Grindstone

I thought about running my first hundred right after finishing Masochist last fall.  About the time Disney’s Frozen hit theaters and “Let It Go” became the anthem for 4-8 year old girls across the nation.  My girls fell hard and fast for Elsa, Anna, and Olaf, and belted out the song 24/7.  Like any good, distracted mom, I tuned out their daily renditions…lost in laundry and dinner and homework.

But Emma snuck it onto my playlist, and one day the song played while I was out running.

And I heard it.  And I felt it.

It’s funny how some distance,
makes everything seem small.
And the fears that once controlled me,
can’t get to me at all

It’s time to see what I can do,
to test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I’m free!

———————————-

The training began.  The lessons were learned.  The body adapted.

Thus a tough spring racing season, consciously overloaded and over raced.  Designed to stress my body to see what could happen.  Feeling tired, feeling bleh, but knowing that I was paying my dues.

May.  A cutback month.  Rest, recover, and regroup for the summer weeks of long, hilly miles planned and coached by wonderful Sophie.  She knows her stuff and was so very generous in sharing her time and advice.

By June the training had begun in earnest.  I won’t clog this post with details, but highlights included a fantastically tough training race – Highland Sky – that went totally according to plan, two great 50Ks in July (the inaugural CATass and my third Catoctin), and some hard lessons learned at the Jarmin’s Invitational Marathon (the J.I.M…more on that later).  We wrapped up the summer with three glorious days running the AT through Shenandoah National Park with the Dirty Mothers (Martha, Stephanie, Jenny, Sophie, and me).

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And then, all of a sudden, it was Back-to-School time…taper time.  Last minute details organized.  Jimmy and Lissa were set to crew…Martha and Sophie agreed to pace.  It was time to go!!!

——————-

Now inits sixth year (it was cancelled in 2013 because of the Government Shutdown), Grindstone has developed a reputation as a TOUGH, well-run Hundred.  23,000 ft of gain/23,000 ft of descent on this rolling mountain course in Western Virginia.  The elevation profile is intimidating:

Grindstone_Elevation_Profile

I chose the race for several reasons.

  • It is close to home, making crew and travel logistics simple
  • It has a 6pm start, meaning I could get through most of the night on relatively fresh legs
  • The ample climbs would give me an excuse to walk sections
  • It’s a Lynchburg race, so I would know a TON of runners and volunteers…my people!

Jimmy and I left Richmond Friday morning and arrived at Camp Shenandoah around noon.  We set up our gear in the growing tent city by the lake, checked in, and chatted with the other runners.  With the exception of JFK, Jimmy hasn’t been to any of my races since that first Holiday Lake in 2012, so I had a LOT of introductions to make 🙂  After the briefing from Clark, I was able to nap for about an hour and just chill out in the tent until Martha, Sophie, and Lissa arrived.

My pacers!  Martha and Sophie in the rain pre-race.
My pacers! Martha and Sophie in the rain pre-race.

The skys, which had been darkening all afternoon, finally opened up as I was getting dressed.  We assembled at the line, knowing that the next few hours would be wet, and the rocks would be slick.

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Crozet Ultrarunning Team ready to run! From left, Marc Griffin, me, and Dan Spearin
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A smile to hide the nerves 🙂

Just before 6pm, Clark called for a moment of silence to honor Major Mike Donahue.  Mike was a runner, a well respected member of the trail community, and an amazing family man.  He was killed September 16 in Afghanistan, and his loss profoundly affected so many of us gathered there to run.  After a short prayer, the clock started and we were off!

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The first miles were kind of tricky, as we were all still jumbled together, trying to find our place and space on the trail.  Some dips and obstacles caused backups.  I placed myself in the middle of the pack…knowing this would slow me down at the start, but ensuring I did not go out too fast.  When we passed the spectators at mile 1.5, Sophie saw me and said “good girl, she’s listening”, so I knew I hadn’t screwed up yet!  There were a lot of really, really STRONG women in the field…and I wanted to keep my focus on pace and the finish…not the “race”…I wasn’t ready for that yet.

Just as the field was thinning out and settling down, a group of 40-50 runners came back up the trail at us.  Confusion over the trail and markings led a large group to turn around.  We figured out right away that we were still on the right path, but it was jumbled up again nonetheless.

