So I guess I should have written this report as soon as I finished. It would have been different. There would have been more words like "never" and "insane". On the other hand, maybe having just a little bit of perspective (not to mention a little bit of sleep) helps. After all, the motto on the race shirt is the pain is only temporary. And, to be honest, I think I felt about the best I ever have during a race going up one of the mountains in this one… but more on that in a bit.
To summarize Grindstone: if you've ever wanted to enjoy a four mile climb in the last 20 miles of a 100 mile race, this is the race for you. Actually, in the last twenty miles it has a four mile climb, and then once you finish that, you're treated to another. And that's only after the previous section which also has a good 2500' of climb. Overall there's more than 4000 feet of altitude difference (much of which you repeat several times) between 68 miles and 92 miles... And then you have to get back down the bottom again before the end. If that's all OK with you, you're gonna love this race!
But let me start at the beginning. The start/finish area is a great boy scout camp, including food, bathrooms, and showers -- all of which was very nice. I saw a lake on the map near the camp, but somehow I didn't really notice it until we ran past it in the last mile of the race, and then again when we came out after the awards ceremony and the sunlight was glittering on the water. It was certainly a beautiful area, between the mountains and farms and lake and so on.
My dad came down to watch the race, but as it was his first ultra, I didn't rely on him to be my crew. Instead, Diane and Chris Mortensen graciously agreed to come down and crew for me and then Chris would pace me for the last 50 miles. And I have to say, these two are the best -- they always had my bag on hand and everything ready for me, and somehow managed to find everything I had tucked away in the odd corners in there. Especially Diane, who had to care for both Chris and me during the last half of the race!
Afterward my feet were as big as those
(on the ceiling)
So back to the start. I knew going in that this race started at 6 PM, and I had mixed feelings on that. On the one hand, I'd never run through a whole night before, much less two (though I hoped to finish before going into the second night). Plus that meant we'd be starting after being awake for a full day. On the other hand, if I ended up going slower for the first half of the race on account of the darkness, that could have benefits -- normally I go out to fast and end up pretty trashed toward the end. But when race day finally rolled around, I decided the late start was altogether no good. I hadn't run much for the week (maybe 9 miles total), I had rested the day before, and I had tried to carb up by having more Gatorade instead of water and so on. The end result was that Friday morning -- the morning of the race -- I had so much energy I was practically vibrating. And then I still needed to sit around all day waiting for the race! No, this was no good. (Really? It wasn't the couch bouncing on its own?)
Oh yeah, he's gonna win this sucka
The one highlight was that they had some door prizes at the pre-race meeting, and mine was the very first name called, good for a nice new headlamp (which I actually used during the race)! That put me in a better mood, for sure. After the meeting, my dad and I headed back to town to sit around in more comfort, change, and eat a bit a couple hours before the start.
When we got back to the race, I discovered they had already moved the scale out to the aid station where it could be used during the race, so I missed the initial weigh-in. Fortunately they weren't too strict about the weight checks.
And they're off!
Shortly after, we lined up and headed out. The big name at the race was Karl Meltzer, and he led the initial pack. The first mile wound around the camp and the lake, and all the spectators got to take a short walk and see us all go by at about a mile and a quarter. Once we left the camp, the runners spread out and there were some nice wooded trails and a stream crossing or two, but within a couple miles it turned into the first of many long climbs. We went straight up a long gravel road to the first summit at Elliot Knob, and I remember thinking when we got to the top, "gee, that wasn't so bad!" I mean, I had figured it would be pretty terrible to get up to the summit, and it really wasn't. (No, the torture part would wait until we went to practically the same place at mile 92.) The runners hadn't spread out so much yet so I still had company, the road up to the top was plenty wide and the footing was decent, the darkness didn't bother me… It was nice.
