Highlands Sky 2014 Race Report – Gary Smith

I made a commitment to myself about a year ago to run Highland Sky 2014 and my training since then has been focused on gradually extending my long runs, concentrating more on “time on my feet” than mileage.  On Friday Dee, Logan and I arrived at our cabin about 4:30 and I immediately realized I had not packed my second pair of trail shoes.  I was a little disappointed but not too concerned since wet shoes are not generally a problem for me.  At 6:00 I attended the pre-race meal and race meeting.  I met the course record holder and got to sit across from the legendary David Horton.

Drank two beers and went to sleep about 10:30.  Woke up about every hour, would glance at my watch to insure I wasn’t oversleeping and go right back to sleep.  Between 2:30 and 4:15 I fell into a deep sleep and started dreaming about the race.  My dream was disjointed and unreal.  It started with me walking from Lehmann’s house toward my car to drive to the start and quickly backing up onto his porch when six black bears came up his drive at a gallop.  Dan looked at me and said, you don’t need to leave yet, this is just the volunteers getting ready to leave.  Next thing I know I am at the race start and we are off.  About a mile in I realize I don’t have shoes on but don’t fret too much, thinking I might borrow a pair at the bag drop at mile 20.  Then the dream race morphs into an urban challenge race.  I am riding roller coasters, jumping from barges and small boats, running through hotels and the whole time semi-lost, seeing other runners but never quite catching up to them.  My alarm goes off and I bolt up wide awake.  First thing I did was put my shoes on.

I put Vaseline on my feet, double check my drop bag, fill up my Nathan pack with water, double check my S caps and Ibuprophen, take one of each, and head out the door at 4:50 to jog over to the lodge.  That quarter mile jog works out some of my anxiety and I grab a quick cup of coffee and a donut hole and get in the van out front for the ride to the start.  I strike up a conversation with my seat mates, one has run HS four times the other like me is a newbie.  We get to the start and I go get in the porta-pottie line before the big bus arrives.  I slip off the sweater I had worn to keep warm, stuff it in my drop bag and toss the bag into the van.  The whole CRR group meets up, pictures are taken, boasts are made, lies are told and we line up for the 6:00 am start.

And we are off.  Almost immediately I lose sight of Josh, David and the Dolin’s then Michael Black pulls away and finally Natalie sprints past leaving Susan and I to manage on our own.  We fall into a comfortable conversational pace.  Susan tells me that she has three Aid Station time lists:  One for a 9:30 pace, one for Rick’s 9:38 PR, one for a 10:00 hour pace.  The 5 mile climb that began about mile 3 brings out some sweat but no real discomfort and when we reach Roaring Plains we have to remind ourselves to not go too fast, it is after all going to be a long day.  We talked about stinging Nettles but they were really no problem at all.  Not sure is our calf sleeves protected us or the front runners just beat them all down.  About mile 5 I pass Natalie, she is struggling a little and we encourage her to keep plugging along until she feels better.

Rocks, rocks, rocks – but our legs are limber and we artfully tread our way among them, over them, around them.  Susan has her issues with her Nathan pack at Aid Station 2 (AS 2) and it throws her off her game.   After a few minutes she calms and returns to her determined focus.  She is insistent throughout the race to get in and out of the AS’s as efficiently as possible.  I take a quarter PBJ and a cup of heed and try one of the salted potatoes and that becomes my preferred fuel for the next few AS’s.  The water crossings are mostly midway between ankle and knee deep and the wider, deeper ones have guide ropes strung up that help us navigate them more quickly.  Shoes get unbelievably muddy then a water crossing and they are clean as new then more mud and the cycle repeats.  I look forward to opportunities to clean my shoes.

Magnificent natural views are all around us but the technical trails force are gaze down to find safe passage for our feet and I am sure there were many beautiful sights that I missed.  We pass a few folks and are passed by others sometimes it’s the same people since runners spend different amounts of time at the AS’s and some are better on uphills and others on downhills we leapfrog some runners several times.  We fall in with Pittsburgh area runner who is training for Badwater and has put in 60 miles this week (I think I put in 6 – I know how to taper).  He has run that desert 100 miler four times and we are appropriately awed.

We get to AS 4 and our drop bags and are pleased that Dennis Hamrick is volunteering there.  He does a great job helping fill our water packs and bring us food and drink while we sit and take off our shoes, empty out the mud and rocks, take off wet socks, more Vaseline on our feet, a pair of dry socks, shoes back on a clean dry shirt and we are off again to tackle the road across the sky.  Did I say the weather was nearly perfect?  We had a nice cool start, good cooling breezes (at times gales), no rain and relatively low humidity.  As we run the road we veer toward shade, pick out landmarks in the distance to give ourselves little mini goals as we run and walk (mostly running) the eight mile road.  Numerous times on the road we look over our shoulders expecting and hoping that Natalie will be in sight and gaining on us.  Shortly after AS 5, Susan takes a fall into the gravel on (as she will tell you) the least technical part of the whole race.  But she is up quick, brushing off the dirt and back to pace.

All of the volunteers were great but it was especially nice when you see people you know and we were both glad to reach AS 6, not only to be finished with the road but to see Dan Todd and hear his words of encouragement.

In preparing for this race I sought out words of wisdom from all CRR runners who had run it in the past.  I heard about the rocks, the water crossings, the long climbs and steep ascents, the rocks, the drudgery of eight miles along the road across the sky, the stinging nettles, the boulder field, the rocks, the heat, the shoe-sucking bogs but no one ever mentioned the awesome splendor of the high plateau at Dolly Sods.  By now we are tired and it takes real effort and concentration to keep lifting your feet high enough to not catch on the rocks and roots so once again my gaze is mostly downward and about 10 feet in front of me.  But this vista is spectacular and I look up and around every time I get a 15 or 20 foot section of rock free trail in front of me.  We truly are blessed to live in this lush green part of our wonderful planet.

Since about the 20 mile mark I have transitioned from a goal of just finish the race to the realization that I might be able to finish in under 9 and a half hours.  I am able to push myself to keep running when part of me screams just walk, you don’t need to run now.  The miles fall away and I think not of how many are behind me but how few are in front of me.

Tired legs jump across the boulders in the boulder field, looking for flags or rock cairns or muddy footprints in order to stay on the course.  Part of the fun of trail running is finding your way.   I have often explored alternate routes (i.e. got lost) when running ultras but I am on a mission today and don’t want to add any extra distance by getting off course.

We leave Dolly Sods and work our way toward the ski slope running up the open meadow that is a ski run in winter then into the woods and ultimately down the steep ascent called Buttslide and on to the final Aid Station.  Again a great group of volunteers helps and inspires us.  Several times today I have passed hikers, campers and in the road sections, locals who have given encouragement.

We leave AS 8 and tackle the last four miles we traverse paved road then farm meadow then paved road and finally the last trail leading to the finish.  I lose my focus and momentum on the pavement and walk a good bit of these last miles even though they are essentially flat and would be easy if my legs had not already run 37 miles.  Clay Warner is driving down the road and passes me with about a mile to go.  He shouts encouragement and I pick my legs up and start running again.

At last I see and hear the finish line and as I come out of the woods for the last hundred yards to the finish I feel a surge of energy and am able to finish with my head and arms held high.  9 hours, 33 minutes later it feels great to be able to stop.