Baby's First Hundo (Grindstone 100)
This is going to be a really tough one to write because so much happened and I have so many feelings that are hard to put together into words, but here goes…
If you’ve been following my journey, even just for the last few months, then you probably know that I’ve been looking forward to running a 100-miler for a long time now. I started running less than 6 years ago, and 3 years ago when I learned about ultramarathons, I made running a 100 miles my goal. I’ve been working my way up the distance ladder ever since starting with my first half marathon just a little over 3 years ago. So needless to say, this weekend was a big deal. I consider the last 3 years part of training for this race, but the last 3-4 months have been specifically Grindstone Training. I’ve laid off the weights a lot and have chosen to make mileage and vert more of priority than strength-training (I miss lifting!), and also heading to bed early to keep fatigue at bay. I’ve spent a lot of time in the White Mountains between doing a Presidential Traverse, Pemi Loop, and Wildcats-Carters-Moriah Traverse (all of NE’s toughest day hikes!) and a trip to Kauai provided lots of mountain adventures as well. The tough thing about training in NE is while we have a lot of mountains and hilly terrain, we lack the sustained climbing needed to replicate the Grindstone course. Also, our mountains a lot more rocky and technical than the ones on the Grindstone course, but at least I still got the vert in and the long days in the mountains allowed me to practice being self-sufficient and build that mental toughness. Overall I think I trained really well for this race and was 110% prepared. I did manage to sprain my ankle about two weeks before, but it seemed recovered enough (ha!) to run a 100 miles on it. Well, it would have to be at least.
Grindstone 100 starts in the Shenandoah Valley in Swoope, Virginia. It’s a 50 mile out and back through the Allegheny Mountains with roughly 23,200 feet of gain (highest point being Elliots Knob, 4463 feet). The course consists of a little bit of everything, from smooth flowy pine needle trails, super technical single track with wobbly slabs of rock, washed out fire roads, and plenty of steep ascents and descents that make you want to beg for mercy. If that doesn’t sound hard enough, the race starts at 6pm on Friday night. Runners have until Sunday morning (38 hours) to finish.
No pacer, but I did head down to VA with my husband as my one and only crew member. He has experience crewing for 100-milers and I knew he wouldn’t let me quit no matter what. Also, I figured he’d handle my grumpiness and stubbornness during the race well, after all, he’s married to it. We got to Staunton, VA Thursday afternoon, where we got a hotel for the weekend, about 20 minutes from the start line. Thursday consisted of gathering crew materials and getting as much rest as possible. Friday morning I tried to sleep in before the 2pm pre-race briefing, but I was still up at 6:30am. After the briefing at Camp Shenandoah, where the race starts, we met up with friends who were also running the race. It was neither of my friend’s first 100s and they seemed relatively at ease before the race, so I fed off that attitude. As coach says, it’s just running right? It was a lot hotter and way more humid than anticipated, so I started with the tailwind even before the race started. Before I knew it, it was time to line up. I started at the front which I rarely do at bigger races, but I felt like I deserved to be there… wow.. first time I’ve ever said that! The race director created a seeded entry list and I was listed as 10th female so I proudly wore a 110 bib. Felt like I had on a Western States F10 bib! Clark Zealand said a prayer before the gun went off. I am not a religious person, but as soon as I put my head down I immediately starting crying as I thought about my grandfather. I had recently found out that my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and is preparing for surgery. He is the TOUGHEST person I know and is where I get my stubbornness (AKA determination) from and is one of the closest family members I have. I was heartbroken when I found out the news and have kept it a bit of secret. I was running for him that weekend and wanted to make him proud.
The first 5 miles were uneventful, as they should be at a 100-mile race. My goal for the race was 24-26 hours and I really wanted that sweet sweet top 5 finisher Patagonia jacket, but it was my first 100, so really I would’ve been happy with anything. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I had a feeling from looking around that I was already in 5th or 6th place. I could already feel the humidity and the falling darkness didn’t provide much of a cool down. The first big climb was up Elliot’s Knob. Outbound runners had to punch their bib at the peak of Elliots Knob (mile 8ish) and Reddish Knob (mile 48ish), but coming inbound we didn’t have to go all the way to the top. Phew! Not too far from the top, I saw my speedy friend Jason Mintz come barreling downhill while chatting with some other fast runners. The higher we climbed, the more foggy it got. It was almost impossible to see anything at the top but the orienteering punch for the bib was easy to find thankfully. Back downhill, then left onto some beautiful single-track. Beautiful I think? It was so damn foggy.
