3,000 years ago this was a hunting ground for the Hopi Native Americans. Today, the Grand Canyon in the US state of Arizona is one of North America’s most famous landmarks, attracting 4.5 million visitors a year. Not to mention a handful of ultra runners, keen to subject themselves to grueling heat, heady climbs and razor-sharp cacti in the Grand to Grand Ultra foot race.
It takes a little while for the eyes to acclimatize to the sheer vastness of this immense creation. But then, aided and abetted by the sun’s displays of color against bizarre sandstone formations, they suddenly can’t get enough of what is probably the world’s most illustrious gorge. Mighty rocks rise up majestically from the distant valley floor, framed by the sun in a yellow glow one moment, a luminous red the next. Ears twitch at the howl of faraway coyotes. The rare sight of a plunging condor leaves mouths agape. And then there they are, tiny specks of color as far down as even the Grand Canyon dares to drop, zigzagging their way along its floor. This neon-shirted train of what look very much like ants are doing battle in the Grand to Grand Ultra, arguably America’s most scenically stunning and spectacular trail race.
The Grand Canyon: that towering ravine in the south west of the USA, emblem of Arizona – of all North America in fact. Not without reason, Arizona styles itself as the “Grand Canyon State”, perhaps irritated by its common misattribution to neighboring Colorado. True, that’s where the Colorado River begins its journey out of the Rocky Mountains, but it’s in Arizona that it has carved out the Grand Canyon. Over millions of years, the river has eaten its way into the sandstone of this south-western corner of North America and dug a trench 450 kilometers long, 29 kilometers wide and 1,800 meters deep. A natural monument, an almost mythical fixture of the American West, here in the smoldering south of the USA, close to the border with Mexico and the Californian state line. The Hopi tribe of Native Americans – whose ancestors inhabited what is now Arizona 3,000 years ago – believe the Canyon was created by lightning bolts and mud tossed and piled by two warring brothers. Spanish conquerors once searched the Canyon for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola; but where they had hoped to find streets paved in gold and diamond-encrusted houses, the unforgiving terrain offered them only starvation and death.
The pull of the Grand Canyon remains impressive – among both ultra runners and tourists from around the world (the latter in rather greater numbers). 4.5 million visitors flock here every year, stopping over in one of the big hotels 2,000 meters up on the Canyon rim, buying up provisions in the ludicrously overpriced supermarkets of “Grand Canyon Village”, taking a shuttle bus from one viewpoint to the next, snaking their collective way down to the Colorado River, taking a helicopter tour to the valley floor. As an ultra runner, though, you get to sidestep the ballyhoo, leave the crowds behind and get to know the Canyon for what it truly is: one of nature’s greatest wonders.
The race starts at the North Rim, a popular spot from which to admire one of the planet’s deepest chasms. Over the six days of the Grand to Grand Ultra, the competitors will confront 273 kilometers of raw distance and a total ascent of 5,599 meters through untouched wilderness. Over dirt tracks and desert sand, through narrow gullies and thick forest, with opportunities to show off their climbing and abseiling skills thrown in, and streams and dunes to find their way across. The Grand to Grand is one of those events where the runners carry their equipment on their backs. And that can often catch out those with less experience of ultra running. In many cases, the uninitiated will pack well over ten kilograms of gear, whereas seasoned campaigners know to limit themselves to around seven kilos. Food, a sleeping bag and mat, plus a whistle for emergencies, are all compulsory. The only goodies laid on by the organizers are tents and water. The six-stage challenge asks its participants to cross the Grand Canyon and leave it in their wake. The final flourish of the adventure, the Grand Staircase rising up through the plateaued landscape, provides a suitably arresting welcome for the runners. The finish line is at 2,600 meters altitude, treating all those who make it to stupendous panoramic vistas over the whole course they have somehow tamed.
The heat of the day is matched only by the chill of the night, the scene littered with cacti; steep climbs to scale, dizzying drops to dare. This is an orienteering test through the scrub and the night, not an expedition for the faint-hearted. It’s far from unusual to find a fellow runner beside the track, extracting cacti spikes from smarting feet. Almost every day brings the start of a fresh marathon – and midway through, there’s a double-marathon for good measure: 85 kilometers in a single day. “It’s a tough race,” understate the organizers. Then a warning: “Make sure you’re in proper shape for what you’re about to attempt. You have to be able to block out the problems of everyday, to focus solely on what’s in front of you now.” Fitness – mental and physical – is the key to success in ultra running. Nowhere more so than here at the Grand Canyon. For many of the international field these will be unfamiliar surroundings, a harsh environment in which the smallest error can make the difference between victory and defeat. For those on the start line, the organizers have one more piece of advice to heed: “Do not fear the unknown. See it as a great adventure. Life is so much better when you think positive.”