For my first substantive blog post, I'm jumping right into the thick of things with a 100 mile race report! I spent the last year training to dip my toes into the world of ultramarathons and the last 6 months exclusively devoted to preparing myself for my first 100 miler. And it wasn't just any 100, I went all in and chose Grindstone, with it's +23,200'/-23,200' elevation profile, for my first foray into hardcore ultramarathons.
Without further ado... my 2015 Grindstone 100 Race Report
|Grindstone Elevation Profile
Grindstone is a beast of a race on single track and fire roads in the Washington and Jefferson National Forests along the border of Virginia and West Virginia. It takes place the first weekend in October. The race has been around since 2008 and is managed by Race Director Clark Zealand. The race has approximately ten substantial peaks and the average grade over the entire course is roughly 9%, with a handful of sections ratcheting up the inclines to 15 or 20%. The course is tough enough that it is a qualifying race for both Western States and Hardrock, something shared by only 7 or 8 other races across the country.
For 2015, a double whammy of storms hit the Mid-Atlantic in the days preceding the race. These storms ended up causing unprecedented 1,000 year floods (you read that right, 1,000 year floods) in South Carolina. Up in Virginia, it wasn't nearly as bad, but there was flash flooding along the course and in the nearby town of Harrisonburg. And in the days before the race date, Hurricane Joaquin was threatening the region, too. Three days before the race was to take place, I had finally come to accept the fact that I'd be spending my first 100 miler struggling through cold rain and sloppy trails. I rushed to order a pair of Altra Lone Peak Neoshell shoes in the hopes that they might make race day a bit more tolerable.
Then, only two days out from the race, runners got an email from Clark letting us know the Forest Service was pulling the race permit due to the flash flooding concerns. I spent the weekend in a panic. I'd devoted an entire year preparing for this race. I didn't want all of that training to go to waste. I felt like I had perfectly peaked in my training, knocking out 30, 33, and 37 mile runs with ease in the span of two weeks. And I was nearly three weeks into my taper ... could I survive another week or two of the taper crazies?! I went back and forth for days about signing up for another 100 the next weekend -- Oil Creek in Pennsylvania -- or the Javelina Jundred outside Phoenix at the end of October. In the end, I had spent so much time planning for and psyching myself up for Grindstone that I decided to stick it out and see if Clark could pull off a miracle and get the race rescheduled. And ... in less than a week Clark and his hoard of volunteers were able to get the race rescheduled and reorganized for the following weekend. I was elated. The only downside: my brother-in-law (former collegiate runner, Marine Corps officer) would no longer be able to come in town and pace me the final third of the race. I'd be running the entirety of my first 100 miler alone in the woods, not exactly what I had been envisioning or planning for these past couple of months. Oh well, such is life.
My wife and I drove down to the race start at Camp Shenandoah, a Boy Scout camp outside of Staunton, VA, Friday morning. We set up our tent, got some catered food, I picked up my race packet, and we listened to the pre-race debrief. Then we had some time to kill before the 6pm start so I tried to relax and take a nap. An hour before the start I began to get ready, gathering up my gear, slipping on my trusty Altra Superiors, etc. Then I headed down to the race start and did my best to shake out the butterflies and nerves.
My race strategy was to take it slow and easy for the first half of the race, and try to save my quads as much as possible for the last 30 miles, hoping to finish in around 27 hours. So at the starting line I tucked in towards the back half of the 160 or so runners who were able to make the rescheduled race date (out of 260 original entrants). The race started simply enough, but around 1/4 mile into the race was a choke point that I didn't know about. Runners had to go single-file down and back up a small dam at the end of a pond, so my choice to sit towards the back of the pack early translated into me standing around for nearly 4 minutes at the beginning of the race. Next year I won't make that mistake. Lesson learned!
