Monday, June 11, 2012

70.5 mile Laurel Highlands Ultra 2012 - Race Report

My history with the Laurel Highlands Ultra has been one that has left me disappointed the past two years - in 2010 the run resulted in a DNF at 63.6 miles and in 2011 61 miles. Sure, both good efforts, 60 some miles nothing to be ashamed of, but, not a finish. So this year, I decided that I would run again. The decision to run was not born out of failure, but the need to succeed and overcome and break through new barriers...this is what this run has always been. It was my first ultra race in 2010. Well, the next 22 hours turned out to be an amazing day full of good times, bad times, laughter and fun, good people and a crew that stood by me to the end.

 A fellow endurance athlete from work who is a cyclist and his girlfriend offered to drive me down to the start from Pittsburgh. We got up around 3am and got on the road before 4am and made it to the start line in plenty of time. My original plan was to sleep in my car and take the race bus from the finish to the start. I am so glad I didn’t have to sleep in my car...the good decisions started early, even before the race. Thank you Jake and Kelly!

At the start, I got my race number and race shirt. There is a pre race meeting the night before in Johnstown, but I opted not to go. Its not that I don’t like the pre race, but this year I had so much going on in my family life (all good) I could not make it.

 I got my bug spray on and got ready for the start. Decided not to use a headlamp at the beginning of the run figuring the sun would be up soon, and the sky was clear. The weather for the day was predicted to be in the low 80’s with low humidity. I was prepared for a warm day and got ready the last month of training before this run by often running in two shirts and a long sleeve shirt when it was warm out. Throughout the day, the weather was just as predicted - sun, some clouds, and somewhat warm, but relatively low humidity. The Race Director Rick Freeman announced that the race would be starting and to get ready and line up. At 5:30am..and at exactly 5:30am we were off!

My strategy in the start of the run was to be in the mid pack at the start so to not be too far behind when making the trek on to single track trail. To explain, the run starts off at Ohiopyle State Park and we run a half mile to the trailhead. The trailhead is a dirt road but then narrows down to a set of steps and then trail.

The first 11.6 miles of trail the contain the most amount of assent in the run, so my mini goal was to make steady progress, and surpass my times from years past. The climb was slow and steady, and I made great progress, keeping my heart rate a nice place, as I didn’t want to expend all my energy on the climbs. With ease I surpassed my past times by several minutes for each of the climbs for miles 3, 5, 7 and 8. In knowing that I did this alone, the stage was set for a good day. However, my general philosophy and methodology to approaching the day was just to live in the moment, and just concentrating on each foot step - knowing that each foot step would be one more closer to the finish. Sounds simple and it really worked (All credit for this goes to my crew mate Chris and another person at work that said a similar thing). Also, in the beginning of the run, I just wanted to run, and really didn’t get into much small talk. I’m far from anti-social, but I just wanted to remain focused on the moment. There really wasn’t too much small talk for me at this point in the run, so it fit into the plan.

 I arrived at the first aid station and my crew mate Chris was waiting for me....the aid station was wonderful. Got some food, Chris got my camelbak filled up and I was off and going. Another strategy was to not spend a large amount of time in the aid stations. As the RD said - “the aid station is the devil!” I felt a hot spot on my right foot but didn’t feel it was anything major. Time to get moving, so I did!

While relieved that most of the major climbing was over, I continued to concentrate on just the moment, and knew that there was plenty of trail left to conquer, and I was a long way from a finish. I felt a little better about engaging in some talk on the trail, and started to run with a group. Stories told of Laurel Ultra runs of the past, some ultra running friends I know, and some early calculations of finish times based upon current pace. While I of course, I wanted to finish, I didn’t yet want to get into finish times. I knew it was way early on in the run to start thinking about that and that a lot can happen on a long run, and he even mentioned this. And I am pretty sure the guy that was talking about the finish times, did not finish. We also talked about how tough it is to consume a PBJ while running. Seems that breathing gets in the way and that is what makes it difficult...anyways, we continued on running.

