Highlands Sky Long and Bloody Race Report

by Bob Clouston

Highlands Sky is a tough, technical 40 (41) mile race in and around West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness and finishing at Canaan Valley Resort State Park. The word is that it runs more like a 50 miler, even though the profile doesn’t look all that imposing after 2 early climbs.  My plan was to start conservatively and not exhaust my legs in the first half, and make up time in the flatter/downhill, less technical second half.  What I didn’t expect was the punch that would put me on the canvas mid-race and nearly KO me.

I arrived shortly before the pre-race pasta dinner in the lodge, which should be nice after the renovation is done.  Rooms in the outbuildings look like they haven’t been updated since the 80s, but mine was adequate.  Sat with Tammy and Rick Gray and some other VHTRCers at dinner. Tammy offered a ride with them to the start in the morning, which was convenient and appreciated.

The weather looked good, high 40s to around 70 and dry.  But there had been a lot of rain, and we were told the course would be wet.  Quite an understatement.

The race started at 6am with 2 miles on the road to spread out the field before we hit single track trail and the first muck and the first climb, about 2300 feet over 6 miles in the Monongahela National Forest.  The first mile or so was pretty gentle and the pace seemed slow but I held back and let a few people by while passing only a couple.  The grade increased, and in some places water was pouring down the trail, the path of least resistance.  There was some stinging nettle, but my calf sleeves protected me well.   It gets cooler as we go higher, and the clouds and fog keep it very comfortable.  Somewhere in here we have the first of 3 major creek crossings, which are running fast enough that the guide ropes are very welcomed.

At around 4700 feet we top out and drop to Roaring Plains, still above 4000 feet.  A few sections are dry, but there are long sections of shoe-sucking mud and/or ankle deep water.  Many try to find higher spots to run on but it seems like a lot of effort is spent hopping from side to side and trying to keep balance.  I’m already soaked so I mostly just straight-line it when there’s not an easier way to avoid the hazards.  A couple times I step in knee deep holes but no harm is done, and once I catch something and land almost spread eagle in the mud, just barely keeping my face out of it.  For road runners looking at finish times and wondering how they can be so slow for barely more than a marathon and a half distance, imagine running on a road with long stretches of rain filled potholes, and having to either run through them or wear out your legs hopping between them on muddy ledges not even a shoe width wide in many places.  Or running in a muddy roadside ditch after a long rain might be more accurate.  Tack on 5400 feet of climb and 4800 feet of drop for good measure.  I knew it was a tough race, I didn’t realize it would be this bad.

Finally aid station 2 comes after 8 miles, and I refuel on continue on.  For the first half I use my Nathan Endurance Vest with 70 oz bladder of water, and a 10 oz bottle that I’ll refill every aid station and mix with Perpetuem.  Hammer Gel for nutrition, and Endurolytes for electrolyte replacement.  The only solid food I eat is a couple Zone Perfect bars and whatever looks good at aid stations, usually banana chunks and pretzels.  In the second half of the race the aid stations aren’t as far apart so I swap my vest for my Nathan Trek waist pack which holds a 20 oz bottle that I mix with Perpetuem.  I also carry an all-purpose bandana, ginger and Imodium pills in case of stomach issues, a blister patch, and a small packet of lube in case of chafing.  Fortunately all I’ll need today is a couple of the ginger pills, and the bandana.

After AS 2 and Flatrock Plains comes a big drop, 1200 feet over 2 miles.  The water was annoying on the climb and flats, but on the downhill it’s treacherous.  I take my time making my way down, and I’m not the slowest one.  I’m watching my step so carefully that I take a branch to the face and it actually ends up between my teeth!  Luckily it’s not sharp so it’s funny.  Finally it levels off and climbs 1000 feet in 2+ miles to the next aid station.  I still feel good and I’m running where it’s not too steep, able to run more uphills than I had been in training.

A short climb after AS 3 and we’re on Red Creek Plains.  In some places the views are open and incredible.  Also incredible is how much water is up here.  The trail is almost always either a foot under water, in 4 inches of mud, or very rocky.  You can run it,  but very slowly and you can’t lose focus and let your mind drift.  I trip in one place and once again catch a low branch between my teeth.  Never had this happen before, and now twice within an hour or two!

Finally, about a mile from the next aid station the trail dries out and is much more runnable.  I take stock and as difficult as the course has been, I’m still in a good mood and have been for the entire race.  There will still be some rollers but the climbing is really done, and most of the technical sections are behind me.  The mud and water have slowed me but my legs don’t feel tired.  I’ve never had a good race beyond a 50K, but maybe this will be it.

And then it happens.  My foot catches the lip of a rock and before I can even get my hands out, BAM!  Face plant right into a rock.  I see stars and am stunned.  I had heard some guys a bit behind me so I don’t even try to get up.  A few seconds later 2 or 3 of them come up and pretty quickly realize this was a hard fall.  They tell me my nose is bleeding, but I figure out its on the bridge and not from inside.  I worry about my teeth but I feel with my tongue that I didn’t chip them.  I talk with them and assure them that I’ll be ok and will just walk to the aid station to get checked out and they start to move out, but first one of them checks my eyes and all seems fine.  All pretty standard stuff for trail runners to do, but still I am very appreciative that they did stop to help.  I saw the guy I talked with the most after the race and thanked him again, and he was very happy and a bit surprised to hear that I finished.

