Thursday, June 19, 2008

Laurel Highlands Ultra Race Report

The Laurel Highlands Ultra is a 70.5 trail race that takes place on the Laurel Highlands Trail. The trail's southern terminus is located in Ohiopyle, PA, with the north end completing just outside of Johnstown, PA. The trail is single track for all but 1 mile that follows an old dirt road. It runs across the top of the Laurel Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains. Its highest point is located at Seven Springs Ski Resort.

This race had been my focus since reading the book Ultra Marathon Man. I had just run a poor race at the Rock and Roll Half Marathon and was pretty down on running. I had no desire to run any distance over the half. I was in Barnes and Noble one day and picked up The Book. It changed my life and after reading it I decided to run the Laurel Highlands Ultra. I trained hard and ran 2 50Ks in preparation. I, like many others had my life changed by ultra running and Ultra Marathon Man was the catalyst that started the fire burning.

The Friday before the race Kathy and I headed to her Moms house to meet up with my brother in law who would also complete the race. We arrived and I prepared for the day ahead. Luckily my Dad and Kathy were going to crew me and I gave them last minute instructions and directions to the areas they could meet up with me to lend moral , equipment, and nutritional support.I did not sleep much the night before the race, maybe 3 or 4 hours of actual sleep. We arose at 3:30 and left to drive to the start at Ohiopyle at 4:10 AM. On the ride we did not talk about the task at hand but instead discussed the latest shows offered by the Discovery Channel. We arrived and checked in and within a few minutes the race director had us all line up and we were off.The Sun quickly arose to illuminate the trail and reveal a foggy overcast day. The first 8 miles of the race were all up and down, with the miles 6 to 8 being the hardest climb of the event. I walked up this 2 mile stretch and made it into the first aid at mile 11. It was great to see Dad and Kathy waiting for me and the staff at this station was great.As quickly as I hit the aid station I was off again.

The next 10 miles were rolling hills and very runnable. The trail was very wet and my feet were soaked. I was wearing a pair of Montrail Hardrocks and they were giving me a hot spot on the side of my right heel. My left ankle had also started to hurt a little. At the 19 mile mark I met up with my crew again and this time my Mom was there to lend her support. I quickly changed shoes into my old reliable Brooks Adrenaline ASR4s. I taped up the hot spot and was off again, only now with dry shoes and socks.

4 miles of dry feet was great, but it would not last, around mile 23 it started to pour down rain. It sounded like a freight train rolling through the woods as the storm approached. At first it was a big moral booster that cooled me off and rejoiced me. As the rain continued my mood changed. I hit the next aid station in Seven Springs Ski Resort and quickly refilled my water and ate some food. Another 1/2 mile down the trail I saw my crew at the top of the mountain. I was now at the highest point on the trail. My feet were very wet, but feeling good. The Injini socks seemed to address the issues I had with wet feet and blisters. I pondered how I felt with only 27 of 70 miles completed. I was wet and tired but pushed on.

After Seven Springs the train wonders across the top of the mountain and I quickly passed the sign for the turn-off and end of the 50K course. I wondered what it would feel like to pull into that finish line and relax a little, but pursued on. I was now entering a new mileage territory. I had run 31 Horton Miles before, but never further. I crossed PA route 31 and hit the next aid station. I had more support at this aid station. Family and friends had shown up to cheer me on.

I left the aid station feeling good but this quickly changed. I was noticing a pattern where I would feel good for a few minutes after aid, but then quickly fall into a mental down cycle. This section was the hardest as I was really feeling bad and my progress slowed for a while. Eventually 2 other runners caught me and I filed in behind them and struck up a conversation. We talked about other races and I asked a lot of questions about future races I wanted to run. Finally we passed the coveted 35 mile mark. This really raised the moral and as I crossed the turnpike I was out ahead of these two runners and feeling better. At this aid station I quickly re-fuelled and grabbed my lights. It was 11 miles until I would see my crew again and I knew I would not cover that distance before it was dark. My Aunt Donna and Uncle Brian greeted me and said they would see me at the next aid. As I left me Dad voiced concern about the next cut-off time. He said keep up your pace and you will be fine. I had not come all this way not to finish.

