2016 Highlands Sky 40

Fat Dog was the big goal this year, but I told myself that if I was feeling good, I would put in a hard effort at Highlands Sky. I found myself the day before the race feeling good, though my foot was giving me a tiny bit of trouble–one of those injuries where you just start running and it could either go away completely or completely ruin your run.

The drive from DC to Canaan is lovely. Once you escape the first miles of 66, it’s smooth sailing, scenic and downright enjoyable. Former champs Martha and Aaron were hosting me in Canaan, and I was hoping some of their skills and knowledge would rub off on me. Check-in went smoothly, and I indulged in a bit of the pre-race dinner, which I personally found quite delicious (pasta, meatballs, chicken, salad, garlic bread, etc.)

Back at Marthon’s, I had dinner part 2: pizza from Siriani’s. Also delicious. Next up was a failed attempt to feed the ponies, then a hike up to PJ’s house for s’mores plus 1/2 a beer around the firepit. I didn’t get to bed until after 11 and wakeup time was a little after 4, but I never really get much sleep before these things anyways, so it was good to have activities to keep my mind off the race.

At the start, I met up with Robin, who was coming off her course record at Laurel Highlands (a 70-miler) the previous weekend and was ambitiously gunning for another one here. I hadn’t really thought about pace at all, but she showed me her pace chart, and I learned that 10:30 miles would get me a 7 hour finish. I filed that away in my head.

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Bernie pup at the starting line = very good omen.

After some milling around, the race started pretty abruptly. The first two miles are on a paved road. It’s downhill. You can stretch your legs out and run probably a little faster than you should. Robin and I did the first two miles in about 7:30 and 7:00. My foot was not bothering me at all, so I was feeling pretty optimistic. Turn left on the trail, grab a drink of water and start the long climb up. The trail is not super technical to start, but there can be a lot of overgrowth, so you do have to watch where you’re stepping. The climb starts at a very slight, runnable, incline and seems to gradually steepen over the course of its ~6 miles.

One guy was wearing tights, which Robin and I thought was odd until we got to the stinging nettles section. It was maybe 3.5 miles into the race and only lasted ~5 minutes, but those suckers hurt. They don’t leave any lingering pain though, so once you’re through, you’re good. Note: tights guy said the tights didn’t even help, so stick with shorts.

I tiptoed around a few puddles on the way up until you cross a small creek / waterfall about 5.5 miles in. Your feet definitely get wet there. Soon after the waterfall, the trail gets really steep, and I power-hiked up until it levels out near the top. One mini/half fall on the flat section because I got a little lazy.

From here to the Road Across the Sky (henceforth known as RAtS), I settled into an easy effort. You have to slosh through mud, splash through black puddles with unknown terrain below (I think our year may have even qualified as a ‘dry’ year), and there is a lot of overgrowth, so it is in your best interest to take it slow. Later in the race, a lot of the top guys would be talking about falling down several times, which probably helped my cause. I made it a point not to look at my watch, instead just focusing on not falling, keeping my effort under control, and taking in enough food to fuel me for the second half.

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Up in the Highlands

Coming out of AS3 (mile ~16), I had settled in behind a runner, Matt, whose Capital Area Runners singlet suggested he was a good road runner. I had learned that we were sitting in 7th and 8th place, which was a pleasant surprise. A bit before the RAtS, you come to an area called “10 Bridges,” aptly named because there are, yes, 10 bridges (think wooden boardwalks). Once you get past the 10th bridge, you’re at the RAtS. Matt and I had caught up with two other runners at this point, so a top 5 position, and associated finish prize, was quite literally in sight. After Bridge #10, the four of us turned onto the RAtS.

Full disclosure: the RAtS is in many ways an objectively brutal section of the course. You are out in the open, the elevation profile makes the rolling hills look tame, but they’re legit (it also feels like the ups far exceed the downs), and you’re largely running in a straight line, making the road appear to stretch on for eternity. Aaron’s advice was to assume that the road would never end. That way, when (if?) it ends, you are happily surprised. I was carrying my phone for picture-taking purposes, and I had included some headphones so some music might help pass the time.

Confession: I loved this section. I emerged onto the road feeling great and quickly decided to forgo the headphones and focus on the race. Matt and I passed the other two runners and settled into a nice low-7 min/mile pace. There’s an aid station about a mile down the road, but the next one was only ~3.5 miles ahead, I had ample water and gels and was feeling great, so while Matt made a pitstop, I just called out my bib number and kept on trucking into 5th place. Two ants appeared on the horizon, and I told myself to stay steady and that I would pass them by the end of the road. In reality, I was able to reel them in before the next aid station, making sure to run a little harder as I passed them. My watch dipped into a sub-7 min mile pace on the downs.

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The Long and [non]Winding Road
Soon after that aid station, I caught another runner and moved into 2nd place, definitely uncharted territory for me. I must admit I got a little giddy at the prospect of actually leading a race, but I allowed myself to slow down a bit towards the end of the road to catch my breath and take down some more food. I arrived at the aid station at the end of the road to learn that 1st place was 25 minutes ahead (with ~12 miles to go this seemed insurmountable). BUT, the volunteers said 1st place did not look good and had laid down at the aid station, so I didn’t completely give up hope.

I took it slow to catch my breath for about a mile after the road, but then settled into a solid effort for the remainder–never letting up but also not pushing it super hard. After a few miles I realized that the crash I half/fully expected after my effort on the RAtS wasn’t going to happen. In every ultra I’d run up to this point, I’d had at least one low period that was painful enough to question why I run these stupid things. That didn’t happen this time.

Once I picked it up again after the RAtS, my mood could best be described as “happy.” It was kind of a stressful time in my life, and I was just thankful to be running in a beautiful place, and both doing and feeling a whole lot better than I expected. So I ran and was happy. I chatted with the various hikers / horseback riders who gave me conflicting versions of how far back I was (anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes). Aid Station 7 told me I was 20 minutes back, but first place was still looking a little haggard. Spoiler alert: he fought through some pain and held on for the win, though he said he had strongly considered dropping late in the race.

Coming down the ‘butt slide’ (not too bad, though I guess if it’s wet it’d be a whole lot worse) I got some encouragement from Kirstin and Tom who were hiking up the trail. At the final aid station, Aaron informed me that first place was out of reach but told me to sprint it in for pride. So I did! For maybe a half mile. This course is awesome, but these last four miles are not that great. I figured I was not going to catch 1st and probably not going to be caught, so I eased up a bit.

I ran into Martha who joined up with me on her bike for a mile or so of road. After a few hours on my own, it was good to have some company, and she confirmed that 3rd place was nowhere in sight. She’s also a huge proponent of walking, so I got to walk some inclines with no shame. I jogged the last 1/2 mile of woods on my own and emerged at the finish line, crossing in 2nd place having closed the gap with 1st down to 9 minutes. Top-5 finishers got a sweet Patagonia vest, which I wore with pride.

Here’s my Strava. I ran in my beloved Saucony Peregrine 5s, which I think was a good shoe for this course. I hope to find another pair before I run this race again. I’m not sure I can have a repeat performance, but I’ll definitely run it again.

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destroyed my favorite socks. 😦