Sunday, June 13, 2010

Laurel Highland Ultra Race Recap

The Laurel Highland Ultra ("LHU") is a 77 mile trail run through the beautiful Appalachian mountains of western PA.  The race has been continually run for the last 31 years.  It is usually a 70.5 mile run but due to a bridge closing a 6.5 mile detour was added to the run (more on this later).

The adventure started on Thursday night.  Around 7 PM I put the kids to bed and my wife went to her friends house to make some hair bows.  The run allows two drop bags.  The first is at mile 44 and the second is at mile 64.  I spent the evening getting my hydration pack and drop bags prepared.  As weird as this may sound, I probably spent a good 2.5 hours getting things ready and making sure I knew where each aid station and check point was on the course. After pulling everything together I was concerned that I had WAY too much stuff but on the other hand the eagle scout in me was saying, "Be prepared.  It's better to have a little too much and not need it than not have enough and suffer."  As it turns out I did pack WAY WAY too much.  Here is a list of what I packet in each bag.

Hydration Pack
Water bladder (of course)
Mole skin and small scissors
12 Gu packets (I packed twelve because I usually take one every hour and determined that it would take me about 12 hours to get to the first drop bag)
6 Cliff Bars (one to each every other hour)
Extra pair of socks
Body Glide

Drop Bag 1 & 2

Shirt (long and short sleeved)
Gu packets
Cliff Bars
Pop Tarts
Gold Bond Medicated powder
Shot Blocks
Head lamp and hand held flash light (first bag only)
Extra batteries

I finished packing around 9:30 and went to bed.  My father, who entered with me, arrived around 11:00 AM on Friday.  I loaded my stuff into the car and we were off.  The LHU is a point to point race.  I opted to get a hotel at the finish line in Johnstown, PA which was also the location for the pre-race briefing and dinner.  Along the way my Dad and I discussed the hills, running strategy, hydration, food intake, etc.  However, we had been talking about this race at least three times a week for the past six months so we were really just saying the same things we had said to each other a million times before.  After an hour or so my Dad fell asleep and I listened to my latest audio book.  We stopped for lunch at a truck stop.  I had french toast with bacon and sausage.  My Dad opted for the salad bar.  We arrived in Johnstown about 3:30 and checked into the hotel.  About two hours into the drive I realized that I forgotten my watch.  I left my Dad in the hotel and went to the strip mall across the street from the hotel.  Instead of heading straight into Wal-Mart I decided to check out Ross first just in case they had some cheap watches.  As it turns out they had a five dollar digital watch that was exactly what I needed.  To sweeten the deal it even had The Ohio State logo (my alma matter) on it.  I went back to the room and I had my Dad start adding his stuff to my drop bags.  We decided a while before the race that it would be easier to just share bags than have our own.  As he was filling the bags he realized that the cover of his head lamp had come off.  We looked all over but could not find the missing pieces.  The pre-race dinner was at 5:30 so went ahead and stopped by Wal-Mart on our way to the dinner and he picked up a new one.  It wasn't as nice as his old one but it would work in a pinch.

We arrived at the pre-race dinner at the Pasta Shoppe just after 5:30.  There was a short line of people checking in and probably twenty people seated around the room.  We checked in and the lady at the table indicated that she though it was neat that we were a father son team doing the race together.  Looking around the room I was a bit intimidated.  I saw at least one guy wearing a Leadville 100 shirt and a number of people wearing various belt buckles from Western States and other ultras.  After checking in we were handed a bag with our bib (I had #88 and my Dad had #87), an ultra running maganzine, and a very nice long sleeved athletic shirt.  We then took a seat at a table with a couple from Pittsburgh.  I guess I had totally forgotten that there was a 50k and 77 mile race because it wasn't until they started about making the 10 hour cut off time that I realized they were doing the 50k and not the full 77.  We had a great conversation and around 6:00 PM the race director, Rick Freeman, announced that we could start getting our food from the buffet line.  After getting a large helping of some really great salad, pasta, and bread we sat down to listen to the instructions.  Rick didn't announce anything new.  Mainly just reiterated everything that had been on the web site.... drop bag locations, pacers for the finish, the detour etc.  Shortly after starting the announcements a second guy sat down with us.  He is a native to the area and said that he ran the race two years earlier.  As we talked to him he gave me what turned out to be the absolute best advice of the nice.  He told me to remember to take off my wedding ring so that I wouldn't have problems when my hands swelled up.  I have done a number of four or five hour runs and never had much of an issue with swelling but I decided that he probably knew more than I did.  After the announcements my Dad and I drove to the finish line.  This was not just the finish but also when we would be parking in the morning and taking the bus to the starting line.  After that, we headed back to the hotel and tried to sleep.

