Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rim2Rim2Rim Recap

Writing this recap is mildly bittersweet. My original plan was to run from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the North Rim and then back again. Called the Rim2Rim2Rim, it is on the must-do list of many runners. However, I made the executive decision halfway through running that this would only be a Rim2Rim run. While I still know this was the right choice I wondered if it would leave just a little pang of, shall we call it, guilt. Yet, it wasn’t a race, there was nothing riding on it, and without a doubt I made the right choice. Sometimes you fail. That is what setting lofty goals can sometimes do to you.

What bothered me most about not having the day I was hoping for was how the conditions for crossing the canyon were just about as ideal as one could wish. I joined a group of seven other runners (one planning on doing a Rim2Rim, one joining us on the North Rim to do a Rim2Rim in the southerly direction and five others), most who had attempted or completed this run before. In fact, some were back on a revenge trip, so to speak, from a run last year when temperatures topped over 100 degrees in the bottom of the canyon. The predicted high for the bottom of the canyon for us was not even supposed to hit 80 degrees.

I had seen the Grand Canyon once before. Well, actually, as the long-running joke would go, I had never actually seen it. Thirteen years previously, on a cross-country trip, I made a 100 mile detour from the planned route to see the canyon. One cannot pass up an opportunity to see this marvel when they are so close, right? Well, foggy conditions basically made the canyon look like a 100 foot pit that ended in grayness. So on the day prior to our run, when sleet and rain and brutally chilly conditions surrounded us, we all decided to take a peek at the rim we would be descending the next day. What did I see? Basically a mixture of grey on beige with a smidgen of taupe thrown in with the canyon ending 100 feet below us in clouds and mist.
There is no Canyon. Only Zuul.

The Canyon is fake, I declared.

This trip was spearheaded by my friend Dean Schuster. We met virtually way back in 2007 when we were both contestants for an all-expenses paid trip to run a marathon on the North Pole. Literally, the Magnetic North Pole.  I ended up being the runner-up which might be the worst bridesmaid analogy in the world. Considering the chap who won the contest was friends with the organizers of the trip and while qualified to take on the challenge, his victory seemed ordained from the beginning, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Dean and I bonded over this simmering failure on both of our parts to explore the most amazing of places. 

We later serendipitously met at a variety of races from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to North Carolina to Oregon. When I saw he was planning a return trip to the Canyon, I asked to join. Running an adventure like this with someone who I knew was a fastidious planner was something ideal for me, someone who really enjoys running a long way if someone else is planning it. Well, that’s not really true. I have planned out many an adventure. But sometimes I leave little details out. Like triple-checking if you can take a rental car across the Costa Rica border so you can run across the Panama Canal. Nevertheless, joining a group of runners with experiencing crossing the canyon was rather enticing.

In order to beat any potential heat that would possibly occur, we were going to begin our run at 3:59:59 a.m. If you know anything about me, you may know that hour of the day is not too long after I have usually gone to bed. I am, without a doubt, built to function in the evenings and nights. I am not a morning person. Five years of doing a paper route six days a week in high school where I was up at 5 a.m. did absolutely nothing to change the circadian rhythms of my body. It is what I am. When I was told we were getting up at 2:30 a.m. to get ready and make the relatively short drive from the hotel to the canyon, I was less than pleased. More so than just a preference, I absolutely believe this inability to function so early is something which has hindered me in a variety of adventures I have undertaken. That said, I was in bed, with the lights out, at 9 p.m. the night before. This was a rather herculean task on par with actually running the Rims. I did what I could to be ready to take on the canyon.

Most of the logistics of the run we were undertaking I could not have provided to you beforehand.  It was not that I did not have Dean’s luxurious dossier to look at to do so. Rather, I was trying to remain as blissfully ignorant as possible. This ignorance in no way led to me not being able to complete the run. In fact, I was about as prepared as I could hope to be. I had run the Salt Flats 50 miler race just three weeks prior to get some miles under my belt in preparation for this journey (and more importantly, time on my feet).  I felt quite ready even if until 48 hours prior I could not have told you which trail we were taking, which direction we were running, or what the route looked like. I can now, however, and plan on doing so in great detail.

