Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

2016 Laurel Highlands Ultra

Journey's End


The northern end of Laurel Ridge, as seen from Scalp Ave. in Johnstown, PA.
The Conemaugh Gap is visible on the right.
The Conemaugh Gap.
(Photo credit - Google Maps)
It was just as I'd always pictured it. I mean exactly as I'd always pictured it. So rarely do you spend years imagining a thing, visualizing it, daydreaming it, and then have the reality turn out so much like what the mind's eye had been able to conjure.

I had known it was coming for at least two miles. The sound of a long train slowly wending its way through the deep, narrow chasm known as the Conemaugh Gap carries far at night through still, humid, early-summer air - and there are two rail lines through there, one on each side of the river, terraced into the steep flanks of the gorge, along with (on the north side) Cramer Pike and (on the south side) Haws Pike, carrying car traffic.

For at least two miles I had heard the low rumble off and on and had told myself excitedly, "That must be train traffic going through the Gap!" Soon I would be there. Soon I would see.

Back to Ohiopyle


The Youghiogheny River.
The bridge carries the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) a 150-mile rails-to-trails
biking and hiking route between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, MD.
(This is a photo I shot in 2012.)
The day had begun some twenty hours earlier in Ohiopyle, PA, at the bottom of another river valley. For the third time in five years I stood within earshot of the thundering roar of Ohiopyle Falls where the full volume of the Youghiogheny River plunges over a twenty-foot drop.

"Ohiopyle" is a Native American name meaning, 'white frothy water.' The spot might just as well have been called, 'very deep place in the earth' or something like that. Every time I've been to Ohiopyle, driving down the final steep hills on the road from Normalville (yes, there really is a town by that name just up the road from Ohiopyle), I realize again in what a deep gorge the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail begins. Two times before now I had made that descent from Normalville to... wherever it is that ultrarunners live... to run a footrace on the trail - and both times the daunting task of climbing back out of Ohiopyle had pretty much defined the experience for me. In 2012 it had taken everything I had to get through the first nineteen miles of the trail. Then I had managed to mostly death march the remaining twelve to a 50K finish. In 2015 those nineteen miles had destroyed me, and my first attempt at the full 70.5-mile race had ended right there at that checkpoint.

Now I was back. The year since that failure had been entirely dedicated to redeeming myself. Since last June I had:
  • Run another 2200 miles.
  • Climbed another 134,500 feet of hills (and run back down them).
  • Shed twenty pounds of excess body fat.
The day when registration opened for the 2016 running of the race I had my application filled out and dropped in the mailbox at the main Syracuse post office before the 1:30 P.M. pickup. I eagerly watched for the check to clear to be assured that I was in.

I changed my plan of attack. Rather than staying at my Mom and Dad's house in Windber the night before the race (which necessitated a 2:30 A.M. wake-up in order to catch a 3:30 A.M. bus to Ohiopyle) I made a reservation at the Yough Plaza Motel. I would be able to roll out of bed only a bit earlier than normal and walk a few hundred yards to the (5:30 A.M.) start.

Winter had been favorable for trail running in Central New York, and I was out almost every weekend, running long and climbing hills on the local trails. Those trails don't have enough rocks to mimic trail conditions in the Laurel Highlands, so in March I ran what may be the rockiest race in the country (it would take a lot to have more) - the "Mt. Tammany 10!" I didn't finish, but I managed nine 1200' climbs and descents in a little over ten hours - over 35 miles with almost none of it on smooth, rock-free ground. The biggest climb at Laurel is 1200 feet and there is only one of them - and the rocks of the Laurel Highlands can't hold a candle to those of the Shawangunks!

I had gritted my teeth and sat out 3 Days at the Fair. Staying home, watching via Facebook as good friends had once again spent 72 hours with each other on the one-mile loop in Augusta, NJ had been one of the hardest things I've ever done. I knew if I had gone though, I would have spent too much of myself too near to Laurel again - a big part of why I'd failed last year, I believed.

A final check-up race at the Thom Bugliosi Trail Runs four weeks before Laurel had gone well: 52K with 4000' of elevation gain in 6:17 and some change. I had pushed it and felt strong pretty much the entire race. The taper afterward had gone well too - without the usual appearance of a small handful of angry-tendon pains. I felt strong. I felt good. I felt ready.

If there was anything else I could have done to improve my chances of success, I could not think of it. I had wanted this for seven years, I'm 55 years old now, and life only gives you so many shots. This time I wanted to hit the target.

Friends


Juli, Val, and Karen - at the Falls City Pub Friday night before race day.
Juli Aistars would be running the race too, and I was so excited to see her and her husband, Val, again. The community of ultrarunners is one of the best things about the sport, and Juli and Val are among the best examples of that community - always postitive, always supportive. She runs races all over the country and seems to know everybody. When I first showed up on the ultra list dreaming of running my first 50K, Juli was one of the first to send me a personal note of encouragement. Juli had been thinking of running Laurel for some years, and my passion for it had finally pushed her over the edge to go for it.

Many on the ultra list (those who haven't redirected my posts to their junk folders anyway) were well aware of my passion for Laurel, and my seven-year quest to finish it. Many had followed my pursuit, knew of my failure and my single-minded dedication to redemption this year. As race day approached I received a number of personal well-wishes, and assurances that people would be following me and rooting for me.

The wealth of friendship that came with ultrarunning has been one of the most surprising things about it (among many others). I am so very grateful for it and I hope it can be said of me that I have given back in some small measure what I have received.

About The Race

The Laurel Highlands Ultra is an end-to-end run of the 70-mile-long Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) in Western Pennsylvania. It begins in Ohiopyle, PA, a regional white water rafting and kayaking destination, and scenic tourist attraction. In addition to the natural beauty of the area it is possible very nearby to tour not just one but two homes designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright - including one of his most famous works, the former Kaufmann family summer home, Fallingwater.

Fallingwater
(Photo from www.fallingwater.org)
The northern terminus of the trail is in Seward, PA - the town at the far end of the Conemaugh Gap on Haws Pike. In between Ohiopyle and Seward lies seventy miles of absolutely gorgeous single-track trail. Major road crossings are few. You essentially climb out of the Youghiogheny river gorge to the top the ridge and then follow its rolling contours northeasterly until you drop down into the Conemaugh river gorge at the finish. The race is one of the oldest ultras in the United States, held continuously since 1980. This would be its 37th running.

I've used that term 'far end' of the Gap twice now. The 'near end' is the one nearest to Johnstown, PA - the town where I was born, most famous for the catastrophic flood that occurred there in 1889. A runner I met on the trail this year probably said it best when I told him where I was from. "So you're running home then," he replied.

Indeed, I had always viewed this race as some sort of homecoming experience for me. There is something about the place you were raised (perhaps only if that was a good experience, I suppose) that makes it always and forever home. The roots planted in childhood run the deepest, I think, and I dearly wanted to run the mountain that had been the backdrop of my youth.

Much about the race is old-school. Registration is mail-in only. Aid stations are widely separated. There are only course markings set up by the race in a few tricky spots. Otherwise it's up to you to follow the yellow LHHT blazes. Cutoff times at five checkpoints along the course are tight and rigidly enforced. This is not a hiker-friendly race. (For full disclosure I should point out that I have an online friend who regularly reminds me that the race used to be much tougher than it is now - with a four-hour shorter time limit and no aid stations.)

Time to Run


Me and the ladies
(Photo credit - Val Aistars)
The hotel worked out even better than planned! After driving all day to get there I was wiped shortly after dinner and asleep before 9:00 P.M. I was awake half an hour before my 4:30 A.M. alarm - just done sleeping. Preparation went quickly and smoothly, as I had everything planned out before going to bed. I had a liquid breakfast of an Orgain nutrition shake and a Starbucks Frappuccino. Even my bowel performed smoothly and right on schedule (very important)!

