I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I signed up for Grindstone as soon as it opened. My reasoning was simply to run the three big 100 milers in the Northeast/Mid Atlantic region which are Massanutten, Eastern States, and Grindstone. My main focus was on MMT and Eastern with Grindstone a distant thought as it was so many months out. MMT came and went and I ran so well there and the conditions were in my favor being the coldest MMT on record. I prefer cold weather running. I then decided to show up and run Worlds End 100K the following weekend up in "nowheresville" aka Forksville Pennsylvania. I finished the race with a finish line DNF. I crossed the mat 14 minutes past the cutoff completely drained. I was proud of the effort though. I completed the 65 mile course but came up a bit short. That race left me gutted and looking back I think I carried it with me for many months. I'm still glad I did it though. It taught me a lot about my body and mind and what we are capable of. Eastern States came along and turned out to be a complete and total shit show mess due to the oppressive heat and humidity. My body just could not handle it and I dropped shamefully at mile 12 scratching my head and wondering what happened. Some days you just don't have it and I didn't have anything in Waterville that weekend. I then got antsy and signed up for The Ring in early September to run with my buddies Casey and Don with somewhat eerily similar results as States. I wound up dropping at mile 35 beaten and broken. I bonked horribly and became dehydrated in the Massanuttens. I cramped the worst I have every cramped and I left there low on confidence and questioning if I had the guts to continue doing long winded affairs.
So after a long hot summer of failures, I looked to Grindstone to restore my confidence for the long adventure. I studied the course, the aid stations, read every and all race reports on the Eco-X website, studied past AS split times from friends who ran it previously, studied all the uploaded runs of the course on Strava, and developed a race strategy and an aid station time sheet to follow. I even uploaded the course on my Ambit3 plotting the AS locations so there was no way no how I could get lost or go off course. I did my homework. I wasn't going to screw this up.
I drove down with Pat Heine on Thursday from Bethlehem Pennsylvania. (Pat would later PR, besting his time from last year by over 10 hours! He came in 10th place. Amazing! But he can write about that.) We met up with several other friends running the race Casey Fisher and Don Riley at the Howard Johnson's in Staunton.
We walked around town, drank beer, and had dinner. You know typical pre race stuff for old people like us. On Friday morning we woke up to light rain, had breakfast at some diner on the outskirts of town, and made our way over to the camp. Packet pickup had a great vibe which is always a tell tale sign of a great race. As we ate lunch we had some great conversations with so many friends. The lodge had a feel of a family reunion. I was able to finally meet Gary Horn aka Sandy who flew up from Texas. He belongs to the Runningahead.com forum where you post your runs and discuss in a forum. Sorta like an old version of Strava. He was here for the Hardrock qualifier. He ran Hardrock in 2014 and DNF'd around mile 85 or so. He was on the waitlist up until a day or so before the race when he received the call from Dale Garland. What an amazing story. Ultrarunning gives you these great moments like this to meet and talk with great people that you would never otherwise meet. I was feeling calm and rather confident for this one as we made our way back to the car in the rain to rest a bit before the 6 pm start.
|Jun and Otto. Otto would cap off an incredible year |
completing the Grand Slam then finishing Grindstone fueled
on Sunny D.
At the start line I was able to find Maria Campos from New York City who also belongs to the group TrailWhippass. We both agreed to keep each other company for the first night as neither one of us has run here before. She was running the race no crew no pacer and I was going to go that route but thankfully found a pacer in Kiran Koons, a running buddy from West Chester Pa. I ran into Matt Wilson and Josh Finger at the start as well. We chatted a bit and it's always great to see other PA runners. With a light rain falling and fog rolling in we were off running through and around the camp. Those first ten miles I honestly can not remember very much of the trail. It was raining, getting dark, and actually on the humid side so I was actually sweating a good deal. By the time Maria and I reached the stone road for the Elliot Knob climb it was completely black out and super foggy. Maria took off up the climb and I lost sight of her as a few folks passed me. I just took my time climbing and trying to keep my heart rate in check. This was a long slog of a climb but being fresh certainly helped. As we neared the top others were bombing down on the left hand side to the single track portion of the Elliot Knob Trail wishing us climbers good luck. At the top there was a long line for the hole punch. I didn't mind it as it gave me a chance to take a breather and drink and eat a little. Standing there in line I could not help but dwell on the enormity of what we were all doing. Running 101 miles in the Blue Ridge mountains over two nights in the rain and fog is a pretty mighty task and I was thankful that I was able to do this. My wife and kids and dog were five hours away at home and here I was on top of a mountain three states away with ninety mountain miles left to traverse. But my confidence was rising as each mile ticked off and I was feeling good as I jogged down that fog filled and rutted out road down to the trail head entrance.
