Lucky #13 – Laurel Highlands 70

*Wordpress is giving me issues with inserting photos, so you don’t get to see any photos of me looking gorgeous on the trails. I assure you: that was the case.

I mentioned earlier this year that I was training for the Laurel Highlands Ultra 70 Mile race. The plan was to train for it, anyway. After the wreck of the year I had last year, both personally and running-wise, I vowed to do my very best to stay healthy and train well for the Laurel 70 and Oil Creek 100 Mile races. Here’s the recap of 2015 thus far:

January – I pulled my right hamstring during the opening sequence of yoga class. My long runs for the month topped out at 10 miles.

February – The fricking winter weather made it so difficult to run on the trails that I ran on the roads . . . and fell and banged up my hip and sprained my wrist. My longest run for the month topped out at 16 miles.

March – March was okay until the last weekend when I twisted my knee during a 23 miler on a cold and freaking snowy day. After that I had a lot of knee pain and it took until early May to find out that I had tendinitis. My longest run of the year was that 23 miler . . . and it had been a jump from that 16 miler the previous month.

So during the month of April I would rest and then try to run, and then rest and try to run. It was frustrating. I did Broad Street with only a little discomfort, but then the following week was incredibly painful. On Mother’s Day weekend I could only muster up a 5 miler. By the next weekend I decided just to go for it. I went out for 13 and it was okay. Then on the 23rd I did 20. On the 30th I did 30. (And I did those 30 without my orthotics. While it felt AWESOME, it ended up giving me very pissed off Achilles tendons in both feet. I’ve had tendinitis in the left one, so I was worried.) And then I barely ran again until Laurel. It was nowhere near the training plan I wanted, nor what anyone would recommend. I should have pulled out of the race. But I didn’t.

I was signed up not only for the 70 mile race but as the first leg of the 5 person (also 70 mile) relay. My leg was 19 miles. Going into the race, the only expectation I set for myself was to finish those 19 miles. As long as I did that, my team could function as planned.

I mentally prepared myself to have my first official DNF (did not finish). It’s not that I wanted to quit the race, but I was so sure that I would be in so much pain from either my knee or Achilles. While I mentally prepared myself to be okay with quitting the race, I packed my bags as if I’d finish the 70 miles. I gave my crew all of the instructions they would need in case I made it to the end. I lined up Anne to pace me for the last 13 miles. I felt that it was all in vain.

While I assumed I wouldn’t finish, I paced myself as if I would. I took the early miles slowly and tried not to over-do it. I couldn’t help but power up the climbs and pass a whole bunch of people; it’s what I do. But it was dumb. My climbing muscles just aren’t as strong at this point as they should be. While I did well at the beginning of the race, I had no climbing game through the rest of the race. Oh – and did I mention that it was humid? I was SOAKED by mile 2. It was unbelievable. But thankfully there were storms all through the night on Friday and the temperature was much lower than it had been on Friday. Temperatures at the start of the race were in the 60s and topped out in the upper 70s. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we would have had that humidity with temps in the 80s like was originally forecasted. Those fierce storms left the trail wet, but nowhere near as muddy as expected.

I got to aid station #1 (11 miles) in great shape, though I knew I burned up a lot of energy when I decided to zip up the mountain. I saw my crew, which consisted of my husband and Little Dude, Anne and her husband, and our friend Ethan and his girlfriend. She was the only one (aside from Little Dude) who wasn’t running. What a saint she was to suffer through all of this madness for him! Little Dude was pretty groggy at this point since we got him out of bed at 4:30am, and wouldn’t give me a kiss or shake his tambourine. I didn’t take it personally, and instead got some energy from the rest of my team. I hate wasting time at aid stations, though, and was in and out in a matter of a couple of minutes with my water and a couple pieces of watermelon. I got back on the trail and headed for aid station #2 (19.3 miles). The next few miles were unremarkable, though beautiful. I can’t say that I had any issues, nor did I have any super high moments. I was just grateful that I was feeling really good.

