Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Redemption at the Grindstone 100

"At least this is a pretty place to die!"
Photo by Alex

A well executed race is a controlled collapse, or a gradual emptying of a fuel tank if you prefer.

After tapering and carb loading for a few weeks, my tank is full of gas. Standing at the starting line, I feel invincible. My legs are strong, my energy levels are high, and my enthusiasm is off the charts.

My job is to totally deplete these reserves by the end of the race.

The hard part, aside from timing this collapse juuust right, is to ignore all the warning bells that go off when your tank is close to empty; to override that evolutionary response that says "Hey dumbass, if you keep running, you won't have enough energy to forage for food or fight off a wolf later on!"

A good soundtrack can drown out this voice. That's why I've gotten in the habit of carefully selecting which songs I listen to before a race. Because inevitably, one of them will end up stuck in my head for hours.

A good pacer can also provide motivation, or in certain cases, lie to get you moving. That's why I carefully selected a wife who has endless enthusiasm and no qualms about stretching the truth if it gets me to the finish line faster (Hi Alex!).

Course Details and Goals

Grindstone is a 102 mile out-and-back race along the Shenandoah Mountain ridge in the eastern Alleghenies of Virginia. One of the few east coast qualifiers for Hardrock 100, Grindstone has multiple climbs and descents of 2,000+ feet, for a cumulative elevation gain of 23,000 feet and an equal amount of loss.

Fun fact: The mountain peaks in this region are known as "knobs," and the weary-legged ultra runners who climb them are known as "knob hobblers."

[Note to self - double check last last bit]

Grindstone elevation profile. Crewed aid stations are in blue. Summit bib punches circled in red.

Typical of the east coast, the terrain is mostly rocky single track with a few short stretches of jeep roads and asphalt. The unique aspect of this race is its 6 pm start time, which requires every participant to run through the night. The last finishers, who are on the course up to 38 hours, will run through two sunsets and two sunrises.

Grindstone course map

After a memorable meltdown at the end of last year's race and a 25:39 finish, I vowed to come back and improve on my previous mistakes. My A goals for this year were a sub-24:00 finish, a negative split, and a positive attitude (particularly when dealing with my lovely pacer).

Miles 0-15 featuring friends and gratitude

At 5:50 on Friday afternoon, 250 adventurous souls lined up under a banner at a Boy Scout camp in rural Virginia. Race director Clark Zealand gave a few last minute words of advice, said a quick prayer, and then we were off.

As usual, I had my wife Alex supporting me on the course. Dave (my father in law) also offered to come down to the race at the last minute, which was a huge help for both of us. It provided an extra crew member and meant that Alex had company for the twenty-something hours that I would be on the course.

We're off!
Photo by Eco-X Sports

Clark's pre-race briefing had included a reminder to the runners that we are fortunate to be able to do the crazy things we do. This would become my mantra for the remainder of the race: "I am lucky to be out here. I am lucky that my body allows me to explore the world. I am lucky to have a wife and family that support my adventures."

The early miles of Grindstone are fairly tame compared to the remainder of the race, and I settled into an easy pace running alongside Ryan Espulgar and Guillermo Ayala. Ryan had paced my FKT attempt in September, and I had run with Guillermo at several races earlier in the year. We passed the early miles joking and chatting about race strategies ("Red-line it to the first aid station and then finish strong!").

"Are we almost done? My legs are killing me!"
Photo by Alex (mile 1.5)

Around mile 5, we began the 2,200 foot climb to the summit of Elliott Knob just as the sun was setting. I settled into a steady hiking pace, breathing through my nose to regulate my effort level (a trick that worked well at Vermont and the FKT). Ryan and Guillermo pulled ahead on the climb, and I was alone in the dark on a rural mountain trail.

The night was clear and cool, and the lights of Staunton were visible from the steep mountainside. I was happy to be outside on such a beautiful night. Mile 9 marked the steepest part of the ascent, rising 800 feet. I let out a celebratory cheer when my watch showed my split time: "First 20 minute mile of the day, boys! Woo!" The first of many, I was sure. The other runners within earshot were unenthused.

