"It never gets easier, you just go faster." - Greg Lemond

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Canyon Crossing - A R2R2R Run

"We're you serious about joining you guys for the R2R2R?"

"Well yeah!"

That's about all that was required to convince me to join Ryan, Liz, Justin, and Tiffany in an incredible adventure. 

It all started with a job interview in Denver (which went well), and I originally planned to just fly in and fly out.  Which seemed like such an incredible waste, but without a solid plan I figured it would be the best idea.  Then R2R2R came knockin'.  

I met Ryan at a Ice Age in 2011, and hadn't seen him since.  But luckily social media has allowed us to stay updated on each other adventures.  I met Liz through mutual friends after a race in 2012, and hadn't seen her since then.  Again, thanks facebook for letting us stay in touch.

I'll spare you the technical or fortuitous details of coordinating rides, but Thursday night we were on the road from Boulder to the Grand Canyon, for what is an iconic bucket list run for ultrarunners and a great  way to log some training miles.

Quick stop in Moab, UT

After a quick stop in Moab (awesome place btw), we were Canyon Bound.  Along the way we received emphatic direction that we should stop at Goosenecks State Park for a quick picture, and we obliged.
My "artsy" Goosenecks photo
Interestingly, driving up to the rim of the Canyon almost felt like driving up into the mountains.  Prior to gaining a gob of elevation we were driving along at between 4000-5000 feet above sea level.  Then we headed up, up, up, and were finally at 7000 feet and the Canyon rim.

A quick tourist style stop for a photo and then a pizza pub for beer and pizza, two essentials for any successful Canyon crossing.  We all quickly set up tents and fell asleep, determined to get as much sleep as possible before our 3:30am wakeup.

Breakfast of champions

Breakfast for me was a slice of cheese pizza, a redbull and a couple handfulls of raisins.  The previous night I had filled my pack with gels, shotbloks, stinger waffles, and energy bars.  I was aiming for 200 calories an hour over the course of 12 hours.  I figured with Phantom Ranch along the way I could buy any extra food that might strike my fancy at that particular moment.

Before I knew it, we were parking at the parking area that the shuttle services at South Kaibob.  You can try to drive into the actual trailhead parking lot, but that seems to be discouraged by the park and truely requires a back-country permit.  I think with the growing popularity of R2R2R, we as runners need to be careful to respect park rules and the extra little jog was a nice warmup before bombing down 7 miles of downhill with 5000 feet of descent.

ready for action
 It was incredibly windy running down South Kaibob, the gusts threatened to blow my hat off my head and whipped dust past my face and into my eyes.  I was dressed for cold weather, but it warmed up so fast that I felt a little silly for having arm warmers on under my windbreaker.  Oh well, it never hurts to be prepared.  Layers were quickly shed and the descent continued.

Dust flying through the air (Photo Liz Sassemon)
Flying downhill (Photo Liz Sassemon)
The descent continues (Photo Liz Sassemon).

Down.  Down.  Down.  A mile down.  And then through a small tunnel and onto a suspension bridge over the Colorado River.  We stopped and smiled.  This is unbelievable.  The first descent felt surreal, like a dream.  Running through the dark, buffeted by wind, only slightly able to take in the magnitude of our task.

Soon we were at the turn off for Bright Angel trail and our first water stop.  I drained my pack and thought I filled it back up.  Turns out the extra stuff I had stuffed into the pack resulted in the bladder being compressed and I only filled my pack half-way.  Rookie move, bad Toe.  

Passing phantom ranch its essential a long (13.4 mile) grind up to the North Rim.  The first 7ish miles are very mellow and entirely run-able.  I'd say the incline varied between 1-6% for the most part and we just cruised it out, saying hi to the gob of runners we passed.  Most appeared to be running from the North Rim to the South Rim on a one-way crossing.  Hmmm, what a nice distance...

My half-full pack only lasted the first 4-5 miles up this stretch as it was relatively exposed and we were running mostly uphill.

The gradual run up into Bright Angel Canyon

Meandering single track
As we worked our way through Bright Angel Canyon, I was delighted to find a water stop at Cottonwood Campground. Since I'd be running with a dry pack for a while, I drained almost an entire bladder and refilled before leaving.  We then continued the run into Bright Angel canyon along the creek and towards the North Rim.  Ryan set a nice pace on the climbs and I told my Michigan legs to shut up and followed.  There were some spectacular views as the trail decided to become sincerely steep and we gained elevation at a more rapid rate.  
Can you see the trail along the Canyon wall behind me?

Getting high

North Rim
There were points on this run up the North Rim where I felt as if the switch backs would go on forever.  And they did.  I also think I over-fueled briefly on this ascent as I alternated between feeling really strong, and feeling like I was going to barf.  I gave myself a good 30-40 minutes with no calories and just a bit of water and the feeling subsided.  But then we were at the top.  Sitting at 8000 feet, the North Rim is almost 1000 feet higher than the South Rim, and has an entirely different feel.  While the South Rim is a tourist hell-hole complete with massive parking lots, a general store, and a post office, the North Rim only has a small lodge, a mule ranch, and a parking lot with rustic bathrooms.  Furthermore, while the South Rim has a distinctly desert feel; the shubbery was replaced by tall trees and a cool breeze on the North.  

