Near about this time last year I contemplated what my 2011 race calendar should look like. I figured not much of anything could eclipse, much less emulate, my recent experience running the Slam which consisted of traveling the country running a handful of the best 100 mile mountain races in the world, pushing the proverbial endurance envelope, meeting all sorts of neat people, etc. Thinking back, the decision to run each of the Virginia 100s in 2011 came easily and very naturally. All three races- Massanutten, Old Dominion, Grindstone- were close to home, offered a challenging course and field, and were spread out enough throughout the summer calendar where I could also plug in another 100 if I chose to- which I obviously did, Leadville- and maybe even add a WUS donut run or two. So that’s what I decided to do. The Virginia Triple was born- at least for the first time for me. A handful of others had run it prior. Some more than once.
Fast forward to May, 2011: a Massanutten finish. Bang. June: Old Dominion. Bang. And, finally, just this past weekend: Grindstone. Bang! Anyone who has read this blog since at least the beginning of 2011 can surmise that I trained hard in preparation for this season. One of my goals for the year- that I have kept private until now- was to show up at each race as the best 100 miler competing in Virginia and to win at each race. In fact, I joked with the Goat at Massanutten that he “ruined my plans” after he beat me with yet another dominating performance over the MMT rocks. Therefore, in part due to that spanking, I’m not sure I actually reached the goal of ‘the best 100 miler competing in Virginia’ this season, or if I ever even could, but I am certainly content overall with a second place finish at Massanutten and two first place finishes at Old Dominion and Grindstone. I think my times at each race were also solid enough whereby a new cumulative speed standard has been set for the Virginia Triple as well.
Grindstone’s 6pm start time Friday evening was something new for me. The only downside immediately leading up to the race start, other than knowing I was about to miss out on an entire night’s sleep while actually running 102 mountainous miles, was that I couldn’t seem to shake a migraine that came on earlier in the afternoon. This, plus the fact that when I weighed in prior to the race the scale read “puffy”, didn’t exactly foretell of good things to come, I thought. When it comes to suffering through a headache pretty much the only thing that ever even seems remotely tolerable is laying on a couch in quiet darkness. Running 100 miles with a headache comes in a distant 1,000,000th place behind that. Sadly, there were no couches on hand at Camp Shenandoah. The event staging area was not exactly quiet. Nor was it dark out. The migraine lingered. In the moments leading up to 6pm I sat in a chair rubbing my temples trying to relax the swelling muscles around my forehead. Fortunately the two Tylenol I scored at about 5pm began kicking in and I had no other choice but to eventually stand up and soak in the pre-race excitement with everyone else.
Over The Top! Me and Clark, RD. Photo by Quatro Hubbard.
|Race start. Photographer: Bobby Gill.|
As soon as the race began I found myself with the lead pack of runners setting a comfortable pace around Hope Lake before circling back through Camp Shenandoah, and finally running up and into the George Washington National Forest. Runners at the front included myself, Jason Lantz, David Ruttum, Keith Knipling, Mario Raymond, Frank Gonzalez, Matt Hart, Patrick McGlade and maybe a few others. At about mile two or three I realized my headache was gone and so I decided to push the pace a bit and spread the field out early. I ran steady up the ups and firm down the downs. Jason, David and Frank hung with me. Then as we arrived at the first aid station, Falls Hallow, mile 5.18, it was only me, Jason and David. This is where we began our first of many long climbs. Jason and I ran mostly together until David caught back up with us on the super steep gravel road section leading to the top of Elliot Knob. I arrived at the turnaround tower first, punched my bib and motored back down the trail to the left hand turn on to the North Mountain Trail. I only saw Frank (“The Tank”) from the turnaround back to the left turn on North Mountain. The rest of the pack hadn’t made it that far up the climb yet. By the turn Jason and David were completely out of sight to my rear as well. My scheme was working: getting out in front early. My plan was simple: make the other runners suffer by having to work hard early keeping up or follow in a chase pack and in the process push me from behind, scaring me into running strong because I would never truly know how close in proximity they were to me. This was a gamble I decided to make early in the race. A gamble that I would not know whether it would pay off or not until sometime the next day. And a gamble, quite frankly, that could have completely backfired.
The next several miles of trail all the way up to Dowells Draft aid station, mile 22, were quite nice- good climbing, good descending along quality ridgeline, though a bit more technical than I had anticipated. It was full on dark at this point with no moonlight and I had opted to run with only a single headlight at this point, to act as something of a governor on my pace at this stage. I can’t say for sure if that was a smart move or not because I rolled my ankle not once but twice during this section. The first time I definitely heard and felt the recognizable popping sound and sensation as my ankle touched the ground while I attempted to maintain stride. “SHIT”! An ankle roll is a definite come-to-Jesus moment when you’re deep in the mountains running trails. I limped along for a little bit, the ankle numbed up and I kept running. It was all good after that and I never thought much of it during or since the race. Still, I maintained a more careful eye on the trail from then on. My pace felt comfortable and in control. I did not feel chased or worried or pressured in any way. My mind was clear. I felt like a kid on a long, fast run heading home from the school bus stop on a Friday afternoon, and I enjoyed it. I cruised into Dowells Draft. Quattro Hubbard had my drop bag items laid out nicely for me. I tanked up with nutrition, changed my shirt and set back out the steep jeep trail, bound for the even steeper single track trail leading to the ridgeline on Lookout Mountain.
