Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2016 Grindstone 100

15. That was the seeded bib number I was given at packet pickup for the 2016 Grindstone 100-miler. I have no idea how they based their seedings since registration is not through Ultrasignup, which does "rank" people based on prior results, but I knew the moment I saw this, I was going to massively underachieve when my finish (assuming I did finish) time was compared to prior 15th place finishers. In 2015, that was a 23:58. In 2014, that was 23:10. Those numbers are within an arm's length of my time at Western States, but this course has 5,000' more climb and is much more technical.

When I first registered in June, I hoped for something in the 26 hour range, but my training slacked off in the summer and while I was able to cram in a few 30 mile runs (that were mostly hikes) I didn't feel like I was well prepared to tackle one of the harder 100-milers on the east coast. I gave my crew (Paul, Ray, and Lee) a spreadsheet of all the aid stations with splits based on pace. For whatever reason, I had put a 24-hour pace column, but also 26 and 28 hours. 28 was what I hoped for, 26 would have been overachieving.

Though I paced a friend there in 2014 and knew that it was a well-organized event, I actually had only one reason for signing up for Grindstone, to get the points I needed to remain qualified for the UTMB 100. I've been qualified for Mont Blanc and registered the previous two years but was unsuccessful in the lottery both times. Something on the UTMB website implied that if you are rejected in the lottery for two straight years and are qualified on the third try, you are guaranteed entry. Grindstone was a qualifier in 2015, but does not show up as one for 2016. I am hoping that it is a qualifier because, based on the list of races on the UTMB site, there are no more opportunities for me to get the 5 or 6 points (100K or 100M) I still need in the U.S. before the registration period.

But enough back story, on to the race...

On Friday morning, October 7th, after filling the back of Leslie's Volvo with camping, race, and crew gear, Paul, Ray, Lee, and I started out on the 4.5 hour drive to Camp Shenandoah, near Swoope, Virginia. It's a pretty easy drive for us, consisting mostly of three interstates: 40, 77, and 81. Hurricane Matthew was churning up the coast behind us, somewhere in the Jacksonville, Florida area, I believe. We had some rain on the way up, but the forecast was giving mixed indications of what it would be like for the race. It seemed to imply scattered showers off and on. 

We arrived around noon to pick up my packet and take part in the pre-race luncheon. In addition to my bib, the packets included a draw-string bag, Grindstone jacket, Grindstone baseball cap, and a cool rectangular cookie with the Grindstone logo done in icing.

The luncheon, which I thought was going to be pasta, actually included BBQ, egg, tuna, and chicken salad sandwiches, pasta salad, and a few other things. Being somewhat vegetarian and mayonnaise-averse, I stuck with the pasta salad. All of it had been prepared by the local Boy Scout troop (or perhaps multiple troops) and was served in the camp's dining hall. We knew that our friend, Doug Blackford, had to pull out of the race, but did find fellow Burke County runner, Doug Thompson, at lunch and sat with him. Later, we would find our friend, Adam Hill, who was there to support and pace a fellow from Asheville he had helped train, Doug Begerman. I would see Adam at a lot of the aid stations and Doug several times along the trail as the race went on.

The Pre-Race Briefing in the Camp's Dining Hall
The pre-race briefing was much like the one I had attended at Mountain Masochist some years back. It mostly recognized people who had finished X-number of Grindstones or 100s, noted that one participant was from Kenya, handed out door prizes (#15 was not a winning number here either,) and went over some last minute race and course instructions. Once that wrapped up, we headed back to set up the tents, selecting a spot in the field near the finish.

I stretched out in the tent and read for a bit then tried to sleep. I might have nodded off for a few minutes, but didn't really get any rest. The only sounds were nervous/excited voices going to and from the dining hall and the squeak of a nearby bathroom door constantly opening and closing. Soon enough, the 6:00 p.m. start had rolled around and we headed to the start.

My pack was stuffed with some mitten-gloves, a headband, back-up headlamp (I was carrying one in my hand, knowing I'd need it pretty soon,) and various foods. This would be my first race running without a bottle in my hand, as I went with the Salomon soft flasks in my vest. I had used and liked them on training runs and between the two of them, they provided 34 ounces of easily accessible water versus 20 ounces from my handheld. The only downside is that I could not put my phone (camera) in the water bottle pouch so there would be no on-course photos from me. Elastic corded to the back of my pack was my rain jacket. It's bulky and somewhat stiff, but is truly waterproof.

