Two years ago, while out on a run in the Peak District, Jo told me about an epic race she'd love to do.
One year ago, she told me that she was actually thinking of entering it, and asked whether I'd help put a plan together to help prepare for it; a race described by a previous participant as '80% mental,20% absolutely crazy!'
One month ago, she only went and did it! Earned herself a finishers buckle at the Grand to Grand Ultra: 6 stages, 7 days, 171 miles with altitude and lots of sand thrown in for good measure!
The stats don't really do it justice. But Jo's blog certainly does: a great read that really captures the lowest of the lowest and the highest of the highs experienced during this brutal event.
Grab a brew and enjoy......
It’s hot, it’s beyond hot, it’s hot like I have never experienced before; it’s dry and hot but I’m not dripping with sweat!! This is uncontrollable, I’m out of control, I’m starting to freak myself out, I simply can’t control anything my body is reacting to in any way shape or form, I’m out of control and I really don’t know what to do!!!!! HELP!!!!!!!!
Please someone help me, tell me how to restrain all the horribleness going on internally so I can take control and race!!!!
I was truly in no-man's land, mentally, physically and sadly metaphorically, two words just kept on swirling round and around in my head: why, and brutal! Neither the words or the sensations conjuring such thoughts were normal or usual to me when participating in an event or race. But they were unquestionably there today and leading to this almighty reoccurring sensation of; “spiralling out of control”. All I want to do is, grab these feelings and shake them off, put the smile back on my face and enjoy every moment that I have looked forward to for so, so long. Soak up and enjoy this vast and spectacular landscape that just keeps going on and on forever, the most indescribable wonder my eyes had ever witnessed.
I haven’t run now for several hours, it’s not the terrain, today is the easy day, the day to hold back, be ready for day 2 stage 2 (which is full of big hills and big descents), that’s the plan Andy and I talked through. Well today I’m definitely holding back; so much so, walking in a straight line is tough, I keep trying to look up to see if I can see the condors the course booklet said I may see, but that really isn’t wise, I’m listing as though I’m on a cruise liner out on a very choppy ocean, and not meandering part of the Grand Canyon on foot! (Several days later, like every evening I received my fabulously funny and supportive emails from friends and family, Andy sent me one with a verbal pat on the back for sticking to plan, I chuckled to myself; if only he knew the truth for my snail pace through the desert).
I need to think this through, I’m somewhere between checkpoint (CP) 2 & 3, I’m not even 20 miles in today, which is a total of 30.8m. I started out well, steady running only needing to walk when the dryness of my mouth reaches an all-time level of parched-ness and the slight tightness in my chest, but surely these things are normal for the location right???
The first section was particularly dusty through all of us running bunched closely together, but I’m on my own now, I can see others ahead and behind me, but they’re all in the distance in either direction. I can’t seem to push on any faster, even though I’m walking and with my poles, if I even consider trying to run I instantly feel like I’m going to faint or something. I’ll just walk it out today, I can now feel the 10KG on my back, boy it feels like 20KG right now, no joke, that’s it, I’ll just keep walking as the only other choice is to throw the towel in and go back to Kanab. Wait, I can’t, I don’t have my phone or purse to pay for a hotel room and I have no clue where Edward is, he was going off to Phoenix, he has my phone, WTF situation have I got myself into here? Oh wait, G2G will have Edward’s phone number as my emergency contact so that’s ok, but it’ll take a day or so for him to get back to Kanab UTAH!!!!!
Dear lord what are you thinking? You’ve spent the last year getting 110% fit for this event, this event you have dreamt of taking part in for at least 3 years and you’re thinking of going home??? Not happening, not on my watch, all the blood, sweat and tears of the last year getting over a broken foot and severely damaged shoulder and rotator cuff from falling clumsily twice!! And now thinking of going home, I wasn’t even running this time last year! No, you owe it to yourself, all the hours of hard work deserve credit after the injuries sustained, and the impact they had on training. Yes I am here, just walk it out, if I have to walk the week long then that’s what I’ll do, eureka!! Let’s ignite some positivity here, yes that’s it, look forward, visualise the week. Yes that’s it, why did I want to be here, the views the uniqueness; yes, yes, stage 5, the last long stage; that’s it, yes, stage 5, slot canyons my dream! Bloody hell, that’s like over 150 miles away! Today is Sunday, slots are Friday! Oh hell, come on focus, keep your eye on the prize, slots and the final day the BUCKLE, yes, the BUCKLE!! I don’t have a buckle just medals!!!! Focus on that; a beautiful shinny BUCKLE!!!
