By Alan Gowen
PR. Personal Record. I guess it's a runner thing. To some of us PR's matter and yet others really don't care about them at all. We note our personal records for different distances or different races. But it's just what it says it is. Personal. No one else cares or even notices for that matter. Running ultras is after all, an individual pursuit. For those of us who will never finish at the front of the pack, our competition many times is nothing more than ourselves. Can I do it faster than I did it before? Can I get a PR?
The Highlands Sky 40 miler has become just like Thanksgiving and Christmas; a tradition for Pam and me. If it's Father's Day weekend, then we have to be out in the Canaan Valley of West Virginia. Regardless of the race outcome, it has always been a rewarding experience. Race headquarters is the Canaan Valley Lodge where the pre-race and post race festivities take place. Plenty of time over several days to visit with likeminded souls. It is a great weekend year after year.
Busses carry the runners over twisting back roads through the pre-dawn darkness to the race start about 10 miles from the lodge. 6:00AM. Dan says go and we're off. Already one new PR of sorts as I realize I've never started this race without Pam right beside me. The climbs come early in the race and the effort to push over them in a timely fashion is, doctors orders, not allowed for her at this point. Pam will be getting a little bit of running on her own over these spectacular trails and then helping at the third aid station and the finish line today.
Although the sky is partly clear it's partly cloudy too, humidity hanging heavy, mist floating, dark formless billows. With the cloud cover the forest is dark. And wet. Mud and standing water are the order of the day as we make our way up and up, getting steeper, temples pounding pulse, going higher. Twenty three hundred feet. Finally. The rocks. The course winds over Roaring Plains, sometimes in the open, sometimes with a little tree cover, very technical rocky running here, mud and water too. The sun is out and the beauty of this place vibrates I go splashing merrily along, slop, slip, sliding on my way, sun out now and then, laurel just beginning to bloom but azaleas bursting with color. Occasionally I get the feeling that I should be moving faster but I remind myself that it's only been four weeks since my 100 mile run at MMT, and I'm more than content to take whatever the day offers.
Second PR today. Never got to the second aid station in under two and half hours before. Satisfaction. A little more technical stuff and then the course plunges steeply. Seventeen hundred feet down. The forest is thick and dark and the wet trail is rocky and slick. Making good time here. Lush dank forest, murky and dismal. Rushing streams discolored by the vegetation of the area tumble over the rocks, then I'm climbing once again, up and up, old rail bed, then up once again, high humidity, sweat pouring out.
I arrive at aid station #3 and Pam is there. I remember waiting for her at this very spot three years ago when I was injured and couldn't run. Other way around today though. I feel fine and soon I'm on my way. Up steeply once more, and then out of the woods and into the open passing through pine thickets every now and then. Stop for the view. Take a moment to let the diversity of this place sink in. I must take some of this back with me somehow and so I let the beauty of this place carry me along, sun and clouds playing tag.
As I make my way along the seven miles of that miserable gravel Road Across The Sky, the sun begins to warm things up. There's a pretty god breeze blowing up here as I make my way along the road through Dolly Sods, but I'm thinking that if the sun comes out any stronger and heats up all this humidity, surely thunder storms will soon be a reality. Finally the turn that will get me off this road appears. Hmm. Another PR as I realize I'm at aid station #6 almost ten minutes earlier than ever before. As I leave aid station #6, crossing Dolly Sods, I'm on the most beautiful part of the course crossing heath barrens and open meadows, with pine and spruce scattered about, and views in all directions. Normally when I get to this point I'm so relieved to be done with that seven miles of road and finally crossing open ground that my spirits begin to soar and some of my energy so easily sucked out of me by The Road Across The Sky returns. Well not today as all my vigor seems to evaporate, the stiff breeze eerily spiriting my energy away. But as always happens, slowly the bad patch ends, energy returns and the spirit renews. I begin to feel better and quickly pick up the pace. Moving well once again, probably better than ever before. As I thought it might the sun comes out hot and within an hour I can hear the thunder. Really moving well now with the thought of being out on this open ridge in a thunderstorm pushing me forward into the day.
