the highlands lowlife.

In light of the goings on at the Laurel Highlands Ultra yesterday, I’ve been doing a little research.  I’ve unearthed hard evidence—the written word, people—to confirm that everyone, every living THING even, poops.

That’s certainly a relief, though it appears some ones, some THINGS, do it with a bit more frequency and at more inopportune times than others.

Perhaps I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself.

I’ve been taking part in the festivities at the Laurel Highlands Ultra for the last 3 years, first as the opening leg of the 50K relay, then as a full 50K participant and, finally, signing on for the full 70.5 miler this year.  My first 19.2 miles would also be considered the first leg of Backcountry Edge’s 70.5-mile relay.

The first year, I attacked the course like I thought I should, having only to cover a little more than 11 miles before handing off to the next runner.  I pounded the downhills, shot the quads I really could’ve used on the grind of a climb that lives at miles 6-7.5, puked a bit.  I actually ran a pretty good time, as I recall, only to discover that my fellow team members had been directed to checkpoint #1 instead of aid station #1, meaning that they were 9 miles away by trail and a lot more than that by the roads that eventually got them back to me.  In the meantime, I proceeded to cramp up in seemingly every muscle I possessed.

Last year, I had all kinds of digestive issues that very nearly ended my day and pushed my finish time out to the very brink of acceptable qualifying standards.

Despite all that calamity, it was impossible to not be smitten with the indescribable beauty of this little corner of the world with its sustained high perch above the rolling valleys below, endless acres of deciduous forest, numerous streams, sprawling fern meadows, laurel thickets, rocky outcroppings and mile after mile of siren song singletrack.

Couple that with the fact that I’d been granted privileged acceptance into a tribe of damn fine trail runners (and even better people), the Laurel Highlands Ultra, in spite of its seeming determination to break my body and spirit, had become my absolute favorite of favorite races.

Hence the decision to sign up for the full 70 and coaxed my friends and co-workers to join in the fun.

By early Friday evening, the tribe had reunited in the tiny, picturesque whitewater rafting mecca of Ohiopyle in a collection of small lodges a couple hundred yards from the race start, new introductions had been made and our potluck feast was served.  Food consumed and dishes done, we meandered down to the banks of the Youghiogheny River to snap a group photo before settling into our individual pre-race preparations and attempts at sleeping before the 5:30 AM start.

My feet and legs felt great and together with my mind, bolstered by wise and friendly (for the most part friendly) reminders to calm down and start slow, the whole body settled quickly and easily into a surprisingly good night of sleep.

Waking together, the Backcountry Edge crew talked through race details and got ready to head down  to race packet pickup.  I was just about to leave the lodge when I was pleased to find my body ready for a sit-down bathroom break while I toilet was still ready available.  

Always good to get that out of the way early.

We mingled with the rest of the tribe and a sea of other friendly, anxious (many familiar) faces, snapped a couple of photos and said our “see you laters” to those not about to immediately run.  In what felt like no time at all, the massed crowd pressed forward across the parking lot and made its first steps up into the Highlands.

Temperatures, I’m guessing, were in the mid-to-upper 60’s to start with the sun still slightly below the horizon and little humidity, certainly by prior year’s standards.  The only clouds in the sky were of the big, puffy, completely non-threatening variety.  In other words, conditions couldn’t have been much, if any, better.

Kelly and I ran side by side, chatting a bit, and keeping things well under control.  I’m guessing he was just doing what he does and I was doing my best to try and do what he does too.  He’s way out of my league at long distances and has accumulated experience enough in the last year-and-a-half to outweigh   what I’m likely to amass before my legs or mind finally stop working (let’s hope that’s not next year).  That said, I also knew he’d been under the weather the entire week, a week that his body would otherwise have been fully attending to its recovery from a super strong performance at the Old Dominion 100 the weekend before.

With those factors in play, I thought there was some chance that we’d separate a bit early in the race with me getting out ahead to await his stalking me down and blowing by me a couple of hours later.  This happened somewhere along the line in an early climb but as I was still half awake, I failed to make note of exactly when it happened.  If you’d have asked me then for a prediction, I would probably have placed my bet on Kelly catching up/passing me by somewhere around miles 15-20 and sooner than that if I got impatient and failed to control my pace.

