PROLOGUE
There I was, a Friday afternoon, looking at the falls at Ohiopyle, when it hit me at once. In about twelve hours I would be embarking on the greatest adventure in my running career. I usually keep my emotions in check but suddenly as I watched the falls my breathing quickened and my heart began to pound. The start of the 70.5 mile Laurel Highlands Ultra would begin right where I was standing. The other two ultras in my short running career were solo endeavors but that weekend my friends Todd Lewis, Adam McGinnis and Elmo Snively were there with me. If running 70 miles wasn’t a challenge in of itself, the four of us all had our own dragons to tame. I was worried about turning my ankle on the technical trails like what happened to me at the Stone Mill 50 in Maryland – ending the last 12 mile in a “true sufferfest”. Todd was concerned about re-injuring his Achilles tendon early in the race – an injury that gave him so much grief last year. Adam was terrified since he did not train as much as he wanted (I joked that he was on a 6-month taper) and then suffered a painful bout of tendonitis just five-days before this race. He was barely able to walk and took despite measures like creating a paste of herbs, lawn clippings and broken tissue rejuvenation capsules then spreading it on his feet like peanut butter on toast. He said he would be running on sheer will, luck and grit alone. Elmo had a sore quad muscle ever since the Hyner Challenge 50k in late April. I had put in as many long runs as my schedule would allow prior to the race including many 50+ weeks and at times I flirting with the 70 mile mark. Also I did a couple back-to-back longs runs of 30 miles / 20 miles. Even though that was a lot of running but I was worried it that wasn’t enough. I had some experience on the trail. My last two long training runs were on different sections of the Laurel Highlands Trail further north and the rugged terrain was sobering. I forgot how demanding the trail was from what I remembered when I did the shorter 50k version last year. Here is the history of the ultra from the website:

The Laurel Highlands Ultra began as the “ultra challenge” in the late 1970’s when brothers Joe and Paul Butchko discovered the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. The trail had just been completed by the State of Pennsylvania as a permanently marked hiking trail along the Laurel Ridge in the Southwestern corner of the state. The two brothers began running sections of the trail and soon decided to try and run the entire length in one day. So they invited a few friends to join them and the race was born.

Ohiopyle Falls

Ohiopyle Falls

That first attempt proved a true challenge, as none of the runners made it past fifty-seven miles that day. The first official run was held the following year (1980) with seven starters. Four of the runners made it to the finish line in Seward. Joe Butchko was one of those finishers. His brother Paul served as the official timer, and has remained as the race timer to this day. The race began at the southern terminus of the trail, running north for seventy miles. Each mile is permanently marked with small concrete monuments. The first two editions of the race, 1980 and 1981, were seventy miles long. In 1982 the starting line was moved back, next to the falls in Ohiopyle State Park, thus adding the extra mileage that now makes the course 70.5 miles long.

Ohiopyle is a very small community – only 59 permanent residents according to the 2010 census. While Ohiopyle has a tiny year-round population, it is often filled with tourists on the weekend, who come take advantage of outdoor recreation opportunities at the surrounding Ohiopyle State Park like whitewater rafting on the river and the bike trail on the edge of town that is part of the Allegheny Passage Trail which runs from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh. With recent rains, it was an “off-weekend”. That evening after seeing the falls and walking around Ohiopyle, we found a place to eat dinner (overpriced and lousy service) and then went back to the best and worst hotel in Ohiopyle. (There is only one hotel in Ohiopyle.) The layout was like a two-bedroom apartment. Todd got one bedroom, Elmo and his girlfriend Mikalee had another. Adam had the couch and I slept on a small day bed in the living room. It was a sleepless night. Not only were there pre-race jitters, but between the train whistling through town, the loud dripping noise inside the air conditioner (when we turned it on, it was so loud it sounded like a zeppelin taking off) and the refrigerator motor made a knocking noise that sounded like there was a live chicken trapped inside. Lastly, I think Adam had the entire 814 area code texting him throughout the night and his giagantic Samsung Galaxy S2 LED screen exploded like a supernovae with each incoming text. Oh – and one more thing – Adam recites motivational posters in his sleep. Ask me about the nuggets of wisdom that Adam utters in his sleep the next time you see me.
Wake-up time: 3:30am. We get our stuff together, I ate (banana and Nutella on a bagel for me) and drank a cup of coffee. Todd looked concerned as he sat on the couch, freaked that he was feeling strange pains and aches throughout his body. I tried to reassure him that it is just pre-race nerves. Adam didn’t want to talk nor anyone ask him about his foot. It was as if if we said “tendonitis” three times, a monster would appear from the shadows and consume him in a mighty gulp. Out of everyone, I was most concerned with Adam – not only about his tendonitis – but a super-demanding work schedule kept him from doing the training he should have done. Unbeknownst to him, I and several others back home had a poll as to where he would mostly likely DNF. I was already out of the bet since I didn’t think he make it this after and that he would have came to his senses pre-race and would have gracefully bailed out before we made the trip. At 4:30AM we walked across town to the starting line to drop off our drop bags for the checkpoints at miles 46 and 57 and got our race T-shirt. I was a little disappointed in the shirt since last year I got a really nice half-zip jacket. We went back to the hotel where we packed our stuff that we didn’t need for the race into Mikalee’s car. Mikalee was going to crew for Elmo, driving from aid station to aid station with food, hydration and encouragement. Todd, Adam and I were going to carry what we needed as well as refuel at the aid stations and took full advantage of the two drop bag locations. I carried an assortment of Cliff mini’s, various nutrition bars, gummy bears, peanut butter and jelly trail mix and an assortment of Cliff Blox, Nuggets, Chunklets or whatever they are called. My plan was to eat about 100 to 150 calories every 30 minutes. On very long runs I like to get about 200 to 300 calories an hour in me though I think I read somewhere that the typical digestive system can process only about 200 calories an hour. I focused my mind toward my gut. “Wonder stomach activate… form bottomless pit!”

