Tuesday, May 8, 2012

So it begins: Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Run

Having received final approval of my master's thesis last week, I saw no reason to stick around Morgantown waiting for graduation, so we loaded the Civic with the bulk of our material possessions, and Dipity and I headed west, leaving Anne behind to finish up at work and with the apartment (thank you, Darling. You are the sweetest.)

Fuel efficiency fell 30% from the load. Ouch!
After a night in Indianapolis with my charming Aunt Ruby, we stopped at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research Station to see one of the last remaining remnants of original tallgrass prairie. I got an excellent tour from Allison, a PhD student at Kansas State studying stream metabolism at Konza. One of the major manipulations they study at Konza is fire-frequency, and it was really cool to see the conifer and shrub encroachment that fire would normally keep at bay. We saw bison and their calves, a bunch of meadowlarks, a turtle, lots of beautiful flowers, and big old knotty oaks in the lower reaches of the stream channels. After the tour, I went for a run on the beautiful ~7 mile network of trails they've made available to the public, which was a nice other way to experience the prairie after the air-conditioned Fort Escape tour. Someday, I'll go back in the fall, when they say the big bluestem can be over 10 feet tall!

Stopped in Denver at the parents house to drop off much of the cargo (sadly, Dip included), have a celebration dinner, play a little tennis, and stock up on supplies for the run. Mom and Dad gave me a new waterproof camera and pair of hiking ultra-light hiking poles for graduation. Perfect the Grand Canyon! Drove down to Durango with Sister Julie, and it was great to have six hours to catch up, just the two of us... it's been a long time! Julie's latest hives of bees happened to arrive just as I was coming in, so I got to experience the hiving process, which was a real treat. Last year, I was sidelined for a few weeks after I kicked up a hive on a trail run and took about a dozen stings in the calf, so I was a little nervous about the potential for stings the day before my rim-to-rim-to-rim run, but my worries were unfounded. As we moved the workers into their new homes and very delicately ensured that the queens went with them, hundreds of bees clouded all around us, but they weren't the least bit aggressive. Julie was even working without gloves! It was a really neat experience, and I'm looking forward to keeping bees once we get established in our new home in California.

After a marginal night's sleep in Durango, headed down to Flagstaff, where the very generous Phil Turk had reserved a hotel room for me for the nights before and after the big run. What an enabler! Grabbed a little pasta at the natural grocery, set up all my gear and nutrition, and got in bed around 9:30, hoping to get a few hours of sleep before getting up around 1am to do the 1.5 hour drive to the South Rim, in order to start early enough that I might minimize my time in brutal mid-day heat in the bottom of the canyon.

Naturally, not everything went as smoothly as I had hoped, and I ended up departing the South Rim around 3:15am. The moon was just a day off of its brightest in years, and moon shadows were incredible. Having never been to the Grand Canyon before, descending into it at night was surreal. There was a constant tension between wanting to take in the grandeur of it all and keeping my focus on the light my headlamp cast 5' in front of me to avoid falling off a ledge and, in so doing, confirming my mother's fears.

Moon setting over the South Rim.

The descent went quickly. I can see how people get in way over their heads descending. It's tough to fathom how hard it is going to be to climb back up all those feet. From my parking spot at Pipe Creek Vista to the bridge was just over 7 miles and a net 4,800 foot drop, from 7,200' on the rim to 2,400' at the river.

Bridging the Colorado.

The double crossing is a study in contrasts: up and down, fresh and exhausted, desert and wetland and ponderosa pine forest. After the river, the pounding descent turns to a gently ambling trail up Bright Angel Creek, and the scrubland of the south rim is replaced by a beautiful riparian ecosystem fed by the significant catchment I was about to ascend. This section offers an opportunity for some fast miles, but don't be fooled, you're ascending and it's easy to burn through your glycogen reserves here!

Riparian vegetation along Bright Angel Creek. Note the trail cut on the left.

Some pictures to tell the story of the ascent up to the North Rim...

Making my way across, looking back at the South Rim...

...and forward to the North.
These and other cactus blossoms were everywhere, in pink, yellow, and magenta. Beautiful!
The yucca blooms were insane! They're commonly over 10 feet tall, some easily 20'!
Getting higher now. You can see the trail in the cliff on the right.
Supai Tunnel, maybe 1,500' below the North Rim.

As I was approaching the top, my quads starting cramping. That was pretty unnerving. Unlike in an ultra, there's no DNF option here... no aid station with cars to take you back to your starting point. I was hoping it was an electrolyte imbalance and not the result of the pounding descent, but I started having visions of hobbling up South Kaibab, unable to bend my legs. But the mental-emotional is a major aspect of ultra-running, and I put those thoughts aside, focused on what I could do to fix the problem, and kept on truckin'. On both sides of the canyon, it felt as if the top would never come. These are major, major climbs. I would encourage prospective rim-to-rim-to-rim runners to think of this as two major mountains to climb, with a couple of half marathons in between. Trail hills, train stairs, and train in the heat.

As you get higher, the flora turns into beautiful ponderosa forest, which is just so different from what you've been in all day, and so beautiful.

