Thursday, October 19, 2017


2017 Grindstone 100

The Abridged Version (full accounting below):

  • Shooting for sub-20
  • Afraid amazing competition would mean I'd miss out on Top 5 in back-to-back years
  • Wife crewing with my 3 year old daughter -- huge props!
  • Start to Dowell's Draft (0 - 22)
    • I hung back with Matt Thompson -- despite being much more talented, he was respecting the distance for his first Hundo and happily chilled with me. Also ran with Christopher Miller for a good number of early miles. Good times all around!
    • We cruised into Dry Branch 7 minutes up on desired splits, so we took it really easy on the Crawford climb and descent.
    • Arrived at Dowell's still well up on time.
    • I didn't meet crew so jumped ahead while everyone else wasted time at the Aid Station.
  • Dowell's Draft to North River Gap (22 - 37)
    • I climbed Hankey Mountain like a beast. 5 miles nearly 15 minutes faster than last year.
    • Had my first chances to stop here and there for a few seconds to stop and marvel at the moon.
    • I took it easy down into Lookout Mountain.
    • The dirt fire roads were intense. It was so dusty and dry ... lots of coughing. Had to pull out a Buff to cover my mouth.
    • Easy into North River, perhaps too easy, minding the frustratingly technical 6 mile descent.
    • I met my crew still up 12 minutes on my splits, so I took my sweet time. The kiddo was still awake, waiting to cheer me on!
    • Made a dumb mental mistake that cost me time the rest of the race -- I felt so comfortable with my 2 new UD hard flasks that I refused to take the pre-mixed older style bottles from my wife. Instead, each subsequent meetup I handed off my hard flasks, she dumped remaining contents, then transferred liquids from other perfectly usable bottles back into the hard flasks. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Note for future: Wife has authority to say "no, that's a stupid decision!"
  • North River Gap to Turnaround (37 - 52)
    • Strong climb up to Little Bald. Over 15 minutes faster than last year.
    • Little Bald had potatoes! My empty, growling stomach was very appreciative.
    • Took it really easy all the way to the Turnaround, just cruising. Honestly, I was trying to stop making gains on my planned splits.
    • When I started the 2.5 mile climb up to Reddish, I turned off my headlamp and ran by the moonlight. It may have slowed me down a bit, but it was an amazing experience.
    • On the climb up to Reddish, I saw Rusiecki and "The Norwegian" coming back down. I was only 5 minutes behind them.
    • I spent a minute at the top oooh-ing and aaaah-ing at the moon.
    • Cruised into the Turnaround, lost some more time to Rusiecki ... meh, whatever.
    • Wasted more time at the Aid Station than I should have, but was 15 minutes up on my splits.
    • The Turnaround didn't have potatoes. Sons of bitches!
  • Turnaround to North River Gap (52 - 67)
    • I ran all the way up the 2+ mile blacktop climb. Climbing legs were still going strong!
    • Bumped into Thompson on the way up, he was around 10 minutes back of me.
    • It was a super chill run all the way to the top of Little Bald.
    • Finally turned my headlamp back on at some point ... ran roughly 9 or 10 miles without it!
    • Took it easy on the technical early miles of the big descent, then Thompson steamrolled me and I did my best to keep up.
    • I rolled into the Aid Station maybe a minute behind Thompson. I should've left with him and his pacer, John Andersen ... but I'm an idiot and made another mental mistake. I swapped out shoes because the crazy dry trails had been getting fine dirt particles inside my shoes and one of my big toes was developing a hot spot. I should've just sucked it up! Damn it!
  • North River Gap to Dowell's Draft (67 - 80)
    • I left a couple minutes after Thompson, then ran into Amy Rusiecki and stopped for a quick chat ... wait, is this a race or a leisurely training run?! She tried imploring me to go catch her husband and Thompson.
    • Lookout Mountain murdered my soul. I couldn't get into a groove. It took me 90 minutes to get up to the Aid Station.
    • I traded barbs with Bob Clouston and Becca Weast for a minute or two, then cursed them for not having potatoes.
    • The remaining climb up to Hankey went better, and I got back into a groove on the descent into Dowell's. But by that point, I knew I was already 15-20 minutes back of Thompson and Rusiecki.
    • I wasted a lot of time, again, at the Aid Station.
    • My time buffer had evaporated on Lookout Mountain. Getting in under 20 hours was gonna be a tall order.
  • Dowell's Draft to Dry Branch Gap (80 - 88)
    • I left the Aid Station right behind "The Norwegian". Sondre Amdahl wasn't looking good, and I passed him and his Euro poles before we even got to HWY250 and found myself in 5th place.
    • I crossed HWY250 at 16:01. Less than 4 hours to get the job done. Could I do it?!
    • I made good work of Crawford Mountain. I climbed fast and my legs felt good.
    • I crested and cruised down to Dry Branch Gap at 17:19. I thought my effort on Crawford would've had me arriving at 17:15. That 4 minute different shook my confidence. So, as is wont to do under increasingly tight time objectives, I pissed away some more time at the Aid Station.
    • Did they have potatoes here?! I have no idea ... it's all a blur at this point.
  • Dry Branch Gap to the Finish (88 - 101.85)
    • As I left the Aid Station, I heard another runner coming in behind me. So help me god, if I miracled a sub-20 effort and still got 6th, I would be throwing a finish line tantrum the likes of which no one has ever seen!
    • I tried pushing up Elliot, but my quads had had enough. I couldn't hit a groove on the uneven rocks so I settled into a hard hike for most of the climb.
    • I kept chasing the clock. If I didn't hit the gravel road on Elliot's by 18:30, sub-20 wasn't gonna happen.
    • The incline eased up but I still had trouble running. Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!
    • I popped out on the gravel road at 18:32 and tried mustering the strength to get down to Falls Hollow by 19:05 ... a near impossible task.
    • As I got closer to the bottom I still couldn't turn my legs over fast enough. I pulled into Falls Hollow at 19:08, utterly dejected.
    • After a quick fill-up of Tailwind I still tried to give it a go, but the little climbs in the final 5 miles made it painfully obvious that sub-20 just wasn't gonna happen.
    • I kept pushing and hit the Mile To Go sign. My watch then rolled over from 19:53 to 19:54. 6 flat for the final mile?! Yeah, that's a big fat NO!
    • I eased up and finally cruised in just under 20:03 ... so close!

The Full Accounting of Chris Roberts and the 2017 Grindstone Endurance Run:

So there was this little get together in the mountains of Virginia called the Grindstone 100 ... maybe you've heard of it. I headed out there to my third Grindstone and to complete my 5th 100 miler. I'd come a long way since Grindstone #1 and I was feeling confident about my abilities, but was afraid the deeper talent pool this year would make it nearly impossible to repeat in the Top 5. I knew Avery Collins, Brian Rusiecki, and Caleb Denton would most assuredly beat me. Then there was another highly ranked dude, a pole-tacular Norwegian who has made the rounds on the Ultra Trail World Tour circuit, and then rising East Coast phenom Matt Thompson making his Hundo debut. And there's always the chance of a sleeper having a breakout performance. So instead of worrying about position, I decided to prioritize patience and run on my own terms.

The ultimate goal: sneak in under 20 hours.

My crew for this adventure was my wife, who has helped me out at most of my other 100 Mile races, and my 3 year old daughter making her crew debut! Before I even get into the race report, I've got to give huge props to my wife for taking on the challenge. Her job may very well have been more difficult than mine. It's not often one finds themselves spending the better part of a day driving around backcountry roads just to meet up and help someone for a couple minutes at a time, all while juggling a young kid and trying to find the time to breast pump in a car because one has been forced to abandon their infant for the weekend.

(Getting ready ... and looking enthused, as always)
(New crew member!)

The race started in typical fashion, with a handful of overeager runners mixing it up with the big boys. I tried not to pay them any mind. It was friggin hot out ... it felt like it was 95 and I wasn't about to waste my energy racing right from the starting line. But I also tried to make a point to keep up with Matt Thompson to have some company in the early miles. Less than 2 miles in, I noticed my feet were feeling a bit heavy, and the next thing I knew ... CRASH! I didn't fall so much as trip and land precisely 99.99% of my body weight on a rock that smashed into my knee. Somehow my hands caught the ground and I powered myself back up before losing control and splaying out, but my knee instantly ached. Luckily, as the race went on, it rarely caused anything more than a slight irritation. But it did look considerably swollen by the end of the race, and nearly two weeks later it's still stiff, swollen, and achy.

(Why are we running so fast? It's only Mile 2! Photo credit: Chris Thompson)

After "cresting" the Little North Mountain section around Mile 4, I happily reconnected with Thompson who was showing an appreciation for the distance by being unwilling to run with the leaders. Christopher Miller connected up with us and we three went on our merry little way. Halfway into the single-track up Elliott Knob we turned on our headlamps and both Chris and Matt had problems. Chris' read fully charged but would only blink and turn back off, and Matt's wouldn't turn on at all. Our pace slowed a bit as they bumbled with their lights and I did my best to light the way with my headlamp. Chris got his working before the steep gravel road, and Matt sorted out his batteries soon thereafter. First crisis averted!

