Grindstone 100 Mile , Swoope, VA

Elevation Gain: 23,200'; High Point: 4463'

Oct 3-5, 2008 - When I received notice that Clark Zealand was going to put together the toughest one hundred mile race in the east, tougher than Massanutten even, I immediately decided to be there. Having met Clark and his brothers in Punxsutawney at the annual Groundhog Fall 50K, it was not difficult to quickly conclude that this was going to be a challenge with bragging rights; I certainly was not disappointed. As one of David Horton's prodigies from Liberty University, I could imagine Dr. Clark doing his best to design a race that would out-tough Mr. Tough himself.

With the six p.m. start, I had all day to get to the starting area at Boy Scout Camp Shenandoah, in the foothills east of Staunton, Virginia. If the drive through the country to get there was any indication, this would be an enjoyable event. When I arrived early I was the second registrant to check in. After Clark greeting and a quick exchange at the Lodge I stopped by to chat with Regis Shivers, his mom, and pacer Gabe Rainwater, looking back at memories of his late father and our shared experience at McNaughton in the spring.

Grindstone Start

Runners rolled in all morning until the parking lot was full and a small tent city arose on the grounds between the lodge and the lake. A very sunny day, but not overly warm, I was glad that we would be starting in the evening under cooler temperatures. I mingled around with runners I knew and those I just met until lunch was served at noon. Clark gave a pre-race briefing and a lot of gifts were given away, with Dave Horton color commentating on the difficulty we could expect on the course. Always entertaining, Dave held everyone's attention with his antics and creative perspective. When Horton says "its tough" you just can't ignore it. After lunch and a bit more socializing I crawled into the car for a bit of a meditative nap and to double check my drop bags and gear. It was a good time to review my plan and commit the course map to memory.

Planning is every bit as essential as training for these long events, and since I didn't train all summer for such an event, planning would have to see me through. I say I didn't train, and I mean that exactly. For more than a year I have been plagued by a persistently painful heel and right knee, neither being specifically diagnosed, just persistent. I realized that rest is really the only answer to resolve my injuries, but I'm too busy racing and remodeling my house to take enough time off, so I don't run much in hopes that my body will repair itself enough to see me through the distance. The rest is pure mental will, guts, and forty years of muscle memory. It worked at Cascade Crest six weeks previous and I felt recovered enough for an encore. Ready or not, today I would find out.

The day was coming to a close and it was time to start finally. I spoke to Keith Knipling about our recent common experience at Cascade and then introduced myself to Krissy Moehl, who I had worked with by phone and email when she worked at Montrail to put together a generous shoe offer for the Groundhog 50K. It was nice to finally meet and chat a short time. She continues to race in Montrails and says she loves them. In the start line picture above you will see me in the center in a red jacket with Krissy, the eventual women's winner, to my immediate left in a blue top and black shorts; Keith, who led much of the race, finishing third overall, was to my right dressed all in VHTRC powder blue.

I debated on what to wear at the start and finally chose to wear enough clothes to keep me warm all night, as I would not be reaching my change drop bag until morning. Most people started with short sleeves or even singlets. I chose to sweat rather than shiver so that I would be comfortable for the balance of the night in my extra layers. I know some of the other lighter-dressed runners were feeling the cold until they reached their drop bags. Was it the right decision? I might dress a little lighter next time, but it worked o.k. for me, despite being overdressed at the beginning.

I tried a couple new strategies this time, based on my last performance. I wore a pair of prescription glasses to help me see the trail better, both during the day and at night, and I wore a wrist watch. Time is something I rarely concern myself with at these events. I set the alarm on the watch to sound on the hour to remind me to take supplements. As with the previous race in Washington my routine would be to take three Hammer Endurolyte caps, two Hammer Race Caps Supreme, and two Hammer Anti Fatigue caps on the hour every hour after the first two hours. On top of that I would be using a measured amount of Hammer Perpetuem in water that I either carried or retrieved from drop bags the entire way to access fluids, carbohydrates and amino acids, among other factors. I characteristically mix enough Perpetuem in 22-ounce bottles to last for 9 miles. This strategy has worked for me in several ultras and seems to keep my cellular chemistry level and ready for optimal performance. Using a watch to remind me guarantees I don't let too much time pass between supplementations. Time is often hard to account for when under this type of duress, so such a reminder was very helpful.

The race started easy enough, around Hope Lake, then swinging back around past the boy scout camp to the cheers of supporters that saw us off. We immediately began to climb Little North Mountain on the Elliott Knob Trail in single file without much jostling for position. The first aid station would be nearly six miles from the start on the other side of the mountain at Falls Hollow. The trail was quite rocky and convoluted as it zigzagged back and forth across a narrow stream bed, requiring strict focus to negotiate safely.

