Laurel Highlands Ultra Stories & a Bad Ankle Injury (2020)

Start line

The year of COVID-19

Due to COVID-19, the race was different from previous years, but it was still a great production. The race directors (RDs) worked closely with the park and followed multiple regulations and guidelines to keep everyone safe. The race is typically held in the summer (June), but this year it was pushed back the fall (September). All participants signed a form regarding COVID-19 regulations, had their temperature taken, and answered health questions prior to heading to start.

In our race packets, we received a LHU buff and facemask, they are really cool! I wore my buff around my neck for the race in case I needed to pull it up as a mask. It was mostly used for boogers and snot.

There were multiple start times, spread out minutes apart, and four runners went at a time. Everyone practiced social distancing and wore their mask in designated “mask up areas,” aid stations (ASs). Hand sanitizer was also available at ASs. All of the usual practices we sort of became accustomed to.

This year, drop bags were allowed at every AS, so every runner was sure to have what they needed. In the time leading up to the race, we were told to be well-prepared with our own nutrition because ASs wouldn’t be as stocked with goodies as in previous years. ASs didn’t disappoint, though!

Runners were allowed one crew member, no pacer. Not having a pacer was difficult at night.

Runners followed all of the rules and guidelines laid before us.

My results

DNF due to missing the cutoff time at the 2nd to last AS, mile 56.

Almost 19 hours of running and hobbling. I forgot to stop my watch when I was pulled.

Ankle injury around mile 6. It rolled bad (inversion) the initial time, then another time about a minute later, then any uneven surface (basically, the trail) caused it to continue to roll out. I tried to track the number of times the ankle moved on me and caused enough pain for me to swear or cringe, but I lost track after a dozen. I think it was just plain out, it was unstable and so darn painful.

44/58 runners finished.

The course

70.5 mi

From the start, it’s just a short run down the road and turn left to get on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT).

LHHT is a technical single track trail with gnarly tree roots and enough rocks to make you hate them by the finish.

The scenery is gorgeous, views, large climbs, rolling hills, multiple crossings over streams (there are bridges), go through the Seven Springs Resort area, and another cool part is taking the bridge over the turnpike!

The race starts at Ohiopyle, PA and ends in Seward, PA, running south to north.

For more information, go to the race website. There is a nice downloadable map.

Weather

79° F and mostly cloudy.

Cooler at night, I needed a long sleeved Xoskin shirt.

My gear

Altra Running KingMT

UD pack

COROS Apex

Kogalla light

Battery bank and cord for my light and cell phone

MS Force LED headlamp. Backup, I like it more than my Black Diamond one.

Garmin InReach mini, so my husband could possibly track my progress. I’m not impressed with the device’s accuracy (through Pennsylvania’s thick trees, anyway) and battery life.

Trail snacks

What everyone asks about, the first eight or so miles —

— Here’s my detailed report leading up to the first AS: the race begins

I’m the short one

It was time to arrive at the starting line, as my wave would be heading out soon. The archway was simply decorated with lights and colorful flags. The morning wouldn’t be approaching for quite some time, so the archway glowed in the dark. Only a few people stood gathered, a couple of headlamps were on. Racer’s names were called out by a RD holding a clipboard. I made my presence known when he called me, feeling like was volunteering myself for a self-sacrifice to the pitch black woods.

Excited and nervous, me and the three runners who were called for our wave chatted and listened to the RD’s final briefing. With watches ready, we were spaced behind the start line and a camera man was just on the other side. He was holding a very official appearing camera on his shoulder, kneeling and recording.

My mind was flooded with thoughts at this time. I reflected on how this was my first race in over a year since having my baby (and c-section). With 2020 being the year of the pandemic, I was blessed to be standing at a start line. Lastly, I was wondering what the first three climbs were like, and was feeling determined to beat the first cutoff time by a lot. Once the RD finished briefing, we were sent off.

