The Laurel Highlands Ultra is a very special race for me and Jo, as well as a large group of our closest friends. This race represents much more than a running event and we all look forward to it every year. This weekend has an inexplicable way of bringing people together and we have built relationships and memories that will last a lifetime.
My participation in the LH70 was threatened this year because I had fallen ill the week before the race. My stomach had been a mess, I had no desire to eat, I had lost several pounds and I was constantly tired. I was sleeping 10-12 hours a day and never felt rested. I was a mess.
Jo and I had debated whether or not to make the trip, but we both knew that we HAD to go, even if I wasn't running. This weekend isn't about the running anyway, and we both knew it.
So we headed to Ohiopyle on Friday with no clear idea if I would even run.
At the end of this sticker, it should say...."until Kelly writes a blog about it"
Our group rents a block of cabins right next to the start line and we spend the evening cooking, eating, hanging out and having fun. It's a very laid back, casual affair. Over the years, our circle can change. Some faces are new and some old friends are gone, but it always feels like family.
Me and Leon relaxing and having fun.
Dinner time with a group of amazing athletes and friends.
Me and Jo down by the river.
After long hours of loving, laughter and eating, we all started to wind down and get settled in for the night.
As I got ready for bed, it was clear that I was still under the weather. I was barely able to eat and my stomach was a wreck. I hoped for the best and settled in to await what tomorrow would bring.
I woke up at 3:00 hoping to feel refreshed. I didn't.
This is when I decided to suit up and make the best of it. The race is secondary to everything else this weekend, but it's a stunning trail and I love being on it. I was determined to go out and run at least a portion of it, hopefully, the first 19 miles. While Laurel Highlands is notoriously tough, the first 19 miles are the most brutal in the race. If I could make it to the mile 19 aid station, I would be a happy guy.
Sitting on my bed pretending to give a shit about running.
My other option was to just DNS and head out to watch the others run. This didn't appeal to me. I at least wanted SOME trail time. So I bucked up and we headed out!
In the picture below, I was thinking to myself..."Shit man...I could be curled up in bed right now. It's kinda cold out...I'm tired...my stomach feels terrible...and I think I need to crap". Nonetheless, I was getting ready to line up...
The 70 mile runners from our group. Bob Bodkin, Leon Lutz, Me, and Ron Kappus. You may know Ron from page 52 of the most recent issues of Ultra Running Magazine. I wrote the story he was featured in, yet they used a picture of HIM instead of me. Ron knows I'm a little pissed about that. That's why he's keeping his distance from me in this picture.
It's now 5:30 AM and we're headed into the woods for a long day of tough running!
This race starts off with a short stretch of pavement before we enter the trail. When we get off the road, we immediately start heading UP, UP, UP. This is pretty much the theme for the first several miles.
As we made the initial ascent, I knew right away that I was only visiting this race. My body was wrecked and my mind wasn't right at all. But I like the trail and I decided to just enjoy my time in the woods.
The further into the trail we got, the more challenging it became. Soon enough, the entire field was hiking a steep uphill.
We eventually crested the ridge and ran along the peak for a while. The sun was coming up to reveal a stunning morning. In the valley below, I could see the fog hanging low, creating a very cool effect.
By mile 4, we were back down in the valley on rocky single track. I was hopelessly plodding along, but enjoying the trail. Shortly after mile 6, we start the toughest climb of the day. A brutal, steep, rocky bitch! I loath this section. It goes on much longer than any hill should. All epic races have a hill like this. I'm not convinced it's entirely necessary.
Our first aid station come after mile 11. It seems a bit far considering the trail conditions, but that's why Laurel Highlands is so tough.
Here's a picture of Leon coming into the mile 11 aid station. Note his smile and carefree body language. Now, we'll visit this again later...
And now our buddy Ron, another member of our group...Not a care in the world.
And this is ME coming to mile 11. My buddy Derek was with us again this year. He's the LH77 winner and course record holder from last year. Just the kind of pressure I need, right? One of my closest buddies destroyed this trail and set a course record, now he's packing my bottle to the table so he can fill it for me. Kinda hard for me to act cool and confident right now.
