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Once a padawan, now a freaking Jedi. I run really far, I write a bunch, and have super powers that allow me to grow amazing facial hair.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Race Report: Laurel Highlands Ultra 2010

Oh, the deep wound that reopens with each failure. Is 2010 cursed? Should I cancel my remaining races for the year in anticipation that I will not perform to my own personal standards?

The Laurel Ultra is the race that kindled my desire to run ultras, to be able to run a distance in a single day that most people would consider an intense multi-day backpacking trip.

It all began Easter weekend of 2004, when I was a senior in high school. I loved hiking, camping, and all things outdoors, just as many of my close friends did. My friend Alec Rice and I decided to bring our high school days to an end with a grand adventure. We knew of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, because it was a local destination and though we had no personal experience with it, knew many people who did. A 70.5 mile route from Ohiopyle to Seward, that promised beautiful scenery, grand vistas, and more... all accessed by a challenging single-track course.

Both of us were able bodied athletes. We played soccer all through our school years, were in the beginning of our final track and field season, and had even gone on multi-day hikes together in the past. We only had three days to do the distance, so we planned an aggressive schedule, putting most of our mileage up front when we were fresh and then doing two shorter days to bring us to the end. I called a month in advance to let the park service know which shelters we would be staying in for the two nights we would be sleeping on the trail.

When I explained our agenda to the man I was speaking with he chuckled and said, "Have you ever hiked this trail before?" I told him we hadn't and then through an offensive amount of laughter he suggested that we take at least four days. I got cocky and assured him that he was underestimating our ability.

When Alec's mom dropped us off in Ohiopyle, the weather was uncharacteristically perfect for that time of April, 65 degrees, sunny, and a slight breeze. Great conditions for our first day.

We had read the trail guide and seen the elevation profile beforehand and knew we would be gaining most of our elevation in the first ten miles. We would soon find out that things sometimes look better on paper than they do in reality. This climb was borderline obscene. Where the hell were we? Was this actually Pennsylvania or did Alec's mom accidentally drop us off in the Northern Cascades? The first 10 miles dominated us and took nearly twice as long as we had projected. After debating between one another we decided the next shelter we came across would be the ending point of our first day. We could split what we fell short of in the next two.

After setting up camp and getting something to eat, we went to bed early, hoping to start day two just after the sun broke the horizon.

When we woke up the next morning we were greeted with a completely unanticipated, and certainly unwanted landscape. While we were bunkered down in our sleeping bags, mother nature decided to give us the middle finger. A far cry from the day before, it was now 30 degrees, with 4 inches (and counting) of snow on the ground. Karma is a bitch, because I was eating my arrogance in regards to the difficulty of this hike. Still slower than planned, we went on a do or die death march of 28 miles, hiking well into the night before finally putting us within striking distance of the end. We were still over 20 miles away from my car, but we were going to get this thing done in three days... come hell, high water, snow, or some biblical scale mountain climb. How could we abandon our goal now?

Day three was overcast, with sporadic rain showers, and a just cold enough to be miserable temperature somewhere around 50. We were moving as fast as we could, completely miserable, and operating within bodies that were crying for us to stop. Both of us were in such a foul mood that we barely spoke, we just kept moving, forsaking our surroundings for the view of the rocky trail in front of us. My knees were swollen and every muscle in my leg felt like it was on fire, not to mention the pack that seemed like a 1,000 lbs on my shoulders.

Our determination had brought us success, but with a price, as both of us would be sitting out of track practice for a week. We had made it to my car with just an hour of light to spare on the third day, which was Easter Sunday. Too late for most home cooked meals, but at this point, left overs would be just fine.

Not long after our epic journey, I began to think back on it with pride, the park service guy may have known what he was talking about, but we still did it. I started to wonder then if there was a record of someone doing it faster. Of course I then Googled it, after all, how else does one acquire knowledge?

What I quickly found, had me wide-eyed and speechless. This had to be a different trail, with a similar name, or something like that. I was reading about something that was humanly impossible. Was this even a real website?

Some jerk supposedly RAN this thing that took us three days to hike... not only ran it, but did the whole thing in less than 11 hours. It wasn't just some random nut either, because there was dozens of other people listed who did it too, all under 24 hours. Who the hell would even consider trying that? I didn't know it was even possible to run that far, let alone that there would be organized events and races for such a distance. Weren't marathons the longest races around? What the hell was an ultra? Was this an isolated instance of insanity or did other people do this crap too?

I became obsessed, and found out that there were events all across the country, some longer than this one, on apparently even tougher trails. I learned about people setting speed records for the grail trails, about the Grand Slam, and the supposed toughest foot race in the world... The Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135 miles road race from Death Valley to the base of Mt. Whitney.

I ran "distance" for my track team, and thought that the 3200 was supposed to considered long distance, and I couldn't have been more wrong.

I was never particularly fast on the track. I was good for my team, but couldn't compete past county meets... but I knew I had drive, and I loved the idea of pushing my limits. I knew I would run an ultra someday, because I couldn't know about such a thing and not attempt it.

The fire had been lit, but wouldn't engulf anything until 2009 when I ran Holiday Lake, my first race outside of high school, a trail 50K that I would follow up with the Masochist 50 Miler later that year. The Laurel Ultra has been on my mind for the last 7 years, and I have seen it as my personal right of passage into ultra running.

