Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail
“You hiked 12 miles in one day!? You’re nuts!”
“Yeah, well, maybe. And y’know what? I’ve done it a bunch of times. So there.”
However, let’s look at this from another perspective. I walked those 12 miles. My neighbor Steve runs marathons. He runs from one end to the other, and that’s well over 26 miles! 12 miles + 12 miles and change.
That’s grueling. I mean, look up “grueling” in the dictionary and you’ll find, “Running a marathon.”
There is a phenomenon one might encounter when running 26+ miles called “hitting the wall”. Hitting the wall has been described in many ways. Here are some of the better descriptions…
It felt like an elephant had jumped out of a tree onto my shoulders and was making me carry it the rest of the way in.
— Dick Beardsley
At around mile 23, I was beginning to feel like the anchor was out.
— George Ringler
It usually happens around mile 20, give or take a couple of miles. Your pace slows, sometimes considerably. Some runners say that it feels as though their legs had been filled with lead quail shot, like the stomach of Mark Twain’s unfortunate jumping frog of Calaveras County. Others can’t feel their feet at all. Thought processes become a little fuzzy. (“Mile 22, again? I thought I just passed mile 22!”) Muscle coordination goes out the window, and self-doubt casts a deep shadow over the soul.
— Sara Latta
Hitting the wall means that, after 20 miles or so, you simply run out of steam. There are lots of geeky explanations of what happens to the chemicals in your body — your glycogen, your carbohydrates, your protein, your fat, the glucose, the oxygen, your hydration level and so forth — but it all adds up to you trying to do something that requires more energy than your body can generate.
There are some recent theories that fatigue of the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) is what really causes runners to drop out of long races. Strange idea, but whatever the cause, it ain’t pretty.
There are lots more explanations concerning the neurotransmitters called serotonin and dopamine and the amino acid called tryptophan and lots of other multisyllabic chemicals without which we wouldn’t be able to run long distances, and without which, we bonk.
On the other hand, in long distance running, there is a concept which is known as “flow.” Flow is…
…a state of complete immersion in an activity… being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies…like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved…
— Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
We used to call it the “runner’s high.” Maybe we still do.
But running 26 miles, 385 yards, or marathon distance, is not what I want to talk about.
Thursday night, I attend a pre-race planning meeting. This meeting is across the street in Steve’s living room. Dawn and Nanci and I are the support crew, Steve is going to do the run.
We discuss how to load up a supply belt.
We learn how much water to mix with the Cytomax ice cubes.
We plan for Steve to always have at least two packs of GU energy gel in his pockets at all times.
We figure and refigure split times and estimated times of arrival.
Steve is scheduled to run his race in about 20 hours from now.
It would be pretty exciting if Steve were running a marathon, don’t you think? But he’s not. Nope, Steve is running just a bit farther. Let me put it this way: Steve has been <training> for this race by running marathons.
The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is a premier hiking trail in Pennsylvania. It extends from the town of Ohiopyle in a north-by-northeasterly direction to the city of Johnstown. It follows the Laurel Ridge, which is the spine of the Laurel Highlands, a local area famous for its beauty and recreational opportunities. Johnstown is 70 trail miles from Ohiopyle. I’ve thru-hiked this trail a couple times. Takes about five days. Come 20 hours from now, we will drive Steve to the southern trailhead in Ohiopyle where he will begin to run to the northern trailhead in Johnstown. Did you catch that part where I said that the two trailheads are 70 miles apart?
I had first heard about this race years ago when I was leisurely hiking the LHHT. A guy was stapling big cardboard arrows to some of the trees. “What’s up?” I asked.
He told me about the Ultra. “They’re gonna run from bottom to top. These arrows should help the runners find the trail. Don’t want to lose anyone.”
“What are you talking about? The whole trail? But that’s 70 miles! And there are some pretty steep hills here.”
”Yep, that’s true. Twenty-eight people tried it last year. Ten finished. It’s not easy.”
It’s not easy?!