We hiked the whole way up Elliott Knob, getting passed by one or two runners. But we still made great time -- it was the fastest I'd ever ascended, in a race or training run. We patiently made our way down into Dry Branch Gap without much fanfare. We were 9 minutes up on my time from last year, which I thought was a tad fast for the 20-hour goal Matt and I shared. A quick fill of the bottles and we were off to tackle Crawford Mountain. Matt was more than happy to accommodate my slower pace in the early miles, and we made sure to take it easy and hike where necessary. Then, it was down the Chimney Hollow Trail and onward to Dowell's Draft. We tucked in behind a runner for awhile, and while I felt we could've gone a bit faster on the flat section at the creek bottom I made no attempt to speed up. The fear of going out too fast kept me in check.

At Dowell's Draft, as has become customary, all the runners in my pack peeled off to meet up with crew, while I simply filled my bottles and took off, gaining 2-3minutes on them in the process. I figured Matt and maybe another runner or two would quickly catch up on the 5 mile Hankey Mountain climb, but that never happened and, for the most part, I spent the rest of the race alone.

(Dowell's Draft, leaving everyone in my dust! Photo credit: Chris Thompson)

Last year, John Andersen and I had a pity party climbing Hankey Mountain and we took it way too easy. This year I was determined to power through. I ran about 90% of the climb and ended up knocking 15 minutes off my time from the previous year. I was booking it and feeling great! I made sure to stop every so often to catch a glimpse of the massive moon ... no sense in taking things too seriously!

Once I crested and began the descent to Lookout Mountain Aid Station, I took it very, very easy. I was way up on my splits already and I had no intention of killing my quads on any descents just to keep throwing minutes in the bank. Around this time, the 3-week dry spell in the area started to become very apparent. I was choking on the kicked up dust so bad that I had to take out my buff from my pack to cover my mouth. I continued my easy-going pace the remaining 6 miles into North River Gap -- perhaps a bit too easy.

At North River Gap, Mile 37, I met up with my wife and 3-year-old daughter for the first time. Because I was still well up on my splits I didn't rush the stop. It was nice to spend a few minutes there, to take a breather, and to say "hey" to my daughter -- what a trooper, staying up to see daddy run through just after midnight! Then I was on my way to tackle The Big Climb up to Little Bald.

(The Crew has all the fun!)

My ascent of Grindstone Mountain and Chestnut Ridge up to Little Bald was rather unremarkable. It was calm and controlled, but focused. I got a little antsy at the end, waiting and waiting for the top to present itself. Last year I felt that I took it too easy on this climb, so I was determined to have a more honest go at it this time around. I ended up peeling more than 15 minutes off that 7 mile climb, and my legs felt great. When I got to the clearing at the top, I took a moment to turn off my headlamp and gaze up at the sky and soak in the moon.

I calmly made my way the extra 2 miles or so to the Little Bald Aid Station. I had been feeling the hunger pangs of an empty stomach for a while, so I devoured some potatoes to supplement my hourly Huma gel intake. After refilling my bottles, grabbing more potatoes, and heading out, I linked up with another runner who informed me that Brian Rusiecki had left the Aid Station "right before me". A competitive jolt shot through my body, but I reigned it in and reminded myself I was already well up on my goal splits and there was no sense going overboard so early in the race. And honestly, chasing Rusiecki?! I'm not that good!

The miles ticked by quickly, and when it came time to begin the 2.5 mile gradual climb up to Reddish Knob, I turned off my headlamp, slightly eased up on my pace, and continued to soak in the beautiful full moon atmosphere. A little ways into the quick blacktop out-and-back to the top of Reddish, I came across Rusiecki and "the Norwegian" on the way back down. They were no more than 5 minutes up on me. Nevertheless, I took it easy to the top and the succeeding 2.5 miles of hard blacktop to the turnaround ... all sans headlamp. I counted runners coming by and figured I was in 6th or 7th. I was 15 minutes up on my goal time, so I had another casual crew stop. Andersen was still waiting on Thompson, so he happily helped me get organized before I hit the road again. I quickly checked the food offerings but saw no potatoes. Son of a bitch!

(It's hard to beat running under that all night long)

I started the climb back up and was able to run the entire 2+ miles only stopping once to change out my headlamp, having forgotten to do so at the turnaround. On fresh legs it's an easy climb, but after 50 miles of running it might require hiking breaks, so I was pleased to find my legs still had the strength to power through. At one point I came across Thompson, and figured he was around 10 minutes back of me. I figured I'd be seeing him again shortly.

The rest of the way back to the top of Little Bald was unremarkable. I left my headlamp off until I got back onto the dirt fire road, having gone nearly 90 minutes with only a 2 lumen red light and the bright moon to guide my way. I proceeded back down to North River Gap, making sure to take my time on the more technical rock sections in the first mile or so of the descent. As expected, Thompson came charging up behind me. I let him by, then conversed and ran with him as best I could. At one point, half way down the descent, I had to let him go ... I was unwilling to put that kind of punishment on my quads and knees.

After cresting Grindstone Mountain, I picked up the pace and cruised into North River Gap, maybe a minute behind Thompson. I was still 15-20 minutes up on my goal splits so I again decided to take my time. The dirt had been causing an irritation on my big toe and my shoes were starting to feel a bit too stiff, so I sat down and changed shoes. I feared a blister or the frustrating maceration I'd experienced a few months ago at Vermont. Right then and there, I committed a major mental lapse that easily cost me 15 minutes. Instead of leaving with Thompson and Andersen, who was pacing, I watched them cruise out of the Aid Station as I swapped out shoes and slowly sorted out my nutrition. I never expected myself to be able to finish with or ahead of Thompson -- he's just too fast -- but I had entertained the idea of magically keeping up with him for the first 100K just to be able to tag along with him and Andersen to share some miles for as long as I could hang on. That's the position I found myself in and I failed to take advantage of it. Instead, I probably left the Aid Station 2-3 minutes after them, and I never saw them again!

A couple minutes after finally leaving the Aid Station, I bumped into Amy Rusiecki and literally stopped mid-race to say hey and chat her up for a minute. I was honestly a bit taken aback upon realizing she knew who I was -- we've chatted a couple times before and, it's true, I did famously win the Solo Title at her Vermont 100 this summer, but I dunno, she and her husband are fancy, bigtime racers, they're not supposed to pay any mind to us common folk! ... Anyways, it was more valuable time wasted ... but I was still up on my splits, and let's be honest, I'm the one paying to be out here so if I wanna waste time then so be it!

I began the rocky, disruptive climb up Lookout Mountain and immediately felt out of sorts. It's a crap section of trail and it's always difficult to get into a good rhythm. Three years in a row this section has kicked my ass ... so I'm calling it ... the Lookout Mountain Ascent is the World's Worst Stretch of Trail.

I finally arrived at Lookout Mountain Aid Station after nearly 90 minutes of hiking and pretending to run. Just like that, 15 minutes evaporated and I no longer had any cushion on my splits. For the entire course I made 30-60 second per mile gains compared to 2016 ... except for this stretch. Those 6 miles chewed me up and spit me out. And to make matters worse, those jerks at the Aid Station didn't have any potatoes for me to munch on! I stood around for a minute, utterly dejected, trying to muster up enough focus to continue on.

(Do I have to keep running? Photo credit: Becca Weast)

(Bitching about potatoes is apparently meme-worthy. Photo credit: Becca Weast and John Andersen)

I eventually got back into my groove and cruised on into Dowell's Draft. 20 miles to go and I was right on my 20-hour split. This was going to be a close one! Yet again, I wasted too much time at this Aid Station. I spent what felt like 15 minutes fighting off Frank Gonzalez's helpful attempts to feed me. No Frank, I don't want any broth!

Did they have potatoes? Did they not? I have no idea! It was all a blur at this point ... a slow moving blur. Oh, and apparently I utterly demolished my daughter's leaf pile, which she had been carefully crafting as she waited to see me ... sorry about that! Despite taking my sweet time, I left right after "The Norwegian" -- Sondre Amdahl -- who looked to be hurting. I quickly caught up with him and managed to find myself in 5th place for the second year in a row.

(I know you're thinking it ... yes, that hoodie IS adorable.)

Now it was time to tackle Crawford Mountain. The return trip is a beast. The final 2.5 miles of the climb are unrelenting. I hiked a lot of it, but I kept pushing my legs, trying to string together any running time that I could -- 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute. I felt strong, confident. As I climbed I could swear I was hearing voices right below me ... someone wanted my 5th place!

...Then things got a bit weird...

I imagined myself sprinting for the finish line as the clock ticked toward 20:00. I would be going flat out. I would sneak in right under the wire, and collapse to the ground, bawling my eyes out, overcome with the emotion of achieving a goal that two years ago I would've thought impossible ... sub 20 at Grindstone.

The scene played over and over in my mind. Before I knew it, my eyes were welling up. Yup ... I was friggin crying mid-race.

You can do this, Chris, just keep pushing! Sub 20! Sub 20! Now wipe off those tears and run!

I kept fighting off my standard urge to say "meh, if you don't hit your goal, no big deal." I pushed all the way to the switchback that signaled I was nearly to the top. I made a careful survey of the trails below me ... there was no one to be seen. After cresting, I took a breather and then cruised down into Dry Branch Gap, still slightly holding back on the descent for fear of prematurely bombing out my quads. By this point, my emotional composure had been restored.

At Dry Branch I was 88 miles in and still smack dab on my splits. I took a couple of minutes at the Aid Station to regroup -- probably a minute or two more than I should have ... yet again -- and then headed out for The Final Climb. As I departed I could hear hooting and hollering behind me ... someone was still right on my heels.

