Thursday, May 19, 2011

Grand Canyon Post #2 - Rim to Rim to Rim

As I coasted down the South Kaibab Trail a couple weeks ago and saw the sunrise from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I was thinking to myself how lucky I was to be a trail runner.  Later that afternoon on the climb back up to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail, I was thinking to myself that there’s no way I’m ever doing this again.  And so goes the highs and lows of an ultra runner…

Attempting to run across the Grand Canyon and back at least for me was quite the humbling experience to say the least.  I knew it’d be hard based on the stories of the guys who’ve done it before, but it’s just one of those things you need to experience.  There are so many factors even beyond the usual ultra that make this run unpredictable.  There are the two relentless climbs and descents of 4,700 and 5,700 feet, the wide range of altitude between 2,400 and 8,200 feet, and the unbearable heat that reached 105 degrees.  And of course there’s that whole thing about being from Minnesota that makes all this hard to train for.
Left to right: Jeff, Tony, Dylan, Joe, John, Brian, Rick, Chad, Roddy,
Randy, Bateman, Paul, Doug, and TJ. 
There are 14 guys who will be telling stories from this day for a long time, but here’s my account of how it all went down…

The Adventure Begins - South Rim to Phantom Ranch
We departed from the South Kaibab Trailhead in two separate groups bright and early that morning – one group at 4:30 and the other at 5:30.  I was in the group of 6 that opted for the later start, along with Joe Z, Tony K, Roddy, TJ, and Storkamp.  We were also joined by our new friend Dave who we met on the shuttle for the initial 7 mile descent to Phantom Ranch; he was doing the double crossing for the 17th year in a row!  After all the talk about which one of us would be setting the pace, turned out we all just tried to keep up with Dave – guess you don’t need to stop to take in the views after 17 double crossings.
Photo by Mike Bateman: First look at the Colorado River from South Kaibab.
This first leg of the trek was pretty light-hearted.  Everyone was feeling good, loving the indescribable views, and making sure to take time to appreciate the scenery.  I think we all wanted to put up a solid effort, but definitely didn’t want to rush through it without taking it all in.  I couldn’t help but be reminded why I love this sport so much.  Not many people have experienced one of the most beautiful places in the world the way we were about to that day.

We pulled into Phantom Ranch at about 1:10 into the run and stayed for probably 10 minutes to take a break and fill up the Nathan vests with water.

Phantom Ranch to North Rim
The 5,700+ foot climb up to the North Rim was sort of broken up into two 7 mile sections – the first a gradual climb to Cottonwood Campground, and the second an increasingly steep trek up to the Rim.
We followed TJ out of Phantom Ranch at a pretty steady pace on the gradual ascent up to Cottonwood.  I really liked this section – felt great and the trail was very runnable with much of it along a river.

After filling up with water quick at Cottonwood, we just had a couple miles before another water stop, where we saw our friend Chad who started earlier.  Chad let us know that we were close to the rest of the group, and sure enough we caught up them all running together within a mile or two…it was good to see the guys and everyone seeming to look pretty good still.
Photo by Mike Bateman: Look closely and you can see 5 of us climbing
up to the North Rim.
The group spread out a bit on the climb, and it was Tony, Joe and I that made it to the top a bit before the others.  The last couple miles included a lot of hiking, but we seemed to be making pretty good pace all things considered.  I really don’t consider myself a very good climber, but for some reason I felt good here on the steady ascent.  And I didn’t even really notice the fact that we were at 8,200+ feet here…a good sign for a guy who’s sort of paranoid about altitude.
Photo by Mike Bateman: View from the North Rim.
We arrived at the North Rim at about 4:32 into the run, and probably stayed less than 5 minutes.  At this point, we were probably still on pace to run around 10 or so hours if all went well.  Little did we know, the way back wouldn’t be quite so smooth sailing…

North Rim back to Phantom Ranch
Within a minute or so of descending from the North Rim, we started seeing all the guys climbing up.  It was pretty clear already that it was going to be a long day.  Most everyone was pretty close together here, but some were clearly enjoying the climb more than others.

When we passed by our new friend Dave as he climbed, he stopped to tell us that our fellow runner Rick was struggling below with a rapid heart-rate and was pretty worried.  After Dave gave us this “heads up” about Rick, he continued to attempt to schedule breakfast for 15 at El Tovar restaurant the next morning for what seemed like several minutes.  Joe and I were admittedly moving on while Tony talked breakfast logistics with Dave.  Unfortunately, that was the last we heard of Dave.  (Dave, if you ever come across this, we are sorry we missed breakfast!  The Holiday Inn had all we could imagine for free and 14 guys are hard to move around.)

Soon after that we met up with Rick, who wasn’t looking so good.  We debated between getting him to lower elevation and water, or getting him to the North Rim and potential help.  Tony – being the nicest guy in the world as always – stayed back to be with Rick, while Joe and I went on ahead.  (More on Rick and Tony in a minute…)
Photo by Mike Bateman: Great view from North Kaibab Trail.
For the rest of the run, Joe and I would be very loyal to the buddy system and were together until the finish.  After we left Tony and Rick, we still had 13 miles of descending to get to Phantom Ranch.  I really wish my quads wouldn’t have been trashed here…this was a rough stretch that just seemed to never end.  The trail was technical enough to make it hard to eat, drink, take salt, and keep up with Joe at the same time.  I was frustrated that I was slowing Joe down because he was running real strong, and strangely I just couldn’t wait to start climbing again.  I kept convincing myself that we were farther out from Phantom Ranch than we were, so that I’d be surprised when we got there.  Joe was keeping us on a pretty steady pace, but man it was painful.

