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Grin and Bear it: Grindstone Success

10/08/2014

“If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly!” my friend Jim had written to me after I’d run my first starter 100. He said he was quoting his friend Doug.

“Run Grindstone” he’d meant. On this subject, his voice was added to many, but his rang out the loudest.

I noted silently that he once told me that he had fallen asleep in the midst of running up a hill on that race.

How’d he think I was up for it?

True, I love running through the night, and had expressed this often. And Grindstone is a night hundred, with a 6PM start and for a slowpoke like me, that meant two nights of running.

“You have to run Grindstone!” I had heard more than once from well-meaning runners who had clearly experienced it first-hand. I could see the sparkle, that far-away look in their eyes when they said it; a hint of a memory of something unfathomably spectacular. Or at least life-changingly memorable. And I knew that somehow, some day soon,

I would.

I fretted. I lacked confidence. Maybe night running was my forte, but I didn’t know if I was capable of being a grizzly, as Jim had put it. I called him. “Do you really think I can do this?”

“Sure, why not?”

“How do you train for it?”

I asked because I live in a city on the Piedmont. I run sidewalks and gently rolling trails. At times, I feel as though I’ve been put out to pasture. I missed the mountains, the rocks, the pines and oaks and mountain flora I grew up with.

That summer I began running up flights of stairs. Eventually I found my way back to the mountains to train.

Between the race cancellation in 2013 due to the government shutdown, and an ankle injury that put me out of commission that Spring (just a few weeks before the MMT), I had trained for three 100s by the time Grindstone 2014 rolled around and had yet to run one of them. I was getting a bit antsy. But I knew I would be slow, and had no idea how I’d cope with the two-night sleep deprivation. I was certain it was going to be interesting.

Someday I would love to race, but for now, the plan was but to finish, and the strategy was simple: aid station to station, and between that, mountain to mountain, climb to climb. I felt I had prepared well enough for the climbs, and could handle the late nights. Or at least the first one. I worried that by the second, I would be wondering off the trail. I asked around for a pacer, but those who had offered earlier had been snapped up by others, and now I was on my own. (Just before the race, I managed to secure one, but due to a glitch in the live updates that said I had DNFd at mile 65, she’d gone home.)

But a lot had changed since Jim’s initial “be a grizzly” charge, and I found I now knew a LOT of people planning to run. It was a regular party in the works. This got me excited, and reassured me with the notion that I would not be alone out there. It felt a little strange to be stoked about company. Running had clearly changed for me.

I thought back to my earlier loner days of trail running. Even before that, I had enjoyed plenty of alone time in the mountains. As a teen I would hike the fire and old tram roads near my home in PA, and camp under the stars on rocky outcroppings. I would see how far I could travel without food or water or with only the moon for light.

But I no longer possessed this fearlessness. Company was indeed welcome!

We started on a Friday at 6PM in a warm drizzle. The elements were going to add interest, it seemed. I started off conservatively, but kept the pace steady enough to stay warm, chatting with other runners, and remaining calm.

I still had plenty of supplies by the first aid station, so I thanked the volunteer there and kept moving. We were moving steadily up a dirt road then onto some trail as the light faded. I found myself switching my light off and on for different sections depending on the tree cover.

As night grew on, the rain grew heavier, and I flashed back to one of my teen night hikes where I had gotten lost in the dark in the rain.  When I finally found my way out of the woods and onto the road home, it was so dark, I couldn’t see to follow it. I kept wondering off into the ditch. At one point, I came upon some deer and startled them. They were all around, and winded loudly. I fell into a crouch. That pitch darkness was so frightening, it had taken me what felt like an eternity to get home that night.

Having the group to run with now, a well-marked trail and a light felt much more comfortable. It’s all relative, I reckoned.

I knew Elliott was going to be a tough climb, but I hadn’t expected it to be so enjoyable. It was still drizzling, but had also grown quite foggy. Since we were on the fire road and moving slowly, I shut off my lamp to conserve. I could see well enough by the faint light of those far ahead, and those not too far behind. The silhouettes of the runners above against their own halos of light in the fog were beautiful, and I focused on them as I moved steadily up the road. At the summit, the wind picked up, and it began to pour. We all dashed to the punch on the fire tower fence that proved we had summited, and rushed back down the road, seeking the tree cover of the North Mountain trail. The scree was as I remembered it from the summer training run, only this time wet with rain and heavy in leaves. I took my time on it, and was grateful for the shelter from the wind by the tree cover and mountainside.

