Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Grindstone 100 - 2nd 100 Miler

Stumbling along this rocky trail in the pitch black woods and I am horrified because I realize I have no idea where I am going. There are several trails that connect to other trails and a few dead end trails for new construction. One of the trails I know will lead back to Grindstone so I head down one  in the opposite direction. I'm desperately trying not to walk any further than absolutely necessary and I want to go to bed. I really want to go to bed. "Take a left, then there is a trail, and then another trail." Those aren't directions. Why didn't I say something? I am lost! 
Holyaxemurderer who is that standing in the woods? 

  • October 7th, 8th and 9th 2011 
  • 101.85 Miles on an out-and-back course 
  • Over 46,000 feet of total elevation change 
  • Technical Terrain 
  • 6PM start in Swoope, Virginia 
  • 38 hour time limit with intermediate cut-off times 
  • 15 Aid Stations 
  • A well marked course although not overly reassuring for first timers 
  • 118 starters and 85 finishers (72%) 
  • Neal Gorman 1st place for Men in 19 hours 41 minutes 
  • Debbie Livingston 1st place for Women in 24 hours 58 minutes 

Nicknamed the "The hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian"

Training and 2nd 100 Miler Mental State
Shortly after I completed Massanutten as my first 100 (the toughest 100 east of the Rockies), I signed up for Grindstone (the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian). Sometimes the only difference between brave and foolish will be the end result. As Grindstone began to approach I started to consider what I had really signed up for:
  • A race run mostly at night 
  • Climbs that last twice the heights and lengths of the climbs at Massanutten. (Uphills for 7 to 9 miles) 
  • 30% more elevation change than Massanutten 
  • A 6PM start so the sleep and food cycle will be off 
  • The distance between Aid Stations increases near the end of this 100 miler
Massanutten was truly a great life experience for me. But I really had to dig deep to finish that as a first 100 and my pacers Jim and Seth saved me in that race.

About 6 weeks prior to GS (Grindstone)  I wasn’t really sure yet about my fitness because it had been a busy summer. In 9 successive weekends I had travelled to VT, a race in NJ, CT, NH, Boston, Miami, WV and then two weekends in Jordan. I still trained, but it wasn’t the ideal check-the-box-on-the-training-plan-every-week kind of training.

With only 3 weeks to go before the race my peak training week reached 80 miles. This was a turning point and suddenly I felt confident and strong. I hadn't worked on speed but I still I tested it and ran a 6-minute mile on a slightly longer run. I was now ready for Grindstone.

Pre-race Briefing
For the safety of the runners, it's policy to weigh us in at the start and then check us again at miles 35.9 and 66.6. The weigh-in was followed by a light meal and then Clark Zealand, the Race Director, began the briefing. He kept it interesting by pausing to play Ultrarunner Santa Clause and hand out raffle prizes from many of the sponsors. The highlight, I think, was a guest star appearance by ultrarunning legend Dr. Horton. Surprisingly, instead of giving us useful course information, advice or inspiring us to go run 100 miles, he  lectures us and repeats several times "Don't be Stupid". He also advised us out-of-towners to know the course through prior purchase of a local trail map and not to rely on the course markings that he had put up. It was too late for the advice and we were about to start the hardest 100 east of the...

Start to Mile 5.2, Falls Hallow Aid Station
5.18 miles, average pace of 11:46
6:00 PM to 7:00 PM (Twilight)

Clothing & Gear: Inov-8 roclite 295’s, Drymax Lite Trail Running Socks with a BlisterShield Powder single use packet, shorts, sleevelss, hat, Camelbak Octane XC 70 oz., Vest from the Sugoi Versa Jacket, arm warmers in Camelbak, headlamp Mainly clear. Low 41F. Winds light and variable. (This was the forecast for the town. We were warned it would be in the 30's on the mountain)

It was chilly at the start so I wore my post-race snowboarding jacket over my race clothes. It was funny but I had three people ask me separately if I was going to wear that for the race. "Yes I will. But first I need to put my snowboard pants on so I don't look weird."

