeve shirt in my drop bag. Always. Except maybe if I go to run in Scotland.

At Aid #6, the end of the road section, I was hoping to return to the shady woods, but for the next 6 or 7 miles, the trail was about 75% open.

When I left Aid #6, I knew I had a 5.8 mile gap to cross, so I drank up and left with two full 20oz bottles. With about a mile left to Aid #7, I was looking at about an inch of water left and once again I throttled back the pace. I crossed meadows and rocky ridgelines on an absolutely stunning run across high terrain. If it had been high overcast and 15 degrees cooler, I would have been in heaven.

I think there is a thin line between “fine” and “fine and miserable”. There is always for me, some period when I’m out beyond four to six hours where I just want to get home and be done. With experience, I’ve come to recognize these “bad patches” in their combination of physical and mental discomfort. Usually, if things don’t get better, they at least don’t get much worse. Ticking off aid stations and counting down the mileage to the finish really helps things along here.

I reached Aid #7 and consumed lots of fluid and fruit pieces, wet my hat and legs, and set out for another mile or so of open terrain before a short climb and a big semi-bushwhack descent through the Timberline ski area. There is a steep section here known as the “butt slide”. This year it was dry loose dirt and I made it down without falling. With any amount of moisture, I could see how we all would be slip sliding our way down.

Soon, we were out of the woods on an open (in the sun again) road to the final Aid #8.

The last four miles were gravel/pavement/grass/pavement and then a woods trail to the finish line next to the swimming pool on the back lawn of the Canaan Valley Resort.

I crossed the finish line 11 hours and 18 minutes after I started over 40 miles away.

What went right: Trail gaiters (my old Joe Dana models). I ate food at every aid station (except for #1 which was fluid only). I ate between some of the aid stations (organic food bars and some gels). I took an S cap every hour and half or so along with potatoes dipped in salt and pretzels and chips at the aid stations. I kept my hat wet and wet down my legs at every aid station in the second half of the course. Staying at the race headquarters Canaan Valley Resort was great.

What went wrong: I didn’t wear a neck drape hat. I didn’t use enough sunscreen and got a sunburn.

My post-race recovery took longer that I expected. I didn’t think I pushed that hard on the course, but it wasn’t just the climb, it was the rocks also.

Next time: Yes, there will be a next time.

Author: Randy Witlicki – Norwich, Vermont