Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pacing Jenny

Grindstone 100 course landmarks: Elliott's Knob and Little North Mountain
 After a six month break from ultra racing and blogging, I am back! It has been six months filled with much needed family time, rest, low-key training runs, and shorter races. It was also a necessary break from the routine of training, racing, recovery, repeat (and reporting). After ten years of running ultras, I *think* I have figured out how to train and how to rest-- having run a bunch of PRs last year despite creeping closer to 50, I am convinced it is because I am racing November-March and taking the rest of the year to rest, recover, and just run for fun and camaraderie.

Camaraderie is one of the most enjoyable things about being part of the ultra community, along with the culture of helping other runners achieve their goals. Whether it be through coaching for free (or beer), crewing, pacing, or training together, nothing beats the feeling of helping a friend accomplish something really hard. This week our local newspaper, C'Ville Weekly, ran a cover story on three local ultrarunners and yours truly was one of the featured runners. The reporter interviewed me a few days before I was off to pace Jenny Nichols at Grindstone 100, so she asked me a ton of questions about pacing, and this is what I told her. In essence, we are a sport of "paying it forward"-- everyone, from the top 100 mile runner in the country to the newbie-- has shared something important and valuable that has helped me later in a race or during an adventure. We may be a selfish sport (yes, admit it, we are) when it comes to time commitment and time away from home...but when it comes to reaching out to include and help one another, without expectation of payback or publicity, we are second to none.

As for pacing Jenny...when Jenny Nichols announced on Facebook that she had entered Grindstone 100 (her second 100, and first mountain 100), I immediately bombed her inbox with, "Pick me!" Pick me!" pacing offers. Of course, Selfish Sophie wanted to participate in this fantastic 100-miler without the pain and suffering of actually running the thing again. But I also wanted to help Jenny in the same way others had stepped up for me. Mike Broderick, Mike Mason, Michele Harmon, and Gretchen Garnett have been my fabulous 100- miler pacers, and I wanted to be there for Jenny in the same way they had been there for me--as a fellow 100-miler comrade, offering unconditional support, friendship, guidance, and help towards achieving her huge goal of finishing a really tough 100.

Rob Colenso, Jenny and me on Friday, a few hours before the Grindstone start
 Jenny, as is her nature, was incredibly gracious and immediately accepted my offer as well as Rob Colenso's, so now she had a pacer from mile 50-68 (Rob) and another from 68-102 (me). I am not sure how Rob ended up drawing the short straw (hehehe) but in fairly short order Team Jenny was assembled and included me, Rob (whom I paced at Grindstone last year), Jenny's hubby Brock, her brother Brian, and sister-in-law Tammy. Logistics were dealt with, pacing plans were made, training runs and races came and went, and before we knew it, Grindstone race week had arrived! With it came daily reminders from me to Jenny for race mantras such as "I will finish this race even if I have to walk it in," and video clips of Karl Meltzer sharing his 100-miler secrets, including this nugget: "You don't have to run fast to run 100 miles, you just have to run all day." At my urging, Jenny planned to follow Karl's gold standard 100 mile pace strategy: to take it easy at the start, stay within herself to the turn-around at mile 50, and then let the race come to her.

AJW, me, Neal and Horton at Grindstone start
 Grindstone starts at 6:00pm on Friday, which allows everyone a chance to gather, pitch tents, socialize, strategize, panic a bit, and then run all night in the dark. For pacers like me, it is a perfect setting. I drove 55 minutes from my house to the race start at Camp Shenandoah and was able to check in with Jenny and Rob, eat and drink a few with Gary and Q, eavesdrop on a nervous Neal Gorman and pacer Andrew Krueger as they plotted Neal's race plan, hang out with AJW and Horton, and generally enjoy the scene without the stress of racing. Because I needed to take care of family stuff, I drove home after the start and Team Jenny took over crewing and pacing until I would meet them at mile 68 the next morning.

The live stats were behind schedule all night, so when I arrived at the mile 68, North River Gap parking lot (aka TWOT lot) at 7:45 and was informed that Jenny had a 45-minute lead on the women's field at mile 50, I was alternatively psyched and concerned. Rob was pacing her down the mountain and hopefully had slowed her down enough to prevent trashing her quads on Little Bald, and I knew that the next 50K section had two 2500 feet climbs as well as a few brutal descents. Horton and I agreed that if she could just keep moving at this pace, she would be tough to beat. At 9:40, an hour ahead of the next woman, Jenny arrived at North River looking happy and relaxed, so we filled her pack and got the heck out of there!