I laid down to go to sleep around 7:30 PM and set my alarm for 2:00 AM.  I can honestly say that I probably slept a total of two hours during that period.  My mind would not stop racing!  It is very frustrating have plenty of time to sleep and not get any.  Around 1:30 I just couldn't take it anymore and I got out of bed, showered, and got ready for the day.  At 2:00 AM I woke up my Dad (I think he slept like a log the whole night), grabbed our gear and headed to the finish line/bus pick up point.  The parking lot was pretty full when we arrived.  A number of people seemed to be dozing, or trying to doze, in their cars but others were out and talking.  I actually ran into a guy who lives near my house and who I had seen running trails.  Once we realized that we train in the same place (French Creek State Park) we realized that we had seen each other.  He also asked if I was the guy that he usually saw running in Vibrams.  I said yes and wanted to know if I was running the LHU in them as well.  I told him no... this is a good time for a slight side note...

I ran the LHU in my Mizuno's.  Now, with a blog named the Vibram experience you would think that I would run in Vibrams.  Here is my short explanation as to my reasoning.  I love my Vibrams but they aren't the right shoe to wear in all circumstances.  I believe that my Vibrams have helped me to start running with more of a natural gait.  They also make me feel more connected to what I am doing.  However, if the terrain is really rocky and I have a time limit then I prefer to have something a little more substantial on my feet.  I hiked the Laurel Highland Trail when I was younger and I remember it to be very rock and rugged in parts.  The last thing I need is to start getting tired 20 miles into the race, place my foot wrong and end up with another stress fracture.  Vibrams are great but some times you have to use your brain.... we now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post.

Around 3:20 a big yellow school bus rolled into the parking lot.  There are only three things I can say about the bus ride.  First, it was really crowded.  No extra room at all.  Second, I remember school buses being much bigger when I was a kid.  Third, I had to pee the whole bus ride (1.5 hours).  I had been trying to stay ultra hydrated had downed about a half a gallon of water and two Gatorades before we arrived at the finish.  About and hour into it I couldn't take it any longer.  I emptied gatorade bottle, got myself positioned and let it go.  Due to the small seats and relatively tight space the only position where I could pee put my head about and inch from the back of the girls head in front of me.  Once I had finished I let out and involuntary little moan because it felt so good to pee.  I think I startled the girl in front of me by doing that... if you are reading this and that person was you I am truly sorry.  I'm not a weirdo trying to sniff your hair or something I just had to pee really really bad.

Upon arriving at the start I put the drop bags in the appropriate locations, checked in, and headed to the little boys room to take care of business.  It was actually pretty funny, there was a line of about ten people to get into the boys room and no line for the ladies room.  When I was about to get into the bathroom a lady came out and said, "guys, we have lots of stalls in here and no waiting just come over and use them."  If I hadn't been so close to getting in the mens room I probably would have gone but a number of guys took her up on her offer.  It was at this point that I turned around in line and recognized the guy behind me.  About a week before the race I had been searching for info on the race and came across the blog of a gentleman from South Dakota (see his blog here).  I introduced myself and had a nice little chat with him before taking my turn in the mens room.  After that my Dad and I just wandered around looking at what was going on and taking pictures.

At 5:30 the race finally started.  My Dad and I headed to the back of the pack and took off at a nice jog.  The race heads out of a parking lot, across some train tracks and onto the start of the Laurel Highland trail.  The first nine miles are where you have the most altitude gain.  Within those nine miles there are about six miles where you have a 500 ft altitude gain in one mile.  The longest stretch is a three mile stretch with a gain of around 1200 feet.  I knew the first nine would be slow going so I decided to stick with my Dad.  However, after about a mile he told me to go on ahead and that was the last time I saw him until the end of my race.  I ended up getting in line with a few people and had some great conversations.  I met a guy from Harrisburg who was using trekking poles, another bloggers I recognized (see her blog here), and a bunch of other guys and girls.  The conversations were interesting and as it turns out I was able to make decent time on the hills averaging about 16 minutes a mile which is were I was hoping to be.  The trail itself was rugged but beautiful.  It was still cool in the morning but very humid.  We went up and down some pretty steep inclines and had a number of beautiful views for the surrounding valleys and rivers.