ACT ONE: THE FIRST 50K

Elevation profile first 20 miles

Elevation profile first 20 miles

We walked to the starting line above the falls and soon enough 5:30AM arrived and we were on the move. Overcast, it was still was rather dark. We started at the falls and ran across the bridge over the river then made a left turn toward the trailhead. Soon we started the first climb up out of the Yough canyon. It was a steep 700 foot climb before leveling off for about 1/2 of a mile and then downhill past the switchbacks 500 feet into Rock Spring Run. 3.6 miles. Next were two more climbs and a downhill between – the first was a climb of 550 feet before losing all that elevation and then some before the final climb out of the gorge. Next came a steep 1250 climb onto the top of the ridge via a tram road. If you are keeping score at home, it was 2500 feet of climbing and 1200 feet of downhill in the first 8 miles! During those eight miles, Elmo took off, Adam was within earshot until the second climb and Todd and I decided to hold ourselves back after the first downhill since we ran the first three miles too fast. During this roller-coaster of terrain, I struck a conversation with a guy from Western PA from between Pittsburgh and Blairsville, I think. I can’t remember his name except he had done the Punxy 50k the year before and wore a red Ultimate Direction hydration pack. (I will refer to him as Udie for the remainder of this post). Anyhow, for the most part of the climb, Udie and I were running about the same pace and we both had conservative running strategies. Todd slowed down at the last uphill. As we crested the last hill – from here on out – we would be running the Laurel Ridge all the way to Seward, now about 62 miles away to the north by northeast. It was wet and foggy on the ridge. With the lush foliage and dampness, it reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. We had some moderate rains in the past few days that made the trail muddier in sections than last year when I did the shorter 50k. However, with the cool temperatures and overcast skies, it was perfect running weather. It was much better than earlier forecasts which called for warm temperatures, clear skies and muggy air. In the days before the run, even though my true and ultimate goal was to finish, I estimated my time based on the average speed of my recent long runs, a conservative middle-of-the-pack finish time, and comparing the probable weather conditions with similar past weather history. Here was my estimate made four days prior to the race:

  • Checkpoint #1 at PA Route 653 – Mile 19: 9:45am
  • Checkpoint #2 at PA Route 31 – Mile 35: 12:45am
  • Checkpoint #3 at US Route 30 above Jennerstown – Mile 46: 4:45pm
  • Checkpoint #4 at PA Route 271 – Mile 57: 8pm
  • Finish at Route 56 near Seward: Midnight. Total time: 18 hours and 30 minutes.

Now at mile 8, it was time to put my plan into action. I decided to run 25/5 intervals: 25 minutes of running and then 5 minutes of power hiking. The idea was to run yet give yourself a five minute break every half hour to recover rather than run continuously all day and risk running out of gas late in the race.

Picture of the trail taken by Todd Lewis. It's no Rails-to-Trail!

Picture of the trail taken by Todd Lewis. It’s no Rails-to-Trail!