The next few miles had a mixture of easy trails and rocky, technical sections ... nothing unexpected. But somewhere around 6:30pm, the rain started. I knew there was going to be some rain, but it was forecast as occasional showers. This stuff was much more than occasional showers. Before the race, seeing that there wasn't supposed to be too much rain, I reorganized my drop bags at the last minute. As a result, I couldn't remember if my heavy rain jacket was in my Dowells Draft drop bag at 22 miles or my North River Gap drop bag at 37 miles. All I had in my hydration pack was a Patagonia Houdini windbreaker. I had never tested it in strong rains, but I had heard that it can get saturated rather easily in downpours. So, I ended up running through the rain for over an hour before I finally threw on my Houdini when I hit the exposed access road up Elliot Knob. I was holding off using the jacket as long as possible in the hopes that the rain would die down and lessen the chance of the jacket getting saturated early on. That was an easy hour physically, but mentally I was trying to prepare for 6 - 8 hours of running soaking wet in 40 degree temps before I could get to my legit rain jacket in one of those first two drop bags. Early in the race was a mental low point for me, and I wasn't even getting started.
I had gone on a training run a couple months earlier that covered miles 5 through 20 of the race, so I was familiar with Elliot Knob. It gets steep, quickly. The sun had already set when I popped out onto the access road and all ahead of me were beams of light bouncing in the darkness. Hiking up Elliot Knob in the dark was a bit of a gift -- I was to the top before I even realized it, and while I heard a couple fellow runners complain about how long of a climb it was, I joked that it felt much shorter and easier than I had expected. Coming back down Elliot Knob, I turned onto single track that would dominate the rest of the race. I quickly got caught behind a train of runners and spent what felt like an eternity "running" downhill at a pedestrian pace. After a couple miles I was able to get around them, and I rolled into Dry Branch Gap aid station at mile 15 somewhat unexpectedly, surprised at how easy the first portion of the race had felt. I made a point not to dilly-dally and grabbed some PBJ for the road. I saw Clark at the aid station, made a point to shake his hand and thank him for all of his hard work, and then I was off.
The next 22 miles through Dowells Draft and into North River Gap were a bit of a blur. I had covered the first half of this stretch in a training run, so I was comfortable pushing the pace and careening downhill into Dowells Draft. At around mile 18, anticipated stomach pains finally set in, which became a recurring theme throughout the race. So I jumped off trail for a few minutes to take care of some business -- Important Lesson: Always Carry TP, just in case! Running through Dowells Draft I picked up some more PBJs and decided there wasn't anything in my drop bag I really needed, so I was in and out in under a minute. I next climbed up to party central -- the Lookout Mountain aid station, managed by Andy Jones-Wilkins (thousand-time Western States finisher). I had a mind to spend a few minutes there to say hello ... I don't know him personally but I had a chance to chat with him for a while over a beer at his aid station during my Jarmans run in August and he's a really solid dude. Instead, I swiped some bananas or some such, and took off into the night, minimizing my idle time at aid stations. At some point along the way, the rain stopped, which was a welcomed relief. I soon cruised into North River Gap at mile 37 having passed roughly 20 runners along the way and making great time. I spent a few minutes with my drop bag, swapping out my soft flasks, having a volunteer fill up my water bladder (Thanks, anonymous volunteer!), and sending a text to my wife for when to expect me at the turnaround point. After what felt like an eternity downing orange slices like I was an 8 year old at halftime in a soccer game, I gathered up a few PBJ quarters, a couple cheese quesadillas, and a waffle for the road. Ahead of me was one hell of a climb...
One of the longest and most difficult stretches of the race is the climb out of North River Gap. It's not technical or anything but it's roughly 3000' of soul-sucking climbing over 8 miles of trail ... all in the dark. I took it easy on my way up, trying to enjoy the hike, downing calories, and making sure I was preserving my legs as best as I could for the latter stages of the race. At one point I had to jump off the trail to do some business again, but for the most part it was a surprisingly enjoyable stretch of trail. Looking back, I took this section a bit too easy and should've pushed the pace a little bit more. That said, my legs felt fresh and you're doing something right if you can run/hike for nearly 11 hours and say that. One trick I had been employing to not overdo it was to set my headlamp to its lowest setting. It's not a huge difference, but it makes me instinctively shorten my stride a couple of inches so my pace slows down to something more comfortable and maintainable.
