Monday, October 10, 2016

Grindstone 100 Race Report: Misery Loves Company

The Grindstone 100 calls itself “without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian.” There might be some runners who have run/attempted the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee who would take issue with that claim, but regardless, it met one of my main criteria of being harder than any race I had done before, a necessary motivator for training. I was also looking for a well-established fall 100 a drivable distance from Cincinnati. Grindstone was the obvious choice.

Aside from the 100 mile distance (or rather, 101.85 miles), Grindstone has a number of challenging features. It boasts over 23,000 feet of elevation gain (and accompanying 23,000 feet of loss) in the Virginia mountains, some impressively rocky sections, long distances between aid stations, and a 6 PM start time which means slower runners run through two nights instead of one. Bonus for 2016: it rained the entire time we were out there.

My primary goal was to finish the race, but I had chosen 34 hours (planning for 15 hours on the way out and 19 hours on the way back) as a reasonable time to shoot for. Because of its difficulty, Grindstone’s cut-off is 38 hours instead of the traditional 30 hours. I was initially planning to run without crew or pacer, but my wonderful parents agreed to come up from South Carolina to provide support, particularly by watching Fuller on Saturday. This freed up Nathan to pace me.

Pace chart attached to vest with elevation profile on other side

Nathan and I packed up the massive amount of stuff it takes to run a 100 miler and travel with a 16 month old on Thursday and drove to Western Virginia. Friday morning we got up as usual as 6:30 AM when Fuller woke up and spent the morning exploring the Grand Caverns just north of us, escaping the light rain that had already started. The lunch and pre-race meeting took up most of the early afternoon (I won a hydration pack in the raffle!) and then we headed back to our cottage where I lay down for an hour to rest before making final preparations for the race.

Sorting drop bags

Yummy cookie with logo and elevation profile! Do not eat until after running 100 miles.

The "before" photo. The sweatshirt would not come with me.

Crew! Start/Finish line in background with totem pole you must hug to officially finish

I was careful to position myself towards the back of the pack at the start of the race, committed to walking at least one minute out of every ten from the start even if people around me were going faster. My parents, delayed by multiple wrecks on the way, made it just in time to cheer for me as I passed in the first mile, and then we were off into the mountains. My legs didn’t feel fresh, but I tried not to worry about it.

It was already completely dark by the time I hit the first aid station, a little ahead of schedule. Next was the climb up Elliot’s Knob, the highest point in the race. I ran the gradual parts of the climb, my legs feeling much better on the uphills, and powerhiked the steeper parts. After descending a little back down the gravel round, we turned onto technical single track that was initially difficult to run by headlamp in the rain and eventually not runnable at all, at least not for me. Thankfully, the next section had a shorter climb then a nice long mostly runnable descent.

The Dowell’s Draft Aid Station at mile 22 was the first to have a drop bag, and I restocked food and got out quickly. I encountered brief nausea a couple of times in this section, but I had patience to walk until it passed rather than trying to push through it, and I didn’t have any more stomach problems. I did get very sleepy; midnight passed and my eyes were not focusing well given the darkness, poor visibility from the rain, and my sleep deprivation. There were a few times I actually had the sense I was falling asleep while running, and I was already having the illusions that seem to be a rite of passage at Grindstone. It was far too early for that nonsense! I knew I would feel better when the sun came up, but that was still 7 hours away. I told myself that I was not allowed to drop while it was dark and kept moving. I reached the aid station 30 minutes before I expected to, which brought me out of my funk.

