Last weekend, I ran the Skyline 50K with 17 pounds in the pack I’ll use for the weeklong Grand to Grand Ultra in late September, plus the weight of two 20-ounce hand-held bottles full of water. I needed to prove to myself I could go the distance with the pack, because the first stage of the Grand to Grand is a 50K (31 miles).
On the second day of the Grand to Grand, we’ll cover 28 miles. Then 44, 24, 26, 15—over 160 miles divided into six stages, in high-desert heat, on an unfamiliar course with a total ascent of nearly 22,000 feet, carrying all the food and gear I’ll need for the week, through sand and rocks and who-knows-what.
I mulled over those details and unknowables after the Skyline event. The Skyline course, through Oakland’s Redwood and Chabot regional parks, is thoroughly familiar to me and not very difficult in terms of terrain or elevation profile. Still, my legs and back ached from the effort. My shoulder developed a red wound from chaffing, and my toe sprouted a blister, even though I did my best to prevent such things.
It’ll be at least ten times more challenging, I told myself, to get up the next day during the Grand to Grand, hungry from rationed calories and dirty from no shower, then run an unfamiliar route and repeat the effort all week long. If the skin on my back rubs off and my feet turn into a blistery mess on Day One, I’ll be in serious trouble.
I can’t stop thinking: Oh, my God, I am so not ready, and only five weeks remain.
To simulate the load I’ll carry, I stuffed the main compartment of the pack with my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a 16-ounce pouch of water, and several gallon-size Ziplock bags full of dog kibble for weight. I filled the hip pockets with a blister kit and other gear, including smaller Ziplocks full of rice to add weight and take up space. The shoulder strap pocket held a camera, sunscreen and anti-chafe lube. The little pockets on the water bottles held salt pills and toilet paper. The Amphipod add-on pocket on the belt held the calories I portioned for the race: four GU gels (100 calories each), two Honey Stinger Waffles (160 cals. ea.), and one 260-calorie foil packet of almond butter. (I did not eat the aid station food during the 50K.) One of the water bottles also had 160 calories in the form of GU Brew energy drink, so all in all I had a little over 1100 calories–less than I’d normally take for an effort I anticipated would take about seven hours, but since I have to fit enough food in this crazy small, 25-liter Inov 8 packfor seven days (how the heck am I gonna do that ?!? still need to figure that out …), I have to be as efficient with calories as possible and figure out how to get to the edge of bonking without crossing over.
Running the Skyline 50K with the pack was utterly different—and in some ways, more enjoyable—than doing this race competitively and pack-free. When I first ran it in 2010, I concentrated on passing other runners, blazed through aid stations and pushed hard to finish second in 4:46. This time, I talked with runners around me, met new and old friends, hiked almost all of the hills and paused at aid stations to chat with volunteers. I deliberately moseyed off course at one point to visit with a friend who was doing trail patrol with his ham radio, and I spent several minutes on a bench, shoe and sock off and blister kit out, trying (unsuccessfully) to tape a hot spot and prevent it from worsening.
The pack makes me shorten my stride and run in a more upright manner. Since I go so much slower with it, alternating between hiking and slow running, and taking a lot of breaks, I average about 12 to 15 minutes per mile, or 4 to 5 miles per hour. I figured it would take me around 7 hours to do the Skyline 50K, but I finished better than expected in 6:34 (a 12:41 average pace).
So, yes, I’m starting to get serious about this Grand to Grand training. With only about 37 days left, I’d better if I’m going to do it. I still say “if.”
Last week, I bought my plane ticket to travel on September 21 to Las Vegas, where I’ll join other participants on a bus ride to Kanab, Utah; then, following one night at a motel and the race briefing in Kanab, we’ll be transported September 22 to a campsite on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We start running the first stage on the morning of the 23rd.
While purchasing my ticket online, I thought, “Well, it’s Southwest Airlines, so if I end up not going, I can use the credit for another trip.” Even buying the plane ticket, I still didn’t feel 100 percent committed.
