2008 Highlands Sky Race Report

Aside from the intimidating elevation profile, relatively long finish times and scary race reports from last year’s race, my first real clue as to the beauty and difficulty of this race was driving the hairpin turns that wind up the mountains as I made the trip west out to Davis, WV on Route 50. Topping out at 40 mph, I had to apply the brake going UP around these turns, as thunderstorms rolled across the peaks. I knew it was going to be a challenging race to say the least.

The night before the race, RD Dan Lehman held a pre-race dinner (complete with ziti & spaghetti with both meat and plain marinara sauce, garlic bread, salad, cookies, whole fruit, and his son’s micro-brewed beer!) at the Canaan Valley Resort, where the race also ended the next day. I felt a bit amateurish as I dined in the large facility surrounded by people like Dan, the incredible David Horton, Annette Bednosky, and many others sporting gear from Hardrock and Leadville and talking about MMTR and other monstrous races. The meeting made me a bit anxious, as several people told me that the race “runs more like a 50,” meaning the mountainous course was so hard it felt more like 50 miles than 40. I returned to my tent at Blackwater Falls State Park and fell asleep after the final gear checks, organization attempts, and reading a little from my library book.

My alarm went off at 4:00am, I got my gear and, as quietly as possible for consideration of other campers, drove out and down to Canaan Valley. I changed into my race clothes in the CVR lobby’s bathroom and climbed aboard one of the 2 school buses used to haul us from the finish area at the resort to the starting line. I thought a lot about mental preparation and the importance of attitude during the 25-minute bus ride, firming myself in my resolve to continue walking even if I found thoughts of defeat creeping into my head during the race.

A quick trip to the port-o-potty behind the cabin at the start and I stood around with other runners with my two water bottles in hand, funny green hat on my head, orange trail shoes on my feet, bib pinned to my shorts, and ready to go. I tossed my drop bag into the van, which I’d see again at mile 19.7, and paced in anticipation. RD Dan climbed his wiry frame to the top of a small knoll (he had planned on running WS100 until it was cancelled this year) and from behind his bristling beard said something very close to, “Hi everyone! Come up close – here’s the starting line. I hope it doesn’t rain on you too much. Everyone ready? Go!” Quite truthfully, he just said “go” without so much as an “on your marks” – which really would be dumb, anyway – or an airhorn or anything. It was so anti-climactic that many of us laughed as we just started running.

The first couple miles were an easy downhill (mostly) on a back-country road, though paved. I just tried to keep moving along slowly, starting with the back of the pack, and wait for the eventual single-track. I ran most of this just behind Willy, Dan’s son and the brewer of the “Cold Trail Ale” and oatmeal stout I sampled the night before at CVR. Willy’s about 6’5″ and easily recognizable by, in addition to his height, his two braids of brown hair that hang down in front of his shoulders. That was the last I saw of Willy; he probably finshed an hour or more ahead of me….

After the road stretch, we entered a field with a brisk uphill through damp grass and then into the woods. The muddiness of the course became apparent immediately, which is always a factor – someone described the course to me the night before as “perpetually boggy with innumerable rocks” – but this was aided by the thunderstorms of the night before. I ran for a few hundred yards with a young woman who was tackling her first ultra but was woefully unprepared (cotton socks, no drop bag, etc.), but lost her when she fell victim to the shoe-sucking-mud (it sucked her shoe off). Then I caught up to a group that was walking the switchbacks that climbed up the mountain in our first long ascent. Without even planning to do so, I caught myself whistling “Whistle While You Work” as we walked and occasionally ran up the mountain through a tight single track hemmed by stinging nettles and carpeted with rocks and mud. Check the official race site, but I think this uphill lasted for over 2 miles.

