24 HOURS FROM NOW I WILL BE RUNNING my first 50k, somewhere around Seven Spring Resort, on the Laurel Highlands Trail and it promises be a doozy. Laurel Highlands Ultra, with a 50k and a 70 miler, is one the oldest ultra runs in the nation. From the race website:

A 50 kilometer wilderness trail, traversing state parks, state forests, state gamelands, and other public and private lands. This is a very scenic and challenging course. Difficult footing is the norm, as steep grades, logs, rocks, steps, mud and other obstacles abound. The trail is maintained by the state and features concrete markers at every mile. The majority of the trail is rugged single-track, with some meadow crossings in the Seven Springs Resort area.

I began thinking about the Laurel Highlands 50k back in April. I was looking for a race in June that was a month after my first marathon in Pittsburgh. One option was to do the 18-mile Rothrock Challenge. I wanted to do this race last year but a pulled hamstring and over-training did me in. I felt I had unfinished business to do. But that race would only give me four weeks to train which is not a lot of time to recover, train and taper. Looking at racing calendar, there is the Laurel Highlands Ultra. I would have five weeks but me doing a 50 kilometer race? Inconceivable! Could I do my first marathon in early May, then my first 50k a month afterward? I must have lost my mind. Have a bath salt chomping zombie chewed my brain?

31 miles of this? Yes, according to many accounts.

I decided not to commit to anything until after seeing how well my marathon went and then how well I would recover. It turned out that I had a great marathon, finishing the last 10k faster and stronger than the previous 30k, under my time goal and in less than ideal conditions (hot). I was well hydrated and had my nutrition plan down and did not come close to hitting the wall. “You could have went on for another 6 miles or more,” one of my friends said to me. Hmmm… perhaps he is right?

After the marathon, I focused on recovery. I decided I would give myself 10 days or so to see how I feel post-marathon before I pulled the trigger. The weekend after the marathon, I did an easy trail run of 9 miles around Canoe Creek despite being having a long day the day before at Pints for Pets. Despite being on my feet all day the previous day, I feel pretty good. The next run I felt a little fatigued but on my mid-week trail run, I felt very strong. It was an 8 mile run but it felt I could run for hours.

The Laurel Highlands Trail near Route 271 on the 5/19 scouting run.

THE WEEKEND OF 5/19-20 WOULD BE my first test. Mary Kowalski, a Laurel Highlands veteran, posted on Facebook that she wanted to do a group run on the Laurel Highlands Trail and I jumped at the opportunity. Matt Lindsey, who would be doing the 70 miler, Mary Ann Halon, who has done the 50k before but this time was doing a relay with her brother, and a trio from Johnstown, also joined in on the fun. We ran the 13 miles from Seward to Route 271 – the last part of the race and in reverse. Even though I would not be running this section for the 50k, it would give me a taste of what to expect.
I will probably write a more detailed trail report later about this run but I was left with the impression that the trail is soft with fast singletrack once I get to the top of the ridge with some moderately technical areas. “It is scary fast”, said Lindsey, worried that it would be too easy to run too fast and expend too much energy before the finish. Mary said it is more technical on the 50k part and the first 8 miles was all hills. (More on those “hills” later.) As for me, my performance that day was good. I did start to feel fatigued in the last few miles but I wasn’t thinking too much about that. Mostly I was thinking about keeping my feet up so I don’t trip and my trail shoes. My LaSportiva’s got ripped up badly from the Mile Run Challenge that I was worried they would make it on this run. I wore my Salomon Crossmax which was inadequate for the trail. The shoes were way to stiff and every time I stepped on a rock, I would feel either my ankle roll or contort in a bad way. It was so annoying that it really started to aggravate me. Later that day, I would pick up a pair of Salomon Speedcross, a more flexible and aggressive shoe. Mid-week later that week I went on a 9 mile trail run. Happy with the shoes, I made the commitment and sent my registration in the mail.

FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS I would spend my Memorial Day weekend at a friends’ camp near Alan Seeger in Rothrock State Forest. Last year, I met my Waterloo here. Since Rothrock State Forest offers endless miles of trails, I took on more than I should. On my second day of hard trail running, I ran up an unrunnable section of the Mid-State Trail and ended up pulling a hamstring and developing a case of runners knee. I had to quit running for more than a month and missed two races including Rothrock. I promised myself not to do that again. Also, I asked my ultrarunning friends, namely Matt, Mary and Ethan Imhoff for training advice. Do I prepare for the 50k race by cranking in the training mileage typical for those training for an ultra – say a 25 mile run this weekend – or do I continue along in “recovery mode”? They all concluded that I built enough of a base from the marathon and that it is best not to over-train and just take it easy. I traced out a scenic and mildly technical 15-mile course. I was lucky to have Mary along for the run. She is a trail running machine and she has done the Laurel Highlands 50k, I think, three times. She won among the females once, finished under six hours for the other, and the other time she did it on a whim by “banditting” the race and then ending up at the finish with no way getting back to her car at the start!
During our 15-miler, I was amazed that toward the end of this run, her foot falls were perfect and so fluid while I continually fought with the surface. I didn’t stumble but I had a hard time trying to get a good rhythm going. Nevertheless, I was very happy with the run. It is impossible to compare one trail versus another but that said, this run was at a relaxed pace completed in 3 hours 15 minutes with 2600 feet of elevation gain. It was also a very warm and muggy day, starting late at noon with temperatures in the mid-80’s. More encouragingly, I wasn’t at all fatigued during or after the run despite the conditions and a night of drinking the day before, however, there was one fly in the ointment… I have been plagued with diarrhea at almost every long run during my marathon training. At the 14th mile, I had to take a stop in the woods. Is my long run/GI issue back? At that point, since I also had problems pre-run in the middle of the night, I was hoping this was a coincidence and that today’s problem was due to my late-night “second supper” of pesto pasta that was lying unrefrigerated all day at camp. Don’t eat pasta sitting on a counter top for 10 hours!

