Grindstone 100 – My Last Great American Race

“Grit, endurance, temporary loss of sanity. You might need all of these if you want to attempt Grindstone. If you want to finish, well, just keep in mind this is, without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian. Now that you’re hooked, Grindstone is going to be an incredible adventure for each and every entrant. From the beautiful start/finish location at Camp Shenandoah to the monster climbs and the solitude of single track ridge running, you just can’t beat Grindstone… but you can try!”

– Race Director (Clark Zealand) –

Course Description (Wikipedia)
Grindstone 100 miler is an annual 101.85 mile long ultramarathon that takes place on trails in Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, usually the first weekend of October. The race starts at Camp Shenandoah, a local camp of the Boy Scouts of America. Beginning at Camp Shenandoah, this out-n-back course ascends and descends Little North Mountain before climbing over 2400 ft (740m) in 4 miles (6.4km) to the summit of Elliott Knob. The course then proceeds north following the ridge-line of the Great North Mountain range, crossing over to and following the Wild Oak Trail before continuing north to the summit of Reddish Knob. Runners continue north to Briery Branch Gap before retracing their steps (without summiting Elliott & Reddish) back along the course to Camp Shenandoah. Runners climb a cumulative total of 23,200 feet (7,140m) and descend a total of 23,200 feet (7,140m) on mountain trails before reaching the finish.

Zen Till The End
Almost 4 months prior to the race, I failed to finish UTMB in France, which rattled my brain pretty bad. Although I knew I could not be more ready to finish a 100 mile mountain race then ever, but mentally I was shaken and lost my confidence. So a couple weeks before the race, when I did my pre-race plan, I got a little panic attack. Shit got real. I talked with some friends and my coach, finally a week later I found my peace. I just had to set my goal (finish) and nothing else matter. It would be all about mental toughness, my coach said. Other friend told me, to see the UTMB as my Grindstone training, and nothing could be more fancy then that.
Race day minus 1, Chang and I drove after work half-day to Shenadoah Valley Virginia, and it was a long drive, probably 6.5 hour. We had dinner at Baja Bean in Staunton, an ok Mexican restaurant, and went straight to campsite to pitch our tents. The race wouldn’t start until 6pm, so I slept in until 10 ish. Then the slow day begin, picked my up bib, had lunch and race briefing, sort out drop bag for last check, and more nap. Oh by the way, the race’s swags were plenty and awesome.

We All Looked Great, For Now. Falls Hollow AS (5.18 miles)
When I woke up, the weather was a little drizzling, but not cold. I was keeping my nervous level in check, tried not to get excited nor worried. It was a funny feeling, like everything went on a slow motion.
At the starting line, I saw plenty familiar faces from MPF/RNR running team (I called them the blues) included my coach, and runners TWA. We chatted, took pictures, Chang and his selfies, plenty laugh and even Carlo Agostinetto was running up and down the hill to get his heart rate up, so it was a very positive vibe. I knew at that moment, with no doubt,  that I would finish.
The clock was started, the fazt kidz were chasing a gazelle, plenty were looking at their wrist and kept pressing something.  We jogged casually throughout the campground, then running around the lake on a dirt road for a few minutes. I was running with Chang when we run into Elizabeth and Julian Vicente, just before we stuck in the “traffic”,  where the bottleneck was formed because of steep (not steep) downhill led to a super tiny creek crossing. From there, we started to run on the trail. At one point, on the sharp turn, there was a bunch of spectators cheering us behind a red tape. A kid gave me a high five, it was a little surreal that it felt like a road marathon. After the next bend, everything became quite again, and off course uphill. This race would be pretty much all about up and down like my heart rate spikes. For the first section, I pretty much ran with Chang. We only ran on the flat and downhill, but we did a fast hike in every single up hill, even on the easy one. Closer to the first aid station, I probably ran a little bit too fast on these downhills. I almost missed a turn on the gravel dirt road, it turned sharp to the right to the single trail switch back before I  crossed a river. I heard people yelled behind me, I hoped Chang, didn’t missed the turn. The Falls Hollow AS was just across the street.