Shortly before sunset
Photo by Eco-X Sports

Just over two hours into the race, we reached the summit, found the bib punch, and turned around to begin the long descent. I passed Ryan shortly below the top and let it fly on the steep jeep road from the summit. The course quickly turned onto a narrow technical single track trail which was littered with loose jagged rocks. In last year's race, I had run this section in rain and fog, making my ultra shuffle feel like warp speed. This year the rocks were dry, and my view was crystal clear. I flew down the hill, passing a dozen runners in the 1,500 foot descent to the Dry Branch Gap aid station.

I'm so lucky to be out here!

Miles 15-37 featuring the Beatles

I quickly grabbed some orange slices and Coke at the aid station and headed back out into the night. The first climb out of the aid station was "only" 1,000 feet in three miles, which is mild by Grindstone standards. However, it was composed of horrifically steep grassy fire road interspersed with flatter sections where running was possible in 30 second intervals. It was slow going, and once again I was by myself in the pitch black.

Sensing the need for a melancholy soundtrack, my subconscious began playing music on a loop.

Select track --> Oh! Darling / The Beatles

With Paul McCartney silently serenading me, I made steady work of the climb. Hiking hunched over with my hands on my knees, I tapped out the drum part on my thighs. I imagined that the trail was singing to me.

Oh! Darling, please believe me
I'll never do you no harm

"Bullshit," I muttered to myself.

Fifty sullen minutes later, I reached the summit and began the long descent to Dowell's Draft aid station 1,500 vertical feet below. The descent went quickly, interrupted by a few short instances of waiting to pass other runners. For some reason, not everyone approaches downhills with reckless abandon like I do.

I reached Dowell's Draft in 4:50 elapsed, about 20 minutes faster than in 2016.

Oh shit! Did I go out too hard?

"Did I screw up? I think I screwed up."
Photo by Alex

Alex reminded me that the trails were in better shape this year, but I was still a full minute per mile faster than last year. That seemed... aggressive, since I considered the first 80 miles of last year's race to be pretty well paced.

To be on the safe side, I decided to back off the pace for a little while. The next section was a perfect place to reset: a 1,500 foot climb up Hankey Mountain over five miles. I would usually consider this a "douche grade" climb, i.e. a terrain that's right on the border of hiking and running. In this case, it provided a long break from running so I could re-assess my status and take in some calories.

I settled in behind James Doneski, who I had met earlier that day. Alex had made plans to drive James's wife to an aid station so she could pace him later in the race. As luck would have it, we run at a very similar pace. We chatted for a few minutes, but I was driven away by a pair of runners behind us who had chugged warm soda at the previous aid stations and did not seem to be handling it well. Their burps were so loud and frequent that it was starting to make me nauseous. Against my better judgement, I forged ahead on the climb.

I made it to the false summit, then the other false summit, and then the actual summit of Hankey Mountain. The descent was long and meandering, punctuated by short climbs which kept me from getting into a rhythm.

Near the bottom, I caught up to Issac Igenge, and we chatted for the last few miles of the descent. We had never met before, but he recognized me from previous races or maybe from mutual friends. Isaac had only been running ultras for a little over a year, but had already finished the brutally difficult Cruel Jewel 100 and would go on to finish Grindstone just under 25 hours. No doubt he has a bright future in running ahead of him.

I came into North River Gap (mile 37) with 7:46 elapsed, still about 20 minutes ahead of last year's pace. My plan to regroup seemed to have worked, and I felt ready to tackle the signature climb of the course. After refueling, grabbing my trekking poles, and getting some encouragement from Alex and Dave, I set to work on the 3,000 foot climb up Little Bald Knob.

And the crowd goes wild!
Photo by Alex

Miles 37-52 featuring the Beatles (again)

The first pitch of Little Bald Knob climbs over 1,000 feet in 1.3 miles. It took me a few minutes to get used to my trekking poles, but I knew they would help save my legs for the later parts of the race. They tap tap tapped the ground as I started to gain elevation.

