BackgroundI had long pondered doing a 100 miler from when I first started doing Ultras a few years ago. The 50ks and marathons I had started out doing could not even come close to preparing me for a 100 miler and I was wise to wait. Its a steep jump up to the 100 mile distance, kind of like jumping from a half-marathon to a full. Other than 50 milers (and the fairly rare 100 km races) there isn't really a stepping stone to the full 100 miler.
Why is it so different? To be obvious, its twice as long as a 50 miler which was my previous longest distance, those being a hot, slog-it-out Northface 50 miler for my first, and the 2013 JFK 50 Miler for a focus race. I've now come to realize that 50k Ultra Races, while great fun, are just kind of warm-ups to the grandaddy of the Ultra-Distance (the 100 miler).
The major differences are really less related to running and more holistic. The challenges of eating and drinking for long enough to complete a 100 miler can be daunting. Chaffing and blisters are now a possible race ender and not just a nuisance. Your packing list practically quadruples. Aid stations can eat up hours of your time (10 aid stations x 5-10 minutes each makes for over an hour of time!). Oh, and you will now likely be moving for over 24 hours straight without sleeping.
I had thought about doing either Grindstone or Massanutten Mountain Trails as a first 100 since they are fairly local to me in Virginia. These are the real deal, tough, mountainous and rugged. Sure, there is no such thing as an "easy" 100 miler, but I wanted to jump right in and skip the flat, looped courses that a lot of people try out first (I still wouldn't mind doing Umstead or C&O Canal 100 someday though). I decided early on in 2014 that I wanted to try for the Beast series challenge, consisting of three 50ks, a 50 miler, a 100k, and a 100 miler. That 100 miler being Grindstone made it an easy decision, but still a tough pill to swallow.
IntroTraining hadn't been great, and I wasn't as methodical as during past Marathon build-ups, but I got one thing right: I got to the start line 100% healthy and uninjured, something that has been tough for me in the past with races.
I got a lot of check-box workouts in during the 6 months before Grindstone. I ran all night, from sun-down to sun-up, I did some back2backs, and I was getting in consistent mileage usually in the 50-75 MPW range, though all the mid-week miles were on roads. I made it out to the mountains plenty of times to practice on the hills and even did a focused all-day speed hike (no running).
There were things that didn't really pan out too. I had to take more time off after Promise Land (having done Boston the previous week) than I had planned on. I had to sit out a hilly summer race (Catoctin) since I was just feeling really banged up at that time and didn't want to risk injury. I also wanted to get in a couple 100 mile bike rides and those didn't happen. I didn't get the chance to run a 50 miler since JFK last year either. They aren't easy to find in summer when its hot out, and I couldn't fit any fall 50 into my schedule.
I ended up getting to take an amazing trip to Japan in late summer that was responsible for missing a couple key runs. I still got to put in some road miles while gone and an incredible hike up Mt. Fuji at least. I'm still in the school of thought that "real life" trumps your running pursuits, and never have regrets about taking off for travel.
I'm also a firm believer that "You can never be over-trained, only under-rested". In other words, its better to sit out or cut short some of your workouts in favor of not showing up injured or burnt out.
|The course elevation overview. They kind of like to emphasize that its full of extreme climbs and descents, and|
with good reason! Most of it is either up or down, with seldom flat areas. It looks kind of demonic if you ask me!
Start to Falls Hollow (5.18 miles in)
It begins! Obviously at this point you are just starting to think about getting settled in. We curled around the lake at Camp Shenandoah and got out into the woods via some gravel roads. As expected, it felt like a lot of people were going too fast and the only thing I could do now was try not to get caught up in the excitement. This part was fairly easy, not a ton of elevation here so I just let myself run easy. I had not even begun to grasp what I was embarking on.