We’re concerned. The predicted weather has temperatures in the 80s, humidity in the 80s or higher, with possible thunderstorms. This has been a cold spring. Steve hasn’t had much chance to acclimate to running in hot weather. Going out for practice runs in 50° and 60° temps wearing lots of clothing is just not the same. As his support crew, we know where all the aid stations and hospitals are. We are taking enormous quantities of water with us, a blanket, a bucket, a scale to monitor Steve’s weight, washcloths stored in the ice chest, a cooler of dry ice, spare dry clothing, sponges to soak with water to put on his head under his hat, many words of encouragement, tape and Band-Aids and a well-stocked first aid kit.
Not to mention what we are bringing for ourselves. Drop Steve off at the start of the race and spend the rest of the day driving routes parallel to his trail from one checkpoint to the next. We have food and snacks, liquid refreshment, sleeping bags, books and magazines, our baseball mitts, our good humor. We removed a back seat out of each of our two vehicles in case there happens to be a thunderstorm and someone wants to stretch out. We’re bringing flashlights and lanterns, a weather radio, maps, written directions, all manner of race information, a couple cell phones, rain gear, our hiking boots.
Steve’s plan is to stay off his feet on Friday, the day before the race. I see him out my window as he is walking, very slowly, down the front steps of his house. Saving every erg and micro-erg of energy for tomorrow. He even cut his hair short.
Full tanks of gas, out before dawn, heading east with a revved up runner and several wired support personnel. Rained like hell last night. The valleys are wet and in some places it is so foggy we can’t see the road. Can’t imagine the condition of the ridge top. Steve hasn’t had much opportunity to train on wet trails this spring. Wet rocks are slippery rocks. Looks like a long day might get longer.
As hikers, we have learned not to depend on weather forecasts. One morning at trailhead years ago, a hiker’s husband dropped her off. Just before kissing her goodbye for the weekend, he gave us an hour-by-hour forecast for the weekend. We were all impressed.
“How does your husband know all these details?” we ask.
“He’s a meteorologist. He does this all the time.”
His predictions for the weekend? He was amazingly accurate for the first two hours. The rest of the weekend he was dead wrong. Not even close.
We’re used to this. On the ridge for Steve’s race, the temperatures stay ten degrees lower than predicted, and the rainstorm in the afternoon serves to cool the runners. Makes for treacherous footing, but that’s better than heat stroke.
Ohiopyle —> Maple Summit Road
The runners, all 82 of them, take off at 5:30, dawn. Cross the parking area, the highway and the railroad tracks. Run on the dirt road and soon turn left up a little hill. With the left turn, you are now actually on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. A mile and a half of flat terrain and then the climb up Laurel Ridge begins. Mile 11.6 miles is the first checkpoint. You just gained 2850 feet up three rather impressive inclines. You are more than half a mile closer to the sun. Steve looks strong.
Maple Summit Road —> Route 653
The next checkpoint, at mile 19.3, is a zoo of runners and support staff. It is set up in a large parking lot which also serves as trailhead for an extensive cross-country ski area. We load up our supplies and schlep them a quarter mile from the car to the main trail. While we wait for Steve another runner comes tromping in, sweating copiously, unable to catch his breath. Struggling as he is, he insists on continuing. We are concerned but there is nothing to do. We never see him again. Did he drop out? Did he finish?
We notice that, under their shirts, some of the male runners have placed adhesive bandages on their nipples. Getting your nipples rubbed for 70 miles can be a bit rude.
Hey, here’s Steve! Ready? Take his nutrition belt, give him a fresh one. Sponge up some water and soak his hat and head. Put the sponge back in his hat so that when he puts it on, the dripping water helps keep his head cool. Ask him a few simple questions, look at his eyes. Yes! He looks great. Get going boy!
Route 653 —> County Line Road
At mile 28.0, we look into the woods, trying to spot Steve’s traffic-cone-orange colored cap. Ah yes, here he is. Twenty-eight miles in and he’s still maintaining a good pace.
