Several weeks before I ran this year's installment of the Laurel Ultra I was having a conversation with one of my friends who has, by my estimation, suffered my acquaintance many more years than most. I feel like I have known Hannah forever, which at my 25-years, equates to about a decade. We were talking about the upcoming race because her husband Ned, who happens to be one of my best friends, was planning on pacing me for one of the latter sections of the course. She made a statement of fact that I was well aware of, but it encompassed with a great degree of clarity, just how important finishing this race was to me. She said, "You've been wanting to do this since I've known you." She was right.
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, not very far from the Laurel Highlands, and it was a rare weekend in the Summer that you wouldn't find me hiking a trail or camping somewhere. I love the outdoors, I love physical challenges, and I love the opportunities I had in the area I grew up to exploit those passions. I first thru-hiked the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail as a senior in high school, completing the 70 miles with my friend Alec in just 3-days. At the time, I would have already considered myself a runner, often taking to the roads and trails around my house as well as being on the track team at school. What I didn't know was that there was such a such thing as an ultramarathon, it didn't even occur to me that people would attempt to run anything further than 26.2 miles, because in my mind it just seemed impossible. So when Alec and I finished our hike, proud of how fast we had done the distance, I was shocked to learn about the Laurel Ultra that takes place on the same trail... not only shocked but intrigued. I knew pretty much from the moment I had heard of it, that I wanted to do it. I became obsessed with trail running and ultras, haphazardly beginning training for something I had only a vague concept of. My decision to join the Marine Corps and then my subsequent life choices derailed my dream for literally years, until 2010 when I finally decided to give it a go.
Last year's effort was a terrible affair. I was grossly undertrained, somewhat injured, and almost completely unmotivated. I went in with doubt and came out defeated, dropping at the very first checkpoint, mile 19. The race that is my reason for running ultras, the race that is my personal Holy Grail, the one I had always dreamed of being able to run, became my very first DNF. I was upset and angry, but had no one to really fault outside of myself. In conversations with other people and even in my own thoughts, I have blamed it on the exceedingly hot weather that day, blamed it on my stomach issues during the race, and pointed to the 50% finishing rate and the elevation gains in the first 19 miles as excuses for failing. All of that is garbage though. I was simply overconfident and didn't train enough. The course I knew so well from hiking it so many times, kicked my ass fair and square, just like a bully in elementary school.
Read last years race report here!
This year was different, I feared this race and never fully believed with any certainty that I could actually pull it off. So I trained. Every race I scheduled this year was meant to minimize down time where I would normally be tempted to laziness. I logged more miles of racing and more miles of trail in the first 6 months of this year than the last two put together. I completely changed my diet so that I could become more efficient for longer distances and recover faster so that I could run more often. I studied the course, read books on running, and talked to people who are better and more experienced than me.
If I was going to fail this time, I wouldn't let it be for a lack of preparation. I joked (just kidding, I was serious) that the only way I was leaving the course before the finish line would be in the back of an ambulance or in a life flight helicopter. Last years failure became the driving force to what I hoped would be this years success.
The Lead In
Because misery loves company, I had been trying to convince several of my friends to attempt Laurel with me pretty much since last year. During all that time I couldn't find a single person willing to dance with the devil until a few months ago, when I coaxed my good friend and frequent partner in crime, Mikayla, into signing up. I was actually a bit worried that she actually agreed to it, remembering how badly it had broken me off the year prior, but if anyone I know could pull it off on sheer bad-assery it would be her. She has run some pretty serious terrain and finished races when she probably should have been resting injuries. See The Capon Valley Race Report* I really admire her determination and passion for ultra running and think that she can be all legit-like one day if she keeps at it (and I know she will).
|This is pretty much what she looked like.|
We traveled to the neighboring city of Johnstown, PA which is very close to where the race would end, for the pre-race dinner and briefing. Getting there an hour early provided me the opportunity to hit up a bar that was adjacent to the restaurant so that I could get my usual pre-race gin and tonic. The server promptly filled my order, but Mikayla's fake ID that says she is 26 didn't fly and they refused her alcohol. She has been lying to me about her age since we met, but in my judgement I don't think she is a day past 13. Her true age explains why she isn't yet aware of her "cycle" that resulted in my car needing to be steam cleaned after the last road trip.