Now was the time to give it my all. I kept chugging along. Up, up, up. But when I started hitting the extended stretches of loose rock towards the top of the climb, I practically stopped in my tracks. I couldn't build up the urge to run. I'd give it a go but each rock I tried to maneuver over would break my stride. Once I cleared the rocks I reached more manageable inclines, but I still couldn't run. My climbing legs were gone, left somewhere back on Crawford. I checked my watch ... over and over again. I was nearly out of time. If I didn't reach the gravel road at the top of Elliott before 18:30 I had no shot at breaking 20-hours. The trail kept climbing and climbing and I kept hiking, throwing in failed attempts at running a few times a minute. This climb had to end soon. I had nothing left to give. 18:30 ticked by. I tried convincing myself a super-human effort could make due with an 18:35 arrival, but my confidence was waning, quickly.

Finally, I hit the gravel road at 18:32 and immediately jumped into the quad-pounding descent. With my legs shot from the climb, I found them unable to turn over quickly enough to handle the steep gravel road. Instead of flying down I felt like I was hobbling. Once I hit the single track I could open my stride, but it didn't last long. The final 1.5 miles down to Falls Hollow were a solid 1-2 minutes per mile slower than I wanted. I pulled into Falls Hollow at 19:08. My day was done. There was no way I'd break 20-hours now. I had arrived 3 minutes too late. I've never filled up bottles here before, but the midday heat had me downing a lot of liquids on Elliott. I loaded up on Tailwind knowing my body was done with Huma gels for the day and filled the other bottle with water to use as a spray. Then I headed out for the final stretch.

I kept trying to force the pace, but the slightest incline had me walking. Those little, worthless, good-for-nothing hills felt like mountains. Once I started descending along the rocky, rooty creek trails I did my best to push myself, and, for a moment here and there, I truly thought I could still get the job done. When the trails smoothed out I started looking for the Mile To Go sign. I honestly had no idea where it was, so I just kept pushing. I could've sworn the Spectator Spot from the beginning of the race was at the 1 Mile mark, but when I happened upon it, I saw no sign. My watch read 19:49. I still held out hope, but the odds were stacked against me. Then ... I SAW THE SIGN! I glanced at my watch. It ticked from 19:53 to 19:54. I immediately let up. 6 flat to finish the race? Impossible!

For the final mile I let my legs and lungs rest, and busied myself with uncomfortably frequent looks over my shoulder to make sure my pursuer wasn't hot on my tail. When I crossed the dam and hit the edge of the lake I looked back and didn't see anyone. I was free to jog it in without any fear of a last-second sprint. My daughter ran up to me at the finishing chute and I spent a few moments trying to convince her to run in with me. But she's way too shy for that, so instead she recoiled and backed away while I awkwardly stood motionless. I took a glance at the clock and realized a hard sprint could get me in under 20:03. I tagged the line as the clock hit 20:02:59 a bit disappointed in having come so close, but still proud of the effort overall.

(Find a better finishing form on the day, I dare ya!)

Final tally:
  • 5th Place for the second year in a row ... Top Finisher Puffy!
  • 20:02:57 officially
  • 1:17 faster than last year, 4:07 faster than 2015
  • 16th fastest running of the course
  • 12th fastest person to ever complete the course ... not too shabby

(Award Ceremony ... showing off the puffy)

All the Thanks

A huge thanks to Clark Zealand and his cadre of volunteers. Grindstone is an amazing race, made all the better by the hard work and dedication of everyone at the aid stations and putting in the work behind the scenes.

Many thanks to my mother for flying in and turning Grindstone weekend into her annual babysitting duties.

And deepest thanks to my wife for juggling so many responsibilities just to help me run in the mountains for 20 hours (and 3 minutes). In all honesty, I'm a bit jealous because she got to spend the night and day hanging out with our daughter while I was off getting sweaty and tired.

Gear & Nutrition

  • Altra Lone Peaks
  • Injinji toe socks
  • Patagonia shirt and Strider Pro shorts
  • Boco trucker hat
  • 17 Huma gels
  • 3000 cals of Tailwind (300cal/20oz/2hrs)
  • 1 ClifBlock, some potatoes (but not enough!), some oranges, and a pint of apple juice

Post-race Assessment

  • I must have hit my knee awfully hard because it's still a bit swollen and stiff after 2 weeks.
  • I can jog fine, but I sometimes limp when I walk, and bringing my foot all the way up to my butt creates a good deal of pain at the point of impact -- no track intervals for me any time soon!
  • I think my legs are figuring out this whole 100 miles thing.
  • I was sore the next day, but I was still able to hobble-jog enough to chase my daughter around for a rousing game of hide-and-seek.
  • I never had problems going up and down steps.
  • Most importantly, immediately after the race I DID NOT get the shakes! Losing the ability to regulate body heat after a grueling race is sooo last year!
  • Climbing skills have greatly improved. I guess that's what happens when 30% of your training revolves around 12% climbs on the treadmill.
  • Half decent pacing throughout the race. Despite not breaking 20 hours, I'm proud of the effort I put in over those final 20 miles.
  • Technical descents -- Lookout Mountain outbound and first miles coming back down from Little Bald. 12% smooth descents on the treadmill aren't cutting it. I need to find steep, technical stretches of trail or maybe throw some squats into my long treadmill descents.
  • Lookout Mountain climb -- smooth treadmill climbs can't prepare you for everything.
  • Nutrition -- I need to be better about taking in gels over the final hours of the race.
  • Dilly-dallying at aid stations -- if I want to be competitive I need to get back to quick transitions.
Next year:
  • I know I left at least 10 minutes on the table at various aid station stops.
  • I took it too easy under the moonlight and on some of the mild grades in the middle of the race and between Dowell's and Lookout. I could probably buy back 5-10 minutes right there.
  • Figuring out the return trip up Lookout Mountain could save me another 10+ minutes.
  • Further hardening my quads could save another handful of minutes in the final 12 miles.
  • All told, it's not unreasonable to expect a 30 minute improvement next year, under ideal conditions ... Bring it on!

(Fly-By of the competition)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

How to Run Grindstone

The Warmup -- Miles 1-14

The Pre-game

Get to Camp Shenandoah early. Take the day off work. You need to be resting as much as possible Friday morning and afternoon ahead of the 6pm start. You're not gonna get an 8 hour nap, but you want to feel well rested.

The Start

When Clark starts the race, get to the front if you're competitive. In under 0.5 miles you approach a choke-point at the dam. Wasting a minute or two waiting for people in front of you to climb down and back up the backside of the dam moments after the race starts ... well, it's irritating!

The Early Miles

Take it easy the first 5 miles. They're pretty easy miles -- some rocks, some roots, some short hills. Just chat up your fellow runners and warm up your legs. Oh, and take note of how easy these miles feel ... you'll want to remember that feeling 95 miles later.

The First Climb

You've warmed up on relatively flat trails for 5 miles. Now it's time to climb! 4 miles and over 2000' to the top of Elliott Knob. It's highly non-technical and the first 2.5 miles are mostly runnable. Then you hit the gravel road ... and you hike ... and hike ... and hike. The final 1.5 miles are steep. You can run a bit here and there for 30-90 second spurts, but now's not the time to test your climbing legs. Remember, you're still warming up! If someone starts running ahead of you, don't chase!

The First Descent

After punching your bib at the top, you've got a short descent back down the way you came until you turn left onto the single track. The first mile is mostly flat, and here you get a taste of the rock-hopping that dominates the first two big descents. The next 2.5 miles you cruise down, and down, and down. Then you've got another 0.5 mile to climb and descend a small hill to get to the first real aid station -- Dry Branch Gap at Mile 14. On the descent, just keep in mind that you should probably be taking it easy since it's your quads' first pounding.

Settling In -- Miles 15 - 37

The Crawford Climb

You've got a 2.5 mile climb ahead of you. There are about 6 "summits" before you reach the top of Crawford. Each time you feel like you've topped out, you'll get a short burst of runnable flat or slightly downhill trail. The true summit is rather unremarkable. There are a few ways to know you hit it -- you've climbed for 2.5miles; you find yourself on flat trail for about 0.25 miles; you hit the left-hand turn for the Chimney Hollow descent. The overall climb is about 1100', so it's very manageable. Your legs are fresh so you can try to get some extended running in, but you'll probably want to hike the final stretches of each summit because they can get fairly steep.

The Chimney Hollow Descent

Bombs away! 3+ miles. Nearly 1700' down. Open up your legs here and just let the trail carry you to the creek bottom. If you want, try pushing it a bit. Mind the stretches of loose rock -- it's dark, it's early, be careful! At the bottom it flattens out for a mile or so until the HWY 250 crossing.

Once you cross the road, you've got a mile, more or less, until Dowell's Draft at Mile 22. There are some short, steep hills that will catch you off guard after that long descent, so watch out!

The Hankey Climb

The next 5 miles are up. The good news is it's only around 1500' of climbing. A lot of this is runnable. But some stretches are borderline. Feel free to push it here and there, but don't go gangbusters up the whole damn climb. You'll false summit after 4 miles. Then you'll hit about 0.5 miles of flat running. After a steep spurt to the top, you're ready for the next descent! Piece of cake!

