Saturday, December 16, 2017

Another Year, Another Hellgate!

Special …  yes, that probably is the best way to describe Hellgate.

In my three short years of ultrarunning, I’ve run roughly 20 different events. Not one of them compares to Hellgate. It loses out on “favorite race” to Grindstone – which might cause some to question my ability to effectively judge the merits of a race – but when it comes to uniqueness, Hellgate takes the cake.

There’s no one solitary thing that gives Hellgate a leg-up on other races. It has solid, but not unwieldy, climbs. None of the descents are particularly excruciating. At times it has great, sweeping views. It’s a healthy mix of gravel roads, double-track, and single-track. Just an ordinary race, right?

But then you’ve got the 12:01am start. It’s likely the last race on everyone’s calendar after a year of hard training and running. Chances of showing up sick or injured, or both, are not insignificant. The weather is drastically different from one year to the next. The course tests enough different running skills that you’re bound to confront a weakness somewhere in those 66.6 miles. The volunteers, braving the elements, are the best you’ll ever come across. The limited entry gives the race a family feel – when you drive into Camp Bethel before the race and when you run in at the end, you’re coming home. And then there’s the leaves … oh god, the leaves … the endless piles of knee-high leaves hiding untold numbers of nefarious rocks.

It’s an agglomeration of characteristics, an equal share of wonderful and awful, all working to build you up, to break you down, to impart what some might describe as self-shadenfreude, and, perhaps, to leave you with the sense that, somehow, you will have left Camp Bethel with a better awareness of who you are as a runner, as a person. Hellgate is Horton’s gift to us all. Each year we think we know what we’re getting, what will be revealed when the wrapping paper comes off – joy, suffering, a bond with others, aching muscles, those damned leaves, and an incredible atmosphere. This year, I ended up with a bit more: humility, affirmation, self-reflection, and an eagerness for next year.

Enough with the poetic ramblings … on with the race report!

***DISCLAIMER: What follows is as close to brevity as I'm ever going to get.***

Anticipating 20 degree temps and up to a foot of snow, I opted for tights. I also opted to put on too many layers, nearly replicating my clothing choices from last year’s single-digit excursion. I didn't feel warm. Did I just make a stupid mistake?!

The race started and I immediately tagged along with Matt Thompson. I know he’s a better runner than me, but the handful of times I’ve started out with him, I’ve never felt overtaxed. I’d hoped John Andersen and Chris Miller would join us, but from the get-go I could tell John was more interested in hosting a social hour to start off the day, and I knew Chris would be somewhere nearby.

I ran in/around Matt and Frank Gonzalez for the early miles. The pace was comfortable, but I was not! Within 15 minutes I knew it was nowhere near 20 degrees … yet. I struggled to dig into my jacket and my long sleeve shirt to grab and peel off my arm warmers by Mile 3 – they were drenched in sweat. By the time we began Petite’s Climb I was stopping again to peel off my jacket and throw it in my pack. There could be snow and wind up at 3500’ where I could need it again, but at 1000’ it was just too much clothing. Once I was down to nothing but a long sleeved midweight I could feel the chill and the slight breeze perfectly modulate my body temperature. I was finally comfortable and it was time to get down to business!

I had splits for a sub-11:40 finish which I figured would require perfect trail conditions and a strong final third of the race. The slightest difficulty – snow, nutrition lapse, a rough section – and I’d have to pivot to a sub-12:00 goal. Early on, everything seemed to click. I was in the Top 5, my effort level felt manageable, and I was hitting the climbs with ease. I ran all of Petite’s and began gapping Frank as I made my way down to the Terrapin section of trail. At the bottom, I saw the trail continue on, but also a trail veer up and off to the right. I couldn’t spot any markers, so I stood around for about a minute until Frank caught up. We took a couple steps on the offshoot and saw a streamer in the distance, and we were back on our way!

(If I knew the pic would be this cool, I wouldn't have opted for a cheesy smile and thumbs up. Courtesy of Keith Knipling.)

