John Kemp grindstone 100 race r...

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Grindstone 100 Race Report (from October this year!) for my non-(FaceBook)friends

I’ve had an interesting 50th year. On the one hand, I broke three hours in the marathon, running a personal best of 2:58:03 and achieving a long-held goal. I also won an ultra outright for the first time.

On the other hand, I also severely hurt my shoulder (to the point where I couldn’t lift my left arm for several weeks). While sleeping.

I struggled mightily with whether running 100 miles was even a goal for me at all. At the same time, I have been excited about running Hardrock for as long as I’ve known about 100 mile races.

So in April, when signup opened, I entered the Grindstone 100, thinking of Hardrock (Grindstone being one of the few qualifiers for Hardrock here in the East).

I scared myself a little.

And after a not-so-great run on the Devil’s Path after a night without sleep, I reconsidered.

Could I run without sleep? It certainly didn’t seem like it.

Did I care enough about running a hundred miles - would I want to do it enough, to power me through the inevitable difficulties?

I waffled, and withdrew from Grindstone. Took my refund, and went about my business.

But come September, and it turned out I was still on the list of registered entrants.

I got a bug in my ear. Wouldn’t I want to *know* whether I wanted to run 100 miles? Wouldn’t I want to try, at least?

The answer turned out to be yes. I paid up again, and entered the race officially, now a second time.

On Friday night at 6pm, I started the race with 245 other 100-mile hopefuls.

It was a warm evening, as the sun set, and we trailed around the lake at Camp Shenandoah, through the woods, and up our first “bump” - Little North Mountain.

I felt calm and focussed.

The hope was to get to the turnaround in 12:30 (which is a quite relaxed 50 miles, 12k ft gain for me) and then see how long it would take to get home the other 50 miles and 12k ft gain!

Not a plan, but a hope.

I tweaked my left ankle on the Fall’s Hollow trail, not long afterwards, and started to realize my headlamp was not adequate, now that night had fallen deeply in the forest.

But I plugged away anyway.

Soon I was shuffling up the first big climb - Elliot Knob. A wide dirt/gravel road strewn with headlamps runners staggering up the steep incline.

Yes, I hiked.

At the top, the moon was creamy and full, and a cool breeze made the long strands of grass flicker in our headlamp lights.

Into the woods again though, and downhill. Gently at first, and then hard down. Slabs of rock on (what seemed like) a narrow goat path with a steep drop. Switchbacks. At this point, I brought out my second emergency headlamp, so I had two going. It still didn’t feel like enough, so I slowed right down on my descending, and took it really easy. Several people passed me. One of them passed me, and then tripped, sliding off the edge of the trail, and managing only just not to slide further off the hill. I asked him if he was OK, he claimed to be fine, and I carried on down, alone now.

More up and down over Crawford Mountain, and eventually into Dowell’s Draft at 22 miles, the first drop-bag aid station.

I had a hotspot on my right big toe, and a volunteer helped me tape the offending toe. He was so enthusiastic, I had to pinch myself — that I was really here, sitting comfortably, while a total stranger touched my dirty foot, while feeding me broth and chocolate?!

Out of Dowells, things started to get tough for all of us. A 4-mile climb. I passed several people who were already breathing too hard.

It was now somewhere around midnight. And after reaching the top of this particular hill, I felt really sleepy. I was on a downhill, and I didn’t feel like running! I stumbled around in the woods. Should I lie down on the side of the trail? Or run to the next aid station and fall asleep in a chair? Oh no, I might have to quit just to get some sleep!

I made peace with my decision to quit at North River Gap or the 51-mile turnaround, and decided to just enjoy the beautiful night on the ridges of these Allegheny Mountains. It felt special to be out, late at night, in the woods, with that moon, and the breeze.

Two runners came shuffling by me. I didn’t think too much about it, and just settled in behind them as we started downhill to North River. Before I knew it, and after lots more rocky piles and narrow paths on the sides of big hills, we came to North River.

I’d been drinking a lot of water, and most of a pint of Tailwind, between aid stations. I filled up with that stuff, but now I had some actual food too. Tater Tots, and tomato soup. Yes, I had lunch at 2am.

After getting a little lost out of the aid station (trying to avoid what turned out to be the signature climb on the course?!) I started up a monster slog.

As I passed another runner on the hill, we chatted, and it turned out he knew the course well. I asked him which mountain we were climbing.

“This is Grindstone Mountain, and we’re going up to Little Bald. It can take two full hours to get to the top.”

So yes, this was the heart of this course. The long climb to Little Bald.

And in my head, I went “Grindstone. Keep on Grinding.”

Up and up. Short sections of flat or downhill, but mostly, just up, and steep.

Grindstone. Keep on Grinding.

At the top of the ridge, there were amazing views. I could see the moon-lit outlines of other mountains. Some towns all lit up, far away. And the clouds, being pushed around by the still-cool mountain breeze.

