Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

2012 Laurel Highlands 50K

A Study in the Letter 'H'

Ohiopyle Falls - Ohiopyle, PA - June 9. 2012
The image above is of the beautiful falls in Ohiopyle Pennsylvania. At twenty feet in height the falls are far from the tallest you will ever see, but they are quite impressive as the full flow of the Youghiogheny River ("yock-o-gay-knee" - or simply, "the Yock" to locals) plunges over the drop with a roar.

Ohiopyle is a destination for whitewater rafters and kayakers, who put in just below the falls to run the Lower Yough which offers an exciting eight-mile paddle over rapids up to Class III. I had rafted the river several times as a young man while attending college in my nearby hometown of Johnstown, PA, but today I was in Ohiopyle for another reason altogether.

The town of Ohiopyle is also the southern terminus of the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (the LHHT) a rugged and scenic single-track mountain trail that climbs out of Ohiopyle to the top of Laurel Ridge and follows the ridgeline north to the town of Seward - just west of Johnstown. Every June since 1980 the Laurel Highlands Ultra, a footrace along the entire length of the LHHT has been run starting just upstream from Ohiopyle Falls. Since 2006 the race has also included a shorter, 50-kilometer (approximately 31-mile) option, terminating at the Route 31 trailhead west of Somerset. This year I would be joining over 100 other runners toeing the line for the 50K.

But I am getting ahead of myself...


Ever since I became interested in running ultramarathons the Laurel Highlands Ultra has been my goal race. From almost anywhere in Johnstown, Laurel Ridge is visible looming on the western horizon, cut cleanly through by the striking Conemaugh Gap, at 1350' the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River, formed by the Conemaugh River as it flowed westward during the time that the characteristic, long north-south ridgelines of western Pennsylvania were raised. Johnstown sits at the eastern end of the gap, while Seward anchors the western end.

My mother grew up on a farm in the foothills of Laurel Ridge just south of Johnstown, and as a child I hiked, hunted, fished, and played in some of those hills in the shadow of the mountain. Now, as a 51-year-old man and a budding ultrarunner, I could think of nothing more fitting as a goal than to conquer Laurel Ridge. On several occasions in correspondence with other ultrarunners about my goal I said to them, "That's my mountain!"

Now, with two hilly trail 50K's under my belt - and a 50-mile performance at Mind the Ducks 12-hour - I felt it was time to take on the Laurel Highlands 50K as a reconnaissance mission on the tough, southern end of the LHHT in preparation for attempting the full 70-mile race in 2013.

But merely finishing the Laurel Highlands 50K did not seem like enough. In all of my races to this point I had played it conservatively - aiming just to complete the distance, not worrying about time. I decided that at Laurel I would throw caution to the wind, hit the trail hard and let the chips fall where they may!

If I blew up and couldn't finish, so be it. I would hold nothing back.


The races of the Laurel Highlands Ultra (there are both 70M and 50K relay races in addition to the solo races at both distances) are all point-to-point along the LHHT. My day began at 4:00 A.M. at my parents' home in Windber as I rose to eat breakfast and hit the road for the 45-minute drive to the Route 31 trailhead, where I would leave my car at the finish, taking a bus provided by the race to the start.

As the old schoolbus bumped its way down the west side of the ridgeline I marveled that in a handful of hours I would be up there returning on foot.

A strange town to take a busload of ultrarunners
through en-route to the start of a race.

Having been to Ohiopyle many times before, I remembered what a hole in the ground it sits in at the bottom of the Yough river valley. Still, as the bus braked down the steep final descent into the town I looked at the hill sweeping steeply upward from the left edge of the road with renewed respect - even a little fear. Looking around, I noticed others staring upward out the windows with the same thoughtful looks on their faces.

A footbridge crossing the Yough from Ohiopyle (left).
The big hills are behind me as I shot this. I guess I didn't want to look at them. 
Parking and race-day check-in. The start is off-camera to the right.
After the bus drop-off and check-in with race officials, I had about half an hour to walk around and take a few pictures. The morning was cool, with fog hanging in the valleys. I met my friend, Tiffany Hrach - who I ran with last fall at Oil Creek - as we all began gathering at the start area.

The RD and another race official planted themselves at a spot in the side road to define the starting line and ordered us all behind it for final pre-race instructions. Uncharacteristically for me, but in keeping with my 'go-for-it' strategy, I chose a spot near the front of the crowd. About two minutes before the 7:30 A.M. start time, final instructions out of the way, the RD offered a short prayer, a touch that I, for one, greatly appreciated, bowing my head as he sought the Lord's blessing and protection for each of us through what we were about to do.

Then after just another short wait the other race official counted down the final seconds: "5...4...3...2...1... Go!" - and we were off!