The first section was 19 miles from Ohiopyle to Route 653. It was a blur. It was like watching a movie and fast-forwarding, seeing only thumbnail scenes at the other of the screen ala Netflix. I do remember Todd passing me at about mile 10 on my first power walk interval. Weeks before Todd, Adam, Elmo and I decided that we would each run our own race and would not run at someone else’s pace and fitness level. It was each man for themselves. Asking if I was okay, I reminded him of my 25/5 plan and I told him to continue on. I also remember the trail being more technical than I recalled from a year ago. In this section there were just a few places where you can get a good stride going for a long period of time – all of your attention is on where each foot plant would be on the trail and finding the best line across the rocks. People often ask me what I think about about on these long races and in this case, I am concentrating on the present and the trail ahead. A lot of the time between mile 8 and 19, I would be running with Udie, then let him go during the walk interval, only to catch up to Udie once I was running again. Everything was going to plan and I seemed very fresh. Also with the run and walk intervals repeating every 30 minutes, it was a great way to remind me to eat something during the walk and take in at least 200 calories every hour.
At about mile 15 I noticed a very slight pain in my right ankle and I began to worry. On a scale from one to ten, it was about a 2 to 3 but that 2 to 3 can become a 6 or 9 fast. However as the miles continued the pain would either disappear or get no worse than a 3. Running with Udie at mile 17 on the hill before “The Rock Wall” at mile 18, I saw Todd in front of me. I said something cheerful like “Hey, how’s things doing?” Todd didn’t have to speak to tell me that things were not well. He looked like he had seen a ghost while eating a whole onion like an apple. He said he was having severe stomach cramps. Knowing that there was nothing I can do and knowing stomach cramps can disappear quickly – or stay with you all day and be your demise – I wished Todd the best and continued on. Udie and I tackled a section that I affectionately call “The Wall” – a short yet steep 400 climb amid some rock dens at mile 18. Soon enough we made it to the first checkpoint at 9:51AM – only 6 minutes behind my estimate. The first checkpoint is at Route 653. I stayed there a little longer than I should but I wanted to wait, hoping Todd would come out of the woods feeling better but after 10 to 12 minutes with no sign of Todd, I decided to continue on.
The next several miles from mile marker 19 to 24, I really got into a groove. My right ankle wasn’t getting any worse and my footfalls were spot on. I was able to pick a good line and glide over the terrain. All season it seemed like my left ankle had been hyper-flexible and I would turn it slightly on almost every other technical trail run. Therefore I had to pay extra attention on the trail ahead so I wouldn’t step on something and roll it again. At over 70 miles even a slightly turned ankle could turn very painful quickly. However, in this section, I was in the zone. In fact at one point Udie had to tell me to slow down and run more conservatively. At about mile 23.5 I started to hear the gun shots from the shooting range at Seven Springs Resort. I think because of the overcast day, the gun fire traveled much father than last year. At mile 24 Udie and I crossed the sign warning us not to depart from the trail due to the shooting range. We ran down into Blue Hole Creek and then up the other side. At mile 26, feeling great and a little cocky, I touched the 26 mile marker with my fingertips and said “Suck it marathoners!” as Udie laughed and we made it to another aid station along a road just before Seven Springs Resort. For the most part, I usually eat a couple pieces of fruit like an orange, banana or watermelon slice, a small slice of a sandwich like PBJ and something salty like potato chips or pretzels. Except for the distance between the start and the first aid station and between US Route 30 and PA Route 271 later in the race, most aid stations were about 6 to 7 miles apart. Before the race and expecting a warmer day, I estimated I would be drinking about 20 ounces of fluids per hour. With the cooler temps and the overcast, on race day I was drinking about 15 ounces an hour. My running pack had two 20 ounce bottles. One had Perpetuem and the other had Gatorade and I filled both at each aid station. I also had another bottle of Gatorade deep inside my running pack in case of emergencies and for the two longer sections between aid stations at the start and between Route 30 and 271 late in the race. Both of these aid stations were about 11 miles apart.
I didn’t stay too long at the Seven Springs aid station. I climbed pass a series of condos, up to the top of the hill to the holding pond for the snow making machines for the ski resort, ran around the edge, and the down service roads and a couple ski slopes. I ran this section faster than last year when the June sun last year bore its rays down on my baking head. This is where, last year, Matt Lindsey, another local ultrarunner from Altoona, began to suffer as he ran in the open without the cooler canopy under the trees. When I did this section in the 50k last ear, it was a ballbuster. There is a short yet steep climb up and past a radio tower at mile 29 and then a rolling section until where the 50k runners turned off the trail to the finish. Last year, maybe because of the heat, or maybe the lack of quality training, this section was awful! I slowed to a crawl. Rocks barely sticking up out of the ground by mere inches looked like the Rock of Gibraltar. Other runners round me were either shuffling, throwing up or getting nauseous. What a difference a year makes! This year I was able to plow ahead by climbing the trail past the radio tower, past the turnoff for the 50k and then was rewarded with a nice downhill section of high pines and soft trail to the Route 31 checkpoint and aid station. I arrived at 12:53pm, only 8 minutes short of my estimated time.

