Monday, October 13, 2014

Grindstone 100 Race Report

"If you start to feel good during an ultra, don't worry, you will get over it." - Gene Thibeault

A few questions I have been asked one too many times are Why do you run so much? Why do you put your body through that? and, my personal favorite, What are you running from? My typical response is I like to test the limits of what my body can do.  Last weekend while I was at the Grindstone 100 - I realized why I run so much.  I train hard so that I have the opportunities to run races like the Grindstone 100.

Tent City
When I showed up to Camp Shenandoah where the start/finish was on Thursday, I wasn't sure what to expect.  After setting up camp I chatted with a few of the other racers for the rest of the evening.  By the time I woke up on Friday and ate a small breakfast, it was time to check in. After the prerace meeting I tried to relax for the next few hours before the race started.  I tried sleeping but that was nearly impossible... the adrenaline was starting to kick in.  Finally around 5:00 p.m. I slowly made my way to the start line to prepare for the race. We waited inside the dining hall for close to an hour due to the rain.  At 6:00 p.m. it was time to start, and 263 brave souls took off for the mountains in what would turn out to be a cold, wet race.

If the race ended here I would have won but unfortunately we still had 100 miles to go!
As we made our way around the lake in the opening mile, I was running in the front at a modest pace. I settled into a nice pace
Andrew Snope and I around 5 miles
early on knowing I had a long night ahead of me. The first 5 miles went by without any issues. As it grew darker, I started the first big climb of the race, a 3500 ft climb stretched out in to 5 miles.  It was raining as we made our way higher and higher.  I felt good on the climb up to the top of Elliots Knob.  Once at the top you punch your bib before heading back down the gravel road and onto a single track.  I didn't want to push the pace on the descent so I let the lead group go.  My lack of technical trail running showed up on this descent as I fell twice within a 5 minute span.

The next few miles were a blur as I pulled through Dowells Draft aid station at mile 22 in 3:54.  I felt good.  I grabbed some bananas and oranges and took off for the trail spending less than a minute at the aid station.  

Somewhere around the 24-25 mile mark things turned from good to terrible because I started to feel sharp pains in the knee that I had surgery on in late June.  I immediately started to walk because I was afraid of doing any more damage to it.  I was not sure if it hurt because I fell or if I stepped on it wrong, but either way I decided to play it safe and walk it out.  While walking I was on an emotional roller coaster.  My first thought was that I'd have to drop because I still had 75 miles to go.  Luckily I was in the middle of the woods so I had no choice but to keep walking.  Somewhere during my stroll I changed my mind - I decided I would walk the remaining 75 miles because I had 38 hours to finish. I knew that I needed to complete this race in order to qualify for Hard Rock and Western States.

I took some Ibuprofen and just continued walking. When I arrived at the Lookout Mountain aid station, I grabbed some fruit and refilled my water bottles.  As I was walking out of the aid station I decided to try running.  Low and behold my knee wasn't bothering me too much.  So for the next 6 miles I ran what I could and walked when I had too.  I caught up to John Robinson, and we ran together into the North River Gap aid station at mile 36.  

Typically I don't use drop bags because my wife crews for me - but since she couldn't make this trip, I had no choice but to use them. I've heard horror stories from other runners in different races about how long it can take to locate a drop bag.  To my surprise by the time I weighed in, a volunteer already had my drop bag ready for me. I was looking forward to the treat I had waiting for me in my bag... Naked Juice.  I started drinking these juices at Delirium 24hr, and I will continue to use it in the future because it tastes amazing.  It's not only refreshing but it also gives you the calories and sugar needed during a long run.  

This is where things started to turn around for me and I have to thank John and my mango Naked Juice for that.  We had a 7 mile 4,000 ft climb staring us in the face.  John was in front dragging my butt up this thing.  He was flying up it and I was doing everything I could in order to stay with him.  There were parts of this climb that were stupid steep but then there were runnable parts.  John and I didn't talk much during the climb.  We just put our heads down and kept climbing.  We passed a couple of runners along the way and 1 hr 57 minutes later we were at the top.  I can say without a doubt that if I was by myself during that section it would have taken me 20-30 minutes longer.

Once at the top, we started running again.  It was easy dirt road running which was a great change from the technical single track earlier in the race.  We made quick work of the Little Bald Knob aid station at mile 44 and kept moving towards Reddish Knob aid station, which was just 4 miles away.  The rain had stopped and the stars had come out which made it a little more enjoyable.  We had a quick climb up Reddish Knob where we punched our race numbers again before we headed to the turn around.  John and I ran a good portion of the road section before reaching the turn around 10:46 into the race.  I was extremely excited to feel this good 51.5 miles into the race.

We hiked a good portion of the road back up to the Reddish Knob aid station before grabbing some grilled cheese sandwiches.  I rarely eat things like that during a race but it was cold, and my body craved something warm.  John and I ran a pretty good pace on the road back.  We turned onto a single track trail which meant it was time for a long descent back into North River Gap aid station.  We could start to see the first signs of daylight. Not quite ready to turn off our head lamps, we took the beginning part of the descent slowly.  With a couple of miles left of the descent it was light enough to turn our headlamps off which gave me a jolt of energy.  John stopped to eat something and I pushed on down the mountain.  I picked up a couple of other runners and even caught up to my buddy Andrew Snope.  I was flying down the mountain and came into North River Gap full of energy.  I stuffed my face with a lot of food and weighed in.  Once again, the volunteers had my drop bag ready for me before I finished weighing in. I pulled out my other Naked Juice and hit the trails.

