Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run - Oh What A Feeling!

I'm behind a few posts, but I'm going to try to be better, so I'm going to do this one while it's fresh in my head, then I'll go back and post about my overnight backpacking trip in early may, and my first "official" road marathon.

So the name of this race is the Highland's Sky Trail Run, and you do feel like you're touching the sky.  After seeing a fellow trail runner's blog post about this gorgeous and challenging run, I knew I wanted to give it a go.  And Jason and I had visited Canaan Valley about 12 years back, and I thought it would make a nice family weekend.

So Friday morning, off we went, traveling the 4 or so hours from home, making a few stops for lunch and gas.  We enjoyed the winding roads through the West Virginia mountains, and got to the Canaan Valley Resort around 2:30.  The resort was really beautiful, with an amazing view out the back windows, and deer wandering the grounds, and the awesome thing was that the race finished right out the back door.  After checking in, getting race info, we decided to drive down to the race start, just to get an idea of where I was going.  The road was teeny, and a bit scary on the sharp turns, but we scouted it out, and got back in time to grab some snacks, and head to the pre-race dinner.  The food was good, and the information concise, and there was a bunch of swag given out ( though I didn't win any, sadly).  I said hi to Nick Billock and his lovely wife and girls as well!

After dinner, I took Eli to the indoor pool for a little while, then headed to bed to try to get some sleep before a 4am wake up.  Eli and Jason had a fun day planned while I was racing, including biking and mini-golf.  

I tossed and turned a little, as I tend to do on race-eve, but I felt rested.  I had my gear on pretty quick, applying body-glide liberally, and we headed down to check in, and head to the race start.  We got to the start around 5:20, I visited the porta potties, put on sunblock (which Jason found silly in 45 degree temps with fog at 5:45 am), but I knew the trail would be exposed eventually, and I don't like to burn.
A little nervous at the beginning of the race - about 200 people signed up - I think most showed up.

Dan Lehman, the race director, and all around really nice guy, started us off at 6 am.  The start was a pretty gently rolling bit of road for about 2 miles, with a water station at the 2.1 mile mark.  We then broke off the road and up a trail.  And did we go up.  This was fairly runnable, but also pretty mucky in places.  It was very gradual up, then changed into switchbacks.  And the stinging nettles.

Very gentle uphill at the start of the trail.

So - I've been stung by stinging nettles before, so I really tried not to get stung by them too much.  I took a few stings on the legs, and grabbed some jewel weed and rubbed the juice on the stings, which I forgot about pretty quickly.  But there were a lot of nettles.  And the trail was still going up.

Nettles to the left of me, Nettles to the right - here I am, stuck in the middle with... other crazy runner folk.

There wasn't a whole lot of chatting on the trail.  People passed me on the flats, but I usually ended up catching them back up on the climbs(thank goodness for so much hill training this spring).  The mud was awful in some places on the climbs - I was slipping backwards on some of the slopes, but overall the trail wasn't terrible... yet.  Besides the fact that it was still going up.

The mist was really beautiful.

Still stinging nettles.  Whee!  Sure - you can pass if you want.  If you DARE!!!

The mixture of hardwoods and pine and rocks and moss made the climb really beautiful.

The trail was also rocky.  And getting rockier the further we went up.  But still muddy too.

Finally the woods opened up to an area called the roaring plains.  The fog was thick, and the wind was cool, but that was ok.  There was a quick bit of confusion with a trail marker, but there were enough people there that we found the trail again within moments.
Foggy, but awesome!

Selfie!  The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.  Ironically, I did have to wear them in the future, because the fog burned off, and there weren't as many trees.

Just a few minutes after we were up in this section, an older gentleman fell in front of me - in front of a group of us.  I didn't see how hard he went down, but he was down, with his arm kind of over his head, and when I got over to him and gave him my hand to help him up, I saw blood on his head.  He had hit it on a rock on the way down.  About 8 of us were clustered around him, and had him sit down, as he was woozy.  A few other runners moved in(one had some first aid stuff), and I backed off, not wanting to crowd, and not having any first aid supplies on my person anyway.  The 10 mile aid station was about 2.2 miles ahead, so I took off, in hope of giving them the information to see if anyone else could help or if they would send someone back.  He had been conscious and talking, but I was worried.  This gave me a bit of adrenaline boost for the next bit, and I was moving pretty quickly even though the trail was pretty much rocks and water and peat.  It made for very squishy shoes.  So did the three big creek crossings with ropes.  

So I was hurrying my way, and heard a guy come up behind me, and he was talking to someone.  He asked if he could pass, and he, and the "guy" he was talking to passed.  The "guy" was a huge bloodhound, running the race too.  I had just been "dogged."  Oh well.  I think he beat me by a couple of hours.  And boy, I bet he was "dog-tired."

