The Laurel Highlands Trail Run
June 12, 2004
by Brian McNeill
Enough with the ferns
already! I quit!
This weekend, I had an
AFGO moment. That’s “Another Friggin’ Growth
I finished the Laurel
Highlands 70 Miler two years ago in my first ever attempt to go past
50 miles. Finishing with a group led by Tom Corris (outfitted with a
brace on his bionic IT band) we power-walked our way in well ahead of
the cutoff. Since then, I’ve finished four 100 milers,
including MMT & Wasatch. So I thought I knew what I was doing.
Big mistake. The Greeks call that hubris, and it’s usually
rewarded with a spectacular fall.
I packed my drop bags
in a hurry on Thursday night and loaded them into the car. I figured
it’s only 70 miles, so I’d make do with bags at only 46 &
57 miles, omitting one at mile 32. I intended to rely on fare
available at the aid stations as well as a few GU pouches that I had
stuffed into my drop bags. Not packing some form of solid food in
drop bags for all three major aid stations constituted a fundamental
mental error that prematurely ended my day at mile 57.
Race Directors Tim &
Lureen Hewitt and their friends are nice people who run a very
low-key race, but their aid stations are not the four-star dining
experiences on which I have been spoiled at VHTRC affiliated events.
The aid at LHTR is limited at best, especially for those of us who
tend to keep the trail sweepers company. I’m big; I’m
slow, and I need to consume quite a few calories to keep moseying
down the trail at my normal pace. I figure that I need to eat
somewhere around 300-400 calories an hour just to keep from bonking.
Well, at Laurel, it’s tough to get that many calories from the
I started out running a
smart race, with the sustained level of effort pretty consistent,
with the results varying between 13 minute miles on the runnable
sections and 17 or 18 minute miles on the tough climbs at the outset
of the race. I ran much of the section from 20-28 miles with Bob
Coyne and/or Bill LaDieu. Eventually, Bill pulled away from me, and I
too moved on ahead of Bob as we crossed the ski slopes at Seven
Springs. At the 32 mile aid station, I was on a 16 minute mile pace,
which was exactly according to plan. It was shortly after that aid
station that my troubles started. There’s a short climb of
100-150 feet just as one approaches the crossing of the Pennsylvania
Turnpike. I was unable to power walk up the hill for the first time
all day. Instead, I wobbled to the top and then slowly walked across
the foot-bridge. I ate my last two packs of GU and forced myself to
resume running. I passed a couple of other fellows who wobbled even
worse than I did as I entered an unofficial aid station at 38 miles.
I ate cookies, more cookies, drank some ginger ale, and left carrying
a cup of cookies. Did I mention that the chief source of calories at
that aid station was Vanilla Hydrox Cookies? God bless those nice
folks for being there. Remember, it was an unofficial aid
station. They didn’t have to be there at all.
I felt much better, and
thought that I could make up time on the next section, which includes
some great house-sized boulders and even more
frightening--house-sized Mountain Laurel. My sugar spike was
short-lived as was my sense of revitalization. Soon I was again
reduced to a slow-paced walk. I just didn’t have the energy for
any leg turnover. I tried running occasionally, but I couldn’t
sustain anything. I knew that if I was going to finish, I’d
have to make it to the major aid station at mile 46 and eat some
solid food. Somewhere along this section, a gang of street-tough
Mountain Laurel wearing bandanas grabbed me, pulled me into an alley,
and beat my legs to a pulp. At least, that’s what you’d
think happened if you looked at my shins. I slogged my way into the
next aid station, waving my white hat on a stick as I crossed Route
30. I asked for my drop bag, and slumped in a chair.
enough, I’m going to drop,” I slurred unsteadily.
“Well, why don’t
you eat something and wait for a few minutes to see if you feel any
better?” said the aid station captain.
I sat in my chair
eating a PBJ, followed by another, mostly “J” sandwich.