I had completed the toughest section of the course and I felt like shit. I really wanted to take a seat and call it a day, but I also wanted to get to mile 19 and finish the rest of the tough stuff. My mood was awful because I knew I wasn't going all the way today, but deep down inside, all I wanted was to be on the trail soaking it up. I pushed on.
From mile 11 to 19, I was a tourist. I ran. I hiked. I stopped and looked around. I played with rocks. I took pictures. I just screwed off for a while and tried to enjoy the trail. And I began to feel good about my day.
A few pictures from the LHHT...
I knew that mile 19 was coming up and I lingered even further because I knew I wouldn't be going any further. I had nothing but time.
I rolled into mile 19 and saw Jo right away. She was ready to take care of me and fix me up, as always. I began to wave her off when I looked over and saw THIS...
LEON!!! He was well ahead of me earlier, and based on his 1000 yard stare, I knew he was all sorts of jacked up. I knew he was a mess, but I was selfishly pleased to see him! Misery LOVES company!
I took a seat next to my buddy and we discussed his plight as he went into very graphic detail regarding the last several miles. GRAPHIC DETAIL. Trail runners share everything. No filter. Leon had decided he would head out with me on the trail if I was going out for more. If I was done, he would stop with me. I looked right at Leon and said..."Looks like your ass is done cuz I'm getting a beer".
We went through the ceremony in which we removed our bib numbers, signed them, and handed them over to a race official who put them in a bag. I assume they are then carted into the woods and buried under a sacred Oak of failure and misery.
The picture below best reflects our emotions at the time of our departure from the race...
My expression says...."Who gives shit?!?!"
Leon's says..."AWESOME!!! Kelly has BEER!!!!"
Leon was running the 70 miler, but he also ran the first leg of the race for his relay team. Aside from that group, we also had several friends still out on the trail. So we decided to spend the rest of the day following and supporting those guys.
However, more importantly, I was determined to make the best use of my "Hydration System" in the meantime! As it turns out, this pack is perfectly designed for carrying two beers. I would have never realized this if I was still running the race. Small gifts from above.
We got to the mile 32 aid station in time to see Ron come in, looking fresh and strong. He was having a great day!
Kalyn was running the relay on Leon's team and she came in fast, finishing her leg of the race. She did a great job!
Jefferson, another relay runner on Leon's team, crushed his section of the race and made it look easy. This dude is a BEAST on the trail!
Tim, finishing his leg of the race. He later went on to say how much he loved it...
Leon was working his ass off at the aid stations, as exhibited below...
And I was giving him all the support he needed!
We toured from aid station, to aid station and cheered our friends on, along with every other runner out there. We relaxed, enjoyed each other, and had fun.
As night fell, we eventually made our way down to the finish line. It was a very cool and festive atmosphere. Trail runners and their families were scattered around enjoying the scene and the mood was festive.
We waited as Taylor came in to finish the last leg of the 70 mile relay for Leon's team. He ran hard and did a great job.
Taylor and Leon at the finish.
It was really amazing to spend time with the relay team. For several of them, this would be the longest and toughest run they had ever attempted. It's always cool to witness people meeting a new goal and pushing themselves to the next level. These guys worked hard and did an amazing job. It was very cool!
We all said farewell, and Jo and I headed to our hotel in Johnstown. All of us making plans to return next year for another LH70 reunion.
I would by lying if I said I was devastated, or even upset about the outcome of the race for me. I'm not bothered by it at all. While I love this race and the trail, I know all of that is rendered meaningless without the friendships and camaraderie that comes with this event.
For me and Jo, this event is the ideal example of what trail running is all about. This event defines the sport in our eyes. It's epic, yet small. The people and volunteers are amazing. The event is muted despite its excellence. The setting is rustic and rural, but easy to get to. The trails are unbeatable and the distance is perfect for so many reasons.
I have a ton of respect for anybody that finishes this race. Mile for mile, it's harder than any 100 miler I've run so far and it takes a tough runner to finish this thing in one piece.
We'll be back again next year with another amazing group of runners and crew and our family will grow again. This is a race that I will never miss, even if I don't run it!
Now it's time to get healthy and go rock some trails!