“100 miles is not that far” – Karl Meltzer
This quote went through my head as i lay in my tent Friday morning. I would soon find out for myself whether or not there was any truth to that statement. “100 miles is not that far”
Grindstone 100 is 101.85 miles with 23,000 feet of ascent / 23,000 feet of descent. It starts and finishes at Camp Shenandoah in Swoope, VA. Unlike most ultra’s Grindstone has a 6:00 p.m. start guaranteeing one full night of running with the real possibility of a second night. Grindstone has the reputation of being one of the toughest 100 milers on the east coast. And this is the race i chose as my first hundred miler…
I came into the race feeling fit and excited. Over the past three months i had consistently logged 70 – 75 miles per week. I was confident that this consistency would see me the finish of my first hundred. As race day approached i felt unsure of what a realistic goal would be for a finish time. 100 miles sounds so far! the farthest i had ever run was 54 miles. Could i go twice as far? Grindstone allows 38 hours to finish, I knew baring an unforeseen injury or my stomach completely turning on me that I could do it. After looking at the finish times of runners who had previously run Grindstone along with ultras that i had also run I told myself that 28 hours was pretty realistic for my first 100 and maybe if I had a stellar race and everything went just right i could do 26 hours, maybe even dip a little under. I had gone into races in the recent past putting a lot of pressure on myself. I had some good results in my age group and I was looking to do even better. Grindstone was different. It was farther, it was more technical (well maybe not more technical than Manitou’s Revenge) and it had more climbing. To be honest everything about this race intimidated me. All those things removed from my mind the pressure of past races. I wanted to finish and I wanted to enjoy my first 100 miler as much as possible.
Race day! Do you want to know what I found to be the hardest part of a 6:00 p.m. start? sitting around (or in my case pacing around) all day waiting for it to be 6:00 p.m. I must have paced miles waiting for the gun to go off. First timer nerves I guess. At 5:30 we all made our way to the start to check in. I lined up mid pack with some friends, I couldn’t wait to finally be on trail and moving. And then we were off! I started off slowly, just taking it all in. Runners flew bye and I probably lost 50 places before the start line was even out of sight! It was all good, I already had an ear to ear grin. I was running 100 miles!
It was probably about two miles of gravel road and double track before we hit the woods. There was a bottle neck right before the single track that reduced everyone to a walk as we filtered through one by one. Once in the woods the pace picked back up and runners spread out. I kept an easy pace and ran along with a friend. In the early miles there is a section of trail that cuts through state wildlife management area. Per regulations no course markings could be used here, no pink ribbons, no signs. Navigation was to be done by following the white blazes, not too complicated you’d think but you’d be wrong. The whole front of the pack missed a turn myself included. We had been running on a dirt road everyone chatting away and nobody noticed the white blaze just off the road to the right. Luckily we didn’t get too far before someone yelled “HEY!” “TURN AROUND!!” Some of the faster guys weren’t so lucky adding an extra mile to their race.
Once off of state land we quickly found ourselves at the first aid station and back to the pink ribbons. I was running with a small group and the sun was just beginning to set. We found ourselves on a gentle single track climb and I stayed at a comfortable pace in the middle of the pack. As the woods grew dark we were caught and passed by another group. It was a bunch of the faster runners who had been ahead of us at the start but missed the turn off a few miles back. I stepped off the trail and let them all pass. They were moving at a good clip and were out of sight pretty quick. As our group excited the woods onto a dirt road things got steep! This was the climb to the top Elliot’s Knob. I hiked and cringed at the thought of how much this was going to suck on the return trip with 90 plus miles on my legs. Mile 10 put us at the top of Elliot’s Knob where we punched our bib numbers and then headed back down to the main trail.
