Last April, a 41-year-old woman from Oregon named Jami Sutter approached me for coaching. She wanted help to prepare for the most challenging adventure of her life: the Grand to Grand Ultra, a 170-mile, self-supported, seven-day odyssey that runs across remote regions from the northern edge of the Grand Canyon to the Grand Staircase formation in Southern Utah.
As readers of this blog know, I did the Grand to Grand Ultra (aka G2G) in 2012 and 2014. This year, I became a recommended coach for the G2G and thoroughly enjoyed coaching Jami and a handful of other clients for it. I developed detailed, custom weekly training plans for each of them and had consultations about gear preparation, mental training and other G2G-specific topics. (Info about my coaching is here.)
The Grand to Grand Ultra is an extreme challenge due to the distances, the limited food and living conditions (you have to carry your food and sleeping gear for the week, but communal tents are provided), extreme weather and treacherous terrain. It’s not for the faint of heart.
If you met Jami, you might not guess that she possesses the fortitude and stamina for the Grand to Grand. She’s small—4’10″—and smiley. She’s married and a mom with two teenagers who’s back in college several days a week to earn another degree.
I loved working with Jami because of her dedication and nothing’s-gonna-stop-me determination. She came to me with a pretty solid base of running 30 – 40 miles per week, and she had done a hiking trip of 40 miles. But she had only been running for eight years and barely dabbled in ultrarunning at the 50K distance.
And, she was slow compared to other runners. Over the summer, I had her work up to a 50K and a 50-mile race as stepping stones to the G2G, and she was pulled from both races for missing the cut-off times to aid stations. She never crossed the finish line of those shorter ultras and consequently did not get the boost in confidence that I hoped those two training races would provide.
“That was such a low and really made myself question whether I could do G2G or was totally out of my league,” she recalls. “With G2G pending, it made me feel so embarrassed and foolish, I can almost cry thinking about it.”
But I reminded her of her core assets, which I never doubted she could leverage to finish the Grand to Grand Ultra: her strength as a backpacker and hiker; her smarts about taking care of her body and troubleshooting problems; and most importantly, her mental determination. We prepared her emotionally and physically for the potential that she would be the last-place finisher, and to take pride if that were the case, knowing that she would be on the course longer and work harder than everyone else.
So, how did it go? Jami barely made it through the first day’s 31-mile stage because of extreme desert heat and nausea. But then … watch out! Instead of feeling sorry for herself and dropping out, she came back with a vengeance, passing people every day and steadily climbing in the ranks.
The end result was a solid, highly respectable mid-pack performance: 56th overall out of 118 participants, 91 of whom finished and 27 who dropped out. She was 16th out of 29 women and 5th in her age group. Cumulative time of 64:32. Whoo-hoo! I’m so proud of her.
I’m sharing Jami’s story and the G2G videos below to inspire people who might be interested in an adventure like the Grand to Grand Ultra, but who might think they’re not “[fill in the blank: tough, fast, strong, brave, etc.] enough.” This is the time of year when we start contemplating goals for the coming year, so I want to throw out the G2G as a possibility. I love this event and how empowering the whole training cycle to get ready for it can be for participants like Jami.
Registration for the Sept. 25 – Oct. 1, 2016, Grand to Grand Ultra is open now and filling up (link to registration). If you decide to register, I have a favor to ask: Please list my name where the form asks “how did you hear about this event?” so that I can get a referral credit as one of the G2G’s coaches.
Q&A with Jami Sutter
Q: What were your biggest fears going into the Grand to Grand Ultra?
A: I was super worried about the heat and the sand! I don’t always do well running in hotter climates, and I know from living on the coast that running in sand is difficult. I also worried about blisters from sand and swollen feet. In general, I worried that I was out of my league in this event.
Did any of those fears come to pass?
Oh yeah. I overheated and couldn’t hold down food by the middle of Stage 1. This not only made moving forward difficult, but it confirmed my doubts about myself. It was a low point that made use of the mental training you and I had talked about. Also, the course had more sand than I could have imagined, but that part went well! I had two teeny tiny blisters on two toes that were gone by the end of the week thanks to my taping skills and the help of the medical team.
What were the high points of the seven-day stage race?
