It's been more than a month since race day, but it's still hard for me to put into words how I feel about Laurel Highlands. I wrote most of this a week after the race, except for the reflection which I wrote 5 weeks post race.
The Short Version
If you don't follow me on social media, the short version of this race report is that I DNF'ed (ultra speak: Did Not Finish) for the first time in my running career. I dropped at the mile 39 aid station about 11 hours into the race.
The Long Version
Laurel Highlands is a 70.5 mile point-to-point race, ending near Johnstown, PA. Josh and I arrived in Johnstown on Friday, June 12 around 4:00 PM. We checked into the Econolodge and headed to the pre-race dinner at 5:30. I said hello to a couple folks I knew from the internet and listened to the race directors talk the rest of the time about how humid the day would be, and how challenging the first 11 miles would be in the humidity. The food was not great, and I probably should have gone somewhere else to get straight pasta, my normal pre-race dinner. Definitely not knocking the RD's, more just knocking my VERY finnicky stomach, which I now know after a few years only tolerates certain foods around race day.
I headed to bed around 10:00 and was kept awake by kids next door jumping up and down and yelling until about 11 PM. Nonetheless, I woke up at 2:45 AM, got ready, and we headed out by 3:30 AM.
We arrived in Ohiopyle for the race start at 5:00 and milled around until the race went off at 5:30. The sun was coming up, but it was a cloudy morning which I was thankful for since the humidity hung at 95%, where it would stay for a good portion of the day. The temperature started in the 60's and steadily rose through the 70's and low 80's throughout the day.
My goal for the race was just to finish under the 22 hour cutoff. If it was a great day, I would be happy to finish under 20 hours to get the coveted Western States 100 qualifying time.
The first couple of miles were relatively flat, then followed by 2 small climbs around miles 3 and 5. The cool thing about this point-to-point race is that there are permanent mile markers at each mile along the trail, so you always know where you are on the course. This would also turn out to be a mental game for me as well.
The biggest climb was from miles 6 to 8. I wasn't hurting too much from the climbs thanks to some good hill preparation from the Hyner 50k, but I was sweating like CRAZY from the humidity. I actually reached back to check if my hydration pack was leaking because my back was so wet, but it was all sweat.
I downed 2 bottles of Tailwind and had some water before I hit the first aid station at mile 11.6. As I came into the aid station, things were pretty hectic and volunteers were approaching me asking what I needed. I kept looking around for Josh who had all my necessary supplies and couldn't see him anywhere. I finally saw my in-laws who were rushing down the street, and they said Josh was on his way. I started panicking because I was only 45 minutes ahead of the cutoffs at this point and I didn't want to waste any precious minutes standing around. Just then, Josh pulled up and I restocked on a couple Tailwind baggies and downed some potatoes and salt that we brought from home, in case the aid stations didn't have them (they didn't).
I rushed out of this aid station feeling unsettled and uneasy. I realized my stomach was starting to go already and that was not a good sign this early in the race. At this point, I pulled off the trail to do what ultrarunners must do in the woods, and my stomach felt much better. I made up some time after that, running a few 11 and 12 minute miles. I ran with Kevin, a very experienced ultrarunner who had run 100+ ultras. He was great to run and chat with, and between miles 13-19, the race became fairly enjoyable. The terrain was flat, runnable, and absolutely beautiful. Mountain laurel surrounded us on both sides and we glimpsed several vistas that were cloudy, but still gorgeous. During this segment, I felt like I was going to finish the race well under the cutoffs.
When I saw my crew at mile 19 aid station, I felt great. I was excited about running, my stomach felt good, and I ate a bunch of potatoes. I chatted with them as I drank Coke, and told them I would keep up the same pace through the next aid station. I waved goodbye and set off down the trail.
After a mile or so down the trail, I had to peel off into the woods again. I wasn't nauseous but could feel the effects of the heat and humidity on my digestive tract. When I got back on the trail, I tried to set a slower, deliberate pace so I didn't get my heart rate too high. I kept drinking Tailwind and water, but my sweat rate increased as the temperature went up. I popped a salt pill now and then but was depending on Tailwind to supply most of my sodium requirements.
By the time I reached mile 26 aid station at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, the highest point on the trail, nausea had started setting in hard. Thankfully, they had squeezy ice pops that were an amazing treat at this point. I had one at the aid station and took another one as I set off down the trail, hoping some cold sugar water was a solution to my queasy stomach. The summit of Seven Springs was pretty awesome, there was even a lake on top of the mountain. There was also a port-a-potty which I thanked God for, since I was getting pretty sick of running off trail to do business.
