Friday, May 6, 2011

2011 Grand Canyon R2R2R adventure

Last weekend I had the pleasure of returning to the Grand Canyon for another year. Unlike last year when I was solo, I had my best girl and wife Lily with me. Also along for the fun were my long time friend Nick Bingham and his wife Christy.

Last years trip was great, but not a R2R2R. This year I planned to complete the whole enchilada. Last year injury and lack of training had me do a shorter but just as rewarding trip to Ribbon Falls and back out.

Nick who I’ve known since high school was the person who first exposed me to trail running. Nick has always been a great runner. He has run top five at Western States 100 as well as sub-2:30 marathons. I looked forward to spending some time with him the trails. It had been along time since we had run any distance together.

Lily’s plan was to run down South Kaibab as we planned to. She would then visit Phantom ranch and then head back up Bright Angel Trail. Even with her recent performance at Way to Cool 50K I was worried about her running alone. The Grand Canyon can be unforgiving if you make a mistake. Her lack of experience with food and salt intake during a long outing worried me, but I keep reviewing with her what to do so I trusted she would be OK.

Like last year we elected to fly all the way to Flagstaff and then take a rental car the last hour+ to Grand Canyon. 13hr car rides really don’t sound fun to me any longer. We also got a room at the Yavapai Lodge instead of camping.

Nick and Christy live in Reno. After meeting in Phoenix, the plan was to fly together on the turbo prop to Flagstaff. When we met at the gate we were greeted with a sign that said FLIGHT CANCELED, uh oh not good.

We were told it was for maintenance and we would have to catch a later flight. This smelled fishy so Lily went to work and got us squared a way with some $$$$ courtesy of US Airways. We contemplated driving up from Phoenix, but a long drive did not sound fun to anyone.

We eventually flew out at 7:30pm. Once in Flagstaff we found out the plane we were supposed to take had some mechanical issues trying to leave Flagstaff to get to Phoenix. It made three aborted take off’s before the problem was found. Uh OK I’ll take the delayed flight. US Airways obviously lied to us, but we got some $$$ back so I’ll take it. We all later talked about what would have happened if it had made it back to Phoenix and then broke down with us on it.

Friday we did the tourist thing, rested up and visited with the group that was camping. Unlike last year there was no snow, but it was still very cold. The forecast for the following day showed very cool temps, even in the canyon NICE!!!!

I felt better looking out from the rim, unlike last year’s vertigo the minute I looked out over Bright Angel Trail. I did have problems being near people as we looked down or stood on a precipice.

Nick at one point ventured out onto a ledge while we were at Yaki Point. I had to step back from the wall completely and couldn’t watch much. An odd reaction, but for some reason watching other people on ledges was freaking me out.

Saturday morning we awoke at 4am to cold temps, but clear sky. Nick and I decided to not wait too long if the main group was running late.

At 5:05am were off. My anxiety with leaving Lily surfaced at the trail head. I snapped at her when discussing something about her running pack, (I later apologized to her). She told me she knows I do this when I worry about her. She reminded me later that I can’t do it all.

Nick and I descended slowly at first due to the cold. Unlike last year it was a lot darker most of the way to the river. The lack of picture breaks this year was the reason. I left the camera with Lily so any trail picture you see are from her. I took a few iPhone shots, but not much.

We hit Phantom Ranch in 1:17 and filled are packs for the push up the valley. A few miles after dropping my gloves and beanie I regretted my decision. The sun had not yet hit the valley floor. A stiff cold wind was also present, (all day). My hands suffered most of the trip up to the Ranger station at the base of the North Rim climb. My Reynard Syndrome was in effect for WAY to long. Had it not warmed up I would have had to turn around.

I think we hit the Ranger’s cabin in 3:30 +, I was feeling good and ready to get to some solid efforts in. I did a hard 30 miles in the WS100 Canyons the Saturday before. I was curious to see it I would be tired or not once the climbing started for really.

Soon after starting Adam Barstad caught us. He looked fresh and kept moving he later ran a 9:20ish for the whole R2R2R, WOW! Soon after Roaring Springs we got into the climb proper. I was fueled and feeling great. My fitness so far this year has continued to shock me so I must be doing something right in training.

As we started up into the steep stuff I began to feel the weight of trails height on me. Knowing this feeling I slotted into the third man slot to ascend at my own pace. As we headed up switch backs that were cut into the red rock my stomach dropped. Its tough not to see down at this point and the drop off of the trail we had just come up hit me when I looked.

