Final Prep for the Grand to Grand, When Just Getting Ready for the Start Feels Like an Ultra

Note: I’ll be offline from Sept. 21 – 30. If you’d like to follow the race when the first stage beings Sunday, Sept. 23,  then see People can send me email (and I’d sincerely appreciate words of support) to with “Sarah Lavender Smith” in the subject line, and they’ll get the message to me at each night’s campground. The race directors also will post updates and photos on the G2G page on Facebook, which you can see if you like the page to follow:

Related post: My Grand to Grand Gear and Food List

I’ve been quiet on this blog for a full month because something had to give. The back-to-school season meant a major transition for our household, as our 14-year-old daughter eagerly headed to a boarding school called Thacher (a high school in Ojai where both Morgan and I went and where I grew up). Getting my girl packed up, moved out, settled into my old hometown and then saying goodbye was nearly as emotionally intense and physically draining as giving birth to her in the first place, and after I returned home and stood in the doorway of her vacant bedroom, I felt an emptiness that sapped motivation to do much of anything. But our irrepressible, irreverent 11-year-old son cheered me up as he transitioned to the brave new world of Middle School. I started volunteering as an assistant coach for his cross-country team and plugged away at projects while working at Morgan’s firm.

Over these past four weeks, in the back of the mind, I kept asking myself how the heck could I find time and energy to train at a peak level and get ready to run across the back country between Arizona and Utah. I’m scheduled depart for the Grand to Grand Ultra on Friday, September 21. On Sunday the 23rd, I’ll start running the first stage of the 168-mile course with a week’s worth of food and gear on my back.

When I would stop to think about it, I sometimes blurted phrases in my head such as, “Oh my god … I’m screwed … holy cowshit storm!” On several nights I calmed my nerves with chardonnay and salted caramel chocolate while watching the first two seasons of Downton Abbey on DVD. (I’ve GOT to make it through the Grand to Grand so I can watch Season 3!)

A pack training run in Redwood Regional Park ...

But I did fit in a lot of training—not as much as I initially planned, but many quality miles and hours. After a 72-mile week in late July, my weekly mileage fell to a range from the mid-50s to low 60s, partly because I was running more slowly with the pack and didn’t have enough time to go farther. I also did upper-body strength training two to three times a week.

Carrying my pack filled with 20 lbs. of dead weight (mostly in the form of Ziplocks full of kitty litter), I ran hills in the heat and ran hard on back-to-back days to get used to running on tired legs. I ran on the sand at the beach. I mostly ran alone, without an iPod, to get used to being solo and unplugged, and to condition my mind in a mindful, meditative zone. Although I’ll be on the Grand to Grand course with approximately 70 other participants, the odds are we’ll be spread out, so I anticipate covering many miles without company. I’ll leave my iPod at home, along with all things electronic except for a camera, since there’s no way to charge anything and I don’t want to bring a solar charger that takes up space and adds weight. The main thing is, I want to experience a week immersed in nature and detached from devices.

... and another pack run on the Dipsea.

On some nights recently, when I’d wake up around 2 a.m. anxious and unable to fall back to sleep, I logged onto websites and Wikipedia pages devoted to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah to learn about the topography, weather, flora and fauna of the mountains and canyons in the swath of wilderness between the north rim of the Grand Canyon and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Geologic terms such as calderas, escarpments, buttes and hoodoos registered in my brain and later entered my dreams. The Grand to Grand course runs over sand dunes and through forests at altitudes between 5000 and 9000 feet. It has over 21,000 feet total elevation gain, 18,000 feet total descent.

The Grand to Grand elevation profile, spanning 160+ miles from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Grand Staircase formation in Southern Utah (click to enlarge).

I gazed at photos online of those vermillion cliffs and sculpted slot canyons, and I pondered how gorgeous the Southwest is and how intensely challenging the course will be. I want to experience those highs and lows and see if I can make it. I feel I have to do this—at least attempt it—regardless of risks and fears, because I will feel such regret if I don’t.

Finally, about ten days ago, my mind sharpened its focus on the task of getting every detail of food and gear figured out. First, I studied the elevation chart and mileage of each stage and estimated how many hours I’d be on the course each day in order to plan that day’s food. (The seven-day race is broken up into six stages with the following miles: 31 on Sunday, 28 on Monday, 44 on Tuesday through Wednesday, 24 on Thursday, 26 on Friday, 15 on Saturday.) I’m going to run/hike much, much slower than in a regular trail race due to the weight of the pack, the sandy terrain, and the hot and dry climate. I anticipate averaging at best 4 miles per hour (a 15 minute/mile pace) when breaks are factored in. So, whereas a 31 mile (50K) trail race normally takes me 5 to 6 hours depending on course difficulty, the first stage on Sunday will probably take 8 hours at least. I have to mentally prepare to be on my feet that long and plan the caloric intake accordingly.

