Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grand Canyon R2R2R

The Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R, or R^3) is a spectacular, classic trek on foot across one of the natural wonders of the world. It is a remarkable and challenging endeavor that can be done as a multi-day hike, but among runners, it is done as a one-day test of endurance. Depending on the route, it is between 42 and nearly 50 miles, and the fastest known time (FKT) is currently Dave Mackey's astounding 6:59. Hundreds of runners and hikers attempt the double-crossing each year, with late Spring (April) and early Fall (October) being especially popular to avoid both heat and snow.

While wanting to run at the best of our ability, it's also a celebration to be able to step back and become inspired by the Canyon itself. It is a privilege to be able to visit the Canyon itself, which is why it is rightly popular with both American and international tourists. Unfortunately, for most visitors, the Canyon is a simple drive along the Rim, barely worth leaving the car other than to visit the gift shops.

“Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”
-- Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

And so, more important than the ability to run in a given footrace, a sturdy pair of legs, following the beat of a healthy heart, serves as a vehicle to free the mind and deliver the soul to the beautiful places of the Earth -- the places that have been crafted over millenia, the primitive and untamed places, places worthy of worship precisely because they are older than what man has ever known.

This is why we were inspired to descend from the surface, to discover a new world over a mile below.

But first, of course, was "The Love Muffin."
Alex had suggested a stop at The Love Muffin Cafe in Moab, nearly halfway through our drive, which serves up delicious breakfasts and quirky T-shirts in equal measure, as well as muffins: some, with bacon, but non-baconated muffin choices as well.

After this, it was onward toward Arizona. We were making decent time, but the clouds started to gather to the west. Past Kayenta, Arizona, we began climbing toward Marsh Pass, which wasn't much of a mountain pass by Colorado standards. However, this spot in Arizona was the first seasonal snowfall most of us had seen this year:

We were still a few hours from the Park, so we hoped that the weather would clear and we wouldn't have to deal with snow on the route. As predicted, the weather was drier as we headed West. Finally, we reached the Park near sunset, just in time to view what we would be exploring in the morning.
South Rim at Sunset:

After the sun dropped, so did the temperature, with nighttime lows of mid-20s predicted. We headed back to our campsite at Mather campground, and I put on most of the clothes I had brought with me, which meant I had 4 layers of shirts and 2 layers of pants on, in addition to a hat and a pair of gloves. This was sufficient, provided that I was close enough to our campfire. We enjoyed a delicious carbo-loading pot luck pasta, salad, and beer, before heading into our tents.

We had made a few group decisions on the route and logistics. Namely, we'd head down South Kaibab, and up Bright Angel, and we'd all head out together in the morning. This would add three miles to the total, and likely affect our chances of breaking the FKT for the canyon(!), but we'd see more of a variety of scenery, the Bright Angel canyon is more shaded from the sun, and the trail has more water taps (2) than South Kaibab (0). We decided to park cars near Bright Angel, then, and took a shuttle to South Kaibab, which does not allow parking.

And so we awoke, groggy and very cold, and headed out for the first bus at 5AM. Driving around a bit disoriented, we missed it. As it turned out, this was perfectly OK, as 5AM has a bit more hiker traffic and it meant less running in the dark for us.

But it was still very cold! I began with tights and 5 upper layers of clothes while waiting for the bus. Just before the bus came, I remembered to ditch a heavy fleece, but I still carried an unnecessary 2 warm layers of clothes and the tights, as ~15 minutes of running and the warmer temperatures in the canyon were easily sufficient. The extra layers of clothes took up half the space and a good amount of weight (especially being wet from sweat/water).

Also being overly cautious, I had capacity for over 100 ounces of water (though I didn't always carry this much), and I did bring a small multi-tool and lighter amongst more reasonable items, meaning that I was a rare runner that carried all ten essentials, although I clearly didn't need them. I otherwise had a fistful of gels, shot blocks, and a PB&J sandwich. Although I had some Gatorade, I should have brought electrolyte capsules.

We started together and wished each other well as we split off into small groups. Pete and I stayed together, at a very relaxed pace with stops for pictures and gear adjustments. We encountered numerous hikers on the trail, but most were sufficiently courteous and aware to let us through.

Pete surveying the South Rim at Sunrise:

In no time, it seemed, we were down at the river.

