2012 Highlands Sky 40
I came across this race somewhat by accident. Around the end of August 2011, I was doing an internet search for hiking/backpacking possibilities within Roaring Plains, WV (slightly south of Dolly Sods Wilderness). I had done a few hikes in this area on South Prong and Roaring Plains trails and I also traveled a few unofficial trails along Long Run Canyon and out to the “point” (mid-atlantic hikes is a great source). This time in particular I was looking for GPS tracks to get me out to Haystack Knob. I stumbled upon a site about Roaring Plains West being declared a national wilderness area and within the description it had mentioned a “40 mile mountaintop marathon” (ironically, one of the pictures on that site is the WVMTR website banner photo, and shot from of all places – Haystack Knob). I followed up until I found the WVMTR website and the HS40 event page and after reading the description immediately set this race as my goal.
At this point, I would have considered myself an avid runner but not really a serious runner. I had been running off and on for the past 10 years or so but I was very streaky with large swaths of time (months) both on and off. I was never into the racing scene and did it more for enjoyment and the positive health benefits. I have only raced one each 5k, 10k and marathon ( all PRs :-)) with the latest one in 2003. When I did enter a race, I would take that seriously, however, and had respective times of 18:18, 39:04 and 3:06:23 (after a 1:27 half split 😦 ). Fortunately, when I did come across this race, I had been on one of my running streaks and already had a weekly 20 mile base to work with. But I had never run a trail before.
In preparation for the Highlands Sky 40, I felt that it would be wise to try to get a 50k under my belt to give me some small measure of what to expect. After a little internet research I came across a local 50k trail run called the Marshall Mangler just north of Pittsburgh. This was a November race which gave me two months to prepare. Luckily, I live only 2 miles from a county park which probably has around 50 miles of single track trails for me to train on. I quickly learned to love running the trails and avoided streets whenever possible. Trails also allowed me to run with my lab.
So the Mangler came and I finished in a decent 5:26 but then backed off a lot in December and January (that damn streak thing). I entered a local 20 mile road race in February to get me back on track and then afterward continued to log 40 to 50 mile weeks throughout the spring to prepare for Highlands.
I booked a room at the Timberline Hotel through the HS40 website as I did not want to be bothered with breaking down a campsite after the race and also didn’t want to worry about dealing with inclement weather the night before. My best friend, Mike, decided to join me for the trip to the race and we left Pittsburgh at 2:00 pm and arrived at Canaan just after 5:00 the day before the race . After checking in to the hotel we left for packet pickup and dinner at around 5:30. Upon arrival, it felt as if we had just crashed someone else’s family reunion. It seemed as if everybody knew each other and I was very glad that Mike had joined me and I wasn’t alone but in reality everyone was so friendly that I would have still been comfortable. Packet pickup went smoothly. The Swiftwick socks were a nice bonus. Pre-race dinner was very good and race briefing very informative.
Race day started with an alarm at 4:00 (but I actually tossed and turned since 2:00). I arrived at the Canaan Valley lodge at 4:30 and at 5:00 we all packed into either buses or vans and left for the start. At this point in the day it was still pretty dark and I was glad it was because the caravan of vehicles took the first left off of 32 onto Jenningston-Lanesville Road. I had been on this road a few times when coming down for hikes and it is a very narrow, winding road with shear drops. This road could have easily been featured on History Channels IRT Deadliest Roads. I felt a bit at ease being in the van and not one of the buses but that comfort level was soon erased when I noticed the driver wiping the condensation off the inside windows because the defroster was not working. But sooner than expected we arrived at the starting area safe and secure.
Arriving at near 5:30 with air temps in the high 40s and conditions near perfect, I immediately walked over to the line for the port-a-johns which was already about 40 people deep. It took me almost 20 minutes to finally get into one and had me out at 5:55, just 5 minutes before the start. I noticed that there was still a handful of people mulling around the port-a-johns as the start was counting down. This is probably the only aspect of the race that I felt could be improved. Four ( I believe) port-a-johns probably is not quite enough to handle an influx of that many people at one time so close to the start.
