Monday, April 19, 2010

Saturday, 04/17/10 Grand Canyon RRR

Grand Canyon RRR 2010
42 miles
11,000 vertical

George's report
Hoot's photos
Bill Blazek's photos
Adam's Report and photos

Plans started to coalesce in January for another RRR trip. I immediately got excited about the idea, but some minor foot discomfort had me taking a month off of my feet from mid-January to mid-February and I was beginning to question if I would be able to pull it together in time. Fortunately, my foot improved and I was able to get back into reasonable enough shape to start making serious plans. Specific travel plans/partners were eventually sorted out over the final few weeks leading up to the trip and it ultimately came down to myself, Homie (John Prater) and George Zack.

This was my 3rd trip to the canyon for the double crossing, previously running a 10:23 in 2006, an 8:43 in 2009 and I was sure that I could still improve upon my time with a little better training and execution over my previous best there given the right circumstances. Homie had run/hiked the double crossing before with his wife in a casual 19+ hours and was eager to give it faster effort and this was George’s first RRR and by far his furthest/longest run ever.

Our trip was planned to coincide with Bob Dawson’s annual trip (this was his 8th annual RRR trip), always on the same weekend in April where a loosely knit group meets up for the hike/run. The three of us left George’s house in Broomfield at 6am on Thursday morning and drove the ~11+ hours in one straight shot to the Grand Canyon, arriving around 4pm and set up camp in the Mather Campground.

We had talked about taking a short run to work out the stiffness in our legs from the long drive, but decided that food was more important and headed to the Bright Angel Lodge for a great dinner.

On Friday Morning, with most of the day before us to enjoy, George and I followed John and Gerry (Roach) over to a rock tower named the “Sinking Ship” where we would follow them to the base and kill some time spectating. It was tempting to do the full climb, which I would have done on any other day, but did not want to risk expending too much energy prior to such an important run. I did however do some fun scrambling, making it about 1/3 of the way up and got some great photos and then spent the remainder of the morning lounging back up on the rim, enjoying the tranquility and views.

(remaining photos from Hoot unless otherwise noted)

We decided on the usual ~5:30am start time for Saturday morning, where Wayne was to meet us for the run. The majority of Bob’s group started at 3am (Emily, Hoot, Adam, Rob, Bill) Mark Silas started at 4:50am and Jennifer was already hiking through the night. The group nature of the outing really adds to the fun, having so many friends out there on the trail to exchange high fives and encouragement and knowing that if anything happened out there, you have some backup.

After a solid 7 hours of sleep, I was wide awake at 3am and raring to go. I meticulously paid close attention to every little detail, sure to not forget anything. I took my time eating and took a few trips to the bathroom to rid myself of any extra weight. We hopped in the van around 5am and headed over to the parking lot near the entrance to S. Kaibab TH access road 6/10th of a mile away.

At 5:34am exact, we set off from the kiosk as I set pace, Wayne on my heels and George and John not too far behind.

Me about to launch(GZ photo).

It was a perfect morning, comfortable enough temperature to not need anything more than shorts and a t-shirt (a sign of things to come). The ongoing trail work on the S. Kaibab trail soon became evident and there seemed to be great improvements over last year, making for a noticably easier descent. The pace seemed very relaxed and I was shooting to get to the river in about 57 minutes, same as last year, but was confident that would be a more reasonable pace this year since my downhill training has been much improved. I don’t really have any reliable splits on the descent, but I had a strong feeling that we were right on target, although Wayne thought we were going a bit slow.

Wayne and I made it to the river in 56:30, took a quick pee and moved quickly along toward Phantom Ranch. Wayne peeled off to fill up on water and I continued on for the long solo haul to the North Rim, eager to catch up and say hi to my friends ahead. This was the moment in my run where in 2009 I discovered that my descent from the S. Rim in 57 minutes was a bit too ambitious for my lack of specific training. My calves were cramping from balance stepping on all the water bars and I knew I was running on borrowed time. This year however, my legs felt very fresh and knew that things were going according to plan. As I worked my way up Bright Angel canyon along the swiftly flowing creek, I concentrated on efficiency and made a point to stay well fueled and hydrated. The box canyon passed surprisingly quick as I was just cruising along, completely enjoying the morning and the day that was unfolding before me. I was feeling at times as though I was going a bit too easy as my effort seemed a bit on the low side. I was hoping my discipline would pay off though, as I did not want to trash myself too early in the run and just concentrate on even energy expenditure throughout, intending to save a bit more for the final leg of the journey back up to the South Rim that is always a true test of one’s limits.