Falls Hollow to Dowells Draft (mile 22.11)We crossed a train tracks (thankfully there were no trains coming) and made our way to the first aid station at Falls Hollow. Few people stopped here. I pulled over for a quick snack. It was however occurring to me that the weather was a force to be reckoned with. It had started to drizzle on us, and since it was getting dark out people had the tendency to expect cold weather. A lot of runners were wearing long sleeves and a shell jacket. I only had on a long sleeve, but to my disbelief, I was HOT. It was probably in the low 60s out and very humid.
As we got along our way, 10 or 12 miles into the footrace, embarking on our first massive climb, and as the sun had completely set giving way to total darkness the weight of the task was finally starting to sink in. This was going to take a really, really long time. This wasn't just a run, it was a complete endurance test. The longest I had ever stayed awake in my life was probably for 24 hours up until this point. I realized I would be staying up far longer than that, and while running, walking, and hiking the whole time. For this, and plenty of other reasons, I figured out that there is nothing that can truly prepare you for a 100 miler, not high weekly mileage, not back2back long runs, not Marathon PRs, not 50 milers, not 100 mile bike rides, not anything.
We marched on, through some fairly flat zones made barely runnable by tons of rocks everywhere, characteristic of the Geologically ancient Appalachian mountains. Rocks covered by wet leaves were made more tolerable by having so many other runners around. The rain was persistent but not heavy.
Dowells Draft to Lookout Mountain (30.46)Coming into Dowells Draft was a big sigh of relief. I was tired, it was after 10pm, and I knew the night had just begun. Dowells Draft was a larger aid station where I had access to my first drop bag. I know I overpacked, but I was really packing for a variety of scenarios. One thing I packed as a nice-to-have was a short sleeve tech T. This came in handy as I had been burning up in the humid, misty night. Changing into that cooled me down, and I was able to refuel my pack and get some snacks.
|Broad overview of the coarse. In the upper right is|
the west side of Harrisonburg, VA for reference.
Soon, I think around mile 22, I actually hit one of my lowest points for the weekend. It was past midnight, some of the runners I had been around started to spread out leaving me feeling alone, the rain had turned into a fine mist that made it hard to see, and I was still sweating way too much. I was getting tired, doubting myself, and even worse over-thinking it to the point that "if I'm already feeling this crappy I probably have no business in being out here in the first place." I also had a weird itching sensation around my neck and scalp which was kind of freaking me out.
This was hard to dig myself out of. I did at least figure out that it wasn't my vision fading, but instead that it was time to change the batteries in my headlamp. This helped immensely, as after we crested the next mountain at around 25 miles in I got the chance to do some downhill running.
This section of the race was very difficult for a lot of reasons. I knew I needed to make it to dawn but still being over 6 hours away it sounded like an eternity. I was tired, the physical kind as well as the sleepy kind, but I just had to keep chugging along and get to that next aid station.
Running my first major race using hiking poles was different too, but I was really glad to have them on the uphills and the speed walking sections. I didn't want to use them the whole race and debated when to drop them off (to be picked up on the way back). Lookout Mountain at about 30 miles in was perfect. This way, running with them the first and last 30 miles I would be using poles for a little over half the race.
Lookout Mountain to North River Gap (36.81)The Lookout Mountain aid station was a smaller one with no drop bags, but still a chance to refuel and take in some warm food. I seem to recall tatter tots and some kind of salty soup here. Once we got through the terrain leveled out a bit to at least be mostly runable. I was kind of coming out of my previous funk but ran into another runner who was on a low point. He was friendly and I was glad to have the company, so we started chatting and running together. We soon joined part of the Wild Oak Trail, though nothing seemed familiar since it was still total darkness.
Up until this point I had also though I was taking forever to get through this thing, but after a few sections that involved consistent running (rather than just speed hiking up a mountain and attempting to safely descend) we calculated we were on a reasonable pace. Coming to a pedestrian suspension bridge that I recognized from training runs on the Wild Oak Trail I knew it would just be a few more miles until the next big aid station.