A few minutes before 6pm and we are all lined up behind the Grindstone 100 banner. A group prayer was given by Dr. Horton, which included one more "Don't be stupid" and then we were off. I settled into a position of 50-60th out of 118 starters and that's where I finished. So far I have not been fast in the 100's but I know I'm hardy and consistent.

There was some good technical in the first few miles of the race. Then, as the sun was fading, about 10 of us were cruising down a jeep road and we were distracted by the mammoth mountain range that was just appearing through the leaves. Some of us missed a hard right turn onto the trail but another runner caught it and saved us all an early blow to morale. We backtracked onto the trail and that’s when I heard Dr. Horton's quote “Don't be stupid" echo up and down the line.

Approaching the first ascent

Mile 5.2 to 14.6, Dry Branch Gap
9.4 miles, average pace of 16:26
7:00 PM to 9:43 PM (Night)

Those first 9 miles with 4000' of ascent took me about 2.5 hours. Much of the trail had tricky footing and this was followed by a brutal climb up to the summit of Eliot's Knob. The worst of the climb was on a gravel road and it was pretty steep (17% grade for the last 1.2 miles to the top). I was with a smaller group now and we were meeting one another and chatting as our calf muscles were doing some serious flexing. I had heard this road described as “being able to reach straight out and touch the ground in front of you.” Prior to the race, Jim and I weren't sure if he should pace 30, 40 or 50 miles. We took an easy approach to it and it would depend on how long he slept in on Saturday. But just after I summited Eliot Knob, Jim texted to ask “How was it?”  And I replied "Hope u make 50".

The next downhill was 2800' deep and it is single-track carved onto the edge of the mountain. The trail was  made up of large, loose rocks that seesawed as I ran over them. These rocks made deep clunking noises and I could hear them banging against each other from the runners that were both in front and behind me on the trail. On one side is an uphill and the other is a steep slope down into a black hole. The trees and flora were also sparse down there which meant there is not a lot to grab onto. I paid attention to my footing.

We went down 2800’ and then back up 1800’ and then back down another 2800’ and I was feeling good. On the second descent I briefly caught up with David Snipes and a few others. He encouraged me to stay with them but here the rocks were loose again and that black hole was still to the side.

Miles 14.6 to 22.1, Dowells Draft
7.5 miles, average pace of 16:41
9:43 PM to 11:40 PM (Night)
Clothing & Gear: Switched sleeveless to sleeved shirt, changed hat to lightweight beanie, picked up arms to Sugoi Versa Jacket and put in Camelbak, put on arm warmers Felt like upper 30's

I did not feel like eating but in my drop bag at mile 22 was a Vietnamese coffee which I had really been looking forward to. When I entered the AS, I was hoping to spot Rob Colenso's crew for an easy emotional power up but missed them because the place was a beehive. There were scores of runners, crew and volunteers. I dove into my drop bag and grabbed layers. As I was changing I can remember watching steam floating off the other runner' backs! I realized that I was at my drop bag for a little too long but it was confusing with all of the energy. Thankfully I had written out directions in my bag and I followed them line by line to make sure I was taking care of everything. As I was doing this the runner next to me was working on getting some sympathy from his GF. I left freezing cold but the 3-mile climb that followed quickly warmed me up.

Photo by Bobby Gill

Mile 22.1 to 30.5, Lookout Mountain
8.4 miles, average pace of 18:18
11:40 PM to 2:25 AM (Night)

On the climb up the next mountain I was traveling with a runner who was using trekking poles. There were still some people passing us and we were passing a few when we came upon a runner sitting on a nice long ledge immediately to the side of the trail having a snack. The trek pole guy said “I am going to take a nap.” So the 3 of us lined up next to one another and slept on this ledge. I heard more runners approach and they also laid down next to us. I woke up a few minutes later freezing cold and I could hear snoring. A 10-minute map made me feel sharp and refreshed. I started in on my bottle of coffee and was good to go.

Mile 30.5 to 35.9, North River Gap
5.4 miles, average pace of 21:44
2:25 AM to 4:13 AM (Night)
Clothing & Gear: Battery change and hand warmers

At the Mile 30 AS my stomach was in a full revolt. It was like Occupy Wall Street except it knew what it wanted and had a realistic plan to achieve it: there will be no more food. I made a mistake and attempted a caffeine pill. It quickly dissolved in my mouth, I bit it in half and then I vomited. Don't be stupid! I also had a  puking experience at Massanutten but this time I rallied myself mentally and went straight for something I could put down: ramen soup with broth and noodles. The next 8-hours was a battle to take in food and salt.

