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Le Grand Canyon: A Run Report

Posted Jan 23 2009 6:03pm

GrandCanyon1 Day before our grand adventure; myself, Jason, Stephen and JP. Image Courtesy of JP Sulpizio, to view his photos visit his site at Kinhin.com


The Quick and Dirty: It was a spectacular run. This was my first Canyon run. It was harder than I thought and a great test for any endurance runner. The views were amazing, truly a beautiful place. We started early at 3:30AM with the goal of making it back before sundown. The temperatures were cool and water was abundant on the trail except the top of the North Rim where the water was turned off in preparation for winter. We all made it back at the end of the day injury free and in good shape, albeit exhausted. We took a lot of pictures and had our own individual experiences and stories to tell.

For more images, take a look at JP's set.
I also uploaded a set of photos on Flickr.

The Complete Report: So this run took place at the end of October to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Earlier in the year, in one of Golden Gate TriClub's trail runs, I met Jason and JP and through them Stephen. I kept in contact and in August they invited me to join them for a run they had planned in the Grand Canyon. This was an attempt to run from the South Rim to the North Rim back to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in one day. The prospect of it scared and excited me at the same time, how could I say no? Great things have happened when I felt this way. Jason and JP had done this run last year but split it in two days, a day for each crossing.

We had a good group. Jason and Stephen besides being Ironman Triathletes, had done the Marathon des Sables in 2004, a run across the Sahara dessert in Morocco. A monster trek that consisted of 151 miles/243km split over 6 days with runners being required to carry all their own food for the week on their backs during the run! I was also informed that the 4th day was actually a 50-miler, 1/3 of the distance in one day! They did give out water but since this was a desert you had to carry an ample amount with you at all times. These guys were no strangers to endurance running and suffering. JP is also an Ironman triathlete. Earlier in the year he had a personal best of a 10:51 in Ironman Austria. He also regularly runs long distances on trail. All three are capable athletes to say the least definitely capable of finishing the R2R2R (as it's commonly known) which is anywhere from 42 to 48 miles depending on the route you take. These were also smart guys who respected nature and the importance of the having the right gear and supplies, more important than sheer physical ability. As for me, I too have done the triathlon thing, even did an Ironman despite my horrible swimming ability. Ultra-marathoning however is my thing. I frequently train for and participate in ultra-marathons, from 31-miles / 50k to 100-milers / 160km.

So we flew out early Friday morning, landed in Phoenix and drove the 4 or so hours to the South Rim. On the way we managed to find a Whole Foods Market for supplies, a Target for a music adaptor, a late lunch and a quick sight seeing trip to a church that was built on a hill of red rock. When we finally got to the Grand Canyon the first thing we did was park the car and look at the view. How could you not? Amazing! Unlike a mountain that you can see for miles, the Canyon is only visible when you're next to it. We were wondering what it must have been like for the early pioneers. I imagined this scene in my head:

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Scout: Umm Sir, Mr. Heah Honcho Sir we have a small problem. Well actually a big problem.

Mr. Head Honcho: What is it? Have you and your men not find a water source?

Scout: No sir, Mr. Head Honcho Sir, there's water enough but it's at the bottom of this Great Canyon

Mr. Head Honcho: Can't we just go around it. I mean, how big can this thing really be? I mean I can't even see it from here.

Scout: uh well it's great Sir...err grand, it's a Grand Canyon.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So maybe that's not how it really happened but it's how I pictured it. Even though I saw pictures of the Grand Canyon in books, I was still floored by what I saw. You know how they say that art is not the same viewed in books and pictures, well same thing here. What amazed me was how I could look down into the Canyon, grasp it's enormity and still not fully realized how big the place was. Maybe this isn't making sense, let me try again. I knew I was looking down into something enormous and grand but I still wasn't able to gauge exactly how big. Scale was hard to judge, even when I could see the thin trails leading down into the Colorado river. Jason was able to help me out, "see that small green area right there, that's actually Phantom Ranch". Whoa, so you say that tuff of green is a ranch, with campsites, cabins and a dining hall. I'd like to add here that the next thing I did was one of the dumbest things and common mistake that tourists usually do when they are in the Canyon. An act that has resulted in fatalities, mostly men. I picked the nearest ledge, sat on it's very edge and had Stephen take my picture. A strange thing really since I am actually scared of heights. I would never sit on the edge of a 2 story building but here I was. I can only explain that I had no grasp of exactly how far up I was. It's not a straight drop to the bottom of the canyon but it can be a few hundred feet in most places. It's enough to kill if you lose your footing.

So after picking up dinner and preparing our gear we hit the sack around 8ish, nice and early. Sleep was light and inconsistent but expected. JP was a great roomate, he wore earplugs! I snore when I'm tired and I'm always self-conscious about that. His earplugs put me at ease but not enough to get a good nights sleep. By 2AM we were up, eating and gearing up. By 3:30AM we entered the South Kaibab trail. This is the steeper but shorter way down to Phantom Ranch, a little over 6 miles and 5000 feet of drop. The other option was the 10+ mile Bright Angel Trail. It was about 25 degrees when we started and we were geared up for the cold, layers which quickly came off and became extra weight on our packs. I even had a poncho stashed in my Camelback, it had rained the day before and Jason thought it might be a good idea to be prepared for any more precipitation despite what the weather report said. He brought lightweight trash bags, I brought a heavy plastic poncho thing which reminded me of a shower curtain. With our lights blazing we made our way down the steep switchbacks.

