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Andy Walker
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Andy Walker

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Grand to Grand: Stage One: Viene la tormenta

In which we tackle the first stage of the grand2grand ultra and I conceive a newfound hatred of cacti.

After a night of pyrotechnics, during which I realised that the large metal pole through my tent was a perfect lightning rod, I was awoken in one of the worst ways possible. The Proclaimers played through a really distorted soundsystem. As a former DJ nothing sets my teeth on edge more than badly balanced or distorted sound. Throw in "I would walk ten thousand miles" and I was ready to throw the speaker into the Grand Canyon. Fortunately the period between awaking and reaching the speaker allowed me to abandon that particular set of urges. Plus I've never been a morning person so I'm used to moderating any post-awakening psychopathy.

Testing my foot I was unsurprised to find it was only sort of ok despite liberal application of KT Tape. But, now I was here there's no point not starting the race and seeing how I did. Turns out I wasn't the only person with this idea. Gary, in our tent, had had an accident a few months back and was nursing a seriously busted knee. This would be the thing which finished his race early on. With a few minutes to go we all wandered over the start to pose for photos and try not to be too far down the slope.

During the last few days a general theory of ultra running had started to emerge among the people I was with. Namely that running performance was inversely proportional to the length of your shorts. The skimpier the shorts - the faster the runner. Looking around - Mo (a Saudi Arabian with a very London accent) had the shortest shorts so was obviously a contender. Michele (a former Italian supermodel) had short shorts but was sporting some lycra compression shorts underneath. Advantage to Mo we thought to ourselves (wrongly as it turned out). Ian (one of my new Canadian brethren) took this to heart and had rolled his shorts up and was going to set off at pace and try to be in the lead after the first hundred metres. Somewhere in my Facebook stream is possibly my favourite photo of the entire race as Ian gamely tries to mix at the front of the field with some of the shortest shorts man has ever sported.

For my part I posed with the Canadian flag as was only fitting and proper considering the flag I had on my backpack and had a chat to Phelim (from Ireland who was running to raise money for his friend's son Gavin - I'll talk about Phelim in more detail later. He is truly a prince of a human being and no mean runner). The countdown started to the accompaniment of an impromptu dance routine from Tess and Colin the race organizers. Then we were off. 49km awaited.

At this point we should talk about goals. I had no illusions about my ability to do anything other than survive moment to moment. My foot was clearly suspect so it was a case of one step at a time and see where I went. People passed me. I steadfastly refused to take notice. Well, at least initially and then the inevitable happened.

Which is to say I broke into a trot. Inside my head a tiny voice was smugly telling me it knew I'd do this and I was only going to regret it later. But, me being me, I didn't listen and tried to manage a pace of running and jogging without messing my foot up too much falling into pace with a French lady called Laurence (one of two in the race - the other one was three times Marathon des Sables winner: Laurence Klein who would finish the day in 3rd less than 10 minutes behind to top men). So for the first 10km or so I passed the time attempting to dredge up my French language skills, making innumerable mistakes but passing a pleasant time discussing life. Laurence was at the race with her husband and had done the Tor des Geants. She seemed unflappable and a very amiable companion. Sadly, shortly after checkpoint 1 it became clear that my foot was not a fan of socialising with continental Europeans and I dropped back into what became a pained slog. Still, the stage was only 49km and some change so I could reasonably expect to be out there for 10 hours or so if I couldn't break into a run.

The scenery was stunning, if a little bleak and last night's rain had firmed up the footing so it wasn't quite so dusty plus the morning was overcast keeping the temperatures down. A blessing. I slogged on to checkpoint 2 and, in my head, it became a matter of how far I'd make it that day. The finish seemed so far away and every step brought a wince. Heading towards checkpoint 3 the sun broke free and I realised just how hot things could get. Arriving at checkpoint 3 was a relief and I gladly sat down in the shade.

Checkpoint 3 was Sonia's checkpoint and she made the growing band of shade dwelling racers at home. In these events the volunteers are incredible. When you arrive at a checkpoint feeling spent and are met by enthusiastic cheering - your whole attitude to life changes. These guys get up earlier than the racers and work through the day (and sometimes night). All for the love of the event. Any words of praise I have for them are insufficient and they form a large part of the appeal of utlras.

One downside of checkpoint three was the flies. This was the only shady place for miles in any direction and it accumulated thousands of them. When I finally left I had my own personal cloud of the little swine. No amount of Zorro impressions with my trekking pole were enough to shift them and I felt like the kid from Charlie Brown. Other people reported the same feeling. "Luckily" Arizona was there to provide respite.

When I say respite it's worth mentioning that, in my life, I've been in some epic storms. Mast shattering storms while I've been sailing. Sea swelling storms in the Caribbean. Horizontal ice storms in the Scottish highlands in winter. Hailstorms and whiteouts and everything inbetween  in the Himalayas.. What followed next ranks with any of those for sheer intensity.

I'd been aware of a very black cloud tracking me for some time. The odd spot of rain had fallen on me but the first true warning of what was to come was when I looked back down the trail. Suddenly people 100 metres behind me starting throwing their packs on the ground and frantically started trying to extract waterproofs. This gave me enough time to get my camera in a waterproof bag and my jacket over me. Then it hit.

Think of a wall of water travelling at around 50mph hitting you square on. I was almost blown off my feet. Then the hail started and life became very painful for a short and intense period of time. In a matter of less than a minute - the bone dry trail I was on was ankle deep in water. I was suddenly very glad I wasn't in a box canyon. This was followed by the realisation that I was probably the tallest thing on this plain and there was no cover at all. Luckily, being formerly British (before my Canadiasation) I'm used to rain and the initial shock soon turned to invigoration and I broke into a gleeful splashing run. If I got hit by lightning so be it as there was nothing I could do.

