In late February I was invited to join a group who would be running the R2R2R in early May. That gave me around 10 weeks to train and ready myself for what would be a self-supported 50+ mile ultramarathon. I hired a coach, Tim Long, who drew up a training plan that had me running almost every day of the week. I could feel myself getting stronger especially in the uphills and with my endurance, but even with that, I was not prepared for what the Grand Canyon would throw my way.
Our group of 15 flew from San Jose to Phoenix airport Thursday morning. We rented a couple big white vans and loaded them up with groceries from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s before starting the 4 hour drive to the Grand Canyon and our camp site, a few miles from the trailhead.
We went to sleep around 10 since we had a very early start the next day. I filled up my hydration pack and laid out my running clothes in my tent so I could get started as quickly as possible. I even put in my contacts before going to sleep so I wouldn’t have to do that in the morning.
3:30 a.m. – I am up before my alarm goes off. I lay in my sleeping bag just a bit longer. I grab my phone and check on the Warriors score. They won, beating the Nuggets and advancing. Good start to the day.
4:45 a.m. – We were still at the camp. We had wanted to leave by 4 but through a series of events that didn’t happen. And when we were ready to leave, I somehow couldn’t find my hydration pack! I scoured the campground and finally found it in my rucksack in the van. Stressful start to the run. But finally we were off.
-4.4 to 0 Miles – We were 4.4 miles from the S. Kaibab trailhead. Seven of us would attempting the R2R2R, Shyamal, Fernando, Yann, Mark, Dan, Calvin and myself. We left camp and made our way to the S. Kaibab trailhead. The sun was already starting to come up as we reached the canyon and saw the first signs of the sun as it touched the very top of the canyon.
As we ran along the top of the rim to the trailhead, across the way we saw the silhouette of the north side, a distant reminder of where our journey would be taking us today. As we ran the sun revealed more and more of the canyon and soon we saw the outline of the gorge that would be our path for the day. It looked long and very, very far down.
0 to 4 miles – “I’m in a candy store!” By the time we started down S. Kaibab at 5:30 a.m., the sun had fully lit up the trail and we stashed our headlamps. I seriously considered hiding my headlamp near the trailhead to save on carrying the weight. Very luckily I kept it on me, not knowing that I would desperately need it later. What was once a big black hole in the ground had suddently became a stunning and vast expanse of towering red rocks and as we got lower, green expanses of various vegetation and cacti.
I love downhill trail running and the first five miles were pure joy, steep switchbacks that changed from red rocks and red sand at the start to pale brown sand as you approached the river. In the back of my mind I knew I should take it easy and save my quads but I had been waiting too long to do this run and I said the hell with it. Fernando flew way ahead and was a speck below me before too long. Dan described it best when as he was running full speed downhill he yelled out ‘I’m in a candy store!’ Exactly.
Fresh mule shit on the trail was an early indication that we were going to come upon the mule train before too long. A few miles in I saw the pack of mules moving along the trail below me. As I reached them, the lead mule rider stopped the train to allow me to pass. Luckily I caught them right before the bridge since the bridge is too narrow to pass them and would have halted me for at least ten minutes.
4 to 14 miles - I arrived at the river and soon after, Phantom Ranch, and took stock. I was feeling good but knew I had run too hard and already started feeling my right hip tightening. I stopped at Phantom Ranch to refill my water and happened to catch Fernando just as he was starting off again. I met a couple from Chicago who were also running the R2R2R which was also their first ultra. I would see them off and on the rest of the day.
Around mile 6 the trail leads to the narrowest part of the canyon, and you feel like you’re being swallowed by the canyon as you are winding your way along a trail running between two tall, sheer rock faces. I would look forward to this later on the return as a shaded escape from the sweltering afternoon sun.
My right hip was still talking to me so I stopped and stretched it out and just stretched my legs top to bottom. Amazingly when I started up again I felt completely fine. I was encouraged. I crossed several bridges as the narrow canyon followed the Colorado River north.
