Saturday, October 2, 2010

2010 Grindstone 100 - Failure Report

Because people are going to ask, and because I'd rather not repeat the story dozens of times (it's far too complicated for that), and because I have an awful lot of thoughts to organize, here's the story of my spectacular failure at the 2010 Grindstone 100. If you pay attention, you might also learn something about the course and effective race strategy, should you be interested in attempting this race in the future.

First, a little background: There were four key factors that, prior to the race, doomed this effort to failure. First, mentally and emotionally, I came in drained, due to circumstances in my work, school, and personal life that are beyond the scope of this post. Second, I decided not to buy a lower-back pack for my water bottles - I thought that it might have helped, but in the past, I've carried two bottles in my hands in similar races, and survived, so I thought that it might have smacked of "trying too hard." Third, I decided not to buy a brighter headlamp, for the same reason why I didn't buy the pack for my water bottles. Fourth, I decided to forego sleep the night before the race, reasoning that it would be better to nap in the afternoon for a few hours, and then wake up about an hour before the race.

With that out of the way, I was excited for Grindstone. Although my last two races had been failures (The Ring, because I got lost and wandered 15 miles off-course, and the North Coast 24, where my arches fell, and the pain became too much to bear), I was confident that (except for the four things that I mentioned above) I had addressed all of the issues that stood in my way of a strong performance. Unfortunately, my plan began to unravel before the race even began. My attempt to sleep prior to the race was a failure - I was too excited to sleep, and wound up tossing and turning, getting maybe 15 minutes of sleep, and starting the race sleep-deprived. As I chatted with friends prior to the race (it seemed as though EVERYBODY I was even remotely friends with was doing this race, only adding to the excitement), I could tell that my mind was hazy, and the thoughts weren't forming clearly. This was a bad sign.

We took off from Camp Shenandoah after a prayer from David Horton, and a group performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and for the first mile, I felt fairly good. My legs felt strong, my breathing felt steady, and in spite of my sleep-deprived state, I thought that maybe my physical strength would carry me through. Then, somewhere in the second mile, the first mini-disaster struck. I was "leaning forward and letting go" on a downhill, as I've discovered is the most efficient way to take these, and I caught my foot on a rock (the first of many) and fell, twisting my ankle and knee. I clumsily struggled to my feet, to find that although the injury was not serious, it was bad enough that I had to walk about 50 feet before things fell back into place, and the pain subsided enough to run again. But the psychological damage was already done - as if I hadn't had a drought of confidence enough from the results of my previous two races, I now could not be confident that I was mentally together enough to attack the downhills.

This fear was substantiated when I ran off course at the first opportunity, having to backtrack up a hill to the turn that I missed. I had only wandered about a quarter-mile away, but it was enough for a number of people to catch up with and pass me (another mental blow). Still, it was early in the race, and there would be time to make it up later, so I continued to push on the downhills, looking out as best I could for the random stray rocks on the otherwise clear path that could spell my doom, and power-walking the steep uphills. For a while, I thought things might come back together.

Then it got dark.

I turned on my headlamp and my flashlight, to find that, in this environment, while my flashlight was passable, my headlamp was useless. I would have to rely on my flashlight, which, as I mentioned, I have in many other races, but now, the flashlight had a nasty tendency to shut off when jolted hard (as is the intermittent case when running over rocky, uneven terrain). Further, the flashlight was strapped to my water bottle. Again, nothing new, but in my foggy, sleep-deprived state (which only worsened as the night wore on), the moving light spot in front of me, further confounded by the water bottles flitting in and out of my peripheral vision as I ran, all complicated by the seemingly random occurence of rocky, technical sections, would pose a challenge that would exceed what little mental and emotional energy I came into the race with.

My last "good" section of the race was the climb up the gravel slope to Elliot Knob. I power-walked to the top, putting distance on the people behind me, and gaining on the people in front of me. It was just a little bit brilliant to stand at the top of the dark, desolate, wind-swept summit, putting my foot up on a chain-link fence so that I could "punch" my bib to prove that I had been there. But of course, on the descent, I was cautious, since I hadn't seen the turn-off on the ascent, and in spite of my caution (which always hurts on a downhill), I still missed the turn, and wound up walking back up about a quarter-mile with another runner, who, fortunately for me, but unfortunately for her, had also missed the turn (otherwise, I might have gone much further down before I decided that I had missed the turn). As it turned out, her temporary companionship would end up being one of the first nails in the coffin, since what little confidence I had at that point was shattered when it became obvious that she was picking her way through the flat, rocky section of trail much better than I was, and I had to let her pass . . . and then another runner, and then another, and then another . . .

I made it to the second aid station, and leaving the aid station, the climb was fairly non-rocky, and I still had some legs, but now the mental strain of the circumstances was becoming overwhelming. It was getting colder (probably in the low 40s), and my feet were wet from earlier stream crossings, and the combination of all of this made a normally climbable hill a nearly impossible obstacle. It was at this point that I began periodically stopping by the side of the trail, questioning why I was even here in the first place. Runners passed, asking if I needed help, and I wished that there was anything they could do to help me, but at this point, what could I ask for? Warmer clothes? Dry shoes? A brighter headlamp? Something to put my water bottles in so that I wasn't so off-balance on the precipitous descents? The truth is, while any one of these things might have helped, I doubt that having one, or two, or even all of these things at this point would have been enough to turn this race around. The 15ish dark, miserable miles that I had struggled through had drained what little I had mentally and emotionally, and short of a friendly face, or a good night's sleep, having even the slightest material improvement would not have made a difference.

