Friday, October 12, 2018

The Humid Grindstone


I won’t lie, it’s been a bit of an off year for me. The first half of the year I was building up my fitness and 50K – 50M race times were improving, despite prioritizing flat running over vert. By early summer, I thought solid training could produce a 19:30 at Grindstone with favorable race conditions. Then I had a disastrous outing at the Ethan Allen 24 Hour – I’ll spare you the details, but if you’re ever looking to try qualifying for the USATF 24 Hour team, I’d advise against running around a black track in the middle of July. After that, I caught a cold and had awful congestion for a month that had me severely limit training. I crammed in a few long, steep runs after July but couldn’t put together anything resembling a solid training block. And anytime I ran outside, my body had a lot of trouble with the heat and humidity. I'd be going into Grindstone very undertrained. But … at least I wasn’t overworking my legs … that’s gotta count for something, right?!

So fast-forward to Thursday, October 4th. 24 hours before Grindstone. I check the local forecast and it’s saying a high of 71 and mostly cloudy. Overnight temps on the high side, but not terrible. No heat, no humidity! Phewww!

Apparently forecasts aren’t always accurate.

By the time I arrived at Camp Shenandoah, it felt warm. And then it started to feel sticky. And then the sun poked through the clouds. And it felt warmer. And it felt stickier. And a little part of me died inside.

It Begins -- Miles 0 - 37

I started at a comfortable pace in the 80+ heat, linking up with Neal Gorman for a few early miles. It was warm, and humid, and as the sun set the fog rolled in. As a result, the pace was slower than last year, and more closely resembled The Rainy Year (2016). I told myself it was smart to be calm on the climbs and cautious descending in the fog, where visibility was often only a couple of feet.
As any betting man could predict, I linked up with John Andersen for a chunk of the early miles. I stayed up on my hydration (which required downing a good bit more liquids than usual) and took in a healthy amount of gels and candy bars, and taste-tested the potato offerings at every aid station. But somewhere near the top of Hankey Mountain (maybe Mile 25-ish), I started getting queasy feelings in my stomach and my body started to feel … off. It wasn’t worth it to go all gung-ho up Hankey like I did last year, not with this humidity. It felt like my body was having trouble sucking down the muggy air while running uphill. I spent a few miles in a bit of a slump, but was certain it would pass.

Damn it! -- Miles 37 - 65

I downed some calories at North River Gap 1 (Mile 37) and had high hopes for a comfortably hard climb along Chestnut Ridge to Little Bald conversing with John. I collected a cupful of tater tots to snack on along the way. I was excited! Then … I tripped and flung the spuds into the mud and dirt. John hopped by, laughing and soaking up the schadenfreude as I dejectedly muttered to myself and tried salvaging a few of the tots. Then long haired dude (Mike Cooper) came up, passed, and linked up with John. I tried to pick up steam again to catch back up, while simultaneously trying to chew the last of my dirt tots. I suddenly felt uncomfortably nauseous and began gagging. I slowed to a crawl and spent what felt like 5 minutes chewing those damn tater tots, trying to build up the courage to swallow. Finally, they went down. But John and long haired dude were out of sight. I was drained, and lacked the will to summon a hard hike or jog to reconnect. Instead, I told myself I needed to be patient, hike calmly, and work on getting rid of the nausea. I made a point to not run anything resembling an incline. Another dude (Travis Zipfel) caught me – apparently I’d leapfrogged him at the aid station – and we briefly discussed how he was just recovering from similar feelings of queasiness and nausea  … then he bounded off into the foggy distance like a friggin gazelle.

I spent the next 3 hours alone climbing up Little Bald and running along the foggy jeep trails towards the turnaround. I even managed to not feel like death while jogging up some of the dirt road climb to Reddish Knob. After the tater tot debacle, I was reluctant to take in solid food, and was left forcing myself to choke down gels with giant gulps of water. I nearly gagged every time, but I was still getting those calories in.

Neal Gorman caught back up with me and we ran into the Turnaround together, coming in at 10:30, exactly what I’d run 2 years ago in the rain, but well behind last year’s pace. Neal and I were 6 and 7. John was maybe 10 minutes up, and 3 more guys were only a few minutes ahead of that. I figured if I could shake the multi-hour funk, I could still secure a respectable time, and maybe even break back into the Top 5. I took it easy with Neal for a couple miles after the Turnaround, but he was clearly itching to go chase down the other runners and my body didn’t feel up to the task. When I started going back downhill on the dirt road, my stride just would not open up. Any time I tried pushing the pace to make the most of the free downhill miles, my breathing would get erratic and my whole body would instantly feel fatigued. Just as I was overcoming the stomach issues, the soul-sucking humidity was digging its claws into me for good.

Ugh! -- Miles 65 - 88

I labored my way back down to North River Gap 2 (Mile 65). On the handful of inclines and flat sections of trails, I struggled every time I tried jogging. I was considerably slower than I hoped for, and despite the lackluster pace, I was feeling depleted. My wife and John’s wife, Michelle, tried pumping me up and convincing me to go chase down John, but when they said he had “just left” they were stretching the truth. I knew he had to be at least 25 or 30 minutes up on me at that point. And with Neal and the other dudes looking solid at the Turnaround, I was certain I couldn’t make the leap from 7th to 5th place.

