Monday, October 24, 2011

Top US Ultramarathon Course Records

*updated 10/28/2011

My list of the current most impressive ultramarathon course records on US turf. My opinion is largely tied to the history of the event. In other words, older races that have seen their share of gifted runners, have a bit more credibility. Also, any race where the course changes significantly from year to year also makes it tougher to pin point a strong record. I will add that my opinion may not be worth anything, but it is, afterall, just my silly opinion.

JFK 50- Eric Clifton's 5:46 from 1994. The fact that hundreds of the top distance runners in the US have failed to break this mark makes it the most impressive current course record I can think of. Clifton, a 2:38 marathoner, simply had the perfect day. Numerous 50 mile champs and sub 2:20 marathoners have tried, but no one else has yet to break the 5:50 barrier at JFK.
*I do, however, predict that Michael Wardian will set a course record in 2011. He's fresh off an impressive course record 5:33 at the Tussey Mountainback 50 Miler. I predict low 5:40's if not something in the high 5:30's, possibly in the 5:38-5:42 range. I also think guys like Geoff Roes, Todd Braje, Matt Woods, and Andy Henshaw have the ability to challenge the record in the future. There are a couple other guys on the bubble like Michael Arnstein, Max King, and Oz Pearlman, but, for now, my money is on Wardian.

*Recently added- Ian Sharman's 12:44 from the 2011 Rocky Raccoon. Sharman crushed Eric Clifton's long standing course record, and handily won over a deep field with Karl Meltzer, Tony Krupicka, Mike Arnstein, Mike Wolfe, Zach Gingerich, and Hal Koerner.

Hardrock- Kyle Skagg's 23:23 in 2008. Nobody else has broken 24 hours. Arguably the toughest official 100 miler in the country. The record isn't very old, and few true elites have run Hardrock, but it is by no means a "soft" record. I think the person who breaks the record will absolutely have to be a high altitude runner, perhaps Kilian Jornet, a healthy Tony Krupicka, or Geoff Roes. Skaggs, afterall, trained an entire summer on the Hardrock course before racing it. Kilian is probably the most realistic challenger considering his UTMB dominance. It does sound like Hardrock legend Karl Meltzer wants to reclaim the course record. But, in which direction?

Leadville- Matt Carpenter's 15:42 in 2005. It would take another high altitude specialist to challenge this. Not even Krupicka, in his best form, came close. This will stand for a while, and more impressively is that Carpenter never really pursued ultras. Recent winning times have been nearly a minute per mile slower.

Badwater- Valmir Nunez 22:51 in 2007. The combination of being able to run in extreme heat and run the equivalent of a 150 mile 24 hour race is mind blowing. 120+ degrees for 135 miles, and a "chilly" 90 degrees at night. I can't think of anyone who could challenge this, though recent happenings suggest Mike Morton could, though I doubt he's interested in the Badwater record, or race. But, you can't ignore that his 163 miles covered during a hot, sandy, Hinson Lake 24 hour suggests he could be the man. His time serving in Afghanistan doesn't hurt either. Could he be the first person to break 22 hours? We also can't rule out former/current champs Oswaldo Lopez and Akos Konya.

Speaking of Mike Morton. His 163 miles on a hot day at the Hinson Lake 24 hour in September was just sick. He ran through crowds of 250+ slower runners(much slower), and nearly matched Scott Jurek's American record for 24 hours. Scott ran a fast, paved, course in ideal conditions (with other fast pace setters). Morton's performance belongs on this list. His Western States course record is also a story of legend. He's been off the radar for nearly a decade, but wow is he back in a big way. He may not race again for a while, but what a come back!

Any Ann Trason course record will probably not get broken any time soon. Though, I suspect someone like Ellie Greenwood has the speed and tenacity to challenge some of them.

Western States: Geoff Roes' 15:07 in 2010. After the results from 2011, this record may not last as long as originally thought. I suspect a sub 15 hour time isn't too far off. But, for now, to have the course record of the oldest 100 mile race, is still pretty impressive.

Promise Land- Clark Zealand's 4:30 from 2002. On the grand scheme of things, Promise Land is probably considered a smaller race. However, over the years some very talented runners have run this event, and nobody has really come near Zealand's time of 4:30. Most years winners have been a solid 15-20 minutes off. In truth, I could see some west coast elites coming out and running 4:20's, but it hasn't happened yet.

*New. Jim O'brien's 1989 17:35 at Angeles Crest. Overlooked this race, mostly because I'm an east coaster. But, sure enough this event has been around 25 years, has had a remarkebly consistent course, and was 2 miles longer during O'brien's CR year. Guys like Jurek, Koerner, and Pacheco haven't really come any closer than 1-2 hours. Jurek wasn't close to O'brien's time, eventhough this overlapped the time he started his amazing 7 year winning streak at Western States. Gives some perspective doesn't it?

Mountain Masochist: Geoff Roes' 6:27 from 2009. Geoff knocked a ridiculous 21 minutes off Dave Mackey's impressive CR. The speed was lacking in the '10 event with a 7:23 winning time, but in most years nobody even comes within 30 minutes of Geoff's time. I'd say Tony Krupicka's White River course record is close to on par, but that course is about 3 miles shorter than the Masochist (53ish mile course).

Okay, I am adding Geoff Roes' 18:30 from the 2009 Wasatch 100. It's an old race with some gnarley climbs. Not quite Hardrock and Leadville type of altitude, but enough to make it rough on the flatlanders. Geoff knocked over an hour off Kyle Skagg's '07 record, and other than Mr.Meltzer, nobody has been within an hour of Geoff, or under 19 hours. Mr. Roes owns 3 of arguably the top 10 most impressive US ultra course records.

