Laurel Highlands Ultra: How to Run With Your Tribe + WIN!

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” 

The words of Chinese philosopher Confucius became my motto throughout the uncertain journey toward the 2022 Laurel Highlands Ultra, held on June 11, in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

More on the importance of these words in a minute. 

First, let me tell you about the race...

A flat, runnable section of the LHHT between mile markers two and three. (Photo/ author)

The Laurel Highlands Ultra race course

The Laurel Highlands Ultra is a point-to-point race beginning at mile marker zero (the southern terminus) in Ohiopyle, Pa., running north along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT), a forested single-track with rocks, roots, mud and big climbs. 

The 50k ends at Jones Mills while the 70.5 mile ends in Seward, the northern terminus. 

The entire trail, part of Laurel Ridge State Park, is clearly marked with yellow blazes, well-maintained and remains on one linear path the entire time with one exception: 

  • Miles 26 to 28.5 meander through Seven Springs Ski Resort. Large posts garnering the LHHT’s yellow hiker symbol guide through hikers and runners in the correct direction, and pin flags and caution tape are set out on race day. 

Race distance options

  • 70.5 miles (a Western States 100 qualifier)
  • 70.5-mile relay (consisting of two to five people)
  • 50k
  • 50k relay (consisting of two to three people)
The climb at mile marker zero. Many sections of the southern half of the LHHT look similar to this. (Photo/ author)

Elevation

The steepest sections of trail are at the beginning, in the southern half, meaning 50k racers experience the toughest stuff. 

The last 20 of the 70.5-miles are the easiest. 

Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k elevation chart: 6,490 feet of ascent and 4,837 feet of descent, with 3,200 feet of climbing in the first 11.6 miles, which is leg one of the 50k relay if running with three people.
Just after mile marker 11 on the LHHT, which is full of rocks, moss, roots and Eastern Hemlocks, Pennsylvania’s state tree - spot the big one in the background. (Photo/ Mike McNeil)

Terrain

The LHHT is classic Pennsylvania (or Rocksylvania as it’s known in trail talk) single track: 

  • Rocky, many encased in moss and lichen
  • Often wet
  • Riddled with roots
  • Short, punchy hills
  • Half-mile to one-mile ascents and descents
  • Some smooth, flowing sections thrown in for good measure
A row of bluettes, after the overlooks just past mile marker two, where the April 2021 wildfires damaged the trail. By race day, these are no longer blooming. (Photo/ author)

Flora & fauna

Pink Lady’s Slippers (orchid family) after mile marker two on the LHHT, May 22. (Photo/ Andrea Detwiler)

Springtime wildflowers

  • Red and White Trillium
  • Pink and Yellow Lady’s Slippers
  • Violets
  • Bluettes

Trees

  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Tulip Poplar
  • Sassafras
  • Hemlock (Pennsylvania’s state tree)
  • Beech
  • Ash
Mountain Laurel, Pennsylvania’s state flower, lines the LHHT between mile markers 13 and 14 during late spring. (Photo/ author)

Shrubs and flowering plants:

  • Rhododendron
  • Mountain Laurel 
  • Witch Hazel
  • Mayapples 
Red-spotted newt around mile marker four on the LHHT, May 22, 2022. (Photo/ author)

Wildlife that friends have encountered

  • Black Bear
  • Porcupine
  • Red Fox
  • Timber Rattlesnakes

Wildlife that I’ve encountered:

  • Garter snakes
  • One copperhead snake
  • Red-spotted newts
  • Speckled black salamanders
  • Frogs 
  • Gray squirrels 
  • Chipmunks 

More:

  • Mushrooms and fungus of all types, including Chicken of the Woods
  • Cinnamon Ferns
  • Poison ivy
  • Teaberry
Author (front) running up the hill at mile marker zero in the 2021 LH Ultra 50k (Photo/ Goat Factory Media)

My History with the LHHT and LH Ultra 50k

As a resident of Ohiopyle, Pa., which is the southern terminus/ start line of the race, the LHHT is my go-to for trail running.

Oct. 2020 to current: My oldest son, now age eight, has run/ backpacked up to mile marker 33 in sections, with the goal of one day getting to mile marker 70.

March 2021 to April 2022: Over the course of a year, my husband and I have run and fastpacked all 70 miles of the trail together in sections.

June 13, 2021: First overall female in 6:12:50. Recap: Laurel Highlands Ultra: You Won’t Believe How This One Ends 

Sept. 27, 2020: First overall female, second overall runner, in 6:02:00, a personal best.

May 2, 2020: I completed a solo, unsupported effort (meaning no one ran with me or provided aid at any point) in 6:35:00, on the 50k course, because the COVID-19 pandemic took the typical June date off the books, and no postponement date had yet been established. 