The relationships that I formed with other participants, volunteers and my lovely tentmates. On the long stage, I loved the dunes that night and sitting around the fire with the volunteers at one of the nighttime checkpoints, and finishing the long stage with two new friends just as the sun was rising. Stage 4 (the day after the long stage) was one of the best running days of my life. My new friend June (from New Zealand) and I ran together, laughed the entire day, and felt like we were flying. I could go on and on—there were so many high points.
What was the single most challenging point or moment, and what got you through it?
I was so sick that first day, and the nausea prevented me from sleeping. I was awake all night, and the feeling of hopelessness and sadness was overwhelming. I felt like a truck was sitting on my chest. I believe I got through it with the winning combination of the mental training I had done and the emails from friends and family (the Grand to Grand sets up a “cyber tent” to send and receive messages via email). I knew that this would be a difficult adventure to complete. I spent a lot of time before the event, especially during long runs, picturing myself feeling like I could not do it and doing it anyway. One of my mantras was, “Feeling good is not a requirement.” Meaning, I don’t have to feel good to finish this race. I can do it whether I feel good or not. That being said, I am also pretty good at putting a smile on my face even when I’m not feeling well, and that goes a long way in helping turn things around.
Let’s talk about your training. What were the most important things you did to prepare for the Grand to Grand Ultra?
Hire you as my coach, practice taping my toes, and develop mantras.
How did my coaching help you? Also, we did all our coaching electronically through Training Peaks (an online training log app), email, phone and Skype; can you describe why it worked effectively to have a coach who wasn’t there in person?
Having you as a partner in my training prepared me physically and mentally for this challenge. Even though this is a tough course, throughout the event I felt totally fit and strong and was prepared to meet this challenge physically. It is worth noting that I actually spent less time training than I anticipated, and I believe that having you to help craft my training schedule allowed me to start Grand to Grand fresh and in good health.
As I said before, I felt like I also nailed the mental component, and that is a direct result of the time and energy you put into my mental training. We explored all of the “what if’s” and developed strategies to overcome obstacles. Grand to Grand was so important to me, and I am so grateful to have had you as a guide to provide a voice of reason in training and help me gain confidence.
When I hired you, I thought remote coaching might not be as effective as in-person. It turns out that all I needed from a coach you were able to provide via electronic and phone communication. Part of the success was your being readily available and your quick responses to my inquiries. I think another component is my providing honest and timely assessments of my training and wholly participating in the process. A long-distance relationship of any kind requires clear communication from both parties. Above and beyond that, I felt that you really cared about me and my training progress, and that you were in tune with my needs.
What were some of your positive mantras that helped you through?
I borrowed the “All Day!” mantra from Ken Michel and modified it in different ways throughout the week. My plan was to be out there all day, and I didn’t spend time thinking about wanting or needing to finish faster.
“Just today” was another mantra that helped me not worry about how I was going to get through the rest of the week.
Like I mentioned before, I used the phrase, “Feeling good is optional” and variations of that to remind myself not to panic if I didn’t feel well.
Finally, “This is the life!” is a mantra I use while running and in everyday life. You know that moment when everything comes together and you are doing just what you want to be doing? By repeating this mantra, I remind myself that I want to be out there and chose to participate! And with such a beautiful course, kind people, and a supportive network of family and friends, including you, Sarah, it is so uplifting to express gratitude in that way.
Would you recommend the Grand to Grand Ultra as an adventure? If so, do you have any warnings or advice you would give with that recommendation?
Not only do I recommend Grand to Grand as an amazing adventure, I encourage people who have the desire to do something like this not to hesitate. It is so easy to think that these types of challenges are for someone else—another kind of person. It’s not true, and there is not a better time than right now. You will not be more ready in a year or two. That is exactly what I told myself when I sent my application, and I’m so glad I did.
My general advice is practice everything: running long distances, running and hiking with a pack, eating all of your flavors of dehydrated meals, taping your feet, sleeping on your sleeping pad—everything. Also, read Sarah’s past blog posts on the event. They are a great resource that many of the successful participants utilized.
My only warning is that you have to really WANT to do this to complete it. This is a huge challenge! Training, planning and preparation become all-consuming, especially as the event draws near. Be prepared to make those sacrifices.
Thanks, Jami, for being such a dedicated client and for recommending my past blog posts on this topic. If anyone wants to research past articles on training and gear prep, and the G2G event reports, they are in this category. I also wrote for Trail Runner magazine this feature story on 2012‘s event and this one on 2014’s.
Need more inspiration? Check out this new 45-second teaser video for the 2016 G2G and this video filmed during 2014’s event: