The Zane Grey Obsession Continues....
The Mogollon Rim. Photo by Andrew Pielage- www.apizm.com
It's easy to be lost sometimes. Buried amidst a world of high speed activity, stress filled lifestyles and the ever climbing necessity of improvement, being lost is sometimes natural.
We go from one thing to the next. Thanksgiving to Christmas. Spring Break to Summer Break. Empty checking account to pay day. Starving to bloated. Happy to sad. Every day brings a new day and with that new challenges, new changes, and new views of what needs to happen.
For nearly two years it's been a non-stop whirlwind of change. Married. Honeymoon. Rented a house. Said rental went into foreclosure. Auction owners tried to evict us. I extorted them for payment to break our lease. We get pregnant. We buy new house. Start a new website with John Vaupel & Jay Danek. (www.trailrunningclub.com.) We have baby. We prepare for Mogollon Monster 100. We direct Mogollon Monster 100. We still have baby. Still have house. Still working all the time. And apparently I still have a blog.
Yet the Monster has come and gone. And the void that remains leaves me lost in what to do next. Immediately I volunteer to motivate and train our hotel staff to run the P.F. Chang's Half Marathon, something I'm passionate about but realistically didn't have time for. When I should be putting a hold on my ambitions to focus on traditional household husband things like siding, lawn care, organizing shelving, etc. I'm out signing myself up for more time consuming projects. Yet I can't help myself. I don't have ADD but I cannot just sit around. As great as that can feel sometimes.
I need to be involved in something.
I need goals.
I need ambitions.
To fill a part of that void I signed up for two races the day after the Monster finished. The Cave Creek Thriller 30K and the Zane Grey 50M a ways off in April 2013. I haven't run hardly a lick since my son Dean was born but now with the race behind us (for now) I should have more time... My training "program" the last three months consisted of a 30 mile training run on the Mogollon Monster 100 course on a Saturday.
Rest for 6 days.
Repeat on a different section the following week. I would run 20-30 mile long runs every weekend for 8 of the 10 weekends of August/September in preparing for this race in both training runs and course marking. Some went well...others were miserable death marches.
Yet somehow, towards the end of the summer, leading right up to the race I started to feel stronger. Not strong, but stronger. Last Tuesday I covered 16 miles on the Highline Trail for course marking for the race and on the return trip I pushed the pace, hammered the hills and came back into Washington Park feeling great. I drove up to the top of the Rim and ran another two miles along the General Crook Trail marking it along the way and somewhere on the way back, as the sun was coming down, still slightly poking through the tall Ponderosa's I felt like I was cruising down the trail on a bike. Nearly 7,500 feet up, it felt like sea level and I was off. It was short distance but a big boost to my confidence. Running hasn't felt that "easy" in a long time.
So the race is over. Planning for next year is ongoing and constant. Ideas flood into my mind in an ever rotating display of improvements and projects. Never submitting to mediocrity, my aspirations always at least reach for something greater. That will never change but leaves me pulled in another direction, a constant tidal pull bringing me back out to sea every few hours, every few days. As welcome a distraction as unwelcome. Focus on one thing, one specific goal has become very challenging with so many aspects of the race I'd like to change while also focusing on work, family, and training (not in that order necessarily...)
With the race over though it does allows me to focus on running again. My son is three months old now, bigger and stronger and stroller ready. We can train together and focus on the Zane Grey 50M in April and get back to running with Jay Danek. I've missed our reckless descents down Bell Pass at breakneck speeds and the much faster pace Jay trains at than I would running solo. His big ambitions, goals and training regimin rub off on me and I need to get back to that.
I have big plans for Zane Grey, my favorite race to hate in all of running. Yet ultimately...my favorite race. My brother distinctly remembers my putrid attitude following my horrible experience back in 2011 where I suffered through a death march the final 17 miles. All of which were self imposed through my own stupidity, poor planning and newly found arrogance.
This time around though, I'm smarter, I'll be stronger, and I feel like that's my home turf now. I've run the Highline so much now in preparation for the Mogollon Monster I know so many of the in's and out's of the trail. I know it's a whore of a trail. An unrelenting beast waiting to eat up the first runner that succumbs to the heat, elevation, exposure, manzanita, or those few rocks out there. The last time I was arrogant. I had been running 50K's like they were 5k's. The 50M was a near regular event for me, at least once a month. I had run a wickedly hard and vicious Superstition Wilderness 50M the month before and felt that Zane Grey was just a stop at the ice cream shop in comparison (incidently, during that delusional Superstitions run the first seeds of the idea for the Mogollon Monster we laid).
I made a cardinal Ultrarunning sin. I did not respect the distance.
Zane Grey is one of the toughest 50 milers in the country. I don't care which one you compare it to. There may be "harder" ones but there is no debate that this is towards the top of the list. Nobody leaves the Highline saying, "That was easy." Nobody. Most leave in a near crippled state saying, "I'm never coming back."
Which any Zane Grey veteran likely say's in their head, "See you next year."
I'm not overlooking the distance this year. I'm focusing on this race and this race only. I'm not going to go out and do all these fat ass random runs through the desert. My off course adventures that end up eating up every ounce of my energy. I'm training for speed, stregnth and endurance. I'm not just looking for an improvement over 2011. I want to knock several hours off it.
I want to go sub 10 hours.
At Zane Grey.
I know. Ridiculous right?
Anyone just ultrastalking me can look at my past results and will be wondering, "How in the world are YOU going to run sub 10 hours at Zane Grey??!"
It's 2:24 better than I ever have run there. Ever. I have zero statistical data to back up that kind of time. My fastest "official" 50K on there is 4:54. I barely ran 10 hours on a flat,loop course.
BUT...I know what I can do. I know what I'm capable of. I know I've never even gotten close to pushing boundaries on speed or training. I've always skirted by with just enough training to keep it from being a full on death march. I ran Cascade Crest 100 last year topping out at a 52 mile week. I get by because I'm a strong hiker and I can run downhill. I've always been weak on the flats and actual "running", as ironic as it sounds, and that is what has kept me plateaued, just off the cuff and from taking that leap to the next level.
My problem has always been that I could hinge back on the "I don't really train excuse" for my less than stellar times at races. It's always been a side joke with my running friends but ultimately it's just an excuse. I'm capable, I can make the time, I just have to put the work in.
