70 Miles on the Laurel Highlands Trail
A few days ago, I ran the Laurel Highlands Trail in Pennsylvania. This was the longest run I’ve ever done, and honestly also the most intense. I’m psyched now to have the chance to share a little about it here now.
Why 70 miles? I’d run 55 miles last summer, and I was looking for an opportunity to up that mileage … as well as an interesting trail to do it on. Enter the Laurel Highlands Trail, which runs north-south on a series of ridges in central-western Pennsylvania, and which happens to be about 70 miles – more or less the distance I was looking to go. This is a point-to-point trail rather than a loop, so required some logistics to make it work. And I didn’t even think about all the logistics that ultimately would be required to go 70 miles. More on that here in a sec.
But, first, how is running 70 miles like starting an apparel brand? Lots of ways! “Expect the unexpected,” “you won’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” “keep going no matter what,” and “you may not be able to bail even if you want to” are all commonalities that come to mind! Much more fundamentally, I am ALSO happy to report that the Mill & Mountain base layers I used for this outing worked great!
The Trail. The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail runs roughly between Johnstown, PA and Ohiopyle, PA. Again, this is a point-to-point trail, so you gotta get somehow from one end to the other. Ride shares aren’t really an option, although I tried … but even getting cell service in Ohiopyle is tricky and while cell service near Johnstown is more available Lyft or Uber drivers are not. I ended up scheduling a taxi beforehand, and that worked out fine. Parking is easy in Ohiopyle so I parked there and got the taxi to take me to the northern trailhead.
I had to shoehorn this in with work and other obligations, so this meant I wasn’t at the starting point near Johnstown until about 4 PM. With 70 miles to go, it was a given that I’d be spending a lot of time in the dark – so I had multiple headlights (3) and batteries (12) (most of which I used over the course of the night).
The trail initially climbs maybe 1800 feet over the course of 4-5 miles to ascend the ridge; you largely are on the ridge thereafter, except for periodic descents for road or water crossings. Very little of the trail is flat, however; I had nearly 12,000 feet of climbing over the 70 miles, which is quite a bit more than – say – doing the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim.
The Night. It got dark! (Duh) Maybe this is a sign that I am at least partly wired correctly, but beforehand I was a little freaked out about security overnight. Out of an abundance of caution, I carried bear spray as well as a knife in case I had an encounter with a 2-legged or 4-legged “non-friend.” In the end, I *maybe* saw a bear … I heard a noise off the side of the trail and looked over and saw what looked like a bear’s head peering up from the other side of a log or rock. But maybe it wasn’t a bear. Anyway, I also saw multiple deer, a skunk (too close!), a turtle, and an enormous slug.
Happily, I saw no snakes. I had almost stepped on a timber rattlesnake last fall running 50 miles, and I wasn’t happy to learn that timber rattlesnakes are very common in the Laurel Highlands. I wore gaiters and long hiking pants for protection. They weren’t ideal for running, but so be it … I wanted *something* between my leg and the snake’s fangs.
I saw maybe 5 people in the first 6 miles or so, but then didn’t see another person for about the next 50 miles (!!). I never saw a lot of other people until I was in the last few miles near Ohiopyle.
Pace. I ran quite a bit early on. Once it got dark, I was rarely running since there were so many rocks and roots on the trail. By the time the sun came up the next morning, I was largely too worked to run except in the best possible spots. The whole trail took me 23+ hours, which is only about 3 and a bit miles per hour … which was slower than I had hoped to do but overall I guess not too bad.
Rest? Hardly at all. I lay down in the dirt a few times to take the weight off my feet. At one point when I did this and turned off my headlamp, I honestly felt like a wild animal. Maybe I was just losing my mind!
Anyway, perhaps it would have been better to start really early in the AM and then go until late in the night? Going through the night is pretty intense. (!) This is maybe the larger “logistics” challenge of doing something this long in one fell swoop … in particular, that I really hadn’t figured out what it would be like to have to keep going at the 40th or 50th mile, with 20 or 30 miles still left to go … and that I hadn’t figured out exactly how much energy it would take. (A lot!)
Weather. It was pretty good, until it wasn’t … At the beginning it was hot, and super buggy. Overnight there were some breezes. Mainly the bugs at that point were attracted to the light of my headlamp. Once it got light and warmed up again in the morning, the bugs came out again in force … except when it was raining torrentially, which also happened. I guess you can expect a lot of different weather in the mountains over almost 24 hours!
Water. Not so easy. There’s water at the 44-mile mark, but nothing potable beforehand. This meant I had to carry the water I’d need for the first 44 miles – which was about 5-6 quarts and a LOT of weight. My light running pack couldn’t hold the food and water I needed so I used a light daypack. Almost 20 pounds in my pack at the start … too much weight! Plus I was pretty low on hydration by the time I got to the 44-mile mark, which was at ….
Dawn. … and was pretty cool. At this point I was at the Seven Springs ski resort and on top of the mountain. The views of the ridges for miles in every direction were tremendous. Having some daylight helped a lot, as did the …
Food. PB&Js, gels, chews. Honestly not enough variety, but it did the trick and got me to …
The End. At Ohiopyle …which truly was a welcome sight! Added bonus at Ohiopyle is the river that runs through town and which was a wonderfully cool way to clean up a little when I finished running.
Upshot. The Laurel Highlands is an amazing area, and the trail is beautiful and challenging. If you’re looking to push yourself for the distance (and you’re maybe a little crazy to boot), it’s worth exploring!