Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Finding my Limits and Discovering Joy in Southern Utah

“You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need”

I entered The 2014 Grand to Grand Ultra Marathon not long after completing Racing the Planet Iceland in 2013 mainly because I had a great experience at my first stage race and I wanted to have a new goal to set my sights on.

The Grand to Grand Ultra is a 170 mile long self supported stage race held in Southern Utah. Self supported stage races are such that you have to carry all your own food for the week, emergency (mandatory) equipment, your clothing and your sleeping bag and mat.

In the early of stages of training back in February, I injured my hamstring and I wasn’t sure how I’d fare in the race but I’d been assured that this race was “hikeable” since it has generous cutoff times for each day, so I decided to go for it anyway.

The months leading up to the race were tough for me personally, I had been wallowing in a “dark place” with too much free time on my hands and I was struggling to find meaning in my day to day - a lack of purpose was making me unhappy but having the race to focus on was good. Due to my injury I wasn’t able to run and most of my training consistent of long hikes with my backpack and strength training. 

Getting to Kanab

Judy and I in Las Vegas
I was lucky in that I had planned to spend two nights in Las Vegas with my friend Judy the week before the race. It was to be an early birthday celebration and it was a good distraction from the mayhem I left behind in San Francisco. After two nights walking around Las Vegas, taking in shows and seeing the sights, I was to meet the runners at Las Vegas airport on Wednesday to catch a bus that would transport us to Kanab.

I got onto the bus just in the nick of time and immediately found the “back of the pack” at the back of the bus. Andy, Brianna and others had purchased some Prosecco, rum and other libations at the airport and were getting “ready” for the long bus ride ahead. Mary and Erin from Canada who had both participated in the Iceland race were also there and made me feel welcome.

After a drink (or two) we all became fast friends. Nathan joined us from the front of the bus and Yuri one of the camp crew volunteers proceeded to tell us tales of Aliens and had good stories about the event. He had run it the year before.  Everyone was slightly concerned about how they would do in the race – I was in good company. After a while we stopped at an In n’ Out burger in St George and before we knew it we were at our destination in Kanab where we checked into our hotels and enjoyed a good nights sleep.

Exploring Kanab

Arriving in Kanab in the dark I did not notice the beautiful red rock that surrounds it. It was so lovely to see this as the sun rose and the blue sky provided the loveliest contrast.

After a traditional breakfast at The Parry Lodge , I met up with Mary and Yvonne for the days activities - The race directors and the Kanab residents had organized some local activities to keep us busy on the day before runner check in. First up was a tour of Best Friends AnimalSanctuary.

The Best Friends visit is something I had been looking forward to since Sarah (a fellow competitor and friend from the Bay Area) had recommended it to me on a training run a few weeks back. Best Friends is situated in Angels Canyon 6 miles outside of Kanab on almost 40,000 acres of land and they are famous for being the largest no-kill shelter in the United States.

Mary, Yvonne and I at Best Friends
Our tour guide Raven provided great information on the activities, we drove past horse yards, toured the cat shelter and briefly visited Dogtown but one of the major attractions at Best Friends is Angel’s Rest. This is not only the final resting place for the shelter animals but also for companions of members and staff. Besides all the gravestones and trinkets, there are wind chimes that make the most beautiful sound as the wind comes through the canyon.  Its actually indescribable, you will have to visit yourself to experience it. Yvonne and I spontaneously shed a tear as we passed by, and I knew right then I had met a kindred sprit.

After the tour of Best Friends we were to take a flight over Kanab in a small Cessna which local pilot Dave Baird had generously offered to runners. Dave turned out to be a wonderful person, with a very generous spirit, his main interest was for us runners to have a positive experience of Kanab so we could come back and it would benefit the town.  The flight was spectacular, it was a small taste of the landscape we’d be seeing close up in a couple of days time.

The view over Kanab
The final activity for the day was a massage; this was a nice treat at the end of what already felt like a long week and was the perfect end to the afternoon. At the massage place I met up with James and Yuri who asked me to join them for dinner.  We ate Mexican food with a few other runners and headed to bed for an early night. There was a lot to organize before runner check-in the following day.

