Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to September 18, 2012 blog: Grand to Grand Ultra – Gear and Training for a 160 Mile Backpacking Race
My feet were trashed. I had excruciating blisters on top of blisters, in between, front and back, on most of the toes and pads of my feet. My right knee was swollen, from twisting it running down a sandy hill. By day 4 of 7, finishing the 6 stages, 167 miles self-supported, Grand to Grand Ultra, switched from one of physical power to shear mental stubbornness. Pain was not going to win. I was going to finish this race!
I had never run a full marathon when I signed up for the inaugural Grand to Grand Ultra in April 2012. I had 6 months to train for the September 23-29, 2012 race. I rationalized that carrying a 20 lb. backpack while running 167 miles through canyons, sand dunes, rocks, scree and dirt trails, while ascending and descending a total of 39,000 feet in 7 days, would be just one long, aggressive ‘hike’.
The G2G Ultra turned out to be the hardest adventure, yet most incredible experiences of my life. I love the people I met and the lessons I learned.
I ran, hiked and shuffled through the G2G Ultra and finished 40th out of 60 competitors; 12 of whom DNF (did not finish) due to injury or not making a check points’ cut-off time. It took me a total time of 71 hours and 53 minutes to complete the race.
The overall winner, 50 year old, ultra-marathon and self-supported racing legend, Salvador Calvo Redondo from Spain, finished in 34 hours and 10 minutes, less than half the time it took me. Longest distance run on a treadmill world record holder, Sharon Gayter, 48, from the UK, finished in first place for the women, finishing in 42 hours and 32 minutes.
Payge’s Stage by Stage Overview
Stage 1 (31.5 miles)
Starting at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I was excited and nervous. Following a dirt road, I ran the first 13 miles of the race on pure adrenaline. Then my legs cramped up as we crossed into fields of wild brush. My body seemed to laugh at me, reminding my legs they had never run more then a half-marathon. I finished the first stage speed hiking and in 30th place. I was sore, but overall, felt good.
Stage 2 (28.5 miles)
I started taking CarboPro electrolyte/salt pills on day two and they helped the cramping. I missed a trail marker, along with twenty other competitors, and wound up doing an extra 4 miles. Even after getting lost, and then later getting drenched in a thunderstorm, I finished the stage just before dark, cold, wet and in 32nd place. I was exhausted, nauseous and my feet ached. I could feel the start of blisters but was too tired to do anything about them.
Stage 3 (47 miles)
We had 36 hours to complete this sandy stage that took us up and down mountains, through sand dunes and more soft sand trails. Despite wearing ankle gaiters, sand dug into my shoes. By 10pm, I painfully stumbled into a checkpoint having completed 34 miles.
A few of us decided to get a good night sleep and tackle the last 13 miles and beautiful, yet dreaded, sand dunes in the AM. Most competitors trudged on through the night, like walking zombies. I knew staying would push me down in the rankings, but I didn’t care. My fun factor was over for the day. I knew I could finish the stage before cut-off time. I wanted to enjoy this adventure, not resent it. The next day, with lots of time to spare, I finished the stage dead last. I still managed to remain in 37th place overall.
Stage 4 (25.5 miles)
By the end of stage 4, my swollen feet were not happy campers. Excruciating, bloody-mixed, oozing blisters covered my toes and footpads. I contemplated quitting. To go on would be sadistic. But then I thought, well, what else was I going to do for the next couple days? Pain is temporary. I only had two stages and 34-35 miles to go. Shoot, I made it through the hard part. I can do this!
Stage 5 (25.5 miles)
The next stage included beautiful slot canyons, dry riverbeds and dusty, country roads. As we had in previous
stages, fellow competitor, Melanie Papatestas, and I shuffled on through and kept each other motivated. A woman who does it all; ultra-runner, mom, wife, accountant and a former Marie Corp Captain (how cool is that?), she was also fighting blisters and stomach issues. She never complained and always remained positive. Throughout our highs and lows we told amusing stories, gave each other pep talks, made sure each drank enough water, eat and kept our electrolytes in check. We had fun. This companionship made a huge difference
Stage 6 (9 miles)
Starting at 6am and in the dark, we took on this final stage with gusto. It was alpine climbing and no sand!!! While I was not a really good runner, my strength was in climbing mountains. I raced up the trail and crossed the finish line with the biggest smile. I had done it!
