Rock/Creek Race Team member John Brower, on completing the Grindstone 100
It is tough to sit down and write a race report on such as event… it’s is like trying to capture a panorama of God’s creation from the mountain top with a camera. Just doesn’t do it justice. This was by far the hardest thing I have ever attempted to do. With an elevation profile that looks like the devil, Grindstone is the hardest 100-miler in the east, and one of the hardest in the country.
These facts alone lend themselves to ask the question: “why would you do such a race?”
The answer is twofold: the challenge of it, and it is the nearest Hardrock qualifier to me (here in Mississippi).
The course is an out and back, almost all single or double track trail, with a few spots of FS road thrown in, as well as a bit of pavement. It DOES NOT meander through the mountains, but goes STRAIGHT UP them, bypassing switchback ascents and descents, and heads north through the Shenandoahs. This was truly one of the most beautiful and scenic runs I have ever done, with the views of the ridges, valleys, and mountains being breathtaking. The moon was half-lit, so that in the openness of the dark you could run with the trail illumined by God, complete with millions of stars to accompany the awe-inspiring view. In the daylight, the colors were brilliant, with most all of the trees experiencing a vibrancy of color that can only be enjoyed for a few weeks a year. The rain a few days previous had softened the ground, but the rocks were dry. The conditions were ideal.
To be honest, this was quite unlike any 100 that I have done. All of my other 100-milers have been battles, with multiple highs and lows, and numerous “tales” of being out there. This was purely focused. I was determined and confident the entire time. I knew that I had trained as hard as I could have, and I fully expected that training to carry me to the finish.
The race began at 6pm on Friday evening, with the setting sun already casting its shadows upon us at the starting line. The first miles of the race took us to the exit of the Boy Scout camp and gave us a taste of the rocks and climbs that would be common for the rest of the race. The aid station at 5 miles came right on time, and gave a brief respite before the next section that was 9 miles long, with roughly 5000 feet of vert.
From here, the night became a blur, with huge climbs and steep descents to pass the time. One instance in the night does stand out…at one of the aid stations, I couldn’t help but notice a pet pig, on a leash, rustling around in the leaves. Now this in and of itself is an odd sighting at an aid station, but what made it even more strange was the smoker that was going behind the aid station table, and the promise of BBQ sandwiches on the way back. I was really excited at the prospects of the freshly smoked BBQ, but was a bit curious as to the fate of the pig. This gave me something to look forward to on the return trip.
As I approached the rising sun, I knew that two things were getting close. One, the turnaround was coming soon, and two, I would get to see my wife. Bev had flown into Charlottesville at 11:40pm, rented a car, and had driven to the 50-mile mark in the middle of the night… or at least that was the plan. I had marked time through the night by where her itinerary had her next, and by sunrise I knew that, God willing, I would be able to get a hug.
Shortly following the summit of Reddish Knob, I heard a “woooooo” that only my wife can make. I got a quick hug and a kiss, and told her to grab the gear box for some reloading, and that I would be back shortly. I made my way to Gnashing Knob, grabbed the best breakfast burrito I have ever had in my entire life (thick-cut bacon…mmmmmmm), and made my way back to my wife, and back towards the finish.
After a quick refreshing of supplies in my pack, I set off south, knowing that every step now was a step towards home. The plan was to have Bev “pace” me in from mile 80, so now it was time to work through miles 51-66, where I would see her again. This was a tough section for me. I was beginning to fall asleep while I was running, which is never a good idea, especially during a 4000 ft descent. I chugged caffeine and it helped, and I prayed and it helped more. I stayed the course unwavering, with my catch word being “preservation” – easy on the descents, gu-ing every 45 minutes, eating solid food – preserving my body to the finish.
This lends itself to a key insight for 100-mile running: It really is all in your mind. As long as you fuel your body, it can go indefinitely. Working out the things that occur in your head is what gets you to the finish line… how you work them out determines whether you arrive on foot or in a car.
I got to mile 66, fully recognizing the difficulty of what I had done, but cognizant enough to appreciate what I had left. 34 miles is not that far.
Following a pep talk from Bev and another reload on supplies, I set off into the day. It was during this section that I would learn the fate of the pig, and enjoy a BBQ sandwich. As I approached the aid station, with the smell of pork in the air, I noticed my pot-bellied friend was still alive. I am not sure that I really would have cared if I was eating a freshly butchered pig or not, but it was nice to see that he was still alive. I downed the pork sandwich and continued on. Forward.
Mile 80 came, and I changed into a long sleeve shirt, re-upped my pack, and Bev and I set out on the home stretch with no doubts on the finish. As you can tell from reading, I really had no comprehension of time, other than the positioning of the sun, and I could tell that it was to set on me yet again. The last 20 miles had about 5750’ of climbing in two climbs, and as with all the climbing thus far, most of it was straight up. It was on one of these ascents that I saw the Shenandoah valley, with the setting sun showing the brilliance of the colorful trees, and the shadows making the depth of the valley floor that much more awe-inspiring. I stopped and looked at my wife… ”This is why I do these, to see things like this.”
The sun set, our lights came on, and we kept going. Soon enough, we came out of the woods onto the steep decline down Elliot Knob. This was the only time I lost my cool in the whole race. I had thought that the aid station which marked 5 miles left to go was at the base of this road. But it wasn’t. We headed back into the woods, and onto more single track. I did not let on to Bev, but I am sure she could tell that I had lost some steam. Lesson learned: Be more familiar with the aid station locations.
I kept trudging on, determined. A blister had formed between my 3rd and 4th met heads, and was making it nearly impossible to run without searing pain shooting into my foot. The cold air had moved in, and I was going slow enough that staying warm could become an issue. I had to do something quick, so I GOT OUT OF MY HEAD AND KEPT MOVING FORWARD.
The final aid station finally came. I guzzled some coke and some mountain dew, and took off. I was moving now as fast as I could, trying my best to ignore the pain that was now making my whole foot feel like it was trying to bloom out of my shoe.
The trail seemed like a maze now, with intersections well-marked, but my processing speed so slow that it took me a while to convince myself I was going the right way. I came upon a sign that read “1 mile to go”. I told my wife that what that sign meant was that I had already gone 100.85 miles, and should have stopped by now.
On I trudged, down one last steep hazard, and around the lake, where I began to pick up the pace a bit… ”Surely I can run a bit now, right?” I said to Bev. “I’m sure you can” she replied. I ran it in for the last 200 yards, through the entry of the Boy Scout camp and to the finish line, where I hugged a big totem pole, marking the completion of the Grindstone 100, in 29 hours and some change.
So now I have my Hardrock qualifier. Just yesterday I mailed in my application, so we shall see what becomes of me. I will know by the first of December whether this will be the year, or if I will continue to become a “seasoned” runner before I go for it. Until then, I have a date with the Pinhoti Trail in November. VAMOS!