Somewhere in the dark of the climb up Elliot’s I had hiked my way from one group of runners up to another. It was a smaller group and they were moving a bit quicker. I was feeling really good, running well within myself and I tucked into the back of the line as things grew rockier. We hit several miles of downhill and I was really enjoying it. It was rocky but i felt comfortable and was moving quickly, a few in the group didn’t feel as confident and allowed those of us moving faster to pass. The descent took us all the way down to the next aid station at Dry Branch Gap. I came into the aid station all smiles after the long downhill. I was having a blast. Being out in the night with the trail illuminated by our lights, listening to the back and forth talk of the runners ahead of me (I’m pretty quiet and don’t think I said too much to anyone the entire race) all was good and I was feeling great! I was in and out pretty quick, topped of my bottles, had a cup of broth grabbed a couple pb&j’s for the road ahead and was out. It should be noted that Grindstone has the best aid stations of any ultra I’ve taken part in. Everyone was so friendly, definitely a highlight of the race!
Heading out of Dry Branch Gap the trail turned upward and we began to climb again. Our group was more spread out now and we had caught a few new runners and left a few behind. Still feeling good I climbed steadily I was able to gain a couple of positions. I was enjoying the night and along this climb I had my first stretch of being alone other than being able to glimpse the flash of a light ahead of me and behind. Once I crested the climb I was again rewarded with what seemed like a downhill all the way to the next aid station. I didn’t feel like I was moving all that fast on the descent but two runners stepped off the trail to let me pass. Again I was pretty quick through the aid station. Topped off my bottles, grabbed a couple pb&j’s and wait? Peanut butter cups? Yes please! I left by myself and quickly settled into a comfortable pace.
The next several miles are a little blurry… It was dark, there were rocks, the trail went up, the trail went down, there was maybe an aid station? Somewhere along the way i was joined by Chris a runner from Colorado. We were both moving well and we would end up spending the next several hours together. We came out of the woods and onto a paved road and quickly caught two other runners. I was excited when I saw one of the runners was a friend and fellow Manitou’s Revenge alumni, Tristan. The four of us entered North River Gap together. I took a little extra time here. I had a drop bag waiting for me but decided I didn’t need anything from it. I ate a little extra, drank a couple cokes and as i headed out i was told that i was currently in 19th place and about to start a 7 mile long climb! I left right behind two runners who had been there when we arrived, runners seemed to be spending a bit more time here at mile 37.
The next 7 miles were pretty slow going. The runners ahead of me were quickly out of sight up the climb and as i took out my poles and began to hike I was joined again by Chris the runner from Colorado. I was glad to have the company as it was more hiking than running. Although this climb was really long it wasn’t continuous, it was broken up here and there by little descents and short flats. I was always grateful for these as Chris was a stronger climber than I and would slowly start to leave me behind but thanks to the downhills I was able to close the gap back up. Somewhere along this climb I managed to clip a stick with my toe and tear a fist sized hole in my shoe… Looking down with my light i could clearly see my sock, thankfully i didn’t impale my foot. There was just enough upper left on the shoe to keep my toes from popping out and my laces were still good. I had a back up paid of shoes in my drop bag back at North River Gap. Fingers crossed that my shoe would hold together of the next 20 something miles until i could get back there!
After hours of climbing we reached the Little Bald Knob aid station. Somewhere in between filing water bottles, drinking coke, eating perogies and being yelled at to eat my perogies and get the F-OUT Chris slipped away. I wouldn’t see him the rest of the race. I headed out into the night alone. It was colder up here and after my stop at the aid station I got a bit of a chill. I stopped and threw on my jacket. After a short stretch I caught up to another runner. I slowed my pace a bit and we exchanged hellos. It turned out we knew each other through Strava and had run many of the same races in New York (yes another Manitou’s Revenge alumni!) Alex is a local runner whom I really admire. He’s posted some super fast times at some of my favorite races and also has an FKT to his credit on the Devil’s Path in the Catskills. He was having some knee pain and obviously given the fact that I caught him wasn’t moving as quickly as he could have been. We ran together up to the top of Reddish Knob were we shared a good laugh over some graffiti on the road that said “FUCKING SEND IT” with that motivation we made it the top, punched our bibs once again and then descended down the road to the turn around. Still feeling really good and smiling way too much to be in the middle of my first 100 miler I fueled back up, ate some bacon and had a cup of coffee! That hit the spot! I also dipped into a drop bag for the first time. I grabbed a charger for my gps watch and a couple honey stinger gels and some honey stinger cherry cola chews. I headed out alone again but feeling strong. I was very aware that in a few short miles I will have run farther than I’d ever run before!