As we made our way down to Phantom Ranch, the temp was quickly on the rise.  I think I was so distracted by the fact that I didn’t want to keep running downhill to notice exactly how hot it was.  Once it started leveling out, I realized the heat was taking a bigger toll than I realized.  Apparently, the temp at Phantom Ranch was up to 105 degrees that day…

I think we did both the 7 miles to Cottonwood and the 7 miles from there to Phantom Ranch in about 1:10-1:15 each.  That put us back into Phantom Ranch in a little over 7 hours.

Extended Stay at Phantom Ranch
As we were sitting in the cantina eating the Snickers and taking a break, we were a bit surprised to have a Ranger come and ask us, “Are you guys with the group of Minnesotans?”  Apparently we stuck out like a sore thumb, and it turns out that our group was already becoming quite the talk of the Ranger radio waves that day.  We found out Rick was stuck on the North Rim – a mere 5 hour drive from the South Rim – with no way back.  At one point, Joe and I were told we’d have to go get him that night, and we were even given the codes to the gates of the closed North Rim.  Luckily though, after 20 minutes of back and forth on the radios, the ranger told us she got him a ride to a lodge nearby, so he could stay the night there.

After all that was settled, Joe and I started to stumble out of Phantom Ranch and back on the trail.  At this point, we were pretty worried about everyone else, had stopped caring about how long it would take us, and sort of had the wind taken out of our sails.  We left at about 7:40 into the run, and figured it could take 3-4 hours of mostly hiking to the finish.
Photo by Mike Bateman: Coming back across the Colorado River.
Phantom Ranch to South Rim
This 9.6 mile section up the Bright Angel Trail was doomed for us from the very beginning.  Joe was bonking from about the first step with the heat really getting to him, and within 10 minutes was throwing up on the side of the trail.  In the meantime I was feeling just fine and munching on Honey Stinger chews while waiting for Joe.  Once we got moving again, it was pretty slow hiking with Indian Gardens being our next stop for water at 4.5 miles from the finish.

We finally got to Indian Gardens and met up again with Chad there, who had very smartly turned around early before reaching the North Rim and had been going solo for almost the whole day (and probably wondering about that buddy system the whole time).  It was great to see him looking good and in great spirits.  By this time, Joe was starting to feel better and I was starting to fall apart.
Photo by Chad Austin: View of Bright Angel Trail from Indian Gardens.
At about 4 miles out I tried to convince Joe that if we toughened up and averaged just 20 minute miles, we could get in under 11 hours and beat his and Tony’s time from 2 years ago.  He wasn’t having it.  About 10 minutes later, he seemed to be feeling great, and I wasn’t having it.  As we climbed higher, I had a harder and harder time breathing (this is why I’m paranoid about altitude).  I felt like I was having an asthma attack or something, and Joe said I sounded like a freight train trying to breathe.  Man it was rough going.

Then when we were three miles out, Joe told me with all good intentions that we just had “600 football fields left to go to the finish.”  I responded, “Is that supposed to make me feel good?”  It wasn’t until about five minutes later that I realized he was off by a zero and it was really only 60 football fields.  Needless to say though, I’ll never take a simple 5K for granted again…never thought it would take me 1:15+ to move the body just three miles.

As hard and slow as it was, we kept the constant forward motion going to the finish at the Bright Angel Trailhead.  We finished about 11 hours, 7 minutes after we started.
Joe and I at the Bright Angel Trailhead shortly after
we finished.
You might wonder…What happened to everyone else?
As it turned out for the group, all 14 of us luckily made it out alive and well!  In summary, Rick was thankfully just fine and actually made his way to our hotel that night before we did.  TJ apparently had some memorable moments to say the least at the water stops, but made it through thanks to Joe’s water bottle and Doug’s S Caps.  Roddy was so happy after we met up with the early group and found a more sustainable pace that nothing seemed to phase him after that.  Dylan and Randy stuck together through an epic last couple miles that lasted 2 hours and involved some laying down on the ground.  The guys you don’t hear about were the ones that had the best run – Holovnia the veteran, Denney the Olympian, Doug, and Bateman, all seemed really steady.  Tony and John – after spending a couple hours with Rick on the North Rim and getting in some extra miles – were the last ones to come in under headlamps at about 9:30 that night...we were so relieved to see those two headlamps making their way up the trail.  As everyone gathered and came back safe, we enjoyed some food and beer at the bar right on the South Rim before heading to the hotel exhausted.

All in all, this run/hike was without a doubt the hardest 44.6 miles I’ve ever experienced.  Given the conditions and heat, I think it’s probably more like the equivalent of the effort and time of a 65-70 mile run on an easier course.  It’s a must-do for avid ultra runners, but definitely not to be taken lightly.  My only advice for first-time double-crossers is to imagine how hard it could be, and expect it to be harder.

Now even with all this being said, I have found further proof that ultra runners have selective memory.  Even though I told myself I’d never do this again many times during the run, almost as soon as it was over I knew that I’ll be back again for more someday.  It might be a little while though…

1 comment: