Highlands Sky 40 Mile Race Report

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Is this the best trail running event in West Virginia? A lot of people think so.

There’s a huge list of things that make the Highlands Sky race experience unique, but one that stands out would be the frequency of ecosystem changes from sphagnum bogs, to red spruce forest, to barren ridges of giant boulder fields. The surfaces are constantly changing, except at some of the mentally toughest sections, when you want a change and nothing does. It’s technical and you’ll spend lots of time battling deep water, sticky mud, relentless nettles, never-ending rocks, slick roots, and maybe oh-so-cuddly black bears.

In my fourth attempt, I had a few goals going into the race this year.

  1. Personal record for the course of 6:45-6:55.

  2. Negative split the second half of the course.

  3. Run from aid station #4 to aid station #7 with some actual energy in my stride (and no pity parties).

  4. Top five overall (though I know this depends on who shows up, but I’d done it before in 2016 and made sixth in 2018 so how dare you judge me).

  5. Slow the heck down through the first section up to aid station #4.

  6. Impress and/or confuse my five year old son who would be attending this event for the first time to observe/cheer/harass me or just play on a Nintendo Switch.

The race starts at 6:00 AM. Several folks either start hard from excitement or because they are trying to avoid a pile-up conga line as we enter the woods. We begin with a two-mile gradually descending paved segment along Red Creek from Laneville. In an effort to be patient, I opted to ease along and exited the road some 15 or 20 spots back. Just 39 uphill miles to go my friends. Well, maybe not all uphill, but there’s quite a bit.

Gigantic black bear cub, which this area is known for, chasing me off the early pavement. Photo of this rare moment thanks to Mandy Helms Sullivan.

Gigantic black bear cub, which this area is known for, chasing me off the early pavement. Photo of this rare moment thanks to Mandy Helms Sullivan.

Several Morgantown trail runners signed up for the race this year. I think I’d spent the last week or two telling as many of them as would listen about the brutal first climb that starts as soon as you leave the road. The final mile of it will make you suffer if you start too hard. It’s about seven total miles of uphill grind that becomes distinctively steeper around 5.5 to 6 miles in. I really tried to take my time up the steepest part, which thankfully meant I felt really good at the top. Good enough to run 33 more miles anyway. And despite taking it easier, I passed a few people on the way up.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a great rock wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Yeah, Humpty Dumpty came tumbling down, to the ground, and with a loud shout: “Ow!” Betcha didn’t know I write nursery rhymes about getting hurt. It takes real talent. Just before mile 8, I managed to catch my left foot on one of the many large, white pieces of sandstone that are strewn across the Roaring Plains. My left hand and left forearm were now bloody, and my right knee hit something (most likely a meteorite, you say?) to make it hurt briefly, but it didn’t have a real wound, fortunately.

At some point before aid station #2, I met up with Ryan Ramsby, first time Highlands runner. I tried to relay some of my course knowledge to him as we ran together. As he ran behind me, he said something like “it’s so funny to watch half your body disappear” as I would step into mud and water filled holes that are ever-present in this section of the course. I ended up losing Ryan around aid station #3 but he hung tough to finish 10th on the day.

SO you really want me to believe there is a baby bear chasing you?

SO you really want me to believe there is a baby bear chasing you?

I came into aid station #4 just before mile 20 with Daniel Fogg, who was looking strong. You can have crew access here so Anne tells me someone just dropped, but I still didn’t know what place I was in at that point, and I didn’t ask. Now, in the middle, the longest mental test of Forest Service Road 75, otherwise known as “The Road Across the Sky” begins.

Daniel and I exited the aid close together and at about a mile or so onward a photographer pushing a running stroller (containing a real, living, breathing, baby!) told Daniel that Trevor Baine was 15 minutes up on us. That’s a pretty big ol’ gap, fellers. It’s always interesting to see how different people execute on different courses. I figured out running this before that my varicose-vein-filled-old-man legs can’t quite do that early intense running here, but maybe if I do the race like 10 times I’ll figure it out just in time to be in the grand masters category.

