Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
S. Rim to the N. Rim and back via the South and North Kaibab trails.
~11,000 vertical feet
Ahhhh that little run 3 years ago. I confidently thought I could go down and put in a sub 10 hour time on my first try (despite it being my longest run ever by 15 miles), yet 95 degree heat and overall inexperience at running long distances thwarted my efforts and I ran a somewhat disappointing 10:23:42. I was severely dehydrated and was in borderline need of an IV and some general TLC by the time I finished. Despite the suffering, this ranked at the top of the list of all time cool things I have done, certainly my most epic run ever. The trail is phenomenal and generally in great shape for running, the scenery is out of this world and nothing motivates me more than a run as epic as this.
After I recovered a bit, I vowed that I would return soon, hope for a cooler day and employ all the lessons that I learned on my previous trip and gather all the knowledge I could from some of my experienced ultra running friends (Jason Halladay, Bill Geist, Dave Mackey, Tim Long amongst others). That day would not come until this past Saturday, April 18th, 2009.
It unfortunately took me 3 years to get back to the Grand Canyon for a slew of reasons and almost did not make it there this year due to an IT band injury in Feb/March which prevented me from running hard and eliminated any downhill running for quite some time. About two weeks prior to the trip, I decided that despite not putting in much quality downhill running, I felt as though I was reasonably fit and I had no lingering problems with my IT band or any other joints or ligaments for that matter, so why not give it a go?
At nearly the last minute, I got on board with Bob Dawson’s group, his 7th annual trip to the Grand Canyon for the Rim to Rim to Rim where I was to be part of a loose knit group of 20+ people, many with different goals, but all with the same primary objective. We all met for dinner the previous evening where plans got discussed and we all formed sub-groups based on desired route and predicted time. I was planning on meeting Gerry’s friend Ricky Denesik at the S. Kaibab TH a bit before 5:30am to run with him. I had met Ricky briefly back in February on a short hike with the Roach’s and was eager to run with him, as he is a great guy who happens to be the former 14er record holder, Hardrock 100 winner and was 3rd at Hardrock in 2008, so I knew he would be a strong running partner (if I could keep up). When speaking with him on the phone however, he indicated that he was getting sick, so I was not sure what to expect.
That evening, Wayne Herrick, a good friend who was also along on the trip indicated that he wanted to start with us and keep pace at least to Phantom Ranch, so I was stoked to have Wayne along for additional company.
After falling asleep at 8pm on Friday evening, wake up time came a bit early on Saturday morning as Hoot and Dwight, who I was sharing a room with, were up at 1:45am. They were very quiet and efficient, but my brain involuntarily went into overdrive and all I could think about was the excitement of the day to come and could not fall back to sleep.
Eventually, I got up around 3:30am and slowly began my meticulous preparations. Even though I was a bit tired at that early hour, it turned out that the extra time was a good thing, as I casually ate and drank, took several productive trips to the bathroom and drank a little bit of coffee while getting additionally pumped up by the music on my MP3 player (did not carry on the run).
Wayne and I arrived at the trailhead at about 5:20am and Ricky arrived soon after. Ricky unfortunately informed us that he had the flu, seriously considered bailing, but would give it a shot regardless and see how far he got. I was itching to get going, as I could hear the clippety clop of mule hooves descending the trail and could not get an accurate fix on how far down the trail they were, but was sure that our timing would probably be good enough to pass them on one of the wide sections of trail.
Just as we were about to start another very fit looking runner shows up dressed lightly and carrying just a water bottle. We make quick introductions and start down the trail at 5:28am. I took the lead, followed by Wayne, Erin (the new addition to our group) and Ricky. Unfortunately, it was immediately evident that it was not to be Ricky’s day and he fell behind as we continued down the trail.
We were making good progress, yet I was a little worried that we were going a bit slow, as for some reason it felt a bit more leisurely than my previous trip. We caught the mules about 1.5 miles down where there happened to be a wide spot for them to stop and let us pass. They only delayed us by just a couple of minutes, but the delay could not have come at a better time as I was warming up and wanted to remove my windbreaker and was otherwise reluctant to stop. Unlike in 2006, the two mule drivers were quite courteous and accommodating and we profusely reciprocated good sentiment and thanks to them.
Once past the mules, we knew it was clear sailing ahead and I became a bit more relaxed and upped the pace a touch. We then passed Colleen and her two friends running down the trail, they were to meet us for the start but I guess they forgot to get on Arizona time. Further conversation with Erin revealed that he lives in Flagstaff, runs in the Grand Canyon often, had recently run an 8:35 RRR and indicated that we would most likely face great trail conditions. Everything was coming together perfectly, the culmination of 3 years of planning, training, daydreaming…. I had a wide grin on my face all the way down to the Colorado River, one of the best running moments I have ever had, it is truly a magical and inspiring place.
