The Laurel Highlands Monsters

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Pete versus the Laurel Highlands Monsters

It was a dark and stormy night. Heading back to the hotel after the pre-race meal, I was filled with apprehension. Just how tough was this course, and how bad would the weather be? And what else could the trail throw my way? I’d run some challenging races, but I was not too sure about this one. I began to imagine a line-up of terrifying monsters awaiting me on the course, each more ferocious than the last. Where would they be? How many would the Highlands fling at me, and when would it start? Very soon, it turned out…

Monster Zero: Here was an unexpected beast, sent the night before to shake up the unprepared. Unlike many runners, I usually manage a good night’s sleep before a race. Not tonight, though. The hotel I was staying at was nice, but there were lots of people making noise in the halls until late, and I wasn’t very relaxed anyway. Soon enough, it was 2:30 and time to get my stuff ready.

To the finish line by 3:30, which was already buzzing, then a long bus ride sharing stories with Ron from Tennessee, a physicist who designs proton therapy machines for radiation therapy–so cool! And typical of the amazing and interesting personalities that populate the ultra community. After a long and dark ride, it became first light as we pulled into Ohiopyle, an outdoor adventurer’s mecca in SE Pennsylvania and home to the wild rapids of the Yochigheany River. Checked out the daunting, roaring falls and surveyed the intimidating hills all around us that we were about to climb. This inspired me to reflect a bit about why I was running this race, and for all the great kids with physical challenges who struggle like I would at times today constantly. Then talked with friends Clare and Hal, friends from my old running group Misery Loves Company. Both were attempting this as their longest runs ever, exciting!

Then we were off! 123 starters moved as one up the road, and soon we hit the trail. To announce its presence, it immediately went pretty much straight up with railroad tie steps, but luckily only briefly, then leveled out for a while, until…

Monster 1: A big, shaggy one right in our faces. The first hill! I knew we had the 3 IMG_1722biggest ones in the first few miles. This one was 600 feet, and it was quite steep, more so than almost anything I’d been training on. I was planning on walking all the hills today and hiked steadily up at the same pace as a knot of runners I was with, though I passed Clare as she was smartly pacing herself more. Soon enough we started cresting the hillside to some amazing views of the Yough valley below, where I realized that we had now met…

Monster 2: Sneaking up from all around, silent and unnoticed until it is too late. The weather–it started out cooler than I had even hoped for, in the low 70s, but quite humid, and as we looked out into the valley, I realized just how humid it was. There were clouds below, which meant fog, which meant close to 100% humidity. This didn’t change for a loooong time, which makes it really tough on a high surface-to-volume heavy sweater body time like mine.

Almost all that elevation gain quickly evaporated as we descended into a deep, forested glade that was absolutely beautiful. Dark, mysterious, with mossy rocks scattered throughout a meandering stream.This was repeated many times, often with hemlock groves near the water that gave the feel of an enchanted forest. Then we crossed the creek, to run into…

Monster 3: Another big, hairy, ugly thing. The 2nd big hill, higher and steeper than the first. This took longer and a bit more energy, but it was conquered again after 700 feet of climbing. Then straight back down, with plenty of…

Monster 4: An insidious little fellow that kept nipping at the ankles. Lots of rocks, and a fair number of roots. This became a constant for many, many miles. The rocks were in long stretches, not the constant rock-filled courses of central PA, but always big and frequent enough to require constant scanning, course correction, and quick decisions. There were a fair number of makeshift stone steps in places as well, where you had to be careful not to make rash decisions. I love this type of terrain, but it does take its toll. Once again, we bottomed out, crossed a run, and came up to major…

Monster 5: The big one, a super colossal giant with a threatening club! This climb was 1200 feet, and it was VERY steep. Worse than that, it kept getting steeper and steeper. Worst of all, it was mostly a straight trail where you could see just how big the giant was (forever), with not even a hint of a leveling off for a long, long way. Nothing to do but put the head down and keep powering through with a brisk and steady walk upward. While I am a decent climber, I could already feel fatigue in my legs and knew that this was sapping energy quickly.