With all that thrown together, the half-track downhill (yes, the course might claim to have single-track trail, but, in truth, most of this trail is barely wider than a person's foot, especially when you have feet as grotesquely wide as mine) broke me. I could barely see where I was going, I had no confidence in my ability to descend without tripping and falling, and EVERYBODY was passing me. Regis and Mosi had passed me a long time ago, but when Snipes passed me, and I couldn't keep up, I knew that I was done. I tried my best, but already not being able to see, and then being on a trail crowded with people who were clearly navigating the terrain much better than I was, was too much. I couldn't plan my next step without feeling a vague sense of panic, and I couldn't break into a run without feeling a wave of entire-body discomfort that made a convincing argument that there was no way on earth that I could run more than a few feet, even though aside from my sore ankle and knee, I was perfectly nourished and hydrated, and not the least bit sore. The little bits of the course that I did attempt to run were short, because I was nearly tripping every 50 feet or so over even the smallest rocks on the trail. And on and on it went, this failure spiral, or whatever you want to call it, until I was reduced to an idiot in shorts and a t-shirt in the woods, on a remote trail in the middle of nowhere, wearing a "5" on my shorts that I clearly was not going to live up to, wanting nothing more than decent food, warmth, and shelter.

From the second aid station to the third aid station, I spent nearly 3 hours, from about 9 p.m. to midnight, struggling, shivering, and wondering when on earth I would reach the third aid station, and first crew access point, so I could drop out and go home. After what felt like an eternity, especially since a substantial section of the course was "flat, but leaf-covered, with random rocks that you will no doubt twist an ankle on" that was especially demoralizing to walk, when, given my physical condition alone, I should have been able to run, I finally struggled up a short, slippery dirt hill to the aid station, one hour before the cut-off time, and somewhere in the vicinity of tenth-to-last. My crew of one wasn't here (a work emergency, coupled with bad D.C. traffic, prevented him from getting to the area until around 1 a.m.), but fortunately, another runner was dropping, and a woman who was going back to the start kindly volunteered to drive us back. As I walked the quarter-mile to her car, shivering violently, all I could think about was getting into a heated car, covering myself with a blanket, and sleeping. Which I did, for a short time, until we reached the camp, and I was thrust out into the cold again. I struggled to collect my things and drive my car to a place where I had cell service, so I could call and tell people that I wasn't dead, just temporarily defeated, and that I would return in near-perfect physical condition. My crew finally showed up, and I thanked him for his effort, apologized for my poor effort, and he left to take some pictures of the night sky. At this point, any more driving seemed unbearable, so I slept in the back seat of my car, wrapped in a sleeping bag, parked in front of a CVS and Big Lots. The parking lot was well-lit. I was exhausted. It didn't matter.

I woke up around 7:30, after having slept soundly, feeling less bad (but still too awful to think about being on the course), and felt very little regret about dropping. I had no idea what to do with myself, and briefly entertained the option of going out on the course, but everybody looked fantastic when they were passing me, so I doubted that anybody needed my help (although, in spite of any supporting evidence, it would be reasonable to assume that at least some of these people were now not doing so well), and even if they did, I didn't feel as though I was "together" enough to help them. So I drove home, and now I'm here, and that's my life story.

The moral of this is, Horton courses -2, David - 0. In case anybody was wondering what it takes to finish one of his races, you need to be physically and mentally at the top of your game, because the courses are designed to tax you by switching things up constantly. The downhills are steep and not very rocky, except for the few rocks that are right in your way at the most inopportune times. The uphills aren't very rocky, but are so steep that walking is a challenge. The flats are as rocky as possible, to make running them as difficult as possible. All of this is varied to the maximum possible extent, so that when you are in a good place physically and mentally, and up for the challenge, completing the course is very satisfying. When you're in a bad place, the variation is unbearable, since there's no way to get into a mindless rhythm, and sooner or later, you're ruined. My sincere congratulations to everybody who finished Grindstone (which, as far as I could tell when I quit, 22 miles into the race, was EVERYBODY, except of course the guy that dropped when I did).

All that said, I'm not sure what I'll do about Oil Creek. Physically, I can get my body and my gear together to do it two weeks from now. Mentally and emotionally - only time will tell. Life is improving, but who knows if I'll feel as though I have enough energy to take on another 100-mile race two weeks from now. In the meantime, though, I plan to do everything I can to get my running and my life back together in the next two weeks, while enjoying both as much as possible (and really, the latter implies the former). Maybe not at Oil Creek, but at some point, I am determined to be on top again.


  1. You have a great race report here, your blog is also interesting,. Great work! More power and happy running!

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  2. Hey David:

    It was good to see you out there. I'm sorry you had a bad day/race, but you usually learn more from those than the good ones. I hope you get back on your game soon!

    BTW, I asked you if you needed help and I had extra AA and AAA batteries in my pack. So next time, speak up if you need anything!!