Within a quarter-mile of the start the paved side-road turned into a dirt and gravel track along the riverbank and then turned upward as a flight of stairs ushered us into the first small climb of the single-track. Runners strung out fairly quickly along the first gently-rolling mile-and-a-half of the trail.

I soon realized that many of the runners in my general vicinity were wearing white race bibs, in contrast to my yellow bib - indicating that they were 50K relay runners. I realized this probably meant that I remained ahead of the majority of 50K solo runners, and that I was probably going out too fast - but that was my plan, so I just kept going in a pack of runners whose pace I liked.

Then the real hills came...

Elevation profile: Start to AS1

Between 1.5 miles and 6 miles runners experience - in rapid succession - a steep 800' climb followed by an equally steep 600' drop, then a steep 700' climb followed by an even steeper 800' drop. Net change in elevation about 100'. If only the net change in the condition of my legs was equally trivial! Oddly, there were few switchbacks in any of the climbs even though (mercifully) there were on the descents.

All of the foregoing placed you at the foot of the monster of the course: the 1200' climb from mile 6 to mile 7.5! This climb, too, had few switchbacks. It was simply a brutal, straight walk up the side of a mountain. After attacking the earlier climbs and hammering the downhills my legs were already nearly dead. This climb finished the job. I had not done nearly enough hill training in the month since Mind the Ducks to prepare myself for this.

After summiting the ridge there was some nice, gentle downhill running for the next mile or two, followed by a gentle rise to the first aid station at Maple Summit Road. I made pretty good time on the downhill section but my legs just didn't feel right. They were heavy and lifeless, and I struggled to lift them - occasionally stumbling over rocks in the trail, usually catching my left foot on them. There was a mildly painful knot in the middle of my left quads that I did my best to ignore.

When I hit the rise my pace slowed dramatically. What should have been a pretty run-able upgrade felt like a brutal climb. I reached the aid station hoping I would find some kind of miracle of recovery there. I'd been eating and drinking on the trail, and I chowed down pretty well at the aid station on top of that - watermelon, cantaloupe, a quarter of a PBJ, and some Pringles for the trail.

Heat (and more Hills)

Elevation profile: AS1 to AS2
Leaving AS1 there was another nice downhll and again I made good time, but at the next climb it was obvious that no miracle had occurred. I just had nothing left for hills!

Climbing out of Cranberry Glade I was suddenly greeted from behind: "Is that Patrick?" Tiffany had caught up to me. It was great to see a friendly face and she fell in behind me just like we ran together at Oil Creek. For a while it gave me a boost and I pretended I was doing OK - for a while.

But the day was warming and the hills just kept coming. Tiffany was content to let me choose the pace, but then came a climb where, briefly, the pace I chose was zero. I didn't tell Tiffany, but I felt light-headed and had to bend over and rest my hands on my knees to keep from passing out. Tiffany led on up the hill from there, and it wasn't too much longer before she told me she was going to go on ahead. I was sorry to lose her company, but would never have wanted to hold her up.

I kept slogging along as people began passing me regularly. On yet another small climb I felt light-headed and was just completely out of gas. This time I saw a convenient trailside rock and sat down for a real rest while I ate a Honey Stinger Waffle and took an S-Cap. As I greeted other runners and waved them by I felt more like a casual hiker than an ultrarunner. Then I heaved myself up and continued on. One foot in front of the other.

The miles from 17 to 19 were excruciating. Right at mile 18 there is a final, steep 400' climb before the flat-ish section leading to AS2 at mile 19. I almost thought it would kill me. I had to stop twice and sit down on the way up, again waving people past me (many of whom didn't look to be doing a whole lot better than me). The only thing that kept me going was... well... what else was I going to do?

And I knew my family would be waiting to see me at AS2.


A real break and some heavy chowing at AS2
The final trudge into AS2 - at 19.1 miles on the trail - was brightened by seeing my family there happy to see me. They had been waiting here longer than expected based on when I'd told them I hoped to be there. I'd been hoping for four hours, but it was just about five hours by the time I actually got there.

My Dad. 81 and still going strong - and wearing a very appropriate crew shirt.
My Mom. My inspiration for trying new things and throwing myself into them.
She 'gets' what I'm doing with ultrarunning.
She and I once hiked a 12-mile section of the LHHT together when I was a kid.
... and the two best kids in the world!
Both attend Cornell University and are doing very well there.
(Their mother was behind the camera and will appear later.)
I worried not a bit how long I spent at AS2, nor how many other runners came through while I was there. I'd arrived there with so little energy left that I knew I needed a real rest and recovery break. I sipped water, ginger ale, and Coke - and ate a whole Koka-Moka Pro-bar. I knew the next aid station was 'only' six miles away, so I had Karen see to getting my hydration pack half filled with ice and water.

