101.85 miles (23,000' elevation gain)
October 9, 2015
20 hours 58 minutes; 2nd place overall
The Grindstone 100 in Virginia is the closest qualifier for the Hardrock 100 to New England and has a huge amount of elevation gain. Much of the course is on singletrack trails, many of which are rocky, rooty and leafy! While the elevation change is relentless there are no extended, super steep sections of the course. With a 6pm start time in the fall when the nights are getting longer it is an enduring overnight in the woods! Like most ultra events the participants and the organizers feel like family by the time you are laying in the grass at the finish. For my first mountain 100 miler this race was beyond expectations in terms of the course, people, and how my body held up.
Up to Race Day
I was psyched that the Grindstone could be rescheduled a week after its original date due to the rains on the east coast. However, it did mean that my taper was not perfect for this race. My body was ready to go the weekend prior and I felt almost lethargic during the last week before the race. I didn't want to throw in any longer runs, but I was feeling stale. After an 11 miler on Saturday I backpacked for two days, then got one more run in before taking off in the car for the 10 hour drive down to Swoope, VA from Vermont with Hillary. We stayed in the Motel 6 about 30 minutes away from the start on Thursday night. We found a small Mexican restaurant and I had a huge chimichanga with the works. A perfect prerace meal! We slept in for a bit on Friday morning, stocked up on Subway then headed up to the start area around midday. It is a bit strange starting a race at 6pm. People were just hanging out, trying to sleep a bit, eat, hydrate, but really just wanted to get going! I was worried about being overtired near the end of the race since I would be awake for about 8-9 hours before the start, but my fake napping in the field during the day seemed to work okay. Footlong at 2p, snacks all day, and lots of Nuun ... before I knew it 5p was approaching. Partly sunny and cool in the 50s, perfect.
At 6p we were off for the last bit of sunlight. I started off in the top 6 or so from the start and stuck with a group of four for an hour. As light started to diminish the rain turned on for an hour and left us in a wet fog for the rest of the night. My heart rate was out of my shirt for the first 30 miles or so of the race even though I was feeling pretty comfortable. I thought something was wrong with my HR monitor, but then it gradually came down. I think the extended taper may have had something to do with it? After a gradual initial climb and small descent into Falls Hollow at 5 miles we started up a 2300' foot climb in just over 4 miles. Some of this was on a gravel/dirt forest road that was pretty steep, but with good footing it felt like a fairly short push before we had to stamp our bib at the top of the climb.
First big descent
It was a long, rocky, dark, slippery descent down from the top of the climb with the trail thick with leaf litter. I got caught behind a slower descender for a while (which was probably a good thing!) before arriving at Dry Branch Gap (mile 10.5) in 5th place. I knew my pace was a bit fast at this point (~10:45 pace), but I was starting to run alone and was just doing what was comfortable. More climbing, then descending as I kept my place in 5th I could see multiple headlamps not too far in front of me as I entered Dowlls Draft at mile 22. I was 6 minutes back from the leader (Brian Rusiecki), which wasn't dictating my pace. It was a big bump to come in to the first crew aid station near the front! Tons of people lined the sides of the trail in chairs, cheering, cooking, etc. as I came through!! It is so surreal to be in this small cone of light, alone in the woods concentrating on the trail and where your feet need to go then all of a sudden hear bells and cheers from spectators. By surreal I mean awesome and bizarre! It was great to see Hillary and her excitement as she restocked me with Nuun and food for the next 14 miles. I was burning more calories than was sustainable for the long haul with my high heart rate, but I continued to eat GU, granola bars, and cereal bars at a pretty high pace.
Over the next 8 miles I passed three people and moved into second place to my surprise. With smaller climbs and descents with good footing I was able to keep a fast (too fast!) pace at ~10:40 coming in to mile 30 in second place overall. It was wet and very foggy, but I was feeling really good. I continued at the same pace over the next six miles as I met up with Hillary at North River Gap. This is a big stock up point since I wouldn't see Hillary for another 7 hours or so. It was just past midnight and we switched up my headlamp even though I only had it on for the last 6 miles. I had one more stashed in a drop bag at the next aid station too just in case. At this point I was just a couple minutes behind Brian, the leader.
