Monday, June 22, 2009

Highland Sky 40: Wind, Water, and Tough Women

It's about the mountains. It's the power and the peace of those old mountains. It is air and sunshine and weather and nature. Daylight and darkness. Wind and water. It's about being part of it rather than just passing through. It's getting closer to where I came from, all the while moving and getting closer to where I want to be. --Alan Gowen

I read this quote from Alan's Massanutten Mountain 100 report on Friday, the day before the Highland Sky 40. He captured the essence of MMT and ultrarunning so perfectly with these words, so I added them to "This I believe" on the right side of my blog page. And after Saturday's run through epic---EPIC--conditions of 40 mph winds, rushing, almost impassable river crossings, wading through shin-deep water and rocks for miles...I truly do believe it. The words "wind and water" kept coming back to me all day. It was a day that tested the novice and the experienced ultrarunner like no other.

This year was my fifth Highland Sky. I love Dan and Jody Lehmann, and all the WVMTR crew. They are good, good people and the VHTRC and WVMTR have a close bond. Many VHTRCers came to the race this year to support Dan and Jody and once again they put on a fantastic event. I was so happy to be able to run---my family schedule has been nuts this month but I was able to figure things out at the last minute. This is probably a good race strategy for me because I was feeling very mellow about the race, using it as a gauge for my Grindstone training and I didn't really taper too much for it!

Short version: We had torrential rain the first two hours that created rivers on the trails, mud sucking bogs and slow running. As a result, I was about 20 minutes behind my usual pace by mile 10. I was totally fine with that and I believe the slow going set me up nicely for later. By mile 19, I needed to change into new socks since mine were sopping, muddy and filled with small stones...but for some stupid reason (perhaps being so mellow) I didn't plan for socks in the drop bag. Thankfully, Tony Escobar gave me some of his and I was a new woman! Thanks, Tony!! I left that AS with new energy and hammered the 7 mile road section. I felt better than I ever have on this section and made up a lot of time that I lost in the first half. I passed about 4 guys and continued to pass people through the Dolly Sods Wilderness, despite 40 mph winds---no joke!

At mile 32 AS, I came upon Michele Harmon as she was leaving. She was looking good and I was able to keep her in my sights for about a mile, and then when we started to climb the ski slope I caught her. We decided to run together and try to catch a few of the women ahead of us (according to Pam Gowen at the last AS, there were 5 women ahead of us). Michele had fallen early in the race and punctured her shin with a stick, and it was killing her, but she was still running well and we were able to pass one woman at the mile 36 AS. It was so much fun to have her company during those last miles...we hammered the roads (well, it felt like we were hammering...I think we were running 8:30s) and entered the last mile (a trail section) secure with a tie for 4th. We were running behind two guys and suddenly heard a woman's voice behind us and that was all the incentive we needed: "Excuse us, fellas, we need to go!" was all I was able to say as we passed the guys (who got the gist and quickly moved over to let us by--lord knows what I would have done if they didn't!). We scrambled up the final hill and locked hands for a strong finish, and, it turned out, a tie for third! The woman behind us, Mary Kries, had gone off course and had made up substantial time to almost catch us. We also discovered that the second place woman was only 1:10 ahead of us. Whew! It was a blast to be part of such a close finish!

After the race, we sat by the finish line to cheer on the others. This race is sooo tough. It is a 40 miler that runs like a 50, and it throws everything at you---mud, water, roots, rocks, bogs, wind, asphalt, steep descents---and also provides glorious views of the wilds of West Virginia wilderness. Those who finish can walk away knowing they got a huge confidence boost --for future races, yes, but also for themselves. So many times I hear runners say they thought about dropping (and some do) but those who stick it out are rewarded with the knowledge that if one can finish Highland Sky 40, a tough 50 or 100K is a real possibility!

For me, Highland Sky 09 will be remembered for the satisfaction that came from being patient in the first half and letting the race unfold. Unlike previous years, I didn't force it. I took my time, forgot about previous years splits, and just ran. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the mud and muck and water. But I will also remember the pleasure that came from running with two strong women, Kari Brown in the first half and Michele Harmon in the second half. I marveled at how good I felt at the finish line...but I believe this energy was not a by-product of eating, drinking, and pacing, but came from working together with Michele. We were competing together, pushing each other to be better and stronger. We were laughing at times but also very serious about our race. It reminded me so much of my lacrosse days when I played with a team of strong, tough-as-nails women: we were all there with the same goal in mind, and we wouldn't settle for a loss, even when were were hurting. The energy, confidence, and support we gave one another is something only found in team sports...or so I thought.

Wind and water. It's about being part of it rather than just passing through. It's getting closer to where I came from, all the while moving and getting closer to where I want to be.

Thank you, Michele, for the opportunity to get closer to where I came from. It was a privilege to race with you!

Highland Sky results and photos are here.


And Miles 2 Go said...

Tough women, indeed. Great job again, buddy. This is one we'll remember forever.

Alan said...


A little embarrassing to see my musings quoted I must say. You ran an awesome race in astonishing conditions. Highlands Sky is truly unique and it really was this year more than ever. Thanks for sharing your experience. You are a class act.


Rick Gray said...

What a wonderful day. Conditions were not the best, but we survived them and came out stronger at the end. What a great report and my hat goes off to you and the other ladies. You are a bunch of "tough women"!!! Rick

flame said...

I'm thinking I picked the right year to sit this one out ;)

That said, I have much respect and a litte envy of the journeyed shared and me missing out on this epic adventure! I've been missing you and Michele and all my friends to the north as I have a (so far) "un-eventful" 2009.

I was counting on you, Sophie, to tell the true tale. I had a big crew of friends at HS40, but they were first timers...I wasn't sure how bad it really was out there since there's usually plenty of water, mud and challenges. But, you've convinced me- this year was a beast. Glad you and Michele could bang it out together. Great story...thanks for sharing!

Layna (aka Willow) said...

Sophie -- thanks for a race report that really captures what the day was like. (And thanks for convincing Flame that we "first timers" who were there were correct in saying that this year's conditions were a little tough!).


Marlin Yoder said...

Sounds like a great day full of interesting challenges; congratulations on a well run race! Thanks for the description for those of us who would loved to also have been there. Happy Grindstone training!!

Sophie Speidel said...

Thanks, everyone. It was a special day in many ways. I truly appreciate your comments and support.

Gentry...what happened to you Saturday nite? Potts won't tell us.

Alan, your words say it all so beautifully. Thank you so much for the inspiration. YOU are the class act around here.

Rick, I always love seeing you and Tammy. Your positive vibe is infectious---thank you.

Flame, as I wrote you...we missed your smiling face. Come up for Grindstone :-) or the new Caroline's 100K in October...?

Willow, I have heard so much about you from Anne Lundblad. Congrats on your strong win! Wooo-hoo! year this is your race. You would love it.

Hoyawolf said...

great race report! congrats on the superb finish as well.

please tell your friend that i am going to use his quote as well - beautifully written.


Andrew Speidel said...

Great job Sophie. Sounds like a great time!

Cynthia JM Fillman said...

Hi Sophie ... LOVED your race report. Congratulations on a successful race and a strong finish! You are an inspiration and also a good writer, too.

alyssa said...

Congrats on a great race at Highlands Sky! And thank you for your support through Western States! I'm glad you were able to relive some of your time out there with my pictures as well. It all went by so fast, I can't even believe it's over.