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.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Grand Canyon Double Crossing

Just a quick note from here in Flagstaff. I did the classic R2R2R route (Kaibab Trail on both Rims) today completely solo in 7:16:54. I'd been bandying about the idea of going after Dave's year-old FKT of 6:59:56 for the past week, but with 180 miles in the 7 days before today and with 12 hours of solo driving yesterday I clearly wasn't thinking about it that seriously.

In any case, I gave it a solid effort today, but a lack of calories and electrolytes (not to mention long runs and just consistent running in general, having only been truly healthy for the past 5 weeks or so) did me in and I bonked in a big way coming back up South Kaibab. This is not unusual when one attempts this run. I'll post a more in-depth report of the run later.

Dogwood Canyon 50K Race Report

I need to write this before I forget all about this was already two weeks ago.

New Balance was a big sponsor of the Bass Pro Shops Fitness Festival in southern Missouri, so they offered to fly Kyle and I out there to compete in the 50K or 25K trail races that were occuring the first weekend of the Festival. There was $1000 for 1st in the 50K and $500 for first in the 25K, so we decided, "Why not?"

My plane out of the Springs was delayed so I missed my connector and ended up getting into Springfield, MO about 5 hours later than planned. No problem. The next morning, Monty from the local running club met me at the hotel they put me up in and drove me down to Dogwood Canyon for the race. We picked up Kyle along the way. All in all, Bass Pro's hospitality during this weekend was top-notch.

The night before, Kyle had decided to run the 50K, too (he'd originally been planning on the 25K), so we did a quick 15 minute warm-up together on the course, shed our warm clothes and lined up for the start. It was our understanding that there would be gels on the course, so we both just carried a bottle and a couple gels to get started. I also had a couple salt caps because it was more humid than I was used to.

We started with the 25Kers, and a few of them shot off the front right from the start. Kyle had met a local Kenyan at the pasta dinner the night before who was running the 50K; apparently he'd just won the Kansas City Marathon the week before. After shooting out to a quick lead in the first couple hundred yards, this fellow looked around for Kyle and I and quickly dropped back and tucked in behind us. It was pretty clear he was just going to stick with us.

The course was basically a big 25K loop that had a little lolli-pop loop and a short out and back stemming off of it. The 50Kers would first run this loop clockwise and then complete it backwards the second time. The course was layed out in Dogwood Canyon, which, as far as I could tell, was the several thousand acre private ranch of the owner of Bass Pro.

It was surprisingly pretty country--covered in deciduous trees, occasional limestone cliffs/outcroppings and a lot of water in the river at the bottom of the canyon. The course itself essentially popped in and out of this canyon a bunch of times resulting in a 50K course with ~4500' of climbing in a series of 10 or 12 ~400' ascents and descents. Which was tough. The climbs and descents were almost always steep.

And the footing on the course was often extremely tricky. It was real trail running for sure even if it was almost 100% double-track. Much of the course was really rocky covered with a lot of fallen leaves so one could never be confident in one's footing. I turned my ankle and went down hard on one downhill, which isn't a big deal, but it was a surprisingly rocky, technical course. Kyle's feet were beat up for days afterwards.

Anyways, after an initial flat mile on a paved bike path the course led into the canyon where we started crossing the river for what would be a total of almost 30 times during the race. It was fun, but Kyle and I were almost certainly going a little too fast unconsciously trying to show this Kenyan what trail running is all about. The stream crossings were a blast, and I was glad I'd worn my hot RC130 New Balance flats whose open mesh upper drained like a dream.

On the initial climb, Kenyan buddy stuck pretty much right with Kyle and I, dropped a little right at the top, and then caught us again on the screaming descent. We led him through some more stream crossings went up a couple more hills and then tackled one of the steeper hills on the course where he just cranked it. I went with him for some reason (despite having some pretty well-founded doubts about my fitness---I'd only been running for about 3 solid weeks) and we dropped Kyle and even caught a couple of the top 25K runners (one of which was hiking the hill--it was steep).

At the top of this hill Kyle eventually caught back up to us (he had tripped over some barbed wire on the course...pretty crazy) and Kyle and I eventually put a little gap on Kenya. There was a short, technical out and back singletrack section where I could check out the competition and I noticed that A) I was only about a minute back from the 25K leaders, and B) Kyle and I seemed to be building a tiny bit of a lead. It must be noted, though, that the 25Kers weren't going slow...Kyle and I were just going too fast.

