Monday, October 14, 2019

5X Grindstone - More Than a Race

"A million suns won't fill you up if you can't see the wine flowing over your cup." -- Brand New

Look at that sexy elevation profile!

Some races are just that, a race, an event, something you sign up for and then move on from when it's over. Other times they're more, they're something special, something you connect with. For me, the Grindstone 100 is a very special race. The beautiful setting in the mountains of Virginia. Its 23,000' of substantial and varied climbs and descents. Its sections of smooth and runnable trail, and its other sections of rocky hellscape. The unique 6pm start on the first Friday of October that forces some runners to spend 2/3rds of their race running in the dark. There's no other way to put it, Grindstone is an incredible, classic 100 miler.

For me, personally, Grindstone is also something much, much more. It's family, it's coming home after an extended absence, it's a weekend I look forward to all year long. Grindstone is the race that made me fall in love with ultra running. It was my very first 100 miler, and for the fifth year in a row I'd be towing the line. This time was different, though. 5-timing at Grindstone awards you a big honkin' buckle, something I was very much looking forward to finally earning; in a way, it would signify I'd become a veteran, an elder of a race that had come to define much of who I am as a runner. I intend to keep running Grindstone in the future, but I knew coming into it this year that it'd be my last time starting for a while -- there were other fall 100s to experience, and I wanted to start spending time volunteering at Grindstone and helping other runners achieve their goals. Moreover, after moving from DC to St. Louis a few months prior, the mountains of Virginia were no longer in my backyard, and I was very much looking forward to seeing them again. In a way, too, I was coming to Grindstone this year not just to run it, but to say good-bye to trails that I'd come to know and love, trails I was unlikely to run again for some time.

Grindstone weekend was everything that I hoped it could be, and more.  After Summer had been stubbornly over-wearing its welcome, Fall finally rolled in mere hours before the race start, and runners were blessed with undeniably perfect race conditions. The daytime was sunny and warm, but not too warm. Humidity was low. The mountain peaks and ridgelines embraced runners with crisp, light breezes and the rustling of leaves. The nighttime was cool and clear and pleasant. This was not a year of soupy humidity or never-ending downpours, it was a year for PRs and a high finisher rate.

I'm Number One!

As one of the more experienced and accomplished returning runners, Clark Zealand -- the RD -- honored me with my first-ever Number One seed. I viewed it mostly as a joke, but I was nonetheless moved and appreciative of the distinction. There was good, healthy competition at the front of the field, particularly for the men. Positioning for the Top 5 runners was still being decided coming into the final aid stations. And due to some nearly unfortunate luck on the part of this year's winner, I was mere minutes away from stealing the victory. Despite taking a wrong turn on an unmarked section of trail after the final aid station, Paul Jacobs corrected his mistake in the nick of time and secured the overall victory.

There's a 19 on that clock! Photo Credit: No Clue.

Apart from running, I soaked up my Grindstone weekend chatting with old running friends and enjoying their company before and after the race. I was grateful to see many friendly faces volunteering at the aid stations. I shared tales of the trail. I cheered on other runners. I soaked in the atmosphere of one of my favorite weekends of the year. And then, after I received my 5X buckle, I said my good-byes, and began my 700 mile trek home from Camp Shenandoah. On the way, I reflected on the weekend, finding myself nearly in tears, but also earnestly looking forward to spending a long weekend next year manning aid stations and helping other runners achieve their lofty dreams.

The infamous Wicked Good Grindstone cookie. The real reason we sign up for this race.

Here is a more detailed accounting of my race for anyone interested:

My race was, all around, a fantastic experience. After coming so close to breaking 20 hours in 2017, I was laser-focused on achieving that goal this time around. Moreover, I wanted to make amends for my disappointing 6th place slog-fest last year and hopefully break into the Top 3. While my training leading into Grindstone was nothing to write home about, I felt that after 5 years of running I finally had a reliable base to hold me up in longer races.