Noteworthy at this checkpoint is the woman who runs past us. She comes gliding down from the mountain, so smooth, like she’s skiing. She looks fresh, strong, focused. Most of us in the support teams watch her slide past and just say a quiet, “Wow. Now that’s flow.” She eventually finishes the race fifth overall.
I casually mention, “Y’know, these people have already run more than a marathon… And they still have forty-two and a half miles to go.”
Later I ask Steve how he avoids bonking at 20 miles? How does he not hit the wall on a long run like this?
He simply says, “Pacing.”
County Line Road —> Route 31
Mile 32.3. This checkpoint is only 4.3 trail miles from the last one so we don’t have a lot of time to drive there before Steve arrives. The Race Director’s directions have us backtracking on some of the major roads for a total drive of 10.2 miles. During our pre-race planning sessions, I repeatedly said, “Don’t worry, Steve, we will be at every checkpoint before you get there. I mean it.”
To be sure, I spent a thunderstorming Saturday several weeks ago driving from checkpoint to checkpoint, just so there were no surprises that might slow us down. I really did mean it. Because of this, and because we have hiked a million miles in this area, we know it well enough to lay out our own routes. Our drive from 28.0 to 32.3 measures 2.9 miles on the road.
Later in the day, other teams frequently ask us for directions; some of them choose to follow us. When they see the black Toyota RAV4s pull out, they jump in their cars and follow us.
It takes Steve 47 minutes to get to the checkpoint, it takes us six. This is not man vs machine. Throughout the entire run, Steve motors at a sustained one tenth horsepower, we effortlessly call on 161 horses. Not a contest.
We have some 41 minutes to wait for him, during which time we eavesdrop on the wisdom and bravado and bragging and showing off of the relay teams. Must be beginners. Trust me, there is nothing worth repeating.
By now, it is routine for the RAV team. “Steve, give me your belt. Get on the scale. How are you feeling? Drink some water. Do you need anything? Any cramps? Follow my finger with your eyes.”
Everything is a go.
After Steve leaves, a relay runner who more resembles a weight lifter ambles over, “I notice you are weighing him. Has he lost weight?”
“Yeah. A pound and a half through the first leg and then another pound and a half on the second. But he seems to have stabilized.”
“You gotta watch that,” he pontificates. “If he begins to gain weight, he’s in trouble. But if he loses too much weight, he could be in trouble too.”
Dude, do you think we just randomly brought this scale?
For those of us who don’t normally weigh ourselves every half hour, this is about proper hydration. If Steve loses too much weight, it means that he is probably not taking in enough liquid. Dehydration can make you drop out of races. On a bad day, dehydration can just make you drop. And you could die. I hate that. Steve stated that his cutoff point was ten pounds: “If I lose ten pounds, I’m done.” Secretly, I’m thinking eight.
On the other hand, if Steve were to gain weight, it could indicate a condition virtually unheard of ten years ago. Hyponatremia can look like dehydration: a rise in body temperature, increase in heart rate, headache, fatigue, disorientation, muscle cramps. But hyponatremia is actually the opposite of dehydration. Some folks refer to it as water intoxication, having <too much> fluid in your system. It’s really got more to do with an imbalance of salt.
Drink too much water and you dilute the salt in your body. This can be a bad thing. Electricity courses all through your body, running the systems. The primary salts necessary for electrical conduction are sodium and potassium, known as electrolytes. Drink too much water and you saturate the electrolytes, essentially shorting out the electrical system. Your muscles get funky and stop working properly. This can lead to collapse and, on a bad day, death. Bummer.
What Steve does to avoid this condition is to suck down electrolyte-rich solutions including the stuff in his nutrition belt. What I’ve been calling his “nutrition belt” is a strap with four clips, each holding a small plastic bottle. Here’s the whole procedure…
At home, Steve mixed up a large quantity of Cytomax and froze some of it into cubes. We have several large bottles of the solution as well as the cubes on dry ice in the car. Before Steve shows up at each checkpoint, our team forces frozen Cytomax into the little bottles and fills the empty spaces with liquid Cytomax. We join three or four Cytomax bottles to the clips on a new belt and put this on ice. When Steve arrives, we take off the belt he is wearing and give him the fresh, cold one.
