Highlands went off yesterday under somewhat typical conditions.: cool and humid at the start, gradually warming to mid-70s with a sympathetic cloud-cover that persisted much of the day. Moisture was present in many forms.
Eva Pastalkova was the story of the day. The defending champ, originally from the Czech Republic, now residing in northern VA, ran with the leaders for the first half before pulling away. Even with a mile or two diversion on the North Sods, thanks to some (possibly unintentional) course vandalism, Pastalkova broke the women’s course record, running just over 7 hours. She has been running since she was 15, but competed mainly in orienteering events (ironic, I guess, due to the circumstances) until she moved to the US 7 years ago. She found no orienteering competitions here and turned to running in the mountains, falling in love with the rugged hills in WV.
Anne Riddle (now Lundblad) held the old record, 7:10:32, a time she ran while placing 5th overall in the first running of Highlands back in 2003. “The course is different now and I’d like to see a new record,” Lehmann quipped just after starting this year’s race. And he got his wish.
Aaron Schwartzbard returned after a disappointing finish last year to recapture the men’s title in 6:07:35, a full 30 minutes faster than his win during the flood year of 2009. Schwartzbard, a part-time resident of Tucker county, was the first through the North Sods. He realized that there were flags missing for a stretch between aid station 6 and 7, but his familiarity with the trails allowed him to stay on course. As soon as he got to AS #7, the infamous Willie’s Aid Station, he told the volunteers there. They in turn radioed to AS #6 to warn incoming runners.
“I still think this is a legitimate win,” said Schwartzbard. “I kept looking over my shoulder on the road across the sky and couldn’t see anyone. I know I was putting time on them.” Still, the winner felt sympathy for those not far behind him. Most of those runners took it in stride, after all getting out in the wilderness is part of the sport. A small crew from AS# 7, including the infamous (and very tall) Willie Lehmann, hiked into the Sods to re-flag the course and find any lost souls. His hooting and arm waving did lead a small pack of lost runners back onto the course and eventually to the finish.
Which, I suppose brings us to the gem of this event and this sport. As ultra-runners we accept, often with some pride, the fact that we are about to embark on a journey that most people think is crazy. On race day, we acknowledge the distance and the rugged terrain that we plan to cover. And we think of it in terms of finite elements and absolute distance. But when we get lost, off-course due to missing flags or pilot error, the finite length of a race changes. It is then unknown when we’ll finish or even if there is a finish at all. And that, I think, is when we test our mettle. It is one thing to be crazy in a calculated way, but it’s another to remain cool when everything is out of control.
Most of the finishers yesterday had some story about getting lost or wanting credit for the extra miles or postulating on who was the culprit stealing the innocent trail markers. That is everyone but John Logar. Logar, originally from Minnesota and a Highlands Sky veteran, remarked with a supreme confidence,”I never look at trail markers…I gave up on them long ago.” Apparently, Highlands courses through his veins in an instinctual and unquestionable way. “I just read the land.”