The last time I ran over 10 miles was at Grindstone 100. The race was back in October, over 5 months ago. My 6th hundred wasn’t a normal one for me …if there is such a thing as a normal 100. Most hundreds hurt in more ways than one. But this one– it was pure mental, emotional, and physical hell for reasons I could not have foreseen…
Grindstone is a brutal 100 mile race that takes place in the rugged, rock-laced mountains of Virginia. The always picturesque state is pretty on a postcard, but it’s downright ugly for a long ultrarunning experience. There’s roughly 46 thousand feet of elevation change on the out and back course.
I went into race weekend completely 100% mentally and physically prepared. I was nervous about the pain to come, but who isn’t. Despite nerves, I had an unshakable confidence that I would finish the 100, and nothing could stop my efforts. But absolutely all of that changed with a single phone call….
The race had an evening start, and I spent my day anxiously preparing everything I would need for the night of running. I was making a last minute trip to Walmart for some extra water right before the start when my phone started ringing. It was my mom. Probably wishing me luck. I’ll call her back…
Then my sister called. I had an hour left to get my gear together so I didn’t answer. She immediately called again. My gut sank. I knew this had to be something other than a good luck call, so I picked up.
“Hey girl. Is everything okay?” I answered worried.
“Hey Ash. No, not really….”
“Please tell me everyone is fine. Are the kids all right?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Kids are fine. It’s nothing like that. But Ash, there’s no good way to say this…. Levi was just diagnosed with a brain tumor.”
Levi is my kid brother. I’m one of six kids, and all of us are extremely close. The news was definitely upsetting. And I didn’t know how to process it.
“I don’t understand. I thought he just had the headaches from the vision problem or whatever? Is he going to be okay? Crap. I need to get home.”
But I was eight hours from home. Eight hours away from hugging everyone, from praying together…from being where I should have been at that very moment.
“He is okay right now. Mom says not to worry, and just stay there and run your race. There is nothing you can do for him at this moment. I just wanted you to know what was going on though.”
I hung up the phone and texted Levi. “I don’t know what to say. I’m just so sorry. I love you. I will be home soon.”
“Don’t come home now. Go kick this race in the butt. Do it for me.” he wrote back.
I started crying….and I didn’t stop for a long time. I couldn’t. I was in shock. I was scared for my brother. I was in another freaking state, hundreds of miles away, and about to set out on the hardest race of my life. Suddenly, my strong unbreakable resolve was in complete shambles.
The race was about to start in 30 minutes…How the crap am I supposed to do this?
I sat in a building next to the start line with my head down on a table. No nervous butterflies, no excitement or motivational exchanges of words. Just tears. I felt like I was in the wrong place, and definitely at the wrong time.…I just want to be home.
I brought my sweet husband Dan, and my best friend Sean along with me to the race to crew my efforts. They knew what was going on, and they knew I was a mess. They tried hard to pull me out of the funk.
“Ash,” Dan said, “I know you want to go home, but you’ve got 100 miles to tackle before you can get there. You trained hard for this. You need to do it.”
Sean agreed, “You’re already in Virginia. You’ve already put in the training, already paid for it. You just need to finish it. Make your brother proud.”
None of it was easing the sinking pain in my gut, but I knew they were right. I knew what I had to do.
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” I kept reciting in my head… Ugh. I know, God. I know. It’s just freakin’ hard not to think about. But thinking would have to wait, because the race was going to start whether I wanted it to or not.
3….2…..1…. here goes nothing.
As the sea of runners took off towards the mountains, the cold rain began to fall…Man. It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it.
My typical sunny disposition had taken a drastic fall just like the weather, and my running was taking a direct hit. Not even a tenth of a mile into the race, I sunk my head and found my way to the back of the pack.
I tried to get into a groove regardless of how I felt, thinking maybe the running would do me some good. Give me some time to process everything. I ran for about half a mile trying to find that resolve. However, the universe just kept rallying against me. It would seem that my “super grippy” trail shoes were ill equipped for the endless wet rock the course provided. As I stepped onto the first section of single track trail, I slipped on the rock, and went down hard… good grief.
