I’ve never run so many miles for so many months in a row in my life. Not even close. In 2014 I ran just over 1500 miles and this year I broke that by June 10. Since my career change from being a Police Officer to eventually a self-employed Web Developer, my ability to train more days per week and at flexible times has been key. Working 12-hour shifts 2-3 days in a row with a 30-40 minute commute plus court made it hard to get more than 3-4 days of running in a week. Now, I run whatever time of the day the weather is ideal and 6-days a week. Of course, this often means I’m up until past midnight working to make up for my early afternoon 2-hour workout, but it’s well worth it and sure beats early morning or late night running in the freezing cold with a headlamp.
All the miles and my fifth progression through all or part of Sage Canaday’s Advanced 50m-100k Training Plan has me feeling like I’m in by far the best shape of my life! With a slightly disappointing 3rd place at November 2016’s Stone Mill 50 (I got lost more times than I can count) and a great run to 2nd place at this year’s Bull Run Run 50 I am primed for a WIN! I did some scouting for this race. I actually find this really helpful. It keeps me from thinking I should care about the leaders if there are true elites in the race and it also keeps me from being underconfident when I actually have a chance to podium or even win. I ran through all the male runners and checked their Ultrsignups. I had a list of about a dozen guys, 5-6 I thought could be real threats with Ohio’s Brian Polen as the top of my list along with Derek Schultz, who is from the same region as I am. Scouting can be tough because there are so many races I never heard of. A 90%+ Ultrasignup score really means nothing if you’re kicking ass at races with less than 50 people at them. Also, someone who tears up sub-ultra races and even 50ks definitely doesn’t have a 70 miler in the bag. It’s a completely different world running for 4 hours and running for over 12. What my scouting had me thinking is…I could win this, but there are a handful of guys that can definitely keep that from happening.
One thing I can’t forget to mention is the terrible race I had at Laurel Highlands in 2015. I was undertrained, went hard down the hills on weak legs and just roasted my quads by the halfway point. I was passed a few times during the race and just suffered…BAD. My brain has erased most memories of this race and it’s been a while since I revisited my Race Report which is full of whining and complaining. After that day, I really didn’t like this race. The logistics, the long gaps between a couple of the aid stations and the sometimes bare-bones aid stations. The day just wasn’t great. But I also kept hearing great things about the race from other people, especially Derek Schultz. I wanted to run the race again not only for a fairly local WSE qualifier, not only for revenge but also to experience the course again…in the shape that I’m in now.
The Trip Out:
Back in December, I tried to recruit some friend to come with and run the 50k or the 70.5m. My friend Kyle Gery had dropped from Western States a couple years ago and was on a mission to get back there. He ran Laurel Highlands in 2016 and had a rough go at it after tweaking his ankle several times early in the race (I keep telling him that the trick it to not step on the rocks). Friends Matt Hottenstein, Matt Brophy, and Steve Vida signed up for the 50k. We’re all members of the Pagoda Pacers. We took two cars out and stayed in Johnstown. Hotels aren’t easy to come by because of a Jehova’s Witness convention in town at the time. It’s not a fun drive and I was grateful to have Matt H. and Kyle along for company. Once in Johnstown we hit up the pre-race meeting/dinner, got our bibs and race swag and were ready to go.
The Gear & Nutrition:
For this race, I decided to stick with e-Gels again (follow that link if you buy any so I get credit!) after having a great 2nd place finish at Bull Run Run 50 with only 7 of them. For Laurel I packed 19 with plans for one every 45 minutes plus a few extra just in case. I spread the gels out between the start and the only to drop bag points, miles 46.4 and 57.1 along with two bottles of Coke in each drop bag, flattened and filled to the top. Salt Sticks and some caffeine pills as well. I stuck a collapsable Hydrapak bottle in my mile 46.4 drop bag to help with the possible extra hydration needs late in the race, especially for the 10.7 mile stretch after that aid station.
I wore my new favorite hat the Salomon Air Logo ( I own it in three colors), a Pearl Izumi shirt, Ultimate Direction AK Vest with a 24oz bottle in the back, TNF Better Than Naked Splits, Runderwear, Swiftwick Aspire Twos and one of my reserve pairs of Pearl Izumi Trail N2v3s.
BTW, after a quick Google I found this article on how to quickly decarbonate soda. You’re welcome!
The logistics are still rough at Laurel Highlands. If you don’t have a crew, the easiest option is to park at the finish and take a bus to the start. The bus leaves at 3:30 am. That is EARLY. Being self-employed I might wake up to an alarm less than a dozen times a year. I rarely get up before 7:30 am. Getting up at 2:30 is just wrong. The hotel was fine, but I last saw the clock it was close to midnight. Despite listening to Sigur Ros and William Basinski… I wasn’t really falling into deep sleep. Who needs more than 3 hours of sleep to run for over 12 hours? I don’t really know how it’s possible. If you sent me to buy groceries on 3 hours of sleep I’d be useless. But somehow I can run for half a day.
