Friday, June 7, 2013

Grand Challenge - North Rim

Ryan and I were ten minutes into our descent of the South Rim when we finally ran into Dave and Dane who were still making their way up. They had about 30 minutes to go before reaching the top.

The pair still looked pretty good considering they've just traversed 22 miles over tough terrain in desert heat, and still had to climb another 500+ ft over the last half mile.

I could, however, see a look of worry on their faces as we approached.

"The water is out. We're not going back."

That's all I remember hearing from Dane.

Apparently, the curious flow of water that we witnessed about 15 miles earlier was a busted man made pipe carrying water throughout the canyon floor to the different campsites, including Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood.

My initial reaction was to join Dave and Dane, and call it an end to the adventure. No hesitation whatsoever. I'd experienced enough and didn't want to leave a bad taste in mouth of the Grand Canyon.

I thought it was just too risky to cross back over the canyon during the hottest part of the day with only the water on our backs. For me, that was just a Camelbak, two water bottles, and another hand held bottle. Ryan had something similar. Still, this would never be enough without refills at the campsites.

Plus, I wasn't looking forward to the 5500 ft climb that awaited us 20 miles, and about 8 hours, away.

I looked over at Ryan and there was no hesitation in his reaction either, but he was in a different mindset. He was ready to continue on and take his chances with the water situation.

I didn't put up much of an argument, and decided to go with Ryan and find out how far we could make it under the given circumstances.

Dave and Dane wished us luck and continued on to their finish lines. I told them to expect us around 8 for dinner.

Ryan and I continued gingerly down the South Rim, passing people that we had seen a few hours earlier. Some of them even recognized us and were verbally surprised to see us going back towards the North Rim. Our responses were usually, "going to get the beer" and "gotta go get the car", but that got old after about the tenth person.

I was feeling pretty good considering that we were 7 hours and 25 miles into the run. No cramping, no bonking, no soreness. Again, the only nagging pains I had were in my toes, and only on the downhills where my forefeet were pushing against the inside of my sneakers full of sand.

You could say that we were feeling a little cocky too:

This feeling of euphoria was all too familiar. No matter how crappy you feel during an ultra, you always get a second, third, fourth wind after reaching a milestone. For us it was reaching the halfway mark at the top of the South Rim.

This is how I felt at the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler. I felt like crap on every single one of those 20 mile loops, but as I got closer to the finish of each loop, I felt better and better. And every time I headed back out it felt like it was my first loop, until my senses finally caught up to me after 60 miles, and we all know how that one turned out.

Ryan and I decided to ease up on the downhill running in order to save our legs for later. There was just too much descent, and my teeth were actually numb from the pounding. Like most long distance runs, the downhills are usually the most brutal part and come back to haunt you later on.

We got into Indian Gardens around 2PM and the water was still flowing normally here. This is probably the most populated rest spot on the route, since it's "only" about 4 miles from the South Rim, and a manageable out-and-back day hike for most people. Still, we saw plenty of people who were definitely out of their element and unprepared for the grueling return hike back up the South Rim, if that was their intention.

I clearly remembered seeing one couple where the female did not look like she wanted to be at the bottom of the canyon in these temps. The male friend was trying to put on a good face and just smiled at us as we hiked past. Ryan made a comment that probably rings true: the beauty of the canyon has probably been responsible for a few broken relationships that started out with good intentions.

By this point I was no longer taking pictures or admiring my surroundings. For the first time all day, it felt like business with two goals in mind: get to the North Rim before dark, and don't die out here.

We took turns in the lead trying to keep the pace at a reasonable clip. Like a good track workout, being out in front usually gives you an extra pep in your step. You gotta do your part to keep the train moving.

Even though the current temps were hovering around 90 degrees, I realized that I had given up all my compression gear at the South Rim in order to lighten the load. I was now worried that if we didn't get to the North Rim before dark that the temps would drop back down into the chilly 50's like the previous night.

But right now, darkness couldn't come soon enough.

The afternoon sun was absolutely relentless and there was hardly any shade once we bottomed out on the canyon floor.

You would think that a trail that meanders around the base of half-mile high canyon walls would provide some cover. Nope. Not when you're trapped in the "box".

The sunlight was spilling into every crevice of the canyon at this time of day. We were like ants roasting under a magnifying glass.

Our well paced run soon became a strategic run/walk. The run/walk then became a brisk hike.

I could feel that I was in danger of overheating by the time we reached the Colorado River once again and with about 13 canyon miles to go.

Ryan was still in good shape, and he told me to go cool off in the river.

We found a trail down to the river's edge where the water was calm, and almost beach like.

There were a few other hikers already there taking advantage of the ice cold river.

