Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Enjoying the Journey - 2016 (part 2)

Pennsylvania's state flower - and the source of Laurel Ridge's name.
Seven years.

I've not been writing "Enjoying the Journey" posts that long, but I've been on the journey that long. It was seven years ago (maybe even this month) that I devoured "Born to Run" while on vacation at my parents' home near Johnstown, PA. I was enthralled by the idea of running unheard-of distances on rugged trails in beautiful places! I'd been working on my health and fitness for a couple of years and I was looking for something to serve as a challenge and a source of goals and motivation, and I knew immediately that I had found it.

"Why I'd bet I could even hike the whole Lost TurkeyTrail in a day right now," I thought to myself - and then I convinced my Mom and my two children to join me that very weekend as I tried it. They all bailed out at nine miles, but I continued on alone for another nine before I'd had enough. That left about eight more miles of that trail unfinished.

It seemed like this trail running thing might be a little harder than I expected. Good!

Lost Turkey was just a 'baby trail' near Mom and Dad's. As I looked to the west from the little knob their house sits on I could see the unbroken wall of Laurel Ridge running as far south as the eye could see. Up on top of that mountain, I knew, was the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) - and I knew there was an ultramarathon running its full 70-mile length every year in June. If I was going to run an unheard-of distance on a rugged trail in a beautiful place where else would I want to do it but on the LHHT - on the mountain ridge in the shadow of which I had been raised?

This view is of the Conemaugh Gap, taken from Daisy Town, PA.
I grew up just a few miles behind the photographer.
The imposing line of Laurel Ridge (left of the Gap) extends, nearly unbroken, southward for seventy miles.
(Photo credit - "buzzpittsburgh" -
This satellite image is about 20 miles south of the one above.
The left/upper end of the white line is about on the LHHT on top of the ridge.
The right/lower end is on what used to be my maternal grandparents' farmhouse.
If I had known then the degree to which I overestimated my renewed 'fitness' I would simply have abandoned the idea.

I'd watched how a few friends prepared to run a marathon or two each year and figured all I had to do was commit to training harder and longer than they did. I could do that! Whenever I set my mind to something I'm serious! From the time I firmly committed to the goal I had twenty months to train for the 2011 running of the race, and I figured that would be ample.

Well, my first ultra didn't happen in 2010 as I had hoped it would though. I limped through the year nursing persistent PF and working my way through a variety of other injuries. When that 2011 running of the Laurel Highlands happened I was on a forced layoff from running due to a developing tibial stress fracture. Not that it mattered much. I had well understood by then that I was nowhere near ready for a 70-mile trail run yet. Still, I refused to let my 50th year go by without finishing my first ultra. In August I returned to the Lost Turkey Trail and finished that 'run' solo-self-supported. Counting that one 27-ish mile effort I had a total of less than 800 miles on my legs that year when I ran/walked/death-marched my way through the Oil Creek 50K in October and I officially became an ultrarunner!

I needed a new plan for Laurel though. Finishing 50K on so little training only served to ram home the understanding that seventy miles was unfathomable. The new plan would be another twenty months of training. I would run the Laurel Highlands 50K in 2012 so that I could learn the first thirty-one miles of the course in preparation for finally taking on the big one in 2013. I finished that 50K, and it was a real eye-opener and a reminder of the scale of that mountain by comparison to anything I had yet run. Then a trail 50M with 10,000' of elevation gain later in 2012 took me nearly sixteen hours to finish and left me broken again through the end of the year. I would be a fool to tackle a longer race with even more elevation change in June when I wasn't even sure I could successfully start training again in January. I was still just not ready.

Things did finally begin to change for me in 2013 though. I switched to roads. It hadn't been a plan or anything. I just really wanted to run a Laz race and the only one remotely within my capability was the StrollingJim. Restarting training in January went okay, and for the very first time I trained methodically and ran a springtime race in a way that felt competent to me. That October I finished the CanLake 50M (another road race) in well under eleven hours - again, feeling (mostly) competent. My trusty annual 50K trailrace in Rochester that November? Again, competent - and my 50K times were on a consistent improvement trend.

All of this was good because I had succumbed to the siren song of Vol State.

What?! You've got to be joking, right? You've just gotten your ultra legs under you - finally - and you're going to run 314 miles across Tennessee in July? Well... Juli had said I could when my weekly mileage was up around 40-ish... and it was... and Vol State had captured my imagination at least as much as Laurel Highlands ever had. Oh, and my daughter wanted to run it too...

The Journey has twists and turns that cannot be foreseen. That is part of what makes it so much fun.

In April, 2014 I ran 50K in under six hours (finally) at Lake Waramaug. Then I discovered the true love of my ultrarunning life - multidays - at 3DATF a month later and I learned things in 72 hours there that were invaluable to know two months after that on the roads of Tennessee. Life changed forever on those roads. Then three months after that I brought my time at the CanLake 50M down under ten hours.

Finally, I was ready. I would run the Laurel Highlands in 2015. It would be the culmination of everything.

If you've read me before you know what happened. Mr. Big-Stuff-Vol-State-Finisher thought a little too much of himself! Mr. B.S. figured a 70-mile trail race would be practically a 'gimme' at that point. "Sure, I can run the 72-hour at 3DATF and then hit Laurel four weeks later. I'll just need to run a few trails in the spring to get my 'trail legs' back under me and it'll be fine." Well it wasn't fine, and Mr. B.S. couldn't make the first cutoff at nineteen friggin' miles! D.N.F.

So now it's been seven years. Seven years since a clueless non-runner looked at a mountaintop and said, "I want to run that." It's been a long journey, an unexpected journey, an incredible journey. I cannot say that I've loved every minute along the way, but I value them all looking back on them from here.

Ohiopyle Falls - right near the start of the Laurel Highlands Ultra
The first seven years ends when I toe the line at Laurel Highlands again a week from Saturday after a full year of single-minded focus on only that one A-goal. I have done everything I could think of. I've run thousands of miles; I've climbed tens of thousands of feet of hills; I've shed twenty pounds of excess weight; I've run appropriate races as training runs; I've peaked right and now I'm resting and running just enough to stay loose. I'm trying very hard not to be over-confident, but I feel ready.

Juli will be there, and nothing could be better or more appropriate to close the circle, to 'tie a bow' on this part of the journey! Juli was one of the first on the ultra list to send me a note of encouragement all those years ago. Juli told me I could do the Vol State. Juli helped this generally introverted loner to understand that the journey is really about the people that you meet along the way - and Juli is one of the best of those. That I can toe that line-of-lines for me alongside a friend and competitor like Juli and share as many miles on the trail with her as the vagaries of ultrarunning permit is the greatest of gifts. If she beats me I imagine I will see her smiling face waiting for me when I make it in. If I beat her she will see mine. There will be hugs. I like those.

The first seven years end next Saturday (or, more probably, next Sunday morning) - and the next seven years begin. If those are even half as rich as the last have been I will be an incredibly lucky man. The journey continues...

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