Running up front
Shortly after the aid station I could see Brain's light as I began to catch up to him. We talked a bit and I just stayed on his heals. He gave me pointers like holding my headlight down at my side while running in the fog as I asked him about the big races he runs in as a sponsored Patagonia athlete. I could tell he was like, 'what are you doing up here?' I knew I was going to pay for it later, but hey I was feeling good! We started up a sequence of big climbs up towards Little Bald Knob and Reddish Knob. I was very fortunate to have run into Brian at this point so that I could start to better pace myself on the uphill slog. For the first time in the race my heart rate came down to a reasonable level, closer to the 135 range. After 7.8 miles that seemed to go on forever with the continuous uphill climb we came to Little Bald Knob at mile 44.5 and our overall pace was now suddenly up to 11:50 pace. My 40 ozs of water were not enough to get me to this aid station and I was out of calories. I came into the aid station with Brian, but he left before me since I was a bit out of it. I didn't realize it was the aid station I had a drop bag until I was about to leave, then I had to pack up my supplies. I also grabbed my other headlamp and realized that the button had been pushed on during transport, so it was dead already! Well, it was time to see if my Black Diamond Sprinter would last for about 6.5 hours. I knew it wouldn't. I ate and drank a bunch then left the aid station. My state was starting to deteriorate a bit at this point. It doesn't take much to go from feeling great to pretty out of it once you get down on calories and hydration at 2:30am. Brian was less than a minute ahead of me out of the aid station. I left in a bit of a frazzled state.
Reddish Knob & the Turn Around
As we get over 4000 ft the fog gets really thick. I am now running completely alone again in what feels like a 2 ft box. All I can see is fog and the tips of my shoes. I come out on some pavement for a bit and suddenly folks at an aid station are pointing me up the short hill to the summit of Reddish knob. At the top I see Brian turn around and once we come back down to the aid station he is 2 minutes ahead of me. I had no concept of how close behind anyone else was at this point. I refill bottles, add Nuun, and continue to chew calories. Cereal bars became my go to food. It was giving me some energy and was going down easy. More pavement, then some dirt into the turn-around. Brian is still just 2 mins ahead of me at the 51.5 mile turn-around. I really couldn't believe it at this point because I was feeling pretty slow and beat up. Now I can start counting miles down, pray for daylight, hope my lamp continues to light my path, and see where the rest of the pack is at.
I was feeling very fatigued on the paved road portion back up to Reddish Knob Aid. I see 3rd place at about 10 mins after the turnaround (20 mins back), and then a group at 15 mins (30 mins back), so really anything could still happen with half a race left! Back to the Reddish Knob Aid (no summiting the second time around) and I was 3 minutes back from Brian. I had to even hike some of the paved road sections leading to this point, so I thought he would be much further ahead by now.
It felt good to get back in the woods and on the trail. It is also always uplifting to be passing the other racers going the other direction. I was able to keep my pace up and came into mile 58 (Little Bald Knob) still just 2 minutes behind Brian (12:00 pace). Now for the more rugged sections and longer distances between aid stations. I had 7.8 miles to reach Hillary, but I knew it would get light just before that time. My headlamp was not getting dim as far as I could tell and I just continued to dream of daylight. I felt like I had been running in the dark fog for my entire life, it was all I knew!
Racers were still passing by occasionally when shortly after leaving the aid station an hour and a half before sunrise, my headlamp goes black. It never got dim, just died, done ...
It was so dark with a nearly new moon and the fog. I started shuffling in the darkness feeling the trail with my feet. That was it, race over. I saw two other racers coming towards me from the other direction. One of them asks, 'How's it going?' I tell him my light is done but I'm trying to keep walking. Without hesitation one of the guys opens up his pack and hands me a backup light of his and says take this. I was stunned, thankful, humbled, grateful ... I asked for his name. Thank you NICK! I had a little adrenaline after this exchange and was feeling good for a bit, but it was a long haul to North River and to see Hillary. 66 miles, 12:20 pace, 14 mins back from Brian I show up at the aid and I am beat. I just hand everything to Hillary and tell her to load me up. I just stood slightly dazed and have some simple conversations with the aid staff. Daylight was here, but I would continue in this basic state for the next 31 miles.
I was able to hold my overall pace to 12:20 or so through to the end of the race as I slogged on. Brian built up his lead to just over 30 minutes by mile 80 and remained that far ahead until the end. The uphills were getting harder, the steep downhills made my quads burn with pain, the constant rocks made me hike sections that were not that steep. But I kept moving ...
The final push put me down. Dehydrated and sore I couldn't stand without feeling like I would pass out within 15 minutes of finishing. After cheering on some other finishers and drinking about 60 ounces of water and Nuun, Hillary pulled the car up to the finish line, the RD Clark lent a shoulder to me and I shoved into the car. Ankle brace worked well, but blisters were enormous!
This was the hardest thing I have done to date. I went out to fast and was left to persevere/suffer for a long time. It was awesome.