After Little Bald, I saw Brian Rusiecki, in second place by now, coming the other way. Headlamp glare obscuring his face, two handhelds like boxing gloves up front, puffing like a steam train down the hill. It is just amazing how hard the elite athletes can run 100 miles!

I filled up at the aid station, and my climbing legs still felt good. Which was good, because we still had some 55 miles to go, and the next big climb - up Reddish Knob, awaited!

Although mostly we were on single track trail, and dirt roads, Reddish Knob has a tarred road up to the top - cars can get there!

We went around and around the death spiral of tar. I passed several more people until, alone, I got to the top of Reddish, and had my second navigation failure - I could not find the bib punch! I went everywhere the punch was not, until I finally found it.

At the top, I’d been happy that this downhill to the turnaround would be on smooth tarred road. But after about a mile of pounding it hard downhill, my knees started to ache so badly that each step made me wince. Why was there 6 miles of hard road in the middle of this lovely trail???

At the turnaround, it was almost daylight. I checked my watch for the first time, and I was almost exactly on-time - 12:33. Without even trying, I had made it here on time.

The volunteer who was helping me really wanted to get e out of there quickly. I had expected to spend quite a bit of time here, but after changing my socks and checking that all was good with my feet, he shoved me back out, and up Reddish Knob again. Time to do the course in reverse.

By now, I had clearly abandoned my earlier plan to quit. And the sun was coming up, hot and heavy…

Up the road, I met Isaac, as he stepped out of the bushes. We chatted — a lot. And I took some sunrise photos that, later, turned out to be crap.

Isaac is from Burlington, VT, and it turned out we knew some of the same trails, and the same trail runners.

He noticed that something was hanging off my shoe. When I looked down, I was dismayed to see part of the outsole falling off my Terra Kigers!

Still more than 40 miles to go!

Isaac and I ran together for a bit. He was going faster on the downhills, and I was going faster on the uphills. So at some point, we separated, but we kept meeting up, all the way until Dowell’s Draft. Although I also wanted to be done before night fell for a second night, he was much more aggressive about being finished by then.

It also turned out that my knees were very sore, and I could no longer run the downhills with any real speed.

The long climb up to Little Bald was now going to be a long drop. Isaac went ahead, and I took the 7-mile descent quite easy.

I worried about the sun, as it was getting really warm now.

In North River Gap though, Isaac was there when I got there. But I knew I had to get my shoe dealt with, if possible.

I asked a volunteer whether the outsole was still good enough to run on. He took out his knife, cut off the offending piece of rubber, and dropped it in my drop bag “as a souvenir.”

This was my last chance to change shoes, since I had my favourite La Sportiva Helios in my drop bag here. But I didn’t really want to change since the Terra Kigers were (mostly) working well for me.

Out of North River, I caught up to Isaac and a couple of other runners. Another long climb ensued, up to Lookout Mountain. It was getting very warm, but my climbing was still good. I might not be able to run downhill, but the uphill sections were still going very well, and my stride was still powerful, even after 70 miles.

The downhills though were not so great.

I was on my own at this point, running a long descent back to Dowell’s Draft, in the full sun. I was drinking a huge amount of water. I’d also switched from Tailwind to Coke in my bottle, as the cold, sugary, caffeine felt rather wonderful at this point.

At Dowell’s, the same volunteer that had taped my toe was still there, and still incredibly enthusiastic! I asked him if he could change the batteries in my headlamp, since I suspected by now that I would need it. He also handed me bacon, and stuck a cold wet cloth on my neck. Just outstanding!

I had been walking slowly out of the aid stations where I had been eating so I could properly digest the solid food. And here was no exception. I followed Will, and his pacer Lisa out of Dowells, and we chatted for a while as we climbed back up, eventually up Crawford Mountain. Now we were back on the big climbs.

Grindstone. Keep on Grinding.

At some point, Will stepped aside, and I powered on up the hill. My climbing legs were really still very good. Although I was worried that I was much later than my hoped-for 25 hour finish, I was still moving well-enough.

My watch battery had expired some time ago - my Suunto just getting too old, even in low-power mode. So I had no idea what my pace was. I just tried to keep it going.

Down the other side of Crawford hurt quite a bit. My knees were truly sore, and I could only shuffle downhill. I knew they weren’t injured as such, but they were certainly sore enough to make running downhill very painful.

More aid station goodness - the volunteers were great here too - cracking jokes, even after they’d been up all night too.

But I was really on my own for the remainder of the race.

And now for the crown jewel climb of the return - back up Elliot Knob. Not all the way to the top this time, but enough to remember just how big that mountain is.

Up, and up. I passed some people who were clearly suffering.

A cheery runner heading in the other direction (for some reason) tells me “it’s not too far now.” I wonder what she means. Not too far to the exit left down the big dirt road? Not too far to the top of this false summit? Not too far to the finish?

Grindstone. Keep on Grinding.

And I do. I banish thoughts of finishing, and just keep going up the hill.

Eventually, I do get off the single track. Off the slabs of rock. And off this climb.

