BIRTHDAY CHALLENGE RUN – Highlands Sky 2009
BIRTHDAY CHALLENGE RUN
Let me first start off with the fact that I do *not* consider myself a runner. I’m not fast. I’m certainly not graceful. I’m just an athletic guy who likes a challenge, and enjoys being outside.
I actually stumbled across the Highland Sky race last year, while I was hiking in Dolly Sods, West Virginia. I saw the runners trekking up a long dirt road around “Mile 25” and figured it was the end of a marathon. I specifically remember calling to them “you’re almost there!” and watching them shoot me back questioning looks. When I later learned that the race was actually 40+ miles, I was in awe. I had to give this a try…
When I signed up for this race (which I labeled as a “birthday challenge”), my wife made me promise that I would at least “train” for the race – instead of simply showing up and “seeing what happens.” Due to my schedule, and reluctance to give up my daily volleyball game, I trained on the weekends, running from our house to Mt. Vernon (and sometimes back.) Not exactly an ideal training regimen, but it seemed to be better than nothing. About two months before the Highland Sky race, I entered the DC Marathon as a “practice run” and made it 26.2 miles without falling apart – a good sign.
Flash forward to the morning of the race – I woke up at 4:00am to prepare for the 5:00am bus-ride to the starting line. I wrote my bib number on my shin in Sharpie, packed my camelback with more gear than I would ever need (i.e. Meds, food, camera, extra iPod, extra headphones, tape, band-aids… You name it, I had it!), covered myself in sun-block and bug-spray and headed out the door. The weather report said “Scattered Thunderstorms” throughout the day – not exactly ideal, but it could be worse.
There were about 200 people registered for the race – at 5:00am we climbed into a school bus, and were driven about 20 minutes to the starting line. From the start, I was a bit intimidated. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing, how they were planning to run the race, what the trail conditions were like, and when they planned to finish. People asked me if I had run this race before – when I mentioned this was my first “Ultra,” people were shocked wondering “why in the world I would choose this as my first one?” (When I mentioned that I hadn’t exactly run a trail-race before, let alone ever “trained” on a trail, their expressions suggested that I was in way in over my head.)
At 6:00am, everyone started to gather up at the “start line.” For such a momentous occasion, I had envisioned trumpets blaring, a group count-down, or perhaps a starting gun. No dice! With minimal fanfare, someone said “Ready….go” and everyone started lumbering forward. The speedy runners quickly made their way to the front of the pack (a wise move on their part, as the single-track started a few miles into the race), while the remainder of us plodded down the road at a slow and steady pace. After about two miles on the road, we turned into a field and started making our way into the woods.
This was where the fun started! Over the next few miles, we climbed up the mountains through single-track trails, filled with prickly nettles on each side. The pace was slow and comfortable – lots of walking to reserve energy. We were happily hiking our way up the steep mountain side, when suddenly the sky opened up, and it started dumping rain! This was no gentle summer storm – this was a full-fledged downpour that lasted for hours. (The kind of storm you respect from inside your living room, glad you aren’t stuck outside.) Immediately, the trails filled up with rushing water and mud. Everything and everyone was soaked, and we weren’t more than 5 miles into the race.
Hiking up the first mountain is where I met Lynn, my first “trail guide.” Lynn kept my head straight, keeping a good pace of walking and running, and chatting to pass the time. I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful it was to have “company” during the race.
By the time we reached to top of the mountains, the entire trail was flooded. This resulted in long stretches where you would walk/wade/run through ankle-deep to knee-high muddy water over rocky terrain for what seemed like hundreds of yards.
The second aid station was around mile 10.5. I had heard about the cut-offs, but based upon the average times from last year, I wasn’t particularly worried. That was, until a few runners passed me worried about whether they would make it in time. Suddenly, I started to get very concerned about my pace. (This would be an ongoing theme until around aid-station 6, when I had made up some significant time.)
The rain was still pouring, and the trail was filling up with water. We arrived at a stream where the water was waist-high, there was a 4-foot waterfall, and the current was flying. So I braced myself, waded into the water facing upstream (thank you, survival skills classes), and side-stepped across. The water was freezing – but felt wonderful on my tired legs. I quickly grabbed a branch on the other side, helped pull another runner across, and started back on the muddy trail!
I was finally near Aid Station #4 – the one spot where visitors can cheer you on, and where you can grab new gear. Based upon the wet and rocky conditions, I quickly decided to keep my trail-shoes, and simply change my socks. As I ran up the road to the station, I saw my wife in the distance cheering me on! After a few quick pictures, and some encouraging words, Christy helped me to the aid station, where she restocked my food, changed my socks, and helped me get back on the road.