Going by at mile 1.25
We also dodged a bullet on the weather. The initial forecast was for rain on Saturday, but as race day grew closer, it turned into rain on Friday night from the start through midnight. This time, though, inaccuweather.com erred in my favor and we got maybe two drops the whole time. We did get some fog during the night, which caused two problems. First, the top of Elliot Knob was fogged over, and we were supposed to locate an orienteering punch and punch our bibs to prove we had been there. I never would have found it in the fog (I couldn't even tell we were at the top!), but fortunately a runner passed the other way and called out "the punch is just ahead on your left!" and the guy I was with at the time found it straightaway. The other problem was that my glasses fogged up periodically during the following 5 or 10 miles, though fortunately no more than one lens at a time. I stuck close to the fellow ahead of me as best I could. (If you're out there guy, I forgot your name around mile 80 just as I said I would -- please remind me!) He said this was his first 100, and I told him I thought it was pretty nutty to start with this one! But I've made peace with that possibility; what's really nutty is that my dad said some guy was running this as his first ultra of any distance! Holy cow! (For what it's worth, I think they both beat me.)
Anyway, after coming down from the first summit, we had a leg and a half to complete before the first crew station at mile 22. We dove right into the forest and a nice trail, which was flattish for a while and then turned downhill for a few miles, getting pretty rocky toward the end. The darkness and fog had closed in, though there were still other runners around so it wasn't too lonely. Apparently I wasn't supposed to run alone, because when I did, I fell and cut up my knee a bit, and by the time I was up and running again the next two people had caught up and took the lead into the next aid station.
Leaving camp for the trails
Now the section after that station redefined rocky downhill. That third section, leading into the first crew station, I did not enjoy. It was just a lot of tricky footing, in the dark. It actually started with a climb through the mountain woods, reminding me a lot of Bear Mountain. I had a little trouble following the trail markings in the dark. Once I crossed a stream, went about 5 yards, and couldn't see any streamers. Fortunately there was a guy right behind me, and after poking around a bit he found the path where I had missed it. Another time I came down to a stream crossing and didn't see any markings on the other side. I didn't really want to cross if I wasn't supposed to, so I turned in circles, checking for markings on my side. Finally seeing a reflective streamer a ways away from the stream on my side, I launched up the path. Then I suddenly thought, "is this the way I just came?" I went back to the stream and searched for any other way I could have come from. None. Finally I gave up and crossed the stream, and eventually found more markings and forged on. Sigh.
After coming out of the woods, the massive descent began. And along the side of a mountain, so it was 18 inches of trail and then often impenetrable darkness off to the left. Don't fall there! It was a long way down. When it finally let up, I was alone again, and I felt that I must be nearing the aid station. I was really looking forward to seeing some friendly faces -- it keeps you going over those last couple miles! But I kept going off course. I'd miss a marking in the dark where the trail turned, and see a different trail instead. After 20 yards I'd think this was looking a bit sketchy, and there weren't any streamers. I'd turn around and go back, and find the markings on the second try. I didn't lose a whole lot of time -- no one caught up to me -- but it was demoralizing. I also noticed that one of the ropes holding my gaiters in position had broken, though I didn't necessarily want to sit down to replace it. Altogether, I wasn't feeling too great by the time I got to the crew station.
Best crew and pacer!
On the up side, though, my dad and Diane and Chris were all there at the station cheering me in, and they got me filled up and headed out promptly. I think I maybe mumbled about 5 words the whole time I was there. Once I left I was afraid I gave the wrong impression -- coming out with a bloody knee from the earlier fall and barely putting two words together, it might have seemed pretty grim, whereas I was actually happy to see them and running pretty well so far. I figured my spirits would lift sooner or later.
So there were two sections before the next crew station, one pretty long at about eight and a half miles, and one shortish at more like five and a half. Now I had planned out the time I thought it should take me for each segment, based on the posted splits for last year and the finish time I was aiming for. That long segment was the first one where felt like I was well behind my goal time. I just did not enjoy it, and didn't seem to do well on it. I'm not really sure why; I thought at the time I was still just in a funk from the previous section, but when we passed through it on the way back it was just as bad. According to the stats afterward I was actually only a few minutes off pace, so I guess it was mostly in my head, but that made two bummer sections back to back. And to cap it off, a couple people passed me just at the end, right before the aid station. That put me in 23rd, the rearmost place I would be in all race long.
A crew station lookout
Fortunately, the next leg into the second crew station was much better. That one, I really enjoyed. To begin with, I think this was the aid station with the big "Free Hugs" sign, which made me smile. Then I ended up running with a woman named Francesca for a while, one of the runners who had just passed me. It was nice just to have company for a change. I helped her put her flashlight into her backpack when it ran out of battery, highlighting the fact that things really weren't so bad for me after all (losing a light -- that would have been tough!). It probably also helped that there was a big downhill here. I came into the next crew station, also the lowest elevation on the course, with a smile.
