Race Report: The 2017 Laurel Highlands 70.5 by Jim Jansen
Race Date: June 9th 2018
For 39th straight years, the Laurel Highlands 70 mile ultra race has been ran in western Pennsylvania through a beautiful and rocky single track trail which has concrete obelisks in the ground to mark each mile. Instead of the standard belt buckle, each finisher gets a wooden obelisk - a much cooler finisher award in my book. This point to point ultra marathon is an epic east coast race (think rocks, roots, muddy and punchy climbs) with awesome volunteers and race directors who make the race tough but enjoyable.
I first ran this race in 2014 due to its proximity to home in New Jersey and that it would be a Western States qualifier. At the time, it was the farthest I was going to have ran and figured a new race that I could drive to, combined with a new distance would be perfect. Ever since 2014, I have wanted to return to Laurel Highlands but for one reason or another, I didn't have a chance until this year. As with many races these days, I needed to decide in late 2017 that this would be on the race calendar for 2018. This is an old school race where you need to mail your check to the RD - just the way I like it. No lottery. First come, first to race.
While my goal race for this year was and still is Wasatch Front 100, I’ve wanted to come back to LH and get some revenge. With a previous time of 17 hours and 3 minutes, I ran a solid time for never running more than fifty miles and for this having been my first race with a headlamp and feeling the pain of the ultra shuffle. I distinctly remember walking then shuffling then walking from miles sixty two through seventy in 2014 and wanting to see what those trails looked like in daylight. Some races you just want to finish, some races you want to place in the top ten and others you want to beat your previous time.
Through March of this year, I was on track with what I thought was a great running plan and base fitness level. In early April, a pain in the bottom of my foot sent my plan into a death spiral and made me rethink how I trained and how I recovered. While having a solid level of fitness, I knew I had to cut short running for a short while (how long? I didn't know) and focus on other disciplines while hoping, really hoping, that I would be able to still run LH in ten weeks.
Could I have plantar fasciitis? Could I have a bone bruise? Who knew? I did know that I needed stop running and do all the things I SHOULD HAVE done previously - foam roll, massages, sleep more, hit the bicycle, get in the pool. Luckily I have some smart friends (shout out to MPF!) who are always available with guidance and help. Knowing is one thing but hoping it works is another. For the next twelve weeks up until the race, the focus would be on keeping the fitness level high so I hit the bike hard. The love for the bike returned and I started hammering but always keeping my mind on my foot and getting better.
Fast forward to less than four weeks from race day, I needed to test out the foot and get in some time on my feet. I was able to get in a four hour run at Watchung and some solid hills during the Manitou preview night run - both times pain free. I decided I might as well give LH a shot….
There is almost always a comfy memory foam mattress in the bed of my truck which happened to be where I slept the night before race morning. Because this is a point to point race, I parked at the finish line and was in bed by 9 pm. The school buses shuttling us to the start woke me up before my alarms went off and I was up and ready to go by 3 am. The shuttles would take us an hour and a half through country roads to the start of the race where I checked in and placed my one drop bag at mile 46. I scarfed down a Jim Jansen classic sandwich - almond butter, chia, honey and cinnamon and was ready! Go time: 5:30 am.
The majority of the elevation is in the first eight miles of the race but dont think it’s all downhill afterwards. There are two early climbs which give you a nice gut punch especially on a hot and humid day like we had. I kept the pace easy and kept my water intake fairly low. In true ultra marathon fashion, I jogged the flats and downhills and power hiked the hills - nothing too surprising there.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I tend to carry way too much food with me. True to form and because I didn't know which type of fuel I would crave on race day, I carried gels, blocks and waffle bars plus some lara bars and snickers bars - why did I carry so much food? maybe I would crave it all? absolutely not but personally I like having a choice and I choose to carry a little extra, everyone is different.
The 70 miles of single track must be covered in 99% shade. If only there was no humidity. But it’s a race and you deal with the cards you are dealt like everyone else who is running and you don’t let it get into your head. The last humid race I ran was the Mohican 100 and immediately I recalled what I did right and what I did wrong. What did I do right? I applied copious amounts of body glide and ate all the watermelon I could find. What did I do wrong at Mohican? I drank waaaaay too much water and didn't take in enough salt. I consciously decided to make an adjustment and apply these lessons during LH.
The aid stations are spaced anywhere from six to eleven miles apart. Coming into each aid station I ate oranges, watermelon slices and strawberries not to mention some PBJ and potatoes. I can take in some serious calories quickly and kept telling myself not to stay at these stops too long.
After the second climb at mile eight, my legs and mind fell into a nice rhythm. The humidity was there but my mind dealt with it and I focused on the trail ahead (you had to or else you'd be face planting in a second). I kept my pace manageable and by mile 32 aid station had been passing some runners here and there. This was the first aid station where I noticed a list of runners and times. I glanced over while pouring some salt on watermelon (which is delicious by the way) and saw I came in as the 12th runner…..pretty cool right? but that included three relay teams ahead of me so that meant I was in 9th place, even cooler! While that gave me a little boost of optimism, I knew this was an ultra and my goals were to finish in daylight and to beat my previous time from 2014. If achieved goal #1 then goal #2 was automatic.
There are two options for drop bags - mile 46 or mile 57. Mile 57 would have worked just as well as mile 46 but I went with the more conservative approach and made sure all my change of clothes and headlamp were ready at mile 46. I came into mile 46 around ten hours, changed my shirt while the volunteers got my bag all ready to go with water and lots of ice. At this point I was putting ice in all water bottles, my bladder and under my hat. More calories were going down and I had passed another runner during the last section. Get out of the aid station and go!
The eleven mile segment with hills from mile 46 to mile 57 meant over two hours and a substantial amount of liquids. In 2014, I only carried two 20 oz bottles, this time I had two 16 oz bottles and a bladder at least half full with ice and water. I would continue to take salt pills and some water but not overdo it. There were times where I thought I was thirsty but really just needed to keep my mouth from being dry. It's a hard line and I still haven't figured it all out but it seemed to work for this race.
Power hiking the hills and continuing to jog the flats and downhills worked very well for me. My body was moving at a similar paces to the earlier miles. When I reached aid stations at miles 57 and then at 62, they had already started making hot food although it was still daylight and the sunset was still a couple hours from setting. I was in high spirits - my mind and body were not getting too high or too low. More ice, more watermelon, some grilled cheese and time to move on!
The last eight miles are mostly downhill. There is some truly awesome single track without any rocks or roots and then a half mile later you’re dancing and just hoping not to fall. While my body was sore, I felt no pain and my mind was telling my body to keep pushing. Less than two hours to the finish and you will make it before sunset. Miles 67 and 68 were fun, seriously. Downhill and not too technical where I was able to let the legs pick up some speed. Miles 69 and 70 were steeper downhills and more technical but still no need for a headlamp and of course I knew the finish was close as I saw the concrete obelisks…..
The sun was just starting to fade over the horizon yet I could see the lights of the finish! My speed picked up as I ran across the finish line - fifteen hours three minutes - good for 6th place overall and destroying my 2014 time by over two hours.
After finishing, I held an ice cold beer in one hand and the sweet wooden obelisk trophy in the other! Mission accomplished.