Runners began to show up for the meeting, so shortly after my close call to being cited for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, we headed next door. It was there that we ran into Donnie, a really great guy who we had met a month earlier at the Capon Valley race. We had had several conversations with him there about ultrarunning and specifically Laurel, which he was volunteering at. Mikayla and I had talked in between then and Laurel about how Donnie was the guy who we really wanted to see during the race, because he was in charge of the final aid station. Make it to him at Laurel and the deal would be all but sealed. We met some other runners too and had some casual conversations as a side to our pasta dinner. Some of the items addressed in the briefing were a bit disconcerting to Mikayla, particularly bear and rattlesnake sightings. Last time I ran into a bear I was at Union and I woke up the next morning with a phone number on a note in my pocket that said, "Call me anytime to come over for cigars and cocktails!" I made it through that encounter with success, so I wasn't worried about it for the race, I just wondered why they would be out of their natural habitat. Out of the new people we met that night, two stick out in my memory. One was 67-year old Gary Knipling, who is older than my grandparents. Looking at his profile on UltraSignUp.com, it looks like he has logged more miles in ultramarathons alone than if you took all of my training and races together from my entire life and quadrupled it. This guy, who is a senior citizen, was bouncing off the walls at the pre race dinner, excited to complete the Laurel for the second time in his life to add to the dozens upon dozens of races he has finished. He is now one of my personal heroes and I can't help to hope that when I approach age 70 that I'll still be kicking trail and making guys a third of my age look like wimps. The second memorable encounter was with a man we were sitting at the table with during dinner, who was taking great pride in being the very last finisher in the 2010 race. I dropped out that same day, so I wasn't about to mock his achievement, but being the last finisher wasn't the incredible part of his story. The incredible part was that he had suffered a massive heart attack before that race and his concern wasn't so much about his health as it was to finish the race again. These are the kind of people who run these things and I'm glad to be among them, with ultras, everyone has a story to tell, but these guys were freaking epic.
After the briefing, Mikayla and I decided we would camp at the finish line and take the 3:30 AM shuttle to the start line. Everyone else who showed up to stay the night had trucks or SUV's that they were bedding down in. There was some question as to whether we were allowed to set up tents right there and we were the only ones that had the plan of pitching down, so in our nervousness of not wanting to be thwarted by a park ranger we waited till nightfall to stake in. We spent the remaining daylight prepping our gear for the morning so we would have to spend as little time as possible getting ready when the bus came. By the time we had everything ready and our shelter was set up, it was past 11. This meant we only had a handful of hours to rest. As we struggled to fall asleep, the weather turned and a nasty thunderstorm hit us head on. The sound inside the tent was booming and water started to seep in on the floor. For me this was all part of the adventure, because what kind of ultra would this be if I got the proper amount of sleep?
|Not quite this bad, but close.|
Once we arrived at the race start I almost felt like a celebrity. A man whom I've never seen in my life came up to us and was like, "Wait... aren't you Joe Shearer???" My response was, "Why yes, yes I am." Then he accused me of ignoring his messages on Twitter, but with such a large fan base how could I possibly respond to every message? I then signed his chest with a sharpie and took some photos shaking his hand. After that we staged our drop bags, took advantage of some coffee and donuts at the table and made a last minute check on our gear. During this time we saw the mythical figure that I put on par with unicorns... "Gatorade Man". Last year when I had gone balls to the wall in the opening 19 miles I was repeatedly trading spots with a slightly husky man wearing a pair of basketball shorts, beat up road shoes, and tube socks. He started the race shirtless and the only accessories he carried were two full size bottles of Gatorade. Despite his atypical appearance, this man was a freaking beast on the trail, going up steep climbs looked like he was running on an escalator.
|To be filed with with my extensive collection |
of photos of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.
