Monday, April 25, 2011

Down: Done. Grand is putting it lightly

From R2R2R Grand Canyon

It’s Sunday evening and I’m flying back from the hardest run of my life. My right ankle has swelled to twice its normal size, my feet are raw and blistered, my hip is sore and I’m physically wiped out. Saturday’s Rim to Rim to Rim run through the Grand Canyon did this to me but also provided incredible scenery, camaraderie and a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

This incredible ultramarathon was the “down” of my three major goals for the year – down, up and around. Up is Pike’s Peak Marathon in Colorado in August. Around is the Tahoe Triple in September. It’s hard to imagine these events will pack more of a wallop than Arizona’s massive ode to erosion; if so, I may be in trouble.

After three day of work in Boston, I arrived in Phoenix Thursday night, crashed at a local airport hotel then got up early for the 4 hour drive to the Canyon. I had been here several years back with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Hike for Discovery Program (not part of Team in Training). During that trip, Reesa and I went with our teammates down the South Kaibab Trail several miles but not as far down as the river. It felt very unsatisfying not to reach the mighty Colorado. This time we’d be seeing it twice.

Here's the short, video, version of our adventure:

Photos can be found here.

Our group, all Team in Training coaches and our families and friends, caught at early dinner at the Arizona room of the Bright Angel Lodge, overlooking sunset as it hit the South Rim. We discussed and finalized our plans for the following day. We decided to leave at 4am so we could get across the river up the North Rim and back across the river before the mid-day heat which was projected to be in the high eighties. This would be in high contrast to a morning start expected to be in the low 30s. We agreed on running down the Bright Angel Trail because it was less steep and thus more runnable in the dark and to return along the same trail since it had three spots where we could replenish our drinking water. The alternative was the South Kaibab Trail which was about a mile shorter, a bit steeper but didn’t have any water stops along the way. On the north side we only had one choice -- the North Kaibab Trail. The record for this feat is a little shy of 7 hours and we weren’t about to challenge that time. We estimated based on our fitness levels and the expected weather that we would probably finish in around 12 hours. But again, we pledged not to try and push the time because if one person had a bad day we all would.

After we had all ordered, Ellen, coach Cam’s wife and a TNT team manager surprised us with awesome running shirts to commemorate the event. There were grey dri-fit shirts with R2R2R Grand Canyon on the front and the date and all our names on the back. Awesome. Post-meal we all went back to the lodge to prepare for the next day’s run and get what little rest we could knowing what laid before us. I was able to sleep from about 10pm to around 1am, then was up about every 20 minutes after that.

Right on time at 4am we gathered in the hallway and up with all of us were our families to send us off. We took some pre-race pictures, hugged our loved ones and were off in the dark. We ran a short 1.5 mile warm-up from the lodge to the Rim and arrived at the Bright Angel Trailhead. As we were taking our first photos of the day, we met two other guys, there for the same reason. We wished each other a good day, fired up our headlamps and Cam led us down into the Canyon at 4:20 am.

The headlamps were fantastic at lighting up the trail on a very dark morning. We took off at a careful and manageable pace keeping enough space between us so as not to be right on the heels of the runner before us and to ensure we saw the terrain before we took each step. After a few switchbacks and after only about a mile the trail surprisingly came to a dead end. We turned back and shortly found a switchback we had missed. Now running in reverse order, I had the lead. The two younger guys we had met at the trailhead were ahead of me, pushed the pace and were quickly gone.

About 90 minutes into the downhill, dawn broke and we were able to switch off our headlamps using the faint morning light to guide the way. We stopped briefly at Indian Gardens which is 4.5 miles down to strip off some of our outer layers and put Kim into the lead for the rest of the descent. We hit the bottom surprisingly fast but found no bridge. Bright Angel requires a 1-2 mile jog to the East before you can cross the Colorado at the Silver Bridge. Once across we stopped off at Phantom Ranch to replenish supplies and I chose to dump some of my cold gear, food, headlamp and PowerBar Endurance beverage here so I’d have less to carry up to the North Rim and plenty of supply for the climb back out of the Canyon.