Bridge across the Colorado River:

We stopped at Phantom Ranch for a water fill, restroom break, and more gear adjustments. Again, I wished I hadn't brought so many clothes, as I had to dig them out of the way to get more food out, and I had unnecessarily brought an extra unused liter of water down the canyon, yet still refilled out of caution.

The temperature at the bottom of the still-shaded canyon was perfectly cool running weather.

A panoramic view of the Colorado River:

This suspension bridge also carries a pipe beneath it:

Now it was time for a rolling 7 mile section, with a rushing creek nearby echoing off the canyon walls. As we left Phantom Ranch, we saw few other hikers and runners and mostly had the place to ourselves.

Down in the Canyon:

At Cottonwood Campground, we filled water again, and prepared for the 7 mile trek up to the North Rim. By now, we had encountered a few other running groups, from the Bay area and from St. Louis, and chatted with them a bit. But I was also looking forward to the power-hike up the steeper stuff, and I headed up on the hike with Pete behind, knowing he'd catch up at my next break and on any of the flatter stuff.

Ribbon Falls:

Roaring Springs:

Views down below the North Rim, where the walls are steeper:

Once Pete and I were less than a couple miles from the top, we encountered the infamous scourge of the Canyon, worse than heat or snow or rains and flash floods...

The dreaded Mule Trains.

A mule train is a line of an unusual sort of fauna found nowhere else on earth. Each individual unit is 1/3rd horse, and 2/3rds ass. It is formed when a jack (male ass) mounts a mare (horse), before the resultant offspring is finally mounted by a lazy tourist. This process is repeated 6-8 times to form a train, and then another half dozen times to form a Really Big Inconvenience, resulting in raunchy piles of waste and deep puddles of fetid urine.

But: it's a tradition!

Pete and I gamely waited for each of 6 or so mule trains to pass, giving wide berth to unpredictable but thankfully well-trained and behaved animals. All mule guides were thankful and courteous, though some were encouraging of our activity and explained it to the tourons, while others warned us to "Be Careful." Most tourists were courteous as well, though only a very few were actually curious enough to ask us how and what we were doing; less, in fact, than the number that proudly exclaimed how much fun they were having, and a couple that were conquering their fear of heights and animals.

Good! We're in the middle of a 45 mile run, thankyouverymuch!

After the last train had passed, we got back into a rhythm of climbing, and soon worked our way from Summer back into Fall, as Pete put it, with red and yellow foliage, along with pine trees, replacing the desert flora below.

Finally, after about 4:45, we reached the top:

Pete and I on the North Rim, in front of the water taps:

This was cold enough to don more layers again, which we quickly shed within 10-15 minutes. And soon enough, we saw Alex! And then Cat! They were having a great day as well, and were looking good.

Pete had now pulled ahead, and as I told him several times earlier, he was welcome to do so, as I figured I'd descend more slowly. I did have sore legs and feet already and was tentative on the descent, reminding me once again that I need to train specifically on downhill running, as well as watching electrolyte balance to avoid quad cramps. I saw Pete a few more times on the switchbacks below, but otherwise we were now all running solo, spread out on the trail.

I enjoyed the renewed warmth and views, but was feeling tired, and not looking forward to the 7 mile stretch at the bottom of the canyon. I had a rough idea of "10 hours" as a goal time for the route, thinking we'd do South Kaibab in both directions. I wasn't sure how the BA route would affect it, but I figured I was slowing down more than I would have liked. But, I kept moving, and reached Phantom Ranch at 7.5 hours. As I filled up on water, I learned from another camper that the Milwaukee Brewers had won their game the night before: a bit of news from the surface.

As I was getting ready to leave Phantom Ranch, I saw a familiar face: my friend Tina, from San Diego! She recognized me as I saw her, and we caught up for a bit. She was leading a hiking group on a 2-day trek. It was amazing to see someone I knew, pretty much halfway between Colorado and California.

Did I mention the weather was near perfect? Cloud cover arrived late morning, preventing the canyon from baking in the heat. I was sweating lightly, but was otherwise very comfortable.

Now it was time for new scenery.
Returning up the Bright Angel Trail, which begins in soft sand:

There were some flat spots and even descents in the beginning, which I was tired of. When I'm too tired to run decently, my pace is way off of what I can run it fresh, whereas my tired power-hiking pace isn't that much (proportionally) slower than a fresh pace. Finally, the steady climbing started, and it was time to get into a zone of working uphill for a few hours.