I just sat there for a minute as all of the runners –clearly on a mission– hurdled over me. I swear I thought long and hard about not even getting back up. I looked behind me…The parking lot was still in sight. And if I kept going, I wouldn’t see it again for another 100 miles… I can’t do this. Not today.
I choked back the tears, wiped the mud from my hands, and picked my butt up off the ground…..NO, dangitt. I’m better than this…..I have to do this. I took off running again, determined to see the thing through.
As the run progressed, things didn’t get much better. Darkness fell, the rain continued to pour. And with every rocky section of trail, I continued to fall…Hard. My head torch wasn’t lighting up the trail very well for some reason, my shoes had zero traction, my weatherproof jacket was failing, and I was soaked head to toe. It just wasn’t working out. Not only did my body take a beating, but my mind did too…Clearly, this just isn’t my night.
Not even 20 miles into the race, I started to walk. Up and over each mountain. No. Not walk. That makes it sounds productive. I started the death march, the 80 mile zombie, the “I JUST CAN’T” ultra walk. And I locked into it. ….I may not finish this stupid thing under the cut off, but I WILL freaking finish it… I promised myself.
I’d like to say that I eventually rallied up, and took off running like a wild stallion into the night to chase down the finish, but, yeah, that didn’t happen. I just kept walking aimlessly; consumed with guilt and worry from not being home. You’d think I could have harnessed that negative energy towards a strong finish, but it just wasn’t working out that way. It felt more like a huge weight on my shoulders I couldn’t shake off.
THIS JUST ISN’T MY RACE.
Since the race had a 6pm start, Dan and Sean had gone back to the hotel to sleep while I
ran zombied the first half of the race. The first half took me all of the night, and most of the following morning. Roughly… 16 hours or so?…Geez… If I wasn’t crying the majority of it, it would have been pretty laughable. I was a sopping wet, cold, emotional, pathetic mess of a woman by the time I reached the guys the next morning at the 50 mile turnaround. There was no hiding that.
“I want to go home guys.” I cried when I finally saw them. “This just isn’t my race.”
They showed zero sympathy.
“It doesn’t matter if this takes you the entire weekend, you’re gonna f***** finish this.” Sean said.
“Yeah. Change into some dry clothes and get moving.” Dan agreed.
I sat down in the car and started to change. I looked at the clock, and got pissed at how slow I was moving. I kicked the dashboard, and cursed myself under my breath. This was taking too freaking long. I wanted to scream. I was so miserable, mad about life, and had absolutely nothing in the tank for motivation. On top of that, I still had 50 mega miles to tackle before I was done… I’m such a douchebag…. I thought….Why did I even start this thing??
I sat in the car for what felt like a lifetime, until Dan pressured me to get moving again.
“Your legs are gonna lock up if you stay in there. You need to get going.”
….Ugh, he’s right. I’m not getting any closer to home sitting inside of here…God, please give me some strength to finish.
I got out of the warm car and stepped back into the rainy cold. Nobody ever said life was going to be easy, but at least you never have to go it alone…
“Will one of y’all come with me? Please? I can’t do this by myself. I need you guys.”
Sean volunteered to run the next 30 miles with me. (Having friends that run ultras seriously pays off.)
Sean and I have a long humorous history together. For reasons I couldn’t even begin to explain, I call him Nag, Wendy, Seany Boy, and Fig..but mostly just Fig. Fig is basically family now, as he has seen me go through every single utterly awful thing imaginable….we’ve all traveled and run a lot of ultras together…So here and now I was so thankful that if Dan couldn’t be with me, at least Fig was sharing in the suffer.
He kept me moving at a much better pace for the next 50k. And by better pace, I don’t mean running, I mean hobbling and wobbling like an injured duck, but moving nonetheless. We joked about how pathetic I looked, and laughed for miles about all of our many crazy running memories together. He distracted me with stupid stories about girls he was mackin’ on, mountains he’d run recently, and grody Run Bum recaps I wish I’d never heard. But, for the first time the entire weekend, I wasn’t beating myself up for not being at home with my family. I was actually, oddly, kind of sort of enjoying myself.
I will finish this…. I will.