After the nearly 3 hour climb and a quick stop off at the Little Bald Knob aid station -- complete with bonfire! -- I entered the easier phase of the race. Between miles 45 and 58, there are a lot of fire roads / double track and none of the climbs/descents are more than 1,000'. I was feeling good and my pace picked up accordingly. At one point some extreme fog rolled in and I couldn't see the ground more than a foot or two in front of me, my headlamp just illuminated an impenetrable cloud of whitish grey. For a period of time I had to shorten my stride and take it easy because the visibility was so bad, even though the trail wasn't too technical. For the periods that the fog would break, I kept looking ahead, waiting to see the race leader run by. As time wore on it started setting in all the more that I was in a position to have a great race. I was running along at a pace almost perfectly in line with my best case plans, setting myself up for a finishing time near 24 hours and nearly 3 hours below what I had expected. I was probably into mile 47 of the race before the first place runner passed by me, meaning I was around 2 hours off the lead pace. Near mile 49 I came upon the Reddish Knob aid station, had a quick snack, and then proceeded up to the top of Reddish Knob, on the lookout for the bib punch at the top. On the way up that short half-mile stretch, my headlamp started flashing so I proceeded to swap out the battery in the darkness. I highly recommend you practice this skill before every race. When I got to the top I couldn't find the punch for the life of me, and I spent a good 2 minutes searching with another runner before we found it. I punched my bib and took off. Next stop, the half-way point!
As I neared the turnaround point I came across the crew access location, quickly spotted my wife, and told her I'd stop for a few minutes on the return section. Then I ran the extra mile or so to the turnaround point and came right back. When I stopped to swap out some gear, I officially passed all markers for longest run in my life: I had never run farther than 52 miles, I had never run longer than 12:24 (my Grand Canyon Rim-Rim-Rim time from earlier in the year), and I had never covered more than 12,000' of elevation gain before. I was right on pace for a 24 hour finish, which was blowing my mind considering how difficult Grindstone is and that it was my very first 100. And even better, I felt amazing. I had the beginnings of some armpit chafing, so I swapped out my race shirt with another one, and I think I decided to slip on some trail gaiters here (or at North River Gap at mile 66 ... it's a bit of a blur!). I grabbed a couple Huma gel packs, but never ended up using them, and I decided I had no need for my trusty Snickers bars at this stage of the race, so I left those with my wife. After around 7 minutes, I gave my wife a hug and kiss, thanked her for driving 90 minutes in the middle of the night through dense fog just to hand me a shirt, and let her know when to expect me at the next crew access point -- North River Gap at mile 66. And then I was off and ready to start pushing myself.
After the turnaround, since I was feeling like a million bucks, I decided I was going to pick up the pace and tear ass down into North River Gap and hopefully make up enough time to ensure a 24 hour finish. The moment sub-24 seemed unlikely, I promised myself I'd bring the pace back down because the primary goal was always to simply finish, regardless of time. I'd rather play tortoise than bomb my quads trying to be the hare. Uphills are my weakness -- I blame my short stride -- but from this point on, there was more downhill to the race than uphill, so I was excited and ready to push it a bit more. I thought I'd have it easy on my way back to Little Bald Knob at mile 58, just before the long 8 mile descent into North River Gap. However, I had been feeling so good on my outbound section that I totally overlooked what would be a climb up from the turnaround area. My pace quickly sputtered on that short uphill section and it felt like everyone and their mother was passing me. I wasn't feeling bad or anything, I just happened to be slower uphill than everyone else. After that poor showing, things improved. I blew through the Reddish Knob aid station and head back to Little Bald Knob. By that point, the sun was rising and it was my hope that I wouldn't have to use my headlamp again.
I don't remember much about Little Bald Knob at mile 58 of the return trip. I think I picked up some PBJs but I don't really know. All I remember for sure is that their bonfire looked cozy but I couldn't stop because I was on a mission. I had picked off a few more runners and thought I might have cracked the top 20. On my 8 mile downhill assault I picked up a half dozen more places. I don't recall much about this section of the race. It took me roughly 4:30 to get from North River Gap to the turnaround point, but only 3:20 to cover that ground on the return trip, thanks to the 3000' downhill section. After the race, looking at the results I saw that my pace on this section was roughly the same as the Top 5 finishers. At some point along the way my stomach acted up again and for the third time in the race I had to jump off the trail and tend to some business. I careened into North River Gap with 15:32 on the watch.
