It was tough. It was way tougher than the Vermont 100, which I already thought was pretty hard. It was tougher than any race I’ve done, regardless of cramping, nutrition issues, or overheating. 27 sleep deprived hours in the rain over 101 miles with 23,200 feet of elevation change forced me to dig incredibly deep and fight an irresistible urge to call it quits. Two days after, my feet still raw and legs achy, I know I made the right choice to push through. But at mile 24, 51, 65, and 87 (and several other points in between) dropping felt like the only option. Grindstone was such a roller coaster. Waves of intense strength and drive would be pushed out by incredible lows filled with pain and self-doubt. Little issues compounded into pain so intense that each step felt like walking on knives. But still, I made it.
Race weekend essentially started the Thursday before the race, where work held up me and my crew from hitting the road. The plan was to drive to Harrisburg, PA and stay the night before heading down to Swoope, VA to set up camp and wait for the race’s first challenge, a 6 PM start. We didn’t get to the hotel until about 2:30 AM on Friday, but sleeping in I still got about 6 hours of sleep which felt adequate.
We got back on the road and made it to the boy scout camp around 1:30 just in time for the race briefing. Confident that I was ready to race, we set up camp and ate some food. The next 4 hours involved me anxiously waiting for the race to start and going over crew instructions. The rain had already started and would not cease entirely until after I would finish Saturday night. Finally, 6 PM rolled around and I took off around the lake and into the camp’s trail system.
The first 5 miles were extremely uneventful – as they should be during a hundred miler. People were quiet and I was tense knowing that it was going to be a wet day during which chafing and blisters were all but inevitable. While I anticipated rain, the forecast was constantly changing and unreliable. What was supposed to be an occasional shower changed to a steady storm that would switch between a misting and torrential down pour. I cruised into the first aid station at mile 5.2 and grabbed a PB&J. Like Vermont, the fueling strategy was to eat real food early and often, while drinking Tailwind and taking a Gu every 45 minutes.
Leaving the aid station, we started the first significant climb up to Elliott’s Knob. The climb started with some smooth trail with a gentle grade followed by a steep climb up a gravel road to the summit. I felt ridiculously strong power hiking and passed several other runners. A runner ahead of me called out that we turned right to head to the summit where we would punch our bibs proving we reached the top but as it turns out, they misread the sign and led us about half a mile down the trail we would descend the mountain. I noticed that no runners had followed us and hollered to the two runners who made the wrong turn that we needed to turn around. We recovered the ground quickly and made our way to the summit and punched our bibs, now behind each of the runners I had just passed. Not letting the mess up get to my head, I turned around and started descending. I was expecting the trail down to be extremely technical given the race reports but it was actually pretty manageable. There was a decent amount of loose rock and off-camber trail, but it made for some good running, especially compared to the Blue Hills.
I hit the next aid station, refilled my bottles, and took off the next major climb. Again the hiking felt amazing and I pushed hard up the climb. The descent was extremely smooth and I cruised down to Dowells Draft where I grabbed more tailwind out of my drop bag. The rain had stayed light at this point so I decided to not change my socks which would end up being a pretty big mistake. I hiked out of the aid station eating a banana and grilled cheese. The next climb was extremely gentle and I should have been running, but I started to feel overwhelmingly sleepy. 4 miles of simple terrain around midnight was wearing on me, and I felt the overwhelming urge to sleep wherever I could. I told myself “I’ll sit down at the next aid station and sleep for 15 minutes” or “When I see the crew I sleep in the car for half an hour”. It was extremely demoralizing to feel so tiring so early. I kept saying I just needed to take a little rest, but the idea of dropping crept in. Maybe it just wasn’t my day and a rainy evening start was just not helping.
