“15 Seconds!” Around 200 of this strange tribe standing down on Red Creek answer back a collective “Woo hoo” to RD Dan L, who is standing on the road berm. Then it’s here. “GO!!” and we’re off, the 2010 Highlands Sky has begun! We all pass Dan, beaming down at us, clearly thrilled at what another year has brung. I say, “Bye Dan!” Dan: “See ya Dave, have a great day!”
I warm up down the road and look out at most of the field in front of me…what a strange site this must be. We soon start passing rural homes and fields, the weather a perfect 60 degrees. About the only thing stirring are the dogs. A blood hound over the hill is clearly disturbed that he’s either been rudely awakened or not invited on the hunt. Then another dog on down the road, guarding his space from atop his house, looking a bit confused at this strange start to his day.
We turn left, pass through a small opening in the fence, and start up Flatrock Run. We start to gently climb, and have to adjust our steps. The climb goes well and I smile knowing that many people will now for the first time, and forever more, know on sight, the stinging nettle. The climb switches back and forth up the hill and after a long time I notice the air and terrain begin to change.
I top the hill. I’ve never seen a place like this. And this is really what it’s all about for me. This is a strange land, and I begin to become very excited. The land begins to open up, yet the trail does not. I don’t really know what I’m looking at, these are new plants, not of the kind that grow lower down near home in Charleston. They feel like they belong up in Vermont, where I spent a few years. My gaze then goes downward in order to find out what is getting in the way of my feet. As I said, the trail does not open up. There are rocks.
And not just a a few rocks, or some rocks. The rocks up here, they own the place.
We start picking our way across and I can’t find a rythmn to run in. But then after a bit I do. But it only comes when I realize that I have to adjust to this place, rather than it to me. That’s a good thing. The running begins to become very enjoyable as the rythmn comes, molding my feet, or rather, having my feet molded to the various shapes. Here and there are black pits of mud and water. And after a bit you just take them on rather than try to avoid them. The trail at times narrows down so tight from the bush that you can’t even see your feet. I think it’d be easy to take a header here.
As I’m thinking this a strange buzzing sound begins in my ears. A few black specs emerge. The buzzing gets louder, and soon I’m in a swarm of strange dark and black flies. I wonder if they’ll attack and if this is some strange place where men go to die. I see some sort of clump on the ground, with the remnants of hair and skin. I think I see a bib number. I stop to look in order to notify the next of kin. No number, just breakfast for the swarm. They let me pass, though they remind me, watch your step!
Coming into Aid 2 all is well. I move on through and come to Boars Nest, and start the long downhill. From the bottom the trail swings back up again. I’m running alone and don’t see anyone for a long time, not passing or being passed. It feels like the next aid could come in two minutes or two miles. It finally comes after the climb back up, which is a relief because in this country you really can climb forever, it seems.
Things are still going well as I moved toward Aid 4, though things now start to change. I mentioned the rocks. There are more here too. But these seem different. They even look different. Many rise up like pyrimid studs on an armband. I can’t find a rythmn to run in at all. Whereas I could run the others freely, these rocks almost seem evil. It almost feels like they’re preventing me from running them. I’m catching toes everywhere now. Not good for my bad L3 disc. I realize I’m getting tired, that it’s me and not the rocks..well..for the most part. I cross the bridges and resolve to better watch my fueling. I come out onto the road and up to Aid 4 in about 5 and a half hours, 35 minutes from the cutoff, but about where I should be I figure.
Leaving out of 4 I look forward to some clear ground and level running. I’ve driven across the “road across the sky” before, and remember it as a level road across high plains. I start down the road and quickly find myself walking, not running. I look up. What?! What is this?! I look up to what looks to me like a wave, like the one that sunk the ship in the movie, “A Perfect Storm.” A land wave. I must be on the wrong road. What happened to my level road? Problem is, I know there’s only one road up here. Ut oh. I crest the first wave and look out beyond, and there’s another set of waves coming behind it.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well for me here. I thought it’d take me an hour and a half. When I finally, and I mean finally, get to the Aid at the end, I walk up and say, “stop laughing Dolin.” He grins and says, “You’re doing fine, you’ve got 6 minutes to the cutoff.” Well, at least I can keep going.
