Running the Grand Canyon – Race Day – Part 3
Upon our arrival to Arizona, the group decided to keep east coast time making it easier to wake up early and hit the trail. I popped out of bed at 1:30am, about 10 minutes before my alarm, and found Eric already in the kitchen eating his breakfast. This guy never sleeps!
My first stop was coffee, then oatmeal with a banana. I decided to pack a Clif Bar for the road trip, the cabin was 1.5 hours from the trail head. We decided the night before to leave at 2:30am ensuring ample time to transition from Bright Angel to South Kaibab trails, and still beat the mule train. We knew deer and elk on the highway would be a problem as we made our way to the Grand Canyon, and they did not let us down. I do not recall a mile without either animal. While some watched us from the side of the road, others were much braver and lollygagged in the highway causing us to crawl past them.
We safely arrived at Bright Angel around 4:15am where we met Jamie and JD. After quickly transitioning into our van, we were off to the South Kaibab Trailhead. As we were unloading the van and assembling our gear for the trip ahead, I had a feeling we were gearing up for battle. The once prominent chatter was reduced as we did final equipment checks. Many of us had those pre-race jitters and had to pee more than once.
It was go time! We walked across the parking lot to the trail head and assembled for a photo op in front of the South Kaibab trail head sign. We were all so excited to begin this epic adventure. Would the lessons learned from previous experiences take me to the finish line?
As we stepped on the trail, a euphoric feeling fell over me – we were really doing this! A few hikers were in front of us as we descended the trail. The only means of seeing them and the trail were our headlamps as we were about 45 minutes from daybreak. We really could not see much beyond our headlamps, and that was probably a good thing – sheer drop offs traced the side of the trail.
As our headlamps illuminated the ground in front of us, we could see where the mules had worn out the trail. Each step leading down the trail had a small ditch worn by the mules making it difficult to set a stride.
Most of the hikers we saw were in the first 30 minutes, and each one we passed never hesitated to give us the right away. We thanked each one of them as we hurried pass them and wished them a great day and safe hike.
Not long after we started, we found the dreadful mule train…and their trail of poop. We thought they started at 5:00am, but not today. Luckily, Lori spoke with the men driving the mules who told her we could pass when the trail allowed in about 100 yards. Once we started past them I noticed these mules were jacked! Their muscles made them look like body builders. Let’s just say there was not that much room to squeeze by. The little path we took to move around them was not much wider than shoulder width. Yep, beyond that was nothing to stop us from falling.
Traversing down to the river was easy, so to speak. We stopped at Skeleton Point and Tip Off to regroup and take photos, giving us an opportunity to look at one of the natural wonders of the world. The canyon walls looked majestic as the sun illuminated them – showing the layers of color and history of erosion. It is absolutely amazing that the untamed Colorado River could carve out such a vast area.
As we made our way to the river, Lori was in front of me while I was taking a quick video of the trail and river. I watched as she entered the tunnel which led to our first bridge/river crossing. She disappeared upon entering the tunnel, but that did not last long. She made the quickest U-turn possible – the tunnel was dark as night and we stowed our headlamps at the last stop. Needless to say, the look on her face upon exiting the tunnel was probably the funniest part of the of my journey.
Crossing the Colorado River via the South Kaibab Suspension Bridge was a great feeling – 1 hour and 45 minutes from the start. The power of the river rushed freely under my feet and I watched as it created dozens of small vortexes along the banks.
Our first water stop was just past the bridge and before Bright Angel campsite. This was another place that allowed us to quickly regroup, hydrate, and eat. We took a few minutes to soak in the beauty of our surroundings; listening to the Colorado rush past us was a relaxing feeling.
The next stop would be at the far end of Phantom Ranch. The trail took us along the Bright Angel Creek and along the campground which is conveniently located in the Bright Angel Canyon. It only took us a few minutes to make our way past the campgrounds and Phantom Ranch. This is where we saw Lori for the last time, she was a trail blazer! Entering Bright Angel Canyon (aka The Box) the air flow stopped, and became very stagnate. The only audible sounds were that of the creek. When we were afforded the opportunity to look up – hard to do while running and not tripping – the towering canyon walls engulfed us. We had a couple miles of bridge crossings and snaking along the canyon before we hit the desert area.