What is Cytomax? It’s is an energy drink. The manufacturer claims that Cytomax lowers lactic acid levels by 40%, reduces perceived exertion by 20%, reduces oxygen consumption by 11%, contains electrolytes and “just enough sodium” and no sucrose. I think this is amazing and most likely a load of hooey. On the other hand, Steve consumes no food during the race and his exertion is at a high level for an amazingly long time. Pounding down the Cytomax. Who knows? If he thinks it is working, and if he stays healthy, then I know nothing.
Cytomax comes in Apple-Berry, Pink Lemonade, Cool Citrus, Go Grape, Tangy Orange, Peachy Keen and Tropical Fruit. I’m pretty sure Steve is drinking the Tangy Orange. Guess what color his insides are.
Route 31 —> Linn Run Road
The next stop is where the trail crosses the road at trail mile 39.0. To get to this checkpoint on the road, we make our most complicated drive. It is more than 14 miles and involves nine turns. It is after turn six, as we bounce along on one of the dirt roads that cut through the middle of the warm, moist, dense forest, that we see the bear. Sitting in the middle of the road ahead, she sees us just as we see her. I slow down, she gets up and lumbers off the trail. (I think that if a bear is not chasing you, it is lumbering.) She moves off the road thirty feet into the woods and plops down to watch us. We quickly scan the area to see if there might be any cubs. Spying none, we stop the car to watch her. We watch her, she watches us. Nobody moves. This exciting activity continues for a while until it is time for us to go.
Steve comes screeching in to the aid station and has some disturbing things to say about his feet, namely that they hurt. Y’know how your feet get after you’ve soaked in the tub for a bit too long? Like the skin of a prune. The trail is wet and Steve’s shoes and feet are waterlogged and yes, he has formed a heroic blister.
“Duct tape it!” advises Relay George, one of the numerous people milling around. “It’ll keep anything under control.” Anything can be fixed with duct tape.
“Yah,” a woman says as she places a huge tackle box down next to Steve and opens it. “Put duct tape on that and when you take it off, pretty much all of your flesh will come with it. I wouldn’t advise that.”
Inside her box are all manner of tape, ointments, tools and other mysterious looking items. She kneels down by Steve’s feet and starts slathering on a substance she called “Hydropel.” It’s a protective ointment. Steve purrs, “Ooh, that feels good.”
She adds tincture of benzoin to protect his skin and wraps his foot with some kind of esoteric tape. We ask how she knows this particular wisdom. “I’m a physician and an ultra-marathoner.” As far as we are concerned, she is a miracle worker.
“Mmm, okay, good. Yes.” Steve is good to go.
This is a long article. This is a long run.
Steve has run the Boston and a number of other marathons. I once asked him how many miles he puts in. I’ve been proud of my three 1000-mile years of hiking. Steve estimates that he easily runs more than 5000 miles a year. That’s a lot. That’s a whole lot.
Linn Run Road —> Route 30
On to trail mile 46.4. Keep chugging, Steve.
Through a mutual friend, Steve made contact with a runner named Jay. It is at this checkpoint that we meet up with Jay. As soon as you meet Jay, you like him. He enlightens us with good information — he has run this race before. “Mentally, this next section is the hardest part of the race. You’ve been going since 5:30 this morning and in many cases, this is farther than you’ve ever run before. You realize that you’ve still got almost a marathon to go and it starts playing on your mind. I’m going to run with him through this leg. I’ll encourage him as we go.”
Jay is going to pace Steve to the next checkpoint, a distance just under eleven miles. Jay is in training for his race next weekend. It’s only a 40-miler. (Think about what I just said. “It’s only a 40-miler”.)
Later as we debrief, Steve tells us how difficult this section was. His mind <was> playing tricks. He thought he was on a normal pace, cruising along at his 8-minute pace. “Uh, no, Steve,” Jay gently said, “You’re doing 15-minute miles.”
