by Joe Wrobleski
The Training: After sampling ultra running last year (two 50 milers) I decided that this season would be dedicated to ultra running. The beginning of the season was all set with the Boston Marathon, Pineland 50, and VT100 (my first 100 miler) lined up. I was not sure how the rest of the year would go, but everything seemed to fall into place as the season progressed – I recovered fairly quickly after VT100 to run the Maine 100 Wilderness 3 weeks later (self-supported, in 43 hours). From then, I had nine weeks to get ready for Grindstone, and when I felt my recovery was going well, I signed up. I had 5 good weeks of training leading up to a 2 week taper.
The Drive: It is about a 12 hour drive from Portland, Maine to Swoope, Virginia – where Grindstone is held. Grindstone has a funky start time of 6:00 pm, and I could not take the day off on Thursday, so I got on the road at 3:00 pm and drove for 10 hours and crashed at a hotel in Williamsport, Maryland. Late Friday morning, I drove the last three hours to the race site – I arrived at 1:00 pm, just in time for the lunch and the race briefing.
The Site: The start and finish of the race is located at the Boy Scouts of America campground in the Shenandoah Mountains. These mountains are rugged and the race featured three 4000 footers and 23,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Farmland and cattle ranches dominate the approach to the mountains and the campground:
There was a field near the parking lot where a tent city formed.
The campsite was well equipped and appeared to be at least 50 years old – it had a dining lodge with a full kitchen and a large shower house. Right near the lodge is the start and the finish line – the totem pole is one of many nearby, and you are asked the hug it after you finish the race.
Inside the lodge, the walls were covered with Boy Scout memorabilia and decorations, much of which had a Native American theme:
There was the “Philmont Grace” – a prayer for dinner time or any time of need. I think the last word of the first line is “Raiment.”
Confederate heroes figured prominently here.
On entering, you were asked to weigh in. I had not weighed myself since Vermont, and I was not happy to see I was about 10 pounds heavier. I had the rest of the afternoon to wonder about my conditioning.
After the pre-race lunch and briefing, I headed to my car to pack up my drop bags and set up my tent. Since we would be passing each drop bag location twice, I only needed to use two locations. I had 2 bags in one spot – one with spare clothes, a jacket and shoes. I packed more food than I needed; the aid stations were well stocked and I ate mostly the food that was offered.
The Gear: I wore my HP20 Nathan hydration pack and an 8oz gel flask. I had 2 other gel flasks in one drop bag at North River Gap, where we would pass at miles 36 and 66. I ate (drank?) about half of the gel I brought, but I like those flasks because you can gulp as much as you feel you need (or are capable of) at one time. For shoes I wore the same Montrail MMs that I wore for M100W. Those held up well. For light, I carried 2 Petzel Tikka head lamps.
The Race: The weather was perfect for this event – low 70s during the day and low 40s at night. For the cold, I had in a bag some gloves, and long sleeve shirt and a jacket. Trail conditions were generally dry.
After a brief prayer from a race organizer, just before 6:00 pm, we were off and running. I started out in the back, but once we got going, I deviated from my usual slow start race plan to take advantage of the waning daylight. I pushed the pace a little. We had about an hour and a half before we needed lighting.
It was dark before I got to the top of the first big climb, Elliot’s Knob. The climb was on a gravel road, but the descent was on very technical terrain. Although some of the trails were dirt road or on otherwise non-technical surfaces, a large portion of the trails were challenging by any standard. There were not many roots to navigate, but many of the trails were covered with shale and other loose rocks, large and small, which beat up your feet and legs. Add to that many steep climbs, long climbs, steep descents, rocky and steep descents and you get the picture.
Early in the race, I felt like I was moving well (maybe a little too quickly on those technical descents) but I did not feel well. My stomach was already giving me trouble and I fell a few times on the descent from Elliot’s Knob. By the time I got to mile 15, I was worn out and my legs felt pretty beat up. I started to think about dropping, so I started walking for some long stretches to see if I could feel better. I was beating myself up at this point, thinking that I was out of shape, and had taken on a too challenging race after such a long drive (what was I thinking!?) My legs kept moving, though, and I started to feel a little better – just get to daylight and reassess became the plan.