I’m struggling to figure out what’s holding me back from having my whole head and heart excited about doing this event, which I objectively recognize is an incredible opportunity. I’ve made a commitment to the editor of Trail Runner to do it, since the magazine gave me the assignment, so I’m pretty certain I’ll be there.
Ironically, I think I need to reassure myself I don’t have to do it, and give myself “an out,” in order to stay committed to training and get to the starting line. I’ve concluded that my hesitancy stems from three things: fear, guilt and injury.
The fear: I’m scared of many things and for many reasons—getting lost and running out of water, for example, or suffering from extreme daytime heat or unexpected nighttime cold. I eat big and fear going hungry. The prospect of limiting my calories to only what will fit in my pack for the week makes me quite nervous. And then there’s my fear of snakes. Should I make room in my pack for an anti-venom kit?
Then my brother, who has backpacked a great deal in the Southwest, unexpectedly gave me something else to worry about. He told me in all seriousness that I should know how to survive a flash flood in one of the gorgeous slot canyons we’ll run through. It can happen, he said, and he loaned me a book, The Secret Knowledge of Waterby Craig Childs, which has the tagline on the cover: “There are two easy ways to die in the desert: Thirst and Drowning.” Great, just great.
The guilt: I’m guilty about leaving my husband Morgan to handle both work and parenting during such a busy time. We have a lot going on at the firm he started, where I work with him. If I’m running instead of working, it’s bad for business, as simple as that. He’s been remarkably understanding and supportive, but still. I don’t want my hobby to make our relationship and/or our business suffer.
The nagging and potential injuries: This, more than anything, could make me drop out from the adventure. My left foot continues to hurt off and on. My lower back gave out mid-summer and continues to be twingey. I’m managing and feeling pretty good, but I don’t want to cause serious damage to my body or sabotage my ability to run.
Now, to overcome those fears and allay the guilt, I’ll remind myself of some of the reasons I’m doing it and the potential to have a phenomenal, transformative experience.
The landscape: to move through and camp in remote parts of the sublime Southwest. The people: approx. 70 participants representing 15 countries, ranging in age from 21 to 69 (see the list of competitors). I love the prospect of getting to know this diverse, international group. The journalistic opportunity: To report on and write about what will likely be a compelling story, with a lot of potential for surprises. The overall experience: to disconnect from my laptop, iPhone, Facebook and all the noise of everyday life, and reconnect with the wilderness. To hit the low points physically and then experience the satisfaction and relief of working through those tough spots. To remind myself that I’m strong and resilient and can live simply with minimal stuff. To live fully in the moment. To do something crazier than I ever imagined I could do. I could list so many more reasons—those are the first off the top of my head.
And then there’s the gear. Part of me truly enjoys researching and experimenting with these ultralight products, and now that I’ve invested in them, I want to use them for real. Recent purchases include the MontBell U.L. Super Spiral Hugger #3800-fill down sleeping bag, weighing 1 lb. 6 oz. and rated to 30 degrees F; and the Klymit Inertia X Frameultra-light sleeping pad, weighing just 9 oz.
I’m also happy I finally figured out what I’m going to do for a hydration system. I tried water bottles attached to the shoulder straps, and a front pack with water bottle holders, and I just couldn’t stand the bouncing and awkwardness. Therefore, I’m going with two hand-held bottles, plus 17 oz of water in my pack carried in a Platypus brand soft bottleas a backup supply. (A Camelback-type bladder with a hose is not practical, since it’s hard to access and refill in a very full pack.) The race directors plan to supply water at checkpoints approx. 4.5 to 6 miles apart, so I hope I have enough even if the heat is worse than expected.
I still need to figure out what to eat and when to eat it. I have dehydrated backpacker entrees in my pantry, awaiting experimentation. And I need to train—both running and strength training.
Perhaps most important of all, I need to prepare mentally. This involves cultivating patience—the patience to go slowly, steadily and wisely, hour after hour, even or especially when my body wants to stop. The Skyline 50K was an important training run in this respect. “Slow and steady” is not my typical mode—but I better learn it, because it could be my survival mode.
Here’s a link to a PDF version of my article for Trail Runner, which profiles the event and details my experience of that unforgettable week in September 2012.