Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Run Report: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

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.

"Excuse me?"

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
Arizona being Arizona, we also hit a sudden hailstorm that lasted less than five minutes but dropped so much hail that for a mile or so it was hard to keep the car from sliding off the road. The southwest never stops trying to kill you, but on the other hand you never get bored.

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.
Just kidding. It's not that bad.
Much better
The north rim, in contrast, feels a bit like an exclusive resort, largely because there is little there except for one expensive-looking hotel.
This is what the hotel patio looks like, except that in real life there are waiters serving drinks. Swanky.

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?
We somehow ended up with a table at a window, and yes, the restaurant is built right on the edge of the canyon. The food was pretty mediocre, but you know, sometimes it just doesn't matter.

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!                                      
As you can see, I was packing light (aside from a couple of spare tires). I had two twenty ounce AHTLs with seven gels and a credit card in the strap pockets. My plan was to buy any additional food I needed at the Phantom Ranch canteen. When we walked up to the trailhead there was a group of backpackers adjusting their massive packs and checking that they had all the supplies they needed for a multi-day trek into the canyon. It felt a bit weird to walk up in nothing but a pair of shorts and pose for pictures while the backpackers watched incredulously.

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.
Since I hadn't been on the upper North Kaibab since I was a little kid, I was surprised when roughly 4.5 miles (and 3,000 vertical feet) down I passed by Roaring Springs.
The water comes straight out of the rock and cascades down the canyon wall. It's gorgeous. There's a short side trail that goes to the water but I was in a hurry, so I took in the view for a minute and then kept moving.

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"
By this point I was in familiar territory from my last trip to the canyon and was enjoying the shallow grade, lovely scenery and the still-cool temperatures. The Bright Angel Canyon was narrow at this point which meant I still wasn't in direct sunlight.
Another result of the heavy rain finally caught my attention. The last time I had been in the canyon the Bright Angel Creek had been crystal clear, but today it was the color of Yoo-hoo.
Um, maybe I should clarify
I reached Phantom Ranch 2:24 after starting, roughly 8:15am. At roughly 13.5 miles, this put my average pace around 10:40.
I knew the canteen had a shirt-and-shoes-required policy but I was hoping no one would notice my dazzlingly bright yet gracefully undulating sweat-soaked torso. The woman at the canteen gave me a funny look but didn't say anything so I was able to buy my postcard and some food.
This guy probably didn't get any funny looks (but he probably wasn't running in August either)
I scanned the available options and pretzels were the only thing that looked good (my stomach was still a bit iffy). Fortunately, they really hit the spot--when you're queasy and sweaty it's hard to go wrong with unflavored white flour and salt. I slumped down and started munching and rehydrating while working on my postcard and trying not to get the table too soggy.

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
I asked her about the rain. She told me that most of the mule trains had been canceled because of the rock slides and that a man had had his skull fractured by a falling rock the night before. Encouraging.

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
By the time I crossed the river and started up the Bright Angel Trail, the sky was starting to get cloudy. This was good news, since heat had the potential to cause the most trouble for me and the August sun against the rocks can heat up the canyon like an oven. Although it was a bit humid--and I don't handle humidity that well--the temperature was staying lower than forecast.
Evidently it had rained hard here as well. The trail at this point is built on sand and a 10-15 foot section had sunk down about 5 feet. I had to climb down into the sunken portion and back up to trail level. It must have been quite a storm.

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.
I had my second gel somewhere around this time. I wasn't hungry but I knew I would need all the energy I could muster. The last 3-4 miles--Jacob's Ladder, as it's called--is nothing but switchbacks. There is 4400 feet of elevation gain from the river to the south rim, and nearly half of that is in the last three miles. I knew the climb was going to be murder, and I was resigned to walking most or all of it.
It's steeper than it looks.
Power hiking the last three miles was by far the hardest part of the day. I didn't keep any record of my splits during this part of the trail but as far as I can calculate I was averaging somewhere around a 20-30 minute pace, with my moving pace probably closer to 20. All things considered, I'm pretty proud of this pace. Aside from breakfast at Phantom Ranch and the time it took to refill my water bottles, I was pushing hard the entire day, and by this point maintaining a brisk walk took a conscious act of willpower.

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.  
I can see why it's a good idea to warn people not to do something stupid, but for someone who is more than halfway through doing something stupid and only has one way out, the signs aren't great for one's self-confidence.
The sign never explains why douchey-looking people are at a higher risk
Still, I can see why the park service would have an interest in...

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.
For those of you out there who are single, here's a little piece of relationship advice: find the best person in the entire world, and then marry that person.

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.) 
A couple fun facts:
Total elapsed time: 5:44
Total moving time: 5:13 (roughly)
Distance rim-to-rim:
 - 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
Food consumed:
 - 2 gels
 - 2 bags of pretzels

So what did I learn from this little run?

  1. 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.
  2. Two water bottles and a few gels is all you really need for a single crossing. I didn't need a pack.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?


  1. Wow. Great story, great hike, great pictures. I haven't hiked the canyon since the early 80's, but I've been itching to get back up there. (and you make it sound so easy...)

    1. Thanks! No matter how many times I go back, I'm always surprised by what a powerful experience it is being at (or even better, in) the canyon. It's a really special place. I'm not sure where you got "easy", though =). Just looking at that picture of the switchbacks makes me sore.

  2. Thanks, John. Thoroughly enjoyed your posting. I'm in awe.

    Faith K.

  3. Bravo John! You are a natural writer and a talented storyteller. I vomited a few times while reading it. Emily drove over 200 miles? I didn't think the North Rim was that far away. Good luck this weekend. I can't wait to run vicariously. Don't forget about Bell Rock.

    1. Thanks. When I sat down to write I thought that if I could get just one person to throw up, I would have done my job. It's hard to wrap your head around how inconvenient it is to drive from one rim to the other. Like I mentioned, the rims are only 12 miles apart but it's 215 miles by car. Emily and I were just talking about when we can get back down to Sedona; hopefully next weekend.