I pulled ahead of Frank again going up the Camping Climb – those endless hours of 12% treadmill climbing were really coming in handy! Jordan Chang finally caught up and rapidly gapped me. I stopped for some quick power-hiking a couple of times, but for the most part it was run, run, run.

At the Camping Gap Aid Station I caught back up with Jordan and left ahead of him. I crested the climb and cruised along the grassy roads, frequently looking back, waiting for Jordan to catch up. Matt and Brad Revenis were well up on me, way out of sight. So I ran through the night alone in 3rd place. Near Mile 20, well into the climb up Onion Mountain I was caught by Paul Jacobs. Before we crested, I hopped off into the woods to take care of some business for a few minutes. Two more headlights streamed by. Just like that, I was in 6th place.

I finished the last few minutes of the climb, then headed down the rocky, technical Promise Land trail to the temporary Overstreet Creek Aid Station -- moved back from Headforemost because the Blue Ridge Parkway was shut down because of the storm … the storm that still hadn’t produced a single snow flake. I don’t like this stretch of trail in the daylight at the end of Promise Land, so I certainly did not enjoy it in the middle of the night.

At the Aid Station I caught up with Frank, who was one of the headlights that passed me a couple miles earlier, and quickly jumped ahead of him. As I rolled out of the station, I could hear John Andersen coming in – man is that guy chatty. I yelled that I wasn’t waiting for the two of them, but that they needed to catch up. I had imagined this race starting out with John and I running together, and hopefully trying to break each other on the climbs, so I was eager for him to catch up and start a stretch of hard, competitive running. But I felt good on the climb up Headforemost and their headlamps drifted off behind me more and more. I patiently chased a light ahead of me, no more than a minute up at times, but I never caught up.

I arrived at Headforemost, the ghost of an Aid Station, on my splits to the minute – 4:07. I was pumped! This is going to be a great day! The temps had dropped, the snow began to fall, and I was no longer concerned about ditching my tights at the next Aid Station. It was turning into a perfect night out on the trail!

Then things started to turn. A sense of nausea and a loss of appetite had been building for some time. I reached for my 4th Huma gel, gagged upon seeing that it was Chocolate, then just barely managed to gulp down an Apple Cinnamon instead. My nutrition plan was now on the verge of crumbling … and I still had over 40 miles of running left. Moreover, the newly falling snow was messing with my visibility and it was starting to give me a headache – light bounced off every snowflake and it was as if I were running through an endless parade of white confetti.

I managed to make good time on my descent into Jennings Creek while battling a whole-body fatigue trying to fight with the competing nausea and hunger pangs. My spirits were lifted when I miraculously made it through Miles 27.25 to 28 without getting lost for the first time in 3 years – the forest thins out and any hint of a trail all but disappears. But a mile later, on a rocky downhill I was startled by an owl, jerked my head around to look for a headlamp that wasn’t there, tripped on a rock, and went skidding down the trail. I tried to get up and buckled back to the ground. I gave up and laid there for at least a minute, with my head resting on a fluffy pile of leaves, waiting for John and Frank to come help me up. My knees took the brunt of it and a good deal of flexing and rubbing was needed to get back up and head down the trail. Surprisingly, I was still all alone when I worked my way back to a shuffle.

(Accurate recreation of my Jennings Creek fall.)

The final mile into Jennings Creek Aid Station, I spotted the guy in front of me and picked it up to an honest pace. Sophie Speidel and Annie Stanley helped me with my drop bag. I let them know I’d probably be puking when they saw me again in three hours, and then I was off. My pace was slow as I started the next climb while battling to down another gel.

Somewhere between Miles 30 and 40 I also became tremendously over-hydrated. I needed to down my Tailwind for calories, but it was cold enough that my body was hardly sweating and retaining too much liquid. Nearly every mile I had to stop and pee. At some point I found myself catching up with 4th place, who happened to be Nick Pedatella. I caught him over and over again, like the friggin’ Groundhog Day of running. Each time I’d catch him I’d immediately stop and pee. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking to have a competitor repeatedly catch up and back off – who the hell is this guy?!

