Monday, April 15, 2019

Welcome to the Beast Coast - Grindstone 2018

(I obviously haven't posted here in about a year, since before my first DNF at AC100.  But I have written a couple of race reports for other forums, and want to post them here just for my own archival purposes - I have no illusions that anyone reads this stuff but me.  But I'd like to "catch up" so that I can post some reports from this year, which I hope to be a big one!)
Early Sunday morning, October 7th, 2018, somewhere outside Staunton, VA:

Net net is that I limped, literally, into the finish in 35:46ish. My feet completely fell apart - blisters, macerated, likely black toenails and possible broken pinky toe. damn near half the course was rocks. Big rocks, small rocks, pointy rocks, round rocks, stable rocks, rocks that move. And those rocks ate me up. 
Of course I think this is all true. The last three hours out there I was hallucinating and paranoid. Still not really sure what is real, other than I know I’ve been awake since Friday morning.

Trying to get some rest before the evening start
Going in I knew that the biggest challenges were going to be the course itself and the evening start.  I had never run on the Beast Coast, but knew that it would be rocky and technical, along with the advertised 23,200’ of elevation gain.  And the evening start guaranteed I’d be running through a night at the beginning with another night coming in the latter stages of the race.  But it would turn out that I severely underestimated the impact of both factors.

A whole lot of up and down

The first few miles were uneventful.  I forgot to start my Garmin until we were a couple of minutes in, no big deal.  After jogging for a half mile or so we came to a stop as we funneled onto a creek crossing and then singletrack, but I was in no hurry with 99 ½ miles to go.  A mile or two in we leave the camp and are on state property, which the race isn’t allowed to mark so we follow white blazes. It’s all one big giant conga line so I just follow along, waiting for things to open up and allow me to do my own thing.  It turned out I probably should have paid more attention through this section, more on that later.  It was probably just the excitement and buzz of the beginning of such a big adventure.  After about 5 miles we hit the first aid station, and it’s so crowded that there is a line of people waiting to get water.  Since I knew it was about 9 ½ miles to the next one I wanted to top off my bladder with Tailwind, but the jug was empty and the volunteer didn’t know where the Tailwind was (“this isn’t our aid station, I’m not sure”)!  She was holding a pitcher of ice so I asked her to just pour all of it in my bladder, and hoped that would give me enough fluids to get to that next stop at mile 14.6.  A this point only a bit over an hour in I was already drenched, with sweat dripping down my legs.  They had warned us during the pre-race meeting that the lows would only be down around 65 with highs 75-80 and high humidity, so to take care of ourselves out there.  And while I didn’t feel it was affecting my perceived effort, that humidity was pretty stifling.

I’m no geologist, but my understanding is that these mountains were formed hundreds of millions of years ago and are among some of the oldest in North America.  It’s thought that at one time parts of the Appalachians were as high as the Rockies or the Alps, but that they have been eroded down over millennia into not much higher than 4-5,000 foot peaks.  Where did the rest of the mountains go?  They were broken down into rocks.  Millions and millions of rocks.  And that’s what would make up much of the course.  We reached the top of the initial 2,500’ fire road climb and summited up the peak of Elliot Knob, punched our bibs to show we made it to the top, and then descended back down a bit and turned off onto singletrack.  After a mile or two winding through the woods we hit the rocks.  Much of the trail in this section were flat rocks that slid and moved around on top of other flat rocks.  It was an odd sound hearing the rocks slide around as the dozens of runners ahead and behind me ran and hiked over them.  I was with a group moving at a comfortable speed, which was good considering there was no way to get around anyone – this trail made up of loose rocks was about a foot wide with a huge drop-off of a hundred feet?  A thousand feet?  I had no idea because it was dark, as it would be when I would come back up this hill the following night.  But I was feeling fresh and after about six hours hit the Dowells Draft aid station around mile 22.

Hey look!  More rocks!

I had worked out a pace chart for a 32-hour finish and included a column lining up with just making the cutoffs.  I had no idea what to expect, and the 32-hour pace was just about staying far enough ahead of the cutoffs to not worry about them.  But at this point I was close to that 32-hour pace, and happy with how things were going.  As I left the aid station I was told it was a big climb followed by rolling downhill, so pulled out my trekking poles for the first time and geared up.  I’d never run a race with poles before, having bought them earlier this year and trained with them just a handful of times.  But it turned out to be a pretty benign climb, much of it “runnable” under normal circumstances, so I ended up just carrying them in my hands before finally stopping to stow them away again.  This section of trail was smoother than the last, and we hit the top and descended into the Lookout Mountain aid station at mile 31 in 8:19, about 25 minutes up on that 32-hour pace.  I knew it was pretty much downhill from there to the North River Gap aid station at mile 37, but as I headed down the hill I would find that the rocks were back in full force.

