Saturday, June 25, 2005

Laurel Highlands Ultra Race Report

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Mile 39.

There aren't too many ultras in Texas in the summer, so when my wife and I decided to take a summer vacation to Washington DC to see my Dad and Stepmom, I started looking for races in that area. I discovered that the Laurel Highlands Ultra would be run in Western Pennsylvania in mid-June. The timing and location were perfect so I signed up.

I did a lot of research on the race and the trail because this would be my longest ultra to date (in terms of both distance and time) and it would also be my most difficult (in terms of terrain and elevation). I found several good websites on the trail, including this one with a map and elevation profile, and this one with good practical information and nice pictures of the trail. I also read five or six race reports from previous races, including several "back of the pack" reports that I could relate to.

The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is a 70 mile trail from Ohiopyle, PA to Seward, PA. The trail is permanently blazed with yellow rectangles painted on trees and rocks and also has cement markers every mile. For hikers, it has permanent shelters at several places on the trail. Use of the shelters is mandatory for overnight campers, so although the trail is pretty rugged it is still a good trail for newer hikers because you don't have to carry as much gear. Guidebooks recommend hiking no more than 13 miles a day and hiking at a pace of about 1 3/4 miles per hour.

To officially complete the Laurel Highlands Ultra and receive your finishers trophy (a wooden, scaled version of the trail mile markers with 70 carved on it) you have to complete the entire 70.5 mile trail in 22 hours at a pace of slightly more than 3 miles per hour. Since I'm slow I knew my biggest challenge would be time.

I put together a detailed race plan with different target paces based on the paces required to beat the cutoffs. My plan (which I thought was very conservative) would result in an 19:42 finish, well ahead of the 22 hour cutoff.

On the Friday before the race we made the drive from DC to Johnstown, PA where the pre-race dinner and our hotel were located. The dinner was in a banquet room at a restaurant called The Pasta Shoppe. The food was pretty good--mostacioli and ziti with a pretty good salad, lots of bread, a slice of cake and water/tea/lemonade. After packet pickup the Race Director gave some tips on the race and the trail, including some areas to be extra careful so as not to get lost. I wanted to get as much sleep as possible so we didn't linger at the dinner but headed back to the hotel early.

I spent the rest of the evening checking and rechecking my drop bag, pinning my number on my shorts, checking and rechecking my Camelbak M.U.L.E. pack, trimming my toenails, etc. Unfortunately, I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned, thinking about the race, the weather, etc. It had been raining a lot in Western PA so I was concerned about mud and sloppy conditions slowing me down and causing me to miss a cutoff. I finally drifted off to sleep around 1:00.

I woke up at 2:10, a few minutes before my alarm went off. I had to meet a group in the lobby at 2:45 so I could get to the finish area by 3:30, when the shuttle bus would leave for the start. I quickly dressed, made a cup of coffee and headed down to the lobby. The hotel put out their normal breakfast buffet early! So at 2:30 we had access to a full breakfast. I had some juice, water, toast with peanut butter and a boiled egg. I met a nice guy named Ray from the Baltimore area Trail Snails. Ray and I met on the Runner's World Ultra/Trail Forum. He DNF'd last year at Laurel Highlands so he was back for unfinished business. He and his friends were really nice and friendly and we chatted about the race and ultras for a few minutes before loading into cars and heading to the finish area. At this point it was about 2:50 AM and it was already in the 60s with over 90% humidity. It was going to be a warm, muggy day.

When we got to the finish I climbed on the bus (Ray left his truck at the finish and rode to the start with his crew) and sat nervously looking out the window and the pitch black night. At 3:40 the bus left and we made the hour long drive to Ohiopyle. When we arrived I quickly lined up for the bathrooms, then ate a bagel and then lined up at the back of the starting area. With the typical lack of fanfare the RD yelled GO and we cheered and started.

As usual I fell toward the back of the pack and found a comfortable pace. We raced about a quarter mile on asphalt to the trailhead, then hit the trail and immediately started climbing.

