The Laurel Highlands -- Click for larger

The Laurel Highlands Trail Run

June 12, 2004
by Ed Cacciapaglia

I got the idea of entering the Laurel Highlands Ultra when I was marking a portion of trail for the Massanutten Mountain Trails100 Mile Run (MMT-100) last month with Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) Runners, Vicki Kendall and Margie Hughes. Vicki and Margie completed the 70 mile run last year and Vicki told me she was planning to do the run again this year. After pacing for the last 37 miles of the MMT-100, I decided that I was definitely going to enter the Laurel Highlands ultra. My thinking was “if I am ever going to do the MMT-100, I need to do something as long as possible first.” Prior to this run my longest run was last November’s JFK-50 Miler.

My main goals were to run this to prove that I could complete the Laurel Highlands Ultra and to use it as indicator of my potential of being able to finish the MMT-100 next year or the following year. My secondary goal was to try to finish the course in 15 to 18 hours. The reason I wanted to finish in less than 18 hours is that the time cut-off for the Laurel Highlands Ultra prior to 2000 was to be 18 hours. In 2000, the cutoff was increased to 22 hours and the percentage of finishers increased significantly.

I read up on the run and determined that it would be wise to have plenty of water and snacks with me, because there were fewer aid stations than most ultras, with as much as 14 miles between stops. I purchased a Camelbak M.U.L.E. and filled it with 100 oz. of water before the race. I carried 3 or 4 lbs. of food and gear in my Camelbak. I later determined that I carried too much in the way of food and clothing, but I didn’t have a crew for this race, so I figured it was better to carry too much than not enough.

The day before the run, I drove up to Johnstown with Bill Turrentine, a fellow VHTRCer and Reston Runner. We drove to the finishing point, where we would catch the bus at 3:30 a.m. the next morning. After scouting the area and seeing Mile Marker 70 we drove back to Johnstown to check into the motel. We went to the pasta dinner and met many of the other race participants and friends who were up for the run. The cost of the dinner was included in the $75 entry fee. Race director, Tim Hewitt described the course including some descriptions of tricky places where a runner could go off course. I listened closely and took a couple of notes. The course is blazed yellow and has a mile marker for each mile throughout the entire course. We picked up our shirts and numbers and returned to our motel where I pinned my number to the running shorts I would wear the next morning. Bill and I split a beer (chromium loading) before going off to bed at 8 P.M. I attempted to get 6 hours of sleep. But that was not to be as I had difficulty falling asleep the entire night. I rested, but got only 1 hour of actual sleep.

The wake up call came at 2:25 a.m. I got dressed, put lubricant on my feet and on the parts of my body prone to irritation, put the dot bandages on my nipples and put my gear in the car. The lobby of the motel had coffee, which helped a little. We were in the car by 2:55, ready for the 20 minute drive to the finish to catch a ride on the bus to the starting line, 70 miles away in Ohiopyle, home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. The bus arrived at the finishing area just ahead of us, so we got our running gear and got on the bus. The bus left promptly at 3:30 A.M. I ate a banana and drank some water and Gatorade as the bus cruised through the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. I talked with Reston Runner ultra veteran, Keith Whited during the ride. Keith entered the race just the day before. Keith follows the Jack Daniels’ (not the whiskey!) maxim of getting the most out of the least amount of training as Keith rarely runs more than 25 miles a week except when he’s running an ultra. The bus ride took us through some small towns of southwest Pennsylvania, including Ligonier and Donegal. During the day, I expect it would be a very beautiful drive.

Vicki Kendall with Ed before the startAround 4:50 a.m. we arrived at Ohiopyle, the starting point for our 70 mile adventure. Waiting to greet us at the parking lot was that illustrious web-master, ad-hoc VHTRC crew man and photographer extraordinaire, Anstr Davidson. Anstr took great pictures of the runners before, during and after the run. He also helped me offload some of my unnecessary baggage at mile 19. I saw Steve Burton, the only Reston Runner who completed the 2004 MMT-100, as well as several other VHTRC runners, including Keith Dunn and Brian McNeill. At the starting place there were coffee and snacks available for the runners. I took advantage of this, having a piece of a muffin and a cup of coffee. The start point was in a beautiful and noisy setting beside the rushing waters Youghigheny River. The river was roaring this morning as the day before was rainy and the waters were running high. It would surely be a great day for those doing a whitewater rafting trip on the river, something I had done on the “Yough” 25 years earlier.

