Going into the 2018 Grindstone 100, I just wasn’t sure what to expect.  Well, except some pain and suffering, of course.  I was somewhat dreading this race because I knew it was gonna hurt. Grindstone is SO long.  And SO many mountains.  And millions of slippery, sliding rocks.  And don’t forget dark and lonely (you start at 6pm, so you’re pretty much guaranteed 12 long hours of running in the dark in the mountains).

So actually, my race plan was simply to try to limit pain and suffering.  I was gonna start easy – “for-real-this-time-easy”.  The plan was to not even think about racing until Dowell’s Draft, mile 80.  Most of the time, you don’t really have much left in the tank by then, so “racing” means slowing down less than the other runners. But sometimes, if you take care of yourself and you have the right crew, you can find some magic in those last 20 miles.

I raced Grindstone in 2016 and it was miserable.  It rained the whole time, often hard.  I went out too fast.  I epic-bonked going up Crawford Mountain at mile 82.  I puked at the finish line.  It really sucked.

The finish line of the 2016 Grindstone 100. Not great!

Fast forward two years and I was racing Grindstone again for two reasons.  First, to get my Hardrock 100 qualifier (I’m having major Colorado fever…). Second, I wanted to set a stout record for the fastest combined times for completing the Shenandoah Mountain 100-mile mountain bike race and Grindstone 100 in the same year – they take place just one month apart, with the SM100 being first and in September, and they share about 40 miles of trail including Dowell’s Draft, Hankey Mountain, Chestnut Ridge, and most of Little Bald to Reddish Knob.

The SM100 is a tough mountain bike race with over 13,000 feet of climbing and a lot of legit, technical rocky/rooty trails (like descending down Little Bald…).  Completing these races back to back was mostly a training challenge – you really can’t focus on just one if you want to do well in both.  Runners definitely have an advantage, but you’ve definitely got to have some significant technical riding ability as well as be comfortable in the saddle for 10-15 hours.

Mud times at the CAMBC Aid Station

So, this summer’s training was essentially three days a week of mountain running and three days of mountain biking.  Fortunately, I live in Crozet, VA at the base of the mountains and can bang out 2000+ feet of elevation before 7am, so my weekdays were very productive on this front. I don’t own a road bike, just a 30-pound hardtail tank by Trek.

For the 12 weeks preceding Grindstone, here were my training averages:

  • Running:  41 miles/week, 7200 feet of vert/week
  • Mountain biking:  38 miles/week, 5900 feet of vert/week
  • Total training hours per week:  11
  • Total combined human-powered climbing:  13,100 feet/week.

This was enough training to have a very successful SM100 – 10 hours, 44 minutes, 51 seconds.  But did I hurt myself with all the bike training leading up to Grindstone?  Who the heck knows! I’ll let the rest of the story speak for itself, but all I can say is that I felt very fit all summer long.  Fit as in athletic, springy, and not injured.  When it was time to run, I was excited to run, because I only did it three times a week.  When it was time to bike, I was also excited because it was only three times a week.  Is this for everyone?  Will I keep it up forever?  Meh, I don’t really know.  I just wanted to experiment, change it up, and learn something new about myself.  I can say this, I probably had the most fun and relaxed training block of my ultrarunning career.

Finish line with Michelle

Now on to Grindstone already…

The race starts on the first Friday of October at 6pm, which this year happened to fall on my amazing and supportive wife Michelle’s birthday.  About a month before the race I came to her humbly and said “umm, so I just realized that Grindstone this year is…” and she interrupts me, “..on my birthday…yeah, I know..”   I tried several times to tell her I could do it without crew but she refused.  She was gonna be out there with me throughout the night and well into the next day.  It is sometimes hard to accept that kind of love and support.  Michelle is an amazing partner and we make a pretty great team.  Ok, onward!

After a healthy lunch of Chik-fil-A (#fastfoodathlete) it was off to Camp Shenandoah for the prerace meeting, catching up with friends and the regulars, and then that weird 2-3 hours where you sit in the shade behind your car in the field and pretend to sleep, pretend to pack, or whatever, as you count down the minutes until 6:00pm. Eventually, you are trading your flip flops for some Hellgate socks and trail shoes, pinning on your bib, and filling your pack with food and “stuff” to get you through the night.

Marc Griffin, Michelle, and I for a pre-race selfie. Marc was going for his 10th straight Grindstone finish! (and he nailed it!)

Horty! Mentor and friend.

