Musings from an Ultra Marathon rookie – My thoughts on the Highland Sky 40 Mile Trail Run
I’m an Ultra. He’s an Ultra. Wouldn’t you like to be an Ultra Nut too? This past weekend I competed in and completed my first ever Ultra Marathon. I conquered the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run, a very tough Ultra that runs through the mountains and plains near the Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia. How did I end up running in an Ultra? Good question. I have been running for 30+ years but had never run more than 13.1 miles. Before my training for this event began, I had completed (3) ½ marathons, (4) 10-milers and a series of 10K’s and 5K’s. All on mostly flat courses.
Early this year, co-workers of mine tried to convince me to join them in a Tough Mudder competition. I had heard of these events but had never really thought about running in one. I checked my calendar and found that I had a conflict for that date in September for the race. You see, I am financially and emotionally invested in UVa Football as a season ticket holder. You could say that is more painful than any Tough Mudder. Anyway, a home game against Penn State the same weekend of the race made it pretty easy for me to have to decline.
In the meantime I began to look around for something else that I could undertake. For some reason I decided to sign up for an Ultra Marathon. I had read about the Highlands Sky 40 and was intrigued. My father was from West Virginia and my brother lives in Elkins. So I knew the area fairly well. As I was trying to decide whether I should sign up, I contacted the race director and asked him about Ultras. Dan Lehmann answered all my questions and sent me lots of links to read. I got info from great Q&A sessions like: “Q: If I see blood in my urine, is that bad? A: Not necessarily (there was actually a longer medical discussion here) Q: What if I throw up during the race? A: Just don’t step in it and keep going.” With solid advice like that I had to move forward, so I signed up for the race.
I was only running 5-10 miles a week when is started my training. So I had to amp that up considerably and only had about 3 months to do it. I slowly worked my way up to 50 miles a week. I live in Williamsburg, Virginia, pretty close to sea level, so there are not a lot of hills in my area. I knew of some single track trails with rolling hills around a lake near the College of William & Mary. I also started running the hills around the Masonic Temple in Old Towne, Alexandria when I was there on business trips. And I trained mostly on my own. So training was tough. I told very few people about my upcoming race in case the training fell apart and I didn’t make it. I wanted to be able to complete the race and tell my coworkers and friends after the fact. That was part of my motivation.
The weekend of May 12th I slipped off to West Virginia for a training run. The start of the race is only 45-minutes from my brother’s house, which made it very convenient. My brother dropped me off at 7:30am and I met with about 2 dozen other Ultra Nuts. Some were vets but I also met a few rookies like me. At 8am we were off and we proceeded to cover the first 19 miles of the course. The really hilly part. At the end we ran 3 miles down a fire road to the start. So I did 22 miles that day in about 5 ½ hours. It went OK. Now I had 5 weeks to finish my training and be ready to run 41. The course was not completely what I expected. The hills weren’t as steep as I thought they might be in places BUT the climbs were long and steady in stretches. The course itself was much rockier than I expected. Many sections were really not run-able (to me) as you couldn’t get a firm and solid landing spot for your feet. You just had to walk up the steep sections and also walk the rocky stretches. OK. I can handle that. I had 12 hours to finish the 40 miles.
Finally race weekend was here. My wife and I arrived at the Canaan Valley Resort at 5:30pm on Friday. Just in time to register and get my free swag, including a cool new pair of trail socks. At last I got to meet Dan Lehman, the guru of the HS 40. Once I introduced myself he immediately knew who I was. We had traded numerous emails while I was contemplating signing up for the race. I could tell he was genuinely happy to see me there. Here was an Ultra Virgin who decided to run his first race at the HS 40. The pre-race meal was great and I met a lot of new folks, many of whom were hard core Ultra runners. Everyone was as nice as could be. I caught up with Jeff from Ohio whom I first met at the Trainer Run. We agreed to run together as we were both Ultra rookies. After dinner and the pre-race presentation I was off to my brother’s house to try and get some sleep. I had been nervous wreck all week and didn’t get much sleep Friday night either.