Time wound down, a prayer was said by the race director, then the start was signaled and we were off. After a very short run on the road we bounded into the woods. I was tempted to jet ahead with the lead pack, but I knew better than to do that after going out so fast last year. To force myself to be conservative, I joined a small group of runners who had a nice slow pace and were strictly walking hills. If I could just get through the massive climbs in the beginning of the course, the rest would be pretty much runnable, all I'd have to do then is put it on cruise control for the rest of the day. The pack I teamed up with was being paced by Jamie Summerlin, a fellow Marine who is also running Burning River next month. I was really glad to meet the guy because now I'm getting really excited about the possibility of joining him for part of a transcontinental run from Oregon to Maryland that he is doing to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that I have also done quite a bit of work for in the past. To check out his plan visit http://www.runforwwp.com
I kept pace with the group despite often thinking of leaving them behind when we would come to a downhill stretch where I could have exploited my strengths a little more. I did this because I was avoiding being overzealous and I have read more than one account of runners storming down hills only to find themselves with trashed quads later on.
My original plan for nutrition and hydration was to eat a gel every 45 minutes for the duration of the race along with two Endurolyte capsules, drinking water as needed and using a gel mixture of water, chia seeds, and goji berries (I call it hippie water) as a backup. When it came time for the strategy to be implemented for the first time I was disgusted by the thought of eating a gel, so I did a shot of my hippie water instead. Several of my gels that I had safety pinned to my hydration belt were ripped off on the trail, so I saw it as a sign for change.
Heading into the first aid station at Maple Summit (11.6 Miles) all I needed was a refill on water. I thought that Jamie had left before me, so my goal was to catch back up to him. Little did I know I had actually left first so I was chasing someone who I wasn't going to catch. After a short time I caught up to two runners who I then decided to pace off of. They were talking to each other as I approached from behind and by their conversation topic I started to wonder if I was going too fast again. They were talking about some pretty serious ultras they had run, one mentioned how he was shooting for 16 hours for this race, and the other relayed a comment his daughter made to him before the race. "Daddy are you going to finish in the top 25?" His answer? "Yes sweetheart, I always finish in the top 25." These guys were more experienced runners than me and I knew it might be a gamble to try to stay with them. At this point the major hills were almost all over with, except for the climb into the first checkpoint at 19.3 miles that was all too vivid in my memory, so I decided I would see how it played out for a while, and promised myself that I would drop back if I needed to slow it up. To soothe my fears I asked Paul (the 16 hour guy) if this is how he usually starts for a 16-hour finish. To my relief he said he was taking it really slow until the bridge detour that takes us on the road for 7-miles and then he would kick it up a notch from there. The pace felt good and was more than manageable so I stayed with them. During this stretch I reached down to umm adjust myself, and to my great surprise I had been carrying two Clif Bars in the liner of my shorts since the start of the race. I put them in my waistband with the intention of eating them for breakfast before the start and had wondered what had happened to them. With the mystery solved, I planned on dropping the Clif Bars and all of my gel packs off at the next aid station.
Coming into the first checkpoint the memory of defeat from the year prior was thick in the air. I felt great this time and even had gotten there 18 minutes faster than 2010. At this point I was sitting happily in 19th place. Stuart and I left the checkpoint together, while Paul stayed back to make some gear adjustments. All I had needed from the station was to drop my unwanted cargo and top my water off again, so it was a quick stop. Just a few miles into the next section we passed an overlook that I decided to stop at to relieve myself. Stuart stopped too and we both agreed that sights like this were one of the best reasons to run these things (the overlook, not me pissing).
|Reason number 1,026 of how trail running|
is better than road running.
At the Seven Springs station, I started keeping pace with Prasad, a teacher from DC. It was good to have a new conversation partner and someone to pace with as I hadn't seen anyone for quite some time. We plugged away at the miles and miles of very gently rolling trail, and it seemed like no time before we hit the next aid station and checkpoint at mile 32.3, just after the 50K stopping point. I again got more water, which I had been going through much faster than I had planned for. Less than 4-miles after the checkpoint we would take a detour because of the bridge outage and run a solid 7 or 8 miles of road until getting back on the trail. I made it to the road just fine, but then I had my worst section of the race.