As you can see in the elevation profile below, most of the hard climbing was at the beginning of the race. After a short climb and drop we hit an almost 1.5 mile steep climb, mostly straight up without switchbacks, followed by a steep drop and then a one mile steep climb, then another steep drop. Then we hit the big one, three miles of very steep climbing with almost no breaks (again, no switchbacks). I actually had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath and rest my legs. The climbs were difficult and the downhills were almost as difficult. It was slick and a little treacherous and my quads are not used to so much downhill. But I did pretty well on this section. Most of my splits were right at or slightly below my target pace, and I usually passed people on the uphills.

The course was gorgeous! We started out along a river and you could hear the water for a long time. The entire trail is covered with tall trees, there were boulders as big as small houses, beautiful foliage and greenery, fern prairies that extended for hundreds of yards. During the big 3 mile climb we climbed through and above the fog in the valley. It was just beautiful.

Right after the hills we hit the first aid station at 11.6. The early aid stations in this race were not very well run. They weren't placed well on the trail so people tended to bunch up and get in each other's way. There wasn't a large quantity or variety of food, and the volunteers didn't seem to know quite what to do. But it was early and I got what I needed; I topped off my Camelbak and ate a quarter peanut butter sandwich. I decided to avoid very sweet things until later in the race due to nausea at some of my recent races.

Some of the Trail Snails' crew were at this aid station waiting for a Snail to arrive so they cheered me on and gave me some encouragement, which was nice.

Next we entered a very runnable/walkable part of the course. It was single track, mostly smooth with enough rocks to keep you awake and make you do some hopping and skipping. The trail rolled gradually downhill for a while, then a short steep climb and some gradual uphills before arriving at the next aid station and first Check Point at about 19 miles. I was about 12 minutes ahead of my plan and 39 minutes ahead of the cutoff so things were going well so far. Again I topped off my Camelbak and had some peanut butter and crackers and a little root beer.

The next part of the trail was similar to the last, still pretty runnable with mostly gentle uphills and downhills. But about 45 minutes after leaving the aid station I started to have some bad pains in my left knee. I had to adjust my gait, which slowed me down, and then I had to limp. I had Advil in my pack but I didn't want to take it so early in the race. I tried to walk on to see if the pain would go away but it didn't, so I finally decided to take some Advil. I knew I couldn't make the cutoffs if I didn't speed up, so my only choices were to drop at the next Check Point or take the Advil. So I took it and soon I was able to walk normally again and pick up the pace.

During this part of the race I changed positions several times with a guy from Louisiana and an Adventure Racer from PA. At about mile 26 I emerged from the woods to find the guy from Louisiana staring at a sign that said "Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail Detour" and pointed up the gravel road to the right. This was in the Seven Springs Ski Resort area and there were large construction vehicles in the vicinity. The RD hadn't mentioned a detour. The LA guy asked me if we should take the detour and I told him I had no idea. Another racer emerged from the woods so we asked him. He sort of blew us off and started up the hill. We asked again and he said, "Yes, I was up here last night" (not much of an answer). Then the adventure racer from PA came out of the woods, looked at the situation and decided to take the trail instead of the detour. LA guy and I followed the rude guy up the hill and again asked him why we should take the detour. He just shrugged his shoulders and went on up the road. So we followed him and, when he stopped and took off his shoes, we followed the detour signs. Right as we saw the trail again and the mile 27 marker, we saw the Adventure Racer coming up the hill from another direction. So it didn't matter if you took the detour or not, the distance was about the same. A lot of drama for nothing.

Shortly after leaving Seven Springs we hit another aid station. Again I ate some salty things and topped off my pack. Shortly after leaving the aid station I noticed that my hands and fingers were swollen. A little later I noticed my wrist was swollen. I've had this problem at some recent races and wasn't sure what the cause was. I thought maybe I was taking too many Succeed caplets (two per hour) so I stopped taking them (in fact, I didn't take any more for the rest of the race) and the swelling gradually went away.

