Gary Knipling once said that the Laurel Highlands were some of the purest trails on the east coast he’d ever run.
The week went by and still I found it hard to sit down and begin writing into words what I had just accomplished, let alone comprehend it. Family and friends asked me how it felt, what did it look like, eager to find out what was going through my head. I sat there and thought hard, but no words could describe the dream like experience of running 70.5 miles. I came to realize that “Pure” not only described the trails, but the experience as a whole.
I went into this race with an ultimate low in confidence, with little training, high stress level due to a recent move, school, and job search. Not having logged a serious run for a couple weeks had me rethinking my decision to toe the line at Laurel Highlands. Despite all of this, we headed up a day early and cleared our heads of any doubts or stress by taking a more relaxed approach: “What ever happens, happens…”
Off we went at 5:30 in the morning, and down the only paved road we would run on for the whole race. It was 0.5 mile to the trail head so I decided to take it easy and just warm into it, this would be a long day after all. I ran with Jen for a bit and then we hit the first big climb of the day where we went our own pace. Our friends had given us fair warnings that the bulk of the climbs were within the first 10 miles of the race. Therefore my race strategy was to hold back until I felt like most of the “hard” climbs were over. The first 13-15 miles felt like one big blur of climbing and descending, the climbs were long and endless but luckily the downhills were just as long. In fact my greatest dilemma this early into the race was whether I should slow down enough to save my quads(but wreck my knees from forcing against the gravity pull) or just let it do its work, bomb downhill and potentially burn out later because of thrashed quads. I chose the latter and hooked on to a group of runners who were bombing them. Mile 11.6 came up, this was our first aid station of the day. Feeling pretty fresh and in good spirits, I handed my bottles to my crew to refill, ate some cantaloupe and headed back into the forest in no time.
I’d love to say I remember miles 12-26 clearly but I don’t. My good friend Andrew said something to me after the race, “It’s interesting seeing you at these Ultras and how you seem to not Be there..”. This makes total sense, now that I think about it. When one must endure for that long, it’s almost mandatory that your brain kind of “shut off” or go into a sensory off mode. I do remember thinking; wow 26 miles already? As a short recap, there was beautiful scenery(green ferns like in Jurassic Park), minor climbs and more single track trail. When I finally hit checkpoint #2 at the 32 mile marker, I started to put things together and realized I still had 38 miles to go, feeling a bit overwhelmed I stuffed my face and ran out of the aid station…mistake #1. Not even 10 minutes later, I was flirting with unconsciousness and sleepy eyes as my stomach was fighting with my brain for the little blood left over in my body not being used by my legs. My stomach was trying to digest and my brain was having a hard time staying awake. The craziest thing was opening my eyes and realizing I was still running(slowly) but taking 5-6 steps with them completely shut! Almost as if my brain was taking a snapshot of the trail ahead and saying “alright body, I’m gonna check out for a second, you got this…be right back”. This was kind of a scary thing especially when you run past the mile marker 35 and realize how much longer you have. In comes Beat Jegerlehner(Beat’s blog), a Swiss-born ultra-runner living in San Francisco, who has run many epic races I plan on attempting one day. Beat was having some problems back at the last aid station if I recall correctly but was still moving at a very good pace. We talked and talked of his adventures in the Italian alps, his recent feat of running the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350(miles that is). AMAZING! I had just met one of the guys who runs with a 40 pound sled through thick snow at -25degrees across the Alaskan wilderness. This really put things into perspective and the more I thought of doing something similar one day, my spirits lifted and 70 miles suddenly became “Do-able”(we’ll call that High point #4 or 5). We settled into a good pace for an hour and a half or so. I finally started feeling a wave of fatigue and told Beat I’d see him at the end. I had a short distance to go until I would be met by my awesome crew: Jeannie, Eric and Andrew. This aid station at mile 46.4 would be where my pacer could start running with me and I welcomed the thought of having someone else to talk to.
Eric and I began the long slog to the finish in good spirits, I was confident I would make it….until about 4 miles in. My stomach was still having some issues, and I was feeling pretty fatigued by this point. This was the longest distance between aid stations and mile 57 might as well as been a 100 miles away because that’s exactly how it felt. I sat down a few times to rest my legs and recollect my thoughts. I was having doubts about nutrition, pace, basically everything started worrying me. To top things off, the bottoms of my feet had developed a huge blister and every time I stepped on a sharp rock or stubbed my toe, my whole right foot would throb. Eric did an awesome job of reminding me to just keep going and handing me a piece of fruit or fig newton once in a while. The sun had warmed up in the afternoon and I felt like I was behind on hydration. I decided to double my dose of electrolyte pills, chugged water like we were close to the aid stations(totally ran out with about 5 miles to go still).
I thank Eric for taking this picture because it says it all: doubts, defeat, confusion, weighting outcomes, digging deep and asking myself “Is this the real you?”. A defining point in this race, around mile 50 I did some soul searching and asked myself why I do these, what was left in the gas tank, and how far can one go on empty? I truly believe that endurance is all about how far are you willing to go past that threshold that told your brain it had nothing left a few hours back. Onward, it was time to click our headlamps on and for me to stop thinking about how many miles I had left. We entered the second to last aid station at mile 57.1 well into darkness. Right about now I have no idea what time it is, but I knew I needed to start digging deeper. I sat there drinking a chicken noodle soup, which according to my crew looked like total crap but to me tasted like 5 star gourmet soup. With my morale lifted a little bit, I decided that mile 62 I would decide if I could still make the cut-off. We picked up the pace and speed hiked at ~15min miles, Eric encouraged me and for the first time in a while I felt like this was finally “home stretch”…but it really wasn’t.
I came in to the last aid station hobbling, my feet were done, my mind was gone, and the night running was really getting to me. I grabbed a cup of potato soup, asked questions about the trail up ahead and decided that 62 miles was a long way to come to not finish this race. Still ahead of the cut-off but with my time cushion narrowing fast, I made the decision to finish this race. At this point I was running on pure adrenaline which would come in waves. Several times through the night I felt my body go weightless and my eyes close only to be caught mid-air by Eric before I hit the floor. Sleep-running, an interesting concept that I was fairly new with. Mile 65….This mile marker will be ingrained in my mind forever. It is literally the ONLY mental snapshot I still have from this section; I see the marker, I feel my legs start to climb, I look up at the total darkness, I catch a glimpse of a headlamp way in the distance….straight…as in vertically straight up ahead. This was so demoralizing and I panicked a little thinking of how slow my pace up this hill would be.
The next few miles after were a blur of me running past the mile markers and touching each of them, knocking them out one at a time. Eric got some crap for taking this picture, but I don’t think others realized that this had nothing to do with dirty humor….this was the last mile. It was as if all the pain in my body was gone, Eric yelled “Lights up ahead on your left”. I didn’t even see the lights, I just sprinted to the finish. It’s amazing what the human body is capable when the end is in sight, I basically floated across the trail not feeling any pain or blisters or anything. The finish line was finally in sight, and the heart warming sound of “RUNNER!!” from the race staff couldn’t have sounded any better. I came across the line at 21 hours 35 minutes 20 seconds, a Laurel Highlands 70 finisher.
The whole experience still feels unreal, I ran across the line with only our friend Don greeting me and congratulating me. I soon found out of Jen’s valiant attempt had finished at mile 57 after battling her own problems which in my book is still quite a whole lot to be proud of! The trail was relentless, beautiful and we couldn’t have asked for a better crew: HUGE shout out to Andrew, Eric and Jeannie for being so amazing, especially Eric-Thank you for pacing me through my ups and downs. I look forward to seeing everyone again at Leadville this year!