So I will.
And when it comes down to the line, come April, on the Highline, I'll really see where that takes me.
And if sub 10 hours doesn't happen at Zane Grey...well look for me at the finish line. I'll still make it there. It just might not be as pretty.
The Monster has officially consumed me.
Consumed everything around me.
Now just a little over three weeks away its down to the wire on planning this monstrosity. What started as a pipe dream over some maps almost two years ago has nearly become the dream.
A one hundred mile wilderness run through some of Arizona's most beautiful terrain was the goal from the start. I had a ton of help from local ultrarunner Jeff Jones on designing the course and creating one that is both challenging and logistically possible with the unique challenges that comes with a 2,000 ft. escarpment between aid stations. I sparked the idea on the tail end of our Superstitions Wilderness 50 Mile adventure and Jeff took off with it like a kid in a candy store. My original idea to create a hundred in Arizona where people would come, run and leave with a whole new idea of the state, showing that it was more than "just a desert." It started Jeff off in a tirade of ideas that resulted in nearly 500 emails over the next year.
What we came up with amazes me with each long run spent on the course. Weekend after weekend, I've driven the 100 miles from my house at 4am to arrive at the trailhead to run the course. Mile after mile I fall more in love with the area, the terrain and every God forsaken rock that hits the bottom of my sole. I've run some sections of the course a half dozen times this summer alone, others just a few times, but in all, I've traversed that Rim as much as anyone probably has at this point and now just a few weeks away...I can't wait to see what everyone has to say about it.
The challenging thing about directing a race is not fully grasping what it is that is "hard" for other people. Every race bills itself as a certain adjective leaning one way or another. "Hardest", "Toughest", "Fastest" something or other. Even the Zane Grey 50M race this race shares part of the course with has for years been called, "Toughest 50 Miler" which for many has been a debatable, none wishing to debate fresh off a ZG finish. This race, the Monster, will likely be one of the toughest endurance feats many of the entrants will have taken on at this point. I know this because of what I have experienced on other courses, what others have when running this course and how revered the Zane Grey course is in general. It's going to be hard. Really hard.
But what is "hard?" Hard to me is the Lean Horse 100. Running a flat surface 50 miles, then turning around and running it back?! That is a hell of a lot of running. Keys 100? Indiana 100? Javalina 100? I've paced the last couple years at Javalina Jundred for 30+ miles and while it's probably the most FUN race atmosphere and an event I look forward to each year...I'm extremely hesitant to ever run it myself. Because I feel it's extremely hard not having a major climb plopped somewhere in there or having to repeat the same thing over and over again. Across the Years this past year I hit 50 miles and quit out of sheer boredom. Terrible I know and something I'm probably going to go back and rectify but that day, running loops...I just couldn't get myself into a groove and really enjoy it. It was one of the hardest 50 miles I've done and I didn't climb 12 feet...
So how will everyone feel about the Mogollon Monster 100? I have compared a lot of hundreds trying to determine how it will be met once the first race is completed. I've spent countless hours on the internet reading all 88+ other hundreds websites, maps, elevation profiles, crew access, past times, cutoffs, etc. There's only about a dozen races with more elevation gain or outright by the numbers is "harder." Of course there are the Hardrocks, Wasatch races with the climbing but also taking into account the average elevation of each mile, terrain, technical nature, weather and all the other factors that makes a race difficult and challenging some are tougher than others for different reasons. I feel this race has them all to put it in a class that will challenge even the most seasoned ultrarunner. That wasn't the goal in designing the race any more was the extra 6 miles some kind of masochistic attempt at one upping anyone. It's just the way it panned out that way.
So after hundreds of hours of planning, hundreds and hundreds of miles on the course, and over eighteen months of constant planning we're almost there. The buckles are in the mail, supplies filling my garage, volunteers committing and contingencies being finalized. Planning a hundred mile race was a dream, an incredibly ambitious one I'm finding out, but one that I'm determined to see through successfully. Runners are coming from all over the country, pacers and crews with them. We'll all be in Pine, Arizona come Friday morning and I'll be there standing up among them for the briefing. A moment I can't believe is almost here, a weekend of determination, stubborness and drive coupled with beautiful, surreal & majestic. I can't wait to be on the other side of the finish line to see each of the runners come through successfully. To be able to shake their hands, congratulate them and hand them the infamous belt buckle that all non-runners feel is so insignificant.
20,000 feet of climbing.
One hell of a challenge completed.
You won't find a more rewarding experience anywhere.
San Tan 50K- Rolling flats, great desert trails
Last year didn't go so well. I started out and went the first full lap up and over the hill and started out the second lap of the course. I felt really sick and I was really struggling with my breathing. I made the painful decision at the intersection for the second hill climb to head right (Quitters Lane) and DNF after 25K. Horrible feeling, hate it. Not sure I could ever bring myself to do it again. I had more concern for the Superstitions 50M that was two weeks after last years San Tan but nonetheless...it still eats at me.
Run the Hills, Hammer the Downhills
The long downhill/uphill at San Tan. Ran once each of the three loops it adds to the fun for sure.
With nearly every race I've entered in the last two years I've entered with the expectation of simply participating, pushing hard for a solid finish but never with any real thoughts of contention. I've never "raced" an ultra. I simply run when I can, walk when I can't. If I can't see the top of a hill, I walk.
Yet something happened in the last four months. Something changed. I don't know what it was, but I'm running so much faster than I ever was before. I'm recovering faster, running harder, climbing without half the trouble I used to have. I hit the same hills I used to struggle on just six months ago and now I'm barely breaking stride on them now. Lighter on my feet, quicker on the flats, smoother on the turns. I'm not breaking records, I'm not suddenly the guy that's going to start winning ultras, but certainly having a lot more fun on the trails now.
I know a big part of any improvement I have made is simply running with my friend Jay Danek. The guy guts out a run every single day, not just a mile, but FOUR, every day. He does on average 700 feet of climbing every day of the week and runs just about everything and absolutely HAMMERS the downhills with a blatantly reckless disregard for his own personal welfare. You can't help but laugh following him in the dark, going so fast your eyes are watering in the wind, and tears start flowing down your face. For the last two years of running ultras I've always been told not to go too fast on the downhills or you'll regret it later on in a race. Jay's blown that theory out of the water and I'm following suit. I'm going to hammer every downhill from now on.
