Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

2015 Laurel Highlands Ultra

How did I fail thee? Let me count the ways...

Ohiopyle Falls at about 5:00 AM, June 13th, 2015
The race starts just behind me.

An ultra lister who is a pretty darned accomplished runner kind of liked my last race report - even tweeted about it. She said she liked reports where the runner talks about what they learned. There should be a lot to like about this one then.

D.N.F. - "Did Not Finish." Maybe the only way to make those letters hurt less is to make them educational.

They have applied to me before, but never as painfully as this time. Officially, my first DNF was the Vol State. I entered the race in the 'screwed' division, along with my daughter, Kim, and we made it about 230 miles on our own across portions of three states, then would have quit there but for another runner (now considered a dear friend) who, after dropping out, volunteered to crew us the rest of the way to the finish. With her help we did finish the race - but we finished crewed and so we also earned a DNF in the 'screwed' division. Success goes a long way toward taking the sting out of failure, so it's hard to be too broken up about that.

Then later last year I failed to finish my fourth running of the Mendon Ponds 50K. That time I just made a decision to quit. I was running it about a month after a PR 50M at CanLake, and I just didn't have my normal stamina back in time for Mendon. It was obvious to me by the time I'd finished the second 10K loop but I did another (very ugly) loop anyway - and then dropped. I didn't really consider that one a failure. It was a reach too far. If there was a failure it was in deciding to enter at all, and I considered it good experience learning to recognize when using discretion and being good to my body were the right things to do. I also learned that a DNF didn't have to be the end of the world.

Good thing too, because I'm not going to lie. This one hurts.

I got pulled from the Laurel Highlands Ultra - my dream race. This was supposed to be the culmination of my six years of hard work to become an ultrarunner. This was supposed to be a victory lap. I was supposed to reach the finish in Seward, PA exhausted and broken perhaps - but triumphant. I was supposed to finally lay hands on one of the unique finisher's trophies offered by the race. It would sit prominently on my mantel for the rest of my life, testimony to the fact that I had done what I'd set out to do all those years ago and had not quit.

Instead I couldn't even make the first cutoff! I couldn't even cover the first 19.3 miles of the course in five hours and forty-five minutes! This one was not my own decision, my own choice. I simply was not good enough.

As true as that assessment may be (and it is certainly true at least in the sense of 'I was not good enough on that day') the human ego seeks reasons, good reasons - which personal insecurity then insensitively relabels excuses. There's no way I can honestly discern which term is more appropriate for what I'm about to discuss. All I can do is offer the fruit of my groping for answers and let you the reader judge.

It was a Lot Like Mendon

123 hopeful runners await the start of the 70-mile race

If taking on Mendon only a month after a hard effort was too much too soon, how could it possibly not have been a bad idea to try Laurel Highlands a month after going almost 200 miles in 72 hours at 3 Days at the Fair? Perhaps I am not Superman. Maybe I'm only Green Lantern or some other second-tier superhero.

Right after my failure at Mendon I debated about whether to even sign up for Laurel given that I already had 3 Days at the Fair on my schedule. I even brought it up for discussion on the ultra list at the time. Now this is not a new rule I've just learned, but since I talk about the ultra list in these race reports a lot perhaps I should have shared it long ago:

"Never ask a bunch of ultrarunners for advice about whether you should not run a race."

(Say it again with me...)

I love that ultrarunners are relentlessly positive people - but ultrarunners are relentlessly positive people, and sometimes what you think you'd like to do really is just a bad idea. Maybe I should not have signed up for Laurel this year.

It was a Rough Day

Achingly beautiful - like a scene from deep jungle somewhere like Papua New Guinea

Laurel Highlands is in June in southern Pennsylvania. The air was thick on Saturday. Mist just hung everywhere and everything was saturated. In a very short time after the start everything I was wearing was sopping wet and sweat was dripping from the brim of my hat. Deep in those hollows, on those first, steep, rugged climbs out of the Ohiopyle area, there was nary a breeze. It wasn't hot, but the still, chewy air could best be described as "tropical."

I noticed the trouble with my body about halfway up the first big climb - where I took that really nice picture above. That was the first place I stopped - ostensibly to step out onto the overlook to enjoy the spectacular view, but really because my heart was pounding wildly in my throat and I needed to pause and suck wind.

That would become a repeat occurrence the rest of the way up that climb, and up the next (equally big) climb, and many times on the monstrous climb out of the hole at mile six. I told myself I was doing the right thing. I would blow up for sure if I power-hiked all of that with my heart racing out of control! My legs were feeling lifeless at every stop as it was.