Cruising into Dowells Draft.
Finally, I reached the highpoint of Lookout. At this point I began to worry about the condition of my legs as I descended to North River Gap. Certainly the climbing and descending so far were a challenge, and the worst had yet to come, but the technical downhilling was exacting the biggest toll on my quads. Running down a mountain while braking stride over rocks is no picnic; if ever I experience a jarring throughout my legs while running these are the times. Some sections I would much rather have walked up than actually run down. At North River Gap aid station, mile 35.91, I was about four minutes behind Karl Meltzer’s 2009 course record pace. As I exited David Horton and Jeremy Ramsey gave me advice. “This is where the race begins” said Dr. Horton. In so many words he instructed me to get my ass up Little Bald Mountain quickly and to pick up the pace even more beyond the final turnaround point at mile 51.56 after I had passed other runners. Once I saw them, he said, run hard. Real hard. I would remember that. Jeremy said that it was on this next 8.85 mile, 4,200 foot climb up Little Bald that Karl had solidified his Grindstone domination. He ran it in 1:55. It is a very technical climb as well, I quickly learned. 1:55 was solid indeed. I think my time on that section was 2:01 or thereabouts. The climb provided me a royal ass kicking as I tried to gain ground on David and Matt, who were reportedly running 20 to 25 minutes behind me.
Jonathan Basham and his wife managed the Little Balk Knob aid station at mile 43.74. They processed me quickly after my entry and I was out in just a moment or two. “See you in 15 miles” JB said, since the course is an out and back I would be returning their way some time either late into the night or really in the morning. I continued to follow the orange, reflective streamers north along the dirt road towards the summit of Reddish Knob. It was a clear, starry night. The harvest moon hung low in the horizon. It was getting chilly; reason enough to keep moving at a steady pace. I arrived at mile 48.19, Reddish Knob and cruised up the road, along the out and back section, arriving back to the aid station still without seeing any other runners. From there I ran a long downhill road section before reaching the final 1.5 mile dirt road climb to the turnaround point atop Gnashing Knob, mile 51.56. Originally I had imagined that the true race among the front runners-if still huddled or in close proximity to one another- would begin after mile 66, on the return climb up Lookout Mountain, however according to Dr. Horton and Jeremy it had already begun and now is when I was supposed to pick up the pace even more. I took down two mountain dews, referring to the cheerful aid station volunteer as ‘bartender’, checked my watch and set about with purpose along the same route back to Camp Shenandoah.
Seven minutes down the hill Matt and I crossed paths. I figured with him running uphill I had about 15 minutes on him. This is much shorter than the 20 to 25 minutes I was told I had on him earlier in the race. The dude was gunning for me. Three minutes later David comes by. Crap! I thought I was further ahead. They either ran down the road section to where we met faster than I had or moved more sprightly up Little Bald- or both. Either way, it didn’t matter and that moment is when I doubled down on my original gamble from earlier in the race. I kicked it up a gear. I ran the road section- the entire road section- all the way back up to Reddish Knob without stopping. Along the way I crossed paths with Frank, Mario, Keith, Patrick and a few others. I didn’t even run into the Reddish Knob aid station or break stride, just moved right by. Shortly after I passed Jason walking; he DNFd at Reddish Knob. Something about getting only three (3!) hours of sleep since Wednesday thanks to a new job. Ouch. I was bummed for him. Aside from a pit stop to answer the call of nature and power hiking a few rollers closer to JB’s aid station at Little Bald, mile 58.72, I continued running. No stopping. No walking. Gap time on Matt and David was the name of the game because I figured they would run the road section hard as well trying to catch up. In fact, I am quite sure that Dr. Horton and Jeremy gave them solid advice, too, spelling out exactly how far back they were and what they needed to do to close the gap! If I was not able to actually make up time on Matt and David on this section than I was at least intent on making them hurt so they would pay for it later on, hopefully providing me a bit of breathing room in the process closer to the finish line. Would this work? Again, I wouldn’t know for sure until later. Would it backfire? I didn't even factor that possibility into the equation. I reached Little Bald and tanked up on water, Gu, chicken noodle soup, coconut water, coke and I think some mountain dew. I have never consumed so much caffeine in a race as I had during Grindstone. Blasted 6pm start!
