Grand to Grand Ultra: 170 miles of life-changing memories

Shortly after finishing the grueling 170 mile desert traverse

If you’ve ever wandered what it’s like to feel completely drained of every ounce of every bit of energy in your body, broiling hot, pain so severe that your feet and toes finally just go numb, uncontrollable and sporadic bouts of laughing followed by crying… well, let me tell you — it’s pretty awesome!

Last week I completed the week long Grand to Grand Ultra — 170 miles, self supported run (which means that I carried all of my food and gear on my back) through the desert, starting at the Grand Canyon and ending near Bryce Canyon in the Grand Staircase Escalante.

Here I am, standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, at the start of the race, the day before it started. I have no idea at this moment how life-changing this run would be.

I live in Kanab, UT. Kanab is the home base for the G2G. Every year I’ve watched elite athletes from all over the world arrive in our little town to compete in the only self-supported stage race of it’s kind in the USA. I’ve always been in awe of these crazy people who would even contemplate doing something so extreme. Every year I am asked “why aren’t you doing this?” My response has always been “I will never, EVER, run the G2G.” I love my toenails, I love food, I’m scared of pooping in the woods, I get nervous around new people, I hate pain, I worry a lot, I’ll miss my family, I like to shower, etc and on and on.

When I got the opportunity through a local scholarship to run the race for free, I thought about how I could use this very scary and daunting event to raise awareness and donations for my friend Dakota, a 12 year old kiddo who is battling LCH, a form of rare diseases known as Histiocytosis. LCH affects about 5 per MILLION people a year, most often children. There is no known cure.

Dakota is a fighter. He always has a smile on his face. He’s so inspiring to me! He didn’t choose his fate. And I had an opportunity to help him and his family if I could raise money to help the cause.

The day I left for the starting line, I had so many emotions running through my head. My heart was beating out of my body, I wanted to cry.

A jam packed school bus filled with runners, including me!

Thumbs up to Harry, JJ, and Steve. Inside I was freaking out.

I’ve run a whole lot of races in my life. I just kept telling everyone “I’m not worried about the running part! I’m worried about the ‘down time’, the camp life, the perils of not showering and having to sleep in a tent with strangers.” I laugh now when I think about that statement.

Camp at night

My awesome tent mates. I love these guys! Matthew, Maia, Sarah, Emmanuel, Thomas, and Jean Andre

One of the first people I met when I stepped off the big yellow bus and into a small shuttle van (which would take us through the harsh desert on bumpy dirt roads to edge of the canyon), was Maia. Maia is a magnetic, awesome, smiling ball of energy and I loved her immediately. I knew we’d be friends. Turns out she was one of my tent mates. I was already feeling better about things.

Arriving at camp in the heat of the day, I was feeling a bit anxious about nearly everything… but the site of the canyon eased my fears and the first person I saw was one of my best friends and camp volunteer, Lisa. Lisa is good at keeping my emotions in check. I was very (VERY) happy to have her there.

My bestie xoxo

That night we had our last dinner — pasta and fixings on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Bliss! I met so many cool people from across the world — countries like Japan, China, Germany, France, the UK and more. Everyone had the same fears. I started to feel like maybe I would be OK — and that we were all on this crazy ride together.

I had a hard time falling asleep that night. I had horrible heartburn and my brain would not shut down. I probably slept a total of 3 hours. I woke up at 6 to the blaring sound of Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. This would be our wake up call for the next 7 days. (Strangely, I’ve added that back into my playlist since the end of the race… a song that tormented me for days is now a call to rally)

123 of us started the race. 88 of us would finish the Ultra (170 miles over 7 days) , 8 would finish the Challenge (a shorter stage race totalling 108 miles over 7 days), and 27 would not finish. But we didn’t know any of this. We just wanted to get this party started.

About 2 minutes before start!

Race director Colin Geddes giving race briefs

And we’re off!

Stage 1: 30.8 miles
95 degrees in the peak of the day, no cloud cover, no wind. Unrelenting. Painful.Β 

Stage 1 knocked me down a few notches. I was completely unprepared for how grueling this race would be, but the arid and scorching desert reminded me that I was going to suffer. There was no other option.