On the way down, a mile from Phantom Ranch, one of the guys really had to use the bathroom. While waiting at the switchback we turned off our lights and was rewarded by the star lit sky. Inside the canyon it was dark, pitch black but the sky above was just glowing with stars. I saw at least two shooting stars. I could have stayed there looking at the sky till the sun came up. After 10 minutes we were soon on our way and in no time at all crossed the suspension bridge over the Colorado river. I could hear the water but not see it, it was stil dark by the time we made it to Phantom Ranch.

People were already up at the Ranch when we got there. We filled up our bottles, ate and were soon on our way again. As a substitute for coffee I downed some coffee flavored caffeinated gel, a poor substitute but I also needed the calories and sugar carbs. We connected with the Bright Angel Trail that took us through Bright Angel Canyon that had the Bright Angel Creek running through it. This smaller canyon is pretty amazing, in some parts it's only about 50 feet wide. The sun rose while we were on this trail. The trail continued for what seemed like 3 miles through the Bright Angel Canyon after which we found ourselves on open ground. JP and I brought our cameras and we shot and shot and shot. Stephen and Jason forged ahead and I brought up the rear. We regrouped at the foot of the North Rim, it's a 6000ft. climb in 6+ miles to the top. At the foot of the rim there is a home there, story says that the guy who lives there is an artist and was granted permission to live there provided he did maintenance on the water pipes. Even if the pipes were compromised, Bright Angel Creek running nearby provided clear fast moving water. Something a few water treatment tablets can make safe for consumption. I even have the Vitamin C tablets that kill the medicine taste of the Iodine. I drank lots and ate lots but I decided to fill only one of the two water bottles in my pack, that would turn out to be a mistake. This time JP and Stephen forged ahead, running up the switchbacks. Crazy guys I was worried that they might over extend themselves too early. We still had to make it back you know. Again I brought up the rear. I was already pooped at this point. I hadn't fully recovered from a couple races I had done two months earlier. I was walking more than I was running on the way up. Eventually I caught up with Jason. He wasn't doing very well. He was tapped and wanted to save what he had left for the return trip to the South Rim. Well I stayed with him for the next thousand feet, walking and running with him, encouraging him to keep going. I was hoping that maybe it was just a funk that he could eventually work through. We even stashed his backpack in some bushes at a switchback to lighten his load. He did hold on to one of his water bottles and a gel. We got to about 6500+ feet before he finally called it. Not wanting to push him further I let him go and forged ahead. He's an experienced endurance athlete and only he knows his body. If he really feels that he can't go on I'm not going to argue with him, especially here in the Grand Canyon where there are no "drop" options. This upper section of the North Rim is no more technical than the South but here there are large sections where the edge of the trail drops off hundreds of feet. I couldn't judge the distance accurately but it was a long way down, maybe even to the valley floor. "Don't trip, don't trip" I kept telling myself. By the time I passed 7500ft I felt the effects of the altitude, my heart was like a drum booming in my chest. Thirty minutes from the top I meet up with JP and Stephen making their way down. They looked great. I told them of Jason's situation and declined their gracious offer to wait for me. By this time Jason was probably already at the foot of the climb, starting the 8 mile journey back to Phantom Ranch. Finally I reached the top. It's hard to tell where the top is on the North Rim. You just keep going and going and going.... At the top there was no water available, damn! A sign informed me that the water had been turned off in preparation for winter. I was completely out of water, I couldn't hydrate or eat. Even the gels I had needed water to wash down. So I quickly turned around and headed down. No wonder those guys were in a hurry to get down themselves. Definitely faster going down, yet not too fast because it was rocky and technical. Tripping would be a bad thing remember. It was 10:45AM by the time I headed back towards the South Rim. I took a bunch of pictures on the way down, with my heart about to beat itself out of my chest the frequent stops did me good and the scenery was gorgeous. Down, down, down, I went, when I heard the waters of the creek I knew I was getting close. Back at the artist's home, I filled up on water and food. Recharged I prepared for the trip to Phantom Ranch.

By this time all three of them were miles away, with Jason leading the way. JP and Stephen wouldn't catch Jason until Phantom Ranch. It was just me at this point. There were sections where it was just me, no other runners or hikers. I felt alone and small in this great canyon. It moved me to pray and meditate, as much as I could while running. I did stop a few times just to express my gratitude for my life and this experience. From here the South Rim looked so far. Unlike the North Rim this section of the South Rim is like a giant wall, stretching left to right, gray and distant. It looked so far! Nevertheless I managed to keep chugging along. In fact I was feeling good and moving quite well. Bright Angel Canyon looked better in the light and as I got closer to Phantom Ranch I started to encounter more and more hikers. So something about hikers, some of them don't like runners. Some of them are hostile to runners. Unlike Stephen I actually did not have a run in with any of them but I felt the unwelcome vibe. Something about us ruining their peace and us taking for granted the view because we are moving too fast....blah, blah, blah. I run, I hike, they're both good. By the time I got to Phantom Ranch they were already gone, missed them by an hour. So I filled up my bottles again, took in more food and water. The final leg was daunting, 6+ miles and 5000ft of climbing back to the top of South Rim. It was a little after 2PM when I finally left and I was really, really pooped at this point.

