If you've been here before, you may already know that once in a while I run a crazy race. And once in a while, I have to break from my professional Personal Trainer character to tell you about that race. That being said, know that I use real, honest language (I swear), because I am a real, honest human being and this race was REALLY, HONESTLY very ****ing hard! That is the only time I will censor myself in this post - read on unless that kind of language offends you (sorry, not sorry!)
At 3:11AM, and 37.13 miles into the Grindstone 100-mile race, my voice rang out over the tired crowd of families, crew, and volunteers aiding runners through the extremely challenging overnight hours. After a few annoyed glances from people slouched in their camping chairs by the tempting fire, blankets pulled up over their ears as they tried to sleep through the intermittent cheers and cowbells, I gave up the search for my husband, shoved some pirogies in my mouth and PB&J in a snack bag and soldiered on into the dark and one of the toughest parts of the entire race, hoping to make it to the next stop by the break of dawn.
The amazing thing about this 100-mile experience verses my previous races of the same distance is I knew exactly what I needed to do to keep moving forward, and I just did it. And to my husband’s whereabouts? Well, logically, I knew two things: One, If something terrible had happened, surely they would have gotten word of it and told me when I checked into the aid station, and two, there are any number of human errors that could have made him miss me (we were in the middle of nowhere with no signal, after all). I knew not to waste an ounce of energy worrying, and simply hoped he would be there (and maybe felt a little bad!) when I came back on the inbound journey.
Hoping that friends and crew could navigate the back country roads of Swoope, Virginia in the dead of night while I pushed up one relentless climb after another was just one of several unique challenges to this race. Among the other challenges were:
▪️6:00PM start - Everyone gets to run through the night, even the elite competitors.
▪️Thirteen aid stations - Over a total out-and-back distance of 101.85 miles (isn’t that cruel?) we hit each aid station twice except for the turn-around. This averages out to 7.83 miles between each station, and most of them, all conveniently nestled between intense climbs, which often meant several hours between aid.
▪️With an approximate 46,000’ of elevation change (or 14,020m for my European friends), Grindstone promises to be the hardest 100-mile race east of the Mississippi.
▪️Somehow, the trails actually got longer and more rocks appeared on the return trip. Considering this race takes place in October, it must be witches.
Despite all this, AND having crewed and paced a friend last year, bearing witness to it tearing out her soul*, I clicked “submit” on UltraSignup in October 2018. I committed myself to train for and endure what would become one of the most epic beatdowns of my lifetime.
(*Literally, right in front of me. It was quite gruesome. But don’t worry, she returned to successfully reclaim it this year!)
Like everyone else, I was a bit anxious about the evening start. Not like everyone else, I said “fuck it” and had a couple beers after the pre-race meeting because I figured there was no better way than that to make sure I didn’t go out too hard. The “heat dome” we’ve been suffering under in the southeast had finally lifted and there was a distinct hint of Fall as the sun slowly lowered from view behind the mountains surrounding us at the camp serving as the start and finish. I knew pre-race nerves and cooler temps would make me run way faster than I needed to in the first couple miles, so I tried to trick my body into thinking it was Happy Hour. I have to say, this worked REALLY well. The first aid station was the shortest gap between all the checkpoints at just 5.2 miles so I told myself not to get there in less than an hour, and to move easy enough that I’d be in the mood to eat. I arrived there shortly after 7:00PM but before I could eat, I had to stop dry-heaving.
Yes, 5.2 miles into the race I almost threw up because a fucking MOTH flew RIGHT INTO MY MOUTH, hitting the back of my throat. The noises I made as my insides tried to expel the foreign object raised alarms for a few runners around me, but I’m sure some probably thought I was an idiot puking because she sprinted up the first hill. The stupid thing wouldn’t come up so I did the only thing I could and swallowed it with a bunch of water, followed immediately by some PB&J. I wasn’t going to fall behind on calories, no matter what.
Within five to ten minutes of leaving the first aid station, I was finally able to shake the sensation of fluttering in the back of my throat. Time to focus on the first major climb, which rose about 2,300’ in 4 miles. The sun had set and it was time to enter into “The Tunnel”, where my world is just a small window of light cast by my headlamp, and the only point of reference I have to estimate the distance to the top of a hill or the next turn are the headlamps in front of me. Sometimes, I really enjoy this part. It’s just me and the ground beneath my feet and my tunnel and there’s no point in stressing about when I’ll “get there” because I’ll only know it when I’m there. This mentality got me through most of the night. That, and a strong desire to stay out of my head and focus only on the physical. Heart beat. Hunger. Thirst. Breath. Dirt. Rocks. Step after step. There was no room for thoughts that commanded any amount of emotional energy. If they popped up, I imagined pulling them out of my head and throwing them into the pitch-black woods, where my window of light could not reach. And just when I would reach a point when I was tired of thinking, or not thinking, about anything, an aid station would appear with the welcome distraction of music, food, and perhaps some slightly inebriated volunteers.