Chatting continued amongst the other runners and I decided to let them trot ahead. We were unsure of when we should unmask, so we collectively decided to right away. None of us seemed concerned about COVID-19. I turned on my Kogalla light, which was placed on the right side of my UD vest. It was on the low light setting.

Paying attention to the other runners’ pace and swiftness, I tried to size-up their experience with this course. The lady took off way ahead as we entered the trailhead. The two men stayed somewhat together. It was tough to stay together as there were some rolling hills and a lot of rocks to worry about. I watched for snakes and fiddled with my light to get it on the higher setting. I have trouble seeing at night, including while driving. It was crucial to get the light turned all the way up.

I wasn’t too far behind the other runners. Our pace was slightly uncomfortable for the beginning of a 70 mile journey. Following their pace, I was alright and felt like that was something I could maintain for most of the day. We ran short uphills, steep, though. Were we at the first climb, yet? Was running uphills necessary to beat the first cutoff?

Faster runners were coming from behind. The trail was wide enough for them to pass left. As I maintained pace, I wondered how people’s start times were chosen. When I registered, I put down a well educated guess at my predicted finish time, which might have placed me with a pretty fast crew.

It was obvious when we got to the first climb, about mile 2. My effort was hard and the terrain was steep. There was no more uphill running, it turned into power hiking. Box step-ups crossed my mind because that’s basically what this hill was to my short legs. I trained mostly by running hills for this race. I trained well and it was paying off. My heart was pounding and could hear other’s labored breathing in the dark. The trail mellowed out for a little, and then the second climb began.

The first climb effort seemed easier than the second, maybe because it was around a mile in length? Struggling, I questioned my decision to enter this event. I closed the gap between myself and the two men that started with me. A male and female voice was behind me. I felt good about everything, my placing, how my body felt, etc. I didn’t want the people behind me to catch up. After mixed emotions, I was just living in the moment. The forest began to take shape as daylight was approaching. Black slowly turned into hunter green. The second hill was rough and it was a constant grind.

I don’t remember what happened between the second climb and the third, all I can remember was that the third was the worst hill I’ve ever been on. It was between three and four miles long. My legs were wearing and burning from the first few race miles. I tried to keep track of miles in my head, but everything was numb. I don’t look at my watch. My mind was in relentless forward progress mode, grappling up this hill.

The morning hit, which was a blessing and a curse. There were beautiful views of mountains through trees to the right. Ah, Laurel Highlands, beautiful. Then, at the same time, I was dizzy gazing up the never ending trail in front of me. It would have been the perfect time to cuss at the trail, but I didn’t. Placing changed for every runner during this section, we all had our own battles. I passed a few people as we neared the top, or what seemed like it. Some stood on the side of the trail taking a short break.

The trail became less steep and rolled along more pretty sights. Woohoo, downhills and lots of it. I ran rather well and kept up with most people. My running improved over the time of my pregnancy and during that time that I was making a slow comeback from the surgery thay made seven incisions in my abdomen. I was stronger than ever.

A crazy fast dude was behind me on a downhill, I wasn’t sure if he wanted to pass because he didn’t say anything and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the trail. We were flying. At the bottom, I was able to slow and get out of the way. I yelled back asking if he was going to pass. He said yes, and in passing we agreed that that was a perfect downhill. He took off as graceful as a deer darting through the woods. I was like, “well, you’re not human,” and wondered what place he’d finish in. Then, I felt bad that he was behind my slow butt. Oh, well.

Things were great, surging ahead on more downhill. There was a lady behind me about the same pace. The technical trail became much more technical. Enough rocks, some loose, roots, and crazy footing slowed us all down. In steep parts, the loose rocks rolled under our feet. I stayed behind an older gentleman for almost this entire part. He asked if I wanted to pass, but I felt better about staying behind him and watching how he maneuvered. I replied to him that I didn’t feel comfortable going faster than what we were, it was too early in the race to get injured.