14 to 23 miles – “I want to go home”. The narrow canyon eventually opened up to a wide expanse of a valley with a continuous but gentle climb. I refilled my water at Cottonwood campground and the Pump House, the latter being the last refill station until reaching the North Rim.
The rest of the group had caught up to me by this point and together we started the endless ascent to the North Rim. Living and training in San Francisco, all my training had been close to sea level. So when we started climbing up to (eventually) 8,000 feet, my body was like ‘dude where’s the oxygen?’ As we got higher up, each breath got harder and hiking up was the best we could do, especially knowing that we still had 30+ miles to go today.
The sun was also starting to heat up and combined with the altitude made for a very tough climb. We rested a couple of times, and at one point, probably a mile or so from the top, as we were resting in the shade, breathing heavily, Mark looks at us and says “I want to go home.” We were all thinking the same. We carried on.
North Rim! – We finally reached the North Rim around noon. The endless climb did indeed come to an end. There were patches of snow along the side of the road as it was a bit cooler here than where we had started. And we received an unexpected pleasant surprise. There was drinking water! We had heard the water was turned off and we would have to go an extra mile to refill but instead we refilled at the top and celebrated our ascent with Clif Bars and other such trail running delights. I met a father and son who had been hiking and camping since March 18, hiking the Arizona trail from Mexico to Utah. Very cool.
At this point I felt great. Lots of energy, thrilled to be done with the climb and I would have been fine ending the run here. Except, we still had an entire marathon left to run to get back. So without wasting too much time up here, we got back on the trail.
23-31 miles – I once again decided to run down the trail from the rim because a) it’s fun and b) I wanted to get down to lower altitude. My inner quads began cramping. I stretched them out and that didn’t seem to help much so I popped a salt tablet. That did it. I would end up repeating this every half an hour or so as my quads would continue to threaten to start cramping the remainder of the run. The last thing I wanted to do was be stuck in the Grand Canyon under a hot sun not being able to move.
31-40 miles – on to Phantom Ranch. The trail flattened out and by this point the sun was baking the valley floor to over 90 degrees. I was struggling. I was tired. Not even bonking but just tired. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to find some shade and take a nap. I figured that wasn’t the best idea in the world and so I kept moving, albeit at a slow pace. I did find a shady little alcove beneath this massive jutting rock and sat down for two minutes. A couple of runners from Colorado passed me as I was sitting here and I wondered how long it would take me to finish if I couldn’t run again.
I felt slightly rejuvenated after this break and when I got on the trail I started running again and even managed to get to sub 12 minute miles, which for me at this point in a long run is great. I would eventually even pass the two Colorado runners again. That’s what I love about ultras, that one minute you can feel so tired and done and the next minute somehow finding some new energy to get you going again. I ran with the goal of reaching the narrow canyon as I knew that would be a reprieve from the glaring sun.
I stopped at a stream and soaked my head in cold water. Two minutes later my hair was bone dry. The sun was not messing around today. I reached the narrow canyon and let out a big ‘wooooo!’ as I knew I would be shaded for a couple of miles.
I met a woman headed in the other direction with an entire mountain bike strapped to her back. I asked her where she was headed with it and she replied she was headed to the North Rim. I told her she was crazy. She smiled and said ‘Thank you, sir.’ So polite too.
Phantom Ranch has a canteen and I had brought $50 along to treat myself to some goodies if I decided to. As I reached Phantom Ranch I saw a few runners enjoying ice cold lemonade, the condensation on the clear plastic cup a sure sign that the beverage was ice cold. I was too late. I had arrived at 4:10 p.m. and the canteen had closed at 4. I was mildly crushed but that became my new mission: to get some lemonade.
40-49 miles – Bright Angel trail up to South Rim. I didn’t hang out too long at Phantom Ranch before starting up again. The remainder of the run was 9+ miles with about 5,000 feet of climbing. I still had a ways to go. I ran out of Phantom Ranch but by this point running was little more than walking with some heavy arm swinging to try to generate some more forward momentum. Didn’t matter. I was moving forward.
