18 October, 2011

Grindstone 100 Race Report - Running in the dark.

You know it’s either a great race or a very low spot when you start composing your letter to the RD and race report...in the middle of the race.

For me at the Grindstone 100 in Swoope VA, it was definitely a low spot. A four-hour, rock-kicking, I-

will-never-run-another-100 miler, this-RD-should-be-tarred-and-feathered low spot. the race report in the middle of the race.

First, the numbers, usually the least interesting part for me:

  • · 101.85 miles
  • · 23,600 feet of elevation gain
  • · 23,600 feet of elevation loss
  • · Top men’s time 19:15
  • · My time 30:58
  • · 118 starters
  • · 85 finishers
  • · 42nd overall

I chose the Grindstone for two reasons: it was my last chance to qualify for Hard Rock and one of my best friends from high school and I had a chance to do this run together. But from the beginning I was leery of those tough East Coast mountains and the 6pm start time. It’s nice to be able to tell myself “I told you so” as all those things and more came to pass.

We arrived at Camp Shenandoah around 12:30, just before the mandatory pre-race meeting. They gave out lots of Patagonia schwag as door prizes and let the legendary David Horton say a few words. I can boil them down to two sentences:” Don’t be stupid. Minimize your mistakes.” Not cheery but great advice for what lay ahead.

We then set up our tent, optimism springs eternal at the beginning of a race as we thought we might need it, and I tried to grab a nap. While I managed about 45 minutes of off/on sleep, knowing that we had to check in again by 5:30 made it a restless time. I made a quick call home to say goodbye to my girls, did some last minute drop bag checking and rearranging as it turns out that the website had the old aid station map and I was supposed to use the one that they emailed. Not critical, but a little disconcerting so close to the start! My friend Phil Rice was introducing me to lots of the local runners and I also said hello to Deb Livingston from CT and her husband. Deb was there to win the women’s race, which she did in just under 25 hours.

A very low key start led us around a small pond and about one mile of trail around the Boy Scout camp and then we were on the trail proper. Phil and I were planning to run together as long as it made sense for both of us and we had lots of time to catch up the first 5 miles till the first aid station. They were not very organized and ran out of water just after we got there…a bit of foreshadowing. The volunteers were all terrific, really first rate, but the aid station fare was uneven and inadequate (esp on the second night with so little hot food).

We were already running in the dark by then, which meant that with my goal of 30 hours, the next 15-20 miles would be in the dark both ways. This was a long section between aid stations, almost 10 miles, and was “highlighted” by a two-mile hike up a 25% grade on a gravel road. I love that word “highlighted.”

After reaching the summit of Eliot’s Knob, the highest point on the course at 4500 feet, we scrambled down the gravel road and then back on to a long section of runnable, slightly downhill, very rocky trail. Oddly, the rocks didn’t stop much for the next six miles or so. I remember thinking this was going to be a real challenge on the way back. Quite the understatement as it turned out.

We ran smoothly and in good spirits till mile 22ish at Dowell’s draft in about 5 ½ hours or so, the first place with crew/drop bag access. We didn’t stay long and Phil and I were out for a long uphill section. It wasn’t too steep but not really runnable so I got into my fast hiking gear here and started to pull ahead of Phil. I wouldn’t see him again till about mile 55 as I was headed back in.

The serious up and down of the Blue Ridge Mountains was fully felt, though not much seen, for the next several hours. I had my first stomach issues, mostly too much caffeine in the gels I think, and was glad to get some Tums at the next aid station. And though my stomach started to stabilize, the trail deteriorated so much so that even the downhill sections were at a snail’s pace. Pretty much like running down a ditch filled with volleyball-sized rocks supported by a network of roots. In the dark. I was cursing, out loud, the enthusiastic but uniformed volunteer who said this section was “easy…all downhill.”

When I finally I reached Little Bald Knob a/s just as the sun was about to break. I had my longest set down here as I had to get my act together. Some solid food, best of the entire course, helped me regroup as did the rising sun. It didn’t hurt that the next 8 miles or so was mostly runnable and I was finally able to see how beautiful this trail really was. Fall colors were everywhere, stretching

to each horizon with not much civilization in between. When I made it to the next a/s at Reddish Knob, I was able to look east into Virginia and west into West Virginia. Simply spectacular.made it to the North River Gap aid station at about the 50k mark, I was not in the best of shape. I sat down to get some hot food and talked with Phil’s wife Kathy who was doing a heroic job of trying to crew multiple runners at her first-ever ultra. I stayed too long and got cold enough that I shivered all of the soup out of my cup as I walked away from the fire. For the first time I put on my arm warmers, gloves and beanie for the seven mile climb ahead of me. I almost needn’t have bothered as the trail immediately turned up and so did my body temp. I knew this was going to be “the” section that mattered so I just put my head down and got to work. But I don’t think I quite knew how long seven miles of uphill was. So, long before the next aid station, I was out of food, water and energy with 1.5 miles to go. I congratulate myself, however, that in the midst of my meltdown, I had the good sense at the top of Little Bald Knob to stop in the meadow, turn off my lights and just be awed by the night sky full of stars. It didn’t do anything to fuel my body but I like to think it helped me gut out the next 30 minutes of slogging on.

