The idea of the 6:00 PM start is to give the elite runners a chance to actually run all night. They are so fast that they start a 100 miler in the morning they finish in the middle of the next night, unlike the rest of us that always have the privileged of running all night. To give you an example of "FAST," I was less than half a mile out of North River Gap at mile 35.91 when I me Karl Meltzer heading for the finish. It was still dark that first night of the race. He had covered 72 miles in the time it took me to go a little over 36 miles. Karl went on to win in 17:13 beating Neal Gorman by 33 minutes.
I did get a good nights sleep on Thursday night. Marye Jo and I were staying at a bed and breakfast in Staunton, VA, about 25 minutes form the start. We got up and ate a good breakfast then went to look for the two aid stations where Marye Jo could meet me. After driving around for about one and a half hours we finally found the North River Gap AS located at a trail head in the George Washington National Forest. Actually, the entire race is run in the Nation Forest.
The run begins with a relatively gentle climb of about about 1,300 followed by a 700 ft descent to the first aid station at mile 5. The real clue of what was to come was not the climb but the terrain. As we followed a small creek behind the Boy Scout Camp (Camp Shenandoah) I paid little attention to the really rugged nature of the terrain. That is "Rocks" lots of rocks. Not the kind that is like running on an uneven sidewalk, the kind that is like running over a slag pile. At one point in the first few miles I was actually Dead Last in the run. I have never been Last. At the first aid station, Falls Hollow, I was #150. A total of 158 actually started the race.
After the first aid station, which had run out of water, by the time I got there, we started up the 4 mile 4,500 ft climb to the top of Elliot's Knob. For comparison, the first climb, and longest, at The Wasatch 100 is Chinscraper. It climbs about 4,000 in 5 miles. The climb to Elliot's Knob really isn't too bad. You are fresh and 2 miles of the climb follow a very steep gravel road. After reaching the summit we dropped back down to the ridgeline of The Great North Mountain. Basically, the race followed the ridgeline of most of the 50.93 miles out to the turnaround at Gnashing Knob and back to the start. By following the ridgeline I mean right on top of the ridge. Most of the run the terrain dropped off on both sides of the trail. This made for some spectacular views at least when it was daylight. Much of the early part of the course I never say in the light.
Following the ridgeline also made the race really tough. Most mountain trails use switchbacks to make the steepest climbs a little less strenuous. Not Grindstone. The trails ran straight up the side of the mountains often for hundreds or thousands of feet. I found myself making tiny switchbacks on two foot wide trails. When the trail was too narrow for tiny switchbacks, I alternated left and right crossover steps (like a speed skater.)
After Elliot's Know the trail started a long descent down to the Dry Branch Aid Station at mile 14.6. Despite the fact that much of this 2,300 ft descent is relatively gentle I probably had to walk half of it. The trail is covered in plate like rocks from the size of a fist to several feet across and averaging about one inch in thickness. There are thousands of them along the trail and piled on top of each other. Many are unstable so that when you step on one it shifts or slides and tends to throw your balance off. A couple of miles of this isn't too bad. One hundred miles of it gets tough. The worst of these rocky sections are located near the tops of the mountains. Climbing up over them was just exhausting. Trying to run down them was really tricky and downright dangerous in the later miles of the race.
The descent from the top of the mountain to Dry Branch AS and the next descent from the top of the ridge to Dowell's Draft AS, mile 22, were the exception to "following the ridgeline." The upper parts of the trail traversed across the steep face of the mountain. Combine the tricky natures of the rock strewn trail with a very steep dropoff below the trail and "you don't want to fall." It would really hurt and in places, very difficult to climb back up to the trail. Now remember, the first time I encountered these treacherous sections of trail was between mile 10 and 20. The next time I was crossing this section was from mile 80 to 90, early Sunday morning with a very strong and very cold wind blowing all along the ridge. I do not mean to imply that this was the only place the rocks were this bad. They were this bad all over the course, this was simply the greatest concentration in one area.