My plan for the first 50 miles was to take it as easy as possible. Powerhike even the smallest hills (fact: there were no small hills) and slow down any time my heart rate went up. I also started taking in gels and clif bloks every 30 minutes right from the start, while sipping on Tailwind and water. I was wearing an Ultraspire waistlight and a Petzl headlamp, but still the fog made it hard to see the trail, so I slowed down on any rocky sections, really worried about rolling an ankle yet again. Anytime a runner was close behind, I’d stepped to the side. I really wanted the solitude of running alone in the dark, plus other runner’s headlamps made it even harder to see. I had to pee right from the start of the race, so right before the mile 14 aidstation, I pulled off onto what I thought was a side trail to pee. When I got up and started running again, I realized I had peed right in the middle of the actual course. Thank god no one came running by! Mile 22, Dowell’s Draft, was the first crewed aidstation and I could hear and see Jeff, my husband, right away. He had a full set-up for me with a table cloth covered with everything that was in my drop bags all spread out. It was perfect! He also informed me I was in 5th place. Happy to be in the top 5, but nervous about being there so soon in the race. I switched out gels and bloks, and took some more tailwind. He offered me some Taco Bell cinnamon sugar twists which I refused. He said “just try one!” so I did, and they were amazing, so I ran out of the aidstation with handfuls of them!
I was running mostly alone now, fully caffeinated, riding the first 100 mile high. Parts of this section were pretty rocky, so I slowed down a bit and a female runner came zooming by me. Not only was it foggy and dark, but it had rained a little so everything was pretty slippery, but she ran across the rocks like a little firefly. Now I was in 6th, but I didn’t care. It was way too early to be worried about it. My favorite part of this section was running across a suspended bridge not really knowing what was underneath. Soon after this though, the side stitches came. I’ve been plagued with them before, doesn’t matter how fast I’m running or how much water/salt I’m taking in. I held my side and did some breathing technique that involves taking a deep breath with your arms up, then folding over. Yes, I did this while running. It worked though!
Next crewed aidstation was at mile 37, North River Gap. It was very overwhelming. Jeff was there immediately helping me with nutrition and a very eager volunteering was lecturing me on the 5-mile climb coming up. I mentioned the side stitches and the fact that I was already sick of the tailwind and they were both trying to prescribe me things. I didn’t want to be prescribed anything, I just wanted a second to complain, grab some gels and go, and also wanted the eager volunteer out of my face, even though I know he was just trying to be helpful. This was the last time I’d see Jeff until mile 65, so I was also feeling anxious about that as well. I switched the tailwind for a bottle of watered down ginger ale and Jeff shoved a bag of earth balance vegan cheese crackers and an avocado vegan mayo bacon bits wrap in my bag. He gave me the look of “oh no, I won’t see you for hours” and I gave my best smile and said “see ya when it’s light out again!”. Leaving the aidstation, I saw the 4th and 5th female heading out as well, and I heard Andy Jone-Wilkins say “what a women’s race!”. Even though it was too early to be racing, I couldn’t help by grin.
Not far up the long climb to the ridge that would take us to Reddish Knob and then the turn-around, I passed the 5th female. She seemed like she was in a lot of pain, so I gave an awkward, great job, and continued on. At this point the hallucinations were full-on. I didn’t know you could hallucinate when you weren’t tired, I was super high energy, but apparently anything can happen in the dark after hours of running. I saw the cutest little donkey that looked like a cartoon character in a kids show, lots of little eyes watching me, and a man in a striped sweater kneeling down that I related to Freddy Krueger. That one made me a bit scared. I am running alone, in the middle of the night, in remote mountains in VA. To keep me on track and keep the scary thoughts away, I started singing the alphabet and twinkle twinkle little star (did I mention I’m an infant teacher?). Before I knew it I was at the next aidstation. I started asking the volunteers for bottle refills and then looked down to see my friend Jason sitting in a chair, not looking so hot. My stomach dropped. I didn’t really know what to say and I left the aidstation worried and wishing I had said more, but it wasn’t his first rodeo and I figured he’d be ok. Leaving the aidstation almost at the same time was the 4th place female again. Still was not time to chase her so I let her take off. The ridge that night was so beautiful, so many stars in the sky, and I was really loving this nightrunning thing. I saw a runner coming towards me in the opposite direction, and I thought he may be lost, so I asked him if he was ok. He said was CRUISING, and mumbled a “umm yeah I’m fine”. Finally I realized it was the first place male coming back from the turn around. Whoops!