Once up ontop of the mountains (or near the top), the air was clear, cool, and sweet with conifers. Some of the bushes had pink, others white, flowers. There were 2 or 3 small trees along the course that stood out with brilliant orange blossoms in full bloom; I have no idea what they were. For the majority of the course, sight-seeing was limited by the necessity to constantly watch one’s feet or else suffer a twisted ankle or worse. I did, in fact, turn my ankles a few times but never fully rolled them and managed to stay upright the entire day. Any aspirations for dry feet were cast aside by this point by those who, unlike me, managed to stay dry through the muck leading up to the mountaintop.

Between the first and second aid stations was a long enough gap, which included the first large ascent, that I was out of fluids despite carrying two Nathan hand-helds, so when the 2nd aid station appeared around another muddy, rocky bend on the ridgeline, it was a welcome sight. I was staying well ahead of the cut-offs despite the copious walking on the initial climb and was feeling good.

The next few sections of the course are a blur right now, but at some point the craggy puddle-splashing shifted to limestone pebbles, allowing for a brief look around the woods. After about a half mile or so, we made a left and crossed a creek that was coppery brown with what I suppose was high metal or mineral content in the surrounding terrain. This was followed, eventually, by a tremendously long and, at times, steep downhill section that must have gone on for about 2 miles or more. I could feel some sliding in my shoes and worried that the skin of my heels had blistered up and was coming loose under the friction of rock-jumping and downhill running while being soaked with stream water and mud, but as I found out later, this was thankfully not the case. The extreme downhill was followed by a lot of flat and gradual uphill with plenty of rocks, then even more uphill and stream crossings. I no longer bounded from rock to rock but just plowed through the deepest section of chilled mountain stream I saw, enjoying the coolness on my feet and legs even as most of the water squished out after emerging on the muddy banks.

Eventually we made it to mile 19.7, the drop-bag location. I stripped down my hat, shirt, and shoes & socks, applied Vaseline to high-friction zones and feet as a blister-prevention measure, donned fresh (dry!) shirt, socks, and hat, and laced up my same trail shoes. Some more supplies from my bag were added (Perpetuem powder in one bottle and some Gin-Gin Boosts for down-times to come), I scarfed some boiled (and peeled!) potatoes dipped in salt along with some Pringles and perhaps a section of PBJ before topping off the water bottles and heading out along a section of the course that claimed the morale of many – a roughly 10-mile (?) section of nearly arrow-straight dirt-and-rock road that gently rolled along the top of the ridgeline. The road was, as one woman remarked to me on our way out of the aid station, “a nice reprieve from the rocks,” but, as another seasoned ultra veteran told me on our way several miles up the road, “there’s just something about this road that gets to me.” Perhaps it was the fact that, at times, you could see runners power-walking up hills that you yourself wouldn’t get to for another 15 minutes. I think nearly all ultra runners love the variation that comes with single-track, and roads are almost the antithesis to this freshness (the true antithesis being treadmills, in my opinion). Despite these comments, I felt good after eating and drinking more – my urine output was colorful and sparse, so for the rest of the race I tried my best to drink a lot. I power-walked many of the uphills and slowly ran as much of the rest of the road as I could, eating a Gin-Gin Boost at one point, which uplifted me. By the time I got to the merciful left turn off the road an onto the Denali-like high plains that covered this section of the ridge, I was over an hour ahead of the cut-off.

Several miles of running on this plateau, sprinkled here and there with heavily rocked and marshy mud-bogs, I kept making decent time, feeling good and passing a few people. My energy never waned in this race, and I attribute this to good nutrition, fluids, and electrolytes; training with 50K races; and adequate mental preparation – I did not underestimate this course. Some of the views of the Dolly Sods from these ridge lines were so impressive that it was worth walking on runnable ground (pine-needles over gravel single-track!) just to gaze at the mountaintops in every direction.

As I navigated the fun boulder-hopping section around mile 31, the gray-and-white boulders set an ominous contrast against the darkening skies. Thunder was rolling in from the direction I was headed, and a storm was imminent. I caught two others who were happily pointing to the next peak. When I looked up, I saw that it was aid station #7, the second-to-last on our journey – a tent in a clearing at the top of the next peak. We ran down, then up, the small saddle between the peaks and were greeted by a kind boy of about 9 or 10 who took our fluid refills (“What can I get for your bottle? We have water, Gatorade, Heed, Coke, Mello Yello….”) and told us, in the food tent, that he hoped we made it out before the rain. We laughed and headed out, me about a bit ahead of the others.