The Run into TWOT

You've got around 10 miles to drop 1900' to the TWOT Lot for the North River Gap Aid Station. Pretty simple right? Wrong! You've already been climbing for 5 miles, but you've got nearly 4 more before you hit the Lookout Mountain Aid Station. Don't get stuck into a lull here -- get down to the Aid Station with purpose. This isn't the time to rest your legs after the long climb. After Lookout, you are on your way to the TWOT Lot. But be careful! There are tons of short climbs. And some stretches are rocky as hell -- they're not the flat slate rocks from prior descents, these are more like little boulders all strewn about. And there are plenty of little twists and turns and juking around trees. Those 5 miles to North River Gap Aid Station can be slower and more laborious than you intend. When you cross the bridge you've got less than 0.75 miles of runnable trail and blacktop to go. Hang a right on the blacktop and cruise on in. If you're meeting crew, they should be parked along this stretch of road eagerly awaiting you!

This is Getting Serious -- Miles 37 to 51

The Chestnut Ridge Climb

This is the Crown Jewel of the Grindstone Course. You've already spent quite a few miles on the TWOT Loop, having intercepted it on the Hankey Climb, but here's where things get serious! It's just under 7 miles and 2700' of climbing to Little Bald (the top of the climb, not the Aid Station!). Coming in just shy of 3000', it's one of the premier climbs in Virginia. But with the dips in the climb along the way, you'll take in well over 3000' of total climbing (last time I ran it, GPS said 3800'). ... And you get to run it all in the dead of night!

The first 1.5 miles hit you right in the teeth. They're steep and require a lot of hiking. Try running some stretches if you're adventurous, but if you try to run the whole thing you could be paying for it dearly come sunrise. When you start heading downhill, you'll have crested Grindstone Mountain, and your reward is a comfortable half mile descent.

Miles 2-6 of the climb see around 4 more summits with small drops or flat sections. Some of the climbing is runnable, but the end of each minor climb can be laborious. Make sure to shake out your legs with a jog when you hit a flat section or a downhill. And if you're competitive, don't dilly-dally when those opportunities are presented to you!

The final 0.75 miles gets noticeably steeper again. If you've treated your legs well, it should be no problem. Otherwise, it could be a rough stretch. At the top you'll come to a clearing -- if it's foggy, make sure to ignore the left-hand turn. This is where you separate from the TWOT Loop and turn right onto the fire / hunting roads that will occupy you for the next few hours.

Oh, and congratulations, you just survived Chestnut Ridge! Take a moment to take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back for a job well done!

To the Turnaround

Once cresting your arduous climb,  you may be disappointed to realize there's no Aid Station. Sorry! The Official Mileage Chart says it's 7.83 miles from the TWOT Lot and you just climbed around 6.8, so 1 mile to go ... only ... not really. It's more like 2 miles to the Little Bald Knob Aid Station. I've run this whole section a few times with 1-second GPS and there's no way it's only 7.83 miles from TWOT Lot to the next Aid Station.

It's a fairly smooth and gradual descent -- with the occasional small hill to climb -- so open your stride and run with purpose. Make haste! You may be running low on liquids so get to the Aid Station as best you can.

After you've reached Where-the-hell-is-it Aid Station, you'll gradually descend for another 1-1.5 miles and then start your next climb. It's about 3 miles and 800' to the top of Reddish Knob. A lot of the grade is manageable, but you may find yourself hiking for breathers here and there. The hunting trail leads into more of a gravel road on an S-curve climb after 1 mile of climbing -- climb up and to the right at the intersection!

When you get to the final stretch of the Reddish Knob climb, you turn right onto the access road to the top. It's about 0.3 miles up. I recommend pushing it to the top because you've got a smooth cruise all the way down to the turnaround from here.

Don't forget to punch your bib up there! If you can't find it quickly, don't waste your time looking.

The descent is just under 2.5 miles of neverending blacktop. Run with purpose and open your stride, but be careful not to overdo it, or you may find yourself tearing up your quads before you realize what just happened!

It's Mostly Downhill from Here -- Miles 51 to 65

After the turnaround, you just go back the way you came for 50 miles! Simple!

If you pushed too hard on that last descent and took too long at the Aid Station, you may be in for a rough ride on the climb back up. I think this section feels just plain weird. It's blacktop, it's steep at times, it can be run from start to finish on fresh legs, but you're 50 miles into it by now so you're gonna want to walk here and there. Nevertheless, power through. You're better off pushing it a bit too hard on this 2 mile climb because the next 12 miles are fairly tame.

After you pass Reddish Knob -- without climbing it again! -- just work your way back to Little Bald Knob Aid Station and then to the top of Chestnut Ridge. You'll have around 3 miles of mostly smooth descent so focus on extending that stride and putting in some quality miles. Then you climb for a mile or so to the Aid Station. This is a good time to take a quick breather, then prepare yourself mentally for a final push and a long, long descent. Those 2 miles back to the top of Chestnut Ridge can be tiring, especially if it's still nighttime. Just push through and stay focused.

Once you get to the 7 mile descent, you know that your heart can take a breather. On the way down, just be mindful of your quads -- if you go too quickly you'll pay the price later since you still have 3 substantial climbs left in the race! On the other hand, it's easy to lull yourself to sleep and just coast on the descent -- wasting valuable time for no good reason.

When you hit the little climbs, try your best to power through because they won't last long. When you hit the 0.5 mile Grindstone climb, you might have to hike it, but some folks will find that it's perfectly runnable -- and at only 0.5 miles of climbing, it may be worth it to power through and earn a few minutes back on the clock.

Fatigue Sets In -- Miles 65 to 80

This section is the long, undulating climb past Lookout Mountain and up to Hankey again. Remember the rocks and little bends in the trail on the way down?! Well, you get to deal with that on the way back up now! It's a little over 5 miles from North River Gap back to the Lookout Mountain Aid Station. After the long descent it can be a real shock to the system. Lots of hiking with little spurts of failed running are likely in your future.

Nearer to and after the Aid Station, the trail becomes much smoother. There are more opportunities to power through some extended bursts of running. Then you'll get to the next descent back down to Dowell's Draft. There are a couple of sections where you need to mind your quads, but for the most part it's a reasonable descent. But again, don't overdo it, because the final climbs still await you!

This Course is STUPID! -- Miles 80 to 92

The Climb Back Up Crawford

It's 7 miles to Dry Branch Gap. The only thing standing in your way: Crawford Mountain. If you recall, you've got a mile or so of not-so-smooth trail, then you cross over HWY 250. After that you run along the creek bottom. On the outbound journey it felt smooth and flat and easy. Now, however, it probably feels like a 5% incline. After a few minutes of that you smack right into the big climb.

The climb is only 2-2.5 miles, but it's 1600'. It's steep. It sucks. There are sections of loose rocks. You've already got 80 miles in your legs. And did I mention that it's steep?! In the middle of the climb you flatten out for a few tenths of a mile, and then it's 1 more mile of climbing. And boy is it a tough one. I think one year it took me nearly 30 minutes to crawl up that last mile. It feels unrelenting. If you can muster a few stretches of jogging, you are superhuman! Just hang on and do your best to keep moving.

Near the top you'll hit a switchback. Then it's a quarter mile to the end of the Chimney Hollow Trail where you hang a right and hop onto the Crawford Mountain Trail. You finally made it!

The Descent to Dry Branch Gap

It's a 2.5 mile descent to the Aid Station. You're getting to the end of the race so now's the time to really start putting in some hard work. If your legs can manage, pick up the pace on the way down. A couple stretches can be fairly steep drops where it's best to sit back into the hill as you descend ... your quads are gonna hate you for it, but that's just the way it is.

Technically there are going to be a handful of rollers from those false "summits" you encountered ages ago on your outbound journey in the dead of night, but any inclines are very short-lived so try to run through all of them if you can.

The Final Climb

At Dry Branch I recommend fully stocking up on any liquid and nutrition you're gonna want to get you all the way to the finish. You can stop off at Falls Hollow with 5 miles to go, but I find it to be an unnecessary aid station.

Leaving the Aid Station you've got a short, steep climb up a hill. You'll probably walk it, but you just rested for a couple minutes at the Aid Station so why not give it a go?! You'll crest, then descend the backside of the hill and immediately start climbing again.

This is the final stretch in my mind ... 4 miles to the top and then it's all downhill from there (mostly)! You've got 1700' of climbing to get back up Elliott. The first 2 miles will feel a lot like your previous climb up Crawford -- steep, unrelenting, exhausting, stretches of loose rock. Your body is going to want you to give up, to crumple down on the trail in a fetal position. But you're almost there! So just push on. Every couple of minutes try testing out your running legs. You might only make it a handful of strides, but who knows, you might surprise yourself and run uphill for a solid 30 seconds! Woohoo!

After 2 miles it gets a bit easier. You'll be able to run some, and any hiking you do will certainly feel less taxing. The final 1.5 miles almost feel flat, but they're slightly uphill. You'll think you're on the verge of rounding the edge of Elliott and popping out on the gravel road. But you're wrong! 5, 10, 15 minutes will pass. By the end of it you might even consider this the most frustrating stretch of trail on the whole course. Again, it's not really all that difficult, but you feel like you should already be to the top, and yet, you just keep on going.

When you finally do pop out on to the gravel road, you've made it! You're 92 miles into the race and you're standing over 2000' above the finish line with a little more than 9 miles to go. For me, that stretch from Dowell's Draft to the top of Elliott is the final push at Grindstone -- bust your ass and beat yourself up over those 12 miles because your reward is a sweet descent and then some flat trails!

