TRAIL RUN MAGAZINE
Volume 5 Ed 19//summer 2015/16 – AU/NZ/ASIA
Australian Sandy Suckling learns the ‘stage’ in stage race as much describes the procession of emotions as it does the procession of days in North America’s only multi-day desert run, the Grand to Grand Ultra.
WORDS: Sandy Suckling IMAGES: courtesy Grand to Grand Ultra
“CACTUS SPINES, SANDY! WATCH THE CACTUS SPINES!”
IT WAS MY MANTRA AS I DODGED BRUTAL BUSHES, NO EASY TASK WHEN YOU’RE ALSO CONCENTRATING HARD ON FOLLOWING PINK FLAGS DOTTED THROUGHOUT A DUSKY ORANGE LANDSCAPE. MY MIND WANDERED AS I CLIMBED A STEEP HILL BEFORE THE TRAIL BROKE SHARPLY TO THE RIGHT. I WAS ENJOYING THE SOLITUDE OF ULTRA RUNNING. OUT HERE ALL I NEED WORRY ABOUT WAS GETTING INTO CAMP EACH DAY, EATING, THEN SLEEPING. OR TRYING TO. SCHEDULES, MEETINGS AND LIFE COMMITMENTS WERE LEFT BEHIND IN AUSTRALIA. AS THE MANTRA GOES: ONE STEP IN FRONT OF THE OTHER. MIND THE CACTUS.
Wrapped in these thoughts, I misjudged my footing, the silence broken by screams of excruciating pain. My screams. Someone had stabbed me, surely? No. Something. I looked down to see a big cactus ball, full of long spines, penetrating my calf. The sensation was intense. I gritted teeth but nothing could stop tears rolling down my dusty face, splashing into a micro-puddle of human misery on the desert floor. What was I going to do? How was I going to get this out of my leg? I started hallucinating. I could hear voices but there was no one around. As I turned hoping the spell would be broken by some vision of reality, two competitors neared. I mentally checked off that indeed, they were real and not a figment of my pain-infused imagination. Thankfully, I was not hallucinating. My fellow runners jumped into action.
Peter, also Australian, soon realised he couldn’t pull the cactus out with his hands and started to look for two flat rocks. His plan was to push either side of the cactus ball to grip and yank it from my leg. Ronnie, a Canadian, looked on horrified. I was screaming as Peter pinched and pulled. The result was a loud yelp, but the desert expanse quickly swallowed my call of agony as the needles came free. I managed to hobble over the day’s finish line and straight into the medical tent.
The altitude, the heat and the cactus spines were testing my limits: and this was only the first of six days of running across the famous but unforgiving desert landscapes of Arizona. I had signed up to the Grand to Grand – a self-supported 273km multiday adventure running race – for the obvious challenge. I was also attracted as it offered the opportunity to run through parts of the Grand Canyon wilderness, a growing target for trail and adventure runners.
Of course, the Grand Canyon is a landscape that lures visitors of all types, but its trail networks and the lure of the now-popular rim to rim runs (which have cause some consternation amongst other trail users) have raised its visibility on the community running radar. The Grand to Grand, being the only staged race of its kind in the United States, offered not just a chance to run highlight sections of the Grand Canyon, but also to explore its intricacies over a period of time; the six stages giving ample opportunity for the desert to take hold and enter your bloodstream, be that through the visceral daily experience, or, if you’re unlucky or lack concentration, cactus spines skewering you.
So at the end of Day One my primary concern was that the remaining spines still ensconced in my leg were taken out. The next day’s 43.3km stage would not be possible otherwise. The line-up at the Grand to Grand is a brutal one by any multiday measure.
Each of the first five stages are technically ‘ultra’ distances – greater than a marathon. If you make it through them all, the final sixth stage is a seemingly innocuous-on-paper 12 kilometres straight up a mountain goat track. The reward being the most stunning view of the famous Golden Staircase, an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon proper.
I was a long way from relishing that view. First, I had to stop thoughts questioning my ability to finish this race. Instead, I needed to focus on why I do these races, to challenge not just the physical but also the boundaries of my mind. And I had to bring the focus back from the days ahead, to concentrate on one day at a time, or better one hour, or even one minute at a time.
The tough-talk (and full cactus spine extraction) worked. I did bounce back the next day. I stuck to my hydration and food plan and pushed the body hard. Other than grabbing water at checkpoints I didn’t stop lest thoughts of stopping completely creep in. Indeed, the more I hurt the more I found I wanted to push, but this is the strange thing about stage races – there comes a point where you have to tell yourself to back off or you are not going to recover enough to push again the next day and tomorrow’s stage – the third and longest – was a whopping 84km. Stage races are not about a day but days of running and pushing the boundaries only far enough to where you can still back up the next day. The other thing is the need to control – or recognise and manage – your emotions which magnify intensely at times. My first day had been slower than expected and I was angry about it. I needed a good day today to banish the ‘woe is me’ thoughts.
I gained forty minutes on the female leader and was only 10 minutes adrift. The challenge was put before me, not to win but just to stay somewhere close to the female race favourite, a French lady who had won Marathon de Sables multiple times. At some point, someone asked me what my overall race strategy was. Being honest, I wasn’t sure I had one other than just getting through each day and eking out every bit of strength I could muster at each moment until the end.
