What is a good way to test what you are made of? Maybe a 7 day, 6 stage, 170 mile, fully self-supported race called the Grand to Grand would be a good option to do so right? Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt, Johnny Oh, and Bill Heyborne took on this exact scenario for a great cause. President Wyatt explained that he has been an avid backpacker throughout his life but had never ran an Ultra before, and hadn’t gotten around to doing a marathon yet but was heavily motivated to complete this race. The reason the stakes were so high is because he came into this undertaking to help fund the transformation of the Presidents house on campus into a facility for daycare and preschool for children while their parents attend classes and also to be used for the school of education. President Wyatt sat down and discussed running the Grand to Grand in detail and why he is already planning his next Ultra race.
Can you tell us about the cause for this race?
Scott: We have a large number of students with small children at Southern Utah University. Many of them struggle to find someone to watch their kids during classes and a lot of them quit because the cost of daycare is just too expensive. So, for the past year we have been working on developing a daycare center for our campus. It would be a great benefit for our young parents and single mothers who are working hard to get through school. It would be a place where students could drop off their small children, for an hour here or there, while they are in class. So far, we have raised just over $1.2 million towards the project. The total cost to build the center is several million dollars, we had more to raise, and we needed to convince the State Legislature to fund the rest. So, we still had a long way to go. Part way through the planning and fundraising effort, it dawned on my wife, Kathy, and I that the university owned president’s residence, where we currently live, could be a perfect place for a daycare center. The house is 11,000 square feet plus a three-car garage. It’s a beautiful home and we have enjoyed living in it. But, we don’t need a place that big and, like I said, it looks like it might just fit the bill! We invited our faculty from the school of education to come by and take a walk through; they said they loved it! With some remodeling it could be just what we need. Now we have almost raised enough to do the remodel work (we may have to add an elevator and such—so it’s not cheap). But, we will get the center soon and, while the remodel work is significant, it is several million dollars less than building a new facility from scratch. My wife and I are going to move into a home that is half the size and it’s a delightful place. It will work very well for us. We are thrilled that our house will help students finish school and get good jobs.
How did the idea to run the Grand to Grand come about?
Scott: I have a friend who lives in Kanab. He is the economic development director for the city and county out there; every so often we go hiking together. Well, one day he just brought it up. I had never heard of the race before that point but it sounded really interesting to me. So, one day he introduced me to the producers of the race who are a couple from the UK. We started emailing back and forth and trying to find a time when we could get together and visit. Ultimately, the best time ended up being during the race last year. So, I went out to one of the camps. They typically don’t let anybody go on site during the race, but we made an agreement and I drove into camp after most of the runners had completed the long stage (53 miles). I got there in the morning, met with the race directors and spent some time talking to them, and I watched the last runners come in after running/walking for more than 24 hours! I sat there being so inspired by these last runners struggling to cross the finish line. There was so much determination on their faces and it was truly amazing to me. By the time we were done talking I decided I was going to put together a team from SUU and make it a fundraiser for the child daycare center. For me it just sounded like so much fun you know? I was going to take my annual backpacking trip anyway, but this year I would just make it a speedier one, and that is really how it all got started. I ended up being a part of 3-man team all from SUU and we had a spectacular time.
How did you build your team for this?
Scott: The first person to come on board was Johnny Oh. Johnny and I had done some very long hikes together in the past; and prior to this, Johnny had run 22 marathons. He’s a four-times black belt martial artist, former Korean marine, you know the guy is as tough as it gets. And I knew we would get along. The main goal for a team is to get three people that can stay together when it gets tough, and the next goal for me was to get two people stronger than me! The third person—I was unsure who to get and I asked around and tried to find someone interested in joining. Ultimately, I didn’t find anybody. So, I posted something online and just explained what I was trying to do and got an immediate response from Bill Heyborne, a biology professor at SUU. He sent me a note and just said, “Hey I am from Kanab, I have always wanted to do this,” and I was like, alright here we go! Bill has run 4-5 marathons, he’s a trail runner, PhD Biologist, and I just knew this would be an interesting and fun group to do it with. And that is how our team came to be.
Did you have any pre-race expectations leading up to the race?