When I finally crested the hill and started running downhill, I told myself to run hard and just get to the aid station and regroup. Somehow, I got to the Lookout Mountain aid station sooner than I was expecting and my spirits immediately rebounded. The next aid was only about 10K away and it was all downhill. I’d see my crew and I was still under my goal pace of making it to the turn around in 11 hours. As I descended North River Gap, my energy continued to rise. I took out my iPod and listened to a few minutes of a podcast before I heard footsteps behind me. I started to chat with the runner who was keeping pace with me. For the next 5ish miles I was running with Levi, who lived in Virginia and apparently “hated running hundreds” even though it was his second one. We talked about traveling, other runs, what we did for work, and how much we hated the weather and needed dry socks. We hit the small stretch of pavement before the aid station and tried to identify my Subaru and my crew.
As I rolled into the aid station I looked around frantically for my crew, but they were nowhere to be seen. I accepted the fact that I wasn’t meeting up with my crew and regrouped. I ate a lot of food, refilled my bottles and reservoir, and took some perogies to eat on the massive 7 mile, 3000 foot climb ahead. About a half mile into the climb I heard someone shout “Boston!” and looked back to see Levi. I realized I hadn’t introduced myself, which made me feel like quite the jerk. After some actual introductions, we marched up the hill. We continued to exchange stories and pass the time. At this point, the middle of my left foot started to sting. The blister that was forming would go from an minor inconvenience to so painful by mile 85 or so that each step felt impossible. Levi assured me that a switchback would signal the end of the climb, but a switchback never came. He apologized profusely for not knowing the intricacies of the climb, but I couldn’t care less as we reached the summit of the 4th major climb of the race. At that moment, the clouds opened up and it poured. The trail immediately pooled water and the dirt turned to mud. Everything got soaked. I pleaded out loud for the aid station to appear. After what felt like 5 miles, it did. The Little Bald Knob aid station had delicious vegetable soup and a warm fire I avoided for fear I’d never leave. As I prepared to head back out a chill struck me and I quickly pulled out my Houdini and gloves in an effort to get warm. Levi did the same and we took off to Reddish Knob and the turn around.
The first mile out of the aid station I was freezing. Even when we were hiking I swung my arms hard to generate some more heat. Thankfully I warmed up and we continued uphill to the parking lot on top of the mountain. On the way, Levi’s headlamp cut out and I gave him my spare before he could even ask. I knew my headlamp would make it to the turn around and I had plenty of extras with my crew. Levi kept asking if I was sure, but one of the reason’s I love trail running is the community. I wasn’t going to leave him in the dark.
The wind whipped violently on the top of Reddish Knob and the rain persisted. Levi, a few other runners, and I searched everywhere for the punch for our bib but we couldn’t find anything.After 2 minutes we said “fuck it” and ran the two miles or so of paved road to the turn around. I got to the turnaround at exactly 12 hours, an hour later than I expected. I ran into the aid station and someone shouted to me “Woo runners…wait is that Matt?”. It was me. Brian was waiting for me and got Amina and Sam. We switched my socks, my shirt, my jacket, and my headlamp. I ate as much food as I could stomach and mentally regrouped. I wanted to quit. The rain wasn’t going to let up. It was colder than I expected. My feet were deteriorating fast. I was behind schedule. It was not my day. But at the same time, I took off work for this. I sacrificed hours and hours of training. I knew how proud Colleen would be of me if I pushed through. I got up and out of the aid station and started my 15 or so hour march back.
All night I had been looking forward to the sunrise, but when it finally came I was disappointed. The clouds loomed and continued to rain and the sun seemed to do nothing but illuminate the massive puddles and mud that had formed. My spirits remained low when I had expected them to rebound. I thought it would be a quick run from the turnaround to Little Bald Knob given the terrain, but I couldn’t move well. When I finally got there I ate some food and just kept moving. I knew the 7 mile descent to North River was going to be more painful than the way up but I ran it pretty well. I was excited Amina would be joining me for the next 15 miles and just did my best to go from aid station to aid station. When I got to North River, I changed my socks again and surveyed my feet. Fuck did they look bad, and once again contemplated just calling it. My ride was there, it would be easy to leave. But at the same time, I was over 100K done and my legs barely hurt at all. How frustrating though, my legs felt fresh at mile 65 but my feet felt like another 100 yards would be too far. But as would be the theme for the rest of the day, I got out of the aid station and kept marching.