Making it to the 19.3 cut off with plenty of time to spare was also a mini success moment. the past two years I felt spent at this point...well not this year, plenty of energy and I felt good. I knew that I achieved a mini goal, but needed to continue to repeat to myself just to live in the moment. At this point, I needed to address a hot spot on my right foot...that hot spot was actually a huge blister on the ball of my right foot near my big toe. Chris was like “wow” to the blister...but it wasn't really bothering me too much, and simply needed addressed. Chris got out the moleskin and the blister was a non-issue after that...just replaced the moleskin every station thereafter. I also got some additional bodyglide on my feet, got some food, and some food for the road in a baggie to eat and got out of the aid station. I spent a little bit more time than I wanted to in the aid station, but the blister need to be fixed. Happily off I went!

The next cut off was at 32.2 miles. I felt well, and the miles just seem to click off at this point. I was a little slower because my left foot on the bottom began to hurt...not too sure what it was at this point, but it felt like a rock was coming through my shoes. I had gaiters on, and they worked well, but there was something else going on...I just had to ignore it and continue on. I also tripped on a rock at mile 24, and fell, not hurt at all, felt really stupid about it, but got up by myself since no one was around, brushed myself off and started running again, I was actually amazed that my mile split was still well below the finish pace for a mile that I fell on. There was also a large period of time in this section where it was just me and the trail. Finally, met some more fellow runners on the trail. At this point I felt more at ease about talking and we began to engage in some conversation. At this point is where I met Jen and her friend Katie.

Not sure we ran a lot together at this section, but we exchanged some conversation, and meeting them was another moment that was critical in finishing the run. I actually knew Jen and her boyfriend (he also ran and was ahead of us) from another run. Its nice to run into nice and familiar people during runs. Fun conversation and it made me relax. It was what was needed at the time. And this is the reason I like ultrarunning because there are so many stories to be told and how people get into running into these kinds of races and where they have run.

By this time, we are heading towards the highest elevation point of the course, up on the ski slopes of Seven Springs. The day was just wonderful and by the time we got to the high elevation point, a nice cool breeze was blowing, even though the sun was out, the breeze was wonderful. At this section I think Jen and Katie picked up some speed and I hung back a bit and I started talking to another runner Chris from the Baltimore area. We clicked off a few miles together. Meeting Chris was also critical in finishing the run. At this point, I felt well, knew that half the run was done, and I time wise I was in line for a finish.

All throughout this race, I hydrated very well, having to pee plenty of times, and although you might be reading this and perhaps not seeing this as a big deal, it was. I had not had a run like this in the past, where I really felt fully hydrated. I had some points of my stomach not feeling well, but, considering the heat of the day, I figured it was normal, at some points, running harder made it feel better.

At this point the pace dramatically slowed down. Kind of a tough little section from 32.3 to the next mini aid station. Crew Chris met up with me and told me I needed to get moving, of course in a nice fostering way. He asked me if I had a few minutes to talk about the run :). I seemed to have caught up to Jen and Katie at this point and the conversation picked up more with Jen and Katie, and actually Katie is a tweep (yes, a twitter person) that I started to follow when I wanted to see who else with social media footprints were running. Someone at some point called us the three amigos, very cute...I certainly wasn’t the cute one of us though. Seriously, that twitter follow, was so much more bigger than just social media. Turns out Katie is tough as nails, and picked up the pace. Similarly, while I had met Jen in the past, she too was tough as nails, and they both had run some very tough ultra runs. And it seems like we were all pushing each other to take one more step towards the finish line. It was also nice to share my knowledge of the course with Jen and Katie...because most were saying to them that after mile 19.3, most of the hills were over, which is so not true. There are plenty of challenging climbs remaining after that section, along with plenty of rocks. Both Jen and Katie had a crew, and they also offered me a few things along the way, which was very nice. Learned that Katie’s mate Joseph (Katie’s crew) is running Western States in a few weeks, and he is quite a runner himself and offered some aid to me if I needed it. Thank you Joseph, that was super nice of you!

We continued to enjoy a good bit of talk and it made me feel at ease that I was with some tough people who knew how to get through a run.