I crossed a long bridge and reached the Bright Angel trail and started my ascent. It was a long, windy series of switchbacks. Lucky for me the sun had descended beneath the nearby peaks and the trail was shaded. I heard and saw no one and wouldn’t again until nearly the end. I ran the flats and hiked the climbs which were the majority of what was left. I thought of where I could get lemonade when I reached the top.
I had not expected to need it but given the late start we had in the morning and the fact that it was getting dark out, I reached in my bag for my headlamp. Before long it would be completely pitch black out and climbing would have been a real challenge without light. I pulled up my compression sleeves for added warmth as the temperature began to drop. What was interesting is that in some parts of the trail there would be these warm spots, like the warm air had been trapped there. A few steps later and it would be cold again. Maybe I was hallucinating.
I had stopped eating Gu as I was sure I would throw up if I tried to. I did keep hydrating and never stopped walking. All of a sudden out of nowhere a runner reaches and then passes me. He had been one of the lemonade drinkers. Sometimes it pays to be fast. Not being able to see the top of the canyon to see how much more elevation I had yet to go, I just kept going one foot in front of the other, hoping I would reach the top before I got too cold. The temperature really started dropping and I was wishing I had brought my wind jacket. Again, didn’t need it in the morning and didn’t think I’d be running this late.
Then as if angels were singing above, I heard voices from the trail just above me. I was confused. And then I saw a house. I turned the corner and lo and behold it was several members of our group who had run the rim to river earlier and were now patiently waiting for us slow pokes dragging our butts up the last climb. They were prepared with pizzas and Coke. I still couldn’t believe I was done but I was. Finally. The second endless climb had in fact, ended.
I walked with Sarah and Robyn to their car as the rest of the group waited for the remaining three runners. Mark and Dan had finished nearly an hour ahead of me, while Shyamal, Calvin and Yann were still enjoying life in the canyon. I began shivering in the car and Sarah literally gave me the jacket off her back. Thanks again Sarah!
Gettin’ my lemonade! – I was starving and I wanted some lemonade. Forget recovery shakes, protein, whatever else you’re supposed to have. Robyn drove us to the cafeteria that was thankfully still open for another hour. I must have looked like death because people kind of eyed me funny as I walked in with a sweat stained tshirt and chocolate Gu marks on my shorts. I was giddy, I was tired. I ordered a burrito and then filled up a large cup with ice cold Minute Maid lemonade. It more than hit the spot. We drove back to camp and I sat in the van, wrapped in my sleeping bag and eating my burrito and drinking my lemonade. I was happy. I was done.
Shyamal showed up within the hour. He had returned on the S. Kaibab trail and then run to our camp. He was so nonchalant about the whole thing you’d think he had just run a 5 mile easy run. But Calvin and Yann were still nowhere to be found. Around 11 p.m. a couple of folks went to contact the park rangers to let them know we still had two people in the canyon. Meanwhile, Amy, Tom and myself threw a couple of sleeping bags, and some food and water in the van and drove out to the trailhead to wait for them. As we were driving we saw two people stumbling on the side of the road. There was no doubt who these were. We threw the doors open and Calvin and Yann jumped in (more like crawled in). Mission accomplished. What an adventure.
Conclusion – the real conclusion here is don’t believe anything you tell yourself at the end of a run. While I was doing the endless climb up Bright Angel at the end I told myself I never needed to do this again. But now a couple of days later, all I think about is seeing the morning sun filling up the canyon, the amazing group of runners I ran with, running in the valley over rolling hills, speeding my way down the South and North rims. And I have to say I could definitely see myself doing it again. I would prepare for the heat and altitude more. I would start earlier. I would not eat Amy’s Chili for dinner the night before.
But I would still fly down the starting trail down to the Colorado river because that was just too much fun.