Before I get into things, I want to start with a couple public service announcements.

PSA #1

This course is straight up hard. Now the website and RDs don’t come out and sell this as an easy course, but the charts and course descriptions have this listed at 8,600 feet elevation gain and most of the vast majority of the climbing done by the halfway point. In reality, my watch measured it at almost 11,100. My friend’s measured it at a little under 11k and a couple runners who did the course last year had it at 12k. Now none of these are exactly accurate and even if the course is 8600 feet, which I’d be willing to bet good money it’s not, it definitely feels like 11-12k.

Here’s the elevation chart from my Garmin. I guarantee you will notice all of those little bumps as you go along.

I believe the world is split into picture people and numbers people. The above image is for the former and what follows is for those of us who like to quantify things a bit more finely.

I typically train with about 100 feet/mile elevation gain/loss. Yeah, this is going to end well.

Looking at the charts ahead of time with the big hills up front, I was expecting almost all of the last 20-25 miles to be at or under 100 feet/mile. Only two of the last five sections ended up below this. Heck, the final “all downhill” run into the finish still manages to pack in 624 feet of elevation gain. In addition to all the vertical, the trails are typical PA technical single track meaning they’re covered with rocks and roots. Overall, the finish rate was 73% this year with only 48% finishing inside the Western States qualifying time of 20 hours. So I’ll repeat – this course is straight up hard.

PSA #2

This course is straight up gorgeous. I really can’t overstate how jaw-dropping amazing the scenery is along the trail. Mile for mile probably the prettiest stretch of running I’ve ever done. Just when the heat, humidity, and my inability to properly execute an ultra would push me towards a low point, the sights would immediately pull me back from the brink and put a goofy smile on my face. I took a ton of pictures so I’m going to let them do most of my talking for me. If you’re reading this because you’ve signed up for the race, you’re in for a real treat. If you’re reading this to decide whether this is a race you’d like to do, hopefully they convince you to sign up for it.

Lots of ferns along the course.

The Race

Remember back in the day when you used to be required to mail in a check to register for things? No, trust me. This used to be a thing. Well, Laurel Highlands is such an old school race (42 years and counting), that they still require you to print out an application that’s posted to their website around Thanksgiving and mail it to them with a check. You then wait around for your check to clear to know whether you get in or not. It’s awesome.

My co-worker, Ben, and I before the start. He went off in the wave after mine and had an incredible run. It was just light enough for me not to need a light to start.

Thankfully, the rest of the logistics/organization of the race have been upgraded to current ultra standards including live tracking this year at several of the aid stations. COVID impacted the pre-race dinner/packet pickup, but everything else went off without a hitch as far as I could tell. The shuttle bus promptly left the finish line at 3:30am and deposited me at the start exactly 30 minutes before my wave went off at 5:30am. While I was a little rushed to get my packet, deposit my drop bag, and hit the restroom, I had enough time to get myself ready for a day along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT).

I think this view was from the top of the second climb.
Cool rock formation at the top of the third climb.
Little foggy up on the ridge early on. You can see one of the LHHT’s yellow blazes here. While many were faded, there was one on about every 5th tree along the course.
The course was littered with these huge rock formations that you run through.
Every stream had a small bridge you could use to cross. No jumping from rock to rock on the LHHT.
Though sometimes the bridges were a little larger.
The trail through the Seven Springs ski resort would be a little hard to follow normally, but there were tons of flagging to keep you on the course. There was also reflective flagging in the last couple miles to reduce your risk of getting lost.
This aid station seemed to be about a half mile early. Not that I was complaining.
Yeah, halfway! Um, halfway? Wait, halfway?!?!
About to cross the PA Turnpike with Kelly and Stephanie who helped me through the 30s. They were jumping up and down on the bridge trying to get cars to honk at us. Ahh, to be young with fresh legs.
More rocks.
Visual proof that the trail eventually does get a little easier.
The variety along the course is pretty amazing.
Looking back across the road at the Route 30 aid station, which had the best spread along the course.
Some sections you could just barely see through the trees into the valley.
Other sections not so barely.
Sun’s starting to get low and I still have a long way to go.
They save the best rock formations till last at mile 56. I was lucky to get here right at dusk. This would have been creepy as hell in the dark.
I thought I saw some lights through the trees a couple miles from the finish. Turns out it was Johnstown. I’m guessing the view’s much better during the day.

I almost don’t even want to sully this race report with an accounting of my race. I moved well at the beginning and had a great time chatting with the other runners around me. I managed to survive the heat though it slowed me down more than I expected (I’ll never learn this lesson). Or the early climbing/descending did. I made a couple mistakes with the largest slamming too many calories at mile 46 and then spent 20 miles trying to recover from that. The upside of having never run a perfect race is that I have tons of experience grinding out a finish. While there weren’t that many other runners around me towards the end, they looked just as bad as I felt. Well, except the lady that the passed me leaving the last aid station with one of the most awesome power hikes I’ve ever witnessed. It looked like the right strategy and I was able to knock out my fastest mile like that in a long time, but she quickly left me in her dust.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and so did this race. Many thanks to the RDs and volunteers for putting on a most excellent event. I’ll definitely be back again in the future to enjoy this amazing course. Next time I’ll even know what I’m in for.

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