Despite my better outlook, everything hurt, and I was still moving freakishly slow. I had already been out there for 24 hours of moving through mountains, rain, cold, and I was no where close to being finished. I still had another marathon to cover….somehow.
“You need to eat more.” Sean kept shouting into the wind.
“Shut up about it Fig. I’m eating what I can.” I said, walking slowly, shoving food I couldn’t stomach into my jacket pockets instead of my face. I knew I would pay for not eating a ton, but at this point, I didn’t really give a crap. It was going to be all mental like it always was.
“I’m just sayin’, Ash. You do this every time. You need to eat more so you actually pull off a finish. Because at this rate, it’s gonna be close.”
“Whatever, Fig. You’re pissing me off.” I laughed. I was incredibly grateful that Sean stayed with me so long and lifted my spirits. But, I knew it wasn’t going to get any better, and pretty soon I was gonna need the big guns…. “How long until we see Daniel?”
“We’re almost back. Just a couple more miles. Keep movin’, Ash. You got this.”
As the 2nd nightfall of the weekend approached, the wind picked up again, the temps dropped back down, and the rain began to fall. I knew I was definitely in for more torture.
We finally reached 80 miles, and it was time for my backbone, Dan, to take over for the tough stuff. The last 20 of a hundred never look good on anyone, but they look especially bad on me. I needed Dan to push the ultra buttons only he knew well enough to push, and to say the things I needed to hear.
“Be sure she eats and takes in fluids, man. She isn’t eating good enough.” I heard Sean tell Dan.
“Typical.” He said back, as he shoved a bottle of Tailwind in my face.
My resolve strengthened. I took off for the next leg of the course, taking a swig of the powerful fuel.
I kept silent for the next few miles and moved hard along the trail. One foot in front of the other.
Up the mountain...feel the pain.
Down the mountain…feel more pain.
The weather was a total beat down, and it took everything in me to focus on that finish, but I was focused. Kicking rocks every step of the way. Frozen to the bone. It never stopped, and I didn’t expect it to. I just zoned out completely and moved forward….This isn’t running. This is surviving an ultra.
At some point, the lack of eating must have caught up to me, or maybe I was just tired from almost two days in the mountains with no sleep… I don’t know how or why it happened, but after a few of the miles with Dan behind me, I started noticing some weird things. Very weird things. Weird things like little girls holding jack-o-lanterns in the forest. Weird things like absurd amounts of graffiti on the rocks that I didn’t notice the first 50 miles. The trees…. jumping?
“Dan! Holy crap. Did you see that creepy little girl with the pumpkin? Where are her parents? It’s freaking freezing…What is she even doing out here?”
“What little girl? What the heck are you talking about? There’s nobody out here but other nuts running like you.”
“But… she’s…. right there.” ……Nobody?.…..Just trees.
I was hallucinating. Bad. Snapping in and out of it, I prayed it wouldn’t get worse. I skittishly kept moving forward into the darkness.
Focus….Is that a… stop sign in the forest? What the..….Focus…..Wait. Hold on. When and how did our kids get here?!….. FOCUS!
“Let’s talk. What’s on your mind?” Dan asked, noticing I was struggling, and trying to distract me.
“What’s on my mind?” I started to cry, frustrated, “I’m scared Daniel. I’m scared for Levi. And for Alyssa. They haven’t even been married a year, Dan. What if he’s not okay? What if he doesn’t make it out of this?? Everyone is home and upset, and I’m on the side of this stupid mountain doing yet another stupid race! I feel so terrible. So selfish… and I can’t think straight. And I want to go home!” I cried, desperate for relief from the nightmare in my brain, and the far scarier nightmare of my reality.
“He’s gonna be okay, baby. They will get through this. But if you want to get home, you need to keep moving forward Ash.”
So, I kept moving, and I tried to keep my mind straight. But after a few more moments, there was nothing more I could do. The trail started to move on me…. Obviously the trail itself didn’t actually move, but my mind was bad off, and my vision even more so. I was convinced that it was “jumping” and the effect caused me to stumble. Over and over again.
“Daniel. What’s happening to the trail?! It’s moving, Daniel! Please! Make it stop!” I cried out.