The climb out of the turn around went quickly, it was paved and not that steep. I caught a runner on my way up, said hello and kept going. I knew that there was a good amount of descending ahead and I felt that I’d be able to pick up my pace a bit and maybe catch a few of the runners I had passed on my into the turn around. The next few miles were really motivating. I was passing runners on the way out to Reddish Knob and everyone was shouting words of encouragement. “You’re looking great”, “You’re crushing it!” I returned the kind words and continued on. I made it back to Little Bald Knob still on my own. The aid station was more crowded this time but it was hard to tell who was coming or going. Also there was no-one directing traffic this time through rushing runners in and out. I grabbed two egg and cheese wraps and was off, still running solo.
I was now headed back to North River Gap and knew that it was almost all downhill to get there. I was alone and in the zone. I had a feeling of effortlessness as I descended. I was overcome with emotion as the sun rose and I finally saw my surroundings. We don’t have mountains like this back home in Connecticut! And on top of that every mile from here on out would be the farthest I’d ever run. I can’t say I felt reborn with the rising sun but it sure was nice to feel the warmth of it’s rays. I took my phone out of my vest, turned it on and checked the battery. 18%! Still enough charge to make a quick phone call home! I called and no answer… Are you serious!!! I did however get a quick call back. It was great to hear my wife’s voice and I could hear our kids in the background. After some quick hello’s and reassurances that I was alive and well I took a quick photo (my only of the whole weekend!) and refocused on the task at hand. I had been caught by two other runners, one who to me looked like he was just getting started!
We arrived back at North River Gap and I grabbed my drop bag and sat down for the first time since the race started the night before! I pulled out my second pair of shoes switching from Salomon S/LAB Ultra’s to Salomon Sense Rides (if it weren’t for the gaping hole in my Ultra’s they would have gotten me through the entire race) I also cleaned and re lubed my feet and put on a clean pair of socks and dropped off my charger. I had my bottles topped off, had some broth with rice and some boiled potatoes and headed out. Once again everyone at the aid station was amazing. I left mile 65 still inside the top 20!
This is were I started to feel like I was running a hundred miler. I had some pain in my left knee and my legs started to hurt with each step. For sure the 7 miles down to the previous aid station had taken its toll.
The next 6 or so miles really seemed to drag. nothing seemed familiar here in the light of day. I went back and forth with a runner for a while not saying much to each other. And I felt like this was slowest I had moved since the race started. After a little while of trying to keep up with the runner ahead he dropped me for good.
I continued on my own with my running being interrupted more and more with stretches of walking. Looking ahead and behind no-one was in sight. This part of the course felt like it was all uphill… I tried to think back to the night before and could not remember these hills being here. I was also surprised that some of the single track we sped down in the night turned out to right along a ridge line! Had you stepped off the trail on the wrong side you would have been in trouble! Ignorance is bliss I guess!
Coming into Dry Branch Gap around mile 87 I felt recharged. There were smiling faces and someone was handing me a cup full of tomato soup! It felt good to be around this many people (unusual for me) There was a lot of good energy here and I soaked it up. It was at this point I realized I would without a doubt finish this thing! I made sure my water bottles were full, grabbed a handful of chocolate chip cookies and took off. On the climb out I caught a small group of runners. I settled in behind them and they were talking about potential finish times. From what they said we were on pace for a sub 24 hour finish! It took a minute for that to sink in… at my most optimistic I never thought in my first hundred miler, on this course I would be racing to a sub 24 finish. I climbed steadily with the group but slowly found my self pulling away. As things flattened out or dipped downward I picked up my pace a bit. Soon I was alone again and one of the last big climbs of the day lie ahead.
