Monday, September 3, 2012

Grand Canyon Run. August 31st - September 1st 2012

I am going to start out by saying that this was, by far, the best run I have ever done.  We didn't do the full rim to rim to rim, but under the circumstances it was a wise decision. More on that later.   

The idea to do this was hatched around Christmas 2011 at Gary Benson’s house.   We have been doing these crazy adventures together for the last 20 years. As usual, he enthusiastically agreed to the idea.  My good friend and neighbor, John Stevens was on board early as well.  The three of us have had many adventures together including a mountain bike ride from Telluride, CO to Moab, UT, a few 50K’s and countless trail runs/mountain bike rides. 

 As we started to plan it, other than the mileage, the heat seemed to be the biggest challenge.  We weren't too worried about the elevation changes.  We decided that this was definitely doable at night.  To add to the adventure, we picked a full moon night to maximize the light on the trail and beauty of the scenery.  September 1st was our chosen date.

We spent most of the year doing long runs on weekends that involved big elevation changes.  We ran a few 14'ers at night to get used to using our headlights, and hand-held flashlights.  The biggest run I did was Echo Lake (10,600’) to Chicago Lakes en route to Mount Spaulding (13,858’) over night.  It was an eight-hour adventure.  After doing this I felt that I was ready for the Grand Canyon.  The others did various other excursions, including the Leadville 50 mile mountain bike race, runs up and down Argentine Pass out of Silver Plume, CO, century rides, crazy cross-training work-outs at Red Rocks amphitheater, and of course, ton’s of trail runs/snowshoe runs. 

Enter Conrad Laporte.  He began joining us on our winter snowshoe adventures in February.  He is a great athlete and friend with the same sense for adventure and zest for life that we have.  He is 20 years younger than us.  We mentioned the Grand Canyon idea and he was sold. (Not sure if it was naïveté or bravado, but he was full on board!)  We had several others of our friends that we trained with all year, but were not able to make it.  Conrad stuck around with us on our weekend adventures.  He had never run more than 6 miles before he met us.   He is such a good athlete; we all thought he would be able to pull this off, even without any experience.  Turned out, he did the best of all of us!

We started our drive at about 5:30 on Thursday morning.  On the drive, we listened, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” by Christopher Mcdougall on Audiobook.  It was the perfect preview to the run we were about to embark upon.  It is an amazing story with a side bar diatribe about running in barefoot shoes.  Both Gary and I ran with barefoot shoes, as we have been for the past 2 plus years.   Conrad and John wore their trail shoes. 

We arrived at the GC at noon on Friday.  John and his wife Tracy, had secured a room at the North Rim Lodge. While they were checking in at the hotel we got to see the “big hole” for the first time.

When I get nervous, I joke around a lot.  I exclaimed that the canyon wasn’t so “grand”, it was definitely great, but not “grand”.  Denial!!! Standing at the North Rim, the view is indescribable.  Pictures do not do it justice!

The plan was to start at 4pm, run through the night starting form the North Rim.  I figured it would take about 6 hours to run across from North to South, then immediately turn back to the North Rim.  I figured about 10 hours for the return trip.  We timed it so it would be cool at the bottom of the canyon.  Daytime temps go well over 100 degrees at this time of year.  The forecast at the North Rim was a high of 72, low of 49.  At Phantom Ranch (the low elevation point of the trek) the forecast was a high of 99 and low of 72.  The temp never got below 80.

We were taking the North Kaibab trail to the Bright Angel Trail.  A total of 23 miles each way with a significant descent of over 6000’ then an ascent of about 5000’ to the South Rim.

While we were preparing/resting at the North Rim Lodge, I thought that John and Conrad would go together and Gary and I would pair off due to similar abilities.  We each went over our nutrition plans and agreed to be open to the potential changes. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work.  We all had a ton of food.  The trail descriptions told of several water sources along the route.  That was encouraging, but we agreed to fill our water bladders full every time – in case we miss a water station.  It will be dark and none of us had ever done this.  There was too much at stake to risk running out of water. 

4pm – we were off.  Tracy joined us on the hike down.  It started raining, thunder and lightening too.  Tracy turned back after about 30 minutes.  We put on our rain gear.  Had Tracy hiked with us for 5 more minutes, she would have seen an amazing view at the “cocnino overlook”.

The rain was cold.  I began to worry since all my warm gear was now on me and I was getting cold.  If the rain continues, it would have been a long, wet and cold night.   Got to keep moving…JFR….

The rain stopped after about 15 minutes and it got really hot and humid.  Again, worry set in.  I started to up the water intake and salt pills as I didn’t want to dehydrate or stat to cramp. 

My nutrition plan was to eat as much solid food early while supplementing with power gels, then switch to power gels only as my stomach stopped tolerating the solids.  My philosophy was to keep “topping off the tank” instead of depleting all of my energy stores and trying to catch up.  I had PB and J sandwiches, Kind and Lara bars, beef jerky, granola, cookies, gum drops, and power gels. 

The trail was very dusty and steep.  The rain wet the top layer and settled down the dust.  It made it easer to run/breathe. There were a lot of switchbacks early on and we descended quickly.  Within an hour, the trail turned rocky and technical.  The scenery was unbelievable, but it was had to run the technical trail and take in the views.  I stopped to take several pictures along the way.  I knew that once the sun went down, the scenery would be barely visible, and my camera doesn’t work well in the dark. 