Kyle and I got up at 2:30, quickly got ready and drove to the finish. After a long 1.5-hour bus ride to the start where we were both dozing off, we arrived. Drop bags were dropped, I guzzled some water to buffer the long 11.6 miles with close to 3,000′ of climbing before we can refill bottles. I stood at the start line and saw Derek Schultz arrive minutes before the start. I also noticed a guy in a singlet with a logo for a running club in Ohio and assumed that was Brian Polen and a guy who looked like a shorter Jim Walmsley in his very short shorts, crop top and collar length hair. I later learned that this was Brad Popple. He looked raring to go. We stood by and waited for the start.
The start is a fairly unceremonious and kind of hard to see a piece of duct tape across a sidewalk in front of the Ohiopyle Park Falls. The start was announced and we were down the path through the park and to the sidewalk where we cross a bridge and headed down an access road to the trailhead. Derek jumped out front and I sat behind him at a comfortable effort, but fast enough to quickly gap the main pack. My plan was to run the first 10-11 miles pretty easy as they have quite a bit of climbing and long hard downhills and switchbacks. There’s somewhere around 2500-3000’ of climbing in the first 8 miles on not-so-smooth trails. 70 miles is a long day and it sure as hell isn’t won in the first 15 miles. It sure can be LOST in the first 15 miles though…
We rolled up the first few small hills and hit the first significant climb at mile 2 that goes up 660′ in 1.2 miles. Pretty soon after we started the climb, there were runners up my ass. Now this race has the same start as a relay that covers the 70 miles, so you never know if it’s a relay runner that has to run a fraction of the course or a solo runner. It’s usually easy to tell as the relay runners often wear longer, swishy basketball shorts and road shoes… but you never know. But I literally stopped, stepped off the trail, raised my arm toward the top of the hill and said, “go ahead, have at it!” Brian Polen laughed and said he’d probably see me again at the bottom. In my head, I thought, probably not. My race isn’t starting for another 9 miles.
Once the crazy train passed Derek and me, we kept on at a respectable pace. During some downhill switchback, he looked up at me and finally noticed who I was. We said hello and ran the next 7 miles together with a relay runner right behind us. I said to Derek that I scouted the race out pretty thoroughly and that no one, and I mean NO ONE on the entrant list should be going out that hard. I did, however, miss Andrew Simpson in my scouting. But even he shouldn’t have gone out that hard. I had looked at a couple splits from previous years and Brian Rusieki ran the first 19 miles in 3:05 en route to a 11:35 finish (FAST!). The guys who passed us were going to be several minutes under that without a doubt. My friend Brett Sanborn and I were discussing pacing Laurel Highlands and he (who podiumed two years in a row with 3rd and 2nd pace finished at Javelina 100) said anything under 3:20 might be suicide. This start was beyond suicidal for all but those about to set a course record.
Derek and I hit the first aid station at mile 11.6 after a decent effort across the bulk of the course’s climbing and rocky sections. I filled my bottle and was ready to go. Derek was taking some time to drink what looked like an energy soda so I was off solo. This is where I myself got a little stupid. Hey, I was feeling great, I can run a fast 50 miles, I had 58 and change to go and there were some nice smooth, runnable sections ahead of me. So I let loose a bit. For the mile downhill after the aid station, I clocked a 7:08 mile then trucked along at sub-9 and sub-10 miles, still feeling comfortable. I fell for my first out of many times, but no real damage other than the sid eof my right knee that hasn’t had a chance to heal for over a year. A few times furing the race, an aid station voulunteer asked if I wanted a band-aid and each time I said, “there’s no point, I’m sure I’ll just fall on it again.” They got a kick out of that, but it just seemed like reality to me.
In the first half of an ultra, don’t be an IDIOT. In the second half don’t be a PUSSY.
I recently read a meme, that I may not be getting 100% correct, that said, “In the first half of an ultra, don’t be an IDIOT. In the second half don’t be a PUSSY”. This was a pretty good way to describe how this race panned out, and I struggled with both halves. I did go out a little hot after mile 11, but I reeled it in a bit. I still felt like I settled into more of a 50m pace and could have conserved a bit. Around mile 16 I caught a glimpse of Polen. I couldn’t believe it. I figured it would take a lot longer. I slowed a bit, thinking this was a sign I went hunting too early. For the next few miles, I’d catch glimpses of Polen and Popple here and there. I quickly realize that I’d see them, then hit some hills, and they were gone again. Right then I knew I had this race in the bag. They were hitting the hills hard and slowing after them. The opposite of how I run and how, in my opinion, anyone looking to have their best race should run. Eventually, I got to the end of section 1, mile 19.3. My watch read 3:05. I thought, “Oh man… this is when Brian Rusiecki got here the year he ran an 11:30. Wait until I tell Brett!”. With this in mind, I really came to terms with how nuts this start was and worried about how, even though I ran it slower than the 3 guys ahead of me, it was still crazy.
