Redemption at Grindstone

This is my first attempt at a race report. I promise to improve with time. If you’re going to be running it and are most interested in a description of the terrain, scroll down to the very bottom for my attempt at doing so. 

The Government is Against Us

I had the goal of getting a Hardrock qualifier at Bighorn in June. I went into that race feeling very well trained, but I had a bit of a spectacular collapse. I might get around to writing about that, but basically, I think I underestimated the heat and the altitude. Then, in my wooziness, I ended up rolling my ankle badly twice in the night near the turnaround, and hobbling my way to a DNF at mile 66. Grindstone would be my redemption, I hoped.

I spent much of the early part of September worrying about a government shutdown, which had canceled the race in 2013. As the days rolled on, I began to accept the possibility of the race being canceled. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to get that qualifier, but oh well, I could try to do The Wild Oak Trail 100 later in October, and it wasn’t the end of the world–I’m not going to get into Hardrock for another 7+ years anyways…

But ultimately, a deal was reached to fund the government (nice job guys!) and the race was on. The forecast looked brutal for the weekend–the outer edges of Hurricane Joaquin were supposed to dump several inches of rain. It looked to be a pretty miserable race–which I’d also sort of accepted–but then the Forest Service, due to the weather, revoked the race’s permit at the last minute; foiled by the government again.

Of course, RD Clark Zealand did his thing and was ultimately able to reschedule the race for the following weekend, so now it was really really going to happen. With all the up and downs, I actually went into the race pretty relaxed. I wasn’t thinking too much about how I’d do; I was just happy to be running.

Chickens to Slaughter

With the rescheduling, my plans for getting down there and having a crew also had to be shuffled a bit, but it actually ended up working well. My good friend Justin would drive me down to the start, crew me up to North River Gap outbound, then head home to be a responsible father. Keli would drive down after work, spend the night somewhere, and crew me from North River Gap inbound to the finish. Another good friend Adam also planned on meeting me at North River Gap or later and pacing for some section.

Justin picked me up around 8:30am and we were on our way. We wanted to get down there before noon so we could visit Polyface Farms, which is under 10 minutes from the start and is the anti-factory farm. We saw some truly cage-free / free-range chickens along with rabbits, ducks and a solitary goose. We watched a few chickens meet their maker–not too pretty, but much better than a factory farm, and a good reminder if I was in pain in the next 24+ hours that things could be worse. We loaded up on some eggs, bacon, chicken and steaks–good gifts to buy pacers / crew–and headed to the start.

Free range chickens
Free range chickens
bees
T.J.

As usual, the “mandatory” pre-race was not in fact mandatory. It was, however, relatively short and painless, and they spend about half the time raffling off maybe  ~20-30 decent prizes (including headlamps, packs, patagonia gear), of which I won zero.

We parked up the hill, reclined our seats and talked about non-running stuff (which had been the theme all morning). I had slept maybe 6 hours the night before and had been awake since 6am. Around 3:30, I tried to nap a little, but despite some serious yawns, it wasn’t really happening. Although I had come into the race very relaxed, I was nervous about the late start, so my tiredness so close to the start was a bit worrisome, but no way to fix that, so I threw on my VHTRC blue and headed down to the start line.

The Start

Storm clouds brewing an hour before the start

Here’s my game face… and then we’re off! It was overcast at the start, and 10-15 minutes in, we started to get a little drizzle. Another 10 minutes in, and the skies opened up. We deserved at least some rain, since we avoided running in a tropical storm the week before. I spent about 5 minutes taking my jacket out of my pack, putting it back in, and repeating this cycle as I sped-walked along. It was pouring, but also still hot, so I decided to hold off for a bit. We cross the train tracks, arrived at the first aid station, and because it was dark and getting colder, I took the time to put on my rain jacket.

A few miles outside the aid station, I had to bite the bullet and wade through the first unavoidable creek crossing (I’d been able to hop on over rocks until then), so my feet were completely soaked through. Also around this time, I went to take a sip of water from my handheld and noticed that it was basically empty. I had topped off at the aid station and had failed to screw the top on correctly. Since it was raining, I hadn’t noticed that I was spilling water all over myself. I had some mixed Perpetuem in another handheld, but I definitely had less water than I would’ve liked with ~8 miles to go to the next aid station. I managed to stay relaxed though and forced myself to take it slow.