We made it to the Cottonwood campground in 2 hours.  We seemed to be on track for my predicted time.  We all stuck together. John was having stomach issues early and was working himself through them.  He ALWAYS has trouble at 3 hours into a workout and this was no exception.  He changed some things up and recovered well. 

We then made it to the Phantom Ranch (PR) in 4 hours.  It was now completely dark.  No sign of the moon yet.  At Phantom Ranch we met with some campers.  There were several picnic tables set up and people were huddled around conversing.  The PR general store opened soon after we arrived and all of the campers went inside for food and beers.  I purchased a PR tee shirt for a souvenir. 

Gary and Conrad were also starting to experience stomach issues.  We filled up our water, hit the bathrooms and started back on our trek.

As we left the Phantom Ranch, we could see movement in the brush off the trail.  Our headlights lit up glowing eyes of deer literally 10 feet off the trail.  Very surreal.  I kept hoping there were no mountain lions behind the deer.  Any of these animals could have posed a serious challenge had they decided to come at us…we quietly pressed onward, and they thankfully stayed put.

We were about to cross the Colorado River.  That meant it was now all uphill until we reach the South Rim.  We power hiked from here.  No one was feeling all that great, the heat/humidity really sapped our energy.  The full moon became visible as we crossed the bridge over the Colorado River.  It was beautiful.  We tried to leave our headlamps off, but the trail was too technical.  It seemed like a long sandy hike as we came out of the direct river valley.  There were several stream crossings on the Bright Angel trail. 

We entered a steep area of switchbacks called the Devil’s Corkscrew.  Gary and I were sharing my water at this point.  His energy drink was not agreeing with his stomach at all.  We were both getting dehydrated.  Conrad and John decided to leave Gary and I at this point.  We agreed to keep in touch via walkie-talkie every hour.  Gary and I slogged up through the corkscrew.  The advantage of hiking at night is that you only focus on what you can see with your light source. 

But…we could now see the South Rim Village lit up clearly.  It looked close….but it wasn’t!

An hour went by and we contacted the other group.  They were at the Indian Garden Campground attending to the blisters on their feet.  They were waiting for us.  We all filled up to get ready for the hardest climb.  From the Indian Garden to the top is only 4.7 miles, but there was 3000 feet of climbing in front of us – and the teasing lights of the South Rim Village around every turn giving us false hope that we were close. 

There were rest/water stops at 3 miles and 1.5 miles before the Rim.  We were travelling very slowly at this point.  Arriving at each rest stop at 45 minute intervals.  That is 30 minutes to travel 1 mile.  A turtle’s pace! 

We finally reached the top at 9 hours, 11 minutes.  No one felt all that great.  My kidneys and left knee were bothering me.  After taking inventory of everyone, we decided that if it took us 9 plus hours going the easier way, it would have taken us over 12 hours to get back.  It was now 1 am.  We also would have been at the base of the canyon in the heat of the next day and it would have been quite dangerous. 

The south rim was 20 degrees colder with a stiff wind. It was probably high 40’s low 50’s   I became chilled pretty quickly.  I was not disappointed in our decision to stay the night.  We secured a room at the El Tovar Hotel.  It was very nice.  We all showered and crashed hard. 

We awoke early to try to figure out how to get back to the North Rim.  The Shuttles were $85 per person – cash.  Thankfully John’s wife Tracy agreed to drive the 4 plus hour trip around the canyon to save us.  We must have been quite a sight to see!

Tracy drove us to the North Rim and we ate at Jacob Lake Inn, a great little restaurant one hour north of the North Rim. We then went back to Kanab to sleep the night, get packed and headed back to Denver.  John and Tracy were planning to stay a few days longer to vacation together.  Although they ended up going home early Sunday Morning too.

We drove through Zion National Park and took in the views.  Equally amazing scenery as the Grand Canyon.  As we progressed home, Gary, Conrad and I were trying to think if there was any better run that we had ever done.  Gary mentioned the Porcupine Rim Trail in Moab as one of his favorites.  I agreed it was awesome but paled in comparison to what we had just done.  NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT WE HAD JUST DONE!  Even though we didn’t complete the quest, we were alive to tell about it!

Long story short, we detoured into Moab and ran an hour on the Porcupine Rim trail before lightening strikes scared us back to our car.

Adventure complete with plans to return to the Grand Canyon in the near future to complete our quest.  We also posed the idea to do a marathon next month in Colorado Springs.

It was really nice to sleep in my own bed last night!  The perfect end to an amazing weekend!

Thanks for all the support and well wishes from our families and friends.  Your good vibes were with us every step of the way.

It seems that when I commune with nature, especially during adventures like these, I get to know myself more with every step I take. And with every step I take, I recognize what a gift my life is and how much I cherish it. I know God has a plan for me and this meditation brought me closer than ever to recognize his greatness. I feel very blessed.

Even though I was away from my family, I hope someday that we can experience portions of this with them.   I am especially grateful to have shared this with such great friends.  I am sure it was a defining moment for all of us.