The Starting Chute. I am on the Left Somewhere.
There wasn't really a pre-race speech, just a short word of prayer from RD Clark Zealand and then we were off. The course leads us out the same way we come into the finish, around Hope Lake and onto some trails within the Camp. It was dark when I had paced Sheryl back through here in 2014, so I didn't recognize any of what we now ran through. In fact, as the race went on, I would realize just how little of the course I actually remembered, especially how hilly it was! Aid stations would seem familiar, as well as a few unique features of the course, but in general, it was as if I was running on this course for the first time.

The pack thinned out relatively quickly and I fell into a too-fast for a 100-miler, but comfortable pace. Despite going out faster than I should have, I was pretty good about still walking the hills from the outset. All I needed to be qualified for UTMB was a finish within the cutoff, so I tried to keep that in my mind and avoid doing anything that might jeopardize my crossing the finish line.

Once I fired up my headlamp, I noticed that it was pretty foggy/misty. It was not unlike two years ago at the Georgia Death Race, where it was difficult to see. I guess Rudolph's nose must have some special powers that my Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp doesn't because it sure wasn't cutting through this foggy night. It was a little better when I added in my handheld light, which I only used in areas where I tried to run, but the misty conditions did slow me down somewhat, even on areas that I could run/jog.

It was hilly from the start, but shortly after I crossed some railroad tracks and went through the first aid station (Falls Hollow,) I found myself trudging up a huge hill that gained approximately 2,400' in just under 5 miles. It was a dirt road that paralleled some power lines, so a little easier than walking up a trail, but still quite a challenge. I passed a couple people on the way up, but no one (myself included) was up for a conversation as we made our way up to an unattended knob where we were to punch our bibs as proof we went there. The course comes back down this road a little ways and then turns off into the woods. After passing that turnoff, I started seeing some of the other runners coming down, most in groups of two or three and having conversations about various subjects that didn't seem as interesting as what we discuss in my running group. At the summit, it was not a hole puncher as I imagined, but a punch that had seven pins in it arranged like teeth in a mouth. It didn't really do much of a punch, so I did it a second time, hoping for clearer proof that I had been there. The tiny holes were there, but would require more than a passing glance to see.

Back down the road I headed and then back onto the trail. The gap between aid stations here was 9.45 miles and it felt even longer. Between the dark, mist, huge hill, and now more technical trail, I imagine this stretch took the better part of three hours, but don't know for sure. Hopefully, they are able to update the results with splits at the aid stations that weren't recorded because I would be curious how long some of these stretches actually took me to cover.

From this aid station at Dry Branch Gap, I'd climb another hill and then descend to Dowell's Draft aid station at mile 22.11. That was the first place I'd meet my crew. Lee later told me that I was ahead of the 24 hour pace for the first two crew-access aid stations, the second being at mile 37, which could only mean I was going too fast--even though it seemed like I had walked so much that wasn't possible. Over 100 miles, the finish time difference between a 4 mph pace and a 3.5 mph pace is 3.5 hours, so even a tiny change in pace translates into a pretty substantial difference in finish time if maintained the entire race.

I could remember Dowell's Draft from when Ed Marsh and I crewed in 2014. It's along a narrow forest service road so it can feel pretty crowded and chaotic when heading outbound and we are more closely bunched. I felt pretty good and certainly wasn't cold. The rain was fairly light and the temperatures were mild, so I asked Paul to take my rain jacket off my pack. It wasn't terribly heavy, but it was one more thing to carry that I didn't feel like I needed. I grabbed some PB&Js wedges and headed back out.

Shortly after departing the aid station, a guy caught up to me and said he was going to hang with me for a bit if that was ok. I told him I was fine with it, but that he could take off whenever he wanted to because I needed to stick to my own game plan--even though I kind of hadn't by going out ahead of pace. We got to talking and he told me his name was Yong (pronounced like "young") Kim and he was born in Korea (South, I presumed) but moved to Tennessee when he was two. In the dark, I thought he was in his early to mid-20s, but he later said he was 42 year's old. Though I had been enjoying running/hiking in solitude, having Yong there providing some conversation did seem to make the time pass a little quicker. He had a good uphill walking pace and attacked the downhills and technical stuff about as cautiously as me, so from my perspective, it didn't feel like either was holding the other person back. Every now and then, for the next several hours, we'd pass Doug Begerman or he'd pass us.