I rolled into the Dry Branch aid station in plenty of time, but was dismayed to find they had run out of water. It was humid, and I had been sucking mine down without concern. Now I would have to conserve. Clearly I was not alone. There was such a large number of runners this year, I could only imagine how hard it was for the volunteers to keep up with the demands.

From here, I moved over Crawford mountain pretty steadily and rolled strong into the Dowell’s. Draft aid station.  The rain had long stopped and most of my clothing was dry now, but I decided to change out of my top layers to make certain I was dry to the skin. It was still warm, but I donned something with sleeves as I thought I might need them later as the night rolled in.

It stayed pleasant, and much of the sections were runnable in the next leg, so I made good time. Over Hankey mountain, on my way up to the Lookout aid station, I met up with my friend Diane. We ran to the station, and I woofed a couple quarters of grilled cheese, the first real food I took in since Friday afternoon. It tasted like the best food I had ever eaten in my life.

I was beginning to feel that wonderful buzz of running at night and was so grateful for the volunteers and their amazing food. Though there was plenty of buffer before the cut offs, I was trying hard not to waste any time at the stations, so rolled out soon with Diane and headed off to the North River Gap aid station where I knew I would spend more time changing and eating.  I was not looking forward to that rocky technical stretch on the Wild Oak trail just above North River, but it didn’t seem half as bad as I remembered. I think I was much more tired when on it last, a training run just a few weeks before, as then it had been much later in the night.

Diane was making much better time than me on the technical descents, and I soon lost sight of her. I was glad to see the tell tale bridge before the station and could soon hear the many voices in the distance. Rolling swiftly down the road, I took in the lights of North River Gap. It looked like a carnival. I was greeted by a friend and amazing runner, Jenny Nichols, who found my drop bag and helped me change socks and shoes. She took good care of me, stocked me up and sped me on my way, giving me explicit instructions go grab some food and eat it on the climb out of the station. I grabbed three quarters of a quesadilla  and woofed it as I climbed.

The climb up Little Bald is no joke. Over 7 miles or so. I took my time and paid attention to my heart beat. I was alone for a while, but passed a few people. Much of it is a blur. Then on one particularly steep section that spills out onto a road, I passed a man who called out with a complement of something to the effect of if I kept that pace I was going to do well. He said with authority the climb was a tough one. He asked my name.

“Dani”

“What?

“Daniele” I said.

“I’m Gary”

“Oh! Gary, of course!” I said. I knew Gary Knipling, or at least of him. Now in his 7th decade of life with 30 years of ultra running under his belt, he’s a bit of a local legend. We had never spoken before. He looked to be about 50 to me. He was climbing up onto the road and I was a few feet in front when I saw a runner come barreling down the road toward us.

“Runner!” I hollered back at Gary. It turned out to be Jeff Browning, the first runner, on his way back already. It was inspiring. I paused, turned and listened on as he and Gary chatted briefly. I noted the respect in Jeff’s tone, and thought about what it meant to be part of a community of such wonderful people.

I climbed alone for a while, passing and being passed by lots of friendly faces, some of whom I knew well and some whom I did not, I soon discovered I had forgotten to top off my water at North River Gap. Bad mistake. I rationed, and kept moving, now more conservatively. No water also meant no fuel, and psychologically, it was a big blow. I decided to concentrate on watching for signs of dawn. I sipped what water I had when parched enough to keep my tongue wet, and when completely out, eyed the dewy leaves on the forest floor. Well, in a pinch, I thought. I’ll be at the Little Bald station at some point.

Soon I could see the faintest traces of first light and my eyes welled. I remembered a fragment from a song I had written years and years ago. It became a mantra now, and I sang it in my head as I finished the climb up Little Bald.

The sky filled

brimming over with the endless light of dawn

and truth stretched to all horizons

as far as the eye could see

history burned in shimmering silence

as we forged in the rising sun

and all that remained was here and now

and in here and now we climbed

I don’t know how it came to be this way

something once lost to us had returned

but then life is best taken as mystery

and in living that mystery we learned

to climb out of the dust

and into the sky

out of the darkness

and into the light

out of our dreams

and into the living

out of the madness

blessed with second sight

At the top of Little Bald, I looked out from the west side of the mountain onto the blue edges of cloud cover over the trees. It was breathtaking. The birds woke up.

The trail spilled onto a road that passed through some meadows, and here I happened upon Gary again, this time, stopped and sipping orange juice.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Ok,”  I said. “Been out of water for a couple of hours, so I’m anxious to get to the station.”

