Race Report: The 2008 Grindstone 100 Mile Ultra “The Shadows of a Headlamp” by Elizabeth Azze

I survived the 1st annual Grindstone 100 Mile Endurance Run held over the weekend of Oct 3rd in Swoope, Virginia. The race course started at Camp Shenandoah boy scout camp and proceeded 50 miles through the George Washington National Forest. This course was an out and back style race, ascending and descending many mountains, accumulating a total of 46,000 feet in elevation gain & lost within 100.73 miles. The Climbs and descents were endless and very technical, making the already long quad thrashing climbs even more insane.

Thursday October 2nd Joe and I started our drive from New Jersey to Virginia, once again embarking on an unknown journey. Some people visit places to tour cities or go to places of historic interest. Ultrarunners get to visit places through the exploration of nature and the outdoors. I may not have gotten a chance to visit Woodrow Wilson's birthplace but I got to spend 27 plus hours within the wooded regions of George Washington National Forest and the Shenandoah Mountains exploring my limits of endurance.  

The mandatory race meeting started at 1:00 p.m. The psychological part of the race already started.  After the meeting we were left with 4 hours before the race start to have our minds run wild. Some may have been able to rest but not me. I was nervous, almost afraid about the adventure that I was about to start. During those hours we organized my clothing, batteries, socks, shoes, and nutrition into Ziploc bags that were easy for Joe to access during his crewing duties. Then we set up my rest tent in little tent city that started to form outside the start. Joe made us some food while I faked sleeping for around an hour or two.

The Grindstone 100 started at 6:00p.m, which is unusual for a race but I guess the sport is all about overcoming obstacles and a night time start just added to the challenge of it all. 6:00pm was nearing, I still didn't know what I was going to wear; tights or shorts, the temperatures could get as low as 30º. I tend to get cold easily but I also new there was a lot of climbing ahead and my body temperature would be pretty high so I opted for shorts and a long sleeve top, which turned out to be the perfect combo. My choice of shoes on the other hand didn't work out so well. I had three options a stable pair with great traction, a lighter pair with medium traction and the pair that I should have went with from the start.

6:00pm, 74 people toed the starting line, 14 of us, women. As we took to the trail, I told myself to run your own race don't get caught up in the many trains that were beginning to form, even if I didn't want to face the 12 hours of darkness alone I rather go my own pace in fear it would catch up to me later. I went into this race kind of blind, I may have glanced at the elevation profile once or twice but I didn't study it and maybe I should have.

The first part of the course was pretty much an uphill battle to the top of Elliott knob which stood at 4,400 feet, the single track trail widen to what seemed to be a gravel road that went straight up without any switchbacks. I think that was a major difference between this course and others, that most of climbs were straight up offering little relief to catch your breathe or rest your legs. Half way up the climb the headlamps and flashlights came on, I thought to myself here we go, its time to follow a beam of light for 12 hours.

I do like to run in the dark, its quite fun and spooky. The darkness adds to the intensity and adventure of the whole experience. It’s also a good time for me to fool myself about the length of the climbs and the difficulty of the course. When I made it to the top of Elliot Knob, I took a moment to shut off my headlamp and look up at the star filled sky. Its has been a long time since I have seen so many stars, I almost got lost in a dizzying gaze, then I remembered I have to find an orienteering punch to punch holes in my bib to show that I made it to the top of this mountain and completed this part of the course. 

Night time seems to go by a little faster for me. I don’t know if it’s because it sparks my overactive imagination and fear from childhood about Jason from Friday the 13th or a lurking bear and the many glowing eyes that are watching you but you can’t see them. The darkness is very much aware of your presence as you are of it. It seems my pace would quickened as if I could sprint my way to sunrise and to the start of a new day. 

The trails were pretty technical for the most part; we traveled through the rockiest of trails, laden with many loose rocks and sections of the trail were on a slant for miles. During the first part of the race I just kept telling myself it is going to be easier on the way back at least that’s what I was told, and I was looking forward to actually seeing the beauty that was lost in the darkness on my return trip.