Ed flanked by Bob Coyne (left) and Bill Turrentine before the start.At 5:20 a.m. race director, Tim Hewitt, announced that the run would start in 10 minutes. I popped a Succeed electrolyte capsule took a gulp of water and took a walk by the river to admire the water before contemplating the long day on my feet which was to come. The sky was partly cloudy and you could see a sliver of the moon in the dawn sky. There was now enough daylight that I wouldn’t need to use my headlamp or flashlight. The temperature was probably in the low 50s, ideal for a long run. I was chomping on an apple as we were starting which I would finish during the first mile on the trail. Shortly before 5:30, Tim gave the runners blessing and announced the start of the run.

Off we ran, slowly and purposefully on a paved trail towards the bridge over the Youghigheny onto a fire road. The fire road would soon turn into a trail as we would enter the 70 miles of the Laurel Highlands Trail where most of us would spend all day and part of the night. I was running easy, alongside Vicki Kendall and several other runners as we ran/walked up the first of many hills we would face on this course. This would be a teaser hill, going up maybe 100 feet before dropping back down. At places there was water running across the trail from the rains of the previous day. One of the runners I ran near in this section was Randy Dietz, winner of the 2004 MMT-100 senior division (50 and over). That should have been a hint I was going too fast, but I was running comfortably at this point. Soon Randy would pass me and I wouldn’t see him for the rest of the run. Randy would finish before dark, taking 15 hours 14 minutes to cover the 70.5 miles.

Bill Turrentine and Vicki were going around the same pace as me as we climbed the second hill. This one would prove to be much more of a climb, going up some 600 feet over the next mile and a half. I was walking fast and passing or keeping pace with the other runners ahead of me on the trail. After 15 or 20 minutes, we crested and began running downhill. Occasionally, I took a sip of water from my Camelbak. The trail wound its way down towards a creek where we crossed the first of dozens of wooden, log bridges. In places the trail was waterlogged and you couldn’t help splashing through the mix of dirt, mud and water. I moved fast on the downhills but had to be careful not to trip on the rocks and occasional branches that were found on the path in places. After a mile or so we reached the creek, crossed the bridge and the path went up another hill for the next mile. During this climb, we passed mile marker 4. My watch read 54 minutes, which meant I was moving at around a 12 minute per mile pace for the first 4½ miles. This was somewhat slower than I was expecting, but not surprising considering the amount of time spent going uphill. After a few more minutes of climbing we reached another summit. Then we started down again for the next mile. This downhill was rather steep. Steve Burton came streaking by me on this downhill and I would not see him again on this course. Steve went on to finish in 16:47.

Soon we reached the bottom, crossing another stream and starting up again. I was thinking this would be the big climb shown around mile 6 on the trail, but no, we were soon going down hill again. Then I crossed the creek, saw mile marker 6 and almost immediately the trail starting going uphill. The trail kept going up and after 15 or 20 minutes got steeper. At one of the steep points, I was walking up with another fast VHTRCer, Stuart Kern. I passed him for a spell, but he soon passed me as the uphill got less steep. Just after the Mile 7 marker, we crossed a fire road and came into an unofficial aid station, where they had water and Gatorade. I still had a good amount of water, but gladly took some Gatorade and another Succeed capsule, then quickly got going. Stuart and a couple of other runners passed this aid station without stopping. Stuart finished five hours before me, coming in 10 minutes after Randy Dietz. After the aid station the trail got even steeper as we continued up to the top of the ridge. Gradually, it got less steep again. In another mile we seemed to be at the top of the ridge and were running on relatively flat ground. But this would give way to another rise before too long. After going up a ways, the trail again crested and we were going down once more. After crossing a creek, the trail heading gradually up again.

Soon we crossed a road and came into the first official aid station, just past Mile Marker 11. I took some snacks and some water. I could feel the need to go to the bathroom, but I had forgotten to pack one thing: toilet paper. Someone at the aid station gave me some dry wipes and I left the aid station and heading down the trail, looked for a “comfortable” spot off the trail to take care of my business. After a few hundred yards, I spotted a downed tree 100 feet or so off the trail in a secluded spot. The tree was at just the right level and width to make for a comfortable spot for me to sit and take care of my business. From my seat I could see several runners pass by, including Bill Turrentine and Vicki Kendall. I probably lost 4 or 5 minutes at this stop, but I immediately felt better.

