October 22, 2011

R2R2R

R2R2R or Rim to Rim to Rim is a double crossing of the Grand Canyon by descending the Bright Angel Trail from the south, ascending the north rim via the Kaibab Trail, backtracking down the Kaibab Trail and climbing to the south rim via the S. Kaibab Trail covering 44 miles and climbing 10,200 ft and of course descending 10,200 ft. I had never heard of R2R2R until this year when I noticed an article in Trail Running magazine – also a magazine I’d never heard of either. Two women had just set a new “known fastest time” or KFT (The KFT for Grand Canyon double crossing was improved upon again earlier this month – Nov 2011). Crossing the Grand Canyon sounded crazy to me, especially the times the women were finishing in - around nine hours, and certainly piqued my interest. Serendipitously, after one, of what was a string of marathon effort trail events, some friends mentioned they intended to run the R2R2R in October and I should join them. The timing was too good to be true. It would be five weeks past the Equinox Marathon and I would not only be in Denver the week before the event (great opportunity to do a bit of acclimatizing), but I would also be traveling from Flagstaff to Page, AZ directly following Denver. No better way to see the Grand Canyon than do it in one shot with a few friends.

I thought long and hard about this adventure. Was I tough enough? Would it hurt me? Could I hack it? Would I have to turn back? I was daunted and yet exhilarated to attempt something that only months earlier sounded to me an impossible feat.

How does one train for such an event? I’m not sure one does. I had logged more miles during the summer months than ever before. From late June until mid September I competed in a 15 mile rugged trail race at Granite Tors in the Chena Recreation Area, the 24 mile (or so) Crow Pass Crossing in the Chugach Mountains, a 24 mile Yukon Trail Marathon in Whitehorse, Canada, and the toughest 26.2 miles around, known as the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks.

After the Equinox Marathon, I squeezed one last 20 mile run, a few 12-15 mile runs and a 3 hour fun run around my old stomping grounds in Minnesota as I traveled all around the lower 48 for two and a half weeks before the R2R2R event.

The day before R2R2R I found myself racing to the Denver Airport in hopes to catch an earlier flight to Flagstaff and get a real night’s sleep before the event. Attempting to fly standby only left me sprawled out on the carpeted floor of the Denver Airport for 4 hours while I awaited my originally scheduled flight. My nerves worked themselves up so much I seriously considered abandoning the attempt all together. “This is crazy. I should bail. I shouldn’t do it.” I called Matias, my resource for ultra-running and someone in my life who seems to understand that I choose things bigger than me because somewhere in me I know I am up to the challenge. He reassured me. I had logged the miles. I had done the work. I’d feel worse if I didn’t try. He was right. It only took 5 minutes to talk me back into doing it. Ok. Game on.

With little real effort up to that point put towards what I would eat on this epic journey, I realized my two bananas and some homemade granola bars from my mom (more on those later) wouldn’t be enough. Aside from the Gu packs, Shotblocks and Powerbars, I needed something "real". I had heard turkey sandwiches worked great, but alas, by the time I hit Flagstaff nary a store would be open, so I was now limited to shopping at the airport. I saw a man walk by with a box of pizza. Pizza! During a layover in Phoenix, I snagged two personal pan sized pizzas from Pizza Hut. After doing my best to swab as much of the oil from them, I scarfed up three-quarters of a pepperoni and packaged up the remaining cheese and pepperoni for breakfast and for trail food.

Fast forward to Flagstaff. At 11 pm, I pointed the rental car north towards the Grand Canyon to an arranged hotel room on the edge of the south rim. At least 10 elk later, a little after 12:30 am, I pulled into Grand Canyon National Park and up to the main entrance of the Bright Angel Lodge. I left my gear in the car and roamed around the grounds frantically searching for the room #. It was on the third floor, but I couldn’t find the staircase. I saw someone and asked how I get upstairs. I was met with a puzzled look and a reply of “there isn’t an upstairs.” What? Oh no. “Well, is there a hotel around here that would have a third floor?” The man nodded and pointed me in the right direction. We were staying at El Tovar, not the Bright Angel Lodge. Completely stressed and fearing the wasted precious moments of rest, I raced around the drive, passed an elk as oncoming traffic and reached the correct hotel. I grabbed only what I needed, plus my bag full of pizza and dashed upstairs. The door was cracked, I snuck in with muted headlamp and into the bathroom, where I adorned my running clothes, organized my pack, and set everything exactly as I needed it in case I was delirious after only 3 hours of sleep. Finally I slid onto the floor where a bed had been left for me. Rest found me and when my iPhone alarm quacked the duck at 4 am, I popped up already dressed and felt oddly refreshed.