The next section was “short,” only 6.35 miles, but it struck me as a little slow because of fairly technical trails. Plus, I was looking forward to the following section to Little Bald Knob, the most significant climb of the race. I was planning to do a lot of power-hiking and eating while resting my descending muscles. While overall the section to Little Bald Knob does gain a net of about 3000 feet over 7 miles, it wasn’t the steady climb I expected. There were steep sections, and the rain had created thick mud that left little to grip. I was very pleased with how my Inov-8s preformed, minimally slipping in the mud. I had passed a sign that said 4.5 miles to Little Bald Knob, and an hour and a half later, I was thinking the aid station had to be close. In fact, it was another 3-4 miles. These miles would have been easy (largely on jeep trail) if they weren’t mostly flooded by rain. In that time, I made up my mind to ask Nathan to join me at the turn-around to pace me, our contingency plan for if I was struggling (otherwise he would have joined me with 36 miles to go). Mostly, I was miserable and I wanted him to see how miserable that section was.

I was also getting cold. I had planned clothes based on the weather forecast for nearby Staunton, which said it would stay 63 degrees for the whole first 24 hours of the race (and rain the whole time), then drop to a low in the high 40s Saturday night. As I crossed to the western sides of the mountains, the cold front was there waiting for me, and I was unprepared in my short and short sleeves. When I finally got to Little Bald Knob, my hands were numb so I asked a volunteer to add to the pre-typed text I had ready for Nathan: “I need you and pink jacket.” She pressed send but there was no cell phone signal. I tried not to panic.

I kept my phone out and started down the trail, checking for service every minute or so. Finally I found a patch and called Nathan, who said he’d be on his way soon. When my numb hands couldn’t open my shot blocks, I asked a fellow runner named Laura to open them for me, and she very kindly insisted I take her gloves until the turn-around as she proclaimed herself “quite toasty.” I was impressed with her upbeat and positive attitude and did my best to draw energy from it.

When I reached the turn-around (right on my pace at 15 hours), Nathan had not arrived yet; I hadn’t given him enough time to get Fuller settled with my mother and drive the 50+ miles of backroads with my dad to meet me. I tried to call Nathan, but again there was no cell phone service. As I stood still, I was getting colder, and all the spots around the heater were taken. I changed into my dry short sleeve shirt from my drop bag and munched on some bacon and potato chips and waited. Mentally, I could suck it up and meet Nathan 15 miles later, but physically, I needed that jacket before I could leave. Yes, I cried a little. Dad and Nathan got there 10 minutes later and it was time to get warm and start pulling myself together. I put on the jacket, changed into dry socks, and had some coffee and a small pancake. I had spent a very long time at the aid station (~40 minutes), but it was time to get going again.

Oh, it was so good to have Nathan with me! We ran a lot of the way back to Little Bald Knob, where one of the volunteers proclaimed, “See, I knew you’d come back!” Hang on, who said anything dropping? I must have looked rough earlier. Then onto that hated section. It was still long, but nothing like I remember. I was actually disappointed it didn’t live up to the description I had given Nathan. Admittedly, it was downhill on the way back.

The next section I remembered being technical, but it was actually nice and runnable, and we made good time. I was passing people consistently and had loosened up my rules around walking at least one minute out of every 10 since it was the second half of the race and I was feeling good. I knew things would get more difficult when the sun went down, so I pushed to get at least through Dowell’s Draft before we needed headlamps.

Indeed, it got tougher after dark, but I think this was as much the course as the darkness. The section leading back to Dry Branch Gap had a climb, but I had incorrectly remembered that it was gradual and would probably be runnable on the way back. Nope. It was steep and long. At times, it was quite rocky. It seemed to never end. I had been making such good time, and I wanted more trails that I could run.

The gradual climb I was anticipating started off the next section, but it soon got so much worse. The trail continued to ascend but became entirely covered in large (think encyclopedia sized) very loose rocks which were wet and frequently moss covered, with a steep-drop off just beside it. Coupled with darkness and mist limiting visibility in the headlamp at mile 90, the trail was simply not runnable for me. I had been enjoying crushing projected paces for prior sections and after the climb of the last section and now this, I found myself prone to whining. I was moving slowly to avoid breaking an ankle or falling off the mountain, so I wasn’t surprised that it took a long time before we reached the gravel road descent. It started out steep but I ran it anyway; it was getting too late in the race to worry about saving quads anymore. As the course leveled out some I picked up the pace, but the mud and new stream crossings that had developed across the course with the rain had not spared this section and a few parts were a little slower. It was 30 minutes later than I had planned when we reached the last aid station.