I took my time at the aid station loading up on calories as best I could. And I gave everyone there a helluva show when my wife tried to help take off my shoe and inadvertently squeezed right down on a newly damaged toenail – my involuntary scream was a head-turner! I finally headed out to face the rest of the course … walking my tired ass down the short stretch of blacktop that would begin my most hated section of the entire course – the “run” up to Lookout Mountain. I transitioned to survival mode and planned to hike every incline to save my energy for the downhills and final miles. This could get ugly!

After close to a decade of walking, I finally emerged from the woods and happened upon the Lookout Mountain aid station. They had my potatoes ready to go for me, but by that point I’d lost all interest in solid foods. I took some time to down ginger ale and chat everyone up, but before I left, some other dude rolled into the aid station with his pacer. My body didn’t have the urgency or energy to race, but I figured I should at least fake an attempt at being competitive, so I lumbered on down the trail.

The sweet descent into Dowells Draft (Mile 81) was inviting and enjoyable. But it was also getting friggin hot out, and I still couldn’t convince my legs to open up or increase the cadence like I wanted. So I kept bleeding time. At the aid station, I was pampered by my wife, daughter, Michelle, and Frank Gonzalez. Was Horton there? I don’t know … I can’t recall any biting sarcasm or overeager words of encouragement. They finally kicked me out, beleaguered and fearful of how much The Crawford Climb was going to suck.

Miraculously, I managed to run the entire mile-plus of creek bottom before The Crawford Climb. The past 2 years I had finished much faster, but my legs were also close to the point of failure when I got to this rather benign stretch of trail, so it was rewarding to be able to cover that short section of the course without feeling like a shell of a human being. I kept myself accountable and calmly hiked the entire brutal climb. A couple times I shuffled to a jog just to convince myself that my body couldn’t handle it, and sure enough, within a few strides I’d feel like my lungs were being ripped out of my chest and I was getting punched in the gut … so … hooray hiking! After I crested the climb, I wanted to bomb the downhill into Dry Branch (Mile 88), but, again, I just could not get my stride to open up.

Lazy -- Miles 88 - 96

At Dry Branch I parked my lazy ass into a chair and snacked on some cookies and bitched about how I can’t get out of this low gear and how it's so hot out and how I hate humidity and running and life. Shannon Howell came careening into the aid station, clearly on course record pace (how? HOW?!) … and just like that, I’d been chick’d. And I couldn’t have cared less. I eventually got up and mosey’d my way on down the trail … Shannon was well out of sight.

Just like Crawford, I took my sweet time climbing Elliott’s backside. I love grinding up this final climb, laying it all out there, nearly dying when you slip on the loose rocks, trying to squeeze fits of rage between painful gulps of air. But this time around was super chill. Humidity was the winner on the day, no sense in denying it. I couldn’t pick up my feet to run that stretch of trail if my life depended on it … but hiking it felt fan-freakin-tastic!

I got to the gravel road at the top of the climb and began to brace myself for a rough final 90 minutes to the finish line. I wanted to push it, squeeze everything I could out of my legs and body, freefall down to the final aid station like I usually do. But, again, my legs wouldn’t open up. I still made half-decent time, but it wasn’t anything to write home about.

Too Little, Too Late -- Miles 96 - 102

After the last aid station, I calmly walk-jogged for a bit. And when the final mile or so of climbing came, I jogged. It was a laughable jog and I was panting like a dog. I finally ran up a decent sized hill for the first time in nearly 10 hours. As the trail turned flat, and then downhill, my legs started to pick up steam and finally open up. With 1.5 miles to go, I rapidly came upon both Shannon and long haired dude. I slowed for a second to tell Shannon she was rocking it and to let her know that I wasn’t trying to be some douchy male, dead-set on running down a woman because getting chick’d would be more emotionally painful than the physical pain of running 100 miles. And then, somehow, I laid down the hammer. Firmly in 6th place, I cruised toward the finish line, and happily collapsed.

The day had drug on for nearly 2 hours longer than I would’ve liked, and my body felt utterly demolished. The humidity murdered my soul -- its tattered remains are still on the course somewhere, so if you come across it, please dispose of it properly for me. If not for the humidity, I might've run 60 to 80 minutes faster and snagged 5th place ... but there's no way in hell I would've caught John or Neal. In my 3 prior finishes, I was always able to call upon my legs to do what I wanted them to do – climb harder, pick up the pace, bomb the downhill. That wasn’t the case at all this time around. For nearly 70 miles my body ignored my requests, and yet, I was still able to grind it out and cross the finish line well under 24 hours. It wasn’t my fastest Grindstone, but it was certainly the most rewarding.

Fun Facts

  • Michael Owen's winning time was slower than my 5th place time last year
  • Lookout Mountain and Little Bald Aid Stations tied for The Best Potatoes! Franks potatoes at Dowell's Draft were The Losers (undercooked). North River Gap gets kudos for the originality of the tater tots, but they don't take the win because of the painful associated memories.
  • Temps at the start and finish were in the 80s, the low temps in the valley were 67, and humidity was over 90% all night long. Ick!
  • Since I could never figure out how to get my legs to work, my major muscle groups felt fine 2 days out. Feet, calves, achilles, ribs, triceps, shoulders ... not so much.
  • I planned on eating boatloads of candy bars, fig bars, and granola bars ... I had 1 granola bar and 1 Twix, all before 5 hours elapsed ... so much for that plan!
  • Let me introduce you to THE ONE AND ONLY SONG stuck in my head for 22+ hours...