Running at night as well as my fear of rolling an ankle also kept my pace pretty conservative towards the start. I tried to settle into a steady power hike on the uphills, take it nice and slow on the downhills to save my legs and avoid catastrophe, and my run was pretty uneventful through North River Gap. Mentally it was a huge help to see Justin at Dowells Draft. I took the time to change into some dry socks (and throughout the race, I did a pretty good job of readjusting my socks when they got bunched up).

At North River Gap, I bid farewell to Justin, grabbed my cellphone to text Keli on my way back (never got reception up there) and snap photos of the gorgeous views (we were in a cloud most of the time) and headed up the long climb to Little Bald. After some long solitary climbing, I caught up with Amy Rusiecki who was the lead female. She’s the RD at Vermont, which had been my first 100 the previous year, so we talked a bit about that as we trudged along the muddy fire roads. It was super foggy at times with just a few feet of visibility.

Ankle Fail

I punched my bid at the top of Reddish Knob. Unfortunately, it was too foggy / cloudy (and fortunately too early) for any pictures so I headed off to the turnaround. The fire road turns it to a paved road for a portion of this, so I took the time to tune out. Big mistake: I stepped onto the edge of a pothole and managed to roll my ankle. I was pretty mad at myself, but it wasn’t too bad of a roll, so I walked it off for a minute and kept on going.

Low Point

Coming back from the turnaround, I started to feel the lowest I had yet. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, the aid at the turnaround had been kind of weak so I didn’t have enough calories. This portion is all relatively flat, so you feel obligated to run, but I just couldn’t.  I had a minor pity party for myself from as I power walked and jogged as much as I could back towards Little Bald. I passed two fellow Wussies WHTom and then Todd–he had decided to make Grindstone his first 100, which was an inspiring decision–both on their way out.

Finally made my way into the Little Bald aid station, where I grabbed some soup and sat down by the fire. I took off my shoes and socks, dried them by the flames for a minute, but making sure not to waste too much time, put everything back on and headed on. I’d taken some Advil earlier and though my feet and legs were hurting, I told myself out loud that this was all manageable pain and it wasn’t going to get any worse, so just suck it up and go.

High Point(s)

My peptalk seemed to work and I further reminded myself that both Keli and a new pair of socks waiting for me at North River Gap. I think I was even more excited about seeing Keli than I was about getting new socks, which is saying a lot, because… dry socks, right? Downhills like this always take a toll on phsycial and mental toll on me, but I took it slow, managed not to roll an ankle, and finally emerged in the parking lot where my socks (and wife) were waiting for me.

leaving north river gap
Heading out of North River Gap (mile 66)

Once again I sat by the fire and dried my feet a bit while eating some delicious Perogis. I learned that Keli hadn’t been able to find a motel in the area (apparently every school in the region had homecoming or parents’ weekend), so she had slept in her car (without proper clothes / sleeping bags / blankets) so bonus points for her! Adam, my pacer, was parking, having driven from DC that morning as I was getting my shoes laced up. Perfect timing

When preparing for the race, I really didn’t know how fast I could run it, so a week before, I’d created some estimated pace charts ranging from 24 hours to 30 hours. These were very rough estimates based off of 2 random people’s splits as published in their race reports (the results site seemed to be down leading up to the race). Based on those charts, I was on about a 25+ hour pace. I’d also made it to the turn-around in just over 12 hours, so I wasn’t expecting to break 24 hours. I didn’t care much at that point and ~25 hours would get me in before or around sunset, which is what I cared most about. I figured I had a good shot at that.

So Adam and I headed off taking it easy for the first several miles. We talked about non-running stuff and enjoyed the fall colors. I had ditched my phone, so I didn’t get any pics, but in the daylight, you are completely surrounded by vivid yellows, oranges, and reds.