My watch time said 30:33 when we started out on the final 5.18 miles. I wanted to break 32 hours. It seemed reasonable; I had done the outbound section in 1:17, the return trip was more downhill than uphill, and my legs still felt pretty good. It turned out that the climb on the way back was on a dirt road but the descent was on technical trail, forcing my to walk a lot of the climb and the descent. Oh well. The last couple miles were runnable, and I enjoyed running to the finish in 32:13 to hug the totem pole and collect my belt buckle and a nice technical long sleeve finisher’s shirt.

Hugging the totem pole 32 hours later!

Having Nathan with me those last 50 miles helped so much. The first night was so lonely as my rigidity with my conservative plan prevented me from running with anyone. He gave me lots of compliments to boost my spirits throughout the back-half, functioned as crew at each aid station, and provided the company I really needed. His pacing was entirely made possible by my parents, and I understand Fuller absolutely loved having a day with his grandparents. I’m not sure whether I would have finished without their fantastic support, but I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. I’m also so grateful for the volunteers. Many of them were out there for ridiculous hours in the middle of the night(s) and through the cold rain. Specifically, there was some homemade chicken noodle soup somewhere (Lookout Mountain?) on Saturday night which was among the best things I have ever tasted. Thank you all so much!

And before you ask, yes, I will put my name in the Hardrock lottery.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Grindstone 100 Training: Do as I say, not as I do

“Do as I say, not as I do.” It was my mother's frequent refrain as I was growing up. And it’s about how I feel as I prepare to outline my Grindstone 100 training. I don’t mean to imply that I’m qualified to give advice regarding this race; I haven’t run it yet. What I mean is that this is not meant to be a training guide, but instead as a lens through which to view my yet-to-come race report for people looking to do the race in the future. For non-ultrarunners, it’s an answer to the question: “You’re running 100 miles? How do you train for that?”

I find myself wanting to make excuses for my “bare minimum” training for this race. But the truth is, life gets in the way for all of us, and that’s not something I have a special claim to as a mother or resident. Ultrarunning is something I do for fun and for myself. It can’t be my top priority. So with that disclaimer, below are the hard stats, stripped of their defenses.

February: Weekly mileage 30-40ish, consistent long runs working up to 20 trail miles
March: Only 50 miles total for the entire month, with the longest run 10 trail miles
April: Mostly 30-45 mile weeks with long runs up to 24 on trail
May: Several weeks around 15 miles with supplemental bike trainer workouts, but one week was 45 miles with a 5+ hour trail run (24.5 miles). Also introduced some speed walking work-outs.
June: Low weekly mileage, but I did a 5.5 hour 30 mile mostly road run at the beginning of the month and ran a 50 mile race (Dawg Gone Long) at the end of the month as my qualifier for Grindstone.
July: Weekly mileages were 25-46 and included long runs of 23 and 25 on trail. I started doing more consistent speed workouts during this time.
August: Weekly mileage was 25-50 with long runs of 3+ hours (14 miles included hiking up a mountain) and 5 hours (24 trail miles). Joined the Y and started doing more intentionally steep and fast speedwalking workouts as well as lifting upper body weights 1-2 times a week, which I continued until the race.
September: I managed a couple 60 mile weeks in a row, with consecutive weekend runs of a 6.5 hours (50k on trails), 4.5 hours (21 on trails), and a 60k race that was a mix of trail and road in just under 7 hours for my max long run 3 weeks before the race. After reading race reports I also switched some of my workouts to target some mountain specific challenges: I started doing fast intervals with the treadmill on a negative incline to hopefully mimic the pounding of the steep descents on my quads. I also added in weekly stairclimber work-outs, working up to climbing 3000ft in an hour.

