Despite near-death experiences, ultramarathoners eager to tackle one of the toughest races on Earth

Racers start the ultramarathon at the Grand Canyon. (Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)

“Every race I’ve been in, there has been the threat of danger…”

Australian ultramarathoner Michael Hull is talking about the danger of death and hypothermia.

Hull has run 40 ultramarathons in the last 25 years. He has raced in the Arctic Circle, he’s finished 10 Ironman races and hopes to climb Mount Everest by 2019. He’s invested in year-round training, ran through the night and pushed his body beyond its limits. And for Hull, the next challenge will be a unique one: A self-supported, seven-day, 170-mile journey across the canyons and deserts of the Western United States.

Over 100 racers will join Hull on the starting line of the Grand to Grand Ultra Marathon, and each individual will be responsible for pushing themselves toward the finish line without outside help. They have to literally carry anything they need for the duration of the race. It begins on Sept. 24 in the Grand Canyon, and racers will then navigate themselves through the canyons with the help of only course markers (no phones, GPS or technology allowed) towards the finish line that awaits them on Sept. 30 at the summit of the Grand Staircase.

But why would someone do something like this? Why would someone risk their life, their health and their sanity to run alone for seven days in the desert?

“I guess it’s experience,” Hull said. “I’ve done several of these before, you know that you are going to go through some terrible times, but they don’t last. You’ll get through it and the next day is another day, you get to rest and sleep up and chat with the campers at the tent. Don’t think too far ahead.”

The life of an ultramarathoner and endurance athlete, he said, involves seeking out some of the world’s greatest challenges and tackling them head-on. And the Grand to Grand race meets that criteria.

The race is intentionally designed to not just be challenging, but to be challenging enough that 20 to 23 percent of the finishers won’t make it across the finish line before dropping out. That’s part of its appeal. If anyone could successfully complete the race, it might not draw the same crowd.

“We like it be at that level. I don’t know if it’s sadistic, the people who do our race. We don’t want our race to be the toughest race in the world, but we don’t want it to be the easiest,” race director Colin Geddes said. “You should see the blisters we get in our race, it’s like the Olympics of blisters. Some people can get through it, those people are mentally extremely strong, other people can’t cope with the pain and give up.”

The course takes racers through various slot canyons in southern Utah. (Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)

Hull and the 100-some-odd other participants know all of this. They know about the weather, the preparation, the year-round training commitment and the risk of danger. They know about the distance, the terrain and the chance of failure. And they relish the challenge.

In 2011, Hull embarked on a similar ultramarathon in Kimberley, Australia, and was progressing through the event as planned when a grass fire broke out just ahead of where he and other racers were headed. He and the other participants fled to shelter in a crevasse to protect themselves from an incoming grass fire, but the flames flowed towards the runners. They hid together, just hoping to survive. All three of the runners from that fire lived, but they ended up in the hospital with life-threatening burns all across their body.

That race, the one that left Hull with 20 percent of his body covered in severe burns, is the only race he hasn’t finished, as the event was ultimately called off.

“There have been many times when I have felt like I needed to drop out, but I never have,” Hull said. “Everyone has their limit, but you’ve sacrificed so much to get out there, you want to give it everything you have within the limits of your body. I haven’t found the limit in which I have needed to quit. I have a never quit mentality.”

Kate Sanderson, another participant signed up for the Grand to Grand who also survived that fire, went to the hospital after that experience with burns across 80 percent of her body. Her left leg ended up being amputated, and she lost parts of her fingers. The accident has limited Sanderson from participating in certain races because of her foot and her loss of speed, but this obstacle still hasn’t stopped her from competing altogether.

Sanderson will join Hull in this year’s Grand to Grand race, and she said can’t remember being this excited about a race before.

“I have not heard a bad thing about this race from the previous entrants I have spoken to,” Sanderson said. “The small number of entrants compared to other events I have done make it more personable and social, and I have heard there is a real sense of camaraderie between the entrants. I will no doubt go through a mix of emotions, and yes, likely tears at some stage. I am expecting a real challenge and I have been warned not to underestimate the course, but I know will be rewarded by the spectacular scenery.”

Racers traverse the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in southern Utah. (Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)

On Sept. 24, Sanderson and Hull will share the starting line in what will likely be just another adventure for the two athletes, but they will run with the memory of that horrific fire still ingrained in their minds.

So how do people who have lived and recovered from a near-death experience like that then get back on the road and run hundreds of miles again? Simple, Hull said: It’s just what we do.

“There was a bit of a journey there, but it is what you do,” Hull said. “If you fall off your bike, you get back on.”

For Sanderson, the experience of running an ultramarathon empowers her. She continues to sign up for these races, even after the experience of losing her foot in a race, because of the “grounding experience” of racing somewhere new and gaining the confidence of completing a fresh challenge.

“The hardest part is getting out of your comfort zone and onto the start line, the rest is in your head,” Sanderson said. “And when your mind plays tricks on you and you think you can’t go any further, just think – tough times don’t last, tough people do.”

(Photo courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)
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