For the first 100K, I diligently adhered to splits that would secure a 20 hour finish, and my effort always felt calm and controlled. I unexpectedly moved into first place around Mile 17, only realizing it after repeatedly being gifted with spiderwebs to the face. But it didn't last long because I got swallowed up by a hole soon thereafter -- sinking waist-deep into a leaf-filled depression on the edge of the trail formed by a recently upended tree. I was going downhill and travelling fast, so the experience was rather jarring. I laid there, momentarily dazed, and a gaggle of runners flew by. Next thing I knew, I'd ceded 7 or 8 places. After regaining my composure, I kept at it, maintaining my own effort, and not worrying about the seemingly unsustainable pace of those front runners.

Around Mile 30, along the rocky, technical descent into North River Gap, my mind flowed into a state of utter upheaval.  Usually, it takes more than 80 miles before I'm overcome with emotions, sobbing while fast-hiking up an absurdly steep mountain trail. This time was different. I had begun to reflect on how much Grindstone meant to me, on how great it was to see so many of my East Coast running friends, on how this was my final time racing Grindstone for a while and that it felt like I was somehow, along every single mile of the course, saying good-bye to a close friend. It became too much to bear. The emotions were too high. It was nearly impossible to properly focus on my running. Despite being perfectly positioned for a great race, I gave up all competitive aspirations. I'd be happy to just phone it in the next 70 miles, taking it easy, enjoying saying my good-byes to every stretch of trail along the way.

Accurate representation of me running down Lookout Mountain.

I thought about how Horton would've called me a sissy and that I'd need to suck it up and run, but I didn't care. Trying to cast aside those powerful emotions would be to discredit them. I wanted my 5th Grindstone to be a "meaningful experience", but how could I ever achieve that if I were to stubbornly suppress all of those feelings that were welling up inside me? How could I expect to look back fondly on this day if I spent the bulk of it fighting off emotions that powerful? So there I was, stumbling down the trail, in the dark, ugly crying like Claire Danes. It took everything I had to resist the urge to just sit down and let it all out. After nearly an hour of this headspace, I rolled into North River Gap, and at one point I just stood there, blankly staring off at the drop bags, choking back tears. I found Clark, muttered something about being a little emotionally overwhelmed, then reached for a handshake as I fought off the urge to give him a hug and bawl onto his shoulder.

For the first miles of the nearly 2 hour climb out of North River Gap, I was still an emotional wreck. But then, in an instant, something changed. Just after the top of Grindstone Mountain, I stopped and closed my eyes, focusing on the feeling of the crisp autumn breeze against my face and the mesmerizing sound of shaking leaves in the surrounding trees. I experienced a freeing fullness of being. I was a part of the trail, and the trail a part of me. I was grounded, focused. I didn't need to cast aside my emotions, I could embrace them and still run with purpose. And, perhaps, too, I now fully understood Spinoza. But no time to add philosophical musings to the fray, I had to get back to running!

I calmly rolled into the Turnaround, feeling fresh and collected. I made note of how far ahead the other runners were, but stayed the course and felt no urgency to attack. I was on 20-flat pace and there was no way more than a couple of those runners would be able to keep it up. Instead of frantically bombing the 3000' descent back into North River Gap at Mile 65 like I did two years ago, I took my time and took care of my legs. And just before the aid station, after more than 30 miles of solitude, I finally overtook a runner. I made quick work of the aid station just before the break of dawn and energetically climbed the technical trail back up Lookout Mountain. In years past, this section of the course had always, without fail, crushed my spirits. But my legs felt great this time around and I just floated along. Lyrics from Brand New and Janelle Monae danced in my head and put a pep in my step. I went back and forth with 5th place for a bit, before he flew down the next descent to Dowell's Draft at Mile 80, clearly at an unsustainable pace. I didn't panic because I knew those legs would be trashed by the time he got to the final miles. I rolled along, doing my own thing. And ... I felt amazing! Suddenly, Alicia Keys was blaring inside my head -- This Girl Is On Fiyaaaahhh!

I overtook another runner. Then I calmly cruised up and down Crawford Mountain and stumbled upon two more runners at the Dry Branch Gap aid station at Mile 88. Less than a mile into the final four mile climb, I made my move and blew past them. Despite the steep, rocky sections up Elliott's Knob, and the fact that I was 90 miles into the race, I never stopped to hike. I was flying. I went from dancing right on 20-flat pace to suddenly being 10 minutes ahead of pace. As I turned off the top of Elliott's, I could see 2nd place -- the presumptive dead legs guy -- no more than one minute ahead of me. I descended with purpose, but remain controlled. I blew through the final aid station with 5 miles to go and knew without any shadow of a doubt that I was finally going to break 20 hours at Grindstone. Now, I wanted to see how much lower I could go.