This next section was the one I looked forward to the most. I start across, and the Sods are just stunning. While I’m enjoying it, I start to feel the heat. It’s getting hot. I also don’t feel well. And my hands are swelling. I think I’m in last place. There’s no shade. As I walk I think, well..I guess if things go bad I’ll drop my pack and bib in the trail, write Dolin’s name in the trail with an arrow pointed to the nearest tree I’m laying under, since he’s sweeping.
Help comes though. I catch a guy in the race who’s carrying walking poles and a lot of gear. He fishes me out some S-Caps. I pop 3 and begin to enjoy the hike again. I come up on the boulder hopping section. Big rock conglomerations that just appear and are not like the surrounding terrain. I wonder what in the world happended here in the creation. It’s strange.. and wonderful. No time to stop and ponder though, I’m running short on time.
I hear whoops coming from what sounds like above periodically as I head toward Aid 7. I guess, when I come up to 7, that it was this lively group who saw me coming. I don’t ask, since I didn’t want to interrupt the lively discussion that Willie L and the rest of the guys are having. They looked as though they were having a blast, soaking up the sun and whatever else the day had to offer. Bill P pried himself away to tend to my needs. Gave me fluids and salt and his good mood was contagious and helpful. I know I had a climb ahead up the ski slope, and I wondered how much elevation I had coming. So I thought I’d ask Bill. I says, “So the ski slope is next, is it very steep?” Bill says, “Well….it’s a ski slope.” Funny guy. I grin to myself and head toward the steep.
The climb goes slow but good and soon I’m looking down on Canaan Valley. Wow. I start down and try to ski swerve down, since it’s…um…steep like a ski slope. I get to the bottom and the road becomes gently downhill and looks good for running, but it doesn’t matter since my legs are noodles. I come down the road before Aid 8 and know I’m close since I worked it last year.
I roll in and find my friend Phil C there which is a big plus. I get aid and a triple dose of water over the head from Paula S, who can really work a sponge. Phil says, ” I’m running in with you.” Another big plus. I check with the Aid workers to make sure its ok and they say sure. Phil keeps prodding me to run, and I keep essentially tellling him to shut up, though he usually prevails. We head up the park road. I tangent on it and no kidding…really…no kidding… I trip on the yellow line. I know…it’s impossible, but I swear I did on whatever elevation it had.
The cutoff was soon so I had to move.
We entered the last trail, which was the only trail all day without rocks. I’m about half way through and suddenly roll my ankle bad, after stepping funny on some piece of dirt. Now if that’s not hilarious, I don’t know what is. Since I literally had ten thousand rocks on which to perform that feat of dexterity earlier, but didn’t. Those reading this who’ve run the Highlands Sky, will certainly get it. So…up the hill, and I look down at the finish, where come the cheers from the rest of my tribe, who unlike other sports, wait around to celebrate with guys like me who finish 10 minutes from the cutoff.
There was Dennis S, who put the ultra bug in me, and his cousins the Daly boys, and others who I’ve met like them who are all very helpful and a pleasure to meet. And then there was Dan, grinning with the same thrill and excitement he sent us off with some 12 hours before. And there was Jody his wife, immediately stuffing the shirt I prized into my hands (a nice touch). And then there was Charles B., my friend and training partner, who started running in March, and just finished his first ultra 20 minutes ahead of me. He was cramping badly and persevered to finish his first Highlands Sky.
And this was my first Highlands Sky as well. My thanks to all who made this race happen. I never would’ve had this experience, never would’ve seen this strange and lovely land, without you all. You said, “Have a great day Dave!” Well Dan, I certainly did…I most certainly did,