It’s 10 pm on a Saturday night. I’m running and pitch blackness all around me. I hear the sounds of nature and sense tiny scurrying creatures in shadowy bushes and ferns. I’m somewhere on the Laurel Highlands trail around mile 9, but who can be sure? I can only see the tiny illuminated spotlight of my headlamp and flashlight. I stop to walk and look back. No one. Looking ahead I see only the dark outlines of trees with yellow blazes. I trudge up, well, what I can only sense is up because I can feel the incline in my legs and heartrate. A noise juts me back to my surroundings. I look back again, this time sensing another person is back there. Still no one. I’m positive I feel a presence behind me but see no other light illuminating the darkness besides my own. Onward I go, looking for the next tiny cement pillar that will mark my next mile on the Laurel Highlands Trail.How Did I Get Here?Almost a year ago, a friend, Bethany, posted our chapter of Moms Run This Town, an idea. Run the Laurel Highlands Ultra 70 Miler as a team relay. She was moving to PA from MD and was looking into races in the area.“Interested”, “Sounds awesome!”, “ooo exciting!” people posted. A months later she circles back with a few on a group message. “Who’s serious about joining?” Of course, immediately I respond, “in!” I love the feeling in the area that comes from a sense of adventure.We ended up making more then one team for the race. Our team, my BRF Amy, Erin and Stephanie (other MRTTers), and a new friend from PA, Autumn.
The total race was 70 miles, so our team had two runners head up on Friday night, staying at a B&B in the area.
Leg 1: 19ish miles
Stephanie started bright and early at 5:30 a.m. heading for almost 20 miles on the trail. She crushed her run, which was a mixture of steep inclines, trail miles, mud, and elevation. While Stephanie was still running, Amy headed over to my house to pick me up. We drove up together, about a three hour trip. It was a pretty nice day, but we rolled through some storms on the way to the trail.
Leg 2: 11 miles
The next runner was Autumn. She was a new friend of Bethany’s from PA. A strong trail runner who quickly crushed her miles in the morning, starting around 9:30 a.m.
Leg 3: 14.2 miles
We pulled into the exchange for leg 3 around noon. Erin was already there, parked and getting ready. Everyone got a healthy dose of bug spray. This was the only exchange of the day that had ANY toilets (yep, wrap your mind around that people!). It was hot in the sun, but much cooler on the trails. We started walking slowly up to the exchange when we see someone wave to us. She says, “are you guys on my team?” Autumn had just rolled in and Amy was on deck. We took some quick pics and Amy was on her way. Once Amy was off, we had some decisions to make. This was definitely a more complex, tricky relay then I’m used to with Ragnar. Typically with Ragnar you’re all in one car, together for the day. But we had all drove separately, so we had many more logistical things to consider. Bethany was running on the 50k relay team so we decided to walk up to meet her. On our way there, Stephanie texted us from a different location. We got her to the 50k relay exchange and then decided, okay, let’s get our cars, park at the 50k relay and stay there for a bit. It actually turns out, Bethany had started later then we expected. Around 2:15, we headed for Amy’s exchange. Since we still had Amy’s car, Erin and I had to bring it to the next exchange so she could keep rolling with it the rest of the day. Erin was on deck after Amy. It was about 30 minutes between exchanges. We parked on another dirt road and headed for the exchange point. At this point I realized, oh, now Erin’s car will still be here! The car situation was definitely logistically complicated. You really had to thinka bout it all day so you didn’t leave cars along the trail to be picked up. Since I was the anchor leg, I was definitely aware and much happier to help out moving cars during the day, then after a dark, night trail half marathon. We decided I’d drive Erin’s car to the next exchange after she left.Erin and I stopped for a couple pics before the race. She was another MRTTer and during a winter Harry Potter themed-challenge this year, she deamed this race her “boggart.” If you’re not into Harry Potter, a “boggart” is something you’re afraid of. In this case, it was a hard trail run with “Speedy ladies.” I don’t know about that last part, but she seemed ready to go. Amy rolled in and Erin back out. She was doing a solid 10 miles on the trail and looked strong on her way out.
Leg 4: 10ish miles
With Erin out, Amy had time to grab some food at the aid station and we headed out. She had paced with some guys on the trails and was happy to be done. We ran into Bethany and Autumn again who met us. With everyone together, we decided to stop at Sheetz for some food. We were definitely out in the country now! Not big city living like Columbia ;)We stopped for dinner and it hit me that I had been out for 8ish hours and I still had yet to run. Ooof. I decided to opt for a regular chicken sandwhich and chips dinner since I still had 90 minutes before my run, which was projected to start around 7:15. At this point, I was still driving Erin’s car, so we headed out to my exchange. I parked Erin’s car, gave her keys to Bethany for safe keeping. We waited at the aid station for little bit, taking in some time for pics. I was excited to finally start, but honestly kind of dreading it a little bit. It had been a longgg day. We left around 8 in the morning and it was almost 12 hours later when I finally was getting ready to run. Could I really do this? Too late now I guess, I thought to myself.
