The Virginia Happy Trails Fourth of July Trifecta continues…
An epic weekend – three days of playing on the mountain trails of the Shenandoahs. Here are a few of the sights!
“Grit, endurance, temporary loss of sanity. You might need all of these if you want to attempt Grindstone. If you want to finish, well, just keep in mind this is, without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian.”
The registration website makes sure you know what you are getting into. I knew, and willingly (happily, even?!) signed up to complete my 1st 100 miler. Go big or go home, right?! It was an epic adventure in which I had to dig deep, endure, and temporarily lose my sanity. But I did, and I finished in 36 hours and 33 minutes.
The race began at 6pm on a Friday. I arrived at Camp Shenandoah around noon under blue skies and bright fall sunshine. I found a parking spot next to Charles West, a friend I met at the training weekend. We chatted while I packed and repacked my drop bags, checking off my lists and thinking through what I might possibly need over the next 101.85 miles and 36 hours or so. I didn’t have a crew, so I had to make sure those drop bags had everything I might need. The race briefing was at 1pm, so I dropped off my drop bags in the growing piles next to the main cabin and headed in to have lunch and listen to the briefing. Clark went through the course highlights, gave away a bunch of fun schwag (love my UltraInspire water bottle!) and then Dr. Horton gave a short talk where he repeatedly told everyone “don’t be stupid”. He updated the weather forecast and said it may start raining around 4am Sunday morning with temperatures dropping. I knew there was a good chance I’d still be on the course so I went back to the car and added a heavy rain jacket, gloves and a hat to my drop bag. This proved to be the best advice I ever took. Thank you Dr. Horton!
At 5:30 I was dressed, Body Glided, headlamp on, hydration pack filled and walking to the starting line. I was nervous, excited and really just ready to run. Waiting around all day made me antsy and I couldn’t wait to get going. It was good to see Rob Colenso at the start who warned me that the last 5 miles would be the longest 5 I’d ever run, (true.), Gary Knipling and his crew Quatro (who would save my race many hours later!) and Mike Campbell who gave me a big good luck hug. It was real – I was doing this! Excitement won over all the other emotions and I toed the line with Charles and a newly found friend Jessica, and we were off! It was a slow start as we took off around the dam and had to wait to get onto the trail. I momentarily thought how hard it was going to be to climb up back onto that dam some 36 hours later (and it was – especially in the rain) but soon we were navigating rocks & roots and playing on the trail. This is what we came here for!
The first night is really a blur. I’m not one of these runners that can remember every climb, aid station and overlook. They all kind of merge together into one experience. The stars on the climb to Elliot’s Knob were unbelievable. We stopped for a minute and turned off our headlamps just to soak in the beauty of being out here on this amazing race. I stayed with Jessica on and off for most of the first night. It was so great to have someone to talk to and the time really flew by. Around 3am is when things started going bad. I found myself sleep running – waking up 2-3 feet off trail stumbling around in the brush. Thankfully, this never happened on the trails with 1000ft+ dropoffs to the side. Being tired was the one thing I wasn’t really worried about beforehand – I can usually power through tiredness. It never occurred to me that this could be the biggest thing to overcome. I really don’t remember much of those hours. I was fighting hard to stay awake and not face plant on the trail in a sleep walk. Around 5am I saw a headlamp barreling down the trail at me. My first thought was oh,no – something’s wrong! I’m really off trail or someone is hurt – but no, it was just Karl Meltzer on his way BACK already. Amazing! We figured he was about 40 miles ahead of us. That woke me up for a few minutes, but I soon found myself sleep running again.
I got to the North River Gap aid station, mile 36, at 5:30am. At that point I just wanted sleep. And lots of it. I was worried about going back out and falling asleep and really injuring myself. I sat by the fire while I changed my headlamp batteries and Gary Knipling and Quatro Hubbard came over to talk to me. They said I could sleep for 15 minutes and they would wake me up. But I was really worried that if I fell asleep it would be all over and I wouldn’t be able to get back out. Plus, the cut off for that aid station was 6:30, so I was really cutting it close. Quatro then offered me a 5 Hour Energy Shot. I’ve never had one before but I was willing to try anything at that point. WOWZERS!! It saved the day. I drank that nasty, yet wonderful, elixir down and I was off…the wrong way. We realized we were off course when we got to the hanging bridge – that we had already crossed. We ran back to the aid station and Quatro got us back on course. Huge thank you to Gary and Quatro!! By that point I was wide awake and full of energy. I took off climbing up toward Little Bald. The sun was rising and it was simply gorgeous on that trail. I put on some music and just celebrated being alive, being able to run for hours and played on the trail while I climbed, climbed and climbed that 7 mile climb to the top.
Saturday was another blue sky, fabulous fall day. The miles clicked by as I headed to the turn around point. I loved seeing all the runners and pacers headed back already. Smiles, high fives and tons of encouragement really raised your spirits. The breakfast burritos at Little Bald Knob AS were amazing. Knowing that I would see my mom at Briery Branch motivated me and I was feeling great. My mom was waiting around 10:30 with warm washclothes to wash my feet and change socks (a key thing for me not getting blisters, I think), iced tea for a caffeine boost, a dry shirt and sports bra (again, key for no chafing) and a can’t-be-beat mom hug, kiss and so much encouragement! I had sent her a text to bring another 5 Hour Energy Shot so I put that in my pack for the second night and I was off. I met back up with Charles here and sang my way up to Reddish Knob. The colors were magnificent and I took a minute to take a picture and soak in the fact that I was halfway there!
