Stage Fright - Page 3
Runners at the start of one of the stages. Miranda Jamieson (#202) was the women's winner of the final three stages. Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra.
Stage 1, 31.5 miles, began with relatively easy running on a downhill hard-packed road. Gayter took off with the front pack, which included Caroline Richards, 51, of England, also recognized as a potential winner of the women’s race. Richards had been a top finisher in self-supported stage races in places such as the Kalahari and Gobi deserts.
There was little question that the dominant male competitor would be Salvador Calvo Redondo, 50, of Spain, whose resume includes five wins in the past four years at 250K stage races. But two Italians were primed to stay on Redondo’s heels: Stefano Gregoretti and Davide Ugolini, both 38.
Under a slightly overcast sky, I settled into a comfortable pace, opened my eyes and ears to nature, and contemplated the vastness of the brown landscape dotted by grayish-green desert brush. It extended uninterrupted until hitting reddish escarpments far off in the distance.
The sun-parched plateau transitioned to a steady uphill, and the course led us through weeds and calf-high cacti in an off-trail stretch. Suddenly, I came upon Gayter sitting on a rock a few miles from the finish. She was picking cactus needles out of her shoe and said stoically, “This pack’s killing my shoulders.”
I reached the finish line in 6 hours 46 minutes. Tess Geddes wrapped me in a big hug and delivered the surprising news that I was the second woman, finishing five minutes behind Richards.
Near sunset, virtually every runner and volunteer stopped what they were doing and gathered at the finish line to applaud a pair of runners at the back of the pack, KiSuk Song and Kyung Tae Song of South Korea. Kyung Tae, 51, lost his sight 30 years ago in a grenade accident while serving in the military. The blind man was covering the entire course while holding onto his guide, KiSuk.
Stories from the trail passed among runners as we sat around a campfire. Using my spork to eat from a small foil bag of pasta, I felt unusually satiated from the food and profoundly satisfied from the run.
Stage 2, just under 29 miles, turned out to be a day of mishaps. I took off my shoes to fuss with blisters, and I tripped and fell into a juniper tree that punctured my water bottle. Everyone wilted in furnace-like heat—until the sky changed abruptly, and thunder and lightning roared in. Runners in the second half of the pack got soaked in a downpour. The campground turned into a bowl of red-dirt soup.
Heading into Stage 3, women held eight of the top 15 spots. I was the third female and ninth overall. While the top three men—Redondo, Gregoretti and Ugolini—had a commanding lead, the next four guys were pushing each other hard to secure a top-10 spot. It was anyone’s guess how the arduous 47-mile Stage 3, would play out.
The Grand to Grand throws in the added challenge of placing this long stage mid-week. Most self-supported, weeklong races follow a format of four days of around 25 miles each, a long stage of around 50 miles on Day 5, followed by a rest day and then a short sprint for the final stage. The Grand to Grand format meant we’d run the long stage with a heavier pack (since we hadn’t eaten through as much food at that point), and with the knowledge it would be followed by back-to-back stages of marathon distances. What’s more, the 47 miles held all kinds of terrain and obstacles while ascending 6400 feet and descending 5300 feet.
A mile into Stage 3, I heard a runner call out, “Look, a condor!” But I didn’t look because I was fully focused on gripping red rock and hoisting myself up a boulder on a vermilion cliff. Shortly thereafter, I had to concentrate on skating down slopes of slick rock that broke up the sandy hills like sheets of ice on a powdery ski run.
Richards, the female runner who dominated the first two days and leapfrogged with Gayter during the early hours of Stage 3, began to fade in the afternoon. I passed her at sunset as we ran along a highway toward the Coral Pink Sand Dunes park entrance.
I made it over those sand dunes and past that snake that looked like a dropped headlamp. The sandy road led deeper into the night, to the penultimate checkpoint around Mile 40. Gayter was sitting at that checkpoint and glanced up from her cup of soup with haunted-looking eyes. She put down her soup, took off, and I followed about 200 meters behind.
A cluster of orange ribbons indicated a turn into an off-trail section choked with brush and no discernable path. Gayter’s light bounced down the road straight ahead—she missed the turn. For a split second I considered letting her continue off course, but then I hollered, “Sharon!” Her headlight turned around and came back.
When she passed me, she stated the obvious, “Had to backtrack a bit,” and busted through the brush while swinging her trekking poles like scythes.
I hoped to stick with her for guidance and extra light. No such luck—while she fearlessly plowed ahead, I stepped gingerly over spiky yucca and whimpered when branches tugged at my hair. Several times, when I couldn’t spot any marker, I stopped cold to scan the woods and tried to suppress my fear.
Late in the night, alone and now hallucinating that the sticks on the ground were slithering, I did what any good paranoid person would do: I began talking out loud. But it didn’t sound like my voice. I seemed to channel a Minnesota granny plucked from a cruise ship.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, wouldya look at that?” I talked to the trees and scolded the orange flags for hiding. “You betcha it’s dark, my heavens!”
Picking through piñon and talking myself down from an anxiety cliff, I made it through the woods and reached the campground at two minutes past midnight. I went straight to the medical tent to lie down on a cot, buried my face in a paper towel and had a big cry—the shoulder-shaking, sobbing kind. After a day that demanded so much strength and resolve, I could finally uncork my emotions.
Stage 3 put Gayter in the lead among women and fourth overall. I found myself 12 minutes behind her, second in the women’s field and fifth overall.