About the only thing that had not cooperated with my quest for redemption was the race-day weather. For two days before the race the weather had been perfect: low-70s and low humidity. For two days after the race it was forecast to be the same. Race day itself? High-80s (maybe even 90+) and humid! Huh? Where did that come from? On the plus side, success would show that it was not just the heat and humidity that had derailed me last year. On the minus side, I would have to achieve success despite the heat and humidity.

One thing we had going for us was that we should be through the big climbs before the day heated up anywhere near where it was going. Once on the ridge top it would probably be few degrees cooler than the forecast, there would be shade most of the way and there might be some breezes. There was really no getting away from it though. The afternoon was going to be a brutally hot, steamy slog.

Worrying about that could wait though. There were nineteen miles of big climbs and rocky footing to deal with first - and we did have to actually get started. I happened to see Val in the motel parking lot on my way out to walk over to the start and check in. He and Juli would come over together in just a bit, and Karen had decided to roll out of the sack and come on over to see us off as well.

It was dark then, and I was concerned that it would be dark on the trail in the early going under the trees, so I clipped the new little single-AAA cell LED flashlight I'd recently bought for a backup light to my running pack so that it would throw enough light on the ground in front of me to see. In terms of gear, I had:
  • My UD PB 1.0 pack with the two front-mounted 20 oz. bottles filled with plain water.
  • A little ziplock bag with a few S!Caps and some Tums in a front pocket.
  • A printout of my race plan, showing aid station mileages, cut-off times, etc. in a ziplock back in another front pocket.
  • Two Probars, one in each side pocket.
  • A featherweight rain shell stuffed in the back of the pack.
  • A 'lube kit' (a small stick of BodyGlide and an envelope of Calmoseptine).
  • A 'blister/first-aid kit' (some tape and a few Bandaids in yet another ziplock bag).
  • My cell phone (so I could text progress to Karen along my way).
  • The emergency whistle that just lives in my pack on general principles.
I wore:
  • A pair of Saxx underwear (TMI?) and RailRiders Rampage shorts.
  • One of my white "Big Dog Trail Runners" t-shirts (I had worn one of these for my first ultra and liked the idea of putting it on for the race that had been the goal all along).
  • A Headsweats brimmed cap.
  • A pair of Drymax trail running socks.
  • My Hoka One One Rapa Nui trail running shoes.
Those shoes had a bit of a story. These were the second pair of Rapa Nuis I had purchased after discovering I liked the first pair so much. I consider this model (whatever year it was) to be the best trail running shoes for me that I had ever had. This pair had suffered a mishap though. Shortly after I got them the toes had gotten shoved in under one of the baseboard hot water heat radiators at my house. The toes of these shoes have a rubberized exterior and it had melted from the heat, collapsing the top of the toe boxes on both shoes and then re-solidifying in that shape. At the time it happened the first pair was still serving me and, being a slow-to-get-around-to-it guy, I just did nothing with the new ones. Eventually the first pair started to get a little beaten though, and the lining at the heel started coming apart and irritating my Achilles tendons. Knowing I would eventually need them anyway, I went ahead and bought a new pair of Hoka trail shoes (whatever model was on clearance then) and pretty much switched to training in those. They were okay, but not nearly as good as my Rapa Nuis. I had kept the heat-damaged ones on the theory that one way or another I could probably fix them but (being a slow-to-get-around-to-it guy) I hadn't gotten around to it. Finally, with race day for Laurel looming large on the calendar, I realized I really ought to have a backup pair of shoes with my crew in case I needed them - and there were those messed up Rapa Nuis. Finally: motivation enough to get around to it. I took them upstairs, grabbed Karen's hair dryer and used it to heat up the rubberized toes from the outside while pushing out from the inside. It worked! I stuffed the shoes with paper while the toes cooled again and I had what looked like a perfect pair of nearly-new three-year-old Hoka trail shoes that happened to be my favorite trail shoes ever. A couple of training runs in them confirmed it. Yep - these were the best. I now had myself a pair of backup shoes: the newer Hokas I'd been using for most of my training!

Sorry for that long digression. Back to the race...

Start to 50K


Start to AS1 - Maple Summit Road (mile 11)
After milling around for a while - and meeting u-lister Clint Langley who I'd corresponded with a bit about the race - Juli and I lined up somewhere in the middle of the pack and chatted while we waited for the start. Then the RD said a short prayer for the runners and off we went. As usual I forgot to start my Garmin right then. It's just too exciting then to remember the mundane things. My track would be a half-mile short - not that it mattered all that much because GPS measurements are pretty far off on this course anyway (by the time my Garmin's battery died it was reading over two miles short of the mile markers on the trail).

It was dark under the trees, as expected, and we switched on our lights. The half-mile run from the falls to the start of the trail is never quite enough to space out the field and avoid a slow conga line climbing the stairs at the very beginning, and we patiently waited our turn to climb up to the start of the nearly two-mile flat section that follows the contour of the hill above the river. Juli and I ran together for most of this.

I warmed up quickly and soon started feeling like going. I knew this part of the trail well, and my Mt. Tammany rock experience had me thinking the footing here was quite easy (a lot of the other runners seemed far more tentative about it). This would be some of the best time I'd make all day and I wanted to take full advantage of it. Plus I was eager to hit the first big climb and see what that felt like with all my hill training. I started to leave Juli behind.

I felt bad about that at the time. It's hard not to. It's nice to imagine miles and miles of traveling together with a friend down a beautiful trail, and sometimes that may be what feels like the right thing to do.  Then there are times like this, when the race really matters to you and you have to run it the way that feels best to you, without compromise. On top of being one of the nicest human beings on the planet, Juli is a highly competitive and experienced ultrarunner to whom races matter. I felt bad pulling away from her so early, but I also knew that she would absolutely understand - and she would also run me down and whup me later if she could! Who knew what would happen at that early point?

The big hills.
We hit the start of the climb and I noticed what would prove to be characteristic of this entire section: it seemed to come far more quickly than I expected. The additional two miles of flat trail had still not quite been enough to sort out the field before everyone slowed down on this first big hill, and the trail here is narrow, making it difficult to pass. I felt quite strong and would have gone faster, but I also didn't think it wise to really race up a mountain at this early point, so I pretty much patiently flowed with the people around me, using an occasional wider spot to go around a few from time to time. We got to what I think of as 'the window' - one of the nicest scenic overlooks on the trail - again, far sooner than I expected. This was the place where last year I stepped off to snap a gorgeous picture - but mostly really just to suck wind and try to get my wildly racing heart under control. This year I glanced right to catch the view while using the extra width here to get around some more people.

I was takin' care of business. By now all of the race start jitters were gone and I was settled into the trail, the movement, and the way my body was working - and it was working well.

The hill does tend to start sorting people out. The downhill afterward does even more. I hadn't just climbed over a hundred thousand feet of hills since last year, I'd also run back down them! For quite a few people it takes a while to get legs made rubbery by a big climb like that to recover enough to turn over quickly for a good downhill run. I know. I used to have that problem. Today I didn't. When I saw the top of the hill and a wider section of trail leading up to it I started running right then and passed three or four people trudging the final steps to the summit. My legs would recover on the fly.

For some reason it's much easier to get around people on the downhills in this section. The trails tend to be a bit wider, with more lines to choose from. Plus, there's just something about hearing someone pounding down toward you at a much faster pace than yours that makes you want to get out of the way. In the past, sometimes I've been the one pounding down the hill and sometimes I've been the one stepping out of the way. Today I was mostly the one pounding down the hill.

Somewhere along through this section I became part of a group with two other guys. One I recognized from Mt. Tammany (Casey is his name, he reminded me). I didn't get the other guy's name, but he was running with hiking poles, so I'll just call him "Sticks." Casey, I knew, was a better runner than me. He'd finished Tammany and was clearly running strong here. Sticks was staying right with him and I trailed along behind Sticks, and that's pretty much how we went up the second big climb. The pace felt right for the time being. Coming down the other side we were flying again and I just couldn't contain myself.

