Grindstone 100 – October 1-3, 2010; Shenandoah Valley, VA.
Where, oh where to begin…
I’m afraid this race report is going to lack the edge-of-your-seat, will he or won’t he finish, epic struggles contained in my last two 100-milers (Mohican 2009, 2010). Spoiler alert - I finished! Instead, this is a story about nearly everything going right (finally!). It is also a story about singing, laughing, and the beauty of Creation. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy the adventure as if it were your own. Because whether or not you run 100-mile races, we can all relate with the human experience.
Grindstone – what a name for a race. Travel to the website and you will find the following description:
“Grit, endurance, and temporary loss of sanity. You might need all of these if you want to attempt Grindstone. If you want to finish, well, just keep in mind this is, without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian.”
Take a look at the elevation profile (23,200’ gain/23,200’ loss); add in technical rocky sections, and the course lives up to this description. In reality, the course follows a simple theme:
1. Climb a mountain.
2. Run along the ridgeline.
3. Descend a mountain.
I decided to approach this race a bit differently from my other 100’s. My pace chart (see below) simply had aid stations and distances, NO times. With a 38-hour cut-off, I knew I needed to run based on feel and not worry about going too fast/slow. I had rough estimates in my mind and thought if everything went well I’d be able to finish in 30-32 hours. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wanted to PR (break 28:16), but I also knew this was highly unlikely on a course this difficult. My general plan was for a 14-hour out and 16-hour back. But if disaster struck in the second half, I might literally be looking at 20+ hours for the second half of the race. Wow…
Aid Station Dist/Total
Falls Hollow 5.2/5.2
Dry Branch Gap 9.5/14.6
Dowells Draft 7.5/22.1
Lookout Mountain 8.4/30.5
North River Gap 5.4/36.0
Little Bald Knob 7.8/43.7
Reddish Knob 4.5/48.2
Gnashing Knob © 3.4/51.5
Reddish Knob 3.4/55.0
Little Bald Knob 3.8/58.7
North River Gap © 7.8/66.5
Lookout Mountain 5.5/72.0
Dowells Draft © 8.4/80.4
Dry Branch Gap © 7.5/87.8
Falls Hollow © 8.8/96.7
Michael Patton and I drove down to Staunton, Virginia on Thursday evening and arrived at our hotel shortly before midnight. I slept surprisingly well for the night before a race. I woke up at 7am, ate some breakfast, then slept for a few more hours. After showering and meticulously taping my feet using the Shane Sampson method (thank you!), we headed to the start for the pre-race meeting. The pre-race meeting began promptly at 1pm. Race director Clark Zealand gave some basic directions, and handed out lots of great prizes. I won a pretty sweet trucker-hat from Patagonia.
One thing that makes Grindstone a bit unique is the 6pm start time, ensuring that every runner traverses one night, and many deep into the second. The other thing this ensures is that everyone sits around for many hours thinking about the race and working his or her nerves through the roof! After the pre-race meeting, we had 4 hours until the start. I lay in my tent and tried to sleep, but this was impossible. My anxiety was increasing as I stared at the roof, so instead I passed the time by reading a book about the 2008 climbing season on K2. This helped take my mind off the slowly moving clock, and also provided some inspiration (thankfully I was at the part where teams were summiting the mountain and before the part where people started dying on the way down). At 4:30pm I started getting ready. I put on a Brooks nightlife shirt and then my lucky running shirt, put body-glide in all the appropriate places, filled my camelback with Heed and my hand-held with Perpetuem, laced up the shoes with gaiters overtop, put on my bandana, and adjusted my headlamp. To kill the remaining time I chatted with the Ohio peeps about a random assortment of topics. It was fun hanging out with Shaun Pope, David Peterman, Sandi and Rachel Nypaver, Regis Shivers Jr. and Michael Patton over the course of the weekend.
Runner check-in was at 5:30pm. By 5:55pm we were all gathered at the start line. I glanced around and drank in the magnitude of what we were all about to endeavor. After a prayer by Horton for safety and strength, and the singing of the National Anthem, we were off. The race began by circling a lake, and then took us deep into George Washington National Forest. I always seem to feel sluggish at the beginning of 100’s. Maybe it is because I tend to taper really hard (I only ran ~40 miles in the two weeks leading up to the race). This race was no different. But by the first aid station at mile 5.5 I had settled into a comfortable pace. I had lost contact with my three Ohio friends that were racing (although I expected this to happen since I was the slowest among us) but chatted with a few individuals I had met in August at the Grindstone training weekend.
