Jax Mariash took part in the Grand to Grand Ultra 2018, a 270km stage run held among the mesas and canyons of Arizona and Utah. An accomplished ultra-runner, she had an exceptional race, finishing as first woman and seventh overall in a field of 135. She was also first American overall.
The Grand to Grand has six stages over seven days and in 2018 included two full marathons and a double marathon. It is unsupported except in water and medical care, so competitors must carry all the own food, bedding and other equipment for the week of the race. In 2018 there was a lot of sand on the course and temperatures were high, making the race even tougher the usual. See more about the Grand to Grand Ultra here.
The illustration above is by Diane Shearer, an artist from South Africa who specialises in the outdoors. She is an adventure racer herself, having competed in Expedition Africa 2018. She is available for commissions. See more of her paintings here.
What was the Grand to Grand like?
Jax Mariash: Grand To Grand Ultra was the most difficult self-supported ultra running race I have accomplished to date - with eight now on my record and five victories. It tested all my physical and mental limits.
The 171 mile course was a great mix of terrain and very challenging, and it never gave you a break. Every single stage had difficult terrain. We crossed rugged desert, sand dunes, rocky washes, slot canyons, sandy roads and a couple of trails. Also, the temperature was 90+ degrees, so the high heat and lack of moisture along with the most sand ever, made for significantly slower times than usual.
Although the terrain was brutal throughout, it was also spectacular. The views in southern Utah are mind blowing. So when it really hurts, you can just look around and enjoy the scenery.
How did it go?
Very early on I slipped away from the women and as my lead over them grew I decided to start racing the men, and with a 7th overall finish and first American of either gender, I am stoked with the accomplishment. This is even more exciting due to adversity during this year’s training. Medical issues leading to inconsistent bouts and an ankle sprain just three weeks prior to the race made it extra special to take the victory by 3 hours and 20 minutes.
The hardest day of the race was the long stage, which took me took me two hours longer than in other stage races. It was held on the third day, so we still had quite a load on our backs still. In addition, the race was heavily front loaded, so we had already completed 58 miles with heavy packs before the start of the long day. Then add the 53 miles on the long day. IT was exhausting. The top ten did start 2 hours later, which made it a hot start, but also fun to chase down the entire field.
Personally I was thrilled to jump out of the gate and feel strong and hustle with the boys – it was a strong pack to run with and stay motivated. I had an extremely hard 4th and 5th stage due to an error in my calorie planning. I felt bonky and struggled to recover. I kept eating at my accidentally saved food, but it just never bounced back fully.
Beyond that, I smashed my toe on day two and that caused a huge blood blister and a nagging issue through the entire race. There are always equipment failures too, such as blown sleeping pads etc, but it is funny when you write a recap they seem very minimal compared to the daunting terrain and your body literally falling apart more and more each day as you race.
Did the race organisation live up to expectations?
You know you’re in a really well run event when you don’t ever think about the race structure and you can just run and focus on your race. Colin and Tess did an incredible job as race directors and I cannot wait to participate in the Mauna to Mauna stage race next year with them. Every element of the organization was seamless, from volunteers through the camp crew, course marshals and medics to the course directors.
Were you as well prepared as you could be?
Due to a really hard year with figuring out some nausea and chronic fatigue, I was really nervous about whether I had what I needed. We didn’t dial in the issue health wise until July, so my final preparations were a hustle. Then to top it all, I sprained my ankle at UMTB three weeks before the race, so I had an obsessive recovery schedule. I was so excited when it all worked out. In a perfect world my training would have been super spot on and consistent, but in this case I had to dig a lot deeper into my grit, thousands of miles on my feet through history and my veteran know-how mentally for these races. It was a massive relief when it all worked out.
What was the most painful moment?
The most painful moment of Grand To Grand was my toe. Smashing it on day two lead to a massive blood blister that was out of control on the long stage. My toe nail was literally floating around. At Checkpoint 3 we taped it and I screamed in pain and then I just strapped my shoes on and pushed on. Shortly after that I smashed my leg in a cactus. And to finish up the painful set of three issues, I fell into a thorny bush and spent the horrendous climb to follow pulling hundreds of thorns out of my arm and legs. At this point the physical bouts discontinued and it became a new project to deal with the rugged terrain and long hours out there.
Day 4 was really hard because I didn’t eat and drink enough on the rest day, so I became bonky and malnourished. You are already starving out there but you need to know your limit and I was so afraid of not having enough calories left during bag checks that I accidentally miscalculated and paid the price. I kept falling apart emotionally at every checkpoint and struggled to continue. Thanks to the volunteers for pushing me. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and pushed through.
And your favourite moment?
My favorite moment always seems to be the tent life, camp life, seeing folks achieve their daily goals and enjoying the epic views. My tent was particularly fun, with old friends from the 4 Deserts race series and new friends. We had a blast which always makes the racing portion easier.
What did you learn?
You learn something about yourself on every stage. You can learn new tricks every time with your pack, food etc, but you have a lot of time alone to think out there and the real fun in stage racing comes in the life lessons you dig through. I tend to evaluate my life and strategize new goals for my business STOKED ROASTERS®. I always strive to try to be the best that I can be and in the Grand to Grand I spent a lot of time thinking about my personal life, looking at my past and relationships and how can I be the best boss, wife, friend and family member to others, working to really open up my mind, body and spirit for a new gentleman to step on into my life.
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