We crossed over a few bridges, which were basically large planks of trees. They were pretty cool. After the gnarly settled, we parted ways as I passed. I was running a smooth downhill and began a countdown, estimating how many miles until the first checkpoint at Route 653, 19.3 miles in. I was ahead of the cutoff.

Here’s the part where I injured my ankle

Crusing a less rocky downhill, my left foot found the one and only rock. My eye saw it, just as it was too late to adjust. My ankle rolled bad. It hurt a ton. I didn’t break stride too much because this has happened before and it turns out okay. I could just keep running. A crap ton of rocks were coming on this downhill. It was once again technical. I slowed.

A very small rock rolled my left ankle again, hard. It pulled and made a cracking noise. I stumbled and hopped around. Limped it off. I then tried running a few steps. It easily rolled and cracked again. Maybe it was a snap. A lot of pain shot from my exterior ankle bone towards my pinky toe. A big shift, like a tendon tore or snapped, followed by complete numbness for a number of seconds. I screamed and gripped my ankle with both hands. Tears of pain and anger wield inside of me.

I immediately needed to sit down. I hopped on my good foot to a fallen tree where I sat and continued to grasp my ankle and work through the pain. The lady who was running behind me checked on me as she passed. I briefly explained what happened. She was empathetic and wished me well.

I’ve never been injured like this during a race. It was definitely not expected and my brain scrambled to come up with a new game plan. My ankle was shouting that my race was over. Swelling was occurring. However, I sometimes wear Injinji socks under compression socks for ultras over 50 miles long, I was during this race, which was perfect.

I called my husband, Stephen. Calling him was the only thing I could think of during the brain scramble. He was my crew. Luckily, I had cell phone reception. I told him where I was, which was about four miles away from the first checkpoint and that I needed him to meet me there. I didn’t fully go into details.

Hopping off of the tree, I hobbled. Holy cow, it was going to be a long four miles. I felt alone and defeated. Maybe two runners passed me and encouraged me. I was contemplating calling my race done, this thought hurt as much as my ankle. My ankle was unable to move fast. It rolled ever so slightly another time or two by the time I got to the AS. I decided to track the number of times that my ankle rolled, so that I could tell anyone who would check it out in the future. My phone buzzed, Stephen was calling. He double checked where he was to meet me at, as he figured out that he drove to the wrong AS.

Great shot! Smiling right after rolling my ankle.

Finally, the first AS!

I arrived looking for Stephen, he had just parked our Jeep, but had gear to gather and a short walk. Before he got to me, three AS volunteers were helping me out. I was shown where I could sit. I reported, without panic, that I needed someone to look at my ankle. I was close to tears because I thought my race was finished.

These awesome men were helping me out. They asked what I wanted to eat. I spied fruit cups over on the table and asked for that. I was handed a cup. Two runners entered the AS and put up their masks. One runner didn’t stick around, the other runner seemed just as beat up as I was. The men with the food encouraged me.

The man inspecting my ankle talked about ankle rolling and then what my race plan needed to become. The plan switched to hiking the majority and run non-technical. He pointed out that my ankle was swollen, the compression socks that I had on was keeping the swelling down. We discussed how I had my shoes tied and he unlaced part of them, pulled the laces tighter, and then showed me a different way of lacing to provide more stability. A ziploc bag of ice was prescribed and then carefully taped around my ankle. I was told that it would loosen as the ice melted. It felt nice.

The men had a lot of knowledge, it seemed. I must have had some sort of facial expression, as one guy assured me that I could listen to the man checking out my ankle, stating his experience as a seasoned ultramarathon runner. He had twelve 100 mile finishes. Hearing this, I was leaning towards my inner “suck it up” attitude. The phrase, “if the bone isn’t showing, keep going,” was dropped by the volunteers. “Ah, (expletive), they’re right. I have to keep going,” my mind said. I don’t drop out of races, I go until I’m pulled from the course. I replied that I would get back out there.