ACT TWO: THE TURN
I ran a couple 30 mile runs in preparation for this race. After the aid station at PA Route 31, I was running farther than I have in training all season and I haven’t ran this far since the 50-miler I did in November. At the aid station, I went through my mental checklist of how things were going and it wasn’t too long before I surmised that things were going well. I was feeling pretty good. From PA Route 31 at mile 32 to mile 35 was unknown trail to me. It was a section that I never ran in training, racing or what have you. I joked to my friend earlier that “here be dragons” like all uncharted lands on old maps. Luckily the section was mostly downhill and a beautiful stretch trail amid mountain laurel until I found myself on familiar ground at mile 35. I ran this section, an out and back from Route 30 to here at back, just two weeks prior. At mile 36.5 I crossed the PA Turnpike. It was 2:16pm.
After crossing The PA Turnpike, the trail crossed two streams deep within a hallow. While climbing out of the hallow, I looked at my iPhone that was tracking my GPS and noticed I had only 5% battery power. Prepared, I took my portable power backup and I immediately realized I forgot the cable that attaches from the power pack to the iPhone. DAMN IT!! I decided that the iPhone was useless to me and I turned it off instead of keeping it on until the battery drained. This decision to turn off the phone would become very important later in the race. I looked at my watch and decided to track my intervals and nutrition by looking at my watch.

Out of the woods at mile 46. This is about the moment I see Joe and Penny Orr.

Out of the woods at mile 46. This is about the moment I see Joe and Penny Orr.

I soldiered on through this section which I ran a few weeks before as a training run and was prepared for this long and technical section. I made the grind through it, stopping at the aid station at mile 39, running past Beam Rocks and more rock dens at mile 41, through the pine forest at mile 43, continually inching closer to the Route 30 aid station/checkpoint at mile 46. Even though I ran this section slower in the race as compared to the 25-mile training run, this section seemed to fly by. As I approached Route 30, I looked at my watch. 4:56PM. My estimated ETA was 4:45pm. Not bad to be just 11 minutes behind after 46 miles of running. I have been moving forward for 11 hours and 26 minutes. My legs were beginning to show the signs of fatigue but otherwise the rest of me felt fine.
At every aid station you can hear cheering from 150 yards away and it always provided me a boost to my morale. As I emerged from the wilderness, I looked ahead, my eyes trying to adjust to the brightness of the open field. First I saw Joe and Penny Orr, friends from back home. Then I saw fellow Allegheny Trailrunners and our club treasurer, Donnie Rhodes. Joe and Penny were fascinated about my journey and they mentioned the possibility of showing up though I never guessed they’d actual be there. Donnie is dating Joe and Penny’s daughter, Jayme.
“How are feeling?” said Donnie.
“My legs are tired but I feel good” I replied.
“You look strong” Donnie mentioned.
In the back of my head I was comparing today with the Stone Mill 50. At Stone Mill I noticed a pain in my ankle around mile 25. By 35 my ankle was swollen and needed ice, at 42 I had stopped running and I was literally limping from 42 to the finish. Today at mile 46 I was still running, my ankle was more of a nuisance. Furthermore, at this point, I ran nearly 9,000 feet of elevation gain over technical terrain. Going by the numbers and by my mood, I was having the greatest running day of my life.
I talked to Joe, Penny and Donnie for about five minutes giving them the highlights of my day.
“Adam came about 15 minutes ago. I think he still is over at the aid station, sitting in the chair” said Donnie pointing to the aid station across Route 30. This was the first time I had any information as to the whereabouts of Adam.
“He seemed to be out of sorts. He kept looking off into the distance” added Donnie.

At mile 46, talking to Donnie Rhodes and Joe and Penny Orr about my day thus far.

At mile 46, talking to Donnie Rhodes and Joe and Penny Orr about my day thus far.