"HwhOOOOoooo!!" I yelled at the top of my lungs.

"Fun, isn't it?" Sticks said.

"Yeah. Gotta enjoy it while it lasts."

Sticks laughed at that.

"My quads are probably really going to hate me for this later," I added.

Next thing I knew we were at the bottom of the giant climb at mile six - and the next thing I knew after that I was at the top, just like that. I have no idea how many times I'd had to stop and suck wind on it last year, but it was a lot. This year I just walked up it, chatting with another guy I caught up to on the way. Casey had stepped off trail at the bottom to take a leak and Sticks had fallen a bit behind me. Casey would pass me and leave me behind for good before long. Sticks and I would trade places for quite a while until I eventually lost contact with him.

Reaching the summit put me on the kind of terrain I'd spend the rest of the day moving through. I've written before about how this mountain 'smells like' home to me. I figured out why that is. It's the ferns. There are many places in these mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania where the ground is covered in large fields of ferns, and the scent of those ferns combined with the aroma of the rich humus soil in which they grow says 'home' to me. That scent greeted me at the top of the mountain.

The legs felt a bit sluggish and weak on the little uphills after the last big climb, but I could tell they were recovering. I was able to move well, and before very long I was at the Maple Summit aid station. They had watermelon and I loaded up on that for the calories and the hydration, and drank a cup of Mountain Dew for the caffeine (one Starbucks Frappuccino was a bit less than my normal morning dose) while a volunteer refilled my bottles with ice water. Actually I think it was while I was here that Casey blew on through. I was out shortly after.

Maple Summit Road to Checkpoint #1 (Rt. 653 - 19 miles)
The next section of trail is mostly smooth and rolling, and the miles continued to pass by quicker than my memories of them from previous years. The entire trail has small concrete pillars showing the mile numbers for every mile, and I noted the passing of fives and tens as major milestones. Some people, I think, find the mile markers annoying because they like to dissociate themselves from the full magnitude of the distance and just run. As a numbers guy, and a short-loop ultra fanatic, I like them. I like breaking a large task down into very small repeatable chunks when I can.

The day was already beginning to become oppressively warm. It was getting a bit harder to breathe, and the summer insects that like to buzz around your head began to make their appearance. Uphill sections started turning a bit more 'trudgy' - with swatting at the bugs added to keep my arms busy. About three hours into the thing, I theorized I might be getting a little calorie-poor and should eat something. I had nibbled at one of my Probars along the way just after the big climb. I decided to sit down on a log for a minute, eat the rest of that, and dump out some detritus that had accumulated in my shoes. That little sit-down and the food did me some good and I felt a little better when I got moving again.


In past efforts on this section, I had needed to stop several times alongside the trail somewhere in the rollers in the 'teens. This time I just kept trucking through them. My great nemesis was approaching though. You can see it in the elevation profile, above, at mile eighteen - about a 400' climb - steep, and boulder-strewn. It had always been the coup-de-grace for my running ability on this course. Today (again) my hill training served me well. It was tough, but I power-hiked it non-stop. When a group of onlookers on the cliff above the last switchback told me and another guy climbing with me that we were looking good we did the standard thing and accused them of lying to us.

"We've seen a lot of people climbing this," they replied. "Trust us. You're looking good."

Shortly after summiting I recovered and once again rolled well through the final, partial mile to the aid station/checkpoint. I arrived twenty minutes ahead of my plan (which aimed for a nineteen-hour finish).

This was the first point where I expected to meet my crew (my wife, Karen) but she was not there. I milled around a little confused for a minute or two before deciding I should just move on. I would have had another Orgain there if I could, but I could grab some stuff from the aid station and I still had a Probar in my pack. I shouldn't lack for calories until she caught up with me. Once again I had my bottles refilled with water, and I downed another cup of Mountain Dew and then grabbed a handful of Pringles for the trail.

Just a ways down the trail I found a log I could sit down on to pull out my phone to text Karen and let her know I was already through the checkpoint. It was then that I noticed my mistake. The phone was still in airplane mode from the night before when we'd had no reception down in the hole in Ohiopyle, and the text I'd 'sent' back at Maple Summit hadn't actually gone out! Both texts went now, then I got up and headed off down the trail.

Checkpoint #1 to Checkpoint #2 (Rt. 31 - 32 miles)

I was really excited to be on this section! I'd not only survived the tough first part of the course, I'd handled it extremely well and still felt good. In 2012, dead on my feet, I'd made it through this section to 50K. This time I was hitting it strong.

Checkpoint #1 to AS3, Seven Springs (mile 26)
Here the terrain is really pretty much flat - until you drop down into Blue Hole Creek. The day was heating up though, and inevitably everyone really began to slow down (everyone around me, anyway). For whatever reason, I've always done better in heat than a lot of other runners, and I kept moving a little better for a little longer. I came up behind a string of four guys traveling together who were just walking a long, flat section. I felt like running, so I excused myself by them with the standard, "On your left." They were having none of letting me dust them though and started following me as I continued to run for another mile maybe. Then it was my turn to take a walk break and they went on by.

Along with these there were a few other people I traded places with through this section, including Clint Langley, and another guy who'd done the 50K previously and was taking his first shot at the 70M. I stayed behind the "Gang of Four" the rest of the way. They'd build a lead on me through the uphill sections and then I'd catch up to them on the downhills. Eventually we hit the descent into Blue Hole Creek and started hearing the shooting at the skeet ranges at Seven Springs.

Each time I've been through there (and also in Laurel Highlands race reports I've read) runners make some comment on the shooting. Nothing serious - there are no real concerns about getting shot that I remember hearing or reading - but for a Western Pennsylvania boy just the fact that it's worth mentioning as an unusual thing is a little amusing. As a kid I played in the woods during hunting season - more than once had shot pellets raining down around me from some guy nearby shooting up into a tree at a squirrel. No big deal. This is still a place where country folks just think of their guns as tools - not much different than a rake or a shovel - and keep them handy by the door in case they need to go out and shoot a varmint or something.

Anyway...

The range was busy and hearing the shooting is a great sign of progress. We would reach the Seven Springs aid station soon. Down across the creek we went, then up the little bit of an annoying, straight-up climb immediately after. The last mile after that to the aid station is mostly uphill, but gradual.

I wasn't quite sure what I needed at this aid station. I was starting to seriously drag in the heat and didn't feel like eating anything. I browsed the table and picked out one small boiled, salted potato and sat down in a chair to eat it. I needed refills on my bottles of course, I had a little more junk in one shoe that I wanted to dump out, and I needed to text progress to Karen again. As soon as I got the potato down I got up and got the water then headed out - once again expecting to find a spot along the trail to take care of the other stuff.

It was more or less high noon, the sun was almost directly overhead, and what follows the Seven Springs aid station (mile 26) is the only long stretch of the trail that is not shaded. My timing was not ideal. Right before breaking out into the open, I passed a guy sitting on the side of the trail. "You okay?" I asked.

"Yeah. I'm just trying to bring my heart rate down before going out into the sun."

Just past that you cross a road and climb a fairly steep, grass-covered embankment that tops out on the edge of a large pond at about the highest point on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. The pond feeds the artificial snow making network for the downhill ski area in the wintertime. Today a little wintertime would have been nice.

I trudge-walked and ran a little, about a third of the way around the pond to where the trail turned left and started downhill again, mostly out under the sun either crossing over or working down the edges of some of the ski slopes - with only an occasional short reprieve through a treeline. Thankfully it's only about a mile in the open, then you come to a bustling crew access point at County Line Road. There is no aid station there, and apparently quite a few 50K runners mistake it for the 50K finish.

I saw a familiar face for the first time since the start. Val was there, waiting for Juli. I was glad to learn that she was still coming along behind me somewhere, and I chatted with Val for just a minute before moving on.

