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Highlands Sky: Stunning Beauty, Grueling Course

Highlands Sky 40 Miler rocked my world. And my quads. Also, my feet.

Fueling up before the first climb, a misty 2,300 foot ascent.
Back in the Game. This was my A race for the year, yet somehow, it sneaked up on me. In preparation, I'd run 50k in February, March and May, so I felt good about my endurance but less confident about my leg speed. Outside of a flat trail 10 miler in March, an impromptu 5K in April and a couple of social insanely fast-paced WUS trail runs, I'd been running pretty easy. I'd been content with being healthy and enjoying my running. Spending a lot of time injured will do that.

Last-Minute Speedwork. I'm not sure that racing a 5k (which was supposed to be a 10k) the weekend before was the best plan as I noted a bit of lingering quad soreness early in the race. In hindsight, it may have been less taxing than the planned 10K would've proven to be.
Typical section of the rocky Roaring Plains trail
This was not my first rodeo. I'd run this race in 2009 when shortly after we started, the skies opened and a downpour ensued. The first and biggest climb featured flowing chocolate milkshake mud. The stinging nettles were hardly noticeable as we struggled to make uphill progress. When we reached the top, the rocks of the Roaring Plains trail couldn't be seen, only feared as we ker-plunked for many miles in ankle-deep (and in some sections, calf-deep) water. There were three major stream crossings and at one, Bill G was swept downstream for a few frightening minutes. Everyone who ran that year had a story to tell.

We begin the descent from Roaring Plains. The mountain laurel was lovely.

Thankfully, this year's weather was unremarkable. It was overcast and not too hot, even when the sun broke through.

I caught up with good friends Marti and Gaynor about 10 miles into the race. They were both having tough days and I was feeling good, and still,
these strong women dragged me up hills and kept my pace brisk when it would have degraded into a stroll. I usually spend a significant amount of time running alone. Today, I drew energy from their company.

Posing at AS #3
The Road Across the Sky. I have a love-hate relationship with roads. Trail is my true love; road makes running seem too much like work. But in a race with 75% trail - featuring boggy, rock-strewn, uneven terrain that demands vigilant attention to foot placement, it offers a welcome break. It's 8 miles long, however, and as you crest each hill you can see very tiny people far ahead on this seemingly interminable stretch.

Marti, feeling peaceful on The Road Across the Sky.
Dolly Sods. The Road Across The Sky travels along the Eastern Continental Divide. The eastern side of the road drains into the Atlantic Ocean watershed and the western side drains into the Gulf of Mexico. This place is a geological wonder. And the wildflowers provide a beautiful distraction from fatigued legs.

Wildflowers along the Road Across the Sky
Long after we've had our fill of road, the course makes a hard left onto Bear Rocks Trail. There's a steady wind blowing and flora is strange and foreign, reminiscent of Canada.
Starting down Bear Rocks Trail
More boggy trail, rocks, and a stream crossing. The landscape changes and we're in dark and lovely woods carpeted with soft pine needles.

And suddenly we emerge into more big sky open meadows.

This section reminded me of the Bighorn course in Wyoming
Picture Perfect. Bring your camera. I took almost as many photos as I did during Bighorn 50K last year. Hubz thinks I could finish a lot faster, but I think these moments rejuvenate me.

I lose Marti during this section when I make a pit stop in one of the spruce thickets.

Raven Ridge Trail
There's more foot-trashing wet trail. Plus rocks.

Boulders. After the big open wide west, there are boulder fields. More incomparable beauty that challenges my weary body. Alan G catches up to me here. We've been leap-frogging since the Road Across the Sky. The gash in his forehead is apparently not serious enough to keep him from finishing.

Boulders that would be great fun on fresh legs
The Last Climb. It's a half mile up Salamander, a Timberline Resort slope which I skied down this past winter. I rejoice when I spy Blue-Eyed Grass. At the summit, another hard left. I shred what's left of my quads on the aptly named "butt slide" as I catch Marti again.

Climbing Salamander
The Home Stretch. It's just a mile or so on crushed rock road until we reach the final aid station. I'm happy to see Kimba, though her offer for a sip of golden nectar nearly derails me.

We run, walk, commiserating, laughing, talking each other through the next push.

There Wasn't A Dry Foot On The Course. One last boggy, uneven section of grass. Dan Lehmann, the awesome race director, mows this so we don't have to run on the highway. The sun is out now, and the wet earth is steamy. Seeing more Blue-Eyed Grass cheers me.

We reach the highway crossing and our menfolk are there, cheering like mad. We grind out the last section of shady, pleasant trail and cross the finish line.

Photo by Race Director Dan Lehman
A Keeper. This is one tough run. The kind that makes you fall in love with a race. I have a feeling I'll be back next year.

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