The miles passed, though not necessarily quickly. We continued up, down, and around mountains as the drizzle continued, occasionally strengthening into a rain. North River Gap, mile 37.13, aid station #5 and the second crew access point, arrived at the 8:04 point of the race, which was 41 minutes ahead of the 24-hour pace (when calculated linearly and not accounting for conditions and elevation changes.) I was going way too fast and yet it seemed like I had hardly run anything--mostly speed hiked. For better or worse, I didn't know that was my pace at the time. This aid station is a larger one and they have hot foods like soups, pancakes, quesadillias, pierogis, etc... I can't remember what I got here but will note that we brought several gallons of Deer Park water for me to refill my bottles with whenever I met the crew. I've had races where their water tastes too chlorinated and it makes it harder to drink. The Deer Park has no taste and goes down much easier. According to the post-race splits, I was 62nd entering this aid station. Not certain if my headlamp was losing its charge, or my eyes were glazing over, I swapped it for another I had brought and asked the guys to charge this one in the car for later.

I lost track of Yong at the aid station but headed out at a slower walk pace. Pretty quickly, he came up behind me and we continued on together. The rain got a little harder here as we made our way up another long, steep climb, netting a gain of roughly 2800' in six miles. With the long climb and my slower pace, I began to cool down. I had only my TRU t-shirt on and my pack against my back which provided a tiny bit of warmth. Around mile 40, I was really cold, to the point of involuntary shivering. The winds had picked up and the temperature had dropped with the rising elevation. I stopped to get out my mitten gloves and headband as my running cap was now soaked and not helping much. These helped a little but even when combined with the spots where we could run, I wasn't warming up. At roughly mile 42, I was seriously thinking I'd have to drop at the next aid station. When it's dark, rainy, and windy and you are cold, it's hard to be optimistic about things. I had flashbacks to my drop at the Mount Mitchell Challenge, where I thought if I could just take my wet clothes off and warm up, I'd be good to go, only to then realize, I had to put cold, wet clothes back on to continue. Unless I could get in someone's heated car or something, I knew there was no way I could make it from that aid station another 6.6 miles to the turnaround and my crew and dry clothes. As if reading my thoughts, Yong commented that he was getting cold as well.

At the aid station, I asked if they had an extra trash bag I could use as a poncho. They did not but one of the volunteers, who seemed to be the aid station captain, asked if I wanted to borrow a jacket. I hated to accept but he said he had loaned out several already. We put it on over my pack and though it was fairly lightweight and not waterproof, it did seem to help a little a bit, perhaps holding in some of the remaining heat escaping from my body. I felt like I could make it to the turnaround even though I was still a little cold. I had some sort of vegetable broth here. I think it was French onion soup, but it was warm and helped heat me up inside.

I honestly don't remember much about the next stretch of trail other than we finally popped out on the paved road/greenway section near the turnaround. I remembered this part from pacing Sheryl. We had to go up to an overlook and punch our bibs but as we walked up a guy coming down said he looked all over and couldn't find the puncher and that others had told him the same thing as they came down. Having heard this, Yong and I still looked for it up top, spending way too much time on the exposed, windy overlook looking for it. We finally agreed that it wasn't there and headed back down. I had thought this paved section was only about 1/4 to 1/2 mile long when I was on it with Sheryl, but perhaps that was because I was fresh. We were jogging on it a good 10 minutes when someone told us we still had a mile to go. The sun was just about coming up (though still hidden by cloud cover) when we made our way into the aid station. I was checked in at the 12:53 point in the race.

A few miles back, Yong had said he was probably going to lay down in his crew's car for 30 minutes at the turnaround so we parted ways as we arrived. I went pretty much straight to the car to change to a warmer dry shirt (my long sleeve, cold weather top) and my rain jacket. While there, I went ahead and changed socks and shoes, knowing that they would get wet again. I had fallen back seven spots at this aid station and was now 69th. I was now roughly on a 26 hour pace, but again, that is not factoring in the terrain or my growing fatigue, just the mileage. The fact that I was at a 26 hour pace at the halfway point pretty much meant that 26 hours was now out of the question.

