Laurel Highlands 2018 Race Report – 70.5 Miler

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.

Photo credit: Mike McNeil

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.

View from the Ridgeline

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.

Mile 46-ish. I was definitely not feeling “thumb’s up” here.

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.

2018 Farm Park Challenge – 6 Hour: Race Report

The Farm Park Challenge takes place up in Derwood, Maryland on the trails of the Montgomery County Agricultural Farm Park.  This is a timed, looped event with a twist.

In most timed courses, you get to run as much as you want in a given time period.  These events are perfect for people new to ultras who want to get their feet wet in a “safe” way where your food, water, and car are never more than a few miles away.  I also believe that they’re great at introducing people to the atmosphere of an ultra.  In a looped event, slow people get to see fast people and vice versa. And everyone cheers everyone else on.

So here’s the twist with the Farm Park Challenge: you don’t get to finish your loop, refill your water, and head back out on the course.  You must finish your 5.12 mile loop in 60 minutes or you’re “out.”  And if you happen to finish your loop in, say, 42 minutes, your reward is that you get to sit around and wait for 18 minutes until the top of the hour.

The race features many different divisions: 3 hour, 6 hour, 10 hour, marathon, and “fun run.”  I ran the 6 hour event and banked 30-ish training miles on one of the first really warm days this Spring.

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My goal was to finish each lap with enough time to refill my water, get some food, and not have to stand around very long.  This proved pretty easy on the first four laps or so, as the course is exceedingly runable and it wasn’t difficult to keep a pace just over 10 minute miles.  Things got hard for me around lap five.  This was one of those days that stayed overcast the whole day, but had almost no wind.  Temperatures hovered right around 70 with mild humidity and it rained a couple of times for maybe five minutes – not enough to cool you down.

I have always struggled with running in the heat and I’ve tried to expedite my acclimatization this year with some extended sauna sessions, but I’m not quite there yet.  The fifth lap was a strugglefest.  I knew that all I really had to do was get back to the starting gate in about 58 minutes to have enough time to get something to drink and head back out there.  But I was feeling sapped of motivation and the beer tent was calling.  Luckily, I teamed up with Paul at the turnaround and we worked together to get back to the start/finish in time.  We ended up getting back to the start line in 57 minutes.

Lap six was really rough.  The way that this race works, your last lap is your “race.”  Since everyone starts each lap at the same time, the only way to rank runners is to mark who comes in first during the last lap.  I had no delusions that I’d be “racing” anyone on this day and I ended up coming in DFL of the official finishers.  But, I finished.

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Woah. Need more heat training.

I ended up getting behind on hydration a little bit on lap 5.  I had been doing really well finishing a 20 oz. bottle of Tailwind on each loop and consuming some extra water while waiting for the next lap.  But on lap five I only finished about half the bottle.  I chugged some water at the start line and then decided to just leave my pack and bottle for the last 4.9 miles, figuring I’d be a little less hot if I didn’t have the wear the vest.

Splits (to make things a little more confusing, laps 1, 3, and 5 were a 5.3 mile out and back; laps 2, 4, and 6 were about 4.9 miles)

Lap 1: 54:03

Lap 2: 51:34

Lap 3: 55:06

Lap 4: 53:15

Lap 5: 57:00

Lap 6: 57:20

Continue reading “2018 Farm Park Challenge – 6 Hour: Race Report”

2018 Mt. Tammany 10: Race Report

Before I race, I make it a habit to read every race report that I can find online.  The Mt. Tammany 10 is every bit as brutal as the internet says it is.

This race takes place in the Delaware Water Gap in late March.  It hadn’t snowed much in 2018 (must’ve been saving it up for race week).  The forecast for race week: a foot of snow in New Jersey.  The snow rolled in about 48 hours before the race and dumped eight inches on the mountain.  Ironically, this timing worked out pretty well.  Mt. Tammany is covered by rocks and the snow actually made the downhill more runable than usual.  At least for the first half of the race.

My wife is from Easton, PA, so the race being about 40 miles from her hometown perfectly situates us to take the kids for a visit to the in-laws and for me to get a day on the trails.

I arrived on-site about 5:45 a.m. and headed over for packet pickup.  I got a warm greeting from Alex at Athletic Equation for being the only Virginia entrant in this year’s race and headed back to my car to start setting up.  I strapped on my brand new Yaktrax (purchased on Amazon 48 hours before and shipped directly to the in-laws) and debated whether or not to start the race with a headlamp.  With the sun due to rise about fifteen minutes after the start, I decided I didn’t need it and left it in the car.

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The race features 10 assaults on Mt. Tammany, a 1200 foot tall, rocky beast.  From the start/finish you head out on the road for about a third of a mile,  head up the mountain for 1.3 miles on the Red Dot trail, run along the ridge for a while, and then head back down the mountain on the Blue Dot trail.  Once you reach the bottom of the mountain, you head right back up and do it all over again.  Every other loop you return to the aid station to check in and get some food and drink.  The official cut-off is ten hours, but the RD is lenient if you are making good time and are on pace to finish before dark.

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My training leading up to the race featured a lot of time on a stairclimber, but not a lot of time training downhill running.  This was a mistake.  By the second loop, I knew I had neglected my quads and should have spent more time doing lunges.

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The view from the top is beautiful.  And for the first four laps, the climbs were not that bad.  The descents weren’t that bad either.  The Blue Dot trail, which goes back down the mountain is notorious for lots of medium size, ankle biting rocks.  But early in the day, where the eight inches of snow had been packed down by a day or two of hikers and the front-runners, it was smooth sailing down a snowy trail.

As the day warmed up and the snow became more and more packed, the trail iced over and the smooth sailing turned into skiing.

Going into the day, I thought that if I could finish six ascents on the mountain, I would finish all ten.  After all, what’s the point of doing eight loops and going home?  But by the time I got to the top of lap seven, I knew I wouldn’t make the time cutoff for ten.  I did turn myself back up the mountain for number eight, but it was a long, hard slog and I had to stop and rest against trees several times.  I was resigned to walking the ridgeline on lap eight, as by that time the sun had done its work and melted all of the snow off the mountain and all of the rocks were out in their full glory.

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When I returned to the aid station after loop eight, Alex told me I had to turn and burn.  I told him I was already cooked and was going to call it a day.

I’m not sure what I could have done differently in training.  Frankly, I probably managed more miles than I should have because the snow made the Blue Dot trail so runable.  This is a graduate-level course.  You could tell by the folks who showed up: lots of fast-looking 20- and 30-somethings (many with OCR backgrounds).

Training on the mountain would help and many of the other racers I chatted with lived nearby and told me they had done as many as five or six loops in training.

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A DNF for me.  But at the end of the day, I was really proud of this effort.  More vertical than I’d done before in a race and I didn’t give up until I was really done.  Which is more than I can say for my brand new Yaktrax.

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Splits:

Lap 1&2: 1:51:21

Lap 3&4: 1:57:38

Lap 5&6: 2:13:04

Lap 7&8: 2:34:41