Thursday, June 14, 2012

Because it's beautiful, that's why

Ultrarunning is an eccentric sport, so it makes sense that people have their own eccentric reasons for getting into it. I was exposed to this community for years before I developed any interest in participating. My first glimmer of intrigue sparked about three years ago, when I was traversing Heinzelman Ridge in Juneau. From a high point I could see mountain ridges rippling like waves across the Juneau Ice Field — all of these mountains I wanted to visit but would never be able to reach in a day. For my own reasons — bears, wolves, unpredictable weather, and the potential onset of disorienting fog overnight — I didn't want to attempt solo backpacking trips in the alpine of Southeast Alaska. But if I had the ability to move faster, I realized, the possibilities would be greater. The more efficient my steps became, the more mountains I could visit. Distance — not speed — was my overlying motivation to become "a runner."

Ultra-racing is a fun and challenging way to develop distance skills, and the Laurel Highlands Ultra was an ideal test. The 70.5-mile race traverses the entire distance of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in southwestern Pennsylvania. The race launched in 1979 when two brothers set out to see how far they could get in a day. The following year, seven people showed up for the challenge, and a tradition was born. The current race directors, Iditarod veterans Tim Hewitt and Rick Freeman, invited Beat to come out to Pennsylvania and run their race. Beat in turn convinced me that the Laurel Highlands Ultra would be a good shakedown run for UTMB. I also liked the idea of a point-to-point course — 70 miles is a decent amount of ground to cover in a day, and I expected a scenic tour of one of the more remote regions of the eastern United States. Just a few years ago, seventy miles was well beyond my scope of what I could cover on foot in one day. Laurel Highlands was an opportunity to see how far I've come.

Of course, by race morning, I was less than enthused about all of it. We flew into Pittsburgh in the early morning hours on Friday, slept hardly at all, spent the rest of the day socializing and prepping, finally made our way home around 11 p.m., and then set our alarm for 3 a.m. Saturday so we could travel to the start with the race directors. Still operating in Pacific time, I groaned to Beat, "Why do we have to wake up at midnight to run on rocks and roots?" Beat pointed out that a few days worth of sleep deprivation and jet lag was also good training for UTMB. True, true.

About 130 racers were gathered for the dawn start of the seventy-mile race, which began at the parking lot of a small park and quickly funneled onto the narrow singletrack at mile zero of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. Beat had hurt his hip the weekend before during the Diablo 60K, and the injury was still causing him quite a bit of pain. Before the race, he taped his hip extensively with kinesio tape, but he was noticeably limping in the first mile. I think he only bothered to start the race because we had already made all these arrangements to travel to Pennsylvania, not to mention self-imposed peer pressure from his friends. Beat promised he would drop at the first signs of real trouble, but I doubted this was going to happen. We ran together for the first eight miles, following the racer conga line up the rocky trail. As soon as the pack began to break up, I surged ahead. At the first aid station, mile 11, I waited for five or so minutes before deciding that Beat would likely catch me soon if he didn't drop. And if he was contemplating quitting, he probably didn't want me around to try to talk him into it.

The Laurel Highlands are the remnants of some old and crumbling mountains, leaving behind piles of massive boulders that the trail often wove through like a maze. The mountains themselves are actually the highest in Pennsylvania, and the high point on the trail is close to 3,000 feet. Though the giant rock gardens were my favorite aspect of the route, I'm a vista person at heart, and I was constantly scanning for spots to break out of the forest. I admit I wandered off the trail and onto the rocks once or twice in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Youghiogheny River or even downtown Pittsburgh, which I'm told can be seen across fifty-odd miles of mostly open green space. At one point I broke off from a small group I had been running with to locate the vista in the picture above this one, and then sped up to catch them again. "Stop and smell the roses type?" an older man asked as I passed. "Yup," I replied. "This is my motivation. I wouldn't be out here otherwise."

I passed the 50K mark while running with a friend of my friends Leslie and Keith, Kendra. We never got around to talking about just how small of a world this ultrarunning community is, but we did joke about veering toward the 31-mile finish and pretending we thought we entered the 50K all along. For me these were hollow words, because I was actually feeling pretty good. All the miles beyond 31 were mostly unknown territory for me, but I was consciously working on staying "light as a feather" in order to avoid pounding my feet while still lifting them enough to stay off the rocks. But by mile 40 I was beginning to regularly fail at this goal, stumbling more frequently until I finally took my first crashing blow into the rocks, hitting my left shoulder hard. This made me angry and I got up and started sprinting, trying to race off the pain that was coursing through my arm. I noticed I actually balanced much better when I moved faster, but I could hardly keep up that speed for thirty more miles. I vowed to pull out my trekking poles at the next aid station.

I had been aiming to hit the fifty-mile marker at twelve hours and was convinced I had it as late as mile 40. But the rocky section where I crashed slowed me down substantially, and I actually hit mile 50 closer to thirteen hours into the race. The Laurel Highlands Trail is marked with mile posts for the entire distance. Some runners find these marks of (slow) progress annoying, but I use GPS anyway so they mostly just gave me something to look forward to. At the mile 46 checkpoint, Tim gave me Beat's status — still in the race, about a half hour behind. I grabbed my trekking poles and began the long climb from a lower point on the course back to the 3,000-foot range.