Lining up under the Grindstone banner at the start line, everyone is pretty happy and relaxed, because we know this is the last time life is easy until tomorrow or the next day. I stood near the fellas I’d be racing – Neal Gorman, my nemesis Chris Roberts, Nick Pedatella, Michael Owen and a bunch of fast dudes from Ohio, and the many other talented runners in the field. We all should’ve been watching out for Shannon Howell as well because she crashed the overall top ten with an incredible course record performance, placing 8thoverall!  Boom!

Grindstone is an out and back race.  50 miles from Camp Shenandoah to Reddish Knob, and 50 miles back.  23,000 feet of climbing and the same of descent. Essentially Staunton to Harrisonburg and back, but instead of taking I-81, we’re taking the VA-WV line.

“3, 2, 1, Go!”

As we ran through the camp, there was a pretty calm vibe throughout all the runners.  Mostly because it was hot!  At 6pm, it was still super muggy and in the 70s.  We were flinging sweat in about 10 minutes and quickly realized that the heat and humidity would be a major factor.  A bunch of guys were running up ahead, but I really didn’t care.  I wasn’t pushing anything until mile 80 and I meant it.

Several miles later as we headed up the first major climb of the day, up to Elliot’s Knob, and I fell in line with Nick Pedatella from Colorado.  Nick is an ultra veteran, having run around 25 hundred milers and still fast and competitive.  I admitted to him that this was my 5th100-miler, but that I still feel like a noob at this distance – so much to learn!

We climbed up the Elliot Knob fire road together and soon hit the second major obstacle of the night – heavy fog.  In short order, our headlamps were soon useless as the fog became very thick.  I simply took off my headlamp and held it with one of my hands – I was carrying double handhelds, so it was awkward with a bottle, but it was otherwise pretty useless up on my head (think driving in heavy fog and putting your brights on).  The fog would dominate the night, frustrating everyone until daybreak.

Before we knew it, we almost ran right into the fire tower at the top of Elliot’s and punched our bibs before heading back downhill to the trail section.  We quickly found ourselves in a larger pack with Neal and Roberts and a few other people.  The fog was making the rocky technical downhill tough!  I could tell that I was probably going to be carrying my headlamp in my hand the entire night – kind of annoying, but way less annoying than not being able to see the ground well.

Our pack was taking it a little more conservative than I wanted, but I continued to remind myself that the slower pace was great.  David Horton always says “take care of your body” and that really became my mantra as the heat and humidity rolled through the night.

Our pack hit Dry Branch Gap together, refueled, and then started the climb up Crawford’s Knob.  Once again, the fog was strong – almost dangerous because the trail is not super defined up top – if you stepped off it you would be quickly lost and very screwed!  We were drinking tons of water and just taking it easy, everyone feeling pretty hot and lethargic.  I caught back up with Chris Roberts towards the top and we ended up running all the way to Dowell’s Draft together, just keeping some company through the foggy, muggy night.  I pretty much ran from here to the turnaround with Roberts in 2016 where he finally dropped me – were we heading towards a repeat?

We arrived at Dowell’s right on time for 21-hour finish splits and I got to see Michelle for the first time.  Frank Gonzalez is the aid station captain for Dowell’s and always turns it into a party atmosphere.  Frank and I devised a plan earlier in the week to celebrate Michelle’s birthday – I bought a mini cake and candles and snuck it to our Salomon rep Lauren Wright before the race to bring to the aid station (Lauren and Salmon were sponsoring the aid station).  When I arrived, Frank and Lauren would light the candles and we would sing Happy Birthday. Frank!  We nailed it! Usually Dowell’s is an aid station where everyone is fresh and just runs in and out as quick as they can.  But when I arrived, we stopped the show for a few minutes and got everyone singing Happy Birthday to Michelle – it was not only awesome as a way to honor Michelle and the amazing person she is, but also just to step away from the seriousness of the race for a moment and come together as a group of friends. That was definitely the highlight of my night!  Thanks Frank and Lauren!  Fist bumps!

Heading out of Dowell’s and up the long climb to Hankey Mountain, I quickly found myself alone. I was still doing tons of power hiking, trying to keep my heart rate down and just focusing on eating.  Once again, as I climbed the fog became thicker until you were just smothered by it.  Double handhelds and awkwardly holding the headlamp – that’s the way it was gonna be all night.

When I got to the top of Hankey Mountain, I once again caught up to Chris Roberts who once again had snuck out of the aid station ahead of me.  We quickly fell in line together and gratefully took the company on the long fire road and trail section that would take us to North River Gap. On the way, we hit the CATS aid station and it was so great to see so many good friends – they were all my friends! Becca, Annie, Bob, Jen, Chris, Emma, Ken, and Jason!  See you in 40 miles!

