I’ve been accused many times of being in a rut in terms of the races that I do. While I do like the idea of accumulating finishes at my favorite races (Western States, Way Too Cool, McKenzie River), I also like to travel and see new races, too. To meet new people. To get new ideas for my own race. To see new parts of the country. To get out of my comfort zone. This past weekend, I visited my friend AJW and his family in Charlottesville, Virginia to run the fourth edition of the Grindstone 100 in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I didn’t exactly set the world on fire with my performance, but my world was rocked, figuratively and literally.
My world was rocked figuratively because AJW crewed me, by himself. In 14 years of running ultras including 29 100 milers, this was the first time he’s ever been the crew chief. He’s paced others once or twice (not me), but never been the one responsible for crewing. Not only did my friends have doubts that the consummate taker would be able to do it, he doubted himself in front of me: “I hope I don’t screw up.” When he suggested I come out and run Grindstone earlier in the summer, the plan was for him to be running, too. But since injury has side-lined him, he offered to crew me. I gotta admit I had my doubts when I learned only a week before I arrived that he had to be in Philadelphia and wouldn’t be there when I got to Charlottesville. But, he said he’d be back from Philly by 11:00am on Friday and that we’d have plenty of time to drive to the start – 45 minutes away – for the 1pm pre-race meeting. Sure enough, he got me to the start/finish venue at Camp Shenandoah in time for the meeting.
The boy scout camp at Camp Shenandoah is a fantastic venue for a 100 miler. Even though it felt like we might be driving to a place where some toothless guy would be playing a banjo, the camp has lots of grassy open areas to set up tents; a big building with lots of space, tables, chairs, and a big kitchen; and the oh-so-important showers (no, I didn’t take one). It is a very comfortable atmosphere. No toothless banjo players to be found. Lots of encouraging and friendly people. RD Clark Zealand gave the pre-race talk and except for when he handed the mic to a well-known curmudgeon, it was informative, entertaining, and encouraging.
The first tasks for my crew captain were to setup the tent, tape up my feet, go over the crew bag, and then kill time before the 6pm start. Trying to figure out what to do in the hours before the 6pm start was strange. Normally, on race morning I’m up and trying to eat and iron out any last minute details that may have kept me from sleeping so well. But with an afternoon start, it was much different. In many ways it was much more relaxed. Eventual winner, Neal Gorman, came over, we chatted a bit and that was fun. Then we got an email from a friend back in Oregon who knew we were sitting there killing time before the start. He offered some suggestions for running in the south that definitely provided some comic relief.
AJW was doing a fine job catering to my every need and preparing to crew all night without sleep and all the next day. He filled the car with gas. He got stuff for sandwiches. He got ice. He took pictures of me in my Lulu Lemon shorts. He was even prepared to put GB on my NP if needed and perform a DFE if I got a little backed up. Maybe he actually can be a giver?
My world was rocked literally by the course. Saying the course is rocky would be like saying a hurricane is rainy, it just doesn’t quite do it justice. It wasn’t so bad early as it was still light for the first hour and the legs and feet were fresh. Then we had a big 3500′ climb up Elliot Knob which was some trail and some very steep dirt road that I was thinking the whole race would be a fun screaming downhill at the end. Elliot Knob? Yep, around here they have knobs, along with drafts and hollows. I figured out what a knob was but still don’t know what a draft or hollow is. After Elliot Knob we descended what was a very rocky trail. This set the tone for the rest of the race. I felt like a bumbling beginner trying to negotiate the technical descents. Normally, I can run the downhills, which, while not super fast, are usually better than my uphills. But this was taking rocky to a new level for me.
I managed to get passed only a couple of times on the downhills out to the turnaround which arrived at 11:33 into the race or 5:33am. I knew the out-and-back course had 23,200′ of uphill and downhill, but didn’t quite compute that we were 3,500′ higher at the turnaround so that meant we had more downhill than uphill going home. Probably a good thing I didn’t know that I had 15,000′ of rocky downhill in front of me because I still had hope I could get back in less than 12 1/2 hours and break 24, especially since most of it would be covered with the benefit of daylight.
Sunrise came about 7am, 13 hours into the race, which meant I got to do the big descent down Little Bald Knob in the daylight! This downhill is 7 miles long with about a 4000′ drop! AJW had been hanging out at the 67 mile aid station at the bottom of this big knob and was tweeting updates while waiting for me. I learned later that this parking area was known by the local ultrarunners as the TWOT lot because of some run that starts and ends here. When I got to the TWOT lot my legs and feet were tired. AJW helped me get some food and drink down, refilled my pack with gels and walked out with me on the 1/4 mile of lovely smooth pavement that didn’t last nearly long enough.