So come race day this Saturday I don't think I'm going to stick to the middle and settle for the same time I always get on 50K's. My PR on a 50K is my second ultra every, Mesquite Canyon's inaugural year with a 5:36. I think I can take an hour off that and hope to this weekend. Bold? Yes, but I'm humbly confident (is that possible?) that I can hang with the fast guys and if not at least I'll know where I stand. So the San Tan 50K will be a test in running the hills, hammering the downhills, contrary to everything I learned the last two years.
McDowell Mountain Madness
NB 110's make you so fast you can take a break while everyone catches up to you. (New Balance- you can use this photo. I don't mind.)
Twenty miles. 5,300 feet of climbing. 3:44. Thompson's Peak some great downhill running, some on trails, some on some sick disguise of a trail covered in prickly pear and cholla. Half of which is still in my left leg. Brutal but super fun and very beautiful with the desert floor getting it's green "carpet." The McDowell's are so beautiful as it is, no matter how many times I've been out there, it's always fun. Ok, not so much in July...but still a great training area. Especially given it's 10 minutes away. It was also my first run with New Balance 110's. I usually run in Cascadia's or La Sportiva Crosslites or Crosslite 2.0's. C-Lites are 13.2 oz each...110's are 6.2 each. So right away it felt amazing to have so little on my feet. My calves and Achilles were KILLING me the first three miles climbing Bell Pass but after a screaming fast downhill everything was loose and went well. Coming straight down Thompson Peak was a little rough, possibly have a size too small but I just felt so much faster than ever before. Today, the day after, my feet are definitely tender on the bottoms from the lack of protection they've been used to but overall feel great. Excited to use them this weekend at San Tan and see how it goes for 31 miles.
Camelback...You're on Notice
Camelback Mountain, Arizona
Allegedly the ascent record is 15:28 by another ultrarunner done sometime in the past. Records are all very vague and for some reason used to be even recorded from the top of the steps, not the ramada. Which is similar to hitting a homerun from second place, not home.
Either way, I'm coming after it. Bring it.
Did I Really Just Do that AGAIN?!!
The Grand Canyon is a place to see. The Grand Canyon is not a place to see from the railing of the Visitor Center. You need to get in it. You need to be inside the belly of it. You need to spend a prolonged time in there, breathing, it. So many people come to that lookout at the South Rim, snap some photos on their nice little digital camera, eat at the lodge and head on out to Las Vegas or wherever their next stop is on their vacation thinking, "Hey, we saw the Grand Canyon!!" Sure you may have seen the Canyon, but you didn't experience the Canyon. The distinction is great and one that I've barely scratched the surface of.
A Double Crossing or Rim to Rim to Rim is fairly common now. I am by no means a veteran of the R2R2R but having done it four years in a row now I feel I’ve got a decent grasp on it. In just that short amount of time the number of runners seen on the crossing has increased, seemingly, tenfold. It has gone from taking the obligatory photo next to the "Don't Run Rim to Rim" warning signs to getting cheers from the Park Rangers along the way. With the explosion of trail runners, races and events this is only a natural occurrence given the enormity of the Canyon and it’s relative proximity to trail running Mecca’s like California, Colorado and the growing number of trail runners in Arizona. It makes sense, crossing the Grand Canyon is some of the most breathtaking, treacherous and humbling trail running in the country. Everyone wants a piece of it, everyone wants that experience, that bragging right, that accomplishment.
#4...Should be easier this time right??
R2R2R is no joke. It's pretty hard. Like, REALLY HARD. The first time I did the double crossing it was much the hardest thing ever I’d ever done. We did it in December, got 9 inches of snow dumped on us, freezing temperatures, and after 24+ hours, it basically became a Death March. The second time (surprisingly I returned) Perfect weather, and we hiked it in 20 hours, less misery, and more fun. My body actually functioned afterwards. (Kind of…) The third time? I ran it for the first time with some great Phoenix runners leading the way and finished a bit under fourteen hours. It was an incredible experience and one that only led to more and more. Like this year’s overnight excursion through the dark and the heat.
This year I’d be making the trip with fellow runners from Phoenix’s Wednesday Morning Running Club. An amazing group of seasoned ultrarunners that single handedly sold me on the sport the first morning I ran with them. Nearly every Wednesday morning since, I’ve been there and they’ve led me to adventure after adventure. This would be no different as leader Honey Albrecht took myself and five others to the South Kaibab trailhead in the Grand Canyon shuttle bus. Nearing the South Kaibab Trailhead you can't help but have this apprehensive feeling as you close in on the top of the Rim. You know that in just a few minutes you are going to drop off that ledge, hug that trail against the rock face and disappear into the rapidly dropping sun and not come back out for another solid 12 hours. None of it will be easy, not all of it will even be fun, but every step of it will be memorable. So we jumped off the bus and dropped off the lip of the Rim and started the long, steep decent to the Colorado River. It begins...
Is there a bat farm around here?!
Having never done the South Kaibab trail I was excited to see it and for a little change over the obnoxious steps of the Bright Angel trail. Sure, there are steps on the Kaibab but I loved the ridgelines in the dark and its own winding path leading down. Jody, Paulette and I headed down ahead of the other three ladies, in my mind trying not to hammer the downhill too much knowing full well how that will feel in 40 miles. We regroup several times until we all fill waters at the quiet cabins of Phantom Ranch before taking off for Cottonwood in the dark.
Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood
This section through “The Box” has gotten a bit easier with each trip down. Possibly just because I run so much more but the gradual uphill to Cottonwood is a nice run, very pretty in the daytime and very dark at night. Counting off the bridges along the way and closing in on the box canyon before reaching Ribbon Falls is a great run if sometimes it is lost in the bright circle of your headlamp. With only 4% of a moon we had nearly absolute darkness along the way. We had a brief break on a bridge with the canyon walls close to each other, the silhouette of the pitch black canyon walls on each side with the incredible amount of stars was nearly worth the trip in itself. I stared at that view, head leaned back in disbelief. You forget how much you don't see when you live in the city. But there it is. Proof yet again of why to run the Canyon.
