What the hell was I doing in a $50 per night hotel room in BFE Alabama on a random Friday afternoon in early November is all I could muster after receiving a text that read “Go Daddy! Run Hard”, with the photo below attached. I wanted to go home.
|Trail at seven weeks, three days.|
Grindstone this year proved yet again to be a rising star among the bubbling inventory of North American 100 mile race options. The number of race entrants were up. Again. Fall colors, temperatures, the competition, etc. were just right. Each of these characteristics prove annual occurrences in the brief five year history that is Grindstone. Plus, I must say, those Lynchburg boys understand proper course engineering; Grindstone’s is spectacular. To those from non-eastern locales: you might be surprised at the elevation differentials and scenery we are blessed with here.
As far as how the race went, that is yesterday’s news. Suffice to say, I am happy with the outcome even though I finished second after leading for the first 40 miles. But if I’m going to lose, which I do a lot, I may as well lose to Karl, who I have lost to a lot. Karl caught me on the climb up Little Bald. We finished the climb together, reached the ridge, where he promptly stepped on the gas a bit, baiting me. I held off, recognizing his tactic instantly and not quite ready for that kind of back and forth. For the next 15+ miles he remained only moments ahead and I could often see him- at least twice he left an aid station as I entered it. I think he may have pushed the outbound Little Bald ridge section just a bit much, even for him, as he tried to gap me. It didn’t quite work. Well, not then at least. He eventually pulled ahead on the inbound descent section of Little Bald; the most brutal section for me of the entire course. My only real plan for Grindstone was to reach the bottom of Little Bald before sunrise and in one piece. I more than succeeded on the first part of this plan, reaching North River Gap aid station, mile 66.5, shortly after 5:00am; however, I felt like hell running down Little Bald and by the time I reached the bottom Karl was 10 to 15 minutes up and my body felt completely worked. I was in no rush to get in and out of North River Gap. I took my time and walked out.
At this point, my buddy and fellow Charlottesvillian, Andrew Krueger, ran with me all the way back to the finish at Camp Shenandoah. “Drew” and I have accompanied one other on many casual long runs and that is exactly what the remaining 37 miles of the race felt like. A fun run with a friend. Unfortunately Karl continued to pull ahead, inch by inch, hour by hour. Then in between miles 70 and 80+ my right hip flexor tightened up. No doubt from over striding up Little Bald hours earlier. Then as a result my IT tightened up, so much so that I stopped to stretch a few times. The down hills were touch and go. Damn shame too because there were a lot, they were long, and along this section- particularly the descent to Dowells Draft at mile 80- exists the most choice, perfectly contoured, picnic-bench-width single track trails of the entire course. We reached Dowells Draft and one of Jason Schlarb’s crew gave me Tylenol for the pain, all of which had centered on my outer leg just above the knee. Blasted Little Bald continued to haunt me.
As the Tylenol kicked in my enthusiasm picked up. Drew and I managed to move fairly well over the final 15+ miles. So well in fact that I somehow continued to bank cumulative time under Karl’s previous course record time from three years prior. Karl was definitely far enough ahead at that point but I wouldn’t be surprised if I gained a few minutes on him over the last few sections. Perhaps his Little Bald ridgeline maneuver finally caught up to him over the final miles, or he was simply comfortable knowing that I was far enough back. Or both. Either way, his 17:13 finish time was sick. Real sick. I equate it to a low 18 hour Wasatch finish time. My time was pretty good, too. I finished before noon on Saturday and a full hour under Karl’s previous course record time. But still, no cigar for me this year at Grindstone. I simply got out run, out smarted and out classed by the goat. Oh well.
On the bus ridge to Heflin, Alabama Saturday morning for the start of Pinhoti I was upset. The picture Gaby texted me the previous afternoon was obviously meant as motivation but instead it made me feel homesick and secretly I was angry to be so far away from my newborn son. I considered using the anger as motivation during the race but anger is not good medicine in a 100 mile race so I felt helpless in terms of where to place these feelings. They lingered. At best I figured the sooner I finished the race the sooner I could get home. This was not actually true because no matter what time I finished the plan was to leave after the awards ceremony Sunday morning and drive the 640 miles back to Charlottesville. Regardless, I attempted to trick myself anyway.
Speaking of the drive, at first glance, the drive southwest from Virginia to Alabama, and vice versa back home, is both beautiful and rugged. The route mostly travels through Appalachian valleys, in the shadow of ridgelines and peaks on either side, including also a few small rises over mountain passes. It was good in many ways, definitely necessary, but also it kind of sucked. Kind of like getting a long, rough massage. It was just a long time to be cooped up in the car is all. I suppose the same could be said of any long road trip; particularly one on the immediate heels of a 100.
Anyway, the main competition at Pinhoti was Yassine Diboune and Jeremy Humphrey. There may have been others but I didn’t know them. With my entry for next summer’s Western States already in the bag I was curious to see how badly these guys, and possibly others, would get after it to nail down a slot of their own. Plus, I was looking forward to running with Yassine again. We ran together quite a bit at Western States this year and I very much enjoyed it. Hopefully Pinhoti would be more of the same I thought. I chatted with Jeremy on the bus ride to Heflin and got a sense of his motivation and training. He was primed for a big day. His elk hunting stories I found particularly interesting. I realized for him Pinhoti was much the same as his adventures in Idaho; he was there for the hunt.
