Thursday, May 2, 2013

R2R2R Run Report

This past Christmas while running in Utah up a snowy mountain – a running buddy and previous pacer at Zion 100 Troy mentioned running the Grand Canyon. Not just running around the rim or down and up – but a R2R2R or rim to rim to rim (double traverse).  In between gasps of air and chattering teeth – I managed to mention I’d love to join… (gasp) … the (gasp) … parade (gasp). Troy said there was room for another – and R2R2R was inked onto the running calendar for mid-April

Running in the snow in Utah

Leading up to Grand Canyon I did as much gym work as possible to simulate running conditions. Calves for the ups – quads for the downs – and interval training for cardio to assist with elevation and the miles of uphill. There’s really no other way to prepare in Texas for miles and miles of up – and miles and miles of down since we just don’t have that type of terrain. I felt just about as good as I could have felt before the run with the legs feeling rested and strong – and generally feeling well prepared.

I flew to Phoenix on Thursday and made it to the Grand Canyon that afternoon in just enough time to catch the sunset. I wasn’t exactly sure the route we were going to take for our Saturday run – but looking across the canyon there really didn’t seem like an easy way to traverse. It was wide, it was deep, it was steep and rocky. The following day on Friday once the rest of the gang – Troy and his wife Candi, Mike and Blaine – arrived from Utah, Troy gave us a better idea of our route: Start at the south rim and head down the Bright Angel Trail (9.2 miles), Up the North Kaibab Trail to the north rim (13.8) – then back down the North Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail for a total of about 46 miles.

The general route of our R2R2R

After a pasta dinner – we hit the hotel to grab some sleep. I had  my hydration pack put together with enough food for the day – a mix of UCAN, Pro-Bar’s, a few gels, and some peanut butter sandwiches – along with two water bottles and a Platypus collapsible water bottle that I would use for the 11 mile stretch we would run without access to water.  I got up several times during the middle of the night to add something that I had forgotten to pack.  This was the first time I had run nearly 50 miles unsupported.

The 3am wake-up call came early and we met at 330am in the HI Express lobby in Tusayan for the 10 minute drive to the Bright Angel Trailhead. Weather at the top was in the low 20’s but not long after we started down the trail it started to immediately warm up – even though it was still dark and well before sunrise. The first part of the course was a little tricky with footing. Although not technical – there were lots of steps (for erosion purposes) at different intervals that made it hard to get into any type of rhythm. In addition, it was dusty and the headlamp picked up all of the dust flying around which made it a little hard to see.
Looking back where we started and ahead where we were going you could see groups of headlamps of other teams that were starting their R2R2R journey. Although it was still dark and you couldn’t see any of the canyon, you could tell how steep the trail was based on the position of the headlamps. Eventually around mile 4 the trail flattened out and we soon came to Indian Gardens which is a small oasis of Cottonwood Trees, a stream and a campground. Although it was cold I had already drained both of my water bottles and we all huddled around the water faucet to re-fill and catch our first glimpse of the canyon from inside the canyon which was just coming into view.

The next 4 mile section down to the river was much more runnable than the first 4 miles. Not nearly as steep and not as many erosion “steps” to have to navigate over. It felt great to stretch the legs out – and it continued to warm up the lower we got. We ran alongside a stream for a few miles before finally coming to the Colorado River right as the sun rose over the edge of the canyon. After a quick ½ mile run next to the Colorado River – we crossed the Silver Bridge and eventually made our way to Phantom Ranch where we refilled out bottles and grabbed some calories.

Made it to the bridge to see the sun rise
We were laughing becuase the footing was awful the entire way down - and Candi stumbles on the bridge :)

When I’m running long runs I try to break the course up into sections. The thought of traveling 46 miles on foot in a day is sometimes hard to get your mind around. Sometimes the sections are long – later in a run with some miles on the legs the sections get shorter. The section from the Bright Angel Trailhead to the river/Phantom Ranch was really the first section – and the second section was from Phantom Ranch to the North Rim – 14 miles of uphill.