We reached the black bridge in 57 minutes, a bit faster than I had planned, but I never felt as if I were pushing too hard. Erin turned here to head back up to the S. Rim to meet his family and Wayne and I pressed on for Phantom Ranch. This stretch involved some loose sand and a braided network of trails that worked their way through Phantom Ranch and eventually led to the water spigot in front of the Canteen. I think we arrived here after 1:06 and were rolling by 1:08 or so. Once out of sight of camp, I took a quick pee and said my goodbyes to Wayne who wanted to tone it back a bit and run his own pace.
Through the box canyon, I started upping the effort some and I immediately noticed tightness in my calves. Uh oh, I thought, a bit too early for that. The only thing I could relate it to was that perhaps I unwittingly went a touch too fast on the descent, yet it is normally my quads that pay the price.
Throughout the run, I kept echoing Dave’s advice (don’t hammer the downhills, keep up on hydration, food and electrolytes etc….) and was careful to follow his advice (he is the record holder after all at 6:59), drinking often, eating 2+ Endurolytes per hour (along with drinking Heed on occasion) and I was almost always was stuffing a gel or Clif Shot Blok into my mouth.
Not far into Bright Angel Canyon, I began to pass those in our group who began at 2:30am., Bill, Sue, Deb, Beth, Marleen, Dwight, Sharoni, Hoot… One by one, they shouted encouragement as I went by and was a psychological boost to have good friends out there sharing this wonderful day as we cheered one another on.
I made it to Cottonwood Camp in 2:17, gave the water spigot a quick test just out of curiosity and kept on going as I munched on freshly sliced apples, still enjoying the coolness of the shade. I passed Bob just prior to the Roaring Springs residence/water stop and he was moving well. Now the only ones ahead of him were Jill and Jennifer.
At the residence, I waltzed right past the normal faucet as it was hidden behind a tree and found a smaller one on the far side. This worked out fine as I filled my bottles, snuck behind a bush for another quick pee, put on my sunglasses and arranged a few things in my pack. I was here from 2:34-2:37.
Now the first real climbing of the day begins as I climb the hillside and enjoy the first sun hit of the day. By far my favorite stretch of trail, up, up, up toward the North Rim the N. Kaibab trail is etched into the side of what is often times a sheer cliff face with massive exposure on climbers right. I continually focus on getting down food, keeping up on hydration and drank often from each of my two hand bottles, one with Heed and one with water.
Just prior to the big bridge, I pass Jennifer and then quickly stash my 2/3 full hand bottle of water to save weight going up to the N. Rim. In my haste, I set it out in the open sun, yet halfway across the bridge realized that I will appreciate cool water on the return trip, so I went back and stashed it in a spot where I knew it would stay shaded (this turned out to be a much appreciated decision on the way down).
The trail above was a bit rougher than I remember, there seemed to be a lot of freshly fallen rocks of various sizes. Nothing to really slow progress, though I was often times on guard for the possibility of falling rock. The Supai tunnel arrived surprisingly quick and I started debating with myself whether it was 1 mile to the rim, or 3?
Soon after, I caught Jill and she told me it was 2 miles from the tunnel to the rim. I am still not sure, but if it is 2, it was a looong 2 miles. I knew this stretch was longer than one thinks and to not be fooled, but I was still fooled. Snow was minimal, I counted 10 steps of walking on well packed snow spread out between 3 separate lingering drifts. I was pushing a bit to make the N. Rim in less than 4 hours, but arrived there at 4:03 which I was still happy with.
OK, now I just have to get back. It is roughly 1,000 less feet of climbing on the return trip, but I knew accumulated fatigue and cramping would seriously impede my chances of getting back as fast or faster, but I was going to give it my all. Immediately upon starting the descent, my legs were feeling a bit shaky, not really from pushing too hard, as I never feel as though I pushed at or above threshold, just an escalation of that surprise cramping I had been dealing with since Phantom Ranch. I guess there is nothing easy about running across the Grand Canyon and back, so some leg discomfort should be no surprise.
I descended as quickly as I could without overdoing it, all the while being careful not to trip on anything and take a header off one of the exposed cliffs. Though I felt as though I was losing large chunks of time, I arrived back to the Roaring Springs residence in 5:01 for a 58 minutes descent from the rim. Though it felt as though I was dogging it, I was still 2 minutes faster than 2006 where I felt like I was pushing hard and going fast. I treated myself to a 6 minute stop here, though none of it was a rest of any sorts, just enough time to coax out a reluctant pee, fill bottles, add Heed, reapply sunscreen, clean glasses, shuffle food and I was off.