He handed me his OJ insisting I take several gulps as he still had water. It was too hard to turn it down. Words cannot describe the taste of that juice. I had died and gone to heaven. I thanked him profusely, and he said it was only 2 and a half miles to the station from there, and mostly down hill. I trotted along. He caught up. We walked/ran together for a while off and on after that.

Not long after, I came up on him again, and he generously fed me some of his sweet tea.  Geez, I thought. What a fine stash of magical elixirs he’s carrying. I need to learn how to pack better. I simply could not have been more grateful for his kindness.

I thought I caught sight of Diane up in the distance, and did my best to push the pace into the station. Sure enough, it was her and I called out. I restocked, refilled my water, drank a swig of soda and a lot of water, woofed a breakfast burrito and a few mini zucchini muffins. It was very tasty but afterward I felt like I’d eaten a bucket of cement. I knew I’d need it, and was most grateful, though.

Gary sat for a while at the station, and Diane and I rolled out together, on our way up to Reddish Knob, our last summit before the turnaround.  We continued to run together off and on, and split up again for a while.

Not long after, Gary caught up to me. We climbed up Reddish together, and tried hard to run as much of it as we could. I had trouble matching Gary’s pace. Luckily every runner we passed stopped to greet him. He really did know everyone, and I felt so honored to be in his company.

I had been to the top of Reddish before, but it had been so foggy then, I couldn’t see the view. Now it was absolutely breathtaking. Every direction, were rolling mountains covered in colorful foliage. The long clusters of cumulus above cast shadowy stripes on the earth below.

View from Reddish

View from Reddish

I tried too soak it all in, but knew I couldn’t stay long. I pulled out my phone, hoping to catch enough signal here to msg my husband to let him know I was still alive. I had one bar–enough to send a quick “almost halfway” “love you!” msg. and to snap a couple of shots of the mountains. Gary asked for my phone and quickly posed me along the guard rail.

Gary Knipling

Gary Knipling

“Put your arms up like this, ” he said. I obliged, then we switched, and quickly headed down, caught up with Diane, and headed for the Briary Branch turn around.

VGS22014

The three of us had a blast running together. We pushed hard, and I struggled to keep up with them on the descending road. I was having knee pain and it was holding me back.

Gary stopped off at the pacer pick up, and Diane and I headed up to the turn around. At the station, I topped off water, grabbed some tater tots, and ate them so quickly I got hiccups. We were passed by dirt bikers on some trail race through these sections, and there was a bit of dust in the air. But it made for a lively scene and we joked about sticking our thumbs out and hitching a ride.

Diane and I ran together for a while then, split, then fell back in together, then apart, and repeated the pattern. At Little Bald station again, she changed her shoes, and we grabbed some quesadillas. We searched the meadows for a flashlight she’d lost earlier, but no dice. We were soon descending Little Bald, and enjoying the spectacular views and scenery, and I tried hard to stay with her as she lead strongly down the technical descents.

I ate some mate-laced Pro Bar energy chews, and they gave me a serious kick: just what I needed to manage the descents. We barreled into the North River Gap station around 2:30PM, and I sat down to change my socks. I had a nasty blister on one heal that I was going to ignore, but a fellow doing foot work there noticed and offered to fix it for me. I agreed and he and Bob Gaylord soon had me taped up and promised it would stop smarting as soon as my feet hit the trail. He was right.

Diane and I saw Jack Anderson at the station, and soon after he joined us on the trail. I was still bumped up from the energy chews, and felt so energetic on the flat stretches of road on the meadows up toward Lookout Mountain that I ran some sprints. Diane looked at me like I was crazy, but the stretch felt so good, I convinced her to give it a try.
We made really good time into Lookout, stopped briefly to eat some pancakes, but didn’t stay long.  With the passing of every station we accrued more and more time.

Diane lead the charge into Dowell’s and the three of us ran strong into the station. Once there, I realized I had another bad blister on the other heal, and  needed to have it fixed. This time was not so pleasant as it was large and very sore. I shouted and cursed like a sailor, feeling wimpy but grateful for the loving attention of Bob and Mary and the gang. Dunno what I would have done without those guys. They really saved my feet and my spirits!

It had still been light as we rolled into Dowell’s but night was coming on fast, and we knew the forecast was for cold and wind. I was still feeling warm from the run, and didn’t want to overlayer, so pondered my choices carefully. I grabbed a fleece vest and a pair of gloves. I should have added more layers.