For my pre-race planning I had conservatively projected it'd take me 10-11 hours to get from North River Gap to the finish, but I was feeling a lot better than I had expected -- my legs felt strong and I was in good spirits. If I kept up the pace I thought I could finish in under 9 hours and still have a chance at sub-24. I spent a good 7 minutes at the aid station with my wife. She was a bit concerned because, as she said, I came into the aid station "white as a ghost". I think I had just been running really fast, downhill, in the cold. My stomach had begun to feel a bit out of sorts, but for the most part I brushed the comment aside. I swapped out my empty soft flasks and refilled my water bladder. I also downed about a dozen orange slices and had a bit more solid food. And then I was off to the races.
...Only, not so much ...
North River Gap aid station sits at the bottom of a valley so the next phase of the race, to Dowells Draft nearly 15 miles away, started off with another 8 miles of climbing. Less than a half hour out from North River Gap, my stomach went south for the fourth time. I started to feel queasy, hungry and not hungry at the same time, cold, and devoid of energy. A few miles earlier when my stomach was acting up on the descent into North River Gap, I was afraid something like this might happen. My uphill pace slowed and I did everything I could to conserve energy. If I could just get to the top of Elliot Knob at mile 91 -- nearly 23 miles and 3 substantial climbs away -- I'd be able to tumble the final 10 miles down to the finish since I'd done such a good job of saving my quads. 23 more miles ... just 23 more miles ...
As I approached Lookout Mountain aid station (which is a terrible name for an aid station because it's only half-way up the damn mountain!), I was getting passed left and right. My liquid intake screeched to a halt because I didn't want to increase my chances of another stomach attack. I needed solids in my system, pronto! In hindsight and with some research, that was a terrible decision. One of the indicators of dehydration is an upset stomach and diarrhea. I should have increased my water intake, not cut it off. At any rate, I felt like I practically stumbled into Lookout Mountain, and the volunteers there were a godsend. I explained my problems and I was offered up a salted avocado half, along with a thing of ClifBlocks and some other snacks. On my way out, I asked for a hamburger bun to-go and a handful of paper towels (I was running low on TP and was preparing for the worst!). I tried my hardest to cram that hamburger bun down my throat as I continued up the mountainside. It took nearly 30 minutes of alternating between a bite of bun and a swig of water before I got the whole thing down. Thankfully, it settled my stomach a bit. The only problem was I was finding it increasingly harder to take in calories and water and I started to fear that this race could turn south quickly.
After I summited Who-The-Hell-Cares Mountain, I had a nice 4 mile downhill into Dowells Draft at mile 80. My stomach was feeling better and the increased pace of the downhill lifted my spirits. I got into the aid station at roughly 19 hours. I had 5 hours to complete just under 22 miles. It was going to be a tall order with 2 more substantial climbs ahead of me, but I thought I still had a shot. The one thing that gave me confidence was the fact that I'd seen nearly all of the remaining trail up to Elliot Knob in my August training run -- I knew which sections were easy and which were more difficult and technical. That's a heck of a nice thing to have in your back pocket when you're running on fumes. Any little thing you can use to keep you motivated and upbeat helps.
On my way out of Dowells Draft, I filled up a grab bag with some cheez-its and mini pretzels, and then handed off some spare KT-tape to a runner I had been yo-yo-ing in front of and behind over the past few hours. In the midst of that hand-off, I left my grab bag of dense bread-y snacks on the aid station table. I only realized what I had done after 100 yards or so and I had a brief moment of panic -- do I leave it behind or do I run back and grab it?! I really, really needed some solid foods to keep my stomach in check, so I jogged back to retrieve my bag of goodies, and then off I went.