Cottonwood to Jam On!
The ups and downs of ultrarunning have always amazed me. Sometimes more the up’s than the downs. Those times where I’m I'm cracked out on caffeine, headphones are blasting so loud I'm sure to create a new kind of cancer and I'm running at a pace that isn't sustainable in a 10K let alone running 50 miles. I'll probably never learn but it's those brief few miles that I'm having the most fun. The "fun" of course being clearly visible by my rock hopping air guitar as I pound out the drum solo with my Nathan's water bottle and free hand. Any bystander will surely think I'm on meth or some other narcotic but really, it's just music and running. It’s a marriage that was built to last.
The two miles from Cottonwood to the base of the North Rim were some of the most fun miles of this trip for me. I lead the way, hit a great Warren Haynes jam of "All Along the Watchtower" and having coincided with a Double Latte Powergel???....look out! There were more than five occasions where I literally said out loud, over my headphones..."almost fell.." Yet I kept going and it felt amazing. Like, really amazing. The kind of miles that you use in your mind to forget the other miserable miles that you want to become a professional piano player and burn your running shoes. Yeah,..those miles.
Slave to the Music
So after the water stop at the base of the Rim we started our march up the Rim. Head down, here it goes. Let's get it done. Paulette and I alternated pulling everyone up until the two of us switched at the bridge crossing and she pushed hard all the way to the top. She is a climbing machine and she was a great help in just maintaining pace and pushing hard to get there. The North Rim is gorgeous but in the dark it's more dangerous than fun given any slip and you're dead. And not like a "Jeremy's exaggerating dead" but more like "splattered on some rocks dead." After the bridge crossing though you'd probably just fall and break some legs or something so it's just pushing on and dealing with the incoming cold temperatures as you reach 8,000+ feet. I was cold at the Supai tunnel but didn't want to stop and put on my long sleeve. I put a hat on, threw on some tunes and followed the Sherpa to the top as my arms froze, hands went numb and I started to take a few steps down into my self-doubt dungeon and the surprise pity party that was about to happen. Right about then my headlamp with brand new batteries started to die, (probably made in China), so I was about to be lightless coming down the North Rim in 30 degree weather with 3 hours of darkness left. Where was my spare light? In my backpack. In Honey's truck. 23 miles away. I'm an idiot.
Paulette and I spent a cumulative 1.2 minutes on the North Rim shivering uncontrollably before we took the decent down. I went the first dozen or so switchbacks on my weak headlamp barely able to discern dirt from root from elk. Pitch black with my light on its last leg? Not ideal. I started to worry a bit as Paulette pushed on and I had to slow down to A) Eat this Powerbar before I crashed big time and B) Slow down so I didn't face plant into a rock. I worry a lot about taking bad falls yet I rarely, if ever, even fall.
Luckily I caught up to Paulette (she probably just stopped...) and we decided to go with her handheld flashlight as our light source and I turned off my headlamp to save what was left. Her flashlight was amazing and we took off down the Rim, me as close as I could so I could see the trail in front. Running with no moon and a light in front of you hidden by another runner is quite difficult. Often times if I fell behind a step or two I was running blind so I had to look far ahead and almost memorize the logs, steps, roots, and big rocks so when it came to me I at least knew it was there. It was a bit sketchy for a while but kind of fun at the same time. At the Supai tunnel I took off the long sleeve and took the time to put the extra batteries Paulette had in my headlamp and allow us to run separate the rest of the way down. Weird, someone brought extra batteries to a 12 hour night run? Again, I'm an idiot. I had extra batteries AND an extra headlamp in my backpack. In Honey's car. Again…20+ arduous miles away.
Enter the Dungeon...
I've yet to make it on a 6+ hour run without taking a trip to the Dungeon. What's the Dungeon? It's the place where my mind goes when I'm tired, hungry, sore, and 100% sick of running wondering why I stopped playing baseball and took up ultrarunning... It's the place of self doubt, regret, negativity and pity parties. I try to make each visit a brief one. Sometimes a sandwich helps, sometimes a banana is all it takes, and sometimes...it's just a random runner along the trail in the same situation. One way or another I always seem to take a trip to the Dungeon. This trip was no different as I made the decent down the North Rim, hungry, tired and now nauseous.
Luckily it would be relatively short lived as we ran into our friend Jon Roig about a third of the way up the Canyon. He was supposed to leave with us at 8pm but had to work and drove up separately, started at 10pm and ran solo in the dark until he met us. After running a 50 mile race last weekend. Stud. So coming down the Rim and running into a familiar face is always nice and quickly brought me a few steps closer to leaving the Dungeon. Jon turned around with us and Paulette, Jody, Jon and I finished off the North Rim with some nice downhill running. It took a little self drive to knock off those two miles into Cottonwood but once there you know you are just a gradual downhill to Phantom and then a steady, if not monotonous, climb out. Then you are done. Sectionalize the run and it's all simple. In theory at least.
Are we seriously going to Ribbon Falls??!
The four of us left Cottonwood in a walk hoping the other group would catch up to us soon. That was our excuse but secretly I think everyone just wanted to walk. It was 4:30am and we'd been at it for 8.5 hours and closing in on 24 hours awake since most of us left for work the day prior. As dawn started to break across the valley inside the Canyon I started to feel so much better. It had nothing to do with rest, nutrition or any caffeine but simply from the breaking light across the Rim. It was a new day, and we were closing in on the finish. I was nearly done with my pity party and would soon be feeling much better. But not yet...
We hiked our way to Ribbon Falls and when Jody asked if we had been there I foolishly spouted, "I've never been." That quickly turned into us making the short 1/2 mile hike to the falls. I hadn't said a word in an hour and the first words I say add mileage onto this trip? Again, I'm an idiot. I had zero interest in adding mileage or seeing a waterfall or hiking any incline or decline at this point in the trip. I was in full on "mute" mode. I wasn't speaking, I wasn't laughing, I wasn't contributing anything at all to the non-stop conversations that Paulette and Jon were having .(Which incidentally it was quite impressive how long they maintained a steady conversation. They seemed to have talked from the North Rim all the way to the South Rim. Non-stop. It was fun to just listen to them as I slowly made my way back into reality.) The door to the Dungeon was locked and I couldn't find my way out.
