Sunday, June 19, 2011

Highland Sky 40M Race Report

Highland Sky Trail Run:
Distance: (nominal) 40 miles; (claimed by aid stations): 41 miles; (distance traveled): ??
Location: Davis, WV
Course Composition: Steep singletrack: 44%, road 32% (mostly dirt), upland meadow/rocks: 24%
Goal: Finish (Bonus: Break 10 hours).

Report: The day starts in the cool, gray light of early dawn; 5:45 in the morning, and runners milling around the starting area, settling into their gear, sorting through their dropbags and making a last visit to a portajohn, while Dan the RD calls out names on a megaphone to confirm all starters. My buddy Joel has driven us in--me and his friend John, who was awesome enough to put us up the previous night.

I'm struck by the seeming ordinariness of the field. It's by and large a pretty unassuming group of reasonably fit-looking people of varying ages and gender. It's not at all obvious--in the way it sometimes is in similarly-sized road races--who the ringer is who is going to run away with the show. It occurs to me that either stamina is the most invisible of all human superpowers, or--if you take the Born to Run line--that what we're doing is not all that remarkable, doing what we were designed to do, "justifying our own existence", as Jack London puts it:
He was realising his own meaning in the world; he was doing that for which he was made—killing meat and battling to kill it. He was justifying his existence, than which life can do no greater; for life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do.
At 6 am sharp the pack trots off into the misty morning; I am setting out to see for myself what my body can do.

We are running down a dirt access road, rugged hills looming up to either side of us, horses grazing peacefully in amongst the long green grass and wildflowers. The pace is easy; I feel light and full of strength. I think I can sustain this effort level forever. We make a left turn off the road and begin working our way up past the first aid station around mile 3, following the beaten path of other runners through the long grass.

I let myself drift into the trail trance, disappearing for the time in the larger queue of runners that forms up in the single-track. The trail is soft and slick with mud from last night's rains. I think I am probably somewhere around mid-pack. Trying to change positions seems pointless; we're so early in the game, not even 5 miles in.

We start switch-backing our way up the steep slope of one of the ridges that make up the Appalachian divide, stinging nettles batting against our shins. We reach a stream crossing, the water flowing swiftly down through a pool and into a gorge that stretches deep down on our left-hand side, the depths concealed by swaying green foliage. We gingerly cross the slippery rocks, soaking our feet to the ankles.

The trail continues on like this for a while, up to the top of one ridge, then bombing down the far side, then up the side of another. I am feeling excellent. Though I'm still focusing on keeping it easy, the initial large pack has broken up quite a bit, and I've moved up several places. There's always somebody to run with at this stage; I am not the most outgoing runner, but I appreciate the company. The flagging is excellent. Whenever I think I haven't seen one for a while (usually while head down, watching my footing) one literally baps me in the head.

I see Joel at AS #3 (~16 miles) and he asks me if I've been eating enough. I'm pleased to report I have been; the salty trail mix I packed and copious water have gone down pretty easily, and I've been eating much more steadily than the runners around me.

A final bit of climbing and then a turn onto the road bring us to AS #4, around mile 19.5. This is the start of the "Road Across the Sky", a rolling dirt road that runs lengthwise along one of the ridgelines. it's about 10am; I've been running for a little more than 4 hours. I am way, way ahead of my guessed time, but still feeling fine.I sit down and change my wet and muddy trail shoes and socks for fresh socks and my road shoes. I also think to slather on some sunblock and grab my hat. The day is still mostly overcast, but getting brighter and hotter by the minute, and the course has us up here on the high plateau for a while.

The "Road Across the Sky" is uneventful. I catch a runner I had let go by while I was changing my shoes, and exchange some pleasantries. I say he might be seeing me again; he says "At the finish!", encouragingly (he turned out to be wrong about that, in part due to events neither of us could foresee).

