If you want a quick recap of Grindstone, see below. If you want the whole story, I got that too!
- 101.85 miles
- 23,000 feet of gain/23,000 feet of loss
- Out and back course
- Start/finish location- Swoope, Virginia. That’s 1 hour west of Charlottesville.
- 8-hour drive from Nashville
- 6:00pm Friday night start
The goal I told everyone for Grindstone- 22 hours.
My ambitious goal that I only told Kyle and Marcelle- top 5.
Training had gone about as perfectly as it could. I was feeling strong and confident. The first 70 miles were going great, and I was in the top 5. Then the last 30 miles happened. Naturally, I slowed down as one is wont to do after running 70 miles. But I couldn’t rally and keep pushing to maintain my top 5 position. I eventually dropped from 4th to 7th over the last 30 miles. Minus the sluggish finish, I am super pumped with that result and excited to take on more technical and mountainous races in the future. With this training block and race result, I feel like I finally caught a glimmer of my top end potential with this hobby.
This is where I start the race report with a compelling quote that actually took place during the later stages of the race. This quote would highlight something absurd or difficult that would hopefully make you gasp in shock or chuckle in amusement. With the hook fully set, I would then rewind back to the start of the race and eventually bring us back to this “epic” part of the race.
But I don’t have a harrowing tale of triumph nor did I find existential enlightenment. Running 100 miles is supposed to be hard and it was. I don’t mean to sound like 100 miles isn’t a big deal like Karl Meltzer when he says, “100 miles is not that far.” And I don’t think he’s being flippant either. It’s just that it is 100 freaking miles. Yeah, it’s going to be hard. But don’t make a bigger deal out of it than it is. You’re going to have to problem solve and persevere. Don’t be surprised when you want to cry and quit. Just keep moving.
I’ve learned that I need this clear and simple mindset for long races. Delight in the highs. Get through the lows. Just keep moving and enjoy the opportunity to experience so many different emotions. I am far from harnessing the ability to stay resolute and not dwell on the negative emotions towards the end of a long ultra. This mental and emotional challenge continues to drive my interest and curiosity for ultrarunning.
Training for Grindstone had gone just about perfect. Kyle and I were able to get out to Frozen Head and the Smokies for several big weekends to replicate the long ups and downs of Grindstone. People would be surprised at the amount of elevation gain you can accumulate while training in Nashville, but the hills of middle Tennessee are not enough to have one truly prepared for a mountain race with climbs and descents of several miles and thousands of feet. This training block was the most enjoyable I’ve had for any race. I love the Smokies and getting out for so many long days in my all-time favorite place with one of my best friends was awesome.
The least exciting part of this race was the 8-hour drive from Nashville to Swoope. Marcelle and I left Nashville around 4:00pm on Thursday and stopped in Johnson City to stay at Kyle’s parents. This made each driving day around 4 hours.
We arrived at the start/finish area just as the pre-race briefing was starting. Per usual, there was no illuminating information to be gathered during the pre-race briefing. Just a reminder about some tricky navigational spots and to thank the volunteers. They did have some awesome door prize giveaways including some Salomon packs, Black Diamond headlamps, and Z-Poles.
We now had three hours until the 6:00pm start. I spent some time organizing my crew bag for Marcelle and then laid down and attempted to nap. I wasn’t able to doze off, but it was refreshing to lay down for an hour and let my mind rest.
Start to Dowells Draft (0-22)
And we are off! Kyle and I started towards the front and kept a comfortable pace. There were about 2 miles of doubletrack that allowed everyone to get relatively spaced out so that there was not a bottleneck effect once we hit the singletrack.
The race crosses into a state wildlife management area for a 3-mile section towards the beginning of the race. Per their regulations, no ribbons, signage, or trail markers are allowed. There were distinct white trail blazes to follow so navigation wasn’t that bad. Well, it wasn’t that bad until I completely blew past a nearly impossible to see blaze 90 degrees to the right. Before that hard right turn, you are running a fun section of gravel road. I kept motoring on the gravel road until I heard Kyle yelling for me. I have no idea how, but he saw the turn we were supposed to make and got me back on course. We didn’t know it at the time, but the lead pack completely missed this turn as well and wound up running an extra mile.
Not too long after that, we were exiting the wildlife management area and once again had pink ribbons guiding us along.
We hit the first aid station (mile 5.1) and soon began the climb up to Elliott’s Knob. The first couple miles are a gradual climb on nice singletrack. Then you hit a gravel road for the last 2 miles, and it is steep! I couldn’t help but think that this was going to be a terrible downhill at mile 90. Thus started the pattern of making mental notes on the sucky sections that would have to be repeated in reverse on the return trip.