Starting out, I took the first few miles at a good clip. The weather was still mild, but temps were rising. I ran a bit with Sam, the other Kanab runner, and we talked about how lucky we were, how this was “awesome” and that it was going to be “amazing”. All smiles, we banked a few miles but then the reality set in. We’d have a bunch more hours to go. There was not even a breeze. And the last 8 miles traversed a desert landscape filled with cacti and tumbleweeds. I saw grown men stopping to puke (multiple times) and others dropping out. I felt pretty awful but I kept going. I caught up with another runner, Tim, and my tent mate, Morgan. We hung together for a while and then Morgan and I fell into a good rhythm, keeping each other’s brains occupied by playing celebrity name games. We crossed the finish line together.

I limped over to my tent and started to bawl my eyes out. This sucked! I was so emotional. I felt like crap. I wanted to go home.

My tent mates (love them!) all came to check on me. Thomas, from Germany, gave me a tiny packet of some sort of voodoo electrolytes (ha!) that I gulped down and miraculously within 20 min. I was all smiles again. I felt OK! I also found out I have a wicked fast tent! Our tent (Pueblo) would eventually be home to the third and firth place females overall and 6th place male overall.

That night I slept pretty good. And I felt that now I understood one thing: this was hard.

Stage 2: 26.9 miles
Slightly cooler, more shade. Awesome views! Good moods!

I woke up at 6 (to that funky song, Blurred lines, AGAIN) and was ready to get things started.


Β Sam and I decided to stick together for a bit. We adopted this new mantra that was something like “well, we can always walk.” It was actually funny when I think back on this morning. Yesterday we had so much optimism, but today the convo went something like “What are we doing?” “This is crazy.” “This sucks!” ha ha!! But, to my great surprise, the more I got moving, the easier things got. I saw some new sites — I climbed a kick ass mountain on the Navajo Trail which was beautiful and took my breath away (literally, at times). At the top, I was able to run. I ran with Morgan a bit and he was having some major issues with his knee. We kept going. At checkpoint 3, the most amazing surprise awaited me! I heard “you have a special visitor”…. and then out stepped this guy πŸ™‚

Happy happppy!!!

Taking a short rest before heading to camp 2

long, lone desert road.

Feeling awesome!

Yes! I got this!

I couldn’t wait to get to camp 2 and see my friends. Yes, they were now like family. I had an awesome day, and was ready to relax a bit, eat some ground up, dehydrated crap (yeh, it was crap.) and catch up on everyone’s day. I love camp!

Sunset at Camp 2

Loving life (for real! I was so happy!!!)

Stage 3: 52.6 miles. Cloudy and chance of rain. Quickly dissipating and then super hot, sticky, annoying. Dreadful.

I woke up to that annoying Blurred Lines at 6 am sharp. You could feel the nervousness and anxiety in camp. Everyone knew that today would probably be the toughest day. Over 52 miles of hard terrain, a LOT of sand.

The first mile was awesome. I saw my friend Julie, who ran G2G in 2013, and she hung with me for another mile. She was very motivating, and gave me some mental tips to keep my mind in check when things would get rough (oh, they would.)

At around mile 4 I saw my Kanab friends Lisa and Nancy. It was just the BEST! I gave quick hugs and carried on to checkpoint 1. There waiting was Steve, the boys, and Sam’s entire family! Lots of tears, smiles, cowbells, and then I was off to tackle the beast.

Hours later, through sand and sage, I made my way through Best Friends Animal Society, where I had a whole brigade of fans waiting πŸ™‚ I felt like a celebrity. IT WAS AWESOME!Β  I felt amazing. I was hot. I was tired. But seeing my family and friends just boosted my spirits so much.

before a big climb.. happiness πŸ™‚
Heading to checkpoint 4 through Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

SOOO happy to see the fam πŸ™‚

My kicks (yeh, those gaiters did nothing, by the way)
Motivation, provided by Marky Mark (and Molly — my super bff rockstar of the week)

Heading out with friends πŸ™‚

This is hard

Still smiling!

fun stuff.. if only that storm would dump a bit

Can’t believe I’m doin’ this πŸ™‚

The rest of the day played out pretty much as I would have expected with a few exceptions.

