19 Jun 2012

Highlands Sky 2012

Author: Matt Young | Filed under: race-reports

Highlands Sky 2012

Irrational Exuberance

It was my plan to start a little fast on Laneville Road to get my legs firing and maybe beat a few people to Flatrock and our first section of trail. Apparently, it was everyone else’s plan too.  Two minutes in to the race I wondered if I’d somehow messed up and entered a 5k instead of a 40 miler. The pace was fast from the start and I was surprised how many people charged ahead of me right from the start and how many more past me on the road.

Not much changed in the first few miles of Flatrock.  I was getting passed like I was standing still and I was a little scared. I thought I was sucking wind. I felt ok.  I didn’t feel great but I felt like I was holding my own.  So I just kept going slowing working my way up the hill and was already wondering if this just wasn’t my day.

I’d already decided that for my fourth Highlands that if I never beat my time from last year I was ok with that.   Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t set any records. But I did better than I ever thought I would when I first decided to run this race.

Anyway, shortly after the first switch back I heard someone  settle in behind me and I was ready to be passed… again.  The runner asked, “Who is that?”  Assuming they were talking to me I answered, Matt.  “Matt who?”


“Who’s that?”


“Bill Potts?”


“Potts, man am I glad that’s you.  What in the world is going on out here?  Where is everyone going.. I’m getting passed left and right. Am I sucking wind or what.”

“No, you’re doing fine.”  I can’t remember exactly what Potts said next but it was something like this is nuts and too many people are going way to fast. We both agreed that it was way too early in a 40 mile run for so many people to be charging so fast up our first climb and a 5 mile climb at that.  In the words of Alan Greenspan it was irrational exuberance.

And if you’re reading this and you know Potts you know that he’s a veteran of these runs and he knows what he’s doing.  I also figured from past races that we were probably pretty compatible runners.  So I found comfort knowing he and I were working our way up that hill together.  And then we found Andy who was running his first Highlands after running his first 50k in March.

So about 4 miles into this race three of us settled in together and worked our way around the course.  We passed a few people on Flatrock and were passed again by a few more.  Most of which seemed to be working way to hard. It was ok.

I’ve never had much trouble running my own race. I think I have a healthy respect for this race and the challenges of not only covering 40 miles in a day but also covering those miles over some pretty gnarly trails and hills. It’s the best WV has to offer.

We danced through Roaring Plains and the rocks and talked along the way. We had a nice little three man train going. Potts and Andy talked awhile. Both from Virginia they found a few good things in come like the Bob Potts Marathon.  The course was relatively dry but there were still some deep shoe sucking mud pits that caught me off guard. One of those took half my leg before I knew it.  Andy seemed to find that funny.  I was helping the others know where not to run.

We arrived at Aid 2 somewhere around 2:14. That was 7 minutes behind my pace from last year. Maybe I was sucking wind.  I felt fine but doubt set in.  With two filled bottles and bite of banana we were back on our way down the road to Boars Nest and the biggest descent of the day.

Bo joined us for a while on the Boars Nest before we started our way down the mountain.  About half way down we passed the Tennessee contingent led by big Rick Gray. I talked to Rick and told him about the still vivid image I had of him from Cheat Mountain as he threw up ahead of me on the trail silhouetted by my headlamp.  He remembered it and seemed to enjoy the memory.

Back up South Prong we went, steadily working the trail. Potts and I took the privilege of being Andy’s tour guides through course giving a preview of sections to come along with unsolicited advice.  Some of it was for Andy’s benefit (although he didn’t ask for it ;  )  ) and some was a mental diversion for me.

Aid 3 came and went with some fresh bottles and another small piece of banana.  Potts and I put ourselves back together walking the next climb.  I had to laugh at one of Andy’s comments to Potts.  “You guys don’t stay very long at the rest stations, do you?”  Once you realize that they are Aid stations and not REST stations you’re attitude changes a little. “No we don’t.  It’s a waste of time.”  I teased him a little throughout the day about the rest stations.  At least it was funny to me.

We picked off 10 bridges counting them out loud. Andy and I in English and Potts in some form of Spanish.

Last year I hit Aid 4 in 4:03 and I figured we’d be slightly better than 4:15 this year.  I think it was about 4:13.  I was 10 minutes off pace but we all seemed to be holding it together pretty well.

I’ll take a moment to say that I always have a few goals for this race. The first is always to enjoy  it and finish in one piece.  The second is to negative split the second half.  The third is to do a little better than the previous year.  That meant I was shooting for 7:59:59  this year.  It didn’t look like that was going to happen.