I thanked Joe, Penny and Donnie how much I appreciated them showing up, said my goodbyes and then hiked down an embankment to the highway and across to the aid station on the other side. (Why did the ultrarunner cross the road? To get to the aid station on the outside.) There, in a lawn chair, sat Adam. “My quads are trashed” he confessed.
I told him my legs were tired and tight but were still going strong. I told him about seeing Todd and his physical state at mile 17.
Adam didn’t wanted to talk much about his day. I don’t know if he considered signing his bib at that point, he decided to take several more minutes to rest and he’d be ready to go. My observation was that he still had at least another 10 miles or so in him but with the betting pool back home, I didn’t want to encourage him to press on or call it a day and later be accused of tainting the results. Out of all the bets, 46 miles was the farthest, with no one imagining he would be running further than 46 miles let alone finishing. After the aid station manager threatened to start charging Adam rent, Adam lifted himself out of the chair, gave me and the volunteers a salute, and ran into the woods. I admit that I was rather impressed at this point. Several days later when telling this anecdote to Adam, he responded by saying “Never underestimate my stupidity.”
While at the aid station, I had a hot cup of Ramen noddles. I met Jeff Calvert, a runner from State College who we were supposed to run a couple of training runs together but our scheduled never worked out. He was on the ground trying to stretch out and roll his calves. He was having major trouble with this legs and told his wife that the next section was going to take awhile. I also met a guy who recognized me from the running club and I also saw Udie when I arrived at the aid station. I had an entire change of clothes in my drop bag: a fresh shirt, shorts, hat, compression tights and socks; but decided to change only my socks. About ten minutes or so after Adam left, I filled all three bottles since the next section was 11.5 miles, and continued on with my adventure. Here and at all the aid stations, the crews were extremely helpful, patient and super-friendly.

THE TEXT MESSAGE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
I always shake my head when someone recounts a race and says something like “The first part of the race was easy but then the second half was really hard.” To me, the real challenge, or the true race, doesn’t begin until things get tough. It could be a point when you start demanding that your body to do something that is far and away from the norm for most humans. OR it could be a key event that changes the entire tone of a race.
It was around mile 49 or 50, at exactly 5:59PM, at the bottom of Machine Run, when I came to a horrible realization! I forgot my headlamp in my drop bag at the last aid station!!! I estimated it would be more than an hour or so if I turned around, got my lamp, and then back to where I was. I turned on my iPhone which I turned off by at mile 37. In the corner of the screen: NO SERVICE. The battery indicated 3% battery power. I was in a deep mountainside hallow. I began to run up and out of the hallow as fast as I could, holding my iPhone high in the air in front of me preying for a signal. I did not enough power to send out a call, I thought. I would have to send a text. Then — one bar. I texted while I ran:

textmessage

As I breathed a sigh of relief, a flurry of emails and notifications flooded my phone and then the battery warning came up and the screen goes dead. I looked ahead and saw a sign which I did not have time to read. It was a DCNR sign explaining why but the forest floor ahead was dead from spraying for one reason or another. It was kind of odd to see brown vegetation when the trail before it was lush and green. I crossed my 50 mile milestone – I am now on my feet further than I ever had. At mile 50.5, I crossed a dirt road and immediately recognized the trail. From the previous aid station to that spot on the trail, it was uncharted territory. But now and forward, it was all familiar again. Back in December, a friend Ethan and I ran a back-to-back run from Route 271 to this point and back to 271. My recollection was that their was one gradual climb along the side of a bowl valley to the west before climbing over the ridge and onto the eastern side which I would be met with a series of rock dens before reaching PA Route 271. I didn’t remember it being very technical.
My pace began to slow in this stretch – I ran when I could and walked up the hills regardless if I was within my running interval or not. I ran around one bowl, the valley to my left and climbed a ridge ahead of me. But as ran, I reached another bowl, and then another. It seemed to take forever to make it to the top of the summit and then run downhill on the other side. I darted through and around the impressive rock dens from mile 55 to 57 before reaching the aid station at 8:15pm, 15 minutes after my best estimate days before but 15 faster than my estimate I gave Donnie over text message four hours earlier.
While I run around along the spine of the Laurel Highlands, Donnie too had an adventure. By the time he got my text, he had already left the aid station at Route 30. Donnie and the Orr’s were having drinks at a bar in Ligonier. First they got into his truck to find a hardware store to buy me a light. There was nothing open on a late Sunday afternoon in town. So they went back to the aid station at Route 30 to see if they could retrieve my drop bag only to have learned that it was sent ahead to the finish. They got into the truck drove to the finish only to discover that my bag had not yet made it to the finish and was with one of the race directors back at the final checkpoint at mile 57. Donnie got back into the truck and was able to intercept it at mile 57 (it was in the back of the race directors truck) in time before the bag made the last leg of its voyage to the finish.

