Two Sunsets & Two Sunrises – A (long, profane) Grindstone 100 Race Report
One hour into Grindstone 100, the sun set – for the first time. By hour two, I was ready for a hot cup of tea, cozy pajamas, and a great night of sleep. I was following a few sets of heels up the first major climb on the course, and I was trying to keep my sleepy eyes focused on the circle of light from my headlamp illumining the guys’ legs and shoes. We were at mile 8. “Just” 94 to go. Out of 23,000 feet of ascent, I had about 21,000 feet remaining. I knew that before I could cash in on the pajamas and sleep, before I could let my eyes shut, I had a sunrise, a second sunset, and maybe even a second sunrise. Unfathomable. The realization was damning.
Making my thoughts spin out of control even more, I had what felt like a pulled hamstring. The weekend prior I had run the Minneapolis 10 mile ( with the Medtronic Global Champions team), and while the sea level oxygen was fantastic and I kept an easy pace, I hadn’t calculated that my body wasn’t used to running on asphalt. Since the beginning of summer, I’d logged perhaps 25 miles on roads and hard surfaces, and not used to that kind of harsh impact, I tweaked my upper hamstring/glute. With only five days between the two races, it hadn’t healed. Climbing on that first major hill of Grindstone 100, I was convinced the muscle would become increasingly inflamed over the remaining 94 miles.
Finishing was impossible.
Grindstone would be my third 100-mile DNF in 13 months. I had dragged one of my best friends from Colorado to help me crew, and had asked two other friends living in West Virginia to also come crew and pace. The posse of three had been with me at all three of my other 100-mile races, and they’d all given up yet another weekend to help finally see me across a finish line. I was letting them down. Again. I was letting myself down. Again. I wouldn’t be Hardrock qualified for the 2018 lottery (my ultimate goal). I’d have to deal with yet another instance of quitting and failure. I’d have to deal with the possibility that while I completed my first 100-mile attempt (Run Rabbit Run in 2015), maybe I wouldn’t finish another one. Ever. Downward and downward my thoughts circled…
Let me back up a little.
I’m in one of those phases in which life feels relentless. Do you know what I mean? We all go through these times. I’m in the thick of personal drama, including the fact that I’m getting a divorce and my father is dying. I’m also in the thick of trying to make it professionally as an emerging author and activist fighting rape culture. What could be more impossible than that? In the days before Grindstone, I almost bailed. I seriously wondered if the stress in my life would keep me from finishing just as had happened two months earlier at Fat Dog 120. The last thing I wanted was to toe the starting line of a third 100 miler and DNF again (You can read about the woes of the first two DNF’s in this pre-race report). In the end, though, my stubbornness won out. Maybe because I knew finishing a 100 would be exactly the anecdote I needed to carry me through my personal and professional struggles.
So, Alissa and I were off to Virginia. The day before the race, I drove from Leadville to Denver, and together we flew to DC, then drove to the happening town of Swoope, Virginia. Alissa is exactly the kind of organized, thoughtful, giving person you want to crew you for an ultra. Renee and Anthony, along with their one-year-old daughter, met us at Camp Shenandoah, and they too are just the people for the mission. Their generosity is endless. I joked with Anthony that unlike Bear and Fat Dog, he wasn’t going to get out of pacing for me this time.
Waiting for the 6pm race start was a bit of agony. Usually when I wake up for a 100, I can channel my adrenaline into getting myself ready to go. But this time I had a full day to wait. I kept feeling like I was wasting energy I’d need for the race. We left Camp Shenandoah to go into town for breakfast, came back for the race briefing and lunch, and then tried to take a nap in the afternoon. What a joke! I couldn’t even sit still. Finally, it was six pm and time to RUN.
Flash forward to mile 8 and then 9 and those sleepy, sleepy eyes and that nagging hamstring. As I contemplated what it would be like to face this failure, an increasingly boisterous voice kicked in at the back of my mind. The voice yelled, “Lynn, fight for this.”
The voice became a mantra. Fight for this. Fight for this. I crested that first climb, relieved I’d be able to run some of the descent and make up some time. But the trail was so technical, so many loose stones covered in misleading leaves in the dark, and I couldn’t go fast than a power walk. Fight for this!
On the second climb, I passed four runners headed back in the opposite direction. I stopped to ask them if I could do anything for them; a few were doubled over vomiting. But, as if their fate were contagious, I didn’t want to stop for long. Fight for this.
I finally saw my crew at the mile 22 aid station. I hadn’t completely pulled myself out of that dark place. The volunteers discussed whether there were any other runners behind me on the trail, or if I was the last. The only other runner was a woman who sat in a chair a few feet away. She looked rough. The scene reminded me of Fat Dog when I was in the back of the pack and all the other runners around me kept quitting.