I hate running roads, so much so, that I plan on almost completely cutting out marathons for next year and only running trail ultras. After 36-miles of trail, the last thing I wanted to do was take the detour. I would have rather they installed a temporary zip line across the turnpike or make us hand glide, anything but running on pavement. I don't know what it was, but I really started to fall apart and get worried. I was walking a ridiculous amount that I really should have been running. It was at this time I saw Paul coming fast behind me, then he passed and was never to be seen again. His plan was to torch the second half, and when I saw him it looked like that plan was coming to full fruition. Shortly after that, Prasad and Stuart also passed me. Then apparently without the tree cover I was sweating more and so with that, drinking more too, and I ran out. A lovely relay girl was passing by and asked if I need anything, so I took some water and she told me that there was a small aid station that wasn't listed in the course description just a little ways down the road. This was a huge morale boost, and though I still didn't feel very good, I started running more just to make it to the water stop. When I got there I dumped a few cups of water over my head, refilled my bottles, ate a ridiculous amount of watermelon and a few peanut butter cups before heading back down the road. The pavement was unrelenting and monotonous, and my legs were feeling every strike. All I wanted to do was get back to dirt. On the main road I received some cheering up from a fellow Brooks guy, Sean, who I had see running the relay in the first section and was now crewing for a friend. I was the perfect distance in front of his runner, that he ended up pretty much crewing for me the entire latter half of the race as well. Every aid station I hit after that, he was refilling my bottles, getting me whatever I needed and pumping me back up. He was a good guy and I hope I run into him again.
Once I got onto the back road that led back to the other side of the turnpike, there were a lot more runners in my view, so I started to run more out of the simple fact that I could see competition. I started to finally catch people again instead of being caught, which was huge for my psyche. I knew I was close to the next aid station, I was already on Hickory Flats Road, and knew thats where the first bag drop would be at mile 44. I was hurting pretty good and planned on making a longer stop to do some self maintenance.
When I came up on it, a volunteer was talking about how next year all the aid stations should have chia seeds. I was a firm believer at this point so I struck up a conversation and informed them that chia seeds and goji berries were pretty much all I was running on. I changed out my socks, put icy hot all over my legs, took a couple pain killers, refilled my hippie water with the stuff I had in my bag, and then I was off again with only about a quarter mile till I was back on trail, which I was really geeked out about. This was where I had told Ned and Hannah to meet me, because it marked where we were finally allowed to have pacers and I was going to use Ned. I had gotten there hours earlier than I had planned, which was good in one respect but I was kinda bummed that I probably wouldn't get to see them.
The self maintenance breathed new life into me and I freaking tore down the trail, catching people left and right. After about a half hour, I had caught up to Prasad and Stuart who were again running together. They both complimented me on my comeback and noted that the last time they saw me I didn't look so hot, but now I was flying. Prasad was noticeably struggling and after a solid effort of us keeping pace together, Stuart and I wished him luck and then went ahead. At mile 50 I looked down at my watch to see that I had run a faster time to this 50 miles than my time last year at the Masochist! My performance last year at the Masochist was kind of disappointing, but I was still pretty excited about it. The next aid station was just two miles ahead and I was still feeling good despite the expected fatigue.