Run With The Blues and WhipAsses. Dry Branch Gap (9.45 miles)
In this race, my mission was not only chewing the uphill slowly but sure, but also keep chewing food in every aid station. Based in the pre-race briefing, there would be a weight station to check how much I lost my body weight. I didn’t want to get cut off just because of that, so I brought a zip bag, filled up some food in every aid station. In this first aid station, I filled my zip bag and my water bottle, then right away I set out to the next aid station. This section would be the longest and also has the steepest climb up to the Elliot Knob. At the beginning of the climb, I met Jun. I started to nibbling my snack bag, while climbing and chatting with Jun and Chang. Time flew pretty fast, suddenly we were at the junction, where we had to keep running straight to get our bib punched out. The hike was not too long, but we got the see the fast runner,  as this was our first out and back shared trail. When we got to the bib punch section, we met Mike “Cat Skills” Siudy and Phillip Vondra. “S##t” I said to myself, I was way too fast if I caught up with these guys. But I felt ok and I was not really hitting my heart rate line, I felt pretty good. Then I ran down to junction again where I made the left turn to continue to the next section. After about a mile, we stucked in a bottleneck, on a rocky section, not sure why people were walking here. Probably because it was a bit rainy, and the rocks kind of a little technical but I think it was a jog-able. Suddenly I heard a commotion from the back. Guillermo ran through the packs like a mule passing people, it seemed like the Moses slice through the Red Sea. I tried my best not to get riled up by Guillermo, I held my horses about a few minutes until I really could not be patience anymore. This walking thingy was getting too long. So I started too pass people on the side, almost slipped and fell to ridge once, that would be a disaster, but I kept pushing forward. When I broke off from the crowds, the rain was getting a bit heavier and the fog was getting thicker too. I had trouble to see far because the rain and fog bounced my head light back to my eyes, probably I could only see up to 10 meters ahead. I always on my guard to check the course marker, but I had to admit it, Clark and his crews had done an amazing job. Although I always kept second guess myself. The course was a rolling hills, but mostly downhill. Pretty easy section.

Hannah Montana And The Hills. Dowells Draft (7.48 miles)
In this second AS, Dry Branch Gap, here I meet Mike and Phillip again. I realize that I didn’t hydrate enough for the past 9 miles, my Tailwind still almost full and only half for the water. Probably I was drinking straight from the rain. One extra things that I needed to check on my next section run. I grabbed more food, filled my water and kept moving. I think I saw Joe Azze ran back to the aid station after chasing and took pictures of the elites. From the aid station, the course went to the left turn, straight to the  uphill. Mike, Philip, Chang, and Jun caught up with me on the uphill while I was eating, and I decided to stick with this group. I thought it was good to run with them, tho they might be running faster then my pace, I took that chance, especially this might be the last race I would run with them.

We hiked on the uphill and ran when it was flat enough or downhill. They might have pushed me a bit harder,  but they were really entertaining me with stories. Kind of like a live podcast. At one point we talked about Mike’s old FATASS race, the WAG, and how he used Hannah Montana playing card as a checkpoint. And he had a story behind it, a funny one. Time went by pretty quick and suddenly we arrived at the Dowells Draft aid station.