AS3 to Checkpoint #2
The reward for reaching County Line Road is another tough climb in the heat. I power-hiked it pretty well, but had to stop and sit down on an off-trail tree stump for a minute at the top to get my heart rate back under control. The heat was really getting to me now, and I was getting behind on both hydration and nutrition. The next three miles would be a struggle.

I met Clint again through this stretch and was really glad I did. We were walking together up one short uphill when I said something about feeling like I really had to push the climbs. I'd meant it more as a comment on my nature and the way I like to deal with hills, but Clint took it as concern for the clock and assured me that we were in really good shape versus the cut-offs, and that all we had to do was keep moving and we would finish. Clint is something like six for seven in this race, so that was very reassuring and I remembered it for the rest of my run.

I told Clint that I had resolved to burn some time at the upcoming aid station / checkpoint at Route 31 though. I needed to really try to refuel, rehydrate, and rest a bit - and I'd felt a small blister developing on one foot for some time and needed to take care of it. I also figured that a little time airing out my feet and changing into a dry pair of socks would be time well spent.

In Praise of Karen


Looking pretty happy to see Karen at AS4/CP2.
That's Clint Langley over my left shoulder.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
I passed by the turnoff to the 50K finish just before the 31-mile marker. On the one hand, I was thrilled to finally be on the part of the course reserved for seventy-mile runners! On the other hand, I spent the final mile from there to the aid station kicking myself for not having signed up for just 50K. I was in bad shape - with only (after I got to the aid station) another thirty-eight miles to go!

The only 'ultrarunner-sensible' thing to do was to push that thought away as quickly as possible and try to take care of myself and get going again.

I can't say enough good things about Karen. There she was, sitting out on a hot day (under some shade at least) on a cheap folding camp chair - with all my stuff, waiting for me. It's not like you just drive up to these aid stations - and she hates to drive anyway. You navigate little twisty back roads to some fairly remote trailhead, and you lug in whatever your runner might need, generally at least a quarter-mile from where you have to park (in a crowded parking lot where lots of other crew is trying to do the same thing for their runners). She'd gotten my late texts about my progress earlier - but not before she'd already lugged all that at least partway through the woods to the aid station where she'd missed me.

While I had prepared better to run this race than I ever had before, it had been a long time since we'd done one of these things where she had to follow me all over the countryside and do a lot of walking herself, and we did a lousy job organizing my stuff to make that easy for her. Everything was in a pile of awkward plastic bins and a duffel bag - when it could have been in a backpack that would have made it much easier to carry. My drinks were in a hard-sided cooler that would not have been at all convenient to get down the access trails, so she had to choose a few and put them in one of the plastic bins - not knowing how long they would sit in the oppressive heat before I got to them. A small soft-sided cooler with a shoulder strap would have been a much better choice.

In spite of these difficulties, there she was, with a pile of stuff, smiling, ready to do whatever she could for one tired, grumpy runner - starting with moving it all because I wanted to check in and get past the aid station before using it! I thank God for Karen - not as often as I probably should, but at times like this it is impossible to forget!

Oh, and let's not forget that she was doing all this after having gotten up a little after four o'clock in the morning.

Catching up on nutrition as AS4/CP2.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
True to my plan, I sat down. I took my shoes and socks off and let my feet dry as well as they would while I breathed and drank a whole bottle of water, half a bottle of Gatorade, half a bottle of iced tea, and an Orgain nutrition shake for some protein. I also ate a small piece of chicken for a little more protein and a little something solid in my stomach. If I remember right, Karen had not brought the Strolling Jim bag with all of my spare running clothes, so I sent her back to the car to get that while I did all this. Somewhere along the way she also took my bottles over to the aid station tables to get them refilled. (See? What did I tell you? The woman deserves a medal of her own.)

I set to work taking care of my blister. At first check I couldn't see it, but then I looked closer and realized it was forming under the toenail of the toe next to the one I thought it was on. I used my toenail clippers to trim back the nail as far as I could then got out my scissors to snip open the blister and drain it. It's a good thing Karen didn't really understand what I was doing at that point. She always hides her eyes when somebody does a needle stick on a TV show we're watching!

(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
I didn't see where taping it would be very easy to do, or do much good, so I just pulled on my clean socks and started getting ready to go.

While I was sitting there, I watched everyone I'd recently seen on the trail (including Clint) grab some stuff and quickly leave - and a few other people who came in quite a bit behind us too. I tried not to have too much anxiety about that, even though I am competitive by nature, and I had to re-convince myself each time I saw someone go that I was doing the right thing for my race by sitting there taking care of myself. It was still hard.

Finally, after at most twenty extra minutes, I heaved myself up out of the chair, strapped on my pack, smooched Karen a 'thank you and goodbye' and headed stiffly up the trail again (in the direction you can see behind me in the photo, above).

In Praise of Orgain - 50K to 100K


Checkpoint #2 to Checkpoint #3 (Rt. 30 - 46 miles)
The next aid station was at the Lynn Run railroad grade - at about thirty-nine miles. After I loosened up it was flat-out unbelievable how much better I felt running those seven miles than I had the previous seven! It was still hot. The terrain was still hilly and rolling. I was different though. Rested, hydrated and fortified, I could run the downhill and flat sections strongly again and hike the uphills with purpose. I soon started to catch people.

Checkpoint #2 to AS5, Lynn Run (mile 39)
At the top of the big hill at mile thirty-four I just glimpsed a runner disappearing ahead. I stopped for a minute to get my heart rate under control though, and while I was resting on a log a guy I recognized came up behind me. I'm not sure where I'd gotten around him. He must have been off-trail or something. He was trying to catch his wife, he said. Nope, I hadn't seen her. It was only after I'd let him go that it occurred to me to wonder whether that was who I'd seen disappearing when I stopped. Addled runner brain! I got moving again, got back within earshot of the guy before long and hollered at him to ask if his wife was wearing red. Nope, blue - so it hadn't been her.

Fairly shortly we both caught and passed the red runner I'd seen, who turned out to be the guy I'd met earlier - the previous 50K finisher trying the 70M for the first time. He and I stuck pretty close together for a while.  Shortly after we had passed mile marker thirty-six he asked about whether we were close to the Turnpike crossing. He thought it should be here. (Thirty-five, by the way, had been both an encouragement - halfway! - and a demoralizer - only halfway! - one more thought to push away quickly and move on.)

I told him I thought we must be close, because I'd been hearing what I was pretty sure was traffic noise off and on. Just then I heard it again, mixed in with the sound of the breezes moving the leaves of the trees. "Hear that roar? I think that's truck traffic on the Turnpike." Off I went, and I think I outpaced him for at least a while, and in short order the trail broke out into the sunshine at the top of a deep cut through the mountain carrying the six lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

This was a milestone I'd imagined for years! The bridge carrying the LHHT over the Turnpike was well-known. It had gone through a bit of controversy a few years previously when the old bridge had fallen into disrepair and had to be condemned. In 2011 the course had to be rerouted onto roads to reach another Turnpike crossing - adding seven miles to the race. At first it was unclear whether the state would spend the money to replace it, but a 'save the bridge' campaign had succeeded, and now a stout, wide new bridge was in place.

I saw the husband-and-wife team just crossing as I broke out of the woods and jogged the fairly steep gravel pathway down to the near end. I stopped for a moment in the middle to watch the speeding traffic beneath me and sort of drink in the wonder that I was finally here - that I had traveled here all the way from Ohiopyle on the trail on foot. The juxtaposition seemed really strange - worlds almost, but not quite, colliding. Pristine wilderness and frenetic, concrete-and-steel, internally-combusted artificial human civilization - separated by nothing but a fence and a thirty or forty foot drop. Then I quickly moved on and followed the husband-and-wife team down into the woods on the other side, where the trail immediately led steeply downward, and soon there was no hint at all that we were anywhere near a busy interstate highway.

