Stage Fright - Page 4
Stafano Gregoretti, who finished second overall, runs through Stage 5's slot canyon. Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra.
Around noon the day after the long stage—our day of rest before Stage 4—I lay on my back next to Jared Knapp of Florida, a tentmate whom I got to know since we ran a similar pace. We both had our feet elevated on little camp chairs and were bantering about blisters, races, calories and gear. Roasting in the heat and having lost most modesty, I wore only a bra and underwear. Everyone’s damp running clothes decorated the canvas walls, hanging to dry from safety pins.
Next to us, Sharon cocooned in her sleeping bag, and Stephanie and Stuart rested on top of theirs.
Outside, a few runners continued to cross the finish because they had chosen to bivouac at a checkpoint along the course and complete the long stage in daylight.
Another tentmate, Lynne Hewett of Australia, pulled out her bag of tricks: surgical instruments, pills and bandages. She’s in her mid-40s and has short blonde hair. As a trauma nurse and veteran of several self-supported stage races, she came well prepared with medical supplies. Earlier, she gamely lanced and cleaned my infected blisters; now, she pulled out scissors and went to work on her own feet and shoes.
Her feet were so blistered and chafed from running in the Himalayas a few weeks earlier, and from the first two stages of the Grand to Grand, that she ran and hiked all 47 miles of Stage 3 in toe socks and flip-flops. She devised a new plan for the next stages: cutting openings in the sides of her shoes and sewing fabric gaiters around the vents to keep out debris.
Sharon emerged from her bag, cracked a joke about her disheveled hair and offered some of her meager food supplies to others. Stephanie, who works for the UN’s humanitarian relief in Afghanistan, mentioned that she’d have to return to running circles in a security compound in Kabul when this was over.
Lying there peacefully, I marveled at every single remarkable character at camp.
During the 25-mile Stage 4, my body rebelled. While others hammered down a slope of hard-packed dirt, my legs cramped and I couldn’t keep up.
A woman from the middle of the pack, Miranda Jamieson, unexpectedly surged toward the front. The 32-year-old Canadian triathlete, who lives in Florida, told me she walked most of the first three stages because she was so intimidated by the prospect of the 47-miler. “It sucked—I wanted to quit by the long stage.” Her feet ached, she said, because she hadn’t trained to hike.
Tess Geddes gently suggested she start running more to alleviate the pressure on her heels. As if by magic, Jamieson shifted to a faster gear and steadily picked off all the women in front, nearly catching the lead men. She repeated her incredible performance the next day and won the 26-mile Stage 5, though her late-week wins were not enough to move her near the top for cumulative time.
I watched Jamieson pull ahead as we traversed Stage 5’s slot canyon—a gorgeous, four-mile-long stretch of dry riverbed that runs through sculpted sandstone walls several stories high. The curved walls narrowed to doorway width in places, and the canyon floor plunged so precariously over boulders that wooden ladders were set out to aid our descent.
Fatigued, my eyes played tricks and saw the slot-canyon walls ripple while I imagined its shadowy crevices whispering, “You’re lucky the sky is clear.” In flash floods, slot canyons fill quickly and occasionally drown hikers.
By day’s end, I found myself third in cumulative time, behind Richards and Gayter. Spain’s Redondo broke away from Gregoretti and developed a 52-minute lead in the men’s race. Only one stage with a mere nine miles remained.
Green grass carpeted our last campground. We were leaving the desert behind and getting ready to summit a forest of pine and golden aspens.
The other runners and I huddled around a campfire and shivered in temperatures chilly enough to show our breath. On this last night, sensing the end was near, runners debated the degree of difficulty of the Grand to Grand.
Tents, set up by an army of volunteers, accommodated eight runners each. Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra.
“From a running perspective, this was by far one of the most difficult stage races I have completed,” said Vincent Antunez of Texas, who has raced numerous ultras and five stage races around the world. But, “of all the events I have done, this was one of the best organized.”