June 8, 2019: Fourth female, in 6:49:43.

Nov. 2018 to Jan. 2019: I ran all 70 miles of the trail in seven sections over the course of two months.

Dec. 12, 2021: Running with the Trail Run Tribe at the onset of unforeseen illnesses and ailments. From the front: Muriah Price, Kristen Muscaro-Winters, Keli DeCarlo, Andrea Detwiler and Greta Daniels. (Photo/ author)

Six months before the 2022 Laurel Highlands Ultra 50K...

Remember the theme of the story? 

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” 

Keep it in mind as you read what happened…

Dec. 9, 2021: I woke up with a sharp, stabbing pain in my right rib cage.

Dec. 11: Red bumps appeared on the front of my right ribs and wrapped around to the spine. I thought it was poison ivy. For the next three days, I had mild chills and fatigue but chalked it up to winter approaching. I kept running and mountain biking as usual. 

Dec. 15: I registered for the 2022 LH Ultra 50k. The red bumps, pain and fatigue worsened. 

Dec. 16: When I went out for an easy six-mile run on the LHHT, a fire erupted at the site of the red bumps, traveling down the femoral nerve line (front of the hip) to the side of the foot and big toe, as well as down the sciatic nerve chain from back of the hip to the heel, locking my knee in the process. Running became painfully impossible. I limped back to the vehicle as the pain ignited like an electric shock.

Dec. 17: Diagnosis: shingles.

Dec. 22: To alleviate the shingles symptoms of migraine and light sensitivity, and to take my mind off the pain enveloping my entire right side, I went out to get some fresh air by hiking slowly on a nearby riverside trail.

About a mile in, I fell to the ground, screaming in shock, fear and pain as a branch crashed out of a tree above and landed on my head.

I managed to call a friend, tried to hurry out of the woods, but slunk against a tree when I began stumbling, getting dizzy and seeing stars. 

Several friends came to the rescue, carrying me out on a backboard, and my husband took me to the hospital.

Diagnosis: concussion

Dec. 25: Lethargy, exhaustion, a swollen, dry throat, coughing and an exponential increase in concussion pain led me to take two rapid tests. 

Diagnosis: COVID-19.

Shingles + concussion + COVID-19 = a total nightmare, the first time in my life I had ever become bedridden. 

January

One thought kept sneaking its way into my weary mind: when will I run again?  

February

Slowly, things began to look up. 

On Feb. 22, I completed a two-mile run/hike.

March

Carefully, I built up to running 20 miles per week.

April

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart” became more important now than ever. 

It was time to make a decision. To run the 50k for which I had registered, or not? 

A weekend of back-to-back trail runs of 12 and 15 miles went well. 

Running the first 19 miles of the LHHT felt great..

An attempted 21-mile run cut short and then a completed 21-mile run one week later aggravated and increased symptoms of:

  • Post-concussion syndrome
  • Post-herpetic neuralgia (nerve damage caused by shingles) 

Continuing to train for the 50k felt like a risky, daunting deadline, one approaching too quickly…

So, I took two steps back in order to keep going.

Transferring to the 50k relay, along with my husband, Eric Harder, and friend, Lauren Worrell, was an easy decision, even a relief. 

With that choice, I took with me Confucius’ words:

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” 

But this time, I changed it up a bit:

“Whatever distance you run, run with all your heart.”

Photo (Mike McNeil)

Relay race goals

To run so fast that I would:

  • Not be sad to not be running the solo 50k
  • Really, really want to stop running at 11.6 miles, though it might feel weird to not carry on to 31 miles for the first time in this race
  • Break my personal best for that section of the trail
  • Help my team beat the personal best time I had run by myself in the 50k (6:02:00)

Then the motto became: 

“Whatever distance you race, race with all your heart.” 

Eric Harder and Cunningham getting ready for the LH Ultra 50k relay, which they completed as part of a three-person team (Trail Run Tribe #3 + Eric) along with Lauren Worrell. (Photo/ Amber Smith)

Race day

The gun fired, and I took off as leg one of our relay at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 11, a drizzly, foggy, 50-degree day, unusually cool for the LH Ultra. 

Race start

  • 50k solo and 50k relay runners take off at the LH Ultra on Saturday, June 11, 2022, at the new start line overlooking the Ohiopyle Falls. (Photo/ Keli DeCarlo)

Ohiopyle Falls

  • The Ohiopyle Falls, where the new start line sits for the LH Ultra. (Photo/ Keli DeCarlo)

Relay transition

Cunningham, leg one, hands off the slap bracelet to leg two, her husband, Eric Harder, at Jersey Hollow, aid station one. (Photo/ Lauren Worrell) 

Finish

Lauren Worrell, anchor runner for relay team Trail Run Tribe #3 + Eric, finishes fast and strong to give the team a big lead and win. (Photo/ Eric Harder)

Running in the relay was quite different from the 50k solo experience. 

