The Laurel Highlands -- Click for larger

The Laurel Highlands Trail Run

June 12, 2004
by Brian McNeill

Enough with the ferns already! I quit!

This weekend, I had an AFGO moment. That’s “Another Friggin’ Growth Opportunity.”

I finished the Laurel Highlands 70 Miler two years ago in my first ever attempt to go past 50 miles. Finishing with a group led by Tom Corris (outfitted with a brace on his bionic IT band) we power-walked our way in well ahead of the cutoff. Since then, I’ve finished four 100 milers, including MMT & Wasatch. So I thought I knew what I was doing. Big mistake. The Greeks call that hubris, and it’s usually rewarded with a spectacular fall.

I packed my drop bags in a hurry on Thursday night and loaded them into the car. I figured it’s only 70 miles, so I’d make do with bags at only 46 & 57 miles, omitting one at mile 32. I intended to rely on fare available at the aid stations as well as a few GU pouches that I had stuffed into my drop bags. Not packing some form of solid food in drop bags for all three major aid stations constituted a fundamental mental error that prematurely ended my day at mile 57.

Race Directors Tim & Lureen Hewitt and their friends are nice people who run a very low-key race, but their aid stations are not the four-star dining experiences on which I have been spoiled at VHTRC affiliated events. The aid at LHTR is limited at best, especially for those of us who tend to keep the trail sweepers company. I’m big; I’m slow, and I need to consume quite a few calories to keep moseying down the trail at my normal pace. I figure that I need to eat somewhere around 300-400 calories an hour just to keep from bonking. Well, at Laurel, it’s tough to get that many calories from the aid stations.

Brian McNeill at the 19 mile aid stationI started out running a smart race, with the sustained level of effort pretty consistent, with the results varying between 13 minute miles on the runnable sections and 17 or 18 minute miles on the tough climbs at the outset of the race. I ran much of the section from 20-28 miles with Bob Coyne and/or Bill LaDieu. Eventually, Bill pulled away from me, and I too moved on ahead of Bob as we crossed the ski slopes at Seven Springs. At the 32 mile aid station, I was on a 16 minute mile pace, which was exactly according to plan. It was shortly after that aid station that my troubles started. There’s a short climb of 100-150 feet just as one approaches the crossing of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I was unable to power walk up the hill for the first time all day. Instead, I wobbled to the top and then slowly walked across the foot-bridge. I ate my last two packs of GU and forced myself to resume running. I passed a couple of other fellows who wobbled even worse than I did as I entered an unofficial aid station at 38 miles. I ate cookies, more cookies, drank some ginger ale, and left carrying a cup of cookies. Did I mention that the chief source of calories at that aid station was Vanilla Hydrox Cookies? God bless those nice folks for being there. Remember, it was an unofficial aid station. They didn’t have to be there at all.

Brian McNeill at the 32 mile aid stationI felt much better, and thought that I could make up time on the next section, which includes some great house-sized boulders and even more frightening--house-sized Mountain Laurel. My sugar spike was short-lived as was my sense of revitalization. Soon I was again reduced to a slow-paced walk. I just didn’t have the energy for any leg turnover. I tried running occasionally, but I couldn’t sustain anything. I knew that if I was going to finish, I’d have to make it to the major aid station at mile 46 and eat some solid food. Somewhere along this section, a gang of street-tough Mountain Laurel wearing bandanas grabbed me, pulled me into an alley, and beat my legs to a pulp. At least, that’s what you’d think happened if you looked at my shins. I slogged my way into the next aid station, waving my white hat on a stick as I crossed Route 30. I asked for my drop bag, and slumped in a chair.

“I’ve had enough, I’m going to drop,” I slurred unsteadily.

“Well, why don’t you eat something and wait for a few minutes to see if you feel any better?” said the aid station captain.

I sat in my chair eating a PBJ, followed by another, mostly “J” sandwich. About then, Bob Coyne and Jay Whited from the Reston Runners came into the aid station and moved with a purpose to get what they needed before departing.