Diane had rolled out because she was getting cold, and Jack who still had more blister work to be done, said he would catch up, so I started out alone. Sleep deprivation hit me fast and hard then. I wound through the valley following the trail markers, missing the company I’d lost so recently. It seemed eons ago. Things became very surreal and I lost all sense of linear time. I looked for familiar spots on the course, but it all looked new. The beginning of the race seemed like so long ago, and I had trouble differentiating it from summertime training runs. I heard sounds and voices, but couldn’t quite tell if they were real or imagined. Stumps and leaves began to appear as other things. I kept telling myself to just keep moving and to focus on the trail streamers.

As I began the slow climb up Crawford, the temperature dropped dramatically and the wind picked up. I put my windbreaker hood up and pulled my bandana over my face. On the trail ahead, I could just make out some lights. It turned out to be Diane!  I was never more happy to see her. We plodded along together then, and a couple soon passed us looking energetic and warm. It was a little deflating. I had to make a pit stop, and when I caught up, it turned out to be the couple trying hard to put up their hoods in the howling wind. I stopped to see if I could help, but they said they were fine. I could see Diane in the distance, so I made my way back toward her.  The wind was cutting right through my clothes and I began to feel sick with the cold.

We plodded on in silence. Much of the way was too technical to travel with any speed, and we were very cold. I lost all sense of place and direction, but just kept following Diane and the trail, looking for markers and anything that looked familiar. Diane was looking for the tell tale switchback to give some sense that we were nearing the top of Crawford. It took forever, but finally there it was. I cheered, trying to keep the mood up.  The wind was so terrible, all I could do was hope that there would be a little more shelter later on the North Mtn. trail.

The flatter, grassy stretches up top were better. We walked and trotted intermittently. But the descents that followed were loose dirt and steep. And endless it seemed. I remembered going down these so fast the two summers before, but now my knee was on fire and it was all I could do to protect it. I gritted my teeth and picked carefully down.

Suddenly we were at Dry Branch. I looked for something warm. Anything. They had chicken noodle soup. I don’t normally eat chicken, but gave it a shot. It was very salty, but it tasted fine, and I was soo grateful. My stomach was not doing so well, and I wasn’t sure if this would help or hinder. By now, I was just so anxious to keep moving. We still had Elliott, and I didn’t know if I could even manage that North Mtn. trail, I was so cold. But I couldn’t stop at mile 88.

We pressed on. The only sections of the North Mtn trail I could remember then were the loose scree and the mud from the springs on the wind sheltered section near the road. So in my head,  I focused on mud and scree.  I never thought I would be so anxious to reach that rough section, but I simply had no sense of place or progress. We passed a lot of people. Everyone looked like zombies to me, they were picking along so slowly over the rocks. Diane was as well. She was getting tripped up now, and slowed to a stop several times. I offered to take the lead. I moved in front, and we pressed through a group of people. A woman commented on how fast I was taking it, but I was definitely moving at a crawl. Sounding a little desperate, she asked if I knew how far until the road. I told her not far, but that it it will seem farther than it is.

“Just look for big patches of soft mud. You’ll know then that the road is coming up soon,” I said. She thanked me graciously for this. I thought about how just having something to watch for that gives you a sense of place and progress makes so much difference, even if you have far to go.

We passed more people still, and it felt good to be traveling with a bigger group. We made it to the side of the mountain that was more sheltered from the wind, and this gave me a sense of where we were. I watched for that mud from the springs. Soon after, I saw the road, and yelled back to the group.

There were a couple of guys sitting on the road just resting and taking in the stars. They were so bright here. I looked up at Orion and the Pleiades.  It felt warmer without the wind, and I would have liked to have lingered longer, but my stomach was really bad. I knew I had to keep moving.

We started the descent down the Elliott fire road, and met up with Enrique Rubio and his pacer. He’d locked up his IT band on the Little Bald descent and couldn’t bend his knee. I couldn’t believe how far he’d come with just his pacer to lean on and a big stick for a crutch. Some 40 miles! Such strength, determination and positivity, he showed. My heart went out to him. I wanted to say so and wish him well, but just then became very sick.  I moved over to the side of the road and fell into dry heaves. I tried hard to puke, but there was nothing in my stomach.