I went back out on the trail and put on some music for motivation. I ran with one headphone in so I could communicate with other runners and listen to the sound of my feet as they landed.

Mile 35.9 to 43.7, Little Bald Knob
7.8 miles, average pace of 23:27
4:13 AM to 7:00 (Night) Probably mid 30's

When I got to the AS they weighed me in and I had only dropped 2 pounds. David Snipes and another runner were encouraging me but I felt nauseous just thinking about food. Liquids went down easily so I ate a cup of Brunswick Stew and then grabbed a pair of hand warmers from my drop bag. As I was leaving this AS I ran by a number of crews hanging out by a very warm and inviting fire. It was 4AM and I was a little out of it because I yelled excitedly “I have hand warmers” and kept running.

Shortly after I started the next uphill I thought I saw a headlamp and a runner breaking apart branches up ahead to build a separate fire. I went up the switchback towards that location but when I got there I didn't see anyone! I thought I was hallucinating when again I saw the headlamp further up and the guy breaking branches. As I closed in this time I realized it was actually a runner making walking sticks!

Miles 34 to 43.7 turned out to be the toughest part of the course for me for a number of reasons:
  • It is almost a 4500ft climb and happening at the worst time 3-7AM 
  • I was low on energy from not eating
  • I could not stop thinking about sleep
Thankfully I did have all the right layers on because it was probably in the mid-30’s. It was easy to see my breath and there was an occasional cold breeze so we must have been somewhat exposed while climbing to the top of this tall mountain. I also used my hand warmers as a nose warmer.

On the 2.5-hour climb from the AS, I began taking 5-10 minute naps. At first I would find a nice place on the side of the trail, then take off my pack, then set a 15-minute alarm and lay down on my back. The cold would inevitably wake me up before the alarm would go off but I would feel refreshed. By the end of the climb I had the catnaps down so that I would simply just fall over on my side with all of my gear still on and pass out for a few minutes.

My fading headlamp
From miles 5 to 22 (about 6 hours) the batteries for my headlamp worked well. They were still going strong at mile 22 but I changed them out with fresh batteries anyway. I assumed that the batteries would also last another 6 hours until sunrise. Don't be stupid. I forgot to account for the cold weakening them! It was around 5AM when my headlamp faded from a nice wide spotlight to a small circle. I arched my neck down towards the ground for more light. Around 6AM the sun was just rising on the horizon but I could still see the stars clearly overhead. (The stars were Planetarium Awesome BTW). I kept peeking over my shoulder and then I would wish for the sun to hurry up. Then I would turn back to watch the circle continue to fade.

This section was my struggle for this 100. When I finally made it to the top I was honestly thinking “If I see Jim we are getting in the car and going straight back to NJ.” But after the peak was a descent and by the time I reached the Little Bald Knob Aid Station the sun was rising. This was an incredible powerup. I forgot all of that bad juju and I was ready to do whatever was necessary to complete Grindstone.

Photo by Geoffrey S. Baker at

Mile 43.7 to 48.2, Reddish Knob and Mile 48.2 to 51.6, Gnashing Knob
4.5 miles, average pace of 17:33 and 3.4 miles, average pace of 16:16
7:00 AM to 8:26 AM (Dawn) and 8:26 AM to 9:31 AM (Day)
Clothing & Gear: Threw out batteries and dropped headlamp Sunny skies. High 74F. Winds light and variable.

It just goes to show you that we impose limits on what we believe we cannot do. I met Randy Dietz on my way to the turnaround and for a few hours we had a pretty good time running together. At 61, Randy was running solo on his 41st 100 miler and he was crushing it.

Randy stuck it out with me while I was having a low and we tried talking through my difficulty eating solid foods. When we reached Mile 51 the volunteers were making fresh breakfast burritos and I just had to take one. I had brought our pace down to a walk but Randy pointed out that eating and drinking was worth much more than the time spent.