Ed climing hill into 19 mile aid stationI started running again and soon found myself going through some muddy water puddles, enjoying the feeling of the cool water against my feet. By this time it was after 8 a.m. and the sun had been up for a couple of hours. It was still a very comfortable day, with temperatures still in the 50s or low 60s. The mountains had lots of ferns and other vegetation. In some places I would see patches of mountain laurels in early bloom. I could hear a few birds chirping away, but otherwise saw no wildlife. Shortly after my stop, the trail went by a nice lake before heading uphill and away from the lake. The trail was rolling for the next few miles, without many big climbs or descents. I pretty much running alone in this section. Around mile marker 18, the trail started to climb again. On this climb, I caught up with Bill Turrentine and a couple of other runners as we got near the first check point at the Rt. 653 aid station. My water supply had run completely run dry. We reached the top then the trail flattened out for the last ¼ mile to the aid station.

I had spent 4:15 on the run at this checkpoint. At this time, I figured that it was unlikely that I would do the course any quicker than 17 or 18 hours. Still I was determined to press on and finish this course. I came into the aid station and saw Vicki Kendall sitting on the ground with an ice pack on her knee. It looks like Vicki earned the 2004 version of the “Timex Award”: “she takes a licking but keeps on ticking.”

I asked for help in filling my Camelbak, but the worker at the aid station had less than a quart to fill my 3 quart container. I scouted around and was able to get someone else to give me some more water, but was flabbergasted that an official aid station at this event would actually be rationing water to the runners. This is my only complaint about any of the aid stations on this run. But this should never happen at an ultra (or any other race). Later aid stations would prove to have adequate supplies of water to provide all the water I needed. I took in some Gatorade, another Succeed Capsule and a little bit of food at this aid station. Anstr helped me by taking my spare clothing and extra food with him, promising to show up at the aid station at mile 32. This would lighten my load by 3 pounds. Anstr then told me to get moving. Bill Turrentine and Vicki had left the aid station ahead of me.

I ran most of the next section alone, splashing through more water and mud as the trail went gently up and down along or near the top of the ridge. Ferns and mountain laurels were abundant beneath the canopy of trees. The temperature was still very comfortable and it remained that way throughout this day and into the night. An occasional breeze would blow through the trees. I was looking to forward to crossing the top of the ridge at Seven Springs Resort, a place where I had skied numerous times in the late 1970s and 1980s. Around mile marker 25, the trail began ascending and I slowed down to a walk. At one point I fell forward, no harm done as my hands blocked my fall and the ground was soft. The trail crossed a road and it was apparent that we were in the vicinity of Seven Springs. Shortly, I came into a meadow and I could see the top of the ski lifts, sitting quiet on this June day. At this point there were no trees to hold the yellow blazes that had marked the trail to this point. Instead the trail was apparent because the grass was cut where the trail ran.

I came across another runner at this point, a young man, Andrew, who like me was doing his first run of over 50 miles. He had done the JFK-50 Mile the previous fall and had done some 50-Ks but nothing longer. His fiancé was crewing for him, though she wanted to run. I suggested he would do well to let her pace later in the run. He told me that he wasn’t sure about the trail through here, but I told him I expected we would be able to follow it as long as we remained vigilant. The trail starting coming down off and eventually went into a more wooded area, probably a nice, gladed ski run in wintertime. We soon came out of the woods and crossed a road. We could see a trail going uphill on the other side, but I saw no yellow blazes at first. Still, it seemed logical that this was the trail and indeed a yellow blaze was soon spotted. At this point I mentioned to Andrew that we already run further than marathon distance and were into the middle 1/3 of the run. I was tiring some, but still had a fair amount of energy. We stayed together for the next 2½ miles, walking up another incline until we arrived at the Mile 29 aid station. I had conserved enough water so I would not run out until we got this aid station. I was concerned that I might have the same experience I had at the previous aid station. Fortunately this was not the case. I was able to fill up my water pack completely. I ate some snacks, got my water container filled and continued onward.

I was running alone again and was eating a part of a sandwich I had been carrying with me. After descending for a short ways, I found myself climbing again. At least the trail wasn’t all that steep. I was still running the downhills and flats; walking the uphills. I would occasionally walk on the flat surfaces when my body told me I needed a more substantial walk break. Another 3 miles down the road and I came into the 2nd checkpoint, the Rt. 31 aid station at mile 32. Anstr was there. He asked me if I needed anything. I told him, no, but I expected to need some stuff the next time I saw him. He agreed to meet me at the 46 mile aid station. I ate some chips and cookies and took in a little bit of Gatorade and another Succeed capsule. Vicki will still in the aid station when I arrived and was considering dropping out due to her knee injury. “But if I drop, I’ll have to come back here and erase the DNF next year.” She kept going, deciding to tough it out at this point. I asked Anstr how Bill Turrentine was doing. Anstr said Bill was just a little ahead of me and had recently left the aid station. Anstr said I looked like I was running a little better than Bill at this point. He told me this was where the race really began, that next several miles were crucial to successfully completing the run. He also warned me to pay close attention to the trail around miles 41 and 42. I thanked him for the advice and off I went.