I felt good climbing up Little Cove Mountain and ran the entire time. At one point I could see Nick making the turn to the Aid Station. I checked my watch and chugged along. 5 minutes elapsed by the time I got up there. I looked back down the mountain and didn’t see any other lights – John and Frank were at least 5 minutes back. I was in No Man’s Land.

The Aid Station was still getting set up when I arrived. I desperately needed calories and asked for potatoes. A dude handed me a whole potato, in foil, and freezing cold! Props to you, volunteer dude! The cold didn’t bother me, but I felt bad taking a whole damn potato, so I asked if we could cut it up to just take some of it. Fast forward through 2 minutes of an entire aid station digging around to pull out a pocket knife and I was back on my way with a handful of potato slices!

Still in the dark and still on my splits, I made good work of the smooth downhill before the Devil Trail. The snow continued to fall and I was overwhelmed with a sense of calm. Snow, trails, solitude … this is why I run!

(Jazz hands! Courtesy of Keith Knipling.)

My memory fails me, but if I hadn’t been catching up with Nick before, I certainly was now. Daylight came as we entered the den of thigh-high leaves that comprises the Devil Trail. I quickly found my rhythm, just like last year – slow the pace to a recovery jog effort and throw a little bounce into your step and you just might be nimble enough to make it out of the Devil Trail with only a handful of falls! Nick was a fish out of water and I blew past him.

I cruised into Bearwallow Aid Station a few seconds ahead of Nick, perfectly on my splits at 8:10. I was again assisted by Sophie, Annie, and others. Nick left ahead of me as I spent some time at the Aid Station, gathering up tater tots and freshly made cheese quesadillas. I was way down on my calories and this did wonders for my spirits. I was ready to blast through the final 20 miles!

… Then I started up the climb out of Bearwallow...

I don’t think this climb has a name. It needs one. I’m gonna start calling it Horton’s Revenge. I always forget how long it is – 2 miles and 1000’ of climb – and how technical it can be. Instead of cruising and catching up with Nick, he climbed well out of my sight. The snow and rocks and leaves were killing me. I couldn’t get traction. I couldn’t make progress. I was grinding to a halt. Most long ultras will present at least one major challenge … this climb was mine … and I wasn’t doing a very good job of overcoming it.

(Gonna go out on a limb and guess this is right at the low point of my race. Courtesy of Keith Knipling.)

Close to the top of the climb I looked back to find John Andersen’s smirking face. If I didn’t let out an F-bomb, I was certainly thinking it. How the hell did he catch me?! I wasn’t going to just stop and let him catch up, so I drove on. I hit my stride through the ins-and-outs along the mountainside – it’s my favorite stretch of trail on the entire course ... smooth, flowing, runnable, with tremendous valley views (that is, if you're not bogged down in a cloud of snow). Things began to look up. Moreover, I had somehow dropped John entirely.

I rolled into Bobblet’s Gap Aid Station as they were still getting set up, so they had no food (potatoes) to devour. I dilly-dallied to let a volunteer help me grab some PB crackers out of my pack so I could get some calories in. As I started to leave, I saw John approaching. I checked my watch and did some math. It was 9:31. I probably lost 10+ minutes on that climb! I was trucking it to the finish at this point last year and it still took me 2:30 from Bobblet’s to Camp Bethel. I just had a terrible climb in the snow, calories were becoming a problem, hydration was a mess. If the next few miles of trail had snow, it would take a Herculean effort to break 12:00, never mind the now impossible 11:40. So I waited for John to sort himself out and then blurted out: “I’m not sure we can make it in under 12. Wanna just run in together?” He happily obliged.

(Trying to calculate my finishing time at Bobblet's Gap.)

