10 min read

GRUSK TALL Had it All!

Some days are almost heaven. Often, I only notice in recollection. But this time, I felt it while it was happening.
GRUSK TALL Had it All!
Race director Travis Olson addresses the riders of the GRUSK TALL 84-mile route.

Morning Glory

I had a lot riding on this event; 84 miles of the Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob. It was the final long-distance ride before taking on the LT100 MTB about a month from now. It was a perfect chance to give my mindset, fitness, gear, and nutrition a proper shake-down. It was my first opportunity in a long time to find my race pace and stick to it, pushing my limits over the long haul.

My day started at 4 am. First order of business, my trusty smoothie! Banana, blueberries, protein, beetroot powder, and a few teaspoons of Canaan Valley maple syrup. I snacked through the morning on Cheerios and a strong cup of coffee. I had inadvertently planted water glasses all over the house; my mom used to ask if I was preparing for the next alien invasion (M. Night Shyamalan's Signs…anyone?)

The hydration mission started a few days earlier, and the carb-loading only a short time after. Trust me; it's only fun for the first couple of meals. But intending to keep the muscles topped off with glycogen, I ate more rice, baked goods, and cereal in a couple of days than I usually do in two weeks. I later discovered it was all worth it.

I'd been reviewing my gear and fixing little issues for a few days, so everything was ready to go by race morning. A bolt check the night before revealed tightening required on my derailleur, brake caliper, stem, and shifting lever. I also meticulously cleaned my bike, solemnly promising that I'll take care of her if she takes care of me. She might've made a smart comment about the bolts, but how could I argue?

The fog was thick as I headed south, dropping off Canaan Mountain, traversing the valley, and heading toward Spruce Knob Mountain Center, the start and finish of all GRUSK routes. I listened to my favorite John Denver album to calm my nervous mind and body. I chose U.S. Route 33 past Seneca Rocks, hoping to catch a magical morning view, and Mother Nature rewarded me generously. The joyfully somber lyrics of Sunshine on My Shoulders filled the van just as the trees parted, revealing the dramatic Tuscarora quartzite crags of Seneca, backlit by my first glimpse of the sun that day. I laughed out loud; the entire moment was so absurdly perfect it bordered on unreal. It turns out it was just the warmup show.

My early morning view of Seneca Rocks in Pendleton County, West Virginia

A Party From the Start

In its 7th year, the organizers of GRUSK have a lot of practice under their belts. Everything was well-marked and staffed by cheerful volunteers, from the parking area to registration to the aid stations and vital course junctions. Only once on the course did I need to stop and check the route on my Wahoo.

I had plenty of time to put the final touches on the bike setup, get dressed, scarf down a little more rice, and stuff my pockets full of sweet nourishment. I chatted with the rider who parked next to me, a sinewy man from Virginia who oozed racing experience as he prepped a bike that looked ten times more efficient than mine. He'd raced in Leadville a while back and gave me a great vote of confidence and a valuable tip: "Find a group on the road and stick with them, especially after Columbine. It could save you an hour." As a mountain biker, I politely try to stay off people's wheels as we pick through the forest on trails. But this was not the first time I'd heard this advice, and as we both went back to muttering to ourselves about tire pressure, I finally accepted that Leadville was going to be trial by fire when it came to drafting.

My friend Mat rolled up, and I discovered we were taking on the same 84-mile route. We discussed time goals, and I had no idea what to expect. I heard myself blurting out: "I don't know, somewhere between 7 and 8 hours." Even for an 84-mile ride, that's a pretty wide gap, and I knew deep down I had no business hoping for 7 hours. But hope I did. One final nature break, and I headed toward the start, running into even more friends, each as stoked as I was. Clare's husband, Mark, was on his third and final day of the GRUSK Venti route, a 220-mile backpacking adventure and a grand tour of the Monongahela National Forest.

One of the most beautiful aspects of GRUSK is its inclusivity. The wide variety of distances and categories offered is just the beginning. I saw people of all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and experience levels. It struck me that these people felt at home in this rowdy club called a startline, as did I. The start was staggered in waves by distance: the 100-mile racers had already left, and we were next, with the 50, 33, and 25-milers spaced out behind us. Not only did this help thin the masses as we rolled out, but it also contributed to the potential that we'd all arrive back in a more condensed timeframe, ready to party as one big group.

Sarah, Clare, and me before we take off on our various adventures.

Not long into the race, I caught up with Mat. We kept up at a good clip but started chatting, and I knew the conversation was good for my nerves and might help keep my opening pace under control. I may have gotten a little too close to the middle of the road when I realized the 100-milers had already made their lap around Spruce Knob and were rocketing downhill right towards us: "RIDER UP!" Good practice for Leadville, as the out-and-back nature of the LT100 course means the double-track fire roads and powerline will effectively become singletrack. Danger aside, it should be a neat opportunity to get buzzed by elite athletes and race leaders.