There are lots of mishaps that can happen when trying to move quickly across rocky terrain.  I started giving them names.  The Roll (ankle roll).  The Stub (toe stubbing).  The Point (painfully stepping on a pointy rock).  The Flip (one foot flipping a loose rock up into the ankle bone of the other foot - that’s my favorite).  I started trying to keep track of how many times each of these happened, but I couldn’t keep up.  I do know I swore out loud several times, cursing the eons of erosion that had led to the creation of all these damned rocks.  Downhill mile splits of 18:00-20:00 miles.  Ouch.  Literally, as my feet were starting to really hurt, not blisters, but a pain across the toes and the bottoms of the feet.  I started thinking about ultra/trail runners gearing up for a road marathon talking about “hardening the legs” by getting in some road running prior to the race, and wondering if it was even possible to “harden the feet”.  But I knew it was, as evidenced by all of the (presumably) locals flying by me on the downhills.

Before the race I had reached out to local runner Andy Jones-Wilkins, a legendary member of the ultrarunning community whom I’ve crossed paths with a few times at Western States and Hardrock, to get intel on the race.  He graciously answered my questions and confirmed that this was one tough course.  As I sat down at the North River Gap Aid station with my drop bag to attend to my beat-up feet, I saw AJW next to me and introduced myself again.  “Sean!  Great to see you, how’s it going out there!”  I mumbled something about rocks, and he told me that when he crewed Western States RD Craig Thornley at this race a few years ago, Craig had come into this very spot cursing those same rocks.  So at least I was in good company.

Keep it Simple, Smart Guy
In almost all the 100K and 100M races I’ve run, I’ve had stomach issues.  It’s cost me lots of time in many races, and finally led to my first DNF this August as I was pulled by medical at mile 52 of Angeles Crest 100 after throwing up for 2-3 hours.  This has been exacerbated by the heat in most instances, and the hope was that an October race in Virginia I wouldn’t have to deal it.  But that wasn’t the case – it wasn’t Western States hot, but warm with humidity was taxing enough.  So my plan was to simplify things as much as possible at this race, and stick with just Tailwind, Bonk Breakers, and gels for as long as I could, and avoid the “real food” at the aid stations besides Coke and broth.  I also think I’ve tried to force too many calories at times in the past, so the plan was just to keep drinking Tailwind and supplement with at least one gel an hour, but not more than two – the combo should give me at least 250 calories, which should be enough.  To this point I had stuck to the plan, and things were going great.  But it was now almost 4:00 AM, I hadn’t eaten dinner, and I was hungry.  As I got ready to leave the aid station I saw AJW grab a handful of tater tots, and they looked so good that I grabbed a handful and chomped on them as I headed out into the night.

This next section would bring both the steepest and longest climbs of the course, about 2,600’ over 5-6 miles, beginning with a 1000’ climb in a little over a mile.  Now was definitely the time to break out the trekking poles, and I started grinding my way up the mountain.  For really the first time during the race, I was working hard.  And, of course, I started to feel nauseous.  It was such a rookie move, not only going against my plan that had been working but even more so taking in food right before a tough part of the course where the effort level would be high.  I had a few moments of panic, considering what had happened to me in August.  So even though the effort felt sustainable from an aerobic and muscular standpoint, I decided to dial it way back to try and get my stomach in check.  I had no choice.  Instead of passing people, I slowed down and people started passing me.  But I knew I had to get some blood back to my gut to get that food moving.  After about an hour the nausea was gone, and I made that mental note to stick to the plan going forward.

Happy to see this, and turn off the headlamp
I finally reached the top and ran along rolling, open terrain as the sun came up.  I remember noting it was just past mile 40 that it began to peak through the trees, and it was so nice to not be limited to that circle of light cast by my headlamp and be able to look around.  I finally hit the Little Bald Knob aid station at mile 45, and they pointed out the ridge line we’d be running along and down to the Turn-around.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but in looking at the map it appears we were effectively running along the border of Virginia and West Virginia through this section.  It was warming up again a bit, but I continued to just keep drinking Tailwind and taking in that gel an hour, and everything was feeling pretty good.  I moved pretty well through here with miles in the teens, building up more and more cushion against the cut offs and staying within an hour of the 32-hour pace, and got to the turnaround in about 15:50.

