"I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the ultimate I dwell." --Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, June 17, 2016

Over the Hill and It is All Down From There - Laurel Highlands Ultra

Dawn. It is 5:15 am and it is still a bit dark. It is overcast. The air is a bit warm and sticky predicting a humid day ahead. Outline of the surrounding hills are getting easier to make out as it gets lighter. Headlamp glow is warmly shinning on the ground. The waterfall is providing a nice background noise among the chatter of eager runners getting ready to take off for the 37th running of the Laurel Highlands Ultra.


Laurel Highlands Ultra is a 70.5 mile race on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT), run South to North from Ohiopyle to Johnstown, PA. Being that it is a popular hiking trail, it is extremely well marked with yellow blazes and mile markers at every mile. It is rugged, rocky, smooth, muddy and did I say rocky, all in one. It protects you from the sun and the rain with its high trees. It keeps you interested with its vistas and rock formations. It keeps you humble with its constant ups and downs. It is a trail runners best friend and enemy.
Early miles - feeling good
At the sound of "Go", we start from the Visitor Center, across the bridge and train tracks and onto the trail. It is still dark, and I wish for a head lamp as I stumble on a rock here and there. Sun is hiding behind the clouds, as it is darker than expected at this time of the morning. We form an endless conga line as we make our way up the first climb, and down the first hill. I am trying to keep my pace in check. In the weeks prior, I've discussed my pace and goals with my friend Casey, as we both had similar goals in mind. As the major climbs started I lost Casey on the uphill only to never see him again. Such are the ultra races. Going into this race, I focused on taking this first 11 mile section easy. After all "they" said this is the only uphill section (they lied). I took my time and looked forward to completing the climbs, that honestly less than a week later I don't even remember.
Early pit stop - PC Sandy
Since Amy was not going to be there due to family obligations, I was determined to do this race alone with no pacer or crew. At the last moment, my friend Sandy (you may remember her from her Eastern State pacing duties) who did not get into the race said that she would come and crew/pace me, and she was bringing along another guy Alex. Change of plans, but good. I don't have to worry about drop bags anymore nor carrying too much stuff on me. Arriving at the first aid station was great. The "climbs" were done, I was feeling great. Quick stop and off I went. I would feel more of the same for the next several hours. Keeping the pace nice and steady, going up, going down. As the day went on, the sun destroyed the clouds ahead and I could feel the heat building up in the forest around me. It was nothing too horrible, but it was getting hot. I consciously made an effort to stop and pee at regular intervals to make sure I was hydrating well. It was ok, but not great. After the 26 mile stop, the trail peaks on top of the ski resort. This mile or two section was completely exposed and blazing hot. The lake on the top looked inviting, but upon closer examination, it looked like a Canadian geese toilet, so it was skipped.
One of the vistas along the way
I got to see my crew 2 miles later and told them about the heat. I was still feeling ok at this point. Shortly after leaving them, the ultra demons got a hold of me. All of a sudden it hit me. My stomach felt nauseous. As soon as I would come to any kind of an incline I was reduced to a crawl and nausea would return. Going down and on flatter terrain it seemed ok. For a long while I was calm working on solving the nausea problem. What did I need? Food? Water? Lets try this, lets try that. Sandy and Alex missed me at miles 32 and 39, so I would not see them again until 46 when I could pick up a pacer. I knew Alex was ready to take me the next 11 miles, but first I had to get there. My pace had slowed down so much and my goal of finishing sub 20 hours was dissipating into the thin air. Or should I say, thick humid air? At mile 39 aid station I sat down for few minutes to empty my shoes and calm down a bit. I failed to properly cool off with ice. What a dumb mistake. The next section between 32 and 39 was brutal. It felt like a never ending climb. I was told the next section was very nice. While that was true, I was getting to an even deeper place. The fact that this section was somewhat runable and I was feeling like crap and losing even more time, was getting me down more and more. I finally pulled out my phone that was in the airplane mode the whole time and texted Amy. Rock bottom.

