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?