I call it the desert area because out of nowhere cacti started appearing along the trail and the walls began pushing farther and farther from the trail. This portion of this trail seemed out of place, and I would come to dread it on the way back. Thankfully, we had done some pre-planning prior to departing as the trail to Ribbon Falls was a bit misleading. It appeared that someone had spun the sign around…go across the bridge to the falls. Um, where was the bridge…left or right? We stayed right…up the biggest hill on the bottom…almost like it was a joke. I think we could have circumnavigated the hill by the way of the Ribbon Falls trail (saw another entrance on the other side of the hill), but we will never know. Luckily, it was not too much longer before we hit the next water station…Cottonwood Camp Ground (14 miles traveled and gained 1,600 feet from Phantom Ranch).
Taking a quick breather, I poured one of my Gatorade powder packets into a bottle and quickly consumed the delicious contents. I also ate a Clif Bar to keep my nutrition levels in check. So far life was good! Even took time to visit the ranger station toilet. We spent about 10 minutes here and then we were off to the next stop.
The next fresh water fill point was about 1.5 miles away located at the Pumphouse Ranger Station. At this point we had gained approximately 2,100 feet. It did not feel too bad (on the legs) as it was stretched over several miles, and it was relatively gradual compared to what was coming. We found a chalk board to write a quick message, but there was no chalk – sad face. This is when I started using the fountains to soak my arm coolers and hat due to the rising temperatures – they were climbing fast and it was time for us to do the same.
After leaving the Pumphouse Station we hit some serious elevation that required the use of our hiking poles. According to our calculations we would encounter an average 16% grade. Just over 15 miles into our journey and still feeling great; the poles really helped save my legs. We had anticipated our next stop was going to be Roaring Springs, and after traveling just over three miles and climbing almost 1,000 feet, fresh cold water would have felt great, BUT Roaring Springs was a separate path off the main trail – going back down. That was not an option! On the bright side, we could see and hear a massive waterfall on the other side of the canyon – unlike anything I had seen before. It appeared to be flowing out of the canyon wall.
As a group, we decided to skip Roaring Springs water stop and continue up the trail. The trail started to become a bit more challenging with every step, climbing higher and higher. By this time, it was around 10:00am and the sun was beating down on us. Taking every opportunity available, we relished the coolness of the shade when the trail was covered by some trees or there was a small cut out in the canyon walls. We only had a couple miles to travel until we reached Supai Tunnel, but we had to climb about 1,600 feet. Not exactly sure what Supai Tunnel was – a tunnel for shade or a tunnel with water inside. I was hoping for both as I wanted to take a break with cold water. After numerous switchbacks, I heard Eric and Jamie yell with excitement. They were not that far ahead of me, so that meant they had found something awesome. As I rounded the corner, I noticed the tunnel. Could it be? Yes, shade! Still not knowing what to expect, I slowly walked through the tunnel soaking in the cool air. I did not hear Eric or Jamie’s voice anymore so I thought they just continued on up the trail, but when I left the tunnel there they were. Break time! There was a spacious area that had room to tie up the mules, a toilet, and a water fountain. This water fountain was a bit deceiving – the upper portion did not work – leading us to think it was turned off. Luckily, the bottom faucet worked, and my legs did not want to spend too long bent over. I only hunched over long enough to refill my bottles and rehydrate my arm coolers and hat.
At this point, I could not wait to see the top of North Rim, but that was another 1,440 feet of climbing and 1.7 miles. At this point, I did not think we would ever make it to the top. Looking at my watch, it was almost 11:30am and we had been at this adventure for nearly eight hours. Somewhere along this stretch we crossed paths with Lori, and she was more than an hour ahead of us. She looked refreshed – I wanted a mule ride home.
We came across the Coconino Overlook where the views were absolutely breathtaking. We could see Snowbowl ski resort near Flagstaff, which was the backdrop for our cabin. The top of the mountain was snowcapped and white as clouds. Being scared of heights, I did not venture to the edge like the others did. Too bad we could not just hang out here for the day, but the day was growing long and we had to keep the muscles moving.
