Monday, June 23, 2014

2014 Laurel Highlands Ultra 50K Race Report

The words for the day were hills, mud, rocks and fun!

This past Saturday was the annual Laurel Highlands Ultra.  There are two race distances, 70.5 miles and 50K.  The 70.5 mile course runs the entire length of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail from Ohiopyle to Seward, just outside of Johnstown, PA. The 50K course also starts in Ohiopyle and finishes just short of the Route 31 road crossing, near the Hidden Valley Ski Resort. If you have never experienced the LHHT, I highly recommend that you get out there and see what you've been missing. There are plenty of great day hikes for all ability levels and if you like camping, the overnight shelters are also pretty cool.

I ran the 50K with my son-in-law Matt and I was also entered in the relay as part of team-SAC (Sherri, Amyjo, Clark).

In the lead up to the race, I was joking around with friends and I asked the question, “Should I think about this as 10x5K or 5x10K? Or should I just not think about it at all?”  The responses mostly skewed to the “don’t think about it at all” side, but one friend suggested I think about it as a “scenic marathon”.  This was both amusing and creative, but ultimately not very useful from a planning perspective.

The course and aid station layout point towards a 5x10K model, so that’s how I ended up planning.  Actually it was more of a 2x:1x:2x model since the three legs were approximately 12, 7 and 12 miles respectively.

Leg 1 – Ohiopyle to Maple Summit Road
(12 miles, 2537 ft of elevation gain, 1445 ft of elevation loss, 1092 net elevation gain)

This is the really hilly section of the (very hilly) course.  It starts out with two good sized climbs and descents and then moves on to the mother of all climbs.  I ran this section last year and in the process destroyed my legs.  And by destroyed, I mean my legs hurt much worse and for far longer after those 12 miles than they did immediately after Ironman.

Based on that experience,  I knew I would have to go out at a slower, more sustainable pace, but I was not sure exactly what that pace would be.  My race plan was to try and stay in zone 2 and pay close attention to any short-term bursts of effort.  The other area that I wanted to monitor closely was the descents.  Last year I bombed down the hills at full speed and I think that contributed quite a bit to the post-race pain and suffering.

My time for this section last year was 2:24 and my rough estimate for this year was 3:00 – 3:30.  I figured that was conservative, but I really had no idea what a Z2 pace would look like on those hills.  As it turns out, that estimate was conservative as I finished the first leg in 2:36!  I was really happy with this result because I was only a few minutes slower than last year but I felt really fresh when I hit the aid station and exchange point.

At this point, my leg of the relay was finished, so I high-fived Amyjo and she took off for her leg.  I refilled my pack and took my shoes off to shake out the rocks.  Matt got to the aid station a couple of minutes before me so he was finishing up when I got there and he took off just a few seconds later.

Leg 2 – Maple Summit Road to Route 31
(7 miles, 1148 ft of elevation gain, 697 ft of elevation loss, 451 net elevation gain)

This section was all about the mud.  There was wet, sticky, suck your shoes off mud, squishy, hero-shot mud that broke like two cresting waves, one off of each side of your shoe, booby trap mud that turned out to be nothing more than really dirty water, just waiting to fill your shoes and soak your socks, slippery, slimy mud that left you scrambling for traction and for your balance, and, my personal favorite, smelly, dead-things mud, that left you dirty and holding your nose.

And where there was no mud, there were rocks.  Rocks to step around, over and in between. Rocks to keep your feet out of the mud. Rocks to slip on and rocks to bash your feet into as you're running full speed down a steep hill (ouch).

In between all of that, though, there were sections of trail where you could really make time.  Especially since this leg is mostly flat except for the last mile or so which includes a pretty steep, stair-step climb.

I caught and passed Amyjo about a mile into the leg.  She was having “technical difficulties” when I passed her so her iPhone was out and she was tapping on the screen trying to get her tunes back.  I caught Matt a couple of miles later and we ran together for quite a while.  I’m not sure exactly where we split up again, but it was probably around mile 15 or 16?

