High in Colorado

High in Colorado
Photo: Mandy Lea Photo

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

October Monthly Totals

Miles -- 240 miles

Time -- 48h 34min
Elevation Gain -- 66,200 feet

Pretty amazing month of running especially when you consider that this was only my first month of running since moving to Boulder. The first week was more hiking intensive since I was still acclimating to the altitude. As the month progressed I began to run more-and-more and really started to notice an overall reduction in perceived effort during my runs. With the exception of my time in South America earlier this year, the total elevation gain I achieved each week in October exceeded the highest montly total elevation gain I've had year-to-date.

Of course, just as I was starting to really find my mountain running mojo I took a nasty fall out on the trails. During the Basic Boulder Mountain Marathon on the 29th I was making my way down Shadow Canyon, which is a particularly technical and steep section of trail, when I caught my Microspikes on a rock and proceeded to fall down a stone staircase...Fortunately another rock was there to break my fall. I ended up busting my left knee open pretty bad and caused some instantaneous swelling. It's now four days later and neither the swelling nor pain have subsided much. Perhaps it's time to go see a doctor?

September Monthly Totals

Miles -- 110 miles

Time -- 28h 04min
Elevation Gain -- 14,080 feet

Ran the Grand Canyon R2R2R over the first weekend of September, which yielded some horrendous blisters on the back of my heels. It took about a week for the blisters to heal enough for me to start running again. I also wasn't terribly stationary this month due to moving from Texas, spending a week in Chicago with a friend, spending a week at my parents in Missouri, and then moving to Boulder. All of this meant I only ran a total of 11 times during the month. The last week of the month was spent acclimitizing to the elevation in Boulder.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim

The Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim is (or damn well should be) on the “bucket list” of anyone who considers themselves a trail ultrarunner. It was definitely on mine. So, with no significant mountain running experience I decided to set out on a R2R2R attempt. Yes, I am an idiot. Here’s my account…

On Friday, I began my journey to the Grand Canyon with a flight out of Longview, TX at 11:20 AM. Upon arrival at the airport in Dallas, I ate a Cajun/seafood buffet at Papadeaux thinking this would be one of my last big meals before my R2R2R. I was upgraded to first class on my flight to Phoenix, which was great because it meant I got extra leg room, a few free beers, and another meal. I finished the in-flight meal at about 12:30 PM (Arizona time) and it would be my last taste of “real” food for about 2 ¼ days. 

After getting to Phoenix I picked up my rental car, a brand-new Ford Explorer, which took at least 15 minutes to figure out how to work. I’m fairly confident it requires a PhD to drive that goddamned thing. Whoever invented the Sync system can go f*ck themself…The drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff was stressful to say the least. Every dipshit and dumbass with a camper or RV was on the road and flocking north towards the Grand Canyon I’m presuming because I’m not sure what the hell else is out there. So with a 75-MPH speed limit I progressed on to Flagstaff at a slow and steady 40-MPH for most of the drive.

I eventually made it to Flagstaff where I stopped for gas and water/Gatorade for the Grand Canyon. The drive from there to the canyon was only about 1 ½ hours and seemed to go by pretty quick. When I got to the south entrance I drove in without having to pay the $25 entrance fee (jackpot!) and proceeded to get lost in the clusterf*ck that is the Grand Canyon Village while looking for my campground. After about 20 minutes of looking for a sign that said “Mather Campground” I conceded defeat and stopped at the Bright Angel Lodge for directions. 

At about 9:30 PM I finally arrived at my campsite. I decided to go ahead and prepare my gear for the R2R2R in the morning since I had every intention of starting at 2 AM. I finished prep work around 10 PM and decided I better get some sleep. I folded the back seats down for my bed and slept with an inflatable pillow and the blanket I stole from the first class cabin on my flight to Phoenix. I think I finally drifted off to sleep around 11 PM or so. 

At 1 AM I was wide-eyed-awake and unable to fall back asleep. I went out for a piss and realized that it was freezing cold outside (probably about 40 degrees). I decided to push my start time back a little since I was used to the 100+ degree hell-on-earth weather that Texas had been experiencing all summer long. I tried to fall back asleep, but it just wasn’t happening…Around 4 AM I finally left the campsite and drove to the Bright Angel trailhead parking lot where I wasted another 45 minutes pondering what I was getting ready to do.

I made the decision to follow the Bright Angel trail down the South Rim. It was about 5 miles longer than taking the South Kaibab trail, but there were several water stops along the way and much more people. I figured since I was doing the R2R2R solo and without a Camelbak that I should play it safe and go on Bright Angel. 