Runner Check-in

On Friday morning I switched hotels to join Sarah at the Holiday Inn Express, we were all sharing rooms with other competitors for the final night in Kanab. By around one o’clock most of the runners were milling about near the hotel and since we had already received our tent assignments this was a good opportunity to start trying to identify our tent mates.

Runner check-in
Race check in went smoothly, my equipment was numbered as required and I had everything that was on the mandatory list. I was surprised that the volunteer I was assigned to did not check everything as thoroughly as I expected but I assumed that there was a certain level of trust that we had all the gear we needed and I was pretty thankful not to have take every single labeled item out of my bag.

Mo and I ready to go
At race check in, I chatted with a few other runners, for some this was their first stage race, others had a lot of experience behind them. I also met Mo who had participated in the Iceland race and had won that race, It was good to see an old friend. By the time we had finished the final runner dinner in Kanab, I had identified all my tent mates. There were 7 of us - Simon from Australia, Danny from England, Dan and Sarah from the US and Mickey and Roberto from Italy. I was representing Germany. This was tent #6 Hualapai!

Getting to Camp One

Saturday morning after breakfast we had to move our luggage to where it would be stored for the week and then we were loaded on buses that would drive us to Camp One. It was about a four-hour drive out to Camp One, of which the last hour was on a bumpy dirt road and everyone was happy to reach the destination.

Waiting on the buses to take us to Camp One
The camp was situated at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Everyone peeled out of the buses and the first thing to do was to see the Canyon – it was magnificent!! What a photo opportunity! I started to feel the nervous tension getting stronger and after I had located my tent I took some time to myself to just sit at the edge of the canyon, enjoy the view and chant to calm my nerves. It helped.
Dan and another runner at the edge of the North Rim 
The tent at Camp One with Sarah, Dan, Mickey and Simon
Catching a few minutes to calm my nerves
That evening, we were served a delicious a pasta dinner with a spectacular view. Colin and Tess gave the race briefing as the rain clouds were gathering and during the night it the skies opened and we encountered our first thunderstorm of the week – I recall waking up around 3:00am to camp crew hammering in stakes to make sure our tents were safe. That was dedication! Sarah and I giggled at the absurdity of it all. 

Stage One

A beautiful sunrise
Thankfully we woke up to a beautiful sunrise and mostly blue skies; the rain had made the start a little cooler for us. I had been worried about how the heat would affect me so I was really grateful for the small amount of cloud cover. I spent a large part of the day passing the miles with my tent mate Dan from Chicago – It always amazes me just how much one talks out on the trails and we got to know a lot about each others lives during those 30.8 miles (49.6 km). The scenery was breathtaking all day, we had the vermillion cliffs in our sights most of the time and most of the trail was hard packed dirt.

Hualapai ready to go!
Between CP3 and CP4 we were suddenly hit by a hailstorm, I was scared for a while, the storm brought thunder and lightening and the hail was hitting us from the side, we had no protection or shelter. After it passed though, I felt incredibly invigorated, I guess there is nothing better than getting up close and personal with Mother Nature!  The area we were in was a cattle-grazing area and the rain caused some flash flooding and we had to wade through mud and muck, all I could hope for is that none of my blisters were open.

Gregory and I looking invigorated after the storm!

Thankfully this was not for long and soon we were back on dry ground and nearing CP 4 with Camp 2 in sight. Towards the end of this section we found ourselves dodging cacti – you did not want these beast to attack your shoes and had to be very careful not to stub your feet on any of them.

Just after leaving CP 4 I had my first encounter with food I simply could not eat – I stopped to “enjoy” some almond butter. This was a great calorie rich food that had worked really great during training but it did not work for me right then – I gagged as soon as I felt the texture in my mouth and promptly threw up. Even though it was only shy of 5 miles to camp, these 5 miles felt like 20 … If it wasn’t for Dan, I might have just stepped on a cactus and ended it all there and then. I think this is where it all went a little south, even after arriving at Camp 2, I could not stop vomiting so I took myself to the medical tent and the nice medic there gave me some anti-nausea medicine (Zofran) which worked a charm but only after a cup of tea. Every one (especially my tent mates were so awesome and tried to make me feel better, Sarah made me some of my food but I couldn’t eat it so dinner that night was very small but I was happy that the nausea and vomiting stopped. The highlight of the evening was coming back to my tent to encouraging receive messages from friends.