I passed the husband-and-wife on the next climb (though we would trade places a few more times down the trail) and then kept catching and passing people who didn't look very good the rest of the way to the aid station. By the time I reached there I had passed all but one of the people I remembered seeing leaving the previous aid station while I was sitting there (the one I didn't catch was Clint). I tried to offer encouragement as I went by. 'It was getting late in the afternoon. We were past peak heat,' I thought. None seemed very encouraged, and I arrived at the aid station a good ten minutes ahead of anyone - and spent that time repeating my rest-rehydrate-refuel strategy, and within minutes of others arriving I was ready to leave. Most of them I never saw again after that.

All this by way of saying I think I played this all right in the heat. Taking anything on the stomach out there on the move was a dicey proposition, but resting a bit at the aid station allowed me to really tank up before moving again - allowing me to get through to the next aid station on just regular small sips of water from my bottles.

Orgain was the key! That stuff worked like magic for me. It's basically drinkable real food in a carton, and every time I had one I felt good and moved well for at least four to six miles. Pushing just a little more beyond that was usually enough to get me to the next aid station. It continued to work that way for the rest of my race (though the highs got progressively lower over time). Good stuff!

Lynn Run (AS5) to Checkpoint #3 (Rt. 30 - mile 46)
The section from Lynn Run (mile thirty-nine) to Route 30 (mile forty-six) is one of the most beautiful on the trail. Along the way you pass the ninety-foot cliffs of Beam Rocks - one of those still-natural attractions without paved access trails and security fences everywhere, where people are trusted to know what they're doing and be responsible and if they fall off the cliff and die (as does happen from time to time) it's on them and while we feel bad about it we're not going to let their stupidity ruin it for everyone else... <sigh>

Not too far after Beam Rocks you go through the most amazing fields of ferns! The trees are tall and the canopy is up high so you can see for hundreds of yards around you, and the ground is covered with ferns as far as you can see in every direction! It's magical terrain unlike anything I think you can see anywhere else and I just loved being back here again.

After some slightly tricky navigation through Spruce Run, where the trail intersects and briefly travels with another, blue-blazed trail, things trend mostly downhill but its rolling again and you don't notice the trend. I was still strong though, only starting to run out of gas a little bit in the last mile or so. On the final climb up to the Route 30 aid station my plan was set. I was looking at the longest unsupported section of the race next: 10.1 miles from Route 30 to Route 271. I would tank up here at the aid station again as I'd been doing and I would take an extra Orgain with me in my pack for a boost when I started running out of gas halfway through...

...except I had booby-trapped Karen!

The first time I'd seen her she'd brought two Orgains in the bin but I'd only drank one. The next time she'd only brought one. It was still all I'd needed then but though I'd thought to say something about it I hadn't. When I got to Route 30 there was only one Orgain, and when I told her my plan she nearly broke into tears instantly on the spot! My poor sweet wife was frazzled! By then it was going on 7:00 P.M. and Karen had been going since about 4:30 A.M. under stress to find her way, haul the stuff, and repeat.

She was a wreck and she was sure she had ruined my race by not bringing two Orgains! It would take at least ten minutes to hike back to the car and get another one, and I didn't plan to stop that long. My margin against my plan was long gone in the heat of the afternoon, and my margin against the cut-offs had been shrinking. I immediately worked on reassuring her: it was alright; I would fuel up on the other things we had and take the one Orgain with me for a boost on the trail. I still had a Probar on me. I wouldn't lack for calories out there! It would be alright.

Mom was there too, and it was good to see her - though I didn't have much time to chat with her right then. In my own condition it was pretty much all I could handle dealing with Karen and making sure I didn't forget anything I needed. This was where lights would come into play and I carefully picked out what I wanted from the light box - which Karen had reliably remembered to bring and she double-checked I had what I needed before I left. I will continue to sing Karen's praises to anyone, anytime regardless of any damned stupid Orgain!

I stood up and made ready to go. The 'tanking up' wasn't sitting as well on my stomach this time as it had previously. "Well, I'm going to get going and try not to throw up in the woods."

"Why would you throw up?!" Mom wanted to know.

"Because I'm queasy," I said.

"Because he's been running for over forty miles in the heat," said Karen.

Mom wasn't sure she wanted to know that's what it did to me.

"You really don't understand this stuff, do you?" I asked, with a smile. Poor Mom doesn't fair well when she asks questions and I am really a very bad son at the end of the day. I love her though!

Val was there waiting for Juli again. He had also been back at Lynn Run, and I now learned that she'd only been about fifteen minutes behind me there. "Tell her to run me down like a dawg!" I told him, then I headed for the road crossing.

After I left, Karen would follow Mom and Dad back to their house in Windber (Dad had come out too, but had to wait with the car because he's having trouble getting around lately and couldn't manage the rough access trail). Mom would be Karen's lifesaver because a) Mom fed her dinner; b) Mom mentioned (and provided) flashlights for the next support mission (yeah, we were that poorly prepared on the crewing end and had no lights for Karen) and c) when Karen exhaustedly asked Mom if she would do the driving from that point, Mom said, "Sure." Karen had some relief! (Mom says she heard about how horrible it was that Karen had failed me on that Orgain all the way back to the mountain from Windber.)

Checkpoint #3 to ??
This is where my aging Garmin 310xt gave out.
The trail follows the ridgeline to Rt. 271 (top).
No more than a mile after hitting the woods, the wind picked up, the sky to the west started to darken, and a drop or two of rain hit me. I tried to gauge the north-south extent of the darkness in hope that maybe the worst of it would pass ahead of or behind me, but no. I knew what I was in for. Things were about to get interesting.

Actually (and perhaps oddly) I loved that it was on this section that this was happening! Not too far ahead and downhill on the right was the little patch of five acres with a house trailer and a detached garage that Grandma and Grandpa Berkey (my maternal grandparents) had retired to after selling the farm. We spent many summer Sunday afternoons (after church and Sunday dinner) - me, Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, Dad, and my sister, Kathy - sitting out on the long, roofed-over porch Grandpa had built onto the trailer, watching summer thunderstorms come rolling over the mountain, enjoying the lightning show, listening to the booming thunder, and watching the puddles fill and overflow in the downpour - and me getting out into it and splashing in the puddles when the adults would let me.

Seeing this one rolling toward me brought back all those great memories - only this time I was on top of the mountain, and there was no roofed-over porch to retreat to when I tired of splashing in the puddles!

As bad luck would have it, I was on high ground as the storm approached. I hustled to try to get to the next descent and get down into a hollow before it hit - and I almost made it. The first wind of the storm started whipping the trees as the rain started to spatter harder. Aside from lightning or (worst case) some kind of really big wind that could flatten a whole swath of forest, the worst danger was that the wind would bring down some sort of widow-maker on me, and I tried to watch and listen above me as I went. I did have one good-sized branch - maybe three feet long and an inch-and-a-half in diameter - hit the trail just next to my right foot at one point. It actually nicked me a little bit. I dodged one there!

I think this is what blew over and hit us out there.
A couple of women caught up to me just as the trail turned downhill and I led the way down off the plateau we'd been on as the rain started to really pound us. For the first few minutes I toyed with the idea of trying to get under something. We did pass one large rock with a little bit of an overhang, but it really didn't look like it would help much, I was already mostly drenched, and waiting out the storm would just waste time.

In another few minutes I had adapted to it. It's interesting to me how that works. Civilization has made most of us lose touch with the creature side of our natures but, just like the animals who live full-time on the mountain, we're made to survive a pretty broad range of weather conditions - much broader than most of us ever experience anymore. Some people act like they might melt if they get wet in the rain! My world now included water falling out of the sky, and that was that. I moved on. The deer got drenched and so did I. They wouldn't melt and neither would I.