Mile 51.6 to 54.9, Reddish Knob
3.3 miles, average pace of 17:02
9:31 AM to 10:23 AM (Day)

Jim arrived with perfect timing to start pacing at mile 51! I caught him up on my late night struggles and was feeling pretty chipper and enthusiastic. (Some background on my friend: Jim blew through his first 100 at VT  this year with a sub-23)

The burrito was now fueling me and I had the impression that having something in my stomach was making it easier to eat! Randy was moving a little faster than me and I needed to take in more food so we stopped at the next AS and he went off ahead.

Mile 54.9 to 58.7, Little Bald Knob
3.8 miles, average pace of 15:32
10:23 AM to 11:25 AM (Day)

Clothing & Gear: Changed lightweight beanie to hat, added sunglasses, dropped arm warmers, picked up empty headlamp. BlisterShield Powder single use packet, Clean Drymax socks, Alcohol pad, sterile lancet and Second Skin

Having learned this an important lesson from my first 100, I performed a planned foot treatment at Mile 58.7 with a sterile lancet. Once the blisters were taken care of, a new BlisterShield power pack was dumped into a pair of fresh socks.

One of the Aid Station volunteers came over and paid a lot of attention to help me resolve my eating issue. He asked pointed questions and when he heard I couldn’t take in any S-caps or Endurolytes he offered Nuun. I said "I train on Nuun" and he quite logically pointed out that I should have brought it for the race. “Don’t be stupid!” The Nuun container is heavy but in hindsight I could have staged them in my drop bags since the eating issue is not new.

Two days later I would find out that the super knowledgeable, helpful volunteer was Jonathan Basham. Out of over 700 attempts by ultrarunners, Jonathan is the 9th Finisher of The Barkley Marathons 100 Mile Run. 54,200 feet of accumulated ascent, 54,200 feet of descent in a total of 5 loops. Each 20 mile loop has a 12 hour time limit. That’s right. 12 hours to run 20 miles. Less than a 1.5% overall success rate and invitation only. I just love this sport even more knowing that Jonathan Basham volunteered his time and focused on helping a mid-pack runner for his 100.

Mile 58.7 to 66.6, North River Gap
7.9 miles, average pace of 17:36
11:25 AM to 1:28 PM (Day)
Clothing & Gear: Tried to change to a clean shirt but only had longsleeve. Picked up batteries for the approaching night

Jim and I departed that excellent aid station in good spirits and we climbed. That’s when I remembered that I had packed a handheld bottle with coffee but then forget it in my drop bag. Jim ignored my comments to leave it, sprinted back and retrieved the coffee. Now that’s a great friend and pacer! That coffee helped me maintain my focus for the next 4500' descent and the 2600' ascent. At the bottom of the 4500' Jim found a pair of wood walking sticks that were smooth, lightweight and just laying at the side of the trail. Again what a great pacer because I used these for the next 30 miles!

Mile 66.6 to 72.0, Lookout Mountain
5.4 miles, average pace of 24:30
1:28 PM to 3:55 PM (Day)

When we arrived at the AS they weighed me in again and I was still only down two pounds from my original weight. My graph of the Grindstone elevation chart must have been off because I was seeing a descent from this aid station. But then as Jim and I were leaving we immediately started climbing and I was concerned that we had yet to reach another descent before we started a 2600' ascent. I developed a paranoia and started constantly checking that we were still on the course!

There are a few moments during that afternoon when I felt the enormity of the race. I was sure to listen to Jim whenever he would tell me to speed up. My mental preparation included using mantras to help pass the low points. I remember a few of them:
  • It’s a 100. There will be struggles.
  • Just keep swimming. (Then I would think about swimming)
  • I want that buckle.
My diet was pretty much Kit-Kats, M&M’s and Gin-Gins. At every aid station Jim went on a mission to find foods I would eat. There wasn’t much fruit on the course which is too bad because fruit is much easier to eat than dry chips, dry pretzels and sticky PB&J.