“Oh, what the hell,” I sighed, “If you’re going on, so will I. At least I won’t have to walk the next section alone.”

I grabbed what I needed from my drop bag and followed Bob & Keith up the trail. I caught them about a mile and a half later.

It was a beautiful gloamin’, which is my favorite time of the day. For you non-Scots out there, “the gloamin’” is the time of the day between sunset and darkness. Celtic folklore holds that during these moments, the faeries come out and the spirits of the dead walk near the living. Usually, this time of day rejuvenates me, but on this Saturday, there was no energy to call upon. Given how slowly we were moving in the waning blue light of evening, we were even closer to the dead than we suspected at the time. This would have been a great time to start telling ghost stories to Vicki Kendall, but alas, she was far ahead, limping towards the finish on a bad knee.

Night set in just after we left the unmanned water stop at mile 51. In 2002, I was leaving the 57 mile aid station at about this same time. I set my sights only on getting to the 57 mile aid station before the cutoff, so I would have the option of going on. About a mile later, the trail sweep came up behind our dour little group. Now, that’s always a confidence-building experience.

About that same time, my motivation for getting to the 57 mile aid station changed entirely. Now I wanted to get there ASAP, not so I could continue, but rather so I could finally end a very bad day. I hoped I’d get there after the cutoff, so I’d be compelled to drop, and wouldn’t have to make a decision. Alas, we arrived right at the cutoff, and Tim Hewitt offered us the choice of going on.

I simply said weakly, “No, I’ve had enough. I quit.”

Keith Dunn, who arrived about five minutes ahead of us, was considering whether to go on, and I loudly urged him to continue. He elected to stop. Keith has had more back problems in recent years than even the PGA’s David Duval, so it was great to see him running again, and I hoped he could top it off with a finish. Keith decided it would be best to end the day on a positive note—that is 57 well-accomplished miles and no injuries.

After being ferried to the finish line by one of the volunteers, Bob Coyne and I drove directly to a Sheetz for steak-and-cheese subs and potato chips. At last, I was sated. I returned to my motel room at around 1:00 a.m. and showered and read for a while before falling asleep. The next day, my legs felt just fine, with none of the usual post race soreness. I played golf on Sunday and Monday without limping or difficulty. Therefore, I concluded, that there was nothing physically amiss, it was simply a fueling issue. Of course, I only “ran” about 36 miles. I walked the last 21 miles that I covered.

Now, what did I learn from this character-building experience? The mid-20th century theologian, Reinhard Niebuhr prayed for acceptance of “hardship as a pathway to peace.” Yes, bad experiences can be character-building as one learns to handle them with equanimity and good humor. I don’t think I quite achieved that. I’ll merely hope I was not too whiny for my companions on the trail. The main lesson I learned is that I want to avoid such character-building experiences in the future. The next time that I attempt LHTR, I will pack solid food in my drop bags, (canned haggis, anyone?) and I will try to take in a more steady flow of calories.

My first-ever DNF in any race, at any distance arrives at precisely the right time. I’ve been planning an Ultra-running sabbatical to commence after LHTR, even before running MMT in May. I put forth maximum effort last year in training for Wasatch and have felt beat-up and overtrained ever since, topping it all off with a three-week long case of bronchitis in February that knocked me out of work for 11 days.

Now, I’m going to hire a personal trainer, spend some time in the gym, lose 20 pounds, try mountain biking and kayaking for the first time, and try to recover some of the spring in my periodic visits to the track with—horrors—road runners. I will be at the David Horton perpetual motion machine extravaganza called the Mountain Masochist in October, but other than that, I have no Ultra adventures planned until next spring.

My wife doesn’t believe that I can avoid “going long,” for eight or nine months, but I really am going to try this. After all, I need a break. There’s a little race in Silverton, Colorado that I might want to train for in 2006.

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