Sunday, December 18, 2016

Grindstone 100

Rain, fog, rain, hallucinations, and rain. That's the short story of my 2016 Grindstone 100. Here's the long story...

Starting the second night of Grindstone


My two bucket list races are Western States 100 and Hardrock 100. As it turns out, Grindstone is a qualifying race for both of these. With this in mind, I signed up for Grindstone in April, hoping to finally put a ticket in the lotteries for both races. Like all Hardrock qualifiers, Grindstone features a massive amount of climbing and lots of time between aid stations. This would be, by far, the hardest race I had ever run.

Having slacked off a bit in July and early August because of the insanely hot weather, I finally buckled down and put in a solid six week training block from mid-August through the end of September. With the Barkley Fall Classic and Grindstone looming on the horizon, I decided to focus more on elevation gain and cumulative time on my feet than on mileage. Here's what those weeks looked like.


The middle two weeks were a mini-taper for Barkley, and the final week mostly involved hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. Not a typical training plan, but it seemed to do the trick. I came into Grindstone in the best shape of my life, ready to take on the mountains of northern Virginia.

The Course

Remember how I described the Barkley Fall Classic as tough? Well it is, but Grindstone is a whole different beast. Described as "without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian," Grindstone is an out-and-back course through the rugged Allegheny Mountains. The outbound direction includes two unmanned summit checkpoints - Eliott Knob and Reddish Knob - where runners must punch their bibs with an orienteering punch to prove that they passed through.

Grindstone course map

The course features multiple 2,000+ foot climbs for a total elevation gain of 23,000 feet over its 101.85 miles. For reference, this is twice the amount of climbing and three times the distance of the Barkley Fall Classic. Adding to the difficulty of the course, the race starts at 6:00pm, so all but the fastest runners experience two sunsets and two nights of running through the dark.

Up, down, and repeat

My plan was to go out at a conservative pace and stay "comfortable" for the first 60-80 miles of the race, then push harder near the end if I was able to. I wasn't sure what pace this would correspond to, but I made three pace charts for my crew corresponding to 24, 26, and 28 hour finishes to help them determine when to expect me at each aid station. Secretly, my goal was to finish faster than my NJ Ultra Festival time of 26:31 so I could harass Rick McNulty about how hard that race was.


After a fitful night of sleep - partially due to pre-race nerves and partially due to the discovery of bed bugs in our cheap backwoods motel - I arrived at the Camp Shenandoah race headquarters with my wife and crew chief Alex, my mom, and fellow runner Charlotte Dequeker, who had driven down to Virginia with us. The weather was gloomy, and the reports promised constant rain for the next 24+ hours.

Who has two hands and makes poor decisions?

A mandatory pre-race briefing was held at 1:00pm in the mess hall. Race director Clark Zealand gave us the usual advice: "Don't go off course, don't forget to punch your bib at the summits, and - seriously - don't go off course, Ryan. We're in the middle of a million acres of undeveloped land, and you're a bit of an idiot." I'm paraphrasing of course, but that was the gist of it. Anyway, I tried to pay attention to these minor details, but I couldn't help but notice that there were cardboard cutouts of bandaged, bloody feet hanging from the ceiling.

Yup, those are the ones

I chose not to interpret this as a sign of things to come.

As the briefing ended, a light drizzle began to fall. Hurricane Matthew was pushing some small storms inland as it swept past the Atlantic coast. The rain would continue, with varying intensity, for the duration of the race. We took shelter in our car, and I tried in vain use my final hours of freedom for a power nap. But my mind was racing (pun intended), and I eventually gave up and read my favorite chapters from Ultramarathon Man.

The Early Miles

After the usual photo ops (those damn paparazzi are relentless!), I lined up about half way back in the starting corral with Charlotte. I was hoping to justify my seeding (36th male) with a solid performance, but I wanted to avoid starting too aggressively. The plan was to get caught in a conga line of runners and force myself to start slow, then gradually reel people in for the rest of the race.

The calm before the storm (literally)

Once all the runners were gathered and accounted for, Clark led a brief prayer. I'm not particularly religious, but I enjoyed his message, which was to be thankful for the ability to do insane things like run 100 miles through the wilderness. At 6:00pm sharp, we were off.