Mile 72.0 to 80.4, Dowells Draft
8.4 miles, average pace of 20:52
3:55 PM to 6:42 PM (Day & Twilight)
Clothing & Gear: Long sleeve shirt, headlamp on, dropped sunglasses, changed hat for lightweight beanie, Sugoi jacket vest and arm sleeves on, winter running gloves

We ran into several groups of mountain bikers. They were all super friendly and really encouraging. There was one biker with her two dogs going up and down on the same trail. While we were on a 1400' climb she passed us in the opposite direction and announced “Almost at the top.” I learned long ago never to ask or to listen to someone that says you are almost anywhere. Their perception of time and distance will rarely meet with your own. But her comment was a welcome distraction and it kept us entertained. We figured out that if she was coming downhill at a speed of 15mph and we were moving uphill at 2-3mph, a distance of 2 miles would seem like a few minutes to her but an hour for us! We reached the top and started a 3-mile descent to the AS.

The leaf colors here were phenomenal!
Photo by Geoffrey S. Baker at
The light through the forest leaves sometimes played tricks on the eyes. Sometimes I would mistake a dark maple leaf on the ground for a giant bug. One time I think I was borderline hallucinating because on trail ahead I saw an elaborately carved cat statue and I was wondering why someone had left it. As I passed by it became a log.

The sun set just as we are arrived at Mile 80 and we reached the final drop bag. We changed into fresh, warm gear for the coming night and the temperature dropped fast. I was cold and shaking as we left for the next climb.

Mile 80.4 to 87.8, Dry Branch Gap
7.4 miles, average pace of 24:50
6:42 PM to 10:00 PM (Night) Mainly clear. Low 43F. Winds light and variable. (This is the forecast for the town. Colder in the mountains)

I counted down the miles to 90. Each one we took down was a milestone. There were now two, 2800' climbs before the last Aid Station. The first was tough but doable.

Shown here is Tom McNulty saved us a post-race worry by comandeering the car and bringing it to the finish line for us from Mile 51! Photo by Bobby Gill.
At Mile 88 we arrived to a warm fire and Tom McNutly in his awesome robot suit. The radio operator was  kind enough to share a cup of coffee from his personal coffee pot. I did not point it out to Jim but I knew I was avoiding food again. (Maybe it is night related?) As we headed out towards the final Aid Station I had to stop  thinking about how many hours it would take to get to Mile 97!

Mile 87.8 to 96.7, Falls Hallow
8.9 miles, average pace of 25:39
10:00 PM to 1:50 AM (Night)

Brutal! The second 2800' climb was the trail carved on the edge of the mountain with the black hole to one side. Also those large loose clunking rocks were back. Which runner at the Aid Station said this was a Jeep road?

Occasionally we would stop and turn off our headlamps so we could look at the dark shapes of the mountains next to us. The stars and the outlines of these massive shapes were incredible.

We were most of the way up the mountain when we caught up to Randy. He was waking from a nap and was sharp and ready to move. We finally made it off of the black hole trail but that’s when I started stumbling around and falling asleep while running. I overheard Randy ask Jim what was going on with me and Jim said “You haven’t met Zombie Mark?” I was stubborn and refused to sleep until we had reached that steep gravel road from 24 hours ago. The walking sticks kept me from face planting but really I should have stopped to nap.

Where was that damned gravel road! When we finally got there Jim looked for a comfortable place I could lay down but instead I just walked onto the road and passed out on my side. Five minutes later I think I surprised him when I woke myself up and announced I was ready to go.

No sooner had we started down the mountain when two runners caught up to us. It was Rob Colenso and his pacer Bob Gaylord. Rob thankfully backed it down to our pace and the five of us formed a team. Bob was hilarious and egged on the whole group to move faster. I think he called us "molasses".

Mile 96.7 to 101.85, Finish
5.2 miles, average pace of 25:08
1:50 AM to 3:50 AM (Night)

“Get me out of here.” – Mark Leuner 3AM

5 miles from the finish. L to R: Randy Dietz, Bob Gaylord, Mark Leuner, Jim Bruening and Rob Colenso
At this Aid Station was Instant Folgers coffee which we were all very happy to have. We started the final leg with Carrie Lombardo and her pacer and once absorbed, we looked like one large amoeba of headlamps.