At aid station #2 I ended my leg of the relay and tagged off to Anne. I was right on my target pace. She and John got my pack filled with water and my beloved Tailwind (my next blog post will cover this amazing stuff) while I grabbed a little more watermelon, and then she joined me on the trail. She decided to stay with me for her 13 mile section of the relay. It was so nice to have her company. She is the absolute best running partner! Staying with me helped to keep the relay team pretty close to me, making it easy for the gang to crew for me while running the relay. I was already hiking more than I would have liked, but Anne kept assuring me I was fine.

We came into aid station #3 at the Seven Springs Resort and I got super excited to see boiled potatoes and a big bowl of salt. I know that sounds disgusting, and it really is, but when I’m running long, it’s all I want. I gobbled down two baby potatoes with salt and some watermelon and then I saw it – the box of Oreos! I snatched up an Oreo so fast and crammed it in my mouth. Anne commented on how odd that was for me, but hey – those things are vegan so I was good, right? (Wrong – it made my stomach hurt for a few miles. But boy did it taste good.) Anne and I came into aid station #4 at mile 32 pretty happily. In my past two Laurel experiences I had only run sections 1 (once) and 2 (twice). My secondary goal for the day was to see all of section 3. I was very, very pleased to have finished the first 2 sections in my goal time, though I was a little worried that I might be going a little too fast.

Anne tagged off to Ethan for the relay while John got my Tailwind into my hydration pack. At this point I made the switch from watermelon to oranges. Thanks to Tailwind, I didn’t really need to eat; I just picked up whatever looked good and enjoyed a piece or two of it. It was great to approach aid stations this way, rather than scavenging for what I was craving or, worse, what my body really needed. After my oranges, Ethan and I headed out onto the trail. We stayed together for about 2 minutes and then he bounded off ahead of me.

Section 3 (miles 32 – 46) of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) is just amazing. There are sections lined with lush, vibrant green ferns, punctuated with beautiful white laurel. There was a cool rhododendron arch and several rock mazes. It was the most beautiful section of the trail! I was definitely hiking more than I had hoped at this point. As I said earlier, my uphill game was crap. I was pretty upset about that. I ran when I could and hiked the rest. I got to aid station #5 and couldn’t open my bladder. The slide was stuck on the stop of it. Thankfully my friend Don was there to be my angel and help me! Unfortunately he had to pull out of the race early, but at that point I was immensely thankful for his presence. He got my bladder filled up while I grabbed another orange segment. I was back on the trail quickly. The rest of section three was as beautiful as the first. The day was going so well. I felt great. I just felt like a shoe was going to drop.

I rolled into aid station #6 feeling great. I accomplished my goal of completing section 3 and felt good. I knew I would continue through section 4. My husband was running section 4 of the relay and John said he had only started a few minutes before I got there. He thought I could catch him. I thought about trying, so I would have some company, but I was too afraid that I would burn too much energy doing so. A big part of my strategy was energy conservation, so that wouldn’t work! As soon as I crammed a huge orange segment in my mouth a volunteer came up to me and told me I was the 10th place female. I dropped a bit of language with my child nearby, but thankfully the orange muffled it enough that only Ethan and his girlfriend Megan understood me! Telling me I was 10th was the worst thing that woman could have done at that moment! I never considered that I could do so well, and then I became obsessed with it! At that point I had to move on. I crossed the busy highway and got back on the “flat” trail, as John described it.

He lied.

