Tuesday, October 7, 2014

10/7/14: Grindstone 100 Race Report: It's Better to be Lucky than Good

Thanks to more luck than any one man deserves, the Grindstone 100 went as well as it could have, and I finished in 23:29.  Here is my tale of running a tough 100 mile race on a lark.


As I nervously tried to burn 4-5 hours before the 6pm start, I was terrified and wondered what on earth I was doing there.  Most people had trained for this race for many months, some over a year given the cancellation the prior year during the government shutdown.  They had done long nighttime training runs and spent time out on the course.  I got into the race 1.5 weeks before the start through the overflow application.  I have hardly ever done any nighttime running, and it has been 6 years since I last finished 100 miles (VT 100) with 3 DNFs in-between.  The course is no joke and boasts 
23K feet of climbing and lots of technical terrain.

So on paper it was somewhere in the snowball’s chance in hell territory.  The race director certainly thought so, as the start numbers were seeded by expected finished, and I was ranked a mighty 260 out of 263 entrants. 

But I just had a feeling when I threw my name in the hat.  I had been running in the Alps and covered some of the toughest terrain you can find at the Sardona ultra.  My climbing legs were super strong.  I was also coming off of the wonderful gift of having 5 weeks of work.  I was more rested than I have been in a very long time and feeling fit.  So with that I rolled the dice and tried not to pee my pants.

Start to Dowells Draft, 0-22.1mi, 6pm to 10:32pm, 12:18 pace

The time finally arrived to line up at the start.  I intentionally moved a bit further back in the pack well behind the crew I typically run with at races & training runs.  The goal was to go out crazy slow, and I certainly succeeded.  It was a backed up conga line coming into a creek crossing as we did the short loop around the lake.  I slowly passed people as the trail opened up, and we meandered our way across easy terrain to the first mile 5.2 aid station.  I hit the aid station in just under an hour and was around 40 or 50 people deep.

After the aid station we started to work up the 4,000 foot climb to Elliot’s Knob.  The first couple miles had some really nice, gentle grade single track.  I found myself tucked in behind the man, the myth, the legend – Andy Jones Wilkins.  This was a theme for the entire race, and we continually see-sawed within a handful of minutes of each other.  Hanging with AJW was nothing short of a master’s class in how to run 100 miles, so a huge thanks to him for all the tips along the way!
The rain starting picking up on this stretch, and the forecast was for continued rain through 2am or so.  The headlamp came on, and I was feeling nice and relaxed so far despite being soaked head to toe.  Before long we hit the steep 2 mile climb on the fire road up to Elliot’s Knob.  I power hiked this stretch pretty fast and took in some solid food while climbing (Nature Valley bars worked well for me throughout the race).

I was merrily hiking along and was shocked to see some headlamps coming down at me.  Wait, did I somehow make a wrong turn?  It was super foggy and rainy, so I wouldn’t be all that surprised.  Turns out I had already hit the short .3 mile out and back section to go up and tag the Knob, punch our bib, and circle back down.  I couldn’t believe I had already climbed 4K feet, and it felt like I hadn’t even started.  The one thing I can say about running around in the Alps is that is gives a fresh perspective on what a tough climb really is.

After Elliot’s we started the descent down to Dry Branch Gap.  As AJW put it while we hiked back up this section many hours later, it was “rough sledding.”  This is a notoriously technical descent, and with the rain the rocks were very slick.  I got passed by a few people as I carefully made my way down and then enjoyed the less technical section as we got to the bottom. 

This is probably as good a spot as any to plug my lighting system.  In the past I have only used my Petzl Myo XP headlamp during the little nighttime running I have done.  3 weeks back when I did the 30 miler with Dylan in Asheville we started in the dark on a foggy night.  Both of our headlamps were useless, but his small biking flashlight was awesome.  I did some research and picked up the Fenix PD35, which is nothing short of a tiny miracle.  The second setting out of five was more than enough to light up the entire trail, and it has about a billion hours of power on that setting.

So long story short is that I could clearly see all of the rocks I couldn’t really run over.  Soon enough though I made it to Dry Branch Gap at mile 14.6 and just under 3 hours elapsed.  The next section had a weird climb where you had a really steep stretch followed by a short flat stretch.  It was tough to get any kind of rhythm going.  After we summited the ridge (Crawford mountain I think?), we had a long and technical descent down to the Dowells Draft aid station.