The next part of the trail is the toughest. There are more climbs and although none of them are long they are often steep. The downhills were too steep for me to safely walk or run them so I was constantly putting on the brakes, tiring my already tired quads. There were lots and lots and lots of rocks, and often the trail weaved in and out of huge formations of bus sized rocks, so you had to be careful not to lose your way. This part of the trail was also the muddiest and it was a lot of work to try and avoid the mud. As I left the last aid station I pulled away from the two guys I had been talking to so I spent the next 20 miles alone.

I arrived at Check Point 2 and again ate a little and drank some ice water. I was slower than my plan on the last section, but I had gained time on the cutoff and was now about 47 minutes ahead of the cutoff. After thanking the volunteers I left the aid station and re-entered the solitude of the trail.

Then it started to rain, and it rained hard. It was a constant downpour for about two hours, then a steady gentle rain for another hour. The rain cooled things off, which was nice, but it really soaked the trail. Most of the trail was now a mud puddle and I stopped avoiding the mud and instead just walked through it since I was soaked to the bone anyway. A couple of times I almost lost my shoe in mud that was up to my ankles. Sometimes when I walk I get a phrase or quote or riff of music stuck in my head and I will involuntarily repeat it hundreds of times until I make myself stop. During this part of the race I was repeating a quote by Elizabeth Taylor from one of my favorite movies, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?": "A bog, a fen, a G.D. swamp!"

But surprisingly this was one of my happiest parts of the race. I felt pretty good physically, and I really enjoy walking in the rain. I also enjoy the time I get alone on the trail. Sometimes I enjoy company, but more often I enjoy the solitude and the chance to get lost in my thoughts.

At mile 39 I had my picture taken (see above) and hit another aid station. This time I indulged in some candy fruit slices and chocolate candies along with a quarter peanut butter sandwich. The volunteers told me the trail would be more of the same until the next check point at mile 46. After topping off my pack with water I headed out.

During this section I fell, the only time I fell all day. The course had 20-30 stream crossings, but each was spanned by a log sawed in half and laid across the stream as a bridge. These were so slippery it was like walking on ice, even in the beginning of the race before the rain. Even though I went very slow and took little baby steps, I still almost lost my purchase several times. Finally on this part of the trail my feet slid out from under me and I fell right on my butt on the log. Luckily I didn't fall off the log onto the rocks below.

The next aid station was at Check Point 3 at mile 46. This was also one of the two places where you could leave drop bags. At this station I sat down for the first time since starting. I got my drop bag and put two packets of Clip2 in my pack; one of the volunteers filled it with water. I also dropped off two empty gel flasks and got two full ones from my bag. I grabbed my headlamp and flashlight since it would get dark before I got to the next aid station. One of the volunteers made me a peanut butter sandwich and I ate the whole thing. I checked my time and although I was 27 minutes slower than my plan on the last section, I gained three more minutes on the cutoff. I began to calculate the time and pace for the rest of the race and felt certain I could finish, even if I had to drop to a slow walk.

Then I made my second biggest mistake of the race (the biggest will come at mile 61). I had known for about 15 miles that I was getting blisters on my feet. It felt like I had a blister on the ball of each foot right behind the toes, and one on the side of each foot where it is widest and bony right next to the big toe. My feet felt uncomfortable but they weren't unberable. But instead of trying to do something about the blisters, I didn't do anything. In my drop bag I had extra socks (but no shoes), mole skin, duct tape, etc. But in my mind I was afraid of losing too much time, and I didn't think it would help much since the trail was so wet and my shoes were so wet. So I just ignored the discomfort.

I asked the aid station volunteers if there was anyone close ahead of me. They said someone had left the aid station five minutes before I arrived so that meant he was probably about ten minutes ahead of me. I thought it would be nice to walk in the dark with someone (it might help avoid getting lost) so I picked up the pace and tried to catch him. About halfway between the 46 and 57 mile aid stations I did catch him, right about the time I had to turn on my flashlights. His name was Rich and he was from Pittsburgh. He had not done the Laurel Highlands Ultra before but he had done some training on the trail, especially the end, so we talked about that for a while. He felt I was a stronger walker than him so I took the lead and set the pace for a while. I really enjoyed walking in the dark, and my green Petzl Tikka Plus headlamp, combined with my Princeton Tec flashlight really worked well together.

