Highland Sky 40 miler

“A Mentally challenging course for the mentally challenged”
June 19, 2004
by Maria Bertacchi

I cannot take credit for the title of this race report, although I wish I could. Credit belongs to the retired school teacher from Virginia, whose name of course, I cannot recall. It’s not his fault I can’t recall it, I was too busy trying to remain upright; and remembering his name, his comment AND upright was more multi-tasking than I could handle at that moment. My apologies to him and to my plagiarism, but you know, plagiarism is all the rage these days.

Maria hits the Knob at the Eagle RunThe Highland Sky 40 miler is a beautiful race run through the Dolly Sods wilderness area in West Virginia. I know it’s a beautiful area, because I have seen the brochures. I’ve not seen much of the area/run course other than what is located directly 10 feet in front of me and on the ground, as the course is full of beautiful rocks, beautiful mud, beautiful roots, beautiful holes, and did I mention rocks? Lots and lots and lots and lots of rocks. “Sod” must be Gaellic for “rocks”.

The area received 3 ¾ inches of rain on Friday, during the day. This made all the rocks very wet, but not soft. This also made for some amazing mud. Black, tar like goop and brownie batter colored muck that wanted nothing better than to remove your shoes. One young lady lost her shoes, twice, and had to fish them out. She was lucky. Many other runners were sucked into the quagmire never to be seen again.

At 5 am, we were bused from a nice warm bed to the start. This year was cooler than last year and no early morning fog to run in, the fog came much later. The first two miles were on a paved road. Running past homes with curious dogs watching us pass by. The course turns left and we begin the first of two big climbs. Well they say, we only have two big climbs, Charlie and I decided hours and miles into the run that the race director, Dan Lehmann, who appears to be a very nice, upbeat and positive person, is not to be trusted. The course is uphill both ways.

Miles 2 to 10 is an uphill climb to aid station #2. On a trail ironically named, “Flat Rock Trail”. There is nothing flat about the trail (its uphill for pete’s sake!) or the rocks. Oh, sure. Some might be flat. But they are mostly jagged, pointed things that reach out and mug your feet. In conjunction with the goop and muck, one did not necessarily run (or walk for that matter) – Charlie named our technique “The Drunken Stagger”. We hoped that all those late night drinking binges of our youth would pay off. I believe it did since neither of us fell and we were moving well. “Moving well” is a subjective term- we did not fall, and we slide backwards less than we moved forward.

In this race moving well, means to make it to aid station #6 at 26.6 miles before the cut off time of 7:30. Last year, the cut off time was 7:13 (I think) and many folks did not make it. Last year I made the cut off, with 5 minutes to spare. Charlie also made it, but with no energy to spare and choose to drop out of the race. This year, he was determined to finish. We figured with the additional time, we could make the cut off and still run slow enough to have the energy to finish. But in the backs of our minds we were also concerned.

Trail conditions were tougher this year. The mud was muckier and the footing was tenuous in lots of spot - I am sure others will write race reports that contradict this assessment- these will be people who had time to shower, change, take a nap, eat lunch, read “War and Peace” all before I ever finished the race. While I felt I was in better shape this year, I also felt as if I was working harder to just keep my shoes on and remain upright.

To get to the infamous cut off aid station, one needs to run on “the road across the sky”. That is what Dan calls it. He, as I mentioned before is a very nice, upbeat, sort of guy. With the gangly, thin physique of a really good runner. He fervently believes that one can make up lots of time when one finally gets off the trails, onto this road. He also believes the course gets “easier” after aid station #6. He also believes in the Easter Bunny.

We hit the Bataan Death March road (so dubbed by me last year. It’s a rolling, hilly road, with no trees. You can see for a mile or two ahead. All you could see, last year, were the staggering forms of roasted runners, lurching forward, as this was the one spot, all day that the sun decided to make an appearance.). Fortunately this year, we had no sun and a ½ hour more in which to hit the cut off aid station. We also were feeling not so bad and did indeed run/walk this section quicker.

This is also the section of trail where Jim Cavanaugh picked up Sharon and Lisa, and spontaneously became the team: Jim and the Jimettes.

The good news is we made it to aid station #6 with a ½ hour to spare (and 8 minutes earlier than I had arrived last year! Yay!). The bad news is the trail does not get “easier”. It gets “different”. You slog through a bog. Come to think of it, the bog was probably drier than the first part of the course. Back in to tar colored mud, we went. Mud that made really cool sucking noises every time you yanked your foot up (if you had the energy to actually pick up your feet). The wind also picked up in here as did the rain, and I began to get cold.

Then another (surprise) climb UP, up up up up up and for good measure, up some more, until we could no longer see anything because we had entered a cloud. Okay maybe it was just fog, but I like the thought of being in a cloud. It was raining/misting on us. We were having a hard time picking out the little orange flags marking the trail. Last year the course went over a field of rocks, to a lovely scenic overlook. We went the same way this year, but could see nothing, not even each other. We wandered off course, found a flag, then heard a voice and went that way. A volunteer dressed in a yellow poncho guided us by voice to the aid station. I think he had wings and a harp.

From this aid station #7 to #8, the course changed from last year. The ski resort allowed a motorcross race to occur at the same time, and apparently their course, crossed and used our course. So when we got to the ski slope, instead of going downhill, we went up (didn’t I say this course went uphill?)- further into the cloud. Due to the motorcross race, the race director Dan literally had to bushwhack a new 3 or so mile loop for us. There was no trail for most of this, just ribbons to follow in the trees with some interesting downhill butt sliding spots. Of course at this point, Jim, the Jimettes, Charlie and Paul from Bethesda, disappeared into the murk. I was slowing way down because I was growing more and more fatigued.

Eventually I popped out of some trees and found Charlie waiting for me. After scolding him about not waiting for me (no need for him to NOT get a finisher’s shirt just because I was bonking)-on we went, for more downhill (okay I lied. The course has at least ONE downhill) through the trees, hoping the motorcross guys would not lose control and come careening off their course on to ours. We hit aid station #8. Halleluiah!

From this aid station to the end it is mostly road. I have never been so happy to see a road in my life. No rocks chewing on my feet and tripping me. No mud pulling at my shoes. No cloud! A small bit of trail was on marshy grass (this followed the highway we would cross to enter the Canaan Valley Resort, where the finish line was located). At the entrance to the resort was the last aid station and 2 miles to go. Again, the course was slightly different this year. We ran more paved road leading to the resort than we did last year, but turned right into the woods for one last little bit of mud, water and roots, before popping out behind the resort to the finish line.

And done! Charlie’s first finish and we knocked 23 minutes off my time from last year. Amazing.

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