The Slim Pickins 70 Mile FA run, which is organized by the NEO Trail Club and only open to members, took place this past weekend, beginning one hour before sunrise on Friday and ending Saturday morning. This run covers the entire length of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) and the plan (for everyone except those putting out aid) was to run the trail in reverse by starting in Seward, PA (next to Johnstown ) and traveling southwest to Ohiopyle. This was my first time running the LHHT and my longest distance attempt to date.
As Thursday afternoon arrived I could feel the excitement building and by four o'clock Slim Jim was at my parent's house to pick me up for the 2 1/2 ride to Johnstown, where I would share a room with Kim for the evening. Before heading to the Econolodge, Jim and I stopped for a bite to eat at Subway and then tried calling Gombu, Shubi, Moose, and Johnny D, who were all running the LHHT from Ohiopyle to Johnstown on Thursday so that they could put out aid during the day on Wednesday and transport cars from the start to the finish for everyone who was running on Friday. We weren't able to get ahold of Bob and Bill, but we did talk to Moose who was already on his way home since he only did 27 miles of the LHHT. He said that when he reached the 11 mile marker, heading away from Ohiopyle, he noticed that the water jug that him and Bob had placed on top of a tupperware container the night before was gone and something with large teeth (most likely a bear) had chomped right through the box. Then we called up Johnny D, who was running towards Seven Springs to meet Bob and Bill on the trail. John hadn't heard from them yet so the plan was for Jim and I to place aid for them at the mile 40 marker. Jim used the maps he had in his minivan and navigated pretty well through the dark country roads to get to where we needed to be. Once we found the road crossing that was right next to the marker indicating 40 miles to go, we got out of the van, placed the aid, and hopped back in the van to sit and relax for awhile until Johnny D met up with Bob and Bill. Just from the short time we were outside we knew that they were probably having a tough time with the strong winds (20-30 mph), snow, fog, and rain/snow mix earlier in the day. Time went on with no word or sign from them, so we called up John and he didn't know where Bob and Bill were either. Eventually though we got a call from John saying that he had met up with them on the trail, so we left and Jim took me to the hotel I was staying at in Johnstown.
Once we got to the hotel, we both enjoyed a good laugh because right next to the Econolodge was a business called "The Hite Company". The reason this is so funny is because Hite is the word that Gombu yells out a lot on the trail when acknowledging fellow trail runners.
Inside the lobby I asked the hotel attendant where I could buy a disposable camera since it was going to be too cold for me to take my digital camera on the run and she told Jim and I there was a grocery store nearby. We thought the Hite Company was a good enough omen for tomorrow's run but on our way to the store we passed Mill Creek Boulevard (home to the YUT-C 50K ) and Goucher Street. 2 more good omens!
As we arrived back at the hotel Jim came in and talked with Kim and I while I started getting my run supplies ready. My gameplan was to wear a polypro shirt, which wicks moisture, underneath my Pearl Izumi top, which keeps in a lot of warmth but propels water. I would also wear a pair of winter tights, a pair of Patagonia socks that came up high to help block snow, and my Under Armour hat overtop of a winter facemask to protect my neck and face from the cold winds. In my backpack I stashed a waterproof windbreaker with hood, food which included Pure Fuel Energy bars, Clif Shot Bloks, a couple Clif bars, Reese's Cups, M&M's, and 2 peanut butter sandwiches. I also threw in a couple garbage bags, matches, an extra headlamp with extra batteries, a survival blanket, hand & feet warmers, a bottle of 5 hour energy, and some Advil. Luckily I wouldn't need any of these items except for the Advil. As I got close to finishing my packing Jim headed back to Laurel Highlands to place aid at the mile 57 marker and then fall asleep in his van. Roy Heger (who was staying at our hotel with Tanya Cady and Bill Wagner) then came over to our room and we chatted about some details for tomorrow's run. Then I enjoyed a bottle of Victory Hop Devil ale that Jim had given me before he left and off to bed it was around midnight. It's a good thing I had that beer because I probably wouldn't have gotten any sleep with my emotions running high. Plus the cap has a "V" for victory on it, so how can you go wrong?
