Grand to Grand Ultra
Standing at the start line of the Grand to Grand Ultra I had a feeling of trepidation. I was about to run 273km completing 6 stages over a mix of desert and other terrain including hard packed sand, soft sand, sand dunes, forest trails, shallow river crossings, rocky roads and slot canyons. I knew I could go the distance but I was scared of the sand running. Living in a land-locked country I did not manage to do specific sand training and was worried how I would cope with this. Additionally in the last month before the race I had a couple of colds, so apart from running the 1st part of UTMB (Chamonix to Courmayeur) I had done very little other training. I only hoped that I had not lost my fitness during this time and the fitness I had gained during the rest of the year would carry me through.
The view from the start of stage 1 was breath-taking. We were overlooking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at a height of 1,629m. Ahead was a mixed course that would test me to the core, on route to the pink cliffs of the Grand Staircase at 2,636m (8,658 ft). The organisers would only be providing our tent and water. Each competitor was assigned to a specific tent and each tent had Native American names.
As the organisers only provided the tent and water, we had to carry all our gear for the next 7 days to be self-sufficient; this meant that my pack was full and heavy, as it contained my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, jacket, long pants, warm top, hat and all my food (running food including breakfast, lunch and dinner). It weighed around 9.5kg. A little too heavy for my liking, but knowing that it would get lighter as the race progressed was very motivating.
Stage 1 was tough. I set off at a very conservative pace. I watched some of the racers run off so fast and had to hold myself back not to get caught up in the net and be pulled along. This stage was my warm up so I wanted to go slow and with my heavy pack I couldn’t move fast anyhow. The course was very flat and the least inspiring of the races stages. I was following a track where I could see fellow racers in the distance. For the first 20km the route was runnable, then we hit a cactus field which slowed everyone to a walk. It was so hard to navigate through this field as the focus was on concentrating where to place your feet and not about running. For me however it was a welcome relief to focus on something else and stop thinking about my heavy pack. I finished in good spirits and was surprised to find I was 4th lady, with the 3rd lady only around 5-10 minutes ahead.
Day 3 was the longest day. Most people were afraid of this stage as we had to cover 87km but had 34 hrs to complete it. I knew I could do the distance and as I love running in the night I was looking forward enjoying the time in the darkness. I was however afraid of the amount of sand that we had to cover. 75% of this day’s course was sandy, with about 5km of sand dunes. As it turned out this was my best day and I had lots of energy and was super motivated by the mixed terrain the course had to offer. Although there was vast amount of sand there was also a good mix of uphills, downhills, tracks and even some tarmac. My best bit however was the route through the dense vegetation. I danced my way between bushes, cacti, trees and darkness while following the little lights that looked like a chain of sparkly Christmas lights guiding me to the next checkpoint. This was my best stage and I came 11th overall. I finished at 11:30 in the evening which meant I had the full night and the whole next day to recover while most of my fellow runners would be running/walking throughout the night.
I had now completed 178km which was about 2/3 of the course and my feet were taking a battering. With all the sand running I had managed to get some great blisters on both heels and around 7 of my toes. While I was running I didn’t really notice the pain of the blisters but once I stopped and took off my shoes I could feel the pain. Walking around camp was difficult and I began to wonder how I would manage to run 95kms over the next 3 days.
These next 3 days were my hardest. I had a great rhythm going and my body was used to the distance now, however I was starting to lack energy. I had initially blamed this on my time of the month which had un-expectantly arrived, however, this normally would affect only one day and not drain me more each day. So I thought that my unexpected arrival combined with a lack of sleep was not helping me recover effectively. It’s hard sleeping in a tent with 7 other smelly people who haven’t washed, who snore and get up and down during the night to make trips to the toilet. Additionally as the race progressed the nights got colder, so we all started to get closer and closer to warm ourselves with each other’s body heat. With the cold, the nightly movements and increased closeness of my tent mates, sleep was hard to come by. I however must have slept because in the morning I would listen to the tales of the nightly escapades of my tent mates and realise that I had actually slept through most of the night.
The group started slowly and stayed together but I found it hard to keep up with them, which was disheartening. The blisters on my feet hurt, my leg hurt and I felt shattered. I adopted a run walk approach which eventually turned into a walk only approach! By now I was second last but I eventually I caught up to some other competitors. They were moving slower than I, so I managed to overtake them and caught up to Yuri. I stuck with him running and walking when he did and we stayed together for the last 3 or 4 kms. It was great to chat with him and took my mind of me. We crossed the finished line together and I don’t remember much apart from bursting out crying again, whilst hugging the fantastic organisers Tess and Colin Geddes. Then it was hugs with other competitors whilst still crying. The rest of my “Apache” tent mates were waiting and we had a group hug which just brought more tears.
I did it. I had completed the Grand To Grand ultra-marathon and even though I suffered through the last few days I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my adventure. I loved the terrain, my Apache tent mates, the volunteers who energetically managed the checkpoints, the camp crew and of course Tess & Colin for putting on such a fantastic race. I even surprised myself by coming 3rd Lady and 15th overall in a total time of 41hours 21 minutes.
I found out later on that day that one of my blisters had actually become infected and the infection had spread all the way up my leg. This was what was causing my exhaustion and sore leg. Thankfully the medics were still around and were able to give me antibiotics to help clear the infection.
I am often asked what I think about when I run and thought about this question a couple of times during the race. Sometimes I think of nothing. Kilometres went by and I had not had a real thought apart from being completely in the moment. There were other times when I was trying to convince myself to keep running, thinking positive thoughts. Sometimes just a few positive thoughts helped to get me motivated again, like being truly grateful for taking part in the race or being lucky enough to enjoy the beautiful scenery or meeting fantastic competitors from all over the world.
This race taught me that when times are hard you can still reach your goal, it just might require more effort or a different approach but with your own belief that you can do it, you can make it happen. When I think about my hard times I realise that they are insignificant in comparison to some others in the world. This is one of the reasons why I dedicated this run to helping a charity close to my heart, The Gracias Foundation.
Gracias’s mission is to empower vulnerable and impoverished women and children with holistic resources to lead dignified and self-sustainable lives. They work with small grassroots organizations that are already catalysing social change in their communities but just need an extra boost to maximize their impact – like the safe house in the Congo that heals young women and girl survivors of sexual violence, or the youth home in Ethiopia that cares for adolescent orphans living with HIV.
Their philosophy is that lots of small acts of kindness can add up to big mountains of change. And giving from a place of gratitude (not guilt) can transform your own life and the lives of others.
Please feel free to support their projects by donating on the link on the right hand side . 100% of donations go directly to project costs. www.graciasfoundation.org
My love for running is taking me to places around the world that I have dreamed of visiting. I love the challenge the races provides and the opportunity to visit somewhere new and beautiful, it is so rewarding and inspiring. While I do these challenges I also want to support The Gracias Foundation as a charity close to my heart, please feel free to support their many projects by donating on the link below.