KANAB — One hundred and seven ultra runners, representing 23 different countries, arrived in Kanab Friday to compete in the third annual Grand to Grand Ultra marathon, a race that covers 170 miles over seven days.
The Grand to Grand gets its name because it begins on the edge of the Grand Canyon at a spot 30 miles downriver from Lee’s Ferry in the heart and it ends in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on the southern edge of Bryce Canyon.
The race is broken into six stages, each stage between 25 to 30 miles long with two exceptions: the final stage which is 7.6 miles long and stage three is a grueling 52.7 miles long. Approximately half of the race is run across sand.
Racers have 12 to 13 hours to complete each stage, with the exception of stage three’s 53-mile leg which they have 34 hours to complete. If a runner fails to complete the day’s course inside the allotted time they are disqualified from the future stages, according to Grand to Grand founder and Event Director Colin Geddes.
To make a difficult race even more challenging, the Grand to Grand is a self-supported race, meaning the athletes must carry with them all the food, personal items, bedding and other gear they’ll need for their week-long race. Most of the runners' packs weigh around 18 pounds, about one-third of which is dehydrated food.
One of the race’s rules states that runners must consume at least 2,000 calories per day. The race organizer supplies the athletes with water and a tent and each campsite is equipped with Porta Potty bathrooms.
Geddes said the course was selected specifically for its combination of challenging terrain and unparalleled beauty.
“We had several terrain features in mind when we were looking for a place to hold an Ultra in America,” Geddes said. “We zeroed in on this area because we wanted a desert race. We wanted it to be hot. We wanted it to include the Grand Canyon and we wanted terrain that was both difficult and beautiful. We wanted racers to experience sand dunes and slot canyons, a hundred stunning vistas, and finish in an alpine autumn. The Grand to Grand Ultra has all of that.”
The course winds through the terrain, specifically passing by and through terrain that is simply too magnificent to miss. Every night, runners camp beneath the darkest skies in America.
It was the encouragement of checkpoint volunteers who got me through the race last year. And this year, I wanted to give that back. This race is beyond grueling. Twenty-five, 26 miles a day over sand, up and down endless hills. Doing it once is hard enough, but day after day? Whew.
–Julie White, volunteer
In addition to the 107 ultra runners competing in this year’s race, the Grand to Grand Ultra utilizes an army of 60 volunteers: doctors and medics who supply medical care, a camp crew who sets up and breaks down 24 10-person tents every day, a cook crew that prepares three meals a day for the 60 volunteers and drivers who transport all the gear and all those people to each camp. The Grand to Grand Ultra has volunteers participating from 10 different countries.
Julie White was one of the Grand to Grand’s runners in 2013, and now she's returned as a volunteer. She came back this year to work at one of the course’s checkpoints. If a runner fails to check in from one checkpoint to the next, searchers will go looking for them.
Keeping tabs on 107 runners as they pass through the desert terrain is one of the Grand to Grand’s most important jobs, and White checks off bib numbers as the runners pass through each checkpoint.
“It was the encouragement of checkpoint volunteers who got me through the race last year,” White said. “And this year, I wanted to give that back. This race is beyond grueling. Twenty-five, 26 miles a day over sand, up and down endless hills. Doing it once is hard enough, but day after day? Whew.”
White said she was ready to give up during last year’s 54-mile long stage. About halfway through the day’s course, she was sure she had torn a muscle in her leg. She told the volunteers at the checkpoint that she was done.
However, Paige McMahon, one of people at the checkpoint, told her she wasn’t done — not just yet. McMahon had run the Grand to Grand Ultra the year before. She could empathize with White’s pain and fatigue.
“Paige recommended that I eat something, then go into the tent and sleep," White said. "I might feel better when I woke up. And that’s what I did. I ate, then went into the tent and slept from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. When I woke up my leg didn’t hurt anymore and I felt great. I got to watch the sun come up over Coral Pink Sand Dunes as I ran across it. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. This year, I want to be the person who can draw on my experience to give that great gift to another runner.”
The race begins Sunday and finishes Sept. 27.
Steven Law has been writing about outdoor recreation, and interesting science subjects for KSL since 2011.