Sunday, October 12, 2014

2014 Grindstone 100 Race Report - Second Chances

The 2014 Grindstone 100 was the nearest I've come to dropping out of an ultra.  This was my second Grindstone finish, a good deal slower than the first--technically speaking a really bad race, but by far and way my most satisfying ultra.   By the end, I was relieved, grateful and more than a bit astonished to have finished at all.

Over the edge

With a 6 PM start time, the first 12 hours of Grindstone are run in darkness.  This year added a few soaking showers and some fog on the high ridges.   The darkness was appallingly total.   There were no views of stars or the moon this year.  If you turned your headlamp off, you could not see your own hand held in front of your face.    It's an experience we never get in the suburbs of DC: real night, inky black and everywhere.  

The conditions weren't so bad for running though, the rain no more than an occasional bother requiring a little more care on the technical terrain.   And for the first 20 or so, up over Eliot's Knob and Hankey Mountain, I was quite comfortable, moving well.   

I had adopted the (for me) novel fueling strategy of taking in a steady 200 calories of glucose every hour, right from the very start of the race.   Although I've trained myself to run on low or no carbs, although I eat almost no sugar in my daily diet, and although every other ultra I've eased into a more varied fueling strategy--I somehow got it into my head that "storing up" the extra glucose during the early stages of the race would "supercharge" my performance.   

How did I know?  I read it in a book.   Three weeks before the race.  Brilliant, right?

It happened somewhere a few hours after 6 hours, somewhere along the course from Hankey Mountain,  Lookout Mountain, Grindstone Mountain, to the endless climb from Chestnut Ridge to Little Bald Knob.   Somewhere in the darkest hours, 3 or 4 AM.   In that long, wearying stretch, I fell over a (metabolic) cliff.

From about 35 miles on, my blood sugar levels totally crashed.   It was all I could do stay conscious, let alone keep moving.   Caffeine didn't help.    This was no mere sleepiness: it was like a cloudiness in the brain, like morphine.   I felt as if I was losing my mind.   Even after the sun had risen, I just wanted to lie down on the trail and sleep--"let someone pick me up, who cares, what does any of this matter" went the incessantly negative internal chatter--a very bad place.

The Rollercoaster

I felt sad thinking about how I would be letting down all the folks who had pledged to support me in running for Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida.  But there was simply nothing to be done about it.  By 40 miles, the possibility of actually finishing seemed utterly ludicrous.  Making it to the next aid station was my only goal.   Then I could stop, sleep, and be done with it.

The sun rose, sort of.   Dawn showed itself, but dimly, and brought little relief.   I still struggled for consciousness.  My internal clock seemed stuck at 3 AM.  

I made it to the next aid station.  I thought that if I made it at least to 45 miles before dropping, that would be slightly less pathetic, and do a little more justice to the pledges. And so it went, aid station to aid station, feeling no better, telling myself this would be the one, at this one I would drop.  

My energy levels began to rise, in fits and starts.   I was now experimenting with whatever the aid stations had on offer.  At one, I would drink some ginger ale, at another I would eat a bunch of oranges.  I would begin to feel a little better, temporarily--before crashing down again.   That zigzagging of emotions and energy was my world for the next 8 hours or so. 
They call this stretch of the Shenandoah's "the Rollercoaster" for its elevation profile.   I scarcely noticed.   Mine was a metabolic rollercoaster.  But it was ok; I was moving, zombie-like but in a forward direction.  

My mantra against the negative chatter: just try something different; find out what works; remember that things can change.   

Cold fronts

Things did change.  This year's Grindstone featured both the highest ever overnight temperatures, on Friday, and the lowest, on our second evening.   By Saturday afternoon, the sky had cleared, and though the sun on the ridges was warm, it was clear that the second evening would be very cold.

The dropping temperatures made eating easy, kept any nausea at bay.   I was feeling, if not exactly energetic, at least human again.   Compared to the dark place I had come from, I felt almost fantastically alive.  Cooperating, the ridges we had passed in darkness and fog the night before opened up with gorgeous views of the Shenandoah Valley in autumn.

It happened around 65 miles--like a light snapping on in my mind.  I knew with absolute certainly I would finish.  It wouldn't be pretty, but I would get it done.   

Apparently, it was not pretty.  No observing me seems to have seen any outward sign of the inward change I felt.    So I was a bit puzzled--but grateful, and comforted--when aid station volunteers, or fellow runners, would ask me with looks of concern "are you ok?"   I heard this quite a lot over the last third of the race.

Hiccup guy

I reached Dowell's Draft and 80 miles just as the sun set for the second time in the race. After putting on my very light (and insufficient) jacket, and strapped on my headlamp again, I almost hurried out of the aid station, eager by now to head into the final 20 miles of the race.

Because the field was so much larger than 2012, having absorbed those of us who displaced by the 2013 government shutdown, I often had company to run with.   This was especially true during the last portion of the race.   

Although I enjoyed the company, I'm not sure whether the feeling was mutual.   A final insult in this race was developing a case of hiccups that persisted at least for the final 5 hours of the race.   The few hallucinations I had--a couple of scotty dogs, a milk crate, two penguins, and a floating bearded head--were too innocuous to scare the hiccups away. 

So it was step, step, hiccup all the way home.  My apologies to Rob Ulm and his pacer friends from Illinois for annoying them those last few hours!   
Second Chances

In retrospect, what got me through the long dark period in the middle of this race was wanting to do justice to those who had pledged to support Prosthetics for Life.   Gary Knipling even sent his check in early, before the race, saying he had no doubt I would finish.  How could I not at least try to do my best?  

This is all the ultra, the race of second chances, asks of us.  So, although you already know all this, here's my take-away for you when life isn't working: focus on what's important (not you), remember that conditions will change (always and forever), try something different (think!), and just keep going.