The worst of it lasted maybe twenty minutes. The women passed me fairly soon after we got off the high ground, so I was alone with all those thoughts through most of it. At some point I looked down and realized that my Garmin had died. It's three or four years old now and its lithium battery is getting tired. A twenty-hour battery life is apparently now down to about thirteen-and-a-half. The only downsides to losing that were that now I couldn't keep track of where I was relative to the mile markers on the trail, and there would be no more nifty pictures of my track to help you, my few readers with incredible perseverance, stay oriented as to where I was!

Checkpoint #3 to Checkpoint #4 (Rt 271 - mile 57)
After fifty miles and running through a thunderstorm, I was totally a creature of the trail. My world was just ups and downs, twists and turns, watching my footing, spatters of raindrops off the leaves of the trees each time the wind blew, glimpses of the lowering sun through the trees to the west after it had slipped under the remains of the cloud cover - and movement, always movement.

I began to realize something new about running really long distances. If you're another ultrarunner you may already know this. I've only done twenty or so of these things so far, so I am still learning. Energy and pain are not connected - not very tightly, anyway. In past efforts it had seemed to me that they were. When the inevitable pain of running had set in, I had also lost the energy to run reasonably well. Now I began to think that had been coincidence - that the onset of pain happened to coincide with the limits of my training. This time the pain was there - had been for miles, really - but each time I fueled I could ignore it and run. This was a new experience for me, and I liked it very much.

Not that it was easy, of course. Miles in pain are (inevitably?) slower and harder. I was well on the downhill side of the race though and that knowledge kept me moving forward with as much purpose as I could muster. Each time I passed a mile marker I started figuring the miles left to go and relating them to some familiar training run I'd done. "Twenty-four. That's just the long run I did with Luana and Amy back on Morgan Hill. I can do that." At the same time though, I started just thinking mile-to-mile. A lot of my training is done in one-mile laps around my neighborhood, and the halfway point is the Carey's house at the far end. Each time I passed a new mile marker I would note the remaining mileage - but then I would tell myself, "Just run to Carey's and back." That was all I had to do right then, and that is easy to do. I'd have to be dead not to be able to do that!

Darkness was approaching, the day had been long, and my brain was getting just a little addled I think. At one point I became certain that the trail had crossed over the ridgetop from west to east and then turned south - completely the wrong way! - and I saw no hint that any kind of turn back toward the northeast was coming, or even possible given the terrain I could see. Had I screwed up and gotten turned around somehow? I couldn't have! I hadn't even stepped off trail at all since leaving the aid station! It took a little effort of will to keep this paranoia from leading me to actually screw up and backtrack, but I convinced myself to trust my memory and just keep going until the next mile marker told me where I was. Before long the last glow of the sunset was again visible to my left (where it had gone when I became confused, I do not know), the next mile marker was what it should be, and everything was okay.

I resisted going to my lights for as long as possible, knowing that once I did the decision would be irreversible, as my eyes would become accustomed to them. I wanted to postpone the 'tunnel of night' effect for as long as I could. Eventually though I had to accept the fact that if I didn't start lighting the trail in front of me I was very likely going to roll an ankle on some unseen rock or something - perhaps badly, and perhaps even badly enough to put my race in jeopardy. It was time to not be stupid, so first I pulled out my handheld (conveniently clipped to one of my front pockets, and somewhere around mile fifty-two or so I sat down on a log, took off my pack and dug out both my headlight and the Orgain I'd brought with me. I'd made it halfway through the long section and it seemed like a good time for the boost - and I'd might as well take care of everything in one stop.

I sat and rested a bit while drinking the Orgain and a little extra water to go with it. A couple of people passed by while I was there - inquiring if I was okay, as most everyone does whenever another runner isn't moving. I assured them I was good, and I was very shortly back up and moving again, now in full light-up-the-world mode.

The tunnel closed in. This too is a thing quickly adapted to and accepted. In a matter of no more than a mile or two you are no longer just a creature of the trail, but a creature of both the trail and the night. The world closes in on you and on the one thing you have to do: follow the beam of brightness ahead of you; keep going. To the well-honed practice of watching your footfalls you add the occasional flashing of a light to the trees alongside the trail ahead of you to spot one of the yellow blazes providing reassurance that you haven't inadvertently gotten off track.

I caught up to an older guy who had passed me and I followed behind him for several miles - the distance between us varying as running ability ebbed and flowed for each of us. Eventually he stepped aside on a hill climb and let me on by. I told him I thought he'd pass me again later, as his uphill power-hiking strength had seemed better than mine to that point. Perhaps he'd pushed it too hard though. His light faded behind me and I would beat him into the aid station at mile fifty-seven.

I caught up to another, still older-looking guy in the final mile. He did not look to be moving well, so I tried to encourage him. "We're just about there," I said as I passed by. I would see this guy again later. I don't remember ever seeing the first guy again (except when he came into the aid station behind me).

Checkpoint #4 to Finish
(Imagine a red line wandering somewhere along the ridge and then
along the Gap to Seward.)
Karen was there, with Mom - and Val was there again waiting for Juli. This time there were two Orgains.

I had a few things I wanted to take care of. After the thunderstorm I thought dry socks would be a good call again. I wanted to put a fresh battery in my handheld light and grab my other headlamp - just to be sure I didn't run into any trouble with visibility - and of course I needed to 'tank up' again. I also did want to take the second Orgain with me for one last timely boost sometime before the finish.

At some point near the end of getting through all that, an aid station volunteer came by and informed us that I had only fifteen minutes to get out of there ahead of the cut-off! That threw us. It was only 10:30 P.M. and all of the online material for the race said that the cut-off time at this checkpoint was 11:00. The volunteers informed us it had been changed to 10:45. That wasn't a problem for me. I was about ready to go anyway. We immediately became concerned for Juli though! She was not there yet, and if she didn't get there soon she would miss this new cut-off.

Val was not the only crew person to vigorously inform them what the race material said and what the runners still on the trail would have been planning on! We overheard some discussion among the volunteers to the effect that they might have to let people go on between 10:45 and 11:00 if they wanted to. I certainly wasn't going to wait around to test that! I got up and hit the trail.

Once I was out of there, the only remaining cut-off was at 3:30 A.M. - at the finish. I had five hours to cover thirteen more miles, and that surely seemed like it should be enough.

Checkpoint #4 to AS8, Gas Line (AS8, mile 62)
I remember very little of the next section of trail. It went up. It went down. I followed my light and I checked for yellow blazes. I ran whenever I could and walked whenever I had to. I watched for the mile markers. 

Those came much slower now, it seemed. The most frustrating thing about the mile markers on the trail (every time you go any significant distance on it) is that they are completely uncompromising. Every time you start trying to convince yourself, "I must have missed the last one. I'll bet the next one I see will be two miles more." - you are wrong. I started trying to convince myself of that a lot from here on in, and I was wrong almost every time.

The only time I wasn't was on the road section. Somewhere after mile sixty you suddenly break out of the woods onto what at first appears to be another road crossing (there are lots of dirt/shale mountain roads to cross on this course) but then you notice that you're actually near the intersection of two roads and there are some chalk lines in the dirt leading you around the corner into the middle of the road going generally the direction you've been traveling.

It was black as - well - night out there. I could see another headlight way up the road in the distance - extra confirmation that I was on course - and there was an occasional reflective ribbon hung from an overhanging tree branch along the side of the road. I ran for a while because the surface was relatively flat and the footing was good, but it was trending uphill and I soon tired of that and went back to walking. Another runner was behind me, and competitive-me kept moving fast enough to keep it that way, running again when I had to to increase separation. I switched off my handheld light to save the battery. It seemed like forever hiking up this long, dark tunnel of road until, finally - looking like a gleaming city on a hill - aid station number eight ("Gas Line") appeared far up ahead at the top of the final, long rise!

I'd figured I'd passed mile sixty-one somewhere along the road, and I was right.

