Grand2Grand Ultra – Rest, Regret and the last half of the race

01/04/2015

The best bit after the Long Stage? You’d think it would be sleep… after all, if you’ve been going over 24 hours without any, most people think sleep would be easy. Not so… not when it’s daylight, the camp is awake and runners are still coming in, especially when it’s your tent mates… and it’s the only day you’re actually back in time to hit the comms tent!

There were also treats… I thought it a rumour but no… lo and behold a treasure… not something I usually drink but after days in the middle of nowhere, it’s like nectar…

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and we were even treated to some live music… right there in the middle of nowhere… there were a lot of happy campers as you can imagine!

There had been more drop outs by this time and unfortunately this included one of our tent 😦 … Steve had got soaked in the torrential rain and hail storm on Day 1… including his trainers which, I believe, did not dry out properly before the start of the next day… what I hadn’t realised was just how much pain he had been in on the Long Stage… his feet were totally and utterly shredded.  How he managed to push through is unbelievable… because of this…

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Blistered, macerated, bleeding, infected… by now he could barely hobble… so after returning from a trip to the medics, he gave out his food to be divided amongst those of us who wanted it and made the choice to go back to Kanab, when he would eventually meet up with us in Vegas at the after party. A sombre mood descended.

Feet. They make or break your race…

Stage 4

And so the next day dawned, not much sleep gained… you think you’d be so tired that not even the devil would be able to rouse you.  This just doesn’t happen… not for me anyway. A couple of hours, a bit of catnapping… and before you knew it, the music started up… and the question… what time is it? a tent would yell… 3 songs past 6, another would reply!

Memories…

Yuri dashed by… stuck his head in the tent and reminded me to pop by the medic tent again to check my hip… angel in disguise! My leg felt somewhat better, I wasn’t limping as much and the piriformis hadn’t cramped… that little bit of rest had helped tremendously, aided hugely by Yuri’s help and I actually felt ok… I knew I was deterioriating… you don’t do this kind of event without getting drained… lack of energy, speed, hydration, calories… you’re pushing through a deficit each and every day… but today there were more downhills… much better for me… I could run… well, there was still huffing and puffing up the hills, but more downs = more running or shuffling 😉 … and I took advantage of that… no matter how tired or aching I was… I took the choice to tell myself I would run the downs…

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The scenery was amazing… huge cliffs, trees so high they looked tiny… huge boulders to navigate down, rocks carved out by the weather over many years, by rains and floods… and in some parts it looks like we were running on a moonscape… it was also baking hot. So much so that as I ran I kept a very watchful eye out for any water, desperate to try and lower my temperature… the riverbeds crossed were dry… a few muddy puddles, a couple that had a little bit of water in… but how to get at it? Balance very carefully, put your cap on the end of your trekking pole and dangle it just enough to wet it slightly. It was that hot I certainly wasn’t worried about whether the water was clean, it was wet and that was enough. And then there appeared a mirage… a properly flowing river… stream may be a better description but at that point it felt like a full blown river!

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And this is my only other real regret from the whole race…

As I was shuffling along the road I noticed some other runners ahead rejoining the road… I’d seen the river but figured it was too far off course… as I reached the point I had seen them at… I decided to take a few minutes and see how near I could get. It was so hot and my head felt like it was on fire… heaven… you could go right up to it. So that’s what I did.  Took off my arm sleeves and hat and soaked them in the water… I turned around and noticed another runner go past so hurried up to get back on track.  Only a few minutes ahead was the next checkpoint. I could have left my pack there and gone in the water. I wish I had. Later that night, when everyone had returned, some of my tent mates told us what they’d done… they’d stopped, taken their packs and shoes off, and had actually laid down in it… how I wish I had done that. Laughter, fun, friends… surely that’s worth losing a bit of time for in a race instead of pushing through?

