It’s hard to remember, but sometime last winter, Mike Nance had talked up this crazy race that involved 15 miles up, down and back again on Grandfather Mountain. The Yerg verified that he had done the race, the inaugural Grandfurther 25k in 2017, and kept saying it was “15 miles that runs like a 50k”. I’ve always been a big fan of the Blue Ridge in general, and I’ve been many times to the Grandfather mountain park. The park is up a long winding road and you get out near the summit to take pics on the “mile high swinging bridge” which traverses a steep dropoff and causes panic in acrophobes everywhere. Sadistic as it seems, I was always jealous of the people who would go on the apparently treacherous trail to the actual summit. The wife and kids vetoed this idea, so I never got the opportunity. Plus: bad track record with rocky drop-offs. But hey, why not do a brutal 25k to get the chance to scale my favorite mountain in the blue ridge? I was in.
Or so I hoped. The race had a cap and apparently was anticipated to sell out almost immediately. The week prior to signup we recruited Drew Williams with the thought of making this a beertastic running weekend. I set my alarm and sat on the computer at 8 am way back in February and managed to sign up after a few tense minutes when the tanawha adventures website got crushed. Fortunately we all got in, but I think the race sold out in a matter of a couple of hours. Dean Schuster found out a little late and ended up getting wait listed. With the race in August, we had a whole six months to prepare for it.
Which of course I didn’t really do. My running usually involves slogging a bunch of miles every day with a weekly race or random team utopia workout as my speedwork. The only thing I did that might approximate a hilly trail run was the Vertical Mile 18 miler in June. True, I did the Xterra half at Harbison too, but I think even the Spider Woman was nothing to Old Grandpa.
Flash forward six months later and we were on our way to the Blue ridge. Packet pickup was at Appalachian Brewery in Boone, so we figured that was a good a place as any to start the beering. They have a really nice IPA and blonde but stay away from the brutally cucumberish sour called the Bad Motherpucker (Chosen, of course, primarily for the name). I swear I was burping cucumber all weekend. Linn Hall was nice enough to let us use her mountain condo at Sugar Mountain, so we had a sweet set up for the weekend. Beautiful views of the mountains, plus it was I the low 50’s when we arrived. After a brutally famously hot summer in Columbia, you forget how amazing cool air feels.
The next morning we had a short 2 mile drive to the Lowe’s foods parking lot where the race began, near the new Profile trailhead. Pretty much perfect weather with temps in the 50’s. We met up with Dean and Columbia Beer Mile race director Bobby Scott, who both got in off the wait list. Everyone had to bring an emergency blanket, poncho/rain shell and a whistle as part of the mandatory gear. This was a little scary, but I guess it was better to be safe than sorry. It’s not like the summit of Grandfather is an easy medical evac. Probably harder than being half carried up a Cliffside by two giant Polynesian guys in Kauai. Or so I hear.
I lined up in the first wave. Not by choice, but apparently they did bibs by ultrasignup ranking. I had done one ultrasignup race in the past year, a 2nd place in a total trophy hunt at the Harbison 25k ( undercard to the 50k ultra) in January. With this small sample size, it gave me a ranking of 88 percent and within the top 10 of the 200 something participants. With my “elite” number 12, I strode up to the line with all the zero body fat mountain goats. Luckily it was top 50 so I hid back a few rows.
With the gun we were off. First mile or 2 is pretty decent. I ran along at a pretty easy pace, around 9 minutes, knowing that this would certainly get brutal quickly and knowing the only awards were for overall top 3 male and female. I was fairly certain that wouldn’t be me. Dean and Bobby caught up with me from the next wave and we ran for a little bit but then BAM. Walksies engage hard core. I know the mountain goats likely jogged up the rest of this ascent, but mere mortals are reduced to a brisk stroll, if that. Just unrelenting steepness. On top of a neverending ascending trail, it was a rock garden out there that made spider woman seem like a fun run. I kept trying to put some pep in my step , but I was either slipping or just trying to find a place to put my foot for a good stretch on the initial climb.I think my third mile came back in 20 and change. There something disheartening about “running” a mile slower than your road 5k. This was going to take a while. At some point there were less rocks on the trail and more big boulders around you as we neared the summit. The temperature definitely dropped and some areas smelled like Christmas trees with all the little pines. Suddenly things got a little crowded as we hit the first of a couple of ladders. I tried to focus on what was ahead of me because I had the distinct impression there were some serious drop-offs on either side. Finally we stepped into a brief open patch that I later figured out was the summit. I was still in gung-ho racer mode at the time so I barely looked. Such is the grueling and important battle for 50th place.