Stage Two

I felt fine when I woke up, no more nausea, but my appetite wasn’t there. I tried to eat some of the dinner I wasn’t able to the night before and managed to swallow about a quarter of it before giving up. I made up my “perpeteum” drinks (calories for the day) and was ready for the 8:00am start.
The views at the top were amazing!

The first three miles up to CP1 were pretty straightforward, it was slow going largely due to the single track but the pace was friendly – everyone was excited about the day ahead. After CP1 the climbing began. We were faced with a climb of about 1300 ft (our elevation was already 6000ft) within about a mile and a half.

Needless to say this was hard, especially for a sea level dweller like me and I deployed a technique, which I’ll call “shade to shade”, where literally I climbed from one tree to the next to catch my breath at every stop the views were amazing and it was incredible to see how much distance we had covered. At the top I found Dan had waited for me. I felt terrible that he had waited, as I did not want him to miss any cut offs because of me so I urged him to go on ahead. I caught a second wind as soon as the climbing stopped and soon caught up to him and even passed a few people that had also had some difficulty getting up that hill.
Following pink flags or ribbons was how we found our way on the course
I reached CP2 before the cut off but there was not enough time to eat so I marched on. The course between CP3 and CP4 was magnificent, there was another little climb but after that earlier hill they felt very manageable especially since I had already perfected the “shade to shade” technique earlier on. The weather was getting hotter and the few trees that provided shade were a blessing.

My favorite kind of road!
At CP4 I refilled my water bottles and I felt good, I was getting my mojo back. The march to Camp 3 was amazing – I felt strong and I had energy as if I could go on forever. I found myself passing a few people and I had a lot of fun spraying water into my face to cool me down. This might have been the happiest time for me. I felt strong when I arrived at Camp 3

My appetite still wasn’t what it should be for this kind of event – food is essential to stay strong but my spirits were high and I ate as much as I could and enjoyed the conversation at the camp fireplace before retiring to the tent for the night.

I was happy that I had a strong finish on Day 2 and I was happy that I had gotten so far considering my trepidation of even getting through Day one. Another 26 miles done and once again messages of support from friends were well received!

Stage Three – the long stage

The beginning of the Long stage. We would climb over this.
For reasons that I cannot explain, I was a complete emotional wreck this morning. I guess it was the lack of calories, or the lack of sleep but I found myself really nervous about this day. I found a fellow runner, Jaime and she was equally anxious about what lay ahead, she already had developed really bad blisters and was concerned about how she would fare on this stage. A few people had already dropped out of the race and as the two of us ate our breakfast watching a beautiful sunrise we had a little cry.

Start time was 8:00am and everyone set out for the long day. The first few miles to CP1 were great, a nice long gravel road, I held a steady pace and enjoyed the cool morning air. In the distance I could see the cliffs ahead that was going to be our first climb.

Check Point 2. Sadly this is where Yvonne dropped.
Just after CP1 we were faced with our first real climbing (scrambling) up the cliffs. This felt pretty dangerous as foot and hand holds were not that easy to navigate with poles in hand but I made it and although it was tough climb it still did not feel as tough as the day before, the rest of the trail to CP2 was rolling hills, it was hot, so once again, “shade to shade” technique was deployed. The day was getting hotter and many competitors were starting to feel it, when I got to CP2 there were a handful of runners hanging out trying to recover from the heat. 

About 6 competitors dropped at this checkpoint including Yvonne who looked like she was beat by the heat, turns out she also had horrendous blisters on her feet and simply could not go on. I heard later that the runners who dropped at that check point were driven into Kanab, reunited with their luggage and wished “good luck”.

The trail was beautiful
CP2 to CP3 was a nice steady downhill on a jeep track, the views were amazing once again and I felt pretty good even though I was aware that my calorie intake was low – I simply couldn’t eat enough in this heat. I had some biltong (South African Beef Jerky) this was amazing to chew; I couldn’t swallow it every time but I felt at least that my body was getting ‘something’ solid. I was longing for any food other than what I had with me in my pack, everything that I had with me made me feel ill just thinking about eating. I persevered though and at CP3 I drank some Perpeteum. This was the only thing I could swallow but it wasn’t enough. Leaving CP3 was another steep scramble up a difficult trail, there weren’t many folks around me at this point and I was honestly scared that I’d fall back and no one would find me – I wasted a lot of energy on this fear. Energy I could not afford to waste at this point of the day – there was still along way to go.