Tenacity wins the day!

And then, finally, the top.


This one's for you, Jules:

Resting, and trying to let gravity help the blood out of my feet and legs.

The water was on at the top, which was a welcome surprise after the park's website said it was still off for the winter. Without that refill, it's nearly 14 miles without, and despite my 2 liter carrying capacity, I would have been dry for much of that descent.

I chatted with a park intern at the top who was familiarizing himself with the restoration vegetation on the rim. He had lived in West Virginia and studied at Annapolis, and we discussed the horrors of keying-out grasses, Appalachian or Grand Canyonian.

After about a half hour rest, complete with many calories and electrolytes, it was time for the second half. My quads were pretty happy on the way down, perhaps because descending uses different muscle groups, but I think the electrolytes are what really helped me out. I went into this run with far-insufficient training in heat, so the heat got to me, and, even worse, I wasn't confident in my ability hydrate and keep my electrolytes balanced. Too many electrolytes and you retain too much water and bloat and get nauseous; too few and you get cramps and, if severe, hyponatremic, which kills people in hot weather. In retrospect, I should have erred quite a bit farther on the too-many side. Live and learn.

My favorite picture of the day. If you squint real hard, you can see my civic on the far rim, that patch of blue center-right. It is at this point that one realizes a) just how massive an undertaking this is, and b) just how committed you are at this point! Note the trail along the right and far below in the center of the photo.

On the descent I opted for the short detour to Ribbon Falls. It adds a mile or two to the trip, but was well worth it. I stripped down to my shorts and took a very refreshing shower in the falls! There's a small cave behind the falls you can crawl into.

Ribbon falls

Nice place for a shower after about 33 miles.

The rolling hills between Ribbon Falls and the river felt interminable. Looking at my GPS data, I see I did about an hour of 10 minutes miles here. It would have been around 1pm at this point, and while I didn't feel like I was overexerting, I think the heat and the effort here probably did some pretty serious damage. It started getting tough to put down gels and blocks here, and by the time I got to Phantom Ranch, all I wanted was a Coke, which they don't stock! I settled for a lemonade, and refilled for the last time since there's no water for the climb up South Kaibab. In retrospect, I should have stopped for longer, cooled off more completely, and made sure I could keep digesting calories. Approaching the river, having run 40 miles and been in the heat of the desert for hours, and facing verticle-mile of cliff that you then have to ascend is quite the blow. On both sides, I wasn't really ready for just how much of a climb it is. And this time, I was spent, it was hot and exposed, and after a couple thousand feet of climbing, I was too nauseous to try to eat. I should have forced it -- I needed the sugar. Maybe food would have stayed down, maybe I could have evacuated and then eaten, but I just kept marching up. My pace slowed, the breaks got more frequent, my water supply dwindled, and by the time I got to the top, well, this is how I felt:

Obligatory shot with sign telling visitors not to attempt to hike to the river and back in one day.

From about 1,000' below the top. You can see the trail cut across the sides of the two rock outcrops on the left.
From just below the top.

At the top, I met Pierre, a Parisian professor of cinema (what a life!) who was very impressed with what I had done. I decided to take the shuttle the .9 miles back to the car to chat with him and his wife rather than pounding the pavement to finish the day. It was interesting to see how different people reacted when they learned what I was doing. In general, foreigners expressed much more enthusiasm and awe than did Americans. I'll leave that as an observation.

I saw far fewer people over the course of the day than I anticipated. I did meet two fellow R2R2Rers ascending, while I was descending, North Kaibab. One, a woman, looked strong and was in good spirits; the other, a man, looked like he was struggling badly, seemed unhappy, and was deeply discouraged to learn he was still 1,500' below the North Rim. I hope he made it out alright.

It was quite an adventure and probably the most physically challenging thing I've done to date. It's hard to compare these things, but I don't remember experiencing the type of exhaustion I felt getting back up South Kaibab during, say, my ironman race or Longs Peak grand slam climb. The distance alone would make this a very tough day, and the elevation gain alone would make this a very tough day. Put them together and add some heat, and it is quite the undertaking.

I'm struggling to find any sort of concluding words, so instead, I'll leave it with a few more pictures and my theme song for the moment.

Looking downstream from South Kaibab just above the river.

Steep enough for you?

Lord Turtle, watching over us all.

My themesong:


  1. WOW, Mike - what an amazing accomplishment. I had no idea you were into this type of running ... sounds incredible! I really enjoyed reading all about it. Congrats on your MS and hope you are doing well otherwise - sounds like it :)

  2. Off to a good start with filling the gap then! What's next?

  3. love, love. well done and well documented!

  4. Mission accomplished. I was thinking about you that day. I am very happy you had the chance to experience something so thrilling.

  5. Thanks all. Gancho, next is the Ironhorse, a bike ride over two 11,000' Colorado mountain passes. The bookends of the summer are this and the Pine to Palm 100, a newish race in southern Oregon.

  6. Wow, Pine to Palm (not that I am underestimating the biking adventure)! Let me know if you are looking for a pacer. I know a few people in Corvallis, who are familiar with the course and would be good company after 60-70 miles of running.