I got up at 3am to start getting ready and to get some food in my stomach. I was worried about how well I was going to do eating during the run. My wife and I left for the starting line at 4:30am and we pulled in around 5:20am. It was a cool 50 degrees in the pre-dawn light down by Red Creek. I found Jeff and his daughter, Jessica, and we got ready to go. Jessica had run several marathons, so Jeff wasn’t sure how long we would see her during the race before she pulled away from us. We were chatting at the start and heard a little roar go up from the crowd. We were off! We didn’t even hear a “Go” call.
The first 2+ miles are on hard surface road. Jeff and I clocked the first 2 miles in just over 17-minutes. Faster than we planned but OK. I think we let Jessica set that pace. We turned off the road, into a field, past Aid Station #1 and headed into the woods. Over the next 3.5 miles we started our first climb and gained about 1200 feet in elevation. This part was relatively gradual, not too taxing. Then over the next 2 miles, things got steeper and we gained about 1500 feet in elevation. We had to walk most of this stretch, as it was too steep to run. Plus, we had many miles to go. Also, by this time, Jessica had pulled away and we didn’t see her again until the end.
The next 2 miles were relatively level with some rocky sections. We finally popped out on the fire road and made it to Aid Station #2 at Mile 10. I think we pulled in around 2 ½ hours. Well ahead of the cut-off time of 3:15:00. So Jeff and I were feeling pretty good as we reached the ¼ point. The first thing I noticed at the Aid Station was that someone was there with a race roster, checked off your bib number and called you by name as you approached the station. That was nice. Other volunteers immediately came up to take your bottles or CamelBak and fill them up for you. The table was full of food and beverage for you to refuel. Water, Heed and soda to drink. Bananas, oranges, pretzels, cookies, candy, PBJ’s and lots more to eat. My problem was that each time we stopped, I couldn’t eat much.
After a brief break, we were back at it. Down the road a bit and a turn back into the woods. The next 2 miles were fairly level with some sections that Jeff and I could run comfortably. Around mile 12 we started a steep downhill stretch. We dropped about 1200 feet over the next 2 miles. Jeff and I both commented that this stretch seemed steeper than it did during the Training Run. I had run parts of this downhill stretch during the Training Run but we walked a lot of this downhill today to save our energy. The downhills were definitely harder than the uphill climbs. At about Mile 14 we started another climb. Yeah! We gained another 800 feet or so over the next 2 miles. Some stretches were flat enough to jog which felt good. After another short steep climb we popped out on a fire road and were greeted at Aid Station #3. I was very happy that I had come in town for the Training Run. It was nice to have a frame of reference for the first 20 miles of the course. That prepared me quite a bit mentally.
We were still ahead of the cut off time at Aid Station #3, so Jeff and I were happy. To make it even better, we had met a new friend! Around Mile 15, a runner caught up behind us and Jeff offered to let him pass. He said he was fine where he was and chugged along behind us. We started chatting and Jerry told us this was his first ever Ultra. We said us too. He had been talked into the race by a buddy. I asked him when the last time he saw his buddy was and he said at the start. So the three of us formed a pack and made a pact to finish together.
After a short food and beverage stop, we were off again. The next stretch had some flatter sections and 10 short bridges to traverse. We made some good time here, hit the fire road and turned uphill for the mile or so to Aid Station #4, the half way point. We pulled in at just over 5 hours. About an hour ahead of the cutoff time. My wife and oldest son were there to greet me and Jeff’s wife was there as well. It was a nice boost to see family. We toweled off and got some suntan lotion for the next stretch. They call this next part “The Road Across the Sky.” We dubbed it “The Highway to Hell.” It was another 7 miles along a dirt and gravel road that was pretty heavily trafficked by cars and trucks. Every passing car sent up a cloud of dust. And you could see way ahead of you for literally over a mile a time. You had to just keep your head down and run. We ran the flat and downhill parts but walked the uphill stretches. After a quick stop at Aid Station #5, just 3 miles down the road, we continued on and made it to Aid Station #6 which had the last cutoff time. We got there in about 7 hours. 40 minutes ahead of time. As with every stop, we were greeted by name and treated very well. I tried to force down some food but about all I could stomach was orange slices and chocolate. I was also eating gels along the course. I just couldn’t eat much and was afraid I would bonk.
