This race has been on my bucket list for a while. I was originally signed up for the 2020 version, but well . . .COVID. One of the things that draws me to hundred mile races are the many different challenges you can expect to encounter along the way. I try to pick races that offer something a little different to keep things fresh.
Grindstone’s different happens to be a 6pm Friday start time. For a mid-packer like myself, this means I’ll have to run into (through?) a second night during the race. One night I can handle without any difficulties at this point, but the second night was going to be an adventure.
While I had obviously looked at the chart above quite a bit, I didn’t pay too close attention to how the aid stations were set up. I prefer not to know too much about what’s coming up as I’ll start to worry about a climb. I do better when I just move from tree to tree. I had written down the distances between the aid stations, which is better information for me to have so I can plan out what I need from any given aid station to get me to the next. While it didn’t really impact my race, I definitely underestimated the average distance between aid stations. Most of them are 8-9 miles apart with only the first and last sections as short as 5 miles. With all of the climbing, this means two to three hours between aid.
The beginning of the race is a bit of a blur for me. My splits were too fast heading into the first aid station (#typical). Then I was passing a couple runners grinding up to Elliot Knob with Al click clacking behind me the whole way up. There was a conga line of runners on the technical drop into Dry Branch Gap. Another runner tried to give me his aid station chart in an AS as he was dropping. I knew I was still working too hard as the temperatures never seemed to drop like they were supposed to. Eventually, after the third aid station, I slowed down and hooked up with John for the next 10-12 miles into North River Gap. I had a great time chatting with him about all things running and it really helped pass the time during the absolute dead of night.
I left AS #5 by myself a little after 4am and started up “the climb”. The eight mile section to Little Bald Knob has 3,300 feet of elevation gain with the first mile the steepest. I passed a couple runners early which was a bit of a boost as sometimes it can get discouraging when your pace is in the mid-twenties. I then didn’t see any runners for the next couple hours. Well, if you ignore the ones passing me heading back the other way. The first one reached me before I got to mile 40 so he was close to 25 miles ahead of me. Yikes. I never ceased to be amazed at the athletes at the front of these races. We might be sharing the same course, but we’re definitely not doing the same thing.
The sun came up and I was able to turn off my headlamp off right before I got into AS #6. The next section included about 3 miles of paved road and a short trip up to Reddish Knob. While there wasn’t any clear turnaround sign at the top, the view was the scenic highlight of the course. It was then a blazing fast drop down into the turnaround.
It was somewhere around here that I started feeling amazing. I don’t know if it was the quicker paces, getting and receiving encouragement from all the other runners, or the fact that the sun was fully up and I was now fully awake. Probably some combination of the three with a heavy weighting on the latter. You never realize how much the dark impacts your running until you’re out of it. Six hours prior I was slogging around the woods feeling slow and now I was ready to attack the return trip.
Heading back down towards North River Gap I started getting hot. Like Africa hot. I had been wearing a long sleeve shirt with the sleeves rolled up, but I was really overheating. I debated what to do and eventually decided to just take my shirt off. I’ve never done this in a race before and was thankful I didn’t end up with any chafing issues. Apologies to those who saw me out there dad bod representing, but it helped keep me cool.
Not too long after leaving the next aid station, I passed a runner who had turned around and was heading back to drop. This was the second time during the race that I saw this and I can’t remember this happening in other races that I’ve done. I’m sure it was a function of the long distances between ASs and knowing the next opportunity to drop is so far away can really mess with your head.
The next couple sections were another blur for me. I was in a good flow state and just running mile to mile. I was counting down the distance to the next aid station, but was doing an amazing job of not thinking past that point.
The climb heading to Dry Branch Gap is straight up no joke. The first couple miles aren’t too bad, but then you get a three mile section with 1600 feet of elevation gain that is just relentless. Another runner (Brett) and I would leapfrog each other as he would stop and rest and I would just slowly claw my way uphill. We ended up passing a couple other runners who were struggling even more than we were.
I turned my headlamp back on not too long before reaching Dry Branch Gap. I was looking over their food options and nothing was striking my fancy. I ended up with a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a couple hundred calories of M&Ms to get me the nine miles to the last aid station. Unfortunately, the soda didn’t taste right, which left me just the M&Ms. The last major climb starts right out the aid station. I couldn’t remember how long it was so just focused on taking one step after another. And focus was assuredly needed as I was getting really tired; borderline drowsy. I thought about sitting down and taking a brief nap, but the temperatures had finally gotten cool out and I didn’t want to risk getting too cold. I also really wanted to be done and sitting on the side of the trail wasn’t going to accomplish that. Somehow I was able to grind up the climb without having to stop. And after about an hour of desperately looking for the sign to turn left down off Elliots Knob, I finally reached it.
I shuffled along knocking out blazing fast 19 and 20 minute miles until I reached the last aid station. Rice krispy treats and more soda was my food of choice. And boy did this do the trick. I started feeling much better and more awake than I had since it got dark. Unfortunately, I couldn’t translate this into a quicker pace as my headlamp started somewhat dim and was only getting dimmer. It’s very tough to move fast(er) when you can’t see more than a couple feet in front of you. But I felt great so speed was not really something I cared too much about. I was surprised to only be passed by one or two runners over the last couple sections so maybe I was moving better than I thought.
And then I was done.
I am very grateful to Clark Zealand and all his volunteers for putting on this race. It’s a wonderful challenge and a unique adventure. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get back, but I would definitely recommend this race to anyone out there looking to test themselves at the hundred mile distance. Just make sure you stock up on sleep beforehand.