Leaving Phantom Ranch we entered a narrow canyon on some great single track. The trail was all runnable – and even though slightly uphill it felt good on the legs. There were a few foot bridges that crossed the stream a few times – and eventually the canyon opened up and was much wider and gave some great views of the North Rim. You could see the shadows retreating across the canyon and we were finally in the sun for the first time at Cottonwood Camp which was around mile 14 where we again refilled our bottles.

Nice single track - slightly uphill - sun creeping up the canyon

Everyone in the group was moving well and having a great time. Then – out of nowhere – we get passed by Tony Krupicka (elite ultrarunner). We all had on packs carrying tons of calories for the day – he blew past us effortlessly appearing to only be carrying one hand held and shorts full of gels. In no time at all he was out of sight – very humbling. So much for thinking we were moving well!

The couple of miles up to Roaring Springs was more gradual uphill and it continued to get warmer. Troy told us one we got there that we had about an 11 mile stretch (5.5 miles up to the North Rim and back) without water and to make sure that we carried plenty with us. I filled my two bottles and also filled my 1 liter collapsible water bottle which I used first. Having done multiple 100 mile runs – I’m surprised that I haven’t used a collapsible water bottle in the past. It was not difficult to run with – and it was great to be able to roll it up and stash it away when it was empty. Old dogs learn new tricks!

Immediately after we left Roaring Springs we made a left into a narrow canyon and began to climb. It wasn’t nearly as steep as other climbs I’ve encountered in other runs – but it kept going and going and going. Occassionally there would be a runnable section – but for the most part it was a hike for me. The trail was in relatively good condition for the first few miles – narrow in places as the trail was hugging the edge of the cliff. As we got close to the north rim there were sections of the trail that had been damaged by rock slides, land slides, etc. Going through the Supai Tunnel we actually had to climb over a large pile of rocks that had fallen during the winter.

The "trail"

An awesome group of runners!

About a mile from the top we finally got in the pine trees and knew that we were getting close to the North Kaibab Trailhead. It was great to be in the shade and out of the sun and it started to cool off since we were close to 8000 feet. None of the typical water crossings that I anticipated on the final 5 mile climb were running due to low snow levels – so there was no place to dip my hat to cool off. It was an awesome feeling when we finally made it to the top and to sit in the shade with snow under the nearby trees. Section 2 completed.

Relaxing the legs on the North Rim

We re-grouped at the top of the North Kaibab Trail – all a tad beat by the long uphill. There was another runner that was there talking to a couple of forest Rangers about being evacuated because of an injury – which we decided later was probably more of a mental issue than a physical one. While the Ranger’s were waiting for his decision they took some runners in the ambulance to refill water bottles since water at the trailhead was shut off. I was very grateful for this since I had used more water than anticipated on the climb up. After a much-needed peanut butter sandwich and refilling the water bottles – I was ready to go. I was feeling decent– not great – but good enough to take Troy’s advice when he said “let’s get out of here – we need to get moving.”

Blaine and Mike - not being tempted by the open ambulance door

I got up and headed out to start the 3rd mental section – thinking as I jogged down the trail that it seemed steeper going down than it did coming up (usually doesn’t work that way). After about 5 minutes of jogging I realized that no one else was behind me. I thought we were heading out togther and that we all needed to get a move on? Where is everyone? Not longer after – Mike came bounding down the trail and said that Troy had stood up and started throwing up. I decided to go ahead and keep moving down the trail since I wasn’t feeling great – and figured Troy would rally and blow past me in a few miles.

This is the canyon you ascend to the north rim - narrow and steep but scenic

I slowly descended down the canyon – jogging some portions and power hiking others. It seemed to take forever to get out of the narrow canyon and it was great when the trail finally flattened out a bit and I was able to run. I still wasn’t feeling great – and knew I needed calories – but the thought of eating anything just didn’t sound appealing.  If you’ve run long distances – you’ve experienced mind/body battle. I just kept moving. After passing the Cottonwood Camp (end of mental section 3) I rallied a little and ran a few miles at a pretty good clip. Although it was hot in the exposed sun with no shade I was feeling pretty good about my movement and thought I must be getting close to Phantom Ranch – but that thought must have come when I was still 3 – 4 miles away because it was a long time until I finally made it in around 4:20pm. End of mental section 4.

