Laurel Highlands 77 Mile Ultramarathon 2010
Humidity sucks. No doubt it does.
The day was humid and steamy, even before it had begun. My glasses began to fog before even a few hundred yards. "This is going to be a tough day," I thought. Slowly Iet the pack drift off in front of me.
Haliku and I were running the Laurel Highlands Ultramarathon, one of the oldest continuously run ultramarathons in the United States. It has been run continously even longer that the famous Western States 100 (that race was cancelled one year because of wild fires).
The event is run on the mostly single track trails of the Laurel Highlands in western Pennsylvania. In most years, Laurel Highlands is a 70.5 mile race. Unlike many events which are multiple loops or an "out and back", this race in unique because it is one of a handful that are one way from start to finish.
This year the distance is closer to 77 miles because of a detour due to a bridge being out. Six plus extra miles than usual but exactly the same registration fee- now how could Haliku and I pass that up?
In the sport of ultramarathoning, there are few races between the 50 mile and 100 mile distance, only a handful of 100-kilometer events and almost no events between 62 and 100 miles.
Thus the Laurel Highlands 77 mile Ultra is a good choice as a training race for those of us aspiring to be 100 mile finishers.
To my western adapted eyes, the forest was a wonderland of vivid emerald green complete with Ostrich ferns growing chest high.
Mountain Laurel, the namesake of the trail bloomed in groves. It is the state flower of Pennsylvania.
As trails go, the Laurel Highlands Trail is relatively "civilized" with cement obelisk markers at every mile and bridges over the many streams.
The first few miles were up hill, most of which I would fast hike. Eventually the trail reached the top. From then until the finish, it was a rolling up and down 70 or so miles.
As most of the Appalachian Mountains, it was essentially a long ridge running south to north .
I do not do well in high heat and humidity and took special care to make sure I was hydrating and eating properly.
In ultramarathons, if you have GI issues which you cannot solve, this will result in the end of your race.
No fuel (or fluids) = no go.
I started passing other runners early in the race which surprised me. This usually doesn't begin happening until at least mile 20 or 30.
I came across a man from Colorado who had finished this race twice before but who told me he was going to drop at the next aid station.
I told him not to give up yet; it's too early. Take a break, sip some fluids and put some ice under your hat but don't give up now.
He pointed to his head, "I know it's all up here, but I just don't want to go any farther."
I came across a hand written sign "Construction Crossing."
The trail crossed a muddy four wheel drive road and on the other side was another sign that said "End of Road Work."
Somebody thought they had a sense of humor.
Of course, I admit that smiled when I saw it. I even took picutres.
It's good to see the light side of what we're doing. There are times when that is difficult.
The day slowly began to warm.
The air became thick with humidity.
I continued to pass other runners. At each aid station, there were more and more who had decided to drop.
In turn I was passed myself by Don Halke and a group of other runners. it was too hot for me to try to keep up with them. Haliku and I had met Don the evening before. He is impressive given that he has a history of coronary artery disease.
At one aid station, I had to wait while one of the volunteers, an elderly slow-moving man very carefully and also very SLOWLY filled the five canisters of another runner who had gotten there before me.
For back-of-the packers like me, time is of the essence and every minute counts. I try very hard to not waste too much time at aid stations. Every second at an aid station is another second closer I come to missing a cut off and being pulled from the race.
I asked if I could please just fill my own Camelback from a water cooler under the table not yet being used.
A lady (obviously not a runner, she was morbidly obese) immediately cut me off and told me, "No! He'll get to you! You'll just have to wait your turn!"
I bit my lip and thought about continuing on without filling up. I decided against it because the aid stations in this race were farther apart than in other races. I didn't want to later have empty water bottles and be forced to make the decision of trying to tough it out to the next aid station vs. drinking out of a stream with Giardia.
After several minutes (which felt like thirty) they finally got my Camelback and bottles filled.
I left that aid station before that other runner did. He was still sitting in the chair where he was when I had arrived. He ended up dropping at that aid station. He never needed all those bottles which I had to wait patiently to be filled before my own.
I don't want to sound like I am criticizing aid station volunteers, because I'm not. They volunteer their time and weekend for no pay and little recognition. Without them, our sport could not exist. In my eyes, they are heroes, particularly for waiting around for slow back-of-the-pack stragglers like me.
However, I have found that aid station volunteers who have had at least some experience what it is like to run an ultramarathon are much more understanding about our needs (and yes, I apologize, sometimes our demands) of those of us out there struggling on the trail. I think all ultrarunners should volunteer at races because of this reason.
