Sunday, October 30, 2011

R2R2R Epic Report

I wasn't really ready for an effort of this magnitude  (a recurring theme this year). Sure, I've run long distances this summer, with some decent climbs, at least for an east coast runner. The thing is, it's easy to look at r2r2r only as numbers. Forty-two miles, 11,000 feet of climbing. Doesn't sound too bad. Well, once again, reality came knocking.

Chris, Steve and I have been planning for this adventure for about a year. A group of OUSER runners did the R2R2R last year and we've have R2R2R-envy ever since. In the last few months, two more runners joined the group: Johnny and Kendra. On Sunday the 23rd, they all flew into Phoenix. I picked them up at the airport and we drove to our condo in Sedona where we immediately went for an hour shakedown run on the local trails.  On Monday morning we got ready and departed for Grand Canyon, where we had reserved two rooms at the Yavapai lodge in the park itself. We took our sweet time, stopping a few times along the way to see the sights.


I was the only one who had seen the Canyon previously.  At the first view point, we stopped the car, got out and just stood there, saying things like "holy fuck!" or "Jesus Christ!".  Pictures don't give the Grand Canyon justice and the thought that we could make it to the other side, let alone come back, in one day, eating a handful of gels and power bars, seemed ludicrous.

First look at the Grand Canyon

 We found a place to park the minivan near the South Kaibab trail head and walked there for a quick recon. By then, I had butterfly in my stomach. We all went down a bit down the trail to get a taste and took a few pictures. We were all excited, babbling like little kids, asking questions to hikers coming up the trail. Following the advice of local Sedona runners who had done r2r2r many times, we had pretty much decided to stick to the South Kaibab trail for the return trip, rather than take the longer, but shallower Bright Angel trail. With the cool temperatures that were on the forecast, the lack of water on South Kaibab would not be an issue and saving two miles, even at the cost of an extra 500 feet of climbing, seemed like a great idea.

Trail winding down

We got our rooms, got dinner and went to bed around 9:00 PM.  By 4:30 AM all five of us are standing at the trail head, with winds of about 25 miles/hr blowing in our face. We all have backpacks containing 3 litre bladders filled with our drink of choice as well as food, clothes and electronics. We can see nothing outside of the circle of lights created by our headlamps. We try to take a group picture, but we're all chomping at the bit, anxious to begin and we just go.

 We follow each other cautiously, the wind picking up dust, at time reminding me of a snow storm. It's obvious from the start that the group's pace is not comfortable for everyone but we stick more or less together.  After a fairly short distance, we get to an exposed section where we lose the trail for a minute. We pull out the map in the wind and get our bearings. There's only one trail and we eventually find it and keep going. The trail is pretty nice but I'm cautious. The thought of tripping freaks me right out. Some of the sections are nicer than other but some require us to jump down steps or rocks. We go down for over 90 minutes in the dark, my quads slowly starting to feel the burn. Johnny decides to push ahead and will be waiting for us at the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. As we approach the bottom, we see lamps below, slowly moving up and we start meeting hikers on their way out of the canyon after sleeping at the ranch or at the campground. Most look a bit grumpy and we just say "hi" and keep going. As we near the bottom, daylight makes an appearance and we can see the suspension bridge crossing the Colorado river below us. The river is pretty damn big. We get there, cross the bridge and push on to the Phantom Ranch where we join John at around 6:15 AM. We've run 7 miles and come down 5000 feet. I still feel great, my legs are good. The worse part of coming down was the constant breaking and I didn't really breathe hard during the descent.

At the Phantom Ranch

At the ranch, we decide to break up the group. The two faster guys want to go by themselves. Us slowpokes decide to stick together. The trail from the ranch to the Pump House is about 7 miles of gentle-ish uphill. We take our time and take lots of pictures and movies. The running in this 7 miles section, from Phantom Ranch to the Pumphouse, is pretty good. We walk a few of the bigger hills, but by this time Kendra is in front setting a nice pace and she likes to run the uphills to "use different muscle groups". The weather is still perfect, with a light cloud cover that prevents the sun from making the temperature uncomfortably hot. From the web site we know that all the water sources are still on, except for the taps at the very top of the North Rim. That's good news because that means we won't need to purify any water.