The 5.8-mile climb up Spruce Knob passed quickly, partially due to conversation and partially due to the adrenaline timewarp. At the top, I saw another familiar face handing out snacks and cheers at the aid station. After a quick water top-off and some trusty gorilla tape to sure up my Wahoo mount, I took off down the mountain. I breathed in the expansive views of the smokey ridges to the west on the way up, but the photos below are from my friend Sarah. I regret that testing my race pace means I didn't slow down and smell the roses.

The sky was heavy with clouds, but I felt nary a drop. This view from the west toward the top of Spruce Knob was captured by Sarah Anderson.
Another photo by Sarah illustrates the two-way traffic on the mountain and the colorful spirit of gravel.
A smiling, familiar face is always a welcome sight! At the summit of Spruce Knob, this was the first of many well-stocked aid stations.

Something New on Race Day

There is a mantra that I do my best to stick to: Nothing new on race day. It mainly applies to food and gear. I stuck to that rule well. I kept up my target snack, electrolyte, and water schedule. A little Aleve and caffeine went a long way. Long miles in the same position usually trigger a visit from my good friends, Knee and Back—a sign it's time to stand up, wiggle my toes, or even better: hop off the bike and duck into the woods for a nature break.

What was new was my pace. I felt like I was flying. So many times, I surprised myself at the energy I felt from within. I was unfamiliar with it enough to be almost uncomfortable. I kept my 7-hour pace for the first third of the route.

The work began on the other side of the mile-30 Laurel Fork Campground aid station, where I spent too much time topping off water and drink mix. Climb after climb pulled us up and away from the Laurel Fork, only to descend into miles of smooth, buttery gravel. Some folks and I played leapfrog for a bit, which became a fun way to pass the time. When we reached the second aid station, I heard myself muttering, "Don't get sucked into the aid station, Weeks"—they can be a comforting vortex of friends, Cokes, and cookies.

The day was hot, and I decided not to turn down the water when available. This choice might've nibbled away at my pace, but as we sank into the lower elevations, I could feel myself slowing down. I was grateful; it was bound to happen sometime, and I just wanted to get it over with. I've often said it takes me two hours to warm up, and the second wind has become my trusted friend on longer rides. So I waited for it.

It took its sweet time to arrive. Around mile 50, I passed through the historic townsite of May, West Virginia, along the Greenbrier River. I recalled one of my first gravel rides in the area in 2020 and how much I always wanted to return to May and camp. Much of the route triggered memories of my training rides with good friends as we balanced blissful treks with wind, rain, cold, and cramps. I wished they all were with me on this perfect day passing through May.

This whimsical map hangs from one of the Spruce Knob Mountain Center yurts, and a large print was included in each rider's swag bag. The TALL route of 84 miles is outlined in blue.

Hard to say how much time passed, but I suddenly found myself on the wide open, sunny, pale gravel of Dry Fork Road, climbing up to the Sinks of Gandy. Certain sections were the epitome of a false flat, with an average 2.5% grade punctuated by steeper hills. I rolled up on a man pushing one of them and asked if he needed anything. Plagued by cramps, he needed some time out of the saddle. We rode together for a while; I offered him my last mustard packet to no avail. It turns out that carrying mustard and giving it out to those who might need it is cramp insurance—I never had to dip into it myself.

The last 8 miles boasted two steep, dusty climbs. There was no rest for the weary until the finish line, where friends and family of riders cheered on the ragged cyclists as we trickled in, one at a time. Speaking of time, 7:40 was my number, and I was more than happy with that. I was also glad to see my friend John, who had long ago finished the 55-mile route, and Mat's family as they eagerly awaited their man and his first big ride on his new ankle. As far as I could tell, it was a win for us all. The double helping of savory lasagna and rich chocolate chip cookies put a decent dent in the almost 4,000 calories I expended.

Icing on the Cupcake

I'm sure the festivities wore on well into the night, with plenty of beer and a lively band to keep the party stoked. However, I had one more date with Seneca Rocks planned, this time pulling into the parking area to enjoy one last baked good of the day in peaceful solitude.

Not long after cresting the ridge back into Canaan Valley, I see the blinking red cell tower that lives in my backyard, flashing bright against the late evening sky, calling me home. I smile in gratitude at how living in this place year-round allows me to experience perfect summer days like this. They are only as sweet because they are not an ordinary occurrence, just like a smooth race in the sun, surrounded by beautiful people and places seems like a reward for months and miles of arduous training.

Tomorrow I take off for Colorado, beginning the final leg of preparation for Leadville; acclimatization. Stay tuned for stories from the road, tales of gnarly pre-rides, photos of fantastic food, and the pre-and-post-Leadville extravaganzas!

My view of Seneca Rocks at dusk.

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