IMG_1727It took a long time to summit, but eventually things leveled off, and the trail got to be very runnable and enjoyable. The tough hills were done! We traversed ridges and glades, crossed streams and meandered through the dense forest, and passed through rock gardens with maze-like mini-canyons. I was feeling good, and the famous concrete mileposts that marked every mile were passing by quickly. I ate and filled up bottles at the first aid station, and then kept on more gentle trail until about mile 19, when suddenly I came across…

Monster 6: A loud and obnoxious ogre crouching unnoticed suddenly yelled and startled this unsuspecting runner. Here was a relatively short but very steep climb up a rock garden, with lots of rocky steps. For some reason, this one killed me, so that I could barely even lift my legs up to get to the top. Something was definitely wrong–I suspected that I was rapidly overheating and needed to slow down.

Just after, I ran fast and with a big smile on my face into the next aid station as I always try to do, but this time I was totally faking it. I needed lots of liquid and asked for ice for my hat as well, which I had brought just for this purpose. I’d never tried this before but have read about it from others. Well, it was WAY too cold for me and became extremely painful after just a few seconds. How do people do it? I settled for ice to the neck and walked to slowly recover for most of the next mile. This was gonna be much tougher than I thought.

The next 12 miles or so were pretty flat and forgiving, so I made a good recovery IMG_1723and cruised along though many fern-covered glens, and a surprise lake as well. Some time along here, the first 50K runner (the 50K race started later and was on the same course) zoomed by. Much, much later the 2nd 50K runner, a young woman, came bounding down a hill, hesitated just ahead of me at a confusing junction, then turned right. 50K runner #3 started to follow her, then realized he was going wrong and alerted runner #2, who had figured it out and was coming back. They headed down the correct path just as the 2nd woman came down the hill right beyond. This mistake had really compressed the battle for 2nd!

At one point, we heard the shooting range off to the left, and saw some warning signs to stay on the trail. Some of the shots sounded fairly close and from some serious weaponry! About this time, 50K runner #5 passed, then he stopped just ahead and started rubbing his legs. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was cramping up, so I supplied him with an S-cap (he seemed to not know about electrolytes) and some gatorade, which seemed to do the trick. I’m always amazed at how fast these elite runners can go on such challenging courses, and they look so graceful doing it.

We got to the “highest point in the Laurel Highlands” and ran through the Seven IMG_1725Springs Ski Resort amid an aid station and then a crew station around miles 26-28. This was a real delight, running in the open on grassy slopes for the first time, past another lake, and getting amazing views of the valleys far below. Still, it seemed like it had taken forever just to get through a marathon distance. This was becoming a real slogfest.

From this point on, I was realized I needed to eat more and had been going anaerobic. Once I started chowing down, using ice, and overloading on drinking at the aid stations,, I started feeling much better. The next stretch was great, and I connected with a few similar-paced runners for some nice chats. I was typically slowing on the hills, doing OK on the flats, and bombing the fairly frequent downhills. The only monster I had going was…

Monster 7: A nagging, persistent little bugger, this was the constant rubbing of the wrong choice in shorts. Along with plenty of sweat, I was starting to chafe raw in a whole lot of places. This gradually led to a constant dull buzz of pain that just had to be ignored, as aid station treatments were not doing much. All I could do was to try to keep this out of my mind as I cruised on, only to encounter

Monster 8: This one seemed innocuous, but its size and ferocity were cleverly disguised. It started out at the mile 32 Aid Station with no ice available, which unnerved me a bit, as while the humidity had decreased in the mid-day sun, it was still plenty humid, and with higher temperatures. I also kept hearing from some veterans I was leapfrogging that there weren’t really any more significant climbs until about mile 50. They were wrong…so wrong! This next stretch of 7 miles seemed to constantly climb up, shoot down the ridgetop into another hollow, then back up the other side. Over and over and over. It just seemed to go on forever, and each time it sapped more energy out of me, so that I was practically stumbling into the mile 39 Aid Station.

