R2R2R, Part 3 of 3
Having trained for this event specifically since Dec 17, I was ready. Ready not only to run it, but to run it for time. I was thinking that 9-12 hours was doable. I’d head over in 5 hours and see how I felt on the return. Then…
Have you ever studied about how airplane crashes happen? It is never one thing that brings a plane down. Rather it is a series of small, unlikely events that happen successively. So it was with how my plans changed on R2R2R.
Just like prior to my Boston 08 marathon, I had been watching the daily weather reports for about a month in advance of the event. I’ve since learned (thanks to Nate Silver) that weather forecasting only beats daily averages up to 7 days in advance. The daily averages for the South Rim/Phantom Ranch were 30/60 and 50/80. So I was expecting to start in a nice cool 30 degree temp and run the bottom in about 80 degrees temps. However, as the day drew closer, I could see a heat wave building up. It was looking to peak on Tuesday 4/30. With 50 degrees at the start (nice) but 100 degrees at the bottom. Ouch. With 6% relative humidity and strong winds (40mph on the South Rim) I began to think this was not the day to go fast.
I flew to Phoenix on Monday early enough that I could do the 3.5 hour drive and still be to the South Rim before sunset. I had about an hour or so of daylight to check out the South Kaibab trailhead and figure out the shuttle system. I also learned about other trials in the area; specifically the Bright Angel trail. The Bright Angel trail is the most popular, shaded, with reliable water about every 1.5-3 miles. I had read a blog post about a group from Boulder that did the South Kaibab, North Kaibab and Bright Angel loop to make it an even 50 (the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trailheads are about 5 miles apart along the South Rim.) The seeds had been planted.
Part of my Leadville training was to get in bed by 9pm the night before so I did that here. It was tricky finding the lodge. The National Park does a good job preserving the night sky by keeping lighting to a minimum. However, this can make it hard to find your way around. To catch the 4:30am shuttle, I set my alarm for 3:45. (Note this time of year I had a one hour time advantage). It is a very interesting feeling as you do your final preparations: there is switch where you have to go from “preparation “ to “perpetration.” Perhaps I was stalling a bit knowing that it was going to be a long day, but I headed out about 4:15am with a vest, headlamps etc. to run the ¼ -1/2 mile over to the shuttle station.
As soon as I stepped outside I realized I did not know which way to go. I checked out the shuttle station, but not from the direction of my lodge. So I started running down the dark two lane road in the direction I thought was correct. Almost immediately self-doubt crept in. “Is this the right way?” “It shouldn’t be this far” “Why can’t I see a light or a building?” “Is this the road to the park entrance? “ “Damn, that must be five miles long” “Should I head back and try the other way?”
I came upon an intersection which I thought was a small guard station on the way to the entrance. Damn. I ran a little ways this way and that trying to figure out where I was. Then I realized I was at the shuttle station. It was about 100M across and the bus turned on the engine and pulled away from the far side of the lot. I looked at my watch. 4:32am.
So, I could have waited 28min for the next shuttle but that’s not what runners do. I hit the ‘start’ button on my Garmin and said ‘game on’ I started down the road on a 5k warm up to the trailhead. Even finding the South Rim Trail was not easy in the dark. And, once I was on it, it wasn’t 100% easy to follow. What was trivial in the day time became a lot trickier at night. I made it to the trailhead at 5am having already started my SkratchLabs/HammerGel routine. If I had caught the shuttle, I had planned to be on the trail by 4:40 because the mules start at 5am.
I was in bathroom stop number 1 (first of many that day) when I heard the mules go by. Sun up was coming (5:17) so the headlamp was less necessary, but I kept it on during the early descents with lots of exposure. Now that I was behind the mules it was slow going. I caught up to the first group at about 1/3 mile down. I had heard that trail runners were getting a bad reputation in the corridor trails so I was trying to be extra careful all day. So, not knowing how to signal the driver without scaring the mules, I just started walking along behind them. Fortunately, the driver spotted me at the bend and waved me past. About a ½ mile later, I repeated the procedure.