The first mile or so with Amina felt great. Shortly after that though my spirits fell to the lowest point they had all day. I took a break on the trail and fought back tears as my doubt mounted. Determined to make it to the next aid station and only have 50K left (which is insane) I told Amina to lead and pull me up the hill. Like magic, it worked. My feet hurt like hell, but I could run well and hike strong when I was being dragged along. We got to the aid station and rolled out with purpose. There were only three major climbs left and I was determined to get this thing done. The first climb was over the next 2 miles and the final two would be 15 miles I would run with Brian. Amina and I crushed the first climb and charged the 5ish miles downhill to mile 80. I was rallying, ready to go, and ready to push.
I told Brian to get moving quick and that I would need Sam to pace me the final five miles from 96 to the finish, so be ready. Brian and I made quick work of the first two rolling miles before starting the second to last climb. Things quickly turned south. The climb felt endless, and after stopping for a bathroom break I lost all energy. My legs – still fresh. My feet – excruciating. At the top of the climb I sat on a log and closed my eyes for five minutes and fought back sleep. I knew I couldn’t run the descent even though there were only a few steep sections with limited technicality. I was crushed to move as slow down as up. I kept asking Brian how far to the next aid station. I decided I was going to take the time to sit down for 10 minutes, close my eyes, warm up, and regroup. I had him run ahead to let the crew know, thinking I would have about half a mile alone, but as I turned a corner right after Brian left I was at the aid station!
I got into the aid station that had limited food. I had Brian make some coffee as I sat down and closed my eyes. Amina tended to my feet as Sam grabbed food and checked my supplies. 10 minutes later, I kept marching.
Again, dropping was tempting but 13 miles was doable. 13% of the race left. That was it. I told Brian all I wanted to be up the final climb was “steady”. No pace goal, no running, just steady. I lead up the hill and the strategy worked 80% of the way up until the trail turned back to the rocky stuff that wasn’t too bad descending. The rocks jabbed at my feet and made me wince with each step. Even though the hill seemed to have ended, the flat stretch to the gravel road was incredibly painful and the light started to fade. Finally, we hit the incredibly steep gravel road that we walked down to save my quads and my feet. We returned to the smooth trail that the first climb started up and walked more purposefully until we hit several creeks that early could be hopped but with all the rain required slogging through. The wet creeks made my feet even more tender and I stopped for a minute to collect myself. Nothing hurt like this before. Nothing hurt with every step before. 7 miles left, but those 7 might as well have been 70. Walking for another 2 hours was going to take every ounce of strength.
Just about then, Brian and I got passed by two runners and I told Brian “Just run”. He half halfheartedly jogged and I said “No run”. He did, and I followed. I ran well for the first time in 20 miles. He ran and so did I until we hit the Falls Hallow aid station. I yelled to the crew “I’m going to keep going, can you catch up?” Me and a few runners took off the final small hill to tackle the final 5 miles. My legs felt fine and the more I ran the less my feet screamed. My pacer caught up and I said that I would follow, just pull me along. Over five miles, she did. I got to the lake. It was happening. Sam said she, “could hear the smile in my voice,” as I returned to Camp Shenandoah. Sam ran ahead to take some photos, Amina ran me in. Brian cheered. And after 27 hours and 15 minutes and 36 hours of being awake, I crossed the finish and hugged the totem pole. I called Colleen and told her was alive and I finished. And after cleaning up and eating a bit I passed out.
Grindstone was a monster, fueled to be even more gargantuan through awful weather. It took every ounce of strength and perseverance to finish. I though of everyone pulling for me, my crewing working to keep me safe and moving, and all the time I put in. I have never felt anything quite like how my feet felt during this race. But I came out the other side, knowing I am a much stronger runner and ready to take on whatever challenges come next.
- La Sportiva Akasha / Saucony Perrigrine 6
- Ciele GoCap
- Garmin Fenix 3
- Salomon Sense Ultra Vest
- Patagonia Houdini
- Petzl Nao (worked amazing this time)
- Gu (Once every 45 Mintues)
- Tailwind (one scoop per 10 oz of fluid)