The rain continued at this intensity for maybe ten minutes and it was truly as if god himself was trying to scour me from the face of the earth. Then it was gone. A localised black smudge rapidly heading off into the distance. Of the runners the people at the very front and very back (ie me) were caught in it. Everyone else escaped scott free. At this point I ruefully thought about Brandon's prediction the previous evening. It turned out he'd missed the rain entirely.

At the start of the day I remember Colin saying something along the following lines "for the last 10km and, at great expense, we've arranged a series of cacti for you". The course notes confirmed this. As a child the only plant I could keep alive longer than about a week was a cactus so I have a certain affection for them. At the time I was perplexed as to why we should worry about such benign and hardy flora. Oh how wrong I was.

The guide said that the cacti would go through your shoes. I was still pretty sanguine about this climbing towards checkpoint four (where Vanessa, Brandon's other half, along with Martin a British ex-pat living in Kanab would be waiting). One downside of the downpour was my feet were full of sandy mud and still very damp. I started developing a blister on my heel. Not good. I figured I'd slow down and deal with it at the next checkpoint. As I was contemplating this I had stopped considering my footwork and my ruminations were shattered by a razor sharp series of puncture wounds to my foot as I brushed a cactus (hiding in other foliage).

It's been said that among my talents is the ability to swear. When properly motivated I am able to unleash a torrent of profanity of exceeding ferocity and creativity. This is what I did. And in the process of which failed to spot the next cactus. The spines would break off in your shoe stabbing you with each step and impossible to dislodge. Oh how I hated those spiny little mother<censored>. It was a sharp (sorry about the pun) reminder to pay attention to where my feet were landing. Things weren't helped by the cactis' propensity to hide and blend in to other plants (Jaime described them as "ninja cacti"). The repeated puncture wounds and increasingly persistent blister meant I arrived at CP in poor spirits. 

Adding to these poor spirits was the fact it was possible to see the final camp for the day about 10km in the distance. When you're on foot - 10km is a distance that never seems to change. It's like the period before ground rush when you're skydiving where you feel like you're not falling, merely levitated in the air. I attended to my feet the best I could at the last checkpoint but was not in the best of moods even though the finish line was improbably in sight.

Setting off I was briefly with another Frenchman - Frederic - who had lost patience with life and wanted today over with as soon as possible. I concurred with that sentiment but moving was painful from both feet - the one with the injury and the one with my blister. Our instructions were to follow the fence but stay on the left hand side. Easy enough.

Until the fence turned 90 degrees to the left. Away from the camp in the distance. I said some words that don't bear repeating. This happened several times. The camp site resolutely remaining the same size in the far distance. Then the final insult happened. The fence turned left and up a big hill. I muttered my way up this and figured there was maybe a km and a bit left. Every step hurt the same on every foot. It was time to run it out.

Running through this terrain was a dance of cactus avoidance. In concentrating on the cacti I forgot about my foot. And landed on a big sharp pointy rock in the wrong place. The pain was astonishing to the point I nearly blacked out. But also miraculously in  the right place. Somehow I'd hit the trigger point on the injury and I had range of motion back. It still hurt.  A lot. But running was possible.

Buoyed by this I passed five or six people in the approach to camp. At the finish line I was humbled to find my tent mates waiting for me. Fists were bumped. Hands shaken. Hugs given. I'd made it. Given how I'd felt it was a surprise to even be at the finish.

My tent mates quickly unburdened me of my bag. I was still soaked through with no dry clothing. In the tent was Gary. He'd had to retire around checkpoint 2 and would be leaving us the next day. I was sad to see him go (as were all of us) as he clearly had some stories to tell. Food came in the form of a rehydrated meal that my body welcomed with every mouthful. Day one was complete.

At this point I caught up with the stories of everyone else. Brandon, Garth and Ken were occupying places around number 10 having spent most of the day together. Brandon was 11th but all of them were in good shape. Brian had spent most of the day with Mary and Ian and was operating well within himself. Nick had had a hard day. Struggling for electrolytes and having some bad moments. Garth, seasoned competitor that he was, had seen to his feet to ensure he wouldn't blister any further. At the front of the field Michele was leading Mo by 5 minutes with Laurence another 5 or so minutes further back. One thing about ultra runners is just how friendly they were. When I finished Michele greeted me warmly and asked how I got on. A true gent.

The other Italian I spoke to at the finish was Davide. The course director and one of the competitors from the Gobi. A serious runner in his own right who was volunteering because he loved the area and organizers so much. As I crossed the line he asked me what I thought of the course. I said some rude things about cacti and his grin grew broader at my description of the difficulty. Bizarrely my affection for him grew.

There were other conversations that night as I caught up with my Canadian friends. Briana had soldiered through behind me. Jen was suffering with her knee. But Mary and Erin were going strong. As was Ian. About camp everyone was abuzz with the feeling of battle joined and the first challenge overcome.

We turned in for the night. I found myself sleeping on a large and inconvenient rock. It didn't make for a good rest.

Tomorrow would bring greater challenge. Joy. Hubris. And some other things. I figured that the relief to my foot was temporary and tomorrow would bring it's own special form of immobility.

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What happened next? How did the rest of it go?
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Lights out. Further updates on the G2G website
http://www.g2gultra.com/race-coverage/breaking-news

See y'all in a week or so. I guess.
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d-Minus 3: Omens, Arrivals and Introductions

It's only three days to go before the race and news is mixed. The good news is that my foot is finally starting to play ball aided and abetted by liberal use of sharp scissors on my insoles. The net result is going to be better for both feet. This is good news.

