The Grindstone 100 and the Changing Ultrarunning Landscape

AJW's TaproomOver the past five years, much has been written about the changes in ultrarunning and the impact of increased exposure and participation in the sport. In particular, the explosive interest in some of the most popular races has led to an almost overwhelming demand placed on some events. Here in the United States, the Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100 have been the most significantly impacted as demand for entry in these two events has increased to record levels. As part of the effort to control this popularity, Hardrock and Western States have continued to evaluate their qualifying standards and, in particular, they have more closely scrutinized their qualifying races.

Both events publish an annual list of qualifiers and, given the popularity of the events, the growth in popularity of the qualifying races has also grown tremendously. There are even a handful of events that are fortunate enough to be qualifiers for both Western States and Hardrock, thereby allowing runners to qualify for both events with one result in one race. Not surprisingly, those events are even more popular! Among these 12 ‘double qualifiers’ are UTMB, Bighorn Trail 100 Mile, Angeles Crest 100 Mile, Wasatch Front 100 Mile, IMTUF 100 Mile, Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji, Cruel Jewel 100 Mile, Fat Dog 100 Mile, Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile, Cascade Crest 100 Mile, Bear 100 Mile, and Grindstone 100 Mile. Of the 12, the Grindstone 100, held in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest on the first weekend in October, provides runners with their last chance of the calendar year to qualify for both races at once.

I have been a close observer of Grindstone over the past eight years as it takes place in my former backyard and is one of my favorite old-school, boutique-style ultras. I have only run it once but I have paced, crewed, and volunteered there multiple times and have a good sense of what it’s all about. Several aspects of Grindstone set it apart from the other ‘double qualifiers’ and, in my opinion, make it a particularly good choice for those runners who want a test run that will adequately prepare them for the goal events without breaking them down too much.

First, Grindstone has a UTMB-style 6 p.m. start. As far as I know, this is the only North American 100 miler with such a late start and as such it is all but guaranteed to test an athlete’s ability to handle sleep deprivation. Second, and in contrast to the challenge of the evening start, the rather generous 38-hour cutoff makes it more accessible than other comparable 100 milers. By way of comparison, while Grindstone allows 38 hours to traverse 100 miles and 23,000 feet of elevation gain, Wasatch with 26,000 feet of gain must be completed in 36 hours and Angeles Crest with 21,000 feet of gain requires a 33-hour finish. Finally, the Grindstone course has at least six extended climbs and descents of varying grades which are unusual on the eastern half of the United States and, I believe, provide a unique ‘practice’ opportunity for runners hoping to run Hardrock and Western States.

This year’s Grindstone bore some interesting fruit. First, given the relatively benign conditions (cool, dry temperatures and no rain), the race experienced a record finishers’ rate of 79%. I believe this is attributable partly to the conditions but also to the preparedness of the entrants. As the race has grown and evolved, I have seen more and more people arrive at the starting line ready to take on the event in ways they simply did not do seven years ago. Additionally, what I observed this year was more runners taking care of themselves, pacing wisely–particularly through the first night–and letting the race play out accordingly. Thus, while the race experienced a record finishers’ rate, the average finishers’ time was more than an hour slower than the record and the number of 24-hour buckles was quite a bit lower than some past years.

All this is to say, as we continue to grapple with the explosive growth of our sport, there are signs that along with that growth has come wisdom. And, with that wisdom has come the potential for more meaningful experiences, a stronger sense of community, and a shared sense of purpose. Last weekend’s Grindstone exemplified all that and more.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Basic City Beer Company in Waynesboro, Virginia. While Basic City specializes in hoppy IPAs and cutting-edge collaborations with other local breweries, they have also dialed in the art of making a simple, good beer. And, at the top of that simple, good beer list for me is their Phaethon Amber Ale. Brewed as a classic red ale, Phaethon blends the sweetness of a typical amber with the bitterness of a British pub ale. It’s balanced, hearty, and simply delicious.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Did you run this year’s Grindstone 100? If so, what do you make of the high finishers’ rate and other statistics?
  • Do you think wisdom has also generally been a part of the rapid growth of ultrarunning? Can you share an example from your home ultrarunning community?

There are 30 comments

  1. BWers

    Grindstone was awesome this year. The cooler temps definitely helped. I personally didn’t care at my finish time and focused more on finishing in one piece. I think the 6pm start forces people to really moderate their effort in the first part of the race as most people know they will be running into the next night. Runners tend to come effort with a faster pace during morning starts even in the most difficult 100 milers. It would be fun if more races started in the evening.

    1. Rick

      i ran Grindstone this past weekend. all finishers receive the same buckle. they did have some really cool looking buckles for runners who where there for their 5th run!

      1. Brian

        Kodiak 100 in Southern California also has a night start (6 pm) . It’s a pretty tough course with 17k feet of gain/loss and at average elevation of 7,000 feet around the San Bernadino Mountains.

  2. John Vanderpot

    Mr. JW (or anyone else in the know), obviously there are certain standards each Big Lotto Event uses to determine which races make their qualifying list, and overall and in general it’s easy enough to follow their logic, but there’s a couple that seem confusing — so like for instance a month or so back I was out in AZ for Mogollon, which is a HR qualifier but not so for WS, meanwhile a generally less-challenging Aravaipa course, Javelina, puts you in at WS but is obviously not considered challenging enough to get you in at HR…there’s got to be reasons for this, but what are they?

    1. AJW

      Thanks for your comment John! Perhaps someone from the Western States or Hardrock race organizations will chime in as I suspect they have the best information on your query. Here is what I know: Hardrock chooses their qualifiers simply based on the race difficulty. They use, as far as I can tell, simple subjective measurements to determine difficulty and then apply those to their qualifiers. Western States is a bit more objective in that for 100k races they require at least a 3 ranking (in the UR magazine ranking system) for both surface and terrain as well as a minimum number of starters/finishers. I am not sure what that number is but that could be why Mogollon Monster is not a qualifier and Javelina is. And again, all of this is just anecdotal as I have no official relationship with either race.

