Monday, April 22, 2013

April 19/20, 2013 Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (and Rim to River to Rim)

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
S. Kaibab/N. Kaibab/Bright Angel Trails
~45 miles/~11,000 vertical feet of gain/loss
Start: 5:48 am
Finish: 3:08 pm

I went into this, my 4th Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim with plans to best my 2010 PR of 8:15, though really had my sights set on breaking 8 hours.  I knew that this was a lofty goal for me, with full respect for the canyon, remembering how difficult my PR run was, but thought it to be a possibility with better trail conditions, cooler temperatures and what I felt to be roughly equal or better preparation.  Everything lined up reasonably well for me to pull this off, except for my stomach and then motivation.

Homie, Dan and I started down the S. Kaibab Trail a bit later than in years past, 5:48 am (vs. the normal pre-5:30 am start) under clear skies and a temperature of 21 degrees.  I was fine with this later start, as it was predicted to be in the mid-70s for a high temperature in the canyon and a relatively quiet day on the trails.

I was moving well down S. Kaibab, quick and efficient, trying not to get too carried away on my wave of adrenaline and enthusiasm on the steep and rough descent.  All the while though, I was noticing fresh mule tracks and new piles of poop, yet did not see or hear them until I came around a corner between Cedar Ridge and the flat section at Skeleton Point.  Unfortunately, it was not possible to pass when I caught up, so I politely asked to pass several times and was not sure if the mule drivers heard me and would accommodate my requests.  After several minutes, knowing I could soon run by them, I gave in and figured I would take advantage of the delay for a pee break, but no sooner had I decided to do this, they stopped to let me pass, so I quickly hustled by thanking them as I went. As I was going by, I heard Dan and John catch up, but did not look back and kept on going.

Below the Tonto Plateau, my water bottle I had bungeed to the back of my pack (Nathan HPL-020) came loose and started flopping around, hanging only by the key beener I use for a tether.  I messed with this for a bit trying to secure the bottle, but eventually the fraying bungee cord snapped and I ended up having to stuff the water bottle into the main compartment of my pack which ended up working equally well.

I hit the black bridge at 54:18, a little over 2 minutes ahead of my PR split, which was not bad, especially considering the several minutes of delays from the mules and pack malfunction.  I rolled straight through Phantom as I still had plenty of water and began the somewhat long, flattish and at times tedious stretch toward Cottonwood. I was feeling decent and rolling along reasonably well, not pushing hard, but just keeping what I was sure was a sustainable pace.  I went through a packet of Clif Bloks and a gel, but they were not sitting well with me at all and even though I knew I needed to keep eating, nothing I had sounded appealing.  I knew this was bad news and any time I put anything in my mouth, even water, I gagged a bit.

With a still full bottle in my pack, I topped off at Cottonwood with hardly a pause and kept going past the Roaring Springs ranger residence which I reached in 2:25 (vs. 2:28 on my PR run).  This was decent, but I had still only gained a minute since the river.  As the trail steepened, I found myself walking where I normally run and I knew that I would steadily lose ground unless something miraculous happened.  Though I have always gone my own pace for previous RRRs, on all my previous trips there, I was amongst 20+ friends and acquaintences, each going their own pace on the trails which I found to be very motivating to have them out there to exchange encouragement and high fives with.  This year however, we opted for the day before everyone else ran, mostly because of the cooler forecast, but somewhat to avoid the “crowds”.  At this point, I was somewhat regretting this decision, as I was feeling a little lonely, or at least not as inspired.

I continued plugging along up toward the N. Rim, just reciting the “constant forward motion” mantra and was able to force down some water and another gel.  Unfortunately, my energy was somewhat low and I was doing constant split math in my head (conveniently, the stopwatch function on my watch decided to stop working that very morning, so I was constantly working off my 5:48 am start time) to try to assess how well I was moving.  I even debated turning around a few times, as each step I took felt like just one step further away instead of another step toward a goal and my motivation constantly wavered.  I am ashamed to say that after all the planning and anticipation, I was not having as good of an experience as I had hoped.