At AS #5, somewhere around mile 23, I accidentally drink some Mountain Dew, thinking it was lemon-lime gatorade. The road is straight as a ruler, and all rolling hills. You can see the top of the next hill from the current one, and the long swoop of descent and climb. I walk as appropriate. While on one ascent, I see a lean guy running shirtless with just a water bottle jogging up behind me. What a hero! He reaches me and falls into a walking step, and we exchange pleasantries. His name is Jason and it turns out he's a 2:57 marathoner. Wow. I think ruefully about my so-called pacing strategy.

Jason and I finish out the road together, making it to AS #6 around mile 27. We arrive just as the #4 woman is leaving; she had been camping out there for a good 20 minutes, trying to put it back together after booting. She says she might be looking at a long 14 mile hike back home. No talk of dropping though; tough.

We're turning off into Dolly Sods now, beautiful upland meadow, and a completely different biome from the lush verdure of the ridges. We can see the sods stretching away all around us, lacking only sheep and a shepherd piping out a lonely air to make the scene complete. Rather I should say "I", since Jason has gapped me by this point (for a while I see him toiling ahead in the distance). I am mostly running still, but it's been growing more intermittent, the excuses needed to walk growing slimmer.

A mile or so down the road I and a few other runners pile up against an unmarked intersection. Strange; the course has been beautifully marked the whole way. The larger, main trail continues straight ahead, but is demarcated by a "private property" sign. Another smaller trail leads off to the left and disappears into trees. Both show signs of recent foot traffic. Imagine you're there, standing at that intersection with a half-empty waterbottle and three other runners in the same boat as you. What do you do?

I ended up following one guy down the left fork for a ways. No nearby blazes. Then preceding down the main trail a ways; another intersection, still no blazes. Some people in my group continued on. I began backtracking again, with plan to either return to the last known blaze and take stock, or find another runner who had done the course before and get his advice. I didn't find such a person, but I did somebody who thought he remembered that Dan had worked out some problems with a private property owner so that the course could go over his land. So! That sounded promising! Back to the "private property" branch and onwards.

Still, I and a few others very nearly go down the wrong side of the ridge, but somebody "halloo's" us back onto the proper course. Oddly, I feel somewhat refreshed by getting lost. It's been an excuse to walk around a little bit, and relax that relentless mental focus on making forward progress. Now we have a clear goal, and I am jogging again.

We hit an interesting rocky patch, where it seems great rocks slabs are broken into fissures, and rise into odd formations like fairy towers in the desert. I am a little too fagged to appreciate it properly; AS #7 (mile ~33) has become a singular focus in my mind. I am starting to need it bad. Where is it already? Surely we didn't burn that much time wandering around lost (oh yes we did, of course we did) how many more turns...? Ah! There it is! This is supposed to be Dan's son Willie's aid station, but I don't get to see him (he must have been out fixing the trail flags when I went through). I have some fruit, some HEED, fill up my water bottle, and rather reluctantly kick out onto the trail again.

This stretch is awesome. Clear, easy downhill, perfect for light jogging. Or rather, it should be awesome. Somehow I just don't feel enthused about running. I decide to hike for a bit until I feel better.

Leading up to the race, I had a chance to talk to both Joel and Katie about their experiences running Highland Sky, and I'm pretty sure both of them used the word "suffering" to describe certain parts of it. My plan was to avoid suffering if it all possible; I just wanted to finish, not be a hero. During this stretch, I return to that thought. "Well, am I suffering?"

My first response is no. I think of many hikes I've done, even since I was a small boy, finishing exhausted but happy. Certainly not suffering. It's all just too beautiful up here to be miserable. But as the descent continues it's a little harder to keep up the pretense. At a certain point I have to admit "suffering" is probably a fair adjective.

I get to the point where the trail turns back upwards, marching straight up a ski hill. I remember that this is where Joel jogged the ascent to catch his opponent in 2008 and ultimately broke him to win. Shit, I think, I bet no one runs this today.