South Rim to Indian Garden Campground: (5 miles in 1:02)

Starting 37 seconds late (seriously, we were teasing Dean already about this) seven guys headed down the pathways into darkness. While the order and packing of us runners would change throughout the day, we would essentially be broken into two groups: Dean, Kenneth, Drew and myself were in the first pack with Big Jeff, Little Jeff and Jim in a trailing pack not too far behind. What made this trip so appealing to me was what can be a logistical nightmare for others. Kenneth’s wife (Brooke) and his parents were going to meet us on the North Rim. Brooke was going to run back with Kenneth while his parents were going to provide the rest of us with support and any of the food and clothing we had left in their vehicle. This was no small feat or task as Kenneth’s parents dropped them off at the South Rim and then drove to the North many miles away (How Far? I will get to that later.)  The support and potentially "out" for those who weren’t having the day they hoped for was unbelievably appreciated. (This is what we in the writing business call “foreshadowing.”)

I would be remiss to not mention that I was the outsider amongst this rather tight-knit group of southerners
hailing from Columbia, South Carolina. Dean was originally from Connecticut and Little Jim from Upstate New York but they were all good friends in the Palmetto State. I was lucky to be included in their ranks and was happy, for the most part, to follow-along (except when it came to dinner. I just want food, damn it and now.) This made the fact that about five minutes into the run our making a wrong  turn that much more funny. It is fairly hard to make a wrong turn on the trails in the Grand Canyon but somehow we skipped off the path and onto some rocky outcropping. Only when the “Hey, wait a minute.  This is nothing at all like last year!” light went off in some of their heads did we backtrack. I told them I was counting this extra .25 of a mile on my entry into Strava. (I was, of course kidding.  Not about counting the mileage but about entering it into Strava. I have an account there and have about 200 friends but have never entered a workout.  Why anyone is following me is beyond me.)

The previous days rain had dampened the trail and laid waste to any dust which may have been kicking up.  With the temperature barely 40 degrees we were all beyond pleased with how the day was starting. Nevertheless, I was already sweating (natch.) In addition, barely two miles into the run I had already stopped to pee three times. I tried to use this as a reminder that I was going to need to hydrate but I was a little worried. I have had similar experiences in ultras where the same set of circumstances has occurred (not thirsty and evacuating liquids constantly) and I knew it was not a good sign. I knew I could only take in so much liquid before it would slosh in my stomach. So, in order to combat this, I have to remember to sip small amounts but do so constantly.

We spent the first hour of the run galloping down the multiple switchbacks, dodging a puddle here and there. This was a quick descent with a lot of elevation lost in a short period of time. The trail often had logs underfoot, as these trails do, to provide stability and footing. On a descent like this, however, they force a runner to take choppy steps and this can add a little more pounding to the quads. Quads which you are definitely going to be using often.

The sun quickly began to brighten the darkness and 45 minutes unto the run most of the guys had turned off their headlamps. I, not being as sure of my footing or the terrain, kept mine on.  At one point, I somehow found myself at the front of the conga line and pranced down the steps. Finding myself a little ahead of the group, I would stop here and there and let the spring recoil. I too eventually turned off my headlamp and the growing day revealed to me what I said didn’t exist: the canyon.

Superlatives are thrown around today like a rapper’s dollars at a strip club. But please believe me when I say this was absolutely breathtaking. More so because of the fact that I had never actually seen the canyon until I was here, deep down inside of her and enveloped in the splendid awe-inspiring wonder that was the crevasse. We had watched a relatively hokey IMAX movie about the Canyon the night before and made fun of the line about “fading into insignificance” delivered by Prospector Joe (or whatever the hell the one-armed narrator of the video was called) but it was certainly true. Dean, who will and does, talk to anyone, kept prodding me for a reaction.  My silence was half sleep-induced, half dumbstruck.

