Monday, October 24, 2011

Grindstone 100 Race Recap

by Jeremy Alsop, as originally published on his blog.

I had a very easy feeling during the 4 hour drive to Camp Shenandoah on Friday morning, most likely due to the fact that my gem of a wife was in the driver's seat and had all of my needs for the entire race planned for.  I thought I would be a nervous wreck but everything for the race came together so well that I really had nothing to worry about.  My thought process was to just run my race, take one step at a time and enjoy the adventure.  My goal throughout the past two years has been to run and finish this race and I had been preparing for it ever since I first got back into running ultras in early 2010.

My first goal was to finish the race but to also finish it healthy so I could continue in the Beast Series.  Second goal was to finish it in 26-28 hours, but being as this was my first 100 miler and not knowing what to expect, I was going to be ok if it took longer.  Horton told me during the Grindstone training weekend that it would be better for me to come to the race under-trained and healthy then over-trained and beat up.  I really took this advice to heart and since I work two full-time jobs, coming to the race undertrained was not going to be a problem.  I put in some quality back-to-back long runs on the weekends ranging between 20-30 miles each day.  Instead of going out for a quick 7- or 8-mile run during the week, as I often have to do, I opted to go to Gold’s Gym and get on the revolving stair climber for an hour instead.  Doing that for 2–3 hours a week I think really paid dividends on preparing me for the long climbs of Grindstone.  I also put in 54 miles over night during the Woods Ferry 24hr race in Sumter, SC exactly four weeks out.

Only 23,000 ft up and 23,000 ft down.
The afternoon of the race was very peaceful and relaxing for me.  After the pre-race briefing I killed time competing in the Grindstone Arm-a-thon, an arm wrestling contest that several LU students organized.  I really loved this idea, but for some reason I guess the other runners wanted to conserve their energy so it never really got going full steam.  I decided to head back to the car where I took a 15 min power nap and then spent the rest of the time with my feet up enjoying the beautiful fall weather and the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.  By this time, my father-in-law and brother-in-law arrived completing my crew, which also consisted of my beautiful wife.  Since we live in different states it was good to spend an hour or two with them catching up before I needed to start getting ready. 

Fighting off nerves or wasting energy??
Before I knew it, it was 5pm and I started getting everything ready.  I wore Mizuno Trail Ascend shoes, Powersox and Patagonia Trail 9 shorts.  I also opted to start the race with a 70oz Camelback so I would be sure to drink enough fluids with the plan of dropping it probably at the half way point.  Knowing the trails, since I did the Grindstone Training weekend, I also used a Princeton tech head lamp and decided to have a light-weight LED flashlight.  I would use the headlamp while climbing but would add the flashlight on the very technical downhill sections.

My Crew:  Dad, Dan and Julie
After a word of prayer with my crew and snapping a few pictures it was time to get behind the starting line.  “Here I am, after two years of waiting, I am actually going to do this,” I told myself.  And in all honesty, I couldn’t wait!  All I wanted to do was get this thing started.  6pm hit and next thing I know, we are off.  I repeated what Horton had told me a few weeks prior.  My problem was going to be going out and wanting to race, he told me:  “Take it slow, run where you are supposed to run, walk where you are supposed to walk and make sure you have something left to run on the back side of the course.”  Meaning, take it easy on the climbs and take it easy on the long descents.  The first 22 miles or so I ran with two guys that I ran with during the Grindstone Training weekend.  They were running well and I found myself exerting more energy than I felt like I needed to at the time so at Dowell’s Draft Aid Station (the first crew access) I decided I would have to let them go and maybe I would catch them on the back half of the course.

It was 10:50 PM when I got into the first crew access aid station and it lifted my spirits to see Julie and Dad waiting for me with some personally requested items for replenishment and some motivating words.  They had everything I needed ready to go, which kept my time at aid stations to a minimum.  I drank some of my Hulk Smoothie, grabbed some Clif bars and changed into a long sleeve shirt and headed on my way.  While I was at the Aid station, a good friend of mine, Ryan came up to me and asked if I wanted to run together for a while.  Ryan and I have ran numerous races together and run a pretty similar pace.  He finished the Beast series last year and is attempting to finish number two this year. 
The next 14 miles went very uneventful.  There was a pretty tough climb coming out of Dowell’s Draft, but it being still early in the race and catching up with what was new with Ryan made it go by pretty easily.  Then there was a pretty long technical downhill heading into North River Gap aid station, which is crew access number two.  It was now 2:30am and I was still feeling really good.  Julie and Dad were there waiting for me, but they informed me that they had gotten lost and it had taken them over 2.5 hours to get there from Dowell’s Draft.  Crew directions said it was only 11 miles and should only take 25 minutes.  They said that there were not too many road signs on United States Forest Service Roads.  My crew was not the only ones that got lost trying to get to this aid station, because Ryan’s crew was not even there yet, 3 hours later.

