Wednesday, November 12, 2008

GC R2R2R--The Full Story

First, sorry about being so late with this post--it's been a busy couple of weeks. This run was typically haphazard of me. The Grand Canyon really deserves more respect than I gave it. With a Double Crossing covering 42ish miles (South Kaibab-North Kaibab-South Kaibab) and somewhere between 11,000' and 12,000' of vertical, it shouldn't be taken lightly. I had completed it for the first time last spring--casually--while Kyle, Scott J, and I were spending a few weeks in Northern Arizona. During that run I had only taken six gels with me and had bonked pretty badly coming back up the Bright Angel trail at the end of the day. To the point that I begged a Clif Bar off of a hiker somewhere above Indian Gardens because I didn't feel like I was going to make it otherwise. One thinks I would've learned something from that. Apparently not.

This time around, I spent the week before the run getting very little sleep in the final Get-Out-The-Vote effort leading up to the election, but still ran enough to log 180 miles in the 7 days before my GC effort. Also, I elected to make the drive from Colorado Springs to the South Rim all in one day instead of breaking it up over two days. Driving 12 hours solo is mentally and physically draining (for me, at least), which is weird considering that I'm just sitting the entire time. Anyways, after pulling into Tusayan on the South Rim sometime well after 10pm, finding a nice spot on a forest service road and finally crawling into the Roost, I'd resolved to make my Double Crossing another casual effort; I just didn't want the added mental stress of trying to crank it out solo on little sleep.

I woke up at 6am Saturday morning, and--as anyone who knows me--took my typical dawdling time getting ready to the point that I actually didn't hit the trail until 7:43am. I had a Clif Bar for breakfast, filled my water bottles, packed what I thought would be a sufficient eight gels into my shorts pockets and bottle straps and slipped a couple Endurolytes in there too in case it got hot. The ~6 minute jog over to the Rim from the picnic area/parking lot was frigid. The sun wasn't high in the sky yet, I was wearing only a pair of shorts and a singlet, and my paws were both gripping two bottles of downright icy water. I couldn't feel my hands at the rim.

A funny thing happened when I hit the Start button on my watch, though; my legs just immediately took off. This is typically how it goes on test-piece runs for me: I can't help but give a little extra effort just to see how I measure up. Despite all of my mental waffling the night before, I knew within two strides that I would go for it today for as long as the legs would let me.

The run down South Kaibab was the usual dichotomy of ecstasy over the rising of the morning sun on the spectacular stratigraphy and frustration with the pure shit nature of that trail. Water bars suck. My legs felt decent enough--I never felt smooth really on that first downhill--and I was only slowed up by a minute or so from a couple of ascending mule trains. Also, the trail was maybe the most deserted I've seen it ever. It couldn't have been because of the weather, though. The temperature was perfect with crystal clear skies. I continually marvelled at the grandiosity and scale of the immense landscape. The Grand Canyon is a necessary annual pilgrimage for me--what a fantastic place.

I hit the bridge at the Colorado River just under 54 minutes. I felt good about that time. It was a couple minutes quicker than I expected, so I just hoped that I hadn't already trashed my quads; it didn't feel like it. I took the short cruise over to Phantom Ranch to get my running legs back under me (after all the downhill), and I ran right past the Canteen in 1:01.

The run from Phantom up Bright Angel Creek to Roaring Springs is my favorite section of trail on the entire Double Crossing. The Box is a very narrow canyon with perfect singletrack right next to the creek, and the grade of the trail is such that it climbs almost imperceptibly. On this portion of the trail I focused on getting into a very comfortable but quick rhythm, maintaining a high cadence, and conserving energy in everything I did. And also just enjoying the beauty of the morning. My effort was such that I felt like I was cruising right up and over all of the little rises in the trail. I hit my first gel somewhere a long in this stretch and ended up taking one every 30 minutes or so from there on, until I ran out of gels.

My confidence was bolstered when I hit Cottonwood Campground in 2:03. This meant I had run from Phantom in 1:02--a full six minutes faster for that section than when I did this run last spring. I was a bit worried that I was running too fast--last spring Kyle and I had decided that the pace we had run that day through that section would be sufficient for a record attempt, and I was six minutes faster than that. I decided not to worry and just make sure things felt comfortable.

The run over to the Pumphouse only took 15 minutes from Cottonwood. I completely drained one of my water bottles and stashed a full bottle beside the trail just before the bridge at the Pumphouse. I then took another 20 seconds are so to fill my empty bottle and began the real climb to the North Rim at 2:18.