The skies opened up and it really started to rain.  While none of the bands of moisture lasted long, they came steadily through the night.  Darkness fell early as a result, and I turned on my headlamp before the first aid station.  Coming out of it, gearing up for the first big climb of the night, I hit my toe on a rock and fell HARD.  Ow….  I was able to regroup and chat with Alexis for a bit before she pulled ahead of me on the trail leading up to Elliots’s knob.

Thus began the rhythm that would last throughout the race.  Climb up, up, up…Run down.  Repeat.  Elliot’s knob is STEEP and the gravel road up to the summit warmed up the legs.  I saw Dan Spearin, a fellow Crozet Ultrarunning Team member, on this section, and was THRILLED that we were able to run together for most of the next 15 miles.  We came through the first crew stop together at 11:06 pm, right on schedule for what I hoped would be a 28 hour finish.

I scanned the crowed for Jimmy, Lissa, and Martha.  Where was my crew?  Oh…there they were – asleep!!  It was all good however.  I changed my shoes (too many issues with untied laces, and I was worried about falling again), gulped down an Ensure and got out of there quickly.

Maybe a bit too quickly.  We had run (relatively) hard the last few downhill miles, and I was planning to run most of the uphill section out of Dowell’s (thanks to a training run with Marlin this summer I knew it was possible).  I caught up to Ryan Nebel (Nebs), and with #DANton not far behind I was looking forward to chatting away some more miles.  But on the climb up, a bit flustered and with energy lagging, I started to get cranky.  And then, realizing it was mile 22, I began to get depressed.  Climbing up my stomach turned…the Ensure and Perp and Gel and food that I’d been eating was not digesting.  By this point I’d let Nebs and Dan go, and I was on my own.  I stumbled along for 6-7 miles. So low.  Convinced there was no way I could do it.  Who runs 100 miles anyway?  Pure foolishness.  I crafted my Facebook post.  “Tried my best, but my stomach had other ideas…36 miles – Grindstone, you win.”

Horton had told me before the race that, if I felt sick, I should make myself throw up.  “DO IT”  he said, “You’ll feel BETTER”. So there, in the dark night, that’s just what I did.  Three hours of food and water, out on the trail.  I shuffled along to the Lookout Mountain aid station.  “Do you have any broth?”  I asked weakly.  Before I knew it, I had a steaming cup of Ramen in hand.  “You’re the fifth woman through, you know”.  Oh snap.  The race is on.

I don’t know if it was the salty broth or knowing that I wasn’t as far behind as I felt, but I started to recover.  I linked up with Jason Farr and had a great conversation over the next 6ish miles.  In that time, I did a complete mental 180.  I decided two things.  First, that I would meet my crew happy.  If I could put on a good face and stay upbeat, chances are I’d get out of that aid station quickly.  And if that happened, the next time I saw them would be at the turn-around where Martha was set to pace me.  Second, if I could get out of one rough patch, chances are I could do that again (if needed) throughout the day.  I would manage problems as they arose…one at a time.

[….this was a HUGE lesson learned from the J.I.M.  On that day, I made SO many little mistakes (no clear goal, poor nutrition, uneven pacing) that when I had one significant issue I just chose to shut down.  In hindsight, I should have planned better and managed the moment.  Probably the most valuable run of the entire summer for that reason alone]

Let it go, let it go.
I am one with the wind and sky.
Let it go, let it go.
You’ll never see me cry.
Here I’ll stand, and here I’ll stay.
Let the storm rage on…the cold never bothered me anyway.

So when we ran into North River Gap at mile 36, I put a smile on my face.  And my crew was READY!  Not wanting to be caught sleeping on the job, they had coffee and soup and snacks for me.  I was in and out and happy again.  I had to stop at the aid station for a weigh-in, and they were playing my other Grindstone anthem – “Carry On” by Fun.  I pranced out onto the trail singing the lyrics out loud…so manic at 2:30 AM that I didn’t care who heard me:

If you’re lost and alone
Or you’re sinking like a stone.
Carry on.
May your past be the sound
Of your feet upon the ground.
Carry on.

Whoa!
My head is on fire but my legs are fine.
After all they are mine.
Lay your clothes down on the floor,
Close the door, hold the phone,
Show me how no one’s ever gonna stop us now.

‘Cause here we are
We are shining stars
We are invincible
We are who we are
On our darkest day
When we’re miles away
Sun will come
We will find our way home

Sun will come.  We will find our way home.  Has there ever been a more appropriate Grindstone song??  And so I climbed.  Up Little Bald.  Up, up, up to the top of Reddish Knob,  It was still dark, and so kept going.  To Gnashing Knob and the turn around.  To my crew and my wonderful Trail Mom Martha.  And as Martha and I began the return trip to Swoope, with friends all around, the skies broke and the sun arose.  October, lovely Virginia October, all around us.  The colors and mountains were amazing!

