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.
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.
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.