I made the 320 mile drive from Mammoth Lakes to Las Vegas and handed Bette Blue back to Hertz. Sunrise over the desert was amazing but the link up road to get to the I95 was one of the most treacherous roads I'd ever driven on. I've never encountered so many corner apexes at the top of blind crests before. During a sequence of prolonged swearing and laughter I christened it Highway 164 aka the Widowmaker. Then I got sunrise which was pretty before I realised that I was on a road pointing due East which brought an entirely new dimension to the fun. Then it was into Nevada (my third US State!), turn south and put my foot down until Vegas. Where I abandoned the treacherous Garmin and went back to Google Maps again. 

Hire car delivered. Check. Then shuttle bus to the airport to hang around for 6 hours for the connecting bus ride to Kanab, Utah (my 4th US State!). This is where I ran into a very sizable contingent of Canadians who'd also arrived early. We shared stories of training, races we want to do and the usual excited chit chat of people meeting for the first time in a non-Facebook setting. Had a couple of beers and then, one thing led to another, and the liquor store became a rather-too-popular destination. (pro-tip: if you are known by name at an airport liquor store then you may have a problem).

More people trickled in and finally it was time to grab the coach to Kanab. The journey was apparently four hours long. But, honestly, it flew by. I shall attribute this speeding up of time to the entertaining company rather than any rum or grape based liquid products that may or may not have been consumed. I met some Brits who had just landed and the back of the coach became somewhat... rowdy. During this passage of time I became an honorary Canadian which is handy because the Union Jack may no longer actually be relevant if Scotland votes YES to independence today.

So, here we are - Kanab. The red rock bluffs are visible from anywhere in town and it feels like you're in the set of a Western film. And, to be honest, so it should because Kanab was one of the most popular filming locations for the genre and town is scattered with movie memorabilia. I met another few racers including a local who went a long way towards setting my snake fear regarding rattlesnakes at ease. What I know is this - they are slow, largely uninterested in me and probably can't reach more than 5 feet away. This is comforting.

Later there will be more arrivals. Including Brian (my soon-to-be roomie) and Brandon whose fault idea this whole thing was back when were were in a tent in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Wishing that Faiz, Dunc, Alex, Shiri and Hugo were also along for the ride.

So, for the bad news. My motivational wristband broke. This is either an omen that I should pull out or a confirmation that I've outlasted it. I am going with the latter option. I had finished my kit by buying coffee at the airport. This was lost along the bus journey (good work, Andy). So I need to get coffee which is no biggie. I do have a spare HTFU bracelet. Unfortunately it's pink. Not sure that's my thing but then at least it will make it easier to locate my body from the air later on...

Race check in is tomorrow afternoon. So the rest of today will be spent in one final gear check / labeling session. More exploring around town and probably quite a lot of eating. Fortunately this is a Mormon town so I am hopeful of avoiding any rum based products ;-)

Then, finally, we head to camp on Saturday. The nerves have woken up and are starting to pester my consciousness. Exciting times.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
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d-Minus 7: Wheels
Work is officially over. I'm on vacation. This morning I picked up the blue shark from the rental place and gave it the obligatory suspension test. So absorbed was I in figuring out how to get the top down I didn't give it much of an inspection and this old girl's seen a lot of action. There's a myriad of dents and the petrol (gas to my American friends) cap has been forced off at some point.

With some trepidation I entered (what I thought was) the address of tonight's stay into the satnav and headed out onto the highway. Then promptly missed my turn and wound up taking a detour through arrivals at SFO. Oops. Not having driven regularly in some time meant it took a while to start feeling comfy with the thing. And, looking around, I noted with a certain smugness that I was the only convertible with the top down around me.

It turns out there's a reason for this. When the air temp is 104F (40C) then you kinda want the aircon to work. Irrespective I continued on figuring that a bit of heat exhaustion was probably no bad thing in preparation for the race. The roads in America aren't my favourite thing and the roads in the Valley are just jammed full of people who don't leave sufficient stopping distance (to my mind). It took a long time before I finally escaped the 5 lane highways and onto something more "normal". Though as I headed south the temperature continued going up.

When I finally stopped it was because I needed water and a fly swatter (as I am heading towards Bat Country after all [Fear and loathing in las Vegas beginning (Bat country) (good quality)] though luckily without a drug toting Samoan lawyer). It was then I discovered the broken petrol cap (grrr) and realised that maybe Hertz had taken a look at my return destination (Las Vegas) and decided to give me a car they no longer cared about. 56000 miles on the speedometer seemed to agree with that. Not that it matters - the blue shark will get me where I need to go even if it appears that the accelerator pedal needs a protracted conversation in Morse Code with the engine when you boot it.

After double checking the satnav I realised it also wasn't to be trusted and somehow managed (with the help of Google Maps) to get it pointed at the right destination. Then the scenery changed. I'm now sat at Bass Lake (elevation 1000m) starting to get what altitude acclimation I can. My foot is still painful but improving so I'm hopeful that I'll graduate from minor hobbling to something more. Tomorrow I'll do some yoga, have a swim and head to the other side of Yosemite, hopefully via Half Dome. Right now however the view from my balcony is nothing short of stunning.

