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BRO Athletes: Strung Out on the Highlands Sky 40-Miler

In solitude, I’m pounding the fire road called Road Across the Sky. I’m eyeing the long stretch ahead glinting in the noonday sun when I come across small yellow butterflies. Possessing a one-inch wingspan, there are hundreds of them in the air and on the road—as if I need yet another reason to consider this day special. A gust of breeze from the north and they’re gone, leaving me to contemplate the ephemeral nature of my passage here today; I’m a slow-moving speck under the big blue sky of the West Virginia high country.

I’m competing in the Highlands Sky 40-miler, an ultra with a well-deserved reputation for being extra tough and beautiful with lots of variety in the course terrain and scenery. The point-to-point race started at 6 a.m., as 195 brave souls galloped to the Flatrock Trailhead and commenced the course opener: a 2200-vertical-foot climb up to Roaring Plains, (gotta love that name).

The climb takes us up wet and muddy single track, through what appears to be a lush and green tunnel. The stinging nettle is in abundance and the itching comes in waves as my bare legs continually brush through it. Oh well, it distracts me somewhat from the hard work of ascending the mountain. The field of runners spreads out quickly, and I expect to soon find myself alone. However instead I find myself keeping pace with Bob and Victor and we seem to make a good team as we chug up the mountain.

A few hours later we’re still together, with Bob leading Victor and me through mountain laurel thick with blossoms, on single track which is indistinguishable from a free running mountain stream. The dark, tannin-stained water hides rocks which diabolically threaten to take us down. Somehow we stay on our feet and truck on. I feel good; this free running splashing is exhilarating.

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Aid station two, mile 10.8, is at the end of Roaring Plains trail and I pause just long enough to exchange grins with the kind volunteers and to grab a handful of cantaloupe, watermelon and strawberries. Still with Bob and Victor, I blast off down steep Boar’s Nest Trail. It’s rough going and in a little while the boys leave me behind. A few times, just when I think I’m lost, I come upon another orange tape course marker. Thank you course setters! Also, along this stretch of trail I’m overcome by a young veteran of the race who before moving on gives me some pointers on staying on the course up ahead. I appreciate the advice and soon I’m climbing the South Prong Trail where I catch up to Victor and Bob. We hit Aid Station three near the top of the South Prong climb and then traverse a section of the course that consists of yet another rock-and-water-filled trough. It’s wild and beautiful. Just as I’m wondering how I’m staying on my feet I trip on a submerged rock and launch tangentially into the soft thick shrubbery alongside the trail. Victor witnesses the whole thing and compliments me on my gracefulness. Yeah right.

Before the course merges with the Road Across the Sky I blast, still in trio with Bob and Victor, across a super boggy section that features ten slippery (very slippery) wooden wetland bridges. Somehow I manage to avoid careening off out of control.

Aid Station Four, mile 19.7, is busy with volunteers, crews, and well wishers. I feel like a star as I approach amid cheers of encouragement. I grab pickles and watermelon from the kind folks there and head on. I’m alone now—normal ultra mode—because Victor has taken off like a rocket and Bob is apparently not far behind him.

It’s warm and the sun is high in the sky as I head north, past the butterflies and on to Bear Rocks. I pause at a tiny stream to douse my head with the cold water to dump some heat and refresh. I’ll be doing this head cooling thing several more times during the rest of the race, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Yahoo! I’m yodeling now as I’m overcome with emotion over the stark beauty of the high country of northern Dolly Sods. The sky is big and the country open, islands of spruce and low-clinging shrubs lie among expansive meadows. The plant life is more characteristic of what you’d find in far more northern climes. There is an overwhelming feeling of remoteness; the silence, beyond my own footfalls and breathing, is profound.

I press on. I’m weary, but I’m doing my best to maintain a relaxed and optimistic state of being, to run a happy race, and to appreciate the awesome beauty of the route and the day. And I’m introspective along here, thinking back on my ultra experiences, and about how the Highlands Sky 40 might be my last race for a while; I haven’t committed to any others for the time being.

At about mile 32 I catch up to Bob again. His legs are not behaving so he’s slowed down a bit. I move on, assuring him that his legs will come back soon. I’m on the bouldery section of the Rocky Ridge Trail, on the western side of Dolly Sods and overlooking Canaan Valley. In a few spots the terrain allows me to see across the valley to the state park, the race’s finish. It looks like a long way from here to there.

I’ve been amazed at the quality of the aid stations in this race and number seven is no exception. The happy outlaws manning it are pleased to have me visit this remotest of all aid stations. Great food, chilled Ginger Ale and cold wet washcloths rehabilitate me; a hearty bon voyage from the crew and I’m on my way.

I’m so lost in thought amid low-grade suffering that I don’t hear my friend Jeremy come up behind me. We chat for a few minutes until he powers on ahead. He says his wife and seven- month-old son are waiting up at the next aid station. No wonder he has some extra spring in his step.

The Dolly Sods Wilderness falls behind me as the course enters Timberline ski area and has me climbing to the summit via a cross-country ski trail. I’m kind of on automatic pilot at this point, grinding it out. At the “butt slide” rock garden steep descent I fight to stay on my feet. Fatigue is now my constant companion, however I still revel in the stark beauty of the day and this place. Now the forest is giving way to the open meadows of the valley of Canaan. I lope along a gravel road toward aid station eight, and when I arrive there to cheers and smiles I think, “these are some of the kindest souls on the planet!”

Shortly after departing AS 8, running down hard-surfaced Freeland Road I come to what must be a fatigue-induced mirage. Four smiling, beautiful women in the yard of a modest cabin along the road are cheering me on. I put the brakes on an one of the girls sprays me down with lovely cold water from a garden hose while another serenades me with a melodious dirge on a violin. Perhaps I’ve died and gone to heaven.

After leaving the women —it wasn’t easy, believe me—I glance over my shoulder several times to assure myself that they are truly real. They’re smiling and waving, fading with the distance. I shake my head in happy disbelief as I jog rejuvenated toward the finish line four miles across the valley.

“One mile to go,” announces the cardboard sign, as I cross open meadows in Canaan Valley State Park. A few folks are scattered along the route on this last short bit -cheering the racers on to the end- and I appreciate that.

Friend and race director Dan Lehmann welcomes me across the finish line and oh it feels good. My time is 7:55:07, fifteenth place overall. As I coast to a stop I’m glowing with relief but more than that it’s gratitude that I feel…I’m grateful to be living life in the here and now, among kindred spirits and stunning natural beauty, discovering mysteries about human existence that few get to experience.

It’s not “just another day” and I am glad for it.

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