This past Saturday I had the pleasure of pacing my friend Zsuszanna Carlson at the rugged and wild Grindstone 100. In this story, I'll refer to Zsuszanna by her nickname, simply "Z", because no matter what, I always mispell her name. Anyway, I had offered to pace her several weeks before the race, but didn't confirm actually pacing until two days prior. I was more than happy to oblige. This was my second time pacing at Grindstone, and one of many times running with my friend Z.
The objectives were quite simple. Pick up Z at mile 66, North River, and run with her to the finish. When your runner arrives after 66+ miles of mountain running through the night, you're never quite sure what you're gonna get. A number of the runners coming into the aid station looked sleep deprived, haggard, weary on trashed quads, you name it. Could you really blame them? Would Z be joining the ranks of the walking dead? Initial word was that she was 4th, or 5th female, and running very close to our local friend, and strong runner, Kerry Owens. This was good news, but news that, at this point, may be several hours old. Then just around noon, Kerry pops out of the woods and seconds later there's my friend Z. Z is the fourth female and looking energized, but she is also 15 minutes off her time splits from last year. In 2010, Z was fourth female in 29:40. Would today be the same?
Z doesn't stay at the aid station long and pretty soon we are off to conquer the final 35 miles. The fall weather is as lovely as you could ask for. It was cool in the morning, but near 70's in the day. A perfect temperature to be outside, yet for the tired runners it came as an exausting wave of heat. At times like this even the beauty of your surroundings can't dull out the growing pain and fatigue. We climb to the ridgeline with Kerry, but pull away nearing Lookout Mountain at mile 72. Several runners have dropped at the aid station, including the first female. Z is in 2nd place! Another quick in and out, and soon enough we are making our three mile descent into Dowells Draft. This is where Kerry finally passed us for good, and would charge on to become 2nd female. Z's quads are shot, blisters are hurting, and the relentless pounding is taking it's toll. Our goals now are to beat last year's time and maintain a top 3. I know what she is feeling, but I also know what it will take for her to reach her goals. We talk about life, relationships, running, and so on. Talking is the most I can do to keep her focused off the pain, but we gotta keep moving.
Mile 80 comes and goes, and then a long climb up Crawford Mountain. It is late in the day, but the remaining sunlight keeps it warm on the exposed southwest ridges. 87 miles done. The sunlight fades away and the chill of the evening approaches. Z is looking strong and determined. We shift from fleeting moments of goofy song singing to silent focus. Z is tough, but even so she reminds me how much she is hurting. The miles roll on, but don't we know how far back the next female is, and with ten miles to go, Z is very close to her projected finish from last year. We don't want to finish in the same time, we want to beat it. The night brings cold, but the climbs bring heat. It's an on and off battle to regulate body temperature and to keep moving forward.
The moon is about two thirds full and casting shadows along the trail. Then there's the occasional bobbing of headlamps in the distance and the quick small talk as runners pass eachother in the quiet night. Though it breaks the monotony to see other runners, there's always the fear that one is a female contesting for a top 3. We hear a female voice. What? It turns out the female is a pacer for a male runner. Z is still 3rd. The time gaps between these short interactions are a little reminder of how isolated you really are on the mountain. We arrive at Elliot Knob and make the final descent of the race. Z's quads are thrashed, and after 95 miles of ups and downs, this one hurts the most. The lights from the town below are a welcome site that make us feeling like we are finally in the home stretch. However, Z is still running, and trying to break 29:40. It will be close.
We spot tents in the woods, and smell the odor of recently extinguished camp fires. We are very close to Camp Shenandoah, and we are now 1.5 miles from the finish. Z has 29 minutes to cover 1.5 miles to set a personal best. With this knowledge she starts walking. "Z, you gotta run this! Any mistake, and we don't break 29:40" I urge her not to cut too close, though we are so near to the finish. It doesn't help either that the trails are sparsely marked, and it is very dark. A wrong turn would be easy to do. Z is now running with all her might. We make our way around the lake. There's only a half mile to go! What a sight to behold. The clear night sky, a bright autumn moon reflecting off the lake, and then there's Z running her heart out. Truly a majestic backdrop for an inspiring finish. We enter into the camp, and from 100 yards away we can see the finish clock. It is 11:31pm, and Z has finished her second Grindstone 100 in a personal best time of 29:31. She also finishes as the 3rd female. I simply stand back and watch my tired friend enjoy her accomplishment. I am proud of Z, and thankful to be part of her journey.