Thursday, November 19, 2009

Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim to Rim Run

After all the planning, and talk, and stories by the Grand Canyon double-cross veterans, it was actually happening. I was running down the steep switch backs of South Kaibab trail by the light of my headlamp in the frigid dark, two hours before dawn, laden with water and food for the day's run, stepping around rocks and donkey crap, wondering how many thousand feet was the drop-off just a misstep away...I was living a dream.

Jeff, Steve, Howard, Matt, Wayne

Dave, me, Jeff

I woke at 2:55 AM, after short and restless sleep in our room at the Maswik Lodge on the South Rim. Jeff and I, a couple of 53 year old runners about to do our first double-crossing, were sharing a room. The night before, I laid-out the clothes and gear I would need. I got dressed, filled my water bottles (one with water, the other with Perpeteum), loaded the pockets in my aquifer with four Clif Bars, a PowerBar, a couple of peanut butter and raisin sandwiches, and three ziplock bags Perpeteum. While Jeff and I were getting ready, our buddies Matt and Dave were doing the same in their room next door. At a little before 4:00, we got in the car, met up with some others from our group, and drove the couple of miles to the South Kaibab trail head.

The group included mostly runners from Cleveland Southeast Runners Club, with a few other friends, met at the trail head (elevation 7260 feet). We took a few minutes to use of the portable toilets, put on our backpack/aquifers, and adjust our headlamps, before we took our first steps on the trail at 4:08. It took less than a minute to realize I was missing the oxygen-rich air of my lowland home (elevation 650 feet.) Jeff, Matt, Dave, and I were planning to run roughly the same pace so we decided to stay together and let the others do whatever they wanted. What followed was two hours of downhill, quad-trashing switch-backs on narrow trails until we finally reached a short tunnel through the rock that led to the footbridge over the Colorado.

Jeff, me, Matt

Steve had gone out fast, distancing himself from the group early. By the time we reached the river, he was already out of sight. The trail flattened after the river, and about a mile later, we were at Phantom Ranch (elevation 2546 feet), our first stop and opportunity to get water.

Phantom Ranch

The ranch was still and dark when we arrived. A few campers who had spent the night there were just beginning to stir, preparing for their days hiking. We topped off our bottles and aquifers, took off some of our cold weather gear, and were off for Bright Angel canyon. It would be another 8 winding, rolling miles to the next opportunity for water at the pumphouse about a mile past the Cottonwood Campground, which was already closed for the season.

Our group of four became five as we picked-up Howard at the ranch. He had come down via Bright Angel trail, which meets with South Kaibab at Phantom Ranch. Within fifteen minutes of leaving the ranch, the sun was beginning to crest the walls of the canyon. We ran along the North Kaibab trail through Bright Angel Canyon. Before it was light enough to see Bright Angel Creek, we could hear the water rushing over the rocks. As the sun rose over the south rim, we were shown an eerie and beautiful, steep, rocky, winding canyon. Every bend revealed a new, stunning view. I nearly lost my footing several times, trying to take it all in while running. I learned to pick safer stretches of trail when I wanted to look around.

Bright Angel Creek

The stretch along the Kaibab trail north of the Colorado was the most pleasant part of the run. My legs were feeling OK (the effects of the hours of downhill would not be evident to me until we were on the way up the north rim.) The five of us keep a good pace was we ran the rolling hills through the rocky canyon.
North Kaibab, approaching the pumphouse

Somewhere along this stretch, Dave decided to back-off the pace. He had told us he was OK, and wanted us to keep our pace. We wouldn't see him again until we crossed paths on the way back.
We reached the abandoned Cottonwood campground, and about a mile later, the pumphouse where there was fresh water. We topped-off our containers. Depending on conditions and what pace we would be able to keep, we knew that it would be about four hours or more until we got back to this water. This also marked the gradual beginning of the ascent to the top of the north rim.

Roaring Springs Falls

The next few hour was a steady, not overly steep climb from the pumphouse to Roaring Springs waterfall, that cascades 100 feet down the canyon wall to the Bright Angel creek. From here, the climbs became more steep.

Kaibab Trail, north of Roaring Springs

Over the next three miles to Supai Tunnel, the trail rises from 5220 to 6800 feet. We ran what was reasonably 'runnable' and walked the steeper segments. The views in the part of the canyon were even more dramatic and spectacular. The trail hugs the canyon walls, following the tight bends and undulations, rising all the way. We made it through Supai, a short narrow tunnel cut through the cliff wall, and our pace was noticeably slowing. The elevation, hours of climbing, and weakened quads from the hours of steep downhill descent to start our day, were having a cumulative effect.

Cliff hugging portion of North Kaibab trail

The closer we got to the north rim, the more I was feeling the effects of the elevation. I was struggling to keep any kind of reasonable pace. I felt a slight headache, and my footing was less sure. A light snow began to fall, and the amazing views were so stunning that they kept me from dwelling on how I was suffering.

Clouds conceal the North Rim

Less than a mile from the rim, we stopped at Coconino Overlook to take some photos. I felt so drained, I just wanted to sit. I managed to rouse myself for the following photo. Thankfully, you cannot see just how bad I must have looked by this point in the run.

Me at Coconino Overlook

The remaining push to get to the rim took about all I had. My lightheadedness and the snow falling, made the scene ethereal.

Almost at the top

The trail suddenly opened to a snowy plateau. The North Rim. What a relief to reach this point. I checked my watch. 10:55 AM. Well ahead of schedule, which felt great. We were at the half-way point (technically not quite since we were going to take the longer Bright Angel trail back up the south rim.)

