Did you think I forgot about you? Decided to just leave you hanging? It’s more likely that last week was simply a perfect storm of projects at work. However, it’s fitting that you are now curling up to read this the day after Halloween, to keep the fear factor going. Ok, so it’s not THAT bad, but it was certainly an adventure!
Our story left off at N. River Gap aid station, and that’s truly where things got interesting 🙂
N. River Gap (AS #5) to Little Bald Knob (AS #6): I knew this climb would be daunting to some degree, but I had apparently missed the “Grindstone Grind” nickname when I was reading old race reports. It was well after midnight by the time I set out on this climb, which meant it had been raining for almost 24 hours already. I gathered pretty quickly that this was a challenging climb under the best conditions and a downright slog under the conditions I was now facing. I took some solace in the fact that everyone was in the same boat, but this didn’t do much for my morale once I was out of earshot of the aid station and plunged into the darkness.
It’s relatively common to hit a low spot or two during races of this distance, and I’ve certainly had my fair share of “screw this” moments. Typically, though, they come a bit later in the race. This time, my legs were still feeling fresh, and the rest of my body was coping with the distance and the time on my feet just fine, but the mind was challenging me. At one point during this climb, as I was slowly pushing my way up the mountain, I exclaimed out loud “it’s 3AM, pitch black, the only thing I can see is illuminated by my headlamp, I’m soaking wet, stomping through more mud than I’ve ever seen, climbing up a mountain, and I’m all alone…why am I doing this?” I kept moving forward, my trekking poles slowly becoming my saving grace, and eventually could only laugh at the ridiculousness of my situation.
I eventually made my way to the top of the climb, but that simply meant that the flat land became a marsh. I plodded along through ankle-deep water and mud, getting colder and colder as my speed decreased. I had avoided pulling out my rain shell thus far since the rain had been light enough that I was wet but not cold. However, once my pace slowed down on the climb, I started to get quite chilled. I eventually stopped and struggled to pull out my shell and put it on over my pack because I didn’t have the dexterity in my fingers to take everything off and re-situate it. Luckily, someone stopped and helped me get my shell on, for which I was eternally grateful. This last section of the segment seemed to take forever, but I could not have been more happy to see the next aid station. I rolled in, having warmed up a bit, and filled myself with mashed potatoes, cookies, and some broth, all of which tasted delicious. I spent a few precious minutes warming myself by the fire, but knew I needed to be on my way. I had come close to entertaining the thought of dropping during that climb, but arriving at the aid station, and knowing that I would be reaching the half-way point soon was enough to restore my confidence. I thanked the volunteers for their time, and headed out again into the darkness.
Little Bald Knob (AS #6) to (halfway point): The first section of this stretch can best be described as a series of muddy, rut-filled paths that had been dug up by trucks and other vehicles traveling up and down them over plenty of time. Deep ruts and rain make for some mighty impressive puddles and small bodies of water. I’m not entirely sure why I continued to try avoiding the large puddles since my feet were completely soaked (along with the rest of me) at this point, but I think it may have at least helped to keep me alert and moving forward. There were no significant climbs, but rather a series of rolling hills that seemed to go on forever. This was the only small window of time where sleep deprivation caught up to me a bit, and I did some sleep-walking, but it only lasted for about 45 minutes, which I considered a victory!
The rut-filled path gave way to a paved section of road that wound up to the top. I had been especially looking forward to reaching this summit, as the views at the top looked spectacular. However, it was still raining and overcast, so my wishes were not going to be granted on this particular day. I fell in step with another runner, and the two of us made the push up to the top, recognized that the hole punch we were supposed to find had long since been stolen, and we headed back down the mountain on the two-mile or so journey into the half-way point and the next aid station. This short paved section reminded me of just how long I had been on my feet already, and I was eager to return to the soft, marshy, muddy trails. Such hilarious irony! I rolled into the aid station and was greeted by the epicurean and others. To say that seeing her lifted my spirits after a night by myself would be a huge understatement! I eagerly traded my wet short-sleeve shirt for a dry long-sleeve shirt, replaced my rain shell, and even gingerly slipped on a dry pair of socks, even if they only stayed dry for a short time. The epicurean’s bag of delights also included a dry pair of waterproof mittens and the opportunity to hand off my headlamp for charging.
She had already been standing out in the rain at the aid station for quite a while, mostly to make sure she didn’t miss me, and seeing her was the boost of energy that I needed to set out on the journey back the way I came with the confidence that I could finish this race. That faith would be tested at one other point, but I left the halfway point in good spirits and back-tracked my way down the mountain.
Halfway to Little Bald Knob (AS #8): This section was relatively uneventful. I welcomed the daylight, even if the sun didn’t make much of an appearance, and the light, combined with warm clothes and plenty of fuel, gave me a nice boost of energy moving forward. I knew what to expect at this point as well, which filled me with that much more confidence. However, this wouldn’t be a true trail race without a few wildlife adventures. On the way back down the rut-filled trail, I came across two pickup trucks with hounds riding in the back in large boxes of a sort. As it turned out, this was the opening weekend of bear-hunting season in the area! Luckily, I didn’t meet any new friends, but I did manage to narrowly avoid stepping on a rattlesnake on the side of the trail. This close encounter certainly refocused my attention on the trail, and I spent a fair bit more time near the center of the trail. 🙂 I arrived back at the Little Bald Knob aid station for the second time, and in much better spirits. My nutrition plan had been working really well at this point, and I didn’t want to mess with what was working, so it was coke/ginger ale/ pretzels/ cookies/ potatoes once again. I left in good spirits, despite knowing that I now had to make my way back down the 7-mile Grindstone Grind!
Little Bald Knob to N. River Gap (AS #9): Everything looks different in the daylight. In this case, that meant being able to clearly see the swamp I had already waded through, and now had to slog back across, just to get to the muddy mountain. Any small portion of dryness on my feet was squashed out as I made my way across. Once I hit the trail heading down back to N. River Gap, I can best describe the experience as mud surfing! The trail was even more of a mess than on the way up, and my trekking poles came in mighty handy as I slowly picked my way down the mountain. I managed to fall only once, which I considered a fair accomplishment. After a mile or two, I fell into step with two other runners, and we made our way down the mountain together, which definitely helped with my energy and momentum. I no doubt moved much faster than I would have on my own, and pushed myself to hit the slope aggressively. By the time I rolled into N. River Gap, I felt like I was covered in mud, but it also meant hitting the 100K mark (or close to it), which gave me another mental boost! I met the epicurean, indulged in a delicious Going the Distance Muffin, and discovered a stockpile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to supplement my potatoes. I “may” have gone a bit overboard with the Reese’s, and that came back to bite me in the stomach a few miles later.
N. River Gap (#9) t0 Dowells Draft (AS #11): I had to do a bit of walking to get my stomach back in order but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. This section, from miles 65 to 80, involved some more decent climbing and descending, and it was a bit of a blur amidst the mid-afternoon light. I wasn’t sleep-walking by any means, but I was approaching 36 waking hours in total, so I focused my energy on putting one foot in front of the other, utilizing my trekking poles, and continuing to make relentless forward progress. I met up with a few different runners along the way, and that definitely helped to pass the time and miles. I knew that once I reached Dowells Draft, I’d see the epicurean, and then again at all of the remaining aid stations. This helped push me forward because I knew once I got to mile 80, I could happily mark my progress in smaller segments.