To the Finish Line -- Miles 92 to 101.85

The Downhill Bomb

Either you're gonna love the next 1.25 miles, or you're gonna feel like your legs are about to fall off. It's over 1100' of loss. It probably took you 20-30 minutes to climb at the start, and now you're free falling at what feels like a 5K pace. But before you know it, you're done! A short stretch of single-track, a couple of creek crossings, and then comfortable jeep trails back to Falls Hollow.

The Trail That Never Ends

After Falls Hollow you only have 5 miles to go. You'll hit some decent inclines early on, but the final 3 miles are flat-ish. The trails can get a bit gnarly, with rocks and roots. But hands down, the worst part is, well, that it seems to go on and on forever. And there's a theory out there that Clark thins out the trail markers on this section to mess with you! You'll spend a solid 2 miles wondering why in the hell you haven't reached the lake yet. When you finally get to it, all that's left is to run up to the finish line and find a place to collapse!

And that's the Grindstone 100. Piece of cake!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Vermont 100

(...It's just random numbers, but it's pretty damn close!)

So I signed up for Vermont mostly to check it off my list as it is a Grand Slam race. GDR (race report) + newborn + Grindstone in October severely limited the options for big late spring / early summer races. Vermont isn't my style of race -- too runnable, no big climbs or descents, lots of road running -- but I pitched it as an opportunity for a family vacation, and my better half agreed. I figured the runnable nature of the course would help me focus on my long-term goal of qualifying for the 24 Hour Team USA, and would also keep me from over-committing to difficult training too far in advance of Grindstone.

These were my original race objectives when I first signed up in January:
  • Solo champion
  • Around 16:30
  • "Compete" for Top 3

It was fairly ambitious. But I figured a healthy dose of marathon "speed" training and flatter, faster long runs could pave the way to a great performance at Vermont.

Then life happened and I had to temper my expectations. I won't go into detail, but here's a run-down of the things that made me adjust my race objectives:
  • Erratic training and sub-optimal sleep -- babies are the worst!
  • Bum left knee -- tendinitis still present from unnecessary Track Marathon in mid-May
  • Minimal long runs since GDR
  • Right foot showing signs of plantar fasciitis as race day approached

As a consequence, my race objectives were now:
  • Solo champion
  • Around 17:00
  • Run smart, run relaxed, don't treat it like an "A Race"

To overcome the lack of training, I paid for some insurance policies in the way of seemingly unnecessary heat training and a short stint with a pre-race keto diet. While the idea of a full-time keto diet sounds insane, I am convinced that getting your body comfortable with burning fat as fuel can help ward off bonking, so I try to do a 7-10 day keto session right before every long race. And while the temps at Vermont don't really necessitate heat training, some studies have shown that it can lead to performance gains even for moderate race temperatures ... it served me well for Western States, so why not!

(How normal people dress for 100degree temps)

(My diet for a whole week)

Since my wife would be taking care of a 3 year old and a 4 month old, I had long planned to run solo/unaided. There are so many aid stations at Vermont that it looks more like a road marathon than a trail race anyway ... dedicated crewing would be mostly irrelevant for me. As such, I made my primary goal to win the Solo title ... as long as I got that, the day would be a success.

(Checked in and ready to go at the 2017 Vermont 100)

I stood at the front of the starting field surprisingly well rested. I looked around and tried to cast off the feeling of creeping imposter syndrome -- why am I standing up here? do I even belong here? am I any good at this?  When the race started a couple of runners went out with Brian Rusiecki, but I knew better than to make that mistake. I'm not as talented as him, no reason to pretend otherwise. As I cruised along I was soon swarmed by runners on the first smooth road descent and I couldn't help but think: I'll see you all before the race is done!

Jake Dissinger came up on me after a mile or two and knowing we were of similar abilities from our run-in at Holiday Lake earlier in the year, we banded together. We had a similar race plan -- go easy on the downhills, stay within ourselves on the climbs, and see what shakes out in the latter miles. Thus, a lot of our chit-chatting in the early miles was ridiculing runners that were going out ahead of us, especially anyone that tore ass on the descents ... only to be caught again by the time we crested the next hill.

I had some splits in mind for a 17:00 finish and we came into the Pretty House AS at Mile 21 about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, at 3:05. I didn't let that get to my head, and swore I'd stick to my splits as best as I could -- I knew they were sustainable ... no time to start thinking 16-flat was awaiting me! At Pretty House I picked up my first of 4 drop bags, quickly swapping out bottles and grabbing new Huma gels and Tailwind pouches. I was in and out of there in no time, a crew would've saved me a handful of seconds, if that.

(That's 4lbs of sugar and electrolytes. I ate ALL OF IT!)

In the miles before Stage Road AS at Mile 30, even though it wasn't yet 9AM, the sun and exposed asphalt roads was making me start to overheat. I wasn't expending a lot of energy, but I just felt warm. I strolled into Stage Road and was greeted with a tub of ice water and towels for drenching. I spent a solid minute drenching my body and I've honestly never felt so refreshed in a race before. Best aid station experience EVER!

Between Stage Road and Camp 10 Bear at Mile 47, I was just cruising on auto pilot ... it just kind of blew by. But here's a random reporting of events:
  • Some farmer at Mile 32 let me know I was precisely 34 minutes behind the leaders.  Ummm, thanks, I guess.
  • I jumped off into the woods for the only time all day. Imodium, guaranteed to cork up your insides on race day!
  • My family came out to see me at a Spectator Spot, so I spent a couple minutes trying to convince my daughter to let her sweaty father give her a hug.
  • I started passing 100K runners, which confused the hell out of me the rest of the race. Am I passing someone that matters? Yes? No?!

At Camp 10 Bear at Mile 47, I quickly grabbed a new bottle and nutrition out of my drop bag, and loaded up an ice bandana I had packed, just in case. Jake and I reconnected and went on our merry way for a 22 mile loop. I had planned to start pushing my effort half-way through the loop, around Mile 60, and there were a number of times I'd wished I'd done more running up a hill or pushed the pace a bit on a descent, but having some company was too hard to pass up.

Around Margaritaville AS at Mile 58.5 I heard a distinct buzzing sound. I thought it was some gadflies in a tree but when I looked up I saw a drone scoping us out as we ran. I decided to play around and hit the deck, like I'd been shot. I got to see the footage at the finish line and a target overlay would make for an enjoyable race video.

At some point around here I started getting grouchy, letting Jake know how pissed of I was getting that there wasn't anyone around us to pass. The whole point of taking it easy in the first half of a 100 miler is to have the joy of cashing in on all of the carnage at the end of the race!

Towards the end of the loop my feet were feeling a bit worn out from my low-profile race shoes (Pearl Izumi N1 Trail, may they rest in peace), so I decided when I got back to Camp 10 Bear that I'd swap out shoes for some fresh Altra Superiors. I usually despise the idea of swapping shoes, but I had a feeling the hard running surfaces might necessitate a shoe change at some point. Jake and I came into the aid station together still nearly spot-on to my 17 hour race plan. I then saw him darting back out before I had even sat down to change my shoes. At this point, not having a crew really did me in. It took over 5 minutes to get my drop bag, pull out my shoes and socks, swap them out, re-stock on nutrition, and refill my ice bandana. Ugh!

I left the aid station determined to catch back up with Jake and his pacer in the next 10 miles, hoping to press through to a sub-17 effort. But within a mile I came across Hal Koerner. As I passed him I confirmed that he was still running Solo. I muttered some quip about how I liked his book and then darted ahead. A few minutes later it dawned on me that I most likely had the Solo title locked up, so I dialed back the effort and just let that sink in for a few miles. I still had no idea what place I was in at this point, but I wasn't concerned with that at all. Instead of pushing the pace and finishing hard, I found myself saying, "you could save your legs AND still meet your primary race goal! Take it easy, dude!"

... And that's pretty much the rest of the race!

The next miles just kind of flew by ... except for the obligatory end-of-race Pee Fest that's starting to become routine for me. Without fail, after about 12 hours of running I feel like I need to stop and pee every 10 minutes. It's so frustrating. I'm probably overhydrating a bit, so I really need to work on increasing my Tailwind concentration and dialing back the drinking by a few ounces an hour.

Anyways ... at some point I casually strolled into Bill's Aid Station at Mile 88 a solid 15 minutes behind schedule. 5 of that came from the shoe change, but I don't know where the other 10 came from. I must have been really sandbagging it. Somewhere during this stretch I came across the RD, Amy Rusiecki. She cheerfully informed me I was Top 10. I figured I had been in the Top 10 for awhile but it was nice to finally get confirmation.

At Bill's I had my second Solo time suck of the day. My 4th and final drop bag was just too stripped down. I didn't pack a bottle, only my required nutrition for the next 12 miles and a headlamp. So instead of quickly swapping out bottles I stood there for a couple of minutes, unwrapping my quart-sized plastic baggy, refilling my bottle with Tailwind and then water, cramming gels into pockets, unwrapping my headlamp, ... blah blah blah. It was a complete waste of time. Oh well.

Heading out of the AS I did some math and decided breaking 17 wasn't going to happen, so there was no point in even trying. A few minutes later I saw a runner in the distance cresting a hill. He was maybe 60-90 seconds up on me. I really don't know why I didn't pursue him, but I vaguely remember thinking it was probably just another 100K-er ... I'd passed over 50 of them already.

