Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Grand Canyon Rim-To-Rim-To-Rim (45 miles, South Kaibab-North Kaibab-Bright Angel, 15:40)

This past weekend I was blessed to be able to accomplished an ultra-trail running goal that few get the chance to do. That goal was running the Grand Canyon "Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim" (or "GCRX3", or "Triple R", or "RRR") in a self-supported, single-day, effort. The RRR is going from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other, and then back again. I was there with other members of Team C.R.U.D. (Coloradans Running Ultra Distances)-Paul DeWitt, Rick and Jill Hesseck, Eric Gabe, and Paul Smith-along with my wonderful and supportive family (Elke, Tava, Elle, Izzy, and Seth).

We had traveled to Santa Fe, NM the previous night, and therefore were able to get into the GC by about 6PM on Friday night. We quickly unpacked and then I headed over to the rim with the C.R.U.D. group to get a peak at the canyon and put my feet on the trail a bit. It is a psychological thing for me, but I always seem to do better when I have seen the route a bit before I step onto it for the run or race.

We had decided that for the run, we would head down the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail, then through Phantom Ranch and up the North Kaibab Trail up to the North Rim. But instead of doing a "camera in reverse" and going back out the way we came (which is what most people do), we decided to run back down the North Rim to Phantom Ranch via the North Kaibab and then take a different route back by ascending the South Rim out of the Canyon via the Bright Angel Trail. This alternative adds another 2 miles, but after 43, it doesn't matter much.

My beautiful wife Elke, who is a great runner (but didn't run so she could hike with the kids on Saturday while we ran), got up 3:50AM to drive us to the trailhead. I hadn't slept all night so I got up at about 3:15AM to get my stuff together and see if I could have a BM before the run started. I finished my morning "reading", when Elke banged on the bathroom door and yell-whispered "They're all waiting for you!"

All 7 of us piled into the 5 seater with Paul Smith in the trunk area, Elke on my lap in the front seat, Jill, Rick, and Eric in the back seat, and Paul DeWitt driving his wife's Audi A3. Half way to the trailhead, Eric realized, and exclaimed, that he left his water/fuel pack back at the camp. When we all asked if he was serious, he said, "Yep. My bad." then proceeded to talk about the time he had started the Lake City 50 without his fuel pack. He figured it out too late and started the race without it. At the first aid, after having run the first 15 miles without fuel, he took off his jacket, filled the pockets with the gels at the station, and used it (tied around his waist) for his fuel belt the rest of the race!

Even with Gabe's mishap we got to the trailhead by about 4:27AM. I kissed Elke goodbye, told her not to worry, clicked on my headlamp, and headed down the trail right behind Paul Smith, with Gabe behind me, then Paul DeWitt, and then Rick and Jill. The morning was surprisingly warm and we were all sweating within a couple steps down the trail. About a mile or two down, we stopped at a big, open spot and shed layers while waiting for the whole group to get there (we didn't want anyone to miss the trail since it was so dark and we were at a place that had several options leading out of it). Soon after this point, as the light began to get better, I took the lead (for the last time on the entire run), as I tend to run down hill fairly well (it is merely a matter of weight and gravity!).

The South Kaibab Trail, starting at about 7,200 feet, is simply amazing. As you are coming down it and looking down in the distance at what you will be running, it looks fake. In fact, at one point Eric Gabe said "It looks like some kind of a fiction". It really does look like something out of the Lord of the Rings or something from another world...

We reached the bottom of the Canyon in about an hour and a half. We refilled our water bottles and headed through Phantom Ranch towards the North Rim. About a mile after Phantom Ranch we stopped at a sign that said "13.4 Miles to the North Rim". We stood there and realized that we would need to run the equivalent of a Pikes Peak Marathon to get back to this point. That is after having run 8 miles, and then after the "marathon" you have to run almost a Pikes Peak Ascent.

Now mind you, to the other guys, this is no problem, all of them having completed 100 mile trail runs (for instance, Rick placed 4th last year at the Leadville Trail 100), but for me, the longest I had run before last Saturday was a 50K (31 miles). Needless to say, I began to secretly think of quitting part way through...

We started out from this sign, in a total reversal of the order of the initial descent, with Rick Hesseck leading the way, Eric Gabe behind him, then me, and then Paul Smith. Jill, Rick's wife, and Paul DeWitt (who recently had surgery) hadn't planned on doing the whole run and headed up Bright Angel to do "only" a 19 miler that day (nothing to balk at, at all).

The run through the floor of the Canyon was beautiful. It is a rolling trail that follows a major water vein coming off of Roaring Springs and a few other water falls. Paul Smith suffered with stomach problems for the first 22.5 miles of the run, but even with these problems, he still eventually passed me going up North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. The climb up the North Rim wall is epic. The trail is cut into the sheer cliff wall and your just running through this notch in the side as you ascend thousands of feet up.

We all reached the North Rim, about 21.5 miles into the run, in the same time proximity (about 45 minutes apart), with Rick and Eric getting there first (Eric was just amazing, coming from Texas elevation and keeping up with Rick during the first 3/4s of the run). Rick and Eric were 5 minutes into their decent when they saw me coming up the last part of the North Rim ascent. I had made it to the North Rim in 6 hours, just a few minutes behind Paul.

Paul was bone dry and out of water, thinking that there was going to be water on the North Rim. There wasn't. There is nothing there except a deserted parking lot and a bathroom with no running water. Thankfully there was still some snow and Paul was able to refill his bottle (note that singular...he ran the entire RRR with one 20 oz water bottle!) in a puddle of melted snow. Paul went off to the bathroom, and I started my descent, knowing he would easily catch me and because I was getting cold at 8,200 feet.