Kyle and I punched our bib atop Elliott’s Knob (mile 10) then started the quick downhill back to the main trail. I opened up my stride and soon found myself back on the rocky singletrack. I could hear someone behind me and yelled asking if it was Kyle but got no response. The Grindstone Gauchos were now solo in their quest to the finish.
The long downhills and technical sections of Grindstone suit my strengths as a runner. I usually get passed and gapped while hiking uphill but will pass others on technical and/or downhill sections. The next 5 miles to Dry Branch Gap aid station at mile 15 were perfect for me. There were lots of rocks that I tried my best to just keep my momentum going and dance my way through. Then a 2.5 mile downhill that I tried to coast without braking or going too hard. I passed several runners and caught up to the lead pack as I entered the aid station at mile 15. I was in seventh place. The top 10 were all within 6 minutes of each other. It was here that I heard the lead runners quickly chatting with Clark Zealand (race director) about their missed turn.
I was in and out of the aid station quickly. I was walking a runnable hill in attempts to let the food settle that I just stuffed down my throat. Chris Roberts, going for his 5th finish, piped up behind me that this was a no walking hill. He passed and I latched on to his pace. I had read several of Chris’s race reports in my research before the race. His past 3 Grindstone finishes had resulted in two fifth place and one sixth place finish. I knew that if I really wanted to go for a top 5 finish, then I would need to be matching his pace early.
Once again, the steep sections of this course were unpleasant and being filed away as downhills to not get excited about on the return trip. I did say earlier that downhills were my strength. That is true. But the steepness of some of those downhills after having 80 miles on your legs was foreboding. I stayed at my own pace on the climb and let the group of runners pull away. Climbing isn’t my strength. No need to push it here. Just wait for the downhills and I can reel them back in.
A nice thing about running at night is that you can gauge your competition quickly and easily by their headlamp. I was losing time on the climbs but closing the gap a bit on brief flat sections.
Finally cresting the climb, it was 4.5 miles of fun downhill to the aid station. I started moving comfortably and catching back up to and passing the runners in front of me.
Another runner and myself entered the aid station to raucous cheers. I thought their level of enthusiasm was strange. Wait, are we in the lead? I quickly found Marcelle, Sara, and Abe. I swapped bottles, my headlamp, stuffed my pack with gels, and was off. I was a bit dazed entering and leaving this aid station. It felt like the long downhill had just ejected me into the aid station. I was not prepared for the aid station circus. It was sensory overload with all the people, lights, and cheers upon entering the aid station. My crew did not mention to me that the other runner and myself were in the lead, but I inferred that we were from their surprise and excitement.
Dowells Draft to North River Gap (22-37)
I left this aid station thinking, What the hell? How and why are you in the lead? You’ve got 80 more miles. Slow down. I took my time over the next 5 steady uphill miles to regain my composure and settle down. Knowing that I was in the lead had left me feeling like I had been working too hard and slightly panicked. I was more than happy to be passed by a few runners and eventually came out of my mental low spot upon cresting the steady climb.
The next 10 miles were a mix of runnable jeep road and technical downhill single track with two aid station stops. I caught back up with the lead pack on the jeep road section. We were all running in sync and enjoying each other’s company. I was thinking, Man, this is so cool. Here we are pushing each other at a nice pace at mile 30. Then bam! My toe caught something and within a few seconds, I had hit the ground, rolled, and popped right back up. I’ve heard of people falling so hard they didn’t know which way was up. That’s sort of what happened. I was instantly back on my feet but oriented towards the opposite direction. I paused, realized the group of runners I was just with were now behind me, turned around, and caught back up.
Not too long after my ninja roll, the group hit Lookout Mountain aid station (mile 30.8). I left the aid station with Holden Rennaker (eventual third place finisher). He too enjoyed the technical sections, and we did a good job of working together to move efficiently through the rocks and soon found ourselves at North River Gap (mile 37.1). But not before I fell one more time. No graceful ninja roll this time. Holden stopped and yanked me back up to my feet. I love the kindness of trail runners.
Holden, myself, and one other runner arrived in second through fourth place. The top 8 were all within the 13 minutes of each other exiting this aid station.
I spent a little too much time in this aid station and Sara did a good job of getting me out. I changed into a dry shirt, swapped bottles, and loaded up my pack with more food for the longest section between crew stops.