E: "Not feeling too good."
A: "Oh no! What's wrong? Sandy said u were crushing it. What mile are you at?"
E: "Just past 40. Last section was very hard. Just feeling nausea and can't move that fast."
A: "Slow down. It is very hot today...."
E: "Yeah. I feel like a loser."
...... more of this back and forth
A: "Stop that. I would kick your ass if I was there...You only have 25 miles..."
Texts with Amy
25 miles? Huh...well damn. I was thinking I had 35. Idiot. That somewhat snapped me out of the funk. I texted Sandy, and said I am few miles away. Going into the aid 46 I felt crappy, but mood was turning. Sandy stuck some kind of a nausea pill under my tongue and both her and Alex sat me down and got me ready for the next stretch. Alex was ready to go with me. The sun was still blazing and it was still hot. Someone had informed Alex that this next section of about 11 miles was pretty nice, nothing too hard. Great! Lets do it. We set of on an a nice and easy pace. I was still under 20 hour pace even with all that nonsense.  We had to make it to the next aid station by certain time. I don't recall what anymore. I believe 9 pm.

Leaving with Alex. PC Sandy
Shortly after leaving the aid station we started on a small but annoying climb. "Hey, I thought they said this is pretty flat?" Yeah, well they lied. Over the course of 11 miles, Alex and I would climb over 2000ft. Damn. Half way through this section it got cloudy fast. We could hear and feel the thunderstorm coming in. Of course in the haste to leave the aid station, I completely forgot my rain jacket. I could feel few rain drops falling through the trees. We quickly stopped to pack up our charging devices. And then it came with all its furry. Swift wind tore through the trees, and the rain started pouring. The temperature dropped fast, and as I stood there trying to pack my charger, I started shivering. F, F, F...I should have brought my jacket. This was not good. I suddenly woke up. "Alex we got to, I am freezing." The legs just started moving fast. The nausea went away and we started running. Just like that I felt alive again. We ran (and hiked) through the soaking rain, mud puddles and water for the next 15 minutes with thunder rumbling over head. We were both completely soaked. The storm arrived fast, and departed just as fast. It was over. We still had several miles to go before we got to Sandy at mile 57. It was getting dark at this point and headlamps became necessary. We slopped through the trail, over some freshly fallen trees, and finally reached the aid station close to my goal time.
In a world of hurt
Sandy, a cruel mistress in the making, told me I had 5 minutes to gather myself and then we needed to go. She set her timer, and 7 minutes later (sorry Sandy) we were going. While the rain certainly brought me back to life for a while, a long day was taking its toll, and I was not feeling the best. It was a feeling of this hurts and sucks, but I can keep going and finish this. I wasn't so sure we would make the cutoff for 20 hours, but I knew I could finish the race. Sandy had other plans. She kept me going, telling when we had to pick it up, telling me when we could walk a bit. For some reason the trail gets on the road shortly before the 62 mile aid station. It is a gravel road and slightly uphill but a road none the less. It felt good actually. Sandy said, lets try to run this. We started running, and running. The road ended up being more than a mile, but it was great. I was able to make up some time here. There was no time to waste at the aid station. According to Sandy we stayed few minutes to long, but on we went to finish the last 8 miles. 2.5 hours to go 8 miles for sub 20. Those last 8 were supposed to be all down hill. Well they were not. While there was a general downhill profile to the course, there was definitely still some climbing, which late in the race felt like Mt. Everest. 

Coming into an aid station - PC Alex
We ran, we crawled, we hiked and then we ran some more. Up and down, through the fields, on the ridge, and through some sloppy mud. We ran with one goal in mind, sub 20 hours. It was still possible! All we had to do was go 5 more miles in 1.5 hours. Such an easy task yet so hard at times. 15 minute mile can seem like a sprint this late in the race. We moved past runners and their pacers. Sandy was determined that we finish faster than 20 hours as you never know what their clock might say. Mile 68 marker. Almost there. "How are we doing Sandy?" "Good but we need to keep going." "OK". In those last 8 miles OK was the most frequently used word by me. Wish Sandy kept count on how many times I said OK. Too many times.

After a long day, there it was, the final descent into the finish. We ran past the mile 70 marker and shortly after that through the finish line. Official time 19:46. I did it. I made my goal! I get the honor of putting my name into the Western States hat! One ticket. Sometimes that is all it takes.

Done! - PC Alex
Laurel Ultra was over. It was a race that I kept thinking about for the last several years. The timing and my readiness was just not there until now. Laurel Highlands trail is one cruel mistress. It is beautiful and rugged. Technical and smooth.

Pennsylvania at its best.

Ohiopyle day after



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