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