At the next aid station and the last check point I had some soup, some crackers and some coke. Rich had a drop bag here (I didn't leave a drop bag for this aid station because it was so close to the other one) and he changed socks and got some gear from his pack. I was discouraged to find that for the first time in the race I was slower than the cutoff pace on the last section. I was 25 minutes over my planned time and 15 minutes over the cutoff time for the section. I was still 35 minutes ahead of the final cutoff, but that's not a huge margin. I needed to be very careful for the rest of the race.

While we were at that aid station a few people came in and dropped. One woman was very upset and discouraged. It must have been so hard to put in so much time and effort only to come up short. My biggest fear was to finish the entire race but miss the final cutoff and not be an official finisher, with a finishing time and a finisher's trophy. I was more determined than ever to stay ahead of that cutoff.

Rich and I stayed mostly together for the next section to the aid station at mile 62. I set the pace again and once or twice lost Rich but he always caught back up. Then at mile 61 we emerged from the woods onto a gravel road. There was a runner ahead of us running down the road, and at the opening to the road there was an open gate with reflective tape on it. Across from the gate was some sort of weird light emitting a strange blue glow that reflected off the gate and made it look as if the gate was lit with moving neon. At first I thought it was a decorated aid station. It was all very disorienting, but eventually I turned and followed the other runner down the road with Rich right on my tail.

BIG MISTAKE!!!!!! This was the wrong road! In my disoriented and exhausted state, I didn't notice a single weak glow stick pointing us up another road to the right. We followed the wrong road downhill (past a working oil derrick!) for about a mile and a half when suddenly the guy in front of us turned around and said, "I don't think this is the right road. I don't remember the road being this rough last year." I looked around in a panic. I didn't have enough time to make this kind of mistake. I immediately lost heart and got very discouraged. Rich and I turned around and walked/jogged/ran back up the hill we had just come down. I kept looking at my watch and doing math and I was pretty sure we were screwed.

We finally made it back to the fork in the road and this time we took the right fork. We moved up the hill as fast as we could, and Rich got a burst of energy and pulled on ahead of me. The whole time he had been very encouraging and positive but I just felt like it was all over. I couldn't keep his pace and dropped back.

At the top of the hill I could see the last aid station. Then I heard a booming voice in the night: "Marshall, we've got enough time!" It was Rich. I started imagining that the RD was going to give us some extra time (yeah, right). I couldn't figure out how we would make it. But I got to the aid station and Rich said the aid station worker told him we still had time to make it, that she had walked from that point in a previous race and made it in time. We quickly scarfed down some food (I had a quarter of a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich). We saw a light bobbing up the hill and assumed another runner was behind us. When he arrived, he announced he was the sweep runner! I've never been at the back with the sweep runner before, so this was even more discouraging. Rich and I decided it was time to get going before time ran out.

We got about 50 yards down the trail when Rich discovered he'd left his flashlight at the aid station. I told him to go get it and I would wait for him. When he got back we took off. I set pace again and I unintentionally pulled ahead and couldn't see Rich behind me. After a mile or so I followed a slight downhill into... a dead end! Just trees and brush. I looked everywhere for a blaze but couldn't find one. I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR THIS CRAP!!! Rich pulled up behind me and I told him I couldn't find the trail. We started looking everywhere but couldn't find a blaze. I was even having trouble finding the trail we'd come in on. I was lost in the FREAKIN' WOODS with the clock ticking! Then we saw the sweep with the runner we'd followed down the wrong road and started yelling, "Sweep! Sweep!! We can't find the trail!" He immediately sprang into action. "OK, we need a blaze. Who sees a blaze? I need to hear from you guys! You guys are too close now! Where's the blaze!!??" Finally the guy we followed down the wrong road found the blaze. It turns out a large tree had fallen across the trail so we all had to climb through the tree to get back on the trail!