Again I was met with a confusingly long climb. I don’t remember this being that long on the way out… I stopped for a minute and looked up the trail searching for the top. It just seemed to go on and on. I muttered to myself “c’mon man” and I instantly thought of my two youngest kids saying this “c’mon man” and I smiled. On we go! We’re getting closer! I finally crested the hill and was now faced with having to descend that steep gravel road. Yes it did suck. All the rocks seemed bigger and the hill seemed even steeper. My legs hurt too badly to bomb down and get it over with so I settled for a weird fast walk / shuffle but i was definitely moving faster than the guy I passed who could only get down by walking backwards!
I made it off the hill and on a much smoother single track descent. I was feeling much better, my knee pain had vanished and i was ready to run! I opened up, running full tilt down the trail. It was here at mile 94 that I had my one and only fall. And boy was it a good one… I clipped my toe on something and launched into the air Superman style. I hit the ground hard and had the wind knocked right out of me. I got up, Brushed myself off, picked up my poles. And got moving again. I was a little scrapped up but none the worse for the wear.
On the way to Falls Hollow the final aid station I caught up to another runner and his pacer. We were getting close to the finish and I was pushing to keep them in sight. we were in and out the aid station quickly and together. We crossed the road and were back to stretch of state forest, no more pink ribbons. I was only able to keep the two ahead of me in sight for a short while. they were moving too well.
I was following along the white blazes just like on the way out the day before. I thought this section was clear in my mind but as the trail went on I started to doubt myself… Did I miss a turn? Do I continue straight on this dirt road? I did manage to keep myself on course but the confusion slowed my pace. It would have been a nightmare having to navigate this section in the dark!
I finally made my way back into the Boy Scout Camp and back to the course markings. This was it! the home stretch! I wasn’t running fast but I was running. I hurt but I knew at this point I wasn’t stopping. I entered the last wooded section before the camp. Suddenly someone was yelling! And they were coming up fast!! I looked over my shoulder to see a guy sprinting through the woods yelling “23!” “23!!” It was was the runner who had been walking downhill backwards miles earlier! Confused I yelled back “No I’m number 48!” He caught me and said “We have less than a mile and a half to go! We can finish in under 23 hours!!” And with that we were off. He was sprinting down the trail. across the pond we could see the camp and the finish line. I struggled to keep up and came to a complete stop. I stood there for a second thinking about how bad my legs hurt and how much easier it would be to walk it in from here. He looked over his shoulder and yelled “GOOOO!!” I sucked it up and got moving again. Pushing to keep up. My legs felt like they were going to explode. as we rounded the corner and entered the camp the end was in sight. He started to pull away but we were there, racing towards the finish. I crossed the line 25 seconds behind in 22:55:59 for 15th place overall. I shook Clark (The race director’s) hand and he handed me my finishers buckle and I quickly found a place to sit. I did it. 100 miles.
So do I agree with Karl Meltzer? Is 100 miles not that far? Sitting here reflecting on my race I’m tempted to say no, it wasn’t that far even though I know 100 miles IS FAR. Although I remember the details of the race the passing of time is a blur. It sure didn’t feel like I was moving for almost 23 hours solid. Maybe the late start threw off my internal clock? Maybe it was the excitement of undertaking a new distance, a new challenge? I do know that I was incredibly fortunate in my first 100. The weather was perfect. I didn’t experience any real low points. I had no stomach issues (with the exception of two gels and one pack of chews I ate all real food from the aid stations). And even though my shoes took a beating I didn’t get a single blister. For a first 100 miler my race could not have gone any better.
Moving forward the bar is set pretty high. I’ve got August 8th 2020 marked on the calendar. The Eastern States 100. Another tough east coast 100 miler. I can’t wait to put myself to the test again and see just how far 100 miles really is!