We sauntered into the first place to refills our water and packs. It was barely 50 degrees. The previous year it had been 20 degrees warmer at this point. Granted it had been nearly 45 minutes later (they had gotten a later start) but I was counting my blessings. That said, it took us an hour to go just 5 miles. That was longer than I expected but it was dark, we made a wrong turn, we took quick breaks for pictures or regroupings. I made the mental note that nothing was going to come easy on this day.

To Colorado River and Phantom Ranch (9.9 miles in 2:24)

When we began, I knew Phantom Ranch was the somewhat halfway point of the run one-way.  At just about 10 miles, you had already crossed the Colorado River and skedaddled up the trail a piece beginning your ascent. But it was a good place to call halfway nonetheless. I had figured in my head we would get there around 100 minutes after we started, give our take. I could not see that was a misunderestimation even if we had not stopped to take a variety of pictures. The pictures, however, were a necessity. The problem with trail running is, for the most part, the vistas and view trail runners like to say is the reason this running is the “best”, cannot be actually enjoyed while you are running. If you pay too much attention to your surroundings and not to your feet, you are bound to leave the latter and become part of the former. So, stopping to take pictures and simply be laid silent by your surroundings was a must. If it added some time to what I expected, so be it.

As we scampered deeper into the canyon, the sun began to fully illuminate all in front of us. However, because we were now close to the bottom, none of the sun was hitting us directly. It was truly the best of both worlds. Following Big Jeff and Drew, I scampered down the trail with Dean using his Go-Pro behind me. I was still waking up, still in deference to those who knew the way, and running in silence. The footing was impeccable, even in the slightly technical regions, regardless of the fact we had to occasionally dodge some burro droppings here or there. In the distance, echoing through the canyon walls I could hear the great cleaver of this canyon. The Colorado River, ravaged by the drought in this area, was still mighty and forceful. Long before I could see it I could hear it.  The anticipation was fantastic.

Turning one last corner in one last nook of the canyon and the muddy river lay ahead of us. The previous
year the river had been green and clear but with the previous days rain and slow, it was churning and sooty. I could have sat for hours watching it take away the earth chip by chip. But after a few pictures we were on our way.  In the distance we could see the narrow suspension bridge crossing the river. I had seen many pictures of this bridge but now I was finally going to cross it myself.  A surprise series of rolling hills here had us making our way to the bridge. I was hoping we would make it there under two hours (for no reason other than to say we had) but it took us about 2:05. Narrower than I thought, we waited a bit while hikers coming the other way filed across it in single file.  I am not quite sure why the designers would not have made the bridge just a little wider to avoid such congestion, but I guess I should be happy we had a bridge at all.

Once on the other side, we met a few more hikers and our first wildlife of the day. Deer, completely unmoved at our presence nibbled on barely budding bushes.What sustenance they could possibly get from these was beyond me. Then again, lots of people eat kale so who is the dumb animal here? *Rimshot* We chatted with a few people who were impressed we had made it this far this quickly and then trotted off.  Not long after we hit a bathroom and I, now at least mostly awake, had innards that followed suit. I needed to take five.

We filled our packs again, even though I hadn’t taken a sip from my Camelbak marathoner pack and had probably only drank one full bottle of my handheld (a bad sign). I nibbled on some Shurky Jurky I had stowed away in my pack but felt neither hungry nor thirsty.  I took a couple of sips of ASEA and headed out after the guys, this time pulling up the caboose.

Our contingency soon found ourselves in Phantom Ranch where many were camping, getting ready for their hike to either side of whatever rim they were going to go or just milling around. We spent just a few seconds getting some group shots and then we took off. With a time of 2:24 minutes to get here, I re-evaluated how long it might take to do the whole run. I thought when we began I could run it in 10 hours.  I figured that 11 was probably more likely.