Out of the darkness behind me came a flash of color wearing a headlamp and a running skirt. It was Megan Alvarado, who was going for her fifth Grindstone finish. She bounded past me effortlessly.

"Feel free to pass me back when you're feeling more enthusiastic," she said cheerfully.

"I'm good, thanks," I replied, trying hide just how hard I was working. Megan would go on to finish 2nd woman, improving on her previous course PR by half an hour. Badass!

I caught up to a few other other runners as I climbed, and a handful of them latched onto me, following me closely up the mountain. At first it made me self conscious. I kept asking if they wanted to pass, but eventually it occurred to me that they liked the pace I was setting. As usual, my subconscious found a perfect song for the occasion.

Select track --> Something / The Beatles

Sing it, George:

Something in the way [he] moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way [he] woos me

Clearly George Harrison was referring to the fact that I'm a perfect pace setter. This is the only interpretation that makes sense.

The seven mile climb took just over two hours, for an average pace of 17:00/mi. Thankfully, I had my watch set to display altitude rather than mile pace, having learned my lesson from last year. Sometimes, you shouldn't know how fast (or how slow) you're moving. We crested the mountain and ran another two miles along the ridge, reaching the Little Bald Knob aid station (mile 45) with 10:15 elapsed.

After hiking through the dark for so long, it was nice to see something that resembled civilization. I wanted to linger, but alas, I had a job to do. I refueled, told the volunteers some stupid jokes, and ran back into the darkness.

This section is when I started to see the race leaders running back toward me (except for the eventual winner Avery Collins. He had passed me miles earlier, running at course record pace!). I cheered them on as they passed by, which probably bolstered my enthusiasm more than theirs.

The next few miles of rolling jeep road were uneventful. I tagged the summit of Reddish Knob at mile 49, found the bib punch, and trotted effortlessly down the paved road to the North River Gap aid station at the turnaround.

Miles 52-80 featuring beer and sunrise

I hit the half way point in 11:41, which meant that a negative split was probably out of the question. I had run a little too hard in the first half, but I was still in a good position to finish under 24 hours if I held it together.

I changed my socks for the first and only time in the race and chugged an All Day IPA. After ingesting nothing but sweet fluids and fruit for 12 hours straight, the slightly bitter taste of an IPA was amazingly refreshing. Plus, it was after 5 o'clock* which meant that it was socially acceptable to drink.

*in the morning, but whatever

There's no better feeling in the world than a new pair of socks.
Photo by Alex

I left my trekking poles with Alex and Dave, and I set off in the direction that I came from. I climbed up Reddish Knob in the dark, but as I traversed back along the ridge the sun began to peak over the horizon.

Before the race, I had joked with Alex that I couldn't wait to see the course. I had spent almost 26 hours in these mountains during the 2016 race, but the fog, rain, and darkness obscured the panoramic views that I had heard so much about. Finally in 2017, after 38 lifetime hours on the Grindstone course, I got my first glimpse of the area. It was worth the wait!

Runners at the summit of Reddish Knob at daybreak
Photo by Eco-X Sports

The scattered clouds on the horizon caught the rays from the rising sun and painted a beautiful pink and orange pattern across the sky. I had to remind myself to keep an eye on the ground in front of me, lest I trip and break something.

Pulling into Little Bald Knob aid station for the second time, I was full of energy. The aid station volunteers filled my bottles for me while I grabbed a fresh breakfast burrito from the buffet table that they had set out. Life was good.

I'm so lucky to be out here!

I began the relentless 3,000 foot descent shortly afterward. Last year, this section had decimated my quads, which prevented me from running the final descents in the race. This year, I focused on keeping my cadence high, using short rapid steps to control my speed the way a car uses anti-lock brakes. It seemed endless, and there were short but steep climbs which regularly broke up my momentum, but eventually I heard the cheers from aid station in the distance.