After mile nine there was a 500 ft descent followed by a 250 foot gain to end at the first aid station.  I cruised into the station feeling like a million bucks.  I wasn't tired, hungry, thirsty, etc.  I was doing great.  The aid station was packed to the gills with water, Gatorade, M&M's, trail mix, pb&j, vaseline (for chaffing), and a bunch of other stuff.  The aid station volunteers were awesome (I should mention that they were great at every station), they practically took my hydration pack off my back and got it refilled with water. One of the aid station volunteers said something that confirmed my suspicions that I had over packed.  He said, "Wow!  This is a really heavy pack."  I heard him and smiled.  At that point I really couldn't do anything else.  I grabbed some pb&j sandwiches, drank a glass of Gatorade, threw the pack on and went along my merry way.

The next eight miles to the first check point were great.  There were a number of 100 - 300 foot gains but some nice slow down hill areas and some absolutely stunning rock formations.  I was still feeling great.  I was running the tops and downhills and keeping a nice pace on the uphills.  Then I hit mile marker 18.  This is one area where I don't think the elevation map does it justice.  It felt so much steeper than what it shows on the map.  I don't really have words to describe it but it was rough.  I actually sat down twice going up this hill it was so steep.  The aid station was at the top which was a relief but it was tough.  I sat down while the aid volunteers refilled my pack etc.  This check point seemed to be a real turning point for many people in the race.  I probably watched five or six people drop out while I was waiting.  They would come in and just hand over their number.  No discussion.  They were just done.  It was at this point when I started feeling sick.  I looked at the table to get some food and the thought of eating anything made me want to throw up.  I was also starting to feel the heat of the day.  I'm not sure what the actual temperature was but my wife told me the van thermometer was reading 91 degrees when she was in the area later that day.  I think the head and humidity were starting to get to me... the last climb just exacerbated the problem.  Between the climb and my stomach I have to say I was seriously questioning my sanity.  However, after sitting for a few minutes I got up and felt much better.  In fact, I felt so good that I took off at with about a nine minute pace.  That, unfortunately, was a bad idea.

I soon realized that I really was getting dehydrated.  I kept trying to drink but every time I did I felt like I needed to throw up again.  I continued to eat a Gu every hour and that was okay but I couldn't keep anything else down.  The worst was when I started running down hill and I could feel the liquid sloshing around in my stomach... it was not pleasant.  So, I switched from a run to a fast hike.  Now, I didn't practice this on my training runs but it came easily enough.  As it turns out my fast hike speed is about 15 minutes per mile.  During this leg of the run I ran into a number of folks.  I talked to some, others were listening to their iPods and in their own world.  I will mention one guy that I ran into.  I never got his name, or if I did I have forgotten it, but he and I played leap from for the next 12 miles.  He was a little older, maybe in his 50's, and he and I had a few scattered conversations.  I'll call him running bull (until I learn his real name).  More on him later.  It was at this point that the trail started to change from rocks to more forest with tons of ferns.

Aid station #2 at mile 26 came up fast.  It was situated in a slight clearing and was again socked with everything a runner could want.  I was still feeling really queasy.  Just prior to the aid station I had finally been able to pee (for those of you keeping track that's about 26 miles without peeing).  I knew that I was in trouble due to the lack of pee but my suspicions were confirmed when it came out like yellow syrup.  Once I arrived at the second aid station I had them fill my pack while I stood around drinking cup after cup of Gatorade.  I think I probably drank a gallon.  As I left the aid station I was already feeling better but couldn't motivate myself to kick it into any gear other than my "fast hike" speed.

The next six miles contained seven hills from 100 - 500 foot gains.  This was probably the hardest stretch of the trail for me.  The Gatorade started kicking in but I still couldn't get any solid food down.  I started running down the hills again and did a little running here and there but each up hill climb go harder and harder.  I was still playing leap frog with my friend Running Bull and caught up to my new friend from South Dakota around mile 30.  I think he could tell that I was feeling lousy.  He gave me some words of encouragement and told me that I should take a rest at the aid station but not to drop out.  There was a second guy with him that told me that I would regret dropping out if I wasn't forced to.  I nodded and might have said something as they continued along. About a mile before the check point was the 50k finish line.  I found this to be a bit cruel as well.  As I ran along the trail I could hear the cheers as people finished the 50k.  When I finally got there two people on the trail told me I had to keep on going... the check point was further down the trail.  I wish they would have been more specific.  I thought they meant like 500 yards or something.  It was like another mile down the trail.