The next stretch of the race contained a 6-mile hill heading straight across the plains – and I mean straight. Thankfully, I met several runners who were walking the hills and who emphasized my new strategy, “constant unwavering progress.” (Walking, fine. Running, even better. Just keep moving.) Before I knew it, I was already through Aid Stations 5 & 6, and heading into Dolly Sods.
Dolly Sods was truly as beautiful as I remembered. Gorgeous landscapes, beautiful trails, and an amazing assortment of wildlife… It also, however, has wind – constant, unyielding wind. I’m talking about “you can’t hold a conversation with someone next to you, because the wind is blowing so hard” type wind. Thankfully (?), the return of ankle-deep water and “shoe-stealing mud” made the wind almost a secondary concern.
Somewhere in Dolly Sods, I met up with Kirstin, who was a wonderful pace-setter, and who kept me company (and educated me on the local flora) for the next several miles. Kirstin powered through the hills, jumped through the puddles, and kept me running simply to keep her in sight.
Somewhere in Dolly Sods, we climbed through a field of boulders. I remember reading in the race description there was “exciting boulder-hopping section” and thinking “whoever wrote that description must be crazy.” I was totally wrong – it was wonderful! After 32 miles, it was an exciting challenge, and certainly one of my favorite parts of the race!
So far, my legs had been pretty solid. My stomach was faring better than expected (although I really should have tried out some of the gels/blocks/beans beforehand…), and I was still coherent enough to control my iPod. Suddenly, I hit a long hill heading up one of Canaan’s ski-slopes, and I lost it. My enthusiasm died, my energy disappeared, and my stomach started acting up. Thankfully, I spotted Kirstin about 100 yards ahead of me, checking out local flowers growing on the side of the trail. When I caught up, we slowly made our way up the hill together, stopping every so often to identify a few flowers. By the time I reached the top, my enthusiasm was recharged, my legs were feeling better, and my stomach had settled. I didn’t get to thank Kirstin – but she truly kept me sane during that long and painful stretch.
We were finally reaching the final stages! I had heard about the “butt slide” from prior years, but I had no idea what to expect. Picture this – a few miles of steep winding downhill trail, where you’d likely use trees and rocks to help control your descent on a dry day. Now add a few hours of pouring rain, and about 100 people who ran it before you got there – and you get 8 inches of loose mud, and no braking power! I saw a large group of people ahead of me slowly stepping their way down. Given my “fresh” new legs, and renewed enthusiasm, I cranked up the volume on my iPod, and charged down the hill! (The one spot in the race where I think I actually passed people.) The trip down was closer to snowboarding than running – only one hand-plant to keep steady, and I was through the worst of it. The remaining miles consisted of more deep mud over rolling hills, accompanied by frequent pools of water. (By this time, my feet had started to bother me – clearly a blister or two was inevitable. I started intentionally running through the muddy puddles as the cool water made them feel better, albeit briefly.)
Suddenly, I was at Aid Station #8, with only 4.1 miles to go. Wonderful!… Except that the majority of the 4.1 miles was on a road. My legs just couldn’t take running anymore, particularly on the hard surface. I scampered to a jog in between bouts of walking, but it wasn’t helping my pace. The last 4.1 miles seemed to last longer than any portion of the race – I had no idea where the finish line was, how far I had gone, or what was coming next. Thankfully, I just tried to keep pace with the runners ahead of me, and kept making forward progress. All of a sudden, I’m back on a trail, heading up a hill, and I hear people cheering! My mood lightens, my legs feel strong, and I muster up the energy to actually run across the finish line! An amazing finish to a fantastic race!
As a follow up, for people new to Ultras, there are several things that I learned in this wonderful experience. First, you can not underestimate the value of friends and family, both at the rest stations and on the trail. Although the conditions made this race challenging, it was the experience of going through this race with others that truly made it memorable.
Second, I packed *way* too much. I carried a ton of gear on this race, just in case. Thankfully, the support crews had everything we needed. Next time, I’m packing much lighter…
Finally, I now understand why people might not recommend Highland Sky as a first Ultra. This race throws everything at you. Thankfully, I think it fits me perfectly. I can’t imagine running 50 miles on a road, or running the same loop over and over. But put a few boulders, streams and hills in the mix, and the actual distance is secondary to the challenge. My mind was racing the entire time, simply to keep myself upright.
As for me, I am now taking a break from running. Thankfully, I escaped without any serious injuries – the worst I got was a sun-burn on the top of my head, and some soreness in my legs and shoulders. Despite a few inquiries from fellow runners, I have no desire to run a longer race than this – particularly if it is on a road. That being said, I simply adored this race! I loved the insanity of the conditions! (I might actually be upset if it doesn’t rain next year.) Come December, I will certainly be looking to enter my name again. (If I do, you can bet I’m going to train a bit harder next time… perhaps I’ll even run a practice trail or two beforehand.)