1.) Around mile 35 I saw a crazy site. I was sure I was hallucinating but no.. it was my friend Molly and Lady, her horse, in the middle of a beautiful field of flowers and desert shrubs at sunset. Only Molly would think to find me in the middle of nowhere. On a horse. She entertained me and J.B. (my long-stage companion and motivator to not give up).

2.) Around mile 38 a perhaps even stranger site — a pair of glowing eyes on the side of the, not a mountain lion, but my friend Paul — who may just be crazier than I am (sorry Paul!) who waited in the lightening storm for me and helped get me and J.B. to checkpoint 6. I still lol thinking about this. Paul rocks!

The sand dunes at 2 am. Insanity. The hardest thing I’ve ever done in all of my life. Straight up dunes. Not gradual rolling hills. STRAIGHT UP freakin dunes that you would take 1 step up, and fall right back down. I laugh now. I was not laughing then πŸ™‚

But a few things I did stop to absorb — the awesome night sky, the shooting stars, the absolute silence. The realization that I was going to actually finish this race! I was going to finish. I’d come so far, and after this long stage, I had it in the bag. I was so tired, but I had this. I would never give up. No matter what.

I rolled in at 5:45 AM. It was dark. I was cold. I was shaking uncontrollably. I felt sick. I was filthy. I just wanted to sleep. So I did.

Day 4: Recovery.

Day 4 (Wed) was a recovery day for some… but there were still runners out on the course. Runners had 36 hours to complete the stage. I woke up after about 4 hours of “rest” and felt like total crap. I felt ill, literally. I wanted to puke. I was hot, but couldn’t stop shaking. I was pale, dehydrated, and still so, so tired. I took my sleeping pad out to a shade tree and put my feet up and fell asleep for a few hours.

That night was just awesome. A local singing duo came to entertain us, and we even got a coke! It was heaven πŸ™‚ I had my feet all fixed up by the awesome medical peeps (seriously, the BEST!) and I was feeling really GREAT!

Stage 4: 26 miles. Hot but breezy. GORGEOUS! Best. Day. Ever!

Funny all the highs and lows on this course. Stage 4 was my favorite. I felt good the ENTIRE run. I felt like it was the first run of the race. I had energy and stamina. The scenery was stellar. And then right at checkpoint 3 I saw a most glorious site — my hubby and kiddos, and friend Nancy.. waiting for me! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

JJ got to spray me down with water and he was loving it. Harry was a little bit emotional but I knew he missed me and I was so happy to hug them. I missed them SO MUCH!

JJ keeps up the pace with me

Ready to go through the tunnel.. .fun stuff!

At the end of Stage 4, I crossed the finish line only to be greeted by Best Friends founder and CEO, and my good friend, Gregory Castle. Gregory ran the G2G lastΒ  year. He is an inspiration to me.

I’m kinda tired πŸ™‚

I was so happy to get back to camp and see my friends and hear about their days. I was starting to like this camp life πŸ™‚ What the heck was I so worried about??!

Stage 5: 26.2 miles. Ugh.

Everyone was very excited for Stage 5. Running through slot canyons! Wee!! For some reason I was hating life today. I was SO tired. My feet were really banged up, my knee hurt, and my achilles ached. I didn’t want to run through that damn slot canyon. It was just rocky and I had to jump from rock to rock (each time with an ow and an ow). I do love Peekaboo slot canyon, but I was over it. As I excited the canyon, I saw Steve and my friends Molly, Annie and Lexie. I was truly happy to see them, but I soon dissolved into a puddle of tears. I was just feeling so broken. I didn’t know how I’d make it through. I wanted to hug them but I couldn’t even hold back my emotions. I felt awful.

I was def. holding back the tears here. Cool picture though!

