Grayson Highlands 50k Race Report
Updated: Apr 14, 2019
Grayson Highlands 50k, Virginia May 5 2018
The weather called for thunderstorms from the starting gun on through the night on May 5th, my first Grayson Highland 50k and first RunBum directed race. I'd done a few Ultras now... tentatively giving myself the label “Ultra runner”, but still finding my place in this cadre of trail wierdos and wonderful personalities I'd come to love over the past three years. Buoyed by the encouragement of my multinational trail family from Sally McRae's running camps, and my non-runner friends (“Good luck this weekend... sounds crazy... you'd never catch me out there even if it WAS good weather!”) I headed out on my own to the New River and Highlands area of NC on a Friday afternoon. I stopped at the Columbia outlet store and pondered the lightest, most breathable and still waterproof jacket, and scored a great deal on one. I was ready for the adventure. I had spent the last two weeks trying to rehab and recover my first true experience with an ITB injury. On my last long training run I had started having deep excruciating pain on the outside of my left knee. It wasn't 'till I started “snapping” along that knee that I realized I had joined the dreaded ITB club. No amount of stretching or rolling seemed to be working. Brian the PT at Run Raleigh had recently done some work on my calves and we figured it was compensatory. More sessions of needling and quad work. I had two “taper weeks” ahead of me but now they'd just be “rest weeks” for the most part. I was antsy and nervous, but within a few days I was feeling better and able to get in a few short runs before the big day. Now here I was... stiffly climbing out of the car after the 3 hr drive and checking into The Cabins at Healing Springs, Crumpler NC. A peaceful setting along a stream with supposed healing properties of it's mineral spring. I loaded up on the magic elixir and mixed it with Liquid IV and set about to prep.
Pre-race dinner that night was at Pie In The Sky, Lansing NC (about 20 min drive on some very rural
backroads). Great pizza and locally brewed beer (New River Brewing). Overheard some folks at a nearby table talking running, and turns out one guy is doing the 50k tomorrow too. We wished each other the best, and laughed about the potential for pretty bad weather, and I was back to the cabin to prep. It's a funny thing prepping my stuff the night before a race. There're nerves and second-guessing and changing my mind, and calculations... ultimately what goes is what's been reliable... what's favorite... what makes me happy. RACE KIT: Rainbow Unicorn Hat, Nike shirt (1st run camp), Brooks shorts w/boxer liners, Ultra Injinji socks, Nike Wildhorse shoes, NM Run Co buff, UD hydration pack, two front bottles (1 water, 1 Green Tea Tailwind), 5 Spring Energy and 2 33-Shake food sources, headphones, One-Wipe-Charlies packet, and my brand new Columbia raincoat.
Race Day: Up at 5ish to eat and coffee and hopefully move some bowels. All three on point! Out the door by 6:10. Lovely sunrise driving the twisting rolling road to Virginia and into the park. High clouds and temps in the low 60's... weather report is suddenly showing possibility of NO rain until afternoon! I decide not to take a chance and just stow the raincoat in my pack... positive juju against thunderstorms.
At check-in I have some nerves... but mostly just want to get running! I see the guy from the pizza place (Robbie) and we exchange pleasantries. He seems like about my level... fairly recent to the sport (2016) and sees himself as a mid-packer too. We hang and shoot the bull until starting time. Porta-potty lines are long... but secluded trees are plentiful so I head to an overlook area to distract myself a bit and take care of one last bio-break.
The Grayson Highlands 50k course makes use of most of the park's varied trails and a TON of elevation change. While it is technically only about 28 miles, it more than makes up for the lack of those extra miles with vertical gain (well over 4500 ft) and technical terrain. Pre-race announcement included the news that, while the race directors had initially re-routed the higher elevations in anticipation of thunderstorms, they were going back out this am and returning the course to include the Crest trail, arguably the best views of all. And then we're off! We begin on the road for only about 1.5 miles while we all started finding our spots and spreading out. I don't realize until we peel off to the first single track that I screwed up starting my Garmin, so I will spend the next 6 hours trying to guess how many miles I need to add to what it says. Here we begin the first of many climbs and descents on rocky, rooty singletrack, often accompanied by the babbling of nearby streams. We're all in pretty good spirits and I have somehow found just the right spot in terms of pace in the crowd. Robbie is right in front of me and a younger woman (who made the early comment “Boy that tequila last night was SMOOTH” hence earning my nickname for her the rest of the race “Smooth Tequila”) is within sight. A lady about my age who used to be a park ranger is reciting a poem about springtime, making us all laugh and cheer.
After the forests, and some tight technical climbs we wind out way up to the Massie Gap area where I'd gone hiking with the kids over Easter. Here we start to get views for miles, and cross the AT. It's easier to run here, and I find myself getting into a pretty good groove. Robbie is well ahead of me, but some other faces come and go as we trade positions over and over depending on the trail. My legs are feeling great. No ITB issues. I'm proactively drinking even though I don't feel hot or thirsty, trying to time it so that when we hit the first aid station (mile 11) I'll be empty. Also timing eating calories at least every 45 minutes or so. So far so good, and I remind myself that it's actually “only 28 miles”, though I keep wondering how many miles my watch missed on that first bit.