I saw Shaun here, who had turned around earlier from cramping but was otherwise doing OK and looked better than any other hiker going up the trail.

The South Rim was interminably high above us, but it was fun to see how much climbing we were doing, and know that the trail led all the way up there. And no longer did we have the tranquility of the lower canyon: this was a parade of hikers. Some were enjoying the day, but other people didn't share that vision: A crossfit group was doing a North-to-South hike, and already looked exhausted, but couldn't believe we were going up to the top of that. I wasn't running, but it was fun to pass dozens upon dozens of hikers each mile. Some would stand and stop as soon as I passed (not expecting to get passed themselves), and one woman said I looked "too peppy!" I tried to encourage all of them that seemed receptive to it. This would not include the "Ipod" set, which were easily startled and apparently wanted to think about anything but the Grand Canyon.

As we got nearer to the top, switchback after switchback, I turned around occasionally to take in more of the view. Finally, I jettisoned the extra liter of water. I was very near 11 hours, and the last tunnel and top was near, so I started a jog to get to the top right at 11:00-something.

Finally, I was done! An obviously memorable day. I headed towards the bus to get to the car, and abandoned thoughts of an extra few miles of running to get to the car. I had a painful jog to the bus and then missed it by seconds -- my normally reliable power faded. I waited for the next bus with some international students from Harvard Business School, who excitedly asked me about the trip (they had hiked to Phantom Ranch and back). The bus arrived, and the bus driver was curt with tourists who wouldn't move back to make room, and with other gapers on the side of the road (blocking it) to take pictures of an elk, which probably describes most of her route most of the days. But she listened in on our conversation and asked about running, barefoot running, etc.



I returned to the campground and saw Pete. Within an hour or so, everyone else arrived, having had a safe and fun adventure of their own. Ron and Lisa had left us a nice treat of Grand Canyon beer! We took luxurious 8-minute showers at the campground -- I rarely stand around in the shower that long at home -- before getting pizza and beer at the Pizza Pub in the village, and then returning for a campfire. I had a great time hanging out with the whole group.

We drove home via Durango, where Alex, Ean, and I stopped at Nini's Taqueria, which was awesome. Fresh ingredients, fast but good prices, beer and wine available, blue corn tortillas, half a dozen salsas...the only thing that was missing was a green chile (though they didn't claim to be New Mexican...)
Hint: Instead of 3 tacos, order 2 plus a side of rice and beans: you'll get a variety of more food that way!

We enjoyed seeing yellow aspen among the fresh snow on Wolf Creek Pass, which had enough snow to open for skiing for the weekend. I enjoyed the rest of the drive with them, as we discussed my second-favourite topic (running), as well as my first (everything else, e.g. books, math, personal histories, etc.).

In all, it was a fantastic trip, not only with incredible natural scenery, but also spending time with wonderful people. I am eternally grateful for both.


  1. A great day in the ditch! Rocking. The ditch is a trip like no other. Thanks for sharing the journey report.

  2. Thanks GZ, used some of your beta from last year, so I appreciate that.
    And although we took Bright Angel up (good choice, as JT recommended also), your time would've easily "beat" mine, even though we had a perfect day. FWIW, that should give you *even more* confidence about your run this Saturday!

  3. Love that run, glad you got to knock it off the list. I've gone back three consecutive years, it doesn't get old...

  4. Great report Mike. I am very glad you came and I too enjoyed the conversations in the car, over pizza and around the campfire. I look forward to another adventure soon.

  5. Congratulations! Great report and pictures, it really provides a sense of the varying sections and terrain.

    >before the resultant offspring is finally mounted by a lazy tourist

    Good laughs too.

    Ten essentials: I hear ya, I carry 9 out of 10 on long mountain runs, except for the first aid kit (guess I should do that). You never know, especially solo.

    Nini's Taqueria: Not sure how I missed that one, they are killing it on Yelp.

  6. Thanks Alex for organizing the trip!

    Thanks Jeff for suggesting that you read it!
    Nini's was a random pick purely by driving at the south end of town, parking, and all 3 of us being too achey and slow to walk far. "Taqueria" sealed the deal!

  7. Very nice! That is definitely on the bucket list. Welcome back to the surface. Go Brew Crew!

  8. Great write-up. Got that run on the to-do list! Maybe this spring...