I am pleased to have run the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run yesterday. Because my favorite race fell on a perfect day, just before an interview on Monday for a job I would really, really like to snag, I am tempted to get all platitudinous and make something more of the race than it is because of personal reasons that have nothing to do with the course. So, that being said, I’m going to base the report on the event itself as best I can recall. And I’m going to intrude upon the course my personal experience because it would resonate with other people who might find themselves in same straits. I can’t tell you about the run without revealing the runner.
The proliferation of reports you could find on the internet would help you to cultivate a better understanding of the shape and size of the beastie, what it feeds on, its strengths and weaknesses. I wish I had brought a camera, but usually many other people do that and take lots of great photos anyhow. I passed people along the course who paused to snap shots. I’ll find them. Seeing HS 40 from someone else’s eyes gives me a sense of immediacy and presence I don’t get from a picture of my own memories. I become aware of beauty and a sense of awe that others experience. So, the pictures that will be added to this report will be linked to other sites, other reports, other people, so you can literally see what I mean when I describe this course. It’s a positive form of feedback that builds community, and I’ve had a really good time running with the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners club.
To an old farmer who joined me on the final stretch of road before the finish line, him on a large riding mower, me in my mudstocks, I answered his question as to what we were doing as plainly as possible by stating that I was in a race, WVMTR was the première running club in West Virginia, and we were doing a 40 miler, much of it through a wilderness area.
I don’t have much chance to run out-of-state right now. I signed up for this race January 1st, before my lay-off. To save money, I decided to camp in a tent a mile from the renovated lodge which, BTW, looks amazing. Next year, hopefully, I can bring the family again for a proper weekend at the Canaan Valley Resort.
The first stage of the race is sort of like a field trip to the zoo. Everyone boards the cheese, spirits are high. Hygiene, health and attire have been drossed to the point that everything in those twenty-two rows of forest green vinyl seats represents cumulative centuries of running dedication. People are catching up, sharing anecdotes, occasionally commiserating upon details of precious adventure in other events, giving edifice to this memory, revealing the bones of the reason to be there, but I don’t hear anyone mention anything about the race itself. I’m in a sea shanty with old salts sharing scrimshaw, but no one mentions the white whale.
I have the bill of my cap snugged against the glass and I’m catching bits of convo, trying not to move or appear even conscious. The energy level is very high, but tempered. No one is mentioning anything about HS 40, as I said, but it’s there in what they carry. Drop bags, water paks, belts and bottles, light loads of supplements and medicaments, clothing, tape, whatever works and has worked. Race day superstition is in full mojo, no doubt. Lucky items are afoot. I was checking out the shoes. They look better and better every year. Likewise, the crowd seemingly younger and better prepared than ever, ready to test mettle against nettle, not ready to settle in the shtelt and melt in a kettle, but chew the betel of adventure and pettle the fettle a little. Gathered they that the misty morning glen embraced, the light lifting the hollow in green words, shired and ancient, the air not yet heavy with the perfume of season’s blossoms.
Dan finishes checking the roster for headcount, 6AM is upon us, and off we go. It’s a couple of miles through a stretch of cozy houses askance the paved road with the odd neighbor cheering us on, across a bouldered river to a feckless green field, where AS#1 is. I quaff a cup of water and get in the tall grass. Up ahead, beyond the pasture’s edge, the trees skirt the mountain. We go in, one at a time, in single-track. Everything is wet. For no other reason than for my own personal enjoyment, I try to see how long I can go with dry shoes. I got a PB this year with an hour. I am not feeling good about this one. This is my fourth running, but I’m in really bad condition.
The Devil’s Rest
There are some great climbing sections for the first couple of miles up the hill, nothing too taxing. The banter on the single-track is healthy, lively, people still bunched up in gain trains. And, I’m letting them pass, bent double, sucking wind. I wait until a knot builds behind me, let them pass, then trail behind, so I can farmer blow like I’ve never seen the city. People are saying thanks if I’m upright, but more often, while I’m bent over, trying to huff oxygen from the carpets of fiddleback, people are asking me how I’m doing, concerned. I’m telling them I’m doing bad or pretty bad, and I’m probably going to bail . By mile five, I’m sure I will. One runner did a second take. “You’re going to what?” She sounds skeptical, not sure what she’s hearing. “Bail. I think I have to, been too sick.” I am soaked with sweat, dehydrated. I mean, my forearms were cramping before mile two. They kept sprouting across my limbs. Bad.
I am dizzy, checking my watch. I kept moving forward, though. That’s an eight mile stretch in shadows, chilly and wet. I didn’t stumble at all. I felt strong, just no lungs, and dizzy from the sinus pressure. My nose is running and running, head pounding. My goal is to make it to AS#2, look those kind volunteers in the eye, ask for someone to please cart me off the mountain, let me go home ashamed and rest.
