Laurel Highlands: More Than a Stepping Stone

By John Dodds

I first ran Laurel Highlands in 2000; it was part of the progression to running the Vermont 100 in July. While many people do this, I think Laurel Highlands is more than a stepping stone. It is a spectacular trail, and it is my favorite trail run. It should be run in its own right.

Back then I knew only one person who had run Laurel Highlands-Colleen Dulin. She ran it when there were no aid stations and the cutoff was 18 hours. She said she couldnít really remember too much of it. She said the RD then gave few directions: stay on the trail, donít pee on the trail, and God bless. She said it was ďprimitive.Ē Fortunately, I would be running it the first year they had aid stations, a 22-hour cutoff, and a new RD.

Photo: Laurel Highlands Trail (by Steve Pero)Man of La Mantra. Before the 2000 MMT 100, Ed Demoney told the story of a slug who started up the cherry tree in the winter to be able to get cherries when they were ready in the spring. As Russ Evans wrote in his 2000 MMT100 report, he adopted the ďmantraĒ of ďI am the SlugĒ to keep up relentless forward progress. It was 95 degrees that day at MMT. At Laurel Highlands, it wasnít much better: 90 degrees and very humid. I adopted the same mantra. There were only 46 starters that day and with the heat, only half of us finished. A number of people threw up along the way; I talked to one at the finish who referred to the race as ďLaurel Hurlands.Ē Although I started in the back and only passed about 3 people all day, I finished fourth (slugs do finish). I have used that mantra in almost every ultra since then.

Why run this year? Some might think itís pretty stupid to sign up for Laurel Highlands, which is only a week after I ran the Kettle Moraine 100. In my defense, let me say that I didnít. I signed up first for Laurel Highlands about 2 weeks after MMT (wishful thinking on my part). Then when a schedule conflict went away the first weekend in June, I signed up for Kettle Moraine. But to get back to the question of why Laurel Highlands. Gena Bonini had signed up for it, but she wasnít sure she could make the whole run; her longest run had been Mountain Masochist the previous October. So, I entered to run with her and together we would both make it. Still expressing doubts, she later told me she whines and cries when it gets tough. And I thought: why didnít you tell me this before I sent my check in?

Strategy. We didnít really have an agreed-upon strategy. I thought to myself that Gena could lead as long and as often as she wanted. If I were to lead, then I would duplicate her pace. As the day goes by, you have to be careful about not overdoing it because it is a very difficult run-you might even want to slow down a bit. I wanted us to run to make it through the day and still have enough energy at night in case we decided to run any part of the night portion. Gena and I have run from the Pentagon a number of times, so I sort of knew how well she could run. Truth be known, she ran much better at Laurel Highlands than I would have imagined. It wasnít that she had a lot of training; she missed the Bull Run Run 50 but was able to do Capon Valley. In retrospect, I think she ran so well because she was very conscious about drinking a lot and eating regularly. It certainly wasnít because I was there.

Like many people, our energy levels go down as night descends upon us. This was no exception. We walked in from the last aid station-13 miles. I think Gena could have continued to run part of this section, but we were having too much fun in our group at night, which at times would include 7 people.

Milemarkers. Some veterans of the course tell the rookies not to pay attention to the concrete markers every mile. I guess the idea is that psychologically it can wear you down. Gena did not have this problem as she didnít even know the course had mile markers. In her report, she said she didnít see one until mile 8. True. But let me tell you the whole story. In the early miles, I called off the miles as we went past the markers. Gena would say she didnít see them. At mile 7, she had to actually go around the marker. When I asked her if she had seen it, she said no. Then she went by the marker at mile 8 without seeing it. I was exasperated. I stopped and said, ďCome back here.Ē I then pointed out what they looked like. If I hadnít done that, I donít think she would have seen any of them. And if they handed her finisherís trophy which is a replica of the mile markers, she would have asked, ďWhat does this stand for?Ē

Photo: Laurel Highlands Trail (by Steve Pero)The Pied Piper. Tom Corris was the crew for us and actually led the way in from mile 57 when it got dark. I wasnít sure he should do this since he has had knee surgery recently, was wearing a knee brace and had 2 hiking poles. And I wouldnít exactly say he had a normal gait. Not to mention the difficulty of the trail. Brian McNeill joined us at that aid station. At mile 62 another runner joined us. And about mile 64, the famous Art Moore and his son joined us for a little while. We were now up to 7 people. These two were actually lost when we came upon them, and Tom got everybody going in the right direction. They dropped from the group shortly after that to take a break. The remaining five of us pressed on.