As per usual, the final stretch from Supai to the N. Rim took longer than expected (even expecting it to be longer than expected), yet I still held out hope that I would make up some time over 2010 since the trail was entirely free of snow unlike before.  I eventually popped around the corner to see the turnaround point and picked up the pace marginally to try to sneak in under 4 hours, but tagged the kiosk at exactly 9:48:00 am, 4 hours on the dot (vs. my 3:55 PR pace).  I wandered over to a patch of snow, trying to scoop some up to freshen my bottle (only had two bottles outbound due to the cool temps), but it was frozen solid and there was no way to do it quickly/easily.

I sat at the kiosk for a few minutes, trying to drink, but kept dry heaving and could easily have thrown up, but did not want to purge the precious few calories that I managed to put down, so I eventually got up and got moving down the hill.  My legs were feeling a bit stiff, my coordination was somewhat off and I knew right then that a PR was not to be.  I soon passed Homie and Dan who were seemingly not too far behind and I stopped to chat with them, but they seemed more motivated than I to keep going and after a few words parted ways.

Below Supai, it was all really catching up with me and I was a stumbling mess, losing energy and motivation fast and reverting to a walk along the rubble strewn trail.  Bad news.  I eventually just sat for 5 minutes and forced down some shot bloks, more water, two S-caps and two ibuprofen.  While sitting there, I was not sure I would have the energy or pace to get out of the canyon on my own and was hoping Homie and Dan would eventually catch up with me and help me along (although at the time I was worried that I would not be able to keep up with them).

I got up and got going again, stumbly at first, but soon started to feel marginally better.  Knowing that any chances of a PR had slowly vanished, I had an overwhelming desire to simply take my time, quit obsessing over the watch, enjoy the views, stop to notice things I had overlooked on past trips and just soak up the magic of the canyon.  Instantly a wave of relief washed over me and my perspective on the day brightened quickly and dramatically.

As the trail smoothed out, I was moving a little bit better and was relieved to arrive at the residence (~10:58 am), where I spent ~12 or so minutes relaxing in the shade drinking copious amounts of water and getting down more gel and electrolytes.  This is a great place to linger, but that feeling of relaxation and tranquility is somewhat tempered by the necessity of the long trip back to the S. Rim.  Once I got going again, I was able to maintain a steady run all the way back down to Phantom (despite the sloshing water in my now distended belly) with only two or three ~30 second stints of walking to drink or nurse a gel.

Arriving at Phantom Ranch around 12:27 pm, I spent another 6 or 7 minutes glugging water and kicking back.  If I had cash, I definitely would have visited the Cantina and purchased a glass of their famed lemonade.  The thought had crossed my mind of going up the 3 mile longer Bright Angel Trail, simply for a change of scenery, but I did not ultimately decide until I was at the junction and just went for it.  I had been up that route once in 1999 while backpacking with Allison, but I only vaguely remembered it and was really eager to see it again.

The trip along the river to the silver bridge was surprisingly short and then I was soon reminded of how narrow this bridge is compared to the black bridge just upstream.  It also seems a bit more dramatic, as the walking surface is grid deck, the river is moving rapidly below and the bridge sways and bounces.  I would definitely not attempt to pass a mule train on this one as I have on the other.

Once on the south side of the river (12:40 pm), I was surprised by the fact that the trail undulates on a beach sand surface, sometimes high above the river, sometimes near for what seems like a mile and a half.  Eventually, the trail diverted from the river generally, but very circuitously in the direction of the South Rim, looming nearly a vertical mile overhead.  The trail continues with a somewhat frustrating mix of loose sand and rubble at a mellow grade (seemingly inefficient grade) for some time, but the scenery more than compensates.