All this is 100% true, day one was truly a mix of emotions and feelings; the highest of highs at the start line, adrenaline pumping, chatting with everyone just ready to run. Even before this, the novel aspect of being woken by “Reveille/wake up call” US military bugle call, and each day after, followed by an eclectic mix of music while we all packed away sleeping bags and mats into weighty backpacks in the knowledge that as we ate our food they would get lighter by the day, making breakfast taste that bit better!
CP1&2 passed by like a dream, run/walk, in control, felt a little sick, looked at my watch, over 3hrs or so since breakfast, could be getting a little hungry, I’ll have snack one, a peanut butter sachet. All my food was tested for months back in the UK while on various events or training runs. Well peanut or almond nut butter sachets were fine in the cooler climate of the UK, not out in the open and exposed landscape of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, topping out that day at 36c and only 10% humidity. Disaster, when your mouth is so dry you can barely swallow and it feels as though you have been licking the dry arid dusty ground, peanut butter doesn’t help at all, fact! It was so stuck to my teeth and gums I had to keep swilling water as though it was mouthwash to remove it and swallow it down, this process lasted a few minutes. I just prayed no one would speak to me as they passed by!!
As I reached CP3, I did have a chat with volunteers about how I was feeling, unable to eat, unable to run, even water was difficult to swallow by this point. It was well into the afternoon even my water bottles would just heat up within an hour of leaving each CP. I was sure the water was getting up to 30+c, if I’d have had a thermometer I would have checked!
Off I went heading towards the 4th and final CP of the day; however, it was 8 miles away with a water drop halfway. I checked my watch, just a little basic watch with simple functions; time, alarm, stopwatch, all I was using was the time function; I would check the time as I left each CP, guestimate my ETA to the next CP as each one had a board listing distance covered and the amount to the next and include terrain, who needs their Garmin!!
Mixed emotions again; happy and elated that I was getting somewhere. Last CP was on the horizon, literally, a little red dot, and is that, yes, it is, camp tauntingly now visible as a result of the flat, cavernous landscape; so close yet so far away! I was still 12.7miles from camp!!
As I gradually clawed my way to CP4, I realised I was going to see a couple of friendly faces that I had met at the welcome dinner and while enjoying the stunning view from camp 1. Jo & Martin, both British volunteers. All the volunteers went above and beyond but knowing there was a couple of “Brits” waiting for me, was very comforting!
CP4, I crossed the road and straight into Jo’s arms, where emotions almost spilled over. I truly almost burst into tears; what was happening? I wasn’t moving fast but my emotions were, and in over-drive running away with themselves. I was now a non-running heat and altitude sickness induced wreck! Surely the worst was over, less than 5 miles to camp, I can do this, I left the CP after another chat with Dr Josh about my sickness. My voice was very laboured and much lower than normal but with camp on the horizon nothing surely could impede my raised spirits. I was gradually reclaiming control, then I met cacti, low lying ground covering cacti that you needed to keep your eye on or risk taring shoes or worse, skin!
Finally, over 9 hrs after starting out, I crossed the finish line and was back into camp.
Camp life generally consisted of wet wipe wash, get my contacts out, eat, set up my sleeping mat and bag, sort kit and backpack for the next day, look at the course guide for the next day too, sleep! Oh yeah, feet!!! Hot water was always for a couple of hrs in the evening till 8.30pm, so I would always visit the medical tent after food. The main issues were gaiters; I used Raidlight ones that come with Velcro which you can either stich or glue on. This, however, reduces the toe-box, which I didn’t discover until halfway through day 1, I knew at some point both big toe nails were coming off! (just over a week after returning to the UK).
The other issue that caused great stress and physical trauma throughout the week was blisters and hot spots from walking; not striking on the forefoot (normal when running) but heel striking which caused four humongous blisters the size of 50 pence pieces, one on each corner of my heels. Without the super care and knowledge of the medical staff my journey and adventure would have most definitely ended day 2 or 3. Drilling toenails to release the pressure of the blood blister below, after I’d finally finished stage 2, not a painful process but made oodles of difference to the next day; the long stage in relative comfort.
Day/stage 2 was Groundhog Day in terms of how I felt physically and emotionally, broken by my lack of performance; walking, and walking and walking. The scenery made up for it as it was different to day 1. Hills trees, ups and downs; the downs really played havoc with the ever-increasing blood blisters around and under both big toenails, the sand and gravel descents were a little hair-raising with trying to stay balanced, look after the toes and watch my footing! I noted that another reoccurring theme was that from CP3 to camp always came across as the toughest, drawn-out sections, as if I were on a hamster wheel and not a long dirt path!
Again, just before arriving in CP4 I noticed camp away in the distance: definitely Groundhog Day for sure. I had company that day back into camp from Jake, from New York. It really does takes your mind away from the physical atrocities going on when you chat to someone new and from a different walk of life. This is an aspect of such an event that, I think will stay with me for life.