Back at the Phantom Ranch in the shade

I was pretty pumped to roll into civilization – people, a guitar player, and a flush toilet - and knew I was less than 10 miles from finishing an epic journey. I was really looking forward to being under the Cottonwood Trees – relaxing – getting some calories in – and waiting for Troy and Candi to catch up – Troy was still having a rough patch he was working through. Not long after I got there Mike and Blaine had already made a decision that Blaine and I would start heading for the south rim so we could finish and make it to town and get some pizzas ordered before everything in town closed down – and Mike would hang back and wait for Troy and Candi. Aw man, what about hanging out under the Cottonwood Trees and relaxing? The incentive to get up and get moving was exactly what I needed – because if I had gotten too comfortable I wouldn’t have wanted to leave. So – after a quick shot of lemonade and some pretzels – Blaine and I were off for the south rim.

When we were scoping out the trail the day before – we had talked with a guy that said the climb up Bright Angel from the river was ok to Indian Gardens (about mid-way up) – and then tough the last 4 miles. Mentally – I was expecting the first part to be ok – and for the most part it was. The 5pm sun was mainly behind the high rim walls so we were in the shade which was welcomed since it was probably about 90 in the canyon. There were reeds and bullfrogs croaking in the stream – and as we started to climb it began to cool off. I wasn’t able to run any of the uphill – but my legs still felt pretty good hiking.

Not my photo - but it's a great idea of what the Bright Angel Trail Switchbacks are all about

We made it to Indian Gardens (mental section 5) – refilled our bottles and tried to stomach a few calories. It was hard to see how the trail made it to the top because it looked so steep – so I was glad when it was finally dark enough to need my headlamp and the rim of the canyon disappeared in the night. At this point Blaine had gone on ahead – and I just put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. It was switchback after switchback after switchback. Like my observations when scoping out the course the day before – it was steep and it was rocky. I was able to monitor my progress through familiar landmarks. The 3 mile water stop – the 1.5 mile water stop – the tunnel. I finally made it to the top a little after 8pm having gone 46 miles and climbed about 12,000 ft – and having enough memories to last for a long, long time. Unfortunately the pizza place had closed by the time Blaine and I made it to town – so we had to settle on McDonalds – but for not having eaten McDonalds in years it sure tasted good.

Happy runner!

The rest of our gang finished not too longer after us – and as tired as we all were we decided to re-connect the next morning for breakfast. As a tribute to our long run – my colleague and support crew for many long runs Cindy made some commemorative R2R2R t-shirts!

Earned it!

Overall thoughts:
  • ·         The run is hard but it is completely do-able if you’ve done a mountain 50 or if you’ve done a 100 mile run. If you aren’t an experienced ultramarathoner – this probably wouldn’t be a great first run since you’re pretty much self supported and have no way to get out of the canyon if you encounter problems. This is probably what happened to the guy that we saw on the north rim that was having problems. He was in over his head.
  • ·         There are a lot of runnable sections – but no matter how flat and nice the single track is you will encounter large barriers of some sort (rocks or wood beams) that you have to step over – even in the flat sections. Some of them made no sense to me – I understand erosion control on the side of the canyon – but in a flat valley along a stream?
  • ·         Make sure you know what water sources are open and use them.
  • ·         Make it to Phantom Ranch by 4pm to get lemonade and a candy bar. I didn’t make it there until around 420p – but fortunately Blaine and Mike from our group had made it down and were able to stock up! It was needed. Thanks guys!
  • ·         The uphills are really long – but really not that steep. I’ve done races where your hands are on your knees and it’s so tough to put one foot in front of the other. These aren’t that bad. They’re steep in places – but more than anything they’re just really, really long. Of course – once you get close to the end everything seems steep and uphill – but still the last 4 miles are more mentally tough than physically tough. I wasn’t really sore the days after and was running my usual 8 – 9 mile route by Tuesday.
  • ·         Don’t worry about time – take your time and enjoy the canyon. You’re experiencing something that most people will never experience. Who cares if it takes 12 hours of 16 hours. It’s not a race.
  • ·         Stay at the HI Express in Tusayan. They were super nice – the hotel was great – they had three breakfast areas - and I work for the company!

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