Highlands Sky – Caroline Williams

I wasn’t sure what I would be doing after MMT.  But since I was recovering nicely, I decided to go for Vermont while the fire was still hot.  So I needed some long runs.  Laurel Highlands or Highlands Sky?  Although only a week apart, I signed up for both. 

I love both of them.  But I just didn’t want to continue at Laurel.  It was a warm day, and the forced detour was tough for most runners including me.  I was also not fully recovered from MMT, and I had to respect what my body was telling me.  So I was glad to have Highlands Sky on my schedule to test my body and mind.  It was also great to see so many VHTRCers at the start.

 I’ve been to Highlands Sky six times.  So I have a good knowledge of what the course is like.  The entire course is challenging.  Two different kinds of challenges.  First half—rocky, muddy, and mostly uphill.  The second—much more runnable, but miles seem to go slower with straight as an arrow road across the sky section, followed by rather steep downhills, and more roads back to the resort.

It was a cool morning; and even though I knew it was going to get a lot warmer, I still chose to start out conservatively.  Before I hit the first aid station, I already discovered that I didn’t need my arm warmers, so I took the right one off, leaving the left one because that would involve fussing with my watch. 

Not sure if it’s because I hadn’t been on rocky trails since MMT, but I was very slow on the rocks.  I just didn’t want to injure myself, and I knew it would be long eight miles before I would see the second aid station.  There was a cutoff there, and I wanted to get there at around 8:30—giving me a 45 minute cushion.  I didn’t get there until close to nine—so only 15 minute ahead.  Leonard Martin had just come in when I was leaving.  Five and a half miles to aid three.  Knowing that not eating enough is my biggest problem, I carried a lot of food with me and was eating well.  But the course is still demanding, and I was conserving but trying not to slow down too much.  I’m not sure when I arrived aid three, but I felt the pressure to not stay there too long as there were other runners mulling around—with one thinking that he needed to drop.  Three miles to aid four, and I was feeling slow again.  Leonard Martin had caught up to me again and was just behind.  He had not done this race before, and was surprised at how tough it was.  We had reached the road finally, and were close to aid four.  I saw John Prohira.  He congratulated me and reminded me to smile.  He also mentioned that Teresa was about five minutes ahead.  I didn’t know who he was talking about, but later learned that they were good friends.  I switched from my hydration back pack to a waist pack with a single bottle that I had placed in my drop bag.  Leonard reminded me that it’s faster to refill a bottle than a bladder, and I knew that I had to move quickly through the next aid stations.

We were now on that long, 7.3 mile road-across-the-sky section.  But maybe because I had been down that road four times before, it didn’t seem endless to me.  For the first time ever during this race, and second time in any ultra, I turned on my i-Pod only to have it run out of juice on the third song.  So I just had to concentrate, picking out a spot in the distance to run to, and using my fellow runners as motivators to keep me going.  Leonard was shuffling along, sometimes passing me, and sometimes getting behind me.  Surprisingly that didn’t bother me this time.  I also caught up with Teresa, not saying much other than how fortunate I felt to have the breeze on that warm day.  We finally reach the 27.0 mile aid station.  Walker and I have been timed out there the first two years of this race, and on our third try, we were a minute under and so were allowed to continue.  As in the past, Ted Lapkoff (Sharon’s wonderful spouse) was volunteering again there.  Walker and I met Sharon and Ted at this race’s inaugural year back in 2003.  Sharon told me that Highlands Sky was her first ultra that year, and if our good friend Jim Cavanaugh hadn’t pulled her through, she might not have finished.  I digress.

A runner (Donny) was leaving as the two of us arrived aid six.  Thinking that we had one more cutoff, I’m in and out of there quickly.  Dan announced Friday night that we would be near the ski area, but I had no understanding that we would be running down the very area that the skiers normally ski down!  I was so glad to have Leonard and Teresa in my sight ahead of me, keeping me motivated to not whimper on the relatively steep downhill.  Then they were out of my line of vision, but there were twists and turns on the short paved section before the next aid.  The aid station people told me that there were no cutoffs until the finish, and at the last one, they encouraged me to move out as best as I could.  I was wishing for some ice cold Coca Cola, but they didn’t even have luke warm ones.  The last eight miles (because it included an uphill to the ski area, and then about 1/3 mile downhill section) seemed really long.  We were also exposed to the sun, and not much breeze on the road section.  But I was glad for the quiet roads until we were almost back at the entrance to the resort.  Then the sound of cars was really motivating!  The sound I never cared for was the loud boom from what I imagine to be cannons going off inside the resort.  What is it, and why is it always there during our race weekend?

About two miles to go, and I saw the flags that I had seen when I drove in Friday afternoon.  Walker and I had been on this section together twice before.  I thought of Rob Apple as he was driving out, slowing down to congratulate us in 2005.  Leonard was shuffling back and forth with me again, telling me the distance left to the finish.  We finally reach the shady trail section again.  Leonard was also telling Teresa the same information, encouraging her to push.  I heard her say that she’s doing the best she can.  Her voice sounded tired.  We had a little uphill section, and at the top I see John Prohira again.  He looked happy and surprised to see me.  He offered me some Gatorade, and I accepted.  He asked about Teresa, and I told him that she was just behind.

I told Leonard that it was a right turn down to the finish on a narrow pavement.  He was just a few steps in front of me, and I just coasted in noticing the clock and glad to have reached the finish before the final cutoff.  Dan was ecstatic to see me, and I felt so welcomed by his obvious display of emotion.  Thanks also to Michelle who gave me my finisher’s shirt, and other runners still hanging around the finish.  Bill Turrentine also congratulated me TWICE at the finish—both times with a kind of smile that I’ve not seen on his face before.  Thanks so much Bill.

By the time I was showered and dressed, they had stopped serving dinner.  Probably noticing my forlorn look on my face, Dan’s wife, Jodi promptly went back into the kitchen and somehow managed to grab me a plate full of food.  I will never forget that, as I craved some protein, and all that they had left was a bunch of brownies, and a few rolls.  Others also offered me some corn on the cob, but I was craving protein, and I was eye balling some chicken bones that had a little chicken meat left on it.  That’s how desperate I was!  I ate slowly and sat for a while before attempting to drive back.  I wasn’t sleepy, but I just didn’t feel quite right, and didn’t want to get sick while driving.  About an hour later, around 8pm, I felt good enough to leave.

I have so a few memories of Highlands Sky.  Even the first two years, when Walker and I were timed out at aid six, I was not totally disappointed.  My birth-mother was there the first year, and my son the second.  This year, I would have been happy to reach the 27-mile aid station, but I had just made it, and I felt I had to continue since I needed to for Vermont.  I just didn’t want to give up since I had done that one week before at Laurel.  For the first time, I’m thinking that I will go back to Dolly Sodds in early October or December.  I want to leisurely take in the beautiful and expansive space there along the Timberline with Walker.  Some of those areas remind me so much of my teenage years when all five of us (three girls, and parents) used to hike in the Crazies—in the Montana Rockies.

Thanks again to Dan and Jodi Lehmann, and all of the wonderful volunteers.  Thanks also to Dan’s son (forget the name!) for that wonderful brew too!

 Caroline Williams.