I'm staring at the keyboard knowing there's a long, long story waiting to be typed. Even before I begin, I feel like I'm not going to manage to say everything I'd like to or convey all that transpired that weekend.
Nothing to do, I suppose, except start stringing letters and words together, like footstep after footstep, and see if we finish. A theme emerges.
I'm hardly shy, but I did wonder at how well we'd all mesh. I shouldn't have had any concerns. As we settled into dinner, conversation flowed as the camaraderie I've come to expect and cherish in trail and ultrarunning came easy. While Derek attended to the science experiment that is his pre-race food preparation, getting-to-know-yous transitioned into race story swapping and laughter. We walked together down to the Youghiogheny River (the "Yough") so Randy and Derek could soak in the chilly water and the rest of us could enjoy a beautiful evening in downtown Ohiopyle.
|(L to R) Bobby, Kelly, Greg, Randy, Derek, Jason and Me (photo by Jo Weakley Agnew)|
Kelly and Jo chauffeured Bobby and I back to the lodge after letting us park our vehicles at the finish line 31.1 miles away on the meandering Laurel Highlands Trail. We said quick goodbyes to let them get what little sleep they could sneak in before 3:30 AM, said final good lucks to Derek and the rest of the crew and retired for the night.
Bobby and I swapped a few more stories before flicking off the lights and getting some sleep. He was without his iPhone and concerned that he'd either left it in Kelly and Jo's vehicle or, worse yet, forgotten it on the hood of his car. We both joked that it was good he'd done it at a trail race because it was likely the phone would still be there, agreeing that at a road race someone would've jumped at the chance to pocket the loot.
We awoke just before 7:00 AM, leaving us more than an hour to cover the couple of hundred yards between the lodge and the starting line. I commented immediately that I didn't feel my best, but I wasn't too concerned either. I headed off to search for coffee and was relieved to find an open door with the smell of fresh brew wafting out onto the sidewalk. Caffeine hit the spot and any trepidation I had was long gone. It was time to sound the gun and get out into the lush beauty of the Highlands.
Bobby's plan all along for Laurel Highlands was to pace his friend, Chuck, to what would hopefully be his first 50 kilometer finish. By the time I hit the parking lot, Bobby and Chuck had met up and were ready to go. Chuck had friends along to crew and they generously agreed to transport my pack to our final destination, a detail I'd managed to not consider ahead of time.
The 50K starts in the parking lot of Wilderness Voyageurs, an Ohiopyle fixture for gear, good times and raft trip send-offs. As we broke from the starting line, we were headed in the opposite direction of the boat launches and up, up, up and away from the Yough. I remembered from last year that the initial broad track quickly turned into tight single track as a narrow set of stairs (yes, stairs) ushered runners into the first of the day's climbs. I did my best to stay ahead of the pack so as not to immediately bog down.
Well familiar with the sustained, unrunnable climb that lurked at miles 6-8, I made certain to maintain a realistic pace at the outset. I knew all too well that I hadn't logged a run of any significant length since before my Achilles flare-ups and nothing near 30 miles since last October. I was pleased to settle pretty comfortably into what felt like somewhere in the range of 8-9 minute miles. Foolishly, I'd forgotten my GPS in the pack that I'd handed over before the start of the race, so I'd spend the day without solid beta on how much time had elapsed and how steadily I was progressing. That mattered little at this stage of the race, however, and I was thrilled just to be back on the Laurel Highlands Trail.
At some point I found myself right on Greg's heels and after a few switchback's he caught sight of me in his peripheral vision and realized I was stalking him. We spent the next couple of miles in good conversation, discussing how we'd come to running, why it meant so much and marveling at the galvanizing force that is Derek.
I stuck with Greg through maybe mile 7 but watched him keep pushing on while I took a few moments to stretch the Achilles in a preventative attempt to stave off any strain issues. Having loosened up again, I got back to the climb and topped out feeling much better than I had the year prior.
And then I threw up. Violently. I was somewhere around mile 9 and didn't feel bad leading up to the episode and felt pretty good immediately thereafter. I chalked it up to the effort of the climb, shrugged it off and began moving swiftly again toward the first aid station at mile 11.6. I'd end up puking twice more before reaching that station and by the 3rd time, my body was going through the motions but finding nothing to expel.