My dad and Caroline were waiting at Aid 4 and the half way point. Caroline and I had been talking about this for a few days and I’d been looking forward to it for 4 hours.  My dad helped me with my drop bag where I changed to a lighter pack, grabbed some gels and my Mtn Dew and left. Caroline wanted to run with me so we left together and walked as I put my stuff in order.  I kissed her goodbye and reminded her that I’d see her in a few more hours.  I looked back as she held her granddaddy’s hand and it might have been my imagination but I think she was tearing up.  It was a heartbreaker for a daddy but she was in good hands.  And we’d also planned to cross the finish line together and that wasn’t going to happen with me standing there on the road.

It was nice to run again and it wasn’t long before Potts and Andy joined me.  We were 20 miles in to this and had been together at least 16 of them.  We ran well on the flats and downhills. We took methodical walk breaks on the hills and Potts and I took turns calling out our walk breaks and when we’d run again.  I kept any eye on Andy with a quick glance over my shoulder.   We were passed once and we passed several other runners.  The only runner to pass me on this section I passed later in the run.

The Aid station 6 is a great relief because it signals the end of the mixed blessing that is the Road Across the Sky.  I asked my little friend Nola to pace me the rest of the way but she politely declined.   Potts was first on to Bear Rock as I got settled.  We were all back together and picked our way through the rocks again.

The creek before the enchanted forest (dubbed by Potts but new to me) invited a dunk of my hat to cool off.  So far the weather had been great. We started at 50 degrees at 6 am and although it was sunny the breeze had kept us cool. It might have been 70 but I wasn’t sure.  It was about as good as it gets in June.

We were about 28 miles in to the race now and in to the Sods and the high meadows.  If you can pick your head up to look around it’s amazing to see these mountain top meadows with a wide expanse of grassy fields.  I pointed it out to Andy just in case he hadn’t seen it.  With one of those looks back to talk to Andy I realized Potts wasn’t with us. We went a little further and I looked back again when I could see a little further and Potts still wasn’t there.  I asked Andy when he saw him last and he didn’t know either. Crap.  It was like a man down.

I’d commented to Potts and Andy on the road that this was the longest I’d ever run with anyone in this race and just how well it was working. We took turns pushing and pulling each other through this race course. It was good to have the company. It was good to have the shared experiences to work towards the finish.  I felt bad but knew we had to keep going.  And I also figured he’d catch up.

The 6 miles between Aid 6 and Aid 7 is a very long 6 miles. But we passed a few more runners and arrived at Aid 7 and the Lehmann gang.  They were coming down the hill to meet runners and take their bottles to get them filled.  What a service that was and I was thankful.

True to form we didn’t stay long at Aid 7 and I pulled out and Andy caught up.  Still hoping Potts would catch up I took another look around.  No Potts. We kept going.

The ski slope at Timberline stinks.  Coming out of Aid 7 I did the math and figured that if we could hold a 12 minute mile we could still break 8 hours.  We were moving well in the second half.  Andy checked my math and agreed.  It was a boost that I needed and to be perfectly honest, it made me tear up a little. I don’t mind saying that in the previous runnings I have never failed to cry at some point. I always cry at the finish line when I see my family.  And at some point on the course I’m overwhelmed with the emotions of gratitude, the sentiment of a family heritage starting with my Grandaddy, and the gift that allows me to be out there. As my friend Bob Hagan says, “Grace: Thank God we can run.”

But…. I forgot about the ski slope. It is such a buzz kill to walk that dang hill. We joined a slow train up Timberline and I spotted my friend Dolin way up there. He should have been further ahead of me so I figured something happened to him.

The only thing worse than going up the ski slope is running down the mountain bike trails on the other side.  It’s the holding back on the steep parts that hurts the most.  I could feel the pain start and a small twinge of a cramp in my left quad and my right calf. I drank more water and put down two S-caps.  I prayed for the strength to finish strong and to finish running.

We popped out on the road and Andy was right there with me.  In years past I’ve run the whole second half and didn’t see more than 6 people.  This year there seemed to be runners around us all the way.  There were 6 or 8 of us within a few minutes of each other heading in to the last aid station.


Out of the woods and on the road to the finish 5 miles away. Photo by Kirstin Corris

I took a little water and was the first out of Aid 8.  We ran the flats and walked the hills.  We hit the entrance to the park and the promise land of  Canaan Valley.  I looked for Caroline as we came up over the last hill and eyed the finish.  My dad helped her a little bit down the hill so we could finish together.  In her own excitement she took off without me. I guess she’s racing already. But she did stop and wait long enough for me to catch up and we crossed the finish line hand in hand.