However, with more food and drink, I regained much strength and again started feeling better, as always happens in ultras. There were more climbs in the next 7 miles, but I was hanging in there. Also, there were many cool features that IMG_1726included the biggest rock dens and mini-canyons, some huge boulder formations, and fields of ferns that were huge and went on forever, as far as the eye could see in every direction. There was also a very large hemlock grove that had no undergrowth and was very dark and spooky. This was magnificent, primitive country that was breathtaking in its beauty and serenity.

Then at the mile 46 Aid Station, I picked up my first drop bag, which had a desperately needed Ensure in it. This was like liquid gold, and I soon felt the best I had all day, plus the temperatures were starting to cool a bit in the early afternoon. Everyone kept saying “it gets easier after mile 50”, but before that spot, I knew about the biggest, baddest demon yet…

Monster 9: This one was enormous, given my depleted state. It rose up in front of me, a huge ridge with no end in sight, and I knew I had to climb to the top. But I was in a conquering mood, so my steady hiking pace overcame the hideous shape and rounded out to the ridge that we would follow for the duration. It seemed as if I had won, but of course the Highlands had many more creatures yet to unleash…

Monster 10: This sneaky gremlin was a well-hidden root or rock that caused me to tumble to the ground. I’d fallen early in the race to a similar obstacle and was unhurt except for stubbing my one bad toe/toenail pretty hard. Later in the race, I tripped on a short, thick stick that lay lengthwise in the trail and refused to budge until I did. But this one was different. I landed fast and hard on my side, right onto a stubby tree stump sticking out of the trail about 2 inches in diameter. IMG_1724This caused tremendous pain and I cried out a few times, thinking at the same time that my race was over, or at least I had some broken ribs. Miraculously, it had hit my side just below my ribs and above my pelvis, and it didn’t puncture me either. My hamstrings were strangely strained, but after a few moments, my body returned to normal. I had very narrowly missed a real disaster, with some great luck that held until…

Monster 11: With a flash and a distant boom, the newest challenger announced itself–a thunderstorm. I knew this was a possibility and was a bit worried about a severe storm that might have a big wind front. Luckily, the trail had been all on the east side of the ridge, where one might expect less wind. So of course as soon as the thunder announced itself, the trail crossed the ridgetop to immediately get onto the more vulnerable west side! Luckily, this wasn’t an issue, and the clouds didn’t look too menacing. Soon enough though, the rain began to fall. And it fell and fell, longer and longer. I expected a quick storm, but this one just kept going on, sometimes with a bit of rain, and other times raining pretty hard. In total, it must have lasted nearly 2 hours. The trail started getting sloppy, and my shoes started getting wet (though I didn’t really notice at the time). Despite this, the rain was refreshing and a bit cooling for the first time in the day, and the ferns were beautiful. This monster wasn’t so bad, or so I thought, but it was not alone…

Monster 12: Slowly enveloping me, wrapping me in a shrouded coat of evil. was mountain fog! Even though there should have been plenty of daylight, the clouds and now this thickening fog was advancing the coming night and making things challenging to see. Worse yet, this meant yet again that there was 100% humidity. I was really starting to get fatigued by this point, but I was still running the flats and downhills much of the time, and there were many. The trail ambled around the sides of the ridge, occasionally crossing over, to a very peaceful tune. Eventually, I made it to the last checkpoint and Aid Station at mile 57, where another dropbag awaited. But here I made a critical mental error by not changing my now soaked shoes and socks. My feet felt OK, but there were some sore spots. That would soon change.