To Cottonwood (16.6 miles in 4:19:20)

I expected a much more abrupt uphill climb then this next section provided. We were beginning to pass hikers and other runners here and while I know we were going uphill, it felt good. Kenneth had now taken the lead and as he was expected to be the strongest runner, I thought I would stay with him for a bit. An untied shoelace from him, however, had me jumping in front. I led for a mile or so, not realizing I was putting distance between myself and the others. The last thing I wanted to do was have yet another long solo run in the wilderness, as I have on many occasions in actual races. So, I pulled over to the side. As Dean, Drew and Kenneth caught up, I fell to the middle of the pack. Beside a glimpse here and there, this would be the last I would see of the Jeffs and Jim until the North Rim.

Dean and I began to run together and Drew and Kenneth pulled ahead. I expected this section alongside Bright Angel Creek to have far more uphill than it did. However, it was extremely runnable not only because of impeccable footing underneath but cool temperatures. Helping keep the temperatures low was the fact that there an intermittent cloud cover always seemed to pop up whenever we may possibly be heading into the sun. To state how unequivocally perfect this weather was for this time of year would not be using hyperbole. Unfortunately, I was beginning to feel that today might not be my day to take advantage of it.

My stomach did not feel quite right here and that uneasiness was seeping into my head.  I began to think about how I didn’t really want to be out here for another six hours with a belly not feeling that great. I cannot say for certain that I did not feel wonderful because of the ridiculously early starting time (a necessity, don’t get me wrong) but there is no way it helped my situation. Here I was mostly chatting with Dean and getting immense personal satisfaction out of not only experiencing this amazing canyon but by hearing how happy Dean was that the weather was not like it was the previous year.  Dean had been forced to call it quits halfway across last year and one could tell it was going to take much more than just being a bit tired to stop him today.

As we trudged forward, we could see Drew coming back into our sights. Kenneth, however, we would not see until much later. Us three Ds would spend the remainder of the trip up the North Rim in somewhat tight-knit fashion with all three of us leading the pack at various points. We were a good team, feeding off of each other’s energy and when one person felt good, surging ahead to set the pace. At Cottonwood we rested, filled our packs and chatted with other runners. I sat at a picnic table and wondered where my day was going to end.

To Roaring Springs and the North Rim

I am combining the next two sections for a couple of reasons. The last four miles or so are barely worth
recapping, at least from any sort of running perspective. Except for a few short occasions when the trail flattened or I have an inexplicable burst of energy, this was nothing but a hike. From Cottonwood to the trial head the trail climbed over 4200 feet in less than 7 miles. Not only that, that 4200 feet of climb started at 4000 feet above sea level to begin with. In addition, somewhere in here my left quad really began to cramp. It wasn’t an injury. It wasn’t the end of the world.  But with tons of climbing to go even after we finished the loop, I was pretty sure it was the end of my day.

My stomach had settled from earlier and that gave me pause as to calling it quits after just a Rim2Rim.  But I knew the last thing I wanted to do was get started again, get down into the canyon and have a leg which was not functioning. I had thoroughly enjoyed the trip, with unbelievable visages. Good camaraderie and a general all-around good feeling. I had nothing to prove to anyone with regards to making the complete return trip. Perhaps some miracle would make everything feel great near the end but barring that, I was done.
The final few miles sealed the deal for me. Much more narrow and treacherous than the South Rim’s trail, the last thing I needed to do was worrying about cramping up as I (hopefully) traversed this downhill portion on the way back. My final hurrah or attempt at making it all work was as I approached the Supai Tunnel which according to varying reports is ~1.5 miles from the top. A park ranger asked me how I was doing and I asked him how far left I had to go.  He told me about a mile and a half and then added the dagger: “It is only about 1600 more feet of vertical change to get to the top.”  You might have been able to knock me over with a feather. 

