Thursday, November 29, 2018

Anatomy of a Meltdown - Grindstone 2018

"100 miles is not that far." —Karl Meltzer, ultrarunning legend
"Fuck off, Karl." —Ryan Thorpe, mid-pack doofus

They say suffering builds character. Well I just built a shit load of character in the mountains of Virginia. To get right to the point, I finished Grindstone in 27:59, a personal worst for the 100 mile distance and a 3+ hour positive split. Along the way I encountered more pain than I've ever experienced in a race.

Not from this race, but still very accurate

It took a while to get around to this post for reasons that will soon become clear. I contemplated burning the (mental) footage of this race, but then I figured it might be useful to list all the things that went wrong for the sake of posterity. You can think of this as an autopsy on the corpse of my race. 

Anyway, here are all my mistakes in chronological order.

Mistake #1: Not Training

After the 2017 Grindstone, I vowed never to toe the line of a 100 mile race without a solid training block under my belt. Training obviously prepares your body for the stress of running 100 miles, but it also gives you the confidence to tackle a huge endeavor like Grindstone.

With this in mind, I put in a four week block with 15,000' of climbing per week in May and then another three week block with 20,000' per week in July. I capped this off with a 15-hour self supported Swan Song Loop in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Elevation profile from one of my harder training runs:
four repeats of Peekamoose Mountain in 85 degree weather.

This would have all been excellent preparation for my original goal race, the Fat Dog 120 in August. However, Fat Dog was canceled due to horrifically bad wildfires that left the entire west coast of North America choked in hazy black smoke for months.

Unable to muster the enthusiasm for another hard training block, and facing work and family commitments that I had put off for months, I slacked off on my training in August and September, and I showed up to Grindstone under-prepared and under-confident.

Mistake #2: Not Acclimating to the Heat

This goes hand in hand with the previous mistake. Grindstone was abnormally hot this year with a heat index that varied from 70-85 degrees. Various estimates say that this temperature range slows runners down by 10-20% unless they make a concerted effort to acclimate before race day. I did not make any such concerted effort, and therefore I suffered. See the race footage below.

Even before my nutritional and chafing woes later in the race, I was never comfortable with the hot humid weather on race day. When I saw Bryan Slotterbach around mile 55 and he asked me how I was feeling, my immediate response was "I feel like shit!"

Mistake #3: Not Testing My Race Gear

Oh boy, this is the big one.

As the old saying goes, "don't do anything new on race day." But as a seasoned 100 mile veteran, I of course know better. Let's break this mistake down a little further:
  • Had I trained in my (relatively) new shoes rather than "saving them for race day," I would have realized that they were full of volcanic dust from a brief run at Mount St. Helens back in August. I also would have realized that this silica rich dust has a tendency to turn my socks into sandpaper and chafe the ever-loving hell out of my feet. I finished Grindstone with blisters on the top and bottom of both feet, as well as severe chafing on the sock line of my ankles. My foot pain was so severe by the end of the race that I could barely walk, let alone run.
  • Had I used my fancy new Salomon soft flasks I would have realized that they are impossible to fill with Tailwind powder, my preferred nutrition. Luckily I had packed an Ultimate Direction flask with a wider mouth. I filled it with a double strength Tailwind mix to make up for the two useless Salomon flasks. This double strength mixture proved to be nauseatingly strong later in the race, causing me to dry heave whenever I took a drink. Unable to take in calories, I hit the wall hard around mile 80 and even ended up having dizzy spells around mile 90. (Cheers to my family, who didn't know about that last part until just now!)
Seriously, how TF are you supposed to get
anything other than water into that opening!?

Mistake #4: Not Getting Enough Sleep

Grindstone is somewhat unique in that it has a 6pm Friday start time. For night owls like me, this is not usually an issue since it gets the nighttime running out of the way early in the race. My typical pre-race plan is to drive down on Thursday night, sleep in as late as possible on Friday, and start the race feeling fresh.

Well... I drove down late on Thursday as planned and arrived at 2am. To save money, I booked a room at a local Airbnb. The house was beautiful, but my "room" was an alcove that was separated from the living area by just a curtain. At 7am the owner's very friendly dog came sniffing around to inspect the new human (me) that was staying in his house. I woke up to a wet nose in my ear, which was really cute but not the best way to start a 40+ hour day.

Mistake #5: Not Having a Crew

Okay, this is not really a mistake. But I did underestimate the importance of having a crew. This was my first 100 mile race that Alex was not able to attend. I knew that crews saved me valuable time at aid stations and provided much needed moral support, but I didn't appreciate all the problem solving that a crew does in order to get a runner to the finish line.

Including dealing with gross foot issues.

In 100 mile races, small problems can rapidly turn into big problems. And this race was an endless parade of small problems that I was not equipped to deal with on my own.

Alex, please come back!

Mistake #6: Killing My Car Battery

This is not really related to my race performance, but I did manage to kill my battery by charging my phone and playing the radio before the start of the race. By the time I realized what I had done, the race was about to start and there was nothing I could do to fix the issue. Some nice volunteers helped me jump it afterwards, but this stupid issue was on my mind for the entire 28 hours I was on the course.

Mistake #7: Not Fixing Small Issues

I don't like stopping during races. I typically limit myself to 1-2 sock changes in a 100 miler and otherwise I don't sit down at all. Sitting breaks up my momentum in a way that I often have trouble recovering from.

There's plenty of time to sit after the race
Photo taken by Alex in 2017 (obviously happier times)

However, this was one of those races where an extra 5-10 minutes at a few aid stations would have saved me a lot of time and trouble later on. I had extra socks stashed at the 66 mile aid station which I opted not to use because I didn't want to sit. I also could have taken some time to eat and drink to make up for my other nutrition issues. Instead, I stubbornly pushed on, getting progressively slower until I could barely walk forward.

Mistake #8: Doing It All Over Again

I have visited the pain cave in previous races. I would even say that I'm well acquainted with it. But this race was where I finally made a permanent residence in the pain cave. Or at least built a summer home.

Despite all this, I'm already dreaming of next year's races. So, obviously I haven't learned my lesson at all. I'm not sure what 2019 will bring, but I have some big things in mind.