All my aid station stops lasted longer than in any other race I've done. This was certainly my longest stop ever, but I was picking up Lee as a pacer here for the next 15 miles and it was honestly harder to get back out of the warm car than I had expected. They call it "pacer" but Lee wasn't there to set any sort of pace. His role was to keep me moving, on the trail and distract me from my aches and pains and ignore any whining he heard from me. The fact that the sun was now "out" did help my spirits/energy a little bit. My knees and legs were a bit stiff so anytime we ran/jogged, it took a minute or two to loosen up. On very brief occasions, the clouds lifted just enough to make out some adjacent mountains, but long range views were mostly still not possible.

When we reached the first aid station heading back (Little Bald Knob) I returned the jacket the volunteer had loaned me and thanked him several times. That jacket had prevented a DNF earlier and I was now past the halfway point of the race so the miles were counting "down" instead of "up." Though tired, I was mentally encouraged. There was a lot of walking involved, even on downhills. When Lee made a brief pit stop in the woods, I kept walking. Then I found myself jogging. The trail was extremely muddy here in sections, including some steep downhills. It had the look of creamy peanut butter with the viscosity of 0W-20 motor oil, but my Salomon Speedcross 3s dug in and traction was actually better in this stuff than on the wet, smooth rocks found on other parts of the course. I guess I thought I was closer to the aid station than I was because it took a while to get there. Lee later told me when separated, there were still a few miles to the aid station.

When I arrived at North River Gap (mile 65.33) I had fallen back another three spots to 72nd and was at a roughly 26:45 pace. It was time to pick up Ray as my pacer for the next 22 miles. Now burning up in that long sleeve shirt, I changed to another short-sleeve tech shirt and was in and out before Lee arrived. I saw Adam here as well, getting ready to start pacing Doug for the last 37 miles. I felt certain that he would "run us down" and told him as much as Ray and I headed on down the course.

Ray and Lee have different pacing styles. On local runs, Ray always starts out too fast, excited and full of energy. Lee is a bit more of a long-term thinker--planning what he does now based on what he will need to do later. Well, Ray was certainly bursting with energy when we departed. While the energy was appreciated, I couldn't reciprocate. I had been going just over 17 hours and was wearing down. It wasn't encouraging to realize that the course record-holder, Karl Meltzer, finished the entire race in just ten minutes longer than it took me to get to mile 65.

I had paid enough attention in the first 50 miles to note what sort of trail conditions both Lee and Ray would be running on. Generally speaking, Lee was going to have the more technical stuff and Ray had more runnable trail. Both would have hills. When Ray picked me up, Lee and I had just come down a long descent and now we had a pretty good climb up Lookout Mountain ahead of us. I'm not sure how the trail really went, but we seemed to be spiraling around the mountain as we made our way up and then headed along a ridgeline only to go up again. I get a bit foggy on the details through here, but I do remember that we passed several people and were not passed by anyone, so that made me feel a bit better about my pace. Lookout Mountain at 71.68 did not have crew access and seemed so remote that neither Ray nor I were totally sure how the aid station volunteers got themselves there. The Dowell's Draft aid station, at 80.35, was the next aid station where we would meet up with Lee and Paul. This put the remaining distance at under a marathon. While 22 miles is still a lot, it seemed a lot more manageable. The aid station gaps are very large so I would only have two more aid station stops before the final miles into the finish.

Ray and I headed out, again grinding up a steep hill almost immediately after departing the aid station. If you notice on the profile graphic below, most of the stations are in gaps, where they can be accessed by roads. That tends to mean we ran down into the station and up out of it. Though the climbs were steep, they did have one positive thing about them--I didn't feel guilty walking them and knew that I certainly wasn't the only one walking. When I had to walk some downhills that were runnable, then I did feel a bit disappointed that I wasn't able to muster up a better effort.

Huge Suspension Bridge over a Creek or River
As we departed the aid station, we told Paul it would be at least two hours before we reached the next aid station, 7.5 miles away and I planned to get my best headlamp back from them. There is a cool suspension bridge over a river near this aid station, shown in the picture on the right. Note that this picture is from when I paced my friend, Sheryl, under much better weather conditions.