I'm sure my dad and Chris and Diane wondered if this was the same runner as they saw at the other station. They even told me "now you go all the way up to the summit" (4000 feet up) and it didn't phase me. I figured I'd take advantage of this good feeling just as long as it would last.
It was a long 8-mile section to the next aid station (which wasn't even quite the top, ouch!), but I tell you, this was this high point of my race. I passed someone moments after leaving that crew station, and I passed people right and left, all the way up the mountain. Looking at the stats afterward, I picked up nine places on that ascent! I felt great, and enjoyed every minute of it, uphill or no. Everyone I passed said something nice, too, which was great. I beat my time estimate on this leg by twenty-six minutes! (More than three minutes a mile!!) Boy, on this section, I was psyched!
When I got to the aid station at the top, I filled up my water and grazed on the fruit a bit. Now I have nothing but good things to say about the aid stations, except this -- I think the crew of this one may have confused "orange" and "lemon" at the market! Those were about the sourest oranges I've ever had! But still, I probably had five big chunks and took more to leave with. They said I was looking great, "you're the first person who didn't come in bitching about the climb." I told them "I rocked that mountain! That's MY mountain!" and headed out.
I did see him once: going the other way
Well, of course, that good feeling didn't last the whole race either, but I made it to the next station well enough. This one was just below the second summit, so I left a bottle there and headed up maybe a third of a mile to the top to punch my bib. One of the biggest mistakes of the whole race was, I forgot to look around while I was up there. I mean, it was still dark, but there was a great view of lights in the valleys that I saw through the trees coming down, and it must have been better from up there where there was a clear view. But all I had on my mind was the punch and getting back to the aid station.
Back at the station, I picked up the bottle and headed down to pick up Chris around the halfway point. It was all road, switchbacks down to the parking area. Kind of annoying to have a few miles of road in the middle of this great trail race, but hey. I knew I was now running ahead of my estimates, but we'd pass the pacer start point twice. (The turnaround for the race was hardly more than a mile past that spot, and then we'd head all the way back the same way we came, except skipping the two summits -- to the tune of maybe a half mile each.) Anyway, I figured if Chris wasn't ready for me yet, I'd just do the turnaround and pick him up on the way back.
Well I eventually saw some cars and lights ahead, and then my dad was calling out "Aaron? Is that you?" It was, but when I got a little closer I only saw him out there. Then he was calling "Chris, Chris, he's here!" It looked like an uphill past that lot, so I just kept going and called out "catch up to me!" Of course, he did. Chris explained later that he didn't want to run in heavy clothes, but it was a little chilly up there in shorts near the top of the mountain at 5:30 in the morning -- he had been in the car warming up.
As we approached the turnaround, I saw a couple people passing in the opposite direction, so I knew I was not too far from the runners ahead of me. After we hit the turnaround aid station and headed back, I passed a few runners going the other way too -- they weren't that far behind me, perhaps 5 or 6 within a mile. But I had seen someone ahead of me walking with their pacer up the hill back to the top, so I jogged it, and indeed picked up another place by the time we got to the top.
The next section was an easy run on a gravel road, down and then up again, not much to it. Chris and I talked a bit, and worked out our routine. I wanted him in front following the course markings, so I could stop worrying about how long it had been since I noticed a streamer. It had been easy since he started (just following the roads), but I knew we were headed back onto trails down the mountain for the next section. In any case, dawn finally arrived, and I cheerfully ditched my lights at the aid station at the end of the road, just before we headed back down the mountain (all the way to the crew station at the bottom). I even grazed on the blueberry pancakes and eggs at this station, which more than made up for the lemons earlier!
It was not supposed to be dark here
There was just one problem. According to the notes I scribbled to myself on my gel bags, I was suddenly way behind schedule. From a few minutes ahead at the pacer pick-up to almost a half an hour behind, all while running well? I finally figured there were two problems. First, it seemed like they added two and a half miles to the course this year with the new turnaround point, and my estimates (based on last year's splits) didn't account for that. Also I didn't account for the time taken to get up and down that second summit stretch (though that just ate up my lead from coming up the mountain; it was the other that put me behind).
Well, whatever, I figured I'd do what I could.