At about 4:45 AM I decided it was time to take off. Initially, my gear included a pair of shoes, a pair of short running shorts with pockets in the back, two water bottles, a camera, a headlamp, a flashlight, a fanny pack, electrolyte caps, and about 3,000+ calories of gels, bars, chews, etc.. After only a minute of running down the trail I quickly realized that the fanny pack would drive me crazy if I had to wear it for 47 miles. So I returned back to the car and lost the pack, which meant I had to significantly reduce the amount of gear I could carry with me. Now, I was getting ready to venture off for 47 miles of running in the Grand Canyon with only the following: shoes, shorts, two water bottles, a headlamp,  a camera, electrolyte caps, and about 1,500 calories of gels…Looking back that probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve done in my life, but oh well, I’m still here.

Bright Angel Trailhead
It was now 5 AM and I headed down the Bright Angel trail to begin my 47 mile journey that included about 12,000ish vertical feet of ascent. I had spent a significant amount of time analyzing the elevation profile of the run and developing a pace chart that I felt was more than do-able based on the limited mountain running/hiking experience I had. That pace went to crap very soon…I had reached the first water station at 1.5 miles into the run and was already 10 minutes behind pace. I severely underestimated how timid I would be running on unknown trails with potentially deadly drop-offs under the dim lighting of my cheap-ass headlamp. I was amazed at how quickly the temperature was rising as I descended down into the canyon.

By the time I got to the second water station at 3 miles I was already about 25 minutes behind pace. That was the point where I decided to not look at the pace chart anymore and just enjoy my run and the scenery that the Grand Canyon presents. 

The Canyon Starting to Light Up
Eventually the sun would start to rise and bring out the amazing red color of the canyon walls. Of course, I got distracted by this and just as I was thinking “wow, look how pretty…” I tripped on a rock, fell, and busted open my knee. This was about 6 miles or so into the 47 mile run. After lying on the ground collecting my thoughts I finally decided to get my ass up and start running again. The next several miles were fairly smooth and uneventful, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Probably Close to Where I Fell
Another Great View Heading Down the South Rim
After a few hours of running I finally reached the Colorado River crossing at the bottom of the canyon. The river is impressive to say the least. I used this as an opportunity to catch my breath and snap a few photos. While crossing the bridge, which had chain-link fence on the sides, I cut my chest open a little when trying to make room for other crossers to pass by (it was a very narrow bridge). I wasn’t even a ¼ way done yet, but I was already bleeding from my knee and my chest. I didn’t really like the direction I saw this going…

Crossing the River at the Canyon Bottom
I refilled my water bottles at the Bright Angel campground not knowing that I was getting ready to go 7ish miles without another water stop. The section from Bright Angel campground to Cottonwood campground was pretty impressive, but at the same time it was some of the hottest section of trail on the entire run. I rationed my water perfectly on this section, which meant that I wasn’t drinking nearly as much as I should have. I finished the last drop right as I rolled into Cottonwood. The Cottonwood campground was a much welcomed site where I spent about 15 minutes downing water before refilling my bottles and taking off again towards the Pumphouse Residence. 

Heading Up the North Rim
It was only about a mile to the Pumphouse Residence, but by the time I got there my bottles were empty and I spent another 15 minutes or so downing water to try to catch up on my hydration. There was a ranger at the Pumphouse who assured me that the water was on at the Supai Tunnel station, which was about 5 miles away. I started towards Supai Tunnel with the intent of re-hydrating once I arrived and then making the last 2ish mile push to the North Tim. 

Nice Waterfall on the Way to Pumphouse Residence
The trail to the Supai Tunnel was pretty exposed to the relentless sun, which just seemed to beat the hell out of me. After some more careful water rationing I made it to Supai just as I emptied my bottles. I turned the water faucet on only to see a few drops come out and then nothing…Nothing! It was still another 2 miles to the North Rim with about 1,500 feet in elevation gain and I was going to have to do this with no water…Goddamn that park ranger! The way I figured was I had two choices: take it nice and easy to not deplete myself too much or just push it as hard as possible to get up to the rim and get some water ASAP.

I opted to push it as hard as possible. After about 30 minutes or so of hard hiking I came upon a couple sitting down for a break. I think they were convinced I was Jesus coming to get one (or both) of them. I told them I would spare them for some water and food. I figured that was a win-win situation. I started to ease on my pace a little and hiked with them for a while since they were good conversation and pretty awesome people. After a little more hiking they stopped for more water/food (they were each carrying backpacks they weighed about a ton) and I opted to keep pushing towards the rim. 