But what was wrong with my body? Was it really the muggy conditions coupled with the hard effort, or was it incomplete recovery from last month? Was it a combination of all those things?

"This kind of situation does not call for freaking out"

Just have to get up there and 'the hard part is over'

Never mind all of that! I was on plan through the worst of it. Those big climbs had taken such a horrible toll on me back when I'd run the 50K here in 2012 that my race plan this time called for me to ease my way to the top of the mountain, saving myself for more runnable terrain. I was certain many of those people passing me were making the same mistake I had three years earlier and that I would be passing them later. I was playing it smart.

Every time I passed a mile marker I verified I was on my target pace for this section. Never mind that I was already all alone but for a few other stragglers (including a guy who was stopping frequently because he was on some heart medication that was causing his pulse to race on the climbs - and who said his cardiologist would give him hell if he found out what he was doing). This was how I was supposed to be playing it.

Actually I reached the first aid station, at mile 11.6, only a little bit behind my target race time of 3:30. That left me just a little less than 1:30 to cover the 8.7 miles to the checkpoint at mile 19.3 to stay right on plan. That was probably a little ambitious, but I was on the runnable terrain now, and I had forty-five minutes of slack built into this part of the plan, so a little overshoot would not be a problem. Things were okay.

Define "Runnable"

This is a pretty runnable section of trail on top of the mountain

There were two problems with all of that though:
  1. My legs really weren't okay after the climbs.
  2. "Runnable" is a subjective term.
I felt okay on the flats and the downhills after reaching the top of the mountain (and after another mile or two of taking it easy to recover) - but my legs quickly reverted to jelly and my heart immediately began to pound whenever the course turned briefly back uphill. Maybe that was incomplete recovery or maybe it was insufficient hill training - although I'd hit quite a few hills in recent months.

There was another problem at this point though and it was a different aspect of training specificity: this 'runnable' terrain was more technical than the trails back home - and I had forgotten to account for that in my planning. The Laurel Highlands are rocky, and many of the flat portions of the trail are studded with sharp, pointy ones - sometimes obscured by grass. Too often I found myself picking my way - concerned about twisting an ankle - across flat sections I'd have preferred to be running. I watched first 50K relay runners, then 50K solo runners (a bad sign) breeze by me, seeming to float effortlessly over the uncertain footing, and I realized I was out-classed.

I did run well when the grade and the footing were favorable for me. I was in somewhat better condition than I had been at this point in 2012 - but combine the unexpected slow going on much of the course with the fact that the hills were still walloping me and the time just trickled away like the condensation dripping off the leaves of the trees.

Thinking Might have Helped

A typical Laurel Highlands rock formation looms out of the mist

I never gave the cutoff a moment's thought though. I had 'plenty of time.' Yes, I was falling behind my plan, but my plan had me finishing in nineteen hours - which gave me three hours of slack overall. So I was spending some of it before the first checkpoint - that was okay.

I should have dug out my race information and checked myself at some mile marker early on in this section to catch the cutoff problem developing when I had more time to maybe do something about it. Instead I continued on, clueless. I would never have known I was in trouble was it not for the woman I'd been trading places with from the top of the big climb.

I'd turned off-trail briefly to an overlook right at the summit when she passed me the first time. I trailed her by a hundred yards or so for quite some distance before eventually overtaking her on a long downhill that I was running pretty strongly. She caught up to me at the first aid station and motored right through ahead of me though. It was another few miles afterward before I passed her again on a gentle upgrade.

"You'll catch me again soon," I told her as I went by.

It was soon after this I 'took the lead' in the little race of two back-of-the-packers.
Little matter - 50K runners were blowing by us both by now.

I wasn't going to make it easy for her though. I ran 'hard' as much as I could. On a day like I was having you have to pay for that though, and I paid for it on every climb of any significance at all. It was at one of those unavoidable pauses to catch my breath and recover that she came up the trail behind me.

"See, I told you," I said, from my temporary perch on a rock on the side of the trail.

"How are you doing?" she asked.

"Okay. I wish I was doing better though." She smiled and then stopped to ask if I knew what the cutoff time at mile nineteen was. She wasn't certain whether it was at 11:15 or 11:45 (time of day).

"Let me check." Finally, I got out my little cheat sheet and looked at it: the cutoff was at 11:15. Then I checked the time. I don't remember exactly, but I think it was 10:30-something - 10:36 maybe. Incapable of even considering that I might be in trouble, I mindlessly said I thought we should make it. She didn't really respond to that, and just moved on up the trail.

