Sunday, June 13, 2010

Laurel Highland 77 (AKA Fern 77)

Pre Race

On Thursday me, Sal, Mark, Dreama, Tyler, and my dad, Carl, met up to make the drive to Pennsylvania for the Laurel Highlands 77 mile trail race. Mark was thrilled to have rented a mini van for the trip which allowed us to store all our stuff and still have room to sit. The drive took about 10 hours, so by the time we checked into the motel, everyone was beat. On Friday, we explored the little town of Ohiopyle where the race starts. It's a pretty cool place right next to a river and is literally no more than 2 blocks from beginning to end. The race would be run on the Laurel Highlands trail which is a 70 mile point to point route. The extra mileage this year was due to a detour because a bridge was closed (more on that later). Friday evening we drove to the finish and pre race dinner to pick up our packets and find out any extra info about the course. It was then time to get some much needed rest for the long day ahead.

Race Morning

Because the race began at 5:30 am, we were all forced to get up at the butt crack of dawn to get ready. 4 o'clock came way too fast, especially for someone like me and Mark who aren't really functional until lunch time :). The six of us scrambled around the room getting organized and eating breakfast until it was time to walk to the start. About that time, my dad, who signed up for the 50k and was going to drive to catch the bus to the start, said that our race started in a different place than we thought and he would just give us a ride over there. We were all relieved that he noticed this instead of us walking to the wrong place and risking missing the start all together. After dropping us off, my dad drove to where he thought the bus ride left from (again more on this later).

Start to Aid station 1- 11.6 miles

The five of us running the 77 mile race stood around anxiously awaiting the start. This would be the longest race for me, Dreama, Mark, and Tyler, so we were all a bit nervous and really had no idea what to expect. Mark told everyone, "See you tomorrow" and before we knew it the race began. After running about a mile on the road to the trail head, runners enjoy a relatively flat, wide section before making a sharp left up some really steep stairs. The trail continues to be pretty rolling and very runnable until another significant climb at miles 2 and 4. This is all just a lead up to the monster climb up to the bluff at mile 6. I was very nervous about this as I had heard all kinds of horror stories about how terrible it was. Well, the stories weren't that far from the truth as the two mile climb was extremely steep in section and just kept on coming. Me and Dreama took it really easy to avoid trashing our legs early in the race and were able to make it to the top without much trouble. Tyler and Sal were way ahead already and Mark was just behind. The only issue I was now facing was the hydration pack I chose for the race which was a waist pack that was way too bulky and bouncing around everywhere. I knew after the first five minutes that I would be ditching it at the first aid station in favor of my handheld. After reaching the top of the climb, the trail became pretty rolling and very rocky at times. The pack was driving me insane so I was thrilled to finally reach the first aid station and get rid of it. By the way, if anyone is interested in a North Face lumbar pack I would be happy to let you take it off my hands.

Aid Station 1 to Route 653- 19.3 miles

Shortly after passing through the first aid station, the trail climbed a hill and I heard someone yelling "Go Sarah." It sounded oddly like my dad's voice and when I got to the top, I saw that it was indeed my dad. I asked him why he wasn't doing his race and found out that he misunderstood where the bus left from and missed it. I felt really bad for him and know he must have been really frustrated but I was also thankful that he would be there to crew for us the whole race. I told him that I ditched my pack and was now obviously running with just a handheld which is what I prefer to do. However, I knew that because three sections were at least 11 miles before aid, I would have to be very careful to stay hydrated. This next 8 miles was not very pleasant for me because my stomach was not cooperating as usual. I also go to a tough spot mentally around mile 15, so I had to deal with that as well. Although we had already climbed to the top of the bluff, the trail was anything but flat from this point on. It was constantly descending back down and ascending very steeply up again with no switchbacks to ease the climb. The trail was in very good shape, though, and really pretty. Ferns and Mountain Laurel covered the area around and provided a gorgeous view. Just as i had drained the last of my powerade, I reached the second aid station which was the 1st checkpoint and end of the first leg for relay teams. I refilled as quickly as possible which was very fast given the awesome volunteers and grabbed a pb & j quarter and headed back down the trail.