North River Gap, mile 35, is typically the point in Grindstone when you arrive at this awesome aid station with tons of great food and people, but it’s after midnight, you’re super tired and you’re about to head into the most remote section of the course.  And that is exactly how this year’s NRG1 was.  I sat in a chair while Michelle helped me change my socks (i.e., she did all the work changing my nasty socks!) and Sam Price and Todd Thomas from the aid station hooked me up with tons of soda, soup, and tater tots.  I was fueled and ready to make the TOUGH 2-hour journey to the Little Bald Knob aid station.  Roberts and I left the aid station at the same time, cups of tater tots in hands, and were off to climb Grindstone mountain.

Just a few hundred yards up the trail, Chris tripped on a log or something and suddenly was looking at the ground.  “Did you drop a light or something?” I asked?  “No, my tater tots!  Dammit! Now they’re so dirty…so dirty…”  While the oppressive humidity and relentless fog were chipping away at Chris all night, I think it was the dropped tater tots that really sent a dagger into the heart of his race because that was the last I saw of him on that climb.

Climbing up to Little Bald alone at night is a pretty cool experience.  On one hand, if you zoom out, here you are completely alone on singletrack trail at like 2am, a little headlamp dot on a huge mountain along the border with West Virginia.  On the other hand, you are deep into a footrace, constantly aware of your effort, your movement, your eating, and your mental state.  There’s not really time to get scared or nervous, there’s just too much climbing and too much running ahead.  So you just put your head down, eat your second Chik-fil-A sandwich of the day, and move onward.

After about 90 minutes of climbing, you finally pop out at the top of Little Bald and onto a forest service dirt road that will take you all the way to Reddish Knob and the turnaround. This is another cruel gift that Grindstone gives you.  Any other day, and this is some sweet running!  But here this is mile 42-59 of Grindstone – your legs are pretty tired and you’ve still got a lot of terrain to cover.  Even though you make some good time, it is a really mentally challenging section for me.  I was committed to keeping things really easy and taking care of my body and so continued to run when I could and power hiked when I needed to.  I hiked every step of the gravel climb up to Reddish Knob and finally around 4:20am reached the turnaround point.

As you approach the turnaround, you can now see all the runners who are ahead of you.  Michael Owen came running by a mile or two from the turnaround, then closer to the turnaround was Travis Zipfel.  When I reached the aid station, 3rdand 4thplace were there finishing their fueling up and so I was in 5th.  I grabbed an extra light and some food and got out as quick as I could, knowing that know I was going to start seeing runners coming towards me, doing their own place counts.  Sure enough, just a few minutes later I see Neal Gorman running with Chris Roberts. Dammit!  And then Nick Pedatella.  Argh!  And then more people I really couldn’t see because of the fog.  Ugh!  “It’s ok, you’re not racing until mile 80 so just chill out and keep it easy!”  It’s hard to keep remembering that.

I kept it easy, maybe too easy, and as I was leaving Jonathan and Hilary Basham’s Little Bald Knob aid station, I heard the cowbells cheering in another runner and I turned around to see another headlamp bopping up the trail.  I knew it was Neal, he looked really good when I passed him. But its ok, its Neal Gorman!  And, in 6thplace I’d still get the first masters award, so keep it easy, stupid.

Sure enough, just a short bit down the Little Bald descent Neal zinged past me and I was in 6th, happily keeping things steady as I descended back to North River Gap where I would see Michelle again.  About ½ mile from the aid station I ended up passing 5thplace, Mike Cooper, who’s quads seemed to be failing him on the downhills and so I ran into NRG2 in 5thjust as the sun finally allowed me to get rid of the hand held headlamp I’d been carrying for the past 12 hours.

Mile 65, North River Gap.

Tomato soup and Horton cleaning my feet – bliss! (photo Nelle Douglas)

Here is where my race started to get interesting.  As I came into NRG, I realized that I since I had been taking it so easy, my legs and body were in pretty good shape.  I got a change of socks and shoes and this time my friend and mentor David Horton did all the dirty work!  Thanks Horty! Also, usually my stomach becomes my main enemy late in races, with cramping and nausea creeping in.  But somehow, I sat in that chair and downed an entire Starbucks Frappuccino, followed by a can of coke, followed by a cup of tomato soup.  This disgusts me as I type this but it was like some magic combination that settled perfectly and I left North River Gap with a full belly and the optimism of a new day.

