Laurel Highlands was one of the big race of the year. I wanted to do it since more than a year ago but was not fit enough so I waited and trained before taking the challenge. But in 2015, this was the race. This was my race: I was training on the trail every other month and each training taught me how different it is to run on trails than roads. This course is difficult, especially the first 8 miles, where you have several big hills to climb. The typical training (known as Gate to 8) consists in going to mile 8 and come back, offering a total of 16 hilly miles, destroying your quads and glutes. It also has the specificity to work on different aspects: during the winter, you learn how to run downhill on ice, during the summer, you learn how to manage hydration with a humid and hot climate. If you want to train to run on trails, this is definitively a good spot on Pennsylvania and I consider this is probably one of the major contributor to my lately improvements on trails (the first one is living less than half a mile in a hilly park and eat hills for breakfast).
I signed up as soon as the registration opened. The race costs around $100, which is reasonable considering it is limited to 100 runners and the cost to operate such a race. Once I signed up, I started to regularly go on the trail, train and be used to the elevation. Sometimes with friends. Sometimes alone. No matter what, I had to improve and know the course. I ran it so many times that I had it in my head and knew where I need to walk or run. I was prepare to be on these trails but I still had to improve my nutrition strategy. The last experiences (Forget the PR and the Pittsburgh marathon) were a total disaster and I adapt my nutrition during the last months. It was then time to see the improvements in a real race environment.
Getting There and Race Strategy
I did not want to stay around before the race – as Ohiopyle is only one hour from Pittsburgh, it was very convenient to drive there in the morning. My girlfriend, her relay buddy and I drove directly and got there just on time for the start (we parked 5 minutes before the start actually – which on one hand can be stressful but on the other hand force you not to worry about anything). Julie and Erica were running the relay (with “Faster than your girlfriend“) and myself, running the whole course. There is no fancy packet, just a bib and a tee-shirt. The start is simple: the race director reminds you some general guidelines and give the start by just say “GO”.
The race strategy was simple: it was supposed to rain and the weather was very hot and humid. I decided to go shirtless (no sweat that stick to your body) and only with a handled bottle (a bagpack would implies chafing on my back). As for nutrition, nothing – I was relying on the aid station (mile 11, 19 and 26). For a 50K, you do not need so much nutrition, hydration being more important, especially in hot and humid conditions. Many folks pack a lot of gels but you do not need them – you can just rely on sport drinks for hydration and electrolyte and if you prepared your race correctly, you should have enough energy in the bank!
The week of the race, I tried to get as much sleep as I could – trying to get at least 8 hours every night. Which was challenging to balance that with work duties but still doable. I did not drink alcohol except a single beer at a party. The night before the race, the meal was very simple: two banana pancakes: one with cheese, another with peanut butter and chocolate. Nothing else, keep the KISS principles: Keep It Simple a Stupid. Finally, I made sure I had at least 6 hours of sleep before the race.
When starting, you have to be careful: as the race is mostly on a single track, it is very difficult to pass people. If you plan to finish under 6 or 7 hours, this is better to start in the front of the pack so that you will not be stuck in a pack of slow runners. The race is well marked with yellow signs/marks. The first 6 miles have some hills but nothing really difficult. Mile 6 to 8 requires to climb 1300 feet of elevation, with most of the elevation being between mile 6 and 7. Definitively hard and better to take it as a power hike than a run. I managed to hit the 8 mile marker at 1:35, take a short walk before running to the aid station (mile 11).
When hitting the 11 mile aid station, I was out of water, dehydrated. The aid station, has plenty of appealing food but this is exactly at that point you need to be careful and take what you need and not what you want. I then refill my handled bottle with ice and water, ate watermelon, few M&M’s and get the fuck out of there. I probably stopped at most a minute and quickly get out of there. Next stop will be mile 19, just 8 miles to go.