It’s downhill from here. A lot.

I can’t run because my knees are really sore. But it’s so steep, I can’t walk either. I consider going down backwards, but I’m not quite ready for that yet, and try to keep my legs turning over with very short steep steps, down the hill, wincing.

It goes on for a while, winding around down the long s-curves of gravel and dirt, until there’s a turn back into the woods on to the Falls Hollow Trail.

Two people pass me, but I pass one or two others.

I hit the very last aid station and eat a huge stick of Kit-kat, made especially for ultra-runners, I think. A last fill of Coke, and off I go.

Little North Mountain feels like a minor speed bump. But coming down the other side, the light starts to fade, and I turn on my headlamp again (just the one this time) in time to start picking my way through the rocky bits and pieces of the trails and dirt roads back into camp.

It starts to get really dark, as some runner comes crashing through the woods at high speed and shoots by me. I just follow his light down through the woods, because there are so few trail markers here that I am worried I’ll get lost so close to the finish.

And then I stumble up onto the edge of the lake. Before I know it, I am running back around into camp. Time to pass one more runner, shocking myself that I can still run quite fast (on the flat!)

I miss the funnel to the finish, and with only a slight loss of dignity, turn around and go back to the funnel (which is well-lit with flaming torches) and step on the mat to finish.


I am satisfied. Just 45 minutes after dark, and with almost even splits, I have run 101.85 miles with over 23,200ft of climbing (and the same amount of descent!!!)

With a better headlamp, I probably could have gone faster downhill, overnight, but I can’t say whether ultimately this would have been good - perhaps my knees would have died earlier?

The heat was a bit of an issue (85ºF and sunny, in the middle of the day) but I managed to eat and drink very well for the entire race. Not even a hint of nausea. I suspect though that this is because I didn’t push the pace at all.

And to be honest, I really loved the Grindstone course, even more than I thought I would. The variety of surfaces was interesting. The ridge line from Grindstone to Reddish was just stunning in both directions (both at night, and during the day).

The mountains of the Western USA are quite clearly grandly spectacular.

Here in the East, we have these more subtle beauties that creep up on you, revealing furry green or orange marvels every few miles, mostly through dense forests.

I love the mountain laurel. And the slabs of rock fallen all over the place, as if some fantastic creature crushed bits of mountain between its teeth, and threw them in our path in a fit of rage. The wispy grass on top of Elliot Knob, and Little Bald, and sandy trails during the pre-dawn. The massive creamy moon presiding over the trails all night.

After a shower and some sleep, I go back to the finish line at 3am, to eat dinner, and cheer more of my fellow runners into the finish. Some of them have been out there for two full nights by the time the race finishes at 8am (after 38 hours). I cheer the last official finisher, who crosses the line just 10 minutes before the cutoff.

What an amazing adventure!

  • Pierre M.
    Pierre M.

    What a marvellous tale and amazing accomplishment, John! Thanks for sharing it! You almost-- not quite -- make me wish I could try it. Congratulations!

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • Paul S.
    Paul S.

    Glad you did it! Great write-up! Brings me back to my 100! Glad I've just done the one although it's addictive once you get going! Well done!!

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • Mike K.
    Mike K.

    Incredible experience - you pushed yourself to the limit for sure and showed real grit, especially with steep slopes in near darkness. Although I do have to say one of the scariest parts of the story was getting hurt while sleeping - I know something about that too!

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • Pierre M.
    Pierre M.

    I looked up the results online... a 70 yo person finished in 32 hours!

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • Cari H.
    Cari H.

    Wow. Just wow.

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • John K.
    John K.

    Pierre: that guy has finished more than 40, 100 mile races - he is amazing (and I told him his he was doing great, when I saw him at mile 60 for me -- mile 40 or so for him) :)

    11 months ago Like

  • John K.
    John K.

    Paul: not sure yet whether I will *race* another 100-miler. This was a qualifier for both WSER and Hardrock, but I don't really want to race either of them (although I'd like to run the Hardrock course). But I may have some ideas for solo runs that would take me over 100 miles again ;)

    11 months ago Like

  • Pierre M.
    Pierre M.

    John, I suggest going on formal races, so that you have help and support if anything happens!

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • John K.
    John K.

    Pierre: that is definitely a consideration, as I am not getting any younger ;)

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • Paul S.
    Paul S.

    Wow...thinking of doing a solo run of 100 miles?? I'm with Pierre...I can't believe you did this without pacers after the first 100k! Impressive!

    11 months ago Like1 person

  • John K.
    John K.

    I'm kind of "old-school" - no pacers, no poles, feels right to me (although my knees were longing for poles after 50 miles!) :) And I've already done a couple of long night runs on the Appalachian Trail, which I found more difficult than Grindstone, even though they were only 50-ish miles! I wouldn't mind running the complete state, south<->north MA on the AT which is about 90-something miles. And there's also a ~115 mile road run from where I live, to New York City, that calls me ;)

    11 months ago Like1 person