Farm to Market, Grand to Grand

By Beacon Staff

Training for an endurance event is a tedious, time-sucking affair, a tenet generally understood and accepted by the ultrarunning set. But even the most seasoned ultrarunner – that rarefied breed of athlete dedicated to racing distances of 50 and 100 miles across challenging, mountainous terrain – will have some difficulty imagining the depths of Rebecca Avrett-Ulizio’s commitment during the months-long training period leading up to the Grand to Grand Ultra across the vast Utah desert.

It wasn’t the back-to-back 30-mile mountain runs she logged on the weekends that distinguished her – they’re about par for course – nor her displays of tenacity as she persevered through bouts of injury, tailoring her locavore diet to maximize energy and minimize recovery time.
Instead, what set Avrett-Ulizio, 37, a step above the rest is how she maintained her rigorous training schedule while tending an organic community-supported agriculture farm in Northwest Montana.

“Running a farm is actually great training,” Avrett-Ulizio said. “Farming is my life, first and foremost. This (ultra-running) is just something I do for fun.”

Avrett-Ulizio and her husband, Todd, run Ten Lakes Farm in Eureka, where, since 2008, they have leased a portion of a 700-acre ranch and lived in a 500-square-foot straw-bale cabin built with locally sourced timber, bales and clay plaster. The farm serves communities from Eureka to Whitefish, and besides a small clutch of apprentices, the couple does all of the work.

During last month’s Grand to Grand race, a self-supported, six-stage, seven-day ultramarathon that covers 170 miles from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona to the sandstone cliffs of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, she ate dehydrated vegetables from her farm, carrying the lightweight mix in her backpack and reconstituting the food in hot water at night.

“It was like baby food. I ate basically the same thing every night,” she said.

Avrett-Ulizio isn’t a typical ultrarunner, if there is such thing, but neither is the Grand to Grand Ultra a typical endurance event.

Over the course of seven days, participants run and hike about a marathon a day, carrying all of their food, layers, emergency equipment and sleeping gear. Similar events have gained popularity in the Sahara, Gobi and Atacama deserts, but stage races are less common in the United States.

On Sept. 21, roughly 120 racers from more than a dozen countries lined up at a remote spot along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, its deep, flushed sandstone chasm yawning in the background. With her pack weighing 16.16 pounds, including sleeping bag, pad, clothing and 14,000 calories worth of food, Avrett-Ulizio set out to traverse an expanse of desert spanning two of the most striking geologic formations on earth, crossing sand dunes, running through slot canyons climbing 19,000 feet.

She blistered under an 80-degree sun and froze during biting 18-degree nights.

When she finished, clocking a time of 44 hours, 2 minutes, 59 seconds, Avrett-Ulizio had placed first in her age group. She was the first finisher from the United States, the fourth woman and placed 19th overall.

Rebecca Avrett-Ulizio is seen along the Grand to Grand Ultra marathon course. | Courtesy photo

“It was an incredible race,” she recalled during a recent interview. “I don’t have a lot of experience with ultras but this was such a mental game and all of the runners befriended one another. Everyone was so supportive.”

It’s a good point to mention that the Grand to Grand Ultra, which is only in its second year and is already widely regarded as one of the most challenging endurance races, was Avrett-Ulizio’s first ultramarathon.

She’d previously run the Black Mountain Marathon, a 24.6-mile trail race in North Carolina, but Grand to Grand was her first foray into the world of ultra racing.

“The terrain was so difficult. We were traversing sand dunes, which were very steep and very deep. We were bushwhacking through tall grass and sagebrush, running trails and over red slick rock. Every day was different,” she said.

The longest day, the third stage, covered 54 miles and runners had the option of parsing the mileage out over two days, earning a rest day. Avrett-Ulizio flashed the stage in a single day, running through the night having already covered 30 miles the first stage and 25 the second.

Given the success of her first ultra and her passion for running – she is more passionate about running than skiing – Avrett-Ulizio is keeping an eye on other stage races and ultra events that interest her.

But Ten Lakes Farm and serving her community takes precedent, and Avrett-Ulizio isn’t letting the post-race euphoria and attendant ambition lead to unrealistic goals.

“I’m a farmer. That’s what I do. I just happen to like to run,” she said.