It was a short jaunt to the top, or at least that is what I kept telling myself. The closer to the trailhead we were, the more the landscape changed from rocks and shrubs to trees and grass. Before we knew it, there it was – THE END. Okay, half way point! We dropped our packs at the trailhead sign and headed for the water faucet. This water flowed freely, but felt like it was tapped from a glacier. It had to be near freezing because it hurt when I placed my arms under one of the faucets to soak my arm coolers. The best part was the cold water helped cool my body from the inside out as I gulped from my open water bottle.
Like all great climaxes, they must come to an end, and we needed to find our way to the end before dark. Better yet, we needed to make it back to Phantom Ranch before 4:00pm to pick up our hiker’s sack lunch.
Oh, cannot forget to mention the flies! These guys were hungry and treated us like their first meal since the snow melted. Most of the time catching/killing a fly at home is near impossible, but today they were sacrificing one another to attack us. Probably a good thing too, we did not need to spend an exorbitant amount time at any one location.
Down the rim we went! Hydrated, fueled, and lathered with sunscreen, I quickly made my way down the same trail I had just spent hours climbing. I decided to keep my poles out after leaving the North Rim to help keep my balance, if needed. They are light, so were not too much of burden.
First stop was Supai Tunnel where I topped off my water bottles. I felt it was easier to have two full bottles at each of these stops verses something happening in between and I end up sitting there without water and waiting for help.
Somewhere between Supai Tunnel and Roaring Springs I kicked a rock with my right foot. This was not a pebble, and I am not sure where the hell it came from! This rock traveled from my right foot to the back of my left foot, and back to my right foot causing me to stumble a bit. This would not have been a problem, but I was moving pretty fast for the terrain. To my left was nothing but another entry in the book, Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, that made my ass pucker.
The next time, and final time I stumbled was due to the very object that was supposed to help keep me stable…trekking poles. My foot wanted to move faster than my arm and it kicked one of the poles causing me to fall forward faster than I wanted. Luckily, I was saved again. My angel was keeping a watchful eye!
Doing some quick math informed us that we would not make it back to Phantom Ranch before they closed for lunch. Eric using his ridiculous speed, made the decision to remove his training wheels and rocket down the rim to try to make it all the way to Phantom Ranch (about 10 miles) before they closed. Luckily, for him and us, he saw a ranger at the Pumphouse Station and told her our situation. She graciously called ahead for us and alerted them of our untimely arrival.
Upon my arrival to the Pumphouse, I sat there for just a bit knowing the next water station was not far down the trail. The mercury at this point was pushing around 97 degrees. The forecast for the day was 80’ish in the canyon. Lucky us! Snow/rain a few days before and summer today – crazy how a couple of days can change the climate. We still have about 7 miles of hot and dusty trail before us until we were able to eat that savory lunch at Phantom Ranch. I dropped my pack and grabbed both of my bottles. Replacing the warm water with ice cold spring water was refreshing. I also took this opportunity to soak my arm coolers and hat again. This seemed to be the only way to stay cool. I was feeling good at this point, better than expected, and even better after eating a gel and a couple of chews. Knowing that lunch was going to be there no matter our arrival time, I decided to press on. I readied my pack and took off down the trail with Eric, Jamie, and Brian close behind.
Still feeling great as I reached the Cottonwood Campground, I topped off my bottles and departed the area. From Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch was approximately 7 miles to travel – an easy sloping downhill. Just below the Cottonwood Campground, the trail crossed over a fast moving stream. I decided to make a quick stop here to soak my hat again. As I leaned my poles against a tree and turned back to the stream Eric rounded the corner at a blazing speed. Needless to say, he scared the shit out of me! I thought I was way ahead of them – maybe the heat was starting to cook my brain.
The group was close together and we made our way back through –“The Box”. Once I passed the trail to Ribbon Falls, I started to unravel. I had a feeling that was I cooking from the inside out. The only way I could combat the heat was to stop running and start walking. I was beginning to feel like a snowman in the sun. Was this dry heat going to take me out? I tried to run/walk/run as much as I could, but then I started to feel sick to my stomach. My experience was about to implode before me. I was reduced to a slow walk. I watched Eric and Jamie disappear around the next bend. I think I was about 4 miles or less from Phantom Ranch, but no way to tell because my GPS was showing that I have already run over 44 miles. This was not true because I was still at the bottom of the canyon. The canyon walls had closed in on the trail and now the Bright Angel Creek was running along beside me. The urge to puke was amplified by each step until I found a big flat rock and plopped my exhausted butt down. With my poles supporting me, I could not fight the urge to release my insides. Water! I was expecting more, but there was nothing more to give. I finally understood what ultrarunners mean when they get sick during their running events. I felt absolutely horrible! As I sat there, I stared at the rock walls around me. Telling myself, “It will be okay just to rest for a few minutes.” After about 10 plus minutes, Brian came into view down the trail. I was so glad to see him as he would play a large part in my canyon exit.
