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