Dowells Draft to Dry Branch Gap (AS #12): Aside from the Grindstone Grind, this was hands-down the most challenging section for me. After fueling up, and leaving the epicurean in good spirits, I wandered off into the woods amidst the dusk light breaking through the tree canopy. It had finally stopped raining for a bit, and the light streaming down to the forest floor was simply beautiful. After 36 hours of fog, rain, and poor visibility, the beauty of this area was overwhelming to the senses. After about a mile of meandering along the relatively flat portion of the section, I began climbing. The sun made its departure, and I flipped on my headlamp for another night of darkness. I had been running for a bit over 25 hours at this point, and the darkness brought the first real signs of fatigue. I had been excited about the fact that the race began in the evening initially, because it meant I’d be running through the night on fresh legs. I wasn’t counting on running into a second night and my body began to revolt. Unfortunately, this drowsiness set in just as the incline increased, and I felt like I was climbing hand-over-foot. Under foot were slippery, wet, shifting rocks, and to the right of me was a sheer cliff face that would have caused vertigo if I had been able to see more than 5 feet in front of me. I slowly worked my way up the mountain, bracing myself with my trekking poles because my footing was far from sure, and I tried to concentrate on staying on the trail and not worrying about falling off the mountain! The climb seemed to last forever, and my foggy brain could not, for the life of me, remember running down this steep mountain face on the way out. I obviously had, but it had not given me nearly as much cause for concern. After quite some time, and many false summits, I found myself at the top, and was greeted by a flatter but just as rocky section of trail. I had, in part, motivated myself to keep climbing because I thought the aid station was at the top, so I was rather dismayed to find nothing but more rocks and darkness at the top. After another good chunk of time, I finally arrived at the Dry Branch Gap aid station, and I could not have been more happy to see people, and see the epicurean especially! At this point, I briefly sat down in a chair for the first time, and getting up was one of the hardest things I had done. I rehydrated, and ate as much as I could handle before departing, and took solace in knowing there was only one more aid station before the finish!
Dry Branch Gap to Falls Hollow (AS #12): This section started out like most, with a significant climb that just kept going. At this point, the racers were quite spread out, so I was very much alone on the trail, and left to keep myself company as I moved higher and higher up the steep incline. After a mile or two, I reached the summit of sorts, and visibility was almost non-existent. My headlamp simply highlighted the fog, and it was all I could do to make sure I was stepping onto solid ground as I moved forward. At this point, I began to have what I can only describe as the most intense feeling of deja vu I had ever experienced. I was absolutely sure I had been on that mountain before, and taken that exact path. To my knowledge, I hadn’t, so I know my mind was playing tricks on me, but it was an uncanny feeling. I was also quite exhausted but kept moving forward, even though I felt like I was going in circles and not actually on the course any more. In my sleep-deprived state, I was fully prepared to huddle up in a ball on top of the mountain and wait for morning because I felt like I was hopelessly lost. Just as I had begun to have these thoughts, I spotted another headlamp up ahead and I picked up what little pace I had left to try and catch it, assuming it was real. Luckily, it was real, and it belonged to a fellow runner. He and I commiserated about the climb, visibility, and the race as a whole, and worked together to get back down the mountain to the final aid station. There was no shortage of stream crossings, mud pits, and rocks intentionally placed to kill us, but we worked together and the time went by much easier. Together, we made our way to the Falls Hollow aid station, and I got my 4th or 5th wind just as we rolled in. I briefly greeted the epicurean, downed some ginger ale, and then the two of us were off into the night once more.
Falls Hollow to the finish: The last 5 miles or so were some of the best miles of the entire race. The trail was relatively runable, the company was wonderful, and the great conversation helped the miles melt away. At this point, I knew I was going to finish, and it was a fantastic feeling. I may have been beyond exhausted, but I’m pretty sure I had a smile on my face the entire time. As we neared the last turn back into the Boy Scout Camp, we met a few other runners, and we all decided to trek in together to cross the finish line. After more than 32 hours, I crossed the finish line a bit after 2AM, and I was almost too tired to really be emotional. Clark, the RD, handed me my buckle and finisher’s shirt and congratulated me, and the group of us all shook hands and congratulated each other. As is the Grindstone custom, we hugged the pole near the finish, and that was that.
The epicurean and I made our way back to the car and campsite, and promptly decided we had no interest in sleeping outside at this point, and agreed to find a hotel room. Sadly, after packing everything up, we discovered that every hotel in the area was completely sold out because it was the opening weekend for bear-hunting season. Yes, you read that correctly. Bear-hunting season. Good grief! So, we stopped at a gas station, the epicurean poured herself a big cup of coffee, and we hit the road for home. I definitely passed out for a portion of it, and spent the rest of the time failing to get comfortable and admiring the enormous blood blisters on both of my big toes. We got home around 9AM, I hopped in the best shower I’d ever taken, and then we collapsed into the bed until that afternoon.
I know this was quite the epic tale, so I appreciate you hanging in! When you’re out on the trail for 32 hours, a lot happens, and if I don’t get it out now, it will certainly fade from my brain. However, I can look down at the buckle on my desk and be reminded of my amazing adventure in Virginia, #chasing42!