Again, they had everything I needed for me to get in and out.  I drank a Red Bull and some more of my Hulk Smoothie and downed some pierogies which were being prepared fresh by one of the aid station volunteers.  North River Gap was the second place runners were getting weighed in.  I must have been staying hydrated, because I hadn’t lost a pound.  I opted for some gloves at this point because it was getting pretty chilly on the top of the ridges we had been running on and I knew we were only going to be going up until the turn around.  North River Gap aid station was probably the hardest point of the race because it was at the lowest point of the course.  It was a very long, technical descent to get into it and a long technical climb out as well and we would be doing it twice, the second time at mile 66.

After about a 10 minutes rest at the aid station, Ryan and I headed back out to a very tough climb.  Ryan, unfortunately did not get to see his crew and would now have to wait until the turn around to see them.  The next aid station was about 7 miles, of which all seemed to be up hill.  After a pretty tough climb we made it to Little Bald Knob.  I was greeted by JB, who happens to be one of 9 people to have ever finished the Barkley Marathons.  He grabbed my Camelback off my back, asked what I was drinking, filled it up for me and then put it back on for me.  We were pretty excited about the fact that we knew we only had 8 miles or so until we reached the halfway point, but the downside to that was that we would have more climbing  to do to get there.

I kept reminding myself that we were going to be able to run down all of this in a few hours.  I was still feeling pretty good considering it was probably about 4 am at this point and I had been up since 6am the previous day.  I was really looking forward to getting to Reddish Knob because we were on pace to get there right at sunrise.

Doesn't do it justice.

Finally getting to the summit of Reddish Knob was probably the highlight of the race for me.  We made it there at about 6:45 am, 12hours and 45 minutes into the race, and were rewarded with a breathtaking view.  It had been a perfectly clear night so you could see millions of stars because there was no ambient light at all.  To make it even better, you could look to the east and see the beautiful, pastel colors of a sunrise just barely cresting over the mountains.  I could have stayed there forever.  It was so beautiful, I had to get on my knees and say a quick prayer.  I thanked God for giving me the ability to run the first half of this race and allowing me to see His beautiful creation in a way that very few people will ever get to experience.  I have to thank Clark for starting this race at 6pm. I have to think that he did that on purpose, so that we could enjoy this view.  From here to the halfway point which was also a crew access point was a few miles of pavement, which I thought would be a welcome change, but it was actually quite painful.
After a few painful miles on pavement, we came to all the cars of all the other crews who were waiting to see their runners at the turnaround.  I saw the Honda Pilot sitting there but did not see Julie, Dad or Dan.  We still had another mile and half climb to the turnaround and I really started to get worried that they all thought they had to climb to the top of the mountain in order to see me.  Not knowing where they were, I decided they had to be up at the top, so I headed on my way.  After climbing for another 30 minutes or so I finally reached the summit and there they were.  They had made the one and a half mile hike up the mountain carrying all my gear.  I felt pretty bad, but they didn’t mind because they got to see the sunrise as well and I know they didn’t mind getting a little exercise and a chance to stretch their legs either.

I finished off my Hulk smoothie while dad kinesio taped my left IT band.  It wasn’t bothering me too bad but the few miles of pavement that we had just ran aggravated it a little.  After spending about 15 minutes with Dad and Julie, I pried myself away from their company and the warm fire and started to retrace the long trek back to Camp Shenandoah.

I felt fantastic all the way back to North River Gap, which was at mile 66.  The majority of the way back to North River Gap is all downhill and it really felt great.  My energy was good, my legs felt good and I was starting to really look forward to the remainder of the race.  “This isn’t so bad,” I kept telling myself.  Then I remembered what a good friend of mine told me before I left for Grindstone.  He told me, “Just remember, the race doesn’t start until mile 65.”

After a quad punishing, technical 3 mile descent into North River aid station I started having some pain on my right big toe.  When I ordered my new Mizuno Wave Ascends, I opted for a half size bigger because of an issue that I had with my new Wave Riders being too tight.  I took my shoe off at the aid station and I had developed a pretty good size blister and had a bloody toenail, my first one of my ultra running career.  I guess I should have stuck with my half a size smaller.  There was nothing I could do about it now.  It was now a beautiful warm fall day and was just before lunch.  I changed shirts again and picked up my first pacer of the day, my brother- in -law Dan. You can actually pick up a pacer at the half way point but because I knew it was all downhill, I wanted to save him for the tough climb out of North River Gap.

After a few minutes we were off to begin the relentless climb up Lookout Mountain.  In my opinion this was probably the toughest climb of the race.  It was short but relentless and extremely technical.  On a side note, we were about half way up the climb, and I looked up and saw three mountain bikers flying down this technical downhill.  I could not believe how fast they were going down this mountain.  I give props to them because I don’t know that I would ever do that.

At this point in the race was when my achilles started to bother me.  It was getting so tight on the climbs, and I felt like if I took a wrong step on a rock that it had the potential to rupture.  So I had to stop every few minutes and try to stretch it.  The good thing was on the flats and downhills it would loosen up and I was still able to run.  This cycle continued on until mile 80, which was back at Dowell’s Draft, where I could see Julie and Dad again.