Now let’s rewind for a sec…

Remember when I said it took me 2:30 to complete the final stretch last year? Well that’s what I thought at the time. I was too mentally defeated to pull out my time sheet from my pocket which had last year’s splits written on it. And so I made the terrible error of thinking I might not make it in under 12:00. In reality, I covered the final miles in 2:20 last year. I was literally 1 minute per mile faster through 50 miles and if I’d just maintained last year’s pace at the end, I could’ve finished in around 11:50. But my memory failed me and I messed up my math. I’m an idiot!

Anyways, back to it…

The Ultra Duo who shared literally 100+ miles in races last year was finally back together! All it took was abandoning all competitive desires and, well, kind of just giving up on life for a little while.

We jogged through the Forever Trail, walking entirely too much of the inclines. At one point, Frank came barreling through. I briefly had a mind to pick up the pace and run with him – I’d give my odds of being able to keep pace at better than 50/50 – but my spirits were broken … I’d abandoned all hope of a sub-12, and at that point a 12:01 meant the same to me as a 12:31 just so long as I didn’t slip out of the Top 10. And so, Frank disappeared into the distance and I sauntered on with John.

Jaunting into the final Aid Station, I had more than enough supplies to make it the next hour to the finish – I’d consumed maybe 10 ounces of liquid in the past 2 hours, still trying to fend off over-hydration. So I was well stocked up. But I stopped to stick with John, who wanted some soup. I don’t drink soup during races, I think it’s weird. But I asked for some because I was done caring about this race. The muscles were fine, the mind and spirit were toast. Another runner came right on through and both John and I just shrugged our shoulders and kept standing around.

(What's that? Somebody's passing me? Meh...)

We eventually left, and did our best to keep to our promise of walking Every. Damn. Step. of the final climb. There were a couple short spurts of jogging in there, but we were largely successful in Operation: Maximize the Laziness.

At the top of the climb, yet another runner passed us. I had slipped from 4th to 8th/9th in 17 miles. Ouch! My legs felt good so I tried to run just behind him. John wasn’t keeping up, but was doing his best to ward off any other runners coming by. I eventually took over the dude in front of me, but firmly let him know I wasn’t in the mood to drag race -- if he could keep up, there’d be no race to the line from me.

My legs turned over faster and faster. I was nearing sub-6 effort as I hopped onto the road that would take me down to the camp. In the distance I saw the guy who passed me at the final Aid Station, so I picked it up even more and quickly overtook him. My watch beeped: a 6:02 mile. I maintained the effort with surprising ease and cruised into the finish in 12:21 for 6th place and an 18 minute PR. Not bad for practically walk-jogging the final third of the race.

Hellgate demands introspection and self-examination. Am I satisfied with this year of running? Where have I improved and where have I fallen short? What weaknesses in my skillset has the course exposed? Where will I find motivation for next year and what goals shall I set for myself?

So, am I satisfied with how Hellgate went down this year? Yes. And no. ... And that’s okay.

The first 8 hours of the race I performed EXACTLY how I expected … I put myself into a position to achieve what I knew I was capable of achieving. More so than a great finishing place or a competitive race, I run to seek affirmation of my abilities, to test myself, to know myself, to gauge where I am as a runner, where I came from, and where I might soon go. And the first 47 miles of Hellgate gave me exactly that.

On the other hand, I just plain gave up at the end. I hit one snag in the race and refused to put in the effort to right the ship. Instead, I sought comfort in complacency and a companion to drag down with me. Don’t get me wrong, sharing trail miles was great, and I don’t regret it this time around … but I was in a reinforcing duo of despair, and the next time John and I cross paths I’d rather agree to gut it out and push each other to the edge of our abilities. We’re too talented to ask anything less of ourselves.