Thunder boomed in all directions, but mostly right where I was heading, and I was still climbing towards the rumbling sky. The rain first hit as I was running alone through small grassy fields that wound through the occasional wooded patches up on the mountain. After a few long, gentle downhills that were very runnable, I emerged into a large open field and the rain was coming down hard. Lightning was flashing in the sky as I realized that I was running up a ski slope! Attempting to avoid being struck by lightning, I ran parallel to the marked course that went straight up the middle of the exposed slope, instead running through the tall grasses that hugged the wood line. I saw one other guy up ahead of me trudging straight up the slope, so I focused on powerwalking up to try and catch him, which I did about 2 minutes after leaving the slope alive as we veered mercifully left into a thick forest not quite at the top of the ski slope. By now the rain was pouring so hard that it came running off my hat in a stream rather than droplets, and my technical t-shirt was sticking to my belly. I passed the other runner, made some sort of remark about being grateful to be in the woods, and continued on under the cover of trees as the rain and thunder continued. I’d occasionally glance at my watch, and I think by now it was around 7 or 8 hours.

A long and extremely downhill section, referred to as the “butt slide” by some, followed. With the turrential rains, it was very slow going. My feet faced sideways in one direction, perpendicular to my descent, in order to help prevent a mudslide. I was very surprised not to fall here, but came close on several occasions as the rain continued all around.

After the long downhill and a gradual downhill run through slippery, muddy farm roads, I got to the last aid station, 4.1 miles from the finish. I was just under 9 hours at this point so knew I had a good shot at breaking 10 hours. The fact that most of the remaining running was on a paved road was unappealing but promised a decent time. A time of 10 hours on this race (at 40 miles) is 4mph on average. This seems ridiculously slow to any road runner who is used to hitting their splits for 5K, 10K, and marathon distances but who fails to consider variables such as over 5000 feet of elevation gain, descents where holding onto trees is necessary to remain vertical, stops for aid and to “water the grass,” boulder hopping, gear changes, and others. However, I was confident that, with 4 miles to go on mostly flat roads, I could easily powerwalk that without running in less than an hour, as I was feeling pretty good despite the resurgence of lightning just as I caught up to a couple other guys on the open road.

The rest of the race I switched many times between powerwalking and running to maintain a good pace, keep energy and enthusiasm high, and because trying to kill myself by running the rest of the way in wouldn’t be worth a finish time of 9:35 versus 9:55. In the end, I avoided getting struck by lightning, caught up to a guy I met at the pre-race dinner, of all people, and finished the race running the last half mile or more of trail after crossing the road and running the driveway of the Canaan Valley Resort. The race ended between the lodge (where we dined the night before) and the swimming pool, with my official time being 9:47:38. I met all of my goals for this race and had a fantastic time. Dan was a gracious RD, greeting each finisher as he or she crossed the finish line, as he stood there in his rain coat. He even took our photos; I think he missed me, but that’s okay. Race volunteers also gave us our finishers’ shirts as we crossed the line – Patagonia capilene long-sleeves, a great gift. I snagged a can each of Barq’s and Dr. Pepper (might have had a beer if they had any, but really didn’t miss it) and a Zone bar, stuffed them into my drop bag (now conveniently placed on the floor of the pavillion near the finish), hosed off my shoes and legs, and hobbled back up the hill to my car to head back to camp. I decided to forego the post-race meal, which I had already paid for, as well as the second night of camping (ditto) in order to shower at camp and drive the 4 hours back to Burke, VA. In the end I’m glad that I drove back through the rain to stay with my family and friends in their house in Burke rather than camp, uncomfortably, alone in a thunderstorm.

This race was one of my best, hardest, and most fun, and the recovery time afterwards was both much needed and well earned.