The Crest Trail... so glad we got to run it and the weather held... views for days, though had to keep a close eye on the trail lest those damn rocks'd get me! Once we made it to the first Aid Station (Scales) it was refill bottles, munch some pickles, boiled potatoes and PB & J. Rewarded with more downhill, I took advantage... letting gravity do the work all the while knowing it may take a toll on my quads for later. We had seen ponies earlier, but a small herd came right up to us here, as well as some of the Longhorns.
Aid station 2 was about 7 more miles. A perfect distance to empty both bottles and take in interval nutrition. The course was rocky but still flowing downhill. Camp store was a point we'd see again coming around from the other side. Fueled up and topped off it was on to AS #3 apparently now only 4.5 miles! Still feeling good... and aches or niggles are inconsequential at this point, but for some reason I have Berlin “Take My Breath Away” stuck in my head. I consider headphones, but I'm having fun interacting with other runners and enjoying the sounds of the forest and streams. At one point we ran past a camping area that I thought might be the next AS, trucks with covered tents blasting Mariachi music... nope. A creek crossing and short out-and-back (on which I saw Robbie and high-fived) to AS #2. More pickles, potatoes and fluids. The trails are rocky and lower elevations are also wet and muddy. I'd tried successfully to cross several creeks and mud patches, but at this point I'd given up and was letting those Nike Wildhorses play in it!
At some point... and here I am only 24 hrs later and it's a little blurry... we are running through deep tight, technical descending trails along a rushing stream with waterfalls. It's amazing... and even though three or four of us are within 50 feet of each other I feel like I'm all alone because of how closed in the Rhododendron tunnel is and how tight the turns are. At one point a runner is backtracking, worried he'd missed some turn simply because he hadn't seen a marker in a while... we found it. It hadn't rained (we'd heard thunder once or twice) but everything was wet and slick in here. I reached out to support myself on a granite shelf and was rewarded with a nice little gash on my hand. The nearby stream and waterfall sang like a siren to us to just stop and jump in. It was here, in this tight, technical stair-stepping tunnel of green that my little ITB friend started to say “hello”. Good on the uphills, I was stutter-stepping on the descents due to that same dang lateral knee pain.
No matter! I had the briefest moment of concern and worry... wondering “how am I gonna DO this with this frikkin' ITB?”... and then I knew... “It's JUST pain... I can work through this”. At this point we are headed into another long out-and-back. It's a long grind up, and we are seeing some folks powering back down... looking pretty strong! “Smooth Tequila” and Jim-from-Nashville were hanging with me, running where we could, but power-hiking a good portion now. I caught up with Robbie just before the AS and he tells me that HIS right IT band is flaring up. We're both eating pickles and bananas and trying in vain to stretch and cajole our quads and hip into letting us keep moving forward. We set off together... now about 5 of us strung out along the short up, and then down portion of the return back to the final section. Robbie and I are hobbling mirror images and it's laughable. At one point (because I tripped on a rock for the gazillionth time) I realized that going FASTER downhill actually hurt my ITB/knee LESS. My legs are tired as hell, and my brain says “no” but off I go... with Robbie inspired to chase along behind. We're doing it! We've found a way to work around the injury, hampered only by the sheer technicality of the rocky trail. When we have to walk again... it's gimpy but doable. When we finally start toward the Camp Store AS again, we find terrain that doesn't trash our ITBs... only problem is that after going UP for a good stretch, it then gets steeper. It's a solid ten minutes of hiking a 20%+ grade of rocky, rooty singletrack 'till we hit the AS. Last call for fluids, pickles, cookies, potatoes, some Coke... From here we are headed toward the finish!... UPHILL.
Suffice it to say... for the several miles between the AS and the “Finish area” was some of the toughest. It was primarily UP. Again... mostly 20% grade... trudging along at a 22-30 min/mile pace. We took turns leading until I had the front... I never stopped... using my arms to pump (except when I'd forget and they hung limply or pressed my thighs for imagined advantage). I called myself a “warrior”... I channeled the strength and grit of my mother during her horrific injuries just a little over a year ago. I put a new song in my head (LP: “Into The Wild”), and ignored as much pain as my legs tried to tell me about. As we reached the top it seemed impossible to start running again. The course brings us by the finish area... only to continue on for a two mile “victory lap” up and back down Little Pinnacle. Robbie was right on my 6 and his right knee
was just like my left... but we ran it as best we could. The Little pinnacle overlook sits at about 5068 feet. Coming down, we RAN. The only way our knees would behave was to bomb the downs, and despite being TOTALLY gassed, we did it!”Smooth Tequila” was just ahead of us and our other hill climbing companions were in tow. Sean “the Run Bum” Blanton was grinning ear-to-ear and high-fiving or hugging all the finishers. At 6 hours, 48 minutes and 28 seconds I crossed the finish line of the Grayson Highlands 50k. I felt AWESOME. I got a quick pic with Robbie and Blanton and cheered on those coming in behind us. It hadn't rained a drop. I had carried my brand-new rain jacket 28 miles and thousands of feet up and down, I had eaten 5 of my 7 nutrition options, and refilled my water at every aid station, I had overcome the left ITB rearing it's ugly little head, I had caught my toe a bazillion times and kicked a trillion rock but never fell, I'd found a new trail-brother in Robbie Christopher from Georgia, and I'd fallen that much further in love with the trail running ultra community.
(not) The End