3 Jul 2015

Highlands Sky 40 Miler 2015

Author: Matt Young | Filed under: race-reports


I tell my runners all of the time, every finish is a good finish and every race can’t be your best race.  Both were true for me at the 2015 edition of Highlands Sky but it’s still my all time favorite race on my most favorite weekend of the year.

Here are a few of the more notable takeaways.

#1.  Recalling  an exact physical memory is hard.  For example, I can recall that I felt good or I felt sick or I felt bad or miserable.  But the extent of it is hard to recall.   I think that’s called runners amnesia and I’m always thankful for it.  Even now, just a few days later, I remember feeling bad but I can’t summons that feeling.  And again, I’m thankful for it.

#2.  The extent of my good feeling was on the 5 mile climb up Flatrock when I remember thinking, “I think this is the best I’ve ever felt going up this trail.”  I moved steady and deliberate, no surges, no spikes of my heart rate, no desires to pass as we climbed the first big hill.  I was passed a bunch, as usual.

#3. The blooms on the azaleas and/or mountain laurel were the best I can ever remember. In fact, I don’t remember seeing the blooms before, but that day the flowers were big and bright and plentiful.  It was a sight to behold for much of the race.

#4.  I got behind early.  I arrived at Aid Station (AS) 2, about mile 10.5, behind my normal splits.  That didn’t bother me because I don’t chase splits.  I happen to run by feel (Costanza).  I fell further behind by AS 3 and again at AS 4, about 15-20 minutes to be exact. I knew then breaking 8 hours would be a fairy tale ending for me on this day.  8 hours with a negative split on the second half is always my goal.

#5.  It was wet and mucky but it’s always wet and mucky.  It’s just a matter of degree.  And I think 2009 and 2013 were both worse.  In 2009 the rain dumped on us for the first 4-5 hours and turned every trail in to a stream.  And in 2013 we had a big week of rain and the streams were all swollen.  More so than the 2015.

#6.  It got hot, a high of 82 in Davis that day.  I felt it early and it didn’t seem to let up. Humidity on Dolly Sods and Canaan Valley is not usually much of an issue but it also felt humid. Living and training in the Kanawha Valley means constant and annoying humidity all summer long.  FS 19 was exposed to the sun the entire 7 miles.  2010 was a hot year but maybe not quite as bad. I remember because I got a good sunburn that year and that’s how I learned to wear sun screen no matter the forecast.

#7.   My ipod didn’t work. I never use it until the half way point but it’s nice for the 7 lonely miles on the Road Across the Sky.  It was stuck on the same song and I couldn’t fiddle with it enough to fix it.  The day after the race it worked when I tried it again.  So without it, I prayed. I recited my verses for my kids. I remembered friends, my family and my runners. That part was really good.  I was also forced to focus on my discomfort and I didn’t like that.  I wonder if part of my problem on this day was that I couldn’t disassociate from my pain. I had no distractions. I was by myself without anyone to talk to either.  I don’t use music all of the time. In fact, I’d estimate that I use it less than 25% of the time that I run.  But at this race I plug in after AS4 and keep it going. It helps on the Road Across the Sky to alleviate the monotony.  And it helps for the last 14 when it’s no longer comfortable and you have to push. Pushing hurts.  I was tired and had side stitches and my stitches hurt.  Double over kind of hurt. I’ve learned to deal with them with rhythmic breathing but it only helps to dull but not take them away once they arrive.

#8.  The deal making started early this year.  I ran almost every step from AS 4 to AS6 last year but not this time around.  I started earlier with run to the next shadey patch and then walk a little… that kind of thing.

#9.  I figured out it wasn’t just me.  I saw my friend Dolin at mile 25 when I figured he was an hour ahead of me.  And as much as I hated it for him I was glad I wasn’t the only one not having a good day.  He was picking rocks out of his shoes on the side of the road when I passed and I knew for certain he’d catch me later.  But for the first time in 7 tries I did not even or negative split the second half of the race.  I was about 20 minutes longer on the 2nd half than the first and that’s not normal for me.

#10.  Aid station volunteers are selfless angels. I don’t know what they are like in their normal every day lives but when they’re working this race they are indescribably generous with their time and talents.  I’m thankful for each of them. Case in point, Stacin Martin tied my nasty, stinkin’ shoe lace when I couldn’t bend over without cramping.  And he didn’t hesitate at all.  All volunteers are awesome.

HS 2015 AS 6

Nearing AS 6 at mile 27 and the Todd aid station. Pic courtesy of Daniel Todd

#11  I was the passee and not the passer.  I was passed several times in the last 14 miles.  Honestly, that doesn’t happen to me much in that area. I normally pass more people. I like to start easy and finish strong.  The worst part was, I didn’t really care.

#12  My diversion arrived at AS 8.  Ann Marie met me at Aid 8 to run the last 4 with me and it was a monumental help. I told her we were just out for a leisurely stroll. It was all I had in me. Caroline, Charlie and Granddaddy were waiting or me at the top of the finish line shoot so I grabbed some hands and at their prodding ran a little more just to look like I belonged, I guess.  It was just under 9 hours and I felt worse than I can remember feeling.  I was somewhat emotionless. I often cry at this finish but perhaps my relief to stop overwhelmed everything else.

#13.  I’ve thrown up after 3 races but never during a race.  The first time was at my very first Highlands in 2009 (red Gatorade and pepperoni rolls in the shower; pretty ugly), 2014 UROC after being sick from elevation I think, and now Highlands Sky 2015.  I immediately felt better and followed it with a Sprite, water, Dr. Pepper, two more waters and two more assorted beverages.  After 3 hours and 7 beverages I still had no urge to you know what.  My back hurt during the race and I suspect it was due to dehydration.  Dehydration isn’t really all that bad. It will deter performance but only in extreme cases is it dangerous.  Hyponatremia (too much fluids in the body) on the other hand is much more fatal.  After a bunch of fluids the pain went away.  And finally after about 5 hours and a ton of fluids I finally could go to the bathroom.

So what went wrong? I’m not sure. But it wasn’t just me. Some people had new PRs.  A lot of people, many runners I know, respect, and admire as veterans of Highlands and other endurance races had rough days.

I think it’s been hotter and I think it’s been wetter.  Maybe a combo of both?  Who knows?

On the flip side, ask Joel Wolpert what made it so good that he set a new course record.  He was due for a great performance and I couldn’t be happier for him.

I do know that not every race can be your best race and somedays are like that…. Even in Australia.

Garmin data is here:

A nice video showcasing the course by a fellow runner,

Paul Encarnacion:

HS finish 2015

Caroline in hand with Charlie and Ann Marie trailing behind.

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