Thursday, October 20, 2011

MMT or Grindstone: Which is Tougher?

Virginia is home to many exciting and popular ultramarathons. With the frenzy of new races every year, there is always a general curiosity as to which are the toughest. Virginia is also home to some well known 100 mile ultras, including two of the toughest east of the Rockies. There's the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT), and the Grindstone 100. So which is tougher? Ask around and you'll get arguments from both sides supporting one, or the other as the toughest. 100 mile phenom Neal Gorman has shared his insights, from an elite's perspective, on his blog Trails and Tales. As both of these races have increased in popularity, the debate is being tossed around in even more conversations. Well, here's my take.

Based on stats alone you would automatically assume MMT is the easier race. Here's how they size up.

MMT- Elevation gain 16,200 ft. 103.7 miles. Course record(on current course) 18:18. 81.3% trails, 16.6% dirt roads, 1.7% paved. Average finish time: 31 hours. Cutoff: 36 hours. 4am start. Temps: 60-90 F

Grindstone- Elevation gain 23,200 ft. 101.86 miles. Course record(on current course) 17:13. Mostly single track and some fire roads and pavement. Average finish time: 30 hours. Cutoff 38 hours. 6pm Friday start. Temps: 40-75 F

My anwser is two sided. Bear with me. I believe Grindstone is a harder race for slower runners, and MMT is harder for faster runners. The average times are roughly an hour faster at Grindstone, eventhough the cutoff is two hours more. How can that be? I think it's because slower runners must run through two nights at Grindstone and only one at MMT. Though not as technical, running even moderately rugged trails is slower at night, than in the day. The sleep deprivation factor is also worse, and the slowest runners will actually be slower at Grindstone then at MMT. Thus, the additional two hour cutoff. The time gap between the middle of the pack and the back of the pack at Grindstone is about seven hours, while the same gap between pace groups is roughly four hours at MMT. Therefor, Grindstone is the tougher race for the slowest runners.

MMT hurts faster runners mostly due to the extreme technical nature of the course. The photo to the above left is a small sample of what the rest of the course looks like. It doesn't matter if you can run a 2:30 marathon, no amount of speed will get you over those rocks any faster. At MMT, it largely comes down to how long you can keep moving forward after your feet have taken a days worth of beating. Often, it's not the super fast runners that win MMT, but rather the fast ones who have enough conditioning and will power to keep at it for hours and hours over those relentless rocks. At Grindstone the fastest runners get to finish in the daylight, including many sections towards the end that are semi technical. Not only are these folks faster to begin with, but they benefit from being able to see the trail better, and thereby making it more runnable for themselves. Typically, the night portion of a 100 mile race is mentally the toughest for all runners. So having it come at the beginning of Grindstone can be easier, but not for those who know they will be enduring a mind draining second sunset. Slower runners are already limited to the visibility of their lights, and at MMT depth perception at night is even harder with the rocks.

But, what about Grindstone's climbs? Facts are facts. Grindstone has 7,000 more feet of gain, and quad busting descent than MMT. However, these climbs are sometimes spread out over several miles, thereby making them runnable for faster runners, and long power hikes for everyone else. Still, I believe it's quicker to power hike uphill for 3 miles at Grindstone, than having to tip toe through MMT's rock gardens regardless of whether it's uphill, downhill, or flat. Grindstone, without a doubt, will bust up your quads and have you dreading anything downhill after 60 miles. Yet, even if you chose to walk at Grindstone, your walking speeding would still be faster than at MMT. Even if you aren't capable of running the climbs at Grindstone, people who are very good climbers (aka Donna Utakis) would excel, whereas at MMT even their exceptional climbing ability would be negated once the course leveled out. MMT's rocks simply negate everything you could do faster on less technical trails.

Cumulative body damage. Once again, MMT's rocks deliver a double whooping. They slow you down AND they abuse your body. Grindstone trashes quads, but MMT has a special way of causing agony in a rare way most other races cannot. Ankle twists, pointy rocks, falls, cuts, and bruises are all part of the race of attrition. The potential to get royally jacked up is higher at MMT, and the odds that you'll suffer any of these gems is likely for any speed runner. You will probably run a higher percentage of MMT feeling beat up than at Grindstone.

Let's not forget the weather either. Grindstone's early October date usually yields rather pleasant and ideal race conditions. Typically runners might get a chilly night in the 40's and highs in the 70's at daytime. They are running in the cold, more than in the sun. MMT, however, is notorious for it's shifty weather patterns. They've had hail, severe storms, and temperatures that could be anywhere from 50 degrees to over 90 and humid. You might even experience all of these conditions during the same race. Due to the unpredictable weather, you might get caught off guard with soaked clothing and shoes. Also, at MMT, runners often have to deal with longer gaps between aid stations during the hottest parts of the day. During the "hottest" parts of Grindstone you have aid every 5-7 miles, not 8-10. Managing your gear and logistics is probably trickier at MMT.

Neal Gorman stated, Grindstone may be a tougher race, but MMT is a tougher course. That's an idea I mostly agree with, though I will reiterate my belief Grindstone is disproportionately tougher for the back of the pack runner, and MMT is disproportionately tougher for the speedsters. Ironically, Neal ran nearly identical times at both races, which would suggest they are equal. Neal was more "relaxed" towards the end of Grindstone due to 2nd place being almost 50 minutes back, whereas he was chasing Karl Meltzer for most of the first 60 miles at MMT. Overall, however, I will say that MMT is indeed the tougher event to experience.

Coincidently, Karl Meltzer owns both course records on the current courses. In regards to why the course record is slower at Grindstone, I'd say it's because Karl was never challenged at that race, and ended up running most of it fairly conservatively. Well, not in the same way he would have run with someone nipping at his heels. Grindstone has also not been around long enough to see the same caliber of runners MMT has, though that should change in the next few years. When Karl won MMT last year, he was not being chased the last 30 miles. Though in 2006, on a different version of the MMT course, Karl broke 18 hours chasing Sim Jae Duk who ran 17:40. He did that on possibly a tougher course(back when it still had over 18,000ft of gain). Realistically, I think if Grindstone had at least three elites competing for most of the day, we might see times in the mid to low 17 hour range.

So, there you have it. MMT edges out Grindstone, in my humble silly opinion, as the tougher race. The reality is that both are tough races, and if you really want to find out for yourself, the best way is to run them!

(Photos courtesy of Rob Dolan and Chet White)

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