In the distance I could hear dogs barking and I knew that I was near CP4 and Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, by the time I reached CP4 it was starting to cool a little and I spent a few minutes at CP4 getting myself ready for the night ahead. I had another Perpeteum drink and fixed my red flashing light to my backpack. 

At this time Dan had joined up with me again and we headed out into the evening together for the trek to CP5. It was so beautiful in the dark, this section of the trail was near a river and we could hear frogs croaking and the cool air was a real treat after the heat of the day.

Despite the nice cool temperatures, by the time I got to CP5 I was feeling pretty low. My body had been strained by the lack of calories during the day and although I tried to eat something there and regain my strength I once again didn’t feel like anything I had with me. At this time I also overheard the race director and the guy who had designed the course boasting how hard they had made the sand dunes this year and after doing calculations in my head about how long it would take to reach the next check point and wondering if I’d have enough time to rest there before the sand dunes and then unsuccessfully trying to locate something that would be palatable to me, I took off my shoes and decided I had had enough.  I had found my limit.

The volunteers were very nice and they drove me back to Camp 4 and the first thing I realized as I was in the car was not how warm it was but how fast the landscape was passing, this gave them a good laugh.
Recovering back in Camp

Giving up is a terrible thing. I was totally okay with my decision at the time but as the new day broke and runners with whom I had been on the course the previous day were starting to come across the finish line. I started to feel sad about my decision to stop. 
Sarah pulled me aside and told me that although it may sound corny, this experience would be character building. She was spot on. I had always said that if I stopped for whatever reason I would stay with the race and volunteer so right there and then I decided to embrace my feeling and I started to look for a new assignment.  I found my way to Camp Crew.

 Stage 4

Camp 4 after the runners had left for the day
The morning of Stage 4, I gladly accepted an invitation to eat breakfast with the volunteers, and after seeing the runners off for the day, I was put to work. Bear, the camp crew boss asked me to take down the signs on the tents and gather the chairs then Duncan showed me how a tent gets dismantled. Each tent has nine poles and one center pole and every one of the tents had to be folded up and all the poles put onto trailers to be transported to the next camp and set up for the runners when they come in again after the long day out.

Before leaving I picked up a feather, Shawn, one of the camp crew noticed and pointed out that when picking up a feather it means you’re making a commitment – I committed to having a positive experience no matter what comes my way – 
I loved being outdoors and in many ways I was grateful for the opportunity to see both sides of the race in one year. Many people volunteer one year and race in another.

At the Sand Dunes
The drive to the next camp was a blast! Dean drove his four wheel truck while playing guns and roses loud on the car sound system – It took me back to days in Africa when we would drive around the bush on weekends – I was happy! We stopped at the Sand Dunes where we filled up water for the Camp – I was glad to see the dunes and was still okay with my decision to stop.

Camp 5 was to be set up in a field of wild sage and there were a lot of “stickers” - thorns with many sides that have a habit of sticking to everything that comes near, especially socks – they hurt. In South Africa we have a similar weed called “devils bush” . We improvised and made gaiters out of duct tape – this helped keep them out of our socks as we got to work setting up the tents.

A volunteer tent at Camp 5
There were 14 runner tents, one medical tent and one “cyber tent” and another 8 volunteer tents to set up. There were 9 people including myself to do this job. I got to know the rest of the camp crew that day. Hard working people. I felt right at home.

Mickey was the first runner to arrive before we had finished setting up all the tents. He had a steady fast pace and held onto his lead throughout the race. It was great seeing him come flying in but we had work to finish and James had promised me a ride into Kanab so I could get decent cell phone reception and make a call home.

Wind chimes at Angels Rest
Once all the work was done, I got a ride into Kanab with one of the crew and I met James who was picking up his car from the Holiday Inn – he had Duncan with him and the three of us set off in search of a shower. Luckily I had received a text from Yvonne earlier telling me that she and Jaime were staying in the Parry Lodge. A quick phone call secured access to the shower and Jaime was kind enough to run our dirty clothes down to the laundry for a quick rinse. Since it was so hot there was no need to wait for anything to dry and after 5 days of wearing the same running skirt a clean item of clothing was a treat even if it was wet!