Anyway - I got to Aid Station 2, and I told one gentleman there that there was a man down, and he said that there would be sweepers coming through very soon if there were any sort of problems.  I felt... meh about that answer, but I didn't have much to do except go on and hope for the best.  The race continued on a bit of double track, then did a left into the woods.  I'm glad I was following another runner at that point, because I may have missed the turn.  Really everything was really well marked with orange ribbons and orange flags, and when there might have been a question about a turn, yellow caution tape was placed on the ground across the path, so you knew NOT to go that way.  Good stuff.  Now a bit of a picture interlude.

Standard "easy" trail.

Rhododendron lined "rocky" trail.  Pink Mountain Laurel were also in bloom.  The scents along the trail were really good - unless you were standing too close to a runner, like myself.

This is what a lot of the trail was like - rocks with deep puddles in between. You either tried for the rocks, hoping not to slip, or slogged through the water.  I was very splashy most of the time.

So there was a little bit of rolling plains out of the second Aid station, then a sudden down.  And down, and down.  It was rocky, and steep, and muddy.  It's hard to convey in the pictures below, but it was a pretty grueling descent.  At least until the Butt-slide at the end.  It was this section that I missed seeing a branch and bonked my forehead pretty good, then I broke a really sharp branch off of a log that I figured would impale, and a piece flew up and scraped my face.  Go me!

The trail going down - really hard to present in an ipod photo.

The trail is over my shoulder - it was steep, but pretty!

Green!  Oh and rocks on the trail - I did get some running in in this section.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet in the post is the cut-off times.  The race has a 12 hour time limit.  I wouldn't want to attempt to run that course in the dark, even with a head lamp, so I can see why the 12 hour time limit is pretty strict.  Aid Station 2 had a time limit of 9:15.  That was 3 hours and 15 minutes to do 10 miles, that were mostly uphill.  I got there around 8:15, I think.  That gave me a little under 2 hours to make the next cut-off 5.5 miles by 11:05.  I had seen the trails.  My spirit was getting slightly crushed.  But I knew I could do 5.5 miles.  Right?  A few runners that passed me encouraged me.  I'm so glad they did, because I was getting a little negative.  So after a steep descent, a little bit of runnable flat, and another ascent, I reached Aid Station 3.  They told me I had an hour and 45 minutes to go about 4 miles.
Going up out of Aid Station 3.

I started to get down on myself here.  The section was very beautiful, and I was doing as much running as I could through rocks and mud, and I felt good, physically, besides a little GI grumbling.  I was worried about being pulled.  I told myself not to expect to finish, but to keep going at whatever pace I felt comfortable with, and if they told me to stop, I would stop.  There was a voice in my head, that was occasionally telling me I should quit, and go hang out with my family for the rest of the day, and relax and enjoy the beauty of nature... but dammit!  I was in the middle of it.  I was IN NATURE!  And I'd probably spoil my husband's plans to bike and hang out with the kiddo if I got plunked back at the resort.  So I kept going, with those cut-off times chasing me like... trail running blood-hounds...

It was very beautiful - flowers, rocks, pines, moss.

There were many different trails up there - but the orange ribbons were great.  Just as you thought you miiiggghht be going the wrong way - BOOM ribbon!

Really amazing.

There were some nicely built board-walks in the area (though there was mud on either side, so though they did allow for some running, there wasn't much shoe reprieve), and then the trail came out onto a narrow gravel road.  This was the same road we had started on, just well up, near the Dolly Sod's picnic area.  I turned to the right, and headed up a hill on the road, nearly to Aid Station 4, and where my drop-bag with dry shoes would be waiting.

It was nice to run on solid ground for a little bit, but I was also interspersing some walking up the hills.  I let gravity help on the downhills, and soon I was at the Aid Station.  I did the most rapid shoe change; powdering my feet, then rubbing them down with aquaphor, then getting my shoes on.  I grabbed a couple gels, some good old swedish fish, drank some coke, then headed out.  I had 7.5 miles of road to run in 2 hours and 15 minutes.  I headed off.

The road across the sky was really a beautiful thing.  I pulled my headphones on, to help with my movement.  I ran the flat and down as much as I could, but was walking the hills.  I don't think I was feeling bad as much as worried about my pace.  I got passed by quite a few people on the road.  I'm not fast on the road, and I just chugged along.  The road was very undulating.  It was like a big roller coaster, without the g-forces.

There was another Aid Station - Aid station 5, halfway through the road section.  The road itself was not terrible.  I was glad I had brought a stick of sunblock, my hat, and sunglasses though.  I refilled my water, drank more coke, and kept going.  I wasn't eating enough.  I had taken a salt caplet, and was drinking plenty, and had taken an ibuprofen or two as well, and I was eating gels, but not enough real food.  This would come up to haunt me later. I met up with a runner I had met the night before - Kim.  She had caught up to me, and was power-walking and running.  I stayed with her for a while, chatting a bit here and there, but she was much faster up the hills than I was, so I fell back just before we reached the next Aid Station.

The road across the sky.

The view of the on the sides of the road.

Looking behind.

Looking forward.  Aid Station 6 is just ahead!

The ipod photos really can not do this view justice.  Amazing.