Climbing, climbing, and more climbing – and I loved it. As darkness fell, the next section took us to the summit of Elliot’s Knob (4463 feet). As I ascended there was a noticeable drop in the temperature and the wind picked up. I was questioning my decision to leave warm clothes in my drop bag at mile 22. But for now, I was working hard enough to stay warm. I passed a number of people on this climb, only to be over-taken on the descent. This was a long 9.5-mile section between aid stations. I arrived at Dry Branch Gap (mile 14.6) feeling comfortable with my effort at 9:18pm and elapsed time of 3:18.
The next section started by climbing to the top of Crawford Mountain. I powered up Crawford, passing a handful of people along the way, and was bestowed the nickname “Mountain Lion” by a fellow runner. I was disappointed to be leaving behind the company, but I knew I couldn’t get sucked into a slower pace on the climbs. After summiting Crawford, it felt great to start running again along the ridgeline to loosen up the legs and give the climbing muscles a break. But now I was all alone. My existence was defined by my headlamp piercing the darkness. I have spent a lot of time in the backcountry on both the east and west coasts, but I have never been so aware of the magnitude of the forest. The wind rushed through the trees dropping leaves in bunches. Animals scurried about, crunching leaves beneath their paws. Then the next moment everything was peaceful – still and quiet. I stopped, turned off my headlamp, and stared up into the sky. The stars were breathtaking. I thanked God for my existence in that moment. But alas, I was in a race, and needed to move on.
After a mile or so along the ridgeline I started a gradual, but extremely technical descent. The entire descent was rocks of all shapes and sizes, and featured many flat, shale-like rocks that teetered back and forth as my feet precariously picked their way down the mountain. The terrain eventually flattened out and I cruised along until I saw another runner weaving side-to-side, head low, struggling to walk. I saw a familiar shirt – Mohican Wilderness 20th Anniversary it said. And my heart dropped a little. I didn’t want it to be true.
“Patton? Is that you?”
“No…Something I ate. Last aid station. Just started throwing up. I’m done…”
I offered to walk to Dowell’s Draft (mile 22.1) with Michael, but he told me to keep going. He also passed on encouragement, told me I was running well and to keep it up. Despite my desire to stay with Michael and make sure he got to Dowell’s Draft, I moved on. In 15 minutes or so I was at the aid station. 11pm. Exactly five hours in. A volunteer asked me what I needed. I needed a new stomach for my friend… But I stared blankly at her for a little while, and then managed to say: “My drop bag….and water.”
The cold was setting in, my head was a big foggy, and my fingers were quite swollen. Uh-oh I thought...too many electrolytes. I had been drinking lots of sports drinks, but wasn’t sweating much since the temperature was so cool. I hadn’t peed yet either. I needed to fix things, and in a hurry. I left the aid station with a handful of food, my long-sleeve shirt, and a growing nausea.
The next section featured one of the tougher climbs – 2.4 miles going up up and up onto Hankey Mountain. Things started turning for me on this climb. My stomach settled, I started peeing, and my legs felt powerful. The climb is broken into four pieces, with a slight leveling out in between each rise. The first two felt great. By the middle of the third I was starting to slow. By the time I hit the fourth I started laughing. Laughing at the insanity. Laughing because somehow climbing for an hour straight seemed comical. Every time I thought I had reached the top, the trail would bend and I’d have another climb as far as the eye could see. Finally, after an exhausting hour, I was at the top.
There is a lot of debate about whether an eastern ultra can rival the big races of the west (Western States, Wasatch, Leadville, Angeles Crest, etc). In my mind, they both present unique challenges. Out west, you have the thin air at altitude to deal with. The climbs are long, but switchbacks typically make the grade more manageable. I learned at Grindstone that in the east they don’t believe in switchbacks. You are lucky if you get one while ascending a mountain. It is just STRAIGHT UP.
The ridgeline running at the top of Hankey Mountain was beautiful. Once again I stopped, turned off my headlamp, took deep breaths, and stared at the stars. I was rejuvenated, and ready to catch the person whose headlamp I could now see in front of me. It took me just a few minutes. I had caught the second place female. We ran together for a while until we reached the Lookout Mountain aid station (mile 30.5). This was probably my favorite aid station for one reason – the dog. As I ran into the aid station, a dog (lab maybe?) ran up to me as if to say, “can I get you something?” Despite my desire to stay with the dog and sit by the warm fire, I quickly moved on.
