Classic U.S. Ultras: Highlands Sky 40 Mile

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the fourth article in a six-part monthly series on classic American ultramarathons. Once a month from March through August, I profile a race and share a bit of its lore and history. Here is part one on the Way Too Cool 50kpart two on the Zane Grey 50 Mile, and part three on the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile. I hope you enjoy them!]

Known to the regulars simply as “Highlands,” the Highland Sky 40 Mile held every year in the Canaan Valley region of West Virginia is the Mountain State’s ultramarathon crown jewel. The brainchild of veteran ultrarunner Dan Lehmann, Highlands, held every year in June since 2003, typically reaches its runner limit of 200 within hours of opening registration and has a particularly loyal following of repeat participants.

Essentially a “club race,” Lehmann counts on the support of the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners (WVMTR) to put on the event and many of the volunteers have served the race continuously since the founding year. The race location is unique and extraordinary. Taking place in the Canaan Valley, the highest valley east of the Mississippi River, and traversing the Roaring Plains West and Dolly Sods Wilderness Areas in the Monongahela National Forest, the land is more akin to the arboreal forests of Canada than it is to the southern U.S. Additionally, the windswept mountain ranges and the muddy river bottoms combine to make this a true test of a runner’s patience and discipline.

In what can only be described as cruel irony, the signature portion of the race is actually a road. And not just any road but rather a 7.5 mile, dead-straight gravel track straddling the Eastern Continental Divide. This “Road Across the Sky” comes between mile 19 and 26.5 and forms the bridge between the Roaring Plains West Wilderness and the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

“Due to the wilderness restrictions and the remoteness of the area we really have no choice but to take the road.” Lehmann notes, “As a result, we try to just embrace it!”

After directing the race on his own for seven years, Lehmann brought on local West Virginia ultrarunner and Appalachian Trail speed hiker Adam Casseday on as co-race director in 2010. Casseday worked to increase the elite end of the field because as he says it, “This race is as old school as it gets and Dan doesn’t really care all that much if any fast people come.”

Over the years the course has remained virtually unchanged, which is quite remarkable when you consider the fact that so much of the course traverses wilderness areas and access to some of those areas can change frequently due to habitat intrusions and other issues.

There was, however, one notable course change in 2004 that is worth describing. While marking the last few miles of the course on the afternoon prior to the race, Lehmann noticed a whole set of strange course markers he had not seen before. It turned out that the ski resort that the race course used for the final descent onto the final run into the finish had scheduled a motocross race for the same day as the race and had neglected to tell Dan. Being the quick thinker that he is, Lehmann rerouted the course on the spot away from the ski resort and through a thicket of trees and down a steep, muddy slope. From that point on, “Lehmann’s Butt Slide” was born and has been an essential, and sloppy, part of the race ever since.

As has been the case with so many races here in 2020, this year’s version of Highlands has been canceled. However, in my conversation with Dan and Adam this week, it became clear to me that they are committed to come back with an even better, albeit decidedly “old school” version of Highlands in 2021.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Mountain State Brewing Company which is owned and operated by Willy Lehmann, Dan’s son, and is a proud sponsor of the Highlands Sky 40 Mile. Mountain State’s Almost Heaven Amber Ale is served at just about all WVMTR events and is a true crowd favorite. One of those Amber Ales that is simultaneously malty and smooth, it’s a rough-around-the edges Ale that matches perfectly with that West Virginia sensibility.

Call for Comments

Have you run Highlands Sky 40 Mile? Leave a comment to share your race stories!

There are 5 comments

  1. Jason

    Love this race…little bit of everything. Technical single-track, long gravel road, stinging nettles, mud, climbs, fantastic people, incredible views, and great venue!

    Don’t forget that you finish at the Canaan Valley resort and can jump right into the swimming pool…pretty sweet after spending the day in the June heat and humidity. Definitely one of the best races on the east coast!

  2. David Sutherland

    I did this as my second ultra about 10 years ago, and it was a blast. Dan and his son put on a hell of a fun event.

    The year I ran it, somebody ripped down the course markers for a couple miles causing several people to go off course. I got to that section in time to see Dan’s son tearing strips off his own red shirt and tying them to trees. The site of a gigantic Willie Nelson looking dude wearing an ever shrinking red crop top will haunt me for years to come :)

  3. Dan F

    I’ve run Highlands Sky twice now (past 2 years) and it’s a really tough cookie to crack. You really gotta be skilled in multiple ways: speedy, good at technical terrain, ability to just keep pushing. It’s a very front loaded course with the majority of climbing and rooty/rocky stuff at the beginning, followed by the aforementioned road (god help you if it’s a hot day as there’s total sun exposure here!), and then a little this and that towards the end.
    I love races that are odd distances. Some folks say this runs “like a 50 miler”. Well, no it doesn’t, it’s got its own thing! Can’t recommend this race enough.

  4. Tim

    Ran this race in 2017 and feel compelled to say that it was freaking awesome. Beast coasters looking for something special need look no further. Not only is it beautiful but the support is amazing- there may be a stretch as long as 8 miles without air but other than that I think it’s like an average of 3-4 miles between AS. There is also a pool near the finish line.

    1. Jon

      Only 8 miles without air? Heck, given the time of the year Highlands is held, you might not have air for the entire 40 miles of this race!! ;)

      I agree with others. Such a fantastic race and the RDs are top-notch.

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