Thursday, June 18, 2015

Laurel Highlands: Fourth Time is the Charm

At the start.

June 13 - My long and failed relationship with the Laurel Highlands Trail 70 mile run finally ended in success on Saturday. For some reason this race has had my number in three previous attempts (two were when it was 77 miles due to a detour). Every year the reason for failure has been different, although generally related to fueling issues. My fuel/hydration strategy has evolved over the years and experience has helped to improve it. This year I was running the race with my brother Jim and friend Sonya and the plan was just to go at an unhurried pace and finally get the thing done.

We all reserved rooms at the Yough Plaza Motel, a short walk from the start of the point-to-point race, and Sonya's husband Troy was going to crew us. We were planning on trying to run the whole thing together, but understood that there might come a time or two where we would need to split up along the way as we ran into different issues at different times during the day. Trying to run a race of this distance with someone else and staying together is a tall order, although we had previously finished the Oil Creek 100 mile run by running together the whole time.

The race leaves Ohiopyle at 5:30am and we settled into the middle of the pack. The first 10 miles or so are mostly climbing up to the top of the ridge and then you mostly stay up on the ridge from there on to the finish. There is some descent as well in those first miles. The humidity at the start, and throughout the day, had to be near to 100%. The temperature was not too bad, however, except in the heat of the afternoon, but I have experienced hotter at this race.

After we finished the climb and got through the first aid station, we were all feeling pretty good. This good running continued through Seven Springs Resort until the aid station at mile 39. It was at this point that it started to be fairly warm and Jim began the dreaded bonk. As we neared the aid station at 46 Sonya was feeling good and ran ahead and I walked it in with Jim, who was pretty woozy.

At the aid station (this is where I had DNFed in all of the previous years) I was not able to eat any significant food. I still felt pretty good, however, and wanted to get out of here into new territory fairly quickly. Jim, however, was going to have to sit for awhile to get his energy back. The next aid station was over 10 miles away and I was concerned about this. I put down a couple of cups of soda and was planning to just rely on the liquid calories, but I new trying to get through 10 miles without putting in calories along the way would be a stretch.

I walked out of the aid station until Sonya caught up with me and then we started running. She wasn't quite ready to run as fast as I wanted to go so after a few minutes I started to go ahead. I wanted to get to the next aid station as quickly as possible because I knew I was running on borrowed time.

About five miles (mile 61) into the leg, I was passed by a guy who was moving pretty quickly. He said, "Just a nice 18 mile Saturday run to go, let's take it home." Up until that point I had just been counting down miles until the next aid station but his statement made me think about the total that we had left. For some reason, this grabbed me and lifted my spirits and I thought I could run faster so I tucked in behind him and tried to hold on. Going up hills, he would outpace me, but I was always able to tuck back in behind him on the downhills or flats. I asked him if he had passed a woman and if she looked okay and he said that he had and she looked strong so I felt better about trying to keep pace with him. I figured Sonya, and possibly Jim, would eventually catch up with me, anyway, as I would most likely feel bad at some point.

We put in another good 4 miles when I suddenly began to feel a bonk coming. I immediately stopped and let him go and took some M&Ms out of my pack and tried to eat them. As soon as I swallowed them I felt nauseous. I put them away and began walking but knew I was in trouble. I knew I was getting close to the aid station but didn't know where exactly it was in mile 10. Finally I had to sit down so I found a log and sat for a few minutes. I was feeling worse when I saw a guy walking towards me (he was an aid station volunteer taking a break) on the trail from the aid station. I felt very nauseous and asked him if he could stick around because I was about to throw up and I often pass out when I do that. I moved quickly off the trail and knelt and emptied my stomach. Apparently I hadn't been digesting anything properly for awhile. I couldn't believe this was happening to me and wondered whether I would be able to finish. I was only 14 miles from the finish but had some real doubts at this point.

Fortunately I didn't pass out and stood up and felt much better. He said the aid station was only 800 meters away and said he would walk to it with me. When we got there (mile 57) I sat down and he took care of me. They had Ramen! I had hoped the last aid station would have some but they didn't. It is the one thing that I can eat when nothing else looks appetizing because it goes down so easily and it is high in sodium, which can be helpful with digestion. I threw down some more Coke and got up and walked out of the station. My plan was to walk for half an hour and let everything digest. The next aid station was only five miles away.

I started walking and got about 25 minutes away when I started feeling pretty bad again. It is unfortunate because this section of the trail is fairly flat and one could make up some good time if you felt well. I figured I might have to sit awhile because even walking was keeping me from properly digesting my food and drink. I sat but still felt nauseous so I decided to lay down in the fetal position beside the trail and let my body do what it needed to do. I used my hydration pack as a pillow and lay down. Runners would come by and ask me if I was okay and I would just give them the thumbs up, which was kind of a lie, but there wasn't anything they could do for me at that point.

After 5-10 minutes I heard a voice I recognized and I rolled over and there was Sonya. I was happy to see her. I asked her if she could hang around for just a few more minutes as I was starting to feel better. After a few more minutes in the fetal position I got up and we started walking down the trail. After about 10 minutes of walking Jim ran up behind us. He was surprised to see us so soon but he fell in line behind us. I wanted to walk for a little bit before I ran, but he started trash-talking me (he had really been doing it the whole race, but what are brothers for) about how he would be running this if it wasn't for me. So I sucked it up and started running slowly. It felt okay, so I picked up speed. We made some decent time and rolled into the aid station at mile 62.

At the finish.
I took in more soda and hoped that would be enough to get me to the end. It was cooler now but I still didn't have an appetite for aid station food and they didn't have Ramen. We started running out of the aid station at a decent pace. We didn't get too far, however, until Sonya started to feel bad. We put her in front and let her control the pace. She was able to run at times but was definitely starting to bonk (it was her turn, after all) so we had to walk a lot. It was okay because by that point we were only about five miles from the finish and I knew it was going to happen. We had to put our headlamps on at this point as it was after sunset. We walked/ran those last 5 miles and finally heard voices and saw the lights of the finish line. We strolled in together and finally finished in 17:18:42. Sonya was 5th woman overall which is great.

Unfortunately we still had over an hour back to the motel and Sonya still felt pretty bad for the whole trip. My feet were pretty beat up and I was tired but overall didn't feel too badly.

I am just happy to mark this race off of my list. I had my redemption, finally, and I have Jim and Sonya to thank for helping to get me through it. This is a fairly well organized race with good volunteers and a really nice trail. It doesn't have a lot of climbing compared to other ultras I have run but it is still challenging. We did get to run through a thunderstorm at one point, although the worst of the lightning passed behind us. Storms are common on the Laurel ridge at this point in the year.

I don't need to do it again. It was another adventure and I'm glad I completed it and I might be back to run the relay, but I won't be back for the 70. There are shorter races to run.