Honorable Mention- Maybe these are more impressive. Less impressive. What do you think?

Tom Johnsons 5:33 from the 1994 American River 50, along w/Ann Trason's 6:09 in '93

Tony Krupicka's 6:27 from the 2010 White River 50. Bested Uli Steidl's old CR twice.

Zach Gingerich's 13:23 from the 2010 Umstead 100. Warm day, where he crushed the CR. Nobody else has been under 14 hours, though I suspect another low 13's, or sub 13 may happen soon.

Andy Henshaw's 6:47 from the 2011 Mad City 100k

Dave Mackey's 7:53 at the 2008 Miwok 100k.

*Not a race, but it's worth mentioning Jennifer Pharr Davis' AT overall speed record of 46 days and 11 hours. Completed July 2011.

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)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

2011 Grindstone 100: A pacer's narrative

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of pacing my friend Zsuszanna Carlson at the rugged and wild Grindstone 100. In this story, I'll refer to Zsuszanna by her nickname, simply "Z", because no matter what, I always mispell her name. Anyway, I had offered to pace her several weeks before the race, but didn't confirm actually pacing until two days prior. I was more than happy to oblige. This was my second time pacing at Grindstone, and one of many times running with my friend Z.

The objectives were quite simple. Pick up Z at mile 66, North River, and run with her to the finish. When your runner arrives after 66+ miles of mountain running through the night, you're never quite sure what you're gonna get. A number of the runners coming into the aid station looked sleep deprived, haggard, weary on trashed quads, you name it. Could you really blame them? Would Z be joining the ranks of the walking dead? Initial word was that she was 4th, or 5th female, and running very close to our local friend, and strong runner, Kerry Owens. This was good news, but news that, at this point, may be several hours old. Then just around noon, Kerry pops out of the woods and seconds later there's my friend Z. Z is the fourth female and looking energized, but she is also 15 minutes off her time splits from last year. In 2010, Z was fourth female in 29:40. Would today be the same?

Z doesn't stay at the aid station long and pretty soon we are off to conquer the final 35 miles. The fall weather is as lovely as you could ask for. It was cool in the morning, but near 70's in the day. A perfect temperature to be outside, yet for the tired runners it came as an exausting wave of heat. At times like this even the beauty of your surroundings can't dull out the growing pain and fatigue. We climb to the ridgeline with Kerry, but pull away nearing Lookout Mountain at mile 72. Several runners have dropped at the aid station, including the first female. Z is in 2nd place! Another quick in and out, and soon enough we are making our three mile descent into Dowells Draft. This is where Kerry finally passed us for good, and would charge on to become 2nd female. Z's quads are shot, blisters are hurting, and the relentless pounding is taking it's toll. Our goals now are to beat last year's time and maintain a top 3. I know what she is feeling, but I also know what it will take for her to reach her goals. We talk about life, relationships, running, and so on. Talking is the most I can do to keep her focused off the pain, but we gotta keep moving.

Mile 80 comes and goes, and then a long climb up Crawford Mountain. It is late in the day, but the remaining sunlight keeps it warm on the exposed southwest ridges. 87 miles done. The sunlight fades away and the chill of the evening approaches. Z is looking strong and determined. We shift from fleeting moments of goofy song singing to silent focus. Z is tough, but even so she reminds me how much she is hurting. The miles roll on, but don't we know how far back the next female is, and with ten miles to go, Z is very close to her projected finish from last year. We don't want to finish in the same time, we want to beat it. The night brings cold, but the climbs bring heat. It's an on and off battle to regulate body temperature and to keep moving forward.

The moon is about two thirds full and casting shadows along the trail. Then there's the occasional bobbing of headlamps in the distance and the quick small talk as runners pass eachother in the quiet night. Though it breaks the monotony to see other runners, there's always the fear that one is a female contesting for a top 3. We hear a female voice. What? It turns out the female is a pacer for a male runner. Z is still 3rd. The time gaps between these short interactions are a little reminder of how isolated you really are on the mountain. We arrive at Elliot Knob and make the final descent of the race. Z's quads are thrashed, and after 95 miles of ups and downs, this one hurts the most. The lights from the town below are a welcome site that make us feeling like we are finally in the home stretch. However, Z is still running, and trying to break 29:40. It will be close.

We spot tents in the woods, and smell the odor of recently extinguished camp fires. We are very close to Camp Shenandoah, and we are now 1.5 miles from the finish. Z has 29 minutes to cover 1.5 miles to set a personal best. With this knowledge she starts walking. "Z, you gotta run this! Any mistake, and we don't break 29:40" I urge her not to cut too close, though we are so near to the finish. It doesn't help either that the trails are sparsely marked, and it is very dark. A wrong turn would be easy to do. Z is now running with all her might. We make our way around the lake. There's only a half mile to go! What a sight to behold. The clear night sky, a bright autumn moon reflecting off the lake, and then there's Z running her heart out. Truly a majestic backdrop for an inspiring finish. We enter into the camp, and from 100 yards away we can see the finish clock. It is 11:31pm, and Z has finished her second Grindstone 100 in a personal best time of 29:31. She also finishes as the 3rd female. I simply stand back and watch my tired friend enjoy her accomplishment. I am proud of Z, and thankful to be part of her journey.