The trail levels off and transitions into rolling terrain ahead of the first aid station and my legs felt surprisingly good when I finally reached it. I didn't bother to ask the time but, having been passed by few runners, I knew I was still on pace for a decent finish. Despite it not occurring to me to retrieve my GPS, I was able to part with my hydration pack, shirt and hat which my new friends generously offered to put with my backpack. The hat and the shirt were unnecessary as most of the trail up to that point and beyond was beneath the trees. Carrying two handheld water bottles, I hadn't put a dent in the water I'd been carrying in my hydration pack, so I didn't see any reason to continue to carry the weight, especially with closer spacing between aid stations the rest of the way. I'd come to second guess that decision.
I drank a cup or two of Pepsi which felt really good on my churning stomach. I ate an orange slice which tasted a bit harsh but seemed like a worthwhile indulgence. I refilled my water bottles with cold water and continued on my way.
I felt good. Really good.
For about 10 minutes.
Somewhere around mile 12, I threw up again. And again. And again. And....
Each time I thought I'd gotten everything out of my system, I'd set off again for the finish line. Progress had grown ridiculously slow and I believe I may have even sat a time or two over the course of just a mile or two. The trail has little stone markers at every mile, so you can easily keep track of how far you've come. Shortly after passing the mile 13 marker, I had the most violent episode of the day despite the fact that my stomach had gone empty quite some time before. It was at this point that I realized I wasn't sweating anymore. Almost simultaneous to this realization, I got hit with the worst stomach cramp of my life. A deep horizontal indentation in my stomach made it look as though someone had begun sawing me in half, lost interest and walked away after making it halfway through my torso.
My day was done. I began moving again but this time I was headed back to the first aid station. It seemed the only logical decision with aid station 2 placed somewhere out beyond mile 19. I was upset but didn't want to end up like the listless guy that me and Taylor had transported from aid station 2 to the finish line last year, wondering if the guy was going to pull through and knowing that, without an IV, he was in a bad, bad place. Oddly enough, while sitting to gather strength, that very runner passed by, stopping in his tracks when I asked him if he was the guy I'd given a ride to last year. He thanked me and urged me not to allow myself to get where he'd gotten.
Soon after that exchange and totally out of gas, I plopped down into a creek to see if I could cool off and give myself enough of a boost to get back to the aid station. Many (most) of the folks who passed by kindly offered to help me if they could. I turned down most of the offers knowing I had little chance of keeping anything down. One seasoned ultrarunner wouldn't take no for an answer and gently placed an electrolyte tab (I could've sworn it was a Listerine strip) against the inside of my cheek, gave me a salt pill and made me drink a little bit of water. She told me to take all the time I needed and then assured me that I'd come around. I couldn't help but think back on my dear friend Matt's claims that "trail magic" from a kind stranger had carried him to the finish of the 28.4 mile Susquehanna Super Hike. That image faded as before my trail angel had even passed fully from sight, I vomited up everything I'd just been given.
Which makes it all the stranger that a few minutes later I clawed my way up onto my feet and began heading back down the trail, not toward the start but toward the finish. I wasn't moving well and, at this point, I had very little hope of finishing but something had convinced me that I could at least make it to 19.6.
During one of my frequent sitdowns to try and calm my stomach pains, Bobby came upon me. He too was having some GI issues and had urged Chuck to push ahead. Though he was definitely moving better than me at this point, Bobby seemed disappointed to not be setting a quicker pace. All the more reason I appreciated his offer of an electrolyte tablet even though I turned it down. He assured me that he'd alert the next aid station to my difficulties and carried on his way.
Though I continued to creep further along, it seemed like an eternity between trail markers. I still hadn't managed to keep anything down and because of the slow progress, no longer had any water left in my water bottles. Luckily, another trail angel passed my way. Laurie wasn't fast but she was dogged. She was way, way back in the pack but I had no doubt that she was going to eke out a finishing time. She hadn't intended to have her 3-liter water bladder filled completely at the aid station but an enthusiastic volunteer couldn't be talked out of adding water until the bladder bulged. Laurie confided in me that she'd been spilling the water away to shed weight and urged me to take some. She gave me enough to fill my water bottles about halfway and then settled back into her machine-like pace. I watched her go and slowly mustered the determination to follow.