Wall Creek, the only significant water crossing without a bridge (just below Cottonwood Camp) was flowing much higher than in previous years and I knew from information I had gathered, I would have to get my feet wet. Fortunately, somebody had strung up a nice taut hand line to offer some guidance which helped tremendously.

Once past the creek with minimal delay, my shoes were now soaked and filled with water which took a bit of pep out of my step due to the added water weight, but the cold water was refreshing even at the early hour.

I arrived at Cottonwood after 2:11 of running, where I was able to get a conditions report from two backpackers descending from the N. Rim. I eagerly requested a snow report where they both looked at my trail running shoes and agreed that I would not be able to make it in the shoes I was wearing “you’ll definitely get wet”. Hmmm…. I was already soaked from just having waded across the creek minutes ago, would I really not be able to negotiate the snow? I chuckled to myself, filled both hand bottles and was back on the trail in a minute and change. I passed the Roaring Springs Ranger Cottage at 2:28 where Bill Blazek was taking a break and took a few pictures of me as I passed and shouted encouragement. I was eager to get on with the steep(er) climbing to the N. Rim and was still looking forward to catching the rest of the group ahead. I first caught Emily not too far below the bridge and surprised her as she was singing along to her music on her I-pod, Bob was within sight ahead moving very well. Now with just Hoot, Adam, Rob and Jennifer ahead of me, I settled into a speed hike/jogging mix on the steep gradient up to Supai, constantly shifting gears depending on gradient for efficiency.

Immediately after the Supai tunnel I started to encounter the first patches of snow. I was encouraged by the fact that it was still hard enough to stay on top of and was melting enough on top to get just enough grip. There were several inch deep footprints from those who had passed before me to provide a bit of additional traction and guidance, but negotiating the still several feet deep drifts certainly cost some minutes on both the up and the down. Despite the relatively slower conditions, I was happy to reach the N. Rim kiosk in 3:55, 8 minutes ahead of last year.

I spent ~1 minute talking to Rob who was taking a more leisurely break, packed away my arm warmers, gloves and dug out my sliced up apple (that I would not eat until long after the run) and was soon carefully picking my way back down the snow covered trail. Initially, my pace was pretty slow, concentrating on not taking a big slip or suffering a bad post hole incident which certainly seemed like a possibility in spots.

Safely past the worst of the snow at Supai tunnel, I started to up the pace a bit and was encouraged by how good my legs felt, as I had none of the wobbly sensations I had in years past at this point in the run. This is where the heat of the day really started to ramp up and I took full advantage of the numerous waterfalls cascading onto the trail where I would pause for a nice cool down and submerge my hat every chance I got which really helped to keep my head cool.

I'm paused and posing here (Bill Blazek photo)

Back at the Ranger Cottage (after ~4:54) I spent a few minutes getting water, applying sunscreen and willing myself with all my might to not just spend an hour napping in the shaded green grass. I forced myself onward into the now somewhat oppressive heat of the valley floor and chugged a bottle as I tried to establish a sustainable rhythm, knowing I could fill again at Cottonwood Camp. Cottonwood arrived at 5:11, I filled without hardly a pause and was now looking forward to re-crossing Wall Creek, which would come as a very welcome refresher (click on picture and note Jennifer crossing later in the day).

The hill past the Ribbon Falls cut off was a bit of a sting after so much descending, but I powered over it well and remained focused on bolstering the 8-10 minute advantage I had been maintaining over last year on the way back down to Phantom Ranch. I kept my pace up, never going too fast, but I never really lagged either and did the best I could keeping hydrated and cool, continuing to dip my hat into any bit of water I passed, but knew that I was creeping into a hydration deficit despite my concentrated efforts to keep up with fluids and electrolytes.

It was daunting at times to look down canyon while still high in the valley and see the plateau of the S. Rim looming so high above in the distance, knowing I still had ~2,000 feet to drop before I could cross the Colorado River and begin my final climb. My mindset wavered at times as I became increasingly fatigued, but I never strayed from my goal and was always able to maintain a high level of focus on the task at hand, whereas I have struggled through this section more in previous years. Experience was paying off.