It is amazing the state you mind is in during a one hundred mile race. I really have difficult remembering most aid stations, where they were, what they looked like or any thing else. For example, Dowell's Draft was one of three aid stations that allow drop bags, yet I really didn't remembering anything about it during the run until I returned to it the second time on the way back. Nothing! Outbound, everything was kind of a blur. I think because I was trying to get through the first half as quickly as possible and just didn't pay much attention or spend any time at the aid station.
At sunrise Saturday morning I was on the ridgeline of Lookout Mountain (I think.) This section is fairly level (comparatively) with steep slopes dropping down on both sides of the trail. The view of the sun first coming up over distant mountains was beautiful. It was also behind me so I didn't spend much time looking back over my shoulder. I do wish I had brought my camera with me.
I reached Little Bald Knob, another drop-bag aid station at mile 43.7. From there to the turnaround things were a little easier. For the next 7.8 miles we were running on gravel roads and about 2 miles of pavement. This was a great relied although the final 700 ft climb up to the turnaround at Gnashing Knob was tough. I reached the aid station 15:28 and felt really good. By the time I reached Reddish Knob, mile 48.19, I had moved up to # 109 and by the time I got back to Reddish at mile 54.93 I was 97th. At least I was not last anymore.
Marye Jo met me at North River Gap at mile 66.55 and was I ever happy to see her (As Always!) She had all my stuff laid out on a large rock and our folding chair set up next to it. I did sit down for a few minutes and regrouped for the final 35 miles. I gave her a hug and said good by and headed up the road only to realize I never added any water to my hydration pak and it is 5.4 miles to the next AS. I went back about 100 yards and added the proper amount of water and was off again. Sometime after that we hit one of those climbs that goes straight up the side of the mountain. It felt like a 25% grade although I would guess it was not that steep. It went on for, I would guess 800 or perhaps 1000 feet of elevation gain. I didn't think I wild ever get to the top.
I still felt good but I kept thinking about how bad things were about to get. Actually, the next stretch is not bad at all. This is the part of the trail where I watched the sun come up and the trail is fair with no huge climbs. I watched the sun set while running along the same trail where I watch it rise. I guess that is appropriate. Is it got dark I realized there were very few reflective course markers. On the way out there were every one or two hundred yards. Now they were as far apart and half a mile or more.Someone had removed many of the reflective tape course markers and the marking ribbons in this section and the next. When you are running down a trail in the night, miles from anywhere you get a little concerned without trail marking. I worried about being off course. All I could do was watched carefully and hoped I didn't miss a turn. I didn't.
I got back to Dowell's Draft still feeling good, ate a cup of soup, drank a coke, ate some chips, grabgbed drop-bag supplies and headed out for the first of three "Killer Climbs." The trail climbs steadily for a mile or so then begins to get steeper. Soon the trail reaches the ridgeline and continues to climb. I began to get cold with the wind blowing strongly over the ridge so I put on my jacket and heavier gloves. That helped but it was still cold.
The trail winds for a while as it climbs up the shoulder of the mountain, then starts around the face. The trail trail continues to climb as it enters the first of the incredibly rocky sections I talked about earlier. Finally I hit some switchbacks and saw some headlamps several hundred feet above me. About that time the moon appeared over the mountain and I knew the weather was still OK. The forecast predicted a storm and cold front to arrive about 4:00 AM and up until the last aid station I had been on my schedule to finish before 4:00 AM. As the trail got steeper and rockier I slowed to what felt like a crawl.
Finally I reached the top of the climb and started back down to the Dry Branch AS at mile 87. After that there would be about a 4 mile climb to a short traverse to a very rugged one mile traverse (the rockiest and most treacherous of all,) then the 4.5 mile descent down the steep road to the bottom and the final aid station. This 8.8 mile section was the longest 8 miles I have ever covered. The climb up went on for ever. I kept thinking I had reached the top only to realize it just continued up even more. By now the wind was howling and really cold I was actually was moving faster than I otherwise would have knowing that at some point I would head away from the ridgeline and mover around the lee side of the mountain and out of the wind. And finally I did reach the traverse away from the ridge, but of traverse went on for what seemed like an eternity but I was out of the wind. And there were just as many rocks here as on the climb. I actually had to walk much of this almost flat section. I was just too tired to deal with running on the treacherous terrain. Then there was this mud puddle, right in the middle of the trail not 100 yards from the 2 mile long gravel road that drops down to the end of the race. As I tried to get by it without getting my feet muddy, I slipped in fell in the mud beside the puddle. At least not in the puddle.