Now, 6 days out, I’m spending as much time worrying about various aches and pains and compulsively checking the weather as I am running. I look forward to beautiful mountain views, fall weather, a challenging course and like-minded company starting Friday night at 6 pm! The race website promises a webcast if you want to check in periodically at

Thanks friends!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Hocking Hills Indian Run 60K: NOT a race (okay maybe a little)

                The last time I won a race would have been on family vacation, at a rest area where my father would pit my brother and me against each other to burn off energy on an otherwise sedentary day of travel. Dad would give a handicap to Joey for his (then) smaller size, but as Joey's genetic make-up was similar to my own, I still won a few times. I have run hundreds of races since then, never better than second place.
                I did not enter the Hocking Hills Indian Run 60k with thoughts of racing. It was intended as my last long run before tapering for the Grindstone 100, 20 days away. I did a regular week of training leading up to it and estimated it would take me 7.5-8 hours to complete the 60K course. A quick glance at last year’s results told me that this would make me dead last. Hmm, must be a quick course.
                The course made the event as much a road race as a trail race. It was a 20k loop run 3 times and made up of about 4-5 miles of pavement, 2-3 miles of single track (unfortunately awkward rather than fun), and the rest dirt/grass road or wide trail. There were some good hills, including 3 climbs that I walked every lap.
                The starting line was typical of a low-key ultra run: I got in the middle of the 30ish runners waiting for the start and everyone in front of me shifted behind me. Oh well, I guess I’ll start out in front. A pack of men quickly separated from the rest of us. Then after a mile, my friend David and several others pulled ahead of me. I found myself mentally counting the women. One, two, three, okay I’m fourth. Wait, what am I doing? This is a training run!
                I spent the majority of the first lap waiting for the real trail, but unfortunately there weren’t any sections I really enjoyed running. We were joined by runners doing shorter races on the singletrack section so it was tough to move quickly through the crowd. I did end up running a little bit with two young boys I assume were brothers who were doing the 5K together. They asked me how far I was going, and I said “60k.” “Nnniiice,” they chorused. I saw them a couple more times and they yelled out encouragement. Someone is raising them right.
                Fairly early on in the second lap my legs started to get tired. I began bargaining with myself about how far I would go before I started to take walking breaks. I had been running everything except those 3 hills. I knew that if I could keep running consistently for the remaining 20 miles despite tired legs, it would be a huge mental boost to look back on at Grindstone. My legs started feeling better during the singletrack section; it was a relief to use different muscles. I passed a woman at the end of the lap, and reminded myself not to race.
                I changed out of my more minimalist trail shoes into my Kinvaras because the pounding on the roads was making my feet miserable, and I felt much better starting the third lap. I kept extending the distance I had to travel before I would start to walk. Every once in a while I saw flashes of neon indicating the woman ahead of me, but I had my own goal: finishing in under 7 hours, which would require fairly even splits. Just over halfway into the lap, I started catching up with her as she would walk short spells. As soon as I got within 10 feet of her, she would take off, running fast. Okay then, if she’s going to be competitive, I will be too! (I actually am quite indebted to her for keeping me moving).
                She encouraged me to go ahead as we approached the singletrack and I didn’t see her again until she finished. I kept up my same plodding running pace without walking outside of my 3 hills. I caught David at mile 35 and he said he had been struggling, but he finished just a few minutes behind me. I finished in 6:56:51, with legs encouragingly feeling like they had during the second loop.
                I called Nathan on the way home and he said he wasn’t surprised I broke 7 hours; he had been tracking my splits online. He pulled them up while we chatted and told me that I was fifth overall and, hang on, first female! It seems I finally found a race small enough to win.
                While the 60k was small, the other races (5K, 10K, 20K, and 40K) had many participants. Even so, the aid stations stayed manned into the afternoon with friendly volunteers. I was so grateful to them for sticking around while we slowpoke ultrarunners finished up, especially as the temperature got warmer.
                $25 is definitely worth it to run a new course and to take the mental difficulty out of a solo long run. Now I get to taper and work out last minute details for Grindstone!