After some varied reports on the status of the water situation (due to an ailing water pipeline), I was relieved to find cold/drinkable water at the faucet in front of the Canteen. Again, it was very tempting to relax in the cool shade, but there was business to take care of. I’m not sure what the temperature was, certainly not as hot as the 96 degrees we encountered in 2006, but I am guessing it was in the high 80’s or possibly even 90. It always seems warmer here, as the rocks and sand do an excellent job of radiating heat, I am always feeling a bit physically drained at this point and I typically have not had any exposure to temps beyond the 70’s at that point in the year which all conspire against you.

Running along the river, I passed a mule train heading in the opposite direction and was momentarily delayed. This was surprising to me, as we were told that all mules were using the Bright Angel trail due to the ongoing trail construction on the S. Kaibab. It is crazy to me that there is no way to get reliable information, as everyone you talk to at the park tells you something different, whether it be trail conditions, weather conditions, water availability, mule traffic etc….

Though increasingly tired, I was very eager to get started with the final climb. I stepped onto the black bridge after 6:25 and after several strides, noticed yet another mule train just starting their way across the bridge in the opposite direction just after I had. No big deal I thought, I would just make myself skinny and inch along sideways as they passed. The Marlboro Man on the lead mule gave me a $h!t faced grin and passed, scuffing me slightly with the saddle bag. The remaining 6 mules, all piloted by 50 something female tourists did not go as smoothly. Suspended high above the muddy waters of the Colorado River, each mule sensed the tension between myself and their respective passengers. In turn, each mule would pause, stomp nervously, sway their head and then sprint wildly past, as I tried my best to avoid getting trampled. Each of the remaining 6 mules took their turn knocking me into the fenced rail like a pinball as I exhaled a barrage of foul language with each blow to the chest from the saddle bags or rump of the mule. A bit nerve wracking to say the least.

Now done with mules (or so I thought at the time), all I had standing in my way was a 6.3 mile climb up 4,860 feet of sun scorched switchbacks and through crowds of ill prepared tourists, similar stats to ascending Longs Peak on top of 35+ miles and 6,000 feet of climbing. I plugged along steadily, running when I could, power hiking when necessary as the river became increasingly distant. I was starting to fade a bit and my warming water became less and less appealing (I was fantasizing about an ice cold lemonade fairy roaming the trails, handing out tall, sweating glasses of revitalizing nectar).

All the while, I would look down on any switchback sections above the river and only saw people who I have already passed and never once saw any other runners, just hikers. About halfway up the long and steep series of switchbacks connecting the Tonto Plateau to Skeleton Point, I looked down and saw somebody below whom I did not remember passing, who was going a similar pace to me.

I peered over the edge again on the next switchback and was 100% positive it was George, same hat, clothing, backpack and stride. I was 30+ minutes ahead of him on the N. Rim and was doing the math in my head as to how he could have made up so much time on me (George is an awesome runner and I was not all that surprised). Not wanting to get caught by anybody this close to the finish, the possibility of this ignited my competitive spirit. I was no longer racing virtual Jeff from 2009, I was on a mission to hold George off. I picked up the pace, hugging close to the wall and staying low, doing my best not to be seen. As I crested Skeleton Point, I took advantage of the long flat section where I really opened up the throttle, maybe even hitting 6 minute pace or better for a ~1/4 mile trying to get as far ahead before he crested onto the ridge.

I peered back at times, no longer seeing my pursuer, but now the fire was fully lit and there was no letting up until the top. As I passed O’Neil Butte, I was mortified to see yet another train of mules heading up the trail a few switchbacks above Cedar Ridge. I was hoping that they would top out before I caught them, but they were moving much slower and I quickly caught up. I was lucky that it was a reasonable spot for me to pass as they happened to be stopped for a moment and I thanked them profusely as I tip toed past on the inside boulders. I kept pushing hard, pushing myself harder than I can ever remember up the trail, singularly focused on the task at hand. My primary goal was to get as close to 8 hours as I could and I knew that would not happen after a certain point, but I knew that I would better my PR by nearly a half hour. As I approached the final sting in the tail switchbacks to the rim, my watch (as usual) seemed to be accelerating disproportionately to my pace and effort.

As I was near the last switchback, I noticed my watch read low 8:15. I burst into a full on sprint past the final steep switchback to the top, tagging the kiosk at 8:15:52 and collapsed in a heap.

I finally gathered my wits a bit and was able to bum some water off some hikers who took pity on my sorry self. I then staggered over to a nice perch on the rim and spent ~10 minutes waiting to cheer on George, but I could see a long ways down the trail and did not see him. As much as I wanted to wait, I needed to get to the car for some cold water and recover, so I slowly staggered the .6 or so miles back. I was feeling nauseous and the trip to the car was a challenge unto itself, shuffling along with stiff legs, unable to take in a deep breath, shivering from cold sweats and was on the edge of vomiting.

