A grand life of ultra running
(Sarah Lavender Smith running the first stage of the 2019 Grand to Grand Ultra with the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in the background. / Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)
Out of all the ultras that Sarah Lavender Smith has run — some 60, since her first 50K in 2007 —the Grand to Grand Ultra became her favorite. She ran it first by chance in 2012, when the event debuted, and then twice more by choice.
Leading up to the inaugural 2012 race, her editor at Trail Runner magazine offered Lavender Smith the opportunity to do the seven-day, self-supported 170-mile event and write about it.
“I'm fairly certain he wanted to assign it to me because he wanted a story of struggle and of a fish out of water,” she recalls. “There were many more writers who were better prepared for this kind of event. At that point, I had never run a 100-miler, and I knew nothing about self-supported stage racing.”
In a self-supported stage race, all competitors have to carry their own food, water, sleeping gear and other required safety gear throughout the week. The only thing that Grand to Grand provides is water and communal tents, and some sunscreen at checkpoints. The event is called “Grand to Grand” because it starts at the north rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona and finishes on a summit overlooking the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
“It combines ultra running with camping,” says Lavender Smith, who wrote about her experience on a blog post. “It’s modeled after the Marathon des Sables format. You have to run a certain amount during the day, and then you get to camp and rest until the next day's race.”
Lavender Smith dug in, studied the race and trained hard for her debut. She finished third female and seventh overall. “Instead of failing, I really thrived at it.”
She did it again in 2014, finishing in second. As a 50th birthday present to herself in 2019, she returned without a real time or place goal. “I just thought of it as a vacation retreat. I was not feeling competitive going into it.”
The first, second, fourth, and fifth stages are each marathon to 50K lengths. The “super challenging 53-mile long stage” is on the third day; the final stage is eight miles.
(Lavender Smith climbs a steep bluff early in stage three. / Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)
The course weaves through everything from high-desert plateaus and sand dunes to red-rock bluffs and forests.
“We travel over very remote public land, most of it managed by the Bureau of Land Management,” Lavender Smith says. “The terrain varies from deep sand on desert tracks, to rocky scrambles up these beautiful vermilion cliffs. We go through dry riverbeds and up really steep hillsides covered with desert scrub. There are some very difficult sections that are cross country, meaning no trail, where we just have to bust through cacti and desert scrub vegetation.”
And then there is the challenging Pink Coral Sand Dunes State Park. “The pace slows to around two miles an hour, because you're just crawling up some 30 extremely challenging and steep soft sand dunes.”
While no day is a cakewalk, Lavender Smith points to the third stage as the most difficult. This year she was in first place after the first two stages but knew full well that anything could happen on stage three or later.
(Lavender, far left, and other runners wait at the starting line of stage four. / Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)
“Day three is the make or break stage,” she says. “It is one of the hardest 53-milers I've ever done. It really feels like a 100-miler because you're starting it with the prior two days' mileage, which totals about 50 miles, on your legs, and you're carrying a pack full of stuff, which adds 15 to 18 or so pounds of weight on your back. Plus, you have to ration your calories, because you can only eat what you can carry; there’s no aid station buffet in these types of races!”
And it’s not just the added weight that challenges runners.
“The climate is a challenge, because it's a very hot, direct sun,” she says. “The terrain is so challenging because of the deep soft sand in a lot of the places. But then you also hit hard-packed roads, where you have to run as best you can on the runnable sections to bank time. Then there are those crazy cross country sections in the middle of the night, through really tangled, choked vegetation that's spiky. There's no trail. You just have to find course markers. I called that section ‘Hell's Garden’ because it's just crazy.”
This year, 78 of 102 starters finished. Most of those who dropped out did so during the third stage.
Once the hard work of the day is finished, it’s time for food, recovery and camaraderie.
“I love the combination of being in this remote, immersive wilderness experience during the day, but then you get to camp and it's really wonderfully social,” she says. “You're camping with competitors who come from all over the world, and you really rekindle the art of conversation, because everyone is unplugged from their devices.”
A ‘real mental challenge’
As this year’s race progressed, Lavender Smith began to feel more comfortable and competitive. Going into stage four, she was in the lead among women and overall seventh.
“The real mental challenge came on the afternoon of stage four,” she says. “I was starting to become more competitive than I thought I would be. Even though I had a comfortable lead as the first female, I was the only woman in the top 10. I was in seventh place among the guys. I personally felt important that there should be at least one, ideally more, women's names in the top 10, so I wanted to hold on to a top 10 spot.”
After completing that stage, one of the race’s rules bit Lavender Smith.
(Lavender Smith with her dog training near her home, on their way to summiting Handies Peak, a 14er.)
The race requires runners to start with 14,000 calories, and their food must weigh at least 7.7 pounds. Their food is measured before the race, and then they’re supposed to maintain a minimum amount of calories following each stage.
Lavender Smith packed close to the bare minimum. During the brutal stage three, she consumed more calories than she had planned, using some of her food budgeted for the end of the week. “After stage four, I realized I screwed up, and I did not pack enough calories for the week. That personal decision, to be so minimal with the calorie requirement, came back to haunt me.”