Jeff’s ankle was pretty sore at this point. He had injured it weeks before playing volleyball. I had turned an ankle two weeks before the race and Jerry was having some ankle issues as well. So we made a good team. We headed out on Bear Rocks Trail knowing that we had 5 hours to cover the final 14 miles. We felt good knowing that we had some time to spare. With sore feet, ankles, knees, hips, etc we ended up walking most of the next 10 miles. This stretch was harder than I thought it would be. For some reason I thought the second half would be easier than the first. But the dusty road had taken a bit out of us. Now we still had lots of rocky terrain and a few more climbs to go. Jeff said he needed to power walk and said we could just pull ahead if we wanted. I checked my watch and told him we were walking at about a 16-minute a mile pace on the flat stretches and we were doing great. The “exciting boulder-hopping section from Mile 30-31” turned out to be very taxing for us. At that stage of the race and exhaustion, the “hopping” was tough. We pushed our way through that and along the trail until we finally got to Aid Station #7. That was a long 6 mile stretch. Maybe the longest on the course for me. The Aid Station was at a beautiful vista up high over the Dolly Sods. We were happy to rest a bit, drink and eat.
We knew that the next challenge was a climb up a ski slope followed by the big downhill “butt slide” that we had been hearing about. We pushed on and hit that uphill section. Man we were tired of climbing. We trudged up that hill knowing it was our last real climb. We turned into the woods. After a bit we came to the big downhill. This stretch was steep and tough. I had my only bad “injury” moment here. I got a golf ball sized knot in my left calf during the descent. The pain dropped me flat on my back and I lay there on the hillside. I told the guys to keep going and I would catch up. I massaged the cramp for a few minutes, got up and continued down the hill. We all met up at the last Aid Station. Only 4.1 miles to go and mostly flat terrain. We had just under 2 hours to complete these 4 miles. Man, we are going make this no problem!
We decided to push it in the best we could. I put my head down and started a slow run. It felt good to stretch out the kinks. I didn’t notice that I had pulled ahead of Jeff and Jerry. I was happy to cross Route 32 and head into the main Canaan Valley Resort area. Those last 2 miles were tough. I ran the flat sections but still had to walk the uphill parts. The course turned off the road and into the woods for one last stretch. I knew I was getting close. One more climb up a hill and then I popped out above the finish line. I broke into a nice pace and was greeted by my two sons. My youngest ran with me down the hill to finish. Dan took my picture, shook my hand and had a big smile on his face. He seemed as happy as I that I had finished. Another new HS 40 Ultra survivor!
I will say the next 30 minutes or so was a bit of a blur. I was overwhelmed by exhaustion, emotion and probably a lack of fuel. But I finished in 11:05:15. With 55 minutes to spare. And I made all of my goals. 1) Finish the race in under 12 hours – check. 2) Don’t get hurt – check. After the race I was in some pain and awfully sore, but I did not necessarily get “hurt.” 3) Don’t throw up in public – sort of check. I made it through the race and the post race gathering. But I didn’t feel good on the drive home through the mountains. My wife pulled over so I could “give back” the food from the last Aid Station.
What an amazing experience. I really didn’t know what to expect, since I had not run more than 22 miles at any one time leading up to this. I shattered lots of personal records for distance. During the race, I experienced the whole gamut of emotions and physical feelings. I was told by other runners that during an Ultra if you ever feel bad, don’t worry, it will pass. And at any time if you feel good, don’t worry, it will pass. I had moments of euphoria followed by times of doubt and remorse. Great rushes of adrenaline followed by waves of nausea. It was quite the Ultra experience. But I was happy that I had Jeff as a Wingman to run with me. Now, why did I do this? Because it was there. Mid-life crisis. To show my coworkers that I wasn’t just wimping out on them and their Tough Mudder. I really don’t know. Now, will I do it again? In the words spoken by 99.99% of mothers after the birth of their first child: “I NEVER WANT TO GO THROUGH THAT AGAIN.” But in the words of Ian Fleming; “Never Say Never Again.” Wounds heal. Pain fades away. Good memories outlast the bad. Right now, I don’t plan to run in another Ultra anytime soon. In fact, I’m taking a little time off from running to recuperate. But you never know. It’s now three days after the race and I’m feeling pretty good. Almost ready for a jog.
My HS 40 Ultra was definitely an Ultra Experience! Thanks Dan!
Author: John Stout