As I crossed Route 30 and went to the third checkpoint I got a pleasant surprise. Ned and Hannah with their son Jack had just arrived, almost at the same time I did! They went to mile marker 44 of the trail instead of mile 44 of the race which now differed because of the detour around the turnpike bridge. The miscommunication ended up being absolutely perfect. I spent a little time chatting with Ned, getting restocked, and things of the nature, while Stuart went on ahead and Prasad caught up at the checkpoint and then left before Ned and I. I thought that Ned would be a good pacer at this point, despite not being a big runner, I figured I would be tired enough that the pace would be suitable for him. I was in much better shape than I had anticipated so we made a plan that I would leave him if I had to, but that he had to still make it to the next aid station to meet back up with his family, so he would just run it out. Ned and I very shortly caught up to Prasad and ran behind him for a little bit, but he was a bit slower than I wanted to be, so I decided to pass him. I kept motioning for Ned to make the move too, but running on the rough trail was taking its toll on him and he decided to stay back. There was a significant amount of downhill near this part and I wasn't being shy about it anymore. I knew I was styled and dialed for a finish so long as I didn't have a significant injury, so I was no longer being conservative. I ran alone for a long stretch of really good trail work and in a more open section I could see Stuart up ahead of me. I was now running to catch him. I took my time doing it, just keeping the pace I was already on, but eventually I was right behind him again. I ran with him a short while before falling back a bit and eventually I was alone again. I was trudging along at a smooth pace until I realized that I was probably going to run out of water. I began taking bigger shots of my hippie water to stay hydrated, but I really didn't want to run out of that since I didn't have any goji berries and chia seeds in my second drop bag to make more. I spread out my water but not nearly enough, the last few miles were going to be dry. I was on top of a ridge at this point and to leave course to find a stream wouldn't have been worth the effort, so I increased my pace a bit to get to the next aid station. It was around then that I realized that I had given my headlamp to Ned to carry and even though it was daylight, I knew I would need it eventually. I typically don't carry one during night runs, so I hoped the woods weren't going to be thick enough later on to block out all the moonlight. I eventually came to a jeep trail the crossed the trail and though a stream would have been much better, the muddy stagnant water from some tire ruts, felt pretty damn good when I poured it over my head. At that point I would have probably been willing to splash piss in my face. *Insert Joke Here*
|This is what dehydration looks like.|
When I headed into the fourth checkpoint at mile 62, Hannah and Jack were waiting there, as was Sean. I took my time getting some fluids back in me and getting my empty bottles refilled. There had been some miscommunication between aid stations and they had lost my drop bag, but I wasn't too concerned with not having any of the items it contained other than some pain killers, which Sean spotted me. They volunteers lent me a headlamp to use for the duration of the race, so that problem was solved too. I told Hannah that Ned might be hours behind me if he decided to walk it in, but luckily he toughed it out and ended up pacing with Prasad to make it back to his wife and son. I will make a trail runner out of him yet, that was a good showing from a non-runner in that 12 mile stretch! I had just 4 miles till the next aid station and 15 to finish. My goal now was to make it to my car by 17 and a half hours, and I only had a little over 3 hours to do it.
|Had to get my hair done so I|
could look as epic as possible
at the finish.
I can't fully remember but I believe there were two aid stations after mile 64, one a little bit down the trail maybe at 72. The race website only has one listed, so I am willing and excited to assume that I finally achieved my most sought after running ailment, hallucination! Though I do believe there were two, only one was vivid, the very last station with Donnie. After saying goodbye to Hannah, Jack, and Sean, I was alone yet again. I plugged away at the miles, walking even the slightest up hills to keep my legs fresh so that I could trash them from the last station to the finish line. The trail came out onto a dirt access road of some sort that had recently had gravel put down, unfortunately it wasn't pea gravel, but instead were huge golf ball sized rocks. This was not fun to run on at all, so where I could manage it, I ran along the road instead. The road was long and open, so to my great surprise I saw a familiar face far in front of me, Stuart! I also had a runner gaining ground behind me with his pacer. The sun had set and I was losing light quickly. I started trying to catch Stuart, but I noticed that he was running the hills. He later would tell me he did it because he saw me gaining ground on him, but was also hoping that I would follow his lead, run them too, and eventually catch him. I didn't take the bait though and stuck to my strategy, but was purposefully trying to distance myself from the guy behind me. I could see lights from the aid station ahead and made my way up the hill.
At the final stop I saw Donnie, who outside of Mikayla, there was no one I wanted to see more. As soon as he saw me he lit up, "Joe! I told you I would see you tonight! Where's you're girlfriend at?" I then awkwardly explained that despite the fact he had now seen Mikayla and I together in several states multiple times, that she wasn't my girlfriend. I had him check the aid station reports for her bib number, and he apologetically told me that she had dropped. I assumed this meant that she had been kidnapped by her puppeteer friend that was supposed to pace her. Puppeteers cannot be trusted, it's one of the core lessons from my upbringing that I credit with my survival to the age of 25. I would have run back to find her if it was a bear or a mountain lion, but in the case of the puppeteer, I would need to hunt him down as he probably already crossed state lines with Mikayla tied up in his trunk. In light of that, I decided I had to finish to get back to my car before all of that. Donnie fixed me up with some potato soup and grilled cheese, refilled my water bottles for the very last time, and I went back into the woods. The guy behind me had caught up to me at the aid station, but he was just getting in as I was leaving. I hoped he would take a long break so that I wouldn't have to defend my position.
|This is what I assumed was happening|
to Mikayla in some dude's basement
as I finished the race.
