20 Jun 2011

Highlands Sky 2011

Author: Matt Young | Filed under: race-reports

Highlands Sky 2011:

Relentless Progress


I write race reports so that I save some memories from the day that will inevitably fade with time.  I also write reports to answer questions from friends and family that say, “How’d you do?”  As I sit and write I mostly do it for myself and for the Highlands Sky race which is without doubt, my all time favorite race, the highlight of my year, and a symbol of a family heritage beginning with my Granddaddy almost 50 years ago.

A view from the trail

I came in to this year’s edition feeling better and more confident than the previous two running’s.  My training was good but not great.  But over the past nine months I’ve had some PRs in the marathon, a good trail 25K at the Frozen Sasquatch but a moderately disappointing Dirty Dog.  After a nice taper I’d started to get some pop back in my tired and heavy legs.  So all things being equal, I thought I could improve on last year’s results and was hopeful to cut 15-20 minutes off my time. After all, shaving 20 minutes is only another 30 seconds per mile, right?  But a lot can happen in 40 miles so I was cautiously optimistic.

It was about 60 degrees at the start with an overcast sky.  I decided to start a little faster to avoid the bottleneck at Flatrock.  But with the faster start I could see the lead pack of the contenders and thought maybe I was going to fast.  But it wasn’t long before they were out of sight and I felt good about myself again.

Here are a few words on my plan for the day. First I was going all liquid and gels for my fuel.  Second, I’d drink just water accompanied by S-Caps.   And lastly, to even or negative split the second half of the race. That’s my advice to anyone that runs this race is to manage the first half so you can run the second.  It makes for a much more enjoyable day and a better overall result.

Flatrock was uneventful except for the moderate sting from the nettles and the fella in front of me who wiped out crossing the creek on the wet log, a seemingly logical natural bridge.   So I did my duty and warned everyone within ear shot not to cross on the log.  It seems like a good idea but the log is deviously slick.   

On one of the switchbacks about 2/3 of the way up Flatrock I looked back and saw the train of 10-12 runners on my heels.  I was either leading the train or holding everyone up. Either way, it was fine with me because I was setting my own pace.

As Flatrock leveled out I took a test of my legs to see how much the 5 mile climb had taken out of them. I was glad to note that they felt relatively good, that my heart rate was in the low 80s (percent of max that is) and I was on plan with my calories and fluids.

The course profile- It's not as bad as it looks but pretty bad.

Roaring Plains was dry so I ran with my new friend Nathan and made good time over the rocks. And when I say rocks, I mean rocks.  For those that haven’t been on the course before they’re surprised by how rocky some sections are.  It’s more like tip-toeing and dancing than running but it’s all about forward progress.

I made it to Aid 2 at mile 10.5 in 2:07 and 12 minutes ahead of last year’s split. That was a little too fast and casted a shadow of doubt for the rest of my day. But since I was in the front of my little train my bottles were filled with urgency by the speedy volunteers and I was on my way. No food, just one gel. 

Boars Nest was uneventful, thank goodness, and it was back up South Prong and another 3 miles of climbing. I picked up Nathan again and we picked off 10 bridges, counting them off one by one. We both stumbled a bit, kicking roots and rocks, but didn’t completely wipe out.   Nathan’s probably going to lose a toe nail because of that stretch.

The view from atop Boars Nest- One of my favorites

The end of South Prong trail, about mile 19 starts the long stretch of forest service road and leads us to AS 4 and our drop bags.  I switched to my lighter hydration pack, grabbed my bandana with reinforcements and left. I didn’t want to spend much time at aid stations. 

A check on my progress now had me 37 minutes ahead of my AS 4 split from last year. The shadow of doubt was growing.  Remember, my goal was an even or negative split and to shave 15-20 minutes.  I was ahead of my goal time but I was afraid it was at the expense of my splits and perhaps a death march somewhere in the back half. 

Gina and I ran a little while together and when I polled her as to how she felt she replied with an enthusiastic, “Great! How ‘bout you?”  I didn’t’ feel so great and I told her so. But I didn’t feel bad either.  There is a balance between pushing the pace and holding back and ideally you’ll push just enough to get to the finish line fast and coast in on the last fumes in the tank. 

So AS 4 split was about 4:02, faster than expected, and an even split would mean a finish time around 8 hours which I thought was out of reach for me.  But as the drop bag Mtn Dew kicked in I found my mantra for the day, relentless progress.  I recited it to myself time and time again for the rest of the day.  Relentless forward progress towards the next aid station, towards Canaan Valley, towards the HS 40 miler banner, and to my wife, daughter and family who were waiting for me to show up.  Relentless progress.

The road across the sky is a mixed blessing. You can run without hindrance but it’s a challenge for the mind.  I ran when I could, walked when I had too.

Road across the sky

AS 5 came and went and I did eat some watermelon because it looked so good.  Some ultra runners advise you to eat what looks good to you at aid stations because your body probably needs it. But I’m a junk-food-junkie by nature and I know from experience that cramps will inevitably come if I give in. 