All told, I left 30 minutes on the course after Mile 53 compared with last year, to say nothing of the time lost climbing Horton’s Revenge. I should have finished under 12:00. I should have been in 3rd place, or even 2nd, at the end of the day. But I wasn’t. All because I couldn’t adapt to a little curveball and I refused to embrace and tap into what limited competitive drive I have. So next year I’ll be training harder, getting faster, and working on harnessing a more competitive spirit. If I can ho-hum my way to a 6th place finish at Hellgate, I owe it to myself and to everyone else toeing the line with me to suck it up, grit it out, and embrace a more competitive attitude.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Western States Waitlist Odds

2017 was the first year that Western States instituted a waitlist to compliment their lottery system. At the end of the day, the most important question for anyone entering the lottery is: How does this increase my chances?!

I conducted MonteCarlo simulations to answer that question.

But first, some lottery and waitlist info:

  • In 2016, 270 individuals were selected in the lottery
    • To maintain the 369 starter average over time, the lottery was constructed to assume a number of these 270 (and other) runners would not actually start the race.
  • In 2017, only 250 individuals were selected, but a 50-deep waitlist was drawn as well.
    • By controlling this 250 individual set plus the waitlist, the race organizers vastly increase their control over 369 starter limitation.
  • Due to increasing popularity, odds for lottery tickets went down across the board from 2016 to 2017
  • The waitlist ended up going 39 deep for 2017, so 250+39=289 individuals had a chance to start from the lottery, an increase from 270 in the year prior.
MonteCarlo details:
  • I set up a simulation to replicate draws from a lottery that mimicked the actual 2017 lottery. Details of the lottery can be found on the Western States lottery webpage.
  • I expanded my simulations to create a waitlist.
  • I created a 2016 simulation from the 2016 data, as well as a 2017 simulation with no waitlist and 270 draws to replicate what would've happened if no waitlist had been instituted.
  • I ran 10,000 iterations of the Monte Carlo simulations.
    • My 2016 scenario reveals slightly different values from the Western States 2016 Monte Carlo results, but they're damn close -- our odds differed by only 0.06% on average. So you can rest assured that I know what I'm doing! (I have a Master of Statistics degree, trust me!)
  • I looked at various Waitlist options to observe a range of possible outcomes:
    • Drawing 39 deep -- what actually happened for 2017
    • Drawing 30 deep -- a reasonable estimate of how far the waitlist will go at a minimum
    • Drawing 50 deep -- fully utilizing the 50-deep waitlist

First Takeaway: Damn Popularity!

Here's a table of the odds for:
  • 2016
  • 2017 if there had been no waitlist
  • 2017 with the actual 39-deep waitlist utilized

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
2016 No Waitlist 3.66% 7.16% 13.86% 25.73% 44.89% 69.40% 90.75%
2017 No Waitlist (270 draws) 2.69% 5.30% 10.35% 19.58% 35.40% 58.18% 82.37%
2017 Pre-Waitlist (250 draws) 2.47% 4.89% 9.53% 18.18% 33.01% 55.04% 79.82%
2017 39-deep Waitlist 2.89% 5.72% 11.08% 20.98% 37.49% 60.95% 84.89%

As you can see, odds dropped across the board from 2016 to 2017 because the number of entrants increased.

Note that the 2017 No Waitlist odds represent a draw of 270 participants. The odds of being drawn before the waitlist for 2017 were actually a bit smaller all around because only 250 runners were selected.

Second Takeaway: The waitlist itself doesn't seem all that helpful

This table indicates your conditional odds of being given a chance to start in 2017 from the waitlist ... that is, you didn't get drawn in the lottery, but you were one of the first 39 in the waitlist. Pretty meager, right?!

Years Waitlist Odds
1 0.42%
2 0.83%
3 1.55%
4 2.80%
5 4.48%
6 5.91%
7 5.08%

Third Takeaway: The waitlist value reveals itself!

The value of the waitlist becomes much clearer when you contrast it with a scenario where 2017 had no waitlist at all.

This chart shows the relative gain in odds for the 3 simulated waitlist variants -- 30 deep, 39 deep, and 50 deep -- when compared against a 270-draw No Waitlist scenario for 2017.

