R2R2R 5 April 2014 (long....)


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Jan 31, 2008
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I kept saying the R2R2R needs some element of insanity. The plan was hatched for the last weekend of April, and we were all sober despite this being a St. Patrick's party. As the weeks went, Zack and Nate emailed with 20-miler progress, then 30-miler. I planned to build on my base from RnR Arizona, so wasn't too worried about distance, but spent a lot of time sick rather than training.

The first of April, Nate mentioned he was passing through the park that weekend and might do a quick Rim to River to Rim to check it out. Zack thought more training might overtrain him; I thought I'd just get worse sitting on the couch any longer. Once Nate's wife gave the go-ahead, we were suddenly facing reality.

A relaxed drive to the park culminated with dinner and a brief glimpse over the rim before sunset. Brief: we were nervous enough. Thermoses prepared, in bed by 8, to get up at 3.

At 2:40 someone pulled into the adjacent campsite, leaving car and headlights on. I took this as a sign, drank my jello, pulled on the shorts (cold!), and Zack and I met Nate at the Bright Angel Trailhead.

Bright Angel is longer than South Kaibab and thus avoided by the record-seekers. As a result, it's less steep, which we hoped would save our quads. It's also less exposed for running in the dark. We planned to stick together to Phantom and then every man at his own pace, Nate's wife to meet us at the South Kaibab trailhead after being alerted by a phone call from Phantom.

Although it was twenty degrees on the rim, we warmed quickly once moving. Looking off to the side was eerie, the headlamps shining into the abyss uninterrupted. At the 1.5 mile rest house we doffed jackets and checked the thermometer: fifty! It doesn't take far below the rim for the weather to change dramatically. We cruised on, passing a few hikers but seeing no other runners.

I should have reined in the pace more, or split up early, because I was bashing my legs a bit. At the last minute, I chose my road shoes: the trails are not particularly technical and my trail shoes can feel a bit "dead", not to mention heavier. This was probably a mistake: I didn't need the rock plate or the grip of my trail shoes, but a zero drop lightweight road shoe was insufficient for fifty miles.

At any rate, the pace was comfortable but brisk, given the length of the day we were facing. Life was more pleasant once we were off the log steps at the top of Bright Angel. We hit Devil's Corkscrew at first light and cut off headlamps for good just as we jogged across the bridge, frightening the first batch of campers from Bright Angel and Phantom.

At Phantom I sucked down my bottles and tanked up the Platy: it's a long haul up to the pumphouse, with no water this early. Zack and Nate took a longer break, but I knew they'd catch up in no time, so I headed straight north and into the Box.

This was my second-favourite part of the trip: closed-in and awe-inspiring--in places the trail is cut under the cliff face. You can see out to some of the higher red rock, more impressive in the sunrise if the day weren't cloudy and hazy. Even the utility infrastructure (power lines, water line access) can't hurt this too much.

I started with a reasonable run/walk groove before realizing I should settle for power walking to keep the heart rate down. Zack and Nate cruised on by and I wished them well.

Past the Box, the canyon opens up, with some nice views both back to the South Rim. It got tedious fast, though, as it's a long way to Cottonwood. I manged to stay on-course at the infamous fork, where if you don't follow the sign that says "To Ribbon Falls" you wind up at Ribbon Falls.

I should mention: this song was going through my head for fifty miles across the Canyon and back; the video went viral just before we left.

After Cottonwood I was in a bad way, my legs stiffening up and energy drained. I sat down to take stock, stretch a bit, change socks, and shove serious calories in my face, maybe 500+ in this stop. I felt better for the food and ten minutes' rest, and it loosened my legs a bit too.

I felt I was making poor time since I was doing so little running, so I decided that if, before I hit the pumphouse, the other guys passed me on the way down or I'd passed six hours, I would turn back. I'd forgotten how close the pumphouse was to Cottonwood. Ten minutes later I was filling up there for the dry haul to the North Rim and back. Missing the obvious tap by the trail, I used what was probably the tap for watering the garden. Don't think it had anything nasty in it.

Above the pumphouse, the trail turns up Roaring Springs Canyon and my favourite part. You can see up and down several layers; the scale is BIG but not so overwhelming that the brain shuts down. I was moving at an acceptable pace, but it still felt slow. Once I crossed the bridge into a part I didn't find quite as pretty, I was just waiting for Supai Tunnel, not remembering if the big stretch was above or below the tunnel. One section was washed out, leaving a sloped trail two feet wide--fortunately the Park Service had rigged a handline. I felt a lot like I did near the top of Pikes, except I had attributed that to altitude, clearly not the issue here. In retrospect, I was probably simply bonked out.

Solitude faded, with folks going both up and down. We found out later that there was a group of 25 or so from Colorado doing the R2R2R.

Shortly after Supai, the snow started to fall. I ran into Zack and Nate resting maybe forty minutes before I hit the Rim; despite claims they had generously waited for me, it turns out they were just that tired. I guessed I was on track for 15 hours and we went our separate ways.

By Coconino Outlook the snow was thick and the wind biting. It was a slog up the wet but blessedly not too snowy trail to the Rim. The plan was to rest and eat my first candy bar, but conditions were having none of that. I swapped photographs with someone who topped out at the same time and we started down.

