Blisters are popped, aches are slowly going away and the urge to do it all over again as come back in full force. You know that familiar feeling after you’ve done something you didn’t think was possible where you’re like “that was gnarly…. *Pause*…LET’S DO IT AGAIN!”, you know it well I’m sure of this. This weekend marks the longest distance race I’ve done to date and probably the most technical terrain too. This adventure started when Jen, Chris aka SMO and I drove out from Norfolk at 5pm. Aside from hitting horrible traffic twice the drive was uneventful until we hit West Virginia…literally. It came about 1230 am when I rounded a corner on the 250 or maybe 220, who knows with these windy mountain roads out there. The young doe got spooked and with no where to go on the cliff side of the road she jumped right in front of my truck, with only seconds to react we collided. Saddest part was probably the way she looked back at us probably thinking, “What the hell just happened?” before she plopped down in front after hobbling for a second before dying. We switched drivers at a small gas station in a small mountain town and after what seemed to me like the most stressful 2 hours left of the drive we finally arrived at Canaan Valley resort. We would later find out that you have a 1 in 39 chance to hit a deer while driving in WV, leading state in deer/car accidents according to State Farm insurance. We slept for 3 hours but even that was rudely interrupted by a thunderstorm and torrential down pour as I listened to the rain come down hard on my trucks tonneau cover. The only thing all of us were thinking was what the trail conditions would look like in a few hours. 4AM came and as all three of us got ready the 2 hours ‘til start time went by like a blur.
With no idea if SMO was still in the port-a-john or not, Jen and I took off at the back of the pack at 6 am sharp. I later found out he thought we had gone ahead and ran to the front of the pack to find us, we were an hour behind him. After a few miles in, our first of two big climbs started and as expected conditions were muddy (read as ankle deep mud pits). The morning was cool and the energy in the mountains was high. I quickly joined a group of 8 runners going the same pace and exchanged jokes of how our were completely soaked and yet we were all trying to avoid getting feet wet in the river crossings or mud pits. Legs felt pretty good on climbs and obviously training adjustments since Bel Monte have been paying off.
As I hit aid station #3, the only thing going through my mind was the words of Dr. Horton about Highland Sky 40 “mile for mile the toughest race on the East coast…”. So far, this had proven to be true. Between aid stations #3 and #4, I had a burst of energy and mental boost so I decided to take off. I often hear other ultra runners repeat this when they are feeling the same way “if you got it, take it and run”. I know how ridiculous this sounds in a world where pace is everything but you literally don’t know the next time you feel good enough to run fast, so I went for it. These bursts of confidence, highs or even energy surges are like gifts from the mountain gods saying, “Go forth my son, conquer this next climb and make up time!”. Right as I came in to #4 my right knee flared up again. This usually comes and goes, I haven’t found a remedy for it yet other than pushing past the pain. Came in to aid station #4 and I was glad to have stashed a fresh pair of smartwools and Vaseline in my drop bag. Having left Jen around the leg between station #1 and 2, I contemplated catching up to SMO(and possibly never getting to him) or waiting for her and having our first finish together. The smile on her face as she came in and looked up said it all, priceless. We got under way with an hour and forty minutes to put 7 miles of dirt road behind us. Running the flats and downhill we made good time on the Road Across the Sky and made the cutoff times. This stretch of road proved very challenging as you could see the tiny ant like runners way up ahead, very mentally draining. The next section are very beautiful, almost resembling Scottish highlands, green rolling hills. Gorgeous views but again if you could see a runner in the distance it was kind of depressing, but the landscape made it more enjoyable than the last section.
Once or twice on this part, Jen and I made river crossings. This I would have paid to watch as Jen carefully maneuvered and tip toed from rock to rock and spurting a “TADA!” at her success. I on the other hand was not so graceful. I took one look at the water, shrugged my shoulders and let out a caveman like grunt as I proceeded to walk directly through the water splashing everywhere and getting soaked. Mind you this is probably why Jen has no blisters compared to me.
Several hours later, and after my favorite section which was boulder hopping our way through this trail, was my lowest point in the race. The ski slope…again I prefer not knowing where the top is like our first 2300 ft. climb than to look up at a never-ending slope J We had roughly 8 miles left, 4 miles until the last aid station and my knee flared up bad again. I’m told that this was the section that was missing trail markers. Sliding sideways every other step really put a toll on my knee and reduced my trot to a slow walk downhill. This was especially frustrating and Jen who had run ahead said she could hear me from the bottom; I was not a happy camper. She waited at the last aid station; with our cutoff time looming over us I quickly tucked the pain away and ran on. The last four miles are all road and this didn’t feel too good but with the thought of pizza and beer in my near future I ran harder. Oh did I also mention Jen is a hell of a cow driver, whipping motivation and sense into me for this last section. It’s Wednesday as I write this and the so-called ultra runner’s amnesia has set in full force, I’m dreaming of next years race. We were greeted at the finish line by a couple we had met that morning with “Hey it’s the deer slayers! Nice job! Did you guys kill any more animals?”. We both laughed and Jen responded with a witty “I assure you no more animals were harmed in the process of running this race.”. It’s a disturbing nickname but if I see you at a next race, I laughingly accept it and probably proceed to inform you of any mishap on the drive up. Until next time, Happy trail running!
-Loïc AKA Deer Slayer