The epic adventure appears to have begun.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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hope that foot heals fast!
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d-Minus 20: Mad dogs and Englishmen

One of the things I'm most worried about with the Grand 2 Grand is the desert nature of the course. In the Gobi last year day one was hot and that was hard work but then it cooled down a lot (some would say too much when it started snowing). Put simply: I'm not built for the heat and/or I live in a very temperate place where there aren't great extremes of heat or cold. Luckily I'm in California for a couple of weeks to put myself through temperatures more closely resembling those I'll be facing on the course. Yesterday's 20km loosener was my first attempt to adjust. The big thing you notice is just how much water you need to take on board just to continue functioning. Luckily, I needed ballast in my backpack so taking another 4 litres along helped in multiple ways.

Once that's set you need a nice bright, shade free route and the trail around the back of NASA's Moffett Field has that covered. And finally you can experiment to find out what pace you can do before you overheat, how much fluid you need to take on board, how much electrolytes you lose along the way. By the time I got back I'd definitely discovered a pace I can't maintain in that heat. Drinking wasn't a problem and most of the kinks from flying long haul were worked out of my body.

That's the good news. The bad news is it's going to be hotter in the desert and higher up. Higher up means less oxygen which means more breathing. More breathing means faster fluid loss. Still, I have much lighter clothing for the race which will reflect heat better (I deliberately went with a higher albedo) and just under 3 weeks to adapt.

The nerves and excitement are starting to wake up now. I can feel them flitting in and out of the edges of consciousness. Still need to decide on which shoes to wear as I had a last minute wibble when I was packing but each of the three options would be sufficient for the race. And there's a couple of bits and pieces still to buy (just toiletries so no big deal) and I need to practice packing and unpacking my backpack. Other than that I think I may actually be set. Or rather as set as I'm going to be.

Over on Facebook - my future lifelong friends are going through the same motions. Like animals sensing the approach of a storm. I've no idea whether I'll make it to the finish line. Or what will happen along the way. As things get closer I'll be updating more frequently and a big thank you to everyone who has sponsored me to date.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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Nice beard ... Looking forward to your next post 
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d-Minus 21: Reflections

Before heading off to California on the first leg of the pre-Grand 2 Grand odyssey it's time to get my head in order. This consisted of a number of parts.

1 Connecting with my past
So, my mum died 19 and a half years ago. It's been over 15 years since I even saw a photo of her. Partly because my dad hoarded all the family photos and partly because I was afraid to look. But, I asked and to my surprise - dad said "yes" and that I could take some photos with me. What followed was several hours of reconnecting with my past and some tears. I also dug out some old school photos. The one below is me aged 12. I know what's coming next for that kid. Makes me want to just put my arm around him and tell him that it's going to be tough but everything works out ok.

2 One last knees up
When my pal Dhiraj suggested a long weekend in Ibiza it seemed like a good idea. And (don't judge me) I'm counting four days of dancing in the heat of Spain as training and heat acclimation ;-)

3 Writing a business continuity plan
Whenever I enter one of these things my boss insists I have a backup plan in the event of my death. I think they think that forcing me to examine my mortality might dissuade me from such foolishness despite the overwhelming and increasing body of evidence to the contrary.

All those things are out of the way now. I've made peace with the past, had one last blow out and ensured that Google won't collapse if I become snake food. Managed to fit all my gear into one piece of hold luggage and now it's time to get my ass to California to get used to the heat.

Here goes nothing <gulp>.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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d-minus 45: mental fortitude and an andz marches on his stomach

One of the reasons I hang out with other runners when I travel the world is that the number of people who don't look at me like I'm crazy is actually quite small. Reading back through previous race reports I can, to a certain extent, understand where people are coming from. One topic that always comes up is the mental aspect of it. Because, frequently this is the difference between the euphoric joy of crossing the finish line and giving up.

The more I talk to other runners the more I realise that, in every stage or race, there comes (at least) one time where you have to deal with whatever demons lurk in your head. The act of running almost strips you bare of the normal veneer of mental civilisation. Whatever doubts you have as a person, insecurities or neuroses become free to bubble to the surface to add to whatever pain you're going through. They cavort around your head telling you that you're worthless, that you were an idiot to enter the race, that you're not ready and that everyone is going to laugh at you when you pull out. But, hey, pulling out means you'll stop with the self pity because quite frankly that's as pathetic as the rest of you.

I try telling this to non-runners and they look at me blankly. I tell this to runners and they nod sympathetically. Then they remind me that this is what sets us apart. The ability to face up to our demons and doubts and continue anyway. Between races it's easy to understand this. But, in the middle of the race it can be overwhelming. Something simple is all it takes to provoke a cacophony of demonic chatter. You miss a marker and get lost - good work idiot - now you have to run another 3km. You start feeling tightness (and you will) and it becomes the onset of something debilitating. In the resulting chatter what happens is that you lose focus and stop being deliberate about self care in your attempts to drown out your demons. This is when you get into real trouble.

So, why have I posted the food package? Well, food is important. With 45 days left I have to find 14,000+ kcal that is as light as possible but I'm going to want to eat in the middle of the desert, during a stage, in the morning or of an evening. My demons will be busy telling me what a chump I am and how no one is ever going to love me. If I don't want to eat what I brought with me then I'm probably not going to. Thus starting the underfueling that will probably wind up with me facedown in a sand dune somewhere waiting for the vultures.

And, despite what you may think, this is one of the reasons I run. Life can get stressful at times and one of the hardest skills is to continue consciously and deliberately taking care of yourself. The little things like brushing your teeth, eating well, sleeping well may not seem like much but they are a decision on your part that you're worth taking care of. When life is throwing its worst at you this may not feel like much but the little raindrops of self care pave the way to getting through whatever's getting you down. This is the lesson I want to take away from running. I've seen ex-special forces guys do incredible feats of endurance in these races but the thing that impresses me the most is how aware they are of the need to take care of themselves and ability to calmly prioritise that. Irrespective of what's going around them or to them.