Hey Maria waited for me! I figured I was going it all alone from here on out but she graciously stopped and waited for me to catch up. I was pretty thankful for that as having company at night is a good thing. We chatted as we picked our way across those wet and unstable rocks on Elliot's. We seemed to be making good progress as the trail smoothed out and became more runnable heading down to the road. Crossing the road you get a two and half mile one thousand foot climb up to Crawford Mountain then down the other side to route 250 and then into Dowell Draft AS at mile 22. It was on this section I ran into Francesco and Aaryn from Ontario. I recognized them from Paul Encarnacion's Eastern States 100 video from the last two years. They are fresh off Fat Dog 120 in August and are down here running this beast of a race. Truly remarkable. We chatted away and Aaryn expressed concern about finishing the race as she was having some issues (she would later drop but her husband would finish strong). I lost sight of Maria again as she passed a few runners and pulled away. But low and behold she waited for me again down the trail and we continued on our way down into Dowell's Draft aid station as the rain continued on.
Dowell's was an energetic place at 12:30 Saturday morning. It was a joy to finally get access to a drop bag and a nice clean towel to wipe my face off. It was also a nice surprise to see some Philly runners Clare and Lauren standing there waiting for their runner. They smiled and cheered me on and mentioned how great I looked! LOL.. lies all lies!! But it did make me feel good. I came into this race with a different nutrition plan then usual. I decided a week prior to try the Ensure meal shakes the ones with 350 calories in 8 ounces. They pack a wallop for sure and I actually found I liked the vanilla flavored ones. It makes so much sense from a cost and caloric perspective. To me they were far superior then any gel I could have taken. I have an iron clad stomach though so I can tolerate almost anything. I still sipped Tailwind in between aid stations for the slow drip of simple calories and would eat real food when I came across it at the aid station's. I was determined to not get behind on the nutrition front. I stashed two shakes in each drop bag one for outbound and one for inbound. I almost drank both shakes at Dowell's though and had to stop myself as the first one went down far to easy. It was raining really good here so I just filled up my bottles, quickly ate food, wiped my face off and Maria and I headed off into the foreboding black night.
Up and Up and over and around we went as we ascended towards Hankey Mountain. This stretch of trail while fairly smooth and runnable went on for a long while. We weren't running it, not here and not now anyway but I'm sure many have and did. We climbed with a strong sense of purpose. Somewhere along the way we both heard a very large noise echoing up from the dark hollow below. It sounded like a large rock hitting against another large rock. Maria screamed and jumped right behind me almost as if using me as some kind of human shield or something. Here is this tough as nails Latina from NYC willing to run this race alone basically pushing me off the mountain in order to get away from a rock. We looked down in the direction of the noise. It was a long way down off to the right and our light beams appeared to shine down into oblivion never finding a bottom. I told her we just need to keep going and it was probably a bear down there trying to get away from us not necessarily coming towards us up the side of the mountain. I'm pretty sure I also mentioned something to the tune of "we probably have already passed several bear we just didn't see them." I don't think that made her feel any better but in an odd way was comforting to me.
Coming down the backside of Hankey Mountain we made our way into The Lookout Mt AS which I honestly do not remember. It was raining and foggy and it was close to 3 am so the miles blurred into my subconscious. As we were descending I kept thinking that we needed to find a wooden bridge. I saw pictures of it and previous race reports mentioned such a bridge. I told Maria we will be close to the road and North River Gap when we find this bridge. Then not long after saying this we hit a wooden bridge! Small victories in races of this length have a habit of becoming really really big victories. The road was next, then lots of cars and trucks along the road, then lights then North River AS mile 35. I felt a big relief as this is a big spot with drop bags and the start of the signature climb of the course up The Wild Oak Trail. A climb I was excited to experience for the first time. The volunteers here were awesome. One guy set me up in a chair and got me hot pierogies and black coffee. I downed another Ensure, changed my socks, lubed the feet and changed out buffs. Maria was already up and ready to go so she said she wanted to start the climb to keep from getting cold and so it was here we parted ways. The sun would come up soon so I would have to go it alone from here on out until I picked up Kiran right here at North River 12 hours from now at mile 65.
As I set off in the darkness I found myself completely alone with my thoughts. This is a seven mile climb with 3,000 ft of ascent and it took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete it. That is a long time to do a climb but I did share a small section of it with Doug from North Carolina. I caught up to him about a mile into it. We chatted briefly and it was nice to have a little company. I would eventually pull away from him though. This is a climb that you just sortof get into a groove and zone out on. There were some fairly steep sections for sure but mostly the grade wasn't overly vertical like some of the climbs I was used to training on in the mountains of Pennsylvania. But the length and amount of time spent on the climb was what ground you down and nearing the top I was certain I was close to being done only to find I still needed to climb a bit more. This tested my patience. It was here where many of the front runners came barreling down the trail heading inbound and heading home. It was nice to see others but it made me realize just how much I had left. I had a lot of work ahead of me. At one point I was convinced that I had traveled close to seven miles and the aid station should be coming up so I sheepishly asked one of the runners coming towards me if the station was close. His response "you have a little while to go." His blunt honestly was appreciated but I had to hold myself together a bit as I was starting to crack. Another runner who happened to be behind me not to far heard the runner answer me and I could here him mumble angry expletives to himself. Kinda funny to think about it now but it was not amusing then. It was starting to get lighter and lighter out and you could see the sky when you looked up the trail instead of just forest indicating we were getting close. And finally we had hit the top where the trail came to a junction and you could go left or continue straight/right to continue on along the rolling ridge with occasional wide open sections of meadow.
|Coming into the turnaround at Briery Branch Gap mile 51.|
Only 50 miles left to go. The simple fact of knowing you are past the turnaround and each section of trail that you complete you won't need to see again is comforting to a degree. I'm heading in the direction of home, I don't need to go up to Reddish Knob or to the top of Elliot's Knob, these are positives. It's not going to be dark until at least mile 67 or so..These are the simple things I thought about. Anything positive to focus on is good. I was alone though. And being alone and tired and with the rain picking up can be taxing. This eight miles or so to the Little Bald AS is long but it does have some nice runnable dirt road. So I tried to focus on running the mildly descending road, it was more like jogging though. Keep the walking to a minimum. Then I spotted a runner coming towards me and he looked really familiar. It was Nick Ferrara from Doylestown PA! My initial thought was "WTF is he doing way back here?" Nick is a veteran 100 mile runner and a sub three hour marathoner and is way faster then me so I would have thought he was miles in front of me not miles behind me. I stopped to talk to him and it turns out he was running the race with a friend who really got in a bad way and got sick and Nick stayed back with him to try to get him to continue but unforttunatly his friend did not continue and that left Nick chasing cutoffs and he wound up dropping at North River inbound I believe. Such a selfless act of kindness by him. Just another example of what ultra running is all about.