Leaving NRG is a long rocky climb to Lookout Mountain where I’d see my friends again at the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners (CATS) aid station.  The downside of the sun coming up was that now it was getting even warmer and the humidity had not reduced.  Oh well, it’s not mile 80 yet, so just keep it easy.

This is what 9am looks like when its 100% humidity (photo: Becca Weast)

Bob Clouston letting me know just how good 2nd and 4th place are looking! (photo: Ken Nail)

After what seemed like forever, I finally reached the CATS aid station where once again my stomach was on fire.  Coke, soup, and then the best little pancakes I have ever had in my life.  I left that aid station with a happy belly and legs that still felt surprisingly normal.  The next few miles up to Hankey Mountain are memorable because you go in the same direction at the SM100 and you are often hiking your bike on the steep parts.  And although running down Dowell’s Draft is always a sweet downhill, I must say that riding a mountain bike to the aid station is much faster and more fun.  Still not pushing it, I conservatively made my way to Dowell’s Draft AS, mile 80, in one piece.  Michelle and Horty were there and I sat down for one last break and drank soda and soup while Frank was entertaining me and still rocking with an insane amount of energy. I shed my vest but not before taking out my iPod and headphones which I was saving for this moment.  Michelle said I was 10 minutes behind 4thplace and calmly said “Go get him.  See you at Dry Branch.”  I turned my headphones on and headed down the trail.

Photo: Ken Nail

I rarely listen to music when I run or race, but I just sensed that for a race like Grindstone, I was going to appreciate having something to take my mind off the pain. But what happened at mile 80 was more of a transcendent experience.  As soon as I climbed the steep hill after that first creek crossing out of the aid station, “Lead me to the Cross” by Hillsong United came on.  It’s a praise and worship song basically about accepting love and getting rid of our “selves”.  To me this means being grateful and serving others.  Along with the combination of the fall foliage and being awake now for 28 hours straight, it was a powerful change to my mental state.  I got to thinking about several of my close training partners who are currently sidelined with injuries and unable to join me out here, as well as Michelle and Horton who were selflessly crewing me throughout the night and now day.  This may sound cheesy, but the entire focus of my race now changed to racing for them. I was gonna go chase down 4thplace for them as I climbed Crawford’s Knob and they were gonna be right there with me.  I guess it doesn’t take much to get me all emotional when I’m late in a race and tired and sleep deprived, but as soon as this switch was made, I took off like a madman running through the woods.

I passed by the place where I bonked so hard in 2016, where I wanted to just lay down and sleep in the leaves, and it felt amazing to run by with so much energy.  Song after song came on and each one got me more and more fired up.  4thplace really had no chance as I was running up parts of the Crawford climb that even Matt Thompson and I were walking last year when I paced him.  The climb up Crawford is a long one, but the energy never faded and sure enough after an hour of climbing when I finally reached the summit, right on cue, there was 4thplace!  A big grin came over my face and I literally sprinted down the trail and passed him like some crazy person.  Bombing downhill now towards the Dry Branch aid station, my quads felt zero pain.  It was surreal.  Not only did I not want 4thplace to catch me but now I wanted to catch up to Neal.

I came into the Dry Branch aid station about 20 minutes ahead of my splits.  Michelle was still at the car and I had to yell down the road to tell her I had arrived.  Once again I pounded my patented Frappuccino and coca cola fuel, grabbed some food and headed up the last big climb of the day, to Elliot’s Knob, 6 minutes behind 3rdplace Neal Gorman.

Look out Gorman! I’m pounding Frapuccinos AND Cokes! (Photo: Sophie Speidel)

I have been dreading this climb all summer because it was so miserable the last time I did Grindstone. But today, I didn’t want it to end. I was still feeling so fired up that I knew I was likely gaining on Neal and just needed some more real estate to get it done.  The sun was coming down directly onto the trail now and it was getting really hot, and as much as the heat usually clobbers me, my mind was really taking over my body and I was able to keep pushing.  A few hundred yards from the top I saw Jeremy Ramsey who was out running a few miles on the course.  “Dude, Neal is right there!  Like, right there!”  And sure enough, just a few minutes later, I caught up with Neal, right at the very top of the climb.

As Neal and I popped out on the fire road, I was still in this transcendent phase and I cranked my tunes back on and just let loose down that fire road.  I’m not sure how fast I was going, but it was a 100% balls-to-the-wall descent and my quads were feeling no pain.  I quickly lost sight of Neal and just hammered as hard as I could down that fire road, probably one of the more amazing out-of-body running experiences I have ever had.

