The hardest part of running an ultramarathon is not the distance. It’s not the rugged terrain or the elevation. It’s not the climbing or descending or making sure you are eating and drinking properly. The hardest part of running an “ultra” is knowing that you are there of your own free will and can quit at any time. For hours and hours during these long races ultramarathon runners will constantly ask themselves, “Why am I doing this? No one is making me do this. I could just stop at any time.”
I’ve dealt with those questions in every race I’ve ever done. I am not an elite runner. When I run there is no money at stake, no championships on the line, and no sponsors to impress. I’m just doing it because I want to. I continue to struggle with these issues when I run tough races, and yesterday at the 2017 Highlands Sky 40 Miler was no different.
The Highlands Sky 40 Miler is probably the most competitive and most sought after ultra trail race in West Virginia. The race runs through a variety of different ecosystems from lowland hardwood forests to upland bogs and prairies over 4,500’ in elevation. The area of the race around Canaan Valley is the highest large valley east of the Mississippi River. Last week I explained how I was selected from the waiting list just a month ago, and I threw together and improvised training plan to get ready for the race after having not run at all for several months. Here is how it went.
The start time for the race was a crisp 6 am, which wasn’t a problem for me; but I don’t think Brandy was a big fan of the 4:45 am wake-up time. I got up at around 4:15 myself, did some stretching and basic movements around the hotel room to loosen up and took a short stroll around the parking lot to loosen up after making my hot cup of hotel room coffee.
Back in the room, I took careful time to put my race bib on my short in the proper place (upper thigh on my left) then started to get dressed. I will describe my “kit” at the end of this post.
The start line was an easy 20-minute drive from the hotel room. We arrived with time to spare. I took a quick assessment of the porta-potty situation, and as was to be expected the line was extremely long. So stepped behind the car and emptied the tank with just a couple of minutes to spare before the gun went off. Ladies, I can only imagine how stressful this period is for you as I completely acknowledge how spoiled I am as a man in my ability to relieve myself basically whenever I damn well please. Hats off to the ladies for having to deal with SO MUCH MORE than us dudes.
The First 20
The race started at 6 am on the nose, which is a credit to the Race Directors for sticking to the schedule. The field spread out quickly as a few speedsters pulled away early while the rest of us tried to find a rhythm on the first few miles of paved road. I spent that first couple of miles fighting with my GPS watch which refused to “find” any satellite signal. I ultimately turned it off completely, turned it back on, and finally got it recording just as we pulled into the first aid station at the trailhead 2 miles in.
The first 20 miles of Highlands Sky feature the two biggest climbs of the day. Halfway up the first climb, I knew I needed to eat so I pulled out an Epic Bison Bar. On a day-to-day basis, I try to stick to a pretty low-carb, high-fat diet. As a result, I am pretty accustomed to burning fat during races and don’t need to eat that often. At this point, however, it was 45 minutes into the race; and it had been over two hours since I had my breakfast - which was a chocolate Rx Bar and half an avocado.
While I normally will eat the hell out of the Epic Bison Bars, I brought the juicy meat stick to my lips and couldn’t fathom the thought of putting it in my mouth. For whatever reason the thought of eating it made me feel sick. I just could not stomach it. I forced half of the bar down and put the rest in my pocket. As I continued the thought of eating more of the Epic Bar seemed decreasingly appetizing, so I figured I’d give some increased liquid nutrition a try.
At the second aid station, I filled my drinking bottle with Sword. I decided that day to carry a handheld 20oz bottle in each hand instead of a pack because frankly, I will avoid a hydration pack as much as I can. I find them to be cumbersome, uncomfortable, and HOT. The only back that doesn't feel like a horse blanket on my back is my old faithful Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest 2.0. My strategy for the bottles was this: Two bottles. One for drinking. One for squirting on my head, back, shoulders, and chest to cool me down. This strategy worked out very well for me but did have a couple of drawbacks which I will hit on later.
I filled up my drinking bottle with Sword, and after a couple of strong swallows, I instantly felt better. The carbs. The sodium. I felt like a million bucks, so I decided at the 10-mile marker that my adapted strategy on the day would be to rely on nutrition I didn’t have to chew. That included my single serve packs of Sword, the on course Tailwind, and my packs of Justin’s almond butter that I had stuffed in my pockets. That proved to be one of the best decisions of the day.
On our way to the aid station #4 - which was the first crewed aid station - we went through a bitchin’ (there really isn’t a better word for it) downhill section. I’m a downhill runner. Many trail runners prefer the climb, but not me. I love to run downhill. There is something about speeding downhill that makes me feel like a kid again. Plus I’m really good at it! It’s the closest I come to a true flow state during a race. Hammering a downhill requires such creativity and improvisation I can completely lose myself in the effort. Well, while I was losing myself in that downhill the insoles of my Topo MT-2 trail shoes decided to slide up into a bunch under my toes!
I strode into the mile 20 aid station where I could see my wife Brandy which is the best part of any ultra for me. I had been running for over 5 miles with a ball of wadded up insole under my forefoot, so Brandy refilled my bottles while I fixed my shoes! I told her I was feeling good and the race was going well before I took off into the second half of the race. I was in 7th place.
The Second Half
For whatever reason, I lost all steam after leaving the mile 20 aid station. Perhaps it was only having one month of training. Perhaps it was having only one 15 miler as my longest training run. Perhaps I had pushed too hard the first half of the race which I am known to do. I’m not really sure, and I’m not really sure it ultimately matters. I just had nothing left at this point as we embarked on a 6+ mile stretch of gravel forest road. I met Robin on this road who I learned was not only from Washington, DC (where I used to live) and was the reigning women’s Highlands Sky champion. I also learned that Robin was 14 weeks pregnant at the time of the race! Robin encouraged me to keep pushing, but I was glad when she pulled away from me and went on with her race. She had a championship to defend, and I had resigned myself to just finishing at that point.
