Grand to Grand Ultra: Gear and Training for a 160-Mile Backpacking Race

A lower section of the Grand Canyon, as seen from Cape Royal at the less-frequented but more-spectacular North Rim. Photograph by Alex Noriega, My Shot

On September 23 at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 75 endurance athletes representing 15 different countries will take off on a self-supported, seven day, six stages,160-mile, adventure called the Grand to Grand Ultra. Carrying all their food and gear, they will run through canyons, sand, around Zion National Park, ascend and descend a combined 39,000 feet and finish on the summit of the Grand Staircase on September 29.

Competitors in the G2G Ultra include Everest summiteers, Badwater ultra-marathon veterans, and endurance world record holders … and then there is me.

I’ve run a handful of half-marathons and that is it. What I bring to the table is experience as a backpacker, having climbed and hiked trails all over the world.
The G2G Ultra combines the endurance aspects of ultra-light backpacking with distance running. This challenge intrigues me.

My journey training and researching the “ideal” gear, apparel, footwear, and nutrition has been a transformation. Whether it works or not, we will find out very soon!

Training

In April 2012 I entered the G2G Ultra, giving me half a year to train. I was in shape, but still wearing that extra ‘winter’ weight. That would have to go. I needed to condition my feet and body to handle running back-to-back marathons, on trails of sand, dirt, and rocks with a 20-pound pack—and all this at elevations ranging from 5,203 feet to 9,030 feet. I live in Nashville, Tennessee, a whopping 597 feet above sea level.

So, I have spent the past six-months running over 500 miles on trails, sand, and roads in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and Florida’s beaches. For elevation training, I went to Colorado and Montana. I trekked more than 200 miles, up and down 14ers, the Manitou Incline and in Glacier National Park.

A firm believer in yoga cross training, I upped my practice of aggressive Vinyasa/Ashtanga yoga to 20 hours a week. My mind and body are “balanced,” stronger then ever and I can turn myself into a pretzel.

A week away from the big race, I passed my required sports physical with flying colors. Blood pressure is near-perfection measuring 112/81 and I lost 11 pounds!

Gear, Apparel & Nutrition

The key is ultra-light weight! I don’t want my backpack to weigh more then 20 pounds. Taking into account the courses variables, I researched everything and created a spreadsheet (like the nerd I am) with formulas calculating calories, clothing and gear per ounce.

Weather and temperatures will fluctuate between mid-80F during the day to 40F at night. Overheating to hypothermia are threats, as are flash floods in the canyons if it rains.

Altitude sickness is a possibility given the 5,203 feet to 9,030 feet course elevation.

Blisters are my biggest concern. I don’t like sand and a large section of the course has us running through it. One grain of sand can destroy your feet, and race, if not taken care of immediately.

With regard to nutrition, the race organizers are requiring competitors to carry a minimum of 14,000 calories (2,000 calories over seven days) of food. Balancing maximum energy versus calories while replenishing electrolytes, salt, and keeping the body healthy must be considered.

Water will be provided during the race.

Taking into account all the above—and my budget—this is what I have come up with for a 20-pound pack:

32L Osprey Hornets backpack

Leki Carbon trekking poles (Realistically, there is no way I am going to be able to “run” all 160 miles, given the terrain and altitude. Trekking poles will help distribute pack weight and relieve pressure off my back, hips, and knees)

Western Mountaineering down-filled, UltraLite sleeping bag weighing in under 2 lbs. with a 20F . *Biggest expense

Doubling up on socks, combining Swiftwick compression with Wigwam’s wicking.

Ankle gaiters

Light weight, trail running shoes, sturdy enough to balance a 20-pound backpack with good traction soles to handle the terrain.

Mountain House and ProBar will be my main food source.

GU Endurance Powder, for electrolytes, mixed with Jade Monk powdered macha tea, 7x stronger then green tea, will hopefully keep me healthy.

1 Canada Goose ultra-light down jacket

2 pairs of clothing, one for the day and another to sleep in at night.
*I plan on washing my stinky, sweaty shorts and top each evening. Maintaining some resemblance of hygiene is important and I like to minimize my backpacker funk as much as possible.

I will also have a first-aid kit, compass, headlamp, 3L hydration bladder, 1L Nalgene bottle, SteriPen and a few other essentials.

There are many other gear, apparel, and nutritional options. It can be overwhelming determining what is best and within budget. That being said, I feel confident in what I have picked for me.

Lets be clear, I am no threat to win the Grand 2 Grand Ultra. I just want to finish the race. It is not about ‘winning’ for me. I am competing against myself. The journey to the race has been an amazing experience, learning and pushing my body. I am excited for the start on September 23rd. Wish me luck!

Grand to Grand Ultra: Gear and Training for a 160-Mile Backpacking Race ,

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