If you were in the lottery for the first time and had just one ticket your odds without an instituted waitlist (scenario reminiscent of 2016) would have been 2.69%. But in reality for 2017, as per the 39 deep waitlist utilization, your odds of having a chance to start increased to 2.89%. While that 0.2% gain looks rather meager, it represents a 7.4% relative increase in your chances.

The longer you've been waiting to start Western States, the less the waitlist helps you. This is rather obvious because you have a higher chance of actually making it through the initial lottery draw. But for, say, folks waiting 1-4 years, in 2017 the waitlist increased the chance to start by 7-8%. For someone waiting 4 years (8 tickets), that represents a jump from what would have been 19.6% odds to 21.0% odds, a 7.1% relative increase; if the waitlist had gone 50 deep the odds would've increased further to 21.8%, representing an 11.1% relative increase ... every little bit helps!


Cutting back the lottery from 270 to 250 runners obviously makes it harder to initially get into Western States.  BUUUUUUUT, it's more than made up for by the utilization of the waitlist. All in all, the waitlist implementation seems to have been an incredible success.

Here's a rundown of all the reasons to love the new Western States waitlist:
  • It increases your odds of being given the chance to start
    • For most runners in 2016, the odds were on the order of a 6-8% relative increase
    • If the waitlist gets fully utilized, those relative odds shoot up even further, to north of 10%
  • It makes it easier for the race organizers to fully utilize the 369 participant limitation each year
  • It makes for one heck of an exciting run-up to race day -- hello, John Fegyveresi!
  • Being selected from the waitlist gives you the chance to start but also leaves you the ability to decline without resetting your ticket count for next year.
  • It keeps the hope alive for 50 runners well past December!
  • It's a phase-shift in lottery strategy that helps to delay/reduce the inevitable creep of decreasing odds due to increased interest in the race.

Once the lottery entrance period closes and entrants data is released for the 2018 event, I'll provide a follow-up analysis that looks at updated odds, expected wait times, and all that jazz.

All the data:

Here's a table with all of the odds, if anyone is interested.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
2016 No Waitlist 3.66% 7.16% 13.86% 25.73% 44.89% 69.40% 90.75%
2017 No Waitlist (270 draws) 2.69% 5.30% 10.35% 19.58% 35.40% 58.18% 82.37%
2017 Pre-Waitlist (250 draws) 2.47% 4.89% 9.53% 18.18% 33.01% 55.04% 79.82%
2017 30-deep Waitlist 2.80% 5.50% 10.72% 20.34% 36.62% 59.65% 83.43%
2017 39-deep Waitlist 2.89% 5.72% 11.08% 20.98% 37.49% 60.95% 84.89%
2017 50-deep Waitlist 3.01% 5.94% 11.56% 21.76% 38.68% 62.49% 85.73%

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Potomac Heritage Trail 50K Race Report

Today was the day! It had finally come. Sunday, October 29th, 2017. The VHTRC Potomac Heritage Trail 50K. My A-Race for the year. ... And I was ready! Anything less than an outright victory would be impossible to bear.

I had just completed a spectacular training block, having peaked 3 weeks prior with a killer training run at The Grindstone 100. Now, 100 miles may have been a bit ambitious for a training run in advance of my key race for the year, but after nearly 30 months of ultra running I'm basically an elite athlete, so I knew my body could handle it.

I caught wind a few days earlier that all of the elite competitors -- Jim Walmsley, Hayden Hawks, Zach Miller -- were bowing out. I knew, then, that the race was already mine for the taking.

But ... I wanted to make sure everyone else had a fair shot at competing, just to spice things up a bit. That was the theme of the day.

My 7 month old son woke up a dozen times the night before, to ensure I didn't feel well rested. Thanks, buddy! Then, instead of leisurely jogging to the race start -- at a rando house in Woodley Park ... totally sketch -- I decided to press my time by making homemade biscuits before tearing ass out of the house and borderline sprinting the 3.5 miles across the city and up the fabled Klingle Climb to arrive at the starting line at the last possible moment. Moreover, I further handicapped myself by loading my race vest down with 100oz of liquid, and then only planning to consume half my usual calories for the race. You're welcome, competition!

