Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Grindstone 100 2016 Race Report: Yes, Clark. Pain is, indeed, temporary.


I’ve spent the bulk of the past six months training specifically for Grindstone. This race came onto my radar when I the chance to pace Jordy for the final leg in 2014. I fell in love with the race immediately. It’s a tough, rugged mountain race that pushes people to the limit—and that’s what an ultra SHOULD do. It has a great energy and very welcoming atmosphere. Clark puts on a great race, and the volunteers are amazing. And the course. Man, the course is full of fun. Check out the elevation profile: 

I have been in no rush to do the race. I wanted to wait until I was sure I was ready to go have a good day and really test myself on the course. In 2015, I helped Jordy run the Reddish Knob aid station. Over the last couple of years, I've spent a lot of time doing long runs on the AT and improving my climbing skills. This year was the right time to step up from flatter 100 milers to a mountain 100.

Sean, Chris and I drove up to Swoope Friday morning, and I got checked in and ready to go. After the race meeting, I tried to get some rest before the start. A little before 6, we headed over to the start where I caught up with Ryan and Ben.

Ryan Nebel & Ben Wyrick

It was a little chilly and drizzling rain—basically what has become “Grindstone Weather”—as we stepped off on the Odyssey that is running a 100 miler.

Running with Ryan and Bryan Photo: Sean Raines

 The first few sections went about like I thought they would. I came through Falls Hallow, Dry Branch, and Dowell’s Draft close enough to my expected times that I felt like a good day was a real possibility. I left North River Gap (Mile 37) feeling strong. I popped in an earbud (just one because I always like to listen to the woods around me) and jammed out to music as I pushed my way up the big climb towards the Little Bald Knob aid station. Rage Against the Machine, Fife and the rest of the Tribe, Mandolin Orange, and John Prine (sorry Brett—no Beibs) kept me company and allowed my mind to drift as I tried to stay at my comfortable “all day” pace.

Things progressed about as expected (if only a little slow) until I started coming close to the Reddish Knob punch. The rain and fog were relentless. The course was a mix of standing water, mud, and slick rocks. Even though I had already changed socks twice (thanks Sean!), my feet were starting to have some trouble. I normally don’t have blister issues, so I wanted to be careful and keep it that way. I felt some hot spots on both of the balls of my feet. To stay on top of it, I sat on the muddy trailside and pulled my emergency socks out of my pack and changed them.

Muddy shoes were great for warding off sketchy people at the Econo Lodge after the race

During the race, the shoes were so caked in mud that I didn’t realize that they had holes in them.

Shredded Altra Olympus 2.0 

 Anyway, a quick sock change and I was off to the punch. Then, I rolled to Briery Branch Gap (Mile 51.56) to pick up Chris in 12:17-- about an hour before sunrise. Honestly, I felt great. I was running smart, taking care of my feet, eating, and saving energy. I was moving through aid stations quickly, which was a big focus.  I felt a little tired, but not bad at all. My legs felt strong and I thought, for sure, sub 24 was possible. The sun would be coming up soon and I knew I could make up some time once I was no longer running by headlamp in the fog and rain.

Chris and I started the hike back up from BBG. I wanted to let food settle while we climbed so we could run the ridge back to Little Bald Knob. We moved fairly well for a while, but then I started having some problems that were a bit more serious than just some sore feet. I had been drinking water like it was much warmer out than it was. I was cold, and I started having to go to the bathroom way too often. Clear and copious urine was not the welcome sign it normally is when you’re hydrated at a healthy level. Chris and I progressed to North River Gap (65.33) making OK time (16:13). Four hours was a good bit slower than I wanted for that section, but I knew that I just needed to wake up as the day went on, figure out the hydration thing, and I could pick up the pace again. Then, I started throwing up whenever I ate.

By the time we got to Lookout Mtn (71.68), I was feeling like I was in real trouble. It had been hours since I held any food down and I was feeling weak and shaky. Chris kept reminding me to get some salt on board. He was SO patient with me as I stopped what felt like every 5 minutes to puke or go to the bathroom. About a mile after leaving Lookout Mtn, I got worried. I thought I might need to go back to the AS and try to sort things out. I thought I might need to drop. But, Chris was with me and I knew all I need to do was keep moving to keep warm.

I needed to work the problem and find the solution. In the end that solution was slowing down, taking on salt, laying off the water for a while, and letting go of my time goals and ego.

That was hard.

I had trained so hard for this race. I wanted to have a good day in terms of placement and the clock. But, what I got was something way better: A chance to stare in the abyss, confront failure, and persevere. So, here is how that went down.

