I signed up to run Highlands Sky 40 Miler a long time ago. I ran it last year, struggled, but absolutely loved the course and the event. This year we had friends that wanted to join us for a fun weekend in the mountains of West Virginia. They have two kids the same age as ours, so the kids would have fun together. Also, they had never been to an Ultra event and were curious to see what it is like.
When I originally signed up, I did not know yet that I would be running MMT (and subsequently Old Dominion). So, I was coming off two 100 milers and this would be my third Ultra in five weeks. I obviously was not excepting my best effort, but at a minimum would have fun and enjoy the course through the mountains. The race starts on a two mile stretch of road before heading onto the trail. There was a good group of runners upfront including Aaron Schwartzbard, Jeremy Ramsey, Mark Lundblad, and David Frazier. When we hit the first major climb, I knew my legs were too tired to stay at the front, so I hung back a bit. The first half of the course is harder than the second half; with two steep climbs and more technical trail. Knowing this I was not too concerned about not being able to push through this section. Instead, I tried to enjoy the trail and the beautiful scenery. I also had a good time chatting with several of the other runners, including David Ruttum (he went on to finish Third) who will be running UTMB this year and had interesting stories from last year’s canceled UTMB.
Coming into the halfway aid station, Anne, our friends and kids where waiting for me. Seeing I was about 20/25 minutes back, Anne asked me what was wrong. I replied - “Legs are tired, not sure why” (smirk). I was feeling very good otherwise. I quickly said goodbye and headed onto the “road across the sky.” Last year I blew up during this stretch. It is a rolling dirt road that is fully exposed and you can see about a mile ahead of you at all times. Last year it was about 95 degrees and humid, which made things worse. This year it was pleasantly in the upper 70s. I was able to run this section fairly well and passed a few people. I then headed out onto the Dolly Sods, and was feeling pretty good. Legs were still tired, but over the distance they had loosened up and allowed me to run at a fairly comfortable pace.
Now comes the most interesting part of the day. About 30/31 miles into the race I start to notice that there are no trail markings. This was fine for awhile as there was really know where else to go off the trail. However, I came to a junction. The trail I was on continued straight with a sign that said private property, but there was another trail that led off to the left. I vaguely remembered the personal property sign from last year and saw footprints on the trail. So, I continued forward but soon noticed that the footprints went in both directions (someone else had run up and then run back, I was not the only one that got lost…). So I started to run back to where the last trail marking was. I now came up a couple other runners and none of us knew which way to go. There were no markings to be seen. In the distance I saw the large boulders that we were supposed to get to, but was not sure how. Eventually Bill Young, a 9-year Highlands Sky veteran, caught up to the group of now several lost runners and told us to take the trail to the left. By this point many of the runners were discouraged. I had lost at least 25 minutes, but also know that this is part of the sport and it is just another obstacle Ultra runners must occasionally deal with. I took the leap of faith and decided to run on the unmarked trail. After about two miles I finally hit the bolder section and the course markings reappeared. When I got into the aid station, the race director’s sons were there about to head out to remark this section of the course; apparently some backpackers had removed the original markings.
With that drama out of the way, I just focused on finishing well. I came into the finish in 6th place (exactly as I had been seeded), right around the 7 hour mark. I was pleased with the finish, considering the miles I have put on in the last month. Most importantly I had fun and was able to really just enjoy a good long run in the mountains.
|"Would have been here sooner if I knew where I was going"|
The rest of the afternoon we spent eating, talking, drinking good wine and watching the other runners come in. Our kids had a blast running up and down the hills and seeing all the overly friendly deer (they come right up to you looking for food). Our friends also had a good time, learned a lot, and were inspired by what they saw. Next year I am hoping they join us again, but this time as participants rather than spectators.