Aid Station 2 to Seven Springs Resort Area-26 miles

This section was very tough if I remember correctly with lots of steep climbs and rocky trail. I finally came out of my bonk and felt quite a bit better mentally, so at least this was a positive. In this section we ran past a shooting range. Shots were going off constantly and I saw two deer running terrified. One ran right across the trail between me and another man. We climbed for what felt like forever up a steep hill before popping out at a clearing by the ski resort. After reaching the aid station, I once again refilled and grabbed some food before starting off again

Aid station 3 to Route 31- 32.3 miles

My IT band had kinda been bothering me throughout the day but not to the point where it really slowed me down at all. However, when I stopped at the aid station and then tried to walk down the trail, it locked up so bad that I literally couldn't move. I tried stretching it and making myself take a few steps but it was excruciating. For a few minutes I seriously thought my day might be over. Then another runner came up and gave me an aleve out of her pack. I was so thankful that she took the time to ask how I was and get in her camelback to give me some medicine. After taking it, I made myself continue walking (if you can call a hobble a walk) and it eventually loosened up enough to where I could run. I was relieved that I wouldn't have to stop and also realized that from now on, I couldn't stop moving and bending my knee without it locking up again. This would mean that I would have to go through all the remaining aid stations as quickly as possible. The trail continued through some woods for a short time before reaching a clearing by a lake. This was the highest point along the Laurel Highlands trail, somewhere around 2900 feet. I could see the ski lift and slopes at the resort which was kinda cool and helped you realize just how far we had climbed. The bad part was that this section was totally exposed and really hot so I was thankful when we once again entered the woods. I don't really remember too much about the rest of this section except that it rolled along with some nice parts that didn't have too many rocks. I did get to run with a girl on a relay team for a mile or so. She was very nice and just said that she wasn't used to running trails, so it was a completely new experience for her. She also said that there were quite a few teams doing the relay, but there was no way to tell who was doing that or running solo. Our conversation made the time pass pretty quickly, and before too long, I reached the next aid station.

Route 31 to Hickory Flats Road- 44 miles

Because this was a checkpoint for the relay teams, the aid station was pretty crowded. The volunteers were great though and filled my bottle really quickly. It was at this point that I saw Sal at the end of the table. I knew this couldn't be good because he is super fast, so anytime I see him during a race it means something is wrong. I asked if he was ok and he said no. He said his back and hamstrings were killing him and he was done. Sal is one of the toughest people I know so if he admits to hurting you know its gotta be bad. I told him I hated that he couldn't keep going. That is the thing about long races like this; you never know when your day might end early. The people at the aid station told me it was 6 miles to the next water stop and 20 to the next food station. This confused me and seemed off because I knew that we had drop bags at the mile 44 station which was only 12 miles away. As I ran down the trail I wondered if the lady just told me the wrong thing. I had a feeling that there must be a water only stop in about six miles and then the full aid station after 12. Sure enough, after running through some more steep, rocky, fern covered trail for about six miles, I came to a gravel road and saw several people sitting there with and cooler and some ice. It was a good thing too because I was running low on fluids and welcomed the ice cold water. As I started to head back into the woods, they stopped me and pointed me down the gravel road. "Ugh," I now remembered. "This is the start of the 7 mile detour that is all on gravel or paved roads." In some ways getting out on the road is nice because you can kinda run brain dead without having to constantly look down to keep from falling. This positive is soon outweighed by the pounding and full exposure to the sun. Also, up until now, runners had enjoyed seeing yellow blazes every 100 yards or so to ensure them that they were still on the trail. However, the road had no such blazes and only a yellow stake on the side of the road every half mile or so which made me very paranoid about getting off course. At one point, the gravel road split with absolutely no markings so I just had to guess and hope to see a yellow marker soon. Fortunately I did right before I was about to have a mental breakdown. The road went downhill for what seemed like forever which only made me think about the uphill that was surely coming. We turned on to a bigger paved road for a bit and had to constantly watch for cars that seemed to be paying no attention to the fact that there were a hundred or so runners on this particular road. My dad had parked on the side which was a surprise to me as I was not expecting to see him until the next aid station. He gave me an ice cold gatorade and dumped some water down my back to cool me off. Later on after the race, he said that this road section really killed people because it was so hot and long. Runners were apparently stopping and asking him for water so much that he had to go to a gas station to buy more. I told him that I though Sal had dropped but he said that he was running with Dreama. This was encouraging because I know how much Sal wanted to race and also that if anyone could get him through, it was Dreama. I continued running down the road and talked to a super nice guy named Chris for a while to help pass the time. We then started to climb, and I mean climb. It felt like uphill for at least 2 miles before getting back on to a gravel road that was once again a gradual ascent. Finally, after turning a corner for the millionth time expecting to see an aid station, my wish came true.