Course from the PA Turnpike to the finish near Seward.

Course from the PA Turnpike to the finish near Seward. Click for larger image.

ACT THREE: THE FINAL 13
I reached the aid station across PA Route 271 at mile 57 – ironically it was at the exact spot where I finished my training run a few weeks prior to the ultra. There was Adam, slumped in a chair looking beat down and confused. A short woman, blonde with glasses, (Michele Jacoby) and sporting one of our Allegheny Trailrunners shirts from the Rock N The Knob race approached me and told me that my friends delivered my headlamp. Since my phone died shortly after the text, I had no idea if they delivered the light nor did I know the journey they took to get it there. (Let me state it in writing that I owe Donnie Rhodes a tremendous amount of thanks and gratitude!) As I got some soup and filled my bottles, I could see that Adam was not loving life at that moment. A gentleman, who might have been the aid station captain) or the very some race director that Donnie tracked down, perhaps) looked at me. “You look like you are in good shape and doing well” he said.
“I’m doing okay. Tired” I said thinking that he is not familiar with my stone-like expressions.” Speaking of stone-like, my quads were like rocks. Then I looked at Adam. “Are you comparing me to him, cause he looks like shit” I said.
“Yeah.. he’s not doing well. He has been here awhile.”
While I remained quiet and kept my mouth shut at the previous aid station, here I gave Adam more encouragement to him to finish the race. I know if he dropped out it would bother him tomorrow and he’d be filled with regret. “We only have a half-marathon to go and seven-hours to do it” I said hoping Adam had the mental faculties to understand simple math and logic. Normally, I am not the type of person to be overly assertive and yell at someone to man up as if I was a drill sergeant. Only Adam knew what he had left in him and how much more suffering he can muster from his broken body. A couple of times he would close his eyes and I would snap my fingers in front of his nose. The aid station captain, seeing this many times in many ultras before, and also wanting to take any remaining drop bags that were already picked up and deliver them to the finish line, started a countdown — ten minutes. Adam had ten minutes — either start going or sign out now and be tempted with a comfortable ride in a warm truck to the finish line. After a few minutes before the captain departed, Adam sat up from the chair and said “hold on”. He sent a text out to his wife notifying her to expect him at the finish. He then put his headlamp on his head and said lets go.
Realizing I knew Adam, the captain said, “Do you claim him?”
“I’ll claim him” I said.
“He’s yours. Good luck” he said and we left the station. Adam would later say that if I hadn’t shown up at that moment he would have signed his bib and would have dropped out of the race. What he didn’t know was that for me to be there at that moment there were a countless number of circumstances and coincidences that lead me there: Looking at my iPhone just after the turnpike and deciding to turn off my phone; Joe, Penny and Donnie going to see us race that day; deciding not to turn around to turn around which would have set me back an hour later; having enough power to text Donnie for him to get my headlamp; Donnie not giving up after missing my bag at the station and driving in circles to retrieve it; etc. etc. If my headlamp would not have been at the aid station at mile 57, my race would have been over! I would not have ran any further without illumination.
During the aid station as I grabbed my drop bag, I noticed Todd’s bag was still in the pile. I asked Michele whether if that was a good sign. She said if someone would have dropped, they would pull their bag and send it to the finish. If Todd’s bag was still there it meant that he was still on the course. Even though I didn’t know how far back Todd was, it was the first time since I last saw him nearly 11 hours ago that I had any knowledge about Todd. (Aside: It’s very strange to comprehend that it was 11 hours since I last saw Todd. For most race distances, the more likely answer is “I saw so-and-so 10 of 15 minutes ago.” The answer is never something like a half day or “11 hours”!)
After some starts and stops leaving the aid station as Adam tried to send a text to his wife which gave him a brief minute reconsidering his discussion to go on, we started running. The first two miles were actually fast as we ran in the growing darkness. But after about 15 minutes or so of running Adam asked if we could start walking. Considering how heavy my legs were and my nerves from running so fast in the dark even with a headlamp, I was more than happy to let up the pace and walk. Three weeks prior I ran this section of the course as part of an out and back training run from Seward (mile 70) to mile 57 and back to Seward. On that trip I slightly rolled my ankle a few times by landing wrong on some uneven terrain and black rocks – probably blackened from a forest fire long ago. On that training run, I ran from mile 57 to mile 70 at a easy casual pace and did it in 2 hours and 41 minutes. Several days ago I estimated because of the darkness and tired legs, I should be able to finish this section in just under four hours.
I have been nearly spot on with my estimated times for each section of the race. For this last section, I would be wrong. So wrong….