I came through the first aid station at 5.7 miles in 57 minutes, commenting that the first hour had passed quickly. After crossing the road we immediately began our 3600-foot ascent over the next four miles to the highest point on the course at Elliott Knob. Headlamps were on by 7:30 as we followed single track through the woods before hitting extreme vertical in the form of a wide jeep path to the top of the knob. Pace was dropped to an aggressive conversational walk as the field began to spread out. I made the climb with a first-time hundred miler from Boston, Chris Mitchell, who would be my companion through the halfway point in the race. As we were making the last pitch to the top the leaders, including Keith and Krissy passed us coming down in a hurry. Chris and I punched our bib numbers as proof of our reaching the top before beginning the long descent to the mile 15.24 aid station at Dry Branch Gap. This was a very angularly rocky section requiring strict eye-feet coordination to keep from launching over the edge. Lights from the valley below could be seen in the distance at times. We hit the second aid station in 3:03, continuing to average a 5 mph pace, despite the steep climb to the knob.

Climbing out of the gap for the next eight miles, we slowed our pace without walking much to arrive in good shape at Dowells Draft at 22.89 miles in 4:53, near 11 o'clock. Chris was a great help to me in that he ran ahead to enable me to see the trail better. Even with glasses, my poor night vision was compromising my ability to clearly see the trail. We paced ourselves to the next aid station, following mostly rocky single-track woods trails to Lookout Mountain at 31.24 miles in 6:56, once again as in the two previous hundred-mile events covering the first third of the race in seven hours.

Grindstone Profile

Chris and I came upon a young runner sleeping next to the trail who had gone out too fast and spent himself. We roused him and convinced him that running with us was a better alternative than suffering hypothermia where no one would find him. The three of us continued up, up, and then up some more through North River Gap (mile 36.69) in 8:35 and then found some long level stretches to change up the pace to Little Bald Knob (mile 43.44). No splits were taken again until we passed through North River Gap on the return trip. We continued toward the halfway point, our confidence becoming more solid, in the early morning hours.

At this point in the race you have some feel for how the rest is going to go. For me, I was running well within myself with little stress or unexpected pain. Beginning the event at 6 p.m., the first half of the race was essentially run in the dark, where one slows naturally to engage the trail in the dark. A race that covers the first half in daylight hours can be run too quickly, exhausting one to suffer through the night on the back half of the event. I see a lot of advantage to covering the first half in the dark as opposed to how most hundreds are run with 5 or 6 a.m. start times. There is always a certain mental lift associated with anticipating the light of the dawn. With this upbeat expectancy and feeling I had held back through the night, I was ready to start racing come dawn.

When we reached Reddish Knob at about 6 a.m. after twelve hours of running the view was exactly the way it looks here.

I stood on the top enjoying the views after punching my race number with the orienteering-type punch there as proof of climbing the Knob. A paved road led to the top, enabling traffic to drive there as well. A few earlybird tourists were there, as well as some support personnel, to witness the rising of Old Sol. The view for 360 degrees was breathless, appealing to some deep primordial level in me, and I was in no hurry to leave. I hung around perhaps ten minutes while my running companions continued back down the hill to the aid station, chatting first to an inquisitive fellow who was curious about the event and wanted to know what motivated a person to run 100 miles and how you prepared for it, etc. Of course, more than a brief explanation was in order. David Horton and another runner were there as well. Horton had been all over the course, always quick to offer an encouraging word. He was still wearing the Groundhog 50K fluorescent hat I had given him earlier. Horty wanted my opinion as to whether I thought Grindstone was the toughest 100 I had run. I told him that I believed Massanutten was tougher, but only because of all the slippery, lateral footing, running in creek beds and such, but that the hills of Grindstone were certainly steeper and longer. Each had its merits in making the toughness claim. As finishing times would indicate at the end of the event, I was probably correct in my assessment that Massanutten is the tougher of the two events.

Back down to the aid station in early daylight was a fun-loving crew of cooks and crazy people. I don't know whether it was the giddiness caused by being up all night or whether these people were just wound up now that daylight was returning, but I sat down, ate some soup, mixed it up with several people and runners there and just enjoyed myself. Between my break at the top and playing around here I wasted at least 45 minutes at this aid station, but I came away feeling refreshed, so maybe it was a good thing. I changed clothes here from my drop bag, picked up a clean, dry cap, resupplied and turned back the way I had come, downhill this time on a dirt road to pursue the people I had been running with and catch those who had passed me during my break. I wasn't so anxious to hold my previous place as I was just feeling good to cut loose again with clean clothes and a full tank.

I motored down the hill several miles at an unexpectedly quick tempo, forgetting for the time being that I had just covered fifty miles overnight. I caught up with Chris in the flats after a long while; he had taken up with his pacer from the turn-around and seemed to be doing fine on his own, so I continued on through Little Bald Knob aid station, passing everyone in sight, to continue my torrid pace to the next timing aid station at North River Gap at mile 66.69 in 17:32, almost noon.