The last weekend before the 50k, I did a 12 mile “taper” trail run at Hickory Run State Park. I felt strong all throughout the run but again I had the shits. This time it was at mile 5! I really hope that the root cause of this is having too much greasy protein (McDonald’s sausage) about three hours prior. I will keep my colon, I mean, fingers crossed.

Some of the food and stuff I will be taking with me.

SPEAKING OF NUTRITION I SPENT the week before the 50k, thinking about nutrition, reviewing the course, reading blogs of other race reports, and general race preparation. The key to my success in the Pittsburgh was a proactive and detailed nutrition and hydration plan. I also had mile-by-mile pacing plan. With trail ultras being on the trail and an ultra, hence the name, detailed pace plans are out of the question. I just need to take it easy and pay close attention to what my body was saying to me. Also, I haven’t been OCD as I was for Pittsburgh. I think the more I run, the more experience I attain and more I can run on instinct.

Still, I needed to plan. The biggest challenge is that unlike the marathon where there were 20 aid/fluid/nutrition stations over a 26 mile course, the 50k only has  THREE! I will have to carry most of my nutrition and fluids with me. I estimate that I need about 200-250 calories every hour and it will take me about 7 hours and 15 minutes to finish. The 7 hour 15 minute notion comes from reviewing past finish times, my recent long runs, the terrain and most of all, a feeling in my gut. I am taking with me:

  • Three packs of Hammer Perpetuem
  • Seven PowerBar Gels
  • Seven Cliff Bar Minis
  • Banana
  • Endurolytes Electrolyte Capsules

Of course, I plan to take advantage of the three stations along the way. I have been hearing a lot about the steamed potatoes at the second stop. I also learned that the first station, 11 miles in, may have little in terms of real food.

Now the terrain: The reason why it is such a long distance from the start to the first station is from the start to Mile 8, it is a roller coaster of elevation changes with three series of climbs and two downhills. Full disclosure: I have been told about these climbs and downhills from the race veterans and I also downloaded and reviewed the DCNR trail maps but I did not realize what was in store for me until I looked at a Google map of the course and I felt my heart sink. Here is the lowdown. THE FIRST EIGHT MILES: The first 1.25 miles is flat then it is a 800 foot climb in 1.25 miles, down 600 feet in just a mile to Rock Spring Run, up 800 feet again in a mile, down 900 feet into Bidwell Run for a mile and quarter then the final 1300 feet climb in just 1.6 miles. That is 2900 feet of climbing and 2000 feet of downhill in just the first 8 miles!!! Here was the conversation I had with my co-workers:

Ben: Oh no! Oh no! Aggh! I feel sick!!
Co-worker: What’s wrong?
Ben: I am looking at a Google Map of where I am running this weekend. What have I done?!! What have a signed up for?
(I point on the map on my computer)
Ben: First I go up this ridge, down the ridge, cross this area, up this mountain, down this ridge, up this ridge, up over here, along here, over here, then here, then around these lakes, then across here, up there, over here, then to here, then over here, up around this lake, then over here, up around this, past that, then over here, then finish here.. (exasperated)
(by this time three other co-workers stand over my computer, mouths agape)
Co-worker: (after a long pause) Ummm… how many miles is that?
Ben: 31 miles
Co-worker: You are lying, there is no such thing as a 31-mile race, you fool!
Ben: Yes, there is.. It is called a 50k.
Co-worker: You are not going to run that!
Ben: But I am. I already signed up. Look here this website. See. My name is one of the entrants.
Co-Worker: That site looks like it was made in 2004. You made this site back in 2004 cause you knew someday in the distant future you are going to pretend you did this race.
Ben: No it is legit! I am running in this race this weekend!
Another co-worker: On Monday… can I move my stuff into this office?

The Google Map I was looking at. I will start at Ohiopyle, climb and descend the ridges(center) to the plateau on the right.

Reviewing the trail maps including marking the major climbs and descents.

For a Google Map the Entire Trail.  I will be running the first two sections. (The 70 milers will do the entire trail.)

Reading other race reports and blogs, I noticed that I should not take the first 8 miles lightly. Stories of constant dry heave vomiting, dehydration and destroyed quad muscles from the downhills are common stories. I will need to take this section conservatively. Though relatively flat on top, there will be some sudden, steep yet relatively short climbs before the second aid station on Route 653 and around Seven Springs. Ethan has a story about being dead tired around Seven Springs when Mary came along out of nowhere chatting up a storm and looking fresh as if she just started.

Another thing I learned from reading blogs and talking to Mary, Ethan, and Mary Ann is to be prepared for amazing scenery and that it will be some of the most beautiful trail, forest and terrain I will ever see in the region. Perhaps I will lift my attention from what is three feet in front of me and take a look around and perhaps even take a picture or two. Finally, my friend seem confident that I would do well, perhaps finish somewhere in the middle of the pack if not in the top third of finishers. Despite the challenge and some cautionary trepidation, I am looking forward to it.