The first half of section 4 was NOT flat. It’s not that it was overly hilly, but it was rolling and I hadn’t expected that. I started to lose a little momentum. I was hiking too much. Things were starting to stuck. Miles 46 – 51 just dragged on and on. It was awful. And then it started to rain. But it didn’t just rain. It POURED. It was ark-worthy. I hadn’t picked up my visor so water was getting in my eyes. I had, though, grabbed my flashlight, but it wasn’t quite dark enough to need that. During the first half of section 4 I was hiking a good bit and my knees were getting stiff. Once the rain hit, though, I was really motivated to keep moving. A guy passed me while trailing a beautiful girl with gorgeous hair. (Really, it’s unfair that she looked that good through the whole damned race. It was ridiculous.) He couldn’t keep up with her, though, and she soon bounded off, leaving both of us behind. He was running very slowly and I wanted to pass him, but whenever I started to walk up a hill, he’d push on ahead. I realized that I needed to adopt his approach. I’m sure it drove him absolutely nuts but I stayed right behind him for miles. That man pretty much saved me. Seriously. If I had kept up my hiking, my knees would have continued to stiffen up. It made the idea of running really unappealing. By keeping that very slow pace, though, I was able to get things to loosen up. I did some high-knees and some ass-kickers. The rain ended up giving me what I needed to get through that section. By the time I slogged into aid station #7 I was chafing everywhere from the wet clothes and I was fairly miserable. Everything hurt, but nothing was particularly painful. I just felt tired and wasted. I knew I was fine to continue, but the rain really sucked. If I didn’t have a pacer for section 5 I doubt I would have mustered up the guts to continue. But Anne was there waiting for me, so I didn’t have to make that decision. I grabbed my headlamp and visor and we took off. I was dead set on breaking 19 hours, so I said, “Anne. We have 4 hours to do this, okay?” Her reply? “Let’s go!” I just love her.

That last section was very muddy in parts – the kind of mud that can suck your shoes right off your feet. We managed to keep our shoes on, which can be surprisingly tricky at times!  Anne and I passed the time by chatting like we always do. I’ve talked to her probably more than I have talked to most human beings on this planet but yet we still find things to talk about. It always amazes me. We ran when I could and hiked everything else. I was intent on finishing as quickly as possible, so I hiked faster than I hiked in the early sections. At least I think I did. Maybe I was moving as slow as molasses. At any rate, I kept on moving. We got to aid station #8 which was on a very long section of dirt road. This was the most interesting aid station yet. It seemed unremarkable at first; it looked like all the others. When they offered me a grilled cheese, I politely declined. Anne told them that I was a vegan and didn’t eat gluten and the one guy said, “We have stuff for that!” It was an odd response, for sure. It turns out that the whole group of volunteers was vegetarian! They offered me a Tofurkey sandwich, but since I can’t really eat while running, I declined. It’s too bad I didn’t have a baggie on me. I would have taken it to go! I was absolutely stunned by that aid station, and it left me giggling on the way out.

The final 8 miles were long – very long. That last aid station came too early in the section, so it made those final miles drag on. With about 5 miles to go Anne told me it was all downhill to the finish. She lied. It must run in the family! We kept trudging on UP and down hills. I’ve been through this stage in an ultra several times now but it’s still hard. You feel like you will never get to the finish, but obviously you will. You simply must keep moving. When you put a dumb goal in front of yourself it’s, well, dumb and it makes things a little extra hard.

Finally, with about 1.5 miles to go, we really seemed to be descending. I told Anne that if we had to go up again I was quitting right then and there. I’m not sure how I thought I’d get home, but that didn’t matter at the time. We continued to descend and started to see the signs welcoming hikers to the Laurel Highlands. Anne said that once we saw “the big sign” we were all but home. Before we even saw it, though, I said, “Screw it. I’m RUNNING!” I picked up the pace and then found that big sign. I continued to run towards the finish line. Thankfully I was paying close attention to my feet because just before the finish line there was a big step with a log along the edge. (Could you imagine falling at that point? That would suck.) I was so glad to be done, but of course I had to find out if I beat my goal. I received my trophy and then asked the race director for the time. He looked at me and knew exactly what I wanted to know. He said, “You did it. You beat 19 hours.” I was so happy.