As soon as I felt myself fall asleep the alarm was going off at 5AM. Rise and shine... I got dressed, put everything in order, and then walked across the street to grab breakfast at McDonald's. I was told by the hotel attendant that the drive-thru is open 24 hours. I guess they really mean "drive-thru" because when I walked up to the window they said they couldn't serve me. I was thinking... that makes a lot of sense to open the drive-thru window just to say that they can't serve me, but yet they are worried about being robbed.. hmm... I said "Sir, I have to run 70 miles. I just want some breakfast." Once again he said, "Sorry, but that's our policy. You can come back if you have a car." So, instead of re-inacting the scene from the movie Falling Down, I went back to the hotel and got the keys to Kim's vehicle. I then proceeded to order 2 sausage McMuffins and 6 hotcakes... awesome ultra food! Back at the hotel we all gathered in the lobby and got ready to head off to the Laurel Highlands trailhead...
Left to right: Bill Wagner, Tanya Cady, Kim Love-Ottobre, Roy Heger, and myself
As we arrived at the parking lot to start our run Gombu and Johnny D were waiting in Slim's van to let everyone put their belongings into the van which would then be driven to Seven Springs, which is about 43.5 miles into the run. I talked to Mike Halkovich briefly, wished him good luck, and then shortly after 6:00 we were headed onto the trail to begin our long journey...
The first hour of the run was in the dark so everyone had their headlamps on. The temperature at the start was in the mid 20's and you could already hear the wind howling. It didn't take long to warm up though because the first 4.5 miles or so are uphill. That gets your heart rate up quick even at 6 o'clock in the morning.
Roy in shorts... yes shorts!
Early on everyone was together but then around 3 miles or so the group of runners behind me, Kim, and Roy went off-trail for a short period of time. I remember the spot where they got confused because we almost did the same thing. They were back on the LHHT in no time though because the trail is marked so well. Just like everyone told me before the run, the trail is marked almost too good with yellow blazes on trees approx. every 15-20 steps. After we split apart it wasn't until about 18 miles or so in the run when I would see Jim and Tanya again at an aid stop by Rt. 271. So, for the first part of the run I was with Kim and Roy the whole time. I remember telling Roy "I hope we can just get 5 minutes of sun today" and sure enough, shortly after I said that the trail gods opened up the clouds and gave us some sunshine which provided us with some warmth and gorgeous scenery.
Eventually we would meet back up with Roy as he would periodically slow down from time to time. One of the sections that we all ran together was a rare flat dirt road (about a half mile) that connects one trail to the next. This is the only section of the trail that you don't have to pay attention to what you're doing. The rest of the LHHT is pretty technical, littered with rocks (large and small) and lots of ups and downs.
The higher in elevation we went I could tell that the snow was getting deeper (about an inch on the trail and 2 off trail) and that more plans and trees were coated with blowing/drifting snow.
When Kim and I arrived at the aid station near the 57 miles-to-go marker we stopped and talked to Roy for a bit before he headed off, and then we loaded up on more water and food which included mini pecan pies, pringles, cookies, crackers, beef jerky, and M&M's to just name a few things. The selection and amount of food that the NEO Trail Club provided for this run was exceptional and went above and beyond what is normally provided at a FA run. As we were eating/drinking, all of a sudden I hear a loud "HEY!" and look up to see Jim and Tanya have met up with us. Jim's loud yell startled me since we hadn't seen them since early on in the run. That's OK though.. I have startled Jim enough on some of our training runs by jumping out from behind a tree. Kim left the aid station first and then I followed. I would meet up with her again down the trail and then eventually all of us (Jim, Kim, Tanya, and me) would meet up and run together for quite a long way.