So with the late, slow start and searing hot weather ahead, I began to re-think my plan to run for time. I was also curious to see the Bright Angel trail. And, the trail itself was not easily runnable for me. Much of the trail had logs across it, creating ill spaced steps. It reminded me of running down the steps at Red Rocks amphitheater. Another bathroom stop (three on the way down, but then good to go the rest of the day.)
As the sun finally came over the canyon – too beautiful to describe so I won’t try here – I stopped to reflect on the moment with some hikers who had been on the 4:30 shuttle. They asked where I was headed and they suggested the Bright Angel as the return route. As I kept descending I thought instead of making this an out-n-back timed run, I’d make it a slow-easy-safe recon run. To be ready for the heat, I could only think to go slowly and drinks lots of water. Colorado is a great place to train for hills and distance, but it is no place to get ready to run in the humidity. I figured I’d scout out the main corridor trails and plan my return visit(s) with friends.
So that’s over 1000 words and we are just at dawn. I did a .9/.1 run walk pattern on the descent. The rest was key to save my quads for the rest of the day. Seeing the Colorado river for the first time gave me a big boost. The light was incredible; the air cool and still along the bottom early in the morning. Crossing the bridge, I thought of my rafting friends who had come this way. On the other side is a very tempting beach, but I remembered one of my rules “don’t go in the water’. And kept running up to Phantom Ranch. I reloaded water and expected to drop trash (I have been using 2 gels/hour) but in the GC you pack out your own trash. I was very glad to get to the North rim where I could finally empty my trash. Heading up to Cottonwood Campground was kind of like running up the Boulder Creek Path. Not too steep and shaded from the morning sun. I felt great. The navigation I had assumed would be trivial, but there are a few side trails that can make you pause to check your bearings. At Cottonwood, I loaded up with 5L of water knowing that I’d have to go 14miles without aid. And it was getting hotter. As I ascended, the sun shone on the trail all the way up to the North Rim. At the North Rim, I was holding up ok , but my low back hurt from carrying that much water weight. I laid down for about 10 minutes with my legs up on a tree to rest my back and get ready for the descent.
The descent down to Roaring Springs was great. Still not too hot, but getting there. Lots of NPS workers out getting the trail ready for the 5/15 opening of the season.
Below Roaring Springs, it was hot. The sun was shining on the trail—often surrounded top, bottom and left by rock reflecting the heat. Slow down and cook. Run faster and cook. And where was that Cottonwood Campground?
“shhhhhrtt” uh oh That’s the sound of a camelback running out. I looked at my hand bottle. 1/3 left. Dang, where is the Cottonwood Campground? Every clump of cottonwoods I’d think, it must be here, but no, the trail kept winding down the valley. Had I made a wrong turn? Should I scramble to the creek below for water? (it’d take 30 min to sterilize it and I was getting close to my 4pm cutoff for additional calories at Phantom Ranch)
I kept going.
Finally, I pulled into the Cottonwood campground and was able to reload the water. But how much? After my last brush with running out, I wanted to take plenty. But, if I take too much, it weighs a lot and that puts stress on my back. Phantom Ranch was an ‘easy’ 7 miler down the valley. On a typical day, I could do that comfortably in an hour. So I’d only need one bottle of water. But I loaded up. I had researched heat stroke and heat exhaustion and had learned that the treatment was to get rest and water. I thought it might come in handy as the temps were approaching 100 along the bottom of the canyon.
The 7 miles down hill was anything but easy. The trail was smooth and easy to follow; it also had a nice 2% type break. However, it was really hot and dry. If I ran, I generated internal heat. If I walked, I baked. I ended up alternating a run/walk pattern. I’d run the sunny parts and walk the shady parts to try to keep my temp down. When doing solo events, it is imperative that you keep your head together. Getting dizzy or disoriented at this point would have been very bad. By now my batteries had run out on my Garmin, but my external battery for my iPhone kept it charged. However, along the bottom of the canyon the GPS signals were intermittent and made the mileage counter unreliable.
I really like knowing where I am, but for this stretch I had to estimate my pace and just use my regular Timex. I figured I should be able to make 10 min/mile and get down in about 70 min arriving by 3:30. If I missed the 4pm cutoff, I would not be able to get additional calories and I’d be in real trouble trying to hike out that night. I ended up getting to Phantom Ranch at 3:40. They had iced tea that was the best thing I’ve tasted in a long time. I drank a lot quickly. Too quickly.
