Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run
MP: This year’s race was a lot better for me than last year. Better weather helped a lot, I was also determined to stay positive and enjoy it this year. New Nathan pack worked great, I loved the two pockets in front that gave me easy access to everything I needed. Did 1 endurolyte every 30 minutes, used Hammergel and Clif Shot blocks, had a PBJ square at most AS, and a few potatoes where available. Only had one time where I felt a little nauseous, ate crystallized ginger and that really seemed to help. Stayed with the same shoes the whole time, no blisters, love those Injinji socks. Running with Lorrin the whole way was great, we could pick each other up as necessary and ran a great race together. I’m happy I finished a lot faster than last year, but I’m even more pleased that I enjoyed it so much more this time around. Dolly Sods is an amazing place, I’m lucky to have gotten to see so much of it!
LH: I hate to choose favorites, but Highlands Sky has a great combination of changing and challenging terrain: steep mountains, rocks, grassy plains, bogs, pine groves, and laurel covered highlands. Plus spectacular views and tremendous volunteer support. Plenty of food for us stragglers – my only mistake was not eating enough. The second half of my race was fueled by 3 tums and 2 cups of coke. The trail was rerouted in two places on the second half, so we got to see some new terrain, and the near-vertical ‘butt-slide’ was even more challenging with the added bonus of diesel fumes and mud as ATV racers roared nearby. It was much more fun to run with Michelle – less imaginary competition with others around me!
Race Report – LONG Version!
MP: Why did I decide to do Highlands Sky? That was the question running through my mind in 2006 when I tried it for the first time. The first 3 years of the race I worked at AS#3 (mile 15.6) and I knew how rough everyone looked when they came through our AS. Then I would go work at the finish line and I saw they looked rough but they also looked really happy as they crossed the finish line! So I ran it and finished in 2006 but it took me 11 hours and 45 minutes and it was pretty much a miserable race for me. The hot weather didn’t help. I think I vowed never to do it again and told Dan (the race director) I wanted my aid station job back. I felt like I pushed it too hard in the first half and spent the whole second half in a death march, I spent very little time actually appreciating the fact that I was in Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, one of the prettiest places in the east.
MP: As I decided whether or not to try it again in 2007, I knew I needed a new plan. My goal was to ENJOY it this time and appreciate the beauty of Dolly Sods, to do this I knew I would need to run at my own pace in the first 20 miles so I had something left for the second half. This meant I might not get to run with any of my trail running buddies, but I figured it would allow me to survive. Of course I would still have to make the cut-offs.
MP: I got ready as usual by looking at the 2006 times. As I looked at the splits for the second half of the race, I found that I really had lost a lot of time between miles 26 and 32. I also saw that my splits were pretty close to Lorrin’s and it seemed realistic to think I could do somewhere between Lorrin’s time and my time from 2006. So I used our splits as I put together my mileage/split info to carry during the race.
LH: Unlike Michelle, I had a positive experience with the race last year, and was hoping to further improve this year, as long as it wasn’t too hot. I wasn’t sure if I was undertrained from “resting” after PromiseLand; the 23 mile training run plus 5k races were my big runs since the end of April. Or overtrained, from the 7 ultras I’d already done this year.
LH: Additionally, I was planning to break 2 big rules: I was going to wear a pair of shoes I’d only run up to 10 miles in, and I was going to wear a brand new pair of shorts! Ok, I’m not really that crazy. I gave my trail-tested shorts to Joe to keep at AS 3 and I had a broken-in pair of shoes at AS 4. Just in case.
LH: As usual, we tried to leave early, but Joe is constrained by school hours. We finally got on the road, only to face immediate traffic as there was an accident within 1 exit of our house. So we missed the pre-race dinner and had to settle for some over-cheesed chicken parmegian at the restaurant.
Start to AS#2, mile 10.1
MP: 6 am finally rolls around and Dan yells go, I’m not sure I even heard him, everyone just started to run. Lorrin, Amanda and I take off running down the road, we settle into an easy pace for those first 2.2 miles on the road to the fluids only aid station. We hit the AS, as we started up the hill leaving the AS, Amanda took off, that was the last we would see of her until the finish!