After a brief visit to Ribbon Falls (which as it turns out is pretty cool, at least what I saw) we started running again. Slowly at first as nothing was feeling particularly great. I didn't have any blisters, no bad chafing, and my stomach was for the most part pretty ok. It was just my motivation that was low but after a half mile my body got back into the rhythm, the music started feeling good again and away we went. The Box of the trail is one of my favorite and least favorite parts of the R2R2R. For one it's nice trail running, gradual uphill on the way up the North and on the way back it's gradual downhill to Phantom Ranch. Yet on that gradual downhill you are over 30 miles deep in the run and a good deal of it looks very similar so you find yourself thinking, "this bend of the river is the last one" or "this bridge is the last one." Your mind, or at least mind, gets ahead of itself and you get excited and let down, get excited and let down. Always looking for the bridges, counting them, waiting for the next. In the last couple miles into Phantom I started to feel really good again, my legs started to stretch out with the music and after Paulette stopped for a shoe tie I went out front. I pushed, on occasionally looking at my Garmin to see how far we had to Phantom and realizing that my watch said 5:15, 6:36, or 7:22 minute miles. Given we had been chugging along at 12 minute miles it was ridiculous to be going sub 6 minute miles, even if it was only for a hundred feet. But it sure did feel great and as I pushed on through the last bridge I briefly thought about slowing down for a jog into the Ranch but instead punched it and nearly sprinted into Phantom Ranch to the looks and bewilderment to the tourists and campers brushing their teeth and drinking their morning coffee. It would be, hands down, the most fun I had in the entire trip. Stretching out the legs, flushing out all that stagnant energy in the body felt so great. Sadly, that is probably how the Killian’s, Geoff’s, Anton’s and Koerner’s of the world always run but for me, for those brief miles, it felt fast and wonderful. The question would still remain though, would that brief spurt kill all remaining reserves for the last climb out??
Phantom Ranch Part II
The four of us all met back up at Phantom, Jon was right behind me the entire way in holding the same pace, and we started right out for the last 9.5 miles to the top of the South Rim. All of us having done this before, we knew it was a long slog to the top with no real way to take a lot of time off it with all the switchbacks and elevation gain. So it becomes a simple task of head down, plug away. And so we did.
Everyone's spirits, including my own, were much higher as the sun rose steadily and those rays of sunshine and Vitamin D hit off our faces. We hit Jacob's Ladder (if that’s what you call that devilish switchback hell leading into Indian Gardens) and we knocked it out non-stop and pulled into Indian Garden sooner than I had thought. We weren't there but 2 minutes when Liz came powering through, a member of our original party we thought was over an hour behind us!! As it turns out they were, but Liz kicked it up a few notches after Phantom Ranch and pushed on alone. Now there were five of us in our own kind of mule train power hiking to the top. It's a long haul but with all the tourists coming down in the morning there was more than enough interaction to keep me interested and off the annoyance of the high steps and erosion bars along the trail.
As we progressed up the mountain, closer and closer to our goal, the pack of five separated slowly and Liz and Paulette pushed to the top with Jon in front of Jody and I. We all finished within minutes of each other, past the hoards of international tourists, day hikers, unprepared hikers, mule trains, and little kids excited for their first trip into the Grand Canyon. We were grimy, dirty, salty, beaten, tired, weary and they all knew it as they passed. They knew we were not campers, we were not day hikers, we were not tourists.
Dozens of times people along the trail would ask where we started, and when we started. Often there was hesitation from the group in how to answer the question presumably not wanting to sound like we were bragging (or crazy.) Sometimes a generic answer of "we hiked down last night" or "a few hours ago" would come out of someone’s mouth. Other times a straight answer of "we left at 8pm last night from South Kaibab and went over and across, 46 miles ago." That answer nearly always draws immediate interest and disbelief from the casual hiker, sitting there trying to get their head around the concept of running that distance all at once, as they sit there with their 30 pound REI pack on their shoulders. They stand bewildered as most of us did when we first heard about people that did 50K's, 50 Milers and 100 mile races. "No way." "Not possible." "You can't be serious." Yes, yes we are.
As more and more people make the R2R2R trip I'm sure it will be less a surprise to people when you tell them just exactly what you are doing or have just done. More people are trail running, more people are making their way to the South Rim for their "Rite of Passage." So it will then become less impressive I suppose and a notch on the belt that more people have.
Until that day though R2R2R is still a bit of a novelty, at least to me. It's still that little something in the back of your mind, that knowledge of yourself and what you can accomplish. It breaks you down but builds you up. You can feel totally undertrained, beaten and broken during the run but by the finish you feel capable of anything, stronger than ever and more confident than you were when you first stepped foot of the top of the South Rim.
No trip to the Grand Canyon is like the last and no trip will ever match the next. They are all singular events, experiences in running, nature and friendship. Cliché yet true and reason enough we all forget that last climb out and the long winded excursion through the "Big Ditch." Instead we sign back up each spring, fall or year and repeat the endeavor. Somehow we forget just how hard it was the last time.
So I will again, quickly forget that trip to the Dungeon, that brutal decent in the cold and that long, winding, never-ending Bright Angel trail to the top of the Rim...
Because I want to be there again this Fall for a whole new experience.
Phantom Ranch Part II
First Water Trailhead- The Beginning of the End
This wasn't ever going to be a race. This wasn't ever going to be a speed run. This was never even going to be a twelve hour run. But I don't think I ever really imagined it being as long, brutal, exhausting, unrelenting as it turned out to be.
At 5am the three of us set out from First Water Trailhead in the dark. Nobody else out there, quiet as possible, it was a new moon so there were a billion stars over our heads as we ran down a nice stretch of wide, packed, clean dirt doubletrack weaving our way through a forest of teddy bear Cholla. Our headlights bobbing up and down as we climbed over the rock faces and back onto the nice stretches of clean trail. It wasn't but two miles before our group leader Jeff Jones took a fall and cut his hand up. Nothing major but a sign of things to come and certainly not the last to draw blood. Then we were off to the Boulder Canyon trail. The word "Trail" may be a little exhaggerated so maybe something more like Boulder Canyon Cairn Search would be appropriate here. Crossing Boulder Canyon again and again, slow going through cat claw our pace dwindled quickly. From Boulder Trail we made our way to Calvary Trail which wound it's way through Marsh Valley, (picture below) a beautiful stretch of singletrack surrounding by high rock walls and giant cacti surrounding the winding trails.