The first half mile of the course went through the camp on a gravel road before we came to an abrupt bottleneck at the beginning of the singletrack trail. Four minutes elapsed while I waited, as patiently as possible, for the runners in front of me to trickle onto the narrow path. I convinced myself that those four minutes meant nothing in 24+ hour race, but I couldn't help feeling antsy standing still this early in a race. Once back in motion, my mind calmed down, and I chatted with the runners around me.

1.5 miles down and only 100.3 to go!

One of the fun parts of running an ultra is getting to meet (or just observe) different people along the course. There was Mr. Sniffles (who seemed to be dealing with a cold), Legs McGee (because she was mostly legs), and Greg from Virginia (because that was his name and home state). Greg was a Grindstone veteran and very friendly, so I asked him lots of questions about the course. He warned me that the climb up to Little Bald Knob was the hardest on the course and could be demoralizing. So we all had that to look forward to.

Less than an hour into the race, the last remnants of sunlight were disappearing over the horizon, and I flicked on my headlamp. The first night of Grindstone had begun! Soon after, we began the first big climb of the race - a 4.5 mile, 2,400 foot ascent of the Great North Mountain ridge, ending with a bib punch at Elliot Knob. After weeks of hill training, I was happy to find that I felt strong during the climb, passing a dozen people on the steep gravel road to the summit at mile 10.

I made quick work of the bib punch and began the long rocky ridge line descent to Dry Branch Gap. This was the most technical section of the course. The trail was nothing but loose cinder block sized rocks, wet with rain and moss, and obscured by a persistent blanket fog. The earth plunged sharply downward on my left, and sharply upward on my right. The light from my headlamp was only enough to see two steps in front of me, but I raced forward with reckless abandon. It was awesome and primal and everything I look for in a race. I passed another dozen runners in this short section, including Charlotte, who had her characteristic smile and cheery demeanor.

After quickly refueling at the Dry Branch aid station (mile 15), I began the 1,000 foot climb up Crawford Mountain. I again made steady work of the climb, paying careful attention to my heart rate to avoid redlining to early in the race. After summitting, the descent was on a buttery smooth dirt trail, which made for easy running. I let gravity do its thing and bombed down the steep slope, passing another dozen runners in the process. I rolled into the Dowell's Draft aid station (mile 22) with just over 5 hours elapsed in the race - right on pace! This was the first crew access point, and I was happy to see my mom and Alex after running in the dark for so long. Alex beamed with excitement as she told me that she met Simon Donato, the host of the TV show Boundless, who was there to pace his friend. Cool!

Alex geeking out

Feeling refreshed after seeing some friendly faces, I began the long meandering ascent of Hankey Mountain. Rising 1,500 feet in 5 miles, the slope of the trail was right on the borderline of what I consider "runnable" in a 100 mile race. I awkwardly alternated between running and power hiking, struggling to find a steady rhythm.

I caught up to a runner and broke the silence by explaining my thoughts on the climb. He agreed, but noted that this section would be awesome to run down on the return trip. With some mutual ground established, we awkwardly ran/hiked together for the next few miles. The runner was Troy Shellhamer, an accomplished hiker and ultrarunner with a racing resume as epic as his name. He told me stories about running Western States, through-hiking the Colorado Trail, and pacing Traci Falbo when she ran the Grand Slam of 100 Milers. We discussed how to have a sustained career in ultrarunning, the benefits of running 50 milers vs. 100 milers (sometimes it's nice to be done before dinner), and how Ian Sharman and Jeff Browning are gods among men. One by one the miles ticked away as we reached the summit of Hankey Mountain at mile 25 and began a very pleasant descent on fire roads to the Lookout Mountain aid station (mile 30).

Not needing any supplies, I ran through the aid station and began bombing downhill toward North River Gap, per my usual strategy. This meant leaving Troy behind, but relationships are fleeting during an ultra. A few miles later, I realized that I was lower on water than I had thought. I also noticed that my GPS battery was dying even though only 8 hours had elapsed and the battery was rated for 12 hours (thanks Suunto). I still had miles to go before the North River Gap aid station, at which point my watch would be dead and I would be dehydrated.

I began to have the sort of illogical thoughts that ultrarunners tend to have during these moments: "Maybe my watch is running short, and the aid station is closer than I think." But these sort of things never happen when you want them to.

