RR: Laurel Highlands 50K

Signing Up

I’m not sure why I signed up. I spoke with Toby and a few other friends who run Ultras and the general advice I received was 1) train in similar conditions (i.e. trails) and 2) run a marathon 6 weeks out (Pittsburgh) and another 3 weeks out (Vermont City). I was planning to run Pittsburgh, and Vermont fell into place so although I hadn’t trained on trails I thought I’d be in good shape to run the race. It was also my birthday weekend, so what better way to celebrate? I might be older, but signing up for this ultra shows that I am clearly not wiser.


I go to the pasta dinner and meet lots of lovely people, many of whom are veteran ultra marathoners, Ironmen, and the like. The food is good and everyone is positive and encouraging- I love runners. Tim Hewitt, one of the race directors gets up to describe the course and someone at our table mentioned that he ran the Iditarod. After he spoke, I asked if he had been in the Post-Gazette in March (he had) and I erroneously thought that he was the runner who shared my article about Antarctica. He wasn’t, but he sat next to me for dinner and it opened up a really interesting conversation where I found out that he was the first American finisher at Badwater, he was the winner of the Iditarod (1,100 miles!!), and he was the only man to run it twice. I went to the Inn where I was staying and it was quaint and beautiful. I had an amazing room with a fireplace and four post bed. A few other runners were staying there and it was just lovely getting to know them and hear how they came to toe the line.

Race Day

I’ve been told that the bus that takes you to the start is hard to find so I follow Brian, a Laurel Highland veteran staying at the Inn. I notice that a) we are late and b) Brian drives roughly 75 mph. We make it with three minutes to spare (usually I’d leave more cushion) but I’m not going to fuss since I made it. I make friends on the bus and at the start and after a half hour, I begin the race with 65 of my newest friends. We run on paved road for a half a mile and then turn onto the trail. I have a feeling I’m in trouble when the start of the trail is steep log steps. The first three miles are up. The rise is spread over a few miles so the climbs are manageable, especially if you’re willing to walk (the racers around me are). The trail is technical enough that now I understand why experienced runners recommended I train on similar terrain. The rocks are slippery with morning dew, rocks and roots are frequent and there are enough patches of mud. It wouldn’t be hard to hurt yourself pretty badly in a fall or misstep. I frequently have images of myself falling forward and smashing my teeth on a rock. This is when I’m not looking out for snakes and bears, which are said to have been seen on the course.

I paid to do this?!

Read above about being older, not wiser.

The descents are fairly steep and even though it’s early my legs are wobbly from the hills which makes it tough. The runners spread out and I’m quickly by myself until about mile 6 where Roger, another vet, catches up with me. We chat (amongst other things, he tells me that this race is one of the hardest 50Ks in the nation- I didn’t know that when I signed up!) and run for about two miles until the hill at mile 8. This hill sucks.

I know why it’s one of the hardest 50Ks in the nation. I’ve run four marathons in 2 months- I’m in good shape. Although I’m walking it, I need to stop several times on this hill- I can’t catch my breath, my heart is beating out of my chest, my legs are burning and I’m dizzy. It’s frigg’n mile 8. It thankfully gets easier from here.

I run on until the first aid station at mile 11. I love ultramarathon aid stations. All volunteers at all races are wonderful, but at an ultra you can actually stop to thank people. And should I have thanked them- bless their hearts they took my sweaty, muddy Camelback and filled it for me because I was too dizzy. I eat gummy bears like my life depends on it, find out that one aid station volunteer is a faculty member at CMU who is about to run a hundred-miler, and then head on my way. I run a mile or so when Art catches up to me. Art is my race angel. Art has run 291 ultra marathons and 2xx marathons. He’s logged about 64,000 race miles and once ran the entire Laurel Highlands trail out and back (140 miles!) just for fun. Art is in his early 70s and is walking about as fast as I can run. I stick with him and gasp and wheeze (my asthma was poorly controlled in this race) while he trucks along and tells me stories of his adventures (“I got to 500 marathons/ultramarathons and then really got crazy”). He makes this look so easy and I’d hate him if he wasn’t keeping me going at a faster pace than I’d manage on my own. I lose him at another steep hill at mile 18 and only catch him as he’s leaving the mile 19 aid station. Mile 19 volunteers are runners from St. Vincent college. At this point I grab what looks like Gatorade and is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my entire life. I recently tried miracle fruit, and this drink tasted like something that was enhanced. What was this wonderful elixir, sent from the ultramarathoning Gods? Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew?!?! I hate soda. I certainly hate Mountain Dew. I just go with it, because it’s that kind of day.

I’ve lost my buddies and I’m on my own. It’s mile 19 and I’m tired. I start thinking about several things:

  1. My MCM friend and trail ultra runner extraordinaire gave me a mantra. I can only remember 2/3 of it: forward motion. Perpetuate forward motion? Perpetual forward motion? Purposeful forward motion? I spend a long time thinking of appropriate phrases about forward motion.

  2. My other MCM and ultra runner friend, Jimmy, is a Marine and in Vermont he serenaded some ladies in skirts with cadence. I made variations of Jimmy’s cadence that shouldn’t be posted here.

  3. I counted. This sounds simple and silly but it was my lifesaver. From mile 19 until mile 31 I counted each step from 1 to 4 over and over and over again. When the terrain was passable it helped me keep moving forward at a solid pace. When the terrain was challenging all I had to do was take four steps at a time. 1, 2, 3, 4. Perpetual forward motion.

Note that this isn’t me. This was a picture I lifted from the internet and is some nice person hiking the trail. I didn’t use poles and only carried a Camelback.

At mile 28ish I swear I’m hallucinating. I hear someone cheering for me. In the middle of nowhere. I think I hear them say “do you need water?” I look around and can’t see anyone. Maybe a tenth of a mile later I come down the trail to find a sweet couple standing there. I’m delirious and don’t want to stop moving, but I am so happy I’m not losing my mind. No more than a half a mile later a man I passed at mile 19.5 comes up behind me. Where did he come from?! We shuffle along together (I find out the sweet couple were his parents) until we reach mile 29 and climb yet another  frigg’n hill. Give me a break! So. Over. Hills. And rocks. I’ve rolled my left ankle a dozen times and I’ve kicked so many rocks with my left big toe that at one point I actually thought I might have broken it. As Matt (aka Mr. Second Wind) runs ahead I become confused and think that we just hit mile 28, not mile 29. I become demoralized, realizing that I had further to go than I thought. Stupid glycogen depletion. I stay demoralized until I hit mile 30 and realize I only have a mile left to go! One mile! And I have an hour and 20 minutes! I get a little choked up, realizing that I am about to finish my first ultra- a hard one at that- but refuse to cry. Ultramarathoners don’t cry! So I pick it up and run as much as my ankle and toe allow, finishing in 8:47 (almost exactly twice as long as my marathon PR- a formula that held for other runners I knew).

When I ran Antarctica I learned that I could push my body and mind further than I realized. I’ve worked to continue to push myself- PRing in marathons and running an ultra. Everyone always wonders what’s next. I don’t know. If you would have told me in 2007 that I would have run 6 marathons and an ultra, I would have told you that you were crazy. If you would have told me six months ago that I would love road biking and want to do a tri this summer, I would have told you that you were crazy. Right now I’d think you were crazy if you told me I was going to run a 50 miler or try an Ironman… but at this rate you wouldn’t be the crazy one. Here’s to whatever crazy adventure the future might hold.