My stomach was rather unhappy by Aid Station 6.  The kind folk there offered me some ginger ale, and I grabbed some chex mix, and nibbled it.  I had them top off my bottles, and headed off the road across the sods.  I tried to run here and there, but every bounce made me uncomfortable.  I'd run a dozen paces then stop and walk.  There were no more official cut offs, and I had 6 miles to cover until the next Aid Station.  So I walked.  I got passed by a number of folk, and some were just walking as well.  I finally made the decision to scoot off into the woods and "relieve" my GI issues, just to see if that helped at all.

I mostly walked.  It was really beautiful, so I took in the sights while I was walking.  The mud came back a little bit here and there, but it wasn't awful.  There was another stream crossing and a climb up through some woods, and that's when my garmin gave up the battery ghost.  It stopped at 28.5 miles, so I knew I had about 4 miles until the next Aid Station.  I was feeling a little better as I came up on a couple that had passed me a little bit before, and one of them asked me if I was taking enough salt.  I sad I had taken one, but taking another couldn't hurt.  I took a salt tab, another ibuprofen, and chomped down my trusty old swedish fish.

Starting into the Dolly Sods.

Scrub trees, but incredible views.

I'm not sure when it clicked, but I started feeling better.  I'm betting on the swedish fish. The trail got really rocky, but I started picking it up.  I started passing people who had passed me either on the road or on the Sods.  And low and behold, one of the people I caught up with was the gentleman who I had seen fall near the beginning of the race.  We stuck together for about a mile, then, feeling good that he was ok, and feeling much better myself, I took off.

I came to Aid Station 7.  8 miles to go!  I flew out of there and ran the next downhill.  It was a little narrow, being a horse-trail, but I was definitely making better time.  I passed quite a few people here too, and then was kind of brought to a screech by a ski slope that needed to be climbed.  I powered up it the best that I could, then came to the butt slide.  It was steep.  Really steep.  Rocky and straight down the hill, and I have to say, I ran the best I had all day.  I was hitting all my landing's awesome, and flying down the downhill.  There was one part I had to get down by using trees as support, but when it was even slightly less steep, I took to it, just watching for ribbons on trees to make sure I didn't miss any.  I kept chanting "4 plus 4" in my head.  I would do this, and I would do it strong.

Looking back up at part of the butt-slide.

Looking down the butt-slide.  It was a little rocky.

I came to a gravelly bit of double track that led me to the final Aid Station, Aid Station 8.  I had some more caffeine, patted a pretty Golden Retriever, and told her owner it would get me to the finish, and was off.  The rest was road and a bit of field, and back to the resort.  I caught up to Kim, who's knees were not doing great, but she was power-walking faster than I was walking the last few hills, and it took me a while to catch up.  I passed her, still feeling pretty good.  I was walking a little, but hit the 1 mile to go sign and just felt that relief.  I would make it.

Looking back during the final stretch.

The last 3/4 of a mile was trail, but then it went up.  A few people had caught up to me, and a couple passed me.  I didn't want anyone else to pass me, on principle, so I dug a little deeper and ran up the finally little grassy hill, then I heard the familiar cheers of my husband and son, as well as many other folks.  I ran down the last few feet with my boy, and crossed the finish line in 11:11 - plenty of time to spare.  The RD gave me a hug, and I staggered out of the chute and sat down for a while.

Jason had a blanket set up on the hill at the back of the resort, where all the runners and their families were, and it really had a nice family gathering feel to it.  I took my shoes off, sat in the grass and watched people come through.  I saw Kim come through, then the older gentleman who had taken the spill, and a few others I had chatted with a little during the race.

This was a really tough race.  My husband coined me, "Brave, but stupid."  This race was probably a little out of my league.  I went into it prepared, but I could've been more trained, I'm sure, and I really was not good enough about fluids or food, but I did it.  If there is one thing I have, to make up for not being a speedy runner, is the stubborn-ness to not stop, and I'm glad I had it for this race.  I've never been to a place so beautiful and varied.  I ran through flowing streams, through peat bogs, through nettles and mountain laurel and rhododendron.  I ran through flatlands and boulders bigger than houses, through spongie pine forest and sloppy mud so thick I thought I was going to lose a shoe.  The Aid Stations and the volunteers were great - I tried to thank everyone - and they did keep me going and encouraged me, letting me know I had plenty of time, even when I was unsure.

I'm not sure if I will do this again. I want to go back and spend more time here, exploring and taking photographs with more than an ipod, and without bruising my feet quite so much.  But I will recommend this race to my a little more experienced ultra-runner friends.

And who knows. It's the day after the race... and I know I've said "I won't do THAT again," the day after a race before...

This morning, I felt really pretty good - my feet feel a little bruised, and I burned off some built up callous, but no blisters.  Toes are a little tender, but legs are really good.  We did a couple of hikes on the way home, and though I was moving slow, I feel good, and hoping to run in the next few days.

I also got to talk to Dan Lehmann this morning on the way out, and he really is an amazing guy.  Even if I don't go back to run, it would be a pleasure to bring friends to run and crew for them, and help out where I could.  Great race, had an amazing time, and learned some things, which I think is the best thing about doing this crazy stuff.