So there I was on a bench overlooking the south rim with my head in my hands. Just keep breathing, this will pass. I was tired--exhausted--but more than that I just felt weird. I felt lightheaded, sort of, and my whole body was tingling. It wasn't an unbearable sensation necessarily, but I was pretty sure your body isn't supposed to do that. Still, I'd made it to a bench, and if I just stayed still for a while I was pretty sure it would pass eventually.
I looked up. There was a young Asian woman holding a park map.
"I'm trying to find the rim trail." (Or something about the rim trail. I think. Human speech was mostly coming through as white noise at this point.)
Seriously? There must be twenty people around right now. How did you decide to ask help from the shirtless, inexplicably soaking wet guy who probably looks like he's either on drugs or about to hurl? (or both). And why are my lips numb? Is that a sign of a stroke? I really hope I don't pass out. Or throw up. I hate throwing up.
"Why certainly, young lady; I would be delighted to help. You are on part of the path as we speak. If you follow the trail towards your left you will shortly find yourself rewarded with a most invigorating vista."
That wasn't what I said. I'm not sure what I said, but it was something along the lines of "Muargma sgiagnon pa rim trail snogyogna pyutosnosh."
"Is it very steep? It looks like it might be steep."
Follow up questions? Really??? After whatever-the-heck I just said, you thought "Wow, he's really smart. I should ask him more questions"? And do I really look like I was just on the (paved, level, rascal scooter-accessible) rim trail? Please tell me you don't think I look like this after a two mile walk on the sidewalk. That's a little insulting. Man, I really hope I don't throw up.
Somehow this conversation continued. I have no earthly idea what I told that poor woman but amazingly she seemed happy with the information. This wasn't how I planned to end my Grand Canyon crossing, but then, I knew it was going to be an unpredictable day going in.
It's a 6 1/2 hour drive from Show Low to the north rim so we left first thing in the morning. Arizona being Arizona, the drive took us from the pine forest of Show Low, to the Wile E. Coyote-esque high desert of Holbrook, to the pine forested mountains of Flagstaff, to the painted desert of the western Navajo reservation, and finally to the pine and aspen forests of the north rim.
|Near Lee's Ferry Approaching the north rim
I hadn't been to the north rim since I was a little kid and had forgotten how different it is from the south rim. There is a whole village at the south rim, with multiple hotels, shuttle buses, and--apparently--all of the world's tourists.
After finding our campsite and pitching our tent, we moseyed over to the Lodge to see if we could finagle dinner reservations. The only time they had available was 4:45, which was perfect because that's about our normal dinnertime (we're both 80 years old, apparently).
Oh, did I mention our table?
After heading back to our campsite and having a glass of wine while we watched the sun set in the canyon, we got to bed early.
The good luck I'd been enjoying so far began to turn in the night. I slept badly--I never seem to sleep well in tents--and woke up with an extremely upset stomach. Not good. I got dressed, choked down some Cliff bar and helped Emily get the car packed up. We finally got to the trailhead a little before 6am, a full half hour later than I had planned. Also not good, especially considering that the high in the canyon was supposed to reach 102.
I filled my bottles and posed for a couple quick photos.
|Water? Check! Shoes? Check! Beergut? Check! Bedhead? Check! Ready to go!
After fielding a couple of perplexed questions, I took off down the trail before the backpackers had a chance to report the crazy shirtless guy to the park rangers. Since I started late I found myself running much faster than I had planned. A short distance in, I was already revising my plan for the day. I could tell that the run down wouldn't take as long as I had expected. The steep trail wasn't as hard on the quads as I had heard and was actually a lot of fun to run. As I careened down the switchbacks, accelerating on the straightaways and slamming on the brakes before the hairpin turns, I couldn't help but imagine how great the view would be if I missed one of the turns and went flying out into oblivion.
A little ways further, the trail reached the Bright Angel Creek, which it follows to the Colorado River. I knew this meant that it would be a steady, gradual descent for the next 8 or 9 miles. I had my first gel and tried to keep my speed steady despite my stomach, which still wasn't feeling too great.