On the North Rim (the 'almost' halfway point)

The plan was to take a little break, eat and drink, then start down, but it was just too cold for that. I ate half of one of my peanut butter and raisin sandwich, then decided to wrap it up and head back down a few thousand feet where it would be warmer.

Despite my achy quads, the downhill was still much easier to handle than the uphill was, at these elevations. I started to feel better very soon. We kept a good pace until we reached Supai Tunnel again, then stopped to finish the lunch we had started on the rim. It was a little past that point that the trail crossed a footbridge, and provided us with a great photo opportunity.

Matt, Jeff, and me

Going back down the Kaibab trail heading south presented an entirely new set of dramatic views.

Looking south up Bright Angel Canyon

I felt reinvigorated by the downhill running, and increased oxygen levels as we descended. We passed some of other members of our group as they were heading up the north rim. First Mark G., then Dave K., then Connie G. and Jenn S. (Mark, Connie, and Jenn had started a couple of hours after us.) Mark took the following photo of Matt, Jeff, and I as we crossed paths.

Jeff, Matt, and me

We cruised into the pumphouse, refilled our water bottles and aquifers, and grabbed another bite of food, and were on our way. Not too much past that, we caught Steve. He ran with us for a while, and we kept a good pace, retracing our path through the rocky canyon approaching Phantom Ranch.

Steve, me, Jeff, Matt (Howard took this photo)

Eventually, Steve fell off the pace and we were back down to our foursome. We arrived at Phantom Ranch, around 3:00 PM, I think. I forgot to check my watch. This would turn out to be a longer than expected stop. We sat, ate, topped-off our water, and used the restrooms.

We took Bright Angel trail out of Phantom Ranch. The distance to the South Rim is approximately 9.2 miles. Within minutes of leaving Phantom Ranch, we crossed the footbridge across the Colorado.

Bright Angel Trail Bridge over the Colorado

Jeff and me

From there, the trail, though not particularly steep, is very sandy and soft, making it difficult to run. Mark G. caught us here and ran with us for a while.

Looking back north toward the Colorado on Bright Angel Trail

Eventually, the trail starts heading up the toward Indian Garden, which is almost exactly half way between Phantom Ranch and the South Rim. Once the footing was more solid, we started picking up the pace again. We were more than 11 hours into the run, and I was really feeling tired during the climbs. I developed a burning sensation in a tendon in my left leg, behind my knee. My quads were overworked and were asking, "'How much longer?" I knew I had hours to go, and I had to hold it all together.

Mark on Bright Angel Trail, heading toward the South Rim

The first objective was to get to Indian Garden. We could stop there to get water if necessary. The idea of a little break was enough to keep me moving. The sun was getting low, which added to my motivation to get out. I did not want to run in the dark any more than necessary.

The South Rim, from north of Indian Garden

Me and Jeff, mocking the warning sign.

As we approached Indian Garden, we cam across a sign warning against trying to go to the river and back in a single day. I believe our double-crossing was about four times that distance. We had to take a picture, but I am not sure if we were mocking the sign or it was mocking us. At Indian Gardens, we got a little water and moved on quickly. From this point forward, the uphill became more even difficult. Switch-back after switch-back, with my legs now very tired and aching,, and pain in my tendon stretching into my calf.

Switch-backs on Bright Angel Trail

We were loosing the light, so I took a minute to get my headlamp from my pack and put it on. The wind picked-up and the temperature dropped. There was no more fun in this run. Now, it was all work and pain. No more scenery watching. Just plodding along, slower and slower. Matt and Jeff were now a couple of switch-backs ahead. Finally, around halfway between Indian Garden and the top of the rim, the combination of exhaustion and elevation got to me. I bonked. I recognized the signs. I had no energy. I was not thinking clearly. I was wobbly and unsteady. I knew it was a dangerous to be in that condition on a trail where a fall could be fatal. I stopped, sat down, and assessed my situation. I decided I needed to eat. I took the rest of my Hammer gel, about 3 ounces. I drank some Perpeteum, about 6 ounces. I gave myself five minutes to regain my energy. Then I got up and continued.

Now it was a death march. Running was out of the question. I was walking, and not fast, up the eternal switch-backs. I estimated that I had about another mile and a half to the top. The tendon behind my knee in my left leg were extremely painful. I had one thought...keep moving. Eventually, I saw the lights of the hotel on the rim. They were distant, but it gave me encouragement. The wind and cold were cutting through me, but I knew I was close. I stayed focused on moving forward at the fastest pace I could. Then, I saw the sign pointing to the trail head. When I finally put my feet on the top of the rim, the rush of total relief was unbelievable.

I tried to figure out how to get back to our lodge, but I was disoriented. Having started at a different trail head, I was not sure of the way back now. I walked toward the lights which I knew were the El Tovar, found some people mulling around, and asked for help. They pointed me toward what they thought was the right direction, but after walking for about ten minutes, I realized I was going the wrong direction. I walked back, eventually spotted a few familiar landmarks, and found my way to the hotel.

More than a half-hour after reaching the rim, I finally found my room. I dropped my pack and water bottled, and climbed into the shower. I started with the water luke warm, and gradually increased it to steamy hot. I didn't come out until I brought my core temperature back up to normal. By then, Jeff who had been waiting for me at the top of the trail but somehow missed me, was back in the room. We went down to the cafeteria, met up with a few others from the group, got a meal and a beer or two, and reveled in the accomplishment.

Dave, Howard, Mike, me, Jeff (back), Mark (front), Matt, Jenn, Steve

Special thanks to Matt Shaheen for taking almost all of the photos.