Ray led on, still caught up in the energy of a big race. He had elected to wear road shoes, but for the most part, traction wasn't a major issue on the sections he ran with me. There was, however a LOT of standing water we had to run through and giant mud puddles we had to try to avoid. The standing water was most noticeable when it was in tire tracks along grassy sections of trail. It was somewhat unavoidable. I don't believe my feet were ever dry the entire race and commented afterwards that they looked like bleached raisins. They bothered me a little bit, but not enough to concern myself with at this point. Down another steep hill into Dry Branch Gap and I'd rejoin Lee for the last two segments.

WIth Ray, I had some periods of fogginess, that approached a "bonk." Some of this carried forward with Lee. I was really moving along on fumes. I choked down what food I could, but I was more interested in just moving forward and getting the race over. I got my good headlamp back and we headed off at a walk. I told Lee that I'd probably have to walk it in, which he was fine with. My focus/balance wasn't too sharp and I had to pick my way across technical sections. Poles might have been a big asset for me here. My knees didn't really hurt but were stiff, as were my thighs from some of the steeper downhills.

I want to pause here and jump back to a conversation I had with Yong much earlier. When I said something about occasionally getting Mountain Dew at aid stations to "knock the cobwebs off," he asked if I wasn't worried about stomach upset from the sugar and caffeine. I had never heard of such a correlation, but since I always seem to have stomach issues late in races, maybe there was some truth to what he said. I mention this because after he said it, I decided to avoid soft drinks this race. Also, I had taken two Powerbar Gels, but mostly solid food and Huma gels, which are pureed strawberries. At Grindstone, I was tired and did have a very diminished appetite, but never had the stomach issues that have occurred in other races. Whether this was due to the cooler conditions or the avoidance of sugar and caffeine, I can't say, but I was thankful that for once, at least my stomach wasn't causing me problems. Unfortunately, by avoiding the soft drinks, that was several hundred fewer calories I'd be taking in during the race.

This was going to be a nearly nine mile stretch to the next aid station and even at a fast walk pace, I knew it would seem like forever. I tried to put it into local perspective--an out-and-back on the greenway--to make it feel more manageable. As we pressed on into my second night, the growing darkness took some of my remaining mental energy and demanded more focus on the headlamp-lit trail ahead of me. With Lee in front I basically followed his path and concentrated on getting my feet in the best stepping places. This continued for a couple hours as we both wondered where that next aid station could be. Lee wore his GPS but mercifully held back on updating me on our progress unless we were close to our destination. We came up alongside of a large creek/river that I honestly didn't remember from the early part of the run. We surmised that the rains had swollen the creek to where it rushed with enough force to be heard. It was not visible unless you made an effort to look over the bank, through the trees, on the side of the trail. We fortunately did not have to cross the fast-flowing sections of this creek, but rather some calmer side-streams. The crossings I had made earlier that could be rock-hopped were no longer so shallow. I could use the same rocks, but now my feet were under 4-6" of water.

One last major climb up an unknown hill/mountain (roughly 1400' in 3 miles) and then we were back on that steep power-line road I remembered from earlier in the race. Had my legs been working, I could have gained some time here, but they were too sore to run. So, we walked the four-mile road that dropped 2100', getting passed by two women (not sure if one was a pacer) and one guy, all of whom seemed to have way too much energy for so late in the race.

We soon passed a guy coming up the trail (looking for his runner, we guessed) who told us we had about 1/4 mile to the aid station. Lee checked his GPS and said that it should actually be about a mile further. Well, it turned out that the guy was fairly accurate and the aid station was soon upon us. The downside was that the sign said "5.2 miles to the finish" and I had thought it was 4.2 from the last aid station to the finish.

I tried not to spend much time here. Paul and Ray refilled my bottles and I think I ate a little something, but now, I just wanted to continue my zombie shuffle to the finish. I knew now that a 26 hour finish had passed and I calculated that given my condition, 28 hours was unlikely. We had 1.5 hours to go 5.2 miles. At my current walking pace, I did not feel I could manage 3.5 mph with some technical stuff along the way. We crossed the railroad tracks that I remembered from the morning, wondering what it would be like to reach this point (mile 97ish,) cold, wet, and tired and have a train coming through. Thankfully, we were clear.