The next 8 miles were easy. the trails are not technical until mile 16/17. You can actually have a pretty good pace. So I started to pass some runners for the 70 miles race (they started 2 hours before the 50K runners). But I did not realize how much dehydrated I was. After 20 minutes, I was so thirty that I was taking sips every other minutes and was almost out of water again with still 6 miles to go. I needed more water and had nothing left. I then decided to be conservative and include more walk. It was fine until the last mile that includes 400 feet of steep hills. I decided to include a walk break into this last mile and take 3 minutes at the aid station to (1) refill my bottle (2) drink several cups of sport drink with ice to get fluids and electrolytes (3) get some food, basically watermelon that will contribute to keep me hydrated. I just took some M&M’s in a ziploc bag.
I left the aid station in a pretty good shape, ready to hit the last 12 miles. I started with a good pace and included more walk breaks when needed. My target was to quickly hit the 26 miles aid station, the middle of this last leg. The first part of the last leg (mile 19 to 26) is pretty flat and mostly runnable. So I kept going until I saw the aid station. When hitting the aid station, the volunteers proposed bacon, whiskey and other delicious treats. Again, I sticked with the usual strategy (sport drinks + watermelon). And just kept going, pretty confident I will have no issue until the end. At that point, my brain started to be disconnected and the real magic of running kicked in: I had no idea where I was and what I was really doing. But it felt good, awesome. The sensation of flying in the wood, keep running without pain is a fantastic feeling. I just wanted to continue as long as I could.
During the last leg, I started to see the finish coming, and that I was able to run again a 50K without pain. I was flying through the Seven Springs section, which is mostly downhill. Nice sunny area that gives enough energy to push you to the finish. After passing the Seven Springs section, Julie (who was doing the relay) caught me around mile 27/28. I was tired with this running euphoria and she was there and yelled my name. I loved it. This gave me more energy to keep going. It then makes the last two to three miles way more easy. There are a couple of strong hills but after 30 miles, the challenge is more mental than physical. 6 hours and 12 minutes after I started this race, I finally crossed the finish line and finished 19th over 83.
After finishing, I grabbed pieces of pizza and watched the other finishers while waiting for a friend to finish. Hanging out at the finish line was really nice: many finishers are staying for a while and there is also a lot of familiar faces from the ultra community.
The Take Away
This race is definitively one of the best around the state. Simple, no fancy packet but a lot of fun. Very well organized, the race director and the volunteers make this event very special and fun. The course is challenging and will put you outside of your comfort zone. If you are planning to do it, I highly recommend that you train on the course before signing up to know exactly in what you are going into. Considering the price and the quality of the event, this is a must do on your list if you like the trails.
On a personal note, this race was a necessary step both from a mental and physical perspective. I was in need for a sign that showed me I was done with this course. This race belongs to a past that I wanted to be away from. This is now done and this is time to focus on something else. I was also looking for getting my confidence back, making sure I have enough fuel in the tank to go for more than 50K. The last 50K (Forget the PR 50K) was a disaster and I was looking to improve my racing strategy. It showed that the changes to my training and nutrition (stop alcohol, being vegetarian) are paying off and will continue until the end of the season (October with Tussey Mountain). The next race will be way more challenging and, after the last three months, having a good race experience was necessary and help to be positive about the next events.
Finally, beyond these consideration, this race brought me back to the basics. No matter who you are, where you are from, how you define your running style or what people say: success depends on you. How much efforts you put into it and where your heart is at. As for me, I loved this race: I loved the exhaustion when going up the hills at mile 7, I loved the sensation of being out of gas before hitting the aid station, I loved being challenged by the elevation, I loved seeing my girlfriend catching me up lately. I loved all of it. I lost my love of running months ago found it on these trails. And it is good to feel alive again.
Thanks again to all the organizers and volunteers, congratulations to all finishers and hope to see many of you on the trails sooner or later! Now, this is time to rest for a while and focus on the next big thing.
- Race website: http://www.laurelultra.com
- Workout details on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/324803983