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!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome notes! This is really helpful! I'll be a pacer for the 2021 race and wanted to make sure I knew the course well especially after 50 miles on my runner's legs!
    It would also be great to add any details for crew or pacers on what they should expect or see for their runners. But overall great race recap.