At six am on the nose we were off. Starts are another aspect of ultras that I really like. The number of runners seems to always be a manageable size – no elbows, no bumping, no getting your heels stepped on and no absurdly fast jack rabbit starts. I had read in some previous reports of trying to position yourself in front of the main pack so as not to get stuck within the large mass of humanity working its way up the mountain. So I got in behind the group of a dozen or so of the top runners that were expected to finish 7:00 or less and worked a comfortable 7:40 pace for the first 2 miles of the road positioning myself around 20th place when we turned left onto the right-of-way through the private property and up to Flatrock Trailhead. I took a small point-n-shoot camera in the hopes of getting some shots but knew that it was getting put away the minute it became a distraction.
** Pretty much all shots were taken on the run with a fairly crappy compact P&S camera. I was hoping the sports setting would keep shutter speeds high enough but 3 out of 4 shots still turned out blurry and unusable. What I was able to salvage is probably good enough from a documentary standpoint. **
The right-of-way section is a 1/4 to 1/2 mile of waste high grass on a very narrow single track that gives only a marginal view of foot placement. I could have easily seen someone going down there but I, and everyone else I saw, made it through with no problems. From the trailhead there is a long continuous ascent along flat rock run up what was probably an old logging road. It is right after this section that the notorious stinging nettle reside. These, to me, were pretty much of a no-show. This early in the year they are only about knee high and one can avoid them for the most part by staying on the center of the trail. The only ones that really nailed me good were the stalks that got bent over by the feet of earlier runners and remained poised in the middle of the trail. Although, I could see this being a real nuisance for back-of-the-packers.
The trail continues, switching back a few times and crossing Flatrock Run before making a dramatically steep push up to Flatrock Plains at about the 5 1/2 mile mark. Since leaving the road I had probably passed about three runners. While working my way up through the steep section and finally on top, I got in behind a familiar face at HS40, Randy Young. I knew from looking at previous race results that Randy was an 8 hour runner (what I was shooting for) and between him and his brother, Bill, had 19 of 20 HS40’s under their belts. At this stage I felt it wise to hang with Randy and ensure a decent pace while guaranteeing not to get off trail.
After getting to the top, close to mile 7, the trail opens slightly to fern and heath covered meadows. At this point, the trail becomes more runable and not terribly rocky or wet (at least this year). Moving onto Roaring Plains Trail, the trail becomes pretty much rock covered forcing eyes to concentrate of foot placement and missing , what I know from past hikes to be, an amazing place. Continuing on, we get to the trailhead of Roaring Plains, then through maybe a 100′ section of pipeline road and past AS#2 at about 1:50 into the race. The course then follows about a 1/2 mile of forest road before taking a sharp left onto Boars Nest Trail.
Almost immediately, after getting on to Boar’s Nest, you need to cross the upper south fork of Red Creek. With water levels low, there was no problem getting across dry. After crossings and continuing up a small hill the trail levels off to more rocky and wet running. It was at this point a group of three runners closed in on me and I let them get through. Right after these three got through we hit the steep descent of Boar’s Nest and all runners, including Randy, were gone in an instant. I was dumbfounded. This section of trail is insanely steep and these guys went at it like it was a slight downhill grade. I continued slowly working my way down but really felt the soreness and burning in my quads with every jarring foot placement. Eventually I made it to the bottom.
Once again the trail appeared to resemble the remnants of an old logging road. I was able again to pick up a reasonable pace but was worried that the trashing my legs just took was going to come back and haunt me. Finishing off Boar’s Nest, I jumped onto the South Prong Trail and started working my way back up hill again. This is about 13-1/2 miles and 2-1/2 hours into the race. I finally ended up catching up to Randy. I asked him about how he was able to fly through that down hill section and he says – “you just have to kamikaze it. Holding back is going to tear your legs up”. He then proceeds to tell me one of the guys that just past us was John Logar and that he had recently completed a 135 mile run through the depths of Minnesota in the middle of winter ( Arrowhead 135), coming in 3rd and earning him rookie of the year. Crazy!