North River Gap to Little Bald Knob (44.64)North River Gap was a major aid station, with a weigh in, a variety of food, and access to another drop bag. I think I actually gained a pound! Guess I was eating and drinking a lot. I wasted no time refueling and getting some snacks. I think I had pierogies, quesadillas, and more fruit to-go. Here I wisely changed my socks for the 2nd time today as well, and re-lubed my feet and some other areas that were showing early signs of chaffing.
Leaving the aid station I had the hardest part of the race up next. Heading up the steep climb on the Wild Oak Trail I hit a new low. It was still dark out (probably 4:30am), I was feeling extremely sleepy, the steep trail that went up-up-up just didn't seem to end, and (gasp) I started experiencing the dreaded stomach issues I had heard about. I had mixed my Tailwind a bit strong at the last aid station and drinking it just made me feel sick; all I wanted was plain old water. My stomach was sloshing around and I almost wanted to puke. I made due, trudging up the mountain taking frequent breaks to catch my breath as the sweat continued to poor down my forehead. I was still running with my friend from back at Lookout Mountain and having company really helped me get through.
As things started to level out the trail also started to become flatter and less technical, and then we caught our first glimpses of daylight. While this was uplifting, with the daylight also came a new cold front that had started to blow in. On the plus side, I had a feeling If I could dig deep and make it through this section I would be able to handle anything else Grindstone threw at me.
Little Bald Knob to Turn-Around (51.56)
This part was fairly uplifting. The stop at the Little Bald Knob aid station was badly needed. My runner friend and I were cold and were happy to have some breakfast burritos and sit by the fire. After a recharge we headed back out onto some fairly flat terrain. There was another small aid station before the climb up to the top of Reddish Knob to punch our bibs.
|Awesome views up on Reddish Knob, where we went to punch our bibs. Reminds me of the Grindstone logo.|
Turn-Around to Little Bald Knob (57.82)I was SO happy to pick up my pacer! My friend and fellow ultra runner Elena was waiting for me, ready to motivate me and keep me company in the lonely second half of my race. Things were pretty low key, just running when possible and walking up any steep inclines. She did a great job reminding me to eat, drink, and stop running when things got too steep.
Little Bald Knob to North River Gap (65.65)Back at the aid station I wasn't able to change socks but I could at least clean my feet off and re-lube everything. By this point I was feeling very fortunate to not have had any blister problems, but I really attribute it to frequently changing socks and just being very used to my running shoes. I had a few minor chafing issues but reapplying petroleum jelly at aid stations kept it in check.
North River Gap to Lookout Mountain (72.00)Having passed the 100 km mark (roughly 62 miles) helped me feel at ease. A lot of people told me this is kind of the mental half-way point. You will be feeling tired, but you shouldn't be exhausted or having any major problems (stomach issues, cramping, blisters, chaffing, etc.)
North River Gap was a big aid station and I took a little time here to really eat some food, change socks, and relube more than a few spots. Soon after leaving I felt a slight blister rubbing on my little toe, so I had to pull over, de-shoe yet again, and tape up that spot just to be safe. With over 35 miles left this wasn't something I could ignore.
My legs had been getting progressively more sore throughout the day. At this point I was still able to run the flats, downhills, and gentle uphills but my quads were fading. My pacer kept me motivated, kept promising me I would get that belt buckle, and gracefully deflected my complaints.
Lookout Mountain to Dowells Draft (80.35)I picked my poles back up at Lookout Mountain which I dumped on the way out. This section saw some more fairly runnable terrain and wasn't entirely memorable. It was just me and my pacer for most of the way. Dowells Draft was a major aid station that I had some time well spent at. I changed into warmer clothes, refueled as usual, and most notably said good-bye to my awesome pacer Elena and met up with my new pacer Carl.
|My cold-weather attire.|
Dowells Draft to Dry Branch Gap (87.83)
Another huge climb here. So glad to have my Pacer with me. At Dowells Draft I changed into tights and grabbed another long sleeve shirt. It was dusk now and not really cold yet so I questioned my decision. I get hot easily. Within a couple hours it was dark and the temperature was dropping. A wicked wind prevailed high on the mountains that made me very glad to have dressed a bit warmer. I would have froze my behind off had I still been wearing shorts and a short-sleeve shirt.
