Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run: Best Race for Anyone with Achy Feet

Super tame section of Canaan singletrack

Super tame section of Canaan singletrack

The neverending boulder fields, rock-strewn trails, endless bogs, and cold stream crossings will provide your feet with the nice, soothing care that they deserve. I wish I lived closer to the course so I could run it after work on days when my feet are a little achy.

Seriously though, this is a brutal course, at least through the beginning miles. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, the point-to-point course traverses the Canaan Valley and Dolly Sods areas in the Monongahela National Forest.

Despite doing my homework by asking prior competitors about the terrain, stalking Strava segments, and searching YouTube, I could have known so much more about the course. There is no substitute for experience and having never done the event it’s hard to know what to expect. But that’s also part of what makes the challenge more exciting.

Pre-race

The pre-race dinner at Canaan Valley Resort was great. There was a nice variety of carb-heavy food and local craft beer from Mountain State Brewing. Several high quality door prizes were given away. I won coffee from Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters and as of this morning I've decided it's the best coffee I've ever made at home. 

Most racers stay at the resort but I ended up staying at the Timberline Ski Resort, which I would see around mile 35 in the following day’s run. I awoke at 4:00 AM and began the typical race morning preparation with the special hotel rendition of my classic breakfast sandwich: 1 everything bagel, 4 slices of bacon, and 1 egg. After a banana for dessert I was on my way out the door.

Bacon makes you faster not fatter

Bacon makes you faster not fatter

Start

My wife and I drove down to the starting area in Laneville, WV, arriving around 5:30 AM. It was a little chilly for standing (because I’m a wuss), but perfect for running. The forecast was calling for very nice sunny and slightly warmer weather. Wish I could duplicate that for every race. I’d heard rumors that the top competitors started out hard and fast to avoid a bottleneck at the trailhead. That was definitely true, as I was running around 7 minutes per mile on the paved road until we hit the trail around mile two and there were runners in front of me going even faster.

Almost go time

Almost go time

We then began the long ascent from Laneville, WV up the mountain toward the Dolly Sods area. We made our way through multiple mountain stream crossings and large, unforgiving patches of stinging nettles. A pack of five guys formed in front of me going up that 6-mile climb, and the current leader was well off of the front. The pack of five eventually became a pack of three, as two dropped off behind me. I had to make the decision early to let them run away from me as I was pushing my heart rate well into heart rate zone 5 and I don’t even do that in the early miles of a road marathon!

Frolic in the ferns

After getting to aid station #2 one runner caught me and I dug deep to stay near to him as we descended into another large ravine. It’s not always the climbs that are hard on your legs. If it hadn’t hurt me so much I would have liked that descent more because it was laden with ferns.

Entering Dolly Sods

I did eventually catch that group and was able to stay in front of them for the entirety of the race. But in my efforts, I mistakenly pushed myself a bit too much, too early. The upper portion of the mountain became quite steep in places, enough to require use of the arms and hands to climb. I quickly learned that these were some of the most true and unforgiving mountain trails that I have ever raced. I came into the halfway point in second place, wondering how rough I was really going to feel by mile 30, knowing the early course had taken a toll. As an aside, I’m voting aid station #4 the best on the course for their high level of enthusiasm!

Multitasking food, shoes, and socks with fantastic volunteers

Multitasking food, shoes, and socks with fantastic volunteers

Friend Daniel Hanks shaving his legs at the halfway point

Friend Daniel Hanks shaving his legs at the halfway point

Road Across the Sky

Running the stretch of gravel road known as the Road Across the Sky, I could gradually feel my efforts catching up to me. It was difficult to run under 9 minutes per mile on a section where I should have been able to do 8 minutes easily. As a result, two runners caught me.

By the time mile 30 was approaching, I was definitely depleted more than I expected. Nothing like making a beginner mistake. I began hiking uphill sections where I would normally run.  

Those couple miles up to mile 33 were not fun, as the terrain was exposed to full sun and at over 5 hours into the event I was becoming emotionally and physically drained and that allowed yet another runner to catch me. Very demotivating. He was doing what I usually strive to do: negative split!

I felt like my nutritional intake was lagging behind and that contributed to my suffering. Speaking of nutrition, here’s what I ate and drank during the race:

  • 4 Gu gels
  • 1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • 2.5 bananas, 2.5 liters of water
  • 3 oz. pickle juice, 3 dill pickle spears
  • 6 Oreo cookies
  • handful of plain M & Ms
  • handful of trail mix
  • 2 salted boiled potato slices
  • 12 oz. Coca Cola

Stupid knee

At mile 33 I started to have right lateral knee pain. I briefly forgot about it at aid station #7, but when I took off running again it reminded me of its presence less than 100 yards from the aid station. The intensity grew rapidly and substantially. I couldn’t even walk without pain and I was forced to limp. That was incredibly discouraging. I began to mentally prepare to walk the final 7 miles of the event, hoping to somehow hang on for a top 10 finish.

Butt Slide

But I actually didn’t have to walk that much as I began descending from the ridge. My inner Physical Therapist kicked in and told me to look for the fatigue-related running pattern changes. I noticed that I was disengaging my right quadriceps and allow my right knee to snap backward a little. The muscle just wanted to be lazy. And I know I have a history of landing with my right foot closer to centerline (i.e., crossing inward). I realized that if I just ran with the knee slightly more flexed and with a wider stance, the pain began to consistently subside.

All of my consistent strength training paid off because I had reliable quads on the steep downhill section affectionately known as “Butt Slide.” However, just out of the fear of pain returning I remained timid on the downhills and technical sections through mile 35. At one point the trail became less obvious I was wandering aimlessly for about a minute on that hillside. Trusting my directional instinct fortunately brought me back to the red flags on trail.

Road Race

I had recovered very well from the 2 miles of easier running. The flat gravel and paved road from that point on gave me hope that I could run quickly without tweaking my knee. As I approached the final aid station I could see one of the runners who had passed me on the Road Across the Sky. I downed 2 cups of Coca-Cola at aid station #8 and took off with a new motivation. It became a road race from mile 37 to 40. I managed to move up a place at the start of mile 38.

Finish

I ultimately finished up 4th overall, which makes me happy having never raced there before. That was definitely slower than where I wanted to be but the reasons were very clear to me. That course is a true challenge and quite beautiful. It would be great to run parts of it again while taking more time to stop and appreciate the surroundings. When trying to run hard there is so much time spent staring at the ground, hoping not to fall or twist an ankle. I will be back. 

Happy to be done and excited to have run the final 7 miles

Happy to be done and excited to have run the final 7 miles

Thanks

Special thanks to Dan Lehman, Adam Casseday and the rest of the WV Mountain Trail Runners crew for putting on such an awesome event, really caring about the racers, and giving out some cool prizes. And a big thanks to my wife for driving my tired butt home and crewing for me. And thanks to Pearl Izumi for the sponsorship this season.