Though I had been on these same trails (I assume) at the start of the race, they seemed so unfamiliar. Especially when we made our way on the Scout Camp's property. We went by logging trucks and shower facilities under construction that I have no recollection of having seen earlier. I did remember how long this section felt when I paced Sheryl, though, and how we had seemed to wind through these woods forever. That prepared me a little bit for this home stretch. In hindsight, I hate that I didn't force myself into running through here. I do believe that had I pushed through the initial soreness, I could have done a decent jog. But, I think it was more a mental thing at this point. I truly didn't care which side of 28 hours my finish time fell on, just so long as I finished.

I really expected some more people to run by me since we had been walking so long, but the only lights visible anywhere around us belong to Lee and myself. We followed the flags and reflective markers until we suddenly were beside the concrete wall that I recognized from very early in the race as having been beside Hope Lake. We were practically finished! Though elated to know that I was practically done, after scrambling up the bank, I didn't care about trying to run the now flat and soft-surfaced course that remained. Without fanfare, we walked around the lake, back through the Camp's main entrance, and to the finish, arriving just a tick under 28:15. Clark Zealand congratulated me and I went over and did the mandatory hugging of the totem pole. He handed me a long sleeved running shirt and the traditional finishers belt buckle.

As happy and relieved as I was to finish, all I could honestly think about at this point was a shower. I was sore, tired, but most importantly at this point, terribly dirty. I was so looking forward to crashing into my sleeping bag, but had to get 28 hours of mud, sweat, and tears off of me first.

I'll skip over the welcomed, uninterrupted, dreamless sleep that came next and jump straight to the next morning when, on occasion, I still heard people finishing as I lie in the tent wondering what time it was (my phone had died.) Cutoff was 38 hours, or 8:00 a.m. and since the sun was faintly lighting up the tent walls, I knew it had to be after the 7:19 sunrise. The post-race breakfast started at 8:30 so we disassembled the tents and got everything packed away before heading inside. There really isn't much race left to this story. After sitting down with a plate of eggs, French toast, hash browns, and a biscuit (they also had bacon, French toast casserole, breakfast desserts, and some other items) I sent a message to Doug Thompson to see if he had finished and learned that he had in just over 37 hours, so he had achieved his secondary goal of qualifying for Western States. They had a large TV hooked up in the dining hall with the results scrolling. I watched and found that I had moved up to 56th overall over the last 37 or so miles, gaining 16 spots. I know we passed several people and were passed a few times, but I'm sure there are a couple drops in there as well. I heard people saying there were 65 drops out of about 260 starters. 179 finished in under the cutoff according to the live stats, so the dropout rate may have been higher. I later learned, to my disappointment, that Yong had dropped somewhere and Doug Begerman had dropped at mile 88 from hypothermia.

With the finish, I am (maybe?) qualified for the 2017 UTMB 100. However, I am now second guessing myself. When I was facing a DNF around mile 42, I realized that I did already have enough points for one of the other, shorter races at UTMB. And, I asked myself if I'd even be capable of finishing the 100 miler there. The average finish time looks to be about 40 hours (meaning being out there 12 hours longer than I had just "run" and it has 10,000' more climb than Grindstone. Even on a good weather day, I'm not sure that's within my abilities, mainly due to the problems getting food down. I have time to think about it before registration opens, but right now, UTMB seems far more daunting than it did before Grindstone. I've got time to think about it before registration opens, though.

For anyone considering Grindstone, I can say that it is a well organized event. I had absolutely no issues with staying on the trail (unless I slid off on a slick rock.) The markings were good and easily visible. The aid station people were great and really took the initiative in helping. Perhaps they understood how foggy-headed people like me can be when they come into a station bustling with activity. I never left without full water bottles and offers of food, soup, etc... I enjoy being able to camp at the start/finish area and the Scout Camp makes for a great host site. I feel that it is a very hard course made more difficult for me by the misty rain at night (hard to see) and my own undertraining. I imagine I could have done a bit better without the night rain and with better preparation, but there were so many opportunities for a race-ending fall that I easily could have done a lot worse.

Grindstone Finisher's Belt Buckle
Pre-race: Me with Paul and Ray
Pre-race: Me with Paul and Lee

No comments:

Post a Comment