Marsh Valley was a nice section of runnable trail that kept wandering its way through an assortment desert plant life and cacti. Being March the desert is just now starting to come alive with faint patches of grass growing and the beginning stages of a bloom on some of the ocotillo and palo verde. In a couple weeks this area is going to be National Geographic pretty. Seriously. The desert in bloom is as beautiful a sight as any autumn in Vermont or summer in Colorado.
Marsh Valley hooked up with LaBarge Canyon on the Dutchman Trail. This stretch I had previously been on a couple times and is really pretty as it winds its way down the canyon surrounded on both sides by massive red rock walls. As the trail converges with the elevation of the river the area is overgrown with Cottonwood trees and leaves scatter the ground. Which of course is always a welcome sight to the desert runner who only gets the thorns, cacti, cholla and snakes at your feet. Rarely leaves. +5 points. Add in it's a very runnable stretch and we were running and having fun as we neared the intersection with Peter's Trail...
Up to this point the run is beautiful but nothing difficult or unusual. Of course there's a reason I just wrote that. Enter Peter's Trail...
I don't know you, but I don't like you Peter- Miles 8-16
Whoever Peter was that this trail was named after...well...he needs to talk to someone about his trail. It sucks. BIG TIME. Right off the bat you climb this nice ridgeline that again really wasn't even a "trail." The trail consisted of the area you pushed the holly and catclaw away from you as their accomplice's at your ankles dig their claws into your flesh. Over and over and over again. The "trail" wound it's way to the top of the plateau where for the first time I could see into the Wilderness Area to the East. All of this was untouched to me and all new so I was excited to see what the central corridor had in store for us. Apparently it was more catclaw and holly...in reality though this is what makes running trails so much fun. When I see a mountain range I don't think "oh, another mountain range," but instead, "What's on the OTHER SIDE of that mountain range" or what's inside that range, I wonder what water is out there, wonder what trees are growing there. Driving around Phoenix you can always see Superstition Mountain, the western most edge of the Superstition Wilderness and I've always from Day 1 living here wanted to see what lied inside that area. Today was my chance.
We ran along the top of the ridge through some very sparse vegation minus a few agave and low lying cacti. Crusing along we hit the edge of the cliff that stood a good five-eight hundred feet above a river. Under normal circumstances this cliff would have led me to search around for the way down but Jeff found what looked to be the way down and of course it was straight down the rock face. We soon got the good news though, the overgrown cat claw was sufficient in keeping our speed down. At the bottom of the canyon we regrouped and took off again for what was arguably the worst stretch of the entire 51 miles. The next 3 miles was at a miserably slow pace picking our way through a severely overgrown trail. Every step was a scratch, cut, pull, tear or some kind of curse waiting to happen. Clearly everyone else felt the same way as nobody was talking. Finally after not being able to walk any of that entire valley we make a good sized climb out of the canyon to a nice vista overlooking yet again another valley. Powering down through the prickley pear and then right back up the other side I started to feel good just being able to run again. We bounced up and down through one small valley after another until we reached a large downhill overlooking what would be the Mile 17 Trailhead. Disaster overted. Peter's Trail, the worst is past us....
Search & Rescue Teams...That's a Good Sign...
Coming down Peter's Trail was a lot of fun. Jeff and I came down the big hill on some seriously loose rock with sharp corners and unforgiving corners until halfway down we came up on a search party with the Superstition Search & Rescue Service out gridding out locations for a missing Utah man from late 2009. They naturally were interested in the three people running down the steep, rocky mountain face out in the middle of nowhere.
"Where are you coming from?"
"First Water Trailhead" Jeff said casually...
Eyes got wide quick as they all realized how rough the 15 miles were just coming from First Water over the stretch we just covered..."How far are you going today?" they asked.
"Back to First Water Trailhead. After we take the loop around. Should be about 50 miles and be back around dark."
After more discussion on how they found the three missing Utah miners last fall (one of them less than 3 miles from First Water Trailhead...) and that we were welcome to help ourselves to the water at their vehicles at the bottom of the mountain we pushed on and said goodbye. Down the mountain and across the river a few more times we met with their vehicle team, had a good fresh bottle of water and moved on to the JF Trail.
11:30am and only 17 miles deep...
Where the F*** is Paul??!!- Miles 17-25
Taking off from the end of Peter's Trail onto the nice dirt road was a godsend and while it only lasted for a quarter mile it was great to be able to cruise along without anything slapping at your legs and arms. The JF trail is long and travels North to South generally through the central part of the Wilderness. It starts out with us on a single track on a high plateau with great views of Four Peaks back view, rugged range of mountains and canyons to every direction. The trail itself was incredibly rock (see picture below if you don't believe me...) and was a non stop climb for what seemed like hours and hours. Less than 20 miles in and I started to have doubt creep in already that I was not ready for this level of running. This was kicking my butt. We were already over 6 hours on our feet and less than 20 miles in?? Bad sign. Yet there wasn't an area we could have gone faster, the terrain was just brutal and was really beating us up. Add in the rising temperature and it was getting very, very challenging. Head down, time to step it up. Just keep climbing.
One climb after another we made it up to the top, great view, then down a short steep decline that wasn't runable for more than 25 feet before a block in the trail forced you to a crawl. Then hiking until it opened up which lasted for only 20 feet before again...crawling around a bush or cactus or massive rock. Some parts of the trail would just straight up disappear and leave us searching around for another cairn before resuming our breakneck 3.0 mph pace. Plugging away though we kept climbing, kept finding the trail and kept moving until we finally made it to Tortilla Pass, the start of a long 3+ mile downhill. Under normal circumstances this would be an opportunity to pick up time and race down to the valley below, strech the legs a little and make up some time. Not here. 3+ miles of downhill on the JF trail means risking your life or limb or both if you chose to open it up on the trail through so many thick bushes and cacti. After the worst of it I trailed behind Jeff as he pushed the pace headed down the mountain. All of use are out of water and in great need of a refill. The last five plus miles have been in the upper elevations and without any springs and we needed access to something soon. So our motivation became reaching the next water sooner rather than later. I pushed the bushes as best I could and kept up behind Jeff as he did a great job keeping us moving. Paul was somewhere behind us as he usually is and would surely be there soon after us. Jeff & I bounded down the switchbacks that overlooked vertical drops into areas no helicopter would ever discover until a few miles later we reached a small river with a few pockets of remaining water. None was particularily inviting but with a few minutes my UV filter fixed up the water as best it could and I refilled my bladder and started chomping on a PB & Honey sandwich as Jeff filled up on water. A few minutes later Paul had still not arrived. I kept eating and drinking. A few more and Paul had not arrived...then a few more...