With a rush towards the door, I barely made it out to the woods and deposited all of the ice tea I had just drank. I’ve thrown up before in similar conditions so I knew not to panic. Nonetheless, losing fluids in 100 degree heat is not helpful.
I went back inside, ordered more tea but this time I found a shady spot to lie down and rest. Sipping tea while having my feet up on a tree trunk allowed me to rest my back and getting cool. I still had a long way to go. Realizing I was going to be way overdo, I pinged my family with my PLB (personal locator beacon) to let them know I was ok.
From Phantom Ranch, I could go up the direct route (South Kaibab) but it is exposed, hot, deserted, no water and the trailhead was 5k from my hotel. If I didn’t make it up by an hour after sunset (8:15) I’d have to run back to the hotel. Or I could take the longer Bright Angel trail. It had shade, people and reliable water. And, I hadn’t seen that part of the canyon yet. I opted for the ‘recon’ run and headed out for the Bright Angel trail a little after 4pm. It was fun to cross the Colorado again on a different bridge and then run along the river for a mile or two. Turning up the canyon, it was like heading up Gregory Canyon. Steep and rocky, but not too steep or rocky. I was feeling good after my break at Phantom so pushed the pace up to the Indian Garden ranger station. I had hoped to get up by dark, but at Indian Garden I realized the sun was going down fast and I still had 4 miles of steeper going ahead of me.
It was nice to chat with some of the others on the trail at the water stops. Soon the Mile house came and went. Then the 1.5 mile rest stop. At this point it was quite dark so I put on the headlamp/flashlight. The final mile or so has quite a bit of exposure, so I was being careful to keep it together until the top. There were quite a few false summits ( there are two tunnels…) but eventually (8:45 ish) I made it to the top. Just in time for 40 mph winds. And cool temps. This was the first time since 5am I could get a cell signal. I stopped to text family that I was ok, and then started to make my way back to the hotel. By my estimate I had already gone 50 miles so I was happy to catch the shuttle from the Bright Angel Trailhead back to the Lodge.
Ironically one of the most dangerous parts of the trip was waiting for the shuttle. I had put on every piece of clothing I could find, but my core temp was falling rapidly. I was concerned about hypothermia while waiting for the shuttle. The long sleeve ex officio exothermic shirt that kept the sun off and me cool enough during the day was now working against me. Being wet and getting blasted by that wind was not fun. Turns out I did have more clothing with me, but I was not able to think clearly enough to realize that. Similarly, I had 3-4 gel packs in my vest that I was not aware of until the next morning. These are great examples of how your mind begins to fail you under exhaustion.
I was able to make it back to the lodge, take a shower and be in bed by ten. It had been a much longer day than I planned for, but was a great way to see the main corridor trails in a day.
Driving to Phoenix the next morning, I had a chance to reflect on the trip. Would I do it again? Absolutely. In a 100 degree heat? No thanks. I’d pick a date much earlier than April 30. Ideally it would be great to have 2-3 days flexibility as to when you actually do the event. Being able to pick the exact day with about 7 days remaining would be ideal.
I wouldn’t mind running in the snow- it’s how I train in Colorado. It would be great to come back with friends – but they would have to have done the training to make it a fun day and not a death march. Next time, I’d be more careful with my diet. I weighed 190 and had a BMI >20%. That is too much weight to be carrying around the Grand Canyon on a hot day. With a low carb diet during my month of recovery, I was able to drop 6 lbs and a few BMI % points.
Some of the things that worked: being flexible; a liquid-only diet (Skratch Labs in the bottles and Hammergels/Salt Caps); run/walk patterns. It has been amazing to see that adding 10% walking allows me to double the distance I can cover and dramatically reduce soreness. Compression shorts, Montrails, DryMax socks, long sleeves; white calf compression wear, Garmin/Strava/external battery, Nike hat for night, sunglasses and prescription, and an OR hat with ear/neck covers for 10am-4pm all worked well. So did a lot of Glide and a few Prep H towelettes.
If you have specific questions about doing a roll your own R2R2R, please email me jim.h.franklin at gmail.com