Nick saw I was in trouble and stopped. As he got closer I stopped him because I felt like I had the day before. I explained my issues to him and how I knew I could get through it. I told him to go on, I would either trail behind or I would see him later at the bottom. After he left I took a few minute and pushed on, but I noticed a shake to my hands and knew I was toast. I’ve never had that before in these situations.

My goal on these trips is fun, not the R2R2R goal; it’s a by-product of my fun. So I turned and headed down. The steepness of the canyon wall you’re on stares you in the face as you go down. Knowing I was toast I took a second and looked out from the trail.

The canyon with all it steepness and grim finality had a beautiful energy to it that I wanted to experience more. But my physical fear of it was just too much for me to take in. It’s odd how fear can give you clarity and focus to see this beauty.

As I made my way down I was amazed how much scarier it was to go down the trail.

I soon ran into a few folks from the group starting their way up. I told them of my failure and wished them well. After a food break near the Ranger’s cabin I reassessed my plans for the day. It was too cold to hang where I was. I also did not want to waste time sitting. I also did not want to be the guy who not only didn’t finish the R2R2R, but ran less and had less climbing.

The climb up the valley from Phantom ranch does climb, but not steep like a Rim Trail. So I figured get what I can, but go for more miles and quality at that. I needed to be toast like everyone else for the climb up Bright Angel Trail.

So I channeled my inner 50K runner and ran like hell (sub 8mpm) down to Phantom Ranch. After loading back up a bit on water I turned around and headed back up the valley. Somewhere along the way I tweaked my left ankle which was hurting but runnable.

On my ascent back up I ran into Adam Barstad again at the 7hr mark. Ten minutes later I met back up with Nick and another day runner he was running with. We proceeded to run low sevens back to Phantom Ranch which was interesting to do after 7hrs of activity. My ankle was killing me during this time so I had to break down and suck down some Motrin.

We took our time in re-fueling and hydrating before pushing on. So far my Salomon pack had held up well. I was able to hold enough food that I didn’t need to buy anything at the Ranch.

We crossed the Colorado River and started the Bright Angel Climb slowly as the food digested and I let the Motrin kick in. I finally felt warm which was a nice change. Just before the Devils Corkscrew I soaked my ankle in the creek which helped a lot.

I set pace up front and got us to Indian Gardens feeling OK. I think I was more behind on food than I thought, but ate a bar hoping to keep my energy up. Gels at this point were making me gag. The great thing was that my legs still had snap to them. I could run when I wanted to with no cramping or the possibility of it showing up.

Just past the 2.5 mile toilet we both hit a low energy point. Gels were out of the question and I was out of solid food. Nick pulled out a giant Snickers bar that we spilt. It was Heaven, the caffeine in the chocolate had an instant effect and we pushed on better than ever.

We saw the wives at the last tunnel and tagged in at the top for an 11hrs finish.

Lily looked great. She told me she had a great day and only had an issue on the way up Bright Angel Trail. It sounded like she had a really bad bonk. Christy took great shots in the morning at South Kaibab Trail. She later went to Indian Gardens and back on her own. So everyone got a piece of the Canyon.

Once back home an ice bath and compression socks got me on the road to recovery. I had no blisters or feet issues of any type. Thank you Drymax socks.

We later went out and did a protein overload dinner. The Bright Angel Restaurant has a sampler platter with ribs, chicken and steak. Lily and I spilt it and ate it all, Yum.

The following day I felt great, the ankle pain was gone, but I could feel tenderness in one spot.

Sunday I showed everyone where I had bummed around last year in Flagstaff. The bar was there, but they no longer offered the cheese and bread tray. The club sandwich, fries and craft beer made up for it.

I offered to treat Lily to anything she wanted at the numerous outfitter stores in old town. She deserved it after the trail she tamed on her own. She proceeded to make the Patagonia store in town very happy.

Once home I downloaded the Garmin to see the damage. I’ve always been told the run is 10,000 ft of climbing and 46 miles long for the route we took, this always seemed too low to me.

Granted I did not hit the North Rim. I questimated I ran the same distance or farther in the valley. My Sport Tracks log said my run was 52 miles with 22,000ft of gain. Garmin Connect said it was 50 miles with 25,600ft of gain. The Garmin route had a lot of gaps and weird tracks. The Sport Tracks route was solid. Regardless of distance/elevation it was a good day, no R2R2R, but a long fun day with great people.



  1. Sounds like you and Lily had a great trip, despite the change in plans & flight delay.

  2. crazy rad. congrats on another huge accomplishment.