Monday, July 2, 2012

Highland Sky 40 Miler, An Appreciation

I'm calling this an appreciation rather than a race report.  If you want a blow-by-blow, I-did-this-I-ate-that-I-got-this-split-at-AS4 kind of report, there are several good ones out there.

Let's start with what was for me the emotional--and I think literal--high point of the race, Aid Station 7.  Pictured is AS7's brilliant crew of volunteers, who obviously love their job, and made mine so much easier.  When you get to this stage of the course, around 30-something miles, you know in your bones why HS40 has been called "mile for mile, the hardest on the East Coast."  So says David Horton, and that's high praise indeed.  The man knows from hard. 

At AS7, you still have the aptly named vertiginous "butt slide" ahead, but you've survived the worst: the 2000 foot climb in the first 8 miles, the subsequent battering descent through rocks where you lose most of that altitude, and the re-climb back up to Aid Station 4.  Starting at AS4, you point your toes due north and follow the long and wearying "road to the sky" (aka Forest Road 75). I actually enjoyed this section.  It gave me a mental and physical break before stepping back on the Bear Rocks Trail at AS6. 


<----Road to the Sky 

Entrance to Bear Rocks Rocks (AS6)---> 

Race director Dan Lehmann has said his aim was never to design the hardest course in the East.  I believe it. The course exudes his depth of feeling for this extraordinary area of the country.  Tough is a side effect, not the point. There must be some rule of nature that says that the most beautiful experiences will also be the most extreme.  Or, perhaps we're wired to perceive the beautiful and the sublime just when we need it most.  As an AS6 volunteer put it, "you don't need to feel good to appreciate pretty."     

Pain, loss, survival, and indestructible beauty--all appropriate descriptors for Dolly Sods.  The odd name comes from the German family name Dahle, and "sods" just mean an area of bare boulders and grassy heath barrens.  At over 4000 feet, the strangely un-mid-Atlantic terrain of Dolly Sods is like nothing else in this region of the country.  That idiosyncratic spirit extends to the climate. Dolly Sods has a tendency to make its own weather (plan for rain--the mild weather of 2012 was surely a fluke!). It is a place of acidic bogs, blooming mountain laurel, club moss, ground pine, unexploded ordinance from WWII, and (rather unexpectedly) giant ant hills. Whole meadows not of grass but of ferns wave you into patchy forests of red spruce.

All this beauty hides a sad secret. The mostly treeless barrens are reminders that the Scottish highlands sort of feel to this place is the result--like the Highlands--of environmental devastation. Logging, mining, and deliberate burns changed the face of the landscape so profoundly that the fertile topsoil was sometimes lifted away entirely. The forests are slowly returning. This is a place of regeneration.

I'll be back, for sure. I was thrilled with my performance, running one place (46) better than my age (47). If I can keep up that pattern, by 75 or 80 I'll be phenomenal.

If you go, be sure to unwind in the twin towns of Davis and Thomas. Davis has the excellent Hellbender's Burritos (pictured above is the X-files diorama in the men's room), and Thomas has the classy Tip Top Cafe (formerly Hypnocoffee in the old Davis location).-->>


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