When Stephen got to me, I thanked him and told him that I didn’t need anything. I expressed the new plan and that it was okay for me to keep moving. We agreed to meet up at the next AS. I was wished well by the volunteers and Stephen. I gingerly jogged off. I wish I knew who the three men were. Bada$$ Three Wise Men.

So, that was just the first portion of the race. Things remained somewhat normal for quite a while.

More LHHT

Along the way, runners and hikers were encouraging. I was now in the back-of-the-pack. There was a mix of us. Cheerful runners, runners who had bad luck, and one who was “in over her head,” as she stated. We had some short conversations with one another, but the presence of being out there together, battling the same thing, spoke pretty loudly. We were connected. I admit that I did struggle shaking the thoughts that I should be much further ahead. As we leap frogged along, we had our mini community and check-in with each other every now and then.

I can’t leave out the beauty of the trail. It was so green with various plants and trees. I love the shades of green on a trail. The month was September, so it was almost Fall. I remember a section where the leaves already changed color and fell. It was stunning and made me feel incredibly grateful to be in that moment. Other sections had interesting shaped boulders. Moss coated some, adding character and more green. It was a gorgeous day and place.

Coolest race photo ever. That rock is heart-shaped.

I followed a new friend, he was an older man and a veteran of the race. He was a light. On and off for hours, we briefly talked when we were close. We weren’t purposefully running together, but we ended up being near each other until the very end. He mentioned the footpath over the turnpike and that it would shortly come up. That it is always a highlight of the race. I felt pumped to find out that we were approaching the bridge. For years, I drove under the bridge and have always wanted to be on it, that dream was going to come true!

Dreaming of running across this bridge.

I was back to having fun, despite being aware of the poor condition of my ankle. I could hardly run at all without pain.

Night falls

Probably somewhere around mile 45, the wind picked up and I was wondering if it was going to rain. I realized that I was getting too cold, my arms and hands felt damp, so I paused and pulled my Xoskin long sleeve from my pack. The shirt helped some, but I knew I’d need to move faster to warm up. I was happy to see uphills because it helped me keep warm.

I began having number two problems and needed to stop frequently to find somewhere to go. Somewhere snake-free. I hadn’t seen a snake all day, well, one suspicious root or stick that I didn’t turn around to confirm whether it was a snake or not. I sure wasn’t about to anger a snake, so I examined where I was stepping with my tired eyes as I searched for somewhere to squat.

Everything felt urgent. I had to hurry to the bathroom and hurry to keep moving in the race. I probably stopped 5 times and eventually it was mostly gas. But you know how when you’re running ultras, you should never trust a fart? Well, that’s true. At least it wasn’t much.

Running alone at night, while injured, was all mental grit and highly challenging. The last thing I needed was for some scary as Hell stuff to start.

Scary as Hell stuff

This next experience lasted for about 7 miles, but felt like an eternity.

I saw a woman floating in front and to the left of me. She was wearing a long white flowing cloth dress with vertical stripes towards the bottom. Long sleeves and her arms were down to her side. A small hat angled on her head, hiding most of her face. I stopped in my tracks and waited for her to move. Frozen, I wasn’t sure what to do.

Trying to think fast, I waited to see if she would move. I thought about stalling for the next runner to come behind me and we’d pass it together. That would be a while, though. Next, I thought that I should turn around and run back! Then, I thought to myself that I’d be a goner before the next runner arrived anyways, picturing her quickly flying towards my face. I gathered my courage and kept my light on her. A few steps closer, I saw that it was a stump with two ferns at the bottom, making the stripes. I immediately felt relieved and stupid. Kept running.

Similar to the floating lady, this was an evil clown until I got close enough to see what it actually was.

Hallucinating

As far as hallucinating goes, I saw a large, transparent, red mark floating for a few seconds on my upper left. I also kept seeing headlamp lights through the woods, but no one was near me. I think I imagined the lights because I wanted to see other runners or the AS volunteers so badly.

