Highlands Sky Race Report
Author: Matt Young
I grew up in WV but it wasn’t until a friend from New York, Garth, told me about the Highlands Sky that I even knew the race existed. I was surprised to find out the start was 100 yards from our family’s camp.
As I looked over the course I recognized most of the trail names; Flat Rock, Roaring Plains, Boars Nest, South Prong, and Bear Rocks. But while I recognized them I’d never been over all of those trails. The camp was built by my Granddaddy in the early 60s and has been a family retreat for almost 50 years. My granddaddy, dad, and uncle Bud had been all over those trails, mostly hunting, for years. So the race had an immediate appeal to me, accept for the 40 miles of running which sounded impossible. My granddaddy passed away in 2003 at 92 and but he was still hunting the mountains around camp in his early 80s. So this race has sentimental value for me because of my granddaddy, my dad, and our family heritage.
I was pretty keyed up and nervous starting a week before the race. On Wednesday I read I Kings 18:45-46 in the One Year Bible, “So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, “Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.” Meanwhile the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.”
I’d never realized that Elijah outran a chariot. Pretty impressive. In addition to being a prophet and a man of God, Elijah may have been the Bible’s first all –star runner. So I prayed all week for the strength to outrun a chariot.
I set my alarm for 4:45 to make the 6:00 start but I didn’t sleep much. My dad went to the start with me and we left camp about 5:40, put my drop bag in the van and waited just a few minutes for the start. I met up with Garth and we didn’t really hear the starting gun or horn or whatever it was but everyone took off so we ran too.
Garth and I planned to run the race together for as much as we could. As we came up on the start of Flatrock Trail and the first aid station just 2.4 miles in to the race I ate my box of raisins and stopped for a quick cup of water. That little stop separated Garth and I with several people in between us as we hit Flatrock. So much for our plan.
Heading up Flatrock I slipped in behind a lady who was running a good pace, and by that I mean slow and steady, which is what I wanted to do. The Flatrock section of the race is the toughest for me. Even though it’s early, it’s about a 5 mile climb up the trail to Roaring Plains with switchbacks and some steep sections. So my goal was to be very, very conservative on Flatrock so I didn’t burn out too early. At about mile 3 it started to pour the rain which made a slick trail even slicker. It rained consistently for the next couple of miles and then on and off pretty much for the first 20 miles of the race. I followed the lady who I could tell was older than me but I didn’t know how much older. I recognized her later at the awards dinner as the woman who won the Grandmaster division which is for women over 60. Very impressive.
Further up Flatrock Garth and I met up again and then went stride for stride as the trail turned on to Roaring Plains, a 3 mile section of trail across the plains of Dolly Sods heading to the next aid station at mile 10.5 . I’d seen Roaring Plains trail look more like a creek when we’d been up there before so I was anxious to see what it was like after it had been raining on us that morning and pretty much all week long. It was no different. Much of the trail was a small stream with water over your ankles and while some of the water was clear most of it was the color of the soil, black.
Garth and I rolled in to the second aid station after about 2:30 on the trails. I grabbed a gel for my pocket, ate a cookie and handful of pretzels, and filled my hydration pack to 40 ounces and took off.
The next section was a short service road leading to Boars Nest Trail and another creek crossing with water well above the knees again. Boars nest trail is about a 2 mile section downhill and with the rain it was slick. I was trying to make up a little time on the downhill section but after my second tumble and nearly missing a wipeout I slowed it down again. We hit the bottom of Boars Nest and started back up South Prong, another 2.5 mile climb back up the mountain to the next aid station at 16 miles. After that aid station Garth and I were separated again.
The next section of South Prong leading to the road is called ten bridges because there are ten small wooden bridges you cross over the creeks and bog. The trail is rocky in places and was like a stream in some, just like Roaring Plains. So it was good to see the road to have some easier running and because the next aid station, our drop bags, and supporters were just ahead waiting for us.
I saw my dad and Garth’s dad, Ray, as I came in to the station and by this time the heavy rain was over. I changed my shoes and socks, and took two gels, a box of raisins, two more mini Snickers and a flask of sustained energy with me. I didn’t waste much time in the aid station but talked with my dad as I left. He was going to give Ann Marie and the rest of my family an update so they’d know how I was doing and when to expect me at the finish, another 21 miles away.
So how was I doing? I told him I was surprised but I felt better than I expected and to look for me at the finish in 5 hours. But I was behind schedule and new I’d have to adjust my goal to finish later and accept it. I thought I’d be to aid station 4 between 4:40 and 5 hours but I was rolling out about 5 hours and 10 minutes. The course conditions had slowed everyone down so I didn’t feel bad. But nothing hurt. My legs felt fine, my hydration was good and I felt a good energy level. So to be honest, I was excited to feel this good after the first half. I said good bye to my dad and it the road.
As I started running the next 7 miles I realized I felt like I was running with the strength to outrun a chariot. But a chariot could never make it up Flat Rock in the first place.
