Two weeks ago I was in the deserts and mountains of southern Utah / northern Arizona helping with the 5th edition of the Grand to Grand Ultra. This is a premier self supported stage race right here in the United States. In fact, it is now part of the Ultra Trail World Tour circuit and a UTMB qualifier. This was my third time with the G2G, the first was in 2014 when I competed and the second was in 2015 when I volunteered for the first time.
My experiences at the G2G have enabled me to talk to many of the competitors and I have found that this race is regularly underestimated. Many come not quite as prepared as they would like and struggle throughout the event. Because of this I thought you may find the following comparing and contrasting of the G2G with some other well-known events enlightening. While I am sure you can select other events, these below are more widely known and highlight the difficulties of the G2G.
For this analysis I chose the following three events; Ultra Trail du Mount Blanc (UTMB), Hardrock 100 (HR100) and the Marathon de Sables (MDS). G2G has attributes that are very similar to these races and most of them are the more difficult ones.
First of all, there is distance.
HR100: 101 miles (163 km)
UTMB: 105 miles (170 km)
MDS: 155 miles (250 km)
G2G: 170 miles (273 km)
Compared to the all these other events, G2G is the longest. Comparing to the MDS (and other stage races) G2G is about 10% longer and thus requires more calories just to get to the finish, all other things being equal…and they are not.
Next is total elevation gain.
MDS: Unknown <5,000 ft? (<1,500 m?)
G2G: 18,150 ft (5,500 m)
UTMB: 33,000 ft (10,000 m)
HR100: 33,050 ft (10,015 m)
While not in the class of UTMB or HR100 in positive elevation gain, the G2G has significant climbs. There are both short steep sections and long grueling uphill slogs. The entire race is basically uphill.
Altitude is most likely the biggest attribute that many competitors may not comprehend about this race. Now you will see why UTMB and HR100 were selected for this analysis.
MDS: 2,400 ft (725 m)
UTMB: 3,400 ft at Chamonix (1,035 m)
G2G: 5,000 ft at the start (1,500 m )
HR100: 7,700 ft (2,300 m)
MDS: 3,000 ft (900 m)
UTMB: 8,200 ft at Col des Pyramids Calcaires/Grand col Ferret (2,500 m)
G2G: 8,700 ft at the finish (2,640 m)
HR100: 14,048 ft (4,250 m)
These data show that while some may consider the G2G as a desert race, it is a HIGH desert/Alpine race and those from sea level elevations find the altitude a challenge. Many racers are now starting to arrive several days early just to acclimatize. Those who live and train at altitude fare much better. Looks can be deceiving and the increased elevation over the course of the event can be devastating, even with time to adjust.
Weather at G2G is a major wild card. It can be hot, it can be cold, it can be both! You can almost count on rain for at least one day and rain in these deserts can be intense. For the 2016 G2G edition, flash flooding was experienced on parts of the course and some competitors were held until conditions improved enough for safe travels. Snow can occur and lightning is also prevalent. The 2014 edition was cut short due to dangerous weather on the last stage. Temperatures extremes exist at G2G. Lows can be around freezing (32 F/ 0 C) with highs approaching 95 F / 35 C. UTMB and HR100 can see these types of low temperatures and the MDS obviously can get much hotter. During the last two years of UTMB it has been considered “hot” but that would be a normal day during the G2G. Some stages have very long exposed sections with very little to no shade. This all adds up to both heat and hypothermic conditions manifesting themselves during the race. It is not uncommon to see competitors dropping out for both these reasons.
Terrain plays a factor in G2G. In addition to the elevation gain there is lots of sand. There are some serious sand dunes as well as miles and miles of sandy trails to traverse. Total distance of “sandy” terrain is on the order of 62 miles (100 km) and many use full shoe covering gaiters. There are also off-track sections with rocks and cactus. This is in the range of 28 miles (45 km). Some sections are steep enough to require ladders and ropes. The long stage has major terrain issues and many state that this stage in and of itself is as hard as almost any 100-mile ultra. All in all, the G2G is about 50% hard to traverse terrain.
Finally a word on Did Not Finishes (DNF’s). DNF’s for the G2G are relatively high compared to other stage races. Typically, G2G has a 20% DNF rate compared to the MDS rate of 12-15%. This is approaching UTMB rates of the lower 30% range. Attrition is high and not everyone completes the G2G. But that what makes it special, among many other things. Those that have completed the G2G have accomplished an incredible feat!
From all this you can ascertain that the G2G is a stage race in a class by itself. It combines many hard attributes to deliver a significant challenging event to all. One should take care to prepare for this race and not take it lightly. Yes, the G2G can be completed but one should train for this not only as a stage race but as a significant mountain ultra!