After my standing 8 count, I continue on, and even jog a bit, though I’m spooked by the rocks.  I soak my bandana with water and hold it to my nose but there doesn’t seem to be much blood.  I get to the Road Across the Sky a bit before the aid station.  Crew is allowed here and I see Tammy driving as she’s heading out, which confirms that Rick is ahead of me as expected.  She yells some encouragement and then her eyes get wide as she sees my face so I know it doesn’t look good.  She tells me after the race that she wanted to stop but was afraid I’d use it as an excuse to drop.  That actually wasn’t even on my mind but it’s still good tough love.

I had my drop bag here and I had hoped to switch packs and move out pretty quickly but I figure sitting for a minute is a good idea.  A volunteer offers a wet wipe to clean my face, and even though tradition says to wear your blood proudly, I figure I ought to clean it and make sure it’s not flowing.  I also decide to take time to change into dry socks even though my feet feel ok.  My shoes (Inov8 319) are doing well so I slip them back on rather than switch.  I burn about 10 minutes here, but I feel like I’m good to go with my smaller pack and my mp3 player for the dirt road section.

The Road Across the Sky goes for over 7 miles across the Dolly Sods, which is a designated wilderness area.  Logging and a major fire years ago took out the trees, and with the rugged weather what grew back looks more like northern Minnesota or Canada than anything this far south.  There are breaks where the views are wide open.  For race purposes, what you have is a rolling non-technical packed dirt road where you can make up time, but it’s dead straight and pretty imposing to see how much of it you have in front of you.  Plus it’s very exposed so the sun can take it’s toll on a hot day, but today’s there’s a breeze and it’s not that bad, and it‘s not buggy.  It takes a minute to loosen up from sitting too long, but I’m able to crank out an 8:30 mile on one stretch, though I haveto walk more stretches of the uphills than I’d like.  My mp3 player stops after about 2 songs.  Apparently it bumped on in my bag and drained the battery.  My legs are starting to give out, and my nose is throbbing some.  The fall is still on my mind too much and I’m wondering if I’m using it as an excuse to take it easy, or I really am physically affected, but in any case I’m spiraling down.

Finally we’re off the road and into the Dolly Sods on the Bear Rocks and Raven Ridge trails.  It’s beautiful open highlands, with views in all directions.  I think how nice it would be to curl up with a book under a shade tree and take a nap.  It’s mostly runnable with some muck, but my legs just don’t want to go.  I clock a 17 minute mile and vow I won’t have another.  I almost hold to my promise, but in the wrong direction with a 17:57 mile.  Then 2 more in the 17s and then a couple more even slower. When I look back at why my time was so slow, this is the place I had the most control over.  I stop caring about time and just enjoy the views, but I’m not in a very happy place for these miles.  I won’t quit, but I really, really want it all to be over.

Aid station 7, and they promise downhills after a short climb.  Someone comments that we have 90 minutes to run 8 miles to break 10 hours, and I shake my head and know I can’t do it.  But wait!  The race director said we were routing around a “butt slide” section on the ski slopes since Timberline didn’t want us ruining the bike trails in the mud, so the course is probably really 40 miles, not 41.  7 miles, I can probably do in that time.
I struggle on a rock hopping section and people appear from nowhere and pass me.  I hang onto them for awhile and they sail away.  We get to the top of Timberline Ski resort and start down a ski run, and the running starts to come easy for me.  I’m starting to reel back in many of those who have passed me.  So many of them were encouraging when they passed me, and I try to return the good will.  Back on another dirt road, and the final aid station appears at mile 36.9, confirmed by my GPS watch.  A sign says 4.1 miles left.  So is it really 41 miles, or 40?  I hope for the best and run with short walk breaks.  A paved road section should feel good after such difficult terrain, but it always seems tough in a trail race.  At least it has some good views of the mountains we‘ve put behind us.  We run a grass trail parallel to the highway, but it’s so marshy and slow that I know I can’t make it if it’s 41.

The park road comes, and I try to remember how far it is to the lodge, and I know we loop around to get behind the building.  Mile 40 is approaching and just ahead I see a sign that says “I mile left”.  So, it is 41, and a bit more.  My watch says 9:52 and seconds aren’t displayed, so I’d have to run sub 8 for the final mile+.  We leave the road and the trail rolls and there are still some mucky sections.  I run what I can because I want to finish strong, but the 10 hour mark passes and I can’t see the finish.  Finally it comes into view, and I cross at 10:04.

Overall, even though my time was slow, I’m happy that I finished pretty strong and nothing was really hurting.  My feet usually hurt the worst on a rocky course, and they actually feel pretty good.  This really was like a 50 miler, by far my toughest run since knee surgery last year, and I made it.  I’ve proven to myself that I can do everything I did before the torn ACL, just not quite as fast.  The course was by far the prettiest I’ve run on.  I can definitely see coming back, hopefully on a drier day!

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