Imagine seven days in the desert, lugging along nearly everything needed to survive, with close to 300 kilometres to cover on foot over arduous terrain to reach your final destination.
That may not sound like a fun way to spend a week in the wilderness for many, but two Whistler residents recently did exactly that by successfully completing the Grand to Grand Ultra stage race on Saturday (Sept. 28).
Sonia Mahoney and Stefanie Hostetter both made the 273-km trek from the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase in Utah and were among less than 100 entrants who were able to make it all the way to the finish line.
Both spent more than 60 hours on course in order to complete the journey. Just two days after the event concluded, Mahoney said her body was holding up surprisingly well.
“I didn’t suffer nearly as badly as a lot of other people did,” said Mahoney. “I feel pretty good.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but it was just incredible. The scenery, just pushing yourself that hard and the people that you meet — the volunteers, the crew and the other athletes — it was all just really great.”
The Grand to Grand Ultra is put on by a couple of other Whistler residents, Tess and Colin Geddes, who helped convince Mahoney to try the event.
In addition to the lengthy stages, with most being longer than 40 km, competitors were also faced with more than 18,000 feet of total climbing over seven days. The fact that it’s a self-supported race only adds to the difficulty.
“You carry all of your own equipment — your sleeping bag, all of your food,” said Mahoney, noting that water and a tent at the stage finish camps are the only things provided by race officials. “Everything else you have to carry on your back.”
The most punishing of the race’s six stages came on the third leg, which was spread out over two days to allow athletes enough time to cover the entire 85-km distance.
Although her time for the stage included a stop to rest along the way, it took Mahoney more than 28 hours to go from start to finish.
“I had kind of hoped I could push right through, but unfortunately it just didn’t work out that way, so I did get to a checkpoint to sleep for a few hours,” she said. “For the whole race, there was a lot of climbing and … the terrain also made it tough. There was a lot of sand and it was tough going a lot of the time.”
Mahoney, 44, and Hostetter, 31, both finished 10th in their respective age groups. But for Mahoney, the main goal was simply to finish, which is something that about 15 per cent of the entrants were unable to do.
“It was really just to prove to myself I could do it, so I’m really happy to have finished,” she said. “I’ve really only been running for about five years and, generally, half marathons are my distance. I did one 50-miler in August to train for this particular race, but otherwise I’ve never done anything quite like this.”
Mahoney said she has the bug for long-distance stage events now. While she said she’s unsure if she would do another self-supported race, Mahoney said she’ll “definitely” be looking into taking on a similar event in the future.
“Looking back, it’s funny, you don’t remember all of the hard parts. Now, all I’m thinking is, ‘Oh, it was wonderful. What am I going to sign up for next?’ It’s kind of scary,” she laughed.