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The Grand 2 Grand Ultra

XNRG's very own Neil Thubron on racing the sublime - but tough - 2018 Grand 2 Grand Ultra...

Wow. What an amazing event. Fantastic scenery, outstanding organisation, great route, fabulous people - but don’t be fooled, the G2G is a very tough multiday event.

Based in Southern Utah and North Arizona, the G2G is a 7-day, 6-stage multiday ultra event. Based from the town of Kanab, a beautiful western town, it's surrounded by the amazing geographical wonders around the Grand Canyon.

As a running tourist these days, when I am searching for an event I am looking for somewhere that is in a stunning location, is self sufficient and a tough route, with a good reputation for looking after the competitors. All in all, I am looking for an experience of a lifetime. The G2G ticked all these boxes - and more.

I had never been to the Grand Canyon area of the US although I have always been a huge cowboy movie fan. What I did not realise was just how huge the territory is. Everything is mind-blowingly massive.

I flew to Phoenix with my father. He was spending two weeks with some old friends of mine. I hired a car and drove up to Kanab. Once you leave the city limits of Phoenix you are in the desert, passing through Indian reservations and vast expanses of space.

I stopped off to view the famous horseshoe canyon formed by the Colorado River as it winds through the Grand Canyon. One of the natural wonders of the world ticked off, I drove to Kanab.

The competitors for the event are housed in various hotels in the town. It is a big thing for a small-ish tourist town. There was the usual admin and packing, unpacking, visiting the supermarket to buy more stuff I didn’t need, then a kit check, flag sewn on shirt, and pick up the race pack, etc, followed by a welcome dinner and briefing. All good, thorough, professional and I felt very well looked after.

Saturday morning, we shipped out to the base camp ready for a Sunday start. I mentioned earlier that the country is vast, so the journeys are not short, but it was over pretty quickly. As we got out of the van I could not believe my eyes. The camp was on the rim of the canyon. They call it the North Rim! I have seen many wonderful views in my life, but 'oh my god' this was unreal.

I dumped my kit in the tent (allocated in advance which was nice, so no hassle) and went and sat on the edge of the cliffs to the canyon below. I was in awe of the whole scene. I just sat and absorbed it for about an hour.

Then the usual camp admin, meet our tent buddies and more faffing around with kit. I have always been lucky with tent buddies and this year was no exception. There were eight of us in a small-ish tent (with a groundsheet - what luxury). Some fantastic people, from all over the world – three from the US, three from Switzerland (although one was Swiss Italian so more of an Italian with a Swiss passport 😊), and a German.

Our last dinner was served by the cowboy cooks that followed us round for the week to feed the crew. Great food, great company and some thorough briefings, then bed to get ready for the next morning.

Day One - 32 pretty flat miles

The Grand 2 Grand Ultra

We started on the edge of the canyon - our last sight of the awesome view. The route followed dirt tracks and a little cross country. We basically ran along the enormous plain at the foot of the famous Vermillion Cliffs. It was the usual first day of a multiday: too fast with a heavy pack and fresh legs! As we approached the camp we could see it for several miles: a semi circle of white tents in the distance. It is exactly as I would have imagined a wagon train would look as it stopped for the night – circling round to protect the occupants from attacks by red Indians.

I need to declare now that I am a huge cowboy movie fan, so running through this territory my mind kept coming back to images from movies I had seen. I was constantly trying to name the movie the scene I was seeing had come from.

The overnights fell into a pretty standard routine. I like the routine in camps on a multistage. Like most multidays (except the MDS) we were provided with hot water. Personally I think this is a sensible 'luxury' for any event to provide.

Tent Mojave – that was us – got back, did our usual sorting out feet, having a wash, grabbing a snack and chatting or sleeping, but all off our feet. It was very hot in the tents, but shade was hard to find, so we had to go with what we had.

We would have a dinner date in the evening around 6pm where we all went and made our evening meals. We basically added hot water to our dried food, made a hot drink and sat around outside the tent chatting about everything. Conversation covered everything from our families and other races we had done, to Brexit and tinder dating. All great fun.

Day Two - 26 or 27 miles

The Grand 2 Grand Ultra

I had two problems on the start of day two. The first was some pretty bad chaffing around the inner thigh caused by my undershorts, plus a sharp pain through my right knee. The shorts issue was avoidable. Basically, before I left to fly to the US I put my favourite shorts in the wash, but they disappeared! So I had to go with a plan B which was not good. 

Before the start of each day Colin (the race director) gave a short brief on the day and told us of any penalties incurred the previous day / night. Penalties were incurred for a long list of things, but mainly for any litter dropped with your race number on it, taking camp stools into your tent, coming off the route, and for the faster guys they were quite strict on 'muling' – not carrying all your kit / food yourself. That wasn't something I needed to worry about.

I started off day two as quick as I could, but my right leg would not bend. I was determined not to let it stop me, but I was in a lot of pain and nurofen was not cutting it. Luckily enough, I am big believer that the body will heal itself and by the 1st CP at 6 miles the pain had subsided. We then had a very big, hot, steep climb out of the valley and into and over the surrounding hills. I love climbing - so no issue for me. We then had a fantastic run through a forest. Everywhere I looked I could imagine a small cowboy camp fire or Indians playing in the trees. As we went into the afternoon we were constantly going through amazing scenery. I stopped counting how many times I said 'Wow'. Every hill summit, every corner had a new wonder to view.