I felt good on the climb. I was now running in the sun but it wasn't hot. The start of this climb always feels so much more effortless than I expect it to...what a great trail. However, after a couple of flatter sections, the trail really climbs steeply--with a lot of water bars again--until it finally descends a couple of switchbacks down to another bridge. I hit this bridge in 2:49 feeling good after consciously taking this first half of the climb easy.

However, above the bridge, things started to feel a bit rough. The switchbacks there are as steep as anything on the whole climb and I was getting a bit tired. Finally, the Supai Tunnel came into view (reached in 3:03) and I realized that I was probably going to have a serious cushion on my plans of reaching the turn-around in 3:30.

But, the next section sucked. I tried to keep the effort mellow and easy, but the trail had turned to deep dust/sand (as a result of a summer of mule trains pulverizing it) and I was feeling super inefficient. I even walked a few yards while sucking down a gel, and reaching the top of the climb seemed as interminable as ever. Finally, right at 3:30 I tagged the North Rim kiosk, turned around, and immediately began the long descent.

Within a couple minutes of descending I essentially mentally gave up on any sort of record attempt. I just felt cashed. My legs didn't have any real pep on the descent and I was having to force myself to push the downhill at anything other than casual cruise. Eventually, I just gave in and tried to stop caring, and, of course, this is when things started to feel a bit better and I decided I would just keep running and see what kind of time I hit. I really did not feel good on basically the whole descent back down to the Pumphouse, though.

When I did get to the Pumphouse (in 4:15), I quickly refilled my (drained) water bottle, skipped across the bridge, picked up my other water bottle (nice and cool from resting in the shade) and continued on my way down the trail. The now gradual downhill nature of the trail did a lot to make my legs feel better and I took another Endurolyte to stave off any cramps from the downhill.

I guess I pushed pretty hard on the rest of the run back down to Phantom Ranch. I passed Cottonwood in 4:25 and then felt moderately good after that; there was definitely a sense of "Ok, let's just try to hold this together for as long as possible" combined with a knowing reality of impending doom. I knew that last climb was going to be a monster no matter how I rationalized it. About 20-30 minutes out from Phantom, the whole exercise became a real chore.

However, I reached the canteen at Phantom in a still-not-bad 5:17, quickly refilled both bottles (and chugged a full bottle), and was back on my way. I wanted nothing more than to sit down and regroup for 10 minutes or so, but I was hoping I would find something miraculous on the climb and could still pull this thing out.

Of course, it was not to be. I hit my 8th and final gel right before crossing the bridge back to the south side of the Colorado River (5:26), gamely ran the first few yards of the climb, and then just settled into a hard hike. There wasn't much else to the rest of the "run". That is, I alternated between hiking and jogging the rest of the way, and even that was punctuated with a lot of really slow hiking and a couple episodes of hands-on-knees, staring-at-my-toes dizziness that I can only attribute to low calories and electrolytes. It was frustrating. I was surprised at how I was still able to run a fair amount of the flatter stuff, but my actual climbing ability at that point was just laughable.

One notable occurrence was a couple of enormous condors that seemed to dive-bomb me during one of my more delirious moments of uphill hiking--what magnificent creatures.

Finally, I drained both of my bottles, and out of pride I began running for good on the longish flat section before the final climb up "Jacob's Ladder" (damn those final switchbacks) and tagged the South Rim kiosk at 7:16:54. After a few minutes slumped against the kiosk itself, I got up and jogged the 3/4 of a mile back to the Roost, peeled off my dusty 790s, and was done.

Upon reflection, there are a few things for me to take away from this run:
1) Endurolytes are not S! Caps. They each only have 40mg of sodium, and that is not enough.
2) A true, race-type effort of the Double Crossing takes some serious calories. I need to use a small waist-pack next time (Nathan 5K or some such) and pack 15 gels or so. And 8-10 S! Caps. Speaking of race-type efforts, an R2R2R record attempt probably deserves an actual taper, too.
3) The Grand Canyon is absolutely astounding. A majestic landscape that never fails to enthrall, amaze, humble, and inspire me. It essentially makes me find my religion. And for that, a run there is never a waste.

The rest of the trip was a blast. The next day I did a great 100% singletrack 4 hour loop in the San Francisco Peaks of Flagstaff from 8000' to 12,000' (Weatherford Trail to Humphrey's to Kachina trail back to Schultz Pass) and on Monday I had a splendid run on the PCT/AC100 course from Inspiration Point to the top of Mt. Baden-Powell (9400') and back, just outside of Wrightwood, CA.


