Elevation Range: 2499'-4690' ............. Elevation Gain: 5739'
June 16 , 2018 - Charles Dickens may have said "it was the best of days, it was the worst of days" if he were chasing the sky across Dolly Sods with the rest of us on this day. Perhaps it is experiencing the extremes of life at both ends in a single endeavor that keeps us coming back to engage in such challenges that may best capsulize the epitome of life itself.
It was my fourth go-round on this daunting loop, so I knew well enough what I signed up for. Maybe I came back just to see my old friend Race Director Dan Lehmann; maybe it is the scenery or the endurance challenge; or maybe it is just to dance a magical pas de deux with the rocks in a place that is appropriately said to be "Almost Heaven". Whatever the reason, Highlands Sky is and has been one of my favorites from the beginning... and I may yet return another year for number five.
My brother Don joined me in support during the race with plans to backpack the area in the two days after the race. When sore feet following the race gave me a reality check, we nixed the hike. Don's company and help at every turn were most welcome and appreciated. We enjoyed the company of George Hollerbach and his buddy Sergei at the pre-race dinner and made sure to get more than our fair share of Willie Lehmann's smooth amber beer, courtesy of his Blackwater Brewing Company - always one of the highlights of the event for me.
After a warm, mostly quiet night camping near the race start above Red Creek, entertained by a couple of whippoorwills and the screeches of a couple of bobcats, we rose early to join the rest of the field of about 200 for a mild beginning to the day. After a quick selfie with Stacy Gautsch (aka trail wifey) we were off on the road for the first couple of miles or so until we cut hard left for the initial two-thousand-foot climb on muddy singletrack trails.
I took full advantage of my advanced years and started slow. Hey, I earned it; I'm going to use it. Most of the field charged ahead in their "foolish youthful enthusiasm"!!! Climbing is my strength, but I wasn't overly jazzed to charge up the hills so early in the day. Instead, I sort of sat back on my heals and gained the top of the plateau without much effort or heavy breathing. I didn't have much of a racing attitude. Some days you got it, some days you don't.
After catching up with Stacy, we ran together for awhile through the early rock fields, enjoying the blooming mountain laurel and occasional fragrant honeysuckle. The two pics of me on the trail and crossing a stream below are from this time. After the aid station at ten miles, which we reached in about two-and-a-half hours, we separated as I was finally feeling some racing in my legs. It took quite a while to find my rhythm, but finally I was able to get it together as I bombed down the other side for fifteen hundred feet before the second big climb of a thousand feet.
pics courtesy of Stacy Gautsch
Before reaching the aid station at the half way point in about five hours I caught up with Sean Donachy who kept me company much of the rest of the event right to the finish. Don was there at the aid station with my drop bag helping me transition quickly before hitting the seven miles of rolling dirt road across the top of the plateau to reach Bear Rocks where we would return to singletrack across Dolly Sods. The sun was getting hot as Sean and I ran and walked intermittently to cover the distance in around an hour and forty minutes. It is easy to reflect on previous performances over the same course and judge what you are doing in contrast. I knew I was going much slower than usual, but it really didn't matter. I was enjoying the camaraderie with Sean and others and not hurting very much, so it was all good.
Starting across the exposed Dolly Sods section I had to take a nature break, so lost touch with those I was running with. Playing catch-up, I built enough momentum to roll past everyone before coming off the top and giving back the elevation I gained for the day on an endless "butt-slide" through the woods to get back to the valley below to move toward the finish. For awhile the pervasive heat was getting to me. Out of fluids, I could feel my core temp rising and my brain beginning to feel like crackling bacon. Even after tanking up with fluids at the seventh aid station and soaking my head in cold water I was still overheated for another three miles of struggle through the upper ski slopes before reaching the cover of shade on the long descent back to the valley. It was only then that I could run once again as my core temp returned to closer to normal. Heat is always a scary thing and deserving of a wide margin.
Sean caught up to me at the final aid station before the final four miles of road to the finish. He, two other guys, and I ran and walked intermittently to deal with the fatigue and heat of the day to reach the finish in a targeted ten hours, crossing the line together, relieved to be done. It was a nice day for a run in the mountains, very tough on the feet, but not overly taxing on the legs for me. Rebounding fairly quickly, Don and I didn't stick around too long, but long enough to see friends finish and enjoy a bit of post-race food and camaraderie.
Finishing with Sean Donachy / pics courtesy of Don Creveling
We learned that George's friend Sergei had to be taken to the hospital for heat trauma, and am still awaiting news of his condition. It was a surprise to me that Dan Lehmann wasn't at the finish as usual to collect a hug from at the finish. On the way out, we learned why. A runner died on the course, someone I knew and had run with before - 71-year-old Bob Anderson, a runner's runner - to the end. Probably heart / heat related. It really took the wind out of my sails, but I can only imagine Bob would have wanted to go out something like this - while on the run. Godspeed, Bob. You will be missed.