North River Gap to Turn-Around (37-51)
This section is a long but steady climb to the turn-around with a few flat and downhill sections. I was mentally prepared to grind it out to the top and was not surprised to get passed and gapped by a few runners on this section.
I finally reached the Little Bald Knob aid station (mile 45) which signaled the long climb was over. The next 6 miles to the turn-around would be steady ups and downs on jeep road and pavement.
It was a little chilly on the ridge, but I was surprised that I never needed to put on my jacket. I usually run cold, but I stayed comfortable with just a t-shirt, arm warmers, and gloves.
I punched my bib atop Reddish Knob then began the gentle 2 mile downhill on pavement to the turn-around. Now was the time to assess how far ahead the lead runners were as they would be making their return trip back from the turn-around. Paul Jacobs (eventual winner) looked fantastic and had a 2 mile lead on me. The next 4 runners had less than a mile on me. Now in 6th place, I was feeling good and hopeful that I would be able to make some time up on the long downhill.
Turn-Around to North River Gap (51-65)
I caught up to the guy in front of me as we hit the Little Bald Knob aid station (57.5). An aid station worker said we were in 4th and 5th. Had I miscounted the runners ahead of me? Were the volunteers wrong? I don’t know. I do know that I had some of the best zucchini bread muffins at this aid station and that was all that mattered at that point in time.
The guy ahead of me was moving well out of the aid station, but I eventually passed him on the long downhill. He was super cheerful and hollered encouragement at me as I moved past him. This section from Little Bald Knob back to North River Gap felt like it took forever. It also seemed like the night would never end. I was longing for the sun and ready to get my head and waist lamp off.
As I descended into the aid station and became more crotchety over being in the dark for 12 hours, I had a brief view of the distant ridges framed by a gap in the trees. It was that surreal time of daybreak when the night gradually gives way to the morning. The stars were still twinkling but the impending light from the distant sun was slowly causing their glimmer to fade. It was a fleeting moment of silent beauty that was further amplified by the ardor of journeying through the woods for 100 miles. It was a halting moment of serenity that made me grateful for experiencing the long night.
I made it to the aid station and was finally able to ditch the lamps. Man, was it nice to take them off! I once again took too long at the aid station, but I was desperate for human interaction. I sat down for a few minutes chatting with Marcelle, Sara, and Abe before heading out for the final 37 miles.
Side note- No matter what the 100 miler is, everybody always says something along the lines of, “It will be so nice when the sun comes up. You’ll get a second wind!” Spoiler alert, there is no magical second wind when the sun comes up. You’ve still been on your feet for hours. Now you can just see better.
North River Gap to Lookout Mountain (65-71)
My aid station lingering allowed Holden to catch back up to me. The information on placement from earlier was correct. I left the aid station in 4th with Holden and his pacer close behind. He must have got briefly lost or stopped to use the bathroom, because he was ahead of me at the turn-around. Motivated by his arrival, the morning sunlight now lighting the way (but no magical second wind), and finally turning on my music had me moving well on this section. Perhaps a little too well.
Lookout Mountain to Dowells Draft (71-80)
I made it to Lookout Mountain aid station feeling great. They told me the guy in front was maybe 5 minutes ahead and stayed a while to eat. Sweet! I made up some time. I’m gonna go catch third place! That didn’t happen.
Had I been running too hard for the first 71 miles? Or had I just run that previous 6 mile section too hard? Had I not been eating enough? Or was I not mentally strong enough to power through and just keep pushing? I’m not sure. I don’t think I had been running too hard. I honestly had felt comfortable most of the day, especially after dialing it back around mile 20. I could have eaten a little more. I think the main culprit was a lack of mental resilience. I had been dreading certain sections in those last 30 miles, and I let that negativity get the best of me.
My music selection did not help either. My run playlist had too much Linkin Park. I was hoping to rage and run hard with my angsty high school musical preferences fueling the charge. But all I could hear were the dark lyrics, which only made me sad and did not make me rage.
Not too long after leaving this aid station, Chris Roberts ran past me on a flat section that I was walking. I’m sure he said something snarky or encouraging, but I didn’t hear him with my music on.
Then a couple miles later Holden and his pacer zoomed by making it look effortless. One day I’ll have that much energy left towards the end of a 100 miler.
I got my last trip and fall in a mile before the aid station, and it was a doozy. A Cage the Elephant song was playing through my earbuds with the chorus of, “If I stumble, will I fall?” How prophetic! I now had a nice cut on my knee and blood oozing down my leg. It didn’t hurt too bad, and the blood running down my leg made me feel cool. And that’s why we do this, to be cool. Right?
