by Colin Gulley – The Laurel Highlands Ultra is a 70.5 mile point-to-point trail race along the entire Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. It travels from Ohiopyle, PA in the south to the northern terminus in Seward, PA. There is approximately 12,000ft of elevation gain. It’s one of the oldest ultra’s in the country. This was it’s 35th year. There are no sponsors. The start line is a piece of duct tape across a walking path next to Ohiopyle Falls and the finish is some caution tape and a great bowl of chili. The trail is permanently marked with yellow blazes, and unique to this trail, stone markers every mile.
The night before the race my crew (my parents) and I stayed in Uniontown, PA, about a 1/2 hour from the start. My parents brought their coffee maker so we could have some decent coffee that morning and I brought a blender to make a smoothy for breakfast. (Apologizes to the guests of room 226 and 230 for the early morning blender wake up call.) We woke up at 3am and we’re out the door by 3:45. We got to the start, checked in, and got ready for the day.
|L to R: Tim, Scout, Squirrel, Me
Around 4:45 I ran into Scout, Squirrel, and Tim. Fellow Mainers who were also running the race. After struggling with multiple subpar safety pins we got our bib numbers on and headed for the start. The weather this time of year can be very hot and humid in southwestern PA. They can also have lots of thunderstorms. (The day before we drove by a building on fire that we later found out had been started by lightning.) We couldn’t have asked for better conditions this day. The high temp was predicted to be around 70 and overcast. And I don’t think it ever hit 65. And there was a nice breeze along the ridge all day. Coming from Maine I didn’t have many hot training days and I was pretty sure that if it was a hot humid day I would be more affected by it than the PA,VA, and other more southern runners. Fortunately that wasn’t an issue.
After a quick briefing and a prayer from the race organizers they called out “Go,” and we were off. The first half mile is on a sidewalk and road to allow the runners to spread out. And the next 70 miles is on single track trail except for a 1 mile stretch of gravel road. I went out with enough speed to get in front of the main pack before the trail narrowed but I didn’t want to blast forward with the front runners and burn myself out.
|Elevation Profile Of The LHHT
The first 8 miles of the course is where a majority of the elevation gain happens. I planned to power hike all these sections and I stuck to the plan. I passed a couple other runners but didn’t feel like I was pushing too hard. On the second major climb I ended up passing two more runners who were talking as they made their way up the climb. I was unaware that one of them was Devon Olson, the 2013 winner of the race. At this point and really not until the finish did I ever have any idea what place I was in. And I didn’t really care. I was just trying to stay comfortable, consistent, and run my own race.
The major climb of this race comes around mile 6. It’s about 1200′ of elevation gain over 1.5 miles at a consistently steep grade. The trail is packed dirt here and pretty straight allowing you to see a long way ahead. I saw one runner ahead and could still hear Devon and the other guy talking behind me. I reached the summit feeling strong and began running again. A challenging part of this race is that a lot of it is runnable. Which means you actually have to run!
The first aid station is at 11.6 miles. It was fun to run through because at this point every crew is there waiting for their runners. My parents and I had a good plan for quick aid station transitions. As I ran through I dropped my two handheld bottles and grabbed fresh ones from my mom. I didn’t miss a step in my stride. After passing through the crowd I passed another runner who was walking and eating some food, said hello, and kept on moving.
I was still feeling strong and comfortable. My pace was faster than I expected. Maybe a 9 or 10min/mile but it felt right so I didn’t over think it. I continued to hike the shorter steeper sections and run the rest. As I was running this section I saw a woman up ahead. As I caught up to her she asked if I was running the whole thing or just the relay. “uh oh.” This is when I realized that a good chunk of the people in front of me were running the relay. I asked what she was doing and she said, “The relay. I could never run this fast for 70 miles!” In preparation for the race my dad and I were looking over last years results and noticed one guy who started out real strong but his final split was terrible and he lost a bunch of places. Was I going to be that guy?
|Around Mile 10
I passed through the second aid station and first check point at mile 19.3, had another clean transition with my crew and kept moving. A little way after this a different woman caught up to me who was on the same relay team as the woman I had passed. We ran together most of the way between here and mile 32. It was nice to have her company. Sometimes she would pull ahead and sometimes I would. We stayed close together after we passed the sign warning us about the skeet shooting range and the cacophony of shotguns going off to the west. I don’t know her name but I do know she was from Indiana, PA. Nice running with you Indiana. And thanks for going out front through the gunfire!
