Highlands Sky 2010 – Chris Engel

The calculus that went into my choosing the Highland Sky as my first ultra marathon was fairly simple. First, I decided it would be neat to celebrate my 40th year on earth by running 40 miles. This would, I reckoned, create a memory that was sure to last for at least the next 40 years. Next, I googled “40 mile runs” and amongst the top five was the Highland Sky. Discovering that the course traversed the unique and beautiful Dolly Sods area in Canaan Valley, WV, a place I have enjoyed visiting for skiing and mountain biking, just sealed the deal. Simple as that.

I didn’t give the choice much more thought until at the pre-race meeting race director Dan asked the 17 first timers to stand and be recognized.  Hmm. The rousing applause that followed seemed genuine, but left me with that odd feeling that I was missing something. You know, like when you were taken on your first Snipe hunt.  Oh well, too late to back out now. Then the fellow across the table said with a perfectly straight face  “you will see things you have never seen before tomorrow.” What lions, tigers and bears, oh my. Come on.

Race morning dawned quiet and still and fairly cool too. But you could tell it wasn’t going to stay that way. Lot’s of excitement in the air at the start, and we were off at 6AM sharp. After a quick stretch on the road and a rather prolonged brush with the dreaded stinging nettle we were climbing. Then came the mud… the kind of mud that will suck your shoe right off. (Imagine those mud racing trucks that attempt to hydroplane across a pit of mud a 100 yards long) After the 17th mud pit, I began to emulate this approach as I tried to lightly scamper across without sinking. Results may vary. Then all of the sudden we pop out on seemingly the top of the world (which I have since come to know as the Roaring Plains). The trail here is twisty and fun as it is still cool with a slight breeze and the scenery is spectacular.  As we leave this area there is a postcard view looking west at the valley – but it only lasts a second before we are going down and down fast back into the trees. This only means one thing… that another climb awaits, and indeed it is a dozy but it leads to aid 3, a welcome relief. Leaving the station we encounter another fun section with pine straw covered sections and the bridges that lead towards FS19.

I reach aid 4 seemingly in decent shape and well ahead of the cut off time. I get a fresh hat, water, food and some inspiration from my wife and set off on the road to the sky. Previously, I was looking forward to this section as one that would be more runable, since it was in fact a road and didn’t have rocks, roots and mud to distract. Boy was I wrong. Suddenly, I felt like a tiny buoy bobbing in a sea of endless waves as I trudged up and down the hills. Oh, and someone turned up the heat big time. This is where the walk/run games began. Walk to the shady spot…run until the gravel changes color…walk right out of this bad dream – no that rock in my shoe is real and this is no dream. Aid five helps but not much. I convince myself at this point that WV miles are somehow longer than the traditional US nautical miles I am accustomed too.  Yes that must be it.

I finally crest the last wave, I mean hill and make it to aid 6 with something like 50 minutes until the final cut off. This is good. I spy a chair and convince myself that I will sit for just a minute in the shade of the tent and rest. This is heavenly. While sitting there I realize that two others are laid up under the tent and not looking good. Hmm… that is not good. They have checked out and will go no farther.  I grab some more water and head out across Dolly Sods. Shortly, I encounter “the sign,” you know the one that says “Welcome to Dolly Sods, unexploded ordinance exists in this area, do not touch.” Well, gee that’s just what I need another obstacle. Speaking of obstacles, I next come across these fields of rocks and the trail as it were, marked with its lovely orange ribbons and flags, goes right through the middle of it. Go figure. At this point it does not surprise me.

This section nearly breaks me. I stumble and trip my way through and mostly walk. A stream appears out of nowhere and I immediately dip my entire head in to cool off. This provides but a momentary respite. I feel sick. It’s really hot and there is little shade. I see a bear print. Great I hope he found the ordnance before me! I actually sit down on the trial twice. I make up a silly song about how stupid ultra marathoning is, and repeat it a dozen times. I encounter someone who appears to be affiliated with the race and he says “just a quarter mile to the aid station.” Hmm… really. In what feels like 15 minutes later, I make it to aid 7.

It is quickly apparent that my feeling like crap is evident to everyone as I stumble into the tent and immediately lay down. I knew it was bad when I got the questions – do you know where you are? What is your name? We decided I should cool off and wait a bit. I did not disagree. An SCap, water (No more Heed!) and some chips. A cool rag and a makeshift pillow all helped. People came and went, some stayed a bit with me. Someone broke wind. I didn’t care. Another SCap and more water. I heard reports of DNFs and was quite certain that they had penciled me in this category too. These guys were very accommodating; I could learn to like this. Someone asked if I needed anything else – I answered “how about a taxi?” Laughs all around. Somewhere during this 20 minute layover atop Dolly Sods, I made a decision, a difficult, soul searching, gut check of a decision. I was going to finish.

There was no quit in #63 on this day. I was going to finish.

Before leaving aid 7, a guy with a clip board described the final 8 miles that lay ahead –  gentle down hill, easy upslope, gravel road, paved road to the finish. Piece of cake. I think he must sell something for a living.  I left with a renewed spirit and true second wind. I ran until that “easy upslope.” Right. Upon every encounter (there weren’t many at this point) I said cheerfully “we are going to finish” if for no other reason than to remind myself. I even stopped and chatted with a couple enjoying the view from atop the ski slope. They asked where I was going – I pointed west across the valley towards the lodge. They said “that seems like a long way.” I responded “you have no idea.” As I departed, I told them I was going to finish, #63 was going to finish.

As I entered the park the civil war re-enactors were commencing their skirmish with a volley of gun fire.  I thought maybe a 40 gun salute would be appropriate. I was going to finish. The parade of cars leaving the resort provided inspiration with continuous cheers and honks as I left the road and headed up the final trail to the finish.

Someone said runner up and cheers erupted from the group. Race director Dan was waiting. I hugged him and told him to tell the guys at aid 7 that #63 had finished.

I got what I came for – a lasting memory and a whole lot more.  In passing a colleague remarked “and you had to pay an entry fee for that?” to which I replied, “yes I did, and it was worth every penny of it.”

I also know why people come back to the Highland Sky. I might be back…