Walking toward the warm glow of lights at the aid station was inordinately comforting. I'm not sure why. I wasn't in that bad a shape or anything, and I didn't really feel like I needed much. It was just the effect of that warm, welcoming glow at the end of such a long, straight tunnel of darkness. The brighter it got the happier I felt. Once I got close enough, friendly voices greeted me and offered me hot food. Suddenly that sounded pretty good and I opted for half a grilled cheese sandwich. I sat myself down in a chair to eat it and let a volunteer bring me a cup of Coke to wash it down.

Clint Langley was there! It was the first time I'd seen him since way back when he left the mile thirty-two aid station ahead of me. He told me all we had to do was twenty-three-minute miles the rest of the way and we'd finish, and then he hit the trail again. I finished my food and followed not too long afterward. 

Onward

I moved pretty well for the first two or three miles and I passed several people. The first of them was that second older gentleman I had seen right before the mile fifty-seven checkpoint. He must have gone right through back there and not stopped long at the Gas Line aid station either. He appeared to be moving even worse than the last time I saw him, weaving a bit on the uphill section where I caught up to him. Passing by, I said, "Way to tough it out." He seemed to appreciate the comment, but I need not have worried about him, I think. If I'm right it turned out he was Gary Lukacs - who's got a string of finishes going way, way back at some of the country's toughest hundred-milers and shorter trail races. I think he knows how to 'tough out' a finish - though I'm pretty sure even the very experienced don't mind hearing that their effort has been appreciated.

By the way (if I'm right about that) Gary Lukacs is only four years older than me. Hmm... perhaps I may actually be an 'older gentleman' too.

Every time I came up behind another light or set of lights I expected it to be Clint - but it never was. There was a lone guy here, a couple of guys there, a man and woman running together - but never Clint. He must have been moving very well. After a while I stopped seeing any more lights ahead, and I was alone on the trail in the night.

I continued to play the futile "I must have missed the last mile marker" game (I never learn) and I mentally debated with myself whether to drink my Orgain yet.

"Not yet! Save it for when you're really out of gas and need it for the final push."

"But it's just weighing me down in my pack when it could be giving me energy instead."

I let the argument run for a while, figuring they'd sort it out when the time was right. Finally 'we' got to mile sixty-six and the 'use-the-calories' guy won. There were only four more miles to go. If now wasn't the time for an energy boost then when? I got out the Orgain and drank it on the move, and the use-the-calories guy felt smugly vindicated.

Then all of us got distracted by something. There was a deep, low, rumble - barely discernible - carried on the damp night air. "That must be train traffic going through the Gap!"

Home


Gas Line to Finish (mile 70)
As I worked my way up and down a few more small rises, the sound came and went, a little more certain each time. Then I started occasionally glimpsing a light through the trees off to my right, but couldn't make out how far away it was or what it was. Was there some building up here on top of the mountain? Finally, coming down a slope with a bit of a lateral tilt toward the Gap, there it was through a big break in the trees...

...and it was just as I'd always pictured it. I mean exactly as I'd always pictured it. So rarely do you spend years imagining a thing, visualizing it, daydreaming it, and then have the reality turn out so much like what the mind's eye had been able to conjure.

Johnstown. I had run home.

The lights covered the bottom of the valley far below me, starting about a mile or two away and lapping up against the feet of the dark hillsides in every direction as far up the valley as I could see. I was looking up through Coopersdale, Morrellville, and Cambria City - and it was beautiful. At night you can't see that the mills are mostly gone. You can't see how run down everything looks. A few days after my failure last year we had gone to the restaurant at the top of the once-famous 'inclined plane' for dinner. It has a commanding view of the city, and in the daylight it is more than a little depressing. There are so many empty places where buildings have been razed and the space turned into parking lots where nobody wants to park anymore.

Here, from the top of the gap, in the middle of the night, all you can see are the lights, and it's still possible to imagine it the way it was - a busy little town that was the center of society in the area, full of people hustling here and there - in cars, on the sidewalks, and in the old trolley buses I can remember that ran off the overhead electric wires that had formerly powered streetcars - sparks flying as they bumped through intersections, adding a whiff of ozone to the mingled aromas of leaded-gas exhaust fumes and food from the lunch counters (and that's not as bad as it sounds). It was the place you wanted to go to shop in the better department stores, see the latest movies, find the best specialty shops and some of the best restaurants. It seemed so much bigger then than it does now - though I suppose mostly that's just me. My world got bigger - and Johnstown necessarily got smaller.

I still, in many ways, regret leaving. Had there been anything for a fairly sharp, newly-minted Computer Science grad in Johnstown in 1986 I might very well have stayed. The decision to leave, though it seemed the only reasonable one at the time, had consequences that I will regret forever. It had cost me closer relationships with my family. It had cost me decades of hunting and fishing with my Dad. It had kept me from being there for him as he got older and it got harder for him to get out into the woods. I was not there for him as he had been for old 'Eddard' Kinsey, who hunted with us when I was a kid. Mom and Dad had nowhere near the time with their grandchildren that my grandparents had with my sister and me.

I admire classmates who stayed and figured out how to make lives there - at home. Perhaps I could have done that too. Instead of leaving, maybe I could have stayed, started a computer business of some kind, built something there, and fought the decline. If I had been Bill Gates (who is only five years older than me) I might have put Microsoft in Johnstown - but I am not Bill Gates. I'm just a guy who could write some software and who never had that much of a head for business.

As I stood - really very briefly - looking at the beautiful lights, all these thoughts quickly washed over me (not for the first time). There were also very, very good outcomes from my decision to leave, I reminded myself. Had I not left, I would not have met Karen. There would not have been a Dan and a Kim for Mom and Dad to get to know as they have. The contributions, such as they are, that I have made to the lives of people in Syracuse, NY would not have happened, nor their contributions to me. Life outside Johnstown has been good to me, and I really have nothing at all to regret there.

Not that it matters anyway. What's done is done, and you can't really go home (and home can't stay just the way it was anyway). It can be nice to stop and remember once in a while - but then you have to turn away and finish the race you've been given to run. I enjoyed the lights, had my moments of wistful nostalgia, and then I moved on.

Journey's End

I had about three more miles to negotiate, and mostly it would be downhill - literally,  not metaphorically - and I also don't mean to imply it would be easy. (Who knew 'downhill' was such an ambiguous word?) The terrain started getting rockier again. Also (though I doubt that at this point it was because of the downhill I had bombed way back there almost a day ago behind Sticks) my left quads were in fact a little angry at me.

I'd just had my Orgain though and I was still able to disconnect pain from energy and move pretty well. I soon hit mile marker sixty-seven (it was supposed to be sixty-eight) and I continued on. Somewhere in this stretch I had lights coming down the trail behind me, but I picked up my pace and soon couldn't see them anymore. Then suddenly I broke out of the trees into an opening and had one of the most unnerving experiences I've ever had in an ultra! I knew what it was immediately, but I'd never expected it to be so intimidating.

There are a set of high-voltage power lines crossing the Conemaugh Gap that come straight from the Conemaugh Generating Station in New Florence, just down off the ridge to the west. It was a bit of a story locally - how they'd fired lines across the Gap using rockets so that they could pull the cables across. 1.711 gigawatts of electricity flowed through those heavy wires held aloft by the tall towers marching off in both directions to my left and right in the open space ahead of me - and that much power did not flow quietly. A deep, low, powerful, buzzing hum of arcing electricity - the kind of low-frequency sound you can feel in your chest - filled the sky directly ahead of me and in both directions, left and right. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought I could feel the power in the air.

The harmless, pretty lights of Johnstown, it seemed, were lit by a terrible, raging beast, and it was only just barely contained in the pathways built for it by the men who'd given it birth (for surely no woman would bring such a thing into the world). If, by any chance, while I crossed the hundred yards or so of open space beneath those lines, that beast chose to leap to the ground and to freedom, it would be an instant death for me.