A cup of coffee, a piece of cold cheese pizza, a cold fried egg peeled off of a bagel sandwich and a banana later, I was ready to go.

We – Jim, Tab, Butch and myself – headed out the door at 5 am exactly and reached the Bright Angel Trailhead 9 minutes later. I was a complete bundle of nerves. How do we pace for this? Will we stay together? Will I be too slow? I decided the best position for me was to trail the slowest person and save something for the return trip. The descent was dark with a sky lit by only stars.

Dust kicked up by our sneakers coated everything in a dark red color. Stopping to pee, Jim nearly freaked out thinking he had peed blood, only to realize it was just the color of the soil. Down and down we went, slow and methodical and I was happy for that. The day dawned as we reached Indian Gardens. Feeling great and relieved that the pace seemed right on target for what I could handle, we reached the Colorado River and stopped for a bite of real food. The boys all downed a burrito of sorts – with beans, hummus, bacon and olives. I pulled out a piece of airport pizza. A duo from Canada with matching backpacks caught us. We had seen their headlamps descending earlier. We played leap frog with them up to the North Rim. They thought they had traveled far from Canada, until we told them we were from Alaska.

Phantom Ranch was nothing like I expected. It was, well, a ranch. I expected something more upscale, not too sure why, but was happy to see it’s simplicity. We re-upped on water and Butch made a phone call to his wife, mainly because there was a pay phone and he could. The mood remained jovial and lighthearted.

Off to the North Rim. I had no idea what to expect from this trail. How steep would it be? Would it be runnable? Happily the first few miles were a low angle uphill on a wide easily runnable trail through a steep narrow canyon following a river. Absolutely gorgeous. We nearly ran into a deer and two fawns. By this point we encountered a few other groups and I was surprised by the popularity of the event. Since most of my running events take place in Alaska, I was unaccustomed to seeing other people on the route. I presumed we’d be the only ones out there attempting the double crossing. Na├»ve. We encountered probably 20-30 people going for the double crossing that day – maybe even more.

As the steep canyon opened up into a large wide valley with sweeping views on the multi-layered and seemingly endless canyon looming above us, I spied a steady stream of people headed our way. What the? I couldn’t believe the sheer number of people hiking down. Amazing. Come to find out this was not a regular occurrence in the GC, but rather, 300 people from Phoenix had been bussed in that day to hike north to south. Aside from the hassle of maneuvering around the oncoming traffic, I found their numbers exhilarating and distracting. The terrain was truly runnable and I pleasantly felt strong and capable.

I held a steady and solid third place in our group. Still worried about a second half bonk, I slowed my pace to keep the fourth in our team in sight rather than pull away with the other two. Once passed the caretaker’s house, the trail steepened and the shade of the early morning was replaced with scorching sunlight. I paused to gaze at a long streaming waterfall across the valley and to look back for my running mate. Eventually, my pace slowed and I began to walk. A very springy and lively couple passed me as we switched back higher and higher. I was impressed with their speed. I tried to push the pace to keep up with my new competition, but that didn’t last long and I found myself stopped waiting for my teammate to catch up.

I had done little research on this route and did not know how much farther the route would go. There was still the return trip to consider. Tab and I would climb our way to the North Rim together, sweating and panting. A water-stop about two miles from the top revealed a series of serious R2R2R runners. I was awed at their strength, their good humor and that many of them knew each other. A Russian woman sat waiting for her husband, who was a bit slow that day (mind you they were already on their back as we were still heading out) remarked how despite not having run in the past four months, "Endurance is easy, it’s just a matter of taking care of your body." Her words struck me. Onward and upward. Finally the trail flattened enough to prompt a slow jog and finally I reached the North Rim in about seven hours and thirty minutes. Now, all we had to do was go back!

Fifteen minutes to down pizza, banana and mom’s homemade granola bars and we were headed back. Tab was looking a little rough around the edges, but seemed in good spirits. So downward we headed. Running down was fun and easy for me. It was thirteen or fourteen miles of bliss, with all of it runnable. Again, I slowed my pace to keep my teammate in sight. I found myself alone for long stretches and with a low angle downhill it was easy to take in all the sights I missed on the way up. I couldn’t help but marvel the true awesomeness of my surroundings.