The rain begins lightly, and I'm out of aid station #7 in short order. The sky is black and as I hustle along the ridge, lightning flashes in my periphery. Focusing on the rocks I'm finally going downhill and I know it will be only a short distance until I'm back in the woods, a little safer from the lightning crackling all around. Just before I gain the woods the heavens open. I'm thrilled to be moving so well at this point of the race, and the downpour doesn't bother me at all. Running water in the trail rises instantly. Soon I've made the turn and as I hike up the ski slope, the rain subsides to a more moderate level before finally stopping all together. Through the woods, I'm excited to be running really well, and I begin to think that despite my earlier slowdown during my bad spell, I just might be able to get to the finish in less than ten hours and the thought of that gets me going with even more determination. Until I get to The Buttslide.
This muddy, wet, greasy near-vertical pitch is death defyingly steep straight down. Hang ten. I almost dislocate my shoulder as I attempt a self arrest by grabbing a tree while surfing a wave of mud sliding out of control to what at that moment had all the appearance of certain death. Well almost. I try to tip toe through the woods beside The Buttslide, grabbing onto trees for support and after what seems like forever I'm delivered out on to an ATV trail that is so wet and covered with grease-like mud and standing water that running is really out of the question. And it's raining again. Simply staying upright takes all the talent I have and after creeping along through that slop for way too long I finally come out of the woods and onto some grass and at last I can run once again.
A quick check of my watch and I realize my hope of breaking ten hours has, quite literally, slipped away. Well, maybe if I have the energy to run the last 5 miles I can come close. So I focus and try to get it done, which is something I've never been able to do this late in this race.
This is my fifth run at Highlands Sky and always in the past when I hit the last four and a half miles of roads to the finish I'm just too out of gas to really run very much. Oh, I shuffle along going through the running motions, but the feeling of needing to walk soon overcomes me and it seems I just shuffle and walk for the entire distance to the finish. But, for some reason or other, not today. Maybe it's the light rain keeping me cool? Don't know, but I'm running. OK. Well maybe it's a slow run but it's more than a shuffle. Check the watch again. Hmm. Maybe sub-ten hours is in the cards after all. I try to pick up the pace. At last across Route 32 and into the Canaan Valley Park entrance. I've never been able to run very much here but today I'm running every step. Finally up a small grade and from somewhere comes the energy to begin to really run. Faster. Check the watch. Can't tell if I can make or not. Faster. Not sure how far I have to go. Faster and it's starting to hurt. Off the road and onto the trail through the woods that leads to the finish line. Can't remember how far it is. Faster and now it does hurt. Check the watch. Oh well. Ten hours on the nose. Oh. Maybe the race clock and my watch are different. Faster and it really hurts now. A couple of turns, up the final hill, out of the woods across the grass, there's the finish, let-her-rip, I'm flying now across the line in 10:01:49. Not under ten hours. But 2 minutes 42 seconds faster than last year. And last year was my fastest run ever at this race. Hmm. A PR.
One of the many great things about Highlands Sky is that the awards aren't given out until after the post race dinner. On Saturday evening, everyone together, sharing lies and enjoying fellowship in the afterglow that only comes at the end of the big adventure. We visit with friends old and new, I receive my five year finisher's award, we try to express our thanks to everyone, and with darkness approaching, Pam and I turn the car toward home.
A good friend and fellow ultrarunner recently asked me, in surprising seriousness, why I ran ultras. Fumbled around with that one for a while, but really couldn't distill the ingredients into anything remotely resembling a valid answer. I know that part of the reason is just to get out there and see what I can do. And what I can't. But to go out there and at age 58 run a course PR four weeks after doing well at MMT with minimal training, well, that must be a huge part of whatever the answer truly is and a lot of what keeps me coming back. And who really cares but me? After all, it's personal.
"But every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering. It does you a power of good. I think it's because there is always a question mark about how you would perform. You have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don't come up to your own expectations. If you just tootle along you can think you're a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you're nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going. That's why I like feeding the rat. It's a sort of annual check-up on myself. The rat is you, really. It's the other you, and it's being fed by the you you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that's smashing, that is. Then the rat's had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. It's a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute for your own peace of mind. And even if you did blow it, at least there wouldn't be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can't think of anything sadder than that." Al Alvarez