The next checkpoint was at mile 46.4. At this checkpoint you were allowed to have a pacer. Jen had her pacer (aka “The Cute Sailor”) ready to go and Katie didn’t and a huge mistake happened here - I forgot to put on my headlamp. A potential huge mistake! I was so excited with seeing my pacer (Jimbo) and his wife Kelli (they were there early so Jimbo could jump in at 57.1 mile aid station), along with Chris, it just slipped through my mind. And my crew missed it too!!

While Katie, Jen and the Cute Sailor left the aid station, I left shortly after, and they slowed their pace to allow me to catch up with them...I'm going to guess here but about a mile into this section, I realized I didn't have my headlamp, and it would be getting dark before the next checkpoint where my crew was (mile 57.1). They all told me not to go back and to stick with them, and we would all get through the section together.

From years past, I knew this section was short, but it was not “easy” by any means. Some hills both up and down, and at this point Jen’s tummy was bothering her. We all stuck together for a while and then Katie and I started to pull away at this point. Jen, we did think about about you and we were hoping you were ok, but it just seemed like your pace slowed. Katie told me she would share her light with me, and I agreed to simply follow her footsteps while she kept the light in front of her. I cannot thank Katie enough. There is little doubt in my mind that I would have not survived this section (in that I would have not made the next time cutoff at 57.1) without Katie. Similarly, Katie was a little uneasy about going through the dark woods alone, so it worked. The progress was slow, but diligent - some serious hardcore relentless forward progress, just non-stop for the next several miles. Not sure there was too much talk here, but I am so grateful for these miles - thank you Jen, the Cute Sailor, and Katie. We also had an animal encounter - we believe a porcupine - and some noise scared it away into the woods.

We finally made it to the 57.1 mile aid station (this was also a cutoff), and we were up against the time cutoff - we had 15 minutes to get out of the aid station to be allowed to continue on. Katie got out of there way quicker than I, and I joked with my crew that they were all fired, for not making sure that I had my headlamp! I was seriously kidding, but I thought it was funny! I wanted to get into my compression socks at this point, and make sure my feet were OK. I got a PBJ for the road. I kind of was upset a little at this point, as one of the guys at the checkpoint said that if I wanted to quit now, it was the time to do it..that fired me up a little, and I was like NO WAY, I’ve made it this far, I am going to finish! With about 10 minutes to go, I left the aid station with my pacer Jimbo - we were ready to rock and roll!

A few weeks before, Jimbo and I ran the final 13.4 miles together, as a practice run. We did it in the daytime when it was hot (we saw a rattlesnake here) and gently ran and hiked this section so we could learn as much about it as possible - this was a very good decision.

Jimbo and I exchanged some small talk and we talked about pace, and my need to go the bathroom, since I was so well hydrated. I didn’t want to stop though, so we decided to pick a point where I could stop and go...and that was about 4 miles away, it worked because I didn’t want to stop and at around mile 61, there is a gravel road for about a mile, and this was a place where we could make up some time if we stopped. 

After I took care of business, we continued down the gravel road, I remember at some point telling Jimbo I couldn’t talk, and I just wanted to concentrate on making forward progress, and told him to just be into the pace times...didn’t mean to be rude, I just couldn’t fully process what Jimbo was saying and I was super focused on making it to mile 62, the final aid station of the run...and the start of a downhill descent to the finish line. It seems like forever on the road, but we eventually made it to mile 62. I had the best grilled cheese sandwich here, and caught up with Katie at this point. There were also others coming down the road behind us, and that turned out to be Chris from Baltimore area that I talked to before, and a couple of other runners, that I hadn’t seen all day. Anyways, it would appear that we would be the final people finishing. I probably spent too much time at this aid station, but, the food was good...time to get moving!

The race was on at this point, us against the clock. We had a small group of us running and pretty much stuck together, not making fast progress, but progress...and we had another animal encounter, not sure what this was, but it was small, but didn’t want to leave right away, but it eventually did! We continued on until someone approached us fast...guess who...that's right, the sweeper for the final leg of the course. What a reality check! His words to us - YOU are not running fast enough to will not make the finish cut off, its every man for themselves at this point...don’t be afraid to he said this, we were approaching another runner ahead of us. I didn’t have the energy to pass her just yet, but the thought of not making the finish cut off by just a second entered my mind...all this training, and running today not to finish? Heck no, I am going to finish! Jimbo and I exchanged some small talk as to when it was time to pick up the pace...and 5 minutes later, I said, lets do this!