I began to panic. Clearly, I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t think straight. I was losing control of my brain, and I knew I was slipping fast. I started to have flashbacks of the last time I’d been to this place–a very different place and time, but oh so similar. I was a 15 year old me, panicked, paranoid, and totally scared for my life, laying in an E.R. bed hooked up to an EKG– recovering from a severe Meth overdose. Looking up at the ceiling, praying hard I was going to make it out unscathed.
“I can’t go back here Dan. I need to get out of here! I need to get out of this place!” I shouted as I stopped dead in my tracks. I dropped down to a squat, let the cold rain fall on my head, and just sobbed.
“This is too much for me. I don’t think I can make it to the finish. Mentally. I’m losing it.”
“Take this,” he said, handing me his bottle of Tailwind. “Drink all of it.”
“You have 6 more miles and you are done with this thing, Ashley. Done. That’s it. I’m not going to leave your side. I will make sure you get there whether you want to or not. Finish this, and you never have to battle one again. You can go home and be with our family and call it good. Okay? But if you leave here right now, and cut this thing short, you will never forgive yourself.”
“But I can’t think, Dan. I can’t think straight. I’m scared.”
“You don’t need to think. You just need to move.”
He picked me up, and tugged on my jacket. “GO.”
I moved. Slowly, excruciatingly, and scared, but I moved.
The trail was still jumping around on me, but I trusted that Daniel knew me well enough to know I could make it. If I fell, he would catch me. If I passed out, he would carry me. (He’s done it before!) If I talked, it wouldn’t make sense, but he wouldn’t judge me.
The only coherent thought that I could latch onto was this: That finish line was coming. And that finish line meant I could go home. That hope for home became my beacon, and kept me moving through every type of darkness that came over me the next few miles.
“Hey. You see that light? That’s the finish! We’re almost there! Probably no more than a mile.”
“I’ve waited so long.” I cried. “I can do it. I know I can do it.”
“Of course you can do it, baby. Keep pushing.”
I did. I kept pushing. Beyond everything physical, and mental, I just kept moving forward. We finally moved from single track trail to pavement, and there was nothing left but a few painful steps between me and my finish.
I tried to muster up what was left of my body for a run.
Just a few more steps!… I cried to myself.
Almost 35 hours after I started my journey at Grindstone 100, I finished it.
I made it. It wasn’t pretty, and it nearly killed me, but I did it. I crossed that line.
I cried so hard as I hugged Dan and Sean, “Thank you guys. Thank you so much for everything.”
Even though it was the dead of night, the R.D., Clark Zealand, was kind enough to still be out there, and handed me my buckle. I thanked him, asked him what sick type of person decided to put a 100 miler on those mountains ;), then finally hobbled back to the car.
“Ready to go home?” Dan asked.
“Never been more ready in my life.” I cried.
Whew, as usual for me, that was a long one! 100 miles is a long way to go, though. =) If you made it that far, thanks so much for sticking around. This race took place 6 months ago, and I wasn’t sure I was going to write about it, because, honestly, I didn’t know what was going to happen to my little brother. Thankfully, I can happily say that Levi is doing great. He responded well to treatment, and hopefully will make a full recovery! After the 100, I was able to come home, hug my brother, thank him for being my motivation and give him my buckle. It was a special moment for both of us.
I know I made Grindstone sound like Hell, and for me it was, but I would encourage you to give the race a go if you’re into this type of stuff. It was incredibly beautiful, and everything was meticulously planned, and executed without a hiccup– definitely a top notch race!
Now that I’ve written this, it might make a little more sense as to why I’ve been posting things about “not running a lot” etc. I needed to really recover –for an extended time– from the physical and mental stress of that weekend. Hallucinating like I did was scary for me, as it brought back some very painful memories from my past. It was too familiar for me, and I felt like I needed to step back and reevaluate my participation in the sport for a bit, but I’ll save that for another post. Ultrarunning is a journey for me, one that I will go on and off of for likely my entire life. Today, I am feeling much stronger, happier, and healthier, and will hopefully be back racing again soon. Thanks again for reading and leaving feedback. I really do appreciate it! ~Ash