Highlands 2013 Race Report – Travis Miller

I don’t remember how I first discovered this race.  I do remember my first reaction.  “That’s impossible!”  The best I recall those were my words the first time I heard about the Highland Sky 40.  There were two reasons for my reaction.  First, I’m not a runner.  I still don’t consider myself a runner.  Oh I ran some 10K and 5K races ten years ago.  Until 2010, when I first learned about HS 40, I had no idea people ran “ultra” distance races.  A road marathon seemed like an impossible (and ridiculous) task to me.

Second, I consider Dolly Sods to be my home turf.  In the early 60’s my family built a cabin on the banks of the South Prong of Red Creek in Laneville.  Yes, the same South Prong the race course crosses just before aid station 3.  I’ve been on these trails my entire life hunting, fishing and backpacking.  I already knew how rough they are.  Forty miles on these trails seemed, well, impossible.

Yet I knew it must not be impossible because people were doing it.  In fact, the Highland website did include a list of finishers to my amazement.  The more I read about this race, the more intrigued I became.  I started reading about ultra running.  Imagine my surprise upon learning 40 miles is a short ultra.  Before I had even admitted it, I knew I had to run this race.

My friends and family would ask, “Why?”  “I don’t know,” would be my answer.  I simply felt like this was something I had to do.  I started talking about it all the time.  In 2011, I scheduled a backpacking trip across roaring plains on race day so I could actually see the runners.  After watching several runners come up South Prong trail through aid station 3, my mind was set.  I went home and bought a pair of trail running shoes.  Still yet, I don’t really know why I decided to do something so out of the ordinary for me.

I have to admit, I was very nervous leading up to this race.  This was the first time I ever signed up for a race where just finishing the race was in question.  I intended to start my training in earnest during the spring of 2012.  The only problem was that I also quit my job and started my own business at this exact same time.  Turns out running a small business takes A LOT of time.  My available running time was nearly nonexistent for most of 2012, which only fueled my anxiety about this race.  I finally came to the realization that I simply was not going to be able to put in many miles during the week.  As the business grew, this problem didn’t get any better in 2013.

But when I had the time, I ran.  Once 2013 got here, I made certain to get a long run in every week.  I ran fourteen miles, then 18, then 20.  Running 20 miles was a mixed blessing for me.  On one hand, I couldn’t believe I actually ran 20 miles.  That was never on my list of things to do in life.  On the other hand, I was only half way there.  However, I soon ran the first half of the race course in April.  Then I did it again in May.  Then I ran to aid station 6 on Memorial Day weekend.  That was truly the turning point.  I said to myself on that day, “If I can run 27 miles of this course, I will finish this thing!”  Looking back, these long runs were both a blessing and a curse (more on that later.)

I want to go on a tangent for just a minute.  When I first started thinking about doing this race, I didn’t tell very many people.  This was because I didn’t want to tell people I was doing this and then decide I couldn’t.  As I started to run more, I started to mention my plan to some of the folks I ran with at times.  Some were overly encouraging.  They would tell me things like, “You can do it.  I know you can.”  That didn’t help much because neither of us knew if I could complete this race.  These were just empty words.  Others offered seemingly discouraging words.  I had one individual, who is an HS 40 finisher, explain to me how the HS was not a good first ultra, how I should run at least a road marathon first and how I should pick a different race.  To him, I say thank you.  I also say, I don’t want to pick a different first ultra.  I don’t want to run a road marathon – EVER.  I want to run this ultra, this year!  Any questions?  As I crowd 40 years old, I’m getting pretty sensitive to people telling me I can’t do things.  This was great motivation that I remain thankful for.

As race day grew closer, my anxiety level grew.  I can’t explain why.  I was confident I would finish within the cutoffs, which was my only goal for this race.  I tried to hide the anxiety.  I tried to act normal.  I don’t think I did.  I just wanted to get this thing started.

I noticed the crowd of runners all walking toward what I assumed was the start.  I didn’t even hear anyone say go.  Everyone just started running down the road.  I had to hold myself back on the road.  I was so jacked up I wanted to sprint down the black top.  We were off the road soon enough and headed up Flat Rock Run trail.

Flat Rock Run

Flat Rock went by quickly enough.  It was wet.  Really wet.  I ran the flatter sections and walked the steeper parts.  No problems with the nettles.  They were there, but easy to avoid.  My shoes and socks were soaked in this section.  They couldn’t have been any more wet.  I was amazed to watch people just like me trying to tip toe around mud and water.  “Your shoes are already soaked.  Just go,” I kept thinking.  I couldn’t understand all these people trying to figure out how to cross Flat Rock creek.  I just plowed through and must have passed 6 or 8 people right there.