One Food After Another. Lookout Mountain (8.67 miles)
This 3rd station was also the first drop bag station of the race, so there was plenty people cheering, it was nice break. I skipped my drop bag, I still felt pretty warm and I still had plenty supply in my pack. But I took my time for refilled my Tailwind in my bottle, I was still a little off with my Tailwind counts. I was trying my best to do this transition quickly but failed, luckily there was an awesome volunteer who helped me, so I did not spend too much longer there. I refilled my food bag again and I was ready to go. Here I split with the group, Chang was no where to be seen, I know he always did his stop pretty quick so he probably ahead. Mike and Phillip were taking their supply and bag from Tara Siudy, and Jun was also taking his drop bag. So I decided to go ahead back to the trail, and I knew soon they would catch up with me since they were a faster runners then me. The first half of this section was a steady uphill with a plenty of switch back. Again, I was constantly eating on these uphills. I would say this eating contest really help me so far, I was really in good spirit and energy. I just felt a little lonely since I lost my running-packs, so I was always looking back in hope that one of them would be appeared. I decided just to focus on my running and hiking, so I blocked my mind , one step after another. Soon Jun was right behind me, so we ran together for a while and chatted about stuffs.

Down We Go. North River Gap (6.35 Miles)
When I arrived at the Lookout Mountain Aid Station, time was like a blur. I filled up my water and food stash, then moved on right away. I think the course was pretty flat in the beginning. Suddenly I felt a little bit sleepy, I made a mental note to take coke at the next aid station. This section was pretty much all downhill with tons of switch back. The weather are started to get foggy and the rain had not stopped yet, but still it was not that bad. I lost Jun somewhere before the aid station, so I was again by myself. I was constantly looking back to see if any of my packs would show up. Somehow I kept hearing Mike and Phillip voices from behind, but I thought I might have just hallucinated since it was over midnight already. I lost my count of what time or how long I had been on the course, but I was pretty sure that I was on time with my A goal, finished between 25-26 hours, sub 25 if I were really really lucky. Probably a mile away before the North River Gap Aid Station, Mike and Phillip passed me, right about the time when the rain was getting a little bit heavy. The last section was a little hike and a few hundreds meters on the road before we made left turn into the AS entrance.

No See Hike. Little Bald Knob (7.83 Miles)
It felt a little bit cold when I was in the North River Gap AS, I was drench from the rain and sweat, but I tried my best not to stand too close to the heater or any fire. This AS was the second drop bag AS, and I skipped my drop bag again. I felt that I still had everything. There was a nice volunteer who helped me to refill my Tailwind and water again, while I was filling up my zip bag with food. I wanted to make sure that I have everything I needed before I continued, since this section would be one long hike, well all hike I believe. I also saw chairs and a few runners were sitting, I looked away immediately. Too early to sit down, I say. I exited the AS on the left side while I was eating. There were probably 2 wooden plank bridge across tiny creeks half a mile away and not long after that, there were a pretty big suspension bridge. After that bridge, I made a left turn and a hairpin u-turn on to my right. I was that close to get off-course in this turn. Then I started to hike up the first step hill of this section. Half of this section was under the trees, so it was not that bad. Even-though I was sleepy, but I did not feel cold yet. The trees protected me from the wind and the rain, although they became stronger throughout the night (or almost morning). Somewhere in one of these hills, Phillip and Mike passed me again, they went out strong and I decided that I should do my own race. This section will be a long hike until I got into the Turn Around AS, the halfway, so I wanted to preserve my energy. Unfortunately, after I got out from this section, the trail became wider, kinda muddy from the rain, and I lost my protection from the wind. The rain was even getting harder and the wind was getting stronger, so I started to get cold. My rain-shell did not help much either, I felt cold, probably because my clothes were wet. Probably a mile away from the AS, more problem swung into my belt. Sleepiness. I literally hiked while I closed my eyes and dreamed that I was hiking in the race. In result, I kissed a tree. It was not that impressive feeling, that I could say. I tried to make a human/hiking poles tripod to put my head and take a nap while standing, thanks to the cold and wet, it did not work like in other races.