At that time, I was in 11th place and I was head hunting the people in front of me.  I was running fast and closing the gap on them.  The next 6 miles were runnable and I wanted to take advantage of that.  I had the feeling that we all seek during an ultra... a feeling that I could run forever.  With each and every stride I took I was gaining ground.  Within 6 miles I had gained 12 minutes on the runner ahead of me.  At the next aid station, I quickly refilled my water bottles, grabbed some oranges and kept going.

It was 8 miles to the next aid station.  I was still feeling good and ran a majority of the trail to Dowells Draft aid station.  I was hurting but knew I would be able to push through the pain as I only had 22 miles left.  I came into the aid station in 10th and left in 9th. Shortly after leaving the aid station, the trail turned up.  Up and up I went.  I did not recall any of this from earlier in the race.  It just kept going.  It sucked every bit of energy I had out of me.  For as good as I was feeling just a few miles ago, I was feeling that bad up this climb.  Eventually I made it to the top and when I tried running I had nothing.  I couldn't run the flats and I couldn't run the downhills.  I was in a world of hurt.

I walked as fast as I could hoping that I would be able to start running again but every time I tried I was unable to. My knee was practically screaming out at me. I walked all the way to the Dry Branch aid station at mile 87.  I left the aid station knowing I had one more big climb left.  About 1 mile up that climb I turned around and saw Andrew flying up the climb.  He said a few encouraging words to me before taking off for a strong 7th place finish.  After about 3 more miles, I made it to the turn off to head down Elliots Knob. I thought that I would be able to let gravity take over and run down the gravel road, however I was sadly mistaken.  I tried running but my quads and knee were shot. So I walked.  Eventually the road leveled off, and I was able to muster up an "ultra shuffle" into the final aid station.  

As I left, I really tried to enjoy the last 5 miles.  Knowing my race was almost over, my energy returned.  I was able to power hike the short climb and once at the top I was able to run again.  It felt good.  Once I was back at the boyscout campground, I only had 1.5 miles left.  I started to think about the journey that I just went on.  All of the ups and downs and how much I truly enjoy ultra running.  I made my way back around the pond and onto the final stretch.  I crossed the finish line in 22:33:30.  My comeback to ultra running was complete.

Clark Zealand, the race director, put on a first class event.  This race embodies everything that is ultra running. I rarely run the same race twice but I look forward to returning to this race next year at 100% and shaving a couple hours off my time.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Preparing for my 100 mile adventure in the mountains

"The very basic core of man's living spirit is his passion for adventure." - Christopher McCandless

On Friday at 6 p.m., I will line up with a very large and competitive field at the Grindstone 100. We don't have any mountains (or hills really) in Charleston, so to help prepare me for the 23,000+ feet of climbing I have to do in the Grindstone 100, I spent three of the last four weekends in the mountains of North Carolina and South Carolina.

On my first weekend mountain trip (September 5), I arrived to Mt. Mitchell on a Friday and managed to complete a quick and easy 15 mile run. My main run for the weekend was on Saturday - where I hammered out 25 miles. I started my run from the Black Mountain campground up to the the summit of Mt. Mitchell and worked my way along the Black Mountain Crest trail, which is deemed the most rugged trail on the East Coast by Back Packer Magazine, over to Winter Star. I planned to run the entire trail down to Bolens Gap but unfortunately weather and a lack of water caused me to turn around at Winter Star. I woke up on Sunday feeling a little sore, but forced myself to run an easy 7 miles - bringing my total mileage for that weekend to 47 miles.

Mt. Mitchell Selfie

My wife decided to join me on my second trip to the mountains. We decided to travel up to Table Rock State Park to camp.  I ran 14 miles in Charleston before leaving at noon on Friday, knowing we wouldn't arrive to Table Rock until well in to the afternoon.  On Saturday, I made my way up the Pinnacle Trail and then along the Foothills Trail to Sassafras Mountain, which is the highest point in South Carolina. Once again I was forced to turn around due to weather and lack of water... one of these days I will carry enough water on my training run (promise!). All in all, it was a good 22 mile run with tough climbs and some fun downhill single track.  Running even just that short section of the Foothills Trail really makes me want to explore all 77 miles of it and possibly make an attempt at the fastest known time... maybe next year.

View from Sassafras Mountain

I decided to head back to Table Rock to close out my third weekend training trip in the mountains. I went by myself and decided to enjoy some backcountry camping.  On Friday I ran to the top of Table Rock, then over to Pinnacle before heading down the Pinnacle Trail.  As soon as I returned to my car, I grabbed my camping pack and headed 4.5 miles back up the Pinnacle Trail to the Foothills Trail where I camped for the night. I had to sleep in running shorts since my pants were soaking wet from all the rain that poured down on me as I made my way to camp, and I didn't bring nearly enough clothing to keep me warm in my hammock - it was a rough night. I planned to get up early the next morning to see the sun rise, but quickly decided against that due to the frigid temperatures (low 40's is now considered freezing to this Charleston boy). When I finally woke up, I quickly packed up camp and dropped my things off at my car before lacing up and heading back up the trail to the top of Table Rock. I only logged a total of 25 miles, not including the 9 mile hike with a 30 lbs pack, for the weekend.

Breakfast on Bald Knob as the sun comes up

Considering I had surgery in late June and have only been training for the last month and a half, I am not sure what kind of shape I truly am in.  Ideally, I'd like to have two more weeks to train for Grindstone but I doubt the race director will move the race back for little ole me.  So come Friday when I toe the line, I am going to do what I do best... compete.  This will undoubtedly be the hardest race I have ever done.  Forget the night running or the technical single track, the elevation change alone makes me want to cry when I think about it.  No matter what happens, as long as I make it out alive, I am happy to make my return to running ultras again.

Elevation Profile of Grindstone 100