As for the food pouch and to show how serious I am about my preparation - well I skipped lunch at Google and ate that instead. Safe to say I'll be taking something else to the desert. Something which doesn't (as my colleagues loudly complained) smell like dog food. To be fair to eXtreme Adeventure Food - the Chicken Korma I had last night was actually much better. But one thing I don't want bringing me down is my sustenance.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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Mountain House make tasty freeze dried food. Maybe not light enough.
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Grand 2 Grand: Prologue: The Mayor of Skankville

For those joining this late here's a quick recap of where we are. I'm stood in Las Vegas airport having just returned my blue convertible. Waiting for the bus to take me to Kanab, Utah. The reason for this is I've entered a race called the grand2grand (273km self supported over 7 days). I've done four ultras in the last four months, tried innumerable pairs of running shoes and backpacks, spent 2 weeks in California getting used to heat and then another week in the mountains getting used to thin air. I should be ready, but I'm not because like a fool I played football (soccer to my American friends) the week before and busted up my foot. The excitement of a year of training coming to fruition is therefore strongly tempered with the ongoing realisation of my own personal stupidity. Fortunately, a series of events are going to be set in place which will result in me being adopted by the great nation of Canadia and largely be able to forget this misfortune temporarily.

The airport in Las Vegas is a non-stop video wall and audio assault advocating the many joys of Las Vegas. Pretty quickly I realised my sanity was ebbing away under this barrage of rapidly cut imagery. Luckily for me Facebook had some answers. A Canadian called Jen and another Canadian/Brit called Tina are also wandering around the airport. It's time to meet some of my fellow competitors. With six hours to kill and not much to do we go searching for a bar. The only one is also a smoking zone. Not ideal for finely tuned athletes to prepare for a race or even ourselves. But it's the only game in town so we grab a beer.

Shortly after some Italians show up who are clearly in the race. You can tell by the backpacks and t-shirts from previous races. Sadly neither of them speak much English and, despite working with a large number of Italians, I don't speak any worthwhile Italian. Hands are shaken, shoulders shrugged apologetically and that's that.

Time passes. More Canadians show up and soon I find myself in a sea of them (if that indeed is the correct collective noun). Mary is the coach and mentor of Jenifer, Erin and Briana. She's run a lot of races and I'm fully expecting her to be waiting in camp some time before I ever show every day. Erin's a nurse with unfinished business after the RTP Iceland race. And Briana is a self confessed redneck who buys books based on number of pages because she reads too fast. As well of those four there's also Sonia who ran the race last year and is volunteering. 

This is all great but we still have over four hours to kill. Returning to the smoky bar is not an option but fortuitously, Las Vegas airport has an open liquor policy. If ever I write a book about the lessons you learn as you go through life then one of the lessons would be as follows:

If there comes a time when someone working in an airport liquor store knows you by name then things are likely to get messy

Mark my words well, denizens of the Internet and learn from them. Mary immediately showed her worth by telling me that she actually runs better when she's had a few drinks the night before and we proceeded (via several trips back to the store) to sample champagne, prosecco, some frozen cocktails (Margaritas and maybe Mai Tais) and some rum. Realising that we had a 4+ hour bus journey ahead of us we also decided to stock up for the journey.

Ah, the journey. It felt like 30 minutes. I blame this on the engaging conversation of my new friends rather than the booze. We were joined in the back of the bus by Ian (a Quebecois teacher), Nathan (from NYC), Yuri (another of the volunteers), Sabine (a Germain ex-pat living in San Fran) and Anna and Doug from the UK who, despite the immediacy of their jetlag showed the persistence to fully join proceedings. Things may have gotten quite rowdy. During this trip I lost the coffee I'd bought and snapped my motivational bracelet. It was during this passage that Briana declared my new Canadian nationality as well as showing her fiance's favourite t-shirt that he'd cut up and covered with messages of support. Even the cynic in me was moved by this act.

Arriving in Kanab was a blur. I slept soundly that night knowing my room mate Brian would be arriving the next day having been delayed with work up in Alaska. Also arriving would be Brandon (tent mate from China) and Vanessa (his other half), Phelim (from Ireland), Say (from France) and many other folks I had only encountered via Facebook thus far.

I spent the next day pottering around Kanab, stretching my legs and noting the continuing soreness in my foot. I also managed to procure various items for Brian, met my new Canadian kin for lunch, did some shopping in the outdoor shop and got busy with the packing / repacking process with my bag. Brian finally showed up along with Brandon, Vanessa and Phelim and we went in search of a welcome-to-Kanab beer. It was 10pm. Sadly, Kanab is a Mormon town and there is only one bar. They informed us they'd closed but luckily a local gas station (petrol station to my British friends) had a Beer Cave. We purchased beer and sat down to introduce ourselves properly.

The next day was Friday. Race kit check day. As well as this complication Brian and I had to change hotels at this point. But this didn't stop Brian demonstrating the pattern which would typify a large part of his following week as he packed, unpacked, labeled, repacked, unpacked.... you get the picture. Don't get me wrong - his bag was a thing of beauty with levels of organisation that actual mortals are unlikely to ever aspire to. Due to my surname I was in the last wave to have their kit checked. Nerve wracking but my bag passed Sonia's inspection with flying colours and weighed a mere 8kg (compared to 12kg at the Gobi). I was pretty happy with life.