Paul did easily catch me, as it was right about then that my suffering began. I had been burning through S! Caps (electrolyte tablets) and I knew I didn't have enough to finish the run. When your sodium level decreases, your stomach gets queazy. When your stomach gets queazy you can't get fuel in. When you can't get fuel in, you start to fade fast. I was fading and trying not to throw-up. Paul graciously waited for me at a campground/fill up stop, but once I reached him, I told him not to wait for me, in that I was really starting to fade and did not want him to have to be out there any longer than necessary. Amazingly, I was actaully able to run with him to the next camp ground and it was after that one that he started to gain more and more distance on me.

These next 7 miles were very hard. The sun was up in full force and the heat at the bottom was in the 80s. On the trail itself, with the heated rock of the path, it had to be in the 90s. I continued to lose water through sweat and desperately needed those electrolytes that I was out of. I ran as much as I could, setting small goals to run from the sunny parts to the shaded parts. When I reached a shaded section of trail, I would take off my hat, walk the section, and let my head vent the heat. Every once in a while, I would pass a group of hikers and ask how much further it was to Phantom Ranch. Their estimates didn't help, but it was my fault for asking.

I finally made it to Phantom Ranch which is a bustling camp with a store, etc. (there had been no manned camp for the past 30 miles...just water spots here and there). I went into the dining hall looking for a Coke, which is often the only thing that can cut my thirst, but they only had beer, lemonade, and ice tea. I made a half-and-half of the ice tea and lemonade and guzzled it. My stomach was still really queazy so I went outside to sit on a bench and to try to get some fuel in for the final 9.5 mile, 5,000-6,000 foot climb out of the Canyon.

I sat there on the bench at Phantom Ranch with a hiker that I had passed and listened to him talk, mumbling every once in a while so as not to be rude. But, the reality was, I could hardly concentrate on anything he said because of my condition. I eventually went and found a pay phone and called Elke to tell her not to worry about me, that I was moving slow, and I expected that I would be about 5 hours later than I had hoped. She didn't answer and I only got her message service, which she never heard...

I went back, sat next to my hiker friend, and resumed listening to him talk as I hoped my stomach would calm down. It did not. As he talked, I realized that I was not only NOT going to get anything down, but that what was down, was going to come up! I walked away without telling him why and threw up a few times away from where everyone was sitting...

...I spent over an hour in Phantom Ranch, and when nothing changed with my condition, I realized that I better start moving or figure out what I was going to do for the night. I started out of Phantom Ranch, and actually ran a bit before hitting the sand at the bottom of Bright Angel Trail, which Eric Gabe would later describe as a "some kind of bad joke".

The next 5 miles to Indian Gardens was an eternity. When I finally reached its' water facet, I sat there for about 30 minutes. I finally got myself to move and began to death-march up the last 4.6 miles. By this time, I was empty. No power. No motivation. Very thirsty.

Different thoughts were going through my head. I kept thinking about the humiliation I would experience if I had to be rescued. I thought about all those signs that warn you to not attempt to travel to the floor of the Canyon and back in a day...and here I was doing that forbidden activity twice in a day! I wondered about my worrying family, knowing that they probably thought the worst...I just kept walking up and trying to keep myself moving.

Eventually the light faded and I walked in the dusk of evening. This was actually helpful for me, because when it was light out, I had to deal with looking up and seeing how far the South Rim still was from where I was. Each time I would look up, I just about died...I could not imagine being able to finish. The Canyon Rim towered thousands of feet above me and I just couldn't fathom finishing this thing.

But then, I got to the 3 mile hut...then, after another eternity, the 1.5 mile hut. Now it was dark. I clicked my headlamp on and just kept walking/death-marching. By this time, my equilibrium was off, so I stayed as close to the wall-edge of the trail as possible so I wouldn't be at risk of falling off. Interestingly, my legs were surprisingly strong, so I kept pounding with them, even while my mind was fading and my balance was failing. It was weird how the top half of my body was shot, but the bottom half was still working pretty well.

Finally, I rounded a switchback and saw a light coming towards me (no...not that kind of light!). I hoped against hope that it was someone in my party...even Elke...and then I heard her voice. She called out my name, I responded, and she began to cry. She had not gotten my phone message, and I had WAY over estimated myself thinking I would be in hours earlier. She had given me 15 hours in her mind, and then when it got dark, and I was 40 minutes past that, she had gotten worried. Plus, I hadn't ever done anything this hard before, and so she had no idea what I could or couldn't do...and neither did I.

She asked if she could carry anything for me, but at that point, I wanted to finish the whole thing entirely by my own strength. It was a joy to walk the final 200-400 yards with her and then touch the kiosk at the top at 15:40. I had finished the GC RRR.

I am not sure I will do this again (unless a really good friend wanted to do it, or, someone in my family gets into ultra-running and wants to run it), but I am extremely grateful to God for now having finished it. It was beautiful, extremely challenging, revealing as to where I am at with my endurance-running abilities, and, just plain epic in proportions.

Humbly submitted advise for others from a total novice who just experienced his first true ultra run:

1. Never do this as your first long run (i.e. 50 miler). You can't DNF, you have no support, it is too dangerous. You need to get this distance under your feet in more controllable conditions.

2. Take an entire bottle of S!Caps with you if you sweat a lot. You need the electrolytes...without them you are toast.

3. Take 2, 20 oz bottles if you sweat a lot. There is a lot of water available, but every once in a while, there is no water at a stop, and you do not want to go dry out there.

4. Take some comfort food (e.g. something easily digestible, but solid) because the gels will make you sick after about 10 or so.

5. Take it easy and enjoy the run. It is not a race and you are in one of the most beautiful places you will ever be.

6. Go with some really great people...I did and it made the experience more meaningful and enjoyable.