Hickory Flats Road to Route 30- 52 miles

Just as I was coming in to the aid station, I saw Tyler leaving. I asked him how he was feeling and he said good and started off. This aid station had our drop bags, so I got in it to get a clif mojo bar because I was starving. I had never tasted one before but it was actually very good. I saw my headlamp but decided not to take it because I knew my dad had one and i could get it from him. He was not at this station but was stopped at a road crossing a few mile ahead, so I just planned on telling him to have it for me at the 52 mile mark. Unfortunately, I forgot to grab any gels to carry with me, so I would have to save the two remaining in my handheld pouch for later. I decided not to change socks or shoes despite having some hot spots because I was afraid of what would happen to my IT band if I stopped. This was definitely a risk because I could feel some blisters forming but I just hoped to keep my feet dry the rest of the way and not make them any worse. This next section of trail is kind of a blur to me except for the increased size of all the ferns and mountain laurel. At times, it was so thick on the sides of the trail that it grew over and you could only see a path about 6 inches wide to run on. It also meant that the overgrowth was constantly brushing up against me legs and leaving tiny little scratches that really started to irritate my skin. The trail kept on dropping way down and climbing back up but I do remember one section that had a nice covering of pine needles which make for very cushy running on sore feet. It was around here that I caught up to Tyler. He said he had been feeling pretty good until a few minutes ago when he started to feel crappy. Thats another thing about long races. There will be times when you feel like you could run forever and then just like that you feel like you can't take another step. Fortunately, it usually just takes some time for the mood to shift once again, so I wished him luck and made my way ahead, fully expecting him to catch me very soon. When I saw my dad, I told him that I hadn't taken my lamp from my bag so I would need to use his and he said that would be fine. After running along the next few miles, I came to the aid station at mile 52.

Route 30 to Route 271- 64 miles

My dad was waiting for me here as I filled my bottle and grabbes some food. When I said I needed the lamp, he said he didn't have it with him. "Huh" I thought, "but I said I would need yours." This is a classic example of the infamous "Woerner miscommunication." He apparently understood that I wanted his headlamp but didn't realize that I would need it here because it was almost 6 pm and I had 12 miles to the next aid station. I could probably make it before dark but wanted to be safer rather than sorry. He said he would hike in from the 64 mile stop and give it to me if it looked like I would need it. "Okay," i said, feeling a bit relieved. As I started off again, another more concerning realization hit: I had to run 12 miles with one handheld of gatorade and I completely forgot to get any extra food, so all I had was one gel. "Oh crap. This might not be good," I thought, especially given the fact that it was pretty hot and humid and I had been drinking about a whole bottle every 6 miles. I immediately started rationing my water, only taking a sip after each mile marker. I looked at my watch and decided to take my gel at around 7:15 which would hopefully be about midway between aid stations. This section was very overgrown for most of the way. I started cussing the waist high ferns that blocked my view of the trail underneath. It wasn't long before I also started cussing the mountain laurel because every time I saw it, it mean that there was a climb. I was running very low on water at this point and seriously thinking about drinking out of creek if I came to one, but I never did. At one point, I caught up to a runner and was so desperate that I asked if he had any spare fluid. He said barely so I told him nevermind. It was my own fault for not carrying more and I wasn't about to take anyone elses. With about 3 miles or so before the next aid station, I calmed down a bit and felt like I would definitely make it there with some daylight left and without being too dehydrated. About a mile later, I saw a lady running down the trail toward me. She asked if I was ok, and I said yes but that I needed some water. She immediately told me to open by handheld and gave me both of her bottles stored in her fuel belt. I was so grateful I almost started crying. This was the second time today that someone had helped me out tremendously. She said that I was about twenty minutes from the aid station and she thought my dad was up ahead. I thanked her again and started down the trail, saying yet another thank you prayer to God for him watching out for me. Sure enough, I saw my dad in a few minutes, and he gave me an ice cold powerade that hit the spot. We ran to the aid station together where he gave me the head lamp. As it turned out, I hadn't needed it for the last section, so all was good. I ate quite a bit at this aid station because all I had eaten in the last 12 miles was one gel. The volunteers said that there was another stop in 6.5 miles. My dad told me he probably wouldn't see me there because he was going to wait on Dreama, Mark, and possibly Sal to see how they were doing. I told him to say hi to them for me and headed off once again, feeling for the first time like I might really fininsh the race.