Then I got chatting to Tin. Another Brit whose bag had had all extraneous items cut off. Somehow he had got it down to 5.9kg. The main topic of discussion that day was weight and bag beauty. When Tin walked past - runners' heads would turn in admiration - that's how beautiful it was. A strange breed indeed. In the spirit of camaraderie - Brian and I set up our own service to help people new to this lark reduce weight. Along the way we saved 2kg from Jen's bag, doled out ziplocks like confetti and generally wandered around feeling the warm glow of our karma expanding with every minor good deed. The day ended with a meal for everyone. Tomorrow we would be going to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

Now for an interlude. Any excitement that the previous paragraph might have evoked needs to be tempered here. The next day was largely one of the more boring I have ever spent. We waited. The first wave of people left on buses. I agonised about whether it was better to go first or last (my fellows were right on this score as those who went first only managed to swelter in the full heat of the day). We sat around. We got on the bus. We got off the bus.  Finally we set off but our bus couldn't take the dirt track up to the first camp so we switched to smaller vehicles and bounced our way across the desert to the tents in a chaotic dusty convoy.

This was where I finally met the rest of my tent mates (though in fairness I had met Ken the night before). It's worth spending some time on introductions here because your tent mates rapidly become your family on a race like this. These are the guys who'll look after you (and vice versa) and you wind up taking bizarre detours to go and spend time with when you're traveling. It's hard to accurately describe the depth of affection you develop for these people in a short space of time. Anyways....

Brandon - we met in China, we shared a tent, we got spied on by the Chinese army and Brandon talked me into this race. Brandon is a Washington DC lawyer and CrossFit instructor. He finished 20th in China and I knew from his facebook that he had been training like an angry bastard for the last year and a bit to get ready for this race. I was expecting great things though strangely he seemed to resent my suggestion that he should just go out and win the race. He then declared "this can't be as bad as the Gobi" and I named him "albatross". Tomorrow I would be cursing that prediction...

Brian - my room mate in Kanab. We hit it off immediately. He's from Alaska where he runs a construction company. Alaska is a rugged place and it shows. This is a guy who goes running with a loaded .45 in case of bears. Has endless good humour and is quick to make fun of those around him without ever being mean or spiteful. In short everything you could want from a companion. Normally I'd be bothered by someone with his OCD for packing and repacking but for Brian it merely became a charming idiosyncrasy.

Nick - the only other Brit in the tent. A chiropractor by trade. Thoroughly decent bloke. Stubborn competitor and someone I'm now proud to count among my friends. When my body was misbehaving he would literally straighten me out and as causes went his took some beating.

Ken - an oil trade worker currently plying his trade in Houston. A man with many 100 milers under his belt and a talent for making stuff work. He created a condensation tube to cool the beer he'd brought for our last meal. Thus earning himself the nickname of "Macgyver".

Garth - an army medic. Quiet, deliberate. He'd also come with his wife (who was one of the volunteers) and brought a wealth of running experience with him. Despite his more advanced state of age he was capable of teaching the younguns how this ultra business worked. And was a font of knowledge for those less experienced in these matters. He, Brandon and Ken would spend much of the next week running together and all finish comfortably in the top 10.

Gary - a retired USAF pilot. Circumstances were to separate us before I could learn a great deal more.

So there you go. Introductions made. Ours was the only all-male tent and we decided to rename it from Tent 5 - Hopi to "Skankville". It was decided by consensus that I was to be the Mayor of Skankville. An honour I truly didn't deserve and I was only to exercice my powers once (but more of that later). All that was left was to queue for the last cooked meal we could expect for the foreseeable future. Along with introductions to the race directors and crew (as well as the immediately irksome camera drones they would be using to take footage of the race - I would later christen these "The Eye of Sauron" - the high pitched buzzing sound they made was... annoying).

And with that out of the way it was time for bed. A good night's sleep was what was needed. However, Arizona had other ideas. During the night we were whipped by rain and storm. The lightning flashes so bright that they would wake you up and you could see them through your eyelids. A truly pyrotechnic show. Out in this were the intrepid volunteers. I could hear Yuri marshalling them and, curled in my sleeping bag I said a silent and heartfelt thank you to the people braving this to ensure our tents remained upright.

And that is the introduction. Tomorrow the race begins. Along the way, there will be no small measure of wonder, suffering, bravery, miracle, despair and hope. Lifelong friendships will be forged and 100+ brave souls will discover the extent of their limits whilst surrounded by picturesque scenery. Stay tuned for Stage One.

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Michelle Marie's profile photoAndrew Walker's profile photo
 
Good luck! Hope your foot is doing better! 
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Andy Walker

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d-Minus 5: Complications

Before getting into the meat of today's post I'd like to draw your attention to the photos I've taken over the last few days. The drive through Yosemite was nothing short of breath taking and Mammoth Lakes (where I'm currently holed up adjusting to 2,400m or 7,800 ft of altitude) is the same. It's been valuable practice using a less than ideal camera as that's all I'll have for the race (the desire for low weight outweighs all else but I don't want to be without something that can take photos). It's also given me more opportunity to adjust to heat and height. Both of which will make what follows marginally easier to bear.

Now for the fun part. It would appear the Universe is trying to tell me something. First I injure my foot (self inflicted). Things are slightly better and I've managed a couple of 10km+ hikes on it but it's still sore and causing pronation which will lead to other issues. To combat this I've invested in rather a lot of KT Tape which will be used liberally before and immediately prior to the race to provide much needed support. I've also been catching up on my yoga which has done wonders for working some of the kinks out of my body.

