Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2010 Laurel Valley Ultra 35 Mile Run

The Laurel Valley Ultra 35 Mile is a true adventure run. There are more than 5,000 widely spaced wooded steps built in to many of the uphills, never ending long, false-summit climbs, lush vegetation, big creeks, whitewater rivers, waterfalls, dramatic drop offs, boulder scrambles, swinging bridges, wildlife, and all around incredible scenery.

As you follow the white blazes you have no idea of pace or distance covered as there are very few signs marking this segment of the trail, and a Garmin is practically useless under the thick forest canopy and deep valleys. In fact, the "unknown" distance of the race is part of the allure*.

And the finish...? A ridiculous climb to a really cool, big-ass waterfall view. Hell, YEAH!

In addition, this is a point to point race with no aid provided. Runners must provide their own shuttles and carry any food/ fluid and water treatment needed. Because of the remoteness of the course, RD Claude Sinclair requires that a runner first serve as a sweep before being allowed to race the following year. This ensures that all runners are experienced with the course, and also provides a safety mechanism for runners that become sick or injured on the trail.

This year, I signed up to be a sweep so as to ensure my entry in to the 2011 race. The sweep team was headed up by Will Brown and consisted of Abi Meadows, Dave Pryor, Caroline Williams, Jim Kelleher, Leonard Martin, Stephen Morris, and myself.

We sweeps ended up having a long day - 15 hours on the trail. John Dove, this years winner, came into the finish just under 7 hours. That's a long time to wait for the last finisher, and a long time to spend on the trail.

Here's how race day unfolded:

Leopold and I had spent the night at our friend Dave Pryor's house on Friday night, since he lives just 45 minutes or so from the start of the race. We met up with Charles at the start of the race, and he and Leopold saw us off at 5:00 am. They hung around for the "real" start, then they hiked up to Table Rock. Eventually, they both hiked in from the Laurel Valley finish and met us on the trail at about mile 28. A long day for them, to be sure.

That morning as we left Dave's house and approached Rocky Bottom, SC, it began to rain and I couldn't help but think how strange it was to be back on this trail after my 29-hour adventure just 3 weeks before.

As we drove up the familiar gravel road to the Laurel Valley entrance, it brought back memories of Jason, Charles, and I finishing the Table Rock to Laurel Valley Entrance section of "FHT 77 2010". We had watched the sun rise on Pinnacle Mountain, and had been in high spirits as we walked up this very road to Scott's Aid Station of Awesomeness**.

As we pulled in to the familiar parking lot next to Charles and began to transfer all of our stuff to his car, we were greeted by Jason Sullivan and Scott Hodukavich. Big hugs all around, and pictures (thanks, Scott!).

Big Easy (Jason Sullivan)

Dave Pryor, myself, Charles, and Leopold. ("Psyche didn't get Claude's note about race day being blue shirt day!")

10 minutes prior to the 5:00 a.m. start, Dave and I headed over to hear the instructions given by Sweep Master Will Brown. We were joined by Caroline Williams and Abi Meadows. We would meet the 6:00 a.m. sweeps (Jim Kelleher, Leonard Martin and Stephen Morris) later on down the trail.

From Left: Caroline Williams, Will Brown, Dave Pryor, myself, Leopold. ("The 5 am sweeps get told they have to pass everyone - no wait- that's not right...")

RD Extraordinnaire, Claude Sinclaire ("And I better not catch you getting off trail...!")

Claude fires some sort of gun, and we head up the stairs to the trail. I love the stair start, by the way. It just perfectly sets up the Laurel Valley experience.

It gets exciting immediately. My Go-Motion chest light whose batteries I've just changed seems not to want to turn on. Panicking, I pray I have my back up head lamp in my pack. Meanwhile Dave discovers he's left part of his pack unzipped and can't determine whether he's lost anything out of his pack or not. After a few adjustments, we're on our way, lit and zipped up.

In the back of my mind, I had attention on revisiting key parts of the trail- Cane Brake, Toxaway Bridge, and especially Hilliard Falls. I found myself wondering how I was going to feel once I got to Hilliard Falls, the site where I became really disoriented.

These thoughts soon fade as conversation takes over. Dave and I are bringing up the caboose, just hanging back and listening as Abi Meadows regals us with stories of her fascinating life. As she talks about her 16 year old son's running adventures and how she won't allow him to run an ultra marathon at his age due to the risk of it damaging his endocrine system, Dave and I shoot each other a look, silently agreeing not to mention Leopold's ultra adventures***.

