By Rayna Matsuno
The decision to run Laurel Highlands was somewhat last minute, but I finally signed up after enough people encouraged me to use the race as part of my preparation for Vermont in July. Not having run beyond 50 miles prior to this, I decided it would be great just to finish and gain a bit of confidence before attempting my first 100.
Driving up to Ohiopyle with Lucia Davidson and Joyce Fendley was a lot of fun, and we arrived early enough to explore some of the local trails and shops. (Note: Bring everything you need with you to avoid paying $1.99 for a bottle of Suave and $4.95 for a box of Triscuits.) One gift shop displayed a t-shirt with a list of trails ordered by level of difficulty. "Very Difficult: Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail." Great. After eating dinner at the Firefly Grill (aka the premier eatery in Ohiopyle), we headed back to the hotel, hoping to get a good nightís sleep.
Before going to bed, I visited Ed Cacciapaglia and Dave Yeakel in their room two doors down. We had planned on eating dinner together but things never worked out so it was nice to see them and chat for a while. Ed offered some of Luanne Turrentineís cookies, which I proceeded to hoard for the post-race feeding. If you havenít had any of Luanneís cookies, you are really missing out! The sky looked ominous so I gave each of them a hug and went back to wind down.
Lucia and I watched the last half hour of The Rundown while Joyce curled up with a book. Then it was lights out as the storm came. None of us slept very well, but I donít think we expected to. Upon waking, we quickly changed, ate, and packed our bags into the car and drove to the start. We noted a stream of vehicles going the other way Ė mustíve been some party in Ohiopyle the night before.
At the start, I could feel myself getting nervous, but it helped to be surrounded by other VHTRCers. This is the great thing about ultras Ė there is so much positive energy and excitement, and everyone is so friendly. I honestly think ultrarunning doubles as my social life. As is usual for me, the start was somewhat of a blur, and I only remember sweating a lot before reaching the trail. I made a mental note to take in lots of Succeed.
At Bull Run Run a few months ago, I spent a good portion of the run with Hunt Bartine, one of our Traildawg cousins, and we agreed ahead of time to stick together during the earlier parts of Laurel. Dave Yeakel and Bill Turrentine joined us. Ed pulled ahead early for reasons Iím sure heíll mention in his own report. Iíll just say here that he went on to finish in an incredible 17 hours flat.
Coming into the first aid station, I was met by Keith Dunn, who is the best crew ever. One wouldíve never guessed that he was crewing for 3+ people that day with all the attention he gave me; I truly felt pampered. He filled my Nalgene with Perpetuem, while Lucia and Joan Messick (also a Traildawg) asked if I needed anything in particular. I was soon on my way. Behind me, Sophie Speidel yelled, "Youíre second woman!"
Sophieís comment sparked something in me Iíve never felt during an ultra. Usually I come out and simply enjoy myself, well aware of the fact that Iím a middle-of-the-pack runner, but now I felt competitive. It clearly sparked something in Gaytri Bhatia, who left the aid station shortly after me, and would end up coming in as 2nd woman behind Donna Utakis. The most amazing thing about Gaytriís strong finish is that she came without a water bottle, food, and electrolyte pillsÖoh, and Laurel was only her second ultra after running JFK last year.
Coming through the second aid station, I had fallen back to 5th or 6th woman. Although I felt very lucky to be running with such nice gentlemen, I decided it was time to start racing. I was soon running with a small group of folks, Barb Isom (my idol) among them. We were all doing fine until we came to The Construction Site. A few others who had been ahead of us stood in the open space, clearly lost.
We all walked up a hill together to try to find our way, but to no avail. We looped around a bit before coming back down the hill where more runners were coming off the trail and into the clearing, confused expressions on all of their faces. It reminded me of the Beltway when a driver taps on his/her brakes for no reason other than the fact that the Beltway is a melting pot for bad drivers, and the cars behind sort of clog up. It was almost comical. Almost. I had lost my rhythm.
Joyce and John Dodds showed up and eventually our large group found the right way back onto the trail. I walked alongside Joyce and expressed my frustration. Joyce looked me straight in the eye and said, "This is where that sense of humor comes in. Sh*t happens. You just have to deal with it and move on." I thought about the time I almost dropped at BRR. Joyce told me back then to just keep moving, and that it was OK to take it easy if I wasnít having a good day. She saved me then and she saved me at Laurel.
As we approached the trail, I was determined to find my groove again, and a mile or so later, I finally did. The rest of the run was incredibly enjoyable. It was amazing to be surrounded by fields of ferns and run between tall rock formations. Everything was so beautiful, and the light rain topped it all off.
You know youíre having a good day when you start developing Forrest Gumpism, when you kind of feel like you could just keep running and running and running.
I came into the last aid station at mile 62 in time to see Mike Bur, and we decided to stick together for the remainder of the run. Bur affirmed that I was 3rd woman, at which point I relaxed a little. During those last 8 miles, he gave me lots of useful tips on training for the remaining weeks before Vermont, but mostly it was nice just to have company after running the last 35 miles or so alone. Before long we could hear the generators and see the lights at the end of the trail. We put our arms around each other and finished together, yet another indication of the amity among ultrarunners.
I thought I might cry after finishing Laurel simply because it was a milestone in my running career. But I didnít. All I could do at the finish was smile and think about everyone who had helped me along the way. Laurel Highlands is definitely a tough course, and the heat and humidity made it even more challenging this year. But nothing could break the support I got. The entire experience made me realize that I still have a lot to learn as a runner, especially when it comes to mental strength. Maybe next year I wonít get lost, and if I do, Iíll be sure to remember what Joyce said. Then I can maintain my rhythm and not have to worry about getting my groove back.
Note: special thanks to John Dodds who suggested the title. I am not as clever as he isÖbut at least I donít drag a tire around Arlington.