The next section was very runable with minimal climb. The descents were starting to aggravate my knees a bit. This was slightly worrisome since I still had a long way to go. One particular descent was really agitating, so I started singing. The song that popped into my head was She’s Electric, by Oasis.
She's in a family full of eccentrics
She done things I never expected
And I need more time
She's got a sister
And God only knows how I've missed her
On the palm of her hand is a blister
And I need more time…
Before I realized it I had arrived at North River Gap (mile 36). 2:16am. 8:16 elapsed. I knew I was well ahead of my 30-hour pace, but realized there were also lots of miles yet to cover. I was also getting excited at the prospect of seeing my crew at mile 50. At North River Gap I also had to weigh in. I was down just one pound. Nothing to worry about.
The next section covers 4000 feet of climb in 7.8 miles. This section was SO SLOW. 2 hours and 45 minutes slow. For 7.8 miles! But I climbed and laughed and climbed and laughed some more. I also saw the front-runners coming towards me on this stretch. The leaders were neck and neck. A couple miles later I saw Sandi, and knew she had a huge lead on the second place woman. Finally I arrived at the aid station leading up to Reddish Knob (mile 48.2). David Horton was sitting in his truck at this aid station and injected some energy into my soul. He told me I was running well. Really well. If you don’t know the name, Horton is an ultra-running legend that at one point held records for both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He also has been instrumental in building the ultra-community in Virginia. So these words coming from him meant a lot to me. After dropping off my camelback, I carried a bottle the half-mile out-and-back section to the summit of Reddish Knob (4397 feet). Reddish Knob lies just over the border into West Virginia. I had initially thought I would be summiting Reddish as the sun rose over Virginia to the east. Now I stood at the top in darkness, looking out over the distant city lights. It was cold – just 35 degrees with a wind-chill in the upper-teens. I left Reddish, knowing that in just two miles I would see my crew.
Over the next two miles I began wondering how exactly I was going to find my crew. I was nearly an hour ahead of my “best-case scenario” pace, and they were supposed to be sleeping in the car since they wouldn’t get much sleep over the next 20+ hours. As I looped down towards the crew-access point, I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of calling out names and banging on car windows… But there they were. I nearly ran right by them.
My crew consisted of three main people – Katie, my crew chief, is the best person I can imagine for the job. She knows how to get things done, and knows what I need, often times before I even know it myself. Even before race day, she spent long hours in the kitchen preparing soups and burritos and sandwiches so I would have anything I could imagine. She has grown as a crew person much faster than I as a runner. Leigh, videographer/crew, had a multi-faceted role both filming and helping Katie. Steve, my pacer, was there to keep me safe, provide company, and give me a kick in the ass when it was necessary out on the trail. I also had two unexpected people waiting to greet me. Michael and Jen were there with great moral support and encouragement. Even after Michael dropped, he stayed on the course to help those still racing. Helluva guy.
I was still 1.5 miles from the turn around point at the top of Gnashing Knob (mile 51.5), so Steve joined me for this out-and-back section to catch up on the events of the previous night of running. Shortly into this section, we passed David Peterman running towards us. I knew I was running well if he was less than 3 miles ahead of me. He’s a beast at these Virginia races. We hit the turn around slightly before 7am. The initial plan was for Steve to only start pacing at this point if I was struggling. But after a night of many many solo miles, I wanted the company. Besides, Steve had run two 100-milers this year. Fifty should be no problem.
We headed back through the Reddish Knob aid station (mile 55) and on towards Little Bald Knob (mile 58.7). One thing Michael and I had talked about before the race was staying competitive. The last two years at Mohican I lost my competitive edge, went into survival mode, and simply wanted to finish before the clock ran out. But this race was different. I was still running really well and my energy level remained high. My next goal was to catch Peterman (and his pacer Jay Smithberger, aka Skinny Beast). Steve and I moved well on this section. As we approached Little Bald Knob I yelled, “How far ahead were the two tall skinny guys?!” Turns out, they were standing right there! They headed out of the aid station as I was filling up my camelback. We quickly caught up with them and I enjoyed the few minutes of conversation.
“Hey Jay? Can I get by you?”