The first words out of Brian’s mouth, “Did you draw the short straw?” I told him I did not feel well and was just resting. He sat with me for a couple minutes then urged me to join him as he made his way to Phantom Ranch.
Time to get that lunch, although there was no way I was going to have the stomach for it now. The thought of anything made me feel nauseated. My survival depended on proper hydration and fuel, but right now neither sounded appealing. How does one go from top of the world to dragging ass?
Phantom Ranch here we come! I would say we were hiking, but it felt more like a very slow walk…down the trail…one step at a time. There was no more pep in my step. The desert area crushed any chance of finishing with daylight left.
Rounding bend after bend on the way to Phantom Ranch, we finally reached our destination. I believe it was around 5:00pm, and we had approximately three hours of daylight left. The path of least of resistance took us down the center of the camp. Looking and feeling dazed and confused, we were scurrying around trying to locate the canteen window where our lunch awaited us. Once I located the pickup window, I asked the lady for our lunches and she handed over two plastic grocery bags. They did not look very big, but nor was my appetite. I made my way over to Brian, who had found a table, and handed him one of the bags. Not really sure what to expect inside, I slowly opened the knot and saw the contents. I had waited all day for the $14 hiker’s lunch, but the contents inside made me want to use this bag to hold my insides. This was not what I was expecting: bagel, cream cheese, jam, peanuts, craisins, a bag of pretzels, apple, Oreos, summer sausage, and lemon-lime electrolyte mix. Where do I start? I poured the electrolyte mix into one of my bottles and began spreading the jam onto the bagel. Knowing I had to eat, I forced myself to slowly consume the bagel, craisins, and drank the lemon-lime water. Typically, Oreos sounded yummy, but having a dry mouth made eating them almost impossible.
For some reason, I looked up and saw Jamie across the way, she and Eric had been waiting for us to arrive. They were sitting on the other side of the canteen next to the trail and never saw us enter the camp. She opted to soak her legs in the creek and looked very refreshed. She went to tell Eric that we had arrived, and he too, joined us.
While I was sitting there, I looked down and noticed gnats had consumed my legs and crotch! I had a few choice words, but they are not appropriate here. These guys were not biting so I did not care too much; exhaustion was winning. However, I did brush them aside to check my right foot. I started to get a hot spot when I was descending the North Rim, and it seemed to grow as I continued to run. When I removed my shoe and sock, I saw the culprit; a blister. It was on the outer portion of my heel and about the size of a nickel. Trying to be proactive, I placed a Band-Aid over it – anything to reduce the rubbing. At this point Eric and Jamie left so they could let our loved ones know we were safe, just running behind. Apparently, the phone at the ranch did not work.
Brian was ready to tackle the final couple of miles and 4,000+ feet of climbing. I think we were both a bit delirious at this point, but we had to finish. As we left Phantom Ranch, we ran along the Bright Angel Creek, passing a campground on the other side that seemed to go forever. There were a lot of campers. At this point, I would have gladly camped!
Making our way to the bottom of the Bright Angel Trailhead, we crossed the Colorado River one last time. This river is absolutely amazing! No matter the pain I felt, I took a minute to soak in its power…untamed, green churning water that carved out 4,000+ feet of canyon walls. The bridge to cross was not what I expected. I remember watching a video where a guy tripped – for which I did not understand why until I was crossing. The floor of the bridge rested on side supports which were clipped in. Every step taken would make the bottom clank and shift. As someone who hates heights…I could not cross fast enough.
After crossing the bridge, we had an option to go left or right. Left was part of the river trail (wrong way), and right was our way to the van and the cabin.