For a race like this to take place without a huge amount of attrition among the participants, the aid station support has to be spot on. I knew from being there last year that if I could train myself to eat anything on the go, then I wouldn’t have to load up on sugary gels and chews the entire time. Nothing against sugar. I LOVE sugar. But I knew that whatever I could do to stave off palate fatigue would mean I could take in calories more consistently. In training, I did runs immediately after meals on purpose, to get used to digesting and moving. Conversely, I also did runs hungry, because sometimes the aid station you think is right around the corner isn’t. Whatever might seem uncomfortable, that’s how I trained. And it paid off big time because in my mind I knew I could run Grindstone if I took it one snack at a time.
If you measured my body composition right now it would be 15% pirogies, 20% grilled cheese, 15% PB&J, 25% fruit chews and shot blocks, 10% ramen and broth,10% Coke and Mountain Dew, and 5% Red Bull.
So that is why when I reached the aid station at mile 37.13 and didn’t have my husband (and, to be honest, my husband with my things), I knew I’d be ok. I was already on the edge of the Witching Hour but feeling comfortable and, most importantly, still hungry and eager to eat. Obviously, this does not play into the “hardest race east of the Mississippi” picture I am trying to paint for you. Just wait.
Climb, climb, climb. Run/shuffle flats and descents. I won’t go over every detail here but it was a lot of rhythmic movement powered by the aforementioned food groups, Tycho and Emancipator. This particularly grueling section - a cumulative 3,000 feet over the course of seven miles - was where we would really start to be tested. My goal was to zone out and only regard time as a point of reference for when to take in more calories. I was toeing the edge of fatigue but determined to treat it like a brand new day when the sun came up. Unfortunately, I would discover that light didn’t matter. Once my body caught up with what I was doing to it, it started begging for a break. Even as I finally got to turn off my headlamp, I didn’t feel like my tunnel was opening. I had to focus hard on each step and my head felt heavy. The morning was overcast, so just like it did at night, everything looked the same during the day. Gray on gray, and a deeper chill setting in as the wind started to pick up near the top. I was bored, cold, and couldn’t shake the the thought of how amazing a warm comforter would be right then and there, even with only rocks for pillows.
Still, I was not quite half-way so I leaned on my nutrition (for those reading this hoping to glean some helpful information, when in doubt, eat and hydrate) and pushed up to the turn-around, where I got smacked in the face by Fall at 4,397 above sea level on Reddish Knob. The wind made it feel like the temperature had dropped into the thirties, and could have knocked me sideways had I not had my trekking poles. Luckily, we only had to pop up and then right back down Reddish Knob, which served as a bit of a wake-up as I headed to the turnaround. Something about the halfway point got me motivated to move again. Maybe the coffee, or the pancakes, or knowing we didn’t have to summit Reddish again on the return trip. I saw my friend Michelle headed to the turnaround shortly after me and we exchanged hugs and a mutual “THIS SUCKS!” The mostly-downhill return trip still had some big ups to tackle so there was only time to briefly acknowledge the silliness of this whole ordeal and then move on. Once I knew I was within a couple hours of returning to the spot where my husband had missed me, I put on a more energized playlist and prepared to power down all the nastiness it took me the entire night to climb.
With my coach AJW’s words of caution in my ears (“don’t overcook the descent because you’ll need quads for the last two climbs”) I adopted a strong and steady stride with brief walk breaks if my legs started to sing to me too much. A few miles from the aid station I saw my pacer, Sergio, eager to get moving, and my friend Shannon, the women’s course record holder. I took advantage of the extra opportunity to pick her brain about what to expect on the return trip and she warned that a low point WILL come and I had to be ready. But my husband was at the aid station this time so that would provide a bit of a boost to stave off that low for a little longer. We didn’t stay long because it was chilly and Sergio was chomping at the bit to get some miles under his feet. After a long night and morning in the tunnel, I was eager for his conversation and company.
My brain was still pretty well in tact and I was aware of the work that lay ahead. Still, the cumulative hours and miles did start to mess with me as each section of trail seemed to grow longer. Sergio is similar to me in the sense of knowing that you’re not “there” until you’re there, so it helped to have his confidence-boosting reminders that any forward progress was good, even if my shuffle was slower than his fast hike. I laughed at this, chalking it up to a notable height difference. I did my best to keep the mood light - being the “fake it til you make it” type - but my acting abilities were starting to fade with my energy and I could feel the next low coming on hard.
Sergio did what he could, carrying on with conversation about people and races and places, but I had to admit to him that I was reaching a point where I don’t think I would remember half of what we talked about. There were a lot of “Uhhu”s, “Yup”s, and “Yeah”s coming from me but my mind was slipping. Around 2:00 or 3:00PM I started experiencing a few micro-sleeps and after the fourth or fifth time having to vigorously shake my head, I said “Woah. Ok. I gotta sit.”
In my mind, I knew a 5-min nap or short meditation might help, but I was really afraid of passing out permanently. So I sat on the side of the trail and kept my head up to eat some banana I had squirreled away from the previous aid station, hoping that lowering my heart rate while taking in extra calories would give my metabolism a nudge. I had slammed a caffeinated gel not long before then and couldn’t feel a damn thing. Maybe my body needed more sugar to realize it had something more to work with. Whether this was actually the case or simply placebo, this somehow did the trick and I was able to move and stay a little more alert.