The next two things were hearing a phone or walkie talkie ringing and my young daughter babbling. I kept wondering if the ringing was my Garmin InReach mini in my pack, but the noise didn’t always sound like it was coming from the same place. It was confusing. The InReach could have been beeping that the battery was dying. Then, hearing my daughter, but not being able to see her was the worst.

To possibly survive this never ending nightmare, I sang 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall over and over again until I was at the next AS. Reaching the next AS, mile 56 (?), was good, until it wasn’t. I came hobbling in somewhat bright, ready to get food and electrolytes, then make my way through the next 13 or whatever miles and cross the finish line. I was greeted by two RDs and Stephen, as if I could grab what I needed and get going, but then, it quickly changed into, “unfortunately, you’ve missed the cutoff time”.

I felt a little shock because I was clueless of time. I really wanted to finish and felt like (minus my ankle) I could struggle bus to the end. I had an incredible mental rally from injuring my ankle, but put in so much effort that I was hallucinating, which I’ve never experienced before (even 80 miles into a 100). The majority of my attention was focused on where I was placing my ankle, how I was going to maneuver the rocks, and even stepping down from rocks, which could turn my wonky ankle. I knew that my race being over was be best for my ankle, which I stated out loud.

One of the RDs said that they’ve been following my progress all day and were amazed because they knew I was injured (I’m thankful that they were aware that I was injured. That that news had been passed along.). We all talked before Stephen and I went back to the Jeep about finding time to train for ultramarathons as parents. It’s so hard. This was one of my reasons for hiring a running coach, which was actually just days before this race. My race ended on a good note. Riding home, in and out of sleep, I was beginning to feel torn up over not finishing.

Overall, even though some parts were stressful and plain miserable, I still had fun. LHU is a well put on event, awesome AS volunteers, cameramen, RDs, and everyone. I will return to finish another year.

Home sweet home

Was it worth it?

Was it worth pushing through the injury? Physically, for my ankle, no, it wasn’t. Physically, for the rest of my body, sure, I did fine. You can expect to be wrecked a little during long, difficult races like LHU. I got a little more experience under my belt. From a mental perspective, it was good to really flex my mind muscle, use strategies, and push myself to my limit… well, missing the cutoff time. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

This is what happens when you push yourself to or maybe even beyond your limit. The ultrarunner aches and pains, “everything hurts and I’m dying,” including toenails. I’m not sure what to call my ankle injury, whether it was a grade 2 or 3 sprain because I never went to the doctor. I have the mindset that I’m okay and it will heal up with proper rest and recovery.

Proper rest and recovery

For weeks after the race, my running took a rest. My coach, Kyle Kranz, and I discussed my recovery and what was appropriate. I kept him updated on my ankle and even my wavering mental state. When it came time to slowly run again, it was a run/walk, mostly walk. A short distance. I worked my ankle up to 7 miles, then that was too much. Back to resting. Eventually, I got up to 15 miles, but then steps backwards. Up to 15 again, and then repeated backwards. Being injured and having to take it easy and rest properly was much harder than my usual training.

Proper rest and recovery included strength work, and some specifically for my ankles and calves prescribed by my running coach, Kyle Kranz. I was seeing the chiropractor once every other week for 2-3 months, then I could spread out the appointments further. He adjusted my body and ankle. He also ran a laser over my ankle which breaks up scar tissue, increases blood flow, and something to do with protien or whatever.

I followed what the people I trusted said and listened to my body.

Prevail Botanicals CBD Salve, KT Tape, and Injinji

The payoff

6 months later, with proper rest and recovery, I was able to complete running 267 miles in 15 days for the Badwater 267 Virtual Race Elite. The bulk of the runs were completed on trail and I had the most elevation gain for women. Doing the right things was a huge win and payoff.

A huge THANK YOU goes out to everyone who played a part in this journey, especially Stephen and Coach Kyle Kranz. It was really nice seeing Stephen at the ASs. LHU was my wildest ultramarathon to date.

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2 thoughts on “Laurel Highlands Ultra Stories & a Bad Ankle Injury (2020)

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