The next 7 miles passed pretty quickly as I climbed some hills and pushed hard to make progress before the sun went down. This section was very scenic with deep fern filled valleys, but loneliness was about to take over my mind as the sun quickly took away the light from the forest. I pushed hard and made it to mile 53 by dark and then pulled out my lights. I had planned on using a pacer the last 13 miles of this race, the Dark miles. This did not pan out as my pacer was not able to prepare for the event and bowed out a few weeks prior to the race. This did not phase me as there was no way I was not going to finish, but I knew in the back of my mind It would be very comforting to know I would have company on the last stretch. The rain had finally stopped, but the trail was a muddy mess. I had only fallen once and wanted to keep it that way. My shuffle slowed to a walk in the dark on all but the smoothest sections of trail. My ankle was hurting when I landed on it in non-conventional ways and the hot spot on my heal was now a full up blister. After 4 miles in the dark I heard a generator off in the distance and saw a light. My crew cheered as they saw the light coming towards them was held by me. I quickly decided to change shoes and socks for dry ones and I put on a dry shirt. My Uncle Brian asked me if I wanted some company on the last 13. He did not want to slow me down, but I was in position to finish even with a slow walk and I knew he was in good shape and up to the task. There was not a lot of running left in me at this point. I happily said YES to him and he quickly changed into some spare running clothes my crew was carrying for me. We were off.

We made pretty good time in the dark and were quickly passed by a relay runner. Brian commented that that guy left the aid station at least a 1/2 hour before I was there. After talking to him he got lost and a ride back up the mountain to a spot before the place he was lost. Another racer was behind us trudging along. He kept within light distance the entire 13 miles. At mile 60 we came upon a road and followed the signs up the road to the aid stations at mile 62. My crew could not access this aid. I quickly had a grilled cheese sandwich and we were off again. My ankle and blister were getting worse as I prayed for up hill sections. Downhill was not easy to negotiate and I had to shuffle down hills rather than walk. As the miles ticked by and I realized we would easily make the cut-off I felt good. Mile 68 - 69 was very difficult as the trail weaved downhill through a maze of mountain laurel and over many rocks and roots. This was the hardest and slowest mile for me all day. I hate this mile. Finally we could here a man on a loudspeaker and hit the best mile marker, 70. I managed a run through the finish shoot and was greeted by the race director. He handed me my award, a 16 inch high wooden mile marker with a 70 burned into it.

As I sat in a lawn chair eating chilli and reflecting on what I had just done I felt a peace. I knew the next 48 hours were going to be painful to get through. I ended up on crutches and will lose a toenail or too, but I was all worth it. I am more addicted to this sport than ever. Thank you to everyone who believed in me to all my family and friends for coming out to support me throughout the day. Bigger thanks goes out to Kathy and my Dad for crewing for me all day and driving countless miles and waiting countless hours in the rain to see me for 2 minutes. Thank you Brian for pacing me the last 13. You made a damp muddy night trek much more enjoyable and achievable. Lastly thank you to God for giving me the strength, ability, and drive to get though this ordeal. God and I talked a lot that day he was with me every step of the way.


  1. Just, you did spectacular. I still don't understand why anyone would want to run that far, but I don't have to understand. (maybe I should read the book) You accomplished something amazing. I may have rocked you to sleep many times when you were a tot, but buddy, you rock now. Congrats and hats off to you. You have grown into such a marvelous young man, who loves God and His creation so much; who loves his family, and who loves life so much. We love you too. Maybe we can plan vacation for when you are doing that 100 mile race!!

  2. Justy...We are so proud of you! What an amazing feat you accomplished. It's been awesome to see you get stronger over the past almost year that the RunByFaith crew has been blessed to know you and your family. You're inspiring me...maybe after a little peer pressure and I'll join ya :)

  3. Joni Walker HuffordJune 20, 2008 at 3:17 PM

    Justy, WAY TO GO!!!!! That is quite an accomplishment. I bet when you were a boy scout hiking around there you would have thought anyone that would run that was crazy.....I guess you're crazy. Congrats!

  4. Niiiiiiiiiice! i'm the guy you were chasing the whole time...what a race huh! unreal weather.. check out
    my pics on