Running a wild 167 miles from Arizona to Utah in North America’s first self-supported stage race
The men's lead pack traverses sand dunes near sunset near stage 3, the longest stage of the Grand to Grand Ultra. Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra.
This story originally appeared in our January of 2013 issue
Running up a steep sand dune feels like scrambling up a slick snow bank: You plant one foot and it slides back, so you quickly plant the other and it slides too, and when both feet slip uncontrollably you flop forward on your hands. You might eventually give up running or walking and resort to crawling, which is what I did under a starry sky in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park near Kanab, Utah.
Sand caked my hand-held water bottles and sweaty limbs. Sand seeped into my socks despite the full-cover gaiters on my shoes. Sand scratched my eyes as I strained to spot the small orange flags marking the course.
Ahead and behind, spread out over miles, dozens of other runners shared this journey as part of the inaugural 167-mile, seven-day, self-supported Grand to Grand Ultra, the first race of its kind in North America. But at around 10 p.m. on this September night, I felt very alone—and very tired. In three days, I had put 95 hard desert miles on my legs.
My shoulders ached from a pack that held my food and gear, and I still had another 12 miles to go before reaching camp, and 60 miles more in the four days to come.
An hour earlier, when I reached the dunes in the twilight glow, they spread for miles like smooth, salmon-hued mounds of meringue that curved and formed fin-like ridges. Their softness and bareness stood in stark contrast to the brushy, rocky landscape of prickly cacti, gnarled piñon and barbed sagebrush that we had spent the first two days running through. The beauty and my accomplishment filled me with happiness that bordered on euphoria. Predictably, a comedown was imminent. Energy and spirits plunged after dark.
Footprints from the frontrunners blemished the dunes’ surfaces but showed the way—until they forked and faded to black. Two roads diverged in a pink dune … Lightheaded, I tried to remember the Frost poem that my sixth-grade son had to memorize for school. One foot in front of the other crowded out all thoughts.
A couple of miles later, the dunes flattened and transitioned to a sandy road. I could run again. I could see more clearly. In fact, I could see the faint glow of something ahead on the ground. It looked like a dim headlamp. Worried that another runner had dropped his or her source of light, I approached to pick it up.
The glow, it turned out, was the reflection of the light from my headlamp in a pea-sized eye. The eye was in a triangle-shaped head. And the head belonged to the coiled body of a large snake.
I shrieked, jumped back and sprinted down the road—as fast as one can sprint in ankle-deep sand, that is. The near-venomous encounter gave me enough of an adrenaline jolt to catch the lead woman about a mile later.
Several days earlier, before the race began on September 23, 60 runners from all over the globe showed up in Kanab, a.k.a. “Utah’s Little Hollywood.” Our arrival seemed like the biggest thing to hit the two-stoplight town since Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier and other stars visited to film their Westerns.
The name “Grand to Grand” comes from the event’s starting point, at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and its finish line, near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Kanab sits roughly in the middle, near the Arizona-Utah border.
Dozens of local volunteers rolled out the welcome wagon, donning Stetson hats and Wrangler shirts to host a chuckwagon-style pre-race dinner. The close-knit Mormon community is trying to open itself up and become a destination for adventure seekers visiting what’s known as the geologically exquisite “Grand Circle” formed by Southern Utah’s national parks and the Grand Canyon.
I first met the other racers on a bus ride from the Las Vegas airport. The participants represented 15 different countries, and some wore patches on their shirts from Morocco’s seven-day Marathon des Sables or Racing the Planet’s 4Desert series. Stories buzzed around the bus about the dreaded salt flats in Chile’s Atacama crossing and a near-fatal stretch in a multi-day race in Namibia, as if it’s normal to travel the globe to run 250K (155-mile) self-supported stage races.
When they queried about my background, I’d say, “Northern California. … Nope, never done a multi-day race. … Nope, never done a 100-miler.”
I had never embarked on a week of trail running anything like this: back-to-back long runs, with the course divided into six stages of 31 miles, 29, 47 (followed by a rest day), 25, 26 and 9. Carrying all my food and gear on my back, ascending more than 18,000 feet on rolling hills and steep buttes at high altitude. Sweating through hot days, shivering on cold nights. Sharing a tent with strangers. Marveling at the Southwest’s multi-hued, layered rock formations. And running on sand—lots of sand.