It has taken me almost three weeks to sit down and try to put into words my Laurel Highlands Ultra experience. This one was hard. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, you name it. But the thing is, it also wasn’t that hard… my race day at Laurel Highlands was filled with contradictions.
I started this blog, in part, because I’ve gleaned so much from other people’s blogs regarding other races. In fact, leading up to Laurel, I think I read just about every other race report I could find twice. There’s even a guy on YouTube who has made a series of videos hiking from mile marker to mile marker on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. I watched a couple of those. I mean, how bored can you be to watch some dude hike on YouTube? I’d just heard so many different things about this race – it was hard, it wasn’t that hard; it was rocky, it’s not that rocky; it’s all hills, it’s pretty flat – that I had a really hard time figuring out what the course was going to be like.
In this post, I’d like to give back some of that wisdom, maybe with a little more clarity, to someone else who is fumbling around the internet 4 hours from the trail wondering what their day might be like.
Some perspective helps. This races takes place the second Saturday in June in western Pennsylvania. It starts in Ohiopyle and traverses the entire 70 mile distance of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail up to Seward. For good measure, the race starts about a half mile from the trailhead, so you get 70.5 miles.
The race prides itself on being “old school.” It is one of the few remaining races with a mail-in entry. If I recall, entry opened shortly after Thanksgiving (true story – my entry into this race was borne of a drunken discussion the Friday after Thanksgiving). You ship off your application and a check for about $180 and hold your breath. If your check gets cashed, you’re in! A race roster gets posted sometime later in the Spring.
One thing to note: If you are not from the area and do not have a crew, logistics are hard. We were fortunate enough to stay with some friends in nearby Johnstown and they were kind enough to drop me at the finish at 3:30 a.m. so that I could catch the bus to the starting line. Your options for getting to the 5:30 start are to do that or to have someone drive you down to Ohiopyle – difficult in its own right because there doesn’t seem to be a direct, highway route from one end of the trail to the other. Either can make for a really long day if you’re doing this on your own. I was up at 2:15 a.m. and didn’t finish the race until about 1:15 a.m. the next day. Without a crew, your options at that point are to sleep in your car for a bit or drive it back to whatever hotel you stayed in. Both manageable – but something to keep in mind.
From the start, you get punched in the mouth with three big climbs in the first eight miles. You go up 800 feet, descend about 700, go up 600, descend 700 or so again and then hit a big 1200 foot climb to the ridgeline. I am better at climbing than I am at descending and I’m a middle of the pack runner. It was hard for me to find much space to run in the first eight miles. Some of the downhill is runnable, but it is slick, rocky, and root-y. I started very conservative and was trying not to fall before the first aid station (at the race briefing the night before, the RD told us that our goals should be to not blow up in the first 19 miles).
Of course, I fell on my ass at mile 5. Hard. I had been leaning back and applying the brakes on a downhill, rocky section and my feet just went out from under me in the early morning dew. I had a bruised ass and a golf ball sized knot for a solid two weeks. I took a few minutes to walk, shake it off, and pick my ego back up off the ground before picking up to a jog again.
As I said, I had a really hard time pre-race trying to figure out what the terrain was going to be like. Here it is: after the first 8 miles and with the exception of a 400 foot climb just before the mile 19 aid station, this whole course is runnable on fresh legs. There are places with very nice, well groomed single track. There are places with some rocks and roots, but I don’t think I would describe anything after the first eight miles as “technical.” On paper, the elevation profile looks really easy after the first few miles.
Each grid line represents about 300 feet of elevation. Just get up on the ridgeline and cruise, right? Hell, there’s even a spot from like 52 to 57 that looks downright downhill. The elevation profile is very deceptive – it’s easy to forget that you’re running a 70 mile race and that the little ups and downs are relentless in this race. And of course your legs aren’t fresh the whole way.