And I know what youíre thinking: what does ďpiedĒ mean? It basically means two colors, in blotches. The Pied Piper wore bright red and yellow clothes. Tom was less conspicuous, color-wise.

The Mega Sandwich. After the aid station at mile 19, Tom stopped to buy sandwiches for Gena and me, which he then had at mile 28. Gena ate part of hers, but I was too busy putting duct tape on one of my toes. Iíd get mine at mile 32. But someone gave Tom the wrong directions, and he missed that aid station. No matter; weíll see him at 39. But he decided he wouldnít wait for us to come to him, so he hiked toward us. He hiked over 2 miles, and we actually met up on the bridge crossing the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We crossed over the bridge and onto the trail to have a snack. He had his pack filled with stuff-mainly my bag. I couldnít believe he walked all this way just to get our snack to us earlier. And letís not forget he had to walk the two miles back to the aid station. Anyway, I want to tell you about the sandwich I had been waiting to try.

I couldnít believe the size of it. It was three layers of toasted bread (but buttered on the outsides like a grilled sandwich), full of turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato. This was not a sandwich to waste your manners on. Let me describe the proper way to eat this while sitting on the trail. Since the sandwich is so thick you have to open your jaws to maximum width. Then take a huge bite. Before chewing or swallowing, take 2 more huge bites, making grunting noises at the same time. Your cheeks should be bulging by now. So as not to lose any time, donít wait until you swallow before you talk. Talk with your mouth full: ďTmm, thmf samich izfm gud.Ē Itís ok if little pieces of turkey and bread come flying out of your mouth. Chewing is optional, but if you do chew, keep it to a minimum. Maybe twice. Then swallow the whole mass at once followed by several swigs of gatorade. Repeat this process 3 times. Stand up, give a small belch, and say: ďThatís the best sandwich Iíve ever had.Ē Of course, youíve only eaten a third of it because itís so big. Thatís ok because you get to work on it at the next two aid stations. And-he got us curly fries, too. Nice and greasy. Lean your head back, drop them in your mouth, and give them a half bite. Donít want to waste time on excessive chewing.

Sounds kind of disgusting, but I think I have an obligation to explain this so as to mentor less experienced runners (or eaters). Iíll cover eating while youíre actually running in a future report. Iím not real good at that having almost aspirated an entire Fig Newton on the Bull Run trail earlier this year.

Getting back to Tom. He was helpful in other small ways, too. For example, I was eating an Oreo while putting duct tape on my toe while we were on the gravel shoulder of a paved crossing road. I lost track of this half-eaten cookie, and I got up to leave. Meanwhile, Tom bent over, picked up the cookie out of the gravel, blew the stone dust off of it and handed it to me. What a guy!

The VHTRC Wise Guy. It seems that at the pre-race briefings I go to, there is always a wise guy, and, not surprisingly, itís someone from the VHTRC. At the end of a complicated briefing by the RD, he mentioned that there would be a marker at every mile. And one VHTRC member asked: ďDo the miles get longer at the end?Ē I guess we can expect that from Chris. It reminded me of the end of a pre-race briefing months ago :

RD: Are there any questions?
Anstr: Can we litter?
RD: Which reminds me, please donít litter.

Should you do it? As I said before, Laurel Highlands is a spectacular trail. The big climbs, streams, the interesting bridges, and ferns all along the way. In one place, there were ferns as far as you could see in all directions. And the laurel? After all, isnít this Laurel Highlands? There was a lot of laurel but none of it was in bloom. And then there are the incredible rock formations. At times you expected the trolls and faeries to come out. The pre-race dinner is excellent, and the aid stations are vastly improved from 2 years ago: for example, grilled cheese at mile 57 and hot dogs at the end. The attendance has doubled in 2 years. Iím surprised it hasnít gone up more. Everybody should do this run and not just as a precursor to Vermont.

Can you do it? Gena wasnít sure she could, but ask her now. I think you can, too.


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