I knew that race day conditions were not ideal -- the course would be covered in slippery rocks and leaves. A course record was likely out of the question. The race started, rather unceremoniously for such a high profile event, around 8am. I opted to hang back with the front runners instead of showing off ... mind you, this had nothing to do with my navigational ineptitude and complete unfamiliarity with the roads and trails in the early miles ... instead, I simply wanted some of the other runners to feel like they had a shot at fame and glory, too.

We travelled at the most pedestrian of paces through roads, alongside Rock Creek, through Dumbarton Oaks and Glover Archibald Park, eventually arriving at AS1 in Battery Kemble Park (well behind course record pace, I might add). Now, the PHT 50K is unusual in that some runners can receive "bonus time" that improves their official race finish time. This occurs at aid stations, where runners can elect to perform any variety of physical tasks (push-ups, break dancing, ...) or consume gastronomical monstrosities (peanut butter and hot dogs, Gatorade, ...). I'm a real runner, so I didn't waste my time on such activities. But I did make sure to stop at AS1 for a moment to put on the appearance of being a full-fledged fun-loving Happy Trails member. In all honesty, I was afraid that if I just flew through the aid station I'd receive a time demerit or something ridiculous like that.  When the Happy Trails Figurehead Emeritus, Keith Knipling, departed I knew I could finally leave without consequence.

Onward we jogged to the tunnel underneath Canal Road, popping out on the C&O canal moments before a road-runner-tacular half marathon was about to start. I elbowed, shoved, and kicked my way through the throngs of overdressed participants for what felt like minutes, until finally the wide-open canal towpath lay before me. I seized the opportunity and made my move. Let the race begin!

Two victims fell into my trap and followed suit as I accelerated to nearly Boston Qualifying pace. We progressed down the canal and over the Key Bridge to the start of the race's namesake trail. They loitered at AS2, filling up their handhelds, as I continued on with my ~5.2lbs of liquids strapped to my back and chest. At one point I feared I had built up such an unfair lead that I chose to depart the trail and answer Nature's call for a few minutes. As I had hoped, the two runners ran past. I was no longer in the lead...

... But I was not afraid. I had sized up these other runners and judged them to be PHT n00bs ... I had a feeling they'd quiver at the site of the upcoming Gulf Branch rock scramble and waste time seeking out an easier path along the river bank. And that's exactly what happened! I began the rocky climb just as they were returning from their fruitless foray. The lead was mine again!

... But wait, what's this?! After the rock scramble, I dutifully stayed on the unnecessary switchbacks of the trail, while the other two cheated by blasting up a shortcut "trail". For shame!!! No matter, though. A few minutes later I recaptured my rightful place at the front of the race!

Onward I labored, up to AS3 at Chain Bridge, past Fort Marcy, and through Turkey Run Park and AS4. Each time I came to an aid station I stopped and briefly chatted with the volunteers, again, for fear of receiving time demerits if I simply ran on through.

When I approached the turn-around just after Mile 18 at the American Legion Bridge, I stopped to assess my competitive advantage. I heard no one. I saw no one. I was fresh as a daisy. This simply was not fair to the other runners. I observed that there were no signs, nor was there any flour on the ground indicating a turnaround point. So, instead of turning around "at the bridge" (according to the Turn Sheet), I continued on ... under the bridge, up the steep climb to the top of the bridge (Strava Top 10 effort!), and then back down to begin my return journey.

Moments later, I came across 2nd place, still heading outbound to the bridge. I cheerfully informed him that, with my impromptu hill climb, I had been kind enough to let him close the gap by nearly 5 minutes. A mile or so later and still feeling generous, I kicked a rock and slammed to the ground (bye bye big toenail), with the presumed intent of jarring loose my last Huma gel from my pocket, thereby sending me further into caloric deficit at later stages of the race. Yes, I was doing everything I possibly could to level the playing field. It's the least someone of my running caliber can do for my less capable "competitors".