My tentmate Stephanie called it “the ‘Goldilocks race’ of multi-day races: not too brutal, not too gentle, but just right. … Every stage was manageable, but definitely tough enough that you felt a real sense of accomplishment when you crossed the finish line.”
The organizers designed a staggered start for Stage 6, so we’d all finish around the same time and catch a bus to a post-race party in Las Vegas. With a few minutes to kill before the countdown, co-director Terry Madl asked our group, “Any last thoughts?”
Only half-joking, I blurted out, “I love you guys!”
We took off on a tree-lined trail carved into an alpine slope that supported sandstone formations shaped like giant totem poles. We ran up more than 1000 feet to reach the summit, and when I crossed under the finish banner, I burst into tears while hugging Tess Geddes.
My cumulative time of 43 hours 5 minutes placed me third woman and seventh overall, behind Gayter (1st woman in 42:32) and Richards (2nd in 42:52). Redondo won the race in 34:10, followed by Gregoretti (35:02) and Ugoline (36:57). Of the 60 who started, 48—including the blind Korean and his guide—made it.
As I stood on a cliff near the finish line and looked down on pinkish and golden rock spires carved into the steps of the Grand Staircase, relief and joy conflicted with grief that the week’s journey was over and that goodbyes were imminent.
I embraced my tentmates as we gazed at verdant, forested slopes that descended southward and blended into a panorama of pale-colored desert plateaus. Hidden in the horizon, tucked behind far-away mountains barely discernible to the naked eye, was our starting point at the Grand Canyon’s edge.
Sarah Lavender Smith lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about her Grand to Grand Ultra training and gear on her blog, TheRunnersTrip.com.
The World’s a Stage
Week-long, self-supported races of approximately 250K (155 miles) and six stages unless otherwise noted below. Some are sold out for 2013 and are accepting registrations for 2014.
> Atacama Crossing (Chile)
March 3, 2013; and Oct. 5, 2014. 4deserts.com/atacamacrossing
> Marathon des Sables (Morocco) April 5, 2013; and April 4, 2014. darbaroud.com (website for USA and Canada registration: dreamchaserevents.com/Races/Marathon-des-Sables)
> The Track Outback Race
(Australia, 520K, 9 stages)
May 8, 2013; and again in 2015. canal-aventure.com/infos
> Jungle Ultra
(Peru, 230K, 5 stages)
May 24, 2013. beyondtheultimate.co/races/the-jungle-ultra
> Gobi March (China)
June 2, 2013; and June 1, 2014. 4deserts.com/gobimarch
> Mountain Ultra
(Colorado, 220K, 5 stages)
Aug. 2, 2013. beyondtheultimate.co/races/the-mountain-ultra
> RacingThePlanet Iceland
Aug. 4, 2013. 4deserts.com/beyond/Iceland
> European Ultra
(Portugal, 120K, 3 stages)
Sept. 20, 2013. beyondtheultimate.co/races/the-european-ultra
> Grand to Grand Ultra
Sept. 22, 2013. g2gultra.com
> Kalahari Augrabies Extreme
Marathon (South Africa)
Oct. 17, 2013. extrememarathons.com
> Ultra Africa Race
(Cameroon, 200K, 5 stages)November 2013 and 2014 (dates TBA). canal-aventure.com/infos
> Desert Ultra (Namibia)
Nov. 15, 2013. beyondtheultimate.co/races/the-desert-ultra
> Ultra India Race (200K, 5 stages)Jan. 14, 2014. canal-aventure.com/infos
> Ice Ultra
(Sweden, 230K, 5 stages)
Feb. 14, 2014. beyondtheultimate.co/races/ice-ultra
> Sahara Race (Egypt)
Feb. 16, 2014. 4deserts.com/sahararace
> RacingThePlanet Madagascar
Aug. 31, 2014. (website not yet live; will be located in 4Deserts.com’s Roving Race section)
> The Last Desert (Antarctica)
Nov. 16, 2014. 4deserts.com/thelastdesert (note: an invitation-only event for those who have completed two of the four events in the 4Deserts series above)