My legs felt fine at the time but I was having a real problem walking fast to keep up. I could run but not walk at the group's pace so I had to run a short distance, then walk, then run a short distance, then walk. It was driving me nuts. We encountered the technical rocks from the Miles 2-5 and they were also tripping us up. We had already run 100 miles but now it is one last minefield of toe stubs and ankle twisting before we finished. I am not sure what I was thinking but it was probably a combination of the rocks and the odd walk-run pace that prompted me to start saying “Get me out of here” And “Let’s get out of here”. Jim and Rob found it hilarious.

We finally made it to the Finish. Our awesome and much appreciated pacers ran ahead and the four runners crossed the line together as one. Clark congratulated us all and then we collapsed on the totem pole for a few glamour shots.

Carrie Lombardo
Randy Dietz
Rob Colenso
Mark Leuner

Post Race
After the finish of Massanutten in May a stranger told me 100’s get easier. The mental at Grindstone was easier for me but I have to say the lows I had for my first 100 would make anything seem better. I think the physical is the physical and will depend on the race prep and the difficulty of the race. For Grindstone I prepared just right because in the days afterwards my legs were not even sore. Eating seems to be my trial for the 100’s and something to work on. Grindstone was a tough, strenuous course that required a lot of solid physical and mental resolve to complete and I am very thankful for the experience!

The Shower Story
We are now at the finish line/Dining Hall. The showers are a quarter mile into the woods in the opposite direction of the tents. Jim walks to the tents, grabs my post-race bag, picks me up at the Dining Hall and then leads the way into the woods. The trail to the showers is rocky and uneven so I am watching my footing! After I shower I am moving slow and feeling really appreciative for all of his efforts so I urge Jim to finally go to the tents to get some sleep. "How do I get back?" "Take a left, then follow a trail to another trail."

When I exit the showers I cannot see the Dining Hall and I am stumbling along this rocky trail in the pitch black woods with my headlamp emanating the only light. I am horrified because I realize now I have no idea where I am going! There are several trails that connect to other trails and a few dead end trails. One way leads back to Grindstone so I head down the one in the opposite direction. I am desperately trying not to walk any further than absolutely necessary because I feel everything and I want to go to bed. I really want to go to bed. I am wearing flip flops and carrying bags of dirty clothes. "Take a left, then there's a trail, and then another trail." Those aren't directions. Why didn't I say something! I am lost. The trail I take turns out to be the wrong one so my mind is on overdrive trying to figure out how to get back. "Don't be stupid!" I shouldn't have urged Jim to go back and now I might have to sleep on the bench in the showers. I use my phone and take a chance that the Boy Scouts of America published a map locating the boys' showers on the internet. Sure enough there's a map. Soon I am back on track and heading down a trail to the Dining Hall when I hear "Hey, over here."

Holyaxemurderer who is that? Why is there a person standing alone in the middle of the woods with no light? This is weird. "Come over here." Who are you? "I forgot my headlamp. Where are you going?" "The Dining Hall." "You're going the wrong way. It's over there." (The opposite direction I am going) "How did you get here in the dark without a headlamp?" "They turned the lights off on me after I showered" "I just came from the showers." "I JUST came from that way. THOSE are the showers." Is this person crazy?  "Come over here." "I just ran 100 miles, you come over here." "I ran it too. But I can't see anything." He continues to try to convince me, with all the confidence in the world, that he knows where he is going and he just needs me to flip flop my way over to him with my light. I am not in the mood and want to go to bed. I still don’t know how he got that far in the woods in the dark. I see he has on a Grindstone sweatshirt so I go to get him. I tell him I have a map on my phone and that I know where the Dining Hall is. He follows me through the woods and then as we approach the Dining Hall he says to me: "There's the Dining Hall."

This was the chaotic scene 45 minutes after I crossed the finish line at the Grindstone 100. Two idiots, having just run 102 miles over mountains, can't find their way back from the showers. Have you ever wondered why products have labels like "Do not iron clothes while on body." Well this story is the reason why Grindstone will put up course markings next year from the Dining Hall to the showers.

Grindstone 100 from Mark Leuner on Vimeo.

Grindstone Movie

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