As we were making our way up the gradual incline, we came across the 2nd place female who we played leap frog with for a bit. Amy was still first female, but I wasn’t sure where she was. I thought to myself how glad I was that I wasn’t in a position where I felt compelled to really race the final 25-30 miles of this race.

coming into dowells
Cruising into Dowells (mile 80)

We took down some delicious bbq sandwiches at the Lookout Mountain aid station and continued our way up. I was looking forward to the 3 or 4 miles leading downhill into Dowells Draft. The night before I remembered power-walking / jogging up the smooth gently inclined trail and thinking how fun it would be to run down. Finally, we crested the hill and began the descent.

This was the most fun I had all day. It was, as I remembered, a super smooth trail and a very gentle decline. We’d done a lot of walking, so I had some energy saved up, and I let myself go a little bit on this section. We slowed down to pass a few mountain bikers, and they stepped off to the side when they passed us back, but apart from that, I cranked out a few fast miles down into Dowells, giving my pacer a bit of an intro to trails.

All Alone

Adam had to get back to DC, but the 15 miles he’d put in with me were hugely helpful. I ditched my pack and would just carry handhelds from here on out. We were at mile 80, and it was just about 1:00pm, meaning to break 24, I had five hours to do 20 miles. 20/5 = 4mph = 15:00 min / miles. Totally do-able. Half a mile out of the aid station, I remembered I actually had ~21.5 (not 20) miles and I couldn’t do that type of math in my head.

Two big climbs to go. Heading up the first, I saw two runners (racer + pacer) hiking their way up. I got a bit of a competitive kick and was determined to power past them. I sped-hiked / jogged uphill until a few minutes later, I caught up. It was Amy and her pacer; she asked about the 2nd place woman, and I relayed the fact that #2 had entered Dowells as I was leaving.

The next 15 miles were up and down terrestially, and mentally. The giddiness I had in Dowells was tempered by the steep climbs and steep descents, but I managed to stay nourished enough never to crash hard (though I did have my moments of weakness). Got a few minor hallucinations (black rocks were big black labradors, bushes were tent camps), nothing too cool. Leaving Dry Branch Gap, I thought I had a decent shot at 24, but again, my math skills were hazy.

I made it to the top of the last climb and somehow shut out the pain of running down that steep gravel road. Owww. Made it to the trail where I continued to run as hard as I could downhill. Sloshed through the creek, and emerged from the woods to the final aid station in 22:35, having beaten Keli there–she had stopped in town for a minute. Grabbed some water and left my second handheld at the aid station hoping Keli would pick it up. As I was about to leave, she showed up. I got a good luck kiss, told her I was going to go get sub 24 and off I went for the last 5 miles.

I had no idea what place I was in, but I thought I could’ve been close to top 10 and my competitive juices kicked in when I saw a runner walking up ahead. I figured I could motor past him, which I did only, to have somebody else come flying past me with 2 miles to go. (Jeremy Alsop, I salute you). I popped out of the woods, with a crowd of one (Keli!) cheering me on. Crossed the dam and climbed my way out, hearing the voices of Amy and her pacer close behind me. Keli ordered me not to get caught, so I dropped my water bottle and took off sprinting for last quarter mile to the finish, crossing the line in 23:36.

Emerging from the dam
eyeing the finish
Eyeing the finish w/ 1/4 mile to go

Overall, the race went as well as I could have hoped for. Pretty much everything fell into place with only a handful of lows that are inevitable over this distance, and there is very little I would have / could have changed about how I ran it. Got myself a Hardrock Qualifier and some Bighorn redemption. It’s a great race that I’d recommend and would probably run again.

Big big thanks to:

  • Justin for driving me down, keeping my mind off the race for the many hours leading up to it, and crewing me for the first 1/3.
  • Adam for pacing those 15 miles and giving me some good company on an otherwise pretty solitary run.
  • Keli for crewing me the final third, driving me home while I faded in and out of consciousness and for just being so supportive of my running in general.
  • Clark Zealand for pulling the race off with several setbacks.
  • All the volunteers for doing their thing.
  • All the WUSsies for helping me get used to evening runs (I just treated this race as a long Tuesday night run).

Things I did well

  1. Took care of my feet well, adjusting socks when they got bunched up and changed socks at miles 22, 36, 66. Took the time to adjust them on the trail, but didn’t waste much time doing so.
  2. Started slow and was able to run the second half faster than the first. 37th place after ~15 miles; 12th place at the finish.
  3. Stayed positive throughout. Tried to be cheerful at all aid stations.