At the aid station, Popple had his shirt off, covered in sweat and looked beat. I gave him a nod and left within a minute. I never saw him again and he eventually dropped from the race.
But I pushed on, trying to stay conservative. After a few miles, I came upon Polen again and veered off into the woods for an extended bathroom break. I kept looking down the trail and no one was coming. Within a mile, I caught Polen again and this time stayed right behind him. We chatted a bit and I commented on the pace. he said, “I guess we’ll find out if it was too fast.” I think he knew at that point that it was. But what shocked me was he said that there was a younger guy way out in front of him. WHAT??? Unreal. We hit the aid station at mile 26 and I again left quickly. I didn’t see Polen again after that until he finished.
I ran alone until the station at mile 32.3. I passed the sign to turn off for the 50k finish in 5:01. It made me laugh because Schultz told me that the one year he ran the first 50k in 5:01, which would have been the winning time for the 50k, and then had a very rough patch in the middle of the race. My time was right around the winning time for this year as well. Yea, a little fast. A little stupid… just a little. At the aid station, I asked the volunteers what place I was in. They said 2nd. I asked if they were sure the guy up front wasn’t a relay runner. They said they were sure. As we spoke a relay runner went through the aid station and they said I was now 3rd. I pointed out he was a relayer and left still wondering who the hell was out front.
Oh, I’m going to win. 100%. I’m going to win.
Well, I met the kid out front shortly after the 50k turn. It was Andrew Simpson of York, PA. We chatted a bit. I again commented on the pace of the start and asked when he hit section 1 in and he said around 3:03. I would have guessed faster. Simpson looked pretty beat and my confidence hit a peak. We arrived at checkpoint #2 together and a volunteer leaned in and asked me how I was feeling. I looked right in his eyes and said, “Oh, I’m going to win.” He laughed and I said, “No, 100%. I’m going to win.” And I turned away and was left the aid station alone. Confident, yes. Cocky, maybe. Could be a great scene in a movie though… HA! But hey, I put a lot of hard work in and it would take a better runner or someone running a better race to beat me. And I could say for sure… no one in the front group was running a better race.
Not long after I took over 1st place, I started to feel cramping in my lower right abdomen. It got bad enough that it started to affect my breathing. I never experienced this before and was afraid to eat. I drank some water and took some salt but it persisted. My energy started to dip and I started to get worried. At the next aid station, I drank several cups of coke, ginger ale and took some Tums. Within a mile, I started to belch and felt instantly better. Crisis avoided. At least that crisis.
Soon after I started getting muscle cramps in my legs. All over. Groin, quads, hamstrings, calves. The cramps bounced around, went from bad to worse to terrible. Hiking hills would often lock my legs up and I’d have to stop. Once loose enough I’d start running again. it hurt a lot. Time to not be a PUSSY. I tried everything: extra salt, extra water, Ibuprofen, stretching, massage. Nothing worked. I did choke down some boiled potatoes with salt and they seemed to help for a bit. But in retrospect, I think the time it took to eat the potatoes gave me a long enough break for the cramps to fade. But I didn’t have time for breaks. I had a race to win!
For over 20 miles the cramps kept happening. I thought to myself several times that if I got passed, it was ok. I was in great shape but this physical affliction was proving to be impossible to cure. My right quad cramped so badly, I stopped and stared at it wondering if it was possible to have a muscle tear from severe cramping. It was bulging like I just squatted a car. Each peg-legged step I took made my kneecap move, pop, and click. I let out a yell in pain. After a minute of walking, it loosened up and I went from thinking I might be destined to my first DNF to running again. It was nuts. I started wondering how I’d finish a 100 miler if I’m having so much pain in a 70. Downhills with semi-cramped quads felt like daggers with each step. As I tried to maintain a quick, light, effiient stride, the cramps crept in until I slowed my stride, became less effieicnt and wasted energy. It was rough!
The thing about this course is, after 50 miles… it gets pretty damn runnable. Smooth, relatively flat, runnable trails are TORTURE when you can’t run them fast. I have a theory a lot of runners who prefer rugged, unrunnable courses just don’t want to walk runnable sections. On fresh legs, I could have torn up these sections, but my legs were a cramped up mess. I tried my best, and even though I have the fitness and energy to rock the runnable sections, my legs weren’t going to let that happen…at least not the entire time. I did have some intermittent patches where I move well. I have to say though, the sections with narrow single track with long grass flattened over them feel like a race across a minefield. It’s hard to see where your feet land and I was just waiting to come down hard on a rock and do some ankle damage.
