Park City runner Jax Mariash is top woman, top American at the Grand to Grand ultramarathon stage race
North America, South America, Africa, Antarctica and Asia. These are the continents on which Jax Mariash has completed an ultramarathon stage race.
The Parkite and professional runner most recently crossed North America off her list on Sept. 29, when she was the first female finisher and the top American in the Grand to Grand Ultra, a 171-mile weeklong stage race that runs from the Grand Canyon in Arizona, to the top of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The race was Mariash’s biggest goal of the year. She started eying the ultramarathon in January, and she also scheduled two other massive races.
But along the way Mariash was dogged by a smattering of medical issues.
Mariash aggravated a tendon in her ankle during the Leadville 100, in Leadville, Colorado, where she was the seventh woman to cross the line.
“I kind of had a comeback race after struggling in the beginning,” she said. “I came back and crushed it in the end and passed 132 people, which gave me some confidence.”
Mariash then traveled to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a single-day ultramarathon around Mont Blanc in France and Switzerland that attracts some of the world’s most elite ultramarathon runners.
Mariash sprained her ankle two miles into the race, then the tendon she tweaked at Leadville started acting up.
The combination of injuries made it painful for Mariash to go downhill, and she dropped out.
“Mentally, I got crushed,” she said. “I went until mile 19, then I really fell apart.”
Mariash had less than a month to heal her ankle and prepare for the Grand to Grand, so she got help from BStrong Training Systems and Lundstrom Chiropractic.
The two organizations used a myriad of techniques to help Mariash prepare, including laser treatments, and the use of an anti-gravity treadmill, cryogenic therapy and strength training.
“I feel like I owe everything to those guys,” Mariash said. “I don’t know how I healed so fast.”
By the time Mariash arrived to the Grand Canyon, her ankles had healed. But she didn’t know if they would hold up.
“I kind of walked into the Grand freaking out, because I was like, ‘Have I trained enough; am I fast enough; can I be the desert queen?’” she said.
The first day proved her nervousness was unwarranted, when she put a 25-minute gap between her and the second female runner.
On day two she extended her lead to over an hour.
“I was kind of getting comfortable,” Mariash said.
She settled into the routine of waking up early to the sound of the race’s morning call, blaring from a horn at the stage’s camp. She would rise with her tent mates — other racers, mainly from Europe — don the backpack that carried her food, clothes, navigation equipment and sleeping gear, and prepare for the day’s five- or six-hour run.
The course traversed around mesas and dunes, stands of cacti and passed through towns. Mariash’s sleeping pad popped from a cactus spine on the first day, and she spent each night waking, blowing up her pad and trying to fall back asleep.
On day three, the leaders were pulled back two hours for a staggered start to accommodate race volunteers and organizers. Mariash was the only woman in the top 10 athletes that were pulled back.
By 11 a.m. she passed the woman in third, meaning she had a two-hour lead over her. After running up coral-pink sand dunes and over rocky, technical terrain, Mariash reached the third camp, and discovered that, even after her staggered start, she had arrived just 15 minutes behind the second-place woman, giving her a lead of 1 hour and 45 minutes.
“After that I was like ‘I guess I can chill out,’” she said.
Her lead, however, kept expanding.
She started the last day in seventh place overall with a lead of 3 hours, 10 minutes over the next woman.
“But you always get scared until the end,” she said. “Even on the 7.5-mile (final) day I was so scared I was walking down every step on the downhill, and technical sections. I was like ‘Don’t sprain your ankle again right now, or you’re going to be (evacuated by helicopter) out, and you won’t be the female champion. So I ran the whole race very cautiously versus the usual ragey runner on technical terrain.”
Mariash finished in seventh overall with a time of 39:10.41, and described the win as “icing on the cake” after her tough season. She lost eight pounds over the course of the race, as did her backpack (as Mariash ate the food stored in it).
“It was my No. 1 goal, and I’m honestly in shock,” she said. “I can’t believe it happened and I’m more excited about this than I have been in years. Top 10 with the men in a very tough field, then first American is really special for me — crushing all the U.S.A. boys.”
The nationality aspect was particularly significant to Mariash because she wants to raise awareness for ultrarunning in the U.S., particularly stage races, and said she hoped her result would inspire more people to get out and challenge themselves.
“The whole way through these races, you have your country loud and clear on your bib and your sleeve, so you’re pushing it for your country, and to own that category of running for the U.S. is a big deal for me,” she said.
Mariash already has plans for crossing off the last two continents on her list, starting this February when she plans to run the 140-mile Ice Ultra in Sweden, checking off Europe, then the 320-mile Track ultramarathon leaving out of Alice Springs, Australia, in May.
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Both Park City teams finished in the top five at Tuesday’s divisional meet.