I knew the first couple of miles out of Dowells Draft would be relatively flat, so I was looking to string out some faster miles before hitting the second to last climb of the day. I got caught behind a couple runners and their pacers early on, and wasn't able to get around because the single track was along a slope and there were no flat-ish sections to jump ahead. Eventually I got around and took off. ... Then ... the climbing started. My pace slowed immediately and I could feel that my legs were getting tired. I tried eating some of the cheez-its and pretzels but my appetite was non-existent. I was able to get down a couple of ClifBlocks and that's about it. There were uphill sections that were easy enough I probably could have alternated running and hiking, but the idea of pushing into an uphill jog for even 100 meters was too much for me at this point in the race. After climbing the 1700' or so at a snail's pace, I had a couple miles of downhill into Dry Branch Gap at mile 88. At the start of the downhill I was surprised that my quads felt tight -- they weren't locking up but they certainly felt fatigued -- and my speed wasn't quite what I had hoped for. I also had to pull off the trail for the last time to tend to some business, which frustrated the hell out of me because it was precious minutes being wasted and I was oh so close to sub-24. As I neared Dry Branch Gap my stride opened up and I was psyching myself up, thinking I really did have a good shot at getting to the finish before 6pm. I coasted into the aid station, saw my wife, told her I was feeling good and didn't need anything, and that I'd see her at the finish. I checked my watch and saw I needed to cover roughly 14 miles in exactly 3 hours. It'd be a tall task, but nearly all of the final 10 miles was downhill, so it seemed doable.
... And right out of the gun, the final uphill began. 4 miles and more than 1500' of climbing to go. My energy immediately left me. My pace went to a glorified crawl. I had a 2 mile stretch that took nearly 50 minutes. And then I knew that sub-24 wasn't going to happen. So I kept at it, but saved my energy for the long downhill section to come. Probably the most annoying part of the race is right around mile 91 or so. The climbing gives way to relatively flat ground, so you think you've got to be nearing the left turn off the single track and onto the Elliot Knob access road. But you just keep skirting the side of the mountain for what feels like ages. Finally, I got to the access road. It took me 90 minutes to climb just over 4 miles. Ouch!
I took a minute to stretch out my quads before bombing down the 15-20% grade. Even though I had tried to save my quads, they just weren't cooperating. I was quickly passed by what would be the second overall female and her pacer. That was demoralizing. I had been building up this whole race to be a 90 mile run with a strong downhill finish. Instead, I eased down the hillside, pain shooting through my quads and left shin with every stride. By the time I got off the access road and back on to single track, the two women were long gone. But I pressed on and tried pushing the pace as best as I could now that the downhill grade was more manageable. Thankfully, my stride opened up and my quads loosened. I came upon a few creek crossings and didn't have the desire to tip-toe over rocks, so I jumped in, up to my waist at times, and just pushed through. The cold water provided a jolt of energy, quickly followed by chills each time.
As I neared the final aid station, Falls Hollow about 5 miles from the finish, I saw the second place female just off in the distance and tried to use her as a rabbit, running the slightly downhill section faster than I'd ran all day. I hit Falls Hollow in 23:13. It'd take a 9:00 pace to close out the race to get under 24 hours -- practically impossible, but I decided to give it a go. I blew through the aid station at full speed, shouting out my bib number as I flew by. As the final miles ticked by, I came across a couple of uphills that slowed me down, needing to walk a couple strides here and there. But for the most part, I pushed the pace as hard as my legs would allow. Luckily, my legs were feeling great again. After some time of pushing a pace I hadn't hit in the first 97+ miles, I started hoping for the finish line, wondering where on earth it could be. After another couple of creek crossings and some more technical sections, I crested a hill and saw the pond and the finish line in the distance. My watch had ticked past 24:00:00, but I kept up the pace anyways. I came into the final stretch feeling strong, with a full stride. My last mile was close to 8 flat.
I crossed in 24:10:55, with 16th place overall. I really wish I hadn't slowed down so much on the final climbs or had the stomach issues that cost me precious minutes. Moreover, my legs felt so good the last 75 minutes of the race that I wish I had pushed it a little harder earlier on in the race. The thing about ultras is that there are so many ways to dissect your effort and find a couple minutes here and there that you think you could improve upon. End the end though, I crossed the finish line of my first 100 feeling strong, proud of my overall effort and achievement, and with a finishing time better than anything I could have hoped for.
In the days after the race, I've taken it easy, making sure to baby a little bit of tendonitis near my left ankle. My muscles have been surprisingly quick to recover. And while I'm happy to be taking it easy, lazily lounging on the couch and watching postseason baseball, I can't wait to get back into training mode soon, hit up some trails, and look towards a couple more 100 milers next season. I'm hooked!