Despite changing my socks at each of the previous drop-bag aid stations, between the humidity and multiple muddy spots my feet had been wet since the start.  I sat down and peeled off my shoes and socks, and my feet were just white, wrinkly, and macerated.  So I decided to let them air out for 10 minutes to try and keep them from falling apart any more than they already had.  The rocks had taken their toll, I had several hot spots (but no blisters….yet), and they just hurt.  And I had the return trip through all those rocks still to come.  I sipped some broth and enjoyed a couple of minutes off my feet, only the third time I’d sat in about 16 hours.  Then it was time to go and I lubed up, got my socks and shoes back on, and headed back out to start the second half of this thing.
The only picture of me.  And West Virginia (I think)

A Foggy Day 
With the evening start, I fully expected to be exhausted on night two.  What I didn’t expect was to start feeling it mid-day on Saturday.  But as I ran back along the rolling terrain from mile 50-59 it moved into early afternoon, and I was beat.  I’d been moving for 18 hours and awake for almost 30, so the exceedingly tired feeling that often hits in the wee morning hours of a typical 100 miler were hitting me mid-day.  I zoned out for hours at a time.  I spent an hour or two writing in my head an amazing blog post on the “10 Things I Learned at Grindstone”.  On occasion I’d snap out of it and realize I should be moving quicker, but then I’d zone out again.  And of course I can’t remember any of what I came up with while out there (maybe I should record myself next time on my phone – I just know it was great stuff!).  It was surreal, moving through the peak daylight hours of a beautiful day but feeling like I was in a fog. 

At about mile 61 we started heading back down the hill in earnest, 19 hours in at around 1:00 PM.  I felt like I was moving ok at the time, but looking at my splits they were all 20-30 minute miles.  I survived the steep downhill and arrived back to North River Gap at mile 65 in a little under 21 hours, and while I sat for a few taking care of my feet (and not eating tater tots) I began dreading the incredibly rocky climb facing me, but kept thinking at least I’d be hitting it in daylight hours. And to be honest, it was a little bit better going back up as the expectation of decent splits wasn’t weighing on me at that point and it's almost easier to tackle rocky terrain going up than going down.   Two and half hours into it came the Lookout Mountain aid station at mile 72, which I reached in 23:28.  I was now almost two hours off the 32-hour split times, but still over two hours ahead of cutoffs so I was somewhat satisfied with my progress. 

The climb continued from there, and as the sun went down the low light, both in angle and intensity, started playing tricks on my senses.  “What are those three cars doing parked in the woods?”  Oh, there’s nothing there.  “I don’t remember a building out here.”  Because there isn’t one.  “Look, campers around a campfire, roasting s'mores.”  Nope.  And a lot of turning around to see who the runner was I could hear coming up behind me, only to find nobody trailing me.  All just signs of my mind starting to slip and slide into the grips of sleep deprivation, something that would only get worse as darkness set in and I tackled the final 25 miles.

The Downward Spiral
I wasn’t looking forward to staring into the circle of light of my headlamp for several hours, so I stalled on turning it on as long as I could.  But as I hit the peak of the short climb out of Lookout Mountain and began the descent, I had to pull it back out of my pack and turn it on.  I hit the bottom of the hill at Dowell’s Draft at mile 80, and my final access to a drop bag.  My feet had gone from a few hot spots to a few blisters starting to form between toes, on the side of my heels, and on the outside “ball” of my left foot below the little toe.  In retrospect I should have spent a little more time here addressing these, taping them, popping a few, but I think at the time I was just happy to clean and lube them up and get a pair of dry socks on.  I also decided to switch shoes here, going from the Hoka Torrents I’d been running in from the start to a pair of Altra Olympus, the model I’d worn for most of Western States and for those 52 miles of Angeles Crest.  The Altras have more cushion, which I thought might help with my destroyed feet, and with more room in the toe box I thought the change in where the shoe was rubbing might give some of my problem spots a break.   As I got up to limp out of the aid station I was so hungry, but with the final two big climbs coming I just drank a couple of extra cups of broth and Coke and headed back into the night with a pack filled with Tailwind and gels.  Damn those quesadillas looked good….
I couldn't see them in the dark, but they were still there

Going in I expected these next 10-12 miles to be a huge key - back-to-back 1500’-1600’ climbs with a short descent in between.  As I began heading up I passed several groups of runners, some with pacers, some just running together.  I felt encouraged to be moving better than those around me, and after about 20-30 minutes I found myself alone.  The trail narrowed and got rockier, and it was those flat, sliding rocks again which while tricky from miles 10-20 the day before now just seemed downright treacherous.  I just kept thinking, “grind it out, grind it out,” while pushing off on the trekking poles which I hadn’t put away since the steep descent back at mile 58.  My left thumb had started to go numb, as the strap of the pole pushing into the soft flesh between the thumb and finger apparently irritated a nerve.  And the climb just kept going on and on, slowly working our way up Crawford Mountain. 