After the shower we had a couple of hours to kill before dinner and James drove us through Best Friends sanctuary. I was so happy to go there again and we spent time walking around Angels Rest as the sun was setting. Just before we lost the light we found the labyrinth at Angels lookout. We experienced more beautiful views in place that has left an impression on my heart.

That night I slept in a tent with the volunteers – it felt like the right thing to do.

Stage 5

Early morning wake up for the Camp Crew! We were awake at 5:30 am for breakfast and then the day started. The runners set off again at 8:00 am and we started tearing down tents. This camp took a while to clean up but we removed everything including any unused firewood from the night before.
It was a longish drive to Camp 6, we passed Bryce along the way and stopped at a gas station where I had a chance to buy potato chips and some lip balm that I desperately needed for my sunburned lips.

The site for Camp 6 was lovely. It was the opposite of the site we just left, there was no dust, no sage, just some wild flowers and grass. There were even horses in the adjoining field. It was a pleasant sight.

Setting up Camp 6
Once again Mickey was the first runner to arrive at camp and since we had taken longer to reach the camp by car, we were not all set up by the time the 10th runner had arrived. I could tell the camp crew was also pretty tired at this point. Hell, I was tired and I had only been working at this for two days!. The guys worked hard. Every tent needed at least seven people to get it up; one on each corner pole, one to walk the big pole into the middle and preferably two people to hammer the stakes into the ground. Once the tents were up, each of the fourteen tents for runners needed to be swept, they each had a sign pinned to them then a table with two 20 gallon drums of water was set up. 

Nathan looking strong at the finish
There was talk of bad weather on the horizon and we were made aware that there might be a change in plans for the final stage of the race due to this. Bad weather turned out to be a monster storm that was barreling towards the camp and it was soon decided to change Stage 6 – the good news for camp crew was that the camp was not being moved again and the finish line was going to be right here.

The first part of the storm hit during the night and once again thunderstorms had me up in the night. It was the eve of my birthday and I couldn’t help thinking how symbolic it was to have a cleansing storm to welcome me into my new year. I was safe and dry in my tent.

It was quiet enough in the morning for the runners to complete a 2 mile final run and finish across the finish line to receive their finishers buckle – their time would not count for this stage and it was a joyous celebration of great achievement by all. I was so happy to see Dan finish, he toughed it out to finish and smiled all the way, Sarah finished strong and placed second female, it was a beautiful moment watching them run to the finish line together.

All my tent mates of Hualapai made it to the finish! I admit I felt a little disappointed in myself but I take joy in celebrating their achievements and acknowledging my own – I went a lot farther than I thought I might. I completed 88 of the hardest miles I’ve ever attempted and I had a fantastic experience, I met some of the most amazing people I could ever ask to meet, I was shown more generosity of spirit in one week than I can put into words and I know I have made friendships that will last a lifetime.
Photo credit: Simon Dodd

Runners heading to the buses that would drive them back to Las Vegas
That afternoon all the runners (including us who did not finish) were driven in buses back to Kanab to collect our luggage and to enjoy a burger lunch provided by the people of Kanab. After the lunch we were driven to Las Vegas to the Green Valley Hotel and Spa. 

I took the longest shower (as I’m sure did everyone else!) and we enjoyed a wonderful awards dinner followed by dancing.  I danced with joy in my heart for a beautiful week. The landscapes, the songs that will forever take me back to waking up in camp, the smell of sage, the people, the memories, they will all stay in my heart forever. A birthday I will not forget.

I had wanted a buckle for my birthday, yes. I’d hoped to come home with one, but I came back with so much more. I’ll get that buckle next time.

Celebrating success in Las Vegas with Sarah

The pool at the Green Valley Ranch

Hanging out with Yvonne before leaving Las Vegas

1 comment:

  1. Wow - I love this! I love how you hung in there as things went south (seriously - that you even started with that injury is remarkable!). And when you had to call it, you didn't hightail it to the relative luxury of a motel room, but stepped in to volunteer! You are so inspiring! Congrats on seeing it through - maybe not the way you intended, but in a very satisfying way indeed! Thanks for writing this up and sharing your experience!