Jenny at mile 77 with Elliott's Knob (mile 90) in the distance

The next 12 hours and 32 miles were a blast! We laughed, took photos, cheered on girl scout hikers, greeted mountain bikers and horseback riders, and moved at a great pace. I had Kerry Owen's 28:45 splits with me from 2011 and Jenny was a good thirty minutes ahead at Dowells Draft, despite sore knees. The plan was to go in and out of the aid stations with a smile (despite feeling a bit ginger on the downhills), grab a bottle of Perp, and get the heck out. We may have spent :45 at each AS, which was a testament to her fabulous, efficient crew and her focus.

After leaving Dowells at mile 80, Jenny plugged into her Ipod and we ran a good 50 minutes across Rte 250 and along Chimney Hollow. The sun was starting to get low in the sky and the woods were magically quiet and serene. I was LOVING it! It was nice to be quiet for awhile and then other times busy solving all the world's problems. Jen was climbing like a champ and making some good time before we made the nasty descent down Crawford Mountain when the wheels (aka her knees) started to fall off a bit. I could tell from the look on her face (and my own memory of this race) that it was just brutally painful to descend. But she hung in there and before long we were at Dry Branch Gap (mile 85). WOOP!

Jenny and Brock at Dry Branch, mile 85. 

Dry Branch was the first (and last time) where Jen sat for more than a minute. Here we iced her knees, grabbed more Perp and gels, and Rob and I conferred on where Megan Stegemiller, the second-place female, was in terms of time. It was decided (by bossy pants moi) that Rob would stay until Megan arrived and then we would hopefully get a text up on the ridge with intel on her time of arrival and departure. This was important because I needed to know how much to push Jenny up and down Elliott's. Rob's comment "you need to push her regardless" was spot-on, but I knew she was hurting and wanted to know if we had a cushion. Being in the lead was a trip---fun as hell but also very stressful!

Not many Grindstone finishers EVER get to run down Elliott's in the DAYLIGHT!

The caption above was our mantra the entire climb up to Elliott's Knob (mile 90). We were moving well, chatting about family, kids, ultras, and how beautiful the night was, interspersed with changing clothes, adding gloves, and kicking rocks. When we reached the descent on the Elliott's Knob fire road, we started to get passed by a few men (including Jenny's buddy Rick Gray). This was disheartening for Jen. She got weepy because of the hurt and the cold, and mumbled something about the stress she was feeling, but I loved her attitude too--she was fighting to keep that lead, regardless of who was passing by. Underneath that sweet demeanor and those super strong hugs lies a fiercely competitive and passionate woman, and I totally get that! I told her when she started to get weepy that she could cry for 5 minutes, and then had to stop to save her energy :-)

We arrived at the last aid station at mile 95, Falls Hollow, having lost a few more minutes, so the next 6 miles were going to be gut check time. These six miles are the worst six miles in ultrarunning for the Grindstone finisher. In the 2009 race, I made a vow to NEVER run in the woods again except as pacer, and here I was, running and walking on tedious ascents and descents, railroad tracks, baby head rocks, technical stream beds, and roots. Not to mention the mental challenge of running past the Camp Shenandoah showers with a bit more than a mile to go! A few more guys passed us but we were not concerned---we knew after the showers she had the win in the bag. It was at the "1 Mile To Go" sign that I made a huge WOOP and turned to Jen and extended my hand: "Congratulations, you are going to win the Grindstone 100!" There were tears of joy, of pain, but mostly...relief.

Across the earthen dam we ran (!), along the road, and into camp. It was very dark now, with a crystal clear sky full of stars. It was about 9:45pm and I wooped it up so Clark and the gang knew it was us. "What's your number?" we heard them call out from the finish line.

"105!!!" we yelled.

Big cheers erupted as Clark announced "First Woman, Jenny Nichols! 2012 Grindstone Women's Champion!"

Big hugs all around from Clark, Rob, Brock, Brian, Tammy, Rick, Tammy Gray, Q, Gary, Jim Daniels, Neal Gorman, Kerry Owens...

Big fun.

Rob, Jenny and me at the Grindstone finish line, 27:46
2012 Grindstone 100 Champs, Karl Meltzer and Jenny Nichols

Grindstone results