I was happy and felt great. I couldn’t believe how well I felt after 70 miles and after the training season I had. That feeling lasted about 2 minutes. My crew hadn’t expected me so early, so they quickly dispersed to get my stuff. I was left holding my hydration pack and my trophy with Little Dude sitting there in a camp chair. I knew I needed to walk around for a few minutes and get some liquids, but I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t leave him alone. By the time they got back I had to sit down. Then it was all over. I started feeling weird. I didn’t feel like I would vomit or anything, but standing seemed out of the question. I asked for a bowl of salted rice, but when John returned with it, it was if he gave me a bowl of . . . meat or something equally gross. The thought of food on on the whole was revolting, but during my 19 hours of movement I consumed: 1,600 calories from Tailwind, 6 wedges of watermelon, 4 orange slices, 3 baby potatoes (the small canned kind), 5 blue corn chips, the equivalent of probably a half of a sweet potato Anne had roasted for me, one date and one Oreo cookie. According to My Fitness Pal I probably burned about 5,500 calories, so I was certainly in a real deficit. I tried to get my protein shake (mixed with chocolate almond milk) down, but it was hard. It took a while. I told Anne I had to go to the bathroom and she walked there with me. Thank God she did. All of a sudden everything went black. She helped me to sit on the parking lot until that passed. After I was done at the bathroom, she helped me back to my chair. Then I realized I had to go to the bathroom again. What a freaking ordeal that was. I just felt miserable. I was so dizzy. When I got back to my chair again Anne and John urged me to change out of my wet clothes. I really wanted to but didn’t feel up to it. MISTAKE. Within a few minutes my lips were blue and I was shivering terribly. I was wrapped in two towels and a blanket and was still freezing. Finally Anne grabbed some baby wipes and started cleaning off my legs. Once that was done, I decided to get up and get changed. The simple act of getting out of those clothes changed the whole ballgame. I instantly felt better. I managed to walk over to the tent and get some vegan chili. I ate most of that, said goodbye and thank you to everyone, and then climbed in the car.

We were only 2 hours from home but by then it was 2 am and we had been up since 4am. My husband had snagged a short nap during the afternoon and said he was okay to head out. We stopped at a Sheetz for some fuel – not for the car but for us. My husband got a Red Bull, one of those sugary cappuccinos and fried cheese curds. (If that isn’t one of the most disgusting combinations of food, I’m not sure what is. I supposed there could have been bacon involved.) I had him order me some tater tots. I ate most of them and they were delightful. I chugged lots of water and then took a quick nap. I woke up in time to realize his Red Bull was wearing off, so I stayed awake to chat with him the rest of the way home.

This blog is already way too long, so I’ll spare all of the rest of the details. I’ll say that I was stiff and sore on Sunday but really wasn’t in any pain. I was mostly just tired. Generally after long runs I’ll retain 3-4 pounds for about 3 days. That didn’t happen this time. Sometimes I’l have swelling in my legs. That didn’t happen either. It was really a good experience all around with the exception of the rain and that period of time after I finished when I was all loopy. I’m super happy with how the whole day went. I did finish as the 10th place female, which was pretty cool. There were 25 females at the start and only 16 of them finished. When you think of it that way, 10th place doesn’t sound all that impressive, but if I don’t give the race statistics, no one knows!

Oh yeah – do you want to know the weirdest part of the race? It was before the start, at the bathrooms. The line for the men’s room was ridiculously long but there wasn’t one for the ladies room. How often do you see that? Not very often! On Sunday I looked at the race statistics. There were 98 men and 25 women. That’s a pretty huge disparity, don’t you think? I can’t figure out why there are so few women in this race.

The best part of the whole weekend was Little Dude. He was a champ and hung out with our team all day with a smile on his face. He’s been talking about the “adventure” ever since. Since it was hazy and rainy the whole time, he started calling it “Misty Island”, after a Thomas the Train episode. It was all “Misty Island” this and “Misty Island” that. Today he told me that when he’s bigger he’d like to go running on Misty Island too and he wants all the grown-ups to cheer and clap for him. Later when we were on a walk in our neighborhood, he looked at the mountain I train on and said, “Mama…..when I’m bigger….. you and I can go running on the mountain together.”

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