I quickly took off my sand crusted sneakers and socks and just dipped in my throbbing toes and thighs.
The water numb my sore toes to the bone, and it felt absolutely fantastic.

I immediately got a second/third wind, and started to come back to life. Things were looking up once again.

It wasn't too difficult to get going again after that quick break, and reaching the Silver Bridge gave us a little hope of progress.

They say that you can learn a lot about yourself over 26.2 miles. Now imagine running with someone for 46.

I was getting to know Ryan, someone who I had never met or spoken to before this trip, a lot better as the miles slowly ticked away.

This was now officially the longest I'd ever spent running with anyone, and to help keep our minds off of the heat, soreness, and monotony of the canyon floor, we talked about movies, the 80's, work, personal lives, past adventures, and everything else in between.

There was no way that I would have felt as mentally well or as focused if Ryan wasn't there to keep me sane.

I was still eating and drinking normally, mainly Bonk Breakers (fantastic protein bars that Lindsay Willard introduced me to), and my water fortified by Nuun tablets.

We reached Phantom Ranch around 4PM and the run/walks had ceased. We were just walking now with less than ten miles to go.

Ryan tried to stay mentally focus, but was having trouble even remembering what day it was. The heat was just too much to bear even for walking.

We would take mini breaks every time we found some semblance of shade. We soaked ourselves at every stream crossing, but we dared not refill our water packs in those same streams. Only thing worse than dehydration is dehydration from diarrhea.

Ironically, our oasis in the desert came in the form of the busted pipe that had derailed the journey for Dave and Dane.

Ryan and I were looking forward to coming across the water flow that we remembered from the morning. Once we did though, instead of trying to avoid it like earlier, we both jumped in without hesitation.

I laid flat on my back, letting the cold, refreshing water flow right under me. My core body temperature dropped a substantial amount within seconds. I could have stayed there the rest of the afternoon.

We both marched on dripping, wet, and revitalized, but the literal ups and downs continued for the rest of the hike.

The five mile stretch between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Camp became the most desolate and desperate part of the journey for me. It just seemed endless because the landscape was unchanging and we didn't see another hiker for close to two hours.

We were both thoroughly exhausted by the time we reached Cottonwood. Every movement I made, from refilling my water pack to eating a snack, felt like a chore.

Ryan spoke briefly with a couple of other hikers who were finishing up the first leg of their R2R2R on the North Rim. They were planning on resting at the North Rim, and start up again for the South in the early morning hours. That almost sounds like a smart idea. Apparently, what we were attempting was as hard as you could make the crossings: starting and finishing on the North Rim during the hottest part of the day. Duly noted.

We eventually broke camp and left Cottonwood knowing that this was the last sign of civilization that we would see for the next 3+ hours, unless of course you counted the myriad of hallucinations that we would experience the rest of the way.

By 5PM, we were finally at the base of the North Rim to begin our final ascent to the finish.

We had less than 7 miles to go, but still 4000 ft to climb, so basically Mt Washington.

It was around this point that Ryan asked me if he thought we could finish this in under 16 hours, which would put us at the finish a little after 8PM. My brain was fried and I had no idea how much time we had left, and just told him most likely not.

I'm usually pretty positive and upbeat, but the Canyon was bringing out the worse in me.

There are no words to describe how intimidating it is to look up from the canyon floor knowing that the tip top of that mountain way up over there is where you need to get to. It was just unreal.

And the switchbacks....

...each step we took was basically like doing one lunge.

As darkness finally descended upon us, and about 2000 lunges later, we were finally almost to the top.

"Hey, I know you!"

I looked up through the fading light and saw that it was Vanessa!

She was just finishing up her own adventure too.

Vanessa had hiked down to Phantom Ranch and was on her back to the top of the North Rim. She thought that we were completely insane to do what we did. I had to agree with her that she was absolutely right.

I told her that Ryan was only about five minutes behind me, so she stayed and waited to finish the journey with him.

I looked at my Garmin, and noted the time of day (the only thing still working on it). I had 20 minutes to go before 8PM.

We were going to finish in under 16 hours.

It's definitely nothing spectacular considering that the Fastest Known Time for R2R2R is a little under 7 hours!

I then next heard the familiar Boston twang of Dane. It looks like they survived grueling the 2+ hour car ride around the rim.

We were done, and we were still alive.

There aren't too many things in life that you can do, and live through it, and say it was life changing. For me, this was one of those things.


Now please enjoy the video put together by Dane.


Ryan went on to place 3rd at a 50K the following weekend. I won a 5K. Ranger Dave went back into stealth mode until his next adventure, and Dane probably signed up for another 100 miler.

Hell's Canyon, here we come.

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