Next was a long road section that seemed out of place before transitioning to the dirt road out to the turnaround. Back down from there I made a quick crew stop to change shoes and restock. It was such a gorgeous day I just wanted to keep moving. A mile or so after that stop, I passed Phil who had picked up a new friend at mile 30, Gil. They ended up running the last 70 miles together step for step and were a huge help to each other, finishing in just under 37 hours.

Now was the time to get some running in and after the Reddish Knob a/s on the way back, I really felt like a trail runner. I cruised through Little Bald Knob a/s ready to tackle the seven mile downhill. And a funny thing happened…this nighttime monster turned out to be a daytime teddy bear. Filtered sunlight, red and yellow leaves and a gentle downhill made me wonder if I was even on the same trail! I had a great run back down to North River Gap where I stopped only long enough to brush my teeth, my secret weapon to feel like a new person mid-race, and headed out again. At this point, I was several hours ahead of Phil and poor Kathy was going to be hard-pressed to crew both of us. So I planned as if I wouldn’t see her any more, which was wise as it turned out to be true.

The next section, the “easy” one from the night before, went pretty well. Daylight is such a boon! From there to mile 80 or so back at Dowell’s Draft, I ran like a rock star. Slightly downhill for much of this section with an open trail and no rocks. God, it was great. I did the math and figured I had a shot at 29 hours!

Then I started making mistakes. First was switching shoes again, this time to the MT100s. Because I was focused on light and easy, it seemed like the right call. Because I was a moron about remembering the rocky, brutal trail ahead, I was about to pay that price. I also had misjudged my food again because I was staying away from anything with caffeine. So now I had the wrong shoes, wrong food and wrong idea about what was ahead. Yikes.

I hadn’t gone 30 minutes before night was coming on and I just ran out of gas. The combination of 24 hours out on this demanding course and the second night ahead just left me flat. I sat down on a log with the 1000-yard stare, wondering how I was going to get through the next 20 miles. “Don’t be stupid…Minimize my mistakes” seemed like words to live by at that point so I just got started.

I can’t much to say about the next 10 miles. It was the crucible for me in this race…I had to reach much deeper than the seven mile climb the night before because I was much emptier. That’s when I started writing a letter to Clark Zeeland, the RD. Let’s just say it wasn’t a love letter. I staggered through the next aid station managing to thank the volunteers for suffering out there to help us. I am always amazed at the ultra community’s willingness to give and RD’s penchant for difficult!

But the slog was far from over and I really had no idea where I was. The course was clearly marked but I just didn’t have any points of reference for how much

progress I was making. All I knew is that when I hit the gravel road, I was home free because we did not have to resummit Elliot’s Knob. When I finally stumbled out of the woods, I actually whooped with happiness. How short lived that turned out to be. It was impossible for me to run down this steep, unstable surface that seemed like ball bearings. Mostly, I was terrified of falling and winding up in a ditch. But as I continued down, the road started to flatten out and I knew the aid station was just ahead and I started getting excited. Wrong again. What was all this flagging directing me back into the woods? I had absolutely no recollection of this section. Any juice I had left just drained out of me. After what was easily another 45 minutes, where I did manage to appreciate the sound of a waterfall for a few minutes (how did I miss that on the way out?), I saw a sign that I had one mile till the aid station. I trudged in, sat for about two minutes while the terrific volunteers refilled my water bottles, and headed out. I knew I was going to have to move it if I wanted to break my new goal of 31 hours.

One of the volunteers had run Grindstone the year before and gave me a great sense of the last five miles. Also, for the first time, there were glow sticks instead of ribbon so I could now often see far ahead and get a sense of the grade. Not much running ahead but it was so great to feel confident in what was around the next corner.

As I wound my way back to the Boy Scout camp, my energy level spiked…I was almost there! But even then I misjudged how far the trail wound around before the finish. I was getting concerned because I couldn’t hear the finish, which had to be close. Now, after 100 miles, I did the math enough to determine that I needed to run, hard, to break 31 hours. You can imagine the swearing. Finally, a sign that said one mile to the finish! My watch had 12:47 and as I was “flying” down the last ½ mile with things falling out of my pack, I could not believe that I had the energy and will to dig deeper for such an arbitrary goal. But I embraced it wholeheartedly and finished like a runner, which gave me tremendous satisfaction, in 30:58.

I don’t know if I will run Grindstone again though it taught me a great deal. It took me to a new place psychologically and was the most difficult course I've ever run. The 6pm start made this run more challenging than I expected, with 19 of the 31 hours in the dark. I do think it gave me some insight into what Hard Rock might be like with the second night, though the altitude and elevation change make it orders of magnitude more difficult. So the Hard Rock application goes in this week and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for whatever lies ahead.

Thanks to all those who made Grindstone possible. It is a first rate event. If you need an East Coast whipping, I highly recommend it.