Dowells Draft to Dry Branch Gap (80-87)
Having traversed 80 miles is quite the accomplishment. But knowing you have to run 22 more miles to finish is egregious. That’s a standard weekend training run left. Rather than just get to the next aid station, I could only think about the total distance to the finish. Yet another example of my lack of mental fortitude.
I ate some pickles and potatoes hoping to rally while someone was doctoring my knee. The man was very helpful and confident as he cleaned off the dirt and blood. He wasn’t concerned with the cut but thought it was a good idea to try and clean it up. Was this guy a doctor? I asked him. “Yeah. Well kind of. I’m an eye doctor.”
It was a slow and steady hike uphill, then a downhill shuffle to the Dry Branch Gap aid station. I hit my lowest point of the day. I was moving slow and still had 15 miles to the finish with a big climb and lots of rocks, followed by the super steep gravel road descent off of Elliott’s Knob. If quitting was an option I would have. But that option did not exist. In one more attempt to rally via food, I ate some gels, potatoes, and pickles. It was too much, too fast. I didn’t vomit, but the thought of eating anything else for the remainder of the race made me want to.
Dry Branch Gap to Falls Hollow (87-96)
Marcelle finally kicked me out of the aid station and my quest continued. The last big climb of the day awaited.
It was around this point that I realized how nice it is to do most of this race in the dark. In the daytime, you can see just how long the climbs are. But in the dark, the limited beam of your headlamp keeps you oblivious!
I finally made it to the top. The downhill sucked, but I survived. A little under 2 miles to the aid station, I had somehow managed to catch up to someone. Wait, what? Do I have anything left in the tank? It was a steady downhill, which I could still move decently on, and I slowly caught up to him as we made it to the aid station. Could I finish strong and work my way back to 5th place? No.
Falls Hollow to Finish (97-101.85)
The guy ahead of me left the aid station 30 seconds ahead of me. I turned my music back on (Foo Fighters, no more Linkin Park) and was gonna see what I had left. Not much. I could shuffle the flats and downs, but not much was happening on the uphills. He pulled out of sight for good over the next 2 miles. I made peace with that and just kept on moving. Then about 3 miles from the finish, some guy I hadn’t seen all day goes blazing past like he’s running a 5k while I’m picking my way through the creek bed trail cursing life. Good for you man. Way to finish strong.
I kept on moving. The lake finally came into view. Then the gravel road back to the finish. Then the finish line. I did it. I was able to keep moving just quick enough to sneak in under 21 hours.
I finally plopped down in a chair to take my shoes off and had two epic blisters like I’ve never had before. There were blisters underneath each of my second toes. I don’t know how, but they weren’t causing any pain and had not bothered me all day.
I’m very happy with my end result. I did not achieve my ambitious goal of top 5, but 7th place is still pretty good. I liked going without a pacer. Maybe it would have helped to have a pacer with me to push me or keep me on a better eating schedule. But I liked the challenge of going at it alone. I’m looking forward to battling the mental woes during my next 100 miler. It will take discipline to stay focused on the next mile or aid station rather than getting overwhelmed by the total distance to the finish. I also need to work on continuing to push myself towards the end. Of course, I’m going to be exhausted and feel terrible, but I could have ran more in those last 30 miles.
I’m so thankful that Marcelle was able to hang out with Sara and Abe for most of the race as Kyle and I were hitting aid stations around the same time. Knowing she had company meant that I felt less of a burden for her being out there on her own. Sara and Abe were also able to help me out at several aid stations. Spending the weekend with the Jacobson crew made it much more memorable. Kyle got it done in 22:53 for 13th place. Well done! Shout out to Claire, Marcelle’s best friend from college, who drove over from Richmond to crew with Marcelle for the last 15 miles.
I’m so grateful to have the support of Nashville Running Company and Spring Energy. Lee has done a fantastic job of building a strong running community in Nashville through his small business, and I’m honored to represent his store. From making gels in his kitchen and passing out his concoctions from the trunk of his car at the end of group runs in Nashville, Rafal has quickly grown Spring into the premier running nutrition company. I’m definitely not worthy of continuing to be an ambassador compared to the list of ambassadors he has now, but I’ll always be using Spring for my training and racing. Throughout the race, I consumed 50 various Spring gels in all.
And the biggest thanks to Marcelle. You know how much I care about this silly hobby and how important running is to me for my mental health. You always encourage me to get out the door for a run when I feel bad about leaving you behind.