In order to go up, you must travel along the river. After going right, we entered what I call “the beach.” The packed trail converted to sand and it was deep – up to our ankles deep. This went on for a couple hundred yards. If I had more time, I would have loved to pull up a rock and enjoy a beer while watching the Colorado River. After trudging through this nonsense we eventually hit the packed trail again.
First stop on the trail out of the canyon was the River Resthouse. I think this is where I felt my first electrical shock in my right calf. The pain made me yelp like a wounded animal. Looking around for some water was just that…looking around…this was not a water stop on our mileage chart. I should have looked, but did not due to growing fatigue. So we pressed onward and upward.
My dying GPS watch indicated to Brian and I that our goal time would come and go as the sun was no longer in view. The rays were quickly saying their goodbye as they now only illuminated the walls of the north rim.
Somewhere between the River Resthouse and Indian Garden, I think my wheels fell off – the cramps grew more frequent and I had the yawns. I was so far behind on food and electrolytes, and every minute we spent waiting for my cramps to subside was a minute later we would arrive at the top. Oh, and that blister I had covered back at Phantom Ranch finally gave way when I took a right turn on a switchback. Ironically, Brian had told us a story earlier in the day about the time he had a blister rupture and the searing pain it caused him. I had never experienced this so I could not relate…well, that was about to change! As soon as my right foot struck the ground and rotated, the skin around, the blister could not hold any longer. What started out as an annoying feeling, immediately escalated to a searing pain. I thought I broke my foot! I kept telling myself, “How could a blister cause this much pain?” Hoping the Band-Aid was doing its job, I left it alone and pressed onward and upward.
By the time we reached Indian Garden, the sun had set and robbed us of any remaining daylight. We were now in the dark, slowly making our way out of hell. There was not much to see beyond our headlamps except when we turned them off while we caught our breath – the twinkling stars. The canyon was black and only a faint outline of the rim could be seen from the quarter moon.
My eyes kept playing tricks on me as I walked along the trail. Looking up, I thought I could see animals in front of me – nope, just rocks and bushes. However, my eyes were spot on looking at the ground, or at least I thought they were, the trail was crawling with spiders, caterpillars, and some type of centipede/millipede. A perfect buffet for all the frogs we passed.
As we entered into the 3 mile rest area, I decided to turn on my phone (my watch died after 16+ hours of reporting inaccurate data) to check the time and to see if I could get a signal. Voila! I had a signal, so I sent a message to my wife telling her I was okay and running behind, and then one to Eric. Eric responded back that he and Jamie just left the 1.5 mile rest area. I would have figured they would have made it back by now. They must have succumbed to the trail, too!
I remember seeing a sign as I began to fill my water bottle. It said, “Going down is optional; Going up is mandatory.” No free rides out of this place. No telling what I would have done if I had seen this sign on the South Kaibab Trail as we descended into the canyon. Turn around, or laugh and pressed forward?
It would take us an hour to travel from the 3 mile rest area to the 1.5 mile rest area. That sounds like a long time if you are on a flat surface, but we had to ascend about 981 feet of switchbacks. Upon arrival to the 1.5 mile rest area, Brian and I topped off our water bottles and continued on after a quick rest, of course. We guestimated the finish was about one hour away based on the area covered thus far.
Nearing the end of this day-long journey, we could hear voices off in the distance. Could it be? Lori, Jamie, Eric, and JD were anxiously awaiting our arrival and started cheering us on as they noticed our headlamps. This was the boost we needed! Rounding the last switchback was a nice levelish path to the finish. I finished like I had started…running in the dark. Finishing what I set out to accomplish so many months ago was absolutely the best feeling! I had no idea this journey would take as long as it did, but now it was done. After taking a couple of finishing photos, I slowly made my way to the van where I had a refreshing chocolate milk waiting me.
From beginning to end, the journey to run the Grand Canyon from rim to rim to rim took me approximately 19 hours and 30 minutes.
Food consumed – not nearly enough to sustain endurance for 19 hours:
- Honey Stinger chews – 3
- Honey Stinger gels – 5
- Larabar – 3
- Clif Bar – 1
- SportLegs (x 2) were consumed approximately every hour (or when I remembered)
- Advil (x 4) at the top of North Rim and before hitting Bright Angel Trail.
Here are the links to the first two parts of my R2R2R experience:
Fellow runner’s blogs: