Yesterday I took a half day off work and drove over to my friend and fellow ultra runner Joe's house in Austintown. Joe (aka "Moose" throughout this report) was planning on being my crew member throughout the entire Laurel Highlands 70.5 mile race and also my pacer for the last 8 miles or so. Once we had all of our stuff organized for the trip and Moose wired up on expresso we hit the road. As soon as we got onto I-70 some guy that was test driving a new car failed to look over his shoulder and cut right in front of us. If you know how Moose is once he gets wired up on caffeine you would realize that this is definitely the wrong thing to do. Luckily there was no incident after tailgating this guy for a few seconds and making him get back over into the right lane. The rest of the trip was smooth and we had a lot to talk about along the way, including race details, beer, ultra running, beer, upcoming runs, and did I mention beer?
We rolled into downtown Ohiopyle sometime during the early afternoon and checked into the Falls Market & Inn. This place was recommended by Moose since he has stayed here in the past for other runs. It's not a Hilton or Holiday Inn, but it is fairly cheap and serves the purpose. The best part is that it's basically right across the street from the start of the race and allows for an easy wake up rather than catching the bus from Johnstown (finish area) at 3:30am.
After enjoying a few beers that Moose brought along to welcome us into Ohiopyle, including a very tasty Dogfish Head 120 minute IPA, we walked around Ohiopyle for awhile and checked out some of their outdoor/rafting stores. Then we walked along the Youghiogheny River and I was able to see some rapids and their famous waterfall. Here are a couple pictures and videos that I took...
After buying a cool t-shirt from the Ohiopyle Trading Post we decided it was about time for dinner. There are a decent amount of places in and around Ohiopyle that offer a good selection of food. However, with the race in the morning I was primarily looking for pasta without any spices, etc. Once we eliminated the choices we had in downtown Ohiopyle we decided to drive over to this hometown family restaurant that we saw on our drive into town. They also said that they didn't offer any pasta but this gentleman inside who was probably the owner recommended the " Pizza Barn Family Restaurant" which is located practically around the corner. We assumed that this place was probably owned by them too. It definitely did not disappoint. I ordered their spaghetti dinner and was given a huge portion. It had a different but very tasty sweet sauce and came along with a salad and a good portion of breadsticks. Moose had their meat ravioli which also looked good. The best part about it was the bill only came to $15 for both of us.
Towards the end of our meal we heard some thunder and it started to rain pretty heavy. This made me wonder what tomorrow would bring for the race. After leaving the restaurant we drove back to the Falls Inn, headed over to this bar by the Laurel Highlands trailhead for a couple beers, and then decided to wade in the river once it got dark to relax my leg muscles. The water was nice and cool and the air temperature was pleasant. We stayed submerged for about a half hour and watched the strong current head downstream under the moonlit sky and thought, man this is the life. Soon we called it a night and went back to the motel to organize my race stuff and head to bed. After I got out of the shower Moose had the TV on and I was surprised to see that Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press", had passed away suddenly at age 58. I was sad to see this since he was so young and seemed like a genuinely nice guy. I flipped through some channels and saw that the weather for tomorrow looked pretty decent. Upper 70's and a chance of afternoon showers. Little did I know at the time that this chance of rain would last for 5+ hours tomorrow. I fell asleep pretty easily after putting in ear plugs to block out Moose's snoring and then woke up feeling well rested around 4:15am to a very loud wind-up alarm clock that he had brought along.
I grabbed a quick shower and lubed up my toes, arms, and any other place that could possibly rub together. I then ate a bagel with peanut butter and had some water before we headed over to get my race packet. On our walk over to the race start we saw the bus pass by us that had just dropped off runners. I picked up my race number and tech shirt and then met the race director Rick Freeman for the first time. He is a very nice guy and I could tell that he was well organized.
You can always feel the excitement building before a race of this magnitude and it is fun to take it all in. Soon Rick Freeman gave word to head over to the start line and after a prayer to all the runners we were ready to go. The first part of the race is on a short road section that crosses over railroad tracks and leads to the trailhead to make up .5 miles of the 70.5 distance. After you hit the trail it's not long before you start encountering some hills. They are mainly rolling, but soon you reach mile 6 where you have to go up a 3 mile hill to get to mile 9. Click Here to see the elevation profile of the course. My plan was to take this section very conservatively, as do many other runners, and then try to attack the middle part of the course. It's easy to get sucked along though with all the relay runners who are moving along at a faster clip. On my way up the big hill I was really working hard and felt like my breathing was heavier than usual. I thought to myself...this is probably because I'm not used to pushing my body this hard this early in the morning. Heck, I'm not even awake usually until 3 hours later. I could tell that everyone else was struggling too though, especially with the high humidity. The average humidity for the day was around 80%. Up, up, up we went and I tried to take in all the nice views over to the right where I could see the fog rolling through the mountains. By the time I reached the top of the hill my entire body was soaked, especially my back, since I was wearing my Nalgene hydration pack. At least we had some downhill and level sections now and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief and start to catch up on hydrating and refueling myself. After this hill I wasn't feeling too great and I could tell that my hands/fingers were swollen some, so I backed it down a little. It wasn't too long though until I was feeling better and moving at a better pace.I talked to a few runners along the way and made some small talk. The only person I think I knew in the race was Farouk Elkassed from Virginia who has run our Youngstown 50K in the past. He's a nice guy and I talked to him for a bit. Another interesting runner that I met along the way was a Palestinan female named Fadwa Natour. This was her first 70 miler and we talked about which ultras we had done in the past and our plan for the day. Little did we both know that we'd be spending three-fourths of the day together on the trail. After exchanging the lead with her many times she eventually pulled ahead and I was on my own for awhile. I reached the first aid station at a road crossing around 11.6 miles and was greeted by Moose who gave me what I needed.