I was sitting on a yoga ball trying to roll out my glute, and trying to down soup. Between sips, I muttered, “Fuck.”
Anthony, who was standing over me, was quick to scold me (lovingly). I don’t remember what he said but what I heard was, “Don’t you dare go there to that mental place.”
Staying positive and strong mentally had been my number one goal for my second 100-mile completion. That’s part of the whole reason I put my body through such an ordeal, to get stronger mentally. The first time around, I never found that positive headspace, and I finished an angry mess. (Read about my goal for this second 100 here.)
I finished the soup and downed a five-hour energy and off I went up the dark trail. As I was leaving, a different kind of fuck went through my head. It wasn’t an exasperated “fuck.” It was a FUCK, as in, Fuck this, I’m not repeating history. I’m not timing out. I’m not succumbing to the fatigue or pain.
I’m going to fucking fight.
I caught up to a string of other runners, all slowing. They were alternating between running and walking, not quite able to get down the cadence of a power hike. But that’s my forte. Plus I was feeling the benefit of extra oxygen at sea level. I passed a few people. Then a few more. At the top of the climb, I was relieved to find a trail that wasn’t nearly as technical as the previous descent, and I started running a bit. Instead of letting me pass, one woman came with me. We followed each other the whole way down the hill. She was struggling mentally, already thinking about how tired she’d be on Sunday and without a crew, wasn’t sure how she’d get home. Or how she’d get to work on Monday. I told her to stay in the moment, only worry about the current mile, a conversation which reinforced my own goals.
In the words of Anthony, I found joy on that segment. I loved running over acorns – we don’t have them at home! A few toads crossed the trail, and even a jet-black salamander. At least, I think it was a salamander? We don’t have any of these things in Colorado!
I was loving it.
I had told my crew I would push to reach the next aid station by 5:30 in the morning, but I made it there by 5:10! As I approached, I considered taking out my phone to text them the updated time, but then instead decided to surprise them. When I got there, they weren’t even watching the trail; they were still setting up for me. That was a first!! They were thrilled to see me, and I was elated. I quickly sat and worked on eating more soup and fruit while Alissa cleaned out trash from my pack and replenished my snacks and water.
A volunteer came over to us and said, “Lynn Hall? Number 128?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
“You passed a lot of people getting here, didn’t you?” I nodded like a preschooler who had written her name for the first time. Apparently, I had bettered my position by 35 runners. Fuck, yeah! “Great work,” the volunteer said.
Finishing was possible.
I tailgated up the following 4,000-foot climb. All the other runners I had chatted with had been dreading this hill, and I had been too, but coming from Colorado vertical gain was my strong suit. Already in 2017, I had climbed 200,000 vertical feet. What was another 4K? I followed the heels of a guy who set a slow but extremely consistent pace. I asked a few times if it was okay I was following so closely, but he was as glad for the company as I was. We pushed each other not to let up.
Finally, the sun rose. We were nearing the top as the sun touched the hills out in the distance. The leaves were burnt green, not quite fall colors, but still gorgeous.
As we crested and began flats and descents, it became clear the guy I had been following wasn’t doing quite as well. He was dragging on sections I could jog, so I made the hard choice to pull away from him. At that point, I was desperate to make it to the turn around and my crew. I wanted to know I was half way home and only had to retrace my steps. But my Strava was suddenly more than two miles off, making me think I was closer than I was. We were climbing when I thought we should be done with the ascents. I ran out of water. Crunching the numbers, I started to worry about my pace for the first time since mile 22. Every step I was fighting aggravation and despair. Every step I fought to stay positive as much as I fought to keep moving quickly. But somehow, I managed to stay in the right frame of mind. I wasn’t dipping into the mental valleys nearly as deeply as I had during Run Rabbit two years earlier.
Jogging the last stretch on pavement tweaked my hamstring a bit, but fortunately it wasn’t any worse than it had been early in the race.
My crew was screaming for me as I jogged into the mile 52 aid station.
Hearing their voices nearly made me cry.
I had texted ahead with my list of demands – er, I mean asks. I wanted more soup, salt tabs (crap, it was getting hot!), a five-hour energy to go, just in case.
With all the crews around watching, I thought nothing of dropping my capris and putting on a running skirt. I’m sure they all saw my Dory underwear. Yup, that’s right, I was wearing underwear from Finding Nemo to remind me to “Just keep swimming.” I know, I’m such a child!