As we continued on at a walk pace, the 6:00 a.m. starters were being sent on their way.

6:00 a.m.. start ("Up the stairs on to the long 35 mile day on the trail")

After some time of wandering through the forest, I see the first runner coming through and it's Byron Backer. He's flying down the trail, looking great! It was exciting to watch him fly by us like that - I can't imagine running that pace through Laurel Valley.

Not too long after that, we began to see others, many familiar faces including my new friend from Hot To Trot 24-Hr Race, Bill Keane. As expected, Bill looked mean and lean and ready to kill it. He was gone before I could remember to tell him I put "Stairway To Heaven" on my iPod, just in his honor for today's run.

Then, the first official "sweep" experience was upon us. As we crossed the bridge, I saw Wayne Downey sitting on the trail. He had obviously hurt himself and was assessing the damage. Apparently, he had rolled his ankle, and pretty badly.

Dave Pryor really saved the day by bringing all kinds of supplies we thought we'd never need. He had some tape and did a pretty good job of giving Wayne some support on the ankle. After much consideration, Wayne's amazing attitude won the argument and he decided to carry on.

What's left of the tape job on Wayne Downey's ankle. (Thanks, Dave!)

With no further emergencies, I had plenty of time to contemplate my last visit here. I made sure to take pictures of key landmarks like the bench in the middle of nowhere, and the Toxaway Bridge. I even sent Charles a text from the Cane Break stairs, in memory of his fateful day.

As we came up to Hilliard Falls, I looked to Will to see wherehe picked up the trail at the Hilliard Falls sign, and my heart fell to my stomach when instead of it "all coming back" to me, I swore I came up to the Hilliard Falls sign from a different direction!

Many hours and conversations**** later, Charles and Leopold appear as if out of nowhere. I was so happy to see them and really excited that Leopold was going to spend some time on this very special trail. Covering the last 7 miles with the two most precious people in my life was a real treat and honor.

What can I say? I am simply in love with this 30+ stretch of the Foothills Trail. It has a magic that you just have to experience to understand. I'm thankful for Claude Sinclair for putting on this event in a safe and fun way each year.

* Will Brown relayed a funny story about Claude's attempt to have sweeps measure the course during a previous year's race. After 35 miles of taking turns pushing a measuring wheel along the course, the sweeps finally arrive at the stairs near the finish. Claude is beaming with excitement, eagerly awaiting the count from the wheel... As the wheel makes its way up the stairs, the counter promptly falls off and is lost forever, along with any hopes of ever knowing how long this run actually is. Awesome story- awesome trail.

** Frozen towels, watermelon slices, ice, assorted sweet and salty foods. Seriously, thios is your man if you ever want to know how to really come out and support a race.

***I make a mental note to Google "youth running+endocrine system".

**** Jim Kelleher loves himself some Pink Floyd. He enjoyed hearing how I listened to Pink Floyd under the orange moon out on the Trail 3 weeks ago. In Leonard Martin I found a never ending source of ultra running information, tips, and advice- thanks so much for all the great advice for Pinhoti, Leonard! You the MAN!


  1. nice report - you paid your LV dues as a sweep ...so next year, it's time to race 'dat thang.

    Get some!

  2. Great job! I need to sign up as a sweeper for this race as soon as I've paid my ultramarathon dues in a couple of years.

  3. This report was definitely worth waiting for Psyche! I agree with C, next year you need to go for it and and kick some serious A on that trail...she owes you!

  4. And taking pictures of and texting me from the places I almost bit it...cruel, just cruel :)

    That darn bench, wow....under-appreciated for sure!

  5. great RR...makes me want to sweep @LV next year...maybe I will get Jason to sweep with me...

  6. Thanks, Psyche. Very cool report. Love the story about attempting to measure the course;)

  7. Enjoyed that Psyche - thanks for sharing. I cannot wait to talk with you and see where you actually went off course before Hillard Falls. I think I have a good idea. Dang - 15 hours is long, but better than 29, eh?

  8. Great pictures, nice work on the race!

    I love the bench in the middle of nowhere.

  9. Without sweeps, there would be no races. Thanks to you from a midwesterner.

    Yeah, sometimes the lag from 1st to DFL is a LOOOONG time.