One person who’s very experienced in multi-day, self-supported desert races offered the following sage advice via Facebook, which I’ve committed to memory: “When you wake up at Camp One on the north rim of the Grand Canyon on the first day of the Grand to Grand Ultra 2012, your ONLY goal for the day is get to Camp Two. You cannot finish the entire race unless you finish the first stage. The most common mistake made by competitors in the early stages of a multi-stage race is to go out too fast. If you arrive at Camp Two thinking that you could have done the first stage a bit faster, you probably were at about the right pace. There will be times when you are feeling really good and just want to cut loose. Don’t do it. There are times when you will be feeling like crap and just want to sit down. Don’t do it. It is relentless forward progress regardless of mood or circumstance that will bring you home day after day—not endorphin rushes or pity parties.” Thanks, Dan Stake, for those words!

I put everything I might take on a big table and began sorting into different piles: clothing I’ll wear; accessories and gear that need to be easily accessible in outer pockets; clothing and stuff that can be packed deep. I divided each day’s food into Ziplocks, squeezed out the air, and set aside the gels and bars I’ll need on the trail for the first day since they’ll go in the little side pockets.

Chaos on the dining room table before I reduced and sorted this pile.

Of course, snags surfaced and return trips to REI ensued. There was the “Dop!” moment of realizing that my one and only dish—a rubber camping plate with a collapsable edge—would really suck to use for drinking a precious cup of coffee each morning, so I swapped it for a mug. And then I went back and forth on what type of gaiter to wear on my shoes—the regular trail-running kind, or the full-cover kind that’s specially designed to keep out sand in desert running. I special-ordered the full-cover kind but couldn’t get the velcro glued to my shoe to stick. I took it to a cobbler, and he said he couldn’t sew it on. I gave up, but then I changed my mind and tried again. After much imprecise Velcro cutting and shaky-hand applications of Shoe Goo, I think I fixed it so they’ll work. But I’m bringing the regular kind of gaiters too as a backup in case these malfunction or bother me.

I wonder whether these desert-running gaiters could have been inspired by clowns, astronauts or aliens.

Finally, I decided on and sorted all the gear and food. Then came the inevitable oh-sh*t moment when I realized there was absolutely no way it would all fit, at least for the first couple of days until I eat through some of the food supply.

A lot of thought and experimentation went into choosing and rationing this combination of calories.

The problem was, I didn’t want to leave behind either my lightweight down jacket or my sleeping pad. So back to REI I went for straps and a waterproof compression sack, and with those items developed Plan B, which involves strapping the sack that contains the sleeping bag and jacket to the outside of the pack. Now I really feel like a tortoise.

All the food and gear I'll carry for the Grand to Grand on my pack and in my hands (though I'll wear a different shirt and hat for the event).

So, you might be wondering, what exactly is in that pack and in those pockets? See related post with final food and gear list.

The most special and unusual item in my gear is a talisman: a one-inch-square buffalo carved from a beautiful stone. I’m not exactly sure what kind of stone it is, but it looks like turquoise marbled with quartz and iron pyrite. My brother and sister-in-law gave it to me for my birthday with the note: “The Zuni were an ancient people who lived in the area through which you’ll be running on the G2G. They had talismans—’fetishes’—that represented different values. This buffalo was meant to symbolize endurance to overcome, and was a provider of great emotional courage to those who possessed it.”

My lucky charm.

I treasure this little buffalo and am finally feeling mostly ready for—and even bullish on—the adventure ahead.

Check out this promo video for next year’s race that showcases the landscape.

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4 Responses to Final Prep for the Grand to Grand, When Just Getting Ready for the Start Feels Like an Ultra

  1. Kyria September 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Good luck! I can’t wait to hear all about it afterwards! I think the planning aspect of it is almost as hard as the running! Okay, maybe not, but it’s a lot of planning!
    Kyria recently posted..Are You an Olympian?My Profile

  2. David Lavender September 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm #


    I hope that buffalo doesn’t weigh too much! Looking at your pack, and thinking of all those trips I guided down into the Grand Canyon (so long, knees)I envy your minimalism. Have a great run! We’ll be thinking of you!



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