Again the trail is the remnants on an ancient logging road with areas washed out. We follow the lower slope of the mountain and South Prong upstream 2 miles to a stream crossing. After crossing the creek, the trail continues up hill and then makes a steep right opening up to a forest road and AS#3. We arrive in 3:00 hrs which is on the front end of the splits I had in my mind so all was according to plan.
After leaving AS#3, the trail ascends steeply again to Red Creek Plains. Within a 1/2 mile, the top has been reached and a very rocky section ensues.
At about mile 18 you hit the first elevated boardwalk bridges. These were constructed by the forest service to protect the fragile wetlands and upland bogs. Continuing on through a total of 10 bridges (I think), you finally empty out onto the forest road to continue another mile uphill to AS#4. Right after leaving the trail and hitting the road, two gentlemen informed us that we were 20 and 21.
AS#4 is about 19.7 miles into the race and where drop bags are located. I had been running with Randy for the last 13 miles but this is where we parted ways. Randy had his family volunteering at AS#5 so he bypassed AS#4 while I stopped in. Although I planned to change my shoes, up until mile 16 I was figuring I wouldn’t need to but the constant back and forth of picking foot placement while running the rocky sections of South Prong Trail created pressure on the large joint at the back of my big toes so I ended up swapping shoes for a different fit. My buddy Mike was at AS#4 to crew me, and after filling my camelbak, he was forced to tie my shoes, as every time I bent over to do it myself, I would get a cramp at the top of my leg by my hip. While in AS#4 refueling, Ragan Petrie (eventual women’s winner and new course record holder), refilled her Nathan water bladder about halfway, grabbed a few morsels and was gone. Ragan was about 1/8 mile ahead of me out of AS#4 before I left.
The Road Across the Sky (RATS) to many is a blessing and a curse – a blessing to finally be off the technical rocky sections but a curse in that you are on a very open and exposed section were the sun can wear you down and being able to see 2 miles down the road with little dots for people can drain you mentally. For me it was definitely more to the blessing side. The temps were very comfortable and at 10:00 am the sun was still low enough in the sky for me to catch some decent shade on the road. I was glad to finally be able to settle in to a consistent pace. I just put my head down and tried to squeeze out a continuous 8:30 to 9:00 min/mile pace. Four miles into the RATS, Ragan had probably increased her lead to a mile and was approaching the large last hill before descending to AS#6. To me, it seemed as if she had finally started to walk a little which gave my mind all the excuse it needed to allow me to also walk a little (looking back, she probably ran that whole damn road with no walk breaks. Given her finishing time, she probably ran the second half of the race 45 minutes faster than the first!).
Leaving the RATS and jumping on to Bear Rocks Trail, the track was still very runable. The north section of Dolly Sods is mostly an open meadow. This section of trail appeared to be an old jeep road. The trail descended to the beginning of Red Creek. Halfway down I passed Joel Wolpert snapping shots with his
5D2 MkIV and 70-200 2.8 (and still the owner of the course record for an additional hour). The trail then crosses red creek and continues into a deciduous forest before emerging into a meadow where a slight ascent gets you to the top of a knoll. Before you lays the open expanse of Dolly Sods North. After passing a couple hikers I finally caught a glimpse of another runner ahead.
At this point I turn off of Raven Ridge Trail and south onto Rocky Ridge Trail. I quickly determine that it is aptly named. I slowly continued gaining ground on the other runner and at mile 31, the beginning of the boulder section, probably came within 100 feet. This has the section of boulder gardens and sweeping views of Canaan Valley. However, at this stage my legs are shot and I’m just sick of all the damn rocks. I had been running alone for about 2 hours now and my internal arguments that I’m having about continuing to push through are no longer sounding convincing to my physical self. The camera is now a distraction and gets stuffed into my shorts pocket and stays there until I finish.
I finally make to AS#7, Willie’s aid station, but felt completely depleted. I drank two cups of Dew and a volunteer filled my camelbak halfway with water. I continued on. The trail again starts to resemble an old jeep road again and descends slowly for about a mile but there is still a hell of a lot of rocks. At the end of Rocky Ridge is a junction where Breathed Mtn Trail heads east and Big Stone Coal Trail heads south. The course takes a sharp right into a couple hundred feet of forest before exiting on to a ski slope. As I turn up slope I notice the runner I was gaining on before near the turn at the top. He’s about 1/8th of a mile ahead of me but at this point I have nothing left to put on a chase and resort to looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not going to get picked off.
I walk the entire slope. The course then works it’s way back into the forest on not so rocky single track with ample shade continuing slightly uphill. Starting downhill, I notice ramps and jumps which I believe is for mountain bikers but for the life of me cannot figure how anyone could take a bike down there. It is also here that I take Randy’s advice from earlier and “kamikaze it”. I throw caution to the wind and start flying downhill hoping that I don’t catch a toe. About halfway down I catch another runner who appears to be struggling. I pass him and by the expression on his face it seemed as if he was resolved to the fact that his legs just weren’t listening anymore. I continued to finish up the downhill section surprised at both my speed and the fact that my legs felt good.
At the bottom of the hill, I turn left on to a gravel road and follow that slightly uphill and then turn right on to a gravel section that goes downhill and becomes Freeland Road. I pass by AS#8 as my water is still good and with only 4 miles left any new calories are probably not going to make it into my system before the finish.
The rest of the race is mostly roads and pretty flat to the finish. There is one section between Freeland Road and and Canaan Valley SP that parallels 32 where high grass was cut down to about 10″. That felt like running in sand. And just a little “kick ’em when they’re down” course reminder, the last 1/8 mile leaves a comfortably straight and level path to send you up a winding, rooty section before opening up to the last 100′ feet of downhill running to the finish.
It probably couldn’t have been a much nicer day for running given the second week in June. The somewhat dry spring had left the trails in great shape which is probably reflected in the fast finishing times. Both male and female course records fell with finishing times of 5:51:00 (Frank Gonzales) and 7:03:51 (Ragan Petrie). This should, however, take nothing away from their efforts. After setting the course record for CMMM 50 last year, it’s no surprise for Frank to bag this one. As for Ragan Petrie, she was in 22nd place arriving at AS#4 slightly before the halfway mark in the race. She then continued to pass an additional 12 men (me, being one of them) on her way to getting the record.
The race itself is a very well put together event. Dan Lehmann does an outstanding job as RD. The volunteers were all very friendly, helpful and anxious to do whatever they could for you. It was amazing how everyone seemed to know each other and I discovered the “ultra culture” creates such a friendly atmosphere (I guess misery truly does love company :-)). The course itself is really fantastic. It just throws everything at you. To really appreciate it, however, one also needs to do a few hikes in the area and take in what it has to offer. Both Roaring Plains and South Prong are outstanding hikes but hardly appreciated when the only visuals you get are 5-10 feet ahead on the rocky trail picking your next foot placement. Bear rocks at sunrise should be on everyone’s bucket list. Then there’s the view down Red Creek valley from Lion Head or the Unnamed Vista. And so on – all great stuff.
As for my effort, I’m pretty satisfied. I came into the race hoping to break 8:00 and finished 7:34:47. Given the 200 entrants, I somehow found a way to just break into the top 10%. I held it together on the second half and was able to pass two while not being passed. My stomach held up with no queasiness or bathroom breaks and all toe nails remained intact. I guess it was a good day.
What probably best sums up my experience is what I did the following day. While checking the WVMTR site to see if results had been posted, I noticed that CMMM 50 just posted that the online entry had been closed but a few spots were still open for mailed in paper forms. I quickly sent an email to CMMM 50 RD, Adam Casseday (3rd place HS40-2012) to get in on one of the last spots. So now I have a 50 to get ready for.