The 2017 Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run: A Race Report

Author: Krista Rogers.

There wasn’t a bit of chill in the morning air as I zipped shut the tent of my husband and four-year-old daughter at the Canaan Valley Resort campground. I walked into the darkness, headed to the resort’s lodge to board the bus to the starting line of the Highlands Sky Trail Run. If it was warm in the valley at 4:00 a.m., would it be cooler at 4,000 feet at midday? This was one of many questions I brought with me to my first Highlands Sky.

I was especially concerned about the climbs I would face. On the Highlands Sky website, the elevation profile looks like a thrilling roller coaster ride minus the loops. The line for miles 2 to 5.5 is nearly vertical. A disclaimer reads: “Steepness is exaggerated, it’s really not as bad as it looks.” This did not reassure me. Were my weekly runs up northern Virginia’s Little North Mountain (emphasis on “Little”) enough? Would the West Virginia hills do me in early?

Then there was the nagging question I always have when I’m among ultrarunners: What am I doing!? Every mile of running means eight to twelve minutes (or more) not keeping up the house or garden, working my job, or enjoying quality time with my family. In the month before the Highlands Sky, I had wanted to run sixty miles per week – and I did. Am I a bad mom? A bad wife? A bad employee? What do I get out of running such long distances that justifies the time, effort, and pain?

We boarded the bus at 5:00. At 5:51 the sun rose at the starting line. At 6:00 we were off. The first several miles felt easy. We left the road after two and a half miles, crossed a field of tall grass, and entered the woods. The narrow trail, flanked by stinging nettles, funneled us into a single file moving gradually upward. Two more miles went by. Runners chatted. Suddenly, the trail switched back and steepened. The distance between runners lengthened. Up, up, up we went. I searched for blue sky through the trees. Another half mile passed. There it was! In a few minutes we were at the top.

At about six miles into the race we were at four thousand five hundred feet, and the beauty of the forest was mesmerizing: the pink and white mountain laurel blossoms, the soft feel and rich smell of pine needles, the curious rocks, the intricate mosses, the shallow yet dark pools of water here and there. The silence broken only by the song of a single hermit thrush or chickadee. The narrow green tunnels of the trails. I relished the feeling of being up high. The hill really hadn’t been that bad!

I had read on the website that miles seven to eleven were quite technical, and they were. The trail was an actual stream bed, sometimes flowing, for stretches. Other times, roots or rock fields made the going slow. I was fascinated by everything around me on the high plain, but I didn’t linger. I went on as fast as I safely could, and came to Aid Station #2 with forty-five minutes to spare until the 9:15 cut-off.

Then came the steep descent of miles eleven to twelve and a half, and the subsequent railroad grade. The upland pines gave way to a typical hardwood forest. Here the going wasn’t any less technical than the previous miles. Actually, it was worse. A handful of runners passed me as I picked my way down a slick stream bed. The railroad grade, on which I had hoped to make good time, was muddy despite dry weather conditions. We crossed springs and streams, hopscotched over rocks, and wound around fallen trees. Grass and mud masked the trail, and between markers I got the sensation that I had lost it a few times. Eventually the course took us back up to four thousand feet and drier trails, but the roughness underfoot was wearing on me. I longed for aid station #4 (mile 19.7) and the forest road.

When I finally broke out of the woods and came to AS#4, my joys were three: the forest road, my four-year-old daughter, and my husband! All were a way to reset and refocus, and the effect was marvelous. From here I looked forward to an easier course so that I could reel in some of the runners who had passed me earlier. There were just two problems: my daughter’s reluctance to part with me tugged at my heartstrings, and the long string of runners ahead of me on the straight-as-an-arrow FR 75 would not be reeled in. My legs were sluggish. I barely kept pace. My body felt like I was still on the trail.

By midday it was hot and the road offered little shade, so the clouds that blocked the sun now and then were a blessing. A cool breeze sometimes met us in the dips in the road. Slowly I began to gain on other runners, especially on the hills. I ran past Aid Station #5 (mile 22.7), and recognized the unmistakable long braids of Race Director Dan’s son, Willie, as he turned to leave the table. Willie had given me helpful advice at the pre-race dinner, where my daughter had complimented him on his hair: “Two braids like Anna!” He had also brewed the beer. I decided to stay with him as long as I could.

The vegetation grew sparse on this, the Road Across the Sky, and a broad shrub and heath barren came into view: the Dolly Sods. Willie, a few other runners, and I were approaching Aid Station #6 (mile 27). There the course left the road and crossed the barren on a trail to the horizon. It looked appealing from a distance. As I turned to leave the aid station tent, my lower back and my right knee twinged. I hobbled on, wondering where the pain had come from and hoping it would go away.

The trail greeted our small group almost immediately with a wide mug bog, then rocks to hop. We next climbed an unexpectedly steep hill. (We’re already at the top of the world, I thought. How can we go up?) Beyond that, the plain looked deceptively fast, but the low spruce hid rocks and bogs that slowed me considerably. The heat of the afternoon made the soupy black ooze as warm as bathwater. Runners began to pass me once again.