The next time I saw my husband, we had about 22 miles to go. The poor guy was running around on his own now, the rest of our group split up aiding other friends on the course. I had to send him sprinting down the hill to the car for fresh batteries for my headlamp while I downed more cheesy things, soup and Mountain Dew. He came back, pouring sweat. I’d have felt worse about it if I hadn’t had 80 miles and nearly 23 hours under my own feet at the moment (sorry babe!). I told him he was relieved if he wanted to go back to camp and sleep, but he also knew I was fixated on getting some Tropical Red Bull to get through the rest of this stupid thing, so he said he’d be there at the next stop, eight miles ahead. Marriage saved!
And it was a good thing I had my liquid crack to look forward to because we still had a few gnarly climbs to get back to the finish. Sergio helped me set the goal of seeing Zac again before having to turn our headlamps back on. I was SO determined to stay out of the tunnel for as long as I could, risking a few trips and stumbles as we made our way back over the 1,700’ Chimney Top climb. We almost made it, but after one particular hard kick of a rock I had to turn on the light. Within moments, however, we saw the aid station and I got my magical Red Bull. Zac has come back to life himself, with a fire to be in charge of and someone else’s kid to direct as his helper. It lifted my spirits to see him smiling, and I got my wings. One more nasty climb to go.
Fucking Elliot’s Knob.
Selective amnesia had sunk in and I know I should have paid more attention to this section on the outbound trip to be mentally prepared for this climb and final brutal descent. Mind you, I have already run this section in the same direction in June, but again on much fresher legs and in the daylight. So miles 87-95 were a whole new kind of monster that stood out as its own separate hell. My inner child was emerging, and not in a good way. “How are we not at the top yet?” and “How are we not at the last aid station yet??” whining on repeat in my head. I was starting to vocalize my distress more and more frequently and in so, annoying the shit out of myself. Time to put it away and move forward.
Final aid, 5.2 miles to the finish. One more climb.
What? That’s what they said the last time!
Don’t you remember, the big downhill and the stupid moth?
It was only about 500’ but at 10:37PM, it may as well have been another 2000’. An aid station volunteer had quietly told me “You could still make it before midnight” and I latched onto this idea way harder than I should have. Thirty hours was my “A” goal, albeit an arbitrary one, having never done this challenging of a race. Still, despite how trashed my feet and legs felt at this moment, I had to try.
I pushed, and pushed, and pushed. Sergio, for the record, was still fast-hiking, which made me feel like a slug. He only had to pick up his feet to jog for a few brief moments when I hit a rare, not rocky stretch of trail. Because, if you didn’t catch on to this already, there were still a lot of rocks. How did I forget about all of these fucking rocks?! My feet were on fire and clumsy and every third step I stumbled. At one point I just screamed and slammed my poles against the ground, much to my pacer’s amusement. After a few more glances at my watch I realized midnight was not within reach. Close, but not quite. Somewhat defeated, I resigned myself back to a more manageable fast walk to finish the last mile to camp.
But with that resignation, came a wave of relief.
Because here is where I succeeded:
I did the damn thing.
Everything I needed to leave on the trail - physically, mentally and emotionally - I left out there.
I managed myself extremely well, addressing each problem with an attempted solution, and did not allow myself to get swallowed by stress with every low point.
By chance or circumstance, I fell into an amazing group of people who showered me with love and support the whole way.
Sergio and I rounded the final corner to turn into the campground where lights were still on, music was still playing and a dozen or so people were still awake and cheering. I summoned the last ounce of strength I had for one last ultra-shuffle and crossed the finish line in 30:10:36.
Why do something so difficult, and to many, quite stupid?
There were a few things I had to prove to myself. An ultra-marathon is like a puzzle, and this one involved thousands of pieces. I needed to know I had it in me to work every problem and not sink into despair like I did at Western States. I needed to know I could work through extreme fatigue and not wind up crying at mile 85 like I did at my second Pinhoti. I needed to know I could lay it all on the line and not hold back and play it safe like countless races before. Some friends had put way more stock in me than I thought they should have (Shannon, I could never touch your record!) but what I lack in overall speed I make up for in durability.
Lastly, this race was the proving ground I needed for myself to feel like I had what it would take to tackle Western States again. While Grindstone was my longest and hardest race to date by time and distance, it was also one of my best-executed races ever. If I can tackle 46,000’ of elevation change over 100 miles, I know I can significantly improve upon my Western States time if I ever get to go back to Squaw. Fingers crossed.
But I do not want to trivialize my Grindstone experience by only focusing on going back out west. Even as a stand-alone race, Grindstone is an amazing experience. If you’ve got demons, they will be exorcised. If you have grit, it will be showcased. If you have an undying love of mountains and trails, you will feel at home.
And if you have any kind of feeling about rocks well... Grindstone doesn't care what you think about rocks. If there is one wishy-washy metaphorical takeaway it's this:
Life is rocks. It's fucking rocks everywhere. What are you going to do, turn around?