On the way from the river to Indian Gardens, I was moving at what seemed to be a snail’s pace, alternating between a light jog and a fast walk and chatted with people along the way.  Once at Indian Gardens (1:40 pm), I took advantage of the comfortable bench next to the water spigot, under the shade of towering cottonwood trees.  Here I spent another ~10 or so minutes filling up like a camel and was even able to eat a solid energy bar (usually unheard of for me on such a run, but evidence that I had slowed enough to be able to chew and digest normally).

Again, being somewhat unfamiliar with the trail after not having been there for 14 years and not sure what sort of pace I could maintain, I started back up toward the South rim, wondering if I would be able to at least duck in under 10 hours (yes, looking at the watch again, but not at all obsessing over it).  Much to my surprise, I began to feel a second wind creeping in and my legs and energy improved with each foot gained.  As I climbed, I became certain that I would break 10 hours and then started to contemplate how close to 9 hours I would come?  Seeing other people ahead on the trail helped motivate me a bit and I was now playing the game in my head, predicting where I might catch them and even had a few groups of younger guys in their late teens and early 20’s try to hold me off (though I proudly cranked by each and every one).

I eventually spotted a short tunnel near the top and naively thought it was the one about ~.1 miles from the rim and put in a full on effort thinking I was done (and thinking I would finish in under 9:10), but at the time did not realize that I was still ~8/10 of a mile from the top and there was one more tunnel.  Oops. I came pretty close to blowing up, but was able to dial myself back to a sustainable effort to efficiently reach the top in 9:20:55 after one last hard push.  Though I felt like I was becoming stronger the higher I climbed, I was relieved to be finished and I am sure much of that increasing strength was directly related to smelling the finish line so to speak.

Last tunnel on Bright Angel

Finish of Bright Angel

This sign has been photographed plenty, but is still great.

All in all a great run despite falling short of my initial time goals and I am always grateful that I get to enjoy such experiences.  The run became much more enjoyable once I let go of the time schedule I had burdened myself with and I was actually able to move reasonably well when I was not sitting down to drink.  Even though I took nearly 40 minutes of breaks, much of that was simply just part of my vow to be more relaxed and enjoy the day, but I probably still would have been fine with ~15 minutes or less.

Things done right:

  • Consistent weekly long runs up to 2:50
  • A few fast descents down Flagstaff road to adapt my downhill muscles a bit
  • Plenty of vertical 
  • Picking a cooler day to run
  • Wearing Hokas

Things done wrong:
  • Longest run being only 2:50 (3 years ago and prior, I used to get out for full days in the mountains, even if it was only hiking which I think helped some with endurance)
  • Bringing along gels I knew I was sick of and not just buying a case of Peach Cobbler Vi Gels (Homie gave me 3 of them and they actually hit the spot).
  • Being sick or somewhat sick for 3 of the 4 weeks leading to RRR, but I guess that is to be expected when you have kids that are in school
  • If I had to do it over, would have taken the first downhill a little slower.  Even though I was at 54 minutes (a good, but not crazy fast time) that 54 minutes includes the time stuck behind the mules and messing with my pack. Most likely would have been closer to 50 minutes without all that, so a touch too fast I think
  • Should have picked the day that everybody else was going for the sheer sake of motivation, as the temperature difference between the two days was minimal enough to not really be an issue.
  • Naively hoped the Hokas would help compensate for any of my shortcomings. I think they were great, I would wear them again and highly recommend them, but no shoe can do the running for you.
Food: ~1,250 calories
  • 6 gels (600 calories)
  • 2 packages of Clif Shot Bloks (400 calories)
  • 1 serving of Heed (100 calories)
  • 1 Braap Bar (a free sample from a snowshoe race that was actually pretty good) (150 calories)

Rim to River to Rim
Down Bright Angel/Up S. Kaibab
~19 miles (including run back to camp)/5,000 vert.
(1:55 down/1:47 up)

As a bonus for running an easier RRR on Friday, my legs felt good enough that I was able to get out for a nice Rim to River to Rim run on Saturday.  My downhill muscles, particularly my quads, were a little shaky, so I opted to descend the less steep/steppy Bright Angel trail and then go up the steeper and more efficient S. Kaibab Trail.