I am certain that if that aid station volunteer had also been a fellow ultrarunner, she wouldn't have acted as so much of a water cooler Nazi. I might have gotten out of that station a few minutes sooner.
At every turn of the trail there is another challenge or problem to solve. No point griping about that which is past. I soon would have other issues to face.
We came through an area which was a downhill ski resort. I tried to imagine how nice and cool it would be had we come through this area in the winter time.
We entered the welcome shade of the trees again.
I started to get a headache and a little nausea.
"I must be getting a little dehydrated," I thought, recalling that it had been a few hours since I had peed. It had only been a trickle at that.
I emptied both of my water bottles and took sips from my Camelback.
"Now I could use an aspirin or naproxen.." I thought, "too bad I don't have any in my fanny pack.".
Then I looked down and saw a plant familiar to me.
It was Wintergreen or Gaultheria procumbens, also known as Tea Berry.
This small evergreen plant contains the wintergreen tasting methyl salicylate- simlar chemically to aspirin and one of the ingredients in Peptobismol.
Besides taking away the foul-taste of sports drink and dried saliva out of my mouth, methyl salicylate has anti-inflammatory properties. The indigenous people used wintergreen to treat a variety of fevers, aches and pains.
I smiled to myself, "I might not find a naproxen tablet on the trail but here's the next best thing!"
I picked a few sprigs and chewed on them slowly. None of the other runners or volunteers noticed the greenery I was chewing on- or maybe they did and they didn't say anything.
Before consuming any type of edible or medicinal wild plant, however, it is essential that proper identification is made.
The plant on the left is Wintergreen.
The plant on the right is a young Mountain Laurel- which is inedible and actually moderately poisonous. If large amounts are ingested (ie a belly full) it can even kill.
As you can see, the plants look similar. Given the refreshing scent and flavor of Wintergreen, it would difficult to confuse the two, especially after you put Mountain Laurel in your mouth. It would taste bitter and you would spit it out. Unlike Poison Water Hemlock or an Amanita mushroom of which even a small taste of either could be deadly, a taste of Mountain laurel wouldn't be a large enough of a dose to be harmful .
Whether it was placebo-effect or real medicinal properties of the herb- soon I felt better and just in time. The day was getting hotter and I was getting more miserable.
It's funny the ways we try to disassociate to deal with the pain and fatigue.
I try to live in the moment and not think too much about the hardships I face. I try to see the bright side of things. That can be very difficult at times, such as when dry-heaving by the side of the trail.
I think about all that I have to be thankful for: my family, my friends, my health, my career and simply being alive on the planet Earth.
It really is a privilege to see the world from one's own two feet. There may come a day when I no longer can run as far as I do. I try to appreciate and savor every run I go on now- short or long.
In today's race, I knew I would have to pay attention and focus. I would have to associate. If I disassociated for too long- say more than 15 or 20 minutes- I might ignore signals my body was giving me such as have a drink, try to eat a little or pay attention to that hot spot on your heel, you might need to stop and do some blister prevention.
It was hard doing more associating than disassociating.
Every time I did my "full body system check" which is a mental check of my entire body head to toe, I became suddenly became aware of how bad I was feeling.
It would have been easy to stop. It would have been the intelligent thing to do.
But from previous experience, I knew that my suffering was only temporary and quite literally was "all in my head." My brain doing its job of self-preservation well. It was simply making sure I didn't do anything too stupid or irreversable. My suffering was simply another challenge to overcome.
"If it were easy, everyone would be doing this," I thought, "No one every died from feeling bad." I pressed on.
The trail was marked with yellow blazes.
From out of no where I started humming, "Follow, follow, follow.. the yellow blaze trail…" to the tune "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," from the movie "The Wizard of Oz."
It got me a few more miles down the trail.
I never said we ultrarunners were sane, did I?
Usually the Laurel Highlands trail goes over the Pennsylvania turnpike. This year and possibly future years, the bridge is out. Because of this, the race took a six plus mile detour on asphalt.
It was this section that everyone agrees was the most challenging of the race.
The pavement baked in the heat of the afternoon. There was little to no shoulder and vehicles did not slow down so often I had to move over to the sloped side of the road for safety.
"Gosh, this really sucks," I thought. "I could have chosen a little less arduous sport to take up in my mid life, such as golf. Why did I have to pick ultramarathoning?"
There had been a runner slowly jogging behind me for a couple of miles. Eventually he fell so far behind I didn't see him any more.
Then, in the late afternoon I was given a reprieve. A thunderstorm darkened the sky and completely drenched me.