I could hear Diane offering Enrique the use of her poles. I did my best to finish heaving, but it seemed to take forever. She stayed with me, and finally I felt better, and we all continued the slow descent down Elliott. I promised myself before the race that if possible, I would run at least part of that descent. Though it seemed impossible now, I gave it a shot. I trotted a bit. Not so bad, and started and stopped again, but soon gave it up completely for the knee. After an eternity, it was over and desperate to make time, I lead the way on the winding little trail toward Falls Hollow. I could remember very little of it, and felt annoyed at that. I asked Diane what to watch for. She seemed to remember every last detail and told me we’d cross a creek and then hit the road. Sure enough, soon we were at the rocky creek bed where we met a runner just standing in the creek bed looking confused. He seemed to have lost the trail. I sympathized. In this state of mind, it was extremely hard to find the way and to stay focused. Diane showed him the way, and we moved on down the road.

I was so cold now, all I could think about was the hot shower I’d get later. I was worried about hypothermia. There were still about 7 or 8 miles to go, but I felt like we were almost finished. I tried to stay warm. I breathed into my bandana and concentrated on the warmth of my breath. Now I recognized the course again from two summers before. It went fast and soon we were at Falls Hollow. There was a huge crowd of people there this time. Diane stopped for food, but my stomach would not have it, and all I could think about was warmth. I held my hands up to a Coleman lantern. Benski Hawkins was there, and offered me one of her layers, cautiously, explaining she’d once given away clothing at that aid station never to see it again. I took her vest promising, I’d return it asap.

Diane wasn’t ready to go, but I had to move. She told me to run on, so I moved onward. There was a good climb, and I pressed up it fast, but sadly it did little to warm me. I tried compartmentalizing the cold. I visualized it compressed in a small container while I remained outside of it. I thought about the Buddhist monks who could control their body temperature, and tried to will myself warmer.

I was alone on the last 5 miles now. There seemed to be runners everywhere, but I felt a sense of isolation. I was on a road that went up a hill, and joined another at the top. I watched the runners moving along the top, their lights bobbing slowly, along with their reflective tags. Here I saw a strange pattern of movement, and realized it must be Enrique leaning into his pacer, his lifted foot reflecting back just above the others. I felt such a sense of joy that he was going to finish. It lit a fire under me and I forged ahead.

Soon I was navigating some really rocky trail again, and I passed a few people only to have to make a pit stop. Just after, Diane caught up with me. It was so great to see her!  I was so anxious to finish now, and we could do it together! She had done trail work around the camp so she had a great sense of where we were and where to go, and she set a good pace. I did my best to keep up, and once we got moving I started to feel better. Soon we were around the showers, and headed toward the dam!  I checked the time, and realized that if we pressed a bit, we could roll in before 34 hours so she could beat her 100-mile PR.

I asked if she wanted to try to run once we got on the dam. She said she would try. We made the tricky climb to the top of the dam, and then trotted, then ran. I lost her somewhere along the road, and stopped and waited. When I saw she was running, I kept going. I followed the streamers, and sprinted up the finish, high-fiving, then half hugging Clark, almost missing to cross the chip line. A smiling woman handed me my buckle and tech shirt, and I stared at it in disbelief as Diane was coming up. I remember saying ” That was fun! I can’t believe it,” and Clark laughing and reminding me to go hug the totem pole. Diane and I took pics of each other hugging the pole, and then my phone, as if on cue, promptly died.

dianeGS2014

Diane Behm

daniGS2014

I wanted to stay and watch as others came in, but the cold was taking a serious toll, so I trotted to my tent and quickly changed into some layers, grabbed my bag and made the quarter mile walk to the showers. I stayed in the warm water as long as I could. It helped but the effects didn’t last. I dried and dressed, and made my way back to the finish. But it was too cold for me to stick around. I wanted to call my husband, but didn’t want to have to wait outside any longer for the phone to charge, and decided I’d try and sleep for an hour, then recharge and call. I was so cold in the tent, even in my sleeping bag and layers, I wasn’t sure what to do. I contemplated finding someone there with a car to let me sit in it for a while. I dreamed maybe my husband would show up, or that dawn would come soon. I shook with cold and nearly cried.

Then I heard the tent zipper, and someone grabbed my foot. I looked up to see my husband, several giant bouquets of flowers in his hand, looking concerned.

“Are you ok? Did you finish?”

“Yes,” I said grinning and grabbing him. We laughed and hugged and clung for warmth.

I’d never been so happy. In my delirium, it was as if I had dreamed him into being there.

He’d driven through the night with plans to fill my tent full of flowers. But I came in 3 hours earlier than I’d expected. He was a little disappointed I’d beaten him and ruined his surprise, but from my perspective, his timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

flowers2014

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 10/12/2014 16:53

    Such a great report! You truly dug deep and are one tough chick. Your husband is the sweetest what a great ending to your journey. Congrats and happy trails dani!

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