      1. Jeremy

        Hardrock does not base their qualifiers solely based on race difficulty. It’s certainly a factor, but there are clearly other considerations. Ouray 100, Ute 100, and HURT 100, for example, are not qualifiers, but are considerably more difficult than Mogollon 100. I believe they have stated they use geography as a consideration (trying to avoid having all the qualifiers in one region).

        1. Frederic

          Correct, I don’t agree either when reading that ” Hardrock chooses their qualifiers simply based on the race difficulty”
          A few examples such as Leadville which used to be a qualifier but was removed after the fiasco in 2013. The TRT100 also used to be a qualifier and while it’s not an easy course, for some reason, it’s not a qualifier anymore (I believe it was removed in 2013 as well).

        2. Nick

          Jeremy, you’re correct, but maybe being overly literal with AJWs comment. Difficulty is his broad estimation, but I’m sure he knows the published details as well. The HR website describes the need for the race to be mountainous (which could mean big climbs/high elevation) and also remote with some longer gaps between aid stations lending to self reliance. I don’t think HURT quite meets that requirement, but is a very hard race nonetheless and I mean no disrespect to those relentless 1200 foot climbs/descents. In regards to Ouray and Ute, both challenging courses no doubt, but still fairly young races (just my guess on why they aren’t yet included). I do agree that Grindstone and Cruel Jewel are a product of geography and choosing hard races in the Eastern US. Both difficult courses, but I myself have wondered if they measure up to the higher elevation races in terms of preparation. Personally I’d feel a lot better about running HR if I’d finished a higher 100 mile race previously.

    2. scott

      I’ve heard States just needs you to hit 100 finishers. Number might be wrong but it’s something like that. There are a couple 100s out there who have done super discounted entry fees just so they can try to hit that benchmark since becoming a qualifier can make or break the long-term success of a race.

      I’ve heard Hardrock requires at least a 2-mile climb. Grindstone is hard but is probably only included due to location.
      Also, regardless of the race, they have to personally like you.

      1. jjk

        Yes, Western wants popular races (with 100+ finishers) to *become* qualifiers, indicating generally that they are probably good, well-managed races that people want to do just because they are good.

        What they don’t want is for races to become popular just because they are WSER qualifiers.

  3. John Medinger

    Western States qualifiers are based solely on the size of the race – we are basically allowing the runners to decide which races we choose as qualifiers. We start with the 30 largest established US trail 100 milers. Then we add established foreign and US trail races of 100-km or more that are of equivalent size (races less than 100 miles must combine for a total of at least 6 on the UltraRunning magazine “terrain, surface” ratings). “Established” means no first year races, but a second year event would qualify provided it meets the size standard.

    Of course this means that there are many worthy races that are not Western States qualifiers – our approach is based solely on the number of runners and not course difficulty or the overall quality of the event. But this has become necessary now that there are more than 150 100-milers in the US alone.

    1. AJW

      Thanks Tropical John! And there you have it! None other than the President of the Western States Board of Directors and the “voice of Western States” to clarify things! (I think I got it mostly right)

  4. Billy

    Kodiak 100 in Big Bear, CA had a 6 pm start this year. They seemed to change the 100 mile start time the last couple years so we will see what next year brings.

  5. Aaron Owens

    I finished Grindstone this year for the second time. First of all I love afternoon and evening starts like Grindstone and Cruel Jewel. This race has great aid stations and excellent marking. Temps at the start were warm but dry and then quickly cooled off and it stayed cool the rest of the race. The only downside encountered this year were the 100 or so motorbikes around Reddish Knob a few of which were seeing how close they could get to running over the runners.

    While not the elevation gain of Cruel Jewel, the trail is not as smooth overall and at times is covered with loose fist size rock. Views from the course are quite nice and the Virginia countryside is a great area for the crew to spend time in between aid stations!

  6. JohnK

    Originally I had decided that I would do Grindstone as my first 100 miler because it was a Hardrock qualifier.

    Then I did Grindstone, and discovered that I really loved the race, and that I hate lotteries, so won’t enter them. I’ll happily go back to Grindstone, even knowing that I will also never apply to Hardrock.

    Grindstone is FAB!

    1. Sean

      I completely agree with this. Run races because you want to run those races, not just because they’re a means of gaining entry to other races. If the races you want to run also double as a means of gaining entry to another one, then that’s great, but shouldn’t be your only reason for running them.

  7. Ib Erik Söderblom

    I think we need to cut down on popularity. There are to many runners, in my opinion.

    I suggest a massive cut in acceptance of crew’s.

    I’v run my whole life, now closing in on 60.
    I’ve never had a crew of any kind. Always done the races as a one man effort.
    It removes a lot of people around the race and also removes runners that cant run without crew’s.
    Ot also saves a lot of driving and is better for the environment.

    I like to look back at my runs and truly think “I did this!”.

  8. info

    With a little more than a mile to go, I spotted Jessica the third place girl in the distance, I knew she was slowing as I could see her gap with the other lady leaders changing at the last Abingdon turn around.

  9. bigtits

    Keep it going, Sophie! I was looking at the Grindstone website the other day, especially at the altitude changes. Looks like a tough one, but I have no doubt you will do great!

  10. Tom Tighe

    I did Grindstone 2019 as my fist 100 and absolutely loved the experience. It wasn’t perfect but if you are looking for a perfect event this is probably the wrong sport for you.
    What I like most about the 6pm starts is when you ask people to be your pacer they actually get to run in the daylight and enjoy it more.

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