At this point, I was well ahead of my 2006 splits and I wanted to keep it that way, so I kept pushing, no walking, no stops, no losing focus. The upper part of the valley went reasonably quick, but as expected, once into the 4 mile section of the box canyon, it really became endless and I was just eager to begin the final climb to the S. Rim. The numerous rock water bars, that went largely unnoticed on the way up, now seemed like Olympic hurdles. After what seemed like an eternity, I arrived at Phantom Ranch after 6:30, took two minutes to fill/drink and was on my way.
Passing through the ranch, past the campground and beach along the river, there were people lounging around, relaxing in the shade. At the time it looked so appealing and I was tempted to join in the relaxation, but knowing myself, if I were there relaxing, I would be just dying to run uphill. Skipping that step, I re-crossed the black bridge and began the final climb after 6:40. That gave me 2:20 to climb out to meet or exceed my goal of breaking 9 hours, not much leeway considering how my legs were feeling, but I was sure I could do it. I just could not stop and rest, nor could I slack off at all.
Initially on the climb, I had a little pep left in my legs and I made good time to the bathroom on the edge of the Tonto Plateau, arriving there at 7:15 total and only :35 from the bridge. If I could only maintain that, perhaps I could get close to 8? Wishful thinking perhaps. As I continued on, I slowly deteriorated from a quick walking pace with occasional bursts of running, to a hunched over lope with a hand on each knee, to aid my now glacial uphill progress.
Soon I encountered the expected hordes of tourists. I felt pitiful as I struggled past, huffing and puffing, grabbing nearby boulders and rock walls for balance and support while cutting every apex with surgical accuracy. Like 2006, my pace continued to slow and my watch seemed to accelerate at a disproportionate rate. All I could think about was tagging that sign on the rim, I could now see it, but it was still distant. The final set of switchbacks jump steeply up the towering cliff face and it seemed almost insurmountable. I just kept my eyes focused down at the trail immediately at my feet and dig in for all I am worth (which is not much at this point). Finally I tag the top and stop my watch at 8:43:35 and slump in the shade, panting in a heap. That was all I had and could have given no more.
Not wanting to wait any longer than I had to, I quickly gathered my wits and hobbled the few hundred feet over to the bus stop. Surprisingly, I felt pretty good compared to the last time I was in this position. Although my legs immediately ceased up when I stopped, I had immediate appetite and wanted to drink, which I took as a good sign.
Wayne came in at 10:38, knocking an impressive 2 hours off his previous best and well under his sub 12:00 goal. Ricky ended up completing the RRR and finished in around 11:30, which is pretty darn good while being sick. I’m sure he would have smoked me had he been at his normal capacity. Everyone else trickled in throughout the evening, most people had set new PRs for themselves and everyone without fail had an awesome time and seemed eager to return.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon showering, eating, hydrating, stretching and relaxing. Aside from sore legs, I was surprisingly not really that tired. As I write this roughly 48 hours after finishing, my legs are still extremely sore as I can hardly walk without hanging onto walls, handrails etc…., yet it is all just muscle pain that hurts so good and I am very happy to not have sore knees, hips or anything of the like.
I want to thank Bob again for organizing this trip and letting me tag along, it was great to get to hang out with good friends old and new.
Lessons learned/advantages over previous trip:
Better weather…. A day in the mid seventies makes all the difference in the world over a 95 degree day. Luck of course plays a role here, unless you have a lot of flexibility to go there and wait it out for just the right day.
Things I might do differently next time:
Train more for the downhills. Although I knew this and it was beyond my control this year, I am sure that lacking this specific training set me up to lose some time.
Running shorts with pockets- good for stashing small items and keeping organized/easy access.
White running t-shirt.
White running hat.
Smartwool ankle height, mid weight socks.
Pearlizumi Seek III shoes
2 hand bottles
1 Nathan HPL-020 hydration vest (left the bladder behind and just used bottles).
Go-Lite wind shirt (could have left this behind).
Arm warmers (these were great, as I could dial them up/down as necessary until I finally took them off when it really warmed up).
Small bit of sunscreen and chapstick.
Duct tape just in case.
9 servings of gel (ate 6)
3 bags of Shot Bloks (ate 13/18 bloks)
2 sliced apples (ate 1-1.5)
1 ziplock bag of Cheeto/Dorito mix (ate a mouthful)
1 ziplock bag of trail mix (ate a mouthful)
6 advil tablets (ate all of them)
18 e-tabs (ate them all)
4 servings of Heed (drank 2)
1 serving of Perpetuem (forgot about it or opted not to drink it?).
7 x 20oz bottles of water (one S. Rim to river, one Phantom to Roaring, 2 to N. Rim and back, 1 down to Phantom, 2 up to S. Rim). I also took several good gulps at each filling.
1 serving of Perpetuem
1 cup coffee
Start- 0 (5:28am)
Black Bridge- :57
N. Rim- 4:03
Black Bridge- 6:40
Finish- 8:43:35 (2:11pm)