I changed shoes too. Sometime in the previous ten miles I had stepped funny on one of those damn rocks and tweaked my mid-foot which was already puffy and throbbing. Changing socks was awesome because a fresh pair of Farm to Feet socks was just what my aching feet wanted. Fortunately, with already 52 miles in, I didn’t have a single blister. Thank you, Farm to Feet!
Anthony and I had debated whether he’d join me at mile 52 or wait until 66. We had a bit of an awkward conversation as he asked me what I wanted. “Up to you,” I said. I couldn’t possibly find the strength to tell him specifically NOT to come with me. “No, up to you,” he said. In the end, he came. I was so happy to have him for those miles. His fresh energy made all the difference, and I got a reprieve from the endless mental struggles. We chatted, and I might even use the word “fun” to describe some of that stretch.
I came into mile 66 still feeling strong, despite the steep descent further torquing my foot. Finishing was possible! The thought made me nearly giddy.
…and then the sun set. Again. In order to finish I’d have to keep myself moving hard through a second night.
How could I possibly?
It started to rain, which at first was a relief from the heat. But after a while it only made the air muggy and the rocks under our feet slick. Alissa and Renee had put glow in the dark bracelets on Anthony, and I started to just focus on the pink light. Just keep up. Don’t wallow. Don’t panic. Don’t cling to the suffering. Just fight. Keep fighting. Fucking fight.
My thoughts were reduced to these simple mantras.
The trail descending into the mile 80 aid station went on forever like some kind of wicked Blair Witch Project. At one point an LOUD growl came from the dark woods to my left. “Did you hear that?” I said to Anthony. I don’t remember what he said but he succinctly communicated three thoughts, 1) hell yeah, he had heard it too, 2) he was just as creeped out by the noise as I was, and 3) we were not to discuss the incident again for the rest of the night, if ever.
I was running low on adrenaline. I was dizzy and wobbly and deciding where to put my feet among the rocks was wearing me down mentally. Then I started dry heaving. All I wanted was to lie down and shut my eyes for a moment. Or four hours.
Coming into the race, Anthony had promised me a ten minute rest as long as I wasn’t too behind on pace. I cashed in at the mile 80 aid station. I found a muddy mat (it was still raining) which was hardly the dry cot and blanket I had fantasized about. “Is she okay?” one of the volunteers asked Alissa and Anthony. “I’m fucking exhausted,” I thought but kept my angry mouth shut.
A volunteer played the tambourine over my head. Yeah, a tambourine. It was awesome, really, because the noise meant runners heard the aid station from far away – a huge relief, especially in the night. During Run Rabbit, Renee and I came into an aid station that was the complete opposite. Unmoving bodies were huddled around a fire and no one spoke a word. It was about 3 am. Renee told me I wasn’t allowed to even sit down lest I absorb the dead energy. We grabbed food and kept moving. So yes, the tambourine was awesome, but at the moment, all I wanted was to let my brain rest, and that wasn’t happening with so much commotion and yelling around me. Finally, I sat up, swallowed the soup Alissa had put in front of me, and succumbed to Anthony’s insistence that we start walking again.
Days later, Alissa would say that crewing is a bit like a NASCAR pit stop. When your runner comes in, you hustle to get her fed and changed and everything in her pack swapped out. For me as the runner, it was the complete opposite. Those few minutes were the only among 37 hours I could rest for a minute.
We still had 22 miles and two major climbs left. There was no way. Finishing was impossible.
One step. Then another. Follow the pink bracelets. Fucking fight.
After sipping Ginger Ale, which had been the savor to my stomach problems during Run Rabbit, my dry heaves returned with a vengeance. Poor Anthony had to listen to me wretching for miles. It was to the point that I didn’t even bother to stop and double over. If I was going to actually vomit, that would have happened far earlier. So instead I just let my stomach loudly clench while I kept power hiking.
At the mile 88 aid station, we had one last 2,500 foot climb. I had the feeling Anthony was trying to hold it together mentally nearly as much as I was. If I let myself have a single conscious thought, I’d have focused on the impossibility of that climb. We didn’t stay long, and I once again resumed following the pink bracelets.
My torqued foot was on fire. Every step on those uneven rocks caused fiery burning to radiate from my toe up to my knee. I insisted on stopping a few times, and Anthony was gentle with me in reminding me that I couldn’t continue to do that. We didn’t want to finish with a time crunch.
The descent was even more painful. The fire road was steep and the loose gravel slipped out under my feet. I put all my weight on my poles and tried to maintain Anthony’s punishing pace. After having not seen anyone for miles, we passed a few people. If I’d had the energy, I would have yelled at Anthony to just chill out and not pass anyone. Thank God, my brain wasn’t working well enough to speak.