Every day brings new challenges so at the end of a stage I would think about how the day went and then reassess if I needed to change something for the following stage. I took care of the physical, dealt with any blisters or cuts, got some food in and – most importantly – got some rest. Note that is rest not sleep, as my mattress was thin and I was sharing a tent with eight other competitors. It’s amazing, though, how even without much sleep the body can keep going day in, day out. And living and running like this you build bonds with many other competitors as well as the volunteers, medics and event staff. They are all there to wipe a tear away or share in the excitement of you finishing each stage.
Another critical strategy is packing. This was a self-supported race, meaning you carry everything you need on your back through the course of the event. The only things you are given are water and a spot in a tent each night. Oh yes, and as if running the equivalent total of six and a half marathons across thick sand,
ankle busting dry rocky creek beds, scrabbling up and down mountains, through slot canyons,
descending gravelly vertical drops on my butt, bush bashing, cutting up my legs, dodging thunderstorms, crossing rivers and climbing on all fours up massive sand dunes,
then stumbling down the other side to just do it all over again each and every day was not enough, why not make it a little tougher and carry a fully loaded pack?
This is not simply trail running, nor just an ultra. It’s pure adventure running, being that you really are never sure of the outcome each day. You soon discover that your pack is far too heavy. You swear, then turf out every little luxury. Then the real obsessing over each and every gram begins. Do I go hungry and have just the minimum calories physically required or do I want comfort food which helps get through the mentally tough patches? You start trading off one thing for another in the hope of having a lighter pack. The obsession grows as it seems others have packs lighter than yours. How did they get their pack so light? These thoughts go round in circles over and over again… and again… and again… until the race starts and you get pack rash and aching shoulders and back. Why do we do this again? The night before Stage Three we were told the top 19 runners where going to leave two hours later than everyone else and although it was nice to know that I was in the top 19 runners (along with only one other female), mentally it threw me. All I could think was that means missing two hours of the coolest part of the day and also two hours more in the dark at the end of the stage. Heat, light – every little element matters to your estimations of daily success on a magnificent scale. The brief was for lots of running through loose, deep sand and over some massive dunes.
Not only would it be long and tough but it would also be slow going. On top of that, the forecast was for rain and thunderstorms. As promised they hit with a fury in the dark of night to give a spectacular light show but a scary one to be exposed to as they passed overhead. After the storms we entered the Coral Pink Sand Dunes following little lights in the distance. The only way to tackle these beasts was on all fours, crawling forward two ‘steps’ and then sliding back one. At one point all I could do was laugh but somehow I managed to edge my way over and run down the other side. Again and again. I was lucky to have my two saviour runners with me, Ronnie and Peter, and it was great to have company. Instead of talking to myself someone would answer – even when I didn’t make sense. I remember saying that all I wanted for Christmas was some long legs and raved about how we all must be crazy and when I grow up I want to be able to run down hills as fast as them. At other times I was silent, lost in my own headspace, thinking of nothing. Finally we made it to the last few kilometres of the stage, but not before the course had us bush bashing through dense scrub searching in the dark for the pink flags that would lead us into camp. It was an incredible feeling when we could finally see camp, like a beacon lighting the distance, and it gave a burst of energy so that we could make the final push, all running in together.
I found my tent and lay there, resting and thinking about the day, eventually drifting off into much-needed sleep. As the days went on there were many DNF’s. You feel for competitors that simply cannot go any further. Their pain becomes yours as you know the sacrifice it takes just get to the starting line. After all, every single competitor represented a range of Regular Joe’s – professors, students, surgeons or the local garbage collector – all trying to achieve something extraordinary. All would have foregone many things – nights out with friends, nights in with partners, time with kids – just to test themselves in a harsh desert.
The final day came, Stage Six, and I was happy that I had made it this far. I hadn’t dared to think about the finish line for so many days, but there I was so close, lined up at the final stage starting line. My pack finally felt light – I had eaten all my food. A shower, a real bed and good food awaited. I could feel the excitement that buzzed amongst us all. Those demons in my head that I fought along the way, I had beaten. I had learned much about myself and more about others. In the desert, we shared stories, felt the pain of others, laughed, and often cried. As beaten up as my body was, I was on a high. The desert is a magical place that you want to capture and bottle up.
As I approached the finish line I couldn’t stop smiling. Pain, what pain? The crowd cheered and screamed, I held back the tears but for the first time in six days, they were tears of bliss and so I was happy to spill them on the floor of the desert that had squeezed them from me.
Sandy Suckling won the female category in the 2015 Grand to Grand and came 12th overall in a collated time of 42:15:16.
My final thought’s:
Knowing what I now know “would I have not done the race, would I have past up the opportunity.. absolute not” You need to believe in yourself, dream big, challenged your thinking and take the path unknown. You just have to want something bad enough, you just have to 100% commit and keep trying, if something isn’t working be prepared to try something else. You learn so much about yourself in fact in these races you learn so much about others. You share stories, you feel others pain, you laugh, cry and in the end strangers at the start become lifelong friends…you finish the race as one big family
I have been blessed to have seen places in the world that running has allowed me to see that I would not have otherwise and been humbled by achieving way beyond what I ever thought I could. I am lucky to have a husband that is my biggest supported and follows all my dreams. There is a deep satisfaction I get in pushing my boundaries and that is where I have learnt so much about myself. My first stage race I finished 100th and in G2G 1st Female and 12th Overall…. If someone had told me that in my first race I would have laughed at them and said in my dreams only and laughed again………… well you just need to dream big anything is possible you just have to want it bad enough….