Author: Frank Colella
I looked forward to running the Highlands Sky Trail Run, but I certainly didn’t look forward to the 7+ hour drive to Davis, West Virginia. So I was thrilled when my friend Emmy decided to run it less than a week before the race! As it was, my friends Yuki, Hiro, and Tim had already registered and I looked forward to seeing them. The drive actually took almost 9 hours – we left just after 9 and arrived at the Canaan Valley Resort just after 6! We checked in, but didn’t bother going to our rooms since the dinner had already begun and the pre-race briefing was at 7.
Instead, I picked up my race packet and had some dinner. Emmy wasn’t too far behind me since there were not too many post registrants. I found Yuki and Hiro and grabbed a couple of seats next to them. But there was no sign of Tim. The next morning I learned that he had skipped the dinner and had stayed at a different hotel.
The race director, Dan Lehmann, covered typical pre-race business at the briefing. But the item that really caught my attention was the news about the unexploded ordnance that still littered portions of the Dolly Sods! In the 1940’s it was home to artillery training for the U.S. Army. Apparently tons of unexploded bombs were still out there for our amusement. We really didn’t have to worry too much since the more populated areas had been swept clean years ago.
After dinner and the briefing, as I walked out of the main building to find my room, a deer stood on the path to my building! This was as back to nature as it gets. I had requested a 4 a.m wake-up call, which gave me plenty of time to catch the 5 a.m. bus to the start. When I left my room it was in the low 50’s with very high humidity. There were three buses in front of the lodge. As luck had it, I got on second bus and took a seat directly behind Tim. Emmy also took that bus, but I didn’t see Yuki and Hiro until we arrived at the start.
The course has a two mile stretch of road before the trail. The next thirteen miles contain a climb of 2300 feet, a 1700 foot descent and another climb of 1200 feet. Significant portions of both climbs and the descent are highly technical, single track trail. Just before the half way point, at mile 19.8, runners can access a drop bag. The next 7.3 miles are straight uphill along a section of dirt road. At 26.6 miles, runners get back on the trail in the Dolly Sods region. Miles 30-31 contain large boulders and rock formations. Miles 34-35 contain a ski slope followed by a steep vertical descent. The final 4 miles were mainly on roads. Most of the trail was covered with rocks, and included numerous stream crossing and muddy bogs.
I ran the 2.2 miles to the first aid station in 19:48 – way too fast given the incline and humidity. My real mistake, however, was misreading the sign exiting the aid station. Instead of “7.9 miles to the next aid station,” I read it as “next aid station at 7.9 miles!” The first climb consisted of three long switchbacks cut through bramble that contained stinging nettles. While annoying, the nettles did little more than give me a few scrapes. Tim was ahead of me on the switch backs when I heard him shout out when he took a fall. It was a nasty spill but got back up, slightly bruised, and kept moving.
Soon we encountered rocky trails, that gave way to rocky bogs – mud and rocks, what a combination. A 20-something runner shot past me there and said, “isn’t this awesome!” Of all the adjectives at my disposal, “awesome” wasn’t close to what I was thinking! But I had to smile at his enthusiasm because it was contagious. But after an hour and a half I had started to wonder where the second aid station was, and why it was taking me so long to cover 5.7 miles. In a somewhat gloomy mood, I emerged from the trail and spotted the aid station. As I read the sign that said 10.1 miles – I could’ve jumped for joy!
Instead of 1:55:29 for 5.7 miles, I had done 7.9 miles in that time. My split for the first 10.1 miles was 2:15:17. It was 5.5 miles to the next aid station. We ran a small distance on road before returning to the trail and had to climb a bit before the downhill. At this point the runners were pretty well spread out. I had already lost sight of Tim before the second aid station. The first part of the descent was a wet, leafy couple of switchbacks. While steep and slippery it was definitely runnable. But that terrain was replaced by rocks. My only injury came on that downhill when I slammed my left hand against a rock in an effort to maintain my balance. No blood, but it was slightly swollen for a while. This stretch was also wet, with plenty of water and mud.
I reached the third aid station, 15.6 miles, in 3:43:19. It took me 1:28:01 to cover 5.5 miles. I was well ahead of the cut-offs, and I wasn’t spending more than 2-3 minutes at the aid stations – so I was very happy with my progress. The next stretch was only 3.7 miles long and had the drop bags at the “half-way” point, aid station 4 at 19.8 miles. Yet another rocky climb soon leveled off and we encountered our first freshly built wood plank walkways across some of the larger bogs. It took me 54:56 to cover the 3.7 miles, reaching aid station 4 in 4:38:16.