After leaving this aid station I continued on and soon reached the first checkpoint at 19 miles. Moose was also here and provided me with some much needed Vasoline to address some early chafing problems. I stayed a little longer at this aid station since I could tell that I needed more calories and liquids. After getting back onto the trail I ran with this girl from North Carolina (Dorothy Hunter) who would eventually finish 5 spots or so ahead ahead of me and Fadwa. She was dealing with some stomach issues at this point but pulled things together as the race went on. I pulled ahead of her and continued to plug along... This part of the trail isn't anything fancy so I tried to make some ground. It's mainly flat with some rolling hills but there is a very gradual climb up to the Seven Springs Ski Resort at mile 26. Seven Springs is the highest point of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail at an elevation of 2,950 ft. As I got closer to this area I could see Fadwa in the distance and was gaining on her.
After running around this lake I arrived at Seven Springs and Moose was again here to help me out. I still had some chafing issues so he gave me this gel that was supposed to form a protective layer on the skin. Other than that though I was feeling great and actually smiling as I arrived. There was some music playing at the ski resort which also pumped me up. Another one of my running buddies, Bob Combs, called from California where he is currently working and wished me good luck and said to take advantage of the daylight, and get as many miles in as I could before it got dark. I agreed with this plan and took off like a ball of fire down the steep hill.
As I was leaving Seven Springs I could hear some thunder in the distance and realized that the rain they were predicting for today may soon arrive. I didn't want to be on the highest point of the trail during a thunderstorm so I picked up the pace quite a bit and soon caught up to Fadwa at the next road crossing. I told her that if it was going to rain for a long period of time I'd much rather have someone to chat with then slug along on the trail and be miserable by myself. She agreed and we clicked off the miles pretty quick despite the rain. In between miles 26 and 37 the rain was coming down in buckets and I yelled out loud... "Bring it! Rain harder!" I shouldn't have opened my mouth because just when we thought it couldn't rain any harder, it did just that. Now the trail had at least 3 or 4 inches of sitting water on top and it became a slosh fest. Well, I figured we could either complain about it or make the best of it so we ran through the water, leaping from one slippery rock to the next. We yelled out things like "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!" and "Nobody is going to rain on our parade!" as we passed by a few groups of hikers. They thought we were absolutely insane and they were right, we were. But we were moving along quick and having a great time. I think the rain actually helped keep my leg muscles loose and my body temperature cool but it didn't stop until after 5:30pm.
At mile 37 we crossed over the PA Turnpike bridge and started to head uphill when we realized that we didn't notice any trail markings on the trees. I then remembered vaguely what Moose told me before the race... As soon as you cross the bridge, turn right and head downhill. I looked over the hill to our right and saw a sign with an arrow on it and then realized our brief mistake. We were back on the trail now and the rain was still heavy. Soon this guy, Keith, that I was talking to earlier in the run came up from behind us and it was at this point that I realized he must have made the same wrong turn that we almost did because he was ahead of us earlier. As he passed us he said that he probably lost 15 minutes or so due to the error. It is an easy mistake to make but also an easy mistake to avoid.
Leading up to the 3rd checkpoint at mile 46 I was getting extremely hungry and low on energy, probably because it was close to dinner time and my body was beginning to feel the effects of the humidity and soaked/muddy trail. I was starting to become a little down on myself at this point and Fadwa gave me her Apple IPod to listen to, but I told her that I didn't want to take away her music. To my surprise she pulled out a second IPod and said that it wasn't a problem. Up until now I had never listened to music on a trail run or race just because I usually enjoy either the sounds of nature or friendly conversation with other runners. This really gave me a boost though and enjoyed the selection of music she had on her IPod. It ranged heavy rock like Godsmack and Disturbed to some rap, and also included some of her native arabic music. One artist that I really enjoyed and got me going on the trail was Amr Diab. Click Here to check out some of his songs on You Tube.
Soon we arrived at the 3rd checkpoint and Moose was again there to help out. He told me to load up on all the food, fruit, drinks, etc. that I could take since this was an important aid station. I agreed and after talking with him some he said that I was in pretty good shape and could probably walk the rest of the race if I had to and still finish under the cut-off time. I didn't want to do this but it was good to know that I could if I had to.After leaving this aid station it didn't take long until I felt recharged and ready to rock and roll again. This was probably the most crucial point of the run. Now our plan was to just work at getting closer and closer to the 2nd to last aid station at mile 57. Fadwa pointed out before we left the aid station that my race number was 48 and her's was 49. I thought that was pretty weird since we had stuck together for such a long time.
