Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Grand Canyon -- R2R

"The Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world......You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." --Theodore Roosevelt

I think it was mentioned in the summer of 2014 by my running friend, Don, that he would someday like to traverse the Grand Canyon by foot (running, if possible).  It's a route that should be on every runner's 'bucket list'.  Well, it doesn't take much to get me riled up about adventures, and several weeks later, we had our hotel reserved on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for a mid-October 2015 adventure.

First off, running from South Rim to North Rim, a distance of approximately 21-miles, just wasn't enough.  Don and I both wanted to cross and return in the same day.  But, again, that would've only been 42-miles and that wasn't enough.  So, with some planning and side trips, we decided to stretch the round trip to 50-miles.  In a single day.  Up and down the GRAND CANYON.  This famous double-crossing is called the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim, or R3 for short.

This trip was planned for October 12th.....Columbus Day.  While I no longer agree with the principles of Columbus and the celebration for his 'achievements', I will leave politics for another day.  To me, the point of Columbus Day is to celebrate those who explore the world by challenging their comfort zones.  From the moment you step foot up to the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, your comfort level is challenged.  You can't take pictures that do the canyon any justice.  "Grand" just doesn't seem like a big enough word for it, because as you stand there, you are speechless.

Our comfort zones would be challenged on this trip to varying degrees.  I am no fan of heights, and there are several places in the canyon where the trail is on the edge of a cliff.  The sheer distance alone is daunting without thinking about descending 5,000' and ascending 5,000'.  Food and water were not provided like aid stations on race day...this was a solo effort.  There are poisonous snakes along the trail.  People do die each year, just trying to hike, let alone run, the canyon.

"DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day.  Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion."

None of that really mattered, though....we are runners.  I don't know many types of athletes more resilient (or stupid?) than runners.  The old 'Pain is temporary, pride is forever' motto.

So, the morning of the 12th, at 5AM, we took off from Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim for a long day of adventure.  We walked the first 5-miles along the top of the rim as a group because only 3 of us were going to try to run it.  Our 5 mile walk brought us to the South Kaibab Trailhead at 6:15AM...just in time for sunrise.

L->R, Myself, Carlos, Don, Linda, and Jody

We took our obligatory pictures and parted ways.  Immediately, the trails begin what seems like miles of switchbacks plunging around corners and into depths you can't see from the top rim.

This, to me, is a runner's paradise.  Plunging down a mountainside, bouncing off rocks, churning your feet faster and faster while surveying the ground ahead of you for the next toe placement.....this is living.  If it wasn't for the massive piles of green manure from the mules (along with their smell) it would've been perfect.  We weren't the first ones to delve into the canyon that morning, so our initial ascent also included avoiding hikers.  As a side note, I will say that we as a group said "Excuse us", "Mind if we go around?", and "Have a great day, thank you!" to every, single passing group all day long.  The stories of runners being rude on the trails never left my mind and I made sure it wasn't us that put that mark on the running community.  And, it paid off........the politeness we received in return was wonderful.

Bright Angel Trail switchbacks, for reference.

Our day really didn't begin until we started that plunge into the canyon.  I didn't want our group to get separated at any point during the day, but this descent I was like a chained dog just let off its leash.  I had to open it up and run, but that left several stops waiting for my running partners.  Well, about 2-miles into the descent, I stopped and waited for Carlos & Don.  Suddenly, they both came around the corner where I could immediately see the red on Don's right knee.  As they catch up, Don explains to me that he took a 'tumble', hit his knee & head but he was OK.  As we start back to running, Don illuminates Carlos and I with a bit of knowledge and he says:
"For three reasons, I'm not supposed to be a trail runner.  One...I get lost easily.  Two...I don't drink beer.  And, three....I'm clumsy."
We all get a good laugh and carry on.  The trail continues to plummet (you have to drop nearly 4,500' to get to the Colorado River over the course of about 7-miles).  I continue to fly down the trail and pounce from rock to rock with what has to be the widest grin on my face.  About a mile later, I realize we are a bit separated again, and I stop to wait.  And I wait.  And I wait.  And I wait.  Again, Don and Carlos emerge and explain to me that Don had fallen again.  I feel it's worth noting that Don's right knee was not 100% as we arrived at the Canyon, so 7-8 miles into the day he'd already beaten it up quite a bit.  I hope Don doesn't mind me using this picture......but there's still a SMILE on his face!!

Don's "battle scars" (Tonto East)

Amazingly, after two crashes and some blood, Don was still smiling and running.  It should be noted that the pair of our group doing the hiking (Jody & Linda) would occasionally ask if anyone had seen a group of runners and we got some great reviews like "Yeah, you should see them flying down the trail!".  It was really good to hear things like this when we finished.....we came here to run the Grand Canyon--in full or in part--and we had at the very least accomplished that feat.

It wasn't much later that we met our first (and only) mule train of the day and we had to take a break to let them pass.  Within minutes, we reached the 'Black Bridge' crossing the Colorado River.

Black Bridge

We had reached the Colorado River, a distance of approximately 13-miles from our starting point, in about 3.5hrs (We walked the first 5-miles/1hr 15min).