Finally back at the van, I sat on the tailgate, trying to muster up the energy to drink or eat, but there was no way I could do it. I hunched over with my head in my hands, coughing and hacking, not knowing whether to sit, stand, lie down or throw up. A German tourist wearing an Ironman Arizona race shirt came by to ask if I was OK. He kindly offered a Gatorade which I happily accepted, though I could not drink for some time still. This is one of those situations where I would have gladly gone to the medical tent for an IV or some sort of aid had it been an organized race.

Eventually, I regained my composure enough to get down some liquids, a banana and my left over pasta from dinner the previous night. As I was just starting to get it together, my friend Pete showed up, as he was waiting on Adam. I was so glad to see a friendly/familiar face and although I was past the worst of my post run delirium, it was mentally reassuring to have him there to talk to and recount the day.

I was surprised to still not see George after an hour, but eventually he rounded the corner slowly shuffling along the road toward the car. I asked him what had happened, as he had come to close so catching me on the ascent, but he had no idea what I was talking about. He had finished in a very respectable 9:22, his first RRR, longest run ever and had not done any vertical to boot, amazing in my opinion! After comparing notes on the final climb, it turned out that it was not George that I saw behind me, just somebody who had probably come off the Tonto Trail and was for at least a moment moving at my feeble pace. Though it was not George that I saw, I was thankful for the false alarm, as it certainly improved my time significantly, prompting me to a 1:50 ascent from the river, 13 minutes quicker over the same stretch the previous year.

Homie arrived about an hour later after running a very strong 10:22. We hung out, exchanging war stories from the day, comparing splits and sharing details. We eventually headed back to camp to clean up at the coin op showers and then went out for Pizza, which really hit the spot.

All in all an amazing trip, George and Homie were excellent travel partners and were a huge part of what made this trip so great (the 28 minute PR didn’t hurt either). I did not completely know what to expect from this run, as every year is different and there are variables that I cannot control, plus, you just never really know how you are going to feel at the time it really matters. My primary goal was to break my old PR of 8:43 and every minute less than that would be a bonus, but I was deep down really hoping to see how close to 8 hours I could come (I thought it to be over ambitious, but why not aim high and see how close you can come?). I pushed myself well beyond where I thought my limits were and it was revelatory moment for me to break through my self imposed glass ceiling and push beyond what I thought was possible. I’m not one to make excuses (OK, maybe I am), but I think with cooler temps and no/less snow on the North Rim, I might have come closer to that magical goal time I had set for that 8 hour milestone. Though I swore I would never push like that again for the hours following the run, I am already entertaining thoughts of giving it another go someday. Who knows what is possible?


Breakfast: Banana, yogurt, granola, bottle of perpetuem.

Food on the run: 9 gels, 2 packs of shot bloks, 13 S!Caps, 2 bottles of Heed and lots of water (11 or 12 x 20oz bottles).

Gear: PI running shorts, white short sleeve shirt, white ball cap, Montrail Streak running shoes, Smartwool socks, Nathan HPL-020 running vest, arm warmers (did not need), white glove liners (did not need), Go-Lite wind shirt (did not need), sunglasses, chap stick, Croc Blok sunscreen towlette (light and seemed to work well).

Things that went right: Solid training, familiarity/experience with the route and perfect preparation/attention to details (there were no surprises). Execution, I had rehearsed this day so many times in my head over the last year, it played out like a script.

Things that could have gone better: Hmmm… this is a tough one. Each year I come up with something I could have done to improve, but this year I honestly can’t come up with anything, or at least anything practical. I think spending an extended period of time there waiting for a cool day, perhaps a high of 65 degrees as opposed to ~90ish would help a bunch, as would a snow free trail on the N. Rim. No complaints here though, planning a trip like this months in advance and travelling such a distance, you just have to chance it and take what you get.


S. Kaibab to Black Bridge: 56:30

Phantom: 1:04

Cottonwood Camp: 2:11-2:12

Roaring Springs Cottage: 2:28

N. Rim: 3:55-56

Roaring Springs Cottage: 4:54-58

Cottonwood Camp: 5:11

Phantom: ~6:14-16?

Black Bridge: 6:25-6:26:30

S. Kaibab TH/Finish: 8:15:52