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Monday, June 16, 2008

My run across the Sods

My volunteer report from Highlands Sky, a 40 Mile Trail Race in wild, wonderful West Virginia.

Highlands Sky is a great race in the Mongohela Forest and Dolly Sods Wilderness area.
I arrived at Canaan Valley Resort, got my tent set up, even figured out the "extra" poles this time,and went over to the lodge to help out. We got the T-Shirts and drop bags organized, them moved outside to unpack all the aid station supplies, and then repack each individual AS container-eight containers in all. A good experience for me, as I am captaining an AS at Burning River in August.
After a great pasta feed, with free beer from the Mountain State Brewery Company (and when you're not running in the race you can drink more beer!) I retired back to my tent for an early wake up call. Not as early as the runners though; they were bused to the race start for a 6am race start!
I worked Aid Station Six with Tom and Dan Todd and Ted. They told me this was the most scenic AS on the course. As we drove up (and up) as AS # 6 is at around 4000 feet, Tom gave me the Dolly Sods scenic tour, and explained the difference in the botany as we got higher in the elevation. I also got to experience the "Road Across the Sky" in the best way possible-in an air-conditioned vehicle. This section of the race is dreaded by the runners. As we drove down in, I could see why. As you top a hill, you can see the road, for at least 1 mile in the distance. As you top that hill, you see the road, extending straight off in the distance. Again. I believe you get the same experience three times in a row before you get to AS # 6 and turn back off onto trail again.

Hitting the Dolly Sods area, as we passed the campground, it was a very cool experience. The terrain was nothing like I have experienced. It does, as, I have read, look like Canada. Or, I actually thought, what the Scottish moors would look like!
It was much more windy up there, a forceful wind blew on us all day. It was tricky setting up the AS, because every item had to be weighed down so it wouldn't blow away. It didn't take too long, and then we were impatiently waiting on our lead runner. We kept watching the hill-when would our front runner top the hill?? And who was it?
Finally! The first runner comes into view. We were expecting it to be Joel Wolpert, and it was!! He arrives looking very good at our AS, but # 2, has crested the hill and is not far behind. In fact, he came in 2 or 3 minutes right after Joel, and set off pretty fast after him. We could see a little ways across the "moors" and thought this was going to be a tight race between Joel and Zach Irelan, the # 2 runner.

I was being the scribe, getting numbers and times as each runner entered the AS. Sometimes a runner would come in single, at other times 3 or 4 would arrive, then a few more, so it would get kind of busy, then drop off again. Runners were for the most part tired and hot as they reached AS # 6. In fact, I heard many people complaining that they couldn't eat-a pretty common occurrence when you are too hot. But I also noticed many water bottles entering the AS half or almost full. You do have to push that water more, runners, even if you don't feel like drinking!

We get down to the near cut off. Our AS is the "last" cutoff. Once you make it here, there are no cutoffs-but you still only have 12 hours to finish the race. Dan Todd had the Captain's job of establishing the last runners through. 3 runners came over the hill, and he checked the watch and said that was it. The last 3 or 4 runners after those runners came over the hill at a considerable interval and were timed out at our AS. I know what that feels like!
Gene and I started to get ready for our next volunteer job, running sweep after the last runners. The sweep's job is to make sure there are no runners left out on the course, and to pick up trail markings and trash along the way. I believe we picked up much more "other people" trash than we did HS runners. There was very little trash from runners out there, so great job everyone!

Of course, the day was now getting interesting. We could see the storm rolling in. The EMT's were radio'd to get off the mountain, as a big thunderstorm was heading in. Greaaat. Our job was just beginning.
We gave the runners a good head start before we finally took off. It was very cool to be running out on the moors. It was a rocky, technical section at first. I commented that it looked like a creek bed we were running in-I'm pretty sure we were.
After the first 1/2 mile or so, the skies opened up on us. I'm sure it was pretty up there, under the skies, but we were trying to go as fast as we could, in the pouring rain. I did appreciate the beauty whenever I could take a glance around, but Gene and I both were a bit concerned about our safety. There were two lightning strikes rather close. A little too close for comfort. At one point, I thought it was going to hail on us, as it was turning very chilly.

We get to AS # 7, which is the AS where all the water, drinks, and equipment have to be trekked in! We fuel up and give our runners a little head start here also. TJ, Juli and Tony's son, is joining as sweep. TJ is 12, and a very good runner. He made a nice addition to our team, so we could keep the forward motion going and pick up all the markers.

The rock formations were so interesting this far on top of the mountain. Some of them looked smooth, worn down by centuries of constant wind and rain hitting them. I really wished I had taken pictures,but I only got my camera out a bit, as it was still pouring rain down on us! The fog also blew in and it seemed almost dark. I didn't realize I should have considered bringing a flashlight for a mid afternoon run!!
We got to the ski slope-which we walked up (TJ ran it) and then hit the infamous "butt slide". This is a very, very steep downhill. It wasn't raining on us at this time, but it didn't matter. You could not go down this without sliding. There really was no walking down this, it was more of a controlled skid. At one point I found myself sliding completely backwards, digging my fingers into the mud, trying to self-arrest. Of course, I found this completely fun and was having a blast! BUT I could see how this would not be the most fun at mile 35 or so of your race. AND this was the slickest mud I have ever been in, I do not know what the chemical composition was.
We get to the bottom of the butt slide and are now on the motorcycle trail, but it's the same type of mud so the footing is no better. In fact, I would put my foot down securely to have it still go out from underneath me! There was alot of flailing and arms waving trying to keep my balance. TJ was doing his best to run, and was rewarded with a spectacular fall where he almost submerged his head in a mud puddle. We told him that was a great fall, since we didn't think he appreciated his falls yet.
I stop for a bathroom break just as we hit the gravel road. TJ and Gene have taken off, and I bring up the rear-it feels good to actually RUN after sliding and hoping for a good mile or so. I twist my ankle a bit right before the AS-how embarassing. I'm glad it didn't hurt more. I can hop across boulders and mud, yet hurt my ankle on the flattest piece of ground around.
Tom offers me a ride back to the Lodge, and I take him up on it. The last 4 miles is just about road, and TJ and Gene can sweep this and run a bit faster than I can. I get back to the lodge, and even find hot water still in the showers-sweet!
Then there is the post race meal, with yet more free beer. Dan Lehmann and the West Virginia Trail Runners put on an excellent race. I would highly recommend this-it's tough, but beautiful, to anyone who likes to push themselves and likes a nice tough course!!

(There are pics but my husband's computer does not seem to like to upload photos. :( )