Roaring Plains

Roaring Plains was probably the highlight of my day.  I felt great!  I ended up right behind a guy from Huntington.  It was as if God had placed the perfect pacer right in front of me.  I felt like I was floating through the rocks.  There were people walking downhill sections.  There were people stumbling and bumbling around.  I can’t remember how many people we passed in this section but it was a bunch.  No one passed us.  We hit aid station 2 shortly after 2 hours.  This section couldn’t have gone any better.  I was on top of the world here.

Boar’s Nest and South Prong

I hate the hill going down Boar’s Nest.  First, it’s steep and wet and covered in loose rocks.  I’ve never quite figured out the best way to get down this hill.  This hill has always caused the onset of some knee issues during my training runs.  It did the same thing during the race.  At least, I’m consistent.  I took it really easy on the downhill.  I got down it and was glad to have it behind me.  South Prong trail is a different story.  It’s a lot like Flat Rock – an old railroad grade.  I made to aid station three and put this section in the books.

The section between aid station three and the road is another section I don’t like.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think I’m ready to be on some easier terrain after Roaring Plains.  I think my problem with this section is that other race reports talk about it like it’s a quick stroll through the park.  It’s not.  It’s rocky – very rocky.  It starts with probably the steepest, rockiest climb of the course.  It continues to be a very rocky, technical section of single track until close to the road.  Nevertheless, I made it in fine shape.  I counted off the ten bridges and made my way to the road and aid station 4.

The Road

I got a big surprise at aid station 4.  I knew my wife and friends would be there waiting to meet me.  I was looking forward to picking up some snacks and maybe dry shoes.  What I didn’t realize was the boost I would get from seeing them cheering me on and running around trying to help as quickly as possible.  It was as if Dale Earnhardt had pulled in for a pit stop.  My buddy John even changed my shoes and socks because I kept getting cramps when I bent my leg enough to take my shoe off.  John, that was above and beyond the call of duty.  Thanks!

I only stopped for maybe five minutes, which was much longer than the 30 seconds spent in each of the previous two aid stations.  I ate a few Pringles and had about my 10th Clif Shot of the day.   After my wife gave me two new water bottles and a liberal dose of sunscreen, I was off.  This was the high point of the race for me.

The Road Across the Sky doesn’t mentally bother me like it does others.  I’ve been up there so many times in my life I know exactly where I am on the road and what’s over the next rise.  What did bother me was all the runners I had previously passed on Roaring Plains passing me on the road.  In all honesty, I hated being passed on a gravel road, but there was nothing I could do about it.  I think this was the first time I started feeling the fatigue.  I just couldn’t keep up with these people on the road.    In hindsight, this is where my day began to go downhill.

I suspected this would happen.  I’ve never had ups and downs like I read about other runners having.  Every run is the same for me.  I start out feeling slow and lethargic.  I then start to feel strong after a few miles and then I gradually get more and more tired the longer I run.  It’s really pretty simple.  After about 20 miles, I progressively get more and more tired.  Seems perfectly logical to me.

Aid Station 6 To Aid Station 8

I can sum up the rest of the race pretty easily after aid station 6.  “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.  I’ll never do this again!”  In reality, things didn’t get too bad until I was almost to Rocky Ridge trail.  Quite simply, the longer I was on my feet, the more it hurt.  While I did have a couple of different nagging pains, what I’m talking about here is not really pain.  My legs had never felt so tired.  Tired to the point it felt like they hurt.  All I could think about was sitting down.  I have never so badly wanted to just sit down.  But I knew if I sat down, that would be that much longer before I finished so I just kept going.  I was mostly walking, but I would occasionally lapse into a half-hearted jog on a downhill section.  This point in the race was, by far, the most physically challenged I have ever been.

I didn’t look at the scenery.  I didn’t take pictures.  I told myself, “constant forward motion,” over and over.  The other thing I did was listen to my IPod.  I listened to a particular section of the audiobook Lone Survivor by US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.    All I will say here is his ordeal reminded me what I was dealing with really wasn’t that bad.

This was not a pretty portion of the day for me.  I have to admit – I was miserable.  I decided right there my ultra running career began and ended with this Highland Sky.  I really didn’t want to have this kind of experience in my first ultra.  When I think back on this race, this is, unfortunately, what I think of.  From about mile 30 to aid station 8, was just plain bad for me.  The only good that came from this portion of the race – I never even thought of dropping.