I hadn't gone more than 100 yards before I brought one of the water bottles to my lips to discover that the water was nearly undrinkably warm. Just like that my determination was gone again. The trail was again nudged right alongside a stream and I clambered in one more time to see if there were restorative powers to be had. I submerged both bottles and hoped that their contents would cool.
I do not know how long I sat there but it was long enough to turn the water in the bottle ice cold. I drank both bottles empty, savored the coolness for a bit and talked myself up and out of the creek. I was moving again.
I alternated between fast hiking and, on downhill sections, something resembling running. The further along I went, the longer I was able to sustain runs and transition more quickly between walking and running on steeper sections. Taylor had run the second leg in 2010 and I recognized one of the climbs from his descriptions and knew that I was about to make it the second aid station that had seemed impossible a short while ago.
When I tumbled into the aid station, the volunteers looked bewildered. I have a feeling it wasn't just Bobby who'd mentioned the state that I was in and it was clear that they'd been discussing what to do about me. I pounded more Pepsi and, though I still had no stomach for solid foods, I licked the salt off of a handful of Pringles. Laurie was there at the aid station and offered words of encouragement and admitted that she hadn't expected to see me in the state to which I'd seemed to return. I gave her a hug, filled my bottles with 9 parts ice, 1 part water (roughly) and continued onward. I'd made it through the aid station 2 cutoff with just 23 minute to spare.
Within the next few miles I came upon Bobby and another gentleman. They too looked shocked to see me and admitted that they were struggling. Bobby had not previously known the other runner but they'd teamed up as Bobby continued to battle his stomach and the other runner wrestled with the strain of a first time 50K attempt. Together, we all determined to push the pace as best we could to ensure that we managed a qualifying time. After a short sustained stretch in which we slowly, painfully ultra-shuffled instead of just walking, Bobby and I shared a good laugh at how crazy it was to be excited at having gotten our pace down to 17 or 18 minutes! Any other day, we'd have probably been humiliated by that realization, but it was a genuine victory under the circumstances.
The remaining miles are pretty much a blur of cramping, shuffling and, oddly enough, laughter. Too many hours had passed for there to be any chance of achieving a time to be proud of, but we did move along steadily enough to know well before the finish that we'd be managing to secure a qualifying time and a finisher's medal. This allowed time to take in and fully appreciate the beauty of the Laurel Highlands. With the exception of the short uninteresting pass through Seven Springs ski resort, the entirety of the trail is as pretty as can be with the crisscrossing streams, tall tree cover, sprawling sections of prehistoric ferns and an overall quiet remoteness.
My final time of 9:15:50 proved to be my slowest 50K to date...by 3.5 hours!
On paper, it's one of my worst, if not the worst, running performances of my life. Truth is, it's the one of which I'm most proud and one I honestly believe could be a real breakthrough for me. Throwing out the true injury that occurred at Hyner View, this is the first time that I've really had to push through "you should really stop" obstacles and do proper battle with the ultra demons. I didn't do much more than barely finish the race, but that result was very much in doubt for most of the day.
Best of all, I made a great friend in Bobby and was able to immediately share the kind of profound experience that seems reserved for lifelong friends and loved ones. It was a pleasure to suffer through the day with him and together lay claim to our finisher's medals. We even managed to both arrive (via car, not on foot) at the aid station at mile 64 to spend time with Jo as she waited for Kelly to arrive and then offer encouragement to Kelly who certainly inspired me by looking like he was out for a walk in the park. I guess, in a way, he was, but 77 miles is one long walk in the park.
We'd held out hope that we'd manage to see Derek at that aid station, but learned instead that he'd passed through earlier and, when he'd passed, was convincingly in first place. We were already hooting and hollering at that news when the volunteer confirmed that Derek had actually already arrived at the finish and WON the race! Bobby and I glanced at our phones to check the time and were astonished. Not only had Derek finished in first place, he'd shaved an unthinkable hour off of the old 77-mile course record. The recent news that construction on the bridge was expected to be completed before next year's race meant that Derek's record would stand in perpetuity.
Needless to say, it was a Laurel Highlands Group Weekend to remember.