A 5-pack of runners from Reading, PA headed out to the western part of our state this summer to compete in the Laurel Highlands Ultras. Michael Heimes and Kyle Gery were registered for the main event–a 70.5 mile race along the entirety of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT)–while the rest of us (Matt Hottenstein, Steve Vida, and myself) were ready to attempt the more humble 50k.
Both races are point-to-point and begin at the start of the LHHT in Ohiopyle, PA, by the waters of the raging Youghiougheny River. (Hottenstein told me how to pronounce that, but I can’t remember.) The 50k ends a bit north of the Seven Springs Ski Resort, while the 70-miler ends north of Johnstown, PA. There happened to be a Jehovah’s Witness convention going on in Johnstown, but Kyle was able to sweet talk the folks at the local EconoLodge into booking 2 rooms for us. (Steve wondered what the hotel housekeeping staff might have imagined we were up to: 5 guys, 2 rooms, multiple jars of Vaseline).
Walking-distance from the EconoLodge was a Holiday Inn where the pre-race dinner and registration took place the evening before the race. The food was pretty good, with some great cookies for dessert. The race directors gave pretty detailed accounts of the “tricky spots” on the course. I remembered virtually none of those tips, which was fine, because the entire course was permanently and clearly marked with yellow blazes and mile markers. It would’ve been remarkably hard to get off course. In addition to dinner and dessert, we got our tech-shirts (free of ads/sponsors), tote bags, and bibs, then headed back to the Lodge.
Kyle and Michael had virtually no time to sleep, since they had to catch a bus from the finish to the start at 3am for the 5am start. Steve, Matt, and I were able to catch a few more hours of rest. We had to drive to our finish line (longer drive) and take a bus from there to the start (shorter bus ride) for our later start (7am).
The weather was nice and cool at the start of the race. There had been some rain early in the morning, but it had stopped before the 50k start. We knew, however, that the temperature and humidity were forecasted to jump up as the morning progressed.
The first 8 miles of the race are notoriously brutal. Within the first 4 miles, there is a 600 foot and then a 500 foot climb–both fairly steep. Then the real killer is a 1,300 foot climb from mile 6 to 8.
I lost sight of Hottenstein early on, and I figured I wouldn’t see him again until the finish. (He was shooting for a sub-6, and I knew that was significantly beyond my ability.) Steve pulled away, too, but not as far. I was able to keep him in sight and catch up to him for a bit during this early, tough stretch. I also found myself trading positions with a strong runner from Pittsburgh (Natalie), who was running her first 50k.
After the “hateful 8,” the course was suddenly very runnable, and I felt strong. Unfortunately, I think I overdid it a bit in this middle section because I felt so good, which caught up to me during the final third of the race. The smooth single-track, the beautiful forest, and the knowledge that the toughest miles were behind me all fueled a strong stretch from mile 9 to 17. During this stretch I was able to catch up with Steve, run with him for awhile, and even pull a little bit ahead. Natalie and I continued to yo-yo.
One important thing to note: there aren’t many aid stations for this race.To be exact, there are 3: the first at mile 11, the second at mile 18, the last at mile 24. By the time I reached the second aid station, I was starting to feel the rising heat. My stomach also didn’t feel great. I poured some cold water on my head, which helped for a little bit, but I inevitably felt myself slowing. Natalie passed me and pulled away–she seemed to get stronger as the race went on!
As heat and fatigue grew during the final 10 miles, I continued to slow down, expecting Steve to catch up with me at any moment. I found myself mostly alone, though, except for the occasional hiker and a few runners who were struggling even worse than I.
Around mile 26, the course cuts through the Seven Springs Ski Resort, and for the first time you can see some wide open vistas that give you a sense of how high up you are. The trail itself was beautiful, but I had often thought it would have been nice to hike it more leisurely, check out some of the overlooks, rather than charge ahead with my head down all the time. The ski area gives you a chance to pick your head up, look around, and take in the view. This offered a much-needed lift of the spirits, as I tried to keep my tightening calves from cramping.
After passing the 30th mile marker, I eventually came to a volunteer directing me off the LHHT to a side trail that led to a parking lot. Before you finish, you have to run a lap around this lot, which is mercifully not too big. Also, everyone is generous with their applause as you shuffle through these final steps.
My time (6:41) seemed pretty slow, to me, for a 50k, but due to the challenging course, this was actually good enough for 15th (out of 78 finishers), and about 6 minutes ahead of Steve, who is generally a faster / stronger runner than I am. So all in all, I was happy with that result.
Hottenstein had finished nearly an hour before Steve and me (4th overall!) — great job, Matt!
Natalie finished in 6:11 — 4th female — great work!
Steve, Matt, and I pounded some ginger ale and chocolate milk (there was also pizza at the finish), and then we drove back to the EconoLodge (after stopping for soft-serve ice cream along the way.) We had time to shower and change before heading to the 70-miler finish.
Turns out, we barely had enough time, because about 5 minutes after we got there, in came Michael Heimes for the win! You can read his own race report here. Amazing job, Michael! Glad I was there to see it! Here’s a pic of him and the female 70-mile winner (Sarah Schubert).
You can also read about Michael’s performance in our local Reading Eagle.
Kyle, who struggled with some GI and hydration issues, finished about 5 hours after Michael, but still ahead of more than half the other finishers–a tough, gutsy performance.
It was definitely the most beautiful and challenging 50k course I’ve raced so far, and I can’t even imagine how the 70-mile runners did what they did. I was real done when I hit 31 miles, and I can’t imagine if that had been my “not-quite-halfway” point. Kudos to those 70-mile monsters, and Michael most of all!