MP: We started up the first muddy part of the trail, trying to dodge the biggest mud holes. I was a little nervous to see that we were running near Alan Gowan who is way faster than me. Then I remembered he had just done MMT and figured he would get going soon enough. Then Mike Priddy passed us, weird, were we going too fast? No, they were both gone before I knew it. We walked/ran up the long switchbacks trying to avoid the stinging nettles. Fortunately the faster folks had made a pretty nice path so I mostly stayed nettle free! Next we hit the straight up portion of our 2300 foot ascent and I felt myself pushing too hard. I let two guys go by and told Lorrin I’d see her at the top.
LH: Well, even though I booked up the hill, I had to re-tie and readjust my shoes 4 times, so that gave Michelle plenty of time to catch up to and then pass me! As I tried to catch back up to her, I was patiently waiting to maneuver around a fellow when he dramatically fell sideways across a stream! He refused my offer of help but seemed to be ok.
MP: We finally reached the top, passed a guy, and then got out into the Roaring Plains section of the trail. The views were awesome in all directions and there was a nice breeze. The trail was wetter than when we did our training run a few weeks ago, but it actually felt good. The trail is so rocky up there that when it’s wet, it really just means there’s an inch or more of clear water sitting on top of the rocks, you just splash your way through, I’m always glad it isn’t muddy! We passed a group of people here that clearly did not appreciate the rocks as much as we did and were picking their way through slowly.
LH: Yeah, we passed them by charging through the boggy puddles they were gingerly stepping around! We might be slow, but we’re not afraid of mud!
MP: One woman from this group joined us as we passed the others – the three of us ran together to the AS, talked about pink lady’s slippers wildflowers and how pretty it was up here. We reached the AS in 2:46:29, a few minutes ahead of last year’s time, and well ahead of the 3:15 cut-off. Grabbed a few quick snacks and set off down the short section of road.
LH: I felt like a brat, but I was kinda annoyed by how “loaded” the PB&J was with peanut butter. So here I threw out a corner rather than eating it… (this is called ‘foreshadowing’).
AS#2 to AS#3, mile 15.6
MP: If you run this, don’t forget, you leave the AS, run a short way down the fire road and then turn left onto a trail. This turn is marked if you are paying attention to the ribbons hanging from the trees, and there is usually a ribbon across the road to indicate not to go there, but it can disappear, someone misses this turn every year!
MP: We quickly crossed a small stream, some woods, and then were back out into the open with some beautiful views. Lorrin and I continued to comment on how much everything had grown since we were there 3 weeks before, they must have had some rain out there in those 3 weeks! It seemed like there were ferns everywhere and some were almost shoulder high, I think I saw every shade of green that exists in the world! We got to the point where you enjoy your last great view before plunging down the side of the mountain 1700 feet. I always enjoy this down hill stretch!
MP: This year turned out to be a little different. This is a really steep, often loose, rocky section, now it was also slick with moisture and I felt like I was on black ice at times. I almost fell a couple of times and think I went slower than I’ve ever gone on this section.
Fortunately Lorrin entertained me with descriptions of the Borat movie and next think I know we were down to the creek and starting our way back up the hill toward AS#3.
LH: I was a little disappointed by the need for more precaution because I enjoy raging down this section when it’s dry! We later heard several people say they took a tumble here. This is also where Pam Gowen was around us last year, and I wondered where she was & hoped she was having a good race. Unfortunately, she ended up taking a detour later on in the course and missed the cutoffs.
MP: This passed fairly quickly for me – we actually passed a couple of people here I think. We also agreed not to spend much time in AS#3 where Megan, Joe and Bill were or we were afraid we wouldn’t want to leave. That cold beer in the cooler might be too much temptation. We hit the AS in 4:30:18, slightly slower than last year but well under the 5:05 cut-off!
LH: I knew that Michelle was going to have a great race when we hit the stream crossing where during last years’ training run and race she had started to mention the effects of heat/lack of energy. This year, not a peep. She just bounded up the trail! At AS#3, I ate the least-loaded PB&J I could find, but it was so sticky I couldn’t really eat anything else… Luckily, the brand-new shorts were still extremely comfortable, so I didn’t change them. I was starting to get a hot spot in the arch of my right foot, so I knew I would have to change shoes at AS#4.
AS#3 to AS#4, mile 19.3
MP: Refilled the Nathan pack, grabbed some potatoes and PBJ and got the heck out. The trail crosses a fire road here and continues to ascend up the hill. We climbed for what felt like another mile and then were back on top running through mixed woods and open areas. Again we passed a few more folks here who were really hating the rocks, some mentioned how much they were looking forward to the road, we rock-heads just motored on by.