1:12 after starting I arrived at Cottonwood Campground. I stopped just long enough to fill my water bottles, which was about two minutes. Shortly after leaving I began to notice a lot of mudslides across the trail. A storm had rolled through the north rim the night before but we had gotten virtually no rain. It was obvious that a tremendous amount had fallen in the canyon. Farther down I started to come across rock slides, one of which forced me to climb over a rock pile taller than I was. The surprising lack of mule trains--a common feature/obstacle in the canyon--was starting to make a little more sense.
|"Oh, you know you missed us"
|Um, maybe I should clarify
|This guy probably didn't get any funny looks (but he probably wasn't running in August either)
I dropped off my postcard and bought another bag of pretzels. The woman finally had to ask. "So... do you have a shirt at all?" I said no and apologized profusely. "That's okay," she said, surreptitiously dressing me with her eyes.
|Meanwhile, I had a Rod Stewart song stuck in my head
As I finished my pretzels I realized that I couldn't remember putting my postcard in the outgoing mail saddlebag. Where had I put it? On a hunch, I checked the stack of postcards for sale. There, of course, was mine, carefully stamped and addressed. I've said it before, running makes you stupid.
I stayed about 25 minutes, long enough to drink 3-4 pints of water and eat two bags of pretzels. I felt rejuvenated, but only until I tried running. Ooof. I'm definitely not signing up for the Krispy Kreme Challenge anytime soon. I muscled through it and waddled off at about a 15 minute pace.
|Apparently the pretzels I got weren't fat free after all
The lower Bright Angel is pretty runnable for the most part, and I made it to Indian Gardens somewhere around 10am without incident aside from slipping off a rock during a stream crossing and getting one foot soaking wet. This put my uphill pace so far in the 12-15 minute range. Not too bad, but I knew it wouldn't last.
|It's steeper than it looks.
Although not as blistering as forecast, it was still a bit warm. Fortunately, the benefit of running the trail in August is that there is water every mile and a half (they turn the water off in the fall), so I was able to dedicate one bottle just to squirting my head and torso down (though somehow it all seemed to end up on my shorts and shoes), with an extra bottle over the head at each water stop. This helped a lot.
Less helpful were the often-over-the-top warning signs which become more frequent closer to the rim.
|We saw this one on our last trip. My wife didn't find it reassuring.
|The sign never explains why douchey-looking people are at a higher risk
Oh come on! Now you're just giving people ideas.
After walking for what felt like an eternity, and 5:44 after leaving the north rim, I finally reached the trailhead. By this point I was utterly exhausted, dehydrated, and feeling pretty weird. I plopped down in the first bench I came to, ignoring the fact that it was in the sun, and buried my head in my hands.
After 5-10 minutes, and after my inquisitive tourist friend finally went off to explore the rim trail, I moved to a spot in the shade in front of the Bright Angel Lodge (our designated meeting spot) and resumed my coma. A half hour after reaching the rim, my amazing, awesome-possum wife arrived. She had gotten up before sunrise, helped me pack up the campsite, dropped me off at the trailhead, squeezed in her normal 6 mile run, and then driven 215 miles to pick me up at the south rim.
I still wasn't up to moving around yet, so Emily went and bought me some Gatorade to drink while she got our lunch reservations. The Gatorade perked me up quite a bit, and by the time she got back I was able to go change clothes and go to lunch.
|This was the most human-like expression I could muster. (I don't know what my hand is doing.)
Total elapsed time: 5:44
Total moving time: 5:13 (roughly)
- 12 miles as the crow flies
- 24 miles by trail (22 if you take the South Kaibab instead of the Bright Angel)
- 215 miles by car
- 2 gels
- 2 bags of pretzels
So what did I learn from this little run?
- I should have fueled better. I probably wouldn't have crashed so badly at the end if I had taken in a few more calories (and given how the Gatorade affected me, I probably would have recovered a lot faster if I had simply eaten a gel after finishing). My stomach was cranky near the end (and it's hard to eat when you're hot and working hard) but I should have anticipated that and fueled more earlier on. More critically, I didn't drink anywhere near enough water. It turns out that even when I have water and am making a conscious effort to drink I still have trouble keeping up with the amount I sweat (I sweat a freakish amount). Hopefully this can be improved through practice.
- Two water bottles and a few gels is all you really need for a single crossing. I didn't need a pack.
- Crossing during the summer is doable, no matter what people say--at least during monsoon season--BUT only if you know your limits and are used to running in the desert. I grew up as a desert rat and am pretty good at telling when I'm getting into trouble. On my last 16 mile trail run in Tucson it was hot and I started to overheat but I it didn't become a problem because I made the decision to stop in the shade twice to get my body temperature down. I was prepared to do the same in the canyon, and if it had been as hot as forecasted I probably would have had to.
- Shirts are for pansies, but going shirtless is for people who have done a sit-up in the past month. I love running shirtless--and I seem to stay a lot cooler that way--but I should probably start some sort of ab routine just out of consideration for the poor souls who have to look at me.
- I'm really out of shape. I should probably start doing cardio or something.
Well, that's done! Who's up for a double crossing?