My next goal now was to get back to North River Gap where my pacer extraordinaire, Kate Montgomery, would be waiting. I was feeling good, running the flats and downhills, power hiking the climbs (thanking Jen Jacobs at least a zillion times for telling me to train by climbing on the treadmill – made all the difference!) – making sure to eat and drink. Nutrition was never an issue throughout the race. The aid stations had wonderfully appealing food and I stayed away from anything sweet. The grilled cheese, soup, potatoes, oranges and burritos were perfect. I leapfrogged most of the day with Jessica and Charles and just enjoyed the trail. I ran into North River Gap around 5:30. I was now hovering at about a half hour before cut-off time – too close for comfort. I knew that I needed to keep moving, speed through the aid stations and manage my nutrition. I took my second 5 Hour Energy Shot, picked up Kate and we were off! I was so lucky to get Kate to be my pacer with only a week’s notice. I truly don’t think I could have done this without her. She was a fresh mind, fresh legs, encouragement beyond belief, great conversation and simply the best pacer I could have asked for. We headed up Lookout Mountain talking, laughing and moving at a good pace. I knew the cutoff time was close but I felt strong and confident that we could make it. Kate kept a constant stream of good conversation going sprinkled with many “you’re doing great!” comments.
As the second sunset of the race fell, we started passing people on the trail. I felt like we were moving at a good pace and Kate confirmed that. I really had no recollection of doing this part of the trail the night before. I knew there was a sweet downhill into Dowells Draft, but other than that could not remember what else was ahead of us. Probably a good thing I didn’t remember…the climbs and descents in the last 30 miles of this course were extreme. They seemed to go on forever. I am quite certain that rocks were added to the course after we ran it the first night. Ha! I do not remember the miles of steep climbs, loose shale rock (VERY loose rock!), narrow rocky trails, and drop offs that my headlamp beam couldn’t see the bottom of – but they were certainly there on the return trip! Kate would ask me what was coming next and I had no clue. I finally just assumed it was more climbing. Or descending. More often than not, I was right. On Crawford Mountain the dinosaurs came out. I kept seeing baby dinosaurs eating leaves and just hanging out on the trail. They were mixed in with real estate signs, jack-o-lanterns and a variety of other weirdness. Thank goodness for Kate who would just laugh and say, “keep running – no dinosaurs there…”. Only a few times did I stop and grab her arm and insist that I was seeing something that wasn’t there! It’s wild what your mind can create with sleep deprivation and 80+ miles on your legs. They made for some good laughs though!
At Dry Branch Gap we were well ahead of the cut-off time. I was thrilled that we had made up time and zoomed in and out of the aid station. Charles’ crew was fabulous – changing my headlamp batteries, pushing food on me (in a good way), smiling and encouraging. I’m so glad he shared his great crew with me! At this point I realized that we would not see another sunrise – my goal! We left the aid station with thoughts that we only had a half marathon to go! Those last 13 miles were long, challenging and fun. I was still feeling really strong and running the flats and downhills (it actually felt a lot better to run) and power hiking the climbs. We powered on, with Kate keeping track of time and miles, my nutrition and encouragement. I began to realize that I was really going to do this!
The final 5 miles were indeed the. Longest. Five. Miles. Ever. (thanks for your honesty, Rob!) We left Falls Hollow AS with an escort across Rt. 42, the promise that we just had a “small mountain” left to climb, and the warning that rain was on the way. People kept asking what I needed and I remember saying, “I just want to run!” I was ready to see that finish line and hug the totem pole. Thank you Dr. Horton for your weather statement at the briefing! I had my heavier rain gear on and was warm and dry as the cold rain started a steady downpour at 4:40 am. We ran/hiked/slipped and slid through the final 5 miles. The trail turned into a shallow, wet creek bed (reality) – full of happy smiling skeletons, black beans, mini pumpkins and tombstones (not reality). I just went with it and ran my way through my Halloween hallucination. Kate and I pushed on and finally came to the 1 mile left sign. I could smell the barn! I got quiet as I thought about all the training I put into this, and how bad I wanted this. I reflected on how FUN this had been – really and truly. That was the word that kept coming into my head – fun. I had just spent 36 hours playing on mountain trails. It doesn’t get any better than that! Kate slid down the mud slide and helped me climb down it, then climbed up the other side – and we finally came out onto the dam. Everything was pitch dark, but I knew we were at the Camp. We ran that final mile around the dam, down the road and to the finish chute! I was all smiles as Clark came out and gave me my buckle and finisher’s shirt and then I finally got to hug the totem pole. 36 hours and 33 minutes after starting this adventure I was the 11th woman finisher out of 17 who started and the 100th finisher out of 158 who started, 108 who finished.
Grindstone was the hardest race I’ve ever done. And the most fun. I am so lucky to have a body that can do what I ask it to and a mind that will also play along. I’m lucky to have friends and family who support this crazy love of mine. I love the community, the sense of accomplishment and the pure high that comes from finishing 101.85 miles. I can’t wait to do it again! Thank you to Clark, the tireless volunteers, my many trail running friends and the fabulous Kate Montgomery, my pacer, who kept me smiling, happy and enjoying many hours on the trail. See you on trail again soon! Happy trails and happy running.