Puncher Puncher Wherefore Art Thou Puncher. Turn Around (6.6 miles)
I was so happy that I arrived at this Little Bald Knob AS. I was so tired from wet and cold. I took some food, drank some coke, and reshuffled my brain what needed to be done. First I needed to get off from these wet clothes. There was a fire pit running, but too bad it was on an open space, so it would not help with changing into dry clothes. So I went to a tent at the back of AS, and changed there. I brought a whole sets of clothes in my OrangMud Endurance Pack, this little beast could carry tons, magically. Then I put on my rain shell back on and went back out to the food station where I saw Jun was ready to go. I refilled my zip bag, fill my water and I was ready to go. I still felt miserable, but I was not feeling as cold as before. The rain was getting harder, although it made me a little grumpy from the cold, but the big fat rain drops were like millions taps on my shoulder and head that kept me awake, like a loyal friend through out the night. I only remembered the trail was a little muddy but still run-able. Also I remembered that I saw the front runners were heading back already, though the rain disguised their face, so they were pretty much a blurry shape passing me, with a little encouraging words exchange. As the time went by like a blur, I got into another junction where I should punch my bib at the Redish Knob. The hike was kinda steep for a good 2 or 3 miles, it was hard to tell because the rain was pretty hard, I could not see very well. I was tempted to jog it, but I decided to safe my energy for the last 40 miles. There would be a plenty hike towards the end. When I got to the top, me and another 3 runners were running around to find the puncher. After 5-10 minutes of sweeping, we decided that we gonna took our chance to skip the puncher. We took note (mental note) each other BIB number as our evidence, although towards the end I totally forgot all of them. Actually I forgot their face and name too, I guessed I left my brain at the starting line. The way back to the junction was fast and easy since the gravity did me a favor, but it went back up again to the Turn Around AS. I hiked it slow and easy, I was really sleepy, kinda tired and still grumpy. The Sun was starting to peaking out at that moment, I was a little disappointed, I felt that I was a little behind from my A goal. Not far away from the AS I saw Chang running passed me from the other direction. He was pretty upbeat and the cold and rain seemed did not effect him.

A  New Day. Little Bald Knob (5.94 miles) and North River Gap (7.83 miles)
By the time I got to the Turn Around Aid Station, I was soaking wet, despite I had changed at the previous aid station. Missing the puncher was not helping with my mood either. But the volunteer told me that I was not the only one, that made me feel better. At that point, I remember the wisdom words from Chang earlier tonight. He reminded me that this was my race, so did what it worked for me. So I decided that I gonna take my time here, try to troubleshoot one problem after another. First Coke and hot soup, so I would be a little awake and took some warm calories. Second I took my drop bag and changed my soaked clothes. Alas, I forgot to put in an extra shirt, but I found my base layer. Guilermo came and reminded me not getting to comfy. Third, eat and eat and more coke. Forth I re-supplied my zip bags with bacons and chips, plus I topped up my bottle with coke, I also refilled my Tailwind flask and replenish my Tailwind supply in my pack. I think I had spent more than 15 minutes at this aid station, and took me triple effort to kept going, back to the cold dark wet misery. It was still dark despite the Sun was probably only 30 minutes away till morning. I started to pick up my pace to warm up my body. Good lord it was downhill, so the gravity took care of it. After a few minutes, I hold my horses back, I did not want to wasted my quads, I still had a halfway to go with more hills to cover. When I passed the junction, the day was bright enough that I did not need my headlamp anymore, and the new day  definitely helped my mood, I felt like a brand new person.
From the junction to the Little Bald Knob, I started to meet and great other runners, I could see them better and I was back on my normal me attitude, not a grumpy troll. I saw plenty familiar faces. I saw my coach there too, she encouraged me and gave me some wisdom. On the next hill I also saw Maria Campos, she was too happy to be in this miserable wet and muddy trail, like she just started the race. I also met Zsuzsanna from RNR/MPF in the Little Bald Knob Aid station, I did a little chat while grab some potatoes to go.
The next section went away so fast, but it was kinda fun in a way since I met more friends who cheering me up. When I got into the suspension bridge, after the sharp turn, there were a group of girls, maybe girls scout, they were cheering me too. Even after I crossed the bridge and up to the hill. At that point I knew that I was close to the North River Gap. I felt a little cold, but I felt much better compare to a few hours ago. Also the coke helped me from not running while sleeping.