I've run this section several times in training so I knew what to expect from a pacing standpoint.  My plan estimate was 1:30 – 1:45 and my actual time was 1:36  This time I was the first of our group into the aid station.  I waited for the car to pass (yikes) so that I could cross the road and then I waved at Sherri, refilled my pack, grabbed a spare pair of socks and took off on the third and final leg.  Matt arrived just before I left.  I'm not exactly sure when Amyjo arrived and Sherri started.

Leg 3 – Route 31 to the finish
(12 miles, 1477 ft of elevation gain, 1321 ft of elevation loss, 156 net elevation gain)

This section was all about pacing and survival.  The net elevation number is misleading because this section is descend, climb, descend, climb, so you start and end at about the same elevation but you still climb and descend quite a bit in between.  This section includes the highest elevation point on the entire trail, near the Lake Tahoe lodge at 7 Springs (mile 27 ish) followed by a long (and tiring) descent down the ski slopes and then out of the resort.

I was still feeling pretty good when I hit the aid station at mile 26.  The climb up to Lake Tahoe was tough but not too bad.  The descent from Lake Tahoe to County Line Road was a bitch. I was trying to move slowly and it felt like I was using way too much energy keeping my speed in check as I was descending. Crossing County Line was a pain, people drive like demons on that damn road, and climbing over the guide rail on the far side was a nightmare.  I had to sit down and then hoist each leg over the rail one at a time just to get to the other side. That sucked.

In my training I ran everything up through County Line at least once but I did not get the chance to train on the section of trail from there to the finish.  I wanted to, but logistically it’s the worst section for me and it just never happened.  That was a typical rookie mistake, since it turns out there is a decent climb right after County Line, but what are you gonna do? I struggled my way up the unexpected hill, hoping it would turn into a nice flat run to the finish.

I had been watching the time since mile 27 or 28 because it looked like I could finish in under 7 hours if I could just maintain a respectable pace.  I did my best to hold pace and not lose time in those final miles.

Finally I passed the 30 mile marker, the last marker  on the 50K course, and I knew that I was going to make it!  Another ~7/10 of a mile on the main trail and then the left turn onto the access trail and the humiliating lap around the parking lot and I was finished. My first 50K was in the books and I made it in just under the seven hour mark – 6:54:xx.

I tried to chill out for a few minutes and I got some food out of my finish line stash.  My legs and feet were feeling pretty rough so I tried to keep moving for a little while.  I took a minute to change into dry clothes and a jacket since it was colder than I had expected.  Eventually I closed up the car and crashed out in the driver’s seat for a while.  It was warm in the car and sitting down helped to ease the pain in my legs.  The problem with this was that I couldn't see the course from the car, so I kept getting out as people came in to check for Matt and Sherri.  Not too long after, Sherri and Matt came in together, made the lap around the parking lot and finished up.

Matt was happy to be finished and Sherri was super happy because she ran quite a bit faster than last year! Like I said earlier, I was about 12 minutes slower on my leg and I’m told that Amyjo was about 10 minutes slower on her leg also.  In the end, our relay team finished about 10 minutes FASTER than last year, which means that Sherri was ~32 minutes faster than last year!  Like I said, she was super happy.

We all hung out for a while eating and checking the results board and then we decided to bail and head back to the house to get cleaned up for dinner.

I love this race.  It’s super small (less than 100 entrants for the 50K), it’s very well run, the scenery is beautiful, it’s super low key and relaxed, and it’s just plain fun.  I’m not sure what I’ll do next year but if my schedule permits and I can get a spot, I’ll be back for another round of LHHT goodness.

Full course (approximate) elevation numbers for those who are interested:
5162 feet of elevation gain, 3463 feet of elevation loss and 1699 net elevation gain over 50K!

Special thanks to Sherri for most of the pictures!

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