There were only 125 runners on the course, but there was almost always a runner ahead or behind, and I ran with some for stretches at a time before they would move ahead or drop behind – the time seemed to pass quickly.
At North River Gap (mile 36) we had to weigh in again, and I was surprise to see I had dropped 5 pounds. The guy weighing me took the number down and just shrugged.
By the time I got there, it was cold enough for long sleeves and some gloves. As I changed up, one of the volunteers walked by and told us we had a 7 mile climb up to Little Bald Knob. I thought, what are we supposed to do about that? – we have to climb it. What I should have done was fill up my bladder, because I was lower on water than I thought.
Another runner left that aid station about the same time I did, and we ended up hiking most of mountain together. Up, up, up – it just kept going up, and I ran out of water shortly after we started. The next aid station was about 8 miles, and I had misjudged how long it would take to get there. I avoided taking food, because of the dehydration effect of eating – and just kept going.
The climb seemed to go on and on. We would get to a downhill stretch and then face another climb. I fell hard on my left knee on one of these down hills, which hurt but did not give me problems until after the race.
I was starting to get light headed, and I was unsure of how long before the next aid station, so I asked my running friend for a drink from his hydration pack – this he gave me without hesitation, and it probably saved my race.
By the time I got to that next aid station I was dehydrated, dizzy and staggering and shivering from the cold. I stayed about 10-20 minutes at that station, contemplating dropping, and slowly eating and drinking. My friend went on ahead, and other runners were going by, but I waited until I felt I couldn’t stand there any longer, (it was cold) and staggered up the dirt road. I started slowly at first, but began to move a little better before long. It was only about an hour before sunrise, so I looked forward to the warmth and light that would bring, and to reassessing the situation.
The sunrise was spectacular, if somewhat obscured by trees. None of these mountains were completely bald, and the views were usually through sparse tree growth.
The sunlight had an effect – I was moving better and eating and drinking even more than before. I started passing runners and I was feeling confident that I would finish.
The next 12 hours were the most enjoyable of the race. The trails were very impressive – many were single track, and the technical parts seemed easier in the day light.
After getting back to North River Gap and mile 66, I changed into short sleeves and left my gloves in my bag. I picked up my camera in case I got a good shot. I weighed in for the last time, and learned I had lost no more weight. A volunteer filled up my bladder, and I changed the batteries in my head lamps and headed out.
Shortly afterwards, I bumped into a runner from Connecticut. We ran together for about 10 miles, and I learned that he had run Pineland last year, and was doing the Beast Series down in Virginia (Grindstone was the 100 miler in the series).
Just before mile 80, my New England friend dropped back. We were both talking about finishing in less than 30 hours, which seemed plausible if we could keep up a steady pace – but he was not feeling like he was going to pull it off, so he wished me luck as I moved on ahead. I was moving well and wanted to cover as much ground as I could before the sun went down.
The last 14 miles were the toughest. Shortly after sunset, I felt like I lost a lot of energy and faced Elliot’s knob again from the rocky technical side. Here is a shot from that part of the race:
This was the last 4000 footer, and I was still climbing well, but I was not able to run on the technical trails – I was walking most of the way, kicking and cursing rocks.
About 7 miles from the finish, my Connecticut friend caught up with me. He had met up with his pacer, and they were hiking a lot faster that I was. I did my best to tag along – and hiking faster did not hurt any worse than before, so I started running and jogged into the last aid station.
We had 5.5 miles to go from there, and about 2.5 hours before the 30 hour mark. We hiked and ran together for most of the rest of the race. About 2 miles from the finish, I stopped to switch headlamps, because the light from the one I was wearing was too dim for me to see the trail very well. My friend and his pacers went on ahead and finished just ahead of me. I was happy to get in at 29:09:xx, and to finish my 3rd 100 mile run this season.