I reached North River Gap (mile 65) with 15:04 elapsed. The 15 mile section since the turnaround had taken 3:23 on the return trip, as opposed to 3:55 on the outbound trip. This meant that I had a 30 minute cushion to run an even split. Would it be enough? (hint: no)

So far, so good. But still so far to go...
Photo by Alex

It was now 9 am, and the weather was starting to heat up. The temperature overnight had been an ideal 50 degrees with low humidity and just the right amount of wind. Now the forecasts called for 80 degree temperatures with moderate humidity. As planned, Alex tied an ice bandanna around my neck, which provided immediate relief.

I started to feel very optimistic about my race. I knew that the next 15 mile section had some nice runnable downhill miles, and after that I would get to run with Alex for the rest of the day. Things were looking good!

The next nine miles were a long gradual uphill back to the summit of Hankey Mountain. Again, it was hard to settle into a rhythm since the course constantly oscillated between uphill and downhill sections. My mile splits were all over the place, but Strava shows that I was maintaining an even 11:00-12:00 grade adjusted pace, so I was still moving well.

I was elated when I finally reached the summit of Hankey Mountain, because I knew that only four downhill miles separated me from Dowell's Draft, where Alex would finally join me as a pacer. My goal was to make it there with about 18:00 elapsed, which would put me 80 minutes ahead of last year's splits. This would give me a decent shot of finishing under 24 hours.

It took a mile to get back into the groove of running, but I managed to click off three sub-11:00 miles during the meandering descent, my quads now starting to complain noticeably. I still kept my breathing in check, knowing that I had - at best - another six hours left on the course.

I rolled into Dowell's (mile 80) with 18:14 on the clock, a little slower than I had planned but still within spitting distance of my coveted 24 hour finish. I grabbed my trekking poles again, replaced my ice bandanna, and then charged back into the woods with Alex by my side.

Miles 80-97 featuring Alex and little white lies

We now had 5 hours and 46 minutes to cover 22 miles. Ordinarily this would be no problem for us, but this final section had a dastardly 5,000 feet of climbing, and my legs had already been through 80 miles of abuse. Well, here goes nothing!

We got off to a good start on the climb up to Crawford Mountain, keeping pace with the runners around us. Our watches showed mile splits of around twenty minutes, but this was to be expected on the steep terrain. The question was whether we could make up time on the downhills.

The endless climb up Crawford Mountain
Photo by Alex

Like the climb up Little Bald, I kept an eye on our altitude so as not to be fooled by the numerous false summits along the way. At 3,600 feet, we had finally reached the top after 90 minutes of climbing. We now had to negotiate the extremely steep grassy fire road down to Dry Branch Gap.

The initial (easy) part of the descent was a welcome reprieve from climbing. However, the steeper sections, which had grades up to 25%, were hellish on my sore legs. I used my trekking poles to take some of the brunt of the impact, but my quads still screamed with every step. Even Alex was amazed by how steep the trail was in this section. Apparently, we had both blocked it out of our memories.

We reached Dry Branch Gap (mile 87) with 20:14 elapsed, almost exactly two hours since we had left Dowell's. The temperature was now in the mid-80's, and Alex and I had run out of water long before reaching the aid station. I chugged another half of an All Day IPA to stave off dehydration. Safety first. Then I grabbed a fresh ice bandanna from Dave and soaked my face and back with a freezing cold sponge from our cooler. It was heavenly!

We got back on the trail, knowing that only one massive climb and descent separated us from the finish line. We now had 3:46 to cover 15 miles. It had taken 4:15 last year, so we would have to push. I figured the final (relatively flat) five miles could be done in about 1:15, which left us about 2:30 to do the 10 mile climb and descent of Elliot Knob. (This is the kind of mental math that I tend to do near the end of races.)

The scenery was a welcome distraction from my aching legs
Photo by Alex

We climbed for twenty minutes, and I waited for that familiar beep from my watch that indicated I had moved a mile. Nothing. A few more minutes passed. Still nothing. Finally...

Beep! 24:04. "Fuck!"

Stay positive. You knew you were going to slow down on this climb.

I pushed a little harder, allowing myself to breathe hard for the first time all day.

Beep! 23:38. "Oh for the love of..."