From here, we refilled and refreshed at the bathrooms and water from the Phantom Ranch.  We also purchased souvenirs and t-shirts that you only get at the Phantom Ranch.  We met a ton of other hikers whom had spent the night at Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch.  Everyone was so pleasant and just excited to be in the Grand Canyon.

Bright Angel Canyon....our 14-mile climb back out.

"Going in is optional, coming out is MANDATORY."

From Phantom Ranch, you climb 14-miles up Bright Angel Canyon following Bright Angel Creek to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  The first 7-miles is a relatively small incline and quite runnable up to Cottonwood Campground.  Unfortunately, our running for the day was all but over with.  Don's knee was causing enough pain to keep him from running and he broke out the hiking poles as we left Phantom Ranch.

I think this was the spot for me where it sank in just how big our endeavor was.  You are 5,000' below the rim of an enormous canyon.  The only exit is a 14-mile, UPHILL hike.  The years of nature that it took to create this giant hole in the ground humbles you and your measly hundred years of existence.  This canyon was here an eon before you and it'll be here an eon after you.

We made our way to Cottonwood Campground at a fairly good hiking pace.  The views are stunning and you just can't take pictures.....but I still tried.  You cell phone doesn't work.  The GPS kept losing satellite signal.  They aren't kidding when they tell you the only way out is by your own man-power.

From Cottonwood, it's supposed to be about 7 more miles to the North Rim.  That was quite possibly the longest seven miles of my life.  Almost immediately after leaving Cottonwood, the stairs start.  Oh, the stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Someone really needs to highlight the STAIRS for future trekkers/runners.  We knew there'd be an incline getting out of the canyon, we just didn't expect it to be SO MANY stairs.

When the stairs started, the cramps in my legs came alongside them.  I don't know what it is, but cramps are the bane of my running.  I wasn't out of energy--not even close.  I wasn't injured.  However, every step up triggered a quick pause to make sure the 'rolling-on-the-ground-screaming-obscenities' cramps didn't trigger.  I'm sure it has something to do with nutrition/water, but I just haven't figured it out yet.  To my credit though, they are getting more tolerable (if tolerating cramping in your legs for 4-6hrs is 'tolerable').

It was here that Carlos took over the lead for us and kept us moving.  Carlos' "relentless forward progress" (a quip I had given Jody & Linda the night before) kept us climbing to freedom.  We had told Carlos' wife we planned to arrive at the North Rim around 12-1pm, but we missed our target time by about 4.5hrs.  This was no small task for Carlos' wife, as the drive from South to North rim is FOUR hours one-way.

Eventually, around 4:30pm, we reached the North Rim.  The last 14-miles weren't pretty, but it was relentless.  We stopped, but never for too long.  We kept putting one foot in front of the other knowing that was the only path to our destination.

At the North Rim, I did some light jogging and was preparing myself for a return trip.  Don wasn't going back and I'm not sure Carlos was going to either.  After about 45-minutes of stretching, jogging, etc. my cramps were almost completely gone and I was ready to descend back into the canyon.  But, the sun was setting and Don and Carlos didn't want me to head back in solo.  I knew it would be a long trek back, in complete darkness (it was a new moon that night), but I was prepared (headlamp, extra batteries, etc).  The thought of a soft bed, a warm meal, and something other than sports drink was enough of a temptation to persuade me to call it a day after 11hrs, 31-miles, and 62,262 steps.

North Rim Finish

My companions for this trip made it memorable.  Don's injury(ies) came early but didn't stop him in a display of tremendous determination.  Carlos' energy seemed to grow throughout the day and I look forward to dragging him along for another ultra someday.  Jody & Linda shared in our pain of crossing and joy of accomplishment.  We had good meals, good drinks, and good conversation.  Carlos' wife is to be commended.  She drove four hours one-way, with two kids in tow, to sit and wait for a group of idiots trying to run across the world's biggest ditch, just so she could deliver us some sandwiches and watch us run off again.  And, while we didn't run off again, we couldn't have finished our day without her.

So, our R3 adventure was cut into an R2.  But, that's still nothing to be ashamed of.  Don changed from a road runner to a trail runner over the course of the year.  Both Don & Carlos ran ultramarathons as part of the training.  We all tackled the trails more vigorously than normal.  The work put into preparing was more of a story than the day of our adventure.

Nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year and only 5% actually go below the rim.  Of that 5%, there's not many that complete the crossing in a single day.  This adventure will be assigned a tag of 'unfinished business' in my log book, though.  I will return....and when I do, it will be an R3 day.

--Camelbak Mini-MULE 1.5L Hydration pack(this is actually a kids hydration pack, but I can stuff so much into it!)
-- Mizuno Wave Kazan Trail Shoes
--Shaklee Performance Hydration drink/mix provided by Carol Adams
--Petzl TIKKA headlamp
--Outdoor Research Sun Runner cap
--Sony HDRAS20/B action camera
--Garmin Forerunner 310XT
--Copious amounts of Bodyglide.
--Ridiculous number of PB&Js
--Oat bars