So I pulled over to the side and waited. I could hear Dean and Drew below me chatting away. It wasn’t too long before they conquered the switchbacks betwixt us and we started once again to head to the top as a group. While not hot, the temperature was indeed warm.  However, it would not be long before that would change. Whether there was simply a different weather pattern we were hiking into or the elevation topping out at nearly 8,300 feet but regardless the temperature plummeted. Our feet occasionally hit snow. The dirt trail underfoot became increasingly muddy and chopped with flecks of ice and snow.  Hikes coming back down toward us, including Kenneth and his wife Brooke, who would be doing a Rim2Rim on the “easier” portion, were all dressed far more warmly than I.  It was not that I wanted warmer clothing. At this point I was still sweating buckets. I realized since the peeing extravaganza at the beginning of the run, I hadn’t had the need to go once. That wasn’t good.

Knowing that I was going to be cutting this trip short by one “2Rim”, I did my best to balance a bit of disappointment with the gorgeous views around me. Sure I wanted to make the trip back but for what? Pride? To impress people? I came to the realization it was none of those things but only rather because I said that was what I was going to do. I like to do what I say I am going to do. I take great pride in the fact that people can trust me at my word. In fact, later, when I was sitting in our vehicle at the North Rim, waiting for the others to come in before Kenneth’s parents would start the long drive back to the South Rim, I waffled on my decision to stop about eleventy-billion times. I knew then, like I have come to accept now, it was the right decision to stop. Sure, I would have loved to make it back under my own power. The weather was ideal, I was here already, so why not go back? Well, because it wasn’t my day to go back.  Or at least it wasn’t my day to go back and enjoy much of it at all.

Instead, I turned into a good teammate. Little Jeff, who had originally planned to run Rim2Rim and myself joined the Ebeners on the drive back to the start. The Rim2Rim run is roughly 23 miles or so. As the crow flies it is 12 miles. Via car? 215. On that trip back Little Jeff and I talked about our adventures along the trail and it was extremely neat to see how we had experienced such different things even being so close together. Taking the ridiculously long trek back via car allowed us to see some wonderful visages we would have otherwise missed. I began to regret my decision less and less.

Getting back, I was happy some of us would be in good shape to welcome the others. Jeff and I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail about a mile or so to see if we could find Drew and Dean. They had passed Brooke and Kenneth around the halfway point. Big Jeff and Jim, however, decided at the Colorado River to take the shorter but steeper route up the South Kaibab Trail. When we finally saw the two Ds, we could tell Dean was not in a good place. Drew, however, was a rock star. I can’t imagine how tired he was but you could tell he had been lending support to Dean along the way. I know I am not a good crew member. I am not the best at knowing exactly what to say when a runner is tired. I am usually the one on the receiving ends of both. So I did what I could to help the guys up the cliff face.

Finally, as they approached the top, I scampered ahead to grab a quick finish line photo. Seeing exhaustion go to delight on their faces was one of the best parts of the trip for me. I did not get to see the others finish as I turned into Dane’s Taxiing service for the rest of the evening but Little Jeff and I were the first ones who did get to see Jim and Big Jeff after they finished their own trek. It felt it was pretty ballsy for them to take on the unknown after such a long day. Nevertheless, they looked like they were simply tired.  Not exhausted and not destroyed as I am sure I would have looked. It was quite awe-inspiring.

Dinner was scattered amongst the group that night and it wasn’t really until the next morning that we reconvened. Taking in the North Rim with all of my new teammates and friends was fantastic to say the least. We made our way back to Phoenix via Sedona and enjoyed some lunch and more conversation there.

Later that evening and even today I wondered if I would ever come back. I am sure it will happen at some point, maybe even sooner than I expect. However,  I do not feel the draw like I thought I would. I did not leave something uncompleted.  Rather, I changed my desire and am happy with that decision. My quads are a little sore and I have a few cuts from some sawtooth cactus but other than that I am no worse for the wear.  However, after 13 long years, I finally got to see the damn Grand Canyon. 

Not sure how I will top that.


Alicia Schanhofer said...

Amazing recap - well written and even with 4500+ words, surprisingly concise. The pictures sealed the deal...adding the #Rim2Rim to my "must do" running/adventure list!

Jon Nicholson said...

Great adventure, buddy! Thanks for sharing.