I took a bit of a longer stop here to make sure everything was in check.  I dropped off my waterproof shell in my drop bag to shed weight since the worst of the rain seemed to be over.  My right quad was already bothering me a bit on downhills (no worries though, only 80 more miles to go), so I took a few IB profin and a couple of Tums for good measure.  I stocked up on some food for the next climb, grabbing some PB&J and grapes.  Apparently I got a bit too excited and started down the trail for a minute before realizing I forgot my flashlight, so I had to circle back to grab that.

Dowells to North River, 22.1-36.8mi, 10:37pm – 1:30am, 12:53 split

I guess this next stretch started with 2K+ feet of climbing up Lookout Mountain, but I honestly don’t remember climbing that much and don’t recall much of this section at all.  I focused on getting calories in on the climb and busted out the iPod & headphones.  This was a longer stretch between aid stations at 8.4 miles, and I started getting very sleepy.  As it approached midnight I just could not keep my eyes open and starting weaving back and forth on the trail.

It was awfully early in the race to be this tired, but the urge to sleep was powerful.  What should I do?  I had never run through the night and finished the Vermont 100 by 11:20pm.  I guess I could take a short nap at the aid station?  It seemed lame to take a nap only 30 miles in, but I guess you have to do what you have to do.

 As I slowed I heard someone come up from behind me.  I decided to strike up a conversation to keep myself awake and bantered away, tormenting this poor soul.  Within a few minutes I saw the huge, bright lights of the aid station.  Instantly all fatigue vanished.  I chugged a bunch of Coke to get some caffeine and it was game on and back on the trail!  I was in about 30th place at this point.

The 6.3 miles to North River went just fine.  It was still raining off and on and misty / foggy, but all systems were firing.  There was a short uphill to get up to North River, and they had massive floodlight by the trail, drawing you in like a beacon.  It was such a great feeling coming into these aid stations.  After running in the dark and mostly alone for 1.5-2.5 hours, the bright and noisy aid stations were oases that brought you back to life.  The aid stations were also so incredibly well run and well stocked.  They had everything a runner could possibly want, and the hot food options they pulled off in the middle of the woods were the best.

I had the aid stations down to a science at this point:
  • Roll in and drink a cup of Coke
  • Have the kind aid station folks refill my bottles
  • Grab a bit of food
  • Find my drop bag and get what I needed
  • Chug a bunch of cups of soup
  • One or two more cups of Coke
  • Grab a bunch of solid food to eat on the trail
  • Get out of there!

North River to Little Bald, 36.8 – 44.6mi, 1:37am – 3:53am, 18:15 split

This was a feared section of the course with a 4K+ foot climb in the middle of the night.  The first 5.5 miles was a straight climb, and my climbing legs were still fantastic.  I was moving fast and motivated to make short work of this section.

On the way up as we gained elevation there was finally a brief break in the clouds.  I could see the moon shining and the lights of the city way down in the valley.  I was feeling good, and this was one of those beautiful moments that you savor. 

As we crested the ridge it got incredibly cold, windy, and foggy.  Then the sleep monster came back.  I couldn’t keep my eyes up and started swerving on the trail worse than before.  It was down in the 30s now and sleeting.  The only good thing was that I had to be close to the aid station; I felt like I had been on this stretch forever. 

I knew that I would need to take a long stop at Little Bald to pull myself together and make sure I was ready for the next stretch on the ridge.  This was a big departure from my previous mindset in 100s.  I have always tried to move through aid stations quickly to minimize downtime.  I was trying to be efficient, but I was willing to take as much time as I needed and was really focused on taking care of myself and making sure I didn’t make any mistakes.  I had no crew, no pacer, and this was an 
unforgiving course.  There was no room for error.

I still think this stretch was actually much longer than 7.8 miles, and I finally made it to Little Bald at 3:53am.  Oh man it was a welcome sight.  They had a roaring fire going and an awesome spread of food.  AJW had raved about the pierogis at the last aid station, so I tried one here and it went down quite nicely.  I changed out of my soaking wet short sleeve shirt, got my long sleeve shirt from my drop bag, and put on some gloves.

I chugged a bunch of soup and Coke, grabbed a bunch of food, and sat by the warm fire eating and getting all of my gear together.  I felt like a new man and sadly left the fire and got back on the trail at 4:02am.