Jeremy took it out hard from the beginning. Too hard, I thought. No doubt his altitude seasoned lungs soared like eagles through the southern lowlands but, Jesus, it was the first hour of a 100 miler. What the hell was he thinking? I stayed with him for the most part for the first two or three hours until finally I was content to let him go. Deep down I knew- I believed- I would see him again. Just how much later I wouldn’t know. Yassine was wiser and hung back but unfortunately after only the first aid station I wouldn’t see him again until the awards ceremony the next morning. Then after only catching a glimpse of Jeremy at the fourth aid station, Highway 431, at mile 22.7, he was gone.
Like at Grindstone and many other 100s before it I was then all alone. Only this time I was alone in an unfamiliar place and at a rare, sensitive moment in time when all I wanted to do was get home. My mind wandered and my body decided that it was finished for the day. Nay, that it was finished racing for the year. Finished competing maybe but finish the race I definitely would. I could still fake it and finish second; I just knew I could. At mile 27+, Lake Morgan Aid Station, I was cruising at about 15 hour pace which meant Jeremy was under 15 hour pace. That’s smoking fast. The forecast for the day was mid 80s and the heat was about to settle in. At Lake Morgan the Race Director, Todd Henderson, informed me Jeremy looked good but that he doesn't do well in the heat. As I exited the aid station what Todd said lingered in my mind. Fine, I figured. I would continue faking my way through Pinhoti, make it back to the finish in Sylacauga and eventually get home, but first I would slowly, very slowly, reel Jeremy in and capture the win. In my mind the hunter was now the hunted.
Except for the climb up Pinnacle in the early 70s, Pinhoti’s 80+ miles of single track is all runnable but the constant snaking, constant up and down nature of its layout makes it hard to gain any sort of rhythm. The remaining 20 miles of Pinhoti consist of 16 along jeep road and four on pavement. The course is point to point. As Todd might say, it’s “pretty cool”. I would agree. And as the day wore on and the heat settled in it beat me down. I walked a lot. I drank a lot. I peed a lot. I munched on Clif blocks and gels every 20 minutes. I swallowed an s-cap every 40 minutes. I drank Coke at every aid station starting at mile 34. Religiously. (I usually start with the Coke at mile 80. That pretty much sums up how I felt early on in the day.) I thought about getting home and halfway through the race I decided to bail on JFK in two weeks and begin my break from running early, which would be the moment I would break the finish line tape at the Sylacauga High School track later that night.
Halfway through the race Jeremy would reach a maximum of anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes up on me. In the latter half of the race his up time would slowly dwindle. At Adams Gap, mile 55, he was about 12 minutes or so up leaving the aid station. I was informed by a spectator that he was not looking so great and he was slowing down. The next several miles consisted of dusty jeep road and I could see Jermey’s foot prints. By his gate I could tell that on some hills he walked when he probably should have been running. It didn’t really motivate me much. I was content with my own pace and was in no hurry to catch up. Rather, I thought, instead of me pushing to catch up early and try to win the race I would hang back far enough to keep him running scarred- never really knowing how close I was- and eventually he would run out of energy even more and lose the race on his own. It was a gamble but since I was faking my way through Pinhoti at that point anyway it seemed like a good plan.
Bulls Gap aid station, mile 85.6, sits at the final high point on the course and from there it is mostly downhill with several rollers mixed in for good measure. Jeremy was up six minutes when I left Bulls Gap. Go time. I ran strong down the long jeep road and first saw his light about 25 minutes later. When Jeremy turned and saw me I felt bad for about a second as I imagined how crushing it must feel to run hard all day and in an instant see a win slip away. At mile 90 no less. As soon as Jeremy saw me I ran hard right at him and blew by. We congratulated each other and I assured him no one was close behind us. That was all. Moments later I was gone from sight.
Shortly after I passed Jeremy the irony of Grindstone set in- I was chasing Karl all over again. No, he wasn’t there but his previous course record from the year prior- which I forgot about after mile 20- suddenly popped into my head. Was it possible to finish under 16:42? I didn’t know but I was more concerned with gapping Jeremy so I continued to run strong. After a few miles I realized it wasn’t possible to run under 16:42 and so I let up a little. The day’s heat, the pace early on and my overall attitude throughout the day prevented such a feat. Eventually I finished in 17:06 but not before getting confused on the course for a few moments and backtracking just before the final stretch of pavement before the finish.
Cheers to all of the fine folks in Alabama for a great race. Congrats to Jeremy and Yassine for punching their Western States tickets. See you in Squaw. Congrats to the top female finishers- Megan Hall in particular- who finished well under the previous fastest course time. Cheers to all of the fine folks in Lynchburg, Virginia as well for a great race at Grindstone. It’s been a very satisfying year in running and now I am fully enjoying a break. It will be December before I run another mile. I’ll miss being at JFK but have no desire to be away from home again, faking my way through an ultra, when I am currently engrossed in work, busy with fun home improvement and woodworking projects and, best of all, watching my newborn son grow practically by the minute.