I visited for a while - and remembered to dig out the two teaberry leaves from my pocket that I'd plucked somewhere back on the trail. I'd been telling my daughter, Kim, about this great-smelling plant that grows wild in the mountains where I grew up and she'd asked me to find her some while I was out there.

I had told them all that I was really going to push for a PR effort in this race - that I wanted my finishing time to begin with a '6'. I now had to admit that this would not be happening. The plan was for them to next see me at the finish. Mom asked how long I thought it would take me to get there and I replied, "Three hours. Maybe four." It was only twelve miles.

Finally it was time to heave myself up, sling on the pack, and get moving again. I had no idea whether the break had done any good or whether I would immediately return to my personal hell, but with 19 miles invested in this thing I was going to see it through.

The things we're willing to do to earn a little medal!

Elevation Profile: AS2 to Finish

I headed out of the aid station, again grabbing a handful of Pringles for the trail. It was a little slow going getting moving again, but a little downhill section got me rolling. After that the terrain was either pretty flat, or just gently rising or falling, and I actually got into a pretty good rhythm. I could run the flats and downhills pretty well, and maintain a strong walking pace on the uphills. I actually started catching and passing a few people.

I also once again really started to enjoy being out there - in spite of the continued discomfort in my body. The day was gorgeous and the mountain was beautiful. As I ran along, starting down the steeper drop into Blue Hole Creek, I thought about my big plans for this race. I thought about my boast to my online ultrarunning friends - "That's my mountain!" It was then that a little voice inside my head set me straight:

"This is God's mountain, and He will suffer no proud man to traverse it."

Somehow that thought deeply comforted me. It took all of the pressure I had put on myself away and I just ran. I knew that now I had learned the lesson God had brought me out here for today, and I knew that God would see me through to the finish.


The rest of the race seemed to occur in a bit of a haze. I zoned out as I power-hiked the climb to the highest point on the LHHT and the last aid station at the Seven Springs Resort. There I had my pack refilled  with water and ice, drank a little Coke and ate something. I tried to find out how long ago Tiffany had come through here and they said within the hour. Then I headed out just as the last pair of guys I had passed came in.

The next mile or so traversed some pretty sun-baked open spaces across the ski resort. I passed mile marker 27 shortly after the aid station.

I've forgotten to mention the mile markers - little concrete pillars embedded in the trail with mile numbers on them for every mile. Starting with number 28 I got very friendly with them - patting each one on the head as I went by.

I caught up with another woman who had been at the aid station and left before me. She'd been complaining of nausea and I'd offered her a ginger candy. As we traveled together for a little while she took me up on it and it seemed to help. Eventually I outpaced her on another climb and she told me to go ahead. I drew within sight of another woman near the top of the climb and eventually caught and passed her on the downhill mile toward mile marker 30.

And what a sight for sore eyes that marker was! There was one more 'little' climb of 200' or so before the trail turned gently downhill again. I was confused - expecting to see mile marker 31 before I got to the turn to the finish - when suddenly I passed a large sign proclaiming that the 50K turn was just ahead. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of cheering well within earshot just uphill to the left of me!

I hit the turn and started walking up the hill on the access trail when it immediately leveled out and I could see the parking lot, tents, and people no more than a hundred yards or so ahead. Time to run it in!

Coming in for the final loop around the parking lot to the finish line.
Kim joined me on the parking lot loop to the finish.
There are simply no words to describe the feelings of joy, relief, and accomplishment that accompany completing a race like this. It is something that can only be experienced, and I feel so privileged to have been blessed with enough health at this age to be able to experience it. God is good.

Of course, this does not mean that there is no pain...

Karen finally makes it into a shot!
(As she hovers protectively near me hoping
I am not going to go into cardiac arrest
right there in that chair.)
This is the part where I explained to Kim that if she asked me to
pose for the camera again I would find enough energy to get up and kill her.
And this is Dan.
('nuff said.)

Official finishing time: 8:27:09, 70th of 94 finishers under the 10-hour time limit (out of 101 starters). About where I usually end up - mid to back of the pack, but off the bottom.

And those cheers I heard from the turn? That was Tiffany finishing at 8:25:40 - one minute and twenty-nine seconds ahead of me! One of these days I'm gonna beat that young lady!!

(Ooops! Are we coming full-circle back to hubris again here, Patrick? Let's let this final shot stand to remind you of what you actually accomplished...)

Hmm.. it's actually a pretty big medal, isn't it?


  1. Nice race report. Glad you did enjoy your time on the LH trail. We love that trail.
    The climb at mile 19 is uncomfortable, but I think the climb up to the cell tower hill right after Seven Springs is tough also.
    We (NEO Trail Club) were working the first AS at Maple Summit Road.

  2. Thanks, Kim - and thank you so much to you and your club for being out there to support all of us! All of the aid stations were great.

    Lot of tough climbs out there. I think the worst one is whichever one comes next when you've hit a low point!