I wound my way down the mountain and felt just okay, not great. It turned out the ice pops were excellent for bringing down my core body temperature but not so great on my weak stomach. In a few miles I was doubled over and vomiting orange stuff. I ate a ginger chew hoping it would settle my stomach and it did for a little bit.
I ran into my crew at mile 29 and they offered me ginger ale and potatoes which I tried choking down despite my nausea. I think at this point I was getting dehydrated, but didn't really know it yet. I felt like I was drinking plenty of fluids.
I set off and trudged through the next few miles which I don't remember much about, except it was difficult footing and the 50k runners turned off here to finish. I think I was nauseous.
After stopping at the 32.3 mile aid station, I vowed to keep my spirits up any way possible. In the past, thinking more positively about things has generally helped me pull out of mental lows. But no matter what I seemed to do, I couldn't pull myself out of the funk. I just seemed to sink lower and lower as my pace slowed to a complete walk. I would try to run every few minutes but my heart was no longer in it, and my mind had completely abandoned me.
The one thing I can always count on in a race is my mental strength. I know that even if my stomach fails (which it usually does) my mind will help me keep going. This was the first time during a race where my mind completely failed. Somewhere around mile 34 I decided I would drop. And there was no turning back from there.
I cried as passed the half way point at mile 35, and I cried again I crossed the bridge over Interstate 76. I had resigned myself to quitting, so these major milestones (literally) felt like grave markers as I slowly made my way to mile 39 where I knew I would find Josh. I texted him that I was going to drop and that there was nothing he could say to talk me out of it, because I already talked myself out of finishing.
For the last few miles there was nothing I could think about except stopping. The thought of continuing did not cross my mind. When I finally came to the aid station, I saw the chair that Josh had set out for me and sank into it while crying. This was the lowest I had ever felt during a race, and I knew that it was over. As I sat there, I saw 4 other runners walk by me up the pathway to the parking lot, also DNF'ing. That weirdly made me feel better as I knew I wasn't the only one admitting defeat. But it just made it easier to quit.
I felt a wave of relief as I walked up the hill with Josh and even smiled and waved to the other runners who were feeling the same mixed up emotions as I was. I knew my short term relief would soon be replaced with long term grief, but I didn't care. As we drove off I reveled in the beauty of the mountain laurel, and waved goodbye to the 31 miles of the course I didn't get to see that day.
Reflection (5 weeks post-race)
Looking back, I can't say if I made the right call to DNF. It was my first time feeling so horrible for so long during a race, and I just wanted the pain and misery to end. But could I have pushed through? Probably. I still was 2-3 hours ahead of the cutoff when I quit. Ultimately, I'll never know.
I keep going back to the why. Why did I feel so horrible for so long? I'd like to blame the intense humidity, which caused me to sweat more than if it were a 90 degree day. I'd like to blame my weak stomach for quitting on me yet again in another ultra. But ultimately, it was my mind that failed me. I let the negative events of the day get into my head and it completely defeated me. If my mind didn't go into such a dark place for so long, I think I could have finished. But I gave up mentally, and that's when I knew it was over.
So where does that leave me now? I already committed to no more ultras in 2015, well before Laurel Highlands race day. I do best with one big race or training season per year. So for now, I'm focusing on recovering my mind and running a couple of times a week, just for fun. DNF'ing has had a big effect on my relationship with running and I'm trying to rebuild it by not forcing myself to do any runs I don't want to do.
But I've been truly humbled by the DNF. This was the first time in my life that I hadn't achieved a major running goal. It's never easy to deal with failure, and even though I ran 39 miles, that is nothing close to the goal I set out to achieve. Overall, I think this experience has really been good for me, because having never DNF'ed previously, I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. DNF's are very common in ultrarunning, and it made me feel slightly better to learn only 2/3 of the field that started Laurel Highlands finished the race that day.
Will I try to finish Laurel Highlands again in 2016? I don't know. I'd like to say yes at this point, but first I need to get the hunger for long running back. Right now, I do not have that hunger. I'm still grappling with getting back into a regular running routine. But I think come this fall, when registration opens for 2016, I'll probably slip that paper registration in the mail again. I now know why they said Laurel Highlands is a 70.5 mile race that feels more like a 100, and I'd love to get back out there and prove to myself that I can conquer it.