Anyway, that was not the choice I had made at the time… instead I pushed on through the rest of the course encountering some pretty evil inclines: looking back at some of the photos, it looks like we were crawling up.  I hit a few low points especially when hitting some long stretches until I caught up to Danny and we leapfrogged each other until we got to camp. I probably wouldn’t have run as much of the last leg if it hadn’t been for him. We hadn’t had much chance to chat up to that point as he was always well ahead of me but while we had this opportunity to talk, he shared how he found the race, the highs and lows to date and that he had been aching a lot and, like a lot of us, had found it hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag that morning, was tired and missing home but since he knew I had just completed a similar type of event in Madagascar, he thought if I could get up each day and do this, then so could he. A truly humbling moment and I don’t think he is aware of how much that meant to me. It kept my spirits up, helped me keep running and we eventually reached camp at the same time. I felt very happy with how I’d done overall that day; top half, position 37  or thereabouts… just a shame about the river…

Stage 4 survived: 7 hours, 21 minutes, 16 seconds

Stage 5

As so the last full day dawned… today was slot canyon day. I think everyone was looking forward to this… we’d seen all the photos from previous years and I naively assumed it would mean a lot of flat.

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There was, but to get to it you had to go down… and part of that meant, for me, holding onto tree branches as I slithered down scarily high inclines… yelps included! I also knew there would be climbing down over rocks a bit in those canyons but what I hadn’t expected was a very high ladder… the choice, just go for it and pray I wouldn’t fall or use a harness that had been provided. Sod the time, go for the harness… it just looked too damn high. Afterwards I heard a snake had been relocated not long beforehand so I definitely made the right choice… what if I’d got there and seen a snake… you’d have heard the screams for miles!

And of course, given we are generally getting higher each day, for all those wonderful downs, there is going to be a lot of ups. Again. Crazy painful ups… I doubt I will ever view local hills in the same way!

Eventually we reached flatter ground, although that did still have an incline to it… it just wasn’t as obvious. There were also rain clouds gathering and I have to say, at that point because it was so hot and the air so still, as I saw some dark clouds approaching, I prayed it would cover me with rain. It didn’t… it stayed tantalisingly just out of reach… and I couldn’t catch it! I passed a field of cows… my poles tip tapping the ground as I walked this part… and then I realised I was being watched! There were a lot of cows. There were bulls too. It was a bull that watched me. I averted my gaze and then snuck a sideways glance… it was still watching me… I held my poles off the ground and still it watched me, it’s tail flicking from side to side and then it moved… a few steps toward the road, no fence in sight… I tried to walk with a lighter footstep, holding my breath… and eventually, thankfully, I was sufficiently past that it turned back to its herd, and I could breathe again!

What I wasn’t aware of was that this was the area that my tent mate Lee had had a close encounter on. Not with a bull but a moose. Apparently a moose had mown him down into a hedge. I kid you not… read his write-up in GQ Magazine!  Killer moose, watchful bulls, sneaky snakes… what is this? Next there would be zombies… oh and don’t forget the tarantulas and scorpion holes…

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I continued up the winding road… on and on, just where was the camp? It seemed to take forever and much longer than the previous day until eventually it came into sight… with pools on the other side of the fence… pools of water which looked so inviting… however given the previous cow incident, yours truly was not taking any chances… I didn’t want to be potentially ambushed and trampled so near to the finish of the race! Wise choice indeed as I found out that those were probably pasture water for the horses and cows… and given experiences to date, it would be just my luck that the horses were not that friendly despite outward appearances!