From here it was all new to me visually, we missed all this running in the dark. The bridge was awesome and that's one big green river. There was even a small beach near the foot of the bridge. Snap, snap, snap, more photographs and I was off. I was feeling pretty done at this point. I had a deep down fatigue that was getting worse. Ah but this is the Grand Canyon, there's no dropping out at an aid station. I was tired enought to keep hallucinating seeing the guys waiting for me at some switch back or trail section. It would turn out to be rocks or trees. Anyway as I mentioned earlier, the South Rim is like one big wall and as I was climbing I kept thinking "how are you going to get up there?". Had I not come down this very trail this morning I would have doubted that the trail really did take us to the top. Up and up, sometimes running, mostly hiking and the sun was going down, lower and lower and lower. We started so early because we wanted to finish while there was still light out, this would be true for the other guys but not for me. I was losing the race against the dimming light. 3 miles to the top I got really hungry and had myself a little picnic on the side of the trail. Oooff, it was tough to get going again but I felt a lot better. The bottom part of the canyon was now getting dark with the top crowned with golden light. It was at this point that I used up all my water. I did save 2 ounces for a good gulp but nothing more than that. Note to self, going up takes more water. It wasn't even that hot, in fact the temperatures all day was moderate. I could see how someone could dehyrate trying to get out of this canyon in the summer. Anyway this was all running/hiking by instruments now. I couldn't see how much more I had to go but the altimeter on my watch told me exactly how much altitude was left and along with my chronometer I knew how many more miles I needed to go. I was traveling a mile per half hour at that point. I didn't care how far or how near things looked I just trusted my watch and it's readings.

About a half mile from the top I encountered a couple who were in trouble. The guy was fine but his girlfriend was hurting. She was complaining of achy legs and was very thirsty. She was complaining to her boyfriend who didn't seem to do much, in fact he didn't seem helpful at all. He was reluctant to talk or ask for help and he seemed embarrassed for his girlfriend. I gave her half of the 2 ounces of water I had left and continued on. 10 minutes out I realized that they didn't have a light. It was getting pretty dark now and as I pulled out my light, I left them my back up light lit on the side of a trail. I still had no idea how far we were to the top but the thought of them feeling their way in the dark worried me. At the top the guys were in the van waiting for me in the parking lot. Nice! No cars are allowed there but there they were. I informed them of the situation and came back down the trail with water. I gave her the water, gel and the good news that they were not too far from the top.

Turns out they originally planned for a short hike. They had a sensible plan, hike down 3.5 miles, then hike back up. They started at 10AM and brought 8-12ounce water bottles with them. Their problems started when once they got down to the 3.5 mile mark they continued down to the bridge. They made it down there easy enough since it's a downhill walk but was not prepared for the trip up. Worse they made it to the bridge but didn't continue further to Phantom Ranch where they could have bought more water and food. In canyons the way down is always easy, it seduces you with an easy decent and you only realize your mistake when it's time to go back up, by then it's too late. Well that's what happened to these guys. The woman also admitted that her longest hike in preparation for this trip was only 5 or 6 miles. I'm willing to bet none of those included a continous 6 mile uphill. Well they were fine once they got back to the top and we also ended up giving them a ride back to their lodge since they also missed the shuttle bus.

Back at the hotel, we quickly cleaned up and headed out for dinner. Dinner place was the same as Friday night's, a pizza and pasta joint. I had the same thing I had the night before, spaghetti and meatballs but this time it was chased down with a 22 ounce mug of beer. Sleep was a lot better until my phone woke me up at 2AM, I forgot to turn the danged alarm off. Again can I just say how great it was that JP wore earplugs. Not a stir on his side of the room.

The next day, still glowing from our adventure, we had ourselves a good breakfast at the El Tovar lodge, fancy place on the South Rim. After a filling and delicious breakfast we found our way to the bookstore where I bought a book and Stephen got his wife some jewelry. We were definitely moving a little slower, a little stiffer but happy. From the Grand Canyon we made our way to Flagstaff. Hung out there for a bit, visited some shops and had some coffee, even some people watching. A quick dinner at Phoenix then it was on to the airport for our trip back to San Francisco. What a great adventure!


Things Learned:
*
Water treatment pills are no use when there is no water available to treat. Like the top of the North Rim.
*
Elevation changes are much harder when they come in huge chunks.
*
You need more water at the end of a run than at the beginning.
*
You can't fear what you are oblivious to so read and learn, do some research. Fear in a place like the Grand Canyon is a healthy thing.
*
If you tape your foot to protect from blisters you will get blisters on the untaped part.
*
Going downhill is always better but sometimes not by much

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