At about 50 minutes into the race we came to the 2nd aid station (we'd already gone by it once) where Kyle stopped for a few seconds while I jogged on ahead and the aid station workers directed us back down the canyon to repeat all the stream crossings we'd done earlier in the race. Kyle and I were cruising along feeling good about the fact that we'd seemingly dispatched with the competition when we came to the intersection to begin the "lollipop" loop and knew that we couldn't be going the right way. We'd also stopped seeing 25K signs. So, after going out 9 minutes and standing around for about a minute trying to decide what to do (and repeatedly expressing our chagrin at seeing our $1000 disappear) we started running back to the aid station we'd just left.

Within a few minutes we ran into a 25K runner and another 50K runner running at us and we turned them around and followed them back to the aid station. Somewhere in this ~1.5 miles back to the aid station Kyle and I both lost a whole lot of mental competitive steam. Kyle was ready to just do a training run if not drop out at the aid station altogether.

When we got to the aid station we saw our Kenyan friend standing there tying his shoe or something and a whole slew of 25K and 50Kers taking the correct turn into the woods where the aid workers had directed us incorrectly the first time. So it goes. Kyle spent a long time at the aid station (a minute or so) convinced that we had lost 20 minutes on the field and there was no way we could make up that amount of time on the rest of the field over the next 20 miles or so. However, I saw Mr. Kenya there (who I perceived as our main comp) and thought "Well great, the race is still even, then!" and proceeded to try to get my mind back into race mode over the next couple minutes.
Immediately after the aid station the course got particularly gnarly--we had to scramble throught a little ravine--and then began yet another climb. On this climb I fell into a much, much more relaxed pace than my earlier effort and began running with Matt Laye--the 50Ker who we'd met on our way back to the aid station during our bonus miles excursion.

Matt and I kept running comfortably--I was solidly into training run mode at this point, as Kenya was nowhere to be seen (he would never be a factor again and would finish more than 20 minutes back )--and eventually Kyle caught back up to us. By this point I'd resolved to at least finish the race as a nice training run and Kyle seemed to be debating back and forth with himself to join me or whether to drop at the next aid station.

It turned into a very nice training run. The conversation between Matt, Kyle, and I was interesting and widely varying (Matt was moving to Copenhagen soon to get his PhD in Physiology and had spent some time running in the Springs, Kyle and I caught up after not seeing each other for a few weeks, etc., etc.). I stopped taking gels.

Then, on the way up yet another hill a woman directing runners told us that we were in 5th or 6th place. We could see some runners in front of us and when we passed them they turned out to be 50Kers (the lead runner at that point was an ex-college XC runner--Drew--from DePauw, who is in Colorado College's conference and knew some of my best friends) and the three of us quite unexpectedly were leading the race again.

However, less than 2 hours in and it seemed like we were back to the start of the loop already, which didn't seem possible considering our 20 minute excursion. We were convinced that we had somehow cut the course, launching ourselves into the lead (even though we were clearly running quite a bit faster than the former leader). However, when we got to the next aid station we were congratulated on our first place status and when we suggested that maybe we'd missed something someplace everyone was sure that we'd run everything.

Kyle was certain we were going to be disqualified--even with aid station workers cheering us on--and once again was ready to drop out but the three of us kept on running. Every time we came to an aid station, we'd come in with the attitude of, "Ok, let's try to attain some sort of clarity here" and end up leaving with the workers there cheering us as victors.

Eventually, we knew were running the right course (it was just the initial loop backwards, afterall) and figured that we'd finish out the course together and just talk to the race director afterwards to try and figure out where we went wrong.

And that was pretty much it. Kyle, Matt, and I eventually made it back through the canyon, splashed through the river crossings, and then picked it up a touch the last 10 minutes or so into the finish to cross the line three abreast in 3:48:58. It seemed a bit preposterous that--if we hadn't gone off-course--we would've run a sub-3:30 50K, so it's my feeling that the course is substantially short. Probably a couple of miles (1 mile per loop).

Immediately afterwards we talked with the person who had designed the course and the race director to try and determine if we'd run the whole course and should be disqualified or not, and apparently we ran everything plus the extra 20 minutes or so and had still won the race by a lot. It was a weird day. We ended up splitting the prize money three ways, and then Kyle and I went for a short cooldown and then a great soak in the gorgeous river flowing right past the start. A couple hours later we were back on airplanes and back home later that evening.

All in all, it was a really fun--if slightly chaotic--race that I would do again. It was Bass Pro's first year and they got a lot of things right, but for future editions I would suggest having a few more course marshals, especially people whose job would be to make sure that every bib number went through every aid station. For instance, at the out and back turnaround point on the 2nd loop there wasn't even anyone there to record your number to make sure you went around the cone. It was completely on one's honor---which is like a lot of things in ultrarunning---but with that much cash on the line, I think it's important to assure some measure of fairness.