Scott: Honestly, I just wanted to finish. I didn’t expect to be competitive by any means. There are the elite athletes that fill up the front places and then there are those who run/walk, and there are those who try to walk the whole race. I didn’t want to come in at the end, I knew we couldn’t be with the front group, and so I just wanted to finish well, right in the middle of the pack. As it turned out, of the teams that signed up, we took first in that division. (Not to overly downplay the achievement, but most of the fast runners doing this race were solo runners.) Taking first in the team division mostly said we were able to stay together. Most of the teams fell apart, so staying together was a highlight for us. The week prior to going, my expectations were starting to drop. I had massive blisters from training. I hurt my knee and had to stop running the last month and a half or so before the race, and then I was feeling sick that entire final week. I was just thinking about how I hoped I could finish.
So it’s race day, how did things go from the start?
Scott: So, the first day I was a little sick, a little worried about things, and was trying to be careful with my knee. I ran a little bit, but not too much, and we ended up finishing that first day 97th out of 135. I had a hard time towards the end of that day. The next day I felt a little better. Rather than finishing 97th we finished 77th, and that was a little better you know, but still, I wasn’t satisfied with that. The third day was the long stage, 53 miles, and we came in about 74th or so. The 53-mile day is 90% sand and that’s the day we go all the way through the coral pink sand dunes—in the night. The following day we did pretty well, we finished 62nd, I think, which is where I wanted to be—slightly better than the middle of the pack. I felt better, we were running a little bit more. The 5th stage was far better still, I just felt good, we all felt right, and we finished 47th that day. That was an improvement of 50 positions! The final stage I was no longer concerned with my knee and I knew I could limp in if I had to, the route was getting steeper and we knew we would do better on the hills. So, the last day we just hauled all the way through and finished 34th! I was happy about it overall, now I just need to go back and be healthy on the first day. And I am thinking about possibly doing it again next year.
Did you have to adjust your plan at all during the race; were there any unforeseen things that happened?
Scott: I feel like I just got stronger as it went on. I really didn’t have a rock-solid plan for this race, being that it was my first Ultra. It’s hard to have expectations. I think I over did it on electrolytes the first couple days and when I pulled back on those I felt much better. My nutrition was working a bit better as the race went on. It was lots of little tweaks as we went along that I think ultimately improved my performance.
What would you say to someone preparing for their first Ultra now that you have just completed yours?
Scott: Um…. It was really difficult. As they say it’s 80% in your mind and the rest is in your head. Of course you need to be at a certain level of fitness to do this kind of race. I would say work on your nutrition and get yourself in shape. Have your mind in a place where you are ready for adversity and welcome it. Don’t let yourself be surprised when things don’t go according to your plan because it can be demoralizing. You have to rise above it. But what I would truly want to say is go for it because this is what humans were made for. We weren’t built to live a life of ease; and nobody becomes strong by living a life of ease. Push yourself. Most people don’t know the capacity that they have because they don’t push themselves hard enough to reach their boundaries and then go beyond them. I think it was an advantage for me to be older. I’m fifty-seven. I have a full memory of doing really hard things and that memory became a mental strength for me during the hard times. We adopted a motto for our team. The motto was, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Every time things started to hurt, which was most of the time, I could just say to myself that I was expecting that to happen. You know, it’s part of the journey and pain is inevitable so I am going to keep pushing on. For whatever reason, we got stronger every single day and it was great. It’s important for us to find opportunities to push ourselves, whether it be a race like this, learning a language, or developing a talent. We all have to find something, and hopefully it’s something that pushes us mentally, physically, and emotionally, so we can continue to develop our whole person.
Now that you have completed your first Ultra, do you see yourself doing a few more?
Scott: Oh yeah, even running in the last day, as we were just completely exhausted moving up the steep trail to the finish line, I was thinking, “I must do this again! This is so great and I feel fantastic!” I was tired, hungry, and sore, and of course we were consuming 2,000 calories per day while burning through 8,000 plus calories per day. I lost 10 pounds, and you’ve seen me, I don’t have 10 pounds to lose. But regardless of everything, I loved it, and I know I have to do it again.
Was Southern Utah University involved with your race at the student level?
Scott: Yes, they were. So, every year, the students in our communications department do a documentary film and they chose this race for their documentary this year. They got permission from the race producers to come out and stay in camp. So, we had students rotating in and out every day. They stayed in camp overnight and did some filming during the day at different spots along the route. It was really great! They are going to show the film on campus and talk about what they learned.
In associating with President Wyatt during my University studies and through this endeavor one thing was very evident, he is determined in everything he does. He has been a positive voice in hard times for many and an example of how someone can truly inspire others to test their own limits. The lesson I took from interviewing President Wyatt for myself is that there are no limits to what you can do, truly. You can learn something new about yourself tomorrow and find a new passion you haven’t yet found. Don’t be afraid to go looking, you never know what you may find.