Stage Fright - Page 2
The author runs past one of the course's distinctive rock formations. Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra.
The idea for the Grand to Grand Ultra came to the event’s co-director, Colin Geddes, while crewing for his wife, Tess, at a 50-miler in the Florida Keys back in May of 2010.
Tess, originally from the Philippines, started running stage races in the Sahara and other deserts in 2005. Colin, a Scottish investment banker who’s not much of a runner himself, enjoyed following and pacing her.
At the Florida race, and again five months later while with Tess at the Javelina Jundred ultra in Arizona, Colin began asking, “Why isn’t there a Marathon des Sables-type event here in North America?”
“It seemed the time was well overdue to have an event like this in America or Canada, because there’s real growth in stage races around the world,” says Colin.
Colin bounced the idea off Tess’s friend Terry Madl, who has run the Marathon des Sables three times as well as the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon. One thing led to another, and the trio formed Ultra Challenge America LLC, the company behind the Grand to Grand. By 2011, they were deep into planning the event.
They wanted an iconic desert location that would draw interest from overseas runners. The Grand Canyon seemed like an obvious choice. One problem: National Parks generally don’t allow competitive events. So they looked to the edges of the Grand Canyon, across wide swaths of open space managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
“Then Terry mentioned a place called the Grand Staircase,” says Colin. The Grand Staircase is a vast region southeast of Bryce Canyon National Park that’s been shaped over millennia into a lumpy geologic layer cake, with pink, vermilion, white and chocolate-colored cliffs.
The team designed a route that zigzags from the Grand Canyon’s rim to a finish line in the Dixie National Forest, overlooking the Grand Staircase.
On Saturday, September 22, we racers were supposed to report at Kanab’s old middle school for a gear check at 9:30 a.m., and then take shuttles to the first campground and start the race the following morning.
My 25-liter Inov-8 pack held approximately 19,000 calories for seven days, mostly energy gels, nut-butter pouches, bars, instant soup, instant oatmeal and dehydrated backpacker meals. Long underwear, a lightweight down jacket, an inflatable sleeping pad, a few toiletries and mandatory safety items took up the rest of the space. The race organizers provided communal tents and hot water, so runners wouldn’t need to carry a tent or stove. I strapped my ultralight down sleeping bag to the pack’s exterior and carried two hand-held water bottles. All together, the contents weighed just over 20 pounds.
Not wanting to be late, I double-checked directions with the lady at the front desk.
“Oh, sure, honey,” she told me, “just hang a left and go down Highway 89. You’ll see the high school, and the middle school is behind it. Can’t miss it.”
A red-rock butte with a giant white “K” monogrammed on its hillside looms over Kanab. Surveying the high-desert landscape, I caught my reflection in the glass lobby door and thought I could fit in with my son’s Boy Scout troop: American flag sewn on sleeve, pack snuggly strapped on.
Walking alone down the highway in the direct sun, I soaked through the armpits of the running shirt I would wear for the whole week. I reached the high school and calculated I had walked about a mile. Then I saw the middle school in the distance— deserted. Putting two and two together, I realized I should be at the old middle school around the corner from the hotel, not the new middle school. Panic rose in my chest.
I blinked back tears and thought, If I can get turned around in downtown Kanab, how will I find my way in the wilderness?
Blasting music jolted us awake at 6 a.m. on the morning of Stage 1. The lyrics I like to move it, move it, from the song by Crazy Frog, bounced off tent walls and down the nearby cliff that dropped into the Grand Canyon’s chasm.
The music was one of the race directors’ special touches, along with chairs around the campfires and two rows of Porta-Potties with hand sanitizer. Those who had done multi-day races overseas raved about the campsite “loos” and told horror stories of the pits they had squatted over at other events. “They’re spoiling us here,” said one happily.
Inside a white canvas tent, the seven people with whom I’d share the tent all week began to stir while I awkwardly changed clothes in my sleeping bag. We politely minded our own business and acted modestly on this first morning.
In one corner, Stephanie Case, 30, of Canada whispered to her boyfriend, Stuart Blieschke, of Australia and shared a laugh. The two became a couple after they ran the Gobi March, a 250K self-supported stage race, last June.
Ordinarily, Stephanie would be a top competitor, having won or placed second in the several prior stage races she ran around the globe. But she didn’t intend to push the pace at the Grand to Grand, because she and Stuart wanted to stick together all week.
Another elite female runner quietly packed her belongings in our tent: Sharon Gayter, 48, a top-ranked British ultrarunner who has won several international stage races and holds a world record for racking up 517 miles during a week’s worth of treadmill running. She looked quite thin and wore her short, graying hair in two tight French braids.
By contrast, our tentmate Dan Owings, 42, of Chicago had a cap of thick, curly hair that accentuated the roundness of his cheeks. He didn’t wear a watch, didn’t seem to be in any hurry and slyly tucked a beer can into his water-bottle holster to drink at the end of the first stage.