It occurred to me that my knee had been bothering me for weeks, and I hadn’t really noticed. Now there was no denying it. The trail had aggravated whatever it was, and my knee felt like it would buckle at the first awkward step. From that realization on I walked over rough spots. Willie ran ahead, out of view. I walked to the horizon, over a low hill, and across more plain. Mud. Rocks. Willie, far ahead. Horizon. More plain. Hikers smiling sympathetically. Runners passing me. Mud. Rocks. Horizon. No more Willie. Trails converged, and then split off. I had no idea where or how far along I was; I had inadvertently left my watch at AS#4. I attempted to run and found I could not.

Next came the boulders, into which the trail simply vanished. Around each corner, it was a guessing game where to go next. I came to a runner just standing there, too overwhelmed to look for the next fluttering orange tape. My mood was black as the mud puddles. Finally I saw the white tent of Aid Station #7, an oasis that placed me back on the course. It felt like a finish line; I ignored the fact that I was only at mile 32.9.

“There’s my friend!” said volunteer Clara (Dan Lehmann’s oldest daughter and Willie’s sister) inside AS#7, also known as the “Lehmann Aid Station.” I smiled. I had met Clara, too, the previous evening. We had chatted on the playground outside the Canaan Valley Resort lodge when my daughter joined in play with Clara’s three-year-old twin girls. There Clara and her brother Lars had given me a volunteer’s perspective of the race, reassuring me about things like cut-off times. Willie had joined us at the pre-race dinner and shared a runner’s advice. And after dinner there was a wild game of duck-duck-goose with the kids. I felt like a new in-law at a family reunion, trying to figure out how I was related to all these wonderful people. Ah – that was it: ultrarunning!

“What can I get you?” Clara asked me. “Two ibuprofen and a salt tablet,” I replied. “My back hurts.” I forgot to mention my leg. Again Clara reassured me. There she was, in the tundra on the edge of the world, taking care of me instead of her girls. There I was, running instead of taking care of my daughter. I was grateful – to all of them. I left the tent and headed out along the rim of the valley. Slowly my knee loosened, or the medication took effect.

I was unsure of the trail ahead; I had studied the early hills on a map, but I had not looked at this part of the course much. It was supposed to be the “easy part”: a quick climb up a ski slope and the “butt slide” downhill to the finish. I joined a small group of runners and we made our way past the last few boulders, down a gradual hill, across an old dirt road, and through some brush to a ski slope. There the fluttering orange tape beckoned from high up the slope. Heat emanated from the hard-packed earth baking in the sun. I cursed.

The group walked ahead, and I climbed after them, breathless, to where the hill flattened a half-mile later. There the course cut into the woods on what was barely a trail, and continued upward. The other runners were out of sight ahead of me, but I could hear their voices – first to the right and above me, then to the left and below me. Suddenly we were going nearly straight down a steep, wooded hill. I relied on orange tape and rotted wooden mountain-bike jumps to show me the trail. The voices faded and, once again, I felt lost between markers. How could a trail possibly go here? I ducked under branches and trudged downhill through fallen leaves. This went on for over a mile.

The gravel road I finally reached brought me back, in more ways than one; I found I could run again. I decided not to stop at Aid Station #8 (mile 36.9) to avoid a stiff knee. A racing mother of four (I soon learned) caught up with me and pulled me along as we discussed the pros and cons of jogging strollers. “I did all of my weekday runs with a stroller,” she told me. I was very impressed. “You go ahead,” I told her. “No, I’ll stay with you,” was her reply. We ran together for more than a mile, until my knee pain got the most of me and I decided to walk again.

A mile later, at Buena Church, the course turned onto a roadside trail hidden by shin-high grass. The wide valley grew familiar, but it was another mile before I came to a site I recognized: the entrance to Canaan Valley Resort across Route 32. I passed the resort’s big blue sign and found myself on the road I had walked to get to the bus that morning. Just ahead of me was a runner whom I had passed several times on the course. He was walking. I ran to catch him. Only a mile and change to go!

We turned onto a newly graded dirt road and came to yellow “do not cross” tape where the grading ended. Ahead and to the left were dirt piles and tree stumps. To the right were the resort’s trails, marked in orange. I turned right. It was the wrong choice; I had failed to see orange tape fluttering from a tree on the left where a makeshift trail ducked behind a dirt pile. After twenty minutes in the woods within earshot of the finish line, I came back to the same spot and found the orange course marking leading away.

Minutes later I came down the paved sidewalk to the finish line, and my daughter lunged toward me. My heart leaped. I grinned and hoisted her into my arms. “NO!” she yelled and wiggled furiously. She had wanted to run across the line with me. I put her down, and we crossed holding hands. My husband looked on and cheered. I hadn’t even looked at my time. Suddenly it didn’t matter. The race was over, and motherhood tugged at my arm. “Come on!” my daughter said, pulling me toward the finish-line food under the pavilion. “Can you get me a cookie?”

Final thoughts: The forty plus miles of the Highlands Sky Trail Run greet a runner with beauty in abundance, as well as the camaraderie of ultrarunners and outdoorsmen – and especially that of Dan Lehmann, his family, and his friends. I brought many questions with me to the Highlands Sky. Some were the questions of a nervous runner, and some where the questions of a mother. The trail answered most of them, as always: its beauty restored me while its ruggedness brought forth the effort and perseverance in me that I needed to finish. I had it in me after all! The Lehmann Family took care of the rest of my questions. Thank you, Dan, Adam, Willie, Clara, Lars, and families, for restoring me, too, with your hospitality and the example you set for runners, parents, and people in general. Thank you for a great day and a great race.