In December when I began to put my ultra-running race calendar together, The Grindstone 100 was on my list but so was The Badwater 135 and at the time I had know Idea if I would get in nor how I would feel if I finished such an epic event. Ever since I crossed the finish line of the Badwater 135, I wanted more. I really tried to rest and focus on other important things in life like taking care of my mother, who as some of you know is battling late stage lung cancer. I also wanted to support the rest of Joe’s mountain bike season but I couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling inside of me that craved more. It was only the end of July and my season couldn't be over... In between I did some mountain biking and lots of road running with my clients who I'm training for the NYC marathon so I knew I wasn’t completely rusty but was I Grindstone shiny? I decided to fully commit and register for this race 5 days before the start; yes I know a little last minute. Joe and I had to juggle our race schedules and other commitments to see if we could make this work and we did.
We left New Jersey 6:00am on Friday morning for a 6:00 PM start in Virginia, yes a 6:00 PM start. The Grindstone 100 is one of a few races that starts at night. Starting at night adds a whole new dimension to the 100 mile adventure. We made it just in time for the race meeting where we found out the course had changed, guess what they made it longer, lol... We now had to go 1 mile past last years turnaround point. After the meeting we were left with 3 hours to burn so Joe set up the tent and we napped until about an hour before the start. The moment I woke up I started feeling very nervous and a little scared, its a weird anxious feeling, like when you are sitting on a roller coaster and your about to crest the first drop, tick, tick, tick and then the scream follows...
10 minutes to go! I said hi to a couple of familiar faces. I gave Donna Utakis a hug and chatted about who was going to scare the bears away first. I wished her well and we were off. Here we go, we were first greeted with a couple of miles or so of rolling terrain before our first summit approach to Elliott's knob. Oh Elliott's knob how I love thee... The beautiful green wooded areas were quickly being lost to the darkness of night; where is my headlamp? Oh yeah its on my head, lol. A relentless grade began and all nervous chatter quickly ended. The incline kicked straight up, seriously no switch backs here. I look ahead to see if I can catch someone coming down from the summit, nope. nobody. Then I look behind to see if anyone is behind me, nope, nobody, WHY does this always seem to happen? I often find this weird pace where I'm left alone. I continued to press on one slow foot step at a time staring down at my feet. I took a moment to look up and noticed that fog moved in and became so dense, visibility could not have been more than 2FT! I couldn't see lights from headlamps, trail markers nothing plus I knew I had to somehow find an orienteering punch at the top of this mountain in order to punch my number to prove I made it to the top.
Five minutes or so went by I decided to stop to wait to see if people were behind me to make sure I was on the right track. Finally I saw other runners coming from the summit they were yelling out directions, "its up there, go left through the high grass"! OK, great relieved not to be lost. I stumbled around for a bit trying to gain a sense of direction and then found the puncher, by then a train of people caught up and we were headed down. We ran down for about a half a mile or so until we hooked a quick left onto a tight technical single track trail full of loose rocks. Its tricky enough negotiating this terrain during the day but to do it at night takes a whole new set of skills. You have to really trust your technique and know and be comfortable with the fact that you are going to fall.
By this point I'm still awake but looking forward to the first crewed aid station at around mile 23. I was running with a group of people but decided to pull away and ended catching up to a women by the name of Francesca, we spoke briefly but we were a little too distracted by the trail to engage in full conversation. I pulled into the aid station just long enough to replenish my sport gel and fluids. I quickly moved through this aid station knowing that as much as I would love to hang out and chat, unneeded time at aid stations can quickly add up. I had to keep it moving.
Climbing, climbing, did I say climbing! Its time to turn my music on! I also want to take this time to apologize to anyone I annoyed by my terrible singing. The trail continued to climb up and each climb was followed by descents that were just as long. I thought to myself I can’t wait to see what this all looks like again on the way back. We finally were on somewhat of a dirt road and I was able to open up my legs which felt so wonderful! Made it to mile 44 guess who was on his way back already, Karl Meltzer! We stopped at the aid station at the same time, I said out loud, "that’s just sick, crazy, very impressive"! He emptied out his trash which included an ensure for those of you seeking his secret tricks.
I’m still feeling good heading into the turn around. Where is the sun? This whole section was very familiar from last year, I knew I had to summit Reddish Knob and find another orienteering punch. Wow, its getting a bit chilly, time to put on my long sleeve shirt. As I was heading up, Horton told me the 2nd place women was right ahead of me so I thought, hmm that’s interesting. As I was getting to the top, there she was on her way down, "who is that, oh its Francesca". I said hi and told her how cold I was, we were just making small talk... I found the puncher and took a moment to look at the amazing view. I headed down looking forward to seeing Joe and making my way back to the start. Wow this is the longest night ever! I made it to what I thought was the turnaround point, I saw Joe and he said nope (he pointed) you have to continue up 1 mile, I said "are you kidding me, another climb"! He smiled at me and said it will be about 30 minutes or so, he took my bladder and handed me a single bottle which was awesome!