Then I found the aid station.

I couldn't believe it! My watch was showing 34.5 miles and I was running into the mile 37 aid station. I had also arrived 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Did I make a wrong turn and accidentally cut the course? I had been running with other people almost the entire time. Maybe we all cut the course? I would have to tell the race director what happened and risk being disqualified from my goal race...

These thoughts were put on the back burner when I realized that my crew would not be ready for me yet. Luckily the course passed right through the aid station parking area, and I spotted the silver pickup truck that we had borrowed for the weekend. I peaked in through the passenger side window, my headlamp illuminating the interior. Alex and my mom we're both reclined in the front seats, fast asleep. I rapped on the window and startled the hell out of both of them.

"Holy shit!" Alex yelled. And then, "I'm so sorry! Holy shit! I'm sorry."

I calmed her down by telling her that I was way ahead of schedule and that I was the one who made the schedule in the first place. She took a moment to throw on a rain jacket - mind you it was still pouring outside - before grabbing my GPS charger and a few other supplies from the bed of the truck. I set off toward the aid station while she and my mom got a change of socks, new water bottles, and a camp chair.

The nice thing about running in cold weather is that it becomes much easier to digest solid food. I took full advantage of this fact while I was waiting for my crew to catch up, snacking on grilled cheese, quesadillas, and whatever else looked appetizing. My crew quickly caught up, apologized a few more times, helped me change into new socks, and sent me on my way. All told, I spent 4 minutes in the aid station, which is a pretty minor delay in the grand scheme of things.

Alex is truly brave for getting this close to my feet mid-run

The Middle Third

I left the aid station in 66th place and began the long, long climb up Little Bald Knob: 2,600 vertical feet over the course of 7 miles. In a typical training run, I can cover 7 miles in a little under an hour. This stretch of trail would take me over two hours of continuous heart-pounding exertion. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I set off on the climb alone, as I am known to do. The solitude gave me time to think about the mileage that my GPS was displaying. Now it's typical for my GPS to be off by a few percentage points, especially in mountainous terrain where the satellite signal is bouncing around. But this was a huge error, and my early arrival at the aid station suggested that I really hadn't gone a full 37 miles. Where could I have gotten off course? I knew there were two bib punches in the first half of the race. Had I skipped one? I had also seen many of the course markings torn down (I would later learn that the local hunters were feeling territorial). Maybe they altered the course?

These sort of thoughts continued for a while, making this a serious low point for me mentally. However, I still had plenty of energy and was moving well. When I caught up to a group in front of me, I asked if their GPS mileage was off, and whether there had been a second bib punch. They told me that they had gone about the same distance as me and the bib punch was up ahead a few miles. Whew! I still wasn't totally convinced though, and I would continue to harass other runners with these questions for the next few miles.

Up and up and up and up.

Rain rain rain rain fog rain rain.

The Wild Oak Trail, which the course followed for the duration of this climb, is on a ridge line with (supposedly) spectacular views. However, the fact that it was 3 a.m. combined with the dense fog meant that I was only able to see a few feet in front of me at all times. I followed the circular beam of my headlamp and focused on my breathing. Step, breathe in, step, breathe out, step, breathe in... After a while, it became meditative, maybe even enjoyable. No, I take it back. Definitely not enjoyable. But it did feel very cool being alone on a mountain ridge. The night was silent except for my breathing and the rain pelting the leaves around me; pitch black except for the small orb of light in front of me. I passed a few small groups during the climb but was otherwise alone the entire way.

Artist's depiction

After an eternity, I summited the mountain and began the short descent to the mile 45 aid station. I confirmed with the volunteers there that the second bib punch was still ahead on the course (I really should have memorized the details of the course better), then grabbed some food and quickly moved on.

The next mile or two went gradually downhill on a gravel fire road, and I was able to pick up my pace for the first time in a few hours. It was here that the race leaders started to pass me coming back toward the finish line. Cheering for them was rejuvenating, and I made quick work of the next few uphill miles leading to the Reddish Knob bib punch. I met several people on the short out-and-back section to Reddish Knob, and each of them warned me that the orienteering punch was not there (local kids had stolen it). I made the trek to the summit anyway and took a cursory look around in the bushes for the punch.