Climbing up the paved road to Reddish Knob was really eerie in the fog. The 4th female was right there punching her bib at the top as well as a male runner. The moon was so awesome looking and in my tripped out daze, I turned off my headlamp for a second to appreciate it, and made sure to point it out to the male too. Back down the paved road. Less than 2 miles from the turnaround now, but they seemed endless. It was the first time so far during the race where I was feeling antsy. After running for so many hours in the dark in the opposite direction, I just wanted to turn around and watch the sun rise. First, 2nd and 3rd female passed in the opposite direction. First place especially looked really strong and was grinning ear to ear. I got to the turn-around at 6:05am. Almost 24-hour pace. ALMOST 24-HOUR PACE. And the 4th female was yet again right there. Someone tried to get me to sit down and I gave them an “are you kidding me?” look, swapped out gels and bloks, and refilled my bottles switching to one bottle of water and one bottle of watered down coke. 4th place left with a pacer and I left the aidstation going in the wrong direction. Thank god for volunteers!
I used the long climb back up the paved road to refuel and I also really had to go potty. When I couldn’t see anymore lights, I stepped off the road and squatted down. When I stood back up to pull up my pants, I noticed a burdock plant in my shorts liner. NOOOOO! If you’ve ever encountered these plants, then you know it’s the last plant you want to pop a squat on top of. My groin area and back side were covered in these spiky little plants and I spent the next few miles plucking them out. To ease the pain, I pulled out one of Jeff’s delicious avocado vegan mayo bacon bit wraps, and it tasted amazing mixed with my bottle of watery coke. In between bites I was tucking the wrap into my shorts which made me feel like a vegan superhero. My friend Jason retaliated and zoomed past me running uphill. A friendly reminder of how fast things can change in these races. I could see the headlamps of the 4th place female and her pacer up ahead. I still didn’t think it was the time to race but without much effort I was getting closer and closer. As I passed by, her pacer said something to her in another language and she sped up as if to chase me but then slowed back down. The sun was rising now and I knew it’d be a hot day, so I was being extra cautious about water and salt intake. I couldn’t take in anymore bloks, but gels were still good.. certain flavors though. It’s so funny what your body all of a sudden wants nothing to do with. Chia latte gels = amazing; chocolate espresso gels = vomit. Now that the sun was up, I just wanted to get to North River Gap to see Jeff again. I was excited to show him how well I was moving and for him to see that I was two places ahead of where I was when he last saw me. Getting to mile 65 though seemed impossible. Positive side of this long stretch was seeing the runners coming in the opposite direction. Some were more cheery than others, but it was just nice to see other faces. I passed my friends Michael Barrett, Christopher Agbay and Harry Mattison, and everyone seemed to be doing great and I saw some other familiar faces as well. Then before I knew it, I caught up to Jason again. Me, him and another male runner, were swapping places depending on who was running and who was powerhiking. The long descent back down to North River Gap seemed a lot more technical than I remembered, especially on tired legs, so it made that stretch seem even longer. Before making it to the aidstation, I passed both dudes.. fuck yeah.. and there was Jeff waiting for me. I applied squirrels nut butter on every inch of my body, removed the shirt, loaded up on nutrition, and headed off again. Leaving that aidstation is when shit got real.
I walked most of the next section. I had run out of water before that aidstation so I focused on refueling and drinking before using anymore energy, but when I went to run, my legs were suddenly a lot heavier. It was pretty warm now too and even though most of the course was in the trees, there were wide open stretches in the open sun that zapped the energy right out of you. My watch died a couple miles passed the aidstaion, which was also a buzzkill. I pulled out another watch but couldn’t get GPS signal. Now I didn’t even notice how many miles I had left before seeing Jeff again. Even though I was in and out of aidstations really fast, seeing him was clutch. Now that I was moving slower, the next crewed aidstation seemed further and further away. I got to the Lookout Mountain aidstation sometime around “blaze o’clock”. The volunteers, who were super helpful, let me know that the 3rd place female was only 13 minutes away and wasn’t looking great. The next section before the crewed aidstation was a long one and they gave me a little pep talk on nutrition before sending me off. They were awesome and made me feel like I was going out to war, which I kinda was. More miles, more climbing, more descending, and some super obnoxious mountain bikers, and that aidstation was still nowhere near. I finally just turned on my watch even without it connected to the GPS and two miles later, I was at Dowell’s Draft again.