About then, Bob Coyne and Jay Whited from the Reston Runners came
into the aid station and moved with a purpose to get what they needed
“Oh, what the
hell,” I sighed, “If you’re going on, so will I. At
least I won’t have to walk the next section alone.”
I grabbed what I needed
from my drop bag and followed Bob & Keith up the trail. I caught
them about a mile and a half later.
It was a beautiful
gloamin’, which is my favorite time of the day. For you
non-Scots out there, “the gloamin’” is the time of
the day between sunset and darkness. Celtic folklore holds that
during these moments, the faeries come out and the spirits of the
dead walk near the living. Usually, this time of day rejuvenates me,
but on this Saturday, there was no energy to call upon. Given how
slowly we were moving in the waning blue light of evening, we were
even closer to the dead than we suspected at the time. This would
have been a great time to start telling ghost stories to Vicki
Kendall, but alas, she was far ahead, limping towards the finish on a
Night set in just after
we left the unmanned water stop at mile 51. In 2002, I was leaving
the 57 mile aid station at about this same time. I set my sights only
on getting to the 57 mile aid station before the cutoff, so I would
have the option of going on. About a mile later, the trail sweep came
up behind our dour little group. Now, that’s always a
About that same time,
my motivation for getting to the 57 mile aid station changed
entirely. Now I wanted to get there ASAP, not so I could continue,
but rather so I could finally end a very bad day. I hoped I’d
get there after the cutoff, so I’d be compelled to drop,
and wouldn’t have to make a decision. Alas, we arrived right at
the cutoff, and Tim Hewitt offered us the choice of going on.
I simply said weakly,
“No, I’ve had enough. I quit.”
Keith Dunn, who arrived
about five minutes ahead of us, was considering whether to go on, and
I loudly urged him to continue. He elected to stop. Keith has had
more back problems in recent years than even the PGA’s David
Duval, so it was great to see him running again, and I hoped he could
top it off with a finish. Keith decided it would be best to end the
day on a positive note—that is 57 well-accomplished miles and
After being ferried to
the finish line by one of the volunteers, Bob Coyne and I drove
directly to a Sheetz for steak-and-cheese subs and potato chips. At
last, I was sated. I returned to my motel room at around 1:00 a.m.
and showered and read for a while before falling asleep. The next
day, my legs felt just fine, with none of the usual post race
soreness. I played golf on Sunday and Monday without limping or
difficulty. Therefore, I concluded, that there was nothing physically
amiss, it was simply a fueling issue. Of course, I only “ran”
about 36 miles. I walked the last 21 miles that I covered.
Now, what did I learn
from this character-building experience? The mid-20th
century theologian, Reinhard Niebuhr prayed for acceptance of
“hardship as a pathway to peace.” Yes, bad experiences
can be character-building as one learns to handle them with
equanimity and good humor. I don’t think I quite achieved that.
I’ll merely hope I was not too whiny for my companions on the
trail. The main lesson I learned is that I want to avoid such
character-building experiences in the future. The next time that I
attempt LHTR, I will pack solid food in my drop bags, (canned haggis,
anyone?) and I will try to take in a more steady flow of calories.
My first-ever DNF in
any race, at any distance arrives at precisely the right time. I’ve
been planning an Ultra-running sabbatical to commence after LHTR,
even before running MMT in May. I put forth maximum effort last year
in training for Wasatch and have felt beat-up and overtrained ever
since, topping it all off with a three-week long case of bronchitis
in February that knocked me out of work for 11 days.
Now, I’m going to
hire a personal trainer, spend some time in the gym, lose 20 pounds,
try mountain biking and kayaking for the first time, and try to
recover some of the spring in my stride.by periodic visits to the
track with—horrors—road runners. I will be at the David
Horton perpetual motion machine extravaganza called the Mountain
Masochist in October, but other than that, I have no Ultra adventures
planned until next spring.
My wife doesn’t
believe that I can avoid “going long,” for eight or nine
months, but I really am going to try this. After all, I need a break.
There’s a little race in Silverton, Colorado that I might want
to train for in 2006.
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