Next up was Lookout Mtn. Why this wasn’t a knob I don’t know, but it was a difficult climb up, yep, a rocky trail. I managed to get over Lookout Mtn and not get passed by anybody. Why weren’t runners coming by me? Maybe they were just as tired as I was? The temps got warmer as the sun got higher overhead. Kinda seemed like an Oregon summer day. I was doing all the calculations in my head thinking I was still going to finish under 24 hours. One more big 2000’+ descent into Dowells Draft at about mile 80 where AJW was ready for me with everything I needed and some good words of encouragement. He knew I was on the 24-hour bubble and when two guys came into the aid station while I was there he said it was good that I’d finally have some company.
Only one of the two got out in front of me and he left so quickly that he left without his pacer who ended up spending quite a bit of time talking and walking/jogging with me before finally taking off to catch his runner. I asked if he thought we could break 24 and I could tell by his tone as he described all the climbing and descending ahead that he thought his runner would but that I wouldn’t. Oh well, so much for the company. After 7+ miles and two hours up and over this knob, I came into the 87 mile aid station to AJW’s open arms once again. He knew how I was feeling as I tried to drink a mountain dew and stood there with my eyes closed hoping I wasn’t going to puke. I told him my quads were done and he asked me if I wanted to sit in a chair. “Oh yes, sir. And an ice massage too, please?” This may have been the highlight of my run. AJW rubbing my tired quads with ice. It was obvious he was enjoying this too as I could see it in his eyes and feel it in his touch. He asked Scott Livingston to take a picture to capture the moment. I could have stayed there forever. Hey, when you’re old and have been married for 25 years you take pleasure wherever you can get it (sorry, honey).
24 hours was not looking possible unless I really hammered the downs. Since the Grindstone buckle doesn’t change color with the passage of a day, I really didn’t want to fill my blood with myoglobin and damage my kidneys, and there was the big, steep, and of course, rocky climb and descent over Elliot Knob, I resigned myself to finishing before dark – at 7pm or 25 hours. The long grind up Elliot Knob took forever. I saw nobody until I got to the top and began the descent down the gravel road that I thought would be fast running as I went up it over 20 hours earlier. I started down and passed a walking runner who told me that I was now in 10th place. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad afterall. The descent down the road was anything but enjoyable or fast. It was STEEP! Eventually we got onto a single track and down into the scenic Falls Hollow – cool rock formations in a very wooded creek. Not sure if you can have a hollow without a creek, but this one had a creek and I actually was thinking how fun it would be to come back and backpack in these parts. But not this day. I got to the last aid station at about 5:30pm and the whole J-W clan was there to meet me. A well-meaning aid station volunteer offered me ibuprofen, and AJW, his wife, and I all just about let into the poor guy. “You know how bad this stuff is?” Hopefully, he didn’t offer it to anybody behind us. He offered me food and I told him I was just going on brain cells to the finish. The J-W crew gave me a shirt, took my pack, and off I went into the last section with the boys walking me out with 1.5 hours of daylight left.
I had one guy come up on me in those last 5.5 miles and I tried to show him I could run by “running” up a hill and then going out of control on the way down, but this only motivated him more. He dropped his pacer and caught me. Uh, I can’t run like him. His pacer also soon caught me and was super nice and asked if I needed anything. He told me his runner started feeling good on Elliot Knob and was leaping and bounding over the boulders and logs. It was his first try at 100 miles. It was not fun getting passed this late, but it was pretty cool seeing a new guy feeling so good at the end and running so athletically. The rest of the way was uneventful except for being cheered enthusiastically by about 20 boy scouts who were camping in tents. One kid told me I only had 1/8 of a mile to go. Yeah, maybe if the race was 100 miles. He obviously doesn’t know the RD, who thinks it is entirely appropriate to make us run around a lake and cover 101.85 miles. I finished in 24:42, before the second sunset. 11th overall, 1st masters (40+), and I didn’t get chicked. I was the only runner of the 118 starters from the west coast.
The special treatment from AJW didn’t end yet. He and the family helped me get some dry clothes on and some food and drink in me. Then I asked him to push on my hamstrings a bit and stretch my quads. As I lay on a cot with him pushing on the backs of my legs it completed the transformation. AJW The Taker was now AJW The Giver. Thank you, man. What a fun time. Although, now I have one less thing to give you a hard time about.
Thanks Clark for putting on a race that reminds me a lot of Waldo at four years old. As AJW referred to Waldo years ago, it is a boutique race. Lots of great touches including the RD shaking your hand and talking to you about your race after you finish. It’s well-supported and well-marked, it has challenging terrain and a unique start-time, and it has a great start/finish venue. If you’re a west coaster thinking about challenging yourself on some different terrain, Grindstone would be a great choice. The weather was perfect. There was lots of shwag from Patagonia and other sponsors. And the city of Charlottesville is a fun little college town with plenty of Thomas Jefferson influence. This race has all the pieces needed to develop into a classic.