Laurel Highlands Ultra: You Won't Believe How This One Ends

“I’ve never been much of a competitive runner. Sure, I enjoy the thrill and high drama of competition, but I don’t live for it. To me, running is a grand adventure, an intrepid exploration of the landscape and a revealing inward journey of the self. These are the things that keep me going, the lust for exploration and the quest to better comprehend who I am and what I’m made of.” 

This is the last paragraph I read in ultrarunner Dean Karnazes newest book, A Runner’s High: My Life in Motion, on the eve of the 2021 Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k trail race.

Held on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, the LH Ultra is my hometown race. It begins at mile marker zero in Ohiopyle, Penn., and climbs 6,490 feet in elevation to end 31 miles later in Jones Mills.  


Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k elevation chart: 6,490 feet of ascent and 4,837 feet of descent
 
Dean’s words resonated with me, reminded me why I race, soothed my mind and put me in a better head space for this year’s event, held on June 13.

Because my head was not in the best space for the days leading up to it.

Nevertheless, I lay awake, thinking. 

Last year’s race


First, I thought about how I felt in the 2020 LH 50k, which took place on Sept. 29, postponed from it’s typical June date because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the final three miles of the point-to-point race, I had the sudden urge to not let it end.

I wanted to hold onto the feeling of flying, floating.

I was reveling in the flow state, yearning for time to freeze right there.

Then I let it all go and ran as fast as I could up to the parking-lot finishing lap and became so overwhelmed with emotion that the beet juice I had just gulped came right up.

I vomited four times mid-sprint in front of everyone.

OK, this year, I could do without that part, though it was quite funny.

I broke the tape in 6:02 to win first overall female and earn a huge personal best. 

Back to 2021


After reflecting upon what happened in last year’s race, I turned my thoughts to the present.

The most persistent thought was this: Was it possible to have another flawless race, where everything clicked, with zero lows, in the zone, upon prime, bone-dry trail conditions and perfectly mild mid-70s weather?  

No, I kept thinking. It was not possible. 

Even worse, I feared that it might turn into the dreadful 2019 LH Ultra, when I painfully raced with a strained hamstring, iliotibial-band syndrome and at the tail end of a three-week bout of bronchitis that destroyed my training. 

But the reality was that most races probably lie somewhere in between, with short, intermittent low points yet even better high points. 

Eventually, I had to shake it all off.

I had to believe that it was possible to achieve great things in less-than-perfect conditions. 

After all, as the old adage goes, an ultramarathon is 80 percent mental.

And so far, I knew that at least two factors that were perfect last year would not be perfect this year.

They were: 

  1. Trail conditions - it had been raining for the past week, and the racecourse was muddy

  2. Weather - the dew point jumped to 95 percent the week leading up to the race and was predicted to remain as such. Though I do not detest running in the heat, it does require more diligent fueling, because the heat will take you down if you do not remain hypervigilant about electrolyte consumption. 

Still, I had no idea quite how challenging those two factors would become.

On race day, I woke up and threw all thoughts of previous years out the window.

The most important time was now. 

I was ready, with no physical ailments. 

It might not be perfect, but I would give it every ounce I had.

Packet pickup


Last year, Repoint Productions took over race directing, and they have changed things for the better, including new and improved swag.



At the start line


I could feel it - the peace that blankets the soul while running was approaching.

Brynn Cunningham checks in before the start of the Laurel Highlands Ultra.


Come on, 7:30 a.m. start time!

Brynn Cunningham starts her watch as runners in the first wave being the Laurel HIghlands Ultra. (Photo/ Nathan Reyes)


The first seven miles


I took off with the first wave of runners. 

Brynn Cunningham runs past Laurel HIghlands Ultra spectators and crew members at the start of the 50K race. (Photo/Nathan Reyes)


Three more waves followed. I felt fantastic.

Miles seven to eight


After ascending the trail’s steepest, longest hill, my head thumped. Silver stars swarmed before my eyes. Humidity and heat reared their ugly heads, threatening to take me down. 