Dry Branch Gap to Falls Hollow (96.67)Things got simpler now, and a little blurry in hindsight. Just trudging on, run a little, walk a lot, or preferably speed hike. I tried not to look at my watch as the only thing that mattered was that I wasn't there yet.
It was tough thinking about how much time I had left. Moving at a mere 2-3 miles per hour up some of these mountains I calculated several more hours just to get through another 15 miles. Again I was doing a lot of complaining, and again I had a pacer who focused on the positives ("always one foot in front of the other") and told plenty of stories to pass the time.
In those last 20 miles I was even lucky enough to experience some of the infamous hallucinations I've heard about, from a combination of physical exhaustion, sleep derivation, and boredom. It wasn't anything major, just random stuff really looking like other random stuff.
I saw a satellite, it was actually a tree. I saw what I was sure was an aid station, also a tree. An electrical panel, yep also a tree. A jig-saw puzzle, it was a rock (but it really did kind of look like a jig-saw puzzle on the side!). A smiley face, which was some leaves on a rock. I even had visions of my dog running out of the woods to join me! Fun stuff.
Falls Hollow to the Finish (101.85)
|So long! Yup - thats Hours:Minutes:Seconds.|
There was probably more second guessing the turns in these last few miles than in the rest of the entire race. It was dark, we were tired, and the markings didn't look like they did in daylight. We actually made a wrong turn following some other runners but everyone realized the mishap within a half mile. At this point I had a serious case of "are we there yet?". We saw signs about entering Camp Shenandoah which told me we were close. Finally, yes finally, we came around the bend to the lake at the Camp. A small but steep incline that required climbing up was the site of my only fall of the entire weekend, more of an accidental lay-down going up the hill. Getting back up we attempted some slow, shuffle running. Up the road and with the finish line in sight I picked up the pace to run it in.
|Got my buckle.|
|My awesome pacers and I post-race. Elena (mile 50-80) and |
Carl (mile 80-101.85). Couldn't have done it without them!
I headed into the lodge for a quick snack and some water. After sitting down I started shaking or shivering which felt weird. I didn't feel "cold", but I think even inside my body was so exhausted it had trouble keeping warm. A very helpful boy scout took note and brought me a blanket! Just a small example of the many awesome volunteers and supporters I came into contact with that weekend. Soon I headed to my tent, crawled into my warm sleeping bag and slept harder than I had ever slept.
Whats Next?Part of the way I motivated myself in some of the low points was by telling myself I could take as long off from running as I felt like, and that I didn't have to complete the Beast Series (with a 50 miler and 100 km race still to come in 2014). While this was effective, a few days after finishing I realized that I must complete the Beast. I've come too far - three 50ks and a 100 miler; the hardest part was over.
I did feel like I finished slower than my potential, though really since my goal was just to finish I didn't mind. Usually when I mentioned I was doing Grindstone as my first 100 miler people would have a semi-astounded reaction. This made me feel better about my late race fade.
Looking out even further I do want to take a break after the Beast is over, but I'm sure by mid-spring I'l be itching for another goal race (Bull Run 50 miler perhaps). After that, I know I'll want to do another 100 miler. I understand the addiction, however its just so tough, such an undertaking I will be picking and choosing my 100 milers very carefully. Feeling so accomplished now, it can be easy to forget how difficult Grindstone was, and how many low points made me want to quit and ball up into the fetal position. For now I'm just enjoying finally getting to look at the 100 mile experience from the other side - 101.85 miles to be exact. 100's are freaking hard!!