For most people, even athletic ones, the idea of a 167-mile ultramarathon is utterly terrifying. But Payge McMahon is not easily scared.
“Back in April, I read an article about this Grand to Grand Ultra,” McMahon says. “This crazy stage race — seven days, 167 miles, up and down 39,000 feet in elevation — and I thought, it sounds like one long, aggressive hike. I just have to do it in seven days. I can do it.”
While McMahon, a local yoga instructor, adventure athlete and journalist, is certainly in peak physical condition, a 167-mile multi-day race is no joke. But McMahon felt she had the necessary physical and mental training to take on the Grand to Grand Ultra.
McMahon explains that the inaugural Grand to Grand Ultra is the first self-supported stage race in North America, a hybrid multi-day ultramarathon winding through forest trails, desert, river crossings and rocky roads throughout the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. The race is entirely on foot, and is self-supported, which means all participants must carry their own food and supplies in their backpacks along the way. That’s an extra 20 pounds on your body.
“I’d never even run a full marathon,” McMahon reveals. “I’ve run the Country Music Half Marathon, and I’ve hiked thousands of miles all over the world — the Himalayas in Nepal, the Andes mountains in Peru, and all over Colorado. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ ”
McMahon has built a career as an adventure athlete through teaching yoga, traveling around the country and beyond the borders to lead workshops, adventure trips and speaking engagements, and by writing for publications such as Competitor magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Women’s Adventure Magazine and Self Reliance Illustrated. She’s also working on her first book, Turn the Payge, which she hopes to publish next year.
This might seem like an unconventional career choice for a woman who studied international politics, earned an MBA and worked on Wall Street handling international security contracts for global banks. In her youth, she excelled in sports, but, at the age of 16, a car accident left her nearly paralyzed with a broken back and a full body cast. Undeterred, McMahon learned how to walk again, and two decades later, staying active doesn’t just calm her chronic back pain, it makes her a living.
For McMahon, it’s all about strategic branding and marketing, and she is the product. McMahon has secured sponsorship deals with companies including Adidas Outdoor, Canada Goose outerwear, Wigwam Socks, Zamberlan boots, Saucony shoes and Osprey backpacks. She’s done all of this without the assistance of a publicist or even an intern.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve developed a very large fanbase through my website, speaking engagements and writing,” she says. “[My fanbase] are the consumers of the products that I’m being sponsored for — the gear, the apparel, the adventure travel trips. These companies have direct access to the people who are spending money.”
Through various journalistic pursuits and speaking appearances, McMahon has built her worth to her fanbase and her sponsors. “You can’t put all of your eggs in one basket — you have to diversify how your income is coming in,” she says. “So, for me, I understand branding and marketing. If companies are going to sponsor you, you need to show value to them. You have to build your brand.”
When she’s not traversing the globe, she teaches yoga at the Downtown Nashville YMCA. “I have to look athletic, and I have to be ready for these adventures, so I’m a big fan of yoga.” McMahon is heading to Pennsylvania at the end of the month to lead a yoga workshop on what she calls “rocking vinyasa yoga.”
McMahon says this type of yoga is geared towards athletes. “It’s fun yoga taught to rock music, getting people to stretch, flex, use their body weight to gain strength and conditioning. It’s not a sit and meditate kind of class; it’s a physical workout.”
For the Grand to Grand Ultra, McMahon’s preparation process included increased training, and assistance with the $3,200 entry fee and necessary supplies. “I said to one of my sponsors, ‘Hey, if you put me in this race, let’s see how I do with these ultramarathon big dogs.’ A week later, they said, ‘Great, you’re in.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, crap! Be careful what you ask for!’ Then I got other sponsors behind me; they helped me with gear, apparel and training costs.”
McMahon was one of 60 competitors from around the world to complete the Grand to Grand in the last week of September. She competed in a group that included a blind man from South Korea and overall male winner Salvador Calvo Redondo, whom McMahon calls a “legend.”
“I finished 40th out of 60 people,” McMahon says, explaining that 12 competitors did not finish due to injury or a missed check-in. “I knew I was never going be a threat to win it, but I just wanted to see if I could do it. And I did.”
She says it was one of the most incredible experiences in her life, but one she’s yet to fully recover from. “My feet are still blistered up,” she says. “There was a medical tent, and every night, doctors and nurse practitioners would drain your blisters. Some people even had to have holes drilled through their toenails to relieve pressure. These people were just hardcore ultra runners who had done this before, and when they found out what my background was, they were like, ‘Really?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I thought that I could try it.’ ”
The desire to try to do something new and challenging may be McMahon’s mantra — for her, the question isn’t why, but why not?
“In life, I think you learn from challenging yourself and overcoming obstacles,” she explains. “And I think a lot of people don’t challenge themselves enough. You become stagnant in your growth as a person, mentally and physically. I think that you need to step outside of your comfort zone. And for endurance racing, people tend not to peak until their late 30s or 40s. I’m 38. Life doesn’t end when you hit 40.”
McMahon is never shy to step out of her own comfort zone, blisters and all. Next year she plans to compete in her second multi-day stage race in Iceland.
“I always say … collect memories, not material things,” McMahon says. “To me, that sums it up.”
Learn more about Payge and her adventures at turnthepayge.com.