Things were heating up to above 80 degrees with some humidity. To this point I was feeling strong and confident I could maintain my momentum. After tanking up I proceeded to hit the lower slopes of the steep climb up Lookout Mountain over the next five and a half miles. I grabbed extra water but still ran out on the way up and was beginning to feel the desperation from knowing you are dehydrating and not able to do anything about it. To this point no one had passed me since leaving Reddish Knob. I caught a fellow committed to walking the last fifty miles at a steady 3 mph stride. I easily ran by him, but was shocked when I could not keep his pace when I was walking. It was a real eye opener to fall behind a steady walker like this. I fell further behind on the climb up Lookout, but still no one came up from behind. The mountain was hard on everyone in the early afternoon hours.

Reaching the aid station at mile 72.14 in 19:19 I knew my butt had just been kicked proper. I sat down for five minutes and tried to get fluids, gels, and soup into me to begin recovering. After taking a couple ibuprofins I started walking on the flat until I felt better to run. A couple hundred yards down the trail I upchucked everything I had taken in at the aid station - the first time I had ever lost my cookies in an ultra. I felt a little better and kept drinking to stay hydrated.

My legs suffered from the previous dehydration and slowed me to a crawl. While a few runners had passed me while I was sitting at the aid station, no one caught me again until I reached Dowells Draft at 79.49 miles. I refuled and continued to slug along another seven miles to Dry Branch Gap at 86.14 at just about six p.m., 24:02 into the race, where I changed clothes and grabbed a light to be ready for the second night of running.

By now I was feeling a second wind and took off up hill to make as much progress as possible on the winding, rocky trail leading toward Elliott Knob. Knowing my sight would limit me, I wanted to get as far as I could before darkness set in. After passing a couple runners I finally got to the ridge past most of the angular footing before having to resort to the LL Bean flashlight I would be using for the balance of the course. At this time I did not have a second headlamp, so was relegated to use a handheld flashlight with much less luminosity.

I thought I was closing on another runner's bobbing headlamp and ended up becoming temporarily off course, unnecessarily revisiting the top of Elliott Knob, before making a course correction and getting back on track. On my way down the incline on which I had climbed the knob yesterday evening I crossed paths with Regis and Gabe and asked if I could tag along with them to help me see my way. Falling a couple times on the steep, rocky, dusty hill I managed to stay with these two guys until we reached Falls Hollow at 95.02 miles in 27:25, just five miles short of the finish. While they made haste to continue on, I paused to replenish and was left to fend for myself up over Little North Mountain and back to the finish.

I had long since gotten into my ultra shuffle and just bided my time as I walked/ran up the trail and down the backside of the ridge on the homestretch. I took my time to see where I was stepping to prevent falling. Several other runners caught and passed me, but I could not confidently stay with them. Trail markings were confusing to me, so I had to stop and assess direction several times in the last couple miles. Finally, with another runner in tow, I got my bearings, circled back around Hope Lake and up the road to finish at the Boy Scout lodge at 29:36:58, just shy of midnight, for 33rd place of 78 finishers. Clark was there along with plenty of volunteers. Giving me a congratulatory hug along with my finishers buckle and tech shirt he reminded me I had to hug the totem pole at the finish in order to make it official, which I did with enthusiasm.

A midnight finish leaves you with little fanfare, so I walked back to the car, grabbed a towel, a change of clothes, and some shampoo and headed off to shower in the bath house. Sleepy talk prevailed among other survivors amid light humor and obvious relief and elation. I lingered longer than usual in the shower, deservedly, and emerged feeling fine.

Walking back to the car with a great sense of satisfaction, I assumed a much anticipated position of repose, took a hydrocodone, and slept through the balance of the night until seven the next morning without any problems. After arising, stretching and relieving myself in the morning, I could see other runners and crews in the aftermath searching for a return to normalcy, like myself. Rather than sit around and partake of breakfast and the social aftermath, I started my jouney home. Given the exertion of the previous day, my legs and feet were not too sore and my energy level was fine. I drove home without problem or incident.

After three days of recovery and rest, I was back out running again. Looking back at the lessons learned, aside from the obvious, after two back-to-back hundred-mile finishes in six weeks, running no more than 7 miles two or three times a week while doing a lot of construction on my house, and not running a step for the ten days prior to each event, I think I can say it doesn't take a lot of training to finish one of these. While my heel and knee bothered me the entire time (the real reason for my lack of training to lessen the impact on my injuries) I am curious to see how well I would do, especially on the second half of a race, if I were actually trained and ready to set a PR on another one of these. Then, too, I wonder what I could have done on one of these back when I was 35 or 40, instead of 56. Guess I'll have to try another one to get at least some of the answers.



Grindstone Start

Grindstone Course Map