"Aaah! That's much better!" as I threw up my arms in relief.
With newly found energy, I started running more quickly, hoping to make up all of the time I had lost during the heat of the afternoon.
I got to the 44 mile aid station where food, beverage and dry clothes awaited me in my drop bag.
I exclaimed to the aid station volunteers, "In the rain I feel reborn like a freshly watered flower!"
Of course I then qualifed my statement: "But if I'm a flower, I must be a skunk cabbage."
They all laughed.
I turned off the road and back on to the single track. Now this is the kind of running I Iove!
I HATE pavement!
As the sun went down, I started moving more quickly. Still I saw no other runners. I wondered where they all were. They couldn't be too far behind me. Would they catch me?
None of the 20 or 30 or so other runners who I had passed I ever saw again.
I came across all kinds of unique and interesting fungi earlier in the day.
I even took a few pictures as above.
There's nothing that makes fungi grow than water and humidity.
I noticed that the Russula species were particularly large (photo to the left). Russula are a common family of mushroom.
Some Russula species are edible; but others are mildly toxic, usually GI symptoms. Because it is hard to distinguish between the various species, I avoid them.
You know, some people smoke "happy weed" or eat mushroom buttons so they can hallucinate and enter another reality.
Instead, we ultramarathoners run all day and all night until we see things that aren't there.
So which of us is crazier?
Slowly the sun began to set.
Then, out of the darkness two runners approached. One passed by and the other hung behind me. I asked him who he was.
"I'm the trail sweep!"
"The trail sweep?!? But I can't be in dead f'n last place, can I?" I asked somewhat incredulously, "Where are all the other runners I passed during the day?!?!?"
"Oh them?" he replied, "They all dropped out."
"Well that's not fair. I worked so hard to pass them and then they all go and quit. Wimps! Get 'em back out here!"
I was glad to have company on this part of the trail. Despite having headlamps, the trail was hard to follow in the dark. Two sets of eyes are always better than one.
We shared our stories of what else… previous races, our thoughts on the meaning of life and why we run. It made the time pass by.
I arrived at the 53.2 mile aid station hungry, ready to eat, drink, fill my Camelback and go on my way.
But then the aid station folks said I would have to stop and hand in my race number. I had missed the cut off by only a few minutes. It's really bad form to argue when you are told you have to stop, so I obliged.
Nevertheless, it felt very strange to be pulled from a race despite how good I was feeling. Indeed, it was the best I had felt since shortly after starting that morning.
I got a ride to the finish. Now usually back-of the-packers like me do not get to watch the other runners come it to the finish. So after eating my fill of soup and chili, I watched and cheered as the others jogged in.
Haliku finished well up in the pack. His finisher's award is a wooden obelisk with a number 77 on it. If any of you subscribe to Ultrarunning magazine- his race report is in the August issue.
Out of the 116 starters, only 50% of us or 58 finished.
In my mind, I know, I just know I could have made it the full distance if only I hadn't gotten pulled. I was among the last few to not finish.
Had they let me go on I know I would've made it the full 77 miles. I KNOW it. I felt great. Not enough to be pulled or to DNF.
But could I have made it before final cut off?
There's no way to know now. More than likely I would've been pulled at the next checkpoint. Even less likely maybe I could've made it past that one checkpoint but still finished the race after final cut off.
That's one of the frustrating things about being a back-of-the-packer… everything must go right.
If something goes wrong for someone else further up in the pack, they have the time to take a break and regroup. Their finish time might not be as good as it possibly could have been but they have a cushion and can still finish.
We back-of-the-packers don't have that luxury.
Oh well. That's just how it goes sometimes. Race conditions aren't always perfect. Some obstacles can be overcome; others not. I run too many of these races every year to feel bad or regret how I did at any one of them for long.
The next event is always just around the corner. The way I look at it, no matter how an event goes: every ultra is training for the next one…
Did I learn something in the process? If my answer is "yes" then the race was a success.
For about a week after the race, I was ecstatic, almost euphoric about how I did. Yes, I was a DNF- so what?
What matters is that I DID NOT GIVE UP. I was pulled, I didn't give up or drop- there is a HUGE difference. I did the best I could under the circumstances. It might not have been enough to finish but is still nothing to be embarassed or feel bad about. I wasn't alone, half of the runners did not finish. I went farther than most of them.
I ran basically two traditional 26.2 mile marathons back-to-back on a really hot and humid day mostly on single track hiking trails. That is nothing to be ashamed of.
It's nothing to be ashamed of at all.
Run on, my friends, run on!