Sadly, the second trip down MY mountain didn't go quite as well as the initial trip up it. Actually, it looks like my splits were exactly the same going up and down! 2:19 each way. When you figure there's 4000 feet there, it means I really did rock that uphill, and there must have been some steep parts on the downhill that I just took it slow on. I started to feel pretty beat on occasion. One of those times was just when someone passed in the opposite direction, saying "you're in 11th place and there are a bunch of people less than 5 minutes ahead of you!" At the time, all I could think was "I sure hope there isn't anyone within 5 minutes behind me, 'cause I'm not going any faster!"
Now one of the most humorous points of the race for me came shortly after that. We were trudging along, when suddenly I felt a clap on my back and Adam Casseday breezed by with a "Hey Aaron!" I looked at his back, looked at Chris, and mumbled "How the hell was I in front of that guy?!?" Last time I had seen him, he was just behind Karl! So I got a big old grin thinking about how I was ahead of Adam for 60 miles… or at least at the 60 mile point, close enough. (Unfortunately, I found out later he was doing great but then had a crappy middle of the race with vomiting and whatnot… at least he was looking great again when he passed me!)
Morning in the woods
Adam wasn't the only one to pass me, and from there to the end of the race, I didn't pass anyone else except one guy who was injured badly enough to drop out. But it didn't bother me so much; by this time I just wanted to post the best time I could. Chris assured me I could make 24 hours if I just ran the downhills and flats, and worked through the uphills. I really appreciated the sentiment, but I knew he was smoking something potent if he thought that was true -- by now I was missing my goal times for each segment, not by a ton, but it added up (plus the lost half hour for the turnaround!). Still, I didn't argue. I will say though that all through that second half, Chris could not have been more supportive, always chipping in with positive and motivating comments when I needed it. (He did not follow through with the preacher routine, though, which we'll have to work on for next time.)
We saw my dad and Diane at the bottom, which was nice. I think my comment was "this race is hard!" I changed into a cooler shirt and hat, since we were going into a sunny day. It was sure a milestone to be without both the headlight and the long sleeves! As for the course, given that we were at the bottom, I knew there was an uphill coming next -- but it was a good section for me, the one that turned the race around in the first half. So I didn't mind. And it was good the second time through too. In fact, I think this was the only segment in the second half where I met my goal time! No one passed, it went well, even though it was mostly uphill.
But it took a while, and coming out at the end, my bottles were dry. I filled up at the aid station and headed out pretty quickly. But this was the evil section, my least favorite of the whole course, and I started feeling crappy very quickly. Sure it may have started with an uphill, but it was at least as much down as up. (One of the volunteers at the aid station had claimed it was all downhill; apparently he was smoking the same powerful stuff!)
I drank a bit, and felt a bit better, and drank a bit more, and suddenly realized I was really thirsty! I went through one of my two bottles in the first quarter of that leg, and I was still thirsty. I suddenly realized I was not just feeling lousy, but actually pretty dehydrated. I want through all the available liquid on that leg, and realized I had made a huge mistake in not drinking more at that last station. It fooled me because it had been a shorter leg, but I should have realized when I came in with bone dry bottles.
Ha! I'm edging out my pacer!
Now to add insult to injury, I eventually recovered and actually had to stop to pee, leaving some liquid right there off the side of the trail. But I was still real thirsty. Either the warmth of the day was getting to me, or I had gotten too much salt and electrolytes. I pretty much stayed that way for the next couple hours. I decided I'd switch to my Camelbak for the rest of the race, so I'd have more water on hand. Chris wisely recommended I keep one hand bottle, and there was at least one section where I emptied the bottle and was also low enough in the Camelbak that it was getting hard to suck more out of it!
So anyway, we came in to the crew station with about 22 miles to go… Just three sections left, and there was crew access at each one. I should have been happy about this, but I was still pretty down. I checked in with my dad and Diane, and switched to the Camelbak. I had fallen again at some point and had fresh blood over the old blood on my knee, but they didn't seem to notice. My dad asked how I was doing, and all I could say was, "I want to be done," and then I turned away before it got any worse. As if we needed more bad news, there was a giant climb coming -- we had gone up from the bottom, but then right back down again nearly as far, and it was time to do the real ascent. About the only good news was that my feet were in good condition -- I hadn't felt any blisters or rubble in my shoes or anything, which was near miraculous compared to my other two 100's.