How Would I Do Things Differently?
List of Payge’s G2G Ultra Backpack Contents: http://www.turnthepayge.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/G2G_UltraPackingList.pdf
Except for the ankle gaiters, and maybe wearing a shoe a full size bigger, instead of the half-size bigger that I wore, my gear choices were good. I would definitely do way more running in training, implement a blister prevention program and change some of the food choices.
Run more. In reality, the 20lb backpack was a non-issue. My body was strong from practicing power yoga. My feet were the problem.
In 6 months of training, I hiked and ran over 700 miles. To this rookie runner, it seemed like enough. This was wishful thinking. Of course it was not enough. When you break it down, I averaged only 117 miles a month or 27 miles a week. The G2G Ultra covers 167 miles in 6 stages in 7 days. My feet were in no way conditioned to handle the beating they would take.
I should have had five-six hours a day, training runs several times a week, entered a few trail-ultras and, very importantly, learned how to prevent blisters.
Front-runners and ultra-veterans, like Sharon and Salvador, did not have these problems. Sure, they may be missing some toenails, but they did not have blisters. Matt Nelson, an endurance coach, who finished in the top twenty, had pretty feet when he crossed the finish line. Not even a callous. I had to know the secret for blister free feet!
Aside from more running, Matt swears by this 5-Step Blister Prevention program:
- Nat Geo Expeditions
- Pre-treat and condition feet: He recommends a product called, Tuf-Foot. It is a natural liniment used to condition feet and make them more resistant to blistering. Contrary to popular belief, you must remove calluses and rough patches of skin. Not doing so can actually cause additional deep blisters. Callus cream will soften calluses and prevent friction.
- Trim your toenails: Trim your nails as short as possible and file the nails back at a rounded 45-degree angle. This allows the nail to slide down the toe box of the shoe without catching on the inner lining, socks and seams.
- Pick the right socks and lubricate the feet: Matt uses Injinji toe socks. The individual toe pockets reduce skin on skin friction by transferring toe friction to the sock. To further reduce friction, and lock the sock in place, he applies Body Glide’s liquid powder lubricant on his foot prior to putting on sock.
- Pick the right shoe/ gaiter combination: Both need to be comfortable and tested under stress. Shoes should have a generous toe box, achieved by using a ½ to 1 full size bigger than your normal every day shoe. If there is sand, a full-covered shoe gaiter is recommended.
- Proper hydration: Proper hydration, mixed with electrolytes and balanced sodium intake, keeps your skin elastic and prevents blisters. To little sodium can cause toes to swell and feet to retain fluid. This will decrease the skin’s elasticity and ability to resist friction.
Overall, chewing became a chore. I also lost my appetite. In the end, I wound up throwing away 2,000 of the 14,700 calories of because of these reasons. I would pack less bars, more chicken noodles and GU. Snickers can stay.
I learned that in the middle of a hot marathon, the last think you want to do is take the time and energy to chew a heavy, carb-laden bar. It takes too much effort. Yes, really.
Stefano Gregoretti, 38, of Italy and G2G Ultra second place finisher, consumed an energy gel every 45 minutes during the race. This veteran Ironman, ultra-running gladiator and fitness freak of nature, has a resting heart rate of 25 BPM. He seems to know what he is doing.
Because of many variables including, heat, altitude, distance and exhaustion, I lost my appetite. Sometimes when I tried eating at the end of the day, I became nauseous. I threw away over 2,000 calories of food during the race. I couldn’t stomach it. Chicken noodle soup would have been more preferred.
Two-weeks after the G2G Ultra, my feet were healed and my knee was fine. I am running again and this time with a newfound interest in it.
I may not necessarily love running long distances, but I do love the challenge. I will never be the fastest runner and that is ok. I just want to be the best I can be and to discover what else I can do. I have learned some valuable lessons from this adventure and want to see how they work.
In August 2013, I plan on competing in the 250km, Racing the Planet-Iceland 2013 stage race. This rookie has a little experience now.