I said goodbye to Nick and continued on. Since I was alone the thoughts of bear popped back into my mind. I am somewhat surprised I didn't see any bear or any wildlife for that matter. I saw nothing. No dear, no birds, no squirrel, no rabbits, no bear nothing! I kept looking into the forest along the road as I ran trying to see if I could spot anything. No luck. I did spot a runner up ahead and I tried to keep him in sight. It's a strange thing to think but to me as long as I can see him I'm not really running alone. He could be hundreds of yards away but as long as he could be seen by my eyes he mind as well be ten feet away. I enjoy running alone and do most of my training alone. I guess I would classified as a solitary runner. But there are times I want and need to be around others and I was hoping for another runner to run with. I eventually caught up with him and I recognized him from pictures that my friend Jimmy Blandford took at Eastern States. It was Christopher Agbay. Talk about a veteran 100 mile runner. Look up the word "beast" and this man should be there. We had a great mile or so together chatting away about Eastern States and MMT and just how great the trails down here in Virginia are. We ran together into Little Bald aid station where I proceeded to eat probably two or three full oranges they had sliced up. They tasted so good and I could not stop. Then a nice man poured me a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale which tasted better then the oranges. These guys were really having a good time out here. The happiest volunteers I have ever encountered that's for sure. I drank the pale ale, thanked them, and was on my way. Chris stayed back at the aid station waiting for his brother who was also running the race. So once again I found myself alone running through those open meadows that would spring up along this section. Yup you guessed it, these meadows were prime black bear territory. At least that's what I told myself anyway. My brain was totally psyching myself out. It was rather annoying but it kept me moving.
And there it was, the sign for the Wild Oak Trail. I was now on the long seven mile descent into North River Gap aid station at mile 67. On and on and on it went. It looked like a completely different trail during the daylight. It was very quiet on this trail with continuous drizzle. It was muddy and slick and slippery but it certainly was quicker going down then coming up. I passed a runner or two here and even passed my Texas friend Sandy. I would pass him on the trail and he would catch me at the aid stations. Chris and his brother caught up to me and passed me with vigor as they both were running well here and I was fading. I passed a few folks and hikers coming up TWOT and for some reason I thought I was close to the parking lot but I wasn't. I was far from it. It was funny as this descent continued on for an eternity it seemed. I recall smiling several times and chuckling to myself which I usually tend to do during 100 milers. It seems at some point, the absurdity of running a 100 miler hits me broadside like a bus. My usual response to this epiphany is always laughter. Off in the distance I could hear hollering and cheering. This jolted me out of my daydream malaise and I realized the aid station was right ahead. As I rolled into the North River there was Kiran dressed and ready to roll to pace me for the final 35 miles. Relief at last!
Kiran handed me my drop bag as I sat down in a chair. I chugged another Ensure, changed socks, lubed my destroyed feet, changed shirts, and ate some food. There were many families and runners here milling about giving this station a busy vibe. It was the final third of the race and in a mere few hours the second night would be showing up. We rolled out of there a little after 2:30 with hopes of getting to Dowell's by nightfall. But to accomplish that we had to climb Lookout and Hankey Mountains then run the long descent into Dowell's. Kiran locked in right behind me and onward we went. It was so great having her there for companionship to face the wrath of the final 50k. Lookout mountain seemed another blur to me. It was just a steady strong hike up and up and up. It was interesting in that nothing was recognizable because that last time I was on this trail it was dark and I was coming down from the other direction. So in a way it was all new to me. It took a little over two hours to go the six miles from North River to Lookout Mt aid station. The trail pretty much climbed the entire six miles so we did not do much running, but we were moving steady and that's all you need to do. It was great seeing Angela volunteering at Lookout. I was also able to get a hamburger here which was really good. So I sat down in a chair eating a hamburger and drinking coffee all the while Angela harassed me about getting back out on trail (in a friendly way of course). We left rather quickly I think anyway and went on up Hankey. It was just another strong hike up the access roads and up trail. After passing some very nice mountain bike riders who kindly gave us the trail and wished us well we finally started descending down the long never ending five miles to Dowell's. My new trail friend Chris whom I met twenty miles ago did mention to me this five mile stretch was his favorite part of the course because you could cruise all the way down. I could see now what he was talking about but my cruising speed at this point was more like a walrus in heat. I envisioned I was doing at least 9 minute miles but upon further review afterwards I wasn't even in the ballpark and I'll just leave it at that. At the pace I was going those five miles took a loooooong time. Darkness did fall on us here and I think it was still raining as we limped into the aid station.