The return descent down Little Bald to North River Gap at mile 66.55 was hell. I used two lights along this section but it didn’t help the pace much due to the steep, technical, curvy, narrow trails and the masses of ascending runners coming towards me with high beam lights. I figured if I could make it down this damn mountain with my legs still working than the race must be mine. However by the time I finally made it down I was probably 25 to 30 minutes behind on Karl’s 2009 overall split time and I worried that Matt and David’s descending legs might be working better than mine. An aid station volunteer reported that I had in fact made up four minutes on Matt by Little Bald. Well, that was nice. So maybe I had 20-ish minutes on him, I thought. But what about coming down Little Bald to where I was just then? For all I knew he could have been only moments behind me! I broke the hell out of there and climbed back up Lookout Mountain, reaching the first summit ridgeline during sunrise. 30 minutes after leaving North River Gap aid station I heard cheering down the mountain, signaling Matt and/or David’s entry. I had gained time indeed. Plus, I was already on top of Lookout Mountain which meant I could make up even more time.
At this point the comfortable sensation I had enjoyed briefly during the prior evening- running alone at a comfortable pace with no worries of being caught or negative thoughts on my mind- had returned. The sun bubbled up over the eastern mountain horizon, casting a warm, red glowing touch on to the equally red coloring maple leaf canopy surrounding me save for the chocolate brown dirt and old castle grey looking rocky ribbon of ridgeline single track under my feet, which seemingly moved like a conveyor belt under the now tired gaze of my lonesome stare. As much as I loved the colors I was then so fortunate to experience in daylight, and where exactly I was so fortunate to experience them, I felt the night with no sleep- and all of the running- begin to weigh on me. I needed caffeine. Again.
I arrived back at Lookout Mountain aid station, mile 72, then Dowells Draft, mile 80.35, then Dry Branch Gap, mile 87.83. All the while, running when I could and power hiking when I couldn’t. Sometimes that even included a few steep, technical downhill sections. It was touch and go, energy wise, during these morning hours. By the time I reached Dry Branch Gap David’s brother told me Matt had fallen back and David was the next closest runner and was an hour back. A wave of relief came over me as I asked for seconds of Mountain Dew. He and the other volunteers paid compliment, telling me how fresh I looked, as I slurped down the energizing neon-yellow nectar. I let out a gasp, swallowed a burp, thanked them and confessed how under trained and out of shape I felt to be running this race. They looked at each other, then me, and we all laughed. Foot. In. Mouth. Still, I think many readers know what I am referring to. You can have a good race and still feel out of shape, knowing only that your performance was mostly brought on by muscle memory, will power, experience, etc. In the case of me feeling out of shape for Grindstone, I mean just that- physically, I was not prepared. Not by choice but because of my long year of running. I was tired. Wah.
Anyway, I left the fine company of the cheerful volunteers at Dry Branch and motored up the next climb. I felt a renewed sense of energy that I hadn’t felt in several hours. It was full on daylight, which meant I could enjoy the course scenery, and the nearest runner was far enough back not to stress me out as I negotiated the final brutally steep and technical climbs and descents. I reached Falls Hallow aid station, mile 96.67, a few miles after an embarrassingly awkward and painful descent down the steep gravel road from atop Elliot Knob. More soda. More chicken noodle soup. A few more miles of cruising it in and I reached the finish line at Camp Shenandoah, mile 101.85, at 1:41pm on Saturday in a finish time of 19:41. It turned out to be the second fastest finish time in Grindstone history.
|Totem Pole lovin'.|
Clark, Dr. Horton, Jeremy and the entire Lynchburg family of ultra runners and volunteers do a bang up job in hosting Grindstone. Some may ask ‘what’s up with the 6pm start? That’s crazy.’ I say, no. No it’s not. There has always been a time when a race is founded and people question why, why, why? Grindstone is in its fourth year in 2011 and 120 runners toed the line. I am quite sure it will only continue to gain in popularity and thanks in part to its ‘crazy’ start time. One day people will likely look back and refer to such a motive as visionary. Look at the Barkely dude. Or any ultra or ‘crazy’ endurance event for that matter. Who is Gordy Ainsleigh (Western States creator) if not a visionary?
Getting back to the Virginia Triple, I am so grateful, happy and proud that Virginia offers such a classy, difficult and competitive set of 100 mile races in MMT, OD and Grindstone. My sentiment alone (for what it is worth) is a testament to the founder's visions and the immensely hard working stewards of these fine events. To any and all serious ultra runners and endurance athletes, near and far, who have yet to race in these Virginia mountains, I say to you, please consider adding one or each of these events to your calendar. We Virginians promise to take good care of you while our 300 miles of trail kicks your asses!
|WUS podium. Me and Kerry Owens. Second place female.|
|Me and Bobby Gill. UltraJumper, Photographer, Paleo Philosopher, Lulu Lemon product tester and, apparently, Camp Leader.|