AS 6 was a blur but I remember my friends Dave Simmons and Daniel Todd who helped fill my bottles and gave me S-Caps.  It’s good to see friends along the course.  Paula sat at the beginning of Bear Rocks trail checking off runners and taking splits.  Her words of encouragement and great smile were a nice boost for me as I set out on the section that seems the longest.  At this point we’re 27 miles in to this race, slightly longer than a marathon, and have covered some pretty gnarly terrain and we still have 14 miles to go.  So a bright smile and “you’re doing great” was a lift when I needed it.

I like this section of the race because it’s largely runnable and has some beautiful views of the high meadows.   The course picks up Raven Ridge which is a good trail but at about mile 30 there was a fork and no course flags.  I’d just passed a runner so I paused briefly and asked him if he knew which way we were going. He didn’t.  I stood a moment longer to think and about that time two runners came backtracking down the left side of the fork fearing they were off course.  No markers that way.  So we tried the other option and again, no flags.  But I knew that when in doubt, stay on the trail. So I stayed on the trail and picked up the forest service makers and moved in the direction I believed we were ultimately heading. 

I know the first half of the course very well and can run it without flags.  But the second half I know less, although, I know the general direction.  At this point we’re supposed to be on the ridge and working our way towards the boulder section and AS 7.  I took a good look around and could see the boulders and what I thought were the tents of AS 7 beyond. So we stayed on the trail and headed to the big rocks.  At about mile 31.5 we met big Willie Lehman who might as well have been an oasis in a desert. He confirmed that we were on course and continued back tracking the course, marking it and looking for lost runners.  But I learned a lesson, carry a course map or directions- just in case.  At this point a first time ultra runner, Missy, was with me and I have to say, she put together a very impressive run.

Overall, the downed flags didn’t cost me much if anything.

Boulder hopping

Boulder hopping- hooray!

AS 7 came in to sight with its white tents that I’d seen from almost two miles away.  I dumped my sticky trash in a Dennis’s hands which he graciously accepted and returned my one unused wintergreen mints. 

It’s mostly downhill from here but the course covers the backside of Salamander ski slope, the Wall of Tears, and the butt slide so if you know nothing else the names should give you some idea of the terrain.  The section from Aid 7 to Aid 8 was longer than I remembered.   But I was also hot and tired and wearing down. And I was alone without anyone in sight ahead or behind me.

After working through the switch backs and hitting Idleman Road to Freeland I was able to run again but a quick look over my shoulder revealed  Missy tracking me down and not giving up.

AS 8 is the last stop before the 4 miles stretch to the finish. I put in a gel in my pocket for insurance, filled my bottles, just in case and left. It was mostly road from here and I was on track.  In fact, by my oxygen deprived calculations if I could manage just above a 10 minute mile I might break 8 hours.  But it would be close if at all. At this point in the race math is not my strong point.

Missy left AS 8 with me but soon broke in to a pace that I couldn’t match.  With 4 miles left I was fueled by fumes. My stomach was mildly cramping but otherwise I felt ok for having covered 36 miles.  Relentless progress.  I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was sneaking up on me. No one. I could relax but didn’t want to walk any more than I had too.

I’d been thinking about the finish all day and expecting to see my daughter as soon as I came out of the woods where everyone waits.  My family would be waiting and the emotions began to well up. 

I came out of the woods and could see my dad, Maddy, Dalton and Caroline as I came up on the flat.  It’s my favorite part of the day.  Liney and I crossed the finish line hand in hand as we’d been planning for weeks.   She had been looking forward to “Daddy’s big race” for some time now.  Sweet relief.  The kiss from Ann Marie was precious as she’s always there for me.  I was surrounded by my family all there to watch me finish. 

It was a relief just to stop and I commented that I’m glad I don’t do this for a living. Someone, I think Dan, made sure to comment that I’d be broke if I did.  But I love Dan and all that he does for us and was too tired to even be remotely offended.  After all, it was entirely true. 

By the numbers:  40.56 miles in 8:05:21 with an overall pace of 11:57 (11:34 moving pace).  Best mile: Mile 2 in 7:28. Slowest mile: 35 in 18:02 (including the ski slope).  Average heart rate of 82% of max.  First half split in 4:03 and second half in 4:02.   5068 calories burned. 

What a day and by far, the highlight of my year.  I spent most of the second half by myself with plenty of time for prayer and meditation. I recited my prayer for Caroline as I have the past three years (Col 1:9-16) and for Charlie as he grows up and gets ready for his debut in October (Eph 1:16-19). I thought about my friends Clark and Amanda after her surgery on Friday and prayed for her healing and peace for the family.  I thanked God for a healthy body, the gift of this day, and for His salvation. 

Saying thank you to Dan Lehman and his entire family doesn’t seem to be enough.  It’s a selfless task to put on a race and a great service to the rest of us. Thank you to the volunteers who camp out for hours just to give food and water to runners they mostly don’t know.  They graciously volunteer so we can enjoy the race. Thank you.

The post Highland blues have set in as I have to wait at least a year to do it again.  With a baby due in October I’m preparing for some down time so 2012 is doubtful.  But whether running or volunteering I hope to be a part of this race for a long time to come.

Check out results, pics and race reports here: 

Be sure to check out the pics by Kirsten Corris who took one of the best rounds of course photos I’ve seen.  It’s a two dimensional glimpse of the awesome creation surrounding us all day.  But as great as these pictures are, you really should see it for yourself.

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