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Another stage finished and surprisingly only 4 and a half minutes slower than the previous day, around position 33 or something, so top half again and a very happy bunny 🙂

Stage 5 survived: 7 hours, 25 minutes, 56 seconds

Stage 6

The weather had been getting cooler, natural I thought given the ascension of course profile. However that night another storm hit, bad enough to keep us awake all night long with only little catnaps until one of the poles collapsed due to the strength of the wind and we thought the whole tent was going to come down. Those amazing sturdy volunteers came once again to the rescue  and were out in that weather checking everyone was ok and hammering down tent pegs, poles and anything else that could potentially go flying off into the night! I’m not a fan of being cold and the thought at that time of even getting out of my sleeping bag, let alone run in winds which sounded like something from the Wizard of Oz… well…

And at 5am Race Director Colin made his rounds – they were checking in to see how much worse it would get, how safe it would be up to get up to the Grand Staircase. Around 6ish, he made another round… they’d been informed it was just too dangerous and they couldn’t risk flooding especially due to parts being single track (if I’m remembering correctly). Safety is paramount and in those conditions there was a real possibility of people being swept away or falling… so while there was obvious disappointment in not reaching the full 273km, there was also a lot of very happy people staying in their sleeping bags just that little bit longer.  To ensure we had a Stage 6 and to fit in with the expected torrents, the organisers arranged for an “out and back” couple of miles, and everyone would get the same time recorded. A very fitting end for the team spirit and camaraderie that had built up over the past week. Our surviving tent:

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I’d made it and got my buckle!

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It was then time to grab some pizza… do you think they had ordered enough? There was another full table out of view of this 🙂

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The race organisers had timed it perfectly.  Just as the buses arrived and we headed off, the heavens opened. By the time we got to Kanab for a lunch they had also organised for us… just stepping off the bus and walking 5 steps to cover had us drenched. The highway to Vegas had been closed due to landslides and the torrential rain, but thankfully had opened up by the time we left.

And then it was Vegas bound… to meet loved ones, to celebrate, to sleep in a proper bed and eat non-rehydrated food.

And of course to Party! I’m not sure how many people stayed up all night but some did…

What an experience, what memories… what friendships made… it was tough without a doubt. My legs were completely shredded, more than I realised at the time, my achilles was bad and a huge swollen lump had grown by this time, walking was painful (and that wasn’t just because I’d insisted on wearing heels at the after party 😉 )

But…

Was it possible
to go from zero to a double-stage runner in only 18 months?

* Yes it was *

Go sign up… you know you want to 😉
http://www.g2gultra.com

Now what shall I do next…

© April 2015 Michelle Payne

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Grand2Grand Ultra – Stages 2 & 3

31/03/2015

Stage 2

And so the second day dawned… music blaring in the darkness and the camp stirring to life.  I huddled down into my sleeping bag a little deeper and wondered if I would ever be able to move without pain again… but I’d finished Stage 1 so I wasn’t going to miss being on the start line for Stage 2.  I figured if I wasn’t going to finish then it wouldn’t be of my choosing, I’d have to be pulled out by the medical team!

The tactic: start walking.  Try and shuffle if possible.  Walk it all if need be. As the saying goes, you don’t eat an elephant in one go. Where did that saying come from? Who would want to eat an elephant 😦 … magnificent creatures… anyway, make it into bitesize chunks aka checkpoint to checkpoint survival.  Head down and churn those steps out… I had wanted a challenge and I’d certainly got one!

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And so the day passed and, as for the first day, the racers eventually drifted apart the longer we were out there. Eventually I happened across an American racer called Arthur and we stuck together from Checkpoint 4, keeping each other entertained with stories about what was going on in our lives… he was pretty excited due to planning his proposal to his girlfriend and every time he spoke about the ideas he had, his face lit up and a huge smile beamed across his face, his energy infectious and the chatting meant the time passed a lot easier than had I been on my own, added to which we had expected the temperature to turn the notch down a tad… even going from full on “oven baked” to a little “fan assisted” might have helped but no… no respite until we hit the finish line where waiting for us was a momentary piece of heaven… Lisa, one of the volunteers, was ready with a bottle of cold water to spray over us! Absolute bliss. A moment to savour… you certainly appreciate the small things on adventures like this!

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Stage 2 survived: 10 hours, 8 minutes, 34 seconds

Stage 3

The Long Stage… dum dum dum!