Derek and Kema had gotten out early to hike up the trail and say "good mornings" to the passing runners.  I was locked in some kind of thought as I passed them by and almost missed them entirely.  I'd have kicked myself if I had and hearing Derek's voice was just another unspoken reminder to keep things in check.

By inadvertently getting tucked in behind 3 or 4 conservative runners on some of the early climbs, I held my pace in check, following their lead and power-hiking sections that I would likely have run if left to my own devices.  Eventually, as I found myself pausing for moments to keep from hiking right up and over the next runner, I made polite conversation as I passed them and picked things up just a hair.

At some point, I glanced over to my right and noticed the incredible view that peeked from time to time through keyholes in the heavy foliage.  Somewhere far down below, the Yough snaked through the valley and just above it huddled a blanket of fog that we were climbing higher and higher above.  It was the kind of view that more than justifies stopping to dig a camera out of your pack regardless of what time you're chasing.

Soon thereafter, the trail tumbled back downward into the descent that had cooked my quads a few years back.  A runner just behind me, apparently a member of the good-as-they-come Virginia Happy Trails Club, made reference to this being the "crime" portion of the crime-and-punishment that is the first 8 miles of the LH 70.

Punishment would come soon enough on the long, long, yep-still-going climb up from mile 6. Here's a photo I snapped after looking back over my shoulder during an early section of the climb.  This picture ranks highly on the doesn't-tell-the-story meter, you can appreciate the fact that this is the view, in either direction, for many, many minutes.  In 2010, I can remember thinking I'd sell what little kingdom I possess for just a single switchback.

But, in all honesty, I handled the hill.  I certainly didn't master it and it was plenty hard work, but I emerged at the top surprised that there wasn't more climbing to be done and pleased to not feel nearly as diminished at the top as I'd been in years past.

My stomach was holding up and I was getting down and holding down plenty of fluids.  The next few miles are runnable and beautiful.  I picked up the pace just a tick to offset all of slow climbing that came before.  By the time I reached the first aid station, a little bit beyond the 11-mile point, I was well aware of the work I'd done, but still feeling pretty good and anxious to knock out the next 9 miles and run together with Kalyn as she took over relay duties at the first checkpoint situated at 19.2 miles.

All systems were go and the next couple of miles passed relatively uneventfully.   My legs and stomach felt great and I was soaking up the view that I'd failed to take in during my dehydrated low points the year before.

The trail hooked to the right and traced the shoreline of the little lake that I only vaguely remembered from the year prior.  A blue heron was perched on a far snag and all was right with the world.

And then, no more than 10-20 minutes after snapping that photo, I crapped my pants.

Not really, but it sure felt like I was going to.  Most of this course in under the cover of trees, but the old growth leaves little room for new trees and is, for the most part, wide open beneath the canopy except for lower-to-the-ground growth like laurel, ferns and poison ivy. A quick inspection of the landscape ahead didn't suggest much privacy for the pit stop that was threatening to happen whether voluntarily or involuntarily.

Voluntarily sounded preferable so I clambered off the trail for 20-30 yards where a slight slope allowed me to crouch just barely out of view to any on-trail passerby.  Fourteen or fifteen miles into the day, most runners were likely to be staring at that familiar spot about 5-10 feet out ahead of the next footfall anyway.  Still, it was humbling.

Let's be clear.  Day to day, I'm regular.  Solid, but regular.

You wanted to know, right?

At that moment, I was anything but solid.  Anything butt.

The stop took longer (duh) that I wanted it to and except for pausing to offer silent praise to whomever invented wet wipes, I went ahead and cursed everything else.  I'd been alone on the trail for a mile or two and was greatly disliking the sound of several pairs of feet shuffling past me.  I couldn't care less about my position in the race, but the idea of dropping further off pace was a downer.

Anything butt falling behind.