Dowell's Draft Mile 79

We made it back to Dowell’s Draft for the second time and it was a little different scene compared to the night before.  I spent a few minutes there stretching and trying to force down some calories, but really didn’t feel like eating (bad sign number one).  From there Julie was going to run the final 22 miles with me and Dad decided he wanted to run the next stretch to Dry Branch Gap aid station, about 6 miles.
And this was when the wheels fell off.  It was about 6 miles of all climbing and my achilles was not too happy.  I had to find two sticks that I could use as hiking poles to get up these climbs.  And because I hadn’t been eating, my energy was gone along with my desire to continue.  I couldn’t possibly imagine walking the final 18 or so miles to the finish so I thought to myself: “Why put myself through that debacle. “ Julie, being the great crew that she had been for the past 20 hours, recognized that I hadn’t been eating.  She made me sit down on a fallen tree and eat a cliff bar.  I argued that I couldn’t eat it, but to no avail she won.  Amazingly during this 6 mile death march, I didn’t get passed by one person.  Everybody else must be feeling as bad as me.  I had told myself all throughout the race that I didn’t care about what place I came in but it was weird to think I hadn’t seen a single person.

After spending about 5 minutes with my father-in-law stretching my achilles, (who by the way is a physical therapist and gave me a great advantage having him on my crew), we decided to continue on.  We finally stopped climbing and after a mile or two of ridge running we began a short, but steep descent into mile 86 aid station.  The Cliff bar really gave me some energy and because I was able to run some on the ridge my achilles loosened up.  That was a big boost of confidence.  At the aid station my dad kinesio-taped my achilles and that really seemed to help.  I ate some of my chocolate covered espresso beans and had another Red Bull and a turkey and cheese sandwich.  I felt amazing!  Ultra-running really is about managing the highs and lows of the race.  You are going to have lows but it’s all about pushing through them because you never know how fast a low can transform into a high.

It was starting to get dark for the second time of the race and knowing it was a tough 8 mile stretch to the last aid station I put on another long sleeved shirt and grabbed my head lamp and Julie and I headed out for yet another tough climb.  This time I was feeling great and couldn’t wait to get this climb done.  I believe it was about 4 miles up Elliot’s Knob and then 4 miles back down.  It was a gorgeous climb up because the sun was just starting to set and it was a perfect fall evening.  I really enjoyed this stretch of running with Julie.  It was really cool to share this experience with her and I am so glad I have a wife that is supportive in my running addiction and that she enjoys to run as well.  We even talked about what would be a good first ultra for her.  Holiday Lake 2012??  J  We finally made it to where the trail turns off to the super steep downhill gravel road.  I remember climbing this about 24 hours ago thinking how nice it will be to run back down this.  WRONG!  The blister on my toe was not feeling good, neither were my quads for that matter, and three miles down this steep road were not going to help.  After a lame excuse of running, we finally made it to the last aid station.  Wow, did it feel great to get there.  We saw Dan and dad there, but wanting to get finished, we only spent a few minutes and we were off.  5 miles left, how bad could it be?  I knew there was really only one more small climb left, nothing like earlier in the race and some technical single track and we would be running around the lake back to the finish in no time.

By now, I really was starting to feel fatigued.  It was honestly the first time in the race that I had felt tired from lack of sleep.  Bust just as I was starting to lose energy, I started to recognize where we were at.  Finally back on the Boy Scouts camp’s property and then the best sign I have ever seen.  “1 Mile Left.”
As happy as I was to see that sign, I still couldn’t muster enough energy to run.  Nobody was behind me so I was content in walking until I got to the lake.  But of course, after not seeing another runner for hours, here comes somebody flying up behind me out of nowhere.  Well, never being somebody to get passed at the end of a race, the adrenaline kicked in and we started to run hard.  What felt like a 6 minute mile was really like 10 minute mile, but it didn’t matter, I was not going to get passed.  We ran around the lake and back onto the road that leads to the Camp and that long-awaited finish line.

We crossed the finish line in 28:15, good for 21st place.  After hugging the totem pole and receiving my finisher awards and a handshake from race director Clark Zealand, I hobbled inside to the cafeteria to sit down.  The months of planning and training that went into running Grindstone was a success!  I completed my first 100mile race, which also happens to be the hardest on the east coast.  After all the planning I did, the one thing I forgot to have ready was a dry pair of clothes at the finish line to change into.  I was shivering uncontrollably and could not warm up.  Julie ran back to the car and grabbed me some dry clothes and we headed off to the hotel for the night.

I could fall asleep right here.
I had wanted to run this race for over two years and to finally accomplish it felt amazing.  I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my fantastic crew of my wife, father in law and brother in law.  They did such a great job, especially for not ever doing anything like this before.

Ultra running has pushed me harder and taken me to places that I would have never dreamed.  I am thankful that God has given me the ability and desire to run.  I am also thankful to my wife and boys for sacrificing our time as a family on the weekends so that I could do long training runs.
Thanks to Clark and all the volunteers for making this such a special race.  Four races down and only two left to go in the Beast Series: Mt. Masochist 50 miler and Hellgate 100k!

The day after in my Patagonia swag.

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