From here I was fully expecting a quick rise up the North Rim but that’s not what the North Kaibab Trail does. Instead it makes a gradual West-Northwest ascent following a creek that feeds into the Colorado. This part of the trail goes about seven frustrating miles before it starts to seriously climb. Not expecting this, it made me a bit cranky. The creek we followed was benefitting from the heavy rains and snowfall from the North Rim and thus was brimming and running fast. We crossed over it several times on a series of wood and concrete bridges, stopping for photos along the way.

At the point the North Kaibab Trail starts to climb you can’t see the South canyon wall were you started; you are deep within the slotted canyons of this incredible National Park. You can’t, really, even tell which Canyon wall you will ultimately come up on. We kept a steady pace for the first couple thousand feet at the trail got steeper, slowing when we needed and snapping photos of the incredible views. With each 1,000-foot increase the terrain changed as we moved from desert at the floor of the canyon, up through rocky hills holding hidden streams that every plant bore its way through the rock to get to, through rich purple, then dark red stone that stopped in a perfect line before changing to yellow limestone and dense forest above. The climb was slow going but well worth the trip as the North side has far more scenic vistas than the South Rim that most visitors see.

Past Cottonwood Campground, which is about 1.5 miles from Phantom Ranch, you are pretty much on your own for water this time of year and we had drained our drinking water pretty substantially by the time we reached the top of the North Rim. No water here, either. You could run along the rim to the ranger station about 1.7 miles away or do what we did which was fill our Camelbacks with snow.

Downhill is always easier and provided a very necessary recovery for our aching climbing muscles. We took it careful but were back to the base of the canyon and Phantom Ranch by 4pm. So much for the 12 hour time goal. We took some extra rest time at Phantom as we knew the ascent back up Bright Angel was going to be tough. I retrieved my stash of supplies and found a squirrel had helped himself to some of the food. It had gnawed through the bottom of my fleece jacket’s pocket, then through the ziplock bag and had about a third of a PB&J.

On the way back down from the North Rim and while resting at Phantom Ranch we met several other runners taking on the R2R2R challenge. The first was a couple guys from Northern Arizona University in nearby Flagstaff who were on their first attempt and had turned back around a mile from the top when one of them developed stomach cramps. The downhill was good to them as they pushed a stronger pace than ours returning to Phantom. Another climber was a 50-something former wrestler who had completed the R2R2R over eighty times. “Yeah, I’m retired. I come up here every few weekends with friends.” This time he had brought along a newbie – a woman about 5-10 years his junior who wasn’t nearly as excited about this run as he was.

After resting up at the bottom we took off for the Silver Bridge and the flat run along the Colorado’s southern bank. As we passed under the bridge the Colorado was rushing beneath us with the force you would expect from a body of water than had carved this canyon over millions of years. As we ran along the shore, we were lamenting the tough going through the soft sand – it’s a lot like running on the beach, far from the water’s edge – while gazing at the river longingly, as an ice bath in those cold waters would feel so good about now.

Another time, though. It was around 5pm when we started to climb back up Bright Angel Trail and we had a long way to go. It had taken 2:45 minutes to come down this trail; up would be nearly twice that.

We climbed the trail at a little faster than a walk as the trail is mostly composed of tall steps set off my large logs anchored in place by steel rebar supports; not the most runnable surface. The long run, which would total 48 miles when it was all said and done had taken its toll on a couple in our party so we slowed the pace and made our way back up the 5,000 foot climb.

We had put back on all our gear since the start of the race as the temperature dropped with the sun. Sunset in the canyon sprays the walls with color making our breaks between climbs rewarding. After dusk the stars overhead came out by the thousands. We sent our freshest runner to the top at around 7pm to tell our families where we were and that we were okay. At around 9:30pm we emerged topside to warm greetings and hugs of relief, accomplishment and deeper friendship than when we had started.

Showers, ice baths and warm comfortable beds were all the remained and boy did they feel good.