I was crashing. My legs were totally out of energy. My brain was baking in the sun. I hadn't trained enough for this. What was I thinking, aiming for 24 hours? I told Alex I just wanted to hike in to the finish. We could relax and enjoy the scenery. 25 hours was still a nice round number, and it wouldn't require me to suffer as much.

"Okay," she said, "but keep moving."

It would take us an hour and forty minutes to cover the 4.5 mile ascent. Our pace never dipped under 20:00/mile the entire time. I now had 50 minutes to cover the steep 4+ mile descent to the next aid station before my self imposed deadline, but I wasn't even sure if I was capable of running any more.

"Just walk for a bit and try to get your legs moving," Alex suggested.

I tip-toed gingerly down the precipitous fire road, using my trekking poles liberally. My quads shouted at me and swore in languages I'm not familiar with.

Gradually my cadence increased and I began to pick up speed. The angry cursing subsided and dulled to a resentful murmur. I eventually broke into a feeble jog. I put my head down and focused on keeping my legs moving.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming swimming swimming.
Photo by Alex

After a while, Alex glanced at her watch and said "You only have one more mile until the aid station, and almost twenty minutes to do it!" She took the lead and started to set a more aggressive pace.

This was encouraging. Maybe I could still do this! I picked up my pace a bit and dropped a 11:56 mile, my fastest in the last few hours.

Alex glanced at her watch again, "Oh, wait, sorry..."

"What, why?" I asked.

"I think I was off by a mile," she responded sheepishly.

Well, I wasn't going to waste the effort of the previous mile. I pushed a little harder, passing Alex on a wide section of trail.

"On your left!" I chirped as I pushed ahead.

She stuck with me, and together we ran a 10:03 mile, my fastest split in over 11 hours. We reached the aid station with exactly 70 minutes left to break 24 hours. I wasn't sure if that was enough time, but I was damn sure ready to find out.

Miles 97-102 featuring Mark Ronson and Mystikal

I left the aid station before Alex and pushed hard on the last climb of the race, which was 500 feet in just over a mile. My legs still weren't responding well, but I knew I could push harder as soon as the trail went back downhill. I huffed and puffed with every step. Visions of crossing the line in 24:00:01 flashed through my head. This motivated me to push even harder.

After 20 minutes of climbing, I reached the top of the hill with Alex 100 yards behind me. I wasn't sure how far I had left to go. This was really going to be close. I took off.

From behind me came Alex's voice, getting farther away every second:

"You have 50 minutes to do four miles!"

That's 12:30/mi. This is going to hurt. I'm gonna need some serious pump up music.

Select track --> Feel Right / Mark Ronson ft. Mystykal

I'll let Mystikal take over the narration for a moment:

Take a second to wipe my sweat
Might be the only chance you get to catch your breath
Don't get too comfortable in here
Better believe I'm bringing back the rumble in here
Just when you thought you could cool down and sip some of that water


And just like that, I was back. The pain evaporated from my legs. I ran hard. A light rain started, making the trails slick, but providing welcome relief from the heat.

Feel right in this motherfucker!

Mile 99 - 11:45

Jagged wet rocks littered the trail, but my legs were responding to my commands for the first time in hours. I hopped through them like a football player doing a tire drill. My breathing grew ragged.

Feel good in this motherfucker!

Mile 100 - 10:30

I had banked some time, but this was still going to be close. I pushed even harder, throwing myself down the final rocky descents. I was seeing stars. Warning bells were going off in my head. I drowned them out with music.

My whole hood in this motherfucker!

Mile 101 - 10:22

I passed by the sign marking 1.5 miles to the finish with 23:35 elapsed. For the first time in hours, I allowed myself to believe that sub-24 was possible. I still pushed hard, just in case my timing or the sign were wrong. Finally, I emerged from the woods to find Alex waiting for me. She had taken a shortcut to catch up, and we now had 10 minutes to cover the last quarter mile.

And we gon' rock this motherfucker!

Mile 102 - 11:44

"I cannot fucking believe I'm going to do this!" I yelled as Alex rejoined me. I had a huge smile on my face.