Yet, it was equally as rewarding. Why? Because the motto stuck with me…

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” 

“Whatever distance you run, run with all your heart.”

“Whatever distance you race, race with all your heart.” 

With all your heart…

With all your heart…

With all your heart…

The words were a resounding source of strength that mean this: no matter what I was doing, whether solo, with a relay, short or long, I would do it:

  • Wholeheartedly
  • With complete joy
  • Graciously  
  • While smiling
  • And maybe with some hooting and hollering
(Photo/ Mike McNeil)

Because, after the winter’s illnesses and ailments, how could I be anything but exuberantly grateful and happy to be right where I was, healthy enough to run, no longer bedridden? 

At no time from the moment I transferred from the 50k to the relay did I have regrets and sadness. Even on race day, I did not long to be doing what I was used to doing, racing 31 miles by myself. 

Cunningham completed the first leg, 11.6 miles with 3,247 feet of elevation gain, of the LH Ultra in 2:09:23. (Photo/ Amber Smith)

Besides, when it comes down to it, I love: 

  • Running, no matter how far or how long
  • Spending time with friends, old and new
  • Cheering for and supporting racers
  • The trail running community

That’s what it’s all about, right? Good times with good people!

To top it off, we met every goal I had in mind for our team. 

Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k Relay: Trail Run Tribe #3 + Eric. From left to right: Brynn Cunningham (author); Eric Harder, Cunningham’s husband; and Lauren Worrell. The team won with a time of 4:55:26.

Trail Run Tribe #3 + Eric Relay Team Stats & Results

Leg one: 

  • 11.6 miles at 3,247 feet of elevation gain and 2,039 feet of loss
  • Brynn’s split: 2:09:23, a personal best for that section at an 11:09/ mile pace

Leg two:

  • 8 miles at about 1,400 feet of elevation gain
  • Eric’s split: 1:15 at a 9:23/ mile pace

Leg three:

  • 12 miles at about 1,700 feet of elevation gain
  • Lauren’s split: 1:31 at a 7:35/ mile pace

Overall time: 4:55:26

Place: First Place Mixed Relay Team

Official and past race results here.

A slate plaque was awarded to top three relay winners and top three solo winners. (Photo/ author)

The Trail Run Tribe and WeeViews

In addition to our relay, we had four other relay teams consisting of two teams for the Trail Run Tribe, my all-female trail-running group based out of Ohiopyle, Pa., and two teams for WeeViews.

The Trail Run Tribe and WeeViews came together to form five three-person relay teams for the LH Ultra 50k.

The melding of the two groups made for a fun-filled weekend of trail running, cheering, friendly, inner-group competition, laughing, eating and even some pre-race white water boating. 

Waterfall

  • The Trail Run Tribe and WeeViews took a pre-race white water boating private deluxe trip with Wilderness Voyageurs of Ohiopyle, Pa., which included hiking under Cucumber Falls. (Photo/ Joshua Lawrey) 

Rafting 1

  • Counter clockwise from left: Casey, Grant Johnson, raft guide Austin, Kim Roy, Amber Smith and David Moore, WeeViews founder and co-owner. (Photo/ Wilderness Voyageurs)

Rafting 2

  • Counter clockwise from left: Nathan Reyes (WeeViews co-owner), Kristen Muscaro-Winters, raft guide Josh Lawrey, Lauren Worrell and Keli DeCarlo. (Photo/ Wilderness Voyageurs)

Kayaking

  • Eric Harder kayaking along with the trip. (Photo/ Wilderness Voyageurs)
  • Author Cunningham indulges in her favorite pre-race ritual: white water kayaking the day before any race, even 50ks, along with her husband in his kayak and the Trail Run Tribe and WeeViews in rafts. Cucumber Rapid, 3.1 feet, Lower Youghiogheny River. (Photo/ Wilderness Voyageurs) 

Race day gear, fuel & more...

Gear worn on race day

Fuel

Music

Swag

  • Runners received a t-shirt (choice between women’s fit or unisex), reusable cup and slate coaster as a finisher’s medal. 
(Photo/author)

Thank you to the race directors, volunteers and everyone who makes this event possible, and congratulations to all runners. I think I speak for not only myself but also the Trail Run Tribe and WeeViews when I say: 

  • We can’t wait for next year! 

And remember: Wherever you go, go with all your heart. 

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

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