Aid Station 8 to the Finish

I got another big surprise at Aid Station 8.  I was again amazed at how glad I was to see my wife and friends waiting for me.  I knew they would be there.  In fact, my friends John and Rachel were planning to run the last 4 miles to the finish with me.  I just didn’t realize what a huge mental boost I would get from seeing them.

I would guess that I spent less than a minute in this aid station, which had been my norm the entire day (except AS 4 when I changed shoes).  John, Rachel and I soon started a very slow jog/shuffle down the blacktop road.  I just couldn’t keep it up for long.  I had to walk.  Then shuffle.  Then walk some more.

Probably my most vivid memory from this section of the race is of something I wanted to do, not something I did.  We were shuffling along with about two and half miles to go.  I see this guy jogging toward us.  Even at some distance, I could tell this guy was not a racer.  First of all, he was clean, unlike me.  He had on a fresh T-shirt, his hair was all fluffy and he had hardly broken a sweat.  He smelled like cologne when he passed.  As he was approaching me, he looked right at me and said, “Come on! Pick it up.”

The urge to punch this guy right in the face overwhelmed me.  I mean it almost got away from me.  I don’t think I’ve had that strong of an urge to punch someone since I was in high school over twenty years ago.  I can’t explain how close I came to letting a left hook fly on Mr. Fluffy Hair.  As I write this, I am kind of ashamed of how I let my emotions get away from me like that.  I can’t believe how close I came to punching that guy.  I guess it was a long day.  I can only blame this near lapse of judgment to extreme fatigue.

Fortunately, we soon hit the one mile to go sign without further incident.  I’m sure that sign only said something like “1 mile.”  What I saw was, “You only have one mile left.  If you hurry up, you can sit down sooner.”  I took off.  I don’t know where the energy came from, but I really took off.  I mean I was running!  Not jogging.  Running at 5K pace running.  I was like a horse headed back to the barn.  I still don’t know where that came from.  I think I just wanted to be done so I could sit down.

My goal in this race was to be an official finisher – under 12 hours.  My secret goal that I didn’t tell anyone about was to finish in under 10 hours.  I felt silly to say out loud that I wanted to finish Highland Sky in under 10 hours when there was a time not long ago I wasn’t too sure about finishing at all.

I crossed the finish line at 9:54:04.  It was a bittersweet end.  My finish time was better than I could have ever dreamed three years earlier when I learned about this race.  On one hand, I couldn’t have been happier about my time.  On the other, there were some very low points along the way.

I didn’t realize at the time how much I wanted to enjoy this day and wanted to like ultra running.  All of the hours of running in the cold, the rain, the snow and the dark had led me to this very moment.  I accomplished things I never thought were possible.  I really wanted to enjoy this day and this race.

I enjoyed the beginning and the first half.  I enjoyed when it ended.

I don’t know if this is really a race report.  This is more me, a way to write down my thoughts of this experience.  It’s now been over two months since the race.  I’m still not sure yet what I think about ultra running.  I’ve been asked time after time, “Are you going to do it again?”  My reply is still, “I’ll get back to you on that.”  It’s more of a possibility now than it was two months ago.

I have been absolutely amazed at the physical toll this race took on me.  It has taken a visit to the doctor and a month and a half to recover.  I can see several things I would change in my training that I think would make a huge difference in my ability to run this race again vs. endure this race.  I don’t know about next year.  I’ll get back to you on that.

Thank you Brenda for putting up with this crazy idea I got in my head.  There were a lot of days I should have been doing things at home that I was out running some trail.  Thanks for all of your help on race day.  I’m so glad you were there to share it with me.  I love you.  Thank you Adam for all of your advice.  It is a simple fact that I would have been doomed if not for your advice.  Everything you told me was much appreciated and dead on accurate.  John, thanks for changing my shoes and socks.  That was above and beyond!  Thanks to you and Rachel for running the last 4 with me.  I would have never made sub 10 without you two.  Thanks to Clint and Julie for a great post-race meal.  Thanks to Dan and all of the volunteers.  You put on a great race.  I appreciate you so graciously answering all of my newbie questions during the trail clearing day.  I thank God for the ability I have been blessed with to do something like this in such a beautiful place.  Also, thanks for reading.

Finally, to the gentleman with the pick a different race advice, if you check the race results for the 2013 Highland Sky 40 beside 85th place, you will find my name.  Thanks for the motivation.