Chris beating me to the H2O
Still, I was leaving the station I was so miserable at the first time, meaning we were heading into the first segment I didn't like too much. Sure enough, it started off with a real steep climb, and then leveled off a bit. I walked that first climb and then tried to keep up a decent pace on the flattish parts. But that all ended with the monster climb for the next four miles. It was steep and, as Chris put it, relentless. I walked every step, and not very fast, either. I don't know what to say other than it was just plain hard. It took a long, long time. Every time we rounded a corner I thought it might level off, and it just didn't. Finally we got through it, and headed back down again. Needless to say, this leg had my slowest average pace so far. My hands were getting cold too -- at times, they seemed so stiff from the cold that I couldn't flex them into fists! I started feeling blister issues on my feet -- guess I couldn't dodge it forever. The only positive thing was that no one passed me -- the only runner we saw the entire time was the injured one (thankfully on the flatter part near the end, and with help on the way).
Exhibit 1: my "trudge"
When we finally came out at the bottom, I was pretty happy to be off of that mountain and see my dad and Diane again. Chris and I grazed and filled up, and got ready to head out again. As Chris was putting the cap back on his bottles, I asked what the next section was like. I couldn't really remember, but thought it had some up and some down. Couldn't be too bad, because we were near the top already, totally beat after the monster climb. I think my jaw must have dropped when I got the answer. I just turned to Chris and said "Guess what's next?" "What?" "Four mile climb." To which he replied, "Is that all?" Gotta love Chris. At least the guy claimed it was gradual compared to the last one. It was clear by now that I wouldn't finish in daylight, so we each took a light, just in case the next section took us more than three hours (about what we had until sunset). I had two and a half budgeted, but we were well behind on these climbs.
I spit it out when he said '4 mile climb'
We set out, and there was no messing around with flattish parts this time. It went straight up. It was rocky. It was not gradual. Apparently there was a lot of that potent stuff going around these aid stations! Time and time again I wanted to drink more water just so I'd have to pee, just so I'd have an excuse to stop. I was also getting cold -- it was late in the day, I was still in short sleeves, not moving fast enough to keep warm that way, and as we wound around the mountain we often passed into shade cast by the adjacent peaks. Then I realized that the problem with my hands wasn't the cold, but that they were swollen. I couldn't make fists because they were too swollen to bend properly! I assumed it was too many electrolytes, and switched to just water. I told Chris that I was worried about hyponatremia, and to take action if I started getting wonky. I think he said something like "you mean other than picking this race?" I struggled on.
Chris figured this was probably a harder race than Massanutten, because the climbs were longer and later in the race, and while Massanutten had more rocks from end to end, Grindstone had plenty of rocky sections right in the middle of those long climbs. I was still in disbelief that they could fit another four mile climb into the course. I told Chris I was giving him the walking tour of Virginia. (He said I was doing a lousy job of pointing out the sights, and I said why, didn't I show you everywhere I went off course during the night?)
At long last it flattened out a bit. I struggled to run more, or maybe jog, or maybe just trudge. I did what I could. And then, a blessing! We came out to the gravel road leading to the first summit! But this time, we got to skip the top and just head downhill. I told Chris I thought it went down all he way to the last aid station. It was very steep, and we frequently skidded and slid down a few feet. And then, when it turned into the woods after a mile or two, I was very pleasantly surprised.
But the section in the woods just went on and on! We still hadn't seen or heard a soul out there. And obviously, I had completely forgotten the course at the beginning of the race; the only thing I remembered was crossing some meadow. I kept looking out for that meadow, and never found it. We must have passed and I didn't even recognize it. Chris told me again how well I was running for this late in the race; I confessed it was only that I was so desperate to reach the aid station. Finally I saw a real live human on the path! I let out a whoop! Aid station ahead! Then it turned out it was only a guy videotaping the runners going by (for the race blog or to make sure everyone actually passed that point, who can say?). Well, I said at least he wouldn't have walked too far from the aid station, so it must be close. (Umm… wrong.) About an hour later -- or maybe it was only ten minutes and just seemed like an hour -- we got to the aid station. The very last one, at about 97 miles.