It’s also hard to get lost on this course. I did veer off on a straight path that was I believe a blue trail last year, and this year I missed a turn from a stone road in the Seven Springs Ski area, but not by more than 100 feet. It’s always nice to not have constant anxiety about whether you’re on course or not. You literally can almost see a yellow hash mark the entire race.
I somehow got through the rest of the race. And at a better pace than it felt like. Oddly, once I knew I had 6-7 miles left, the cramps mostly went away. I moved pretty well and was VERY excited to see the finish. My three friends who ran the 50k were waiting for me (they had only been there about 10 minutes) and I crossed the line in first. I was just wasted. Weak, tired, still cramping, my ears wouldn’t pop and sound was muffled. Delirious, I rambled about the race and fell into a seated position on a rusty metal folding chair that I did not leave for a while. I commented that although it will make me sound like an asshole, I wished I ran a better time and feel like I should have.Polen, with his pacer, finished about 34 minutes later. I was amazed he hung onto 2nd after that start and how he was looking when I passed him. Third place was just minutes behind him, so even more respect in holding off his chaser. Polen was tough as hell to keep pushing like that. Andrew Simpson slipped to 12th but walked away with a Western States qualifier and a hell of a lesson learned. We all make racing mistakes, but if you learn from it, you come back so much stronger.
I was awarded a blanket that noted my victory in embroidered text and the finisher’s awards of a wooden replica of the mile markers along the course and a patch. I was exhausted, whacked out of my brain and probably pretty dehydrated. Matt Brophy was kind enough to jump in my car and drive me back to the hotel while we waited for Kyle to finish, leaving Matt H. and Steve at the finish. There was NO WAY I was going to drive. I took a long shower and had to sit down every few minutes, dizzy if I stood for longer. When washing my face, it didn’t feel like my face, more like a skull wrapped in saran wrap. The water was sucked out of my skin to that extent. After my shower, I laid down on the bed and really didn’t want to get up for at least 12 hours. Brophy must have been wondering what the hell was taking me so long! I eventually got up and we left to go back to the finish. He stopped so I could buy a pizza on the way back, which was awful despite great Yelp reviews (come on Johnstown, you can do better than that!). Back to the finish, we waited for Kyle who had a rough day as well and finished in 17:50. Kyle said he was talking to other runners about what they knew about the race up front. He said no one knew who I was and he came close to making a bet with a friend of a front-runner. He should have made that bet!
Like I said, I had a bit on a negative opinion about this race before. I obviously didn’t rule out running it ever again like I have some other races, I just think I had a tough day and thought that the course and aid station layout contributed to it. Of course, it did, but that can be overcome by proper planning… and getting from one AS to the next quickly doesn’t hurt either!
This course it pretty damn great. It’s a bit lopsided as far as the miles with the most climbing and more difficult terrain being crammed into the first 50k, but that makes it unique. A race that requires patience, a tactical approach and above all FITNESS. To run well after 9 hours requires a hell of an engine. The less you can fake a race while barely trying to prepare, the more I like that race!
If you like a diverse course with 1000’+ climbs, loads of single track, varying scenery and weaving in and out of giant 15′ boulders while not minding an old-school/bare-bones vibe… sign up for this race. Don’t let the whole “mail in a check with a paper form” thing turn you off. It’s kind of exciting and a throwback to a time (that some of us remember) where you didn’t get instant confirmation/gratification. The race does sell out, but if you mail the check within a few days after registration opens you’ll get it. You just have to check your bank account and see of they check was cashed or not. That is seriously the only way you’ll know that you’re in until the entrant list is published months later. No email. No link to share on Facebook announcing that you entered. OLD SCHOOL.
Even though both runs at Laurel Highlands provided me with plenty of pain and suffering, I don’t know if I’m content. I feel like I could have run that race much better. If I don’t get into Western States next year I plan on running Vermont 100. Laurel Highlands would be too long and possible too hot of a race for a leadup to my first 100, so it won’t be in 2018. We’ll see how long it takes for me to get the itch and mail that check again.
All the miles and hard work for Bull Run Run 50 and Laurel Highlands paid off. But it wore me down a bit as well. I welcome a little break and what better way to have a break while traveling around Greece! My girlfriend and I had a trip planned (of course I wanted to leave soon after Laurel Highlands) and we were on a plane 4 days after the race for 10 days in Athens and Santorini followed by Heraklion and Chania on the island of Crete. We had an amazing time!
Back from the trip, I’m getting back to work with plans of running my local 50k and PA RRCA 50k State Championship race Blues Cruise. I’ve run it twice before but never been in top shape even then, let alone the level I’m at now. I want to have a killer race and killer time. After that, I’d like to go for a marathon PR, probably at Harrisburg. Keep things local and simple, with little to no travel or hotels.