For awhile, it felt like a pebble was stuck in my shoe. I thought it was down in my sock so after miles of dealing with this I finally said screw it. I sat down to dig it out and found no pebbles, only a good deal of maceration on the ball of my foot. The pinching, stabbing feeling wasn't a rock, it was me literally stepping on a fold of swollen skin. The rest of the race I did my best to keep my big toe extended upwards to minimize the pain. If I were really, truly focused on this race I never would've stopped, viewing it as a complete waste of time ... and, well, it kind of was, so, I dunno, lesson learned I guess.

I came through Polly's Aid Station at Mile 95, still 15 minutes behind schedule, right as the sun had set. I finally decided it was time to up the effort level. And within 5 minutes I saw Jake and his pacer. It took another mile or so to run them down. I wanted nothing more than to just cruise in with those guys, but Jake complained of dead legs and told me the next guy was "a minute up". I then put 2 and 2 together and realized it was likely the guy I didn't pursue an hour before. So I debated for a minute and then took off.

I expected to catch up with this guy in short order. But as the final miles passed by I never saw him. I never went all-out, but I was certainly putting in more effort than I had all day. I kept playing with my headlamp, turning it off every time I hit a clearing, desperately clinging to the desire to finish sans headlamp. I crossed the finish line just after 9PM in 17:06 ... with a headlamp. I later learned that I was 2 minutes back of 5th and 5 minutes back of 4th, the guy I was trying to pursue. More so than the wasted solo aid station transitions, this is the best indicator of how running solo impacted my day. If I had crew spotting these runners over the final 30 miles, there's no way I would've let myself finish behind them.  Oh well.

(Race schwag!)

Final Thoughts

While I never pushed myself to the limit at Vermont, it was a successful experience for me. I learned some more about how I can efficiently stay strong and pace well throughout a 100 miler -- I've had some rough outings in shorter races but I always seem to get it right for the hundos. I was able to finish in a competitive place well inside the Top 10 without working all that hard. And I achieved all of my pre-race objectives.

Yeah, it would've been nice to have shaved off 7 minutes to get in sub-17 and overtake the two guys just ahead of me, but I'm not sure it would've been worth the added stress on my body. Looking back at my various time sucks and how easy of an effort I put in, I'm certain I could've gotten close to 16:30 if I really pushed myself and had a crew.  So will I go back sometime soon and brave the unrelenting hard-packed hill workout to find out just how fast I can complete that course?! ... I'm leaning heavily towards a big fat NO! The mountains and single-track call me!

In the days after the race, it became abundantly clear that I did not push my body to the limit. My quads and hamstrings never experienced major muscle soreness, and my smaller calf muscles felt fine within 5 days. I didn't get the shakes that typically come after a 100 miler -- where I lose the ability to regulate body temperature and find myself shaking and shivering all night long. I did feel slightly short of breath on occasion for a couple of days, but that cleared up quickly. I had hoped to use the 2 weeks after Vermont to heal up the tendinitis in my knee, thinking I'd be dreading any hint of a structured training plan. But I currently find myself fighting off the urge to get back into real training for Grindstone.


Obvious gratitude to my wife for taking care of our two young children while I camped out in a tent and went on an extended weekend long run.

Thanks a lot to MassUltra (twitter and facebook) for the race day coverage. My wife really appreciated the updates that made it so easy for her to swing by a Spectator Spot and see me run.

Huge thanks to Amy Rusiecki and all of the volunteers that make the race what it is.


2017 Vermont 100 Fly-by

The generated fly-by plot, above, reveals a lot about my race day:

  • I basically ran with Jake Dissinger for the first 69 miles until my shoe change.
  • I uniformly fell behind Rusiecki all day long ... from start to finish I was solidly 60-70 seconds per mile slower. I view that as a good thing. I effectively maintained performance without drastic changes in my effort level.
  • Only Rusiecki and Arnstein, both previous winners, increased their lead on me in the final third of the race.
  • I spent the middle miles running the same pace as Kathleen Cusick. That's not a bad thing at all, but given our best efforts at Hellgate, Grindstone, Bull Run, etc., I'd expect that I should've been more like 60-90 minutes ahead if I'd gone all out.
  • Within 5 minutes of 4th place for the final 40 miles?! Having a crew to relay that info would've been incredibly helpful and motivating.
  • I'm a long way off from being truly competitive in a major 100 miler -- look at that gap between 1-3 and 4-7 -- but I seem to be a pretty solid minor leaguer right now.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Broken Competitive Drive

2017 Promise Land 50K

Image result for promise land 50k elevation profile
(Super old looking race profile from irunfar)

I was excited to come back to Promise Land this year after my wife gave me the go-ahead to abandon her for a day, leaving her alone with an infant and toddler. After 2 years of ultrarunning I can comfortably say that 50Ks really aren't my cup of tea -- I thrive on the longer slogs through the mountains, and the shorter races are just too fast. But Promise Land is a bit different. It has a hard, fun profile that can wear you down, and if I'm paying to go running through the woods I want it to be for something challenging like this.

I knew I wasn't going to have a spectacular performance this year -- GDR was only 4 weeks ago and the joys of newborn sleep deprivation were still in full swing. Then add to that the fact that race day forecasts were predicting temps approaching the 90s. Oh, and I basically reverse-tapered my way to race day and drove 4 hours in the middle of the night to get to the race start. So yeah, peak performance wasn't gonna happen. But ... my spring workouts had been going well and I was still hoping for a solid improvement over last year. I had an ambitious plan for sub-5, a 15 minute improvement over last year. It probably wasn't going to work out, though I was hoping to be within striking distance in the final miles.

(Course map. Courtesy of Keith Knipling)

When the race began I felt tired and sluggish. I was hoping to shake it out, but after nearly 15 minutes of climbing to start the race I could tell that my legs weren't as responsive as I had hoped -- remnants of GDR were still lurking in my quads. So I dialed back the effort a little and just hoped for the best. I came into the first Aid Station less than 3 miles in, about 90 seconds off pace and spot-on to last year's split. By this point I had long since given up keeping pace with anyone up front and had settled in at around 20th place.

After cresting the first major climb, my legs opened up on the rolling trails and I left myself a sliver of hope that sub-5 was still attainable. I rolled into Reed Aid Station -- the Terrapin Lollipop -- got a pleasant greeting from Clark Zealand, and then headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway crossing. My legs again felt strained from the climbing and I resorted to hiking much more often than if my legs were fresh. Once I hit the downhill into the Sunset Fields Aid Station, my legs again opened up. The effort felt considerably easier than last year, but I was running the downhills slightly faster. I pulled into the Aid Station with a nearly identical time to last year. The main difference: I was in 9th then, and only in 15th this time around. Maybe even a 5:15 finish in this heat wouldn't make the cut for Top 10 ... ugh!

I glided down the rocky and sometimes sloppy single track to the Cornelius Aid Station at Mile 18. I love this section of trail, careening down the slopes and over creek runoff makes me feel like a kid! My downhill pace again felt more controlled and easier than last year, and it was still slightly faster. If I could just survive the final climb, the final 4 mile descent would be a blast!

Leaving the AS, I hit the 2 mile downhill stretch of road that begins the 8 mile Cornelius Loop, focusing on an easy, controlled effort. Last year, I felt like the back half of the loop would never end. I was pushing the pace beyond my abilities, trying to make up ground on runners behind me. This year, I finished the loop in a slightly faster time, feeling considerably less exhausted. I had moved up into 11th place, was slightly ahead of last year's pace, and was focused on staying strong to overtake a couple runners on the final monster climb up the falls. Running down the out-and-back to the Aid Station, I saw Leif Van Acker and not far behind him was a super old dude (and eventual GrandMaster course record holder). I was probably 1.5-2 minutes back. I wasn't sure I'd be able to catch Leif, but I knew the old dude was going down!

Heading back up the out-and-back, a couple of runners flew down, and I instantly got scared.  Just like last year ... I was on the Top 10 bubble with a chase pack right behind me. I focused on the task at hand: catching the old dude. In less than 10 minutes I passed him and secured my 10th place spot. I may not be getting sub-5 hours, but it could still be a good day!

... And then it all went to crap. My legs quickly felt tired. I had been struggling up the climbs earlier in the race, but I was hoping this 2000' climb up Apple Orchard Falls would be different -- I had pictured myself saving my legs so I could crush the ascent. Instead, I found myself walking in places I had no business walking. The rocks and constantly changing gradient were wearing me out. And then a strong runner blew by me. I was in 11th again. And that's when I gave up. I had no interest in chasing down runners; that would be too mentally exhausting. Apple Orchard Falls is my kryptonite.

I lolly-gagged the next mile of climbing. I came across Frank Gonzales spectating and he tried urging me on (but he didn't give me a hug when I asked for one ... jerk!). He said there were multiple runners just ahead of me. It didn't work. I didn't want to be competitive today. I wanted to sit down on the side of the trail and stare at a waterfall. There were a couple moments when I feigned an attempt at running. I even saw 10th place a little ahead of me, but I couldn't gauge if it was 60 seconds, 120 seconds, ...? So I just kept walking.

As I approached the final Aid Station, I could hear Dan Spearin screaming at me, trying to get me moving because there were multiple runners just ahead.

"1 minute! 1 MINUTE!"
I kept walking.