Visibility was really really bad and there was no way I could have run the last part without a headlamp. Even with the light it was difficult to run. I had to stare at the ground while I was moving and then to ensure I was still going the right way I had to stop to look up at the trail blazes, any time I didn't I was tripping over something. Drinking water had to also be done with caution in the dark. I tweaked my ankle more than a couple of times on the last section, not catching enough of a few rocks with my foot plant and bending it sharply upward, but I still felt like I was keeping a relatively fast pace for the conditions. Despite my confidence in the pace I was keeping, I heard something behind me and in the distance thought I could see a headlamp from the runner that I left at the aid station. He had a pacer and I imagine having two headlamps would have been a great asset. I picked up my pace, because there was no way I was going to let someone catch me in the homestretch. As I came to a clearing with a lot of rocks I recognized an area that I had hiked to in high school with my girlfriend at the time and I knew I was close to the end. I bounded through the woods following glow sticks that were now marking the trail. The rest of the trail was descent to the trail head. I started to hear voices and then I was flying, leaped up over a tree that had fallen over the trail and then crossed the finish line with a time of 17:47:17.
I immediately found Stuart and we congratulated each other, we had essentially run almost the entire race together. He ended up finishing around eight minutes ahead of me in 16th place, with me taking 17th. My tail came in about two and half minutes after I did in 18th. Paul, who had blew past me on the road section failed to reach his time goal, but came in respectably in 14th place with a time of 17:31:27. The 77-mile course record fell to Derek Schultz with a time of 13:17:20, a record that will now stand forever since next year the bridge will be repaired and the course will go back to the original distance of 70 miles.
Rick Freeman, the race director congratulated me and handed me my finishers trophy, a nicely carved replica of one of the stone mile markers along the course that was engraved with "77". He remembered my drop from last year, which made the finish all the more special, I had greatly improved. A few minutes later I found Mikayla, who I was glad to see was alright, and not in the puppet guys trunk or mauled by a bear. I rested for a little bit before heading over to my car to drive back to my hometown to crash for the night.
Mikayla, who had dropped at the same point I did last year and now has a score to settle of her own, apparently felt the sudden urge to dance during the race. She then purposefully disqualified herself, hitchhiked back to my car and then threw a dance party in the parking lot at the trailhead. When I got to my car, there were glow sticks, tubes of body paint, and a large amount of recreational drugs strewn about on the ground. I thought maybe some other runners had had a post race celebration, but then when I tried to start my car, the truth about the dance party came out. She had drained my battery completely, fueling an 8-hour long techno rave.
|My car is beneath all those people.|
It feels almost anticlimactic with Laurel now behind me. I had wanted this finish so badly and for so long, but now that it's finished I need a new challenge. It was like getting to the end of Lord of the Rings, you loved it, but now you wanted more. How about watch all of them together? Can we get ahold of the extended versions? Sooo, when are they making The Hobbit? I'm certainly relieved and a bit proud that I finally threw the monkey off my back, but now I miss Bobo the Monkey and wonder what he is doing now.
My next challenge is my first 100-miler, Burning River, at the end of July. I honestly have no fear, the course is easier than Laurel, certainly flatter, and I will have more support in lieu of more aid stations, a crew, and pacers. I can't but help think of years to come at Laurel, I have nothing to be ashamed of from my performance, but next year I will be looking to better it, and out of any race that I can think of, I would love to be able to be good enough to win this one someday. Here's to hope.
Visit the Laurel Ultra website HERE!
|On second thought, I don't miss|
Bobo at all, that monkey was a
Visit the Laurel Ultra website HERE!