We passed the person in front of us and started to run much faster than miles before. We knew the course well, so we knew there would be some tricky spots, and a few slopes up, but it was all runnable (at least at a reasonable pace) and at a pace to finish.

The next 6 miles of the race were nothing short of amazing. I dug deep to a pace I never have gone before! I had to go the bathroom on the run and did so without going on myself or Jimbo...I can’t tell you how I did this, but I needed to do it because the need to go was distracting me from running.

Jimbo did an awesome job of keeping me going, reminding me to drink, and giving updates to time and pace. I was in the zone to finish...nothing was going to stop us! Jimbo did trip over a rock, but he quickly recovered, and we continued to roll on towards the finish line. At some point, we passed Katie and she said Go Mike!...I was just so pumped up at this point...I wanted to get to mile 68, because I knew at that point, mile 69 and 70 we could fly because the trail opened up a bit. Not sure when, but Chris from Baltimore passed us, and we finally made it mile this point, knew the finish was a real reality, just needed to stay focused, and not quit at all...I began to cry...and as I am writing this now, I am a little, because the past two years were painful not to finish...but I stayed focused on the finish. Jimbo was right behind me, giving me some super encouragement telling me I had this...and to go for it!

Before you know it, there was mile marker 70! We saw the lights of the parking lot and the finish line....and there it happened...the finish! Rick Freeman was there waiting with the finish mile marker in hand, and I had some serious tears of joy going on....Kelli and Crew Chris were there waiting and congratulated me and Jimbo was just super pumped...soon there after we saw Katie cross the finish line! We hugged and took a picture together and I also got a picture with the RD together. I gave Jimbo a huge hug and thanked him! 

And of course, I couldn’t have done this without Chris! At the finish line, we also saw Jen and her boyfriend, and the Cute Sailor. It would have been nice to see Jen finish, but she was happy that she got a nice training run in..and I sort of knew how she felt being a non-finisher the past two years. Joseph gave us some encouraging words and thanked me for hanging with Katie. Jen and Katie and the Cute Sailor - I cannot thank all of you enough!

I enjoyed a few bowls of chicken soup while Chris assisted me in getting some first aid for the blister and helping me get my mind back after the finish. Thank you all of the volunteers at the run. Well done and super support.  Jim Harris also congratulated me at the finish line - thank you Jim...and yes, I called you Bill by accident.

Chris, thank you, thank you thank you, you stuck by me for this third year to make this happen. Chris and I often run on the weekends, and knows how much this means to me and has been a listening post and a supporter of this goal for a while.

 Could not have done this with a lot of people, there is a huge list to thank, and if you are reading this report, you are likely one of those people. Thank you. I appreciate all of your help, words, encouragement, coaching, running, putting up with my goals, and really anything else that you did to help me get to the finish line.

Five years ago would I have never dreamt of writing this report. I was excessively overweight, and in a physical funk. I started off small, but always had some lofty goals - and I still do now.

I want to tell anyone who is reading this not to ever ever ever let go of a goal that you want to achieve, it might take some time, it might seem to be unreachable at times, and there will be roadblocks and barriers to overcome, but with a plan, dedication, good people surrounding you (both runners and non-runners alike) a little bit of good timing, great things can and will happen.


  1. Replies
    1. Andrew - thank you! When you know you have left it all out there and accomplished a goal, it doesn't get any better!

  2. AWESOME! That's great, Mike. I was on vacation, but thought about you and your run. I'm really happy for you. Way to push and work and claw your way to this finish. A really, really amazing accomplishment. Congratulations.

  3. Thank you Bill. I learned a lot from DNF'ing in the past. Those were great experiences, although it doesn't seem like that at the time!

  4. Huge Congrats Michael!! A finish at Laurel is something to be proud of and I can only imagine how sweet it was for you!

    1. Thank you thank you thank you...very sweet I will be there next year to improve on my preparation for a 100!

  5. So a question from someone who doesn't do this kind of race, why was it a mistake to forget your headlamp?