As I turned off the road and onto the trail, the legs were still game and I continued hammering all the way down to the aid station, with a few stops for some dousing in cold creek water.

I tore into the last aid station of the day, Falls Hollow, in 3rdplace and still fired up to finish strong.  Hi Josh Harvey!  5 more miles. I pounded more coke and was off.

These last 5 miles are often dreaded because they seem to last forever as you wonder metaphorically from the mountains back to camp.  I knew Neal was such a talented runner and assumed he was going to do his best to catch back up to me, so I ran scared though this entire section.  I don’t often hallucinate, but Neal Gorman was everywhere.  Every time I kept turning my head around, there was Neal Gorman, tearing down the trail to come and steal 3rdplace back from me!  I can’t let that happen Neal!!!   I grinded like I never have and after what seemed like forever, I saw the lake and actually started to believe that Neal Gorman was not going to overtake me and I maybe, just maybe, might have just finished Grindstone in 3rdplace.  Turning into camp, I finally let down the guard and strolled across that finish line in 20 hours, 39 minutes, and 49 seconds for a sweet podium finish in 3rdplace.

The team. (photo: Sophie Speidel)

I learned a TON at this year’s Grindstone!  More than anything, I learned the power of patience.  Because of that easy start, I ran almost even 50s – 10:18 to the turnaround and 10:21 home,

I ran the fastest closing 50k of the day in 7:02, and my last 20 miles, from Dowell’s Draft to the finish was the 4thfastest closing time in the history of the race in 4 hours and 8 minutes.

I was also pumped to put up a new record for the SM100/Grindstone 100 double:  31 hours, 24 minutes, and 40 seconds (10:44:51 SM100 and 20:39:49 GS100).  Anne Pike still holds the women’s record in 35 hours, 54 minutes, and 36 seconds (10:53:37 SM100 and 25:00:59 GS100).  This is an open challenge for people to come and do these two great events in the same year – do it!!

The mens podium – l-r: me, Travis Zipfel (2nd), and Michael Owen (1st)

Thanks to Clark Zealand for putting together such a great event.  This was the best year yet, perfectly executed!

Thanks to all of the amazing aid station volunteers.  It was like a party/family living room every time I came into a new aid station.  From Josh Harvey’s Falls Hollow, to Frank and Lauren at Dowell’s, to the CATS at Lookout, Sam, Todd, and the Blue Ridge Trail Runners at North River Gap, JB and Hilary at Little Bald Knob, and the kind strangers of the night at the turnaround – you were all part of my journey and the appreciation is deep.

Thanks to Horton, for hanging out with Michelle throughout the race and being not only part of my crew, but a great mentor and friend.  Your advice over the years has kept me “not stupid”.

Thanks to my training buddies, who have shared countless 4:30am adventures with me and made training something we look forward to doing vs. something we have to do.

And last, thank you to Michelle for you unending love and support.  Your pep talks are the best and you never give an inch – you even keep encouraging Roberts to keep chasing me so I’ll run faster…

Puffy time!

The gear:

  • Altra Lone Peak 4.0s (Start to mile 65)
  • Topo Terraventures (65 to the finish)
  • Drymax Trail Run socks
  • Patagonia Strider Pro shorts
  • Salomon Trail Runner Sleeveless Tank
  • Salomon S-Lab sense ultra vest
  • Ultimate Direction handhelds
  • Petzl Reactik+ headlamp
  • Ultraspire Lumen 600R waist belt light

 

The food:

  • Start:  Snickers bar, CLIF Sweet potato pouch, PBJ sandwich
  • Falls Hollow:  Soda
  • Dry Branch:  Soda, Grilled cheese, clif bar
  • Dowell’s:  Soda, potatoes and salt, Frappuccino
  • Lookout:  Soda, potatoes, soup, grilled cheese
  • North River Gap:  Chik-fil-A sandwich, soda, tater tots, perogies, soup
  • Little Bald Knob: Potatoes, soup, soda
  • Reddish/Turnaround: Soup, ½ PBJ, snickers bar
  • Little Bald Knob: Potatoes, soup, soda
  • North River Gap:  Frappuccino, soda, tomato soup, Clif Bloks
  • Lookout:  Stinger Waffle, soup, soda, pancakes
  • Dowell’s:  Soda, soup, snickers bar
  • Dry Branch:  Frappuccino, soda, Clif Bloks, one GU gel
  • Falls Hollow:  Soda, a few bloks.

Neal Gorman, well-prepared for a nap. Me, not so much, using a croc as a pillow.