Later on I realized that I had been putting off #2 in the woods for quite awhile and all the food I had been eating was building up inside. So... at a very convenient time we came across one of the park's shelter areas (I think around 46 miles to go) which has a couple bathrooms and an overnight building that you can reserve to sleep in overnight. As I got closer to the men's bathroom I could hear someone inside and when I asked if someone was there I was surprised to hear Roy. I figured it could be him though since I didn't see anyone else on the trail besides us the whole time. I wonder why nobody was hiking today... maybe because the wind chill during the day was in the teens! Well, I guess the reason Roy was inside the shelter area was to warm up a little since he had gotten his hands wet. Kim had a spare pair of knit gloves that she gave to him and that made things all better. Once we were all done taking care of business we were back on the trail and all stuck together for awhile. Then Kim and I paired up again and eventually passed through a very interesting area that was filled with rhododendrons. These plants were covered with heavy snow and you had to duck underneath them to continue on the trail, getting snow on yourself everytime you bumped one of the branches. It was fun for awhie but then became a little annoying. As we passed through this jungle I told Kim that it felt like we were heading through a car wash and we both agreed that Jim, Tanya, and Roy must be pretty skinny since there was still a lot of snow on the leaves after they had already passed through. It was starting to get colder now and we were losing daylight. Plus, this area had even more snow on the ground (about 2 inches on trail and 3-4 off trail) which made it tougher. It was kind of funny because all of the snow we were supposed to receive was supposed to be done by noon today but it wasn't until mid-afternoon when all of the snow squalls moved through this area. It would come down heavy for a few minutes and then all of a sudden the sun would come out again, which allowed me to get some beautiful pictures...
We then passed by some awesome beam rocks and I took a photo of this sign the park put up...
I also came across another park sign which answered one of the questions I had in my head for quite some time. Throughout different sections of the trail I would look off to the side and see a long fence and wonder if it was for private property or something. Then after reading this sign I realized that the park was trying to protect a certain species of tree that is most valuable to wildlife and commercial lumber. I guess if heavy burrowing of these seedlings takes place then this tree species runs the risk of being eliminated.
Well, after our nature lesson Kim and I met up with Slim Jim again and we trudged on past the bridge that passes over the Pennsylvania Turnpike and closer towards the Seven Springs Ski Resort. We've now been in the dark for some time and Jim and I noticed that Kim was beginning to have some breathing problems. She has exercised induced bronchospasm, which basically limits her from taking in a normal deep breath. She had used her inhaler several times on the run today, but it was not producing any good results. So, with her breathing continuing to get worse she decided to call it quits at Tanya's car, which was parked at the Rt. 31 parking lot (about 40 miles into the run). When we arrived at the lot it was almost like heaven to see Roy and Tanya already in the car with the heat on full blast. We got inside and quickly warmed up, making Tanya's car smell even more like something had died in there. While I drank a couple bottles of Ensure and ate a sandwich I noticed that Kim was shaking uncontrollably and her face was a little pale. We were all concerned for awhile but eventually her body temperature regulated and she was a little bit more back to normal. Up until this point I thought that Kim was just joking around when she said she was going to quit because I have never heard her complain or be in this kind of condition. It was still a great run for her though... 40 miles in the snow/cold is not easy. Once we knew that Kim was fine to drive, the plan was for her to drive Tanya's car back to the finish in Ohiopyle where Roy had already purchased a motel room. Before we hopped out of the car Roy put some windpants on.. you know it's getting pretty frigid outside when Roy has to do that! Jim and I left the parking lot first with Roy and Tanya following shortly after. We were moving pretty quick through this section from Rt. 31 to Seven Springs and got a boost of energy as we neared closer to Seven Springs and could hear "We will rock you" and some Tom Petty over the loud speakers at the Ski Resort. It was amazing how loud the music sounded with it being miles away. As we reached a clearing I could see the long steep hill that would take us up to the building at Seven Springs where Bob and John were awaiting us with warm soup, food, and drinks. This hill was pretty tough and very icy, forcing you to stay in the snowy grass off to the side. On our way up I started singing "I'm on a highway to hell!", which seemed appropriate. Once we reached the top we could see Bob and John inside the windows and John opened the door for us. It was really nice and warm in here. Bob attended to our needs and let us know that this was our last aid stop until the finish since the bear ate our food/aid at mile 60, so I made sure to eat/drink a lot and pack stuff in my backpack. I ate a hot cup of Ramon Noodle Macaroni & Cheese, some cookies, pringles, danishes, and had a cup of water and some energy drink. About 10 minutes or so after Jim and I arrived here, Roy and Tanya came through the door. They fueled up and we agreed to travel the rest of the way together. I had a hard time deciding whether or not to quit here at Seven Springs, since it was midnight and we still had a marathon (26.2 miles) to go, but I sucked it up and went back out into the wilderness.
