Laurel Highlands Race Recap
I’m fully aware that this review is long overdue. As is usually the case, the summer seems to have gotten away from me amidst the various projects, work and home-related, taking up my time. With that being said, the Laurel Highlands 70.5-miler was an amazing race experience, and certainly worthy of a #chasing42 review!
I try to be very respectful of the beautiful epicurean’s time and energy, and not drag her along to every single race I run. She has been overwhelmingly supportive from day 1, and I cherish that support. Since the Laurel Highlands 70-miler was a relatively local race, being just a 4 hour drive northwest into PA, I agreed to make the trip myself. The race took place on Saturday, June 10th and I took off Friday the 9th from work and made the drive up in the afternoon. The race is a point-to-point course, starting in Ohiopyle, PA, and running along the Laurel Highlands trail north to Seward, PA. As I was traveling alone, it didn’t make sense to bother with a hotel room for a few hours of sleep, so I decided to park my car at the finish and sleep in it Friday night.
I got up to the campground around 4PM and got a quick lay of the land and made sure I knew where to park when I returned, and then I headed into Johnstown for packet pickup and the pre-race dinner and briefing. 2017 marked the 38th running of the race and they certainly have the logistics ironed out very smoothly. I showed up, collected my bib and shirt, and found a seat for dinner. The pasta dinner was quite good, and I was pleased and full as I left, having a much better sense of the course, and feeling content as I headed back to the campground/ finish area. I pulled out my packable camp chair and relaxed with a good book to enjoy the remaining sunlight before curling up in my sleeping back in the car to catch a few hours of sleep. The benefit of sleeping “outside” is going to bed when the sun goes down and not worrying as much about staying up late!
I wouldn’t say I slept great, but I still got a decent amount of sleep before my 3AM alarm woke me from my slumber. Other folks had begun to arrive and park around me to secure their place at the finish area before the buses arrived to shuttle us down to the start. The buses cut through the darkness promptly at 3:30AM with their school bus charm, and we boarded silently in the dark. The drive ended up taking much longer and was much more winding and bumpy than I had anticipated so additional sleep was out of the question. We arrived at the starting area with very little time to spare, and everyone made a beeline for the bathrooms. I took care of business and walked up to the starting area with a few minutes to spare. The morning light was just breaking through in the park, and there was an air of calm anticipation running through the crowd as we waited for the signal to start.
I opted for poles in addition to my normal Salomon pack, soft flasks, and various nutritional needs. The course itself has over 11,000 feet of vertical gain, and the jagged elevation profile left me confident that the use of poles would be a good choice. I was certainly correct! After a short jaunt on the road to the trailhead, we hopped on the Laurel Highlands Trail and didn’t leave it for the next 70 miles. The trail itself was consistently technical, beautiful single track with some spectacular views. I told myself I would actually stop at least once to take in the views this time, and I eventually did make good on that promise. The first aid station at mile 11.6 made for a bit of a longer first section, but fresh legs and plenty of Tailwind, along with the energy of the race and the people around me made the miles tick off pretty quickly. There was no shortage of climbing, however, and I had accumulated well over 2,000 ft. of vertical gain.
The next section was filled with shorter but more frequent climbs, and I was starting to have flashbacks to the Georgia Death Race and the constant climbing and descending. I had heard that a majority of the climbing for this race was in the first 20 miles, so I was prepared for it, and my legs held up really well. All of the climbing I had been doing in training was certainly paying off. I didn’t spend long at the aid station at mile 19.6 and got back out on the course to keep my momentum going.
I should have known better, but for a brief moment as I was leaving AS #2, I actually thought the course would get easier. It didn’t. The aid stations were further apart than in many other ultras, and I enjoyed the old school feel of the race. It forced me to pay more attention to my hydration and nutrition, and plan accordingly for the longer chunks of miles.
Things started to heat up, literally, by mile 30, and the crowd of 143 runners (70.5 distance) had begun to thin out quite a bit so I was spending significantly more time by myself. The climbs kept coming, and the rocks and roots continued to make the trail a formidable companion. My head seemed to be bouncing between the trail and the views as I tried to simultaneously not trip and enjoy the gorgeous landscapes laid out before me along the trail. I should note that this is not a bad problem to have, and the constant distractions made the miles and climbing much easier as I continued my relentless forward progress.
Eventually, I made it to the mile 46 aid station and eagerly anticipated access to my drop bag. This aid station experience was one of the best I’ve ever had thanks in large measure to an amazing volunteer that helped me from start to finish. I was pretty darn hot, had run out of water, and was soaking wet from sweat so a cold rag and ice water on my neck and back felt amazing. He grabbed my drop bag, refilled my bottles with Tailwind, and I put on a clean shirt and a fresh pair of socks. By the time I left the aid station, I felt like a new man. The drudgery of the previous 7 miles (after AS #4) was a distant memory, and I headed back out on the trail with renewed vigor and excitement!
I made it to the next aid station at mile 57 with ease relative to the previous miles, and was in really good spirits. At this point, I was determined to see how far I could get without using my headlamp. I rolled in, fueled up, and pulled out my headlamp in anticipation of using it soon, but I still had some light in the sky. I danced with the setting sun almost as far as the next and final aid station at mile 62, helped in part by a short stretch of dirt road up to the AS that I could navigate with very little light. I was all smiles as I pulled into the final aid station, took a few shots of Coke, and struck out for the final stretch.
It got dark pretty quick, but my headlamp cast a nice wide beam so I had no trouble navigating. After about a mile, I found myself running nearby to another runner, which hadn’t happened in quite a while. We got to talking and humorously discovered that we followed each other on Strava, and lived miles from each other but had never met in person. We ended up running in the final 7 miles together and talking the entire time about a whole host of topics, which made the time fly by rather quickly. We both had been thinking about the possibility of breaking 18 hours as the finish line grew near, and we began to push as hard as we could with 5 miles or so to go. We kept looking down at the clock and knew it would be close, especially since we weren’t entirely sure how much we had left as the finish grew near. We made the final push and “sprinted” across the finish line in 18:03.
All finishers received a beautiful wooden “trophy”, which was a small replica of the permanent stone obelisk trail mile markers along the Laurel Highlands Trail, and I was quite happy to claim mine. I hung around the finish area for a bit, sipping on soup, and cheering on other runners before eventually making my way back to the car around 12:30AM. I was exhausted, and my wet wipe “bath” didn’t really cut it, but I was too tired to care and I climbed into my sleeping bag for a few hours of restless sleep as my sore leg muscles began to repair themselves. I predictably woke up with the rising sun, briefly enjoyed the cool morning air, and then hopped in the car for the 4 hour drive home. It was a whirlwind weekend, as so many race weekends are, but I absolutely loved the course, the volunteers, and the overall experience. I collected my second Western States qualifying race as well, and fully embraced the #chasing42 spirit along the way!