Jake was part of the Jar of Hope charity team, fundraising for better awareness and treatment of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. I felt humbled while we walked; I only had to consider myself, no added pressure of completing the event to honour all those that had donated and were willing them on back home. It did put things into perspective for me during that couple of hours as we walked along and eventually reached camp.
I hadn’t eaten throughout the day as I simply couldn’t swallow it down. Savoury rehydrated vacuum packed meals were good, I could get them down and actually looked forward to them each day. Very odd I know, I wished I’d brought them for breakfast too, as my trusty muesli with yogurt powder literally made me retch each morning, followed by brushing my teeth. Definity a low point each day and one filled with dread as I woke each morning.
Day 3 stage 3 Tuesday, as I approached CP2 of the stage, I really felt terrible, we had climbed to above 6,000ft, the sun was beating down, it was, I guess, late morning. The hot spot on my right foot pad was now without shadow of doubt a blister; I could feel the liquid moving with every step.
It was frightening how within the blink of an eye I could go from feeling ok, to horrendous. Kevin, one of my tent mates, and I had walked together since leaving camp at 8am. We traversed the Mansard trail with its steep picturesque climbs, but that little nudge in elevation must have just tipped the equilibrium within my altitude tolerance. Anne, the medic at check point 2 that day, saved my race; a little care and compassion goes a long way.
I’m not sure if I looked ill as I walked in to the CP, but Anne instantly asked if I was ok? My reply was "no, I’ve just thrown back up my salt tab!” An anti-sickness pill was placed under my tongue, I was starting to spiral beyond anything I’d faced the previous two days, so early into the long 53.2-mile stage too.
I was rapidly unravelling at super-sonic speed, it was frightening, blind siding, coming out of no-where, I sat and cried while the anti-sickness pill dissolved under my tongue, Anne, the medic who had drilled my toenails the night before, was now rescuing me and my adventure again, dressing my blister.
Rock bottom was where I was at, or so I thought. Half an hour later, I managed some chocolate flavoured liquid meal that stayed down, and set off, a restored woman, from the care and compassion from Anne. During that short period of time in CP2, it was crucial for the day ahead to infold more favourably, as I had 6 more CPs to tick off.
In total, I was out on the course for 27.5hrs to complete stage 3. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take me so long but the positive from this is that I now know I can be out that long with only 30 minutes of sleep, and I definitely could have carried on for longer.
The course booklet described the various sections of the long stage like this; hard packed sand, rocky trail, cross country sandy, sandy trail, sandy track, dense vegetation, sandy trail, sandy canyon, sandy rocky climb (you’re getting the gist….sand), sandy track, sage brush and yes sandy, sandy track, sand dunes, sand, sand and yes a little more for good measure.
The day wore on, the sun and the temperature were ferocious that afternoon, and following suit to the previous two days. CP3 to 4 was beyond hideous; down to a river bed, dense vegetation climbing back up in direct sunlight, first time in my life I wished for the sun to set, it was simply oppressive.
I arrived in CP4 around 6.30pm, the sickness pill had worked. Time to try some more food, another liquid meal strawberry, 450 kcals in one hit!! I was saving my hot meal for much later, CP6, something to look forward and salivate about during the dark long looming night!
Tess, course director and Jo CP4 crew both asked me if I was ready for the hill. I looked at it and thought “what gives, its road, its easy”. Why were they rushing me? Very odd, I needed to change my kit about as it was mandatory to leave wearing my head torch, it would be pitch black in an hour.
Off I went terrified about what lay ahead. Should I wait for others to leave? No, I just wanted to get the day done as quick as possible. I left the CP, walking up the hill, and Edward, my ever suffering husband, stepped out from nowhere as a surprise. No words to describe how pivotal seeing him was, completely uplifting, inspiring and truly gave me a large dollop of self-confidence to continue.
I left CP4 around 6.45pm.
Night-time, my fear of being on my own disappeared. I felt re-motivated, by the surprise of seeing Edward, no matter what, I had to get to the end now, as much for me but also Edward and everyone else back home supporting me. Emailing me each day, spurring me on taking the time to write and send me emails each day, for me to receive in camp each night, which I was so grateful for each evening. Everything changed there and then, the end - it had to happen! It was going to happen no matter what, sand, who cares, there was a belt buckle waiting for me!
All I’m going to say about CP4 to CP5 is this; once it was dark it was the scariest 3 hours of my life. Described in the course booklet as beautiful Cave Lakes Canyon, trust me nothing beautiful going on in the dark!
CP5 to 6 was 8 miles, out in the open sage brush sandy path, under the clearest of skies. The Milky way was so visible, I felt as though I could reach out and touch it. Even distant howls from coyotes didn’t bother me.