As I was milling around, fellow NJ ultrarunner and all around badass Jun Bermudez caught up to me. Along with running some of the most prestigious 100 milers in the US, Jun has finished the Bigfoot 200 (that's not a typo) and completed a lap of the Barkley Marathons (yes, the real one). In short, this is a guy who knows his way around long distances. We concurred that the punch was indeed missing and set off to the Briery Branch Gap aid station together. He noted that I was only wearing a thin compression shirt.

"Are you cold?" he asked.

"Nope," I responded, and then thought about it for a second. "Well maybe a little."

He suggested putting on a rain jacket at the next aid station. I had one stashed in my pack (at Alex's insistence before the race), but had been avoiding it since I always feel clammy and uncomfortable running in waterproof layers. Nevertheless, he was right. Hypothermia is a major cause of DNF's in 100 mile races, and I needed to stay warm.

Shortly after 6 a.m., 12 hours elapsed in the race, we pulled into Briery Branch Gap, which was the turn around point in the course. I was now in 45th place. I changed my socks and put on a new compression shirt. In the time it took me to do that, I started shivering. After some further prodding from my mom and Alex, I finally put on my jacket.

Concerned mom

I chugged a hot cup of coffee and walked over to the fire pit to warm up. A quick glance at the shivering miserable faces of the other runners who were huddled around the fire convinced me that this was a terrible idea, and I hit the road. The only good way to warm up was to keep moving.

Can someone do something about all this rain?

On the climb out of the aid station, I again caught up to Jun, who had left a few minutes ahead of me. We talked for a bit until he went running into the bushes, apparently suffering from some stomach issues. He caught up to me a few minutes later, but again had to run off. This cycle would repeat a few times until I finally pulled away for good. Jun would go on to finish in 26:45.

As the sun came up, I passed a number of familiar faces who were heading to the turnaround. I ran into Charlotte, who was still smiling. She would later summit Reddish Knob with Barkley legend John Fegyveresi and go on to finish in 29:17, well under her 30 hour goal. I passed Otto Lam, who had run the Grand Slam of 100 Milers and was capping off his racing season with yet another brutal race. He looked cold and low on energy, but would gut out a 33:47 finish to go 6 for 6 on 100 mile races for the year. The steady stream of friends and acquaintances was a welcome distraction from the fact that the fog was obscuring the panoramic views from the ridge.

Artist's depiction

It turns out that I'm a very visual person, and the constant lack vistas at the mountain tops would slowly drain my enthusiasm over the course of the race. More on this later.

After a few miles of rolling hills, I began the long descent from Little Bald Knob. After 14 straight hours of rain, the Wild Oak Trail had become a giant muddy slip 'n slide. I can usually count on my downhill running ability in an ultra, but the two hour descent was filled with stutter stepping, side to side movement, and occasionally stopping dead in my tracks to avoid faceplanting in the muddy trail. I was totally unable to build up any momentum, and I knew I was shredding my quads in the struggle to stay upright.

By the time I got to the North River Gap aid station for the second time (mile 65), I knew that it was going to be a long day. My quads didn't hurt yet, and I still had gas in the tank, but I had just dealt a huge amount of damage to my legs which would come back to bite me at some point. Luckily, I only had 15 miles left to run before Alex would join me. With that in mind, and some new socks on my feet, I headed back out onto the trail. I had moved up to 35th place and was determined to catch a few more people before I finished.

The Final Push

The gradual 2,000 foot climb that ensued was fairly uneventful, although I became increasingly aware that my pace was dropping. For some reason, the cold weather had made it difficult for me to stomach the usual 20 oz. of water and 200 calories of Tailwind that usually forms the base of my nutrition. Instead, I had been relying heavily on the solid food at aid stations. On the plus side, holy crap are hot breakfast burritos delicious when it's 45 degrees and raining! On the other hand, it's hard to eat 200+ calories per hour of real food while you are running.

At mile 75, I reached the top of Hankey Mountain for the second time and began the gradual 1,500 foot descent to Dowell's Draft, where Alex would be waiting to pace me. You may recall that I awkwardly ran/hiked this section with Troy earlier in the race, and that we both agreed that it would be fun to run down on the return journey. With that in mind, I opened up my stride and managed a few 11:00-ish miles, passing by a handful of runners. I was feeling pretty good about my ability to run on technical terrain this late in the race, but wondered how much longer it would last. Spoiler: not much longer.