I kept on charging, soon working my way into 2nd place. I didn't let up, all the way to the final mile of the course. I normally run this section as hard and fast as I can, but the way I was running was putting my old efforts to shame. Then, as I turned onto the dam, mere minutes from the finish, I heard something odd: cheering. I didn't know what to make of it since I was in 2nd place and only two aid stations prior I was told the leader was 30-40 minutes up and looking good. I rolled into the finishing chute at 19:47 elapsed. The emotions of the day came bubbling up, but somehow I held off the tears, shook Clark's hand, took my buckle, and had a well-deserved seat just off the finish line.

Paul Jacobs was there, having finished literally 3 minutes ahead of me. I was 3 friggin minutes away from a victory at my favorite 100 Miler! Oh well! It didn't matter. I was over the moon. I ran a perfect race, negative-split the course like a beast, had an absolute blast, PR'd, demolished my sub-20 goal, and secured 2nd place by passing three runners in the final 10 miles. I could not have asked for a better race. It was the perfect end to my 5 consecutive years at Grindstone. I will cherish the memories of this weekend for the rest of my life.

My cup runneth over…

It's okay, you can be jealous of my amazing buckle.

Top Finisher handshake!

Muchos Gracias:

An especially big THANK YOU to my wife and in-laws for letting me disappear for 4 days straight and for looking after my kiddos. I really missed having my wife and daughter crew me this year, but was so thankful to now live nearby Mimi and Poppy, who willingly shouldered some of the parenting responsibilities in my absence.

Thank you to all of the volunteers at Grindstone! This race wouldn't be possible without you. I am so excited to start volunteering alongside y'all next year.

And thank you to Clark, for always putting on a great race, hosting an incredible weekend, and giving hundreds of us runners memories that will last a lifetime.

Post Script:

As of last year, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries disallowed trail markers on a 3 mile stretch of the course. Despite having run the course 4 previous times, I missed a critical turn off of a gravel road at Mile 4. It was badly overgrown and did not look like the picture I had in my head of the turn ... and Horton wasn't there like usual to help everyone out. So, really, it's like 50% VA DGIF's fault and 50% Horton's fault, with no remaining fault allocated to myself or my fellow runners! After a few minutes I convinced myself we'd missed the turn and I rounded up the front pack to retrace our steps. Along with another 2 or 3 groups of runners we picked up on the way back, I'd say 50+ people missed that turn. Ouch! All told, it cost the front of the pack 12 minutes, but had zero impact on the top finishers since all of us made the mistake together.

I negative-split the course in 10:02/9:45.

I was the only runner to go under 10 hours on the back half of the course.
I was the only runner to run the "Final 50K" from NRG under 7 hours (6:46).

This is totally not a thing, but I seem to now hold the record for fastest 5x finishes: 107:40:35 (21:32:07 average). The previous best looks to have been Keith Knipling with 111:11:41 (22:14:20 average). Who's gonna step up and better that mark?!

Me and fellow 5X-ers, Nelson Hernandez and Brian Hulbert.

After a couple years suffering through palate fatigue with my Huma gels, I had zero problems with Science In Sport gels. I probably had 14 of those, along with 2 Huma gels early on, and a few Clif Blocks. The rest of my nutrition came from a steady supply of Tailwind, aid station potatoes, and strategically placed Starbucks Frappuccinos in my drop bags.

As always, I did my best Jeff Browning impersonation, dressing in Patagonia gear and sporting Altra Lone Peaks. And I rocked a sweet pair of knee-high Injinji stars and stripes socks, cuz 'Mericuh!

Also, I drove a total of 23 hours to and from the race ... the sub-20 hour race. Ugh.

And finally, here's a homemade Flyby chart showing how, according to Horton, I "should have run faster!"
Race FlyBy.

1 comment:

  1. awesome write up! congratulations on an amazing finishing! This years grindstone was my first hundred miler and i agree with you completely that it is a special race! on a side note going into the race i had read a bunch of race reports and you are not the only one fueling with frappuccinos! i may have to add these to my drop bag next time around! good luck in your future races!