It started well… what a sunrise to wake up to…

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Now you can dress things up however you like in your mind… you can practice positive mindfulness until the cows come home, you can meditate all night long… there are many many things you can do to bring the happy stuff into your life, change your perspectives and become a happier and more contented person. But I doubt you will ever eradicate fear in all its totality from your brain nor the accompanying negative thoughts that pop up from time to time. We are human beings and fear is actually a great tool at our disposal which alerts us to keep ourselves safe and to survive as a species. You know, back in the old days of sabre tooth tigers wanting to eat us. Or bears. Someone kept joking about bears. There were lots of trees on this race… what if a bear was hiding behind one. I kid you not… someone actually joked about this as they hotfooted it up a very steep incline while I shuffled behind them… a long way behind them… was that a tactic, was I being left as bear food while they dashed to safety? The trees rustled as I pondered this… I tried to shuffle a little quicker…

Anyway, the long stage… the hip was still hurting although Yuri had been an absolute hero the previous evening and helped release more of the pain that had accumulated throughout the second day, so how to tackle this? Go it alone and try to push myself, risking further injury or worse, not finishing… or stay with friends who were planning on sticking together as a group due to the length and technical difficulty of the day and walk it all? I wanted to push, I was frustrated at having mainly walked the previous day, but at the same time how great would it be for the Group to stick together and cheer each other on.

So that’s what I chose.

Plus I was slower than everyone else hobbling away at the back.

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We started off in almost a party mood, and as we ventured along the way, locals came out and cheered us on: such support from the local community was heart-warming and at that time it felt as if we were just going out for a day’s adventure! Until we reached the end of the flat track and it was time to cross a main road and head towards the elevation.  It was at the end of the road in the picture above that we came across Mo Foustok.  Mo had withdrawn from the race but had come out to encourage everyone else along. Another wonderful example of the camaraderie and kindness I have witnessed within the ultrarunning and racing community.

And then it was up, up, up… with minimal downs to compensate. The pace: slow, very slow. Did I mention I don’t like hills. I like heights even less. I really don’t like sides of mountains where I could slither down, fall off and die. Now I know the organisers are very careful and you’re not going to be somewhere that you have to get crampons and picks out to haul yourself up, but this felt like that to me.  This wasn’t FEAR (false evidence appearing real) but aarrrgghhh FEAR (dear God it’s real and that’s bloody high).

Sometimes naivete is a good thing… it certainly was for me in this event.  I knew there was a little climb.  I’d seen the pictures of a rope and people hauling themselves up it.  I had been reassured on reading the road book we’d been given that it wasn’t as long as I’d thought.  What hadn’t been mentioned was what I actually encountered. I scaled the first bit thanks to one of my amazing tent mates, Lee, helping me up and the amazing Yvonne keeping me going with encouragement behind me.

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I heaved a huge sigh of relief only to realise after going round a corner and along a little flat that there was another one! One felt so bad that after slithering my way up (thank god for my poles is all I can say) with shale and rocks sliding away under my feet, I was so relieved and happy it was over, that three of us jumped for joy. Literally. Until I saw the next one.

130131But what a view… no matter that it’s a race, that you are being timed… at points you just have to stop and take some photos, of the views and of the people who are there supporting you each step of the way…

Can we say tough?  I can honestly say that reaching Checkpoint 2 on that day was a highlight of sheer relief. Oh yes, that was all before CP2, many more to go.

And so the day continued… our main group breaking off into twos and threes, chatting away at times, being silent at others… pushing through the terrain, the elevation… minutes and then hours passing and catching up at the checkpoints: where we took the time to fill up on water, salt tablets and see to the feet… and have a laugh… (fab photobomb!)