Route 271 to Gas Line Dirt Road- 69 miles

Because it wasn't quite dark yet, I ran with my head lamp off for a half hour or so until the sun went down and I had to turn it on. I knew that the dark would slow me down quite a bit so I was glad to have gotten pretty close to the finish before needing my light. When it did get dark, my progress slowed slightly because I had to be very conscious of my footing. I had not fallen yet which is extremely unusual for me (I typically fall on every run no matter the distance), and I wanted to keep it that way if at all possible. The trail was still very rocky so I had to pick my way. I did keep jamming my left big toe on rocks to the point that it really hurt and I could tell that the nail was probably coming off. Also, after dark, I got super paranoid about getting off the trail, so I would look up constantly for a yellow blaze which made me stumble on rocks below. Around mile 68 the trail popped out on a gravel road marked with glow sticks. I remembered another runner talking about this and how it was awful because it was a long uphill for at least a mile. However, I almost welcomed the road because it allowed me to once again run brain dead for a while. It seems like when its dark, you don't notice slight uphills as much as when its light because you can't see that far ahead, so I ran most of this section. I could see the glow of the aid station off in the distance, and it appeared to be pretty close, but I swear it felt like I ran forever before the lights got any closer. Finally the tent came into sight and a man ran out to greet me and ask what I needed. He said that they had grilled cheese sandwiches and for some reason that sounded amazing. When the volunteer yelled ahead that I wanted one, another man said, "Sorry, we're all sold out." This little bit of humor helped to lift my spirits some, and when I actually tasted that grilled cheese sandwich, it was the best one I've ever had. The workers refilled my bottle while a ate a little and said that it was 8 miles to the finish. This was a little depressing because I thought that it was only 6.5. You might think that 1.5 miles would seem like nothing after running 70 but its kinda the exact opposite. At that point, 1.5 miles can seem like an eternity. Nevertheless, I couldn't change it or move the finish line closer, so I tried to just accept it and stay positive.