"Top 10! Black Hole Duffel! You got this, Chris!"
I kept walking.

My climbing legs weren't in it today. And even if I miracled my way down the final descent, it was highly unlikely I'd catch anyone. I'd mentally checked out over the past 30 minutes and there was nothing anyone could say or do to inject a competitive spirit back in me.

"This is where we realize I'm just not a competitive person," I proclaimed, hoping that saying it out loud would excuse me for giving up, for sealing my fate as the dreaded first loser. After getting doused with water I meandered my way up the rest of the climb and onto the the final descent.

As I neared the end of the single track before the 2.8 mile road descent, I finally saw 10th place. When I popped out on the road I counted strides and realized I was in striking distance. I've got strong downhill legs. I can do this! I dug deep again. My watch ticked off a 5:44 mile. Push Harder! 10th place was only 10 seconds ahead of me. Push Harder! I had wanted to finish this race with solid 5:30 miles. If I could do that, I'd surely snag 10th.

I rounded another bend in the road. Still 10 seconds. You can do this! My downhill legs finally felt their limits. Shots of pain radiated through my calves and hamstrings. I couldn't go any faster. Another glimpse of 10th ... 15 seconds. Another glimpse ... 20 seconds. That's it! I'm calling it! As hard as I tried, I just couldn't get my legs to turn over like I wanted. I dialed back my pace a bit and cruised along the road to the finish.

When I spied the Finish Line, I noticed I had a chance to at least beat my finishing time from last year. I ever-so-slightly kicked it up a notch and cruised in for 5:14:53. A whopping 8 second PR. And for the second time in 15 months, Horton crowned me First Loser. Afterward, looking at results, there were 2 people 1 minute up on me, Leif was 2 minutes up, and a 4th runner was 3 minutes up. And the climb up Apple Orchard Falls this year was nearly 5 minutes slower than last year ... and I wasn't content with last year's climb either. That hurts more than any physical pain. I mailed it in on the final climb and it was the difference between 11th place and probably a 7th place finish.

After the race, I soaked my legs in the nearby stream, chatted up some fellow runners, chowed down on some food, and then made the 4 hour trek back home to change some diapers. All the while, I tried convincing myself that this little jaunt in the mountains wasn't a waste of time.

Where I need to improve:
  • I can set lofty performance goals for myself, but I am not a naturally competitive person. Which is fine. Except the moment my competitive standing in a race begins to falter, I don't have the mental strength to keep pushing. I turn inward and find excuses. This has to stop.
  • I think on fresh legs my climbing would've been much better, on the order of 60-90 seconds per mile, but even then, it's not where it should be. I need to make treadmill climbs more challenging -- changing pace/grade frequently; running uphill after long, hard workouts; etc. ... And, I dunno, maybe I should figure out a way to find some time for real trail climbs someday.
  • "Race Weight" ... I definitely felt the downhill pounding in my knees. It couldn't hurt to finally shed off some of that excess weight I've never tried to get rid of.

Positive Takeaways:
  • I ran an identical time from 2016, but I did so with much less effort. The day after the race my legs felt as if I'd simply been on a hard weekend long run. My aerobic capacity is increasing!
  • I ran an identical time from 2016, despite temperatures being around 25 degrees warmer. I'd say the temps cost me in the neighborhood of 7 minutes compared to last year.
  • My downhill speed is improving.
  • Everything but the climbing was nearly spot-on for a sub-5:00 finish.

Thanks to David Horton for putting on this spectacular race. Promise Land truly is a Spring Classic. I can't wait to toe the line again next year! (and apologies for not getting Top 10 like I'd promised ... I'll make up for it at Hellgate!) Thanks to all the friendly faces on the course throughout the day, especially the Crozet/Charlottesville contingent. And most of all, thanks to my wife for letting me neglect my parenting duties for a second time this spring to go running through the woods.

Now it's time to put in a solid training block ... with lots of vert!

Monday, April 10, 2017

GDR Post-Op

Here's what all went down in the North Georgia Mountains ...

(Early Miles. Courtesy of Victor Mariano)


I signed up for the Georgia Death Race, like an idiot, after a stellar WS finish. I thought I could compete for a Golden Ticket back to the Big Show. Months of minimal and sub-standard training due to injury meant a Golden Ticket was out the window. Instead ... maybe Top 5?

Then came Baby Boy Roberts on 10MAR. Yeah, so I was supposed to drive out to Shenandoah that day and put in a solid 6-8 hours of running. Instead, the 4 weeks before GDR I scrounged up a whopping 9 hours of running ... TOTAL! At least I'd be well rested, right?!

Then I got sick the week of the race and I started feeling the weight of chronic sleep-deprivation ... so, maybe Top 10?

Let's just lay it all out on the table:  I abandoned my wife, 3 year-old daughter, and newborn son to go running in the woods, 11 hours away from home ... somebody deserves Husband of the Year!

After the way-too-long sleepy drive from DC to GA, I went to the pre-race meeting and then found a parking spot near the finish of the race to try and get some shut-eye in my SUV ... which didn't work ... go figure! I "woke up" just before 2am to get ready and catch the shuttle from the finish to the start. It was warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt. Nevertheless, I crammed my space blanket, thermal top, and jacket into my pack, and cursed Sean Blanton excessively. I was hoping the long 90+ minute drive would give me opportunity for some shut-eye, but sports talk radio was blaring in the bus and I couldn't tune it out.

... I. AM. SO. TIRED!

In the shelter by the Start, I chatted up the legendary Pam Smith for awhile. I tried to play it cool, but I was secretly #fangirling so hard inside. Come what may on the course today, I got to hang out with Pam Freakin Smith!

(Obligatory Elevation Profile. Courtesy of Run Bum)

Early Miles

At 5am we started and the pace was ... pedestrian. I cruised along, chatting up Bob Shebest and catching up with Aaron Saft. Then they bounded ahead of me...

Something feels off ... this pace shouldn't feel so straining ...

Shit, I'm going the wrong way! Half-way up the biggest climb of the course, Coose Bald, I came upon a trail intersection. I stopped for a second and didn't see any streamers, reflectors, or flashers, so I went what felt closest to straight through, just like Sean recommended. A few minutes later I looked back and saw headlamps behind me, but also above. I'd clearly made the wrong choice so I hauled ass back down the trail so I could deal with a couple miles of bounding through runners.

I quickly caught up to Dominic Layfield and another runner ... and then we made a wrong turn ... again! Damn it, Run Bum, mark your intersections and spurs better!

"That's Dominic Layfield back there. He's totally sandbagging it right now. He should be way ahead of us." -- some random runner that doesn't understand how to pace longer races.

"Is that a famous person in front of me?!"
"Nope, I don't know what you're talking about." -- Karl Meltzer
"Why are there no reflective streamers?! This is so stupid!"
"Seriously, Sean needs better markings in these early miles." -- Karl Meltzer
... You hear that, Run Bum?! Karl Meltzer just called you out!

... a little while later, after an AS stop, Karl practically leaps over me on a 10% climb, and I never catch back up to him.

At one point it was time to down my hourly gel. I reached into my shorts pocket and out came a chocolate flavored Huma gel. I immediately felt nauseous just looking at it. Great, I'm 15 miles into a 70 mile run and my body already wants to reject race nutrition. I pocketed the gel and decided to wait another half hour.

Along the Dragon's Spine section of the Duncan Ridge Trail I continued running comfortably with Layfield, shooting the breeze. He is incredibly nice and was welcome company in those early miles.

My legs feel sluggish ...

(Fun before the blown quads. Courtesy of Russ Strycharz)

The Rut

Somewhere near Mile 18, after a steep climb, my quads twinge ... then spasm ... then cramp. Two runners pass me as I stop to squat down and stretch my quads ... at MILE 18. I know they're secretly judging me!

Well SH*T! This is going to be Mountain Masochist all over again. Ugh!

Running the climbs was too painful. I couldn't maintain comfortable pace on the technical downhills. As I turned down into the 1.5mi descent to Skeenah Gap near mile 21.5, the leaders were running out ... Great, already 40minutes behind the front. Soon after, I came across Aaron, looking strong. By the time I climbed out of Skeenah I figured I was 30 minutes behind him. This was going to be an awful day ...

Along the out-and-back, I counted runners. Instead of being around 8-10th, I was 12th ... and fading quickly. As I made my way to Point Bravo and Sapling Gap (Miles 28 and 33), I continued to bleed time and get passed. I was too frustrated to look at my HR, but I'm sure it was a solid 20 beats below race effort. This had turned from a race into a painful, long, training run.

I limped down a hill and around a turn and came across ... Aaron hobbling with a burly branch. He'd overextended his leg on a downhill and tweaked his hamstring pretty bad. I walked alongside him for a few minutes. I bitched about how off I felt and how my legs had already crapped out. He maintained high spirits, cuz, well, he's a better person. Then he forced me to carry on with my day.

By the time I passed Long Creek at Mile 41, I'd gone 4 hours without running a single incline, and I was losing any remaining motivation to keep going.

... Then friggin Aliza Lapierre flew by me. It's official, I've been chick'd! Just like at Masochist. I need to avoid Aliza like the plague cuz she keeps bringing bad luck to the races we run together. This is all her fault!