Now I was in trouble. Running brought my quads to spasm, pulling my knees in all sorts of funny (and painful) ways. I managed comfortable gliding power-walk that and got me a 13-minute pace, breaking into a run whenever the trail steepened and footing got worse. Despite my fatigue, the progress back to the pumphouse felt pretty good.

The pumphouse marked 50k and the technical ultra-running barrier. I refilled water, downed a bottle of Gatorade, and said a brief hi to a couple of Colorado guys.

Cottonwood back to Phantom was interminable and brought the only "heat" of the day, maybe as high as 70. I had looked forward to running this section down, but my quads wouldn't take it and I had to settle for the powerwalk. The Colorado pair eventually passed me. Even once I reached the Box, I was in constant watch-checking mode: time passed like molasses, even if my moving pace was reasonable.

We'd been told the phone at Phantom took credit cards, but apparently it's calling card only. Nate and Zack hadn't gotten a call out, either, but I didn't know this and was afraid that I'd have to get out to the South Rim before people worried about me being overdue at Phantom. This was not a good state of mind to start the brutal climb up South Kaibab: time pressure on the hardest part of the day.

The lowest section of South Kaibab has some rough footing, where the mules have worn down to rock and then cut the rock up for good measure. Coupled with the retaining logs it was not fun on tired legs. Although steep and slow, the climb had the consolation of the view: the river was gorgeous, the turquoise that one seems to rarely actually see.

I soon caught up with the pair I had seen at the pumphouse. They had a car less than a mile from the trailhead and offered a ride if I couldn't get a call out. I went ahead at first but realized that pace, although it felt sustainable, quickly led to wanting to sit down, so I stayed back for company. The faster of the two sat down for a break and the other and I kept going, as he'd easily catch back up. (He never did, but was within sight most of the way up.)

As we slowly rose above the Tonto Plateau, the sunset contributed the spectacular South Rim colours. This improved what had turned into a proper deathmarch: I had my jacket on but couldn't stop for more than thirty seconds without shivering badly. I was glad to be climbing this trail in the light instead of running down in the dark: perching between the Plateau far below and the Rim still out of sit above was dizzying at times.

One foot in front of the other to the final switchbacks. Another member of the Colorado contingent met us, coming from the top to check on who was still pending. Several others provided an audience at the top, inspiring me to "sprint" in the last hundred yards. I was about to snap a trailhead picture when a shuttle bus pulled up and I ran to catch it.

The bus driver kindly loaned me her cell phone (and a piece of banana bread!). Nate's wife, having not heard anything, had parked as close as she could and then walked to the trailhead about 4:30, meeting Nate and Zack when they got out at 5:30 (14 hours). Two buses later, I caught up with them at Maswik and scarfed three slices of pizza. The campground showers being closed, Nate let me use their hotel room to clean off, and then it was into the bag for some well-earned rest.
(I hit the post limit, so analysis/numbers here. Pictures to follow.)

In retrospect, I'm glad I did this trip. Seeing the entire Canyon in one day gives a constant change in space that plays off the changes in time. I'm less glad I did it now, at a time when I was only just starting to be ready for serious training after a pretty intense marathon cycle. On the plus side, having the R2R2R in the bag should make it easier to sit out Boston this year.

Different shoes would have been smarter, as would going more slowly down Bright Angel. Perhaps I should have just done Rim-to-River-to-Rim once I felt my legs at Phantom. Carrying the wind pants would have been appreciated at the end. And I should have eaten a lot more. Keeping a lot of calories liquid was smart in some regards, but the cooler temperature meant I wasn't interested in liquids for their own sake, and more solid food would have been comforting.

South Rim (Bright Angel TH) to River (silver bridge): 2:14
River to North Rim: 5:13
North Rim to River (black bridge): 5:03
River to South Rim (South Kaibab TH): 3:28
Total: 15:58

Garmin connect

Salomon Adv Skin S-lab Hydro 12 set
2 500mL soft flasks
Platy Hoser 1.8L
Pearl Izumi Fly split shorts
CDTA trail crew shirt ("I love the smell of trail in the morning")
Patagucci Nine Trails jacket
EMS techwick gloves
Zoot hat
Radians Revelations safety/sun glasses
lightweight poly liner socks (2 pair)
Saucony Virrata
Garmin 310XT + HRM strap + foot pod
Black Diamond Zenix IQ headlamp
lip balm
5 MSR water treatment tabs
space blanket
albuterol inhaler (unused)
LABA + steroid inhaler (one dose on waking, one on North Rim)

Breakfast: banana, jello, one granola bar
4.5 500mL bottle eFuel (630) 5.5 bottle gatorade (660) (+ unconsumed powder for one more bottle each, 260)
(4 GU brew tabs, unused since it was cool)
2 shot blox (400)
2 gu (200)
1 roctane (100)
1 hammer gel (100)
(one unconsumed Clif Shot, 100)
1 clif bar (250)
2 snickers "fun" size (160)
1 granola bar (100)
6 fig bar (410)
total 3010 (approx. 8000 burned)