I am still in that sleepless phase when waves of shock will kind of waft through your body like electric lazy eels. I don’t know what snot is made out of, but if science would only harness it, I could provide some serious power to, say, a small cosmopolitan floating city. I would go home and listen to my wife chide me for going in the first place, telling me I should’ve taken the blue pill and gone to a doctor (the blue pill is the cop-out, the red pill is the revealing journey).
I spend the night in a tent to save money and acclimate for a few hours before lacing up my battle slippers. The problem is I am suffering from bronchitis. Monday: 3 hrs sleep, Tuesday: 4 hrs, Wednesday: o, Thursday: 4.5 hrs, Friday: 0. I was coughing so bad I dreaded sleeping. I knew I was in for trouble.
FLASH: I just went to the doctor and found out. I’m now on antibiotics and I’m drinking cough syrup laced with codeine because I’ve had barely any sleep this week, maybe an average of three a night, thanks to HS 40 – I slept eight last night but I had to run over tarnation to get it! I could tell I wasn’t going to sleep again tonight and went to a clinic in gthe middle of Father’s Day. Socks? No, I’ll take a pair of living, please.
I can’t sleep. I’m cramping? Yes. My back, my hams, the backs of my hands. I’m cramping. The owls are hooting, a baby cries out around 1 am and again around 3 am from a nearby campsite. The moon is impossibly bright and baleful, but I’m not really sleepy so I don’t feel anything sardonic about the moon. I’m unable to sleep because I’ll start coughing and won’t be able to stop until the headache splits my dome. I drain a water bottle and listen to the hours chiming on my old digital watch. The night slips away and I’m drinking a tangy cup of hot black at check-in.
[EDIT] I had a hard time writing this on all that Purple Drank.
On the trail, I’m watching the age groups slipping by me getting progressively older. It’s like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey when the astronaut is aging in the matter of a few seconds. Any moment I’m going to turn into a dried baby and start playing with big rectangles or something. One thing I notice, a pleasant back-of-the-pack tidbit, is that the nettles don’t sting. All the forerunners soaked up the oils, mercy be. Out of water and strength, I walk for two miles in a sullen stupor. The cut-off is coming. I can’t believe this is happening.
At AS#2 I move to the goodies like osmosis. I suck down two cups of Heed, then a cup of water, get my bottle filled with Heed, snarfed some grapes and banana. A guy, a tall guy with a shaved head tells me I’m doing a great job. He says it as if it were true, that him being the giver of aid, and me being better for seeking it, is logical and correct. The contrapositive essence of the relationship between the runner and the volunteer is unavoidable. Because I am doing a great job, he is giving me aid. I’m trying to explain this in a way that “really meant something” instead of saying it really meant something because, as an old Persian poet once said, “What we speak becomes the house we live in.” That’s why the utterance of mantras becomes affirming. The volunteer perhaps doesn’t see the shade of illness upon me, or does and dismisses its weak visage, and chooses to reveal something I’d forgotten in my misery. I had worked so hard to get back on the horse for this race, had just run a 50K two weeks before, had been steadily building towards that touchstone. As soon as he says it, like a Jedi trick, I am thinking to try to make it to AS#3 at least. I can’t let him down.
Anyways, that experience really moves me. I’m happy to be on my way. The flora and landscape between AS#2 and AS#3, miles 10 and 15, roughly, are my favorite in terms of exotic flora. it is very wet, misty, at turns windy, and boggy, with all sorts of succulents and weird stunted evergreen trees I’m not familiar with at all. I start getting into the thick black mush muds, so churned with the hundred plus runners who’ve swept through here already that it’s practically whipped. Stepping into it is like moving through whipped cream or burping oatmeal. At other times it’s like tar, sucking at my shoes, or thin. A world of muds. I can’t tell rock from whelp of mud.
I know I’m riding close to cut-off. I pass a runner on the steep 1.5 mile descent on Boars Nest trail who says she’s having trouble with her knees. I tell her the second half is easier than the first. She seems grimly determined, her first running of HS 40. I move ahead. I pass someone, really? I know I’ll never make AS#4, better take what I can get. I keep climbing, I spy a fellow up ahead. On a narrow pass he does a banana peel on some mud and I’m able to catch him, and pace him. He pulls away and I catch up again. The sun is peeking through the trees, slapping me with its warm soupfingerhairs. I can call it whatever I please.
I’m no longer tired. I’m weary, but I feel…awesome! I’m amazed at myself. How can I be so happy?
I realize the Heed and the fruit and The Force have charged me up a bit, and decide to make it to AS#4. I have an inhaler and a Tylenol there. I occasionally bend over to kind of gagging shout – it’s like five or six coughs running together that come out like the bay of a coon hound. I’d been leap-frogging the banana dancer and he seemed to be having a great time, deep in his triumph. I asked him if he knew how far we were to AS#3 and he said about 1.7 miles. I checked my watch and realized I could probably make it to AS#4 if I put a bit more into the shoving and kicking.