Ryan and I sat and waited for the rest of our crew and chatted with the numerous other runners who were doing various trips.  In the awesome generous spirit of ultrarunning/trailrunning, we were offered Ice Cold Pepsi and potato straws by Grandpa Jim, who was a Canyon regular.  We said "hi" to David Goggins who was just out for a training run, then sat back in the shade and enjoyed our pops and pizza.  Yes, that's correct, I hauled two slices of cheese pizza across the Grand Canyon to eat for lunch.  Entirely worth it, although it may not have looked super appetizing.

Justin's pocket pizza (photo Justin Hellwinkel)
North Rim chillin (Photo Liz Sassemon)

We were just hanging out when we noticed a large mule train starting towards to trail from the stables.  We gave each other a quick nod, grabbed our gear, and took off.  No one wanted to get behind the mules or deal with any extra mule poop or urine than was necessary.
The rim that is right center in the far distance is where we came from and headed back to

Could the scenery be any cooler? 

Somewhere on the run down from the North Rim I realized that this was the last major descent and I wouldn't need my quads after it was over.  I decided to let go and bomb away.  Joyously soft trails and few water steps allowed for a fast descent down the steep part of the Canyon, then the gradual decline of Bright Angel canyon let me throw down some 6:40's.  I did notice it was getting hot, but continued to run with the throttle open.   A lot of hikers gave me a smile and laughed at how much fun I was having running downhill, which was only more encouragement to run hard.

Nearing Phantom Ranch, I realized I hadn't peed in a while and my shoes were full of sand.  After a slight...  detour, I found the Ranch and stopped to take my socks and shoes off to get all the sand out.  An amazing round of leg cramps ensued in which it became very difficult to get my socks and shoes back on.  Very gingerly I put my shoes back on, about the time when Ryan caught up, and we grabbed a lemonade and a snack at Phantom Ranch before the final climb of the day. 

On the way to Indian Garden

Bright Angel trail meanders up through a variety of terrain, the first half which is called "The Devils Corkscrew" or "Angels Elevator" depending on who you talk to.  This was perhaps one of the more exposed sections, but as we reached Indian Garden, the sun snuck behind a canyon wall and it was no longer quite so hot.  After a few jokes about sending mules down to rescue us, we refilled our water and jogged out of Indian Garden and onto the steeper section of Bright Angel.  There isn't much to say about this section, except that it was nice to have frequent water spigots, and we just got our grind on.  A few false summits and about 50 switchbacks later we were at the top of the South Rim again, looking out over the Canyon and slightly amazed with how far we had just run.  


Quite a few switchbacks required to get up from below
Climbing back up Bright Angel was quite interesting in the late-afternoon.  Exhausted hikers and R2R'ers littered the trail, and the pow-hike easily cruised past them.  Sometimes they only begrudgingly gave us room to pass.  Part of my addled brain wondered if they had any idea what we had gone through that day, but the other part realized this was an extreme physical challenge for these people and I should just give them a nod and keep moving.

The Top.  Finally back at the Top of the South Rim.  Ryan and I gave each other a high five, and that was it.  We were done.

R2R2R is quite an experience.  I enjoy a good testing, and this certainly tested my shit.  Its a unique run as it has all the vertical packed into two climbs and two descents, they seemed like they went on forever.  Very pleased with the way my Michigan legs handled all the climbing and descending.  My GPS watch seems to have deleted the file (of course that happened) but I had around 48.5 miles total, including the run from the car to the trailhead.  I suspect it overestimated a little, but still a very respectable number. Ryan's altimeter said 10,600 feet of climbing, which I entirely believe.

If I was going to give pointers for running R2R2R, they would be.  1)  The longest stretch without water is between cottonwood campground and phantom ranch, be cogniscent of this.  2)  Take enough fuel/food, its very important to keep eating calories as you are trying to climb out of the canyon towards the finish when you're tired.  3)  Salt caps help in the heat, I prefer S!caps, but use what you like.  4)  Leaving the South Rim via South Kaibob and returning via Bright Angel is nice, but make sure you have a way to get your car.  5)  Leaving early is smart, and you get to run a lot in the morning before people or heat slow you down.  6)  DO NOT EAT THE BUFFALO WINGS AT THE PIZZA PUB THE NIGHT BEFORE THE RUN.


I took about 25 gels with me, and prob donated 4-5 of them to others and had 5 left when I finished.  I also carried 5 honey stinger waffles (of which I ate 3), a clif bar, hammer bar, honey stinger bar, a slice of pizza, and three packs of Clif shot bloks.  I also took 5 S!caps during the run and had a lemonade, oreos, and pretzels while at Phantom Ranch.  All said, I prob had a little extra food with me, but that's just how I roll.

Petzel Myo headlamp, Recofit compression sleeves, Brooks LSD Lite jacket, S-lab 5 liter pack, sunglasses, hat, singlet, Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra shoes, a pair of Smartwool running socks, running shorts.  2Toms Sportshield kept me blister and chaffing free.

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