I also am super happy to discover that everything fits neatly into my bag for the race. This makes me very happy as it's one less source of discomfort/irritation. And, unlike the Gobi, there is no need for the never-sufficiently-hated front pouch that many of these race bags comes with. In a minute I'm going to take a sharp knife to my trainers to trim away the bits causing pressure on my foot. A risky venture but, as I have a couple of back up pairs, it seems low risk and high potential reward.

As if covering 170 miles (273km) through the desert with a dodgy foot wasn't enough there are another couple of clouds on the horizon. First of all, one of my colleagues just got admitted to ICU with chickenpox. I've never had chickenpox and the incubation period would mean I would start showing symptoms around day two of the race. This is not good. The good news there is I have spent no time in the unfortunate chap's company and have spent a lot of time with other chickenpox sufferers. The list of symptoms is: fever (so overheating / chills), fatigue, headaches and itchy rash. All of which are perfectly possible in a desert ultra. Hypochondria has definitely kicked in and I'm starting to get paranoid about every minor ache and pain. Will inform the race doctors when I get to Kanab and monitor how I'm feeling in the meantime.

The next potential bad news is that Major Hurricane Odile (http://goo.gl/e0U5hd) is approaching and it would take only a minor direction change to drop a lot of water on the race itself. The good news is it should have mostly finished by the time the race starts but the nature of the course is going to change a lot if it comes anywhere near.

So, to summarise, desert ultra with injured foot, possible illness, hurricane, snakes and extreme temperatures. The Universe is clearly telling me I should abandon this folly. But, as far as I'm concerned - the Universe can feck off. One of the more surreal hot tub conversations I had in Mountain View was a young lad from El Salvador whose whole family had moved to the US because it had been prophesised. Still not sure what to make of that conversation as he was a genuinely nice kid. And, let's face it, what do I know about these kinds of things. I've already mentioned the virtual film crew and my reality TV show that's going on in my head - I just figure the producer is worried about ratings by this point.

Got an early start tomorrow for the long drive to Vegas where I hand Bette Blue back to Hertz. This means I'm in for what is hopefully going to be an epic sunrise over the desert. Going to miss the old gal. She's not the sleekest but she's gotten me a long way, introduced me to the delights of Country music (which may actually be the perfect accompaniment to road trips) and carried me on random side roads without any hint of complaint. Then I pootle around the airport until I catch the bus to Kanab. Which, if you believe half of what you read on Facebook right now is rattlesnake central <joy>.

I'm thinking that the odds are stacked against me but then they were anyway and, this way, I know I have to take care of myself from the first moments of the race. The goal is to finish. It always was. The current complications just provide more focus.

As for the Universe - well it told me that I'd be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30 if I kept doing martial arts. It was wrong then too.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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Jane Smith's profile photoAndrew Walker's profile photoAngel SAN LEY's profile photo
 
OMG fantastic scenery
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d-Minus 8: Idiocy
What's the surest way for any 41 year old male to injure himself? Play football (or soccer to my American friends). So, with that in mind I looked at the "friendly" game of soccer on Wednesday for what it was - a trap waiting to lure the unwary. Never mind the fact that I'd already gone for two runs by lunchtime that day. I knew that playing was a bad idea. I also knew that my current fitness levels meant I was able to dominate the centre midfield area.

Which, predictably, meant my love of playing football (or memory thereof) was always going to triumph over common sense. And, thus, knowing the future awaiting for me like a modern day Cassandra I lined up for the colours (colors to my American friends) to play in the baking hot Californian sun.

Quickly it became apparent that ultrarunning is great preparation for playing in the middle of the park and I was having a whale of a time until about 5 minutes in. I tried to turn too fast and then I ran into the fundamental difference between running and football. Namely how you lace up your shoes. When I'm running Iike my shoes to be loose to my my feet space to land and spread out. Playing football requires much tighter footwear and probably not trail shoes. So, as I turned sharply I felt a sharp stabbing pain in the arch of my foot.

One thing that running long distances has taught me is that pain is largely ignorable so I figured I'd just run it off. Plus ego told me that quitting after five minutes was simply unacceptable. And on I played, having tightened my laces and acknowledging the pain in my right foot every time my foot landed. It became clear that the pain wasn't going away but our team was playing well and so I continued. You may get the gist of where this is going. But, along the way I did majestically stroke home a volley to give my side the lead (and people say I'm overcompetitive).

Eventually, the pain decided I wasn't taking it seriously enough and became more insistent and finally I could barely walk and had to stop. At this point, activity gave way to self recriminations. I hobbled to the local chemist (pharmacy to my American friends) and bought a lifetime's supply of painkillers. I iced my foot. I spent time in the hot tub.

And now, two days on the pain is subsiding a bit but walking is not my favourite activity. The good news is that I'm now officially on vacation. I pick up my car tomorrow and head to Sierra Nevada for some altitude training. The race approaches. And I'm wondering just whether I can even make the starting line.

Then I think about the TV ratings. This is the part in the reality TV programme (that's more or less always playing in my head) following me where I turn to the camera, tears in my eyes and bemoan how I've trained so hard for so long only to be thwarted. But that's not going to happen. I did this to myself and my internal TV ratings are soaring. All this means if my eventual phoenix-like rise to success will be all the more spectacular. All around the world - people are glued to their TVs waiting to see what happens next.