I’ve gained some distance on the giant bear cub who appears smaller in the distance but is actually quite gigantic. Photo Credit: Keith Knipling

I’ve gained some distance on the giant bear cub who appears smaller in the distance but is actually quite gigantic. Photo Credit: Keith Knipling

Aid station #5, at mile 22.7, was a quick stop for some watermelon and banana, but in the process Daniel went on ahead of me. This was mostly helpful because it gave me someone to chase though not without some occasional negative self talk about the gap between us growing in size. My GPS was messing up early on the road segment but eventually corrected to relay the fact that we were running 8:00ish minutes/mile. It made me happy to be able to push this section a little and it went by so much quicker than the prior years. Even though I did mistake the next-to-last climb on the gravel road for the last climb and really had about another mile to go before the turn and aid station.

Photo courtesy Keith Knipling

Photo courtesy Keith Knipling

Though it may not have created many gorgeous blue sky photos, the weather was more cooperative this year than in the other times I’ve raced. I don’t remember the sun starting to bust through until I was at least 30 miles deep. Usually by the time I get midway through the Road Across the Sky, the temperature and humidity start to dish out a beatdown. There was still fog and pleasant temperatures while heading across the service road.

Aid station #6, mile 27, at Bear Rocks was partially staffed by fellow runner and Physical Therapist Robert Gillanders. I do like seeing people I know at the aid stations, partly because they tend to be more encouraging but mostly because they are more willing to give me a quad massage. Fruit seemed like the only appealing menu choice (especially after an aid #4 trail mix debacle I won’t bother describing) I gathered banana, strawberry, potato, and orange pieces. Yes, a potato is fruit. Duh. Get with the times. I caught back up to Daniel here and he mentioned that he wanted to slow down but having just witnessed him crush the Road Across the Sky I wasn’t too hopeful that he actually would. We ran together for a few minutes, but then as we continued, I drifted away in front of him and we lost contact.

Gapped the giant baby bear. Suspect muscle glycogen depletion is at play.

Gapped the giant baby bear. Suspect muscle glycogen depletion is at play.

Getting to aid station #7, at mile 32.9, always seems to take FOREVER. The landscape remains barren and exposed much of the time and it is mostly singletrack. I had just caught Zach Beckett coming into the aid station when I noticed they didn’t even bother putting up a pop-up tent since the chilly wind was gusting so hard. The bundled-up volunteers kindly refilled my bottles with Coke and water, I shoved down some watermelon and proceeded to open a baby-sized Baby Ruth, only to have the real force of Mother Nature reveal herself with a wind burst that ripped the caramel, chocolate, and peanut goodness from my Reynaud’s-afflicted baby hands. No matter, two second rule. Thou shall not waste a perfectly good candy bar. In my fumbly drama, I left the aid forgetting to see if Zach was still there or if he had taken off in front of me.

Downward is the trend of the course at this point, thank goodness, but there is more climbing to do. I caught a glimpse of Zach when I reached the base of the Timberline ski slope. I shuffled on up, through the pines and down the infamous Buttslide section, which feels longer every time I run it. Onto the gravel of upper Freeland Road and I can still see Zach a couple hundred yards away but he’s looking awfully strong. Maybe he’ll crack?

Shortly after leaving aid station #8 at mile 36.9, where I must say I always love their encouragement and Coca-Cola, I spy another runner, Trevor, and realize that Zach is chasing him, hence explaining the obvious renewed fire in his pants. The pavement allows for quick running if you’ve got anything left in the tank, have been slacking on the effort, or if you simply need to get to the finish line to pee. Down through the 8 inch tall grass to the Canaan Resort entryway, on to more pavement for the home stretch and I see in the distance the duel for third and fourth about to take place. I could tell I was probably going to PR at that point, so I was content to stride along steadily and consider that success.

This is/was a top 5 podium photo

This is/was a top 5 podium photo

Moments later, I was pleased with a new PR of 6:51:32. It amazes me that after 41 miles, third through fifth place were only separated by 3.5 minutes. Of course I didn’t realize that critical fact until there were less than two miles to go, but that’s one of the strategies of trail running: out of sight, out of mind. Maybe I could have drawn a little more effort out of myself from Bear Rocks to Timberline, but I don’t think I could have kicked a final mile much harder. I felt like I had a good settle-in-and-grind gear but not much maximum effort. Might have something to do with racing a tough 100K last month.

This race is so good, so tough, so check it out sometime, unless you don’t like running in the woods or cuddling with black bears.

Thanks for the great event and work you do Adam Casseday, Dan Lehman and volunteers!