At mile 26 there is another aid station at Seven Springs Ski Resort. I drank my water down to be ready for another hand off, but when I got there, there was no crew to be found. I tried to ask the aid station folks if they had seen any crew, but between my lack of clear communication and my desire to keep moving I just kept on going. It was slightly stressful heading over the ski resort and through the meadows because I was thinking my race just took a very negative turn. If my parents missed this aid station it would be hard for them to know where I was and it would seriously compromise my nutrition plan for the day. Fortunately I had backup with me and also left some drop bags where I was allowed so I started to plan some adjustments to make it work. Fortunately two miles later at the next road crossing there they were. Ready for the hand off and another smooth transition. Turns out that after the race start the race director informed the crews that they would not be able to access the aid station at mile 26 but would be moved to mile 28. Information they either didn’t tell the racers or I didn’t hear while hanging out and enjoying the waterfall before the race. After another decent climb with Indiana, I reached the second checkpoint at mile 32. Indiana’s relay leg was done. I kept moving.
One of my low points of the race came between mile 32 and 46. I had run this section once and had an idea about the terrain but had framed it a lot differently in my head. I remember it being more runnable which it was from an elevation standpoint but the trail is just brutal on your feet. This section has tons of rock and roots most of the way and was also fairly muddy. So the combination made it especially technical and tiring. At the halfway point (mile 35.5) I heard someone behind me. A little while later he caught up. It wasn’t a relay runner but Devon Olson again which I didn’t know until he introduced himself. Devon and I ran together for a while and crossed the turnpike overpass together. After dropping down into a steep raven the trail climbs at a moderate grade. I slowed some, Devon took off, and that was the last I would see of him until the finish.
Beam Rocks is a beautiful rock formation around mile 41. After this the trail got real muddy and wet. It then gets real rocky again and I started getting down on the trail terrain and conditions. I snapped my head out of negativity by visualizing myself as a wild Mouflon sheep that wouldn’t complain or blame terrain. It would just deal. Thanks Cec for the most useful pre-race advice I received.
I reached checkpoint #3 (mile 46.4) and made the longest aid station stop that I would all day. I drank some plain water and also scarfed down half of a Probar. I wasn’t their more than 45 seconds but that was long for me. The Probar ended up giving me cramps for most of the rest of the race but it helped to clear up my head. To this point I had only been drinking Tailwind in my water and had one packet of Justin’s Almond Butter. Looking back I still feel good about how my nutrition panned out but might have exchanged eating that Probar for another packet of almond butter and maybe drank a little more water without Tailwind along the way. At checkpoint #3 and for the rest of the race I also started having my parents mix in some caffeinated Tailwind. I can’t say that I felt any major boost from it but I’m pretty sure it helped me stay slightly more focused toward the end of the race.
|Aid Station Distances At Hand
From Mile 46 until 57 are some of the more steep climbs of the trail outside of the first 8 miles. I appreciated them because I was still power hiking strong and it was nice to have a few more breaks from running. The trail also gets more friendly from here on out and the running sections were easier on the feet.
I had planned to get my headlamp at mile 57 for the last 13 miles of the race but was surprised that I was way ahead of any projected times. I had about 6 1/2 hours of daylight to run 13 miles. I figured if I couldn’t accomplish that distance in the daylight than their was a much bigger issue than needing light.