4 hours later, CP6 was warm and welcoming, tents to sleep in if you wished and lots of friendly faces around the campfire. I discovered while sat there eating my Veggie cottage pie, that many competitors that day had also either felt nauseous or had been physically sick. Weirdly, this gave me some comfort that it wasn’t just me struggling with nature.
I sat with Joe, a fellow tent 11 mate, chatted with Deana and Karen, then decided to have a short nap as my legs were switching. I asked the volunteer to wake me at 3.15am, it was 2.45am. I knew if I had longer I wouldn’t get going again. I’ve honestly never had sleep like it, no mat just my sleeping bag, left my shoes on and head torch and lay on my side, then this little voice said my name.
I packed my sleeping bag away, filled my bottles, used the loo, said goodbye to everyone staying in camp and headed out, CP6 to CP7 sand dunes.
I arrived at the dunes with Joe, Michael and Karen. Karen I met on day 1 in camp, so it was nice to hit the dunes with fellow competitors I knew fairly well. Karen and I scrambled literally on all fours with and without our poles, following the markers with a reflective glow from our head torches as guidance, giggling at times, cursing at others at the sheer bizarre and down-right frustrating situation of the sand dunes in the complete stillness of the night.
The sky was still magical, full of stars, coyotes howled again, not far away, but that just sort of added to the whole serenely mad and magical experience.
As we reached the end of the dunes and the next CP was coming into view, Karen and I looked over our shoulders and could see the beginning of the sunrise, just a thin pink line above the outline or silhouette of the dunes. worth every brutal minute climbing up and down those dunes, sometimes falling many steps back for 1 forward.
Poor Karen was dry heaving throughout, nothing I could do except keep ahead and let her follow me. We both were consumed with determination to finish this long, very long, day. Those few hours with Karen will stay with me for life, we travelled the remaining miles of the stage together back into camp.
One thing which is echoed by all the competitors, is the friendships formed with each other, individuals from all walks of life from different countries and continents, all with one common goal; that shinny belt BUCKLE!!!
Stage 4 day 5 pretty much 90% sand of variant degrees, a little rock climbing thrown in for good measure. I felt alive and kind of full of enthusiasm and happy with myself finally, and that I had stuck it out, not given in. I was reaping the rewards, finally less sickness and the knowledge of only one more long day. The official photographs capture me smiling. Arriving in camp late that afternoon, I was on cloud nine, I had managed to run walk again, (where it wasn’t up hill and moving sand) and ran into camp and straight into compulsory kit check, I passed, all mandatory kit present and remaining food weighed and just with in the tolerance of a kilo, phew!
This was it! Tomorrow was the last full day, 26.5 miles, bring it, bring on Slot Canyons which had helped me keep focused during those early stages, and the stressful altitude sickness.
Many others appeared to be invigorated like myself and too were running through the slots. Were they what I expected? Most Definity and more; in some areas my backpack was tight as the slots narrowed, we had 3 or 4 ladders to go down, as the canyons dropped, trees and other debris to clime over, all added to the experience. Debris gets stuck when the Canyons flood during the rains, truly nature at its best, a visual delight for the eyes to capture and the heart to store as a lifelong memory.
Stage 6 to the Summit, 7.7 miles straight up, starting out at just over 6,000 ft and finishing way above 8,000 ft. My body responded the moment we were above 7,000, the listing and inability to run came flooding back. I had ran from the start line that morning but reverted back to snail pace. The views were like nothing else, mist swirling around the cliffs and mountain tops but with a deathly drop clearly visible to my right. One wrong foot and I’d be back 8,000 ft down. With a touch of vertigo, I decided to focus ahead and not out over the views. The more we climbed the air became cooler and thinner, my chest was tightening, but that buckle was almost mine to hold!!!
To sum up my week; I was most definitely pushed to a place I didn’t know existed. And I definitely didn’t know I had the resolve to get myself out of and away from, but I did!
Several weeks later I can look back and reflect, feel proud of my efforts and the reward of crossing the finish line, and now having a “Buckle” hanging with my stash of medals!!!!
And before you ask, yes! I would go back and do it all again! Why? Well, do it better, learn from what hindered me and try to resolve them and improve!!
I enjoyed the technical detox, no garmin watch, no phone, no nothing, just the basics to survive with. I truly enjoyed that aspect of the experience. We can live without social media, and the ability to call someone at any time of the day.
Surprisingly, by day 3 I did think about Brexit!!! Shocked me, but I was intrigued to know after completion what was going on, when, before Grand to Grand I actively avoided the daily news.
My advice, follow your heart, make dreams a reality!!
Find out more about the race here: https://g2gultra.com/g2g-homepage
All photos courtesy of Grand 2 Grand Ultra 2019 official photographs.