I was running alone again, but I knew that I was not too far behind Bill and almost certainly would pass Vicki in this section. We would go up then down, and then up again. Somewhere after mile 34 I caught up and passed Vicki, but she passed me going up a hill. After we crested the hill, I saw mile marker 35 and let out a big whooping yell. I knew I was more over the hump, half way done! Vicki thought I was yelling because I was warning her that I was coming through, but actually it was just my expression of celebration. I passed Vicki again shortly as we descended again. At the 35 mile marker my watch indicated that I had been out 8:45, which meant that I would need to do the next 35 miles in 9:15 to come in at 18 hours. I decided in my mind this would be unlikely as my pace had gradually slowed in the last 15 miles.

Over the next couple of miles, I noticed that I was feeling very tired. My legs were moving and feeling okay, but I was physically and mentally tired. The lack of sleep the sleep the night before was taking its toll. I lost my footing and fell a couple of times, but each time my hands hit the ground first and it was soft ground. Still, I was able to run the downhills and was making reasonable progress towards the finish line. I ate some trail mix and kept going. I popped another Succeed Capsule and washed it down with some more water. I was staying well hydrated and I could still walk reasonably when I wasn’t running.

In a couple more miles, I came to the PA Turnpike and crossed over it. The bridge over the Turnpike was a wire tunnel. They wanted to make sure no hikers would throw anything on the Turnpike or jump or accidentally fall onto the road below. There was a point where you had to be careful to stay on trail. I looked for a yellow blaze and had no trouble following the right trail. A couple more runners passed me in the miles before the next aid station at mile 40. I didn’t let that discourage me because I knew I could finish within the time limit even if I walked in from this point.

I went through the mile 40 aid station and pressed on. I was careful to stay on trail as we went through miles 41 and 42 where there were some tricky areas just like Anstr had indicated. Just before the mile 46 check point, I saw Anstr again, perched on a rock next to the trail. He told my bags were next to a sign beside the trail. I decided it was time to change clothes and socks. I dried myself and thoroughly lubricated my rough spots and feet before putting the fresh clothing on. It took me 15 minutes or so for the change, but it was well worth it as I felt refreshed. I put all my wet clothes and socks in a plastic bag and told Anstr, “I owe you big time!” While I was changing, several runners, including Nick Palazzo, Barbara Sorrell, Vicki Kendall and Carl Camp passed by. I came into the aid station, drank a Red Bull, ate a few potato chips, pretzels and a sandwich, refilled my water and was soon on my way. Vicki and Carl had left ahead of me. I left with Nick and Barbara and was entertained by Nick for a spell, but I could not keep pace with them. I caught up with Vicki and Carl after a couple of miles. Vicki was complaining about her pains and her conditions at work as she walked along with Carl. I stayed with them for awhile but they got ahead of me when I had to stop and retie my shoes.

The sun was getting lower in the sky and it looked like I would not get to the mile 57 aid station before nightfall unless I starting moving faster. So I decided to do just that. It was 7:35 and I was at mile 52, so I would have to cover 5 miles in 1:25 to get to the mile 57 checkpoint by 9 p.m. For a while I ran/walked with one of the relay team members from the Escar-gettes. She, too, wanted to complete her section before dark. I ran a good portion of the next 5 mile and made to the aid station/checkpoint at 9:05, a few minutes ahead of Vicki and Carl and slightly ahead of the “Escar-gette.” Bill Turrentine was still in the aid station and was ready to move on, but offered to wait for me. I told him to go on; I would catch up, so Bill took off. I had some chicken noodle soup and some cookies and some water/Gatorade mixture. I put on a jacket so my body would stay warm and got out my flashlight and put on my headlamp. I thanked Anstr, not expecting to see him again, as he didn’t think he would go to the finish line. At 9:20 I left the aid station alone and figured I had to cover 13 miles in 4:10 to come in at 20 hours. I was doing a shuffling motion, not quite running, but more than a fast walk as I headed out into the night. The trail was deep in ferns and briars, though the stickers weren’t prominent so I sustained no damage from them. I caught up with one runner, Bill LaDieu. For awhile I ran ahead of Bill LaDieu, hoping to catch Bill Turrentine. But I was not moving fast enough. Bill LaDieu caught up with me again after I took a walking spell. I was moving but progress at night was slow and I was averaging 22 or 23 minutes per mile.