Things I learned

  1. I think I like evening starts (sample size = 1). Starting at night helped keep me slow. Running the second half in daylight was mentally helpful.
  2. I’m better on uphills than downhills. I generally passed people going up and got passed going down. Think I could work on technical downhills a bit.
  3. I think I could improve my nutrition planning. I made a spreadsheet that I was able to stick to pretty well through the first half, but I let it fall apart a little on the back side. I’d like to find something that’s a little more palatable late in a race. I love me some Clif bars, but #7-10 were painful to take down.
  4. I love my Salomon Speedcrosses. I wore them the whole time, and their grip gave me a lot of confidence on the trails. I did not lose my footing once and the course was wet throughout.
totem pole
Great success!

****COURSE DESCRIPTION****

The elevation map tells you 90% of what you need to know. If you live nearby, it’s worth trying to make it out to the MMB50K which covers some of the course, and is a pretty fair representation of 1/3 of the course. So think of Grindstone as 3 MMBs.

Start – Falls Hollow (~5.2 miles): You begin by running out of Camp Shenandoah and turning right along a grass section on the edge of Hope Lake. When you reach the corner of the lake, there’s a kind-of hairpin turn at the end of the dam where you drop down towards a stream and have to climb back up a few paces later. A big bottleneck forms here, so you can either sprint towards the front to minimize your wait, or, alternatively, come to grips early on that it’s going to be a long day and just relax! This section is a mix of smooth camp trail / fire road / double-track and some slightly rocky sections along a creek, which I was able to navigate without getting my feet wet. You’ll cross over some train tracks just before the aid station.

Falls Hollow – Dry Branch Gap (~9.5 miles): Darkness falls. Fire road for a mile or so, then you’ll get onto single track that runs along a creek. I managed to keep my feet dry early on but there was one section where it was unavoidable (both in the dark and then later on my return in the light), and I had to submerge both feet. Single track leads you away from the creek for another mile or so until you get to a gravel fire road. Steep climb to the top of Elliot Knob (steepest climb you’ll face I think). When you get to three-way intersection, you’re a quarter mile or so from the top. Coming down from Elliot Knob is probably the hairiest section of the course. Lots of rocks (can be loose and slippery, so take it slow, particularly towards the top). As you get closer to Dry Branch Gap, the trail gets better but still worth taking it slow.

Dry Branch – Dowells Draft (~7.5 miles): Steep climb out of the aid station. Single / double track combo with a handful of false peaks until you get to the top in 2-3 miles. Long single track descent down, which is generally smooth with a few rocky sections. When you bottom out, you’ll cross a creekbed once or twice. I was able to avoid water with a little tip-toeing. You’ll cross a short wooden bridge (slippery!), then cross a road, at which point it’s less than a mile up and over a small hill then pop up to the aid station.

Dowells Draft – Lookout Mountain (~8.4 miles): Good smooth single track (fun on the way back down if you have legs), generally just a gradual climb to the top (few short steeper sections). Coming down off the top, the trail turns into a nice runnable fire road (occasional puddles in the tire tracks that could be avoided).

Lookout Mountain – North River Gap (~6.4 miles): Fire road turns into single track (Wild Oak Trail?) soon after aid station. Not-too technical descent down. When you cross the cool little suspension bridge, you’re a few minutes away from popping out onto the road that leads down to North River Gap, which is the biggest aid station and a good place to leave a drop bag / meet crew.

North River Gap – Little Bald (~7.8 miles): Pretty nice single track 7 miles up to the top (elevation profile tells the story) then fire road off the top for a mile. Can be very foggy at the top.

Little Bald – Reddish Knob (~4.5 miles): all fire road. Puddles / mud in the tire tracks can be avoided but it can be super foggy. When you climb up to punch your bib, the punch was attached a reflective streamer on the guard rail on your left as run up the road (some people reported trouble finding it in the dark).

Reddish Knob – Turn Around (~2.5 miles): all fire road, much of which is paved, but there are some potholes, so don’t tune out completely like I did.

The terrain stays the same on the return trip. Take it slow on the way down to North River Gap!

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