Finally time to make my way back! I’m still feeling good but I know what extreme challenges lie ahead. I sure am looking forward to the daylight! Joe came with me for a bit here, we chatted about the race and who was where, etc... A pacer can join you here but not for me, which is fine as long as I have my music. I left knowing I wouldn’t be seeing him for another 14 miles. Finally the SUN so beautiful! I haven’t been on top of a mountain at peak fall foliage to watch the sunrise in a while. Wow, just glorious at this moment, I feel so lucky to be able to physically do something like this. This part of the race is fun, you get to see many of the other racers, it keeps you entertained for a while. Aid station # 10, Little Bald Knob at mile 59.9 is coming up and I know I have to load up here because what lies ahead can end your race and send you home with your tail in between your legs.
The climbing that lies ahead is just ridiculous, that’s the only way to describe it. I know that just because I'm feeling good now it can all quickly change and it did! Mile 72, my fantastic feelings turned too, are you kidding me! My legs turned to rubber (bambi legs) I almost couldn’t bare to go downhill, it got to the point where I craved an uphill; which is crazy for those of you who know me. I tried some aroma therapy at this aid station, I'm still not sure if that’s what took me down but at that point I would have tried anything. I crawled along dragging my feet like a child, even having a tantrum until I saw Joe riding his bike towards me.
I knew I must be close to the 80 mile mark or maybe not? knowing Joe, he rode over several mountains and I was no where near an aid station. I heard a couple of voices behind me. "Is that a woman's voice", I said to Joe, he said, "yup sounds like it, let me check"... He returned to say indeed it was Kim Gimenez but she’s not doing so well. I thought I better make up my mind if I'm staying in this thing and start picking up the pace or go home.
I got to the aid station and decided to keep moving, I said to myself one aid station at a time, just make it to Dry Branch Gap, aid station #14 at mile 88, so that’s what I did. The climb out of this aid station is one of the worst! I pressed on moving at a snails pace. I just didn’t have any energy, maybe a pacer would have worked well here, maybe next year? I never felt nauseous or sick, my feet were also in fantastic condition, probably due to the fact my toenails never grew back from Badwater. At this point last year my feet were in so much pain I would find myself sitting on a rock and contemplating chopping them off. My energy level was just gone and the “mind movies” were taken over (One of the favorite lines from Tropic Thunder).
I met up with a fellow runner on this part the course, he filled me in on Kim’s status and encouraged me to shuffle so I did but I didn’t only shuffle, I turned it on! I took off until I reached the Elliott's knob section and that part just killed my quads, I again inched my way down the trail hoping I wouldn’t be caught. Man, 100 miles is a long way! I thought to myself, why do I always seem to forget this? I made it down from the never ending dirt hill feeling pretty good, a bit sleepy but good until my fancy footwork landed me face down on the side of the mountain. I literally fell off the side of the trail, this wasn’t my first fall but it definitely was my worst. I laid there for a moment wondering what had happened and hoped I was OK? My wrist started throbbing immediately and I looked around just to realize I was being held from falling any further by a bush. I snapped out of it, crawled back up to the trail, brought myself back up to my feet, stood there looking down to where I fell and then looked behind me to see if anyone was coming. I laughed out loud, switched back on my tunes and made my way to the last aid station.
5.4 miles or so left to go till the finish! Joe hiked in from the aid station to bring me in, I always make the mistake of asking him how many miles to the aid station? He always, always says, "oh like a 100 yards", when several times its been 2 or 3 miles, he does it purposefully and it drives me crazy but he seems to get a kick out of it. The sun was beginning to go bye bye for the second time. I was hoping to finish before the sun went down but you never know what’s going to happen during these wonderful adventures through the woods.
Yes, I can’t believe I am going to finish this great race again. I am feeling exhausted, the sun has set and my feet were slowly jogging along. This is when I started having hallucinations of bears and of Joe coming toward me. I started screaming hello, hello who’s there? What I thought were eyes ended up being reflective tape, lol.. There are a couple of small climbs leaving the aid station and even some sandy sections that I remember pretty vividly from last year where I walked and whined about my pain to David Snipes the whole way to the finish but not this year! I’m feeling good! I start to hear cheering and clapping in the distance, Yes I’m almost there! I pick up my pace around the lake and ran it in. Smiling big because again I beat the demons who tried to take me and I finished more than 1 hour better than last year.
Congratulations to everyone who chose to be a part of this great weekend. Thank You to the wonderful race staff and all the volunteers for creating this well organized adventure and of course to Joe who gave up his own racing plans to crew me and always greeted me with a smile followed with words of inspiration. For those of you who want a wonderful challenge in a beautiful park organized by wonderful people come out and test your limits at the mighty Grindstone 100! I know they will see me again next year! I have a personal relationship with this race due to the fact that I hate when a race beats me up and spits me out, it makes me angry! I will get you grindstone and when I do you won’t know what hit you!