At one point, I happened on a country road intersection. There were tables and chairs, and food and drink set up, and dozens of people.  It was well past noon and the sun was beating down. I was exhausted. Wait, did I forget about an Aid Station?! This is amazing! I stumbled up to the table, looking for some water and fruit. An elderly dude informed me that this was not, in fact, an aid station, but a family get-together ... the next aid station was 4 miles down the road (exactly where it was supposed to be). I lowered my head, said nothing, and stumbled off down the road. I wanted to lie down and die. I could hear the old dude in the distance, "Did you see the look on his face when I said 4 miles?! Hahaha!" ... then, suddenly, a voice ... a sweet, cheerful voice! "Would you like some water?!" A girl, about 10, had run me down and offered me an ice cold bottle of water. My GDR Trail Angel! I had plenty of liquids in my bottles but they were warm. I cracked open that sweet bottle of Kroger water and downed an ice cold gulp, and, in that moment, I immediately understood what religious people mean when they say they feel the majesty of God. I have never in my life tasted anything as amazing as that ice cold Kroger water!

After the euphoria of the Kroger water wore off, I came to the gravel road climb up Winding Stair. I tried running cuz it wasn't that steep, and it was a smooth road, but I felt sooo tired and weak. I kept trying to convince myself that it was okay to walk ... You can't be embarrassed if there's no one around to see your pathetic effort! The Kroger water was lukewarm by this point, it's healing powers long since expired.

At the top of the climb I heard cheering for the 2nd place female, Jackie Merritt.  I was officially getting steamrolled here!

Not The Worst Running I've Ever Done

As I rolled downhill on smooth gravel roads and single track, I started to feel a bit better. My legs were resigned to the fact that despite their best effort, I was going to keep on running. And so, the cramps and spasms dulled to merely a painful stiffness and throbbing. I wouldn't be setting any speed records, but I could finally start to push the effort a bit above lazy hobbling.

When Jackie passed me I tried running with her and found the pace tolerable.
... and so, for the rest of the race, we were always within a couple minutes of one another.

After we made it through Jake Bull, we turned onto the rolling country roads, pitched uphill at a meager 2% grade. This is one hell of a shock to the system! I tried running harder but "fast" in no way describes the pace I was kicking out. If this were a training run, I could be knocking these miles out at sub-7 pace, no problem. Instead, 9 minutes feels like an otherworldly achievement.

Where the hell is the climb?!

The long rolling road never seemed to end. Since Mile 18, this was the longest stretch of sustained running I'd done all day. My body was screaming for the steep climb to hurry its ass up and present itself so I could transition to a hike for a quick breather.

I managed to pull ahead of Jackie. At times I'd buckle over, hands on knees, in an about-to-hurl position from the strain of the unending miles. Each time, I'd glance through my legs to see her, upside down, running, getting closer and closer.

Finally, the f*cking climb!

I transitioned to a pattern of 1 minute run / 30 seconds hike. And I felt as strong as I'd felt all day long. I made good progress up the 1500'+ grind, muttering to myself, Green Gate, Green Gate, Green Gate! (which I demolished at States last year ... it was great having that memory, that energy, to tap into)

I neared the top. It'd been almost 10 miles of never ending running and climbing. I drained the last of my liquids. And then I came across a volunteer at an intersection who rudely informed me there was another 1.5 miles to the next aid station.

F*CK!!!!! After that herculean effort to climb Nimblewill Gap Road, I stumbled up the trail a couple hundred yards and then just started walking, dejected.

I eventually made it to the final Aid Station, just ahead of Jackie. I bumped into this guy I had run with earlier in the race. So despite having an awful day, I was going to actually pass someone! (I'd passed another guy in the previous 20 miles, but I can't quite recall where the heck that happened...) His legs seemed trashed, too. And I was clearly quicker on the flat-ish section of road we were running on. Then we hit a small climb and he blew past me. It's mostly downhill to the finish, I've got this guy!

I made a push and gapped him and Jackie. Then I put my head down and focused on building a gap through to the Falls in the last 2 miles.

The final miles went on FOREVER! Seriously it was so exhausting. The RD had changed the course so this section was about 2 miles longer than last year. ... BUT, I didn't realize that until I was well into the section. When I got to small climbs I would contemplate running, but more often than not I'd succumb to the exhaustion and hike. Each time I hiked, I looked back in fear. And then I'd hit a flat section or smooth downhill and my confidence would return.

After a billion hours of running, I finally got to the penultimate 1000' descent. Okay, you've got this! Just push through! Keep building that gap! Except ... Nope! It was too steep. And some sections were too technical. My quads protested. I couldn't get my legs to smoothly turn over.

I passed folks on leisurely strolls ... I was getting close! I passed a couple with a big dog that wasn't on a leash. A few moments later I heard and felt something right behind me. Damn it, people, control your dog! But it wasn't a dog, it was Jackie tearing ass downhill. And just like that, my spirits were crushed.

When I finally reached the bottom to begin the assault of the Amicalola Falls stairs, Jackie was way ahead of me. I should've scouted out this section of the course the day before, because I had no idea how steep the approach to the stairs really was. I was too tired and my legs were too beat up to run, and so I mostly walked roughly a half mile to the stairs. And just when I reached the stairs, I looked back and the guy I passed at the last Aid Station was right there! Damnit!!!!

Image result for amicalola falls
(So. Many. Stairs.)

As I tackled the stairs, he caught me, but we both made ground on Jackie. Every single step, I clutched and yanked on the handrail in an attempt to alleviate strain on my legs. Families gawked, some got out of the way, some didn't.

I reached the top of the 600+ stairs a few strides behind the two of them. I wanted desperately to catch them, but I also wanted to walk the final uphill yards. I was done fighting my legs. When I turned to the final 1 mile and 1000' descent, they were about 5 seconds up on me.

We turned off the 25% grade road onto steep trail again. By this time I'd caught up with Jackie, but the other guy was clearly feeling good. I thought his legs were shot! Son of a bitch!

I contemplated trying to pass Jackie, but my quads, and now my calves, were screaming with every footfall. If I passed her, I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't impede her progress on the steepest and most technical sections of trail. She was running for entry into Western States. This was her race, not mine. I backed off ever-so-slightly. My legs stopped spasming. She pulled ahead.

I tumbled down the final stretch of trail, eventually crossing the creek and finish line about 30 seconds back of Jackie and 90 back of the other guy. 14:24. It wasn't the worst time in the world, considering how poorly my day had gone -- it wasn't the day I'd hoped for, but it also wasn't the disaster I'd experienced last November at Mountain Masochist. I later discovered I'd secured 10th place male. Top 10 at a nationally competitive race when I didn't bring my A (or B) Game. I guess I can live with that! I think on a good day I could've kept pace with Layfield and Meltzer, but I won't know for sure if I really am that good of a runner until I can string together a good, healthy, sleep-filled training block.

After the race, I commisserated with Layfield, Pam Smith, and others. Then I tried to get some shut-eye before hitting the road ... I had to hurry home, there were diapers that needed changing!

(14 hours of running and all I got was this railroad spike...)

What I Liked About GDR

  • The elevation profile is amazing with lots of ups and downs
    • Race info says 20,000'+ over 68ish miles, which would put this at a gnarly ~30K of vert for a 100mile equivalent. I honestly think it's more like 17K over 72ish miles, which actually makes it more like a generic hard mountain race. But whatever. Any time you get over an 8% average gradient, you're gonna have fun!
  • There's lots of sweet, sweet single track
  • The RD threw in miles of "easy" country road after 50 miles of tough trails that make you feel like you're going insane -- this is nearly flat, I feel like I'm running a road race, but why is my pace 4 minutes slower than marathon pace?! OMG when will this ever end?! I just want to start climbing again!
  • The finishing location is at Amicalola Falls State Park, the home of the AT Approach Trail up to Springer Mountain, and an all-around beautiful place to hang out
  • Good competition
  • Long distances between aid stations at the end -- you have to earn this finish!

What I Didn't Like About GDR

  • The RD's personality is pretty much the exact opposite of mine, so the general race atmosphere got on my nerves -- "you're all gonna die", exaggerating difficulty, being bro-tacular
    • Still not sure if his Brosephus-ness is genuine or an act. I think there's some self-awareness in there, but I can't say for sure.
  • The race shirt was awful. Sport Tek -- when you want a technical fabric that feels as stiff as cardboard and itches like cheap wool, choose Sport Tek!
  • The required gear was, hands down, the STUPIDEST thing I've ever experienced in an ultramarathon. Temps were never below the 40s and they reached into the upper 70s, yet a space blanket, thermal top, and jacket were required for the entire race! It's the piddly North Georgia mountains ... we're not at altitude, there's no glaciers, and it's friggin April! We're all adults here, so trust us to pack appropriate emergency gear in our packs or drop bags, or leave with crew. I was pissed about this before the race. I was pissed about this during the race. And 6 months from now when I look back on the race I'm still going to be pissed.
  • Aid Station location changes meant there'd be a nearly 11 mile stretch in the latter stages of the race -- between Jake Bull and Nimblewill -- with 1500' of gain. Back-of-the-packers would be doing this in the dark, perhaps taking 3.5+ hours to get through this section. Race management dictated we needed to carry an insane amount of weather protection, mostly for this climb, but they didn't bother to place any water somewhere along the way for the slower runners? That was borderline dangerous. I don't take in a lot of water when I run, but I was consciously conserving along that stretch of the race and I still manage to drain all 40oz of my liquids 1.5miles before the next aid station.