Coconino Overlook
After what seemed like an endless amount of hiking I finally reached the North Rim fully depleted, exhausted, and ready to quit. First item on the agenda was drinking water until I had to piss again, which I hadn’t done in at least 4 hours. I think I spent about 1-2 hours on the rim trying to accomplish this. When my friends from the hike up made it to the rim they began giving me all of the gels/bars they had. I ate a lot of the food and decided to pack the rest with me. 

Exhausted, Battered, and Bloodied at the Half-way Point on the North Rim
I finally decided to go back into the canyon to head towards the South Rim. For some reason I felt like I was getting ready to go run/hike to my death, but I went on anyways. The run back was miserably painful. When I reached the Cottonwood campground I talked to a few campers who I met earlier in the day. They were the last people I saw for 7 miles. 

The leg to Phantom Ranch from Cottonwood was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was exhausted after being on my feet all day with essentially no sleep the night before. I began having mild hallucinations, such as rocks appearing to be mountains lions and other crazy things. The only thing on my mind was how much I wanted to give up. This was rock bottom and was without a doubt the lowest feeling I’ve ever had while running. I decided to get some calories in me and proceeded to consume about 300-400 calories in a 5 minute span. Once the calories hit me I was able to run the entire length of The Box to Phantom Ranch without stopping. When it was all said and done, the 7 mile stretch from Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch took me about 3 hours to cover. I can almost run a marathon in that amount of time…

Upon arrival at Phantom, I ran into a group of hikers that I met earlier in the day. I spent at least an hour rehydrating and talking with them about whether to keep pushing to the rim or spend the night at Phantom since it was now pitch-black dark outside. Eventually I decided that I would push on. I headed out under the dim light of my Engergizer-brand headlamp and quickly realized that I didn’t recognize any of my surroundings. Earlier in the day I took a trail that went on the outskirts of Phantom versus the trail I was now on that went through Phantom. At this point I admitted defeat and returned to Phantom where I attempted to crash for the night. I was thoroughly exhausted, but I couldn’t fall asleep due to eating about 12 gels that each had about a full cup of coffee worth of caffeine in them…

Before attempting to sleep I took a quick shower to get the salt, blood, and dirt off. The shower was horrific since it magnified every blister, scrape, and cut I had on my body. At this point I knew the next day would be horrible. 

The next morning I woke up sore as hell. After eating a little breakfast of gels and leftover cake from someone’s dinner the night before I decided it was time to get going. Putting on my shoes brought tears to my eyes since the backs of my heals were destroyed from the previous days running/hiking. Once I got geared up I started off with a slow, miserable walk that eventually turned into a labor-intensive trot. I was finally able to progress into a moderate pace run, which I sustained all of the way to between the Indian Gardens campground and the 3-mile resthouse. From the 3-mile house to the South Rim I hiked the majority of the way with a few bursts of running on some of the less steep sections. 

Crossing the River to Head Back Up to the South Rim
Me and a Sign Warning People Not to Attempt Hiking from the Rim to the River and Back in One Day :)
Getting Closer to the South Rim. Look Hard at the Center to See the Trail I Ran Up.
The South Rim was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Not only because it marked the end of the run/hike, but also because the view from there is amazing to say the least. When I started my run the previous morning it was dark and I couldn’t see anything from the rim. When I finished it was bright and sunny…Just beautiful. I got some Gatorade out of my car and spent 30 minutes or so just sitting down at the rim in awe. 

View from the South Rim After Finishing the 47 Miles!
It took me about 18.5 hours over two days to do the R2R2R. Not even close to what I had hoped, but I finished the damn thing. This was the first time I’ve ever experienced complete exhaustion during a run. The most valuable lesson learned was that there are dramatic lows and euphoric highs when running long distances and both of those extremes can be experienced within minutes of each other. Do I regret not doing the entire R2R2R without stopping? Of course I do. However, I think it was important for my future in ultrarunning to get out there and get my first taste of how absolutely shitty running for hours on end with very limited food/water can make you feel. Now that I’ve experienced it first-hand I have an idea of what to expect on future runs and how to better prepare for it. 

My Feet Were Destroyed After the Run
Since my R2R2R I have relocated to Boulder, Colorado where I run in the mountains every day. My current plan is to get several months of solid, mountain running experience under my belt and then return to the Grand Canyon next April or May to run the R2R2R once more. Hopefully by then I will be able to easily run a sub-10 hour time. Only time will tell…