Monday, October 10, 2011
Grindstone 2011 Race Report
(Pre-epilogue: See above; posting late, because, after the race, it took me a full 12 hours, from 6 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday, to drive back to Baltimore - 200 miles - due largely to a blockage on I-81 North, around mile 259, rumored to be due to a truck carrying bales of hay that caught on fire, and which the fire department was unable to extinguish, which left me sitting at a virtual standstill on the highway for four hours. Add in three or four intermittent hours of sleep in the car at random off-highway location, and a totally ineffective cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee from a rest stop, due to a random piece of plastic that fell in when I was pouring it, and brewed into the coffee as it cooled, eventually almost finding its way into my mouth, and the return trip was almost more mentally stressful than the race . . .)
At Grindstone in 2010, I had a terrible showing; I dropped out just 22 miles and a little over 6 hours into the race, a little after midnight, totally spent in every sense of the word. So of all of the races that I'm re-trying this fall, for the sake of improvement over my past performance, the bar for Grindstone was the lowest. That said, the bar for the desired finish was arguably the highest - my goal was to go under 24 hours if possible, which would likely put me in the top ten, or even top five, and would be no easy feat on a course this brutal - over 23,000 feet of gain and loss over 100 miles.
The road to Grindstone would not be easy, though. Due to my work schedule, I had to leave Israel and come directly to the race - the air travel time alone (including the painful trudge through international security checkpoints), from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia, and then from Philadelphia to Baltimore, was 18 hours, after which I would still have a little over 3 hours left to drive to get to the starting line of the race. As it turned out, the 3-hour drive turned into a nearly 6-hour drive, as traffic at the 495/66 West interchange was at a dead standstill, at 10:30 a.m. on Friday. No, I didn't see that coming, either.
I showed up at camp at 3 p.m., with the start of the race at 6 p.m., having missed the pre-race meeting at 1 p.m. I had wanted to nap for an hour or two, but seeing as to how friends were there, and were excited about the race, that never happened. That left me running on about 6 hours of intermittent sleep on the plane, which arguably put me in about the same place sleep-wise as I was with this race last year. Nevertheless, for some reason, I had a quiet confidence about the race. Although I had no specific basis for this belief, I was convinced that everything was going to be fine, that I was most likely going to run well, and if that didn't happen, then I was surely going to finish the race.
After a brief prayer, and David Horton's exhortation to "make wise decisions" on the trail (e.g. keep eating, keep drinking, pay attention to course markings and don't get lost), we were off, right on time at 6 p.m. In the interest of being wise, I had done some homework and come up with a sub-24-hour split chart, based on splits that others had run in previous years for each section to go under 24 hours. According to the chart, I needed to make it through the first section in about an hour, and the second section in about two hours (for a total of about three hours for the first approximately 15 miles of the race) . . . and that was about as far as I went in following the chart during the race. Although I carried it with me during the race, I was nervous about looking at it, for fear of putting undue pressure on myself.
At any rate, the first hour passed, I passed the first aid station on time (actually, about five minutes fast), and night fell. Time for 12 hours of running trails of varying degrees of technical by headlamp (an area where I definitely need to improve). While I climbed to the top of Elliot Knob quickly, and came down efficiently, via a gravel road, as soon as I hit the next section of rocky, slightly downhill trail, my pace slowed, and people passed me, because I just couldn't see what I was doing. Fortunately, since I was deliberately going out "slow," I took this as an opportunity to keep the pace in check, and save myself for the daylight, when running over this type of terrain would be less of a challenge. I made it to the second aid station in a few minutes over three hours - again, right on schedule. At this point, once I made it a step beyond this aid station, technically, mission accomplished, so this was a big boost going forward.
And so it went, sort of, for the rest of the first half of the race. I wish there were something more exciting to say about this, but there really wasn't - my vague plan for this race was working out well, and external circumstances (i.e. sleep deprivation, darkness, cold weather) seemed to be irrelevant.
