I signed up for Laurel Highlands 70.5 for one reason and one reason only; I have a dream of running Western states and this is one of the closest non-100 miler qualifiers. I’d like to make Western States my first and only 100 miler (and maybe last). All qualifying races for WSER are now 100k+. I wanted to run well at Laurel Highlands, but a decent finish is all I could expect because 70 miles is was a new distance for me, and I can’t say I’m totally confident with the 50 mile distance yet. I got a pretty good amount of training in and I felt pretty good and strong leading up to this race. I managed to get some decent mileage and decent climbing in. Three weeks out I had close to an 85 mile week, with back-to-back 23 mile trail runs and another 22 mile run that same week. The next week I had a 30 mile run. I think I did a decent job training after recovering from Bull Run Run. But with any new distance, the first race probably isn’t going to be your best. By looking at past race results, I thought a 13:30 was possible but around 14 should be a done deal.
The course is point-to-point from Ohiopyle, PA to near Johnstown, PA with around 12,000 ft of climb. We stayed near Johnstown and my girlfriend dropped me and my friend Brad off at the finish at 3:30am. Very early. The bus seemed to take forever to get to the start and I heard lots of annoying conversations involving runners trying to talk themselves up and everyone else and other races down. I sat there uncomfortably crammed into a school bus seat just hoping the start was around the corner.
Once at the start you picked up your bib, and placed your drop bags at the appropriate pickup areas. There was an area where you can leave a bag that they would bring to the finish for you. I didn’t know that option was available and neither did a few other people I talked to. That would have been nice to know.
The start was at 5:30 and it was barely light out. You didn’t need a headlamp, but it was close.Once we got going there was a series of climbs soon after the start. There was a relay held at the same time, so the climbs were a bit crowded with novice runners wearing basketball shorts. After a few climbs they started to lose their steam even though they weren’t even halfway done with their relay leg. There were three substantial climbs in the first 8 miles, with the third being a tough one with about 1300ft in 1.5 miles. I took these hills a little fast and the downhills faster. A slight mistake I’d pay for later, but it wasn’t going to result in a DNF.
The race is held in June, so you’re guaranteed heat and humidity. Even early in the day. This course had very few aid stations considering the distance, and the first one was just ridiculously far into the race. After traversing the toughest and slowest section, you have to go 11.6 miles for water. Other aid stations are typically 7-12 miles apart. This was my biggest gripe with this race. For a course this long in the heat of the summer, it forces you to carry a lot of water. For me that meant 44oz of water on top of a 20oz bottle with 4 scoops of Perpetuem mixed in it. Running down the hills with that extra weight would beat me up pretty back. My quads felt fried very early. It was frustrating carrying all this water then crossing fire roads with no aid station there. I don’t know the reason why, but I’ve ran fall 50ks with an AS every 4-5.
The course itself is amazing. Lots of variety, some rocks and roots, some smooth single track, some open fields along a ski slope, labyrinths though giant boulders. It’s just beautiful. There is a small Washington Memorial looking stone marker every mile. This is nice when the miles are flying by, but a total mind-fuck when you’re wondering for 17 minutes where the hell that next mile maker is!
By mile 30 I felt tired and my quads were starting to weaken. Not good. I was going to finish but I wasn’t sure how the second half would go. I caught a runner I recognized from the front pack early on (he was wearing a strange hat) and he looked roasted. Soon after I made my only wrong turn that luckily didn’t cost me much. The runner I just passed almost made the same wrong turn until he saw me coming back. Around 39 miles in I caught a runner at an aid station that I hadn’t seen all day. We both complained about how beat up we were. It hit me then. Everyone is probably hurting. I need to suck it up. Mental toughness will benefit me more than fresher legs. I pushed on and snagged a few placed. Around 50 miles in the second place female runner caught up to me. We were both in bad shape and walked more than we should have. She kept me going and refused to pass me. She definitely helped me here as I was starting to crash from a surge shortly before an my energy level kept dropping. At one point we got passed by a runner and his pacer. They passed us like we were standing still. We hit the aid station at mile 57 and I was pretty much surviving off of Coke and water. The runner who passed us left the aid station just as we got there, so I hoped to maybe stay with him. The female runner, Mary Beth Strickler, was talking to her crew. I left figuring she’d catch up to me eventually anyway as she seemed stronger than I was. I chased the guy in front of me and tried to keep him in site. Eventually the trail twisted enough that I couldn’t see him, I heard voices from the woods then when I could see further ahead he was gone. Mary Beth caught up to me and I was really falling apart. We hit a long dirt road with a steady incline that lead to the AS at mile 62. My legs were fried and she ran as I walked. It was getting ugly for me.
Those last 9 miles were just rough. The hardest, most miserable miles I’ve ever raced. There were some decent hills, lots of rocky footing and the downhills made my legs shake with each step. It was well before dark, but dark clouds rolled in. As I went under thick canopies of vegetation, it almost seemed like it was dark. I could barely see. Soon after hearing thunder the skies opened up. It just started pouring. My already poor attitude (frustrated with the space between aid stations, my toasted legs, exhaustion and time elapsed) kept getting worse. I’m not sure if the mile markers show the mile you’re entering or the mile you just finished. I was confused and the last two miles seemed like 5. I just kept thinking, “when is this going to end?!”
I finally finished and my poor girlfriend, who was waiting by the finish, had just retreated to her car due to rain. It was apparently a slow day for everyone and I was only 1:14 behind the winner. My place overall was 11th. My girlfriend said several runners who crossed the line collapsed and rolled around in agony. The finishing rate was just 65.9% (ouch!) My 11th place and time didn’t turn out too bad for the day, but I was a wreck. Freezing cold, shaking, weak legs… just a mess. We picked up some epsom salts and I soaked in the hot tub in our hotel room. The next day I felt much better and was happy to get home.
We got a nice t-shirt and a patch that said “50k finisher”. The 50k race didn’t even finish where the 70 mile race finished, so I have no idea how that happened. I also got wooden replication of the mile markers. I later got a little plaque in the mail to stick onto the finisher’s award.
Overall, I was happy to have ran it, got my WSER qualifier and tested myself at a new distance. Much was learned. But I’m not sure if I’ll return to this race anytime soon. I’d love to see more aid stations and the logistics (having a start and finish 70+ miles apart) is a bit of a pain. Worth doing, but for me, not every year.