Highlands Sky Trail Race

The not quite walking, not really running, almost dead Paul at the end of 41 grueling miles

Date: June 20, 2009
Distance: 41 miles
Time: 7:45:05
Place: 11th

Course Description (from website wvmtr.org/events/highlands-sky-40m-trail-run): The course climbs a total of 5474 feet and descends 4856 feet and is basically in three sections; the Plains, the Road Across the Sky, and Dolly Sods. Two significant climbs occur in the first 15 miles where a 2300′ ascent is followed by a 1700′ descent, and then another 1200′ climb. In the first half of the course highly technical (rocky), single track sections occur from mile 7-11 and 16-18. The Dolly Sods section has an exciting boulder-hopping section from mile 30-31. The course is 75% trail, 15% Forest Service road, and 10% paved road.

Unlike previous entries, I’m going to begin with lessons learned:
1. Add quantity (time) training to plan. My longest run was a mere 4 hours. I needed much more time on feet.
2. Add quality (mud, rocks, ass-sliding downhills) to training plan. I needed much more technical training.
3. Mark drop-off bag with colorful ribbon.
4. Do not listen to Sweeney Todd, specifically “A Little Priest.”

A very, very challenging course, and, having heard numerous runners state this at the race end, the worst weather conditions for the race thus far. While I’m not delighted with my finishing place or time, I’m also not the least bit disappointed. Life is all about overcoming obstacles (even those that are self-imposed) and reaching goals (even those that may seem insurmountable).

After racing 2008 Uwharrie 40-mile Moutain Run, I thought I would never run a more difficult race. After racing 2009 Mt. Mitchell Challenge, I thought I would never run a more difficult race. Now, after racing 2009 Highlands Sky, I am convinced that I will never run a more challenging race. Only time will tell.

I drove from NC to WV Friday morning. I picked up my race packet, and had a brief conversation with the race Director, Dan Lehmann, and I asked him if the course was well marked. “Yes,” he said, “very few people have ever gotten lost. Just don’t cross a yellow line!” The course was indeed well marked. Dan and his band of volunteers are to be commended for hosting such a well-run event. Many thanks to all!

I posted this comment as my Facebook status: “Attending Highlands Sky pre-race dinner. Pasta, but no meatless sauce.” My mother replied: “u are in wv use butter” Ah, she knows me so well! While there was a vegetarian option (yes, I’m one of those), I skipped the lasagna and indeed had pasta with butter.

I talked with quite a few runners during the pre-race dinner, and the word I heard repeatedly was “rocky.”

I awoke at 3:30 Saturday morning, turned on the weather channel, and read the message scrolling at the bottom of the screen: flash flood warning. “Okay,” I thought, “just be sure to put on extra Bodyglide.” In addition, I was concerned that my recent injury would flare up. My right, inner thigh was still sore, and my hips were tight. I had run a mere 6 miles the week leading up to this race.

Runners met at the lobby, and rode school buses to the start. I sat near the front of the bus to avoid getting motion sickness. I nonetheless began to feel a little queasy near the end of the 25-minute ride. Fortunately, my stomach settled before the start.

As I was completing my yoga stretches, the tune “A Little Priest” got stuck in my head. For the next 9 hours not only did I have the song in my mind, but just one brief line of the song: “The trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased? Try the priest.” I tried to think of other songs during the course of the race, and even tried singing out loud. Nothing worked. Ugh.

As I know how unreliable the Garmin 405 is when running trails and/or with cloud cover, I didn’t even attempt to keep track of distance, splits, elevation, etc. I wore my watch to merely keep track of the (slowly) moving time.

Start to Aide Station 1—2.4 miles

The race started promptly at 6, and the lead pack was off! I stayed back and ran solo the majority of the race, and the first miles were no exception. This part of the course was on a paved road, so I used the opportunity to settle into a comfortable pace.

Aide Station 1 to 2—8.1 miles 10.5 total

Flatrock Trail did indeed have many flat rocks. And standing water. And running water. And stinging nettles. Yes, stinging nettles. Just after passing the aide station, I heard one (and only one) boom of thunder. The heavens opened, and a torrential downpour began. It was difficult to find a path of least resistance (always my goal!), so I trudged my way up the trail. The race director had warned us of nettles, but I was nonetheless psychologically unprepared. From the NC Natural website at http://ncnatural.com/wildflwr/obnxious.html: Yet another unpleasant plant that you may encounter out on the trail is Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). The long range effects of Nettles aren’t nearly as pronounced as Poison Ivy, but it can cause pretty intense short-term annoyance. Nettles have little prickly hairs that stick in your skin and sting and itch like crazy. Again, don’t touch the exposed area. You won’t have any trouble recognizing when you have just walked through Nettles. As soon as you can find water, wash the exposed area and the discomfort should vanish almost immediately. I ran through about 4 miles of nettles.

The steep ascents then began, and I could see sliding shoe marks of the previous runners. I came to the first of many stream crossings, and was unsure what direction to turn. Fortunately, another runner was just behind me.
Him: Turn left.
Me: You mean we cross the stream?
Him (with a wide grin on his face): Yes, cross the stream.”
Me: You first!
We waded through the knee-high water and began running on Roaring Plains Trail. There were some reasonably easy-to-run sections, and it felt good to turn over my legs. There was still much standing and running water, and lots and lots of rocks. I depleted my 20 oz. bottle of Gatorade well before reaching the next aide station.

Aide Station 2 to 3—5.5 miles 16 total
“If I had known this was a triathlon, I would’ve brought my bike,” I said to the volunteers at the aide station. It was still raining steadily. I grabbed a slice a watermelon and a ¼ of a pb & j and was on my way. I ran a short distance on a service road, and it was back to the trails. Near the end of the trail we (two other runners had caught up with me) ran over 10 wooden foot bridges over a very swampy area. My ankles were really beginning to ache, and I could tell that I was developing blisters on both feet.

Aide Station 3 to 4—3.7 miles 19.7 total
Aide Station 4 was at the just under halfway mark. As I approached the aide station, I began to shout my bib number, 145, so that the volunteers could more easily retrieve my bag. Unfortunately, they were unable to do so easily, and one volunteer said, “Some of the names have washed off of the bags. Can you help us look for yours?” I did. I began opening bags where indeed the names and numbers had washed off, but I couldn’t find mine. I began contemplating leaving without getting my stash, but knew that that would be a very, very bad idea, as I’ve made that (unintentional) mistake in the past. A volunteer finally located my bag (it was still marked with my name and bib number), and handed it to me. I, as quickly as possible, changed socks, emptied the rocks from my shoes, took off my shirt, changed hats, and placed Gus in my pockets. The volunteers were exceedingly helpful and friendly, even holding me up as I changed socks and placing the dirty socks, shirt, and hat in my bag. I estimate that I lost about 5 or more minutes searching for my bag. These things happen, and it doesn’t do any good to get upset. By the time I began once running, the 2 runners were far ahead. I’ll admit it: I felt defeated, discouraged, and disillusioned. Worse still, I had now been running over 3 hours and 50 minutes, which is almost an hour more than it would take me to run a marathon! I was totally spent. I nonetheless trudged onward.

Aide Station 4 to 5—3 miles and Aide Station 5 to 6—4.3 miles 27 total
This part of the course, the “Road Across the Sky,” was by far my least favorite, as it was straight miles with undulating hills. I could see the runners ahead of me, and I could see a runner easily catching and then passing me. My heart rate was increasing, and I had no choice but to walk up the hills. It was no consolation to see the runners ahead of me doing the same thing, because I knew I still couldn’t catch them. To add insult to injury, the sun finally emerged, and, as the road was wide with no trees that provided shade, I began to roast. While the temperature was only in the lower 70s, it felt much hotter.

Aide Station 6 to 7—5.9 miles 32.9 total

I quickly ate a few slices of watermelon, drank a cup of Coke, filled my bottle with ½ Heed and ½ water (that I had been doing at all aide stations), and was on my way. The volunteers were very encouraging and supportive. Just as I began to run, one of them said, “Take a left here. It’s downhill and it’s dry.” It was slightly downhill, but anything but dry, and I was now running in to a very strong headwind. The ground was very rocky and very soggy. There was no easy way around it, so I continued to run through it.

Here’s where things got really interesting. I began to run on Raven Ridge Trail, which is an open meadow with spruce thickets about calf-level high. It began to rain hard. The rain then turned to hail, and it stung nearly as badly as the nettles had earlier! This only lasted for 10 or so minutes, though. The course was still very rocky and very muddy.

To get the tune out of my head, I continued to sing out loud. No matter what song I sang, it just wouldn’t stick. Instead I’d hear myself singing “The trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased. Try the priest.” Damn you Stephen Sondheim!

I then ran over boulders, some as wide as 5 or so feet, and many that I had to hop over while at the same time looking for orange flags to make sure I wasn’t going off course. I slid on more than one occasion, but managed to stay upright. The next section was even rockier and muddier than the previous section, and while running through a particularly difficult section I felt a blister on the inside of my right foot pop. Ouch. I then hobbled along for a few more miles until I felt a blister on the inside of my left foot pop. Ouch, again. Well, at least I was no longer favoring my left leg, as both feet hurt equally as bad! Just before aide station 6, another runner caught and passed me. I offered my congratulations, and resigned myself to not finishing in the top 10. I was less than certain that I would finish at all…

Aide Station 7 to 8—4 miles 36.9 total
I ate a slice of watermelon and an orange wedge, thanked the volunteers, and was on my way. Nothing could have prepared me for this section of the course. After running (yet again) on a very rocky, muddy single trail, I then proceeded up a very steep “Jeep” trail to the Timberline Ski slopes. The trail was exposed and the sun was once again shining brightly. The ass-slide descent then began. The trail was so muddy and slippery that there was no way I could remain upright. I resigned myself to slide, and slide I did. When possible, I grabbed a tree branch or trunk to slow my descent. I finally made my way to the next aide station, more battered and bruised than I have ever been during any race. There were many times where I laughed. Or cried. Not quite sure which. Probably both.

Aide Station 8 to the Finish—4.1 miles 41 total
“There’s still another 4.1 miles to go? You’ve got to be kidding!” Again, the volunteers were very encouraging and supportive. I like when volunteers (and spectators) say, “You’re almost there!” when you are indeed almost there. I ran the next mile on the side of a paved road, as running on the pavement just plain hurt. The next mile was run on a grassy trail, and by this point I was done. The trail was very uneven, with clods of grass surrounded by areas of standing water. I finally made my way to the entrance to the park. There was much traffic, so I had to wait a few moments before I could safely cross the road. By this time I was convinced that I was going to be caught and passed before I made my way to the finish.

I ran another mile or so on the side of a paved road, and then the last portion on a single track. Still rocky, and still muddy. Oh, and just for good measure a few hills were thrown in. I was hanging on for dear life, and will admit that I looked over my shoulder far too frequently.

I finally emerged from the woods and ran on a grassy area beside the lodges. I could finally see the finish, but was so discombobulated that I had to ask a spectator where I was supposed to go—when the finish was clearly marked and but 25 yards away!

I have never been so relieved that a race was over. This was the longest distance I have run (by just a mile) and the longest time I have run (by almost two hours).

I think I might be ready to run a 50-mile race.

Paul’s left foot, complete with blisters, 2 days post-race, and Paul’s very muddy shoes, shin/calf sleeves, and socks.