Another thing that makes this race deceptively hard is the spacing of the aid stations. You get aid at 11.6; 19.3; 26; 32.3; 39.1; 46.4; 57.1; and 62. Those are some long miles in June. It is important to carry enough food with you between aid stations. I brought my own ziploc baggie (though I think they had them at most aid stations) and filled it with quesadillas and cookies (at different times – of course) to eat between aid stations. One novelty at this race is that every single mile is marked with a permanent cement pylon. I played mental reward games with myself where I’d get to have another cookie when I got to the mile marker. I found this was an easy enough way to space out some of my food and make sure I was popping 80 calories or so every other mile.
I can report that ice at the aid stations was plentiful. You can’t appreciate this enough and you don’t get it at all races. I wore a pack with a 2 liter bladder and carried a water bottle. My general plan was to have Tailwind in the bladder and water in the pack. I’ve found that I can only tolerate so much Tailwind. But the feeling of ice in your pack on an 80 degree day is unbelievable.
There are also several stream crossings in this race where you can dip your buff or hat.
The course itself is beautiful. There are several huge rock formations that you get to run through. Either because of the shade or because of the ambient temperature of the rocks, any time you are running through these the temperature goes down about 10 degrees. Though I don’t have any photos of them, towards the end of the course there are enormous fields of ferns. Just bright green ferns as far as the eye can see. Really neat stuff.
For whatever reason, this day just never really came together for me. I can’t put my finger on why. I felt like I had the pre-race jitters starting about two days before the race and didn’t resolve until about mile 19. It took me a really long time to get over the feeling that I just didn’t want to be out there. After mile 19, I ran pretty well through the late 30s. I did a particularly good job of staying on top of hydration and calories, but the relentless hills, humidity, and heat were getting to me.
I found myself sitting in a chair at the mile 46 checkpoint just starring into the abyss and not feeling like going forward. From mile 46, the next aid station is 11 miles. Really hard at that point. Frankly, if this were a looped course or if I were closer to home, I probably would’ve called it a day. And that would’ve been a mistake because I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t dehydrated, I wasn’t behind on calories… I was just mentally tired. Luckily, I figured that if I called my wife to pick me up, it would take her at least an hour to get to the aid station from Johnstown and I’d have to suffer the indignity of waiting around in the aid station just sulking.
I decided it was probably better if I sulked on the trail instead. So I filled my bottles, grabbed some to-go food and downed a coke. Once I’d made that decision and started moving, I actually felt pretty good. I met up with Simon, a runner from Ohio, who pulled me along through the next several miles. We were hiking strong on the uphills and cruising on some buttery downhill singletrack. And things were going really well, until they weren’t. At some point, my body just decided it didn’t want to be hiking hard anymore and I started dryheaving. Thinking back, it was probably lactic buildup that caused it. Nothing came up, but I had to back off the gas for a while and ended up hiking by myself through to the next aid station.
I made it into 57 feeling pretty happy to be there. Just 13 miles to go! I picked up my headlamp, downed some cold Gatorade and some chicken broth, and promptly threw up the chicken broth. Exact same thing happened at Umstead and one of these days, I am going to learn not to mix warm chicken broth and cold drinks during races. I grabbed a little bit more food to go and figured I just had to lug myself to the mile 62 aid station and get some more calories in there.
I’d caught back up with Simon and we’d made two other ultra-friends for the long slog back to the finish. I made a mistake at 62 and didn’t eat nearly enough. I also didn’t fill my pack with water – just the bottle. I was ok immediately coming out of the aid station, but the last few miles were really tough. Again, on paper, the last few miles look great:
All downhill, right? Wrong. There are several “little” uphills after mile 65 that just add up to a miserable time. At this point, the cement pylons are mocking you… “oh, you though it was downhill after 66? Well here we are, still climbing these fucking hills!” Finally, the last three miles are actually all downhill, but they are rocky and just steep enough in the dark that we elected not to run until the last mile or so.
There are few feelings in ultras like hearing the aid station in the distance or seeing that first glimmer of light from the finish line. I was really happy to get to the finish here. I finished in 19:47:45. 64th of 131 starters.
This race is tough, tough, tough. But at the same time, I can’t remember any particular part after mile 8 that was difficult. The course is just relentless – which is what you’ll need to be to finish it. Good luck and I hope this helped.