Before the sun began to rise my feet were telling me to change shoes, the endless and I mean endless uphill and downhill sections were killing my toes. The shoes had ample toe room and they fit well; they just weren't the best choice for the terrain. At about mile 55 or so my toes were getting worse, they were forcing me to slow down on all of the downhill sections, the unpleasant sensation occurring was hard to get past. I kept thinking I was going to see Joe soon but then I remembered one of the aid stations had to be moved at the last minute which increased the mileage from six or seven to nine miles between aid stations and this was not the worst of it, these aid stations were one's that crew couldn’t get to so it turned out to be 13 miles until I would be able to meet Joe and change my shoes.

Within those few extra miles my toes and feet began to really fall apart. I finally reached the aid station and had an opportunity to change my shoes, but it was too late, my toes were badly bruised. They were so sensitive I could barely put my socks on. By this point it was about 10 am or so and I was at my breaking point, with many more miles to go, my pain combined with sleep deprivation left me in a position of just trying to get from one aid station to the next without bailing on the whole thing.

I was now leaving the aid stations dreading the miles ahead knowing that at the speed I was forced to go each mile was going to take 3 times as long to tackle. Joe would leave with me at the aid station for a mile or two to try to keep me motivated and would tell me he would meet me a couple of miles in from the next aid station to bring me in.

So for the next 30 miles I would slowly make my way up the long climbs and carefully navigate my way down the mountains. I usually look forward to hammering down hill but now they had to be negotiated with great care and effort. I would try to do anything to get down the hill faster, side ways running, running backwards, anything that would get me down quicker? It was brutal every foot placement had to be planned out, this tedious, monotonous way of travel pissed me off. I found it very difficult to find anything positive to think or say other than I couldnt wait to see Joe again. More than ever I realize how invaluable having a crew is. I was experiencing a true low, screaming at times just to relieve my frustration and hopefully scaring away some bears in the process. 

Between miles 80 and 90 I had a couple of positive moments, telling myself just get too the finish line, I can do this. I would force myself to stop moving and look around so I could capture the moment to take notice of the beauty surrounding me. In these moments I forced myself to look beyond the pain to remember how much I enjoyed this sport and the pain I was feeling made me respect and appreciate my good health. I realized how grateful I was to have such opportunity to experience the world as I do and knowing before long that this race would be over and I would be looking forward coming back again next year.

Wow!!! I made it to mile 94! I recognized a man by the name of David Snipes; we actually met at the beginning of the race, he was with 2 or three other runners. It was funny to see him again, seeing how I played cat and mouse with him and his mini crew for a large part of the race. We would see each other at aid stations and during various parts of the course. I was very reluctant to join his group in fear of their pace being a little too fast for me and I also felt like running alone.

At this point we were into our second night. Being totally sleep deprived and a little out of sorts, it was important to have some company on the trail for safety and a positive distraction so Sniper and I joined each other for the last 5 miles sharing our stories of pain and how this course kicked our butts.  We realized that we shared many of the same friends, one of them being Phil Rosenstein who while we were trying to get to the finish line of a 100.73 mile foot race, he was trying to get to the finish line of his own epic adventure which was his own race across our beautiful country. I just have to take moment and say way too go Phil, only 1300 miles to go!!!

We all have different reasons of why we do the things we do and our reasons tell different tales. Most of the time you feel forced to answer the question of why? I’d say some questions don’t not need to be answered, you just need to experience it for yourself.

What kept me in this race other than perseverance was the role I play in others lives. I thought about my clients and Joe, and how we choose to live our lives supporting each other and pushing each other towards our goals. This one wasn’t about me, it was about you. So mighty Grindstone, I will be back and I encourage any of you to do this race. It will test every part of the human spirit. Once again a big thank you to all the volunteers, Joe and the race director’s Clark Zealand and David Horton for putting on such a great race!