Every once in a while I would catch my toe, or a rock would slide under my foot.  On occasion one would fall off the side of the 1-2’ wide trail, and I’d hear it tumble down into the darkness below.  Was the drop off 50, 100, 1000 feet?  I had no idea, and it really didn’t matter.  I was by myself in the middle of the night in middle of nowhere Virginia, and I’d been awake for going on 40 hours and moving on this damned trail for 28 of them.  I really started doubting myself and why I was doing this, and at one point said out loud, “What are you doing out here?  You have a kid!”  I had no choice but to keep grinding away, reaching the top and then moving down the other side – there was no way out other than forward.

I started the final climb at mile 87, and the pain in my feet was getting unbearable.  I realized I had been leaning slightly to the left, into the hill and away from the drop off (Subconsciously?  Consciously?  Was there a difference at this point?), so the blister on the outside ball of my left foot was killing me.  And the roomier Altras had turned out to be a poor choice on this uneven terrain as my feet just slid around, slamming back and forth into the sides of the shoes.  After 2 ½ hours or so of being alone, I thought I saw a light up ahead of me finally.  But it wasn’t moving, and it would disappear or fade, so I figured I was imagining that as well.  But as I got up close I found it was the one other runner from Northern California that was out here, leaning against a tree throwing up.  I paused to check on him then kept on going, alone again. 

After a few minutes I caught up to a group of 4-5 runners moving together up the trail.  Finally, some company!  It wasn’t that I wanted to talk or anything, I just hadn’t felt very safe being out there by myself on that trail.  So I happily fell into the little conga line as we made the final push up Great North Mountain.  My mental state started to turn around a little, as for the first time I allowed myself to think about the finish of this beast.  I remembered from nearly 32 hours earlier that the trail would eventually dump us out onto a steep fire road, although a runner near me said he didn’t think so.  I started questioning myself but sure enough, right around mile 91 we hit that fire road.  I took off down that thing, leaving everyone I’d been with behind.  Of course I look at my splits now, and it was 22:xx for the next two miles!  But at this point, that felt like I was moving.

The Home Stretch?  Or Just a Descent Into Madness?
In my head it was a few miles down to the Falls Hollow Aid Station, then a few miles through some state land near the finish.  But after about two miles on the fire road the markings took us off onto a singletrack trail to the side.  Hmmm, I didn’t remember this at all.  I caught two other runners here, and together we crossed a creek…then crossed it again….then crossed it again….wtf, were they messing with us?  I realized that they must route us through a different section here, instead of running all the way down the road to the aid station, and seemingly remembered some reference to this in the pre-race meeting that hadn’t made sense to me at the time.  The former RD is known for that kind of thing, and adding bonus miles, so I figured it was a Horty Special.  I said something to the guys I was running with about it and cursed myself for not studying the course more beforehand.  They were talking to each other, and as they pulled away I became convinced that this was all a big practical joke on me, and they were in on it!  My mental state continued to slide as I realized instead of having a couple easy hours left, it was going to be more like four.  This part of the course wasn’t difficult compared to what we’d done, but it wasn’t just running down a fire road. 

I finally arrived at Falls Hollow Aid Station, mile 97, in 33:17.  I had less than 5 miles to go (yes, the course is measured at 101.85 miles) and almost 5 hours to finish before the cutoff.  I had told myself once I got here I would allow myself some real food for the first time since those ill-fated tater tots the day before (or was it two days before?), and I downed three quesadillas with some broth.  Could I finish in 90 minutes and be done with this thing before 5:00 AM?  Sure I could!  The aid station volunteers reminded us that we’d be entering state land so we’d be following white blazes for the next three miles, with no other course markings.  It sure hadn’t been a problem on the way out, so I limped out ready to finish this thing.