First-race checkpoint crews

I want to dedicate at least one paragraph in this blog to the crew. I know from our business that an event is made, not by the 'management', but by the crew and competitors. And the crew create the atmosphere that the competitors reflect. The crew at G2G were outstanding in all areas. They were excited and supportive, full of energy, and incredibly helpful to weary runners. They had to put up with smelly, sweaty competitors hugging them, and me constantly grabbing chaffing cream and shoving my hands down my shorts in front of them. They were up day and night on their feet. The medical team were dealing with blisters and other issues from early morning to late in the evening, and the base camp crew always made sure we had a place to sleep when we got back, and were looked after in camp.

A fab team that made the event special – thank you. 

Camp two was pretty much the same as camp one, with lovely views, but roughish underfoot. Same routine as the previous day.

I should probably mention here that one of the other luxuries in camp (which again makes lots of sense) were portaloos.

Day Three - 52 hilly, sandy miles

The long day on these events normally comes on day four. The advantage of this is that you are more acclimatised, and have a slightly lighter pack. For G2G, this isn’t possible.

I am not going to describe the whole long day. Most people’s epic stories from events and some of their best friendships are made on the long day and this was no exception for me.

The scenery throughout the whole of the long day was more amazing and stunning. After CP1 we climbed a pretty big hill (did I mention I love climbing). And then it got serious - loads of sandy trails which were very hard to run on, and it became clear that my strategy of having 'debris' gaiters, not full gaiters, was a mistake. I met up with James Yeardley and Mike Jackson at CP2 and we ended up sticking together most of the way to the finish.

Throughout the days it was hot. In the mornings we started in chilly conditions (overnight it got down close to zero degrees C), then as the day went on it got up to the high 30s in the canyons and dried up river beds.

We ploughed on through the day. The section that everyone had been anticipating and dreading came between CP 6 and CP 7 (I can’t remember the exact distances, but about 38 miles in). This was where we headed into the Pink Sand Dunes. I have done dunes before, but nothing like these ones. There were 21 or 22 dunes that must have been 50m high, built of very very soft and dry sand. Climbing them was incredibly hard. Quad killing, and in the dark. Although it was painful, it was also an amazing experience. We switched off our head torches and just looked at the wonderful night sky and the terrain around us. 

We finally finished the long day. I was shattered, in bits, but delighted to be in around 2 or 3 in the morning. Thanks to James / Mike for all their company.

The next morning competitors were slowly drifting in from their day and night out on the trails. The location for camp three was amazing. As the sun came up, the view of Zion Park was incredible. 

Day Four - a 'rest' day

Day four was lots of fun - lots of lying around. Lots of chatting. Then late in the afternoon the organisers brought in some cowboys and a cowgirl to teach us how to lasso steers – well, a plastic one anyway. This was hugely fun. Then a well known (apparently) cowboy poet read some of his cowboy poems and we had two cowboy singers entertaining us. A fabulous afternoon.

Day Five - more tough, sandy, hilly miles

The Grand 2 Grand Ultra

Day five came with some awesome views, wonderful canyons, a tunnel and rope ladder climb up a cliff.

Same night routine.

Day Six - a special day

I'll never forget day six. After the first 5 miles or so, we came down into a canyon. I had heard of and seen pictures of the slot canyons, but 'oh my god' the run through these canyons was a very special treat. It wasn’t short, either. It went on and on, got narrow, we had to climb over logs and trees that had got stuck in the canyons, down ladders and then we emerged. I was running with a massive smile on my face.

The Grand 2 Grand Ultra

The place was called Peekaboo Canyon and you have to go there. 

That night’s camp was the highest of the week on a fabulous plain where you could just imagine cowboys herding their steers. The sunset was fantastic, and then the temperature dropped so it was a cold night. 

Day Seven - 7 uphill miles

Day seven climbed up a mountain side to the top of the Grand Staircase - the second G in the G2G. I thought this would be a pretty dull day, climbing up to the finish. How wrong I was. The first half was dull, but then we turned onto a very narrow trail that hugged the pink cliffs, which are one of the geological wonders of the area. It was fantastic running: the pink cliffs to my left and the view that went on for hundreds of miles to my right. Another 'wow' moment.

Climbing up to the finish was short and sharp, then a short dirt track section to the finish line which was as dramatic as the rest of the week. It was set right on the top and near to the cliff edge of the Grand Staircase.

It was incredibly special to finish and see my father waiting with our two friends. 

Once back in Kanab, and after a good shower, few beers and proper food, we were picked up and taken to the gala dinner venue. As we approached the open marquee with its fairy lights set under the pink cliffs, I know we were in for a special night. It is always strange seeing people out of the smelly running gear that they have been wearing all week, and dressed in their going out clothes. You hardly recognise each other.

It was an amazing evening and a great finish to a fantastic event. 

In summary: stunning location, great organisation, a fabulous but tough route - definitely a must on your race bucket list.

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