I arrived at the aid station and immediately sat down with the full intention of dropping out despite the fact that I had about 30 minutes before the cut off.  South Dakota and his friend were still there and repeated what they had said before.  While sitting there I drank glass after glass of Gatorade.  At one point I decided to just see if my Dad made the cutoff.  I asked the people at the station if he had dropped yet but no one knew.  At about 2:53 a woman arrived (let's call her Blondie... once again I am soo sorry that I don't remember people's names!) at the check point and she was definitely in a rough spot.  I got up from my chair so she could sit down.  Some of the aid workers encouraged her to keep going but one guy in the station said she could only sit there for seven minutes to rest before she had to leave to make the cutoff.  She ultimately decided to drop.  A few minutes before Blondie arrived Running Bull arrived.  I call him Running Bull because somewhere along the trail he found this huge feather and put it in the back of his cap.  I thought it was great!  Near the 3:00 PM cutoff I asked if I could stay until the cutoff to see if my Dad made it.  Running Bull looked at me and said, "what are you waiting for?"  I said, "For you to get up so we can finish this thing together!"  Wouldn't you know it he got up out of the chair and started heading over to me.  I really thought that we were going to go trotting off together but his wife stated that he was done.  She took a picture of the two of us together (which I would love to have a copy of if you read this Running Bull) and I headed down the trail.  It truly is amazing.  I probably spent 45 minutes talking to Running Bull off and on up to this point in the race but I feel like he and I have been friends forever.  I can't really describe it but I think that ultra running bond that people talk about developing in these crazy races is real and I felt a little of it with Running Bull.

Leaving the second check point was hard.  Really hard.  I was basically committing to at least a half marathon.  I attribute my ability to get up and keep going to the kind words of encouragement from South Dakota and his friend.  The next check point was 20 miles away and the next aid station was 12 miles away.  Once I hit the trail I felt good for the first mile and then ran through another patch of big up hill and down hills.  At this point my uphill speed was basically non-existent.  I would shuffle up the hills as best I could however; I got a bit of an energy boost and started running the hill tops and down hills again.  At about mile 34 I got passed by a runner which really surprised me since I left the aid station at the cut off time however, apparently Mich (okay so I remembered one person's name but that's only because he told me and I read it on his drop bag later) it the check point about the same time I hit the trail and they let him go through.  Mich and I then leap frogged the next twelve miles.

As I arrived at around mile 36 I hit the beginning of the detour.  The Laurel Highland Hiking Trail used to have a bridge that crosses the turnpike however, this year it was deemed unsafe and it was removed.  The park services added a detour that is a little over eight miles long however, it cut's out about two miles of trail so it amounts to a gain of about 6.5 miles to the race (hence the reason why all previous races were 70.5 and not 77 miles).  The detour takes you down a gravel (not dirt) road, to a paved busy road, then back to a gravel road and finally to the trail.  At the beginning of the road I ran into Blondie again.  Her friend had picked her up and they were offering encouragement to the runners (in this case Mich and me).  She was looking 100% better.  It is amazing what a little bit of rest and a cup of coke can do!  As I was talking to her another ran up and I was introduced to Chuck.  Chuck is the sweeper.  Most people probably never meet these individuals on a race.  Their job is to follow along behind the group and make sure that everyone is okay and accounted for.  In this case Chuck also offers words of encouragement, brings extra water, and food.  ...side note...

Somewhere between mile 30 and 40 I realized that my hands were really swollen.  I mean they looked like big sausage links!  They were actually so swollen that it was a little painful to make a fist.  I was sooooo grateful for the advice from the night before to remove my wedding ring.  It was not a pretty sight!  I've heard conflicting thoughts on this... I had too much salt, I didn't have enough, etc.  I don't know why it happens but I will pass this advice onto anyone who wants to hear it.  Remove all finger jewelry before you do one of these! (end of side note)

Since I was in dead last place Chuck stayed with me.  He encouraged me to run down hill because there was a three mile stretch of uphill.  I did my best but at this point another problem that had been growing reared it's nasty head.  Blisters.

I have been running on a regular basis for almost a year now.  I wear injinji socks with a second pair of wool socks on top.  I haven't had a problem with blisters in months however, I also hadn't experienced these kinds of hills in my training.  I started feeling hot spots in the 20 mile range but I was stupid and didn't stop to fix or check the problem.  By the time I hit the road I could feel the blister on the ball of my right foot and on both my heels.  When I finally hit the paved road I felt all of the blisters pop (not very pleasant) and I just couldn't run.  I kept up my fast hike and before too long we came across another runner (I believe his name was Todd) that was slowing down.  I passed him and Chuck stayed behind.  At the end of the paved road I ran into the race director.  He asked me how I was doing and I said, "Great!"  He then told me that the 44 mile aid station was just a couple of miles away.  I don't know exactly how far away the aid station was but it felt more like four miles... not two.  By the time I got to the aid station I had caught up to Mich and Chuck and Todd had caught up to me.  It was 6:30 PM and the cutoff time for the next check point was 9:30 PM.  I had been on the trail for 13 hours.  The next eight miles were probably the flattest of the entire race.  I sat down and thought about it long and hard.  I only had to do 8 miles in three hours to keep in the race.  However, I knew that my feet were in bad shape and that there were still 12 - 16 hills (both small and bigish) between me and the finish.  I would have to head up those hills at an absolute snails pace.  Also, it would be dark around 9:00 PM and it would probably be tough for me to do more than 3 miles an hour even if I wasn't tired with sore feet.  I put all of these things together and decided to drop out.  Was it the right decision?  It felt right at the time so I'll say yes.  Do I regret it?  A little bit.  The next morning I sat and looked at the map and told myself that I was stupid.  I could have finished however, that's being said with a full belly and a good nights sleep.  The person on the trail at mile 44 was not the same person laying in a comfy bed.
My Dad and I at the finish.  I look way too happy here to have just finished running 44 miles.

The race director gave myself and some others a ride back to the finish line where I was met by my Dad, Mom, Wife and three lovely kids.  Everyone was wearing a t-shirts that said Team Roessner on them.  They were very cute.  I found out that my Dad had fallen three times on the trail.  The first two were relatively minor but the last one left him with a cut on his forehead and rocks in his face.  His hip and knee also got banged up but he was okay.  He ended up dropping out at the aid station at mile 26.  I still think he did a terrific job.  I don't know if I would have made it that far with those kinds of injuries.  This is probably a good moment to talk about the trail.

The LHU is what many would call a very technical ultra.  By this I think they mean that it is steep and rocky.  You really have to watch your footing the entire time.  There are very few places that don't have dry rocks, wet rocks, roots, mud, etc.  It is very easy to fall or twist an ankle if you aren't paying attention.  I would recommend that people looking to enter this race for the first time visit the course at least once to see what they are getting into before the run it.  I'm not saying you shouldn't do it, just that you should know what you are getting into ahead of time.

Well that's about it.  So what did I learn?  First, I had a great time.  Despite the various aches and pains I truly enjoyed trail running all day long.  Second, I need to work on hydration and fuel consumption.  Maybe it was the head and humidity, maybe it was the distance and hills... I don't know but I don't like feeling sick for hours and not understanding why.  I'll have to start trying different approaches.  Third, I'm going to have to get my feet in better shape.  When I took my shoes off that night I found blisters on the sides of both big toes, popped blisters on both heals and a 2.5 inch blister that had popped on the ball of my right foot.  Maybe I need to just plaster my foot with moleskin... more likely is that I just need to stop being such a bone head and fix up my feet as soon as I feel a hot spot.  I also had some toe nail issues... I'm pretty sure I'll be losing both big toe nails in the next few days.  If they don't stop hurting I might just take them off myself.  Fourth, I need to significantly reduce what I carry with me.  I use a North Face hydration pack.  I love it but there are a few down sides.  Every time I drink on the run I have to suck in air and then end up swallowing it.  I then end up having a stomach ache and burping along the trail.  It also makes it difficult to have two different drinks.  I saw a number of runners with small packs that held two water bottles.  Many of them had Gatorade or some other drink mix in one and water in the other.  I also don't think I will be taking more than 1 Cliff Bar.  The aid stations have plenty of food.  The jury is still out on the Gu packets.  Fifth, I really need to figure out a way to remember people's names better!

The big question... would I do it again?  As I told Rick Freeman when he dropped me off at the finish, "I'll see you again next year!"  I will definitely do this again.  I would like to do another three or four ultras between now and then.  That might be tough with my schedule and kids but I'll try to make it work.  This was a great event and I truly look forward to doing it again!