Continuing on, we passed through the pine tree section which is one of my favorite parts of the course. It gets pretty dark through here and since my watch battery had just died I was a little concerned about how much time we had to get to the next aid station but I knew in my head that we had plenty of time...at least a 2 hour buffer. Once we passed by the pine tree section I then had flashbacks from my winter run from last November when about 8 or so of my friends ran this course unsupported in reverse direction. Click Here to read my report from November's run. The reason this section was so familiar to me was because I remembered this area being littered with rhododendrons and every time I'd brush up against them I would get completely covered with snow.
The next 11 miles until Checkpoint #4 at mile 57 were tough and the longer it went on, the more tight and sore our legs became. But we wanted to get as many miles done in the light as possible so we tried to push on as hard as we could. Walking breaks become more and more numerous at this point though and the run became a lot more mental than anything else. It started to get dark about a mile or 2 before the aid station and we slowed up quite a bit, but we knew that if we could get to mile 57 then the race was definitely within our grasp.
As we arrived at the mile 57 aid station/checkpoint, Tim Hewitt, who has completed the entire Iditarod Trail on foot, greeted me and attended to every one of my needs. Click Here to read an article that was written about him in January. He was very helpful and even gave me a Gatorade bottle to stuff down my hydration pack since the sealer on my hydration pack had broke just before I arrived. I had some nice warm chicken soup and tried to eat as much as I could before being pushed back out onto the trail. He told Fadwa and I that we only had another 5 miles until the last aid station at mile 62. We were both pleasantly surprised since we thought this was the last stop before the finish line. The next 5 miles took forever though and it seemed like an eternity before we would arrive at the next mile marker. We made a plan to listen to our music for awhile and then shut it off and just talk and enjoy the silence of the deep woods. It was incredible how quiet things were and how something as small as a bird chirping would really stand out in the night. We trudged along and soon I saw a light up ahead coming towards us. I knew this had to be Moose. I yelled his name and he yelled back mine. He said that he got bored sitting on a stump waiting so he decided to head out onto the trail to look for me.
It wasn't long until we hit the gas line dirt road which leads to the last aid station. Moose encouraged me to start walking faster and we made pretty good time. In the meantime Fadwa met up with another guy who was off trail for awhile but caught up to us. They ended up staying together until the finish. At the aid station Moose told me, "Come on! Eat your potato soup and let's get going! The beer is getting stale back at the hotel!" This lady who was working at the aid station said, "Boy you don't have a very forgiving pacer do you?" I said nope, but adhered to his advice and back onto the trail we went to finish the last 8 miles. These were the toughest miles of the day for me and I learned a few things I could do differently for my next ultra. One of those things is to get a handheld light so that I can see the ground better. There was so much fog that it was hard to see in front of me with my halogen headlamp and it made it difficult to plan my next step. Moose pulled me along, encouraging me, yelling at me, whatever it took for me to stay motivated. Every 15 seconds or so he could probably hear me kick a rock and then swear or hear something slide from underneath my feet. The last 4 or 5 miles are pretty much downhill with big and small rocks scattered throughout. If I was rested I am sure this part of the trail wouldn't be that bad but at this point I was just trying to make it to the finish line without falling and getting injured or something. My feet felt like they were on fire, I had a blister on each of my heels from all the rain earlier in the day, and my chafing was the worst that it had been all day. But I kept reminding myself that I completed this trail in reverse last winter and that took me 27 hours... much longer time on my feet than today.
When we arrived at 2 miles to go I knew that it was just a matter of time until we finished and I picked up the pace some. Not much, but some. After getting past the power lines Moose told me to look ahead and he pointed out the lights where the finish area was. We then came to the final left turn which leads to the finish chute and all of a sudden the opening guitar to the Crosby, Stills and Nash song "Ohio" came on over the stereo that was set up under the finish line tent. What are the odds that this song would come on when I was arriving at the finish? I was only the 2nd Ohioan to finish today and this song got me excited. I pumped my fist as I crossed through the finish chute and was greeted by the race director Rick Freeman who was waiting for me with my finishing award in hand. My finish time was just over 21 hours and I placed 40th out of 47 finishers. There were only 47 runners today who finished out of the 69 starters. This made me feel very happy knowing that I pushed on through the tough times and persevered. Afterwards I had a hard time eating anything but had some chips and water and a little bit of a good barbeque sandwich while I waited for Fadwa to finish. She ended up finishing 20 minutes after me and I went over to congratulate her on her first 70 mile completion.
Moose and I then drove to our hotel in Johnstown since it was already after 3am and had a celebratory beer before falling asleep around 4am. This was a great weekend and definitely ranks up there as one of my best ultra marathon experiences so far. I would like to thank Moose for everything he did to help me out along the way and also to Fadwa for helping to make the miles pass by a little quicker. I have a lot of great trail friends and wouldn't give them up for anything.
My wooden 70 mile marker replica finishing award