Bottom of the North Side

The real climbing starts near the Pump House. The trail starts to hug the canyon wall and for the most past the trail becomes an unending 4-to-6 feet wide ledge that climbs up and up and up. The surface is ok, but a few sections are dicey and now that it's daytime, we can see clearly what could happen should we slip or trip so we tend to stay close to the wall rather than the other side, where a moment of inattention can send you down some huge cliff. Slowly, we go up. There isn't much running anymore. Every 10 minutes we stop to take pictures or look around. We can't believe how incredible this is. We can see what we believe to be the top, but as much as we climb, it doesn't seem to be getting any closer. The two guys forgot to leave one of the two maps with us, so we're a bit fuzzy about the distances between some of the landmarks.
Yes, it was scary at times

Eventually, we  hear some voices and here are Johnny and Steve, coming back down. They tell us we're less than an hour from the top. They also ask us if we saw the map they left for us way back near the Ribbon Falls side trail. I had seen some markings, but I definitely saw no map so we figured somebody took it. Steve tells us they'll be waiting for us in the car at the trailhead. They resume their descent and we keep climbing. I'm really starting to huff-and-puff. As we get closer to 8000 feet, my breathing is getting louder and louder. Kendra seems to barely notice and just keeps going. I'm feeling ok, but this altitude is starting to get to me.

We're meeting quite a few people hiking down from the North Rim now.  Most people are just going down for a short hike, but some are going all the way across, sleeping first at the Cottonwood campground, then at Bright Angel and finally at Indian Garden.

Finally, after more climbing, some more amazing vistas and some rain, I hear a hoot from Kendra and I figure she made it to the summit where Chris and I join her a minute later, some time around 12:15. As we sit in from of the top marker to take the requisite picture, hail starts to fall down and we decide to go down where the temperature is a bit warmer.
At the top, North Rim

The difference coming down is amazing. Sections that took hours are dispatched in minutes. We stop at a little rest area after the Supai tunnel to fill our bladders and eat a bit. A bunch of hikers are there and we exchange a few stories. I'm feeling good but I'm getting sick of Gatorade. My initial plan was to drink eLoad but I couldn't find any and the taste of Gatorade is starting to get to me. I pop my last two Tylenol to calm my right Achilles that are starting to get a bit tender. I decide not to switch to water but rather stick to Gatorade. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake. I had been drinking what I thought was diluted Gatorade but in reality was full strength. The US mixing instructions were in quarts and gallons and cups and I somehow got confused when translating to litres. Add gels and other solids and what you have is way too much sugar in my stomach. We're going down at an easy pace though, so I'm feeling ok. Down the narrow switchbacks we go. Just as the sun comes out a bit and things get a bit warm, the trail switches canyon wall and we get in the shade. In what now seems like no time at all, we're back at the Pump House where we stop to drink and eat a bit.

Supai Tunnel near top of North Rim

The trail joins the river and now we're on the 8.5 miles stretch to the Ranch. Easy running, but starting to get harder. The views are still out of this world. The walls of the side canyon we're running in are slowly closing in around us and the feeling of being somewhere special is sometimes overwhelming.  Sometimes, we can see the South Rim, far ahead and I have a hard time believing that I'm going to be climbing that in a few hours. Everything is just so big.

About 2 miles from Phantom Ranch, I'm at the back of our little group and I hear a high pitched scream followed by "SNAKE!". Kendra just jumped over a rattlesnake that was getting itself warm near a rock on the trail. She saw it too late when it started to rattle and had to choice but to just jump over it. When I see it, it's coiled and a bit miffed. It slowly gets off the trail. My camera decides to chose that time to refuse to boot up but Chris gets a good picture and a short clip.

