Highland Sky Race Report –
Report by Joseph Phillips, all pictures taken by Nick Billock who left them on the WVMTR Facebook page for anyone to use. Thanks, Nick, good run and awesome pics!
This is so late! I started to throw this thing together a couple of days after the race, but things got in the way. I would say my frontal assault on this race report is but an extension of the race itself, and the way in which it arrives complements my own arduous slog through Heaven and High Water, the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Race. Predictably, I think of this race within its context of races preceding and following it. I hear that lots, and I’m not special. How has my training prepared me for this race? How will I possibly fail? In what way can I use this race to prepare me for the next challenge, possibly the penultimate challenge of my running epoch? How can I make this race my ultimate challenge next time around? The days leading up to the race, I get all tingly. Some of the tingles were from anticipation and excitement. Some of the tingles were from a tick bite. Some of the weird asymmetrical pain – that was also
Let’s talk about deer ticks. They’re nasty and evil and I wish that’s all that needed to be said about animals that throw up inside of you when someone plucks them them from your body, but there’s more. I was riding in a shuttle van on the way to the starting line and got into a conversation about ticks with Larry Crevelin, someone more mountain goat than human. I told him I’d been bit a few days before and had some weird pains around the bite area, around the left knee. Larry told me I should get it checked out, yes, it was important to see a doctor about it. But then he told me he’d been bit around 1978, but lived with an undiagnosed case of Lyme disease for about twenty years. Say what? Lyme disease affects your organs, stresses and damages the brain, and it feels like rheumatic fever. How the hell do you-? I mean, twenty years is a long time. Y yu no dead?
I like suffering, he said, and his desire to compete in and complete really tough challenges had rewarded him the ability to accept pain. So, the disease couldn’t make him feel bad. He was rattling off major ultramarathons he’d run like I’d absentmindedly list the grocery store discount fobs I had on my key chain. He kept pushing and pushing. I was blown away, as usual. HS 40 has all kinds of crazy talent up in it every year. He said that, in addition to the pounding to which he eagerly submitted his body, he also changed his diet to raise his alkalinity to make his body as inhospitable as possible to the disease. He was suppressing the disease. He was overcoming it. Larry was like my dad right there in the van, kicking my ass and showing me the way at the same time.
I’d made the decision to skip the doctor visit before the race because I knew two things would happen: I would get on antibiotics and get sick, and then I would blow the race entirely or make such a mess of it I’d never go back. I decided that I could live with a modicum of brain damage and stiff knees if it meant I got another go at the Dolly Sods. Larry had given me the fortitude and resolve to face a lifetime of awesome running challenges, with a side of Lyme Disease sauce. On the trail, though, he gave me nothing. He destroyed my time by nearly an hour.
I hadn’t slept much. My wife and two kids (five years old and three months old) also came along. I begged them to stay home but they said they’d be fine. I ended up getting to sleep at around 1:30 am, getting back up at 4 am. Fresh as daisy, okay boss, and legs for to be like spring chicken with the jumping and the prancing. I was hoping I’d still have a ride home when I returned to the hotel room later that day. Hoping my son hadn’t broken his neck allegedly leaping from bed to bed. I have no direct proof that he did this, but there were some pretty vicious rumors that he was pretty close to the ceiling, jumping strong and fierce. “Checking out early. I’ll be down in an hour…yes, I realize I’m paid up through the night, but I’d rather pay you $100 to sleep in my own bed tonight – put that knife down, son – because my son went berserk last nigh-…What do I mean by ‘beserk’? I mean he wouldn’t sleep. He wanted to talk. That kept the baby up, and the baby kept everyone up.” That’s the conversation I had following the race. Lies. The children were flying and crying and pooping themselves and stepping on hygiene products.
It’s like I don’t even want to talk about the race. I certainly don’t want to cheapen it with descriptions that rob the runner of that enchantment one feels running in relative isolation in vast, wild paces. I’ll get to the linear aspect of the event in a moment, from the start to the finish, but I’m not done talking about stupid ticks yet. The tick conversation I had in the van sort of carried over into the beginning of the race while I ran alongside a guy named Peter Sheesling, a pre-med student, on the asphalt and past AS 1 by the horse barn. Peter was also recently bit by a tick in Maine. He was from Maine! He came down from Maine to run HS 40, and like Larry, he destroyed my finishing time, and he did it in a pair of those minimalist bedroom slippers, a feat I consider astounding. Larry was interested in researching an intestinal illness his friend had, and we were talking about culprits in livestock feed and antibiotics. I knew of a Navajo scientist who’d uncovered the source of hanta virus by studying leather ceremonial drums depicting deer mouse poop getting in people’s wounded feet and killing them. Given that Larry had lived twenty years without knowing he had Lyme disease, I was entertaining the idea that ticks couldn’t be ruled out. Ticks have all kinds of nasty diseases.
Basically I had to run this race or die a failure. Last year I ran it coming off a PR marathon in Pittsburgh and a PR half marathon in Morgantown, WV. I was pumped! I was looking to make it under 9 hours. I was not paying attention when I followed a couple of guys off the blue diamond trail and ended up on the logging road almost back at the starting line, going back up the road missing AS 3 altogether and declaring my DQ at the midway point. I was disqualified. The embarrassment, the shame – if I’d have died during the past year, I’d haunt the ten bridges before AS 4. I’d haunt that sweet switchback marking the descent off the first climb, I’d haunt the incomparably awesome mood of AS 3 on the way up to the ten bridges and rooty pine groves. Esprit de corpse. I’d think of myself as a helpful elf whispering encouragement in the weary runner’s ear, coaxing a bit of gumption out of some soft and dirty legs. “youcandoit, bwoooaawaaha!” So, what’s worse, enduring a relapsing fever disease, or spending the rest of your life living with a DQ in your favorite race.
I just didn’t want to get lost. See, I run and forget I’m in a race. I could run all day. I could run city alleys, bogs, beaches, snowy meadows, deer trail, busy roads. Naturally, I gravitated towards a sport that feeds my love of endurance challenges. And naturally, I chose to live, to run. I mean, there’s no guarantee the antibiotics work anyways, so why risk living a life of shame in order to support a pharmaceutical company’s claim of control over wild and mysterious Mother Nature? I was with Larry. I think one’s spirit is what seeks these challenges. The flesh, they say, is weak. What makes nature so spectacular is the casual observer’s relative distance from the natural rhythms and character of a place. At some point I stopped thinking about how wild and wonderful Highlands Sky was, and how much more of a home it was to my soul than anything that ever got measured against a plumb line. Bricks and mortar, like my own dogged greasy clutch of amalgamated tissues, soon to crumble. As John Fante said, “Ask the dust.” The dust is silent, but silence never lies. In the wilderness, you stop lying to yourself. In an ultra, you get to deeper truths. In a way, the archetypal challenge we face, like Sissyphus, is an eternal search for balance. If you pushed a rock up a hill forever, then how could that be torture? After all, he did it forever.
Albert Camus said of Sisyphus, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” And that, friends, is what it’s all about to me. That’s why I came here. I’ve read up on the deeply meaningful and powerful ways our own physiology rewards us when we run, how our body is built to run, how our survival on this earth depended on it for thousands of years. I feel good just thinking about it. Running levels my life, gives me extremely remote and unwavering focus. All of my goals in running began as cute little parcels a few years ago. I’d say to myself, oh gosh, one day I’ll run 6 miles. The audacity! Then I’d feel all crazy for thinking it. Then I’d feel all crazy happy for doing it, nearly moved to tears. Then I wondered what my limit was, again. The Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Race is a good place to wonder, to wander into my true comfort zone, the place where I can push through to still deeper places within. Ultimately, my goals in running have dissolved into something larger, more complete: one day I hope to finish running.
We’d hit the shaded stretch of trail of the initial ascent. It was in the 40s, a little chilly, just right. The sky looked uneasy, like it didn’t trust its own farts. Dan had mentioned during the previous night’s awesome spaghetti dinner that the water was way down from the day before. The three creeks would be up, but nothing major. At 21 minutes into the race, my feet were thoroughly mudded. I was moving steady through the nettles with little trouble,
listening to the race patter around me. By the sounds of the finishing times being bandied about I surmised I’d started off a bit fast, so I dropped a gear and commenced a slow drift back.
Between As 1 and AS 2, there are all kinds of good rocks, mud and roots. We climb and climb. The sun felt wonderful when it peeked through the clouds mid-morning, stealing in between the boughs to dapple the trail with little diamonds. I imagined my feet landing like grooved vinyl records on slivers of light, making bone music I could not but for running possibly articulate. In other words, I was “in the groove”. I was in “deep flow” at 9 am. My goal was to stay at least an hour ahead of cut-off until AS 6, but try to hold back more so I could enjoy running the 2nd half of the course more so than I had in the past. I hit the first roped creek crossing and decided to negotiate the swift shallows without the rope.
Two years ago I did a classic banana peeler off a slanted, slimy rock. In keeping with the slow and low routine, I crossed the water practically crouched in the glassy cascades. The green tunnel ahead swallowed up Peter and now, like the rest of us, the trail began to stitch the runners along at wider intervals.
I hit AS 2 and fueld up. A couple of ways I improved the quality of my run: fuel consistently, and take in plenty of flu. Whenever I approached an aid station, I made sure that I drank all my water before refilling. I carried a bottle, bottle cage w/ small pocket and a hip pouch with a couple of extra gels and a small tube of Carmex and a plastic tube with a dozen electrolyte tablets. I would use the tablets. I carried the gels just in case I had an insulin spike and needed some juice. I grabbed a couple of banana bites, a cup of Heed, filled my bottle, ignored the pinball game my feet were playing with a bunch of rocks in my shoes and got back on pace. I got up into the misty Roaring Plains with its decidedly ancient hammocks of plants seemingly arrived from a time when the earth was very young and needed a nap. Me, I felt brilliant.
Heading up into AS 3 I kept my eyes peeled. The going gets tough. Basically half the time I was running up a creek, or along a thin strip of black sucking mud carved into the dense and stunted shrubbery. Last year I took a DQ when I missed a turn on this section. The descent was really slippery. A guy passed me in a full run down this seemingly treacherous stretch of rocks and mud without slowing or anything. A runner ahead of me asked how he was doing that and he said his brain already knew where to put his feet. Me, I have the Jedi skills of a Mike Tyson tattoo decision. I have the intuitive hand-eye coordination of a drunken baby. I’d rolled my left ankle hard a couple months before and I’d rehabbed it running railroad trestles for miles, so I continued to tread lightly along the springy roots, through the black morass of mud and rocks indistinguishable from each other. Sometimes my foot landed on a rock, and sometimes it plunged deep into black churned trail butter, giving my knees a good wash. My left ankle was starting to get sore. Then I straight-legged off a rock through murky water and jammed my femur up against my pelvis pretty good. That hurt. A few hundred yards further and I felt a little relief when something snapped in the hip and the movement got a little easier, but there was pain in the joint. Trouble.
At AS 3 a little girl was shouting at the runners. I don’t know what she was saying, but she was cute and made me smile. It was nice to see someone else besides me had a kid who just liked to scream nonsense at total strangers. I sat down off the path and emptied the rocks from my shoe, dug sand from the inside, shook the insoles out, replace them and tied the boogers back on. There was a rip through the mesh of my right shoe. Party.
I grabbed some goodies, filled my bottle and continued up the slope. Steeply rising again, I hopped, jogged, jumped, scrambled and stumbled my way up to the ten bridges section, calling out the number of each one as I passed Each wooden section was a chance to get some regular strides in and look around me. This is a particularly gorgeous section of the first half of the race, and the rocky summit that follows it invariably ends up on runner’s camera phones. Nick Billock, whose pictures I am happily using for this race reports, captured a bit of this interesting bit of trail. Up ahead I caught a glimpse of some cars along the Road Across the Sky, hit the gravel, turned right and made my way to the midway at AS 4. People were cheering, putting some pep in my – hamstring cramp, agh! – not so peppy. No….hush little hamstring, me love you. Hush now. I sang a little song of six cramps, a pocket full of wtf. For the rest of the day I would have to lean on the left leg a bit to favor the right. This would swell my injured ankle, but I managed to finish and tamp down a cramp for twenty miles.
I don’t know why, but I always bring a drop bag but I never use anything from it. I had extra shoes, socks, gels, medicine, bandages, antibiotic cream. I grabbed my bag, looked at it. It was like looking at a roast beef. I felt like I was looking at a diorama of a Malaysian produce market. What is all this strange stuff? I zipped it shut, grabbed my bottle, some snacks, said thanks and rolled out. People cheered runners in and out of the tent. Marvelous mild sun overhead, I started down the road with banana chunks in my pockets and a bellyful of Heed and cookies.
I picked up a little speed and made it to AS 5, Le Chateau Watermelon. I don’t know why, but the watermelon at AS 5 is the best watermelon in the world, and every year it gets better. I also took some orange wedges before hitting the hard-packed dirt road just shy of the marathon mark. I also drank a couple extra cups of fluids. The last two years I ran out of water in this section. The high winds, coupled with the clearing sky usually dehydrated me fairly quickly. Up until this point I’d put at least an hour between me and the cut-off, but I lost fifteen minutes walking up hills on the way to AS 6. The road seems to just go on forever, and beyond each magnificent rolling hilltop is a yet longer, higher bit of road. I was feeling extra super-duper ultra-happy when I turned back onto the trail. More snacks, more fluid, lots of helpful volunteers, and off I trundled.
I lost a gear.
The passage between AS 6 and 7 is a menagerie of little stretches of boggy mud, narrow rocky single track, thick mud, slippy mud, hard mud, brown mud, black mud, and special mud. What’s so special about it? It’s on me, and that’s special. During this section of the race I try to fight the voices, the little babies crying from the finish line of my inner 10K telling me I got this in the bag and slow down and be careful. Fatigue stretches this section out more than an elephant’s cummerbund. A hawk or something, its wings upswept by a rising column of warm air, turned in slow circles as it rose overhead. A runner ahead of me, seized by some larkish mirth, raised his arms overhead and shouted WHOOPEE at the hawk. I wondered if the hawk was saying whoopee inside. I wondered if that bit of happiness was what was suddenly giving that runner fleet feet, because he suddenly accelerated and moved ahead out sight. What was I happy about? I wasn’t lost. I was in the clear! I was going to finish the race, vanquish the shame of the DQ I’d gotten the previous year and earn my finisher’s shirt. The thought of finishing made me extremely happy. I was afraid I’d get lost again and blow it.
I took a seat on the boulders at mile 31
to once again scoop rocks and debris from my shoes. A deer fly found me. Sweet lord I’d rather have ten more miles of nettles. I killed it finally by smashing my water bottle into my head when it landed there to chew on me. Eww! I killed two more. I smelled like turtle guts. I hit AS 7, the place where dreams come to be blown away in high winds, grabbed some snacks, listened to Bob Dylan on the radio a moment and stole away as quickly as I could. Did I pet someone’s dog? I can’t remember. I was getting cloudy thoughts. Cloudy thoughts give my burning desires some shade. All of my desires continued burning spritely with the knowledge of the finish line lying just a few miles away. On a good day I could cross this distance in an hour. But, in Highlands Sky style, I took it slower, enjoying this beautiful landscape, knowing I wouldn’t make it out here again until next year if I decided to return to run it a 4th time.
This section had a new course that descended through a ski slope lined with biggish chalets. Nice folks staring at us from their patios as we shambled down the hill. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. I hit a gravel road, turned right, hit AS 8 like a gangsta drive by (not wearing a belt, unsure of career options, not thinking clearly) and breezed onto the asphalt. The hot flat final section was interrupted by a slog through a lumpy grassy field. I saw the Canaan Valley Resort sign, crossed the road and headed into the final mile. I left the road, stomped through a bit more mud, rounded a black pond filled with what must have been poop, and then did the last little climb to the back slope by the pool. I saw the finish line, and it saw me. I crossed the finish line and gave Dan a big old grin. I didn’t get lost! I made it. While I lay in the grass pouring sugary pop into my mouth my wife and kids found me. I wish the race lasted another ten hours. It’s wonderful.
I finished in 9 hrs. 51 minutes, about 40 minutes faster than my first finish. Because this race was nested in an online event where I run and blog every day (event is called Juneathon), it gave me a good boost into 2nd overall place and I was able to hold that position for the month of June, running a modest 242 miles for the month. So, this event was actually inside another event, the ultimate challenge in my playbook thus far, my favorite race, and it was Father’s Day. Cheers to Highlands Sky, much love for this race.