Over the course of the race I had been eating what I might call a "50K diet" — mainly sugar, with salt tabs, and less than a hundred calories per hour on average. This works fine for me for seven hours or so, but by hour twelve I could feel the all-too-familiar onset of a bonk. In luckier situations, bonking simply means an energy hole that is relatively easy to dig out of. But a combination of the intensity of the effort, warm temperatures (mid-80s with high humidity), and mild dehydration sent my stomach into revolt and I couldn't put more calories down without heavy consequences. In less than two miles I went from feeling great to using every ounce of my diminishing willpower to avoid laying down in oh-so-soft-looking beds of ferns. Nausea wracked my stomach until I gave into vomiting, which made my gut feel marginally better but my head about ten times worse. I slowed to a near-crawl. There were definitely some 25-minute miles in that section, even after I finished the climb and re-entered the rolling terrain of the high ridge. I felt horrible, but strangely, I wasn't upset about it. The sun was drifting low in the sky beyond the canopy of trees, casting rich light and stark shadows across the carpets of ferns. Laurel bushes in peak bloom lined the narrow trail, creating purple-and-white walls of blossoms. The earthy sweet aroma probably would have been wonderful if I wasn't so nauseated, but even still it wasn't terrible. I could walk it off, I told myself, and in the meantime I felt entertainingly loopy, almost high.

But beauty can only sustain a poor physical state for so long. I slouched into the 57-mile checkpoint feeling so depleted that if I had been attempting a hundred-miler, I would have given strong consideration to dropping. Even with just a measly half marathon left, I still found it difficult to contemplate the miles ahead. I held onto Beat's sage advice for all similar ultra situations — "It will get better, before it gets worse, but then it gets better again. It always does." I forced down a cup of ramen soup, which proved to be my rapid turning point. Before I even left the aid station I was feeling okay enough to eat a few cookies and several cups of iced ginger ale. Darkness was settling in, so I switched on my headlamp and set into the final stretch a renewed runner — well, at least I was running again.

At mile 61 we hit the sole stretch of road on the course, about three-quarters of a mile of gravel. I was really excited to see this short section of easy travel, as I was becoming weary of stumbling on rocks. But sure enough, it only took about a quarter mile of unrealized tedium before I was struggling with the sleep monster. Funny how that happens. I slowed to a walk and occupied myself by shuffling through the screens on my Garmin eTrex ... smiling at the 14,000 feet of climbing it had registered so far and zooming out on the map to see just how far I had traveled, on a wrinkled line drawn over an impressive swath of southwestern Pennsylvania. At the top of the road was the last aid station, and I had no energy so I ate some more soup and wasted a little more time. Turnaround number two came, along with the resolve to run, the conquering of the rocky descent, and feeling the best that I had felt, arguably, all day long. (The race started so early that I did not feel awake until 9 a.m. Pacific time, which was nearly 25 miles into the race, and by then I had, well, 25 miles under my feet.) I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of those last eight miles to the mile 70 marker, and finished feeling strong. Which, for my own eccentric reasons, is the ideal way to finish a race. I don't do this kind of thing to empty my tank ... I do it to feel full.

Rick handed me my trophy, an impressive mahogany replica of a trail marker with the number 70 inscribed in the wood. He said they'd mail me a plaque with my finishing time, 19:01. It was well ahead of my goal and good enough to be respectably midpack — 46th of 130 starters and 85 finishers, and 10th of 17 women. Beat limped into the finish at 20:27, having endured his hip pain that entire time. He had an experienced friend help him diagnose the injury today — tightness and strain in several muscles in and around his glutes. It sounded miserable and I think Beat ground it out only because he has so much respect and admiration for Tim that he didn't want to disappoint him ... awww.

My shoulder, which started to feel better after I began using my poles, is still a bit sore. I also have been feeling under the weather, which is more likely a result of travel-induced insomnia than running. Otherwise, I don't feel worse for the wear, and don't think it could have gone a whole lot better given my limited experiences with longer distances.

Plus, the Laurel Highlands are intensely beautiful. Experiencing the entire trail in a day amid the challenges and endorphins of long-distance running was all the more rewarding. For me, those are the best reasons to run the Laurel Highlands Ultra — cool trophies aside.


  1. Thank you for the kind words about our region - it is our little secret, the beauty of our mountains, especially at this time of year.

    Just a quick shout out to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the organization that put together the 70-mile Laurel Highlands trail - no small feat. We are blessed with lovely state parks and forests, all because the WPC worked to make sure the land was protected.

  2. Excellent work Jill! You have come far (and fast).

  3. Nancy, I appreciate your mention of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. It's amazing what organizations can do when they put the time and effort into preserving open space. Thank you.

  4. Who knew that there could be so much beauty that close to my home town of Pittsburgh? Next time I go home I'll be sure to go on an adventure!

  5. Jill - Thanks! And thanks also for your lovely pictures that show just how lovely that open space is ~ Nancy

  6. Thanks for an excellent read! My first Ultra (first running race actually) is on Saturday. Hadrian's Wall and 69 miles - reading this will make me not feel guilty about taking my camera and stopping to look about me.
    Many thanks.



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