But that little burst of quesadilla and “let’s finish this thing” energy would quickly fade, and the sleep deprivation had now officially taken over.  From here to the finish I honestly can’t be 100% sure of what happened.  But here’s what I remember……
I came out of the trees to find railroad tracks, and a runner ran by me and seemingly disappeared into the woods.  I saw a couple of headlamps in the trees on the other side and headed that way.  But I couldn’t find the trail.  I was a few hundred yards out of the aid station and already lost!  I back tracked to the other side of the tracks again, and this time went straight across and found a small opening with a little white square painted on a rock.  Ok, it was going to be like this, then.  It was largely fire road for the next mile or so, with the white squares painted on trees on the side of the road.  I was alone again, and stopped every several hundred yards to shine the light ahead, looking for the next blaze. The markers then led me off the fire road and onto a trail, and I caught up to a runner and pacer who were struggling with navigation as well.  The runner was limping worse than I was, with an audible grunt or moan that I was all too familiar with whenever his feet would hit a rock or root in the wrong way.  And we kept trying to find those white blazes, which seemed to be getting smaller and more hidden.

The pacer pulled out a phone or walkie talkie and started talking to somebody that was coming from the other direction who could help us find the way.  We dropped down into a creek, and together tried to find where to cross, all the while the guy on the other end trying to talk us through.  We eventually came upon someone, and they teamed up and began to quickly pull away, the light from their headlamps disappearing.  I stopped, looking for a marking, but could find none.  I called out to them, “which way do I go?”, but got no answer.  I back tracked a bit, found another marker, but was basically moving through a drainage of some sort.  I think it was at this point that I started thinking that none of this made sense, and that I must be asleep on the side of the trail somewhere, imagining all of this.  I remember thinking that I hoped I wouldn’t fall off the trail I was sleeping on, that I had found a safe, flat spot.  But what if I hadn’t?  I needed to wake up…..

Two runners that I had dropped when we first hit the fire road several hours ago then caught up to me.   One of us would find a blaze, we’d get to it, then we’d look for the next.  That went on for another mile or so, but this just wasn’t making sense.  I couldn’t believe they were having us run through creeks so near the finish, and that markers were so hard to find. 

We finally came out onto a wider road, and there were the familiar pink markings we’d been following all race.  Thank god!  But how do we get back to the start/finish?  We were all confused, and as we kept trying to find the next marker the confusion grew.  I was convinced we had gone in a circle, and told them as much.  But I also said, “my mind isn’t working right now.”  A few runners passed us, and some of them seemed confident we were going the right way.  I just kept feeling like we were looping around and around on ourselves.  What if I got lost, a mile from the finish, and wandered around for 4 hours missing the cutoff?  My unfortunate mantra became, “This just doesn’t make sense.  This just doesn’t make sense.”

We were passed quickly by two runners saying, “this is it!” and sure enough I recognized the dam we had crossed about a quarter mile from the start all those hours ago.  Up the gravel road, onto the Boy Scout Camp lawn, and finally across the finish.

35:52:54. 180th out of 257 starters, 208 finishers. 

It was a surreal state I was in at the finish, like a daze but also mostly aware that I was in a daze and just deeply sleep deprived.  I pondered whether I should get medical attention, but knew I was going to be alright with a nap.  I limped to my car, limped back up to the camp showers where the chaffing covering most of my back and groin area made me scream a bit, and then limped back to the car again where I climbed in the back and finally laid down at about 7:00 AM and closed my eyes.

Later that morning I drove to a CVS, bought a cooler, Epsom salts, and a couple of gallons of water and soaked my blistered, torn up feet.  I held that belt buckle in my hand and the emotion of it all hit me in a wave.  There I sat, by myself in a CVS parking lot across the country from home, feet in a cooler, exhausted and crying. 


Post script
Recovery has been decent.  Mentally, I was in a brain fog until at least Wednesday, despite multiple naps each day.  As for my legs it was such slow going, even downhill, that my quads weren’t that bad at all.  My feet were another story, and it was a few days before I could get shoes on.  I have two black toenails on my left foot, and all of the toes are a little numb but feeling is coming back.  The same is true of my thumb, which I literally couldn’t feel at all until about Wednesday after the race (it’s a weird sensation not knowing how much pressure you are putting on something you are holding), but feeling is coming back day by day, it's just kind of tingly now two weeks out.

It was really an experience unlike any other race I’ve done, including the three other 100s I’ve completed.  Being out there that long, on that terrain, over two nights…..I definitely don’t want to do that again without a pacer.  But despite the slow time I’m as proud of this as anything I’ve done in this crazy sport, no doubt.  I'm not sure what's next, although I've started looking into possibilities for next year.  Of course the Western States and Hardrock lotteries on December 1st are first, but with selection in either highly unlikely I'll have to figure it out from there.
On Wednesday after the race I finally looked at the Strava entry, to see specifically where the course had been different on the way back in those last few miles that caused me so much confusion.   Turns out, it wasn’t!  I was just so mentally screwed that I didn’t recognize any of it and convinced myself it must be different. Mind blown. 

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