The sleepiness was as bad as ever, and I started to get confused. My brain felt tingly as if I was going under general anesthesia. I literally shook my head a few times to try to fight off the tingling. The hallucinations had really started to set in. The leafy Virginia woods were prime for a vivid imagination. I thought one giant, dead leaf in the trail was a teddy bear (How revealing). I saw people everywhere on the side of the trail. Then a few cars.
I saw a four-foot unicorn…but don’t worry it was just a stuffed animal.
The hallucinations were never extended, never more than entertaining flashes of thought as my sleepy brain processed the woods we were moving through. At one point, I couldn’t remember who was pacing for me! I thought it was a different friend, one of my Colorado running friends who is a Hardrocker. I looked up at Anthony’s pack and thought, yeah, yeah, it’s Alan here! No, shit, it’s Anthony! Again, the thoughts only lasted a few passing moments, but they were still startling.
Finally, we made it down that terrible descent. Alissa was waiting for us at the mile 97 aid station. With still five miles, 500 feet of climbing, and 1,000 feet of descending to go, the idea of pushing my body to continue to move was preposterous. My foot was throbbing. My quads were aching and weak. Every little body part hurt.
The only body part that didn’t bother me was my headache. It still confounds me how I can have killer migraines while at home on my couch but the second I feed my body endorphins the chronic pain fades.
The aid station volunteer said, “You can take as long as you want on these five miles.” It was only five am, and the final cut off wasn’t until eight am. During Run Rabbit two years earlier, I had so little time remaining I had to RUN the last six miles. That wouldn’t happen this time. I had achieved another one of my goals. (Anthony told me later he had pushed me so hard on that last climb and descent because he was so tired he didn’t think he’d have it within him to have to run at the end. Me neither, buddy. Me neither.)
You can’t quit at mile 97.
When you only have five miles to go – and plenty of time – you fucking stand up and walk. So that’s what I did. Finishing was impossible – that’s what my body told me. But I fought hard mentally to keep the thought from making my thoughts spiral out again.
I changed clothes and gave Alissa my pack in exchange for a waist belt, which I hoped would help switch up my energy a bit. And then I started walking.
A mile or so later, Anthony said, “Why are we still climbing?” Sometimes you need your pacer to be positive, but in that moment his exasperation was awesome. His pain validated me.
Yeah, why the fuck were we still climbing!
Saint Anthony is one of the strongest people I know mentally, and even he was crumbling a tiny bit. In fairness, Anthony has been working on speed and wasn’t exactly trained to go 50 miles, but still, his struggle reminded me I had every reason to be hurting. (I know, it seems so obvious in retrospect.)
We crested the last hill and started descending, but once again the nature of the trail kept us from gaining any speed. The unending rocks made every step a challenge. I kept thinking how if we were on a smooth single track I’d have finished hours earlier. I realized I had completely underestimated how technical the trail could be, despite the race director’s warnings. Maybe coming from Colorado high country, I was a bit pompous about an east coast trail! Sorry, east coasters.
Other than that whiney thought, I was preoccupied with lying down. I fantasized about all the different ways I’d do it. Right there in the grass at the finish line? Maybe inside the main hall only a few feet away where they served food. Maybe they’d have cots. And blankets. I sometimes joke that my memoir (the real one that was just published) could be called, “I only wanted a blanket,” and that’s exactly how I felt on the trail. Or maybe I’d magically transport to my bunk in the cabin and I’d collapse in my sleeping bag. Or I thought about that next night when I’d get to sleep in sheets in a posh bed at the DC airport Marriot. Or the next night I’d be in my real bed at home with my cat flat on top of my face. But I didn’t even need that much comfort. I’d have settled for sleeping with the toads in the mud – anywhere, as long as I could be horizontal with shut eyes.
The sun rose, for the second time, as we rounded the lake in the last mile. The clouds lit up a gorgeous pinkish purple. Renee, Alissa, and baby Isa met us and walked in the last few feet.
It wasn’t until then, that last mile, that I realized for the final time that finishing was possible – and inevitable.
Then, 37 hours and 22 minutes later, this happened:
For the last week, as I’ve rested and iced and soaked in Epsom salts and ate all the pancakes and eggs and bought a half dozen more pairs of Farm to Feet socks, the realization that I finished my second 100 miler has periodically bubbled up from my stomach in fits of giddiness. At moments, the thought feels as unimaginable as it did at mile 8 or at mile 97. I finished. The impossible is possible.
On one hand, I haven’t yet wrapped my head around it. On the other hand, as I’ve gone back to real life and dealt with the personal struggles and the professional ones too, the accomplishment carries me. Can I fight in my real life like I did on the trail? Fuck, yeah.