I drudged through more miles of sand and hills, intermittently crying and then yelling at myself to keep it together! (dont worry, no one was around to hear me being crazy) ha

At checkpoint 2 i met up with Ash. Ash is an amazing runner who is just all around awesome and has funny stories to tell. Thank God for Ash! He kept my mind from going down the rabbit hole of negativity. He told me good stories about yanking out teeth at a restaurant and eating crickets. He’s also running another stage race (and even harder one next week! WHAT! ok, I had to stop whining!)

I eventually made it to Camp 6. I was never SO HaPPY! And to make things even better, my friend Nancy came to visit me and give me a pep talk! That made my day!!!

Only 1 day left. I felt strangely sad.

That night I spent a lot of time talking to other runners and the same feelings were shared among us all. We were glad that there was one more day. But sad. It was so odd, I can’t even explain it.

Stage 6: 7.7 miles — awesomeness!

I was so pumped this morning! Only 7.7 miles. Sure, it was over 2000 ft. elevation gain but you know what? I was so ready! I was feeling SO good! The air was chilly, my feet felt good, I was just on!

The scenery was epic. Seriously — we were running on the edge of an exposed cliff face, with the brilliant pink hoodoos of Bryce Canyon at every turn. There were views for miles and miles.

I love this pic of the finish line literally right on the edge of the mountain πŸ™‚ thanks, Molly!

This was my best day EVER! I crossed the finish line and a flood of tears fell. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I did it! I seriously did it! I was never so happy EVER to see my husband, kids, and friends who were there waiting for me. Best. Moment. EVER EVER!

About to cross the finish line!!!! 170 miles!!

Seeing Harry for the first time

A kiss from my man πŸ™‚

I really missed this kiddo

JJ doesn’t want to let go. I don’t either πŸ™‚

My boys

Best moment ever!

My buckle!!!

There are so many memories that I will cherish forever from this race. I met so many amazing people who have changed my life. There were the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. There were times I did not know if I would complete this, quite honestly.

To every person who emailed me throughout the race, THANK YOU! Your letters were delivered to my tent each night. I laughed and cried when I read them. It made me miss home so much. But mostly it humbled me. I am so very grateful for every single one of you who reached out to give me encouragement, donate to my fundraiser, make a sign, take photos, watch my kids, bring me gifts!!! You are all so awesome. I love you all!!

Here are a few more of my favorite pics of some really cool people, who I love!

Rachel, my salty and sweet friend. I love ya! I miss you!!!

The amazing Kate and Mario. These peeps are simply the best!

My awesome tenties — I learned some great french cuss words over the week πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

Sam and I shortly after the finish. I think we are saying CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS???

The best of the best — such awesome support for me and Sam (Mandy, Sam’s wife. And Steve, my husband)

My voodoo doctor, Thomas.

Matthew, one fast dude and such a cool tent-mate

Ugh! I wanna cry! My girls, Maia and Sarah xoxo

Our crew from Pueblo and Rachel. We rock!

No, not Jillian Michaels. It’s Kate.. and she rocks!

Some of the best volunteers on the planet!

Sarah and Matthew. I love these two!
Jami! Coke and tequila πŸ™‚

Celebratory champagne and pizza πŸ™‚

Tatiana — she’s awesome!

I love Kanab!


I will forever be grateful for my family, friends, and this body — that I have learned is much stronger than I thought. xoxox

PS — I kinda stole these photos from all over. πŸ™‚ Thank you for Molly Hiatt, Mark Morgan, Steve, Lisa, Barry, and a few others who I grabbed from.Β 

  • Jill, this is a wonderful report and brought back some amazing memories for me of doing it in 2014. I think you made a little light of your pain in the middle of the long 52 mile stage. When I saw you at the bottom of Cave Lakes Canyon, I thought you were really suffering, but no less determined to power on. You could only just walk and still 25 miles to go! That day is a massive undertaking, but I well remember the pleasure of running through the sand in the middle of the night, seeing nothing but what your headlamp lit up, and hearing wonderful sounds like the coyotes calling to one another across the sand. Then when I saw you arriving at camp at the end of stage four your were jubilant and looking so strong. I knew you could do it right from the start, but I also knew you would have the most extreme emotional roller coaster of your life! Well done, well done, well done!

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