Kendra almost stepped on this rattlesnake

After that, we tend to look down rather than up. After this long day, I'm starting to feel the strain and the thought of climbing up the South Rim is a bit daunting. Chris looks a bit stiff but Kendra is just as bouncy as she was in the morning. I don't know what Crossfit does, but it seems to be doing Something. We keep talking about how we're going to try to buy a cold bottle of Coke at the ranch and how great it's going to be. Eventually, we get to the ranch, but there's no Coke to be bought. Our money is no good down here, and not in a good sense. We sit near the water faucet and rest a bit. Chris looks like shit. I don't notice it, but apparently I'm really bloated and I'm walking around with my gut sticking out. I feel fine though and I drink a bit, refill and put more Gatorade in my bladder. I'm out of Tylenol, but I want to make sure my Achilles don't bother me too much on the way up so I take two Excedrin. After 10 or 15 minutes, we get going again and get to the bridge at 5:30PM.
On our way up South Kaybab

Less than 7 miles to go. Cake. We figure 3 hours, maybe 3:30. AH!

The South Kaibab trail is pretty scenic and the first 30 minutes are impressive. Beautiful views in the sunset and all that. Then it gets dark and all we have to do is climb. And climb. And climb. There's nothing to look at, we just look at the circle created by our headlamp and walk up. As we go up, I'm starting to get a bit nauseous.  Then, a bit becomes quite a bit, then really nauseous. When we stop, it seems to get worse. I'm really edgy. I start wishing that I hadn't taken those Excedrin. I keep thinking that the caffeine rush is too much in my weakened state. I'm not a puker. I have not puked since 1994, when I got a stomach flu that got the better of me. Before that, I puked in 1980 after eating some "magic" brownies that gave me the munchies, causing a chain reaction. My point is, I do get nauseous but I don't puke. Now, I don't remember feeling this retched. About 4 miles from the top, I call for a break. I sit on a rock, my feet spread apart, looking at the donkey shit on the trail. I'm so sick of Gatorade. Kendra offers water but I'm not too sure about that either. Chris says "One of two things will happen, you'll feel better or you'll throw up".  Deferring to Chris' vast experience in all things puke-related, I take a solid pull from Kendra's water. Fifteen seconds later, I'm starring in disbelief as a powerful jet of Gatorade sprays out of my mouth (not unlike a scene from the Exorcist) and splashes on the trail splattering my shoes. And again. Then some more. Just as I think this is over, my gut seems to get into second gear and spasms even harder, pushing ever more liquids out my mouth and my nose. Unbelievable. A part of me is wondering if it's possible to drown doing this. Slowly, my abs calm down and I feel a bit better. I look around and Chris is so tired that hasn't moved, he's still standing right there, one hand on the wall of the canyon, looking at me with clinical, detached interest: "I know exactly how you feel", he says.

All we saw for 4 hours

I get up and we get going. We get to a sign that says "Trail Head 3.5 miles". Fuck. I was hoping for something like 1.5 miles. We get to a flatter area, probably Skeleton Point and I'm actually feeling better. As soon as we start climbing again though, the nausea comes back though. I keep calling for breaks. My non-puking streaks, that used to last for decades, now only last minutes. I have no energy. I'm pretty sure all the Gatorade and food I ingested since Phantom Ranch, maybe from even earlier, are gone. Every switchback, I look up hoping to see an easy section. Every time, my spirits sink when I see another long, steep climb. The wind has picked up and we put warmer clothes on. It rains a bit. Kendra is in front, cheering me up the trail.

South Kaibab in daylight

It's a weird feeling, being on the side of that wall, knowing you have to get yourself out. I'm not really in trouble. I'm just so fucking tired, going on fumes, and I want to get to the top but I can't get to the top if I don't move. I fantasize aloud about getting my space blanket out and having a nap. Kendra does not approve of the idea. Breaks go from being every 30 minutes to 15 minutes then 5 minutes. Un-fucking believable. I remember being more mentally distressed during 100 milers, but I've NEVER felt this weak before. My legs feel hollow. I puke a total of 5 times going up that fucking wall, then things get a bit better except for the fact that I'm sooo tired. I'm kind of resigning myself to the fact that this will never end. This trail will just keep going forever. And then, all of a sudden: WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT? I see a sign, telling people not to attempt to go down the canyon and up the same day! That has to be close to the top! I perk right up. We keep going. A few minutes later, a "No Dogs Allowed" sign. I KNOW that fucking sign! Steve and I came here yesterday! We're here! We climb up a couple of switchbacks and all of a sudden, a see a flat paved area and a couple of steps. Not a log, not a pile of rocks: honest to God steps. We're on top. We group-hug. We've done it. In traditional ultra fashion, I swear I will never do this again, just as I've sworn after every hundred miler I've run that I would never again subject myself to such misery. We all know what that's worth.