Was getting dark by that last one
Dad and Diane cheered us in, and I got ready for a nice relaxed stop. I was going to put long sleeves on, get more of my backup gels with less sodium, maybe change hats, have a leisurely graze at the table, stuff like that. I started by asking Diane to fill up my Camelbak halfway, since we were only 5 miles out and I didn't think I needed a full dose. (If that doesn't add up, it's because the official race distance was somewhat over 100 miles.) I grabbed my shiny new headlamp and headed over to the aid station and managed to swig two cups of Mountain Dew before the unthinkable happened. They started clapping again! Two runners burst out of the woods within seconds of each other. There were now three of us at the station!
All thoughts of relaxation went right out the window. I grabbed the Camelbak from Diane in whatever state it was in and ducked out of the aid station right that instant. I figured Chris could catch up. There was a huge dip going down to the trail from the aid station, and I was worried someone would notice me sneaking out while I tried to find a way down that thing without busting my aching legs, but I just got out of there as fast as I possibly could. And then ran. I mean actually ran!
That Mountain Dew, man, that's good stuff! I think I ran at least two miles out of that station, just unbelievable. I crossed the train tracks, which I remembered from the beginning of the race. I think Chris was kind of shocked when he finally caught up to me. (OK, not really, it probably took him about 30 seconds.) That was just about as darkness fell, and I switched my lights on again. Of course, I had made two mistakes in my haste. I avoided eating my main gels because I didn't want the sodium swelling my hands any more, but I was hungry. I finally had my only backup gel, too little too late. I also barely drank anything the whole way, because I didn't want to need a pit stop. So I was probably dehydrated and undernourished for the final leg. Nice.
Once the Mountain Dew wore off, I hit the uphills, and that was no fun. They were steep, and rocky. What the ?!?!? How could the course designers possibly have crammed more uphill and more rocky into the last couple miles? That's just sadistic! It was supposed to be nice and flat through the camp. I fell to a trudge again on those hills, or maybe a stagger. About this time a runner blew past me, at about a million miles an hour. He said hi to Chris and by the time I looked up he was gone. Wow! Talk about someone who should have been going faster 50 miles ago! Why was he not in front of me to begin with?!?
Swear I was going faster than it looks
I put one foot in front of the other and we went on. It thankfully leveled out, and I picked up the pace as much as I could. Chris said we were just about there, but I knew we hadn't crossed the "1 mile" painted on the ground yet. Then we passed the fire pit I remembered from going through the camp! Couldn't be long now! Except of course it was. Finally we crossed the one mile mark! I saw lights in the woods but the trail turned away from them. No fair! I double and triple checked the streamers. Were we turned around and going backward again? No, it was just slow progress for that last mile, even though I was "running" as best I could. Finally we hit the lake, and headed back to the finish line, with me looking over my shoulder the whole time.
Um, do I have to let go?
Chris led me in, and I heard the mad cheering, and then we made it! They told me to go hug the totem pole, which I did, until someone else said "no, cross the finish line first!" So I crossed the line and then hugged the pole. Clark handed me a finisher shirt and buckle. We got a ton of pictures. Boy did it feel good to be finished!
I had passed off most of my equipment, and finally someone offered to take the Camelbak. It must have been my heat reservoir, though, because the instant I took it off, I started shivering, and I mean violently! I think two or three people helped me up the stairs and indoors, where my finish bag was waiting. Chris and Diane helped me lay down on the floor and between them and my dad got me bundled into a sleeping bag, a beach towel, a heavy blanket folded double, and another blanket they borrowed from some other runner! It still took probably an hour before I stopped shivering altogether. Wowsers! But they also got me food and hot chocolate and all. What a crew! I'm not sure it ever felt so good to lay down.
Still shivering under 5 layers
Dad and I finally headed back to the hotel after maybe two hours, and I tucked down some pizza and got some well-deserved sleep before the awards ceremony on Sunday. It was a heck of a race.
In closing: would I do it again? Only if I thought I was in better shape. (Hardly a point to beating my head against that last mountain if it wasn't for a good cause.) But yeah, I would still like to break 24 hours. I had a great first half, so I just need to do as well in the second. It would be nice to not fall, and to hold off the blisters for another 15 miles, but honestly, that's just icing.
The best news is, I'm recovering well afterward; definitely better than Mt Diablo, and I'd say better than Vermont even. Maybe there's something to be said for doing these ultras so often... :)