Gas Line Dirt Road to Finish- 77 miles

Shortly after running out of the aid station, I saw the 62 mile marker which confirmed the volunteers information about the distance to the finish. The actual trail is 70 miles long but the race was longer due to the road detour. It was a few minutes after 10pm, and I really wanted to get done by midnight, but I knew that I would really be pushing it. I decided to just focus on reaching the next mile marker and trying to do so in as close to 15 minutes as possible. However, for the next few miles, the trail was very up and down with some pretty significant climbs. They really slowed me down, and even when I could run on the flats and downhills, it was not fast by any means or stretch of the imagination. I knew that the trail had to start descending soon because we were still up on the bluff and the finish was at the bottom in a valley. At one point, I looked to my right and could see the lights from the city of Johnstown way below and figured I had to go at least that far down but that it couldnt be too far away. When the descent finally came with about 3 miles left, it was less pleasant than I hoped. The trail was more rocky than it had been all day, making it very difficult to pick my way down without taking a nasty fall. I kept hitting that same toe over and over, and it now hurt so bad that it was throbbing. The trail descended for about two miles before flattening out a little bit and becoming much more runnable. Shortly after passing the 69 mile trail marker, a few people were walking toward me to cheer runners on. One lady said, "the finish is a quarter mile away. Push it!" I knew this couldn't be right because I had just passed the 69 mile marker and I also was in no condition to "push it" anymore than I already was. In a few minutes, though, I started to hear the glorious finish line music and could see lights not too far ahead. Thankfully, the trail became very smooth in this last little bit, so I was able to run without paying too much attention to my footing. As the lights came into full view, I heard my dad yelling my name and saw the finish line. Crossing that line at about 12:25 was one of the best feeling of my life. After 18 hours and 54 minutes of running, I was done. I was overcome with emotion and had to hold back tears. My immediate thought was to thank God who has blessed me with the opportunity and ability to run this race and share in the experience with some awesome friends and family. I looked up to the sky with a finger pointed up and said thank you. My dad was right there to greet me with a hug, and the RD handed me the finishers award, a replica of one of the mile markers with 77 engraved in it. They send and engraved plate with your name and finishing time to put on the marker which makes for a very unique finisher's prize.

Post Race

After finishing, I went over to the food/drink tent and got some green tea which actually tasted pretty good. I have never been to a race where it was offered. After downing that I promptly asked for a much healthier mountain dew :) and walked over to the folding chair my dad had set up by the finish. In less than 20 minutes, I saw Tyler coming in to the finish looking strong. We gave each other a high five and sat down for a few minutes to watch some other runners come in before hobbling over to the van where my dad had set up a shower bag. After running 77 miles, one reaches a new level of grossness, so I looked forward to at least getting some of the grime off, but when I felt that ice cold water hit me I wasn't sure if I would be able to. My dad quickly informed me that I wreaked and he couldn't drive back with us smelling like that so I had no choice but to get back under the water to wash off. It felt ok after a few minutes, and getting a clean pair of clothes on felt wonderful. My stomach had now settled to the point that I could think about eating, and me and Tyler had what I feel was the best bowl of chili I've ever tasted. We both just sat there in the chairs at the finish soaking it all in. Soon after, however, I heard someone yelling for Carl Woerner. I think my dad was still at the van so I stood up and said that I was his daughter. There was apparently a phone call for him, and when I took the cell phone, it was Sal on the other end saying he was at the mile 64 aid station and was pretty sick. My dad arrived and I handed him the phone. A few minutes later, he said that Sal was going to have to stop because he was dehydrated and throwing up. A car brought him to the finish where he sat down and tried to munch on some ice. Runners continued to make their way across the finish line, and a few minutes after my dad hiked in to meet Dreama, I saw them both coming. Dreama did an awesome job helping Sal in the middle of the race and finished up strong. She was walking around like we had only run 7 miles and not 77. A little while later, my dad once again walked back to meet Mark who finished with a group of several guys. Mark had suffered from some pretty awful stomach problems and was unable to eat for most of the race. I honestly don't know how he managed to finish because I know that I wouldn't have been able to. He definitely wins the tough guy award for the day. With everyone now back at the finish, we slowly got our stuff together and waited for everyone to take their turn on the shower. At about 5am we left, almost 24 hours after this incredible journey had begun. This was a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget. Here are several last thoughts I have about the race and some lessons I learned.

  1. First and foremost, I thank God for getting me through it.
  2. My dad was an awesome crew and worked tirelessly for 24 straight hours making sure that we all stayed hydrated and had plenty of food.
  3. Having a crew provides a great emotional lift and is in my opinion essential in this race.
  4. With 3 sections of 11 miles or more between aid stations it is imperative to stay hydrated and have plenty of nutrition.
  5. In a race of this distance, you will bonk at least once and probably more, but doing your best to stay positive and trust that you will come out of it is the best thing to do.
  6. Thanks so much to the two kind people who helped me when i needed it most- Suzanna with the Aleve and the lady in the blue shirt with the water whose name I didn't get.
  7. It's impossible to predict what will happen during the race because there are just so many different things that can go wrong. This race had 125 starters and only 58 finishers, so anything can happen.

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