Okay, maybe there were very, very low odds of anything like that actually happening and maybe I'm blowing this way out of proportion - but really, I was intimidated. I stepped out into the open, hunching my shoulders a little in an effort to be smaller and lower to the ground and I practically tiptoed out among the rocks that the trail wound through near the base of one of the towers. I was keenly aware of the metal flashlight I held in my hand, and the electric device strapped to my forehead. It was silly, but I tried to be quiet and inconspicuous.

Partway across I looked left and - wow! There, three miles straight down the mountainside, stood the generating plant lit up brilliantly by (presumably) some of the excess power they couldn't quite stuff into those lines. It looked like some sort of magical castle I'd come to in the night, and is a sight I will not soon forget. Everyone is welcome to their opinions on power generation and sustainability (and I have my own) - but all that aside, this was just a beautiful, impressive experience and I'm glad I had it. I will probably think of it from time to time again when I casually flip a light switch.

I continued my tiptoe to the treeline on the far side and I'm not sure I ever felt happier getting in under some sort of cover in my life. The trail led gradually downhill and almost immediately the hum of the beast was lost to the night behind me. The civilized world would wait for me just a little bit longer.

Mile sixty-eight took way longer to show up than it should have, but I didn't make the mistake of expecting sixty-nine instead. The rocky downhill continued, sometimes steep, but mostly more gradual than I had feared it would be. Partway down the rocks got bigger and at times the trail was once again hemmed in by laurels.

Finally ahead I saw what looked like the final descent leading to flatter ground as far as I could see in my light - and in the lights of a man and a woman picking their way down the hill ahead of me. Apart from Clint (who these people weren't either) I'd been the class of the field around me on this final section and I picked a line around this couple and ran down to the bottom.

Right there was mile marker sixty-nine!

I knew mile seventy was acknowledged by the race directors to in fact be short by about a quarter-mile, and as soon as the ground flattened the trail surface became wide and smooth. When I pass somebody that close to the end of a race I like to do it with authority and, if I can, build enough of a lead on them to make it obvious that I really deserved that late change of placement. I also like to finish strong once I know that I can. Obviously it was time to kick.

I ran almost every step of that last not-quite-mile. I'm sure the actual pace was unimpressive, but it felt fast to me and I almost felt like letting out another whoop of joy. I was finishing Laurel Highlands, and I had wanted this for seven years!

In a way I could have wanted that last mile to last forever. That time when I knew victory was in hand and not only that but feeling like it was completely on my own terms rather than beaten and bedraggled and just barely by the skin of my teeth - well - I couldn't have asked for better or more than that.

Both all too soon and not soon enough, the bright lights of the camp at the finish appeared through the trees ahead. Fifty yards or so short of the chute, there it was: mile marker number seventy. I halted my victory run long enough to bend over and plant a smooch on top - and then I ran it in from there.

Done!

The timekeepers recorded my number and my finish time (21:19:29) and Rick Freeman went to a bin, reached in and handed me what I had wanted for so long: a small wooden replica of the mile markers with the number "70" burned into it. It is the coolest finisher's award on the planet. (Don't even bother trying to argue with me about that.)


(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
I was 76th of 86 finishers and 137 starters. That finish rate (62.8%) is marginally lower than last year when I failed so badly, so it can even be argued that I earned my redemption in a tougher year.

I finished way faster than my faithful crew had anticipated. While I had been less than fifteen minutes ahead of the cut-off at the last checkpoint (or less than thirty ahead of the old cut-off), I was a tad more than forty ahead at the finish. I had indeed been strong over the last thirteen miles. As I waited for my crew to pick me up, I got to sit in a comfy chair while the wonderful volunteers at the finish fixed me up the all-time best bowl of chili I have ever eaten - full of beef, pork, and chicken (your choice) and covered in gooey, melty cheese! O...M...G...

Karen and Mom showed up (having gotten back out of bed when their 2:30 A.M. alarm went off - God bless them both) and handed me drinks and took my picture. Other trail friends (we are all friends - all of us who run ultras - whether we know each others' names or not) came in with their own successes and we sat and recovered and basked in the glow. The last finisher in was Gary Lukacs.

Sadly, Val was not there, and when I asked Mom and Karen about Juli, I learned that she had not made it past the Route 271 aid station back at mile fifty-seven. She had taken a bad fall on some rocks and banged up her leg. Nothing broken or otherwise too badly damaged, thankfully, but bad enough to slow her down and cost her a finish. She's since told me that the monkey that had been on my back has now jumped onto hers, and she wants to come back to the Laurel Highlands.

Closing Thoughts

Sunday afternoon.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
As always, I've written this for me, to help me remember, and to help me process an almost overwhelming experience. In the past, others have appreciated my rambling narratives as well, and if (in spite of the daunting length this one grew to) you have enjoyed reading it I'm glad. Thank you for sharing the journey with me.

There is a real sense of closure here, with this - my longest-held goal - now finally accomplished. The journey that began seven years ago when a still far out-of-shape guy read a book that opened his mind to the possibility of incredible distances in beautiful places, then looked up at his home mountain and asked, "Why not there?" has indeed now ended. The climax had been everything I knew that it would be. My head is full to overflowing with images of the incredible beauty of the Laurel Highlands.

Where do I go from here though? Am I done? I don't think so.

The visions that a mere book opened to my mind were nothing in comparison to the far wider vistas of possibility revealed along the way by the things I have done and the growth I have experienced in pursuit of those visions. I am eager for the next long road, or the next long trail, and I will begin that new journey (whatever it turns out to be) with the confidence that comes from having persevered through all of the unforeseen challenges and finished this one.

They say hundred-milers only begin at seventy miles...
I think I could maybe run over 300 in a 6-day race...
I can only stay away from Vol State for just so long...

I try not to kid myself. I am indeed an 'older gentleman' and there will come a time when the journey must really end. Until then, adventure awaits and I am going out to meet it. Who knows? Perhaps nothing will come of it but, even if that is so, now I will always carry with me the immense satisfaction of knowing...

...I did this.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you - to all of you who have inspired, encouraged, cajoled, and educated me along the way. There are far too many of you to name and I hope you all know who you are. I will single out Juli and Val Aistars by name though. Thank you for your friendship and for sharing the weekend with me - and I will see you in September at ARFTA 2!

My thanks as well to Rick Freeman, the Hewitts, and all of the many volunteers that are so essential to make an event like this possible. I'm not sure I've ever been better-served at a race.

Thank you, Mom, for your inspiration to keep doing things and stay healthy - and thank you for bringing fresh energy to the 'second shift' of the crewing job that day. You were a huge help!

Finally - once again - I thank my very best friend of soon to be thirty years now, my beautiful wife, Karen. I'm pretty sure her old visions of travel together after our kids were grown looked nothing like this, but she has embraced and supported my passion for this crazy running thing more completely than I had any right to expect. Thank you, Dear - and I love you!

3 comments:

  1. Bravo!!! Congratulations, Pat! The pleasure of sharing the weekend was all ours!

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  2. I have been waiting for this race report since 6/12!

    I love that I made it into the report. I love that you were so very ready for this race and that it was everything you hoped it would be.

    One of the great things about race reports is, the more ultras you run, the more wisdom you can glean out of other people's experience. For me - a few things out of this. I've not yet been in a race where I really needed to make use of an aid station as a place to stop and do stuff - I've just gotten through them as quickly as possible, grabbing what I need. However, I'm pretty sure on my next big endeavor I will need to use them more strategically and hearing what other runners do on longer runs has me thinking about what I will need to have on hand.

    Karen does, indeed, deserve a medal. You should get one for her. I'm sure you can order one somewhere. Top notch crew - especially crew who loves you - is invaluable.

    Other wisdom - separating energy from pain. I have experienced this but never put it into words. Something else to be aware of going forward.

    Thanks for all of the time you spent detailing this adventure. Thanks for your mentorship.

    Amy

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  3. Congratulations Pat. An excellent run and better story
    I'm just getting into ultras at 9 years older than you and found your story inspiring and has me thinking as to what might be possible. As you said, "Who knows?"

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