Dowell's Draft is roughly 22 miles from the finish. It's sounds close but it really isn't. As soon as we got there I sat down and started to shiver and feel cold. I drank an Ensure and changed my shirt but still was shivering. A nice woman and man sitting there gave me a blanket to cover myself. They were, I think, part of the fire rescue volunteers. They had their dog sitting there also. Staring at him made me miss my family and Baxter my little Havanese. I just sat there staring and watching others. I was siting under a tarp on a chair but out of nowhere I was getting rain dumped on me as the tarp covering us would eventually become heavy with pooling rain and that pool would spill over the edge dumping onto me as I sat there. I was numb to it really and way to exhausted to get up and move the chair. My mind would fade in and out with thoughts of my family and then thoughts on nothing. Utterly blank. This is the moment in 100 milers where you either rise up or succumb. You never really know it at the time but its there. Its those moments I think I really enjoy but I don't enjoy them when in those moments if that makes sense. I enjoy them in my subconscious but not in the present. I stood up and Kiran and I got a brief recon of the remainder of the course from a nice fellow who was wearing a Hellgate jacket if I recall. He was so nice and helpful. He bluntly told us the next two climbs are going to suck a lot but there is no way around it so just move forward and make due. Oh how right he was. Leaving the station we were right behind Otto Lam from New Jersey. He was standing off on the side projectile vomiting into the bushes. It's what he does. He just completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and the first New Jersey resident to do so and is here running this and leaving a trail of half digested Sunny Delight all along the course. I find Sunny D to be vile but he lives on the stuff. So into the forest we all drudged towards Crawford Mountain.
Once you cross the aptly named Hankey Mt Highway you start the climb up Crawford. This is a 1,700 foot ascent over roughly four miles and looks nothing at all familiar even though you ran down this very trail the evening before. I felt as if I was climbing Denali. To say this was a slog was an understatement. Kiran and I both had to stop on occasion to lower our heart rates and take a breath. The rain had finally stopped or so it seemed but the wind started to pick up ferocity the higher in elevation we climbed. I thought to myself several times how in the hell does this climb keep going. As we neared what we thought was the top the wind really started to howl and the fog on top of the mountain was actually blowing like smoke in a fire. One of my biggest fears of night running is wind and trees falling over crushing me. That is all I could think of. All the rain we had and now the wind is going to knock these monster trees down and kill us. I had to change the subject in my mind and not dwell on this. Then I thought about the dangers of what we were doing. I actually thought what if Kiran gets hurt or I get hurt what the hell are we going to do way out here on this lonely mountain. I had to push those doubts away. More tricks that the mind was playing on me to get me to stop. That son of a bitch brain of mine it's pretty sneaky. We actually came up on a large group of runners and past them as they changed into warmer jackets. Then we started to head down and that means an aid station was not far. We headed into Dry Branch aid station mile 87 and I told Kiran I need to sleep and sleep I did.
As I sat in that chair in front of that hot fire I would drift in and out of reality. I would hear voices echo in the distance but they were right next to me. My shins seemed to be burning being so close to the fire but I didn't care. The inferno felt good compared to the icy forest. I would awake on occasion as the ever present fear of sleeping past the cutoff would make me stir. I would then close my eyes again as if hitting the snooze button once I realized I was in no real danger. This went on for close to an hour. When I finally awoke for good I knew I had to be out of there by midnight which gave me 8 hours to finish with 14 miles left. I knew I could make it. That hour spent sitting there was the best decision I have ever made in a race. Hard to believe I know but that rest seemed to give me a boost for the next ten miles. I lost an hour sitting there but I gained my head back and my determination to finish was even stronger. I would have thought my legs would be like lead and stiffen up after sitting there so long but I popped up, put my hydration vest back on, tightened my gloves, said thank you no one in particular just anyone that was around me and off we climbed up Elliot's. It was almost as if my brain finally and I mean finally accepted the fact that I was not going to drop. I was going to finish this race no matter what. My brain whispering a conversation with my legs as I slept letting them know we needed 14 more miles out of you then you can crash. The human body is a remarkable machine in moments like this.