LH: It was weird – there were some genuine, “fast-looking people” and they were trudging along dejectedly! It definitely helps prepare one mentally to do the training runs and to know the course. I knew there was no reason to be discouraged by speed over the rocks, because there was the road where one could make up time. And it was nice to enjoy the shade while we still had it, because for the next 12ish miles I knew there would be no shade.
MP: We hit the first of the 10 boardwalks that signify you are getting close to the road and began our count down. Before I knew it we were at the road, turn right and continue up hill about a mile to the AS. Lorrin and I were still running well together, we walked/ran toward the AS and made our plans to change shoes, resupply food, salt, etc at our drop bags.
MP: Arrived at AS in 5:28:30, slightly ahead of our time last year and still well ahead of the 6:05 cut-off here. I was also encouraged here by the fact that my split on this section was about 6 minutes faster than last year.
LH: Reapplied sunblock, loaded up on more clif bloks, changed shoes – that felt good! I only wish I’d had a change of socks, too. duh. Surveyed the table, but I’m not sure if I ate anything … I was eating clif blocks and taking salt pretty regularly, but nothing at the tables was appealing to me.
AS#4 to AS#5, mile 22.3
MP: A little over 7 miles to go on an open, undulating, dirt and gravel road. I barely even remember how I made it through this section last year, I was really dehydrated and hurting. We alternated run/walk – walk up the hills, run on the flats and downhills. If we had a long flat stretch, we would pick a spot to run to, walk a bit, repeat. In this section we were passed by a few people, but I figured these were the rock haters that were really a lot faster than me anyway, at least once out on a road!
Next thing I know we roll into AS#5 in a split of 41:59, elapsed time of 6:10:29. Both times faster than last year!
LH: I am feeling good! I feel like I can keep a strong, consistent pace. The change in shoes is miraculous; I no longer feel the hot spot at all. Yay!
AS#5 to AS#6, mile 26.6
MP: We don’t stay long here, continue the walk/run mode, look forward to getting off the road! We were also lucky on this road section because there was a nice breeze and the clouds rolled through every now and then and gave us some relief from the sun. It was much nicer than last year! Also, to our surprise, we even passed a few people here.
LH: This year the road seemed much, much shorter. I think with Michelle along for company, it definitely helped pass the time as we alternated picking out landmarks as our run/walk goal. At one point, I looked up and realized that I had not truly noticed the surroundings, that it was a glorious not-to-hot day, with clear blue skies, and the laurel blooming pink and white all around as we ran the road across the sky.
MP: Then we hit AS#6 for our visit with Dan and Tom Todd and Gene. They comment on how good I look, better than last year they say! I choose to believe them! Last year I tried to quit at this AS and Dan and Gene talked me out of it, I still thank them and curse them at the same time!
MP: We arrive here in 7:02:21, still ahead of last year’s time and ahead of the 7:30 cut-off. Key point here, there are no more cut-offs from here on out, you just need to finish under 12 hours to be an official finisher.
LH: Here I didn’t need water yet, and the food just wasn’t appealing to me… I was starting to get a “oversalted feeling” in my stomach. hmm….
MP: Dan tells us that someone has taken down a mile or so of the ribbons marking the course between here and the next AS. He gives some detailed info on how to stay on course, also says one of the other AS guys is out trying to remark the course. I absorb nothing Dan has told me about directions and just hope the guy has the course remarked or that I somehow recognize it from last year.
AS#6 to AS#7, mile 32.4
LH: Dan is telling us the names of the actual trails and intersections, but my brain can only comprehend “orange/good; yellow/no-go.” I am glad that I’ve run this race before, and that we hiked out here after the training run, so I know I can at least get us to the hill above our campsite. Luckily, that is the stretch where the markers were missing, but a volunteer had done a good job of using rocks and sticks to make large arrows to point the way. There were also scraps of white cloth, and as the guy was shirtless when he passed us on his way back to the aid station, I wondered it he’d used his shirt to mark the trail.