“Fifteen-minute miles!” Steve was shocked. “My six-year-old daughter runs a 15-minute pace! Dang it!”
Jay was strong and kept Steve on track, pacing him, reminding him about certain long run essentials, filling his mind with positive thoughts about how good a run this is. And not telling him how slowly he was running.
Route 30 —> Route 271
As the support team, we jump in the car, drive 15 miles to a dirt road just before the trail crosses the highway and set up shop. Load the Cytomax bottles, ready the jug of water to pour on his head, have the first aid kit close by, be sure to have two packages of GU, the scale, a change of clothing and shoes if needed.
We take a short walk to the main trail from the parking area. There are quite a number of crew members at this stop. While we wait for Steve, the race director catches up on runners’ progress on his cell phone. We listen as he recites the numbers of the runners who dropped out at the last station. We are not surprised when he skips over Steve’s number 30. He’s still going.
Later the director decides to cook some Ramen noodles, in case anyone is hungry. He has a little butane stove but no idea how to operate it. I show him, wondering how he could possibly lack this knowledge. I remind myself that even though we are on the most popular overnight hiking trail in western Pennsylvania, these people aren’t backpackers. They are runners and runners rarely stop to cook dinner while running.
It takes a little longer than expected for Steve and Jay to run the 10.9 miles, to arrive at this checkpoint, mile 57.3. Our team is cranked up, especially hearing how many runners dropped out. In fact, Steve has to calm us down, “Okay, no rush, I’ll just sit for a while.” We minister to him, chat a bit, see that he is still lucid and well aware of what is going on. Really, he does look a little tired, but he is still making sense.
At this break, I say to Steve, “There is an aid station at mile 62 but no checkpoint. We’re loading you up to take you the rest of the way, but if you need us at 62, just say the word.”
“No need, I’ll be fine. It’s only 13 miles from here. It may take me a while; I’ll probably walk some of it, especially after it gets dark.” Yah, it was already eight o’clock.
Which means these super humans have been going for fourteen and a half hours. Yowee zowee!
Jay speaks up. “Steve, I’ll go with you to help you with the road crossing.”
“Yeah, sure, fine.” As soon as we double check Steve’s flashlight batteries, off they go. A few minutes later Jay comes back and explains to us that Steve was dragging and he wanted to see how he would do, whether he would recover. By the time they got to the road, Steve was revved up and Jay had no worries. Good enough.
Route 271 —> Route 56
We figure, thirteen miles at his reduced pace… How about we go into town for dinner. We’ll have plenty of time.
We eat something, somewhere, we don’t know what or where. We have been on the go since before dawn and even when we weren’t moving, we have been burning lots of energy, some of it mental, thinking through scenarios, calculating and recalculating, trying to be ready for anything. We are tired.
Neither the restaurant nor the food is interesting. Dinner is more about the break in our routine than it is about dinner. Briefly, we wonder if we are allowed to be tired. After all, Steve is still running and we are lounging around, having dinner.
“Yes, we are allowed to be tired,” I say, feeling no guilt.
It is now dark. We drive to the end of the course. Set up in the parking lot are tents and spotlights and Toby Keith and Chicago playing over loudspeakers. We wander around, looking at all the other tired support people and fans. We all chat. We admire the race trophies, wooden carvings resembling the phallic concrete markers that count out the miles on the hiking trail. Kids are doing what kids do when they are bored.
Occasionally, applause begins. Immediately everyone joins in as we turn our eyes to the spot where the trail emerges from the woods, intently watching to see which runner will be next to finish. This routine has been happening all evening. Any time a runner approaches a checkpoint, we would clap and holler. The difference at the race finish is that the racers are running out of the dark woods with lights dancing, their flashlights.
One time lights appear in the woods and the applause starts up, everyone expectant. Nothing happens, just dancing lights. One of the runner’s wives says, “Whoops” and goes into the woods to lead out her young daughter who is playing with her daddy’s flashlight. The clapping dies out.
This is where Relay George — he’s still with us? — informally names us the Best Support Team because we have been so organized and focused. Just doin’ our job, sir. We’re very humble.