After that I realized that the whole race would come down to these last few miles. I got a desperate burst of energy and took off walking as fast as I could. I was able to clock some miles that were as fast as the miles I'd walked in the first two sections of the race. Luckily most of the trail was downhill. Unluckily, my feet felt like raw hamburger and I kept stepping on rocks that would poke right into the blistered areas. But at this point the only thing that mattered was the 22 hour cutoff. I kept walking/hopping/jogging as fast as I could. I didn't know where Rich was and I couldn't see any lights behind me. I really wanted Rich to finish but there wasn't anything else I could do but hope! I finally started to see some very faint glowsticks hanging from the trees. I was walking from glowstick to glowstick as fast as I could, but I was watching the blazes like a hawk because I couldn't afford another wrong turn. Then I could actually see some lights in the distance and heard a few voices. I was almost there! Because of the steepness of the trail I started to run and I decided to keep running as long as I could. The voices got louder and the lights got brighter, and suddenly I was out of the woods! I bound across the grass and onto the road and looked around confusedly. I saw the race director and asked desperately, "Where is the line?!?!?" He said, "This is it, your here, you can stop!" I had finished with less than 12 minutes to spare.

My wife and daughter were standing there waiting for me! My wife said when I came out of the woods I looked like a member of the Donner Party, not because I was gaunt but because I just looked crazed and confused and traumatized! I gave everyone a big hug, then the RD came over and gave me my finisher's trophy and shook my hand. Here I am with my trophy looking for the nearest place to sit down:

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I found a seat and my daugther got me some cold water. I gulped it down, along with three more. A few minutes later I heard some commotion and saw a light and Rich came bounding out of the woods. He made it with less than five minutes to spare. He grabbed a seat next to me and we sat there with dazed goofy grins on our faces. Then he ate some soup and promptly threw up! I also found out later that my friend Ray finished the race. He was actually the last finisher before me but I never saw him after we left the start.

Angela and Lela got the car and we loaded up my stuff and headed to the hotel. We stopped at the first place we could for some hot food and a coke. I could barely keep my eyes open--at this point I had had about 1 1/2 hours of sleep in the last 43 hours.

Once we got to the hotel I warned Angela that my feet were going to be in bad shape. I took off my shoes and Angela said that my feet looked like she should just hang a toe tag on them. They had been wet for more than 12 hours so they were pruny and white, I had dirt and mud caked in the crevices and around my toenails, I had a blood blister on each foot (the blister on the side near the big toe) and I had ugly blisters on the bottom of each foot. The left foot was the worst--it was about the size of two silver dollars. I got in the shower and did the best to wash off the grime. Then Angela treated my feet with antibiotic ointment and I went right to sleep.

Luckily my feet looked worse than they really were. Once they dried out they looked more alive and healthy. The blisters were the largest I've ever had but I've seen worse. For those of you with strong stomachs, here are pictures of my feet below:

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Here is a summary of my times compared to my plan and to the cutoffs.

SectionActual Time/PacePlan Time/PaceCutoff Time/Pace
1 (0-19.3 miles)5:06:00/15:515:18:27/16:305:45:00/17:53
2 (19.3-32.3)3:37:00/16:423:27:51/16:003:45:00/17:18
3 (32.3-46.4)4:27:00/18:563:59:36/17:004:30:00/19:09
4 (46.4-57.3)3:30:00/19:163:05:42/17:003:15:00/18:13
5 (57.3-70.5)5:08:11/23:213:51:09/17:304:45:00/20:09

I finished 52nd out of 56 finishers. There were 82 starters and 56 finishers (68.3% finish rate). According to the race website this attrition rate is slightly higher than usual.

This was a great race, very challenging and beautiful. During the race I swore I'd never do this race again (to be honest I swore I'd never go longer than a half marathon again) but of course I'm planning to do it again next year. With more hill training (up and down!), an extra pair of shoes and a little more attention to the trail markings, I think I can knock a couple of hours off my time!