After we were out of earshot, Steve joked that this would probably be the only time in my life I will ask Jay to get out of my way in a race.
The next stretch was a long 7.8 miles spent mostly descending, with just one small climb up and over Grindstone Mountain. The steep descents I was definitely slowing on, but I was able to still run well on the gradual portions. We hit North River Gap (mile 66.5) at 10:48am with 16:48 elapsed. Katie was waiting with another great rice and bean burrito (my new favorite ultra food!). I weighed in again and was down just two pounds – still nothing to worry about. I took a minute here to get rid of my long-sleeve shirt and Brooks nightlife shirt. Now I was down to just my lucky running shirt. The sun was warming the earth, and the weather was perfect! A quintessential fall day with a warm sun, cool breeze, and the beauty of the changing leaves. Steve and I left North River Gap in great spirits. Not only was I two-thirds of the way done and still feeling great, but we’d see our crew at all but one of the remaining aid stations.
Mathematics. Nearly everyone will tell you not to do math early on in ultra-races. It can be quite depressing when you’ve run 35 miles to think about 65 more. Besides, the race doesn’t really get interesting until past the halfway point. This is extremely difficult for me. I’ve always prided myself on my math skillz. I can add and subtract with the best of them (particularly over beers). Calculus wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I’ve never felt the need to find integrals out on the trails. I did a little bit of math at the halfway point, but had mostly avoided it. But now, at 67+ miles, the wheels were turning. Click, click, click...
“Hey Steve, we’ve just got a little bit more than a 50k left…just about 35 miles. I think we can definitely shoot for a 30-hour finish.”
I think Steve was purposefully letting me set time goals at this point and not interjecting any of his own. In reality, at this point, we could have walked it in and still hit 30 hours. But as a good pacer should, Steve didn’t encourage my math skillz. He just encouraged me to run.
Pacing is not an easy thing. In fact it is down right hard. Something about being marooned in the wilderness with a half-conscious runner who lacks the strength to continue but refuses to quit puts a lot of stress on an individual. I’ve paced two times in my life. The first was on a mountain range not far from where we currently stood. The second was with Steve at Burning River. In my mind, the hardest part about pacing is remembering to take care of you while being completely focused on someone else.
The next stretch took us up to Lookout Mountain (mile 72) and once again my doggie friend was there to greet me. We also met up with Regis Shivers Jr. Regis has completed Grindstone the previous two years and was the first person to tell me about this race. Crazy to think two years later I was now running it. I grabbed a few muffins, refilled the handheld, and continued on. We enjoyed some ridgeline running, and then climbed to the top of Hankey Mountain. We ran another nice and easy descent along the ridgeline. But now we were peering down a brutal descent. We were set to drop nearly 3000’ in just 2.4 miles. All the down-hill running was really starting to take its toll. Mercifully the trail here was wide, grassy, non-technical and leaf covered. But it was steep. STEEP. As we started off, I imagined I was skiing down as I zig-zagged back and forth, barely lifting my feet out of the leaves. This took me back to autumns when I was a kid.
I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania in the little town of Chadds Ford. Our backyard was lined by oak and maple trees, and every autumn we would rake up large leaf piles and have fun jumping into them to catch the football (of course after we removed all the sticks to prevent anyone from being bludgeoned. Thanks mom!). That sound of crunching leaves is imbedded in a very special part of my memory. The funny part of this is also that after we had cleaned up our yard, our neighbor’s leaves would blow down the hill and fill our yard again, so the fun would begin all over again!
Before long, Steve and I hit Dowell’s Draft (mile 80.4) at 1:41pm with an elapsed time of 19:41. Just over 20 miles left. Despite the brutally steep descent, we had made good time over the last section. We had been passing one or two people between every aid station and slowly working our way up the field. I thought I was probably somewhere in the mid-20’s. It was also really good to see the crew again. It still amazes me how much this rejuvenates me. Leigh had the video-camera in hand. Katie had another rice and bean burrito waiting, and I poured a bit of espresso into my handheld bottle to provide a caffeine jolt. I was beginning to get a bit tired. Michael filled my bottle and he and Jen provided lots encouragement.
As Steve and I left Dowell’s Draft, the math wizardry was in full swing. At 2.8mph with 21.45 miles left…
“Hey Steve, I think I might be able to PR. Let’s shoot for 28 hours!”
“ *chuckle chuckle* Sounds good Dave.”