After the hike up the ski trail, a long and tortuous descent follows over a mud-slick trail that has been christened the "Lehman butt-slide". It's fun in its way; I am a little detached from it, just trying to keep making forward progress. Occasionally I am stopping to stretch now, even sitting to do sitting stretches. I know this is a big no-no (sitting down is dangerous; you need to keep making forward progress!), but the temptation is strong, and it seems to be helping, at least briefly.

I've been hiking down through these woods for a while now. Occasionally runners have hauled me in, but not as many as I would have guessed. How bonked is this field, anyway? And furthermore, where is AS #8?

I make it passed a few steel traffic-sign posts staked upwards to serve as bollards, and cross back onto road. OK, now I'm scenting the barn a little. But I'm still walking. Man this is hard. Oh, a tent! It's AS #8! (mile ~37).

I refill my water-bottle and eat some fruit and jelly-beans, but I pass on the salt and the vitamin-I. Everyone's so nice at the aid stations. The lady there assures me that I've got this in the bag and am definitely going to finish. That's nice to hear. No point in dilly-dallying; 4 miles to do and this isn't about to get any easier. I start trudging.

Sometimes I play the "let's see if we can run to that landmark!" game, but not too often. Mostly I'm too busy running over this stretch in my head, because Joel showed it to me yesterday evening. About so far, and then the left turn onto the trail paralleling the highway; then crossing the highway; then up the access road to the Canaan resort, then some trail stuff I didn't get to see, and then the finish. Four measly miles.

After about two miles, I am about sure that finishing this race is the hardest athletic thing I've ever done, not just in absolute terms, but even normalized to my fitness and abilities. I thought I was pretty tired jog-walking in the KBVCM; hah! This is qualitatively the same kind of fatigue, but it's just on a whole other level.

I think there really ought to be an aid station at mile 40. I don't need food, but somebody to give me a hug and tell me everything's going to be ok would be just ducky.

Around mile 40. Somewhere up the Canaan access road. No end in sight. I start thinking of it like walking laps on a track. OK, that was probably like 100m right there. That...ok, that was pretty close to another 100m. So we're about 1/2 way through 400m. Good! Progress. Let's count steps. Hmm....123456789....199, 200,201, two-hundred...something, ugh, this is stupid. Why don't we just think of something else..... OK, so that had to be a lap.

The next 1000m are pretty much all like that.

Then the crest of the hill; below me down a paved path is the Finish! I lumber into a trot. I cross the line! Finished!

Lying on the grass never felt so good. Joel is hanging out by the finish, and Katie is wandering around with their 2-year-old son Oscar. Later Joel helps me fetch my car (which contains, among other important things, my dinner ticket), and opens doors for me the whole way (perhaps a first for a man on crutches at Canaan Valley Resort, or most other buildings).

Reflections: Most of all I'm happy to have finished. This is the first course I've attempted where merely going the distance felt like a pretty good accomplishment. I also hit my 10 hour WAG in a time of 9:18 or so, and perhaps without getting lost would even have gone under 9. All that's pretty good!

Beyond that, though, I feel like this race has clarified and expanded on things I learned about myself from my first two marathon experiences. It's hard to be really satisfied with a race where you have to trudge it in so slowly. Together I take these experiences as a test of resolve and spiritual fortitude, what you might call "grit". Can you learn grit? Can you train it? Or it just a part of your character?

I don't know, but I'm happier taking the trial, accepting the rather unsatisfactory result, and then trying--however futilely--to train up this part of me that is the first to quit. How many people, either from lack of opportunity or lack of inclination, never get the chance to test themselves?

A Big, big thanks to all my wonderful hosts on this trip: John & Jodie, Luke & Catherine, and especially Joel and Katie for putting me up. (Matt & Kate, I just assume I can crash on your futon..., oh well thanks to you guys anyway :D ).


  1. Congrats, Dave! Awesome run! So... you in for Leadville! :P

  2. Nice, that's a really great time. You were able to hold it all together and push through the fatigue to finish. Great job!

  3. thanks! Andy, I'll let you know about Leadville. I think you should at least start looking for one other pacer though, because I'm not feeling super confident about the whole 50M thing :-)