The second half of the Highlands Sky 40 Miler is a relatively flat course, but the highly technical nature of the terrain made it one of the most difficult things I have ever done. The course was a mixture of rocky boulder fields, wet roots, and stinking upland bogs. In hindsight, that is what makes it great, but during the race, it was extremely exhausting to run over.
Ultimately I think my training (or lack thereof) caught up with me. My legs had no power the second half of the race. I was tired in ways I hadn’t anticipated. For example, while my strategy of carrying two bottles in lieu of a pack worked out very well, I found that after 4 or 5 hours my pectorals, shoulders, and biceps were incredibly sore! I know now not to discount the toll of carrying two-pound weights in my hand for hours on end will take on my upper body.
I found the finish line at Canaan Valley after several hours of walking, running, and stumbling through the West Virginia wilderness; and I’ve never been so happy to see a finish line and just be DONE. Brandy was there waiting for me and had to point me to the finish actual finish line when I attempted to just collapse at her feet. To the end, she led me to the finish.
I will admit that I am not a gear head the way that many ultra runners are. I just don’t see the point in spending $70 on a pair of shorts or $200 on a hydration pack. I honestly just haven’t seen the return in quality for me. I just want the basics that will do the job. So here’s what I had on during the race, and this is pretty much what I wear during every race. From the head down...
Headwear: UV Half BUFF under our Bluegrass Trail Runner Headweats Trucker hat. I sweat like a fiend, and I have long hair. So running without headwear is not an option. I love the half BUFF because it is cool and versatile. It fits under a hat and still keeps the sweat out of my eyes without making my head hot. I wear the Bluegrass Trail Runner hat….because that’s what I am.
Shirt: It’s summer. And I’m a dude. So, fuhgetaboutit
Watch: Garmin Fenix 2
Arms: Under Armour Wrist Bands. Again, I sweat like crazy. So I need something to keep my hands from getting soaked. I know. GROSS.
Bottles: My drinking bottle was a standard 20oz Ultimate Direction hard bottle with the UD Fast Draw strap. My “cooling bottle” was the Nathan Vapormax Plus. In these two handhelds, I could also store 1 Sword packet and two packets of almond butter.
Shorts: Pearl Izumi Ultra Short Tights. For some reason, PI decided to stop producing running gear despite the fact that they made the BEST running shorts ever. These shorts have enough pocket capacity to hold enough nutrition for a really long ultra. I am able to store 4 bars (Kind Bars and Epic Bars) in the back pocket, two packets of Sword, and four packets of Justin’s Almond Butter. For me, that is enough nutrition for over 10 hours of running. In my shorts!
Socks: SLS3 Compression Socks. SLS3 is a former sponsor of Next Opportunity Events, and their compression socks are top notch. I don’t always run in compression socks necessarily, but in a race, they are my go-to.
Shoes: Topo Athletic MT-2. Those of you who know me know that I am a sworn disciple of the Nike Tera Kiger 3 and have been for the last year plus. However, when I bought a pair of Topo road shoes this year (because they were crazy cheap) I was amazed at how stinking comfortable they were. They have the low or zero drop platform that I love. The roomy toe box that isn’t TOO roomy like some other brands. The quality construction of any top tier shoe manufacturer. I just fell in love and decided to spring for the Topo MT-2 as my next trail shoe. Now, I have to have words with Topo on this insole slippage issue; but all in all, it is such a comfortable and durable shoe!
My Hydration and Nutrition Strategy
I’ve alluded to this already, so I won’t belabor the point. I don’t like wearing a hydration pack. Ever, but especially in the summer. My body just gets hot, and wearing a pack makes me feel so overheated. Plus they are just added weight, and since I am a very minimalist type of runner I will go to great lengths to avoid wearing a pack during a race. So for this race, I opted to carry two bottles. My Ultimate Direction hard bottle for drinking, and my Nathan Vapormax bottle for cooling (i.e. squirting on myself). This worked splendidly and will be my first choice strategy for races going forward.
As I described in my blog my last week, I had only one month to train for this race. So considering that I am pretty happy with getting a finish. I’m not really a recreational runner when it comes to races. I come to compete. I want to do well. I want to beat other runners. Usually, I end up pushing too hard early in the race and fading later. I continue to work on that, but given only four weeks to prepare for a very hard ultra, I’m glad I found the finish line. If I could go back in time I would have done more training carrying two bottles to better condition my arms and chest to carry the weight for 8 hours. I would have tried more downhill running to test out my shoes in wet, downhill conditions. Shoulda. Coulda. Woulda.
Here are a few other things I learned (quickly):
Sword works for me! Ok, I already knew that; but did I mention that Sword works!
A quick helping of sunscreen on the shoulders before the start of the race isn’t the worst idea.
Tailwind is gross. Sorry Tailwind fans. Just WAY too sweet for me. However, it did do its job and kept me hydrated and moving forward.
We should definitely schedule an extra day for this trip in the future. We hiked to Seneca Rocks on Sunday, and an extra day to explore the Forest and see the other surrounding attractions would have been a huge plus.
I don’t race a lot. I probably sign up for one or two races every year. I just don’t have the time or (let’s be honest) the money to do more than one big race trip a year. I’m glad I pushed my limits and chose to follow through with the Highlands Sky. It is an amazing race that every runner should look into. I will not soon forget the amazing beauty of the West Virginia forest or the amazing people who made the race possible. It meant a lot to me to be able to race in my home state.
In terms of long-term sustainability, my one month of training and suffer to the finish line approach probably was not the best strategy. I learned a lot and had a great experience. That is really all I require out of a race.