Back on my feet, I was slightly relieved to find that I didn't have any immediate lingering discomfort from the stop and hoped that maybe, just maybe, that would be the last of it.  As I though of hours on end of gels, shots, sports drinks and copious amounts of sweat, I had my doubts.

No more than a mile later, I was off the trail again, crouching over another Ohiopyle of my own making.  The initial stop took longer than the first and the output was less solid than before.  Holy shit was I regular!

As I rose out of my crouch, determined to get back on the trail and off toward the aid station ASAP, my bowels commanded to get right back into the assumed position I'd just vacated.  That was the moment that I also realized that I was sweating profusely and hot, hot, someone-please-anyone-turn-the-hose-on-me hot.

I cleaned up yet again and kicked through the underbrush back to the trail.  I didn't take more than a step or two before I realized I'd left my pack and two handheld bottles back at the scene of the latest (forget the downhills) crime.  I cursed aloud and cringed at the fact that my mind had chosen to go with "SHIT!".

Pack and bottles retrieved, I set my mind on Checkpoint #1 and actually settled back into a pretty brisk pace.  I was so, so hot even though I could feel that the air around me was still pleasantly cool and, having lived through merciless Pennsylvania summers my entire life, there was no mistaking the absence of humidity.  The wheels, as they (bastards) say, we're coming off.

I began using my handhelds at every creek crossing (thankfully, there were several) to pour water over my head, the back of my neck and across my shoulders.  I'd refill before actually leaving the creek and would resoak myself as soon as I began to dry and again become aware of my temperature.

My strength had noticeably flagged after each of my first two pit stops and after one more scramble into the woods to drop my shorts, I was flatlining pretty hard.  A couple people passed by and offered aid, but I wasn't lucky enough to cross paths with anyone dealing Imodium.  Forget switchbacks, my kingdom for a swig of Pepto!

No such luck.

There's one last kicker of a hill to clamber up before reaching Checkpoint #1 and Bobby caught me from behind right about then.  I'd be curious to know what kind of diarrhea-addled nonsense I spewed at him but maybe it's best I don't remember.  I do know I was having one hell of a time convincing my legs to get me up that hill and it's one I would've gobbled up on a  normal day.  A regular day.

I do think I managed to mumble something about keeping an eye out for Kalyn as I knew full well I was going to have to hope she could run her leg without the company I'd promised.  I was holding out hope that I could get myself put back together at the aid station, but I didn't expect that it was going to happen quickly.

Jefferson suddenly appeared in front of me on the trail and, while I can't imagine I did a good job of expressing it, I was happy to see him.  I couldn't be far now.

As Jefferson reports it, my first words to him were "I need to be somewhere".  As idiotic as that must have sounded, it wasn't far from the truth.

He walked me in (I'm assuming we were walking, I don't actually remember) and Kalyn was off-and-running.  The guilt washed over me as she disappeared up the trail and I tried to embrace the mystical restorative powers that dwell in aid stations.  In my peripheral vision, I could see held looks that confirmed that I must have looked at least as awful as I felt, if not worse.  Drinks were fetched and two packets of Imodium appeared in my hand.  Unfortunately, the shivering kicked in right about then and it seemed to take an eternity for Jefferson to realize that, despite my best efforts, I was failing miserably at prying those godforsaken pills from their foil-encased resting places.  Had he not noticed, I think I might still be sitting there bending and twisting the packets back-and-forth.

I have no idea how long I sat there listening to ludicrous but incredibly entertaining discourses on flavors of Gatorade from one of the young aid station volunteers while Jo and Jefferson brought me cups of the generic soda I kept pointing at and tracking down additional layers of clothing to try and get my shaking to stop.

By then, we'd gotten word that Kelly wasn't progressing very quickly and likely suffering the full impact of a week without much in the way of food or recovery.  I had reached the aid station way ahead of its cutoff time and, at least in theory, still had plenty of day to traverse the full course if I could just get things back under control.  I made up my mind that if Kelly made the cutoff and had any intention of going on, I'd give it a shot too.

I won't deny the selfish relief I felt as he finally walked into the aid station and removed the pack from his back.  There was no mistaking body language that said "I will run some other day."  It spoke for both of us.