This section is the road across Dolly Sods also known as the Road Across the Sky. It’s kind of a mixed blessing. It’s a road so you can run easily but it’s still hilly. It’s bad because there are a couple of sections that you can see a long way ahead of you, somewhere between a mile or mile and a half, which is kind of hard mentally. I hoped I could carry a 12 minute mile for this section. I felt good and just ran a good comfortable pace for 95% of it including the hills. I rolled in aid station 5 at Bear Rocks and mile 27 in 6:25 so it took me less than 1:15, a 10:40 pace and ahead of my plan. But I needed to make up time so I was pleased. However, after 27 miles I felt like I might be losing it a little. The next aid station was another 6 miles so I put another 40 ounces in my hydration pack, put a gel in my pocket, ate some pretzels and a piece of pb&J and moved on.
The trailing going from Bear Rocks across the high meadows was beautiful and mostly runnable. It also had great views and so I picked my head up to look around and take it in. I could see a good section of trail behind me and ahead of me and there was no one in sight. I ran the last 20 miles by myself. At about mile 28 after my dry shoes and socks were soaked again my left little toe was stinging with a blister so I had to stop and take care of it with a bandaid. The time lost was well worth it for the comfort over 12 miles.
I moved along running where I could, walking where I had too, and covered the ground fairly quickly. The boulders section wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected after I’d heard so much about it. I always like it when things aren’t as bad as expected. I got to aid station 6 on the tail of a couple guys running together and there was one more already there. I refilled, ate something but I’m not sure what, and left ahead of the others. I thought I’d over heard one of the volunteers say there 80 runners already through but couldn’t be sure and didn’t want to ask.
The next aid station was 4 miles away so I was about 8 miles from the finish and still feeling good. So thinking back to mile 27 when I wondered if I was fading, I think I was mentally tired of the road because once I got back on the trail I felt good again. I have a little test I use while I’m out there to see if I’m close to a crash where I recite a verse I’ve prayed for my daughter for over two years, Colossians 1:9-14, which takes a minute or two to recite. I know if I can remember it then I’m fine. If I lose track of the words I’m in trouble. Throughout the race I’d recite it again and again just to test myself and I never messed it up.
The next four miles were kind of blur. I remember hitting Timberline and the climb up the ski slope. Then I hit what I knew had to be the butt slide but I chose to go down on my feet grabbing trees and saplings where I needed to just to slow down. At the bottom the trail was wet red clay which was just as slick and finally a service road which lead to Freeland Road and the next and LAST aid station.
I grabbed a gel for insurance and a quick swig of water and took off on the last 4 mile section to the finish. This section was ¾ road and pretty level except for one short steep hill so I wanted to run as much as I could. This was another section that you could see runners ahead and every one I could see was walking which makes it very tempting to walk too. But I wanted to run to the finish so I did. I hit the entrance of the park expecting to see my brother and he was there. He was the scout to tell the rest of family when I was coming. I was happy to see him and relieved to know I’d covered 38 miles and only had two more to go. It also reminded me that my whole family; Ann Marie, Caroline, Dad, Mom, Liz, Matthew, Jonathan and Wendy, would be there. I got a little emotional.
I kept running and felt like I was holding a good pace. I hit the last section of trail which leads to the finish and passed a couple of guys walking who teased me a little for still running. Kind of funny. Honestly, the runners you meet are great people and are all very supportive of each other on the course.
After walking the last hill coming up to the finish I could see my Dad who was watching for me to warn everyone else I was coming. When I saw him and all of the other families and supporters clapping and cheering as I came through I felt like champ. I ran the last downhill to the finish and could hear my family then saw Ann Marie and Caroline on the right side of the finish line. I hugged them and cried. What a relief to be done and what a feeling to finish something after 2 years in the making.
I could try to describe it but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. You don’t have to believe me but all I can say is I loved it. Looking back I loved it all; the hills, the shoe sucking mud, the creek where the trail was supposed to be, the rain, and the headwinds. I loved the view from Boars Nest across the valley, crossing Flat Rock Stream, South Prong Stream (twice), Ten Bridges, Bear Rocks, and the high meadows. I knew Grandaddy would be laughing and would be proud of me. I knew the rest of my family was proud of me. I thanked the Lord for all of the good things in the day.
So by the numbers I covered 40.8 miles in 9:47:44 and was 79th out of 200 starters. The first half was 5:10 and the second half was 4:37 for an average pace of 14:12. Best lap was 8:15 (mile 2) and the slowest lap 20:19 (mile 15). I burnt 5500 calories with an average heart rate of 75% of max and the highest bpm of 177. The last 4 miles were 10:50, 11:44, 9:42 and 12:33. The winner finished in 6:37 which is inconceivable to me.
Thanks to my whole family for being at the finish. I was looking forward to seeing them for many miles and it was a nice motivation to keep running.
A special thanks to Dan Lehman and WVMTR for the awesome race. Dan serves his fellow runners well and makes a lot of things happen that the rest of us enjoy. Thanks, Dan. And thank you to the volunteers who give up a weekend for others. We all know we wouldn’t have races without you.
And thank you to my wife, Ann Marie, who understands me and gave constant support throughout the months of training and the race. She’s always very good to me. I think she summed it up best when she said, “there will never be another race that means so much to you on so many levels.” Thank you, Sweetheart.
Check out other race reports which are shorter ; ) but very good. I thought this one was great by Sophie Speidel
Thanks for reading.
With my girls at the finish. That’s the winner sitting on the cooler behind us. I think he’d already been to dinner and a movie.