Leg 5: 13.4 “Who Turned Off the Lights?”
To my surprise, the first 4-5 miles of the trail were pretty gentle. Very mild rolling hills, definitely rocky with lots of roots, but that was what I was expecting from the course, and it didn’t shock me. The elevation gains were definitely mild so far. I was hitting between 13-15 and it felt very comfortable. Around mile 5 is when you hit the aid station. It came out of no where, but was lit up with strands of lights and plenty of food. The volunteers were still eager to help you out. I was feeling great. It was only twilight, I had already turned on my headlamp and flashlight to help with navigating the rocks.“Do you need anything?” The aid station volunteer asked.“No, I’ll just grab a quick Gatorade. I’m only doing the relay, I’m fine” Me, cocky and not knowing what a real “night trail run” actually looks like.“Are you sure? You have everything you need in your pack”“Yep, I’m good.”
With that, I rolled out. In hindsight, I wish I had spent an extra minute with the last of humanity I would see that night. After this I headed back out for the remaining 8 plus miles on the trail. Slowly with each step it got darker and darker. As soon as 8 pm hit, I needed a headlamp to navigate rocks. By 8:30 pm, it was difficult to see, and 15 minutes later I’d be in total darkness. At first, it wasn’t different from other night trail runs. After the aid station, I was passed or did pass a few other men on the trail, very little or no women at all. I passed one man who ran out of hydration and was only carrying two water filled Gatorade bottles. That was the last I’d see for a while.After wrapping up miles 7-9, I started really feeling the isolation and darkness. It was a solid hour or 90minutes before I saw another person after the guy with the Gatorade bottles. I’m not someone who is afraid of running alone or afraid of running in the dark. Before joining MRTT, I’d often run alone. Just download some podcasts or music and hit the miles.But this was different. If you’re looking to run a tougher trail or relay experience, Ragnar is PERFECT for you! (full disclosure, I am a Ragnar DC ambassador). The great part about it is that you get the full tough road miles or trail mile experience, but with volunteers and light up signs pointing the way at night.This was RUGGED. The trails were all tough, rocky, hard miles that were often muddy and slippery. That part I was ready for. I had expected that much and I felt ready to conquer it.But the other part, the total darkness. It was like hiking alone. You had only the trail blazes on the trees to follow. Otherwise, no signs, no ribbons, nothing. Just you and the trail. Great experience if you need some serious, tough trail miles. Around mile 10, I finally heard two men running a ways behind me. They quickly caught up and we quickly chatted before they headed on their way. I tried my best to stay with them for a little bit. It was at this point where I could tell I was up very, very high. Above a tall ridge, with tiny lights of a city way far below. I could hear cars a mile down in the distance, but I could see nothing expect my headlamp and the darkened skyline. Mile 68 on the trail came and the men in front of me ended up splitting up. One fell behind me and the other in front. As I headed down the hill I saw a men, no headlamp, standing on the side of the trail waiting for his friend.“Normally, seeing a man standing in the dark alone while I’m running at night would be scary, but this is not a normal night” I say to him.He laughs and says back, “it’s reassuring right?”It actually really was. Running alone in pitch black, with no one else for 90 minutes was unnerving, to say the least. I was ready for company.Unfortunately, shortly after this the men started pulling ahead. I sprinted to keep up with them. We pulled out of the treeline and we emerged under a huge transmission tower, a few stories tall. Across the way was a reflector ribbon on a tree, a sign of which way we were supposed to head.I saw the men’s lights disappear in the distance, we were heading down a sharp decent. My neck started to ache from looking down. Finally the trail evened out and was more runnable again. I jogged along and I could finally hear the finish line in the distance. When I saw the lights I felt an immense relief that I had made it.Crossing the finish line was different from other races. This was much more intimate since finishers were so spread out. A few dozen people lined up around a campfire and cheered as I crossed the finish line. I had the most amazing rice and chicken after finishing, and a fresh Gatorade full of sugar that tasted amazing.After that, Amy and I decided to head home. It was late, around 10:45 when I finished. I changed quickly and the three hours dragged along. Amy took half I drove the final way back. My eyelids were heavy, and I could tell Amy stayed awake to make sure I was okay, to keep me talking and wide awake.
The Laurel Highlands trail is definitely beautiful. For a trail race, it’s tough, but a great training run for tougher ultras if you plan to do the relay. The logistics for a relay team are super difficult though. Leaving cars sparsed along the route is hard, so plan ahead well so you know what to do with them. It’s also pretty secluded so not many food options. If I went again I would have brought more food with me too. The volunteers at the aid stations were top notch and happy to support and lend a hand to keep you moving towards the finish line.