In hindsight I think Steve was laughing because of how completely attainable 28 hours would be if I just kept moving forward. At no point was I moving just 2.8mph. My slowest section had been an even 3mph, and that was the toughest section on the course. That was way behind us now. We started the climb up Crawford Mountain. While not steep, this is a long and extremely technical climb. The rocks are reminiscent of Massanutten. The consistent one-foot-in-front-of-the-other was lulling me to sleep. My eyelids drooped. If only I could lay down for a nap…I would be o…k….a….y…..
“Dave! Stay with me here.”
I was too tired to realize how treacherous this section was becoming. To our right was a drop off, and I was barely lifting my feet enough to get my toes over the rocks. I think Steve was silently freaking out about the possibility of me tumbling over the edge and cracking my head open on a rock on the way down. And this is why he was there. Up until this moment, I had been running well and able to push myself. But now Steve transformed from company to pacer. He began asking me questions to make my mind work, to try to lift the fog. I wish I could remember the details. I think the dialogue would be quite comical. But I remember talking about fishing. And we climbed. I remember talking about my grandfather. And we climbed. I remember talking about my dad. And we climbed some more. As we hit the summit the worst of the sleepiness was behind me. The descent was mostly gradual, very runable, and got the blood flowing. With Steve’s help, I had shed the sleep-demons, and my adrenaline flowing. We hit Dry Branch Gap (mile 87.8) at 3:47pm with a time of 21:47 elapsed. I resisted tears of joy when I saw my crew. I needed to focus on the next 14 miles before celebration. Michael kept telling me how much I was killing the course. He even offered to pace me if Steve needed a break. Like I said earlier, helluva guy.
Steve and I left Dry Branch Gap and started the climb up the backside to Elliot’s Knob. In my head I knew this way was not as steep as the ascent the previous night, but it sure felt just as steep. Steve’s stomach was starting to revolt. Like I said, pacing is not easy. So I did more math, and we passed two more people.
“27 hours Steve. I think I can break 27 hours.”
We eventually spit out onto the familiar gravel road. I was afraid this descent would break me. People say the first half of this race is harder than the second, but I disagree. Sure, the ascents on the way out are much steeper, but that means you have to come down them on the way back when you legs are trashed. I went sideways the majority of this descent. The pain was no better if I went slower, so I reasoned if I went faster it would all be over sooner. Down, down, down. Finally, there it was – the streamer directing us back onto the trail. But even now, this flatter section seemed difficult. There was over-grown grass with hidden ankle-grabber rocks, and I was having some difficulty with blurred vision. We decided just to walk to avoid face-planting. Eventually we hit some runable sections and made good time. Before long we were picking our way down a rocky streambed, and I knew the next aid station was close.
“Steve, I think I can hit 25:30 if we hurry.”
I ran into Falls Hollow (mile 96.7) as fast as my legs would take me. I was a man on a mission. I dropped the camelback, grabbed another handheld bottle, and left for my final push to the finish. I was just over 24 hours in and with only 5.5 miles left was gunning for 25:30. Steve called it a day at Falls Hollow. He had gotten me through my toughest section by helping me fight off the sleep demons on Crawford Mountain. Michael offered to run with me to the end, but my adrenaline was pumping so hard it didn’t matter. I passed another runner immediately out of the aid station. I was still climbing strong, but then I hit some technical descents, and my pace slowed. The runner I had just passed ran right by me. He actually offered to stick with me to the end, but I told him to run his own race and not let me slow him down. I fought the urge to walk. As I entered the outskirts of the campground I knew I was getting close. So I ran. Then I saw the sign – 1 mile to go. I had 16 minutes to run that last mile. I ran it in 11. As I ran the last 100 feet to the finish line I would like to say that I became philosophical and reflected over the previous 101.8 miles. But instead, my mind was filled with nothing but exhaustion. I was leaving it all on the course. Clark announced my name and my crew cheered. After 101.85 miles and 25 hours, 24 minutes, and 42 seconds I was back where I started, in 14th place. I had finally run a good race. Clark has a tradition where every finisher hugs the totem pole to represent the cumulative shared experience. I stumbled around and Katie came over to support me and guide me to the totem pole.
Afterwards I sat in a rocking chair, waiting for Peterman and Skinny Beast. I reflected over the whole experience, and the question of why came back to mind. I also thought of something Star said to me. Sometimes the answer is simply – because.