Michael Quispe said...

Good to have you back Tony. Will probably see you on some trails some time in the Spring.

- Mike

GZ said...

Excellent report - good beta. I was playing with heading down there this weekend but chickened out because I was thinking of driving down in a day. It was more the driving back in a day that freaked me out ...Might head down there this spring.

Anonymous said...

great report -- how i miss those trails...

Coolrunnings said...

What's the roost?

Rocky said...

I'm going to give Rocky Racoon a try. I'm not much of a runner (more of a jogger/hiker), but would love some advice if you got any. (Maybe one day I can get out of the Kansas/Oklahoma/Texas area and see some of the more senic courses like the ones you run on--Grand Canyon sound awesome!).

Dave said...

Smoking times. Smokin! I'm amazed at how guys like you and Karl can bust downhill so fast for so long.

When you get the nutrition dialed, you'll destroy the Double. My last was in a little over 13 hours (all hiking), and you only beat me on the last ascent by 20 minutes!

I look forward to hearing about the Tonto thru-run, too.

Joe B said...

I really enjoy reading your blog. I read in one of your previous posts that you're not quite sure how you feel about blogging. So, for what it's worth, I'm about four and a half months through a year in Iraq and I check your blog for updates every day. You do a wonderful job of transporting me from this sad place to a much better one that I love and miss so much. Your description and feelings for the Grand Canyon (one of my special places as well) is what finally motivated me to write.

Thanks for your thoughtful and inspiring words.

-Joe B

Stuart Swineford said...

Thanks for the report. I am hoping to do this run in the Spring and your beta is very helpful. What is the earliest you have done this particular run in the Spring?


Anton said...

Patrick--The Roost is my pick-up w/ a loft in the back. I lived in it for 5 months this year.

Mike--I don't really have too much advice except the usual stuff of, you can finish if you really want to and are willing to put in some LONG runs/hikes before race day.

Dave--The fact that you did the last climb only 20 minutes slower than me (while on a 13 hr pace) is pretty illustrative of how (relatively) slowly I was moving at the end that day...I'll be back sometime to give it another crack.

Joe B--Wow. I was a bit taken aback by your comment. I really can't imagine the sacrifices you've been asked to make. Thanks for reading, and I'll try to post more in the future.

~stubert--It's possible to do the double-crossing pretty darn early in the spring. The real issue is snow on the North Rim. The earliest I've run to the North Rim was in February 2006. There was some snow above Supai Tunnel, but nothing that was too troublesome. Last April I was still crossing a few drifts on the upper switchbacks while it was 90+ degrees at the bottom of the canyon.

Charlie said...

have you always had your "minimalist" running philosophy, or was there a time when you'd show up to a race wearing a hydration pack, and be bundled up in hat, gloves and windproof jacket on a 50 degree day (god bless those recreational
5k runners)? What made you realize you could accomplish such huge runs with so little equipment (I read in one of your posts you did a 30 miler with only a muffin for breakfast and no water or gel)? Did you work your way up to that point, or did you just wake up one day and start running with shoes and shorts?

SC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SC said...


Ironically, Charlie asked a really similar question to what I was going to ask. I bought "Indulgence" last December and was truly inspired to stop racing my road bicycle and head for the trails! I'll be running my first ultra this January! I really don't want to throw down a bunch of money on all of the stuff that everyone seems to be wearing these days (i.e. hydration vests, gaiters, etc.) but I also don't want to get out on a trail and get dehydrated or bonk either. What would you advise?

Also, to echo Joe B's comment...I'm in the military, too, and love checking your blog to see what you've been up to and read your descriptions of your runs. Luckily, I'm in Southern California, and not Iraq, but still I dream of the day here in a couple of years when I'm a "normal" civilian again and can grow my hair out and hit the trails whenever I want! I'm proud to be the liberal voice in the military until then thoguh! haha!

Good luck with your running. Let me know what you suggest on race gear. Thanks and keep on running!


mnodurft said...

nice work. endurolytes are definitely not scaps.

Brett said...

Hi Tony, were you at NF50 to watch Kyle? Have been hoping to find a race report from someone somewhere...

Ben said...

Dear Anton,

I miss reading your posts. Please post again.


Unknown said...

Very good report Tony

I visited the grand canyon a while ago, I wish I had the stamina to run in this landscape.

Maybe a good reason to come back in this amazing place in the future.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tony,

Great blog, very inspiring.

Did you by chance have thai noodles in flagstaff after your RNRNR? I ate there and spoke with someone who had just done one and looked a lot like you... I had a large goatee


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