MP: Many say this 5.8 miles is the prettiest part of the race. I have to agree. Last year I really didn’t enjoy it at all. Because of the heat I felt like I was in Badwater, I doubt I looked up once to enjoy my surroundings. I enjoyed it as much as possible this time around, I still want to go back and hike it at a leisurely pace. The trail doesn’t turn out to be hard to follow, the guy has done a great job. I particularly liked when he made an arrow of rocks pointing in the direction we were supposed to go and spelled out the word “GO” in rocks, that was cool!
LH: The boggy section on the way to where Mical, Paul, Joe & I camped is now covered by brand-spanking new boardwalk. Apparently, there is a rare, protected plant here that was discovered when Dan submitted his latest permit. I hope we didn’t step on it.
LH: I remember loving this stretch last year, also that it is very long. Last year, I passed the time battling with another woman, but she eventually beat me on the road. Now, I just settled in and tried to enjoy the views. Once you cross the stream and run through a boggy stretch through some trees (now covered by another boardwalk) you come out on a grassy plain with just stupendous views. You also pass through sections of pine trees, and then out into another plain covered in blueberry, cranberry, and more blooming laurel. A spine of white rocks stretches across to your left, and you can see a continuous chain of mountains stretching to the horizon. And, strangely, we pass Willie, who is walking with a friend.
LH: But the beauty of my surroundings was tempered by a nagging fear, as I was becoming nauseous. I tried to take little sips of water, and I had already reduced my salt from 1 succeed/hour to 1 every 2 hrs. I just didn’t want to eat anything. I had a luna bar, clif bloks, and gels (both clif and hammer) in my pack. I’d already eaten a ginger candy on the road. Michelle was having a great race, so I thought I should try to just hang with her, but try not to drag her down.
LH: Next we get to a point where the course has been re-routed from where it used to go on private property to now use a newly constructed trail. Which was annoying, because there were still lots of tiny stumps just waiting to trip you up and lots of brush that had not quite been cleared from foot traffic yet. Dolly Sods used to be a testing ground for weapons, and they warn people to be aware of unexploded ordnance, which usually one would not see on the well-used trails. I swear I was not hallucinating, but I saw some 2-inch-long bullets in the middle of the trail!
MP: This section was really pretty, I tried to enjoy the views and not fall on my face. We saw a lot of backpackers through this section – this seemed strange because the whole rest of the day we had only seen AS volunteers and fellow runners. Some of the backpackers must have heard from earlier runners that we were running a 40 miler, they stepped aside to let us pass and gave us words of encouragement. I was secretly envious of them, I imagined the stars they would see tonight from their campsite, wow!
LH: I was hoping this new route would bypass everybody’s favorite – the boulder section. But no. I am tired, obsessed with my nausea, and here is the boulder scramble. As I tried to lower myself from one boulder to a lower one (no hopping now!) I imagine Dan throwing back his head and laughing with maniacal glee at our difficulties.
MP: I love boulder scrambles, but this one comes at a really tough time. Jumping 2 feet down from one boulder to the next seems like a really bad idea, my feet hurt and I’m afraid my legs will crumple. Jumping over crevices seems like an even worse idea! Somehow we manage to sit down and slide or carefully step over each obstacle, once again wondering how people like Brad Mongold, Bill Young, etc get through these sections. I still want to see a video of a couple of these front runners to see exactly how they run through these tough sections! Levitation maybe??
MP: Even though I’m enjoying it this time around, I wonder when we are ever going to get to the AS. Finally I start up a slight hill and spy the blue of the tent for the AS. This is the AS where the volunteers have to hike everything in, including 30 gallons of water, they are AWESOME! We’ve arrived here at 8:46:26, split of 1:44:05, I’m psyched because we’re here AND I am 20 minutes faster on this section than last year. I drink some coke or mountain dew, I can’t remember, and then we move on.
LH: I catch up to Michelle, and tell her about the nausea. She remembers that Dan gave all the aid stations a first aid kit with Tums, so when we get to the next aid station, I eat a Tums and have a cup of coke.
AS#7 to AS#8, mile 36.5
MP: We leave the AS, I enjoy one last look to the west, down into Canaan Valley. The folks at this AS really do have the most amazing views in all directions. We start down a pretty “runnable” stretch, I think I’m probably more into shuffling than running now. The trail is a 6 inch wide rut through grassy fields, I can’t decide if I want to run in the rut or on the side in the grass, both seem really hard. Soon the decision is made for me as we hit what looks to me to be a 6-8 foot wide river of rocks trail. I pick my way through here and look up to see two people ahead turning right into the woods. It’s probably good I saw them, several folks missed this turn and continued straight on this road and missed the entire downhill/ATV section of the course. Always remember to look for the ribbons!