This run mostly revolved around taking photos and just taking it mellow, again enjoying the sights and sounds of the canyon from a completely different perspective and mindset.  Including a break at Indian Gardens, pictures and some time talking with people, it took me a very slow and careful 1:55 to get down to Phantom Ranch.  I momentarily debated heading all the way up to the N. Rim for another full RRR, as I truly felt good enough for it (though it would likely have taken 11 hours or more total), I had not carried enough food and it most likely would have been dark when I finished (did not start my run until 9 am).  Going in, I knew the real challenge of the day for me would be the descent, which was slow, but not as bad as I expected, so I looked forward to the ascent up the S. Kaibab Trail as my uphill muscles felt relatively decent (tired but not that sore).  Again, I took this somewhat mellow, stopping for many pictures along the way (120 total for this run), but was surprised at how quick and easy each segment was passing by and ended up ascending in 1:47, a full 8 minutes quicker than my (3 mile longer) descent, which felt good.  Even though my legs were tired from the previous day, it was so much easier climbing out with that trip to the N. Rim immediately prior.


  1. Still a good strong run at a time that is impressive. Glad you took pictures, I feel like I was there. Reminds me of the Colorado Monument x 1000.

  2. A significant part of me is very bummed that I missed this trip.

    Like they say in fishing, there are no bad days. Okay, okay, you can have a bad day in the canyon I guess. BUT Any day you get to cross the canyon and back like that in a single piece without incident is a GREAT day. You did it in a time that most can only dream about. Another day down there and you would have nailed a sub 8. I know it.

    Rest up and let's start dialing in that next hill.

  3. Awesome that you felt good enough to cram another run in there. I needed help to the car! I know I need to go down and try to run it hard now. What a run!

  4. Mmmm...peach cobbler Vi gels. Great write up as usual JV. Despite the rough day you still made a fine second half out of it and finished with a super respectable time. Reading your report makes we want to head back over there. It's been a long while.

  5. Nice job on light long runs. Wish I would've joined you instead of Zion. Maybe next year we can shoot for that sub 8.

  6. It was good you went Friday. I covered Phantom Ranch, Indian Gardens, the 3 mile resthouse, and the 1.5 mile resthouse with vomit on Saturday afternoon. You would have had no clean place to stop! I was so covered in vomit I even found some on my headlamp. That place is friggin awesome...don't know if I'll ever make it back, but what an experience. You all are fortunate to be close enough to visit somewhat occasionally.

  7. Great work. I learned that even if you are having a bad run, it can improve to the point where you can finish and feel pretty good about it. I don't think I've run long enough to feel that, even in a marathon, though I've had several days like that in the mountains.

  8. awesome report and run. reading this just filled me with motivation. I gotta get back there this fall!

  9. Awesome photos and write-up Jeff! Congrats on a fantastic run and what sounds like a really amazing adventure! Way to go!

  10. Thanks for the kind comments everyone.

    GZ, we really missed having you along on the trip, hopefully next time we can coordinate. Fortunately I only had a bad hour or two, or maybe a so/so hour or two and then a bad 15 or 20 minutes, but even that was not that bad, just not where I needed to be to achieve my time goals.

    Patrick, sorry I missed you down there. On my first two RRRs, I had to walk stairs backwards for days and even walked the dog using ski poles around the neighborhood at least once.

    Jason, I was thinking of my first RRR with you in 2006, great times.

    Brett, dang, glad I was a day ahead of that mess.

    Dan, yeah, I guess those fluctuations are something that you only learn to deal with after experiencing first hand (and hopefully learning from).