As I got moving again behind her I began to give the situation a little more thought. Again, I don't remember exactly, but I think we were somewhere near mile 17 at that point, which meant we had more than two miles to go and little more than half an hour to get there and get out again - and mile nineteen has a climb that I knew would suck the remaining life out of me.

Logic told me at this point that it wasn't happening. Logic also began to tell me that even if it did happen, the fact that it was even in doubt said everything I needed to know about my chances of actually finishing the race. If I made it I would probably choose to go on, but given the way I was struggling at this point I began to believe that if I did go on, I would just suffer for another thirteen miles and then miss the next cutoff. I began to consider whether I should heed the advice Rick Freeman had given us at the pre-race briefing. It went something like, "Even if you make it by just a little bit, be honest with yourself if you just don't have it that day."

Still, I wanted to have that choice. I wanted the end to be my own decision. I can honestly say I pushed as hard as I could from that point - or at least that if I had pushed any harder I would certainly have arrived at the checkpoint completely spent and convinced I should drop.

The climb was as awful as I remembered - rocky, and straight up. I actually handled it a little better than last time, I think, but still had to stop and rest several times. Meanwhile the time steadily ticked away. By the time I passed the crowd of cheering people at the intersection of the access trail from the parking lot I knew my race was already over. Coming up to the road crossing right before the aid station, I checked the time again: 11:17.

I walked up to the aid station to find the woman who'd passed me talking to the aid station captain about options for rides back to the start. A few minutes later, the "cardiac cripple" (his own term, not mine - so please don't flame me) came up to join us. I'd barely beaten him.

It was an inglorious moment for all of us as we turned in our numbers, but we just didn't have it that day and we each took it pretty well, at least outwardly. The way I look at it, if you're that beaten and humiliated taking it like an adult is the only option under your control that you have left in order to preserve a smidgen of self-respect.

I called Karen to shock her with the bad news, then walked painfully over to the parking area to sit and wait while she figured out how to change course at the last minute - from waiting for me at Route 31 (where she'd nearly already arrived) to picking me up at Route 653. I had a lot of time to sit and think while I waited... damn...


In Summary:

It would be nice if I could rewind to here

Here then is the short list of things I think contributed to my DNF:
  1. This race was too much for me, too soon after an earlier all-out effort.
  2. Weather conditions were difficult.
  3. Lack of training specificity.
  4. Inattention - poor race management (though again, I do believe doing better here would only have delayed the inevitable).
Not that it's much consolation, but I was far from alone in my failure. Only 81 of 123 starters finished this year. At 65.9% that's on the low side of historical finish rates for the event.

It was, in spite of all, a glorious day on (far too little of) a beautiful trail through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery anywhere, and I am grateful to Rick Freeman, the Hewitts, and all of the volunteers for making this outrageous thing possible. Please keep it going. I want to come back and get it right.

One more peek through the trees - for anyone who wonders why I do this

What Next?

Which direction to go from here?

That brings me, finally, to the quandary with which I leave this experience: what do I do next year? I have unfinished business at both 3 Days at the Fair and Laurel Highlands, they will be just as close together next year, and I am convinced I can only do well at one or the other. I've thought about it for a few days now, and I think the deciding factor is this:

I will never be completely satisfied as an ultrarunner if I never finish Laurel Highlands.


  1. Next year, Redemption! I think I may run it next year as well. I just hope the A100 is a different weekend. It was a rough weekend for a lot of people, and thoughts disappointing, at least you weren't injured or sick.

  2. I remember being very focused on those early climbs, knowing that the initial time cut-off worried me more than anything else. I had done lots of long hill climbs here in the mountains of Vermont to be ready to push hard on the ups and then keep moving. I made it in 4:50 and then stayed comfortably ahead of the cut-offs, including through an afternoon downpour about the time we crossed the interstate, and cruised to a 20:15 or so. I don't know that I would have even attempted the race under the old 18 hour time limit.

  3. I've enjoyed reading this. Do you know the total ascent/descent for the race?

    1. Hi, Atlee. Sorry to leave you hanging this long. Thought I'd try getting through this year's race and see what kind of number I got. Turned out my Garmin's battery died about 46 miles into it though. To that point it recorded +8444' and -7360'. The gain and descent are that different at that point because I'd done the big climbs at the beginning, but not the big descent at the end.

      Long ago I used a ruler on the published elevation profile to try to sum up all of the climbs and descents and came up with about 13,000' each. Given my numbers at 46 miles I think that's probably not too far off. Like you (apparently) I haven't seen good numbers for this published anywhere.