Ballz!!! Look Out Mountain (6.35 miles) and Dowels Draft (8.67)
Again, when I got into this aid station I was soaked and wet. So decided to change my clothes before I replenished my supply. In here, I met Mike Siudy and Phillip Vondra again, who were doing their transitions too. I also saw Joe Azze, he helped me to settle down into a chair and out of the rain. He was checking how I was doing how I felt, actually funny enough I felt great, and somehow I could still think (I thought). I was babbling to Joe my plan while I was doing it, like a crazy person in the subway, probably the same smell too. Somehow I felt warm, so I just change shirt, pulled out my Swiftwick sleeves, and stored my rain jacket. I stored my old headlamp and swapped it with a small one, I most likely would be in the dark again before finish. I also swapped my Tailwind Buff with my OrangeMud hat to protect my face from raindrops. Quickly I got up, did not want to be too cozy, grabbed some chocolate bars and perogies to go.

Right after I walked out from the aid station I felt cold again, bummer. Remember that I thought I felt warm, I just realized when I was sitting at the AS, I was next to a heater. I did a little jog till I got into the trail, on the left side of the road, and I took out my rain shell from my pack. The cool think about this Orange Mud Endurance Pack, it could be worn under my jacket, yet I still could carry plenty stuff, like Doremon’s magic pocket. Half way through this section, suddenly I had a discomfort around my groin area, thank you rain, and probably I forgot to put my Trail Toes over that area. I ramped up my hike and downhill run pace a little bit.
When I got into the Lookout Mountain AS, I stopped and went through my pack but I could not find my Trail Toes sachet, bummer. So I asked a volunteer to scoop me a handful of Vaseline. Mike and Phillip came and made fun of me, it was nice to got a little embarrassing distraction.
When I continued, the Vaseline only last for a mile or so before the discomfort became more annoying. I knew I had Trail Toes on the next drop bag, I hoped, so I tried to move as fast as I could and avoiding (ignoring) the pain as much as I could. Fortunately it was all downhill from there, so at least I could put my gear on neutral. About two third of this downhill, I became impatient and could not wait to be done with this downhill, I met Scottie Jacob here on the downhill, he seemed he got cold and cramped problem, but still he was cheering me up and told me that the AS just by the foot of the hill that we could (kinda) see from here, not the AS just the foot of the hill. So I guessed that would be a mile or two more.

I Swear They Moved The AS. Dry Branch Gap (7.48 miles) and Falls Hollow (8.84 miles)
When I got into the Dowells Draft AS, I immediately grab my drop bag, and took my Trail Toes sachet, hide behind a car and applied this world’s 8th wonder. I was way off my sub 25 hours goal, so I would definitely hit the second night. So I decided to change into a long sleeves, swapped my rain jacket into a thicker one, and bring an extra dry shirt in my pack. I also carried the Trail Toes sachet as a precaution. Just before I left, Scotie came in, he worked on his cramps and got a bunch of blanket to get warm. I told him lets meet up at the finish line with a beer (or two). I felt so much better so I made my time here on the hike. I think I started to catching up with people again. And I had a blast on these long steep downhill, with somewhat a little technical. I think I did some slip and slide in this section. And honestly this section was really went by pretty fast, and suddenly I saw the Dry Branch Gap AS. Despite I was feeling good at this point, but my brain did not work well and a volunteer had to help me with refilled my Tailwind flask. I also filled up the other bottle with Coke and water. The next section would be the last long stretch and the last obstacle, if I could overcome this section I would be golden.
Again, the hike was not that bad. but closer to the peak the weather became a little scary. Well, I was not worry about the upcoming storm, the red sky and strong wind, but I was worried that the RD would cut off the race, and I would not able to finish. Also I was worried that it would be another cold wet night. So I decided to run again, tried to beat these odd, and avoiding to be in the course after midnight at all cost. By the time I got into the technical section, the light are started to disapear. As usual, I tried to hold not to use my headlamp as long as I could. But I started to fall asleep again and almost fell over to the ridge on my right, so I turned my headlamp on. I was so happy when I hit the junction where I made a turn to the puncher, the night before, but this time I did not need to go to that knob. In my brain, I thought this would be a short downhill that would go straight to the last AS, Falls Hollow. I started to feel pain on my left ankle, like what I had at Pinhoti in 2014, probably because running form was off from the groin pain. I was a bit worry, but I decided to suck it up and finish this. The fog came down again and I felt asleep once or twice again, twisted my ankle once or twice maybe, or maybe slipped down; not really sure what else. In other races I might be laughing at it, but I was pretty grumpy at that point, and it added up when I found out the AS was not in the foot of the hill. My brain played tricked on me. The trail went to left and back to a single track, and in every corner I thought it would be the AS. In one of the river crossing I made a wrong exit, I think the water was higher then the previous night, but it was not that bad. After a few more turns we got into an open space with a big junction where I made a right turn, I swore the AS must be at the end of this wide trail. And after a couple more of junction, I was so mad/upset that I decided I did not want to run anymore. So I walked. A few minute later a guy running on the opposite way and told me that probably the AS would be less then a mile, I had hope.

