Highlands Sky & Crying Thighs

June 18, 2016

Very few races sell out in the first month after registration opens, even fewer in the first week. However, the 40-mile trail race known as Highlands Sky sold out within two days. Why would any trail race be so high on everyone’s list? Being a first timer to Highlands I had no idea, but I knew there must be a reason. Soon enough June 17 arrived, and my wife and I made our trip from Huntington, WV to Canaan Valley, WV. Back in January we decided to stay at a hotel that was less than 5 minutes from the lodge, and not only did they allow little Giggy (our Frenchie) whom is in a wheelchair, but also the cost was very affordable at $70 a night.

That night was packet pickup, dinner, and pre-race briefing. This pre-race event marked the beginning of a series of steps that would define the reasons as to why Highlands Sky sells out so fast. To begin with, the dinner was held at the Canaan Valley Lodge where hundreds of people gathered to discuss their race strategy while dining on pasta, salad, and various desserts. While mingling, the great hall’s atmosphere (if you will), instilled the feeling we were part of a big race such as Western States 100, or even the UTMB. It was hard to believe that a race in West Virginia would be so inclined to deserve such an introduction.

Enough of the Cinderella story. Dan Lehmann and Adam Casseday, who are the race directors for Highlands Sky, offered an excellent presentation of what to expect during the race, along with various prizes such as gift cards and shoe certificates to random participants. I must note, that I have never seen so many prizes given away at any race.

Normally I would go into detail concerning the course, but Lucas and Samantha wrote incredibly well reports, and additionally there is an outstanding Highlands Sky 2015 video by Paul Encarnación. This allows me to gear this writing more toward how I trained and what I did during the race, right and wrong! That being said, there are plenty of other talented runners that placed way ahead of me (44 to be exact) and could perhaps offer more professional advice. I am by no means a seasoned ultra-runner, as I only do one, maybe two per year and only have a hand full of 50ks and one 100k to my name. I am much more successful at the 25k distance and enjoy going as fast as I can for 15 – 18 miles. Alright, now that you know that I am far from an elite ultra-runner, let’s get started.

I signed up in January the minute registration opened, this kind of locked me into training for Highlands specifically, even though I had the Frozen Sasquatch 25k, Haulin in the Holler 25k, and the Thunderbunny 25K+ (18miles) to also run, which I treated as trainers. A bit further back, perhaps late 2015, I had been training to get myself to the point where 15 miles was extremely easy. This set me up with a good base by which 20 – 25 mile runs came with very little suffering. That being said, I was not doing those runs at a 25k race pace either. Matter of fact, I ran a 26-mile fun run one day and only averaged a 10 minute pace. Also, between most of my runs I have a rest day or two which I believe is ideal in order so that I can put forth 100 percent into every training run. However, for Highlands, I began doing two days back to back, such as a Sunday and then again on Monday, making sure the Sunday run was long as possible. This allowed me to run fatigued on Monday and force me to get into pain cave a little and experience the suffering that comes in the last miles of an ultra (for me anyway). On at least one day a week I also include as much vertical as I can find. This is not to say that I don’t do any vertical on my normal runs. Aside from that I normally include one day a week of speed work for the 25k training, but with Highlands I did a day where I forced myself to stay slow and just run to get more time on my feet.

At every race I always toe up in the front row, however, I figured I should start Highlands a few rows back so that I wouldn’t be tempted to go out too fast. I also hoped this method would keep me from using too much energy in the first few miles. This was mistake number one and it cost me valuable time, not only on the road section, but also when we hit the first climb. By staying behind all those other runners I found myself forced to walk way too much and unable to get around them, especially through the first climb’s nettle section. How much time this cost me I don’t know, but it was surely enough that I won’t make that mistake next year.

Despite being slowed down, the first half of the race went by fast and when I arrived at aid station 4 I met my wife who had gels, watermelon, and avocados for me. Unfortunately, the aid stations didn’t have gels, which meant I had to carry plenty before and after the half way point. Nevertheless, I felt really good and strong at the half way point and wanted to get back out on the course. While I ate I tried to charge my dwindling watch in our vehicle. After eating and changing shoes I grabbed my watch and took off. A half mile down the road I checked my watch only to find it had not charged any, and for some reason reset. This meant I had to start a new run. It is a Garmin but only has a 10-hour batter life, and with less than a 100 percent charge, Bluetooth and Glonass turned on, it is lucky to get 6 hours. I think I see a new Garmin in my future. No need to let a watch get in the way because the road section after the halfway point is where I actually began to pick off many runners. Many had become very weak by this point and were succumbing to the relentless sun. Praise Jesus, I had been training on the hottest days Huntington, WV had to offer, many of which were well into the 90s. Over the next 13 miles I was able to make up some time that I had lost in the first section and managed to lower my pace by over 2 minutes. The section directly after the long road across the sky is one of the most beautiful parts of the race, and for that matter, any race.

Although I felt awesome at mile 20, something changed dramatically at mile 32 or so. Not only did my watch die, but my legs wanted to quickly follow along. I think where I messed up was in fuel. For the first half of the race I had plenty of gels and ate them to keep my calorie intake and expenditure closely balanced. However, after eating the avocados I felt full and for the 13 miles after the halfway point it didn’t occur to me to eat any. Thus, the last 8 miles became really tough as I hit the wall like a wrecking ball. But with others in the same position all around me, we managed to help each other along and made it to the finish. Just before the finish, there is a tiny little climb at which point was probably the most exciting part of the race. As I started up the little hill, I looked over my shoulder and seen several runners right behind me, well so it seemed. This put an extra pep in my step because I wasn’t about to let them pass me now. Crossing the finish line, I held my position, and achieved another ultra. Now what? Oh, yeah, the Kanawha Trace 50k is in a few weeks. I suppose Highlands Sky made for an epic trainer.

As always, I thank and praise our Lord and Savior Jesus Chris; I thank my awesome wife for being a huge support, not only crewing me at the half way point of Highlands, but also with all my training; I wish to thank Dan and Adam for an awesome job (wish Highlands was every month); the volunteers for being so caring and helpful to get us what we needed, we couldn’t do it without you all; and those that I didn’t list, please forgive me.

If you have any questions or would like to give me some advice, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading and hope to see you at the Kanawha Trace 50K on July 30, 2016. If not, then definitely at Highlands Sky 2017, I can’t wait!