So, that was that.  Another day, another DNF.

I prepped myself to deal with the shame and put on a supportive face for my teammates, my friends and all the other runners still on the course.

But, a funny thing happened.  I didn't need to put on any face at all.  In fact, I just needed to get out of the way of the smile that soon crept out and stayed put for the rest of what turned out to be another incredibly joyful day in the Highlands.

It was impossible to not remain completely psyched and engaged by the progress of our relay team.

Kalyn plowed soldiered through miles 19.2-32 like she'd been doing it for years, despite the fact that this was her first real trail run and, being that her leg was a bit over 13 miles, her first half-marathon too!  Concern and guilt sent me backtracking from Checkpoint #2 to be the first to see Kalyn as she approached the handoff, but it was washed away by the pride and elation I felt as she appeared with her beaming trademark smile so I could give her a bearhug before urging her on the aid station.  It's a moment I will truly cherish. 

After being keyed up to run from the moment runners left the start line at 5:30 AM (see evidence below), Jefferson devoured the third leg.

 Tim was chomping at the bit too by the time Jefferson raced up the hill and into Checkpoint #3.  Though he's unlikely to give himself the credit he deserves (as is his way), Tim further padded our time cushion before passing the final baton to Taylor.

Taylor left the last checkpoint with a question mark of a knee and a 3-mile technical and, by the time he'd get there, in-the-dark descent before reaching the end of the trail.  He ran like an animal, blazed into the finish and radiated with the joy of exceeding his own expectations. I got to deliver yet another well deserved hug that I'll remember always.

As a team, we had no idea what to expect in terms of a finishing time and I would surely have been proud of us for just making the 3:30 AM cutoff time.

Taylor crossed the line just minutes ahead of 10:00 PM.

Photo courtesy of Kelly and Jo Agnew

Enos, whom I'd met the night before, had breezed into and blown through the aid station while I was regrouping on his way to an impressive 2nd place finish in the 50K.  Ron and Bobby were clearly locked in and knocked out their first 70-milers in 20 hours.  Ron's wife Jo completed the 50K and made her way to a later checkpoint and caught up with the crew at a later aid station.  Randy missed a cutoff on the 50K and was swept from the course but had himself another great day in the woods and retained the indomitable spirit that makes him so beloved.  He's already made it clear he'll be back next year.

My only regret for those members of the tribe who saw the course through the whole way to the end is that they missed out on hours and hours of laughter with the rest of us.  If I think on it too long, I might just start attending races instead of bothering to race them.  I'd share a story or two or ten, but this post has already reached epic (or, if you prefer, too damn long for anyone to possibly bother reading the whole thing) length.

I will say this, to suggest that one hasn't lived until a next door neighbor has knocked on the door with a plate of shit asking if it belongs to your dog is clearly a ridiculous statement.  I would, however, argue that to say  you haven't lived until you've heard that full story is hardly a stretch.

I am strangely happy that my loose and unhappy bowels were the reason that story got told.

Long, long (how-much-longer?) story short, I had a wonderful day and a wonderful weekend with as wonderful a group of friends as one could ever hope to have.  It's how we do it in the Highlands.  It's how we've done it and it's how we're going to keep on doing it.

Only next time, I'm bring the Imodium and unwrapping them ahead of time.


  1. I love it! Thanks for the recap. This was a weekend that none of us will ever forget. I can't wait for our next adventure!

  2. Great write up. Thanks for the recap. This was my first trail race and I met some awesome people. Hanging out with you, Kelly and Jo, and the rest of your crew and getting to run with Jefferson for 4 miles or so were really highlights of my day. Hope you all make it back for next years race.


  3. Wonderful write up of the race. you should add "vivid storyteller" to your list of abilities. I had the pleasure to talk to you at the second checkpoint. I look forward to following your blog until next years race.

  4. "It's how we do it in the Highlands. It's how we've done it and it's how we're going to keep on doing it." ... yep, yep, yep!!!! Love this trail running family of ours!!
    (and I'll be sure to put the Pepto and Immodium back into our race bag, too!!) ;~)