Mile 80, 20 miles left to go. My stomach only wants gels now. Let me repeat that.. my stomach ONLY wants gels now. Weird right? 3rd place female is at the aidstation with her pacer and takes off as I’m running in. Everyone tells me I’m looking great and Jeff tells me, she’s not. Seemed unfathomable that someone could be looking worse than me. I’m still eating every 30 minutes. Drinking a shit ton of fluids (in fact running out of fluids between aidstations). And overall my body feels good, I just don’t want to run anymore. Jeff says “it’s only 8 miles to the next aidstation” and I snap back “another HARD 8 miles”. And that’s really the theme of the course. Long up, long down, and then you’re at an aidstation. But I head off hopeful about taking that 3rd place spot. About a 1/2 mile later. I hear her and the pep was immediately put into my step. We exchange some words as I pass and I try to hide my shit eating grin. Can’t get too excited when there is still hours left to go. I speed up to try to create some gap, but then my legs bring me back to a slow jog/walk. Climbing feels amazing, jogging downhill is doable but my legs do not want to run at all on the flats. Seemed liked forever, but I’m at mile 87 and there’s Jeff again.
The next section is the hardest of the course. 4ish miles back up to Elliot’s Knob (although spared the last 0.3 miles to the top) and then a long steep descent back down. Last big climb of the course. Seems nearly impossible that I’ll make it without crawling, but Jeff hands me my phone loaded with a Spotify playlist and headphones. I never listen to music with I run, but if there’s ever a time to, it’s now. It was make or break time, and music was going to be my pacer. Immediately Beyonce comes on and I’m powerhiking. And giggly. Powerhiking to Beyonce on the side of a mountain in VA is nothing I ever thought I’d be doing. It’s steep but I’m laser focused on moving as hard as possible up this climb. It seemed to work, although the music was making me start to hallucinate again. As soon as I got to the road back down to the mile 96 aidstation, those headphones were out.
I usually love downhill running, but that downhill to Falls Hollow (mile 96) was not pleasant. I jogged down as much as possible, but also took a few downhill walking breaks. I was so exhausted that I felt like I was going to topple right over. The view though was stunning, albeit hard to enjoy. I made it to Falls Hollow in one piece and now I only have 5 more miles to go. Jeff mumbled something about 4th place and although he didn’t say it, I thought maybe she was right behind me again. Or maybe 5th place was? 3rd place felt great and I really didn’t want it taken away from me so close to the finish. Time to give it my all.
Those last 5 miles were tough. I’d push hard, but then have to slow down to walk. The terrain was rolling and I couldn’t run any sort of uphill. There were also some technical water crossings that I had to hobble across. One of my knees was totally gone know and kneeling down to get across was so painful. I kept hearing female voices, but it was just hallucinations. I thought about my grandfather a lot, and about how he wasn’t going to let cancer beat him, and how compared to what he may have to go through, this was nothing. I also thought about my journey leading up to this day, how much this race meant to me. My stomach sank as I entered into Camp Shenandoah. Up until this point, I thought I was moving so slow that I’d finish around 25-26 hours, most likely in the dark. I even had my lights on me. It wasn’t until this moment I realized I was so close to 6pm, 24 hours. I wanted to get excited with less than 2 miles ago, but I couldn’t. It still felt like anything could happen. Even when I was running around the pond, just a 1/4 a mile away from the finish line, I still was worried about falling over and not making it there. Finally two little boys playing ball stopped to cheer me on and point me into the finishing chute. My strong, laser focused composure held strong until crossing the finish line. As soon as I crossed, I lost it. Hyper-ventilating and all as I hugged my husband, who then said “you forget the buckle!”. I was so emotional I didn’t even grab my Grindstone 100 buckle. The shiny piece of gear I’ve been dreaming about for years.
18th overall out of 250+ starters
Hottest Grindstone 100 ever!
This weekend was amazing and a few days later, it still feels like just a dream. I worked so hard for this and I am a ball of emotions. I might have to write a separate blog post because I seriously can’t put these thoughts into words but I’m so so happy. I need to thank my coach, Scott Traer, for his amazing training and words of wisdom leading up to race day. I’ve learned so much from him and felt like he was running next to me many times during the race. I also need to thank my husband, crew extraordinaire, for being such an amazing crew. Not only was he clutch for me, but he helped many other runners out there. I couldn’t have done it without him. And finally.. thanks everyone for all the support the last few months, and pre- and post-race. I have been so overwhelmed with support and feel so damn lucky.
Shout out to Clark Zealand (Grindstone Race Director) and all the amazing volunteers. Most well-marked course I’ve ever run and the best race swag! Highly recommend checking out this beast coast race! Also huge congrats to everyone who finished and a special congrats to Shannon Howell for her first place finish and new female CR!