Chris helped me remember that I only needed to get to the next aid station. Everything could be re-assessed at Dowell’s Draft (Mile 80.35). At that point, I would only have 21 miles or so to go. And, I would have like 17 hours to do that distance. I decided I would just get to Dowell’s get out of the wet clothes, into a sleeping bag, warm up, and eat. Then, if I needed to nap, I would nap. But I wasn’t going to quit. There was no reason. I had Chris to ensure I was safe, an amazing crew (thanks again Sean, Pawel, and Rick) who would get me dried out, fed, and ready to go.  I knew that Pawel would do a great job of pacing me to the finish.

So, that’s what we did. At Dowell’s, Rick had laid out a tarp. 

Warm clothes and food make all the difference. 
Sean, Pawel, and Rick got me out of the wet clothes and into warm dry clothes. They fed me, pushed the warm coffee, and got me ready to get moving again. No nap needed. No one complained about being out in the rain for the last 20-plus hours. No one complained about how damn slow I was going. No one acted like I was doing anything but well. And, that made all of the difference. I can’t express my gratitude enough.

Once I was dried out and fed, Pawel and I took off towards Dry Branch Gap. 

Getting Pawel the vert I promised him

Up the climb we went. Jordy was right—the business on this course starts at the climb after Dowell's. Pawel told story after story and kept my mind off the weather (that damn rain!!!), the blisters, the shredded qauds, the chaffing (my kingdom for a zip log bag ha ha) and most importantly: The Clock. At Dry Branch, I got a great surprise when I saw that Ginger was there and Brett had driven up to see me too.

Ginger joins the crew in the rain (preggo & everything-- awesome!) 

I felt so lucky to have such great people supporting me that I no longer cared about the clock. I was just happy to be out in the mountains moving steadily and with a purpose towards the finish. And eventually we got there. 29 Hours and 56 minutes later. Almost a full work day longer than I had thought it would take. You would think I might be disappointed. I am not.

You're not a finisher until you hug the totem pole. 

This finish is my proudest moment in terms of running to date. And here is why:

1.     I have never had to look failure so squarely in the face before. I like running ultras because they allow us to test ourselves. We can learn so many lessons from doing things that might result in failure. I will cherish the lessons from Grindstone. The most important one was to really embrace the process and think less about the finish. I love being in the mountains with my friends, and when you get fixated on the finish line you miss out on some of the fun of exploring.

2.     Before the race, Jordy had told me that I needed to have the discipline to race from start to finish. He told me not to allow myself to be broken or become satisfied. Although I was unable to “race” from start to finish, I believe I heeded his advice. I was never satisfied. I never just phoned it in. I ran smart early and when things didn’t go my way I pushed as hard as I could just to finish. That doesn’t mean I went fast. But I never let myself just slog or give up. I moved with a purpose—even when I didn’t want to.

3.     I Chose Joy. That idea has been a mantra in our group since Brett or Jordy (I can’t remember who) came across it in a race report a while back. Ginger gave me a card on Friday that she colored that said: Choose Joy.  When I was tired and feeling bummed, that card reminded me that I’m lucky to be able to do these things and I should choose to enjoy it. I was able to do that, and that made all the difference.

4.     Having such an amazing crew of people around me made me feel like I must be doing something right in life. I’m lucky that people will be that generous with their time, and I’m proud to have these friends in my life.

5.     I finished Grindstone, DOOD!!! Seriously, a whole year of working towards something, and I got it done!

This has been a long one, so I’ll close by saying a big THANK YOU to Sean for being an amazing crew chief. I can’t wait to return the favor.

If you ever need a crew chief, Sean is your man. He is on top of it!  (Well, he DID wear jeans to Grindstone, but he's one top of taking care of other people)

Thanks to Chris for being a steady, calming presence. I always enjoy our time together on the trail. I’m also looking forward to returning the favor.

Chris Larson is an amazing pacer. Steady, calm, and always upbeat. 

Thank you, Pawel for being patient and encouraging along the way. You’re a great pacer, training partner, and friend. Can’t wait to help you knock out your first hundy too.

Feed this guy vert and he will go anywhere 

Rick: you were such a huge help! Thanks for coming out and supporting me! 

Ginger: thank you for letting me be me and for supporting me as I train and chase windmills with our crazy friends. 

Bryan Jennings: YOU ARE A BEAST! Congrats on your first 100. This was a doozie!! I'm so glad to have re-connected with you and Peggy. It was great seeing you guys. 

Ryan Nebel: Congrats on another solid finish. You're an inspiration, man. Great dad and still running strong!

Ben: I'm glad we got to spend some time together in the mountains. Looking forward to the next one.

Brett and Jordy: thanks for being the best training partners, mentors, and friends I could ask for.

I wouldn’t have made it to the finish without ALL of you.