...Then a few more...
...until it had been 30 minutes...
...then 45 minutes...
Jeff started back up the trail an started yelling for Paul. No response. He goes up farther and starts yelling again. No response. Something must have happened.
I get my gear back together, packed and on my shoulders and start back up the trail to help find Paul. Right now we are 6-7 miles from where we left the Search & Rescue team. But that is easily a couple hours away and they were leaving at 3pm and it was already after 1pm. The road to Woodbury cabin is a couple miles away to the South and that's not easy ground either. Not to mention the road itself is never used and it would be a miracle to come across a vehicle to help. Even worse I left my SPOT GPS messenger at home. Stupid. Dumb. Moronic. One button on that thing and we'd have a helicopter rescue. They'd know exactly where we were and we could sit tight until they came to help if Paul broke something or worse. Now we are going to have to build a splint out of an agave trunk, I only have 3 feet of rope in my pack, I guess I could cut my shoelaces...at least I brought a first aid kit..
Headed back up the mountain with Jeff we were quiet. Both certainly thinking the worse because at this point nearly an hour after we both had reached the bottom there was no reason Paul would not have come down the mountain. The route was skinny, very, very rocky and each corner overlooked a steep precipice. He easily could have rolled an ankle and slipped down the ridge, hit a rock and broken a leg or worse. As Jeff and I clamber up the ridge exhausted we quietly peer over the edge looking for any sign of Paul's colored shirt or pack, hoping to God we don't see anything. Climbing further and further we make it about halfway up the mountain and suddenly Jeff yells out, "There's Paul!!" Sure enough...there he is running down the trail.
He did fall. Fell and got up and somehow thought he had passed us so when he went down the hill and didn't see us he turned around thinking maybe he went too far and possibly missed a turn. So he started climbing back UP the mountain while Jeff and I were sitting down at the river bottom waiting for him. It wasn't until he was part way up the first set of steep switchbacks that he realized he was wrong and turned back around and went back DOWN the mountain where he soon ran into the two of use headed up to find his body. Relieved that he was alive but seriously upset that we had just spent the last 30+ minutes thinking we were going to find Paul's body in a ravine we made our way back down the mountain. Live and Learn. At least he was ok.
Are we done yet? Miles 25-33
After that episode I was really no longer interested in running. My body felt like I had finished 50 miles already. My stomach was revolting in the heat and from being dehydrated during the JF trail section with no water. Emotionally I was still realing a little from the thought of Paul falling off a cliff. Although honestly not so much about Paul but far more selfishly that if Paul got hurt or worse...I knew I would never be able to go on these kinds of runs again. Everyone that cares about me would all but ban me from anything outside of a track. They already think it's "dangerous" to do trail races so this would only support their stereotype. Aside from my typical mid race downer I was happy to get to the second half, past the worst sections of the trail and into some runnable and more familiar sections. Unfortunately that wouldn't come for some time...
Woodbury Trail to Coffee Flats was a lot of wash running. In and out of river beds finding the trail, losing the trail, running/walking down deep, sandy river beds until climbing back out to a narrow trail that led us to Coffee Flats. Coffee Flats was half terrible/half best running ever. First half sucked and was a major low point for me. We were making such a slow pace, less than 3 mph that all I could do was punch the numbers in my head and predict the finish time which was hours past the time I told my fiance I would be home. Knowing this I knew she would only start to worry after I was an hour or two late and that quickly started to dominate my mind more than anything my legs or stomach were telling me. Obviously this was something that Jeff had been thinking as well and he responsibly asked our opinion on cutting pieces of our route short to get to Peralta sooner and use a hikers phone in the parking lot to call his wife so everyone would know we were behind schedule but ok. We decided to cut out the Red Tanks Trail>Whiskey Springs>Dutchman Trail and instead stay on the Coffee Flats>Dutchman>Peralta which was more of a straight shot and allowed for more running miles and hopefully a faster time. I'd wanted to see the Red Tanks Trail but had no issues with the change if it meant that people would worry less.
Once we started to get 5-7 miles away from Peralta you could tell as more and more hikers were making their way up the river to campgrounds. The trail cleared out for the first time in over 15 miles and we were able to run through some beautiful stretches of grass covered desert with nice tree cover. The sun was starting to come down as we came upon a water tank for cattle. The guys filled up as I ate some trail mix, passing on water as i had a 100oz bladder i filled up only 5 miles ago. We headed off running and collectively feeling better as the trail continued to be open, winding and absolutely beautiful in this massive open valley of giant Saguaro cactus and towering cliffs. I felt great through this entire stretch. Even my right knee which I tweaked on a rock a few miles back and was seriously bothering me all along started to loosen up and was less of a concern. At one point I was seriously considering dropping at Peralta because of my knee but by the time we reached the pass leading into Miner's Needle and when Peralta was nearly in sight I was feeling great and we were all off and running.
I always find it interesting in ultra running how short term my memory really is. Just a few hours ago we were hiking through some ridiculous terrain that mountain goats probably bitch about when they go over to see their inlaws for dinner at night. Broken, twisted, tearing, disappearing, menacing trails. Yet, here I was just a few hours later, a few handfuls of trail mix, some cold water, a washed face, setting sun over some incredible Saguaro, rock faces and generally perfect and every way mountains I couldn't help but think..."Totally worth it." Right there, right then. Already forgot and the entire Peter's Trail, JF trail and Woodbury trail were forgotten by this perfect trail winding it's way up and down and around these massive Saguaros. Everybody I know runs for a reason. This is mine.