Ultrarunner or dead body that was pulled out of a river? You decide!

I pulled into Dowell's Draft with 19:20 elapsed. This was right between my 24 and 26 hour pace splits, so we figured 25 hours would be a decent goal to shoot for. Alex was ready and raring to go, so I scooped up a handful of food and we got back on the trail.

Mom: Can I take a quick picture?
Me: Sure, but I won't stop eating.
Alex: (always looks cute)

The first few miles with Alex were fun. It was great to catch up after being by myself for almost a full day. I told her how I was feeling (good, with 75% forecast of bad), and she updated me on the other runners she had seen, including her brush with stardom earlier in the race.

When we started the 2.5 mile, 1,500 foot ascent of Crawford Mountain, things started to unravel. With my nutrition suffering, I had been increasingly struggling with uphill sections for the past few hours. I pushed hard on this climb, but was only managing 20:00+ miles. Strava tells me that my grade-adjusted pace (equivalent pace on flat ground) was 13:00-14:00 per mile, which isn't terrible, but at the time it felt like I would never reach the summit. After a full hour of climbing and many false summits, we reached the top.

These glutes were made for walking
And that's just what they'll do

I'm again going to point out that I didn't memorize the elevation profile of the course, and I had somehow convinced myself that Crawford Mountain was the final big climb. Au contraire. A painful 1,000 foot descent brought us to Dry Branch Gap aid station at mile 87, after which we had another 1,600 feet of climbing to reach Eliot Knob. Woo boy!

Coming into Dry Branch Gap with my wonderful pacer

Now, starting to run on fumes, and depressed by the constant rain and fog, I began to really struggle. The thing about the Eliot Knob Trail is that it has a never-ending series of false summits. Just when you think you're at the top, you turn a corner and find yourself staring up another 300 foot climb. After a few of these, I hit my lowest point of the entire race. Poor Alex did her best to cheer me up. She sang and danced and told me how amazing I was for doing this race. All she got in return were grunts and groans from her grumpy husband.

At last, we hit the technical section of the trail, which meant that we had about a mile to go until the summit. However, after 23 hours of running and over 30 hours without sleep, my coordination (and sanity) were beginning to suffer. I slipped constantly and began to hallucinate.

Zombie Ryan attempt to negotiate the "trail"

The following conversation played out a half dozen times during the final miles of climbing.

Me: Oh, there's the sign!
Alex: What sign?
Me: The sign that marks the turnoff at the end of the climb.
Alex: (furrowing her brow) ...Okay.

And, of course, there was no sign. Inevitably, the "sign" would turn out to be a leaf or a patch of moss on a tree. And each time, Alex would play along, although she began to suspect that there wasn't really a sign anywhere on the trail.

Finally, we came to the sign.

...this was my best effort at posing for a picture

Finally, the actual "last big climb" was over. I showed my elation by grunting at Alex as she took my picture (Sorry!).

Then began the steep 2,000 foot descent to the final aid station. At this point, my quads were feeling the full effect of the abuse that they had endured over the last 90 miles of running. Each step felt like I was being stabbed in the thighs. And there were a lot of steps left to go.

As we ran (Well, Alex ran. I hobbled.) down to the final aid station, we crossed several streams that I didn't remember from earlier in the race. Were we off course? No, I realized, this was just the runoff from the massive amount of rain that had fallen in the mountains over the previous 24 hours. What had been dry creak beds on Friday night were now fully flowing rivers on Saturday evening. I did my best to hop across on any exposed rocks, but dunked my feet a few times along the way.

After some very slow miles, we finally arrived at the mile 97 aid station with 24:14 elapsed. Only five miles less to go, and no more major climbs! However, I would soon come to learn that even the minor climbs at Grindstone are formidable on tired legs. I grabbed a handful of food, thanked the volunteers, and staggered back into the woods with my pacer in tow. The sun was just starting to set for the second time, and I reluctantly put my headlamp back on.

The home stretch! My body language here is telling.

Alex resumed her singing and chatting, trying to motivate me over these last few miles. Although the end was close, I still could not pull myself out of my funk. The trail leading away from the aid station immediately went uphill, climbing 500 feet in a mile and a half. I huffed and puffed the entire way up, totally depleted of energy.