Since she was below the required food weight following stage four, she was assessed a one-hour penalty, which moved her from seventh to 10th overall.
Facing the prospect of her top 10 goal slipping away, Lavender Smith also realized that she would have to handle the fifth stage — “the last real tough stage over extremely challenging terrain and in high heat” — with only 200 calories of oatmeal for breakfast and only 350 calories during the marathon-length run, in order to still have enough calories as required following stage five.
(Lavender Smith with co-race directors Tess and Colin Geddes. / Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)
“I knew because of the challenging terrain that this stage would take six to seven hours,” she recalled. “So I had a real scary moment where I thought, ‘Oh my god. Can I even finish this?’ I felt so depleted at that stage’s starting line, from low calories and poor sleep, I really doubted my ability. Mentally I had to give myself a pep talk and renew my faith that the body can do more than we think it can, and that as long as I had adequate hydration and electrolytes, I could run through the bonk of being calorie depleted.”
Not only did Lavender Smith persevere through that difficult stage, she finished the stage as the first woman and retained her overall top 10 position.
“It was an amazing stage that day, of achieving transcendence,” she says, “transcending above fatigue and above hunger. Amazingly, I felt fine. I did it. I finished strong. That was an incredibly challenging but satisfying day, and it took me to another level in ultra running I hadn't achieved before.”
Her continued perseverance led her to victory in the women's race and 10th overall.
The wisdom of an experienced trail runner
Lavender Smith is no newbie to trail running. In fact, a couple of years ago she wrote a book, “The Trail Runner’s Companion,” that combines personal stories with her coaching advice. Those interested in a personalized, signed copy can message her through Instagram @sarahrunning or Facebook messenger to request one. The book is also available on Amazon.
Lavender Smith, now 50 and an empty-nester, is in a different life phase than during her G2G debut.
“What I've learned is that experience and mental fortitude count as much, maybe more, than physical fitness in tough, long ultras,” she says. “At my third Grand to Grand Ultra, I could draw on more experience and mental strength than I had when I first did it in 2012, when I was 42. That comes from years of running ultras.”
(Lavender Smith with her husband, Morgan, daughter, Colly, and son, Kyle.)
During the 2019 race she was also able to summon a strong “why.”
“My heart was really into this,” she says. “I wasn't doing it to prove anything, or win or anything. I was really doing it because I love the event. I love the landscape. This was a gift to myself, to be out there for a week. So that whole mentality of running with gratitude and embracing the experience and the surroundings played to my advantage.”
For some ultra runners, a stage race like the Grand to Grand may be a bucket-list goal. Or they may want to do an event like Hardrock, Western States or other coveted races. It can be challenging to balance major events like those with other events circled on 2020 race calendars.
For Lavender Smith, she’s at peace and is not stressing about 2020. In April, she will return for her third Boston Marathon. She plans to run a 100-miler that’s a Hardrock qualifier “because I'm on a chronic quest, with a snowball's chance in hell, to get into Hardrock.”
She is considering Run Rabbit Run or Wasatch as qualifiers. Also on her list is her prize for winning G2G — a free entry into its sister stage race, the Mauna to Mauna Ultra in Hawaii in May. “Now I'm thinking about doing that, but non-competitively, just as a Hawaiian vacation,” she says. “I was joking to my friends, ‘I'm going to carry 30 pounds of food and be called The Refrigerator.’ I would like to do it for fun, and with a lot of calories.”
Lavender Smith seeks events now for the people and the experiences. She may return to the Ouray 100 to redeem a DNF at Mile 66 last year. Or she may do something epic that does not require a race bib.
“Part of me really wants to try a through hike,” she says. “I'm drawn to the Colorado Trail, which goes from Denver to Durango for almost 500 miles. So taking on a new challenge like that is appealing to me. But I don't know, I'm juggling a lot of interests and projects. Honestly, I'm really preoccupied with my horse right now, and stewarding the land that my husband and I bought a few years ago, and I have a lot of other interests. Ultra running is a special thing, and I still love coaching my clients, but racing ultras is not the be all and end all for me anymore.”
Name: Sarah Lavender Smith
Hometown: Telluride, Colorado
Number of years running: 25.5 (a little over half my life!)
How many miles a week do you typically run: 30 to 75 depending on the time of year and where I’m at in a training cycle; an average week now, post Grand to Grand Ultra, is in the low 40s
Point of pride: That I have a positive, loving relationship with my daughter and son, and that they’re both happy and doing well in college
Favorite race distance: I can’t answer this! I love everything from half marathon to 100 miles and longer self-supported stage races; each has its own special challenges and rewards. I can tell you my least favorite: 5K
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: banana with nut butter and a can of La Croix sparkling water
Favorite piece of gear: Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 2.0
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Over the past couple of years, I got into Imagine Dragons and particularly like their song “Whatever It Takes."
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I have several, but “So Far, So Good” is a good one because of the play on words.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Blog: TheRunnersTrip.com
• Website: sarahlavendersmith.com
• Instagram: @sarahrunning
• Twitter: @sarahrunning