It wasn't until this year that I was able to attempt my goal, but in all honesty last year made me a bit too cocky.

I can run, that's for sure, but I think because of my better than they should have been performances of last year, I have gravely overestimated how easily I can race.

I undertrained for Holiday Lake, then I straight up didn't train for either the Pittsburgh Marathon or the Masochist and put up solid newbie times for all three. This year that false confidence is costing me. Pittsburgh I struggled, the format change for Memorial Day saved my ass, and then the ultimate wake up call happened when I dropped out of the Laurel Ultra on Saturday.

I haven't had a 50-mile training week since January, in fact, I haven't had one over 30 miles. Did I really drive the whole way to Pennsylvania to run 77 miles (the course was altered and 7 miles added for a bridge outage) expecting to perform well? Did I really expect to even finish?

I told my brother beforehand that I was worried, but then he reminded me that I didn't run for the entire month leading up to the Masochist last fall, and that I was even smoking during that time, and I still finished in a respectable time.

Well my self proclaimed right of passage isn't anything like the Masochist, it's a ball buster of epic proportions compared to the Masochist.

I followed my routine of opting for poor and short sleep, going to bed at 12:30 AM in the back of Ned's SUV at the start line for a 5:30 race... next to active railroad tracks. It was better than the sleep I got before the Masochist, but certainly not ideal. I was surprisingly awake and motivated at the start line, talking with some fellow Brooks athletes and faces I recognized from previous races. I had every intention of finishing this thing, and believed I could even do it 6 hours under the time limit of 24 hours.

Damn that first 10 miles. This time there was really no excuse, I hadn't simply looked at maps, I knew it from experience and STILL underestimated it's ability to break me off. I was extremely aggressive to start out, with only a handful of solo runners ahead of me. The only people legitimately faster were relay guys who weren't going to be running the entire day. My downhill prowess was legit, but the climbs were killing me. Unfortunately, gaining 1400 ft of elevation in a 3 mile climb negated my success on the downhills. Right before the first aid station at mile 11, I started to get sharp stomach pains. I knew I might have to drop rounds down range during the race, but I had hoped it would be later, no such luck. I was still in good standing at the first station despite the pit stop, but my stomach was still acting up. I had increasing nausea, and even the thought of gel disgusted me. The second section was cake compared to the first as far as elevation gains and losses, but I found myself walking portions that I should definitely have been running. The stomach pains got worse each time I planted my foot. At mile 15, I was forced to make a second pit stop... way to early for this crap to be happening, quite literally. That didn't offer much relief either. A sip of NUUN then resulted in uncontrollable vomiting. I literally had no water or food in my stomach what so ever. This was bad, really bad. I knew if this kept up, dehydration was certain, and there was no way I could keep going. My mind began to doubt. In an ultra, it's rarely your body failing you that makes you quit, it's the battle in your head. I was in trouble and I knew it. Either way, I had to get to the next aid station.

As runners caught up to me and passed, I was reintroduced to the wonderful camaraderie that exists between ultra runners... something you won't necessarily find in shorter races. An older gentleman stopped and walked with me, asked if I needed some antacid tablets, which I graciously accepted. He stayed with me as long as he felt he could and then encouraged me, "It's still early, you have the whole day to catch up. You just make it to that next stop, and when you do find the prettiest girl that's there... that's my daughter. She has more antacid tablets, and I'm going to tell her to look for you when you come in, have a good race, hopefully I'll see you again." After he left, I waited for a few minutes and tried to drink again because I noticed the salt was starting to dry on my face and I wasn't sweating as much anymore... a sure sign of dehydration. Instantaneous vomiting. Damn it. More generous runners offered a thousand different magic pills as they passed and noticed that I was struggling, but I declined, at that point knowing my race was all but over until I could keep some water down.

The last climb up to the second aid station was the hardest part of the second leg, a confidence breaking incline. I was literally grabbing trees to pull myself up to each rocky platform. When I reached the top, I stumbled into the nearest place to sit down as Ned came to my side to get me refills and a situation report. I was well ahead of the cutoff time, despite completing the section at a laughably slow pace. I had time to decide. When I was finally able to drink water, it rolled around unnaturally in my stomach, as it was the only thing occupying my midsection. Every time I looked at the table of food, I felt queasy and unsettled. After about 45 minutes, I knew I had to make a choice. I was already in poor condition, and knew that even though the hardest climbs were behind me, the ones ahead were nothing to scoff at either. It was 9:30 in the morning, and I had at the very least, 15 more hours of running ahead of me... and that was if I caught up and held my ground.

I had already given up mentally once. I then made the unthinkable choice of disqualifying myself. Could I have made it? Who knows? I physically wasn't as prepared as I should have been, but that's not what did me in. My mindset was completely off, and this wasn't going to be the day I drank from my personal grail.

I am a competitor, and I largely regret my decision to quit. However that same regret is exactly what I am going to use going forward. No more slacking off and putting it up to chance and natural ability. I have nothing until the fall... all summer to train, to build my endurance and speed. Anything from this point, through 2011, will be an improvement or I will consider it a failure. I have at least two races left for the year, the Columbus Marathon and the MMTR... if I don't PR at both, then I need to find a passion I am going to take more seriously.

As far as the Laurel Ultra is concerned, I am promising something lofty... I will win it before the decade is out. I hate waiting, so I guess that means I have 11 months until its do or die time.