Then the first low grumble of thunder sounded.

Oh, please rain.

Three men were running close behind. We were in a tight pack, a much-needed, silent support system. 

Teasingly, thunder rumbled for a mile. 

“Just RAIN!” I implored loudly. The guys laughed. 

My head was swarming, dizzy. I had felt this before, right before blacking out. 

Do not faint became my mantra. 

The first rain drop hit. 

The sky turned black.

Slowly, rain fell. 

Humidity rose. 

More rain came, but not enough to be refreshing.

I glanced at my watch. I had been running for one hour and 52 minutes. 1:52, the day (15) and year (‘52) of my deceased father’s birth. The digits always seem to come up in my races since he died in 2013. 

More rain, please.

Miles Eight to 14: The Storm


The sky broke open. 

Thank you, dad.

Sheets of rain battered us, our pack of four. 

“Well, this race just got a whole lot harder,” said one of the men behind me. 

“At least we’re not hot anymore,” I said.

They agreed. 

We laughed and discovered that not one of us had ever run a race in the rain. I, for one, had never run through a storm of this caliber. 

In an instant, the trail became a shin-deep creek of rushing water the color of chocolate milk. 

It was so dark, I wished I had a headlamp.

The lightning strikes were so near, thunder so ear-splitting, rain so powerful, we could no longer hear one another. 

Several strikes scared me so badly that I screamed out loud and grabbed my face like a child.

And I laughed.

For the most part, I laughed and smiled and thanked God for saving me from my dwindling state just moments before.

The force of the storm was an answered prayer. It squelched overheating and knocked me into the here and now, reminding me why I race. 

It was exactly as Dean had written: 

Running is a grand adventure.


We arrived at aid station one, mile 11, where it was coming down so violently I could hardly see my husband and sons, who took the running hydration vest I had been wearing and handed me a fresh one.

Our pack of four split up, spread out, and I splashed and slipped and precariously navigated across slimy foot bridges. 

Shoes were water-logged and heavy. 

The vest I put on began digging deep lacerations into my armpits, chest and back because of drenched skin.

Miles 15 to 19


Sadly, the rain slowed. 

The skies brightened. 

We were left with the aftermath: mud pits, slick rocks, slippery roots and increasingly sweltering, steamy heat. 

At least my feet were cooled by the deep puddles.
 

Miles 19 to 26


Aid station two sits at mile 19, where the trail changes character. It becomes slightly less technical, less steep, and is a fun, flowing path where one can pick up the pace.

I tried to pick up the pace. 

Every footstep was more focused than usual, placed carefully upon not deeply muddy or splashy yet still slippery ground. 

It wasn’t my usual fast pace through here, but I steadily pressed forward.

After running through a major thunderstorm on slick trails, Brynn Cunningham aims to take the lead on slightly less technical trails to the finish. (Photo/Nathan Reyes)


Mile 26 to the Finish


The third aid station sits right before the trail begins to cross through a ski resort. 

“You’re three minutes behind first place female,” a very kind aid station worker whispered as I filled my hat with ice cold water. 

“Oh!” I responded, and took off at top speed.

Her encouragement woke me up from the dead.

I had five miles to turn it around. 

For the thrill of it, I tried. Because if you’re that close to something you have the potential to achieve, not trying would be regrettable. 

As Dean says: 

Running is a revealing inward journey of the self.


  • How do you respond under pressure?
  • Do you have the courage to give it everything you have?
  • Can you lay it all on the line, even though you might fail at what you’re attempting, in front of everyone you love?  
Absolutely.

Heart and soul, get ready for this exhilarating ride.  

The miles ticked by.

Five. I was smiling.

Four. Still alone. Quads cramping, sucking electrolytes non-stop.

Three. Pushing hard. Tiny twitches in the calves indicated the threat of more cramps.

Two. This is it. Still alone. 

One. Do not give in.