Soon we came to a dirt road. The trail turned onto this dirt road and followed it for a mile and a half between mile 60 and 62. Mile 61 was probably the only Mile Marker I never saw during the entire run. This dirt road was flat to slightly uphill, so I left Bill LaDieu in the dust and ran towards the next and final aid station, which was just before mile 62. It was 10:58, so it had taken me almost 1:40 to cover 5 miles, even though I took less than 20 minutes to cover the 1½ mile road portion. I had some more water and a piece of a grilled cheese sandwich and asked when Bill Turrentine had come through. They said he arrived at 10:52. Another runner made it to the aid station between the time Bill left and I arrived. He left as I arrived. As I was leaving, Bill LaDieu came into the stop and almost as quickly left. He caught up with me shortly after the aid station and we decided to finish together, both of us realizing we just wanted to get it over with. We knew it was unlikely we would break 20 hours, but we were in no danger of missing the cutoff barring major catastrophe. There were no more major climbs, but every uphill seemed like an ordeal. We could still run some of the downhill sections, but we were both ready for this one to be over.

We counted the mile markers up: 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, and 70. Between 65 and 66 there was a nasty climb and we took a break, resting on a fallen tree before continuing on. Soon we were entering what I thought was our final descent. The course profile is deceptive, as it indicates the last 3 miles are all downhill. Occasionally, I heard Bill LaDieu let out a yell as he would make a misstep. I managed to maintain my footing as the trail descended gradually towards the finish. I expected the trail to be a steep steady downhill, but no, it was not steep and occasionally we would have a short climb up before going down some more. Even though we were descending, we were still taking close to 20 minutes to do each mile. At first I took the lead, but we traded the lead every so often. Around mile 68 we crossed under some power lines and came across another runner moving much slower than we were. We suggested he come along with us, but he was going in slow motion. This runner, David Micklo, eventually finished 4 minutes after Bill LaDieu and me.

We continued on as the trail got steeper in spots and then would go uphill for a short spell. Soon we were running through a stand of thick rhododendrons. There were some rocks among the dirt, so footing was tricky. I needed to take a break from running so Bill moved about 50 yards ahead of me. At one point, I fell for the last time, this time landing on a rock with my butt. I felt no pain from the fall and I immediately go up and continued on. Eventually I started running and again caught up with Bill just as we crossed mile post 70. We could hear them saying a runner was coming in. It turned out the runner was none other than Bill Turrentine, who got lost in the last 2 miles and ended up taking a 5 or 10 minute detour. We had caught up with Bill, well almost as Bill LaDieu and I came in together 5 seconds behind Bill T. at exactly 20:22 according to the race clock.

Tim Hewitt, the race director, gave the other finishers and me the trophy, a wooden mile marker post with a 70 carved into the wood. Though very tired, having been up for almost 24 straight hours at this point, we relished our accomplishment. The mountain had kicked out butts, but we were finishers. I didn’t come close to accomplishing the goal of finishing in 18 hours, but I made goal #1, finishing. Is there an MMT-100 in my future? We were pleasantly surprised to see Anstr there to congratulate us and take our pictures. I asked the timer/statistician whether Keith Whited was still out on the course. He said Keith had reportedly dropped out. We later found out this was in error as Keith would be the 44th finisher in a time 21:37. After sitting in a chair for a few minutes, Bill Turrentine and I headed back to the motel in Johnstown, barely having enough energy to drive the 9 miles. Then we slept.

Carl Camp came in shortly after us and eventually Vicki Kendall with her banged up knee staggered in some 20 hours and 46 minutes after we started. Our friends, Keith Dunn and Brian McNeil made to the aid station at mile 57, no small accomplishment on this course. With Keith Whited completing the run, the 4 member Reston Runner contingent had a 100% completion rate. At least 10 VHTRCers added a 70 Mile Marker to their collection of accomplishments, including Phil Hesser, who was the 46th and last runner to come through the finish line, shortly before 3:30 a.m. Congratulations, Phil, and all the other runners who completed the course. And thanks, Anstr, for all your support.

Ed Cacciapaglia

Ed and Bill Turrentine treasure their finisher's awards at the end.

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