Our preparations and planning finally complete, the tents pitched and the pre-race briefing over, we set out about an hour before sunset. Most of us felt, I suppose, as I did: relieved to be moving at last, well-rested, maybe even a little giddy.
Darkness came on swiftly. For all its immense distances and elevation changes, the first twelve hours of this race are weirdly intimate. Just you, the rocks underfoot, the dark trees, and your little bubble of light, bobbing after other little bubbles of light. The first mountain, Eliot's Knob, brings a welcome if challenging break in routine: a steep open gravel road with wide views of stars blazing overhead and the far lights of Staunton twinkling down below.
The miles passed. Crawford Mountain, Dowell's Draft, and on towards Hankey Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Grindstone Mountain, and finally the endless climb from Chestnut Ridge to Little Bald Knob. Somewhere in there I began to feel confident. Pleased with myself. And rather hungry: I ate my fill at a couple of aid stations. Mistake number one.
Feeling a little sleepy (it was about midnight by then), I looked about for coffee, and finding none, drank some coke. Mistake two. I had forgotten my delicate middle-aged-man stomach. With the judgement already a tad compromised, I repressed entirely my experience at Rocky Raccoon earlier this year, and failed to drink enough water to digest the food I had taken in. The next 6 hours of night were a misery of nausea. The sensation somehow grew worse every time the trail turned up. Which it tended to do rather a lot.
Crack of dawn
Just before winding my way up to Reddish Knob in the last part of the night, I was startled to see what looked to be a sort of vehicle flying silently down the trail towards me. It was of course Karl Meltzer, barreling over steep rocky terrain in the pitch darkness as smoothly as a man sprinting lightly over level ground. His headlamp blazed, lights were in his hands, and he looked for all the world like a human train. In the split second of his passing me, I saw the intense, possessed look on his face, a technician of rocks, an Ahab in pursuit of his mountain.
Nearing Reddish Knob, the sun exploded over the mountain, and the reviving effect on my spirits--and stomach--was almost instant. I have rarely experienced so viscerally that sense of dawn cracking. I feel I understand just a little why ancient people worshiped the sun. For the rest of the morning, I continued to gather strength. Making my way back I caught many of the people who had passed me in the second half of night. I flew into Dowell's Draft. If only this could continue!
Alas, no. Fortune turned against me once again in the afternoon. At noon, the gathering clouds threatened rain, and though it didn't come, the nausea did, and unable to eat much, I began to slow again. Crawford Mountain brought another endless climb, and I brooded darkly on my inability to keep pace with others hiking uphill. I should have trained better for the long uphill hikes. At one point I was grabbing at old sticks, trying to fashion some poles for walking.
"Temporary loss of sanity..."
So promises the Grindstone website. But I took this as merely the sort of metaphorical color to which directors of ultra marathons seem particularly prone. No. It is a clinically accurate description of what happens to a sleep-deprived person, out among the mountains and dark woods for over 24 hours and trying to find his way home. I had a few hallucinations, as I had heard I might, but these were all odd, benign, amusing: a log that resembled a dog looking at me, various kitchen appliances in the forest that turned out to be ferns, a small party of gnomes (charming, and also ferns).
At some point just past the penultimate big climb up Crawford, however, turning onto the paving-stone rubble of a trail on the north slope of Eliot's Knob--somewhere during that second evening of the race, I really lost it, couldn't remember what I was doing, why on earth I was stumbling about on rocks in dark woods with the sound of coyotes around me. I felt I was supposed to be doing something with all these great slabs of rock. Maybe assemble them like gigantic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As my mind struggled to make sense of this, I took just my second fall of the race. Not hard or painful, just bewildering to be lying down like an idiot among the paving-stone-sized rocks. One tiny corner of the brain was speaking very clearly. Get up, fool. Follow the markers. Follow the trail. Finish the race.
Inspirations and Lessons
Heading into the last, blessed aid station--which heralded us with what sounded like the winding of old-fashioned hunting horns--my mind snapped back into focus, into something almost resembling alertness. There was the final stumbling run around camp, a looping, rocky, uneven 5 miles that leads at last to Hope pond and the wide finishing chute. Then I was shaking Clark's hand, hugging the totem pole, eating some soup and grilled cheese sandwich (which tasted like the best food ever made), taking a shivery shower in the open-air stall with a large spider watching me from its web in the corner, and at last rolling into my tent and falling instantly to a sweet and dreamless sleep.
In the end, I remember most the helpfulness of other runners when I was feeling low, the care and attention of volunteers. I remember the bigness of a day and a night, the blazing stars, the sun coming up. The coyotes and the big orange last-quarter moon. Weird little forest scenes, some of them real, some not. The aid station with a pot-bellied pig, its nose snuffling in the dirt. Most of all, I remember the astonishing people, from Meltzer flying through the night, to the "ordinary" runners who came in at 35, 36, 37, 38 hours, somehow threading their way through the maze as I had, battling the same demons of sleeplessness or nausea or very possibly something worse.
I ran rather slower than I hoped--just over 30 hours--but the goal for my first Grindstone had always been simply to finish, so for that I was grateful. It's a humbling experience. It's an ultra that is orders of magnitude more difficult than my only previous 100, the flat and fast Rocky Raccoon in Texas.
Some takeaways, of likely interest only to other ultrarunners:
- The aid stations were in practice much further apart than I anticipated based on mileage. The mountains matter. These are long separations, demanding a higher level of self-sufficiency than I was prepared for. Eating only at aid stations meant I was too hungry, ate too much at once...and you know the story.
- Practice hiking up mountains that take hours to climb. I thought I would be ok with my runs over hilly terrain. No, I wasn't. I hadn't realized until this race how unprepared I was for the very long climbs, how much better others seem to be. (Conversely, though, my downhill skills seemed to be pretty good. Go figure.)
- Nutrition and hydration are personal, and this particular 47-year-old person needs to drink a lot in order digest his food. Then take electrolytes in order to sustain this level of water intake. Never eat too much at any single feeding. And don't mix foods, for goodness sake. Treat the stomach like a scientific experiment: one item, one variable at a time, observe what happens before eating something else.
- What worked flawlessly: Saucony Peregrine 2s, DryMax socks, and the UltraSpire "Revolution" pack. No need to change shoes or socks. The Revolution pack is excellent if, like me, you dislike bladders but need more than a dinky handheld to get you through from station to station.