Saturday, October 20, 2012

Grand 2 Grand Ultra Race Report
Race Dates: September 23-29, 2012

The overwhelming beauty, diversity and sheer mass of the Southern Utah and Northern Arizona portions of the Rockies is hard to adequately describe.  Rounding turns and cresting hills, each vista seems more spectacular than the last.  I rarely carry a camera when I race, and even more seldom bother to take photos while out there.  But, the inaugural Grand 2 Grand Ultra was the exception.  I just hope that the mountain gods will forgive the total inadequacy of my two-dimensional digital effort to do it any real justice.

This seven day, self-supported stage race was as difficult as it was unique.  To stay on course, imagine climbing down a set of long ladders to reach the floor of a slot canyon.  Or, climbing a knotted rope, hand over hand, to vault a vertical cliff.  Or, scrambling up technical rock faces to reach the top of the next butte—or at least reach the next runnable/walkable section of that trail.  Then there were those incessant stretches of off-trail running through sandy fields of cactus, prickly piƱon, yucca and the like, each creating an obstacle course where you’d best be paying close attention.  For a mid-pack finisher like me, traversing the famous steep and deep Utah Pink Sand dunes at night under a full moon was as magical as it was daunting.  On that portion of the “Long Stage”—47 miles—I was fortunate to have the company of Aussie Lynn Hewitt, a very accomplished ultra-runner who had just returned from a trek in the Himalayas a couple of weeks earlier.  In one of the most astounding feats of strength and will I’ve ever seen, Lynn managed these dunes, and nearly every one of those 47 miles—wearing a pair of Injinji socks and flip flops!  It seems that Lynn’s blisters were so bad that shoes were no longer an option.   Talk about inspiration…

If anyone ever doubted that inland seas once covered much of the Southwest, they have only to check out the G2G course to be completely convinced.  There were more miles of running in deep soft sand than I could have ever imagined.  For me, the difficulty of each step in this stuff was the greatest challenge of any in the race—and it was relentless.  34,813 feet of elevation change?  Running at altitude up to 9,200 feet?  167 total race miles?  Piece of cake, by comparison!  There was sand on the uphills, sand on the downhills and sand on the flats.  I live in Fort Lauderdale near the beach and I’ve never seen anything like it.  Every ultra has its distinctive challenges, and sand was this event’s calling card.  All the more “grand” for having completed it!

The “self-supported” nature of this race means that runners carry in a backpack all required and optional items for the full seven days, including food (minimum of 14,000 calories required), drink mixes, bottles and utensils, sleeping bag and pad, additional clothing, safety and night-time gear, meds and personal items and anything else the runner might want or need for the entire week. The “Race” provides water in the morning, after arriving at camp at the end of each stage and at each of the mandatory checkpoints along the route at approximately 10 kilometer intervals.  Tents that sleep 8-10 runners are also supplied at each newly set-up camp at the end of each race stage.  The Grand 2 Grand Ultra included some unexpected luxuries, too: hot water at night and in the morning, folding camp stools and campfires to knock the edge off the night-time cold.  Oh, and the portable toilets, complete with mirrors and hand cleanser in each of them.  How truly civilized!  And wonderfully supportive, encouraging and friendly volunteers who were such a pleasure to see along the trail and at the end of each stage.

The race began at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  And I do mean the “rim”.  Camp the night before the race began was set-up in a wilderness area a hundred feet or so from the canyon edge, with jaw-dropping views of the canyon walls beyond and the Colorado River a mile below us.  The first “stage” was 31 miles, followed by a 28 mile day.  The third stage allowed two days to complete the full 47 miles.  Most runners continued straight through, which allowed rest and recovery for most of the second day.  Others took advantage of tents set up at the 6th and 7th check-in sites to sleep during the night before continuing on.  The fourth and fifth stages were of 25.5 miles and 25.7 miles, respectively, and the final stage was 15 kilometers—approximately 9 miles, and brought us to the final banner atop the Grand Staircase.  I’ve never seen a more spectacular finish line location than this one.  At 9,343 feet, the views looking back toward where we had come from were simply astonishing.  

Fortunately, my stars were well aligned for this event!  I felt more comfortable and stronger each day.  I suffered no injuries and not even one blister, although getting nailed twice by cactus thorns wasn’t fun.  My primary goal was to finish the race.  Being as competitive as possible was important, too, but secondary.  (During my last stage race, I developed a fracture of my right femur, and was not interested in a repeat at G2G!)  I wore a pair of SALOMON XR Crossmax trail shoes, moving up ½ size to accommodate likely swelling.  Socks were heavy Drymax trail socks.  I did not tape my feet nor use any lubricants.  Gaiters were custom made by Matt Nelson, who finished well ahead of me in this race.  They were fit to each shoe and permanently glued to the sole, and did a great job of keeping the sand out.  Zensah compression calf sleeves prevented calf cramping (which has been a serious and perpetual problem for me in the past during long races) and Zensah compression shorts helped quads and hamstrings to behave themselves.  My fully loaded AARN backpack, made in New Zealand and designed for this type of race, caused some problems the first day, but after an adjustment performed well.  One bottle held water only and the other was mixed with Carbo-Pro, which added lots of calories with virtually no side taste.  I ate freeze dried Mountain House dinners at night (particularly lasagna), regular breakfast cereal with skim dry-milk and peanut butter crackers in the morning, and different types of bars, gels and the like during the day.  Organic Honey Stinger “Waffles” were of particular importance as they were lightweight, packed 160 calories each, tasted great and went down easily.  As with every ultra-distance race, I learned lots of tips from the many new friends I made that I’ll be certain to use next time.  And, what a wonderfully diverse and interesting group of smart, fit, handsome people it was, competing here from all over the world, with lots of days together to talk and bond and appreciate this very special opportunity.

Completing any stage race demands a commitment to a different kind of training from even the “typical” ultramarathon: 167 miles carrying 15-25 pounds is a long way to go on two feet!  Certainly these races aren’t for everyone.  But, if a sense of adventure calls to you for a closer look, for one of those life experiences that stand unforgettably apart, consider competing in a future Grand 2 Grand Ultra.  This race is destined to become a true running race classic.