I downed another Ensure and hooked up with new running buddy Clint, whom I had been running into at many of the Aid Stations. We decided to set out together to get the last 13 miles over with. It was headlight time, as the darkness and fog completely came down on us at this point. Was it…

Monster 13: This devious hacker was attacking my equipment! As we headed out, I realized that I could hardly see anything between the fog and the dark, certainly not any trail markers–and we had been warned that there were confusing cross trails throughout. Was the fog deflecting my light that much? After a few minutes of this, and noticing that Clint behind me seemed to be doing fine, I switched headlights and sheepishly realized that it was just weak batteries. Another crisis averted by “brilliant deduction”. The totally cool thing was theIMG_1728 mountain laurel, which we had increasingly seen along the trail, until there were stretches where it was a constant grove of brilliant and fragrant white flowers, with a faint pink hue. Here in the dark, the flowers seemed to glow in the dark from our lights, as if they were guiding lanterns directing our way. They became our anti-monsters. Inspired, we kept on going, alternating runs and walks through this very forgivable trail, except for the muddy stretches and occasional pools from the now-subsided rainstorm. Only to find…

Monster 14: Perhaps the biggest foe yet! My body still felt OK with minimal soreness, but my feet were starting to hurt as if I had one massive blister on each foot. This turned out to be maceration instead of blisters, but it got increasingly painful until it felt that my whole sole of each foot was sliding back and forward with every step. Our running stretches got shorter and shorter, and we hit a one mile stretch of gravel road that was slightly uphill and we walked completely to the last Aid Station. From here, it was mostly a very fast hike to the end, as our legs and feet were just too beat up to attempt much more running. We weaved in and out of a few fellow hike/runners and figured we had this in the bag. My original goal of 18 hours had long passed, though I had been on pace for much of the day. 20 hours seemed doable if we could keep this up (unbeknownst to me, finishing in under 20 was a Western States qualifier!). Mostly, I just wanted to finish, as this seemed to be going on forever. However, the mountain still had some things left for us…

Monster 15: This slippery, slimy shadow of the night was literally just that. The last 3 miles were a steep and very rocky drop. The downhill was killing our legs and my feet, and the rocks were not really walkable as they were so slick; nor were they runnable as it was too dark. So we sort of stumbled down them, constantly slipping and tripping on rocks. How we managed to stay upright, I will never know. This would be a delightful stretch in daylight and early in a race, but not now. Finally, we leveled out, crossed a weird sandy stretch under a powerline that looked just like an eerie moonscape in the dark, and then we saw it:

Monster 16: The last, fiercest serpent rising up to strike at us. It really was a serpent, too! A baby timber rattler lay literally at our feet until I heard a noise and noticed it. Somewhat comically in my drained state, I just casually said “look, a timber rattler”, and we all stood there and admired it. It was shrinking back against us while shaking a very small and pretty pathetic rattle that sounded more like someone rubbing two small twigs together. We were really way too close to it, but by this time, it almost seemed like a “whatever, is that all you got left for us?” moment.

We knew we had it at this point, and moments later we burst (our first running in five miles) into the open to receive congratulations, a wicked cool trophy, some fantastic chili, and NO MORE MONSTERS!

Prologue: This was probably my toughest race ever, between the weather, the terrain, and relatively light training. I ended up pretty unscathed, as the soreness and chafing quickly faded, and I’m back to running again.

Congrats to endgame buddy Clint and friends Clare and Hal for also finishing in a year with one of the highest dropout rates in the history of the race.

Thanks to the organizers, who every year put on one of the most historic and storied ultrarunning events. They manage to keep it old-school and well-oiled, with fantastic support from enthusiastic and experienced volunteers. The course is very challenging and divinely beautiful, a must-run or hike destination for all outdoor adventurers.

Thanks to my ever-supportive wife Lori and my kids, who keep me going with their inspiration and constant patience. And most of all, thanks to the CP community and all of you who are embracing Celebrating Perseverance. Monsters tamed, first quest complete, on to Superior!

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