Now the fun. I started down the smooth but very steep road. I could not remember if the road went all the way to the bottom or not so I just ran. About two mile down some's pacer was motioning to an obscure trail to the left into the woods. I might have missed it if he had not been there. We were back on about a mile of single track trail which came out on another trail along a creek. Finally the trail hit a level road that lead all the way to the final aid station. I borrowed a phone to call Marye Jo and tell her where I was and that I should be there in about 45 minutes, maybe an hour. I had 5.2 miles to go.
This shows what state my mind was in at the time. If I had been running the 5.2 miles on relatively level paved road I could do that. Even as tired as I was. (In an hour.) But I had a 700 ft climb in front of me and about 4 miles of some of the worst trails on the course. I think it took me closer to 2 hours to cover the distance. I even had a close encounter with a skunk about 1 1/2 miles form the finish. That slowed me down in a hurry! I had been running almost all the flats and downhill and really pushing uphill, to the point some guy criticized me for moving so fast. He kept asking me "What do you expect to find?" I had no idea what he meant. What I finally had to have him explain was that he was asking "Do you think the finish is at the top of the hill?" I didn't bother to answer and blew on by him.
By the time a was on the back side of the lake, less than a mile from the end I was really tired. I was reduced to walking 20 or 30 seconds and running 20 or 30 sec. Finally I crossed the spillway and was on the dam about 800 yards from the end. I noticed it was sprinkling rain. I "hurried" on around which translates to "I was moving" but did manage to run the rest of the way to the finish, where Marye Jo was out there yelling for me as I came up to the end. She gave me a hug and took a couple of pictures at the finish and we went in the dining hall to sit down out of the cold. I sat a few minutes and realizing there was no food we decided to go to the car. As we walked out again, not 5 minutes after entering the building, it was pouring rain. I could not run now so I walked to the car, maybe 400 yards away, and by then I was freezing and shivering uncontrollably.
The plan had been for me to go take a shower at the camp, about an 800 yard hike from the building I had just come from which was 400 yards from the car. Then, since I had expected to get in about 4:00 AM, sleep in the back of the car for a few hours and drive back to Knoxville for Sunday Night. I was too tired and too cold to even consider going back out in the rain. We decided to drive back to Staunton and try to find a room. (It was now about 5:15 AM) We got down the road a few miles and I realized I did not get my drop bags. We turned around and drove back to the camp, hiked back up to find the bags, in the rain. We found them, out in the rain, sorted through them to find my bags and made our way back to the car. Now I was freezing again. I don't even remember leaving the camp. I passed out as soon as I sat down in the car.
Marye Jo managed to convince the manager at the Howard Johnson that he should let us have what might be the last room in Staunton and he said we can sleep as long as we wish Sunday afternoon. By then it was daylight. I took a long, very hot shower and passed out again. We woke up about noon, both very hungry and went to a local favorite and had a wonderful, huge, breakfast. (Ham, eggs, pancakes, lots of pancakes, lots of syrup, orange juice and lots of coffee.) Then we drove back to Sevierville, TN, by Pigeon Forge so we could eat dinner at Applewood Farmhouse Grill. I think it rained all the way but I really don't remember much of the trip. I just slept. I do remember eating several of Applewood's apple fritters.
Monday, we drove the rest of the way back to Birmingham and I was actually recovered enough to drive. I didn't do much Tuesday or Wednesday but I ran 6 miles Thursday and had a very good run. I actually ran a little faster than usual. We will see how things go from here.