At mile 61 the trail turns into a gravel gas line road. I was surprise when I hit this section to see another runner up ahead. He had a blue shirt on. “Was that Devon!?” I was glad to be on the road and moved at a decent 8-9 min/mile pace again. I reached the final non crew aid station at the end of the road and was again surprised to see that same runner hanging out and eating a gel. It wasn’t Devon. I passed him and kept moving down the trail. A little while later he caught up to me and we had a nice talk. I thought maybe we would run it in to the finish together. Then all of a sudden I started feeling lightheaded and nauseous. I think from all the talk. I slowed to a walk on a not too steep hill and said to my new friend Kevin how much I enjoyed our conversation but if I talked anymore I was going to pass out. Kevin pulled ahead and I tried to get back into my own headspace. I got a little worried. There was only about 5 more miles to go but I was feeling really ill. There is one last big climb before reaching the edge of the gorge that looks down towards Johnstown and it was the first time all race that my power hiking faltered and I just had to stop and regain my head. I took a few seconds and slowly and thankfully got back into my head. I passed a volunteer headed the other way who said, “he’s just up there! You can catch him!” and I was like yeah right! I came close but at the end of the day Kevin was the stronger and more deserving of finishing in front.
The final couple miles travel along the Conemaugh Gorge then drop steeply down about 1200′ in 1.5 miles to the finish. I’m glad I had my wits about me again because it’s steep and rocky. I took downhills more easily during the race to save my quads and not fall in the slippery conditions but I let it all go for this last section. I had no idea how far the next person was behind me and I didn’t want to see them until after crossing the line. I managed to stub my foot hard and owe my only black toes of the race to this. But fortunately I stayed on my feet. Just before the finish I could see Kevin ahead and continued to go hard to the finish. I caught my parents by surprise who were not expecting me quite that soon and crossed the line in 12:12:59. 4th place. Less than 30 seconds behind Kevin in 3rd, 3 minutes behind Amos in 2nd place and 40 minutes ahead of 5th place. Devon ended up wining the race in a time of 11:50:23.
|Top 5 Results & Splits
I had a variety of goals and knew I had put in the training and focus to run a strong race. At the end of the day I was really amazed at how things went though. Looking back I don’t think their is anything that I could have done better or smarter for where I am as a runner right now. At the first checkpoint I was in third. And besides Devon passing me and bumping me back to 4th I didn’t change place all race. I also finished ahead of all but two of the relay teams. Any other year my time would have placed 1st or 2nd. I probably ran the most consistent race of my life to this point. There is something to be said for just running and not paying much attention to place or time. I had a gps watch on but didn’t really look at it most of the race. I couldn’t be happier with my finish, my crew, and the Laurel Highlands Ultra.
|70.5 Miles Later. Chairs, Flags, And Chili
Thanks so much to race director Rick Freeman for organizing such an excellent event and for being such an inspiring runner in his own right. Thanks to all the wonderful volunteers and everyone who made this race possible. I don’t have anything I can think of that they could do better. I love how grassroots and old school this race is including the entrance fee that must be paid by check and mailed by US Mail. Thanks to the Pennsylvania State Dept of Conservation (DCNR) for allowing the use of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail for this race. And thanks so much to my parents for being an excellent and supportive crew, for taking great care of me before and after the race, and for being a big part of my success that day. Happy Father’s Day Dad!
RACE DAY GEAR/FUEL/HYDRATION:
Hoka One One Rapa Nui Trail Shoes
Dirty Girls Gaiters
Drymax Trail Socks
Nike Pro Comp Compression Shorts
Pearl Izumi Ultra Split Shorts
Garmin 910xt GPS Watch
4 – 20oz Amphipod Water Bottles (exchanged 2 with crew at every aid station)
Approx 30 scoops Tailwind Naked
Appox 4 Scoops Tailwind Caffeine
1 packet Justin’s Almond Butter w/ honey
1/4 Koka Moka Probar
SFH Fuel (Pre-Race)
SFH Recovery (Post-Race)
|Running the labyrinth at the Laurel Highlands Ultra. Photo By: Bryon Powell (from trailporn.com)