My best over-exposed iPhone photo of the wooden bridge just before the North River Gap aid station - nope, the woods at night aren't scary in the least. :)
Even my highly inexperienced one-girl crew/pacer showed up at the right aid station, on time, and was appropriately totally business about things (more about that later). I made it through half of the race in 12 hours and 46 minutes, accomplished by a steady march forward at anywhere between a 12 and 15-minute mile pace, feeling like I hadn't run at all, even though I had 51 miles behind me. I was optimistic about the rest of the race. (Not to mention unconcerned enough about time that I stayed at the top of the turnaround long enough to take the below picture, and attempted to post it to Facebook right then and there, only to be thwarted by an intermittent data connection.)
A beautiful sunrise - better late than never.
This optimism continued when I picked up my pacer, and we ran from mile 52 to mile 66 in about 3 hours, including the dreaded "7-mile-climb" section in about 110 minutes, on the fast side of the split chart for that section. That left me with a little under 8 hours to finish the last 36 miles, which seemed challenging, but achievable.
Gradually, however, this started to slip away. More mentally than physically tired at this point, the little things that I would ordinarly be able to ignore were now making life difficult. My feet hurt intermittently, I felt heavy and out of balance running with my hand bottles (and, at the risk of TMI, being, um, "bound up," according to my pre-race weigh-in, to the disturbing tune of 10+ pounds heavier, as a result of air travel, which always seems to do that to me), and I was generally fatigued from being awake for so long and having gone through so much. In response, I started to slow . . .
And, on the way back, it turns out that the climbs are different. On the way out, they tend to be steeper and shorter; on the way back, they tend to be longer and more gradual. Especially late in this type of race, the latter is far worse. My walking got slower and slower, until I was struggling to even move forward at a typical 3-mile-per-hour pace. How much was mental, and how much was physical? Well, my pacer came out and paced me two miles in to the last aid station, and the last three miles to the finish, and once I picked her up, my walking pace picked up dramatically, without feeling cripplingly strenuous. So there was definitely a significant mental aspect to all of this. Also, the fact that just about everything in the last 30 miles blurs together in my mind as I write this (with the exception of my pacer mentioning that she saw a baby bear in the middle of the trail coming out from the Dry Branch Gap aid station, taking a mighty dump right where some poor runner would probably inadvertently step in it, and where I would have stepped in it, had she not pointed it out) is strong indication that mentally, I was suffering through some significant impediment.
I crossed the finish line in 27:30:55, 18th overall (a little worse than my 14-seed, but not totally out of the ballpark) hugged the totem pole, as is tradition at Grindstone, and then proceeded to receive a lot of comments about how it looked like I hadn't just run 100 miles, probably because I hadn't really run much of the last 30 miles of the race, and had strolled relatively leisurely through the first 70+ miles.
In retrospect, I would like to have gone faster, had I had my pacer to lean on for the remainder of the race, I almost certainly would have gone faster this year, and I'm sure that I can go faster there next year. But this was a huge, meaningful finish for me, considering that it's the first race in over a month in which I've had a proper, relatively satisfying finish. It's a great confidence boost going forward, and I'm really looking forward to taking the next step towards once again consistently putting in strong performances under duress, that show no signs of said duress, at Hellgate in December.
And that aside, perhaps the real guts and glory story here is my pacer, who, despite the notable limitations of (deep breath) not having run a race longer than a half-marathon (and that only a few weeks ago), not having run longer than 14 miles at a time, much less that distance on steep, rugged trails, never having been to an ultra, never having driven around that relatively obscure area of Virginia, particularly alone at night (and having to show up late due to work commitments earlier that day), never having run with a headlamp on trails at night (and navigating at this race with a bottom-of-the-line Petzl), and, as it turned out, being afraid of being alone in the woods in the dark (a fear that could have been validated by her bear encounter), and on top of all that (for whatever it matters; not being a girl, I wouldn't know), being on her period, bravely paced me through 19 miles of the race, 14 of which were consecutive, and legitimately at or faster than typical sub-24-hour finish pace, in addition to another 9 miles in transit on foot by herself to pace me. I'm reluctant to over-lube the hype machine here, but . . . that's hardcore, and if she ever decides to do one of these races, everybody up front should probably look out . . .
The physical evidence - as rugged and spartan as the course I took to get it.