Hugs all around from Caroline, my dad and mom (maybe- my mom might have been afraid because of my mild odor) and Dan. Whether he wanted it or not, I gave Dan a hug. I’m grateful for Dan and all that he does for us.

Finishing with my girl just like we'd planned

I hugged my new friend Andy.  If you’ve done something like this before then you probably know of the bond that can form in a short period of time. Nothing like a shared traumatic experience to do that ;  )

At the finish line I missed Ann Marie and Charlie more than I can say. I thought of them all day and prayed constantly for them. It wasn’t the same without them and I can’t wait until we all do it again next year.  It will be my fifth and I’ll hopefully earn my blue hat. 200 miles for a blue hat but I’ll gladly do it.

With every finish I am reminded of what a gift is to be able to run.  Grace: Thank God we can run.

I watched for Potts to come across the line a few minutes later.  He had found a shady spot in the enchanted forest to lay down for an afternoon siesta in order to keep things together.  I thanked him for the run and told him It was my most enjoyable so far. The three of us pushed and pulled each other through the course as a team.  It’s the race I’ll remember mostly by running with Potts and Andy.

Bill Potts finishes with a great time even with an afternoon siesta

My friend Andy

By the numbers: 40.77 miles in 8:08:47 for an 11:59 average pace.  Average moving pace: 11:33. Average heart rate- 81% of max.  Best pace: 5:40 in mile 23. Calories burned: 4920. Best mile split- mile 2 in 7:44. Slowest mile split- mile 7 in 16:53.  First half in approximately 4:13 and second half in 3:55.

If you like data check out the Garmin data here. I stopped my watch 7 minutes after the finish so the data is a little skewed:

I was surprised to see that Mile 37 was my 4th fastest split in 8:46 and mile 40 was my 7th in 9:11. Mile 38 was right behind 40.

A big fat thanks to Dan Lehmann and his army of volunteers. I believe that saying thanks doesn’t do justice for what they do for the rest of us. I dare you to find someone who will say something bad about this race’s organization, its director, or its volunteers.  If you do find that person I think we could find about 2000 others to run them out of town.  Highlands is the highlight of my year without a doubt and 48 hours after the run the post HS blues have set in.  I’m counting down to next year.


  1. Jim Stemple posted the following on June 20, 2012 at 7:30 am.

    Great report Matt. I agree with everything you say about the Lehmans and all they do. They are HS. This was my first HS and my goal (as you know from coaching me up earlier in the spring) was to make the aid station cuts and finish under 12. I made it in 11:27 following a nasty spill that opened up my knee at 17. 23+ miles later with a leg covered in dry blood and trail debris, I finished feeling great (all things considered) and wonder how much time my injury cost me. My knee was really talking to me on all those second half downhills. Happy trails!!! Stemple

  2. Matt Young posted the following on June 20, 2012 at 9:52 am.

    Thanks, Jim. Congratulations on a great run with a wounded knee. It would have been a great run without the wounded knee so your injury makes it all the more impressive. I’m not sure I could have done what you did. See you next year.

  3. Adam Casseday posted the following on June 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm.

    “And at some point on the course I’m overwhelmed with the emotions of gratitude, the sentiment of a family heritage starting with my Grandaddy, and the gift that allows me to be out there.” . . . I’m right there with you Matt. I think about the same things quite often when I’m on the trails.
    Always good to see you my friend. Congrats on yet another great Highlands!

  4. Potts posted the following on June 20, 2012 at 7:18 pm.

    Matt, so honored to have shared those miles with you. You were right on! Great negative split and an awesome performance. Can’t wait to do it again. Thanks brother!

  5. Matt Young posted the following on June 21, 2012 at 5:30 am.

    Thanks, Potts. And congratulations to you too. We had a great time. HS 2012- The Year of Potts!

  6. Matt Young posted the following on June 21, 2012 at 5:32 am.

    Thanks, Adam. For anyone reading this be sure to read Adam’s report at and get an idea of what it’s like to race and compete in these runs. Very impressive.

  7. Andy Glover posted the following on June 21, 2012 at 5:47 am.

    Matt — what an amazing race! As I’ve told many people, you and Potts got me to the finish line. I can’t wait to race with you guys again! Thanks for all the advice, pointers, and motivation.

  8. Matt Young posted the following on June 21, 2012 at 6:01 am.

    Yeh, but no one can run 40 miles for you so that’s all you. You have some real skills and ability that got you there. Thanks for your note.

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