At mile 60.5, we began to run a short section – about 1/3 of a mile – to where the trail merged with a pipeline road for another 1.25 miles. It was the only time in 70 miles when the trail turned from singletrack to a dirt road. Our plan was to run to the final aid station at the end of the pipeline road. However as soon as we got onto the pipeline road, it was just enough of an uphill grade that Adam and I couldn’t run it until about mile later when the road sloped downhill to the last aid station at mile 62. At the aid station, Adam was relieved when he learned that race officials could not pull him out of the race at this point since it was not a checkpoint. Adam contemplated staying awhile to rest until he realized that we were now in the single-digit distance to the finish. We had a little more than 8 miles to go.
As Adam and I had some potato soup, Adam greeted some fellow trailrunners that appeared at the aid station who had helped him along the way. I grew a little nervous smelling gas emitting from an adjacent gas well and the camp fire the aid station crew made about 25 feet from said well. Soon we got ourselves together and where ready to roll.
“It’s all downhill from here!” said the aid station captain. I didn’t want to argue but I recalled that there were two slight uphills before the major downhill into the Comenaugh Valley at mile 67. Just before Adam and I left the aid station, I wanted to mention to Adam that I believed that the captain’s trail description wasn’t entirely accurate. However, as soon as we left the aid station, I had forgot. I had my own issues to contend with.
My right ankle pain was noticeable almost the entire race but was not a problem until this final section. After the aid station, the pain dramatically increased and it felt like it was coming undone. The pain had progressed to about a 5 or 6 on a scale from 0 to 10 but luckily at that time there was no swelling. Recalling back to Stone Mill, it was about the same level of pain I had at about mile 35 at Stone Mill. Just having only 8 miles to go, I kept my hopes up. But then I noticed something unusual. The pain in my ankle occurred each time I lifted my foot of the ground, like the foot itself was coming unhinged at the ankle. There was an unnerving popping sound every time I lifted my right foot off the ground. This forced me to walk with a very short gait – also a shuffle. Between miles 62 and 63, as I shuffled along, another trail runner asked what was up. From mile 57 to here, we were passed by about a half dozen runners. We would step aside and let them pass. Each would ask how we were doing and we would just say something vague like “okay” or “good” or “fine”. But this time for reasons I still don’t know why, when this trail runner asked how we were doing, I decided to spill my guts and I mentioned about my ankle problem. “Not good. My ankle is giving me issues.”
“I have an ankle brace. It’s yours if you want it. It will help” he said.
Amazed that by chance this guy had just happened to be carrying an ankle brace AND that he was so generous to surrender it, I hesitated before I stuttered “Yes. Please.”
He turned around and instructed Adam to dig for it in his running pack.
As soon as Adam handed the brace to me and I said thank you, the good samaritan ran off and disappeared in darkness ahead. Adam and I sat down as I took off my right shoe and stretched the neoprene brace over my ankle. After putting on my shoe, I began to walk. I noticed an immediate difference! Not only was I able to walk, but it was enough support and comfort that I began power walking. In fact, I started to gain some distance from Adam until I hit the downhill into Grey Run at mile 64. (NOTE: I really like to know who gave me his ankle brace. I need to thank him! If you read this, please contact me!) Rutted from erosion with exposed roots and rocks, my ankle did not like the extra shock traveling downhill and I again slowed down to ‘old man pace’. Not only had Adam caught up but he soon passed me. Going into and out of the hallow, Adam began to bitch and moan to the couple of trail runners we met along this section. “Downhill, my ass! I want to go back and punch that guy in the face!” he complained to anyone who cared to listen.
Out of the hallow, I met up with Adam again and again I started to gain a little distance past him until at mile 67 when the trail began the downhill into the gorge. Even weeks before, I wasn’t looking forward to this section. It was a rocky downhill of about 1200 feet in two miles. But now, with my cranky ankle, it was going to be very rough going. At the top, Adam, knowing I would be slowing down to a crawl and Adam wanting to, in his words “get off this damn mountain” and finish this race, he asked if I minded if he could go on ahead without me. I told him to go.
I spent the next two miles clamoring down rocks and grabbing at trees and mountain laurel as I made a slow and painful descent down the ridge. Then, in the last mile, the trail finally began to level off. I slowly began to increase my cadence when I realized that my ankle didn’t hurt as much when I was at a slow jog as it did by walking. As soon as I gained speed, I smelled smoke as the haze grew thicker in the beam of my headlamp. I surged farther and ran faster. After a half mile, I saw lights in the distance. I had made it and I ran through the chute at the finish line.