I see some lights in the parking lot but I go the wrong way to get there. I turn around and walk toward the car. I keep thinking the guys are going to come out and congratulate us, singing songs and carrying us on their shoulders. I get to the car and both of them are asleep, the engine running. Jesus, what if they died from CO2 poisoning? What am I going to do? Poor me!  Of course, they are fine and they let us in after I knock on the window. It feels like 100 degrees in the car. I wedge myself in the back seat. I feel so content right now. It's 10PM. What was supposed to be a 3 to 4 hour climb turned into a 5h30 hour pain-fest. Who cares? We fucking finished. There are no cut-offs here. You either do it or you don't.

We decide to sleep in the park again if we can find rooms. Nobody wants to drive. Sure enough, we find two rooms. We buy a couple of pizzas and after a long search for the elusive lodge, we finds the block we're looking for and get inside. I can't eat yet. I have a shower and still I can't eat. I drink ice-cold coke and Ginger ale like it's going out of style, but after one little bit of pizza, I call it quits and go to sleep without eating. Don't worry, I ate plenty the next day!

This was an epic adventure that I recommend to anyone who can do it. The sights, the trails, the climbs, the misery, everything I experienced was MORE than I expected. Everyone finished. Some faster than others, but everybody had a blast. This run was challenging for me. I had just not trained as much as I should have. Still, I have no regrets. Even going up that wall, puking my guts out every 30 minutes, I knew I was doing something special that I would remember for the rest of my life, something that only a lucky few are ever able to accomplish. All I had to do is what we all do: keep moving forward, relentless forward motion.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Just a quick post to let you know that all five people in our group successfully finished the Grand Canyon double traverse in times varying from 12:30 to 17:30. Of course, I was with the slower group. The run was way more challenging than I expected. Full race report coming up soon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grand Canyon

A week from now I'm going to run across the Grand Canyon ... Twice. I'm really excited about this classic bucket-list item. Classic if you're an ultra runner, of course. My wife thinks we're utterly out of our minds.

Just in case you're not familiar with the Rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r for short), it's a 45-ish mile run that typically starts on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Two trails go down, the Bright Angel trail and the South Kaibab trail. The Bright Angel trail is longer but less steep. It also has a few water sources. The South Kaibab is a bit steeper but shorter with no access to water. Once at the bottom, the trails end at a suspension bridge that crosses the Colorado river. On the north side, there is only one trail that goes up, the North Kaibab trail. The South Rim is at 6800 feet. We will descend to 2400 feet, cross the bridge over the Colorado River, climb to 8240 feet at the North Rim, and then return. Altogether, the elevation gain, including some ups and downs along the way will be about 11,000 feet. It's going to be Epic.

At this point of the racing season, I'm in ok shape, nothing more. I peaked for Burning River and I've been trying to maintain a minimum of distance ever since. I paced Kendra for 70km about a month ago at Haliburton and since then I've done a couple of 4+ hour runs on trail. My weekly totals have been lackluster due to work. It is so crazy at work that my wife prefers that I run rather than work. Anyhoot, this ain't a race so all I need is to be in decent shape, which I am, and be well prepared. The temperature should be nice as long as we're ready for the near 0C at the start at 4AM and then up to 30-33C in the afternoon. Granted, it's a dry heat (ah, ah), but there is NO shade.

This run is going to be different from any other run I've ever done. For one thing, anyone who has ever been to the Grand Canyon knows that the very idea of crossing it in one day is ludicrous. Doing it twice seems impossible. I've been there twice. The second time was last Fall and we already had formed a plan of coming this year. When the view hit me, I have to admit that my resolve faltered a bit. Holy shit, it's big and it's barren! It's beautiful though.

Another thing that's special about the run is that you see where you're going. It's only 10 miles away, as the crow flies. The other side might as well be on the moon, it looks so unreachable.

I'll try to be a good boy and take some pictures and maybe some video. See you next week.