Highlands Sky Race Report

Author: Emmy Stocker

As my 49th birthday approached, and with training for an upcoming 50 mile race, I decided in a fit of craziness to join several friends of mine who were running in the West Virginia Highland Sky 40 mile trail race – I knew it would be difficult, but I had done the training -still I was petrified of getting in a mental state for a potential 12-hour run. But am so glad I went – the race was an all-day adventure and I met the most amazing people – and even the race director (with his 5 kids helping out) made the event rewarding and fun – and the course was the most well-marked , even with the orange flags at miles 27-29 vandalized (sending the leader off course). This race made the CT Nipmuck trail marathon and LI Greenbelt 50K seem like cakewalk (2 previous trail runs I had completed).

Well, I finished (the longest and hardest ultra so far) in 9:50 – almost 10 hours of running – 3 hours longer than I had gone before. Frank Colella, who found the race and brought up the crazy idea to me, finished in fine shape (his 8th marathon in 6 weeks – enroute to the July 100 miler), along with our friends Yuki and Hiro from Westchester (Yuki and Hiro are in the 50 states club and this was a new state for them, and they are accomplished endurance runners), as did Frank’s friend Tim from PA – even slipping on some rocky moss and cracking some ribs!

The race itself is, according to ultra legend Dave Horton, ‘mile for mile’ the toughest run in the East’ -so even though it is ‘only’ 40 miles, it is the equivalent in energy spent to a 50 mile event and I heard this from many of the runners, that Highland Sky took them much longer than a 50 miler).
The cut-off for the race is 12 hours! Runners had to make it to the 26.7 mile mark by 7 hours in order to finish…When i read the race website and the previous race reports, I was scared-
it seemed like the race was one big obstacle course in the Dolly Sods wilderness of West Virginia (home to ski mountains). 2 miles uphill to start, 2 climbs up a 5,000 foot ski mountains on single track trails, rocky ledges, descents, boardwalk trails, 8 miles of dirt road straight uphill, pasture trails, and almost a mile of boulder-hopping, another climb up a ski mountain and descent thru a bush-whacked trail, and 4 miles of mostly uphill roads and trail to the finish! However, the race featured the most amazing mountain scenery, 2 dinners , breakfast, 8!! aid stations loaded with food and finishers’ Patagonia shirts.

After a long but uneventful drive (going by the Cumberand, MD start of the JFK 50 miler!), Frank and I arrived at the Canaan Valley Resort, just over the border of WV. He was driving down anyway, but I offered to be the designated driver. It was 6 p.m. so we went right to check in to our rooms and to the race and pasta dinner – the race director gave a briefing of the course and said to look out for recently uncovered landmines! The bus would leave for the 6 .m. start at 5 a.m. 10 miles away from the resort, but would finish back at the resort. Most of the runners talked Friday night of their recent 100 or 50 milers or of the recent 70 mile Laurel highlands run – these people were insane! A good percentage of runners were from VA and WV but people came from all over -KY, OH…alot of them were going to drive to Vermont for the July 21 VT 100.

After a fitful sleep, I woke up at 4:15, got my drop bag together (to be brought to mile 20),
and met the bus – the talk in my section of the bus was of shoes and hydration systems, but mostly everyone was quiet for the long day ahead. I met a woman from Louisville, KY, who drove all night to get to the race, and a man who had just finished the Massanutten Mountain 100 3 weeks ago.
The weather was perfect – cool, dry and sunny – it would stay @70 degrees the whole day. Last year was apparently very hot, so we lucked out. We also had less mud and water on the trails.
At 6 we started off on a dirt road, that steadily climbed uphill for 2 miles – my trail shoes didn’t feel great, but my ankle tendon was OK and i said a silent prayer for that (I had rolled my ankle in the May 20 soapstone trail run) – I actually pushed the pace, knowing I would be slow on the rocky trails.

After an aid station, we turned an went on a steady climb up the bottom of a ski slope and onto the toughest climb of the day – a switchback single-track climb up at 5,000 mountain – nettles and steep dropoffs! At the top, no rest for the weary – we ran on trails with gazillion rocks – big boulders, little boulders – it was here that about 10 -15 people passed me – discouraging! How can they run so fast over those big rocks!!! I ran with a woman who had run last year and she said that this was the worst section – if we could get thru mile 15, we’d be OK (NOT! the second half was just as bad) – at the 10 mile aid station, we ran on a gorgeous mountain trail and then turned and went down the mountain – because it was such slow going, I was more confident and no one passed me – one man slipped twice and had horrible falls -then we turned and climbed up another mountain – I loved the hiking uphill part – because I had been biking, think my quads were alot stronger – a guy named Gary came up behind me and we struck up a conversation – he was an ultra runner from Ohio the farthest he had gone was 60 miles of the Rocky Racoon 100 miler) – we agreed to stay together and talked the whole way (till mile 28 when he pulled ahead). At this point, I relaxed and started to enjoy myself – we complained and grumbled that we were so slow on the rocky trails and before we knew it, we were on flat runnable high mountain trails – gorgeous scenery and pink and red Mountain Laurel – and a big buck startled Gary and I – but he ran off! We then hit the ‘road to hell’ – 8 miles of dirt uphill road. I had been looking forward to this but my quads were SO FATIGUED from the climbs and from lifting on the trails and my mind was fried – Gary pulled me along – we met his parents and wife at the aid station. We both changed our socks – he got new shoes – and we pushed on – the hills were so high that you could see runners ahead and behind you like little ants. I had seen Frank taking off from the mile 20 aid station as I pulled in. After mile 27 we ran down a rocky pasture trail, thru a creek and up (surprize – another hill) a mountain – Gary took off and I saw Frank walking – he had hit the wall and just couldn’t run -he knew he would get his second wind. I was not going to leave him so we walked over the unrunnable terrain with a guy named Bill – all three of us went together over the boulder section (rock scrambling) and and over more rocky trails – we finally hit aid station 7 at mile 32 – a sign said ‘next 4 miles mostly downhill’ – well, they didn’t tell us that we had to climb a ski mountain again! Yuki and Hiro had caught up with us so we all hiked the mountain together to the bottom of the chairlifts, where we turned off and began our decent into hell on these switchback bushwhack trails…out onto the dirt roads at mile 36 and I began to get excited as I felt good and knew it was mostly road – and the finish was in sight – had been on my feet for 9 hours –I ran the last 4 miles (uphills also, of course) in 44 minutes – we finished on a hiking trail in back of the resort that had roots and rocks – they weren’t going to make this easy! I was elated to get thru the finish line – I heard ‘ congratulations Emmy!’; and it was Gary’s family cheering me on! Yuki and Hiro took photos and I waited for Frank – they had sodas, beer, fruit, food – at 6 p.m. they had a fabulous feast of hamburgers and hot dogs and beer – and a raffle for all the runners – Yuki won Montrail shoes and I only won a bottle of Hammer Gel. After passing out we made good time coming home -in time for me to help at a father’s day ice cream social with the kids. The funniest sight was the lines of muddy socks and trail shoes outside the motel doors. Insane…