Round Around I Goes. Finish and Kiss the Totem (5.18 miles)
I was pretty grumpy when I got into the AS. I decided want to sit, and such a lovely lady grab a chair from her car for me. A guy asked me what to eat, and I took the noodle soup. They warned me not to sit and I would not get up, but at this point I just hate running. So I sat and eat, and immediately I felt much better, so I asked the soup again as polite as I could, and got up again and ready to go. I made an apologize to everyone since I felt I acted rude, and made that poor lady went and took her chair for me sitting for only 5 minutes. I put more water and tailwind in my flasks, and some little food in my zip bag, just in case this would be my longest 5 miles.
The last section actually went pretty easy, not too many hike no steep downhill either. After the road section, when I got back to the trail, I kept doubting myself. I ran back and forth in each junction,  more than plenty, just to make sure I found the flag and not the other direction. The course direction was pretty clear, but if I got lost I might gonna cry, literally. When I got into the campground trail, I could see the finish area from far far away, but the route went away from that direction, I was like NOOO. Why Clark, why? Because my eyes were locked on to that finish area direction, and my legs were following the course direction, off course I fell and kissed the ground. The worse fall ever on the flattest area. The course direction were pretty clear despite of many trail over lapping one to another. I think it was pretty much straight on every junction, and only make right by the time I was close to the lake. I ran around the lake, barely, I was not able to put weight on my left ankle on the last 10 miles probably. Then I passed the campground, the cabin, some random guy in the caravan honk and cheered me, I saw the lawn, the finishing shoot, the clock, and I finished. Actually I stopped a meter away from the finished line reader, but I still managed to finished in 28 hrs something, missing my A goal, but I was so happy that I finished. I tried to climbed the Totem, but off course I failed.

Aftermatch And Happines.
I eat a little and took a shower, before I went back to the finish line to cheer and wait as much as I could, want to see as many finisher as I could. I met Mike and Phillip in the dining room, I thanked that I was able to run with them, even for a tiny bit. Then I met Scotie by the camp fire, we kept our words minus the beer, I was too tired to drink a beer. I also saw Elizabeth Azze finished, despite her stomach issue in the early miles, she pulled it off.
The next day I saw more finishers in the breakfast, we chat, shared stories, silly stories. Some glories some grim, we did againts all the odd of unfotunate weather. After Chang and I grabbed a quick lunch to go from Cranberry deli in Staunton. It was a nice and good deli. Then, we drove back. In this long drive back I was so happy that I did it, I had a good race at the end, but at the same time I felt sad. This would be my last American race, the last time I raced with my extended family from North East, and I would miss them all.