As we passed the Cottonwood Campground, someone called out asking if we were the Alaska crew. Can’t seem to go anywhere these days without running into someone I know from the state. Sure enough a friend of mine, or perhaps an acquaintance you could say, was out with a group of friends backpacking through the canyon. What a treat!

The final miles before Phantom Ranch seemed long with anticipation. I found myself reenergized as I passed back through the narrow canyon and eventually onto the sandy trails of the Phantom Ranch. I waited for Tab and as he approached the ranch, he walked, slowly and looked spent. We sat for about 20 minutes working food into him, refilling water. Low grade dehydration had set in, shutting down his stomach and appetite and leaving us with no other option than to walk ourselves up and out of the big ditch, no matter how long it would take. I was feeling in good spirits and attempted to temper myself so as not to be a drain on my companion. The slower pace allowed me to breathe in the Colorado River, marvel in the way the late afternoon sun ignited the tops of the canyon walls, and savor the smells and sounds of the deep canyon.

We passed over black bridge and headed up the South Kaibab Trail. I kept a few 100 yards head of my teammate, just far enough ahead in hopes to keep him moving, but not so far as to become intangible. As dark set in, the prudent thing to do was to climb out together, walking as one. So I stopped and waited. We spent the final two hours walking quietly in the dark, with no sense of where the trail went, save for a headlamp glow off in the distance from time to time. My teammate continued to plod along, sipping water and even managing a small bite of a sacred Snickers bar I’d been saving for just the right moment.

The pace was slow, my legs were tired and my mind drifted to the clock. I spent a lot of time wondering how long it would take and found as fatigue settled in so did frustration with the never-ending trail. When I become completely exhausted, I find I can lose myself by counting. Once I counted the footsteps it took me between pieces of litter while backpacking through excruciating heat of the Baja Peninsula. To combat myself and negative thoughts, I counted…footsteps between switchbacks, lights up ahead, stars in the sky, anything to help occupy my mind.

Finally, as the trail steepened and turned into what seemed like endless switchbacks, it unexpectedly stopped and we were at the top. I stood, a little stunned, comprehending the finality. The trail ended, we were done. A jubilant moment was passed between us and then I quickly transitioned into motion to get us back to the hotel. At nearly 7:30 pm and fifteen and a half hours since we began our adventure, we finished! The trailhead for the S. Kaibab Trail is two miles from the hotel, as easy walk under normal circumstances. The shuttle buses stopped running earlier in the day. Tab was nearing hypothermia and cooling off quickly. With one bar on the cellphone we squeaked off a few rescue texts and shortly our friends Amber and Kelly – who opted for their own version of an epic day of running from south rim to river to back up the south rim – picked us up. A warm car was the best sight indeed!

The cold beer soon after never tasted so sweet.

Due to logistics, the celebration only lasted long enough to drink a beer and share a smile with my teammates. We parted ways, as the group was headed south to Sedona to recover and I had to be to Page, to the north, the next day. I stumbled into a hotel in the sleepy town just outside the park, planning the meal I would eat, only to learn the hotel restaurant had closed 10 minutes earlier. The receptionist offered up a McDonalds just next door, but that oddly enough seemed too far to walk. I skipped dinner, ate my last piece of airport pizza, took a bath and slept fitfully. The following morning, I was planning my celebratory breakfast and oh how I would feast. I walked downstairs, loaded up my car and went back to the hotel restaurant, only to find out they stopped serving breakfast twenty minutes earlier. Low on calories and exhausted, I nearly cried on the spot. Eventually I found a hole in the wall coffee shop run by a Spanish speaking man with Mexican music blaring in the background, who upon my order of eggs, toast and coffee, forgot to make me my coffee until I reminded him. Needless to say, my post R2R2R celebration was a bit lacking.

On the drive to Page that morning, I opted to drive back through the Park and along the rim. I stopped like any normal tourist and got out, took pictures, read the informational placards and marveled at the enormity of it all. I hiked back to the S. Kaibab trailhead, as I wanted to see it in the light of day. I wanted to stand at the top and look down and see what we had climbed out the previous night. It was gratifying to look out across the great divide with legs aching and mind tired. I decided my mother should market her homemade granola bars and they should be coined: Roxanne’s R2R2R Bars – baked with love to carry you through.


Hard to comprehend that yet again I accomplished my goal, overcame the suffering and finished with a bit of grace and a good attitude. I will forever be in awe of those that race the distance and cannot help but wonder if one day I’ll be back and be faster than ever.

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