Arriving back at AS4, I loitered briefly so that I could be admonished by volunteers for not consuming their PB&Js. Later, I selflessly broke out of my hyper-efficient stride so that I could respond to Gary Knipling's desperate request for a fist bump -- it's the little things us young, talented folk do that can make a slow, old dude's day.

On my way back to the Chain Bridge aid station, I briefly observed the beauty of Pimmit Run, with a light fog dancing above the babbling water. But I dared not look more than once ... this was a race! I returned my focus to the trail with laser-like precision, guided by the immortal words of Queen: We are the champions ... of the world! Indeed, Freddie Mercury! On this day, I would be the champion!

I proceeded across the bridge and onto the canal. At this point, all of my competitive handicapping was paying off. My quads were tightening. I was unable to achieve my marathon pace on the pancake-flat towpath. My focus was fading from the caloric deficit. Doubt crept into my mind. What if I can't do this? For what felt like hours (8 minutes, to be exact), I wrestled with my existential crisis -- If you can't win the PHT 50K, why bother running at all?

Finally, Gloria Gaynor's angelic voice echoed inside my mind -- I will survive! I snapped out of my funk. It was time to put down the hammer and win this race. I deserved the glory!

I maneuvered through the Canal Road tunnel with the speed and grace of a drunken three-legged cat, and began making quick work of the remaining miles of the race. ... But the work was quick, almost too quick. Every few minutes I would slow down to search for the yellow flour markings that littered the course route -- not because I didn't know where I was going, but because I wanted to give my competitors a chance to catch up.

... But even that wasn't enough. So I ingeniously tried playing soccer with a rock firmly planted in the ground (bye bye other big toenail). It worked to perfection! I flew through the air ... landing, sliding, and coming to rest along a stretch of the partially exposed concrete water pipes upon which the Glover Archibald trail is built. Crimson blood poured out from my knee and forearm. I took my sweet time getting back up. All in the name of sportsmanship!

... Then, Cake: He's going the distance!

As the end of the race neared, I found myself along the bank of Rock Creek, a simple turn away from pavement. I halted, scanning the ground and every nearby tree for a semblance of yellow flour to point the way. I knew where to go, mind you, I just wanted to make sure it was obvious the other runners would be able to figure it out, too. I made up my mind to forge on ahead to the road in the distance. Then I spent the better part of 15 minutes (okay, 1 minute) trying to decipher the tattered remnants of my Turn Sheet. Yup! Confirmed! This was the right road. Of course! I knew it all along!

As I proceeded through the neighborhood streets and up the final mountain-like urban climb, I slowed to nearly a crawl -- so that I could mentally reflect on my accomplishment, not because my legs were tired or anything like that.

Now, Queen again: I want to ride my bicycle!

When I came upon the finish, I chose to entirely overlook the house I was at less than 5 hours prior, and instead, with purpose and clear intent, jogged all the way to the end of the block. I really meant to do that, I swear! After a quick 180, I came up to the door, stopped my watch, entered the house, and jotted my time down on the sign-in sheet ... 4:57:10 ... because, yes, those 10 seconds matter.

As you might expect, I was greeted with tremendous applause and fanfare, the likes of which few have ever had the pleasure of experiencing:

"Did anyone get here before you?"

"Oh, hey, I think you're the first one in..."

"...Want a beer...?"

Though the result was a foregone conclusion, that does not lessen the greatness of my accomplishment. It was a monumental achievement. I won the 2017 Potomac Heritage Trail 50K! A performance worthy of the history books, no doubt.

And for my reward, an ice cold Dogfish Head!

By the time I finished my cool down jog back to my neighborhood, word of my incredible achievement had spread like wild fire. No less than 3 companies had already contacted me to discuss sponsorship opportunities. A well-deserved storybook ending for yours truly!

Look at all of those fear-inducing 100' mountains!

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!