Or, that I've proven once and for all that I'm a total idiot. Ah well, binary outcomes are always desirable for a software engineer. I've got a week to get ready and this may turn out to be a blessing by forcing me into lower impact exercises (read: swimming) in the run up to the race. At the very least it's a salutary lesson into why my ego simply can't be trusted.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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Eric Gehler's profile photoElad Kassis's profile photoDavide Baroncelli's profile photoAndrew Walker's profile photo
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I can testify about the majestic volley. We dominated the game, once Andy left the field! ;)
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Andy Walker

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d-Minus 18: Hair

In the words of GOB Bluth "I've made a huge mistake". On Facebook I offered my friends a sweetener for sponsoring me for the race. Anyone sponsoring me (see the link at the bottom) is allowed to vote for the facial hair I will be sporting during the race. The options are:

Full man bear - my current incarnation
Musketeer goatee the Aramis
Handlebar the Chopper (as sported by Mr Stiller below)
Clean shaven

So far the voting is skewed very heavily. As in totally to the handlebar. So, folks, this is your chance to save me from facial hair purgatory or to consign me to it. Google+ it's up to you to save me from 70s facial hair. I know I can count on you...

In other news, the 5km run to and from work is proving a lot of fun and giving me a chance to finally decide between the different running shoes I brought with me. I think yesterday's run sealed it - 25 minutes 5km wearing a pack each way. There are times you go out running and it feels like your feet and legs are made of concrete. Other times you practically rebound from the earth with the merest contact. Yesterday was one of the latter days. Tempo felt great. Gait felt effortless. So the Pure Grit 3s are leading the pack at the moment. I think I've already decided against the Pure Cadence 2s (road shoes aren't really desert suitable even if they are feather light). That just leaves the original Pure Grits (a shoe I've done thousands of miles in) which is going to be a difficult decision.

Tomorrow's post is likely to feature a rant about the general state of beds in the USA and my attempts to use that to my advantage. In the meantime - one side benefit of jet lag is I get to be up early enough for sunrise even if the California weather looks like it intends not to play ball.

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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Andy Walker's profile photoGregory Block's profile photoAndrew Walker's profile photo
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True. :)
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d-Minus 37: The final pieces of the puzzle

Just over a month to go to the race and it's time to run around making sure the last bits are ready. So one last race (the Salisbury 54321 50km trail last weekend) where I tested out the Pure Grit 3s to see if they're viable for the Grand 2 Grand (the good news is yes but I'll be taking options with me anyway). Then today I went for my medical which had the potential to put a major spanner in the works. Again good news.

So what else do I have do in order to get ready?

Race Bag
The WAA 20L ultrabag is the weapon of choice in the bag department. I've been running to work along the river from the station in the mornings to get used to running with it. Really liking the fit and the additional straps for attaching sleeping mats and other bits. The front pack will be staying behind.

Food
I've bought all the food I need now. Need to move the dehydrated meals from the heavy bags they come in into something lighter but otherwise good to go. Plenty of options from 14,000 kcal (race minimum) to about 20,000 kcal depending on how hungry I'm prepared to be at the end of the race (hint: not very).

Medicine
Updated my blister treatment kit. Just in case my feet decide to rebel. Have supplies of electrolytes, antibiotics, painkillers, protein and some other bits and pieces.

Sleeping
I've finally decided on the Sea to Summit Spark SP2 sleeping bag as it'll save me about 300g over the other bag I have and a sleeping mat which weighs in at a princely 190g versus 330g for the bubble like inflatable I had been considering.

Clothing
Impossible to look past the X-Bionic Fennec gear. Though umming and aahing between head gear between using a buff or the Fennec bandana. In addition to that then I've gone with the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket and will be taking some arm warmers and a Patagonia shirt.

Shoes
Straight fight between the Pure Grit v1 and v3 shoes. The v1 is probably more comfortable, the v3 has better torsional stability and grip.

General Gear
I managed to find a mirror at 10g, knife at 15g and compass at 8g. Safe to say I'm going lightweight here. The Canon IXUS weighing in at 200g will represent my one concession to tourism. Still undecided over trekking poles. I haven't been training with them but they may be a life saver on the long day. Also still undecided over the anti venom pump I have as it's almost certainly unnecessary which is at war with my pathological phobia of snakes. For hydration then it's a pair of raidlight 750ml bottles and a 1 litre bladder that weighs about 15g in case I need extra.

Acclimatisation
Here's where I'm in luck. Living in the UK is not great for acclimatising to either altitude or heat. So I'm heading to California for the 2 weeks preceding the race to get some sunshine and start the process of getting my body to adapt to the heat. Then driving down via Yosemite for a few days of altitude training before the race start. This should give me the best chance of adapting to the jet lag, temperature and altitude.

So, there we go. 5 weeks left and (almost) all the boxes ticked. Which means I have 5 weeks to finish off training. Which is another story altogether. The big boost going into this race is that I've finished 4 ultras in the last 4 months to the tune of 327km total distance including high temperatures (Around the Island) and seriously rugged terrain (Iceland). Mentally I'm more organized than for the Gobi last year and I have more experience of how to keep my body working. This doesn't mean this is anything other than daunting but I have a shot at getting to the finish line. Well, hopefully ;-)

I'm running the Grand 2 Grand ultra in September to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can follow my journey here on Google+. If you'd like to donate please visit
http://www.justgiving.com/andz2grand
http://www.g2gultra.com/
#grand2grand  
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Christina Lee's profile photoAlissa Scherchen's profile photoAndy Walker's profile photoAndrew Walker's profile photo
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I'd hope you'd attend the week long celebration of my demise first before looking for vengeance ;-)
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Still wondering about my place in the world.
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Googler, aspiring runnner, failed explorer, former DJ, dilettante, rum drinker, avid reader, somewhat rather too tall, very British, photographer, dreamer, idealist.
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andz, mrs nesbitt, The Coalman