I felt pretty good from Seven Springs to the mile 18-to-go marker, but then as I was pushing hard up this hill I could feel my body temperature quickly rise and I started feeling uneasy. I told Jim and everyone to hold up for a second and that I wasn't feeling very great. This was a scary moment because I knew in my head that there was still 18 miles to go and no easy way to quit even if I wanted to. Jim suggested that I put on my windbreaker overtop of what I already had on. That made me feel better and once I ate a pack of Reese's Cups and had some Ensure I was ready to continue on. At this point I tried to pay more attention to how my body felt and continually adjusted the zipper on my jacket and the ski mask which covered the lower portion of my face. Also, it seemed like whenever I felt bad again I would take a swig of Ensure and that somehow gave me the boost I needed to keep going. Once I got over this wall I felt pretty good until around mile 11 or 12 to go. Jim, Roy, and Tanya were up ahead a decent amount at this point as I started to slow down and focus more on what I needed to do to finish. Things were pretty lonely at this point as it was somewhere around 3am, dark, very cold, and I was by myself. The only neat thing was if I turned out my headlamp every once in awhile and gazed up at the sky, which was clear and filled with tons of stars. At this point I started singing songs out loud to myself like Tom Petty "I won't back down" and Phil Collins "Take me home" to break up the monotony and help motivate myself.
I was by myself for at least 5 miles leading up to this massive downhill which starts at mile 9-to-go and bottoms out around mile 6-to-go. This downhill is pretty long and steep and didn't seem any easier with leaves and snow covering up the rock invested trail. I had to constantly put on the brakes the whole way down which made my tired knees and legs even more worn out. The only good thing was before I started running down this hill around 5:30am I came up on a pickup truck with 3 guys standing outside of it and asked them if they had a bottle of water. It was still dark out and they were wearing camo, with one of the guys holding a shotgun. I guess they were scouting out deer before the start of hunting season (these hunters really get into it) and thankfully they were nice enough to give me a full bottle since my Camelbak was dry. We talked for a bit and they let me know that Jim, Roy, and Tanya were only about 5 minutes ahead of me. I somehow doubted that, but maybe so. They couldn't believe how far we had traveled. I told them thanks for the water and I was on my way.
As I got close to the bottom of the hill I decided to give a loud yell in case anyone was nearby and was shocked to hear Jim yell back at me not that far away. He had let Roy and Tanya go ahead and was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill to finish the last 5-6 miles. It was good to see him and was very thoughtful to wait up for me. As we continued on I knew that since we reached the bottom of the mountain we now had to climb back up.
5 miles to go!As the sun came up over the horizon I could now see just how large this mountain was and I wished it was dark again... It was a good 600-700 ft. climb to the top. As we headed up I could feel how beat up my legs were. I honestly didn't think I could make it back to the finish but I would try to walk for about 10-15 seconds, stop, gather myself for about 10 seconds, and then repeat, over and over again. I was very happy to reach the top of this hill and the view was incredible. However, once again we started heading back downhill I was thinking to myself... we only have like 3 or 4 miles to go... we better not have to climb up another mountain! I asked Jim if we did and he said yep... Damn! The last hill was hard enough at this point in the run... now another? I told Jim I don't think I can do this and he said, well.. we don't have a wheelchair and I'm not carrying you back. So, that left me with only one option... up! Each of the last couple miles took me a half hour each to complete but somehow I made it up the last climb and was rewarded with a gorgeous view that overlooks the Youghiogheny River near the small town of Ohiopyle...
1 more mile!
The last couple miles are downhill and wind alongside of the mountain, with steep drop-offs right next to where you have to walk. I made sure to be careful here with all the leaves on the ground and eventually made it off of the trail and onto the last gravel downhill stretch which lead to Tanya's parked car, where Bob, Tanya, Roy, and Bill were waiting for us. Somehow I sprinted in this last section and gave Roy a high five as I crossed the line in 26 hours and 50 minutes. It was great to see everyone again at the motel and to be able to share our stories together. I will never forget this weekend and the great group of people that I was able to share these memories with. It was definitely an epic adventure and I look forward to many more ! HITE!
Left to right: John DeWalt, Brian Musick, Bob Combs (holding an extinguished match), Tanya Cady, Jim Harris, Bill Wagner, Kim Love-Ottobre, and Roy Heger