2011 Laurel Highlands Ultra

Imagine registering for  a 70.5 mile trail race and then learning that it was actually going to be 77 miles because of a detour? I guess when you are a ultrarunner, it doesn’t really matter…or does it? Well, Debbie is one heck of an ultrarunner and I’m proud to say that. Yesterday, our family had an amazing adventure in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. Debbie notched a victory at the 32nd annual Laurel Highlands Ultra, but more importantly, we all had a ton of fun. The trip required me to spend nearly 30 hours at the helm of our VW Eurovan over the course of three days, but it was all worth it.

This point to point trail race is a classic. The course is straightforward. It is the entire 70.5 mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) that begins in Ohiopyle and ends in Seward. I don’t know how much elevation the trail gains/loses, but it is significant. The trail was designed to be thru-hiked in multiple days. There are sign posts every mile and eight campsites with shelters. The race climbs up to a major ridge and traverses it for a long time. The high point on the course is 2,950 feet at Seven Springs. It is a hilly course and the path is gorgeous single track pretty much the entire way. Of course, 2011 and 2010 get an asterisk* because of the previously mentioned detour. The footbridge across the Pennsylvania Turnpike/Interstate 76 was condemned and removed before last year’s race. The detour chops two miles off of the trail, but adds 8.3 nasty miles of asphalt road and gravel road for a net gain of 6.5 miles. The bridge is being rebuilt for 2012, so Debbie just may hold on to her 77 mile* course record for a while!

The road section certainly added a unique twist to an already difficult ultra. The results show that there were 86 starters and 55 finishers, a 63.9% finish rate. From our van, where we slept in the finish line parking lot at Laurel Ridge State Park, we heard the last finishers make the 24 hour time limit as we were getting up this morning. It was surreal. Anyone who spends 23+ hours slogging on a trail is tough as nails. We were exhausted, but shared the joy of those last finishers as they crossed the line to cheers from the remaining volunteers and crews. The race organizers held a popular relay in conjunction with the 77-miler. It was fun to watch the teams in action, but my focus was on Debbie and the other 77 mile solo runners. Additionally, there was a 50 kilometer trail race that started in Ohiopyle 2.5 hours after the 77-milers’ 5:30 A.M. start. With the point to point setup, I didn’t see any of the 50K race. Truthfully, since we didn’t catch up to Debbie until the County Line Road crossing at mile 28, the 77 mile race was strung out. I saw and photographed only a handful of the 86 runners who started the race. We spent most of the day going up and down the mountains that make up the ridgeline that the LHHT traverses.

“We” was my four-year old son and 21-month old daughter. The three of us were the crew. This was the most fun we have had at an ultra and we have been too many. There have been some really good crew experiences. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was cool but didn’t end the way we wanted. The Javelina Jundred was awesome, but it was held in one spot. Last month’s North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mt. 50 Miler was a good warmup for yesterday. Point to point offers unique challenges. We saw Debbie at five aid stations/checkpoints and two other times during the road section. Each time, we setup our own little campsite. I hauled a lot of gear, but got tremendous support from other crews and especially the volunteers. I always commend excellent race volunteers, but the Laurel Highland Ultra is blessed with especially good helpers. The aid station at the end of the road section and the Route 271 aid station were by far my favorites. The volunteers at those aid stations were extra helpful. Of course, the finish line crew were fantastic. The runners were well taken care of.

The only glitch I observed was with the crew directions. The detour impacted the website and the crew instructions were not updated. The instructions weren’t clear and I overheard several crews voice their concern. Some folks got lost. I’m not complaining. I had the instructions and a map, so I figured it out, but if this was your first time, you were probably frustrated. The chase from aid station to aid station felt like the Cannonball Run, with a convoy of vehicles going from parking lot to parking lot. Several of the aid stations required short walks and parking was crowded. It was a pain to constantly pack and unpack the gear, but the time spent in the woods on the short LHHT connector trails was well worth the effort.

The weather was good. It was a big muggy and it heated up a bit in late afternoon. The trail was mostly dry. Some runners got caught in a late afternoon thunderstorm, but it was just a shower, and nothing like the massive boomers that rolled through on Friday afternoon. The sun rose a little after 5:00 A.M. in time for the 5:30 A.M. start. It set a little after 8:00 P.M. The sunset was a gorgeous display of light. We were on the drive from the town of Ligonier up to the finish when it was going down. The hills were verdant and awash in that golden hour glow. I would have loved to stop and spend time with my cameras, but I was on a mission. By that time, both kids were passed out in their car seats. I had strategically cleaned them up at the second to last aid station and changed them into their pajamas. Our crew plan worked perfectly. My day was full of excitement. “Things I heard in the aid stations” included: “I’m tired,” “I lost my dime,” “I’m starving,” “I have to pee,” “She took my bottle,” “I’m hot,” “I dropped my water bottle,” “I can’t reach my puppy,”and so on. All of that was before Debbie arrived!

We mostly survived on snacks, but we did have time to pick up a veggie pizza to go. I knew that Debbie would want a slice after the finish. We also swung by a grocery store and made a run for nuts, chocolate covered peanuts, chips, and some other essentials. We were on the go all day long.

Debbie had a good race. I can summarize what I saw and heard, but she did post her own thoughts. She didn’t hit her 15.5 hour goal, but she was on pace until the road section around 40 miles, before she faded. The last 20 miles were a struggle for her and she didn’t get to sprint the slightly downhill final six-mile runable section in daylight, which slowed her a bit more. At the second to last aid station at mile 64, which was the last time we saw her before the finish, we helped her change her socks and her top. She also nursed our daughter for the first time all day, which was more for the mother’s benefit. The pressure had built up and she needed to lighten the load. Debbie’s 16:27:33 time was very respectable and placed her 7th overall. She will be sore, but I think that going this distance will pay huge dividends as she builds towards her next 100-mile ultra in October.

I never saw the lead men. Derek Schultz won in a fine 13:17:20. He was followed by Joshua Finger and Dan Rose. The second and third women were Jennifer Brunet and Kinga Miklos.

The Laurel Highlands Ultra was a fabulous race. I’ll have more to report later in the week, including general information about our experience in the Laurel Highlands region.

Race Results

Debbie’s Race Report

Printroom Photos

8 Responses to “2011 Laurel Highlands Ultra”

  1. 1 Virginia Patsun 13 June 2011 at 8:35 am

    Deb and Scott, you and your children are such a great team. Both of you are inspirational. I love reading your posts and I loved reading Deb’s blog. Thanks to both of you for sharing your experiences. You’re both fascinating people.

  2. 2 Lloyd Thomas 13 June 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Congrats to Team Debbie! It was nice meeting you and thanks for the encouragement along the way.

    Lloyd Thomas
    Cleveland, OH

  1. 1 Fallingwater « Life Adventures Trackback on 15 June 2011 at 10:06 pm
  2. 2 2011 Mt. Greylock Trail Race « Life Adventures Trackback on 19 June 2011 at 9:15 pm
  3. 3 2011 Grindstone 100, Part 2 (Full Report) « Life Adventures Trackback on 10 October 2011 at 11:15 pm
  4. 4 2011 Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race « Life Adventures Trackback on 18 December 2011 at 5:50 pm
  5. 5 2011 Year in Review: Sport « Life Adventures Trackback on 5 January 2012 at 9:35 pm
  6. 6 2012 Laurel Highlands Ultra « Life Adventures Trackback on 10 June 2012 at 10:47 pm

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