Now I wasn’t chasing first place. I was persevering because finally, I was awake, fully in the zone, which was mostly an up and down roller-coaster ride all day, and I was ecstatic to ride it to the end.

I rounded the bend to the finish, one lap around a parking lot, where everyone is jubilantly waiting, cheering, clapping, ringing cowbells.

It is a celebratory finish, and I couldn’t wait to be with my family, my all-female trail running group, and my Weeviews colleagues.

I crossed in 6:12:50 (6/1, the day my father passed, and again, the 2-15-52, his birth digits, in the mix). 

Brynn Cunningham's oldest child smiles as she celebrates winning the Laurel Highlands Ultra with her husband. Her youngest in red shorts watches. (Photo/ Keli DeCarlo)
 

My husband scooped me up, and I clung to him, overjoyed with the day, with my time, under such imperfectly, absolutely perfect conditions. 

I was so caught up in the moment that I forgot about my place.

Until I saw her.

A familiar female rounded the bend. 

Wasn’t she the one in front of me, not behind me, in first place? Confusion set in. 

Then it happened. 

She began screaming at the race directors about an arrow somewhere, saying she got lost.

My all-female trail running group informed me, to my surprise, that I had crossed first. 

I had flown by wherever she was off-track in the ski resort, which, in my opinion, was well-marked the entire way by pin flags in the ground, lining the full length of the short section of trail that runs through there.

I had won first overall female.


Now that’s what I call a trail race. 

Storms, ups, downs, surprises. 

It was an unforgettable year, one that taught me not to cling to the past, because magnificent, wonderful experiences lie in the imperfect if only we can be open to it and let ourselves become a little bit vulnerable. 

After all, adventures aren’t defined by perfection. And I would take the adventure, the thrill over a PR any day. 

Brynn Cunningham won the Laurel Highlands Ultra 50K in 6:12:50.
(Photo/Eric Harder)


As Dean says: 

Running is a quest to better comprehend who I am and what I’m made of. 


On June 13, at the Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k, I had a better comprehension of why racing matters to me. 

It matters because at the end of the day, regardless of results, I would be sitting at the finish line with my best friends, my new friends, my sons and husband, now part of the jubilant crowd, the happy faces, the encouraging voices for everyone who endured that day.

The Trail Run Tribe. Andrea (far left) ran her first 50k that day; two Tribe relays raced (one placed first); and Muriah (far right) supported us all. (Photo/Eric Harder)

It matters because people are brought together for an uplifting, optimistic reason, creating new memories, ones that strengthen bonds, ones we’ll talk about fondly, forever. 

Team Weeviews represented as a three-man relay team: Brynn Cunningham with Nathan Reyes, Rob Myers and David Moore. (Photo/Eric Harder)

It matters because when I see the look of admiration on my sons’ faces as I break the tape, love explodes from my every fiber. 

Brynn Cunningham celebrates her first-place finish with her family at the Laurel Highlands Ultra. (Photo/Nathan Reyes)

It matters because when my husband holds me at the end of a long, hard, wet, hot day, it reminds me of his devotion, compassion and unwavering care, through the toughest times. 

Brynn Cunningham was in second place most of the race. When the front-runner got lost on the course, Brynn took the lead and finished first. (Photo/ Nathan Reyes)

It matters because on the race course, I discover things about myself, and over the years, I have come to like what I find. 

Ultrarunner Brynn Cunningham secures her hydration pack to run the Laurel Highlands Ultra.


The gear & clothes I wore:

 

For the first 11 miles: Nathan VaporHowe 4 Liter Women’s Race Vest with Nathan 2-Liter hydration reservoir and one HydraPak UltraFlask IT 500 ML insulated soft flask

For the last 20 miles: Salomon ADV Skin 8 Women’s Running Vest with HydraPak Force 3-Liter hydration reservoir and one HydraPak UltraFlask IT 500 ML insulated soft flask

How I fueled: 


Here’s to finding your adventure and inward journey of the self in running, just like Dean. 

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Brynn Cunningham 204
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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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