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…before the night started to draw down just as we were heading towards the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary… bit eerie going through with animals howling… and seeing some fantastic colours in the sky as the sun set:

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Darkness arrived and we hadn’t even reached the checkpoint before the dunes.  Debate ensued – do we push on through the night, do we stop and sleep… we were all getting exhausted and still had so far to go. Would we have enough energy to tackle the dunes without rest? We’ve all heard the saying: when the going gets tough, the tough get going… well this was a pure example of that.  On the road to the checkpoint which never seemed to appear, nerve endings in the feet being bashed with every step, tiredness, general aches and pains, sandy tracks, darkness and plenty of “are we there yet”… we were accompanied by none other than the now infamous Mr Jerky: a tough, funny, very kind copper (policeman) and race director who hails from New York.  He was injured and in a lot of pain, yet on he pushed, worrying about everyone else instead of himself, whether he was holding anyone back (he wasn’t), staying cheerful and helping to keep everyone’s spirits up. Amazing guy… and if you want to check out some great trail races he organises, go visit his facebook page here!

We eventually reached CP6 which I have to say was one of the hardest parts to a checkpoint I have ever done. We stopped, got hot water and refueled, huddled around a fire that the volunteers had going and tried to warm up.  The temperature had dropped considerably.  Unfortunately Matt (Mr Jerky) decided against pushing through the dunes as his leg was so bad.  Once we had all got ourselves sorted out and had had about an hour’s rest, we decided to push on.

Dune time.

Looking back it’s hard to recall every moment… it was certainly memorable… having never encountered dunes before there was a certain amount of trepidation.  Thankfully due to the sheer amount of elevation and climbing during the day, my piriformis had been well and truly stretched out so I wasn’t in too much pain or getting much cramping… but still, dunes! Added to which we had heard that the race director(s) had set out to make this section as hard as possible. It proved to be true.

As we traipsed down the road towards the entrance, one of the gang suggested we all turn out lights off… standing in darkness by the side of a now silent highway… looking up at the stars… hearts pounding, silence surrounded… a memory to treasure… headlights back on and quietly we walked in…

Oh My **** God! I stood at the bottom and stared upwards at what appeared to be a pure vertical line… little lights blinking somewhere god knows where in the heavens… were they stars or were they the reflective bits on the pink flags… how high was it… would I fall… how the hell was I going to get up THERE! No other option for it but to run up at it… or rather try… get the poles, stick them in the sand and shuffle through as it flowed downwards with every step… using other’s imprints as a guide. Heart in mouth, breath out of control… just get up there.

Do not try to stand up mid way through!

You will feel as if you are about to fall backwards. The pack lending itself to that too…

Reach the crest and roll yourself over… pant for breath, look up at the stars and thank god you made it…

stand up… everyone gathers… trot off trying to spot little flags in the darkness…

get to the bottom of another… try not to cry as it looks even steeper (how is this possible?)…

ignore your tent mate when he tells you that these are nothing height wise compared to another race…

try not to quake in fear when you realise he’s talking about a race you may just have signed up for already…

ignore another tent mate when he agrees with first tent mate, because they’ve both done that race…

thank your trekking poles for not breaking…

get to the next…

and the next…

and the next…

I believe it was 5.5km… it felt like more than a marathon in distance…

…and I couldn’t wait to get it done. Tired, aching, swearing… I swore I would never do anything with sand ever ever again.

Yet even then there was beauty… we came to the end and took a breather just as the sun rose…

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Time to push on, get the head down… the sun rose quickly, which meant the heat did too, on dusty trails, through shrubby areas… and most of this part is a blur… I would probably have fared much better had I taken some time to sleep, but I hadn’t… over 24 hours by this point… just wanting to get to the finish line. Which appeared in the distance… up another bloody hill. Feet, legs, hands… all swollen… hip aching, brain fuzzy… step by step to where other tent mates were waiting along with Tess and Colin…

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I told Tess when she hugged me I was never doing another race like it, I was cancelling everything else I had planned… no more.  She hugged me tighter, told me that most of these events have dunes and I would feel better after some sleep… still, it was done. I’d reached another finish line… I was still there…

Stage 3 survived: 27 hours, 38 minutes, 18 seconds

© March 2015 Michelle Payne


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