Then, sixteen hours, forty-seven minutes and thirty-nine seconds after he began running this morning, Steve comes out of the woods to finish the race. He did it! He’s still running!
Under the lights, moving well, arms outstretched, looking good as ever. We await his first words. He pauses, and then calmly says, “Well, that was interesting.”
Yah, it sure was. “How do you feel, super dude?”
“Well, I feel pretty good. I wouldn’t mind sitting down though.”
Congratulations, you son of a bitch. You did it!
Throughout the race, as we waited for Steve at every checkpoint, we chatted with all the other enthusiasts. I guess we could call all of us “support crew” as we did what we could to support our favorite crazy person that day. Two things I noticed about all the other people, the runners, the families, the support teams…
Runners are not as friendly as backpackers. Here we are on the superhighway of hiking trails in western Pennsylvania, kind of a home trail for yours truly, and I’m feeling like I usually do on the trail. Which means that, in spite of my misanthropic tendencies, I have conversations with the other people I meet. You see a stranger and you meet their eyes and smile and begin talking. This is one of the many dandy things about backpacking.
Unfortunately not here at this foot race. These are runners and friends of runners and, as I noticed more than once, runners are not nearly as social. Runners are solitary. I mean, Steve ran almost 17 hours and didn’t really have much companionship or conversation. And he’s one of the gregarious ones.
I was leading a group day-hike one time. As we were moving along on the trail, we ran into a guy wearing a backpack. He stopped and he and I began chatting. Later one of my hikers asked me, “Who was that guy?”
“I have no idea,” I told her. He was just someone who, coincidentally, I had seen on a different trail a month back.
“No, really, who is he?”
“I really don’t know. Just another hiker.”
“C’mon, you know him from somewhere, don’t you?”
Apparently, she couldn’t take in the fact that, on the trail, it is easy with strangers.
My experience with runners is different. During the Ultra, we noticed that the team relay runners were the most competitive, and least friendly. They talked with each other when they needed to, but that was it. We figured that they were not there for any social contact that might be inherent in such an event, but rather, they wanted to win. We decided that rather than begin rude, they were being focused. Yeah…
Y’know, you run four to five grand miles a year and you tend to burn up the calories. Normal body fat percentages for Americans is about 15 – 30%. For elite athletes, the ones who run 70 miles in a day for fun, it’s 10 – 16% for women and 6 – 13% for men. All day long I looked around me and saw people through a fun house mirror. They looked to be caricatures of normal people, made skinny by the distorting mirror. Skinny. If there was body fat on these individuals, it must have been in their earlobes because I could count the fibers in their abdominal muscles.
There is an unselfconscious manner about them. You obsess about ounces, you make millions and millions of footfalls, you deny yourself the foods you ate without thought as a kid. You run, you run. You spend a lot of time with only your own thoughts. You concern yourself with splits, with soles, with bandages and gels and rain on your glasses, with rashes, with chaffing, with rudeness to your nipples, with schedules, with traffic and with slipping on rocks. You are well acquainted with being alone. You know loneliness.
There is no arrogance. It’s just that you’ve got an astonishing amount of confidence to think that you can begin to run, and not stop until you have covered the distance on this run that many people don’t walk in a year. You are acutely aware of every elusive ounce of fat on your body, and you have a very good idea of every muscle strand. And yet, you don’t think of your body at all when you are in the crowd. It’s not, “Do they see how thin I am?” but rather, “Did I train enough to make this split? Just how strong will I be at the finish?”
You people are freaks. It is not normal to live like this. You are in a small percentage at the high end of the bell curve. You are not the person who goes around telling people that you are crazy, just so they will notice you. You are the person who keeps to yourself in a crowd, you shy away from telling too many people how you really spend your time. Most of the “normal people” don’t understand that while they put down three television shows worth of chips and soda pop or beer in one sitting, you were covering the distance from here to the shopping mall and back, and around the park twice, on foot.
Yours is an extraordinary life. They make fun of me for hiking twelve miles in a day. They have no idea.