MP: After this right turn, we quickly start the trudge up the ski slope. I can’t believe we are already here! As we are climbing the slope, we start to hear rock and roll music and the roar of engines. Uh oh, we are getting closer to the ATV/motorcycle racers, little did I know what was to come. Turn left at top of ski slope, start through some woods on a trail that is supposed to be for XC skiing, I can’t quite imagine skiing through here…then we get to the straight downhill section of trail. Here is where I once again have to sit down on a rock and scoot down 3 or 4 feet to the trail. Two guys step aside to let us pass, I swing from tree to tree with “George, George, George of the jungle, watch out for that tree!” running through my head. I keep one eye out for ribbons and one eye out for ATVs hurtling through the trees. Some how we make it to the bottom, as we cross the board over a small stream, the iplayoutside photographer takes our picture and tells us we’re almost there. Cool!
LH: Now I know what a deer must feel like as it stands by the side of the road as gigantic loud vehicles go whizzing by. Except you also have to descend vertically down about a mile of freshly cut “trail” through some pretty dense woods. Last year was pretty steep – this year was a grab one tree and swing to the next. But I also think it was much better marked this year. Again, I imagined Dan laughing at the ridiculousness of this section. It seemed longer, but that might also have been because I kept expecting an ATV to fly off course, landing on top of me. Here, Willie materialized out of the woods and flew past us.
MP: We run down the road to the AS, arriving at 9:53:48, split of 1:07:22. Ashley Young and Hilary Young greet us. Ashley says “I didn’t know you were running this year Michelle!” – I mumble something in reply. I think it’s here where I ask if they know how Lydia is doing (Hilary’s mom, Ashley’s aunt) and they say she got pulled at AS#6, missed the cut-off by 14 minutes. I’m bummed for her but elated we are only 4.2 miles from the finish!!
AS#8 to FINISH!!, mile 40.7
LH: The last aid station. The Tums didn’t hurt, so this time I took 2 more and another cup of coke. “Follow Michelle, follow Michelle” is all I had in my head. We were passed on the road but I’d say by only a couple people – people who’d gotten lost in the so-called trail section! But we also passed others, including a couple of guys that never caught back up to us once we hit a grassy stretch. Then up the Canaan Resort road, where some kids in a tractor-pulled vehicle passed and waved. That made me feel like a star!
MP: Hot asphalt, yuck! Just gotta get through it. We run to shade, walk a bit. We seem to be gaining on a few folks, how could that be? We pass them, turn left into the grassy section. Sure glad those earlier runners beat down this waist high grass for us, I put one foot in front of the other and try not to step in any holes. We cross the main road into Canaan Valley SP, only a mile or two to go. We pass Joyce Fendley and another guy walking, I congratulate Joyce on her MMT finish.
LH: At last, we entered the woods, the last mile. “Follow Michelle.” OUCH! I got stung by a bee! I tried to channel the adrenaline, and made it up the hill and past the scummy pond – my landmark for when to “act like you’re running” again. Last year, there was a lady “hiking” here, and she wouldn’t get out of my way! No such obstacle this time, and with a final glance over my shoulder to make sure there were no Wargos, I caught up to Michelle, who had so nicely paused to wait for me to catch up so we could finish together. We high-fived then ran down the hill to the finish! Yay!
MP: I spy the flags leading us to the woods again and that last 0.5 mile or so of trail to the finish. Glad to be off that darn road! We see one person in the distance but he is moving well and we can’t catch him. We turn left up the last small hill to the finish. WV folks never seem to get enough of uphills do they? I don’t even remember the scummy pond from last year, was it really there? Next thing I know we are crossing the finish line and RD Dan takes our picture and gives us a hug! We then claim our really cool, orange, Patagonia finisher shirt.
MP: We finished in 10:48:19, split of 54:31. Lorrin took about 27 minutes off her time from last year, I took off about 57 minutes!
LH: Believe it or not, after dinner, some rest, and a huge breakfast, Joe, Bill, Amanda, Megan, Michelle and I took a 3-hour hike the next day. A great way to work out that lactic acid! And we saw a big garter snake