This was well ahead of my sub-10hour target. I lingered there for about 7 minutes. I refilled my bottles with Gatorade that I had in my drop bag. I also switched into a dry hat – but didn’t bother with dry socks since my feet had been wet most of the morning and the afternoon didn’t hold the promise of any drier conditions. At one point I thought I could make up some time here. But one look at the steep climb – and the lack of shade – quickly disabused me of that idea. I reached the next aid station, 3 miles down the road, in 37:54. Discounting the 7 minutes spent at the previous aid station, it was a 10 minute pace. The 4.3 miles to reach the next aid station took 45:52. I reached 26.6 miles in 6:02:03.
It was there that I learned that vandals had taken down the course markers along the next couple of miles of trail in the Dolly Sods. Race official were going to remark that stretch, but for now, we were on our own. Luckily, a couple of runners were ahead of me and we had no trouble getting down to the stream, crossing it, and heading uphill to the plateau where the course markers were untouched. The windswept plateau provided some spectacular views of the grasslands.
But around mile 29 or so I felt the wall looming ahead of me. I made a pit stop alongside some bushes and decided to have some sport beans to see if the sugar would give me a boost. But I just fell into a funk and had to walk. Soon enough a couple of runners caught up to me, then a couple of more, and I was wondering if I’d ever get a second wind. Just as I finished my last sport bean I heard Emmy shout my name. She was less than a quarter mile behind me. When she caught up I told her I was pretty beat and was trying to walk thru this bad patch. So we stuck together for a while as I shuffled, jogged, or power walked to keep myself moving forward. Eventually we reached the rocky plateau that led to the boulder hopping section of the Dolly Sods. Another runner had caught up to us there and we three stuck together thru the boulders and into aid station 7 at 32.4 miles. I had covered the last 5.8 miles in 1:46:15, reaching the aid station in 7:48:18. My 10 hour target was still doable. But 8 more miles in just over 2 hours was starting to seem out of reach.
I refilled all 4 water bottles – which I had finished three quarters of the way through that last stretch. After some water and coke, I was back in business. The sign exiting the aid station said 4.1 miles “mostly downhill” until the next aid station. The “mostly downhill” must have referred to the butt side section immediately following the climb up the ski slope! We would definitely work to get through those 4 miles. Within a half mile of the aid station, Yuki and Hiro caught up to us as we picked our way along the rocky field leading to the rock bed.
We actually took some pictures – Hiro had a small camera with him. We stuck together for a while – with Yuki and Hiro out front, then Emmy, and I pulled up the rear. Along the rock bed was bear scat! What a strong incentive to keep up with them. Yuki spotted the turn off into the woods, and we followed suit. This short stretch of trail soon opened up to what was the ski slope. Luckily, we only had to climb three quarters of the slope before turning off into the woods. Now came the infamous butt slide where we gave back all that vertical gain in a few short minutes.
At that point that Yuki and Hiro went on ahead. Emmy and I picked our way downhill inch by painful inch. When we reached the bottom there was a quick hop across a stream only to rehop back after a bypassing a short, steep embankment. After that section Emmy pulled ahead and I soon lost sight of her. One last climb had a photographer perched near the top taking pictures. It was just three quarters of a mile to the last aid station. I reached it in 9:08:35 – having taken 1:20:17 to cover 4.1 miles. A sub-10 finish was still doable, but I’d need to do the last 4.2 miles in 52 minutes.
I set off down the road at a nice shuffle only to notice the uphill grade of the road. I walked the last third of that hill and began running after the turn. I laughed out loud as I finished that stretch only to make a left turn and confront yet another uphill climb. That uphill was mainly walked. At the top the course went left into a field with a freshly cut trail across the high grass. I ran that and emerged at the road crossing for Route 36, and was back at the Canaan Valley Resort .
From the road, it was two miles to the lodge. I ran this entire stretch, up to and including the trail behind the lodge. It was on that trail section that I passed the 10 hour mark. I had more one root filled climb to exit the trail and reach the road for the downhill finish. Dan was there taking pictures of as each runner crossed the finish. My watch read 10:04:59 – which I was extraordinarily pleased with! Each runner also received a Patagonia tech shirt for finishing. What a nice touch!
Tim, Yuki, Hiro, and Emmy had already finished, in that order. I found out later that, because of his injury, Tim didn’t stick around after he finished. The rest of us regrouped at the post-race dinner and had a blast going over all the trials and tribulations we experienced during those miles. What a great time this trail run was. It wasn’t easy – but it was fun (and I may even come around to saying it was awesome)!