Little Bald to Little Bald, 44.6 – 57.8mi, 4:02am – 6:44am, 11:20 split

Despite the rough patches on the last stretch, I had indeed moved well on the climb and was now in 20th place.  The next 13 miles were my most lucid and fired up stretch of the race.  The weather finally cleared, and the nighttime views up on the ridge were really cool.  I was warm again, I was moving well, the legs felt ok, and I had the excitement of sunrise coming soon.  I ran the 4.5 miles to Red Knob aid station in a short 45 minutes and then did the short out and back section up to the summit to punch my bib.  I moved through Red Knob quickly to the turnaround at Gnashing Knob.  This was another quick stop with a quick refuel of Coke, PB&J, and tater tots.  Yum!

On this stretch I really started to believe I could do this.  I had a loooong way to go, but I was confident and was in it to the finish. 

It was still dark when I got back to Little Bald at 6:44am.  I took another longer stop to get in some calories.  They had some most delicious breakfast burritos, and I continued to be amazed with how great these aid stations were.  

Little Bald to North River, 57.8 – 65.7mi, 6:50am – 8:43am, 15:11 split

Sunrise finally arrived, which was a nice boost.  I was treated to some of the views of the surrounding mountains and could now appreciate just how beautiful this course was.  Unfortunately on this long downhill my quads were toast, and I was facing 40 more miles with blown quads.  No matter, how hard could it be?  Worst case scenario I could probably still walk all of the remaining downs.

Somewhere on the downhill I hit my first energy funk.  It was a bit strange since I had been eating a ton and food was staying down well.  I figured it must be either fluids or electrolytes and took 3 S-caps in a short span, drank a bunch, and ate more food for good measure.  Whatever I did seemed to work, and I came into North River feeling better but knowing I needed to spend some time piecing myself back together.

The good news was that my weight was down only 1 pound after 66 miles.  I took a seat and really focused on food and hydration, taking down 2 pierogis, soup, coke, fruit, and some salty snacks.  I changed into a clean shirt and after being there for 9 minutes was back in the world of the living and ready to go!

North River to Dowells Draft, 65.5 – 80.3mi, 8:52am – 12:03pm, 14:29 split

This next 15 mile stretch was critical and set me up well to finish this beast.  I knew that if I could average just over 15 minute miles, I would be able to finish in the oh-so-magical sub 24.  Averaging 14:30s over this stretch even counting tons of time in the aid stations gave me some cushion and a lot of confidence going into the last 22 miles.

They key to this stretch was moving incredibly well on the uphills.  I was still hiking VERY quickly and had no problem with the 2.5K+ climb up to Lookout Mountain.  All of the treadmill running at 15%, running / hiking in the Alps, and comically steep climbs at Saronda had paid off.  I kept see-sawing with 3 other runners as I would move well on the climbs and they would dust me on the descents.

Despite being tired, I tried to take in the time to enjoy the scenery.  It was a bluebird sky with sunlight reflecting off the early fall foliage in the big mountains surrounding the course.  Not a bad day out in the woods.  Not bad at all.

I was super pleased to average a bit over 13 minute miles through the mostly uphill stretch to the Lookout Mountain aid station.  I indulged liberally in some grilled cheese here and stuff a bunch of grilled cheese squares in various parts of my pack for later down the trail.  I felt kind of like a chipmunk out there.  I got back on the trail and had totally forgotten that there would be a lot more uphill after the aid station to reach the summit of Lookout.  That was just fine by me, but the downhill into Dowells was might painful.  My quads were completely blown at this point.  I just tried to lean forward to let gravity do as much of the work as possible and shuffle as best I could, taking a walking break every so often when I needed to.

I made good time into Dowells and took a seat here.  This was the last major aid station (the last two were more lightly stocked) and my drop bag was here, so I wanted to regroup and make sure I was ready for the last big push.  I decided it was finally time to change my socks.  My feet were happily still blister free, but I could tell I had some dirt in my shoes and figured it was better to be safe than sorry.  After a nice stretch to refuel and gather myself, it was back on the trail to go up and over Crawford Mt.

Dowells Draft to Finish, 80.3 – 101.85mi, 12:11pm – 5:29pm, 15:15 split, 13:50 overall pace

The last 20 miles of a 100 are something you have to experience to understand.  You’ve come way too far to stop, but 20 miles is still a VERY long way and took me around 5 hours on damaged and beaten legs.  It’s a long time to try and hold things together.

But enough whining!  I had completely forgotten how long the climb up to Crawford was.  It went on seemingly forever, and the uphill part was fine but I was dreading the inevitable downhills on my shredded quads.  After summiting the ridge I pitifully tiptoed my way down the steep sections.  I kept thinking I was seeing things like a gate marking the fire road or a person on the side of the trail cheering people into the aid station.  I think it was just wishful thinking more than hallucinations.

I finally got to Dry Branch just before 2pm.  I threw down some chips, Coke, and tomato soup (which was awesome).  I sat talking to the guys at the aid station while eating and drinking, and somehow we got on the topic of pump up music.  Before I knew it “Living on a Prayer” was blaring at the aid station.  If Bon Jovi doesn’t get you pumped to run up a mountain after running 87 miles, then I don’t know what will.  This Jersey Boy was out of there.

The trailed turned up to go back up and over Elliot’s Knob.  About halfway up the climb I ended up tucking in behind AJW and his pacer, who set a most solid pace up this climb.  My legs were finally starting to get tired on the climbs.  Bout time!  I knew the first 2 miles off of Elliot’s would be really steep, and I was dreading it.  We popped out on the fire road, and I was not disappointed.  The downhill was just brutal on my legs.  The last 10 miles were rough and a world of pain, but it was also so nice thinking that I was actually going to finish this thing.

Mercifully the grade leveled out as we made our way back onto single track trail.  I was able to pick up the pace to a slightly less zombie-like shuffle and was looking forward to seeing the last aid station soon at mile 97.6.  I actually made good time all considering on that last brutal stretch, averaging in the mid 14s.  I grabbed some Coke and some grapes, and just like that I was on the last 5.2 miles.

This stretch had much easier terrain than the rest of the race, but the wheels were coming off fast.  I was trying to push the pace a bit, but my hip flexor was really acting up and I was starting to cramp.  I dialed back a bit and focused more on the “don’t do anything stupid motto.”  It’s amazing that your legs can hold together for so long and then completely fall apart just a few miles from the end.   It was the exact same at Vermont. 

I turned off the iPod and was trying my best to savor this last section.  I arrived back on the Boyscout campgrounds, and then had just the 1.5 mile loop around the lake back to the finish (please don’t ask me why you have to run an extra 1.5 mile loop after already running 100.3 miles).  I popped out on the field, ran down the dirt road, and was on the last homestretch across the campground.

People cheered me in, and I crossed the line in 23:29.  I gave the totem pole the obligatory hug and kiss, and that was that.  I was ecstatic to be done and to have finished in good form.  It still hasn’t sunk that I actually finished this difficult race.  I didn’t even have time to internalize that I was going to be running the thing.  I was floored by how well it went and how few rough patches I hit.  I ran within myself, stayed smart, and took the time to take care of myself.  6 years after my first 100 mile finish and 3 DNFs later, it feels amazing to get finish # 2.

The Grindstone 100 is an incredible race that I would highly recommend.  Thanks so much to the race staff and legendary aid station volunteers.  Thanks to my wife for letting me spend the weekend wandering in the woods and to her and Dylan for giving me the words of encouragement out on the trail.  It was truly a memorable experience!

My super sweet camping spot. 

Awesome views on the course

Right before the finish.  The look of a guy who has been up for 36 hours and run 102 miles.

Totem pole tastes so good ...

Sunrise the next morning after not sleeping all night because my legs hurt too much


Anonymous said...

What can I say! You rock!!!!!! Lisa C

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an amazing feat! I'm so glad you used your wit and wisdom and finished so well. Congrats and thanks for sharing your adventure!

Dad L. said...

Amazing...and perhaps a little crazy. Impressive performance coming from #260 to #18. Seems like you've finally gotten the physical challenges under control. Now you don't have anything else to prove! :)
Love, Dad L

Jen said...

I finally had time to read your book of a race report as you're running the MCM! I'm sorry I wasn't there to crew, but it seems like you took even better care of yourself than when I'm there! :) So proud of you! Also, does anyone else find it unreasonable that it's 101.85 miles, or is it just this physics teacher? I can't believe that their measurement is actually that precise over that distance :)