Kiran and I made our way slowly up Elliot's Knob Trail the last climb on the course. Oddly this climb was a mirror of the last climb we did, Crawford. It's four miles and 1,700 foot but Elliot's was much more technical then Crawford. Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be right? When you would step on a wobbly slab of rock it would make a thud sound as it would rock back and forth into it's neighbor. It reminded me of some of the central Pa trails back home. The classic unstable and technical mess associated with trails around Waterville, Loch Haven, and Forksville. But I like that mess. It keeps things interesting and occupies your mind. Maybe I was imagining it but I do believe the rain started again at one point. I could see a runner up ahead and he was lying half on the trail and half off. He was in the fetal position just lying there. At the time I wasn't really sure if he was real but I think he was real. I don't remember what I said to him. I don't remember if I even said anything. But the image I do remember vividly. It was the image of pure fatigue and mental anguish. More runners came and went as we climbed. I was able to pass many of the folks who passed me as I slept at Dry Branch. But passing people meant nothing to me at this point. Finishing this race was the only thing that had a meaning. While hopping along the rocks we came up on a runner who I immediately recognized as Philip from New Jersey. We greeted each other with happy smiles and salutations and ran the next few miles in a little train. He eventually pulled over and we passed and told him we would see him at the finish. The reality was sinking in that a finish was looming then shortly afterwards we popped out onto that glorious open stone road. It was 1:45 am Sunday morning and we still had 10 miles to go.
Now this stone access road was steep, very steep. It was steep going up which I barely remember but here at this moment it was torturous descending. Kiran and I jogged it somewhat or more like "fell forward" would better describe it and it also seemed to just go on for ever, but it was only a bit over a mile long to the turnoff into the woods. The rain had finally cleared out and you could see the lights of Staunton or some other sleepy town off in the distance. You could also hear what sounded like an Amtrak train traveling at a high rate of speed. It was the wind howling across the tops of the trees. It was astonishingly loud and was energetic to say the least. The mountains were finally releasing their tight grip and giving us a dynamic farewell. The trail turned off into the woods and we were back on single track that seemingly descended to the center of the earth. It was hard to believe I ran this trail going outbound. The streams were bulging with mountain runoff and nothing looked familiar. We passed some runners tip toeing on rocks trying to cross the creeks but not me. I blasted right through the knee deep ice cold water with little care. The freezing water would jolt me awake and soothe my horribly blistered feet. I had a one track mind and that was to take a hot shower and put layers of warm cotton clothes on and pass out in my car. Then these oddly shaped white rocks started to pop up all over the trails. "What the fuck is this!" I blurted out to Kiran. I could here her laugh at my outburst. "These god damn mother f'in white rocks!" My feet felt like they were tearing apart at each step on these things. After ninety plus miles of wet feet and mountains these hellish white rocks were like some sort of nightmarish cheese (foot) grater and the final straw and I lost it. I dropped so many F bombs and mother this and mother that and Kiran just chuckled at me. It's exactly what a great pacer does. Let the runner vent and laugh at them. The pain my feet felt was borderline unbearable but there is nothing you can do. Block it out and get through it is the only way.
|Of course the totem pole hug still clinging to |
A few thoughts on Grindstone 2016.
1. The race was so well done. The course markings, the volunteers, the aid stations, the swag, the pre race lunch and post race breakfast, the hot showers. I loved it. I just wish I was faster so I could see more of the course in the daylight.
2. I will have to run the race again in 2017 because I know I can run the course faster and the conditions can't be any worse then what we all endured. It can't be!
3. From my awesome pacer Kiran to seeing all my running friends on course, 100 mile mountain races continue to have a pull on me like no other distance. It's so primal and so savage but at the same time so enriching and rewarding there just isn't another distance I can say that I feel that way about.
4. Run this race. Just do it.