Then started the downhill on the backside. I thought this is where I could really run and make up some time from all that slogging on the initial climb. Yeah, that’s going to be a no from me, dawg. One, we had a brief conga line section in which we were all stopped to climb down multiple ladders, one was like 20 feet high. Following the ladder section was an even scarier rock face with limited footholds that I basically had to take on my rear end. I’m sure it was a thing of grace and beauty. Once through with this little section, Dean took off like the downhill maniac he is, along with Bobby. Me, not so much. I have the grace of a baby elephant, so my traipsing down the decline was ridiculously slow. I was getting passed left and right, Old women, chunky dudes, basically anyone with any degree of agility was kicking my ass. It was truly sad. Not really running so much as controlling my fall. Quads were getting wrecked into submission pulling a blazing 15 minute pace. But at least I wasn’t falling. There was a lot of that going on. Plenty of blood. My main injuries where on my hands from trying to grab trees so I wouldn’t face plant. Near the bottom things leveled out a little as the trail merged onto the tanawha trail near the Blue ridge parkway. Mike, Drew, Dean and Bobby passed me on their way back up, so I hoped the turnaround wasn’t too far off. I latched on to a hot Asian girl because apparently that’s what motivates me. I followed her like a creeper all the way to the turnaround, where she dropped me like a bad habit. I was pretty wrecked at the aid station so I shoved some chips and a cup of coke in me, along with a mountainside bathroom break. My Garmin only had like 7 miles but GPS is pretty worthless out in that remote area. Legs were destroyed on both sides, but I had to get back someway so back up the mountain I went. I tried to do some jogging but hit mall walking soccer mom mode pretty fast. I saw a bunch of the field early on, but it soon got pretty sparse a few miles in. I ran into a nice dude named Walker from Asheville, and told him he had a great name for this race. It was good to distract myself with Walker’s predictions for the SEC east this year until I finally got a little frisky and started to run. Around this time I realized that not using my hydration pack in my vest was a very, very bad idea. Started getting really thirsty and a little loopy, just in time to hit the rock face and ladder section. Things were a little fuzzy around this point. All I remember is total jello legs, briefly catching hot Asian again, and taking some really ugly selfies at the summit. I was really happy to be heading down towards the finish, but the dehydration issue was getting worse. I kept hoping for that aid station but apparently I had a really bad memory of where it was. I started hitting a bunch of hikers who were surprisingly gracious and supportive despite us racers probably messing up their experience. The rock garden area on the way down was ridiculously slow between my gimp legs and fuzzy water deprived brain. Random girls started shouting GOOD JOB RUNNER – LOOKING GOOD. Every word of which was a complete lie. I even got a raucous cheer from a whole troop of boy scouts. I tried to limit my Tourette’s –like outbursts of F bombs at that time, since I was screaming every 5 minutes when my toe would hit a root. Somehow I stayed upright. Finally the aid station came and I was half delirious. I handed one of the guys one of my empty water bottles and chugged like 4 bottles worth of Gatorade. I usually hate blue Gatorade but this tasted like nectar of the gods. I shoved more potato chips in my mouth and swore I heard “1.5 miles to go” as I left. This was probably a hallucination but I seemed to believe it at the time. With a belly filled with chip particles in an ocean of blue Gatorade, I staretd off again. More gimpy stepping trying not to fall on the steep decline. At one point some dude said “I seem to be cramping less than you, I’ll be on your left”. Oh hells no. A few hundred meters later the trail actually broke into some single track, that, get this, was runnable. It was wonderful being able to stretch out the legs, and I might have even dipped below 9 minute pace. By this time I was over 3 and a half hours in, so I focused on trying to break four. I started hauling ass, especially when I saw left passing cramp guy, who got a taste of some trail blue shoeing. I managed to refrain from any of multiple potential snarky comments on the pass. The last couple of miles is pretty much a blur – I hit some areas of the old Profile trail so I had a basic idea where I was, which was definitely not 1.5 miles from that aid station. I was all in by then though, so I kept up the pace. I was about out of gas when finally I saw the finish at the Old Profile trailhead parking area. I mini-kicked it and managed just a shade under 3:56.
Wow. That was nuts. Fifteen miles on the road I can churn out in 1:45 but it took me more than twice that with this insanely hard course. I just wish I was fit enough to be able to actually run more of it. Tanawha puts on a great event and this was an awesome experience, so I highly recommend it.
For the Columbia contingent, Mike Nance was the winner in 3:34, Drew turned in a 3:41:06 with Dean hot on his heels at 3:41:07 (though Dean’s 30 second start delay wasn’t added in – controversy!) . Bobby Scott ran a 3:44. So yeah, I was dead last.
In the overall, Luke Paulson was the winner and course record holder at 2:22:41. I was barely past the turnaround when he finished. Amanda Morris was the female winner in 2:54, also a course record. These are mind-boggling results for a road guy like myself. Trail running ability like that is a mix of amazing cardio and incredible technique. Bravo to them.