Now, I admit I was tired.  There were sections of the downhill that weren’t all that pretty.  But my mind and morale held through the rest of the day.  We came into North River for the second time at 10:30 and Sophie was there to meet us.  I changed clothes, refueled and hit the trail.  There was work to be done.  I was sitting in fourth place at the time, and I hoped to maintain or gain position.  But with strong women in front and behind it would be tough.

Second weigh-in of the race...not sure what that expression is all about!
Second weigh-in of the race…not sure what that expression is all about!

There were four sections left, with three big climbs.  Sophie talked to me when I needed, let me plug in to music when I had to focus on climbing.

The uphills left me feeling woozy and depleted.  I started seeing cars parked on top of rocks and people sitting on the trail (total hallucinations!).  I waited and waited to hit that sweet downhill section into Dowell’s Draft.  I thought to myself “If I can only run that well, I will be at mile 80 and can walk it in if I need to”.  When we FINALLY got there, I opened up my legs and – amazingly! – was able to bomb down that three mile stretch.   Coming into the aid station around 1:45 in the afternoon was such a high.  Jimmy & Martha were there to tend to me and Horton gave me a huge hug and smile.  All I could think was “this is so much FUN!”.  Which is ridiculous considering the miles covered and lack of sleep.  But still, the weather was awesome, there were friends ALL around, and I was holding it together.  Leaving that section I think I cried to Sophie a bit, overwhelmed because just a day ago I wasn’t sure this was possible.  I knew then that I was going to finish.

Sophie & I coming into Dowell's Draft - Mile 80.  Photo Credit:  Chris Nicotra
Sophie & I coming into Dowell’s Draft – Mile 80. Photo Credit: Chris Nicotra

The climb up Crawford was tough, but my music helped me up the mountain (Stan Roger’s “Tiny Fish for Japan” might have been an odd choice, but the violin and haunting melody played nicely with the October afternoon light to float me up).

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Sophie captured the perfect views we enjoyed all day Saturday. Trail running Nirvana!

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And always the downhills were there for me.  I don’t know why, but my quads held strong.  If it was steep I had to scoot a bit sideways, but when the grade was right, I could ROLL!  And so it went…8 miles to Dry Branch…8 miles to Falls Hollow…5 miles to the finish.

Jimmy and Martha were there every stop (as was Lissa before she had to head home to her babes!), and my proximity to Dan, Christian, Marc, and Jason meant I got to see the Crozet gang throughout the whole race.  That was unexpected and SUCH a boon.

John Andersen telling us to go catch Dan & Jeff who were a few minutes up the trail
John Andersen telling us to go catch Dan & Jeff who were a few minutes up the trail

Smiles and cheers moved us along, and we headed into the final section with plenty of light to get us through the rocks and roots.  It was only when we passed the showers, with 1.5 miles to go, that the sun finally left us.  I wanted to run fast, to finish the race, but there was nausea lurking and so we slowed a bit, regrouped, rounded the lake and hit the home stretch.

I crossed the line and hugged the totem pole at 25:35. Hugs and kind words from everyone.  I was worn down but not worn out.  It was the perfect day.

From start to finish, these gals (and Jimmy too!) were right there with me.
From start to finish, these gals (and Jimmy too!) were right there with me.
Obligatory totem hug!
Obligatory totem hug!

 ——————–

You know that scene in Love Actually?  When Hugh Grant, narrating says:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

THAT’s how I feel about this crazy sport.  We runners may be the ones out on the trail, but it is the love and support of our family, friends, and comrades that moves us along.  We all have our personal demons, our struggles, and our low points.  Whether in the race or in life we need each other.  Life is too short to go it alone.

And so THANK YOU.  Thank you Clark Zealand, for directing and organizing.  Thank you to the volunteers and aid station workers who brave the elements to care for us.  Thank you to my AMAZING crew…pacers…CrozetRunning teammates…and everyone else who gave their time and energy out there this weekend.  Thank you for helping me keep my promises…

“These woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep”

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My mantras and good luck charms…created by the AMAZING Jenny Nichols!! https://www.etsy.com/shop/MountainPrimaDonna
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