I activated my GPS. It became worthwhile to check my progress. Before, it was just a mess. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I wasn’t going to quit. I suddenly blurt out, to no one in particular, “Okay, I’m going for it.” The guy in front goes, “Yeah, go for it!” It’s so simple. It’s so pure, this circuit between encouragement and effort. I go for it, without question. I’m picking up time. I’m sweating again. I find AS#3. The spread and the encouragement, again, pure magic. I load up on fruit, a mini PB&J, suck down a cup of pop, one of water, and fill my baby bottle with Heedialyte. I’m telling myself it’ll cure me of the “C-Dif”ficulties. I’m so full of puns for no reason.
I get to more knotted little piney wood trees and run through auburn padded trails gnarled with black roots, more mud, the ten bridges – I only counted nine, oh well. I’m moving well. I hit the dirt road, drain my bottle, and run the short distance to AS#4 along the dusty scratch. I make AS#4 with maybe fifteen minutes to spare. I hit my inhaler, take the Tylenol, fill my bottle, grab fruit, and go. I’m gathering momentum. I clock a sub-11 min. mile. I’m up in elevation, so I’m sort of amazed. I’m not wheezing. I can breathe again. I have four hours of air. I dive into the Road Across the Sky beneath a deeply blue and empty ocean of air. The wind dries me, but my baseball hat is soaked. It keeps me somewhat cool.
The road is a long, narrow finger-pointing at blue. There it is. I see it in my mind, beyond AS#5, the Sanctuary of Watermelon, I see the high road leading to AS#6. I’m passing people. I’m running this section better than I’ve ever run it, taking hills, overtaking them. When I make As#6, I’m not fifteen minutes ahead of DNF, I’m nearly an hour ahead. I continue across the Highland laurel, the windy, open and arid expanses of the course. Occasionally, I stomp in some mud to cool off. The trail continues up, then down to a wide creek with polished stones. I slip and fall down the churned, muddy bank. I catch myself saying “wheee!” as I slide to the water’s edge. No injury, nothing. I dip my hat a few times in the creek to soak myself and keep going. I usually run out of water in this section and try to get totally wet. I look up from my bath and notice a campsite across the water on the other side. I hope they heard me hollering and wallowing in the mud. I move across the boulders around mile 30ish, and then I start to flag. I feel strong thirst. I’m doing a bit of walking. Breathing is becoming difficult again. It’s so gorgeous up here. Unlike earlier years, no deer flies. Bonus!
I make AS#7, more fruit, water and Heed my new country, my sums of empire. Everything is running so smooth I give it all away, such is the gift of life. Onward. The rocks don’t bother me. I’m gliding.
I am running in a more reserved speed, walking a bit here and there. I hit the ski slope, take the hike up, then through the slip of woods and back down. By the time I reach the Wall of Many Downs and Few Acrosses I’m dehydrated again. I’m losing air like an old tire. I gulp half my bottle I’d been rationing with baby sips, go down near vertical descent with a couple of hang ten slides, just lucky, arched backwards, arms pinwheeling, riding the skree, scary! I’d forgotten about the wonders of Gnarnia. My Garmin dies. I keep going.
All I’m thinking about now is beating my worst time on the course. It’s funny to go from total quit to to total try in a race. It’s usually the opposite. And I’m off the mountain. I get hit with some sharp stabbing pains for some reason. I wonder if I’m passing a kidney stone. After a few minutes the attack subsides. A short run down another dirt road and I’m at AS#8, the final stretch. More fuel, smiles and encouragement. I am out of air, but I’m so close.
The Final Stretch
I run the road better than I ever had before. The last section is all mental. I’m running along the dude riding his tractor. I’m loving it. He’s loving it. He owns the big farm at the first big right hand turn on Freeland Road. It’s quite a view. He rides off to talk to someone else after our chat. I make the grassy detour, cross 32, still steady, walking long enough to catch my breath every two minutes, make the park, the last shady trail and two more fly-choked, hot, muddy sections, up around the back of the lodge and the finish. I think I did a 10 hr 4o something. I beat my worst by about five minutes after losing an entire hour between AS#1 and AS#2. Woo hoo!
Perseverance is accepting the knowledge that you can go further than you think you can.
Juneathon 2014 monthly miles: 112
EDIT January 2015: I went through a steroid treatment in October 2014 that seemed to have put the bronchitis in remission. I got fever again in August and October, the choking/vomiting coughs in October. It’s been crazy, but I think I’m recovered somewhat. I haven’t had a fever since. I thought I had Lyme Disease! I so pale!