The final hundred yards to the finish line was up a slight grassy slope. With a final burst of adrenaline, I threw down my trekking poles and sprinted across the line, crossing in 23:52:59.

Photo by Eco-X Sports

Alex immediately wrapped me up in a hug. It was a perfect ending to a perfectly brutal race.

We did it!
Photo by Eco-X Sports

Strava data
Official results

Post Race and Final Thoughts

Unlike last year, I remembered to thank Clark for organizing a first class race (rather than berating him for making it so damn difficult).

And unlike Vermont, I was able to walk around without feeling like my calves were going to tear apart. So that was nice.

I had laid out my goals for the race in my previous blog post. To summarize:

  1. Sub-24 hours
  2. Negative split
  3. Stay positive
On that first point, there's no question that I achieved my A goal. I'm ecstatic with how well I executed the race, and I'm extremely thankful for Alex and Dave's help, which saved valuable time and kept me in good spirits.

While I didn't run a negative split, I wasn't far off. My first half was 11:41, and my second half was 12:12. We'll call that close enough.

As for staying positive, I had a few sullen moments and a serious low point on the final big climb, but overall I maintained a pretty good outlook on the race and treated Alex and Dave with the gratitude they deserved. My biggest issue here was a lack of proper training before the race, which left me without much confidence in myself. I don't intend to make this mistake again.

These two are rock stars!

Gear and Nutrition

I improved on a few things in this race that are worth noting. There are also some things that I need to work on.

What Went Right

  • I used two headlamps for most of the night. One around my head and another around my waist. This provided better contrast on the rocky sections, allowing me to barrel down technical descents to my heart's content. To extend their battery life I turned the brightness down whenever I hiked uphill. This allowed me to avoid swapping batteries on the trail. I just grabbed a new set of headlamps from Alex whenever I saw her.
  • I also wore two pairs of socks at all times. First a layer of thin synthetic Injinjis to protect my toes, and then thicker Drymax socks over the top to absorb sweat and provide additional cushioning. This worked perfectly, and I only had to change socks once at the half way point. If the race were wetter, I probably would have planned 1-2 additional sock changes to be safe.
  • For the first time in a race, I used trekking poles in strategic segments (I also used them at NJ Ultrafest 100, but this was out of necessity when the trails turned to mush). This helped to save my legs early in the race and also allowed me to push harder late in the race when my quads were fatigued.
  • My nutrition was about the same as always (200 cal Tailwind + 20 oz. water per hour), but I've been getting better about forcing this down whether I'm hungry/thirsty or not. I am also getting better about eating real food at aid stations. Plus I discovered the magic of drinking beer at aid stations (hey, it works for Camille Herron!). The combined effect of all this has improved  my energy levels late in races.
  • Aside from a slightly-too-spicy start, my pacing was pretty good. I'm starting to get a feel for my all day pace, and regulating my breathing seems to be the key. It's a little frustrating to hold back so much early in the race, but it pays off handsomely when I'm still able to run after 20+ hours.
  • My mental fortitude is getting better. And I don't just mean the ability to suffer. By deliberately contemplating how grateful I was to be out on the trails with the support of my family, I was able to stay positive for almost the entire race.

What Needs Work

  • My training was inadequate. Due to a combination of lingering injuries from Vermont 100 and personal/family obligations in August and September, I just didn't put in as many miles as I should have. I finished under my time goal thanks to residual fitness from my winter/spring training as well as a willingness to suffer for a long time. But the lack of training hurt my confidence, leading to a near-meltdown at the end of the race.
  • Uphill hiking has always been my weakness. I should probably spend some time in the gym doing squats, deadlifts, and lunges. But let's be honest. I'm not going to do any of those things. So instead I'll just say that I'm going to do a lot more hill repeats before my next mountain race.

Next Up

One month later, I ran the NYC marathon (race report incoming), and in a few days I'll end my racing season with Frozen Fools 50K. I've been taking a much needed break from hard training since Grindstone, so these races are mostly for the experience of running in cool places with cool people.

Happy running!