Race director handing me my trophy.

Race director handing me my trophy.

The race director handed me my trophy, a wooden replica of the 70 concrete mile markers I had past all day. He asked me about how I was feeling and what I thought about the course. I told him that despite my ankle I thoroughly enjoyed the course and overall I had a good day. It was 1:23am. I had just ran 70.5 miles in nineteen hours and 54 minutes. Even though I was delighted just to have finished such a grueling race at a respectable sub-20 hour time, I ended up almost 90 minutes slower than I estimated. Three weeks before the race I ran the last 13 miles in 2 hours 41 minutes in easy training. Several days ago I estimated it would take me 4 hours to complete that very section. Today, in the race, I did it in 5 hours and 8 minutes.
At the finish I sat down as Adam’s wife, Kelly, got ice for my ankle and some chili for my stomach. My ankle finally began to swell as the flesh spilled out from between my sock and compression calve sleeve. As I sat and talked to Adam and Kelly, Adam told me that Elmo, who finished four hours earlier, had left with our bags, wallet, keys and everything else we did not take with us on the run! I was in more of a jam since I was counting on Elmo to take me to my parent’s home near Gallitzin after the race. As we contemplated whether I should wait for Todd, who we had no idea when he would finish, or if Adam and Kelly would take me to my parents – a trip that would be 35 miles out of their way – I looked up as three finishers came into the finish area. “Hey, that’s Todd!” I yelled. Adam ran over to greet Todd. “Toddles!” Adam yelled.
It was another remarkable coincidence or divine intervention pending on your religious outlook, that Adam, Todd and I finished all within 15 minutes of each other. Adam – 19:45. Ben – 19:53. Todd – 19:58. Days later after looking at our splits, Todd crushed the last section and gained all the time he had lost. He plowed through the last 13 miles in 4 hours and 7 minutes.
Greeted by his wife, son and step-dad, Todd looked rather well after his journey. They agreed to take me to my parent’s house. We didn’t stay very long at the finish area since everybody wanted to go home – it was a long, long day. As Todd’s wife navigated home, Todd didn’t go into much detail on his ordeal except for how he recovered from his cramping stomach at mile 17 through 20 and soon Todd fell asleep with his head on his son’s shoulder. I got to my parent’s house at about 3am, hobbled to the bathroom, and cut the compression sleeves off my calves off rather than struggling to get them around my feet. I surveyed the damage from blisters (I never get blisters) and a bruise on the side of my right foot that I don’t remember how I got. I showered and then went to bed. After having restless leg syndrome spasms until about 8am, I finally fell into a deep sleep and did not wake up until 4pm Sunday afternoon.

EPILOGUE
Except when I tell someone how far I ran and when the words ‘SEVENTY POINT FIVE MILES’ and they respond with incomprehensible stares, I don’t think it has total sunk in. I do know that if you asked me a year ago if I would run the 70.5 mile Laurel Highlands Ultra, it would have been inconceivable to me. Several days after the run, Todd, Elmo and several trailrunning friends met for drinks and we recalled some of the highlights from the run. In fact, it seems everybody wants to know about my adventure which is the biggest reason why I wrote such a detailed post.
As for my ankle, it is doing really well. At the end, it was still nowhere near as bad as it was at Stone Mill. At the end my ankle felt like how it did at mile 39 at the Stone Mill so I guess I got that going for me… In the days afterward, my ankle felt about 3 to 4 days better than it did after Stone Mill, if that makes sense. The pain disappeared in a few days, I was able to walk normally by mid-week and was able to walk a few miles with no problems by the weekend. 11 days out from the race, I ran three miles on the track. Strangely my ankles were fine but my knees felt stiff and achy. I had another easy run of Thursday and it wasn’t until Saturday, a 6-mile run, on crushed limestone, that I felt normal. However, I am still going to take it easy until the first week in July before I take on any serious mileage or terrain. I am in no hurry. Taking it easy, I have been figuring out my race schedule for the late summer and fall. As of this writing, I am looking forward to the fall since I have already signed up for the Megatransect in late-September and I am seriously considering of returning to Stone Mill and attempting to do a “fast” 50-miler completely injury-free.