Peralta Trailhead- I Love You- Mile 40-13 Hours deep...
Coming into Peralta felt like dropping down the ravines in Zane Grey at their aid stations. Coming down the ridge you can see cars in a parking lot, as you get closer you start to see people moving around and hear their voices. Except you get there and there is no water. There is no food. There is no cheering. There are no chairs to sit in as someone fills your bladder. It's amazing the effect aid stations do have on you. That moral support, that genuine care and encouragement that the volunteers put into you at those little in between marks at a race. Invaluable. I love that about the Zane Grey race. Awesome volunteers but also that you can see them for some of their aid stations as you come down off the mountain. It's like taking 5 gels at once and always bumps me up a dozen notches. I could have used it at Peralta. And some water as I'd been out of water for the last five miles and we ran nearly all of it. Thirsty wasn't even the start of it.
Jeff asked a reluctant hiker to use his cell phone to call his wife to let her know we had ten miles left and would be later than expected. For some reason the hiker didn't seem to want to let us make this one phone call that cost him no money. At least he helped us but really didn't understand the reluctance. As we started up the Peralta trail, a nice 2-3 mile climb with over 2,000 feet in climbing to the Freemont Saddle, Jeff thought ot ask a woman who just finished if she would spare a bottle of her water for me. She graciously (see..she gets it!) offered me a full 16oz bottle (REI shopper...+5 Kharma points) and we thanked her several times and started up the last major climb of the day. It was already getting dark around 6:30pm and we still had 10 tough miles to go. The motivating part of it all was we had all three done this strech before and could do it in the dark. Only ten left. Time to knock it out.
Underestimated this climb...BIG TIME...
I couldn't believe how long this climb was. I had it in my head it was like hiking Camelback Mountain and we'd be up it in an hour. Yeah...not even close. It just keeps going and going and going. I stubbornly just kept going up as it got darker and darker. I was determined to keep my headlamp tucked away inside my bag until I made it to the Saddle. Had we not talked about mountain lions for the last 14 hours of the hike I might have made it but I was freaking myself out as I climbed up the rocks that I was going to get jumped from above by a giant mountain lion that was out to eat my heart. I hiked past a giant rock overhang, talked myself into thinking it was a den full of mountian lions, scrambled ahead a few feet where there was a pool of water and got my headlamp out immediately. A minute later the guys caught up and said, "Good, you found some water. Let's take a break and fill up." "Yeah...umm...that's what I was doing...good plan." I said.
So we filled up for what would be our second to last time on the edge of this cliff with a trickle of water coming out of the rock. The UV filter works amazing at night as you can easily see it working (we hoped) in the dark and we knocked out a few bottles for everyone so we didn't have to wait unti the iodine drops Jeff had been using worked. I dug out my long sleeve shirt that I almost didn't even bring and threw on my gloves, downed another PB& Honey sandwich, a gel, and we were ready to push through the last 8+ miles. It was dark now and the mileage wasn't coming quick. We got up slowly and stiffly and made our way back up the ridge. At the Saddle we stopped for just a second and started down the long, steep switchbacks of the Peralta Trail towards familiar territory in the Dutchman Trail. This section is one of the most beautiful in the area I think so it's a shame we got to it so late and in the dark. Most of the trail is along the ridgeline on bedrock where you have incredible views all around on every side and one step either way and you're going for a long ride down the cliff. In the dark though, it's just a trail with a big white circle. To be fair, I'm not sure how much I really would have cared at that point anyway.
Down Peralta we made it FINALLY to the intersection with Dutchman Trail. We filled up one last time in a pool of water and started off running down to meet up with the First Water Trailhead. I led the group and darted down the path now only 5.2 miles from our vehicles. My mind takes over my body at this point when I know the finish is only a matter of minutes away. In a race I simply imagine the cheers as they see you approach and I get excited with the sheer thought. I can conjure up that image at any time now and save it for these moments when I'm really tired, really beat, and caffine is just not working, music is not doing it and I'm just tired of being on my feet. The image of the finish line works every time and it worked this day. I ran like I just started out. The temperature dropped drastically as it does in the desert and suddenly we were seeing our breath, my nose was dripping and my ears were cold. I slowed up for the guys to catch up a couple times again not wanting to get attacked by a cougar because I seperated myself too much from the group (this is called self induced paranoia...). I really did feel so much better and caught myself several times running long sustained rocky hills as we climbed up Parker Pass. It was really encouraging to feel that strong at that point but didn't want to put too much distance between the group. Moutain lion attacks aside we were running as a group, ran as a group and should finish in the same couple minutes. Mile after mile we jogged, ran walked sections seemingly always right around the corner from the trailhead but never really quite there. One ridge after another until finally, FINALLY we hit the intersection with Second Water Trailhead. .3 miles from First Water Trailhead. I ran that final uphill without reprieve until I reached the trailhead. Non stop, uphill, full speed with the cheers of volunteers ringing in my head with every step.
Most Challenging Run Ever
Despite how hard I felt I ran the last third of a mile up the hill I was happily surprised to turn around 30 seconds later to see Jeff and Paul flying up the hill right behind me closing out an incredible run strong. Immediately my first thought was to let my fiance know we were ok as we had just finished 51 miles in 17 hours and 35 minutes. We were expected to be back about 2-3 hours ago. She was worried but happy to hear from me and after an hour drive home I'd be in my living room. Exhausted. Destroyed physically. Changed.
There are a few times in everyone's life when something happens to you that leads you years later in life to look back and say, "I can't believe i did that. I can't." A couple days later after this run and that's all that goes through my mind thinking about this run.
People have run 50 miles before. That's not new. People have run 100 miles, 200 miles, people have run across deserts, countries, you name it. To me though this run was more than just a 50 mile race, run or hike. This was something else. The solitude, ruggedness, route finding, climbing, the sheer number of rocks on the trails and cactus covering trails makes every footstep harder than anything I would have expected. Incredible doesn't even start to begin to describe this day. To be able to share it with such great runners as Jeff Jones and Paul Rondeau makes it even better. Fun guys, great sense of humor and always entertaining and supportive. As it always seems to be the case, it's the people you run with that makes the day, not the trails, scenery or running itself. That certainly was the case with this adventure.