"I thought we were done climbing!"

At last, we made it to the top, and it was all downhill to the finish. The final few miles were on very technical terrain, with several more stream crossings. At mile 99, I had my first and only wipe out of the race. I slipped on a wet rock, and my feet flew out from under me. After making sure I was okay, Alex let me know how hilarious I looked.

At mile 100, we were back on good trail and "running" (if 15 minute miles can be considered running). The beam from my headlamp danced off the wet leaves and rocks, and my hallucinations kicked in again.

A dog appeared on the side of the trail, happily wagging his tail as he watched us.

"Is that a dog!?" I asked Alex.

It was a fern blowing in the breeze.

A white rabbit darted across the trail and scurried into the bushes.

"Hey look - a rabbit!"

I'm pretty sure it was an actual rabbit, but Alex insists that she didn't see it. From then on, I kept my observations to myself.

Suddenly the camp came into view from across a small lake. All we had to do was negotiate another creek crossing and circle the lake and we were done!

"Careful," I warned Alex as we crossed the final creek, "The rocks here are slippery."

Within seconds, she had slipped on a rock and was on her butt in the middle of the trail. So at least we were even. After confirming that she was okay, I let her know how hilarious she looked.

We emerged from the woods and onto the gravel camp road. It felt slightly uphill, so I walked for a few steps until Alex chided me, "Come on! You can run this!"

I broke into a feeble jog, and we entered the camp. The finishing chute was up a short hill, but I refused to stop running. I powered up the little incline and ran straight through the finish. My final time was 25:39:09, good for 33rd place overall!

Final Thoughts

It took me a long time to write this report, in part because I wasn't sure how I felt about my race. Don't get me wrong - I'm proud of my final time and place. In fact, my slowdown over the last 20 miles cost me less than an hour and maybe a half dozen places. In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty minor loss. My time was also on the low end of my predicted finish times. However, I've never had such a prolonged mental low point in a race. Some combination of the weather, exertion, sleep deprivation, and lack of scenery just destroyed my positivity after 80ish miles.

Rather than dwell too long on my emotional meltdown, I'll simply apologize to my pacer and attribute my grumpiness to a unique combination of hardships. Hopefully, my next 100 miler will have milder weather, nicer scenery, and less sleep deprivation. In fact, I might have to come back to Grindstone next year and see if I can go sub-24 hours!

Here's the bottom line though:


I got my Western States and Hardrock qualifier! I entered both lotteries with one ticket each. Although I was not selected, Grindstone was the first step in the right direction.

Oh, and on a lighter note, I finished Grindstone faster than the NJ Ultra Festival 100. Which means that Ultra Fest should count as a Hardrock qualifier. Rick, take note!

GPS data is on Strava
Official results are here


  1. Ryan lies! Usually when I sing and dance during his races he grunts at me but during this race he was at such a low point that he didn't even acknowledge my singing and dancing. It was so hard to watch. I am so proud of him for finishing this race and I can't wait for the day when I get to sing and dance for him on the Western and Hardrock courses!

    1. I was quietly grunting. Although I was also panting and wheezing constantly, so the grunts were probably indistinguishable.

  2. Awesome report Ryan! And awesome race! Sorry I couldn't be there for this one although it sounds like it was a good one to miss with regards to the weather. Hope I can be at the next one! Congratulations!!!

    1. Definitely a good one to miss. I think you already fulfilled your lifetime bad weather quota at Ultra Fest.

  3. Amazing! Truly amazing, Ryan! Congratulations again! Hopefully you get your lottery and I'll go cheer you on next time!

  4. Brother... Don't follow the little woodland animals. They will lead you astray. The chickens were real though.

  5. Ry what an amazing recounting of this event! I laughed, I cried, I shivered from the rain memories, and I got goosebumps recalling seeing you emerge from the woods at the aid stations and crossing the finish line. I remain in awe of you for these spectacular accomplishments and also of Alex for her big nasty runs alongside you. Being a part of your 100 milers is some of the best/worst moments of my life. So proud of you Ry Ry! XO

    1. Thanks for coming out to crew for me mom! Hopefully the next one has nicer weather for you.