At this point, I think we all earned a few days off.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Eleven and a butt days to the Big Ditch – Gulp

As I sit writing this I’m shivering like a frightened Chihuahua hugging fresh coffee with my left foot ankle-deep in an ice bucket. It’s the day after our final long training run for our Grand Canyon ultramarathon. Over the weekend of April 22nd the coaching staff for the Team in Training San Francisco Peninsula running team will be taking on the extreme challenge of running from the South rim to the bottom, then up to the top of the North rim and back again – all in the same day. For me this is the Down in my Down, Up and Around 2011 running season and I’m beginning to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.

Twice during the past month we have embarked on a simulation of this run that pales in comparison to the actual event – seriously, you try to come up with a desert, rocky canyon run in the Bay Area in early spring. It did provide the down, up, down up elevation change the canyon will have but not the temperature, altitude or full-sun exposure extremes that await us.

Our diorama started at the Skyline Road entrance to Wunderlich Park in San Mateo County, went top to bottom through this park, then through Woodside to Huddart Park, bottom to top (to Skyline Road again) and back. Mileage was a little hard to judge as most of this run was under a canopy of trees blocking GPS signals (and so we decided not to bring them). In Wunderlich, we went down Alambique Trail and back up Bear Gulch Trail for a round trip of about 10 miles. Through Huddart we went up Crystal Springs Trail and back Dean Trail for a round trip of around 12 miles. Google Maps says the trek between the two parks is 4.3 miles for a round trip of 8.6. So our training run was roughly 30 miles. That’s still between 12 and 18 miles short of our actual event.

However, I did learn a few things from this self-made mini Canyon run. First, when you start a race by going downhill, it is deceptively easy to start out too fast. Second, the first ascent feels easier than you may have feared. Third, the final ascent doesn’t.

Coach Cam and myself took on this run first, and sadly picked one of the rainiest days this spring. It poured nearly the entire day. We started out our run trying to avoid streams rushing along where trail should be but after the first couple splashdowns we stopped caring about trying to keep our feet wet. On the way down Alambique a downed tree blocked our way in the second mile. We did our best limbo and pushed on. We hopped a few logs, forded some newly-formed streams and swerved through Woodside to avoid rain gutters that seemed to be doubling for fire hoses as they blasted out more water than they were designed to accommodate.

As we entered Huddart Park we saw signs and course markings from Pacific Coast Trail Runs. It seems an official trail marathon was on our course. We entered the park around 9am but only saw a couple runners blast past us. We found the rest of them on the way back down from Skyline. First came the distance runners who we would see once again at the top of Wunderlich. They were doing a 50K that included a short cut trail between the two parks along the Skyline Ridge. Not us. We went back down to Woodside for that. As we made one turn along Crystal Springs Trail we came into frame of a race photographer who thought about taking a picture of us, until he realized we were running the wrong way. Cam confirmed to him that we were not lost but with no one behind us, we certainly felt like we were leading.

Back down to Woodside and over to Wunderlich for the final climb was a slog. More constant rain, more gushing downspouts and a bit more traffic this time. We took advantage of every trail we could to get off Woodside Road. Sadly one of the trails we chose had mud deep enough that it almost took our shoes. That would happen again on our final trek up to Skyline. Had the mud succeeded I’m sure I would have let it have them.

We entered Wunderlich and started to climb but about half-way up fighting the elements was taking its toll. I had made a nutrition error. I brought my usual marathon nutrition – a PowerBar to start, Power Bar Endurance drink in the Nathan backpack and PowerBar Gels for fast fueling while running. However, ultras tend to require solid food and my body was craving some this run. I started to get a little light headed which isn’t good when you need fast, nimble feet. Thankfully I had packed an extra PowerBar for the finish and it did the trick. When we would attempt this same run the second time, I came with multiple PowerBar Protein Bars so this wouldn’t happen again.

Climbing through Wunderlich after 24-plus miles of mud, cold and elevation took its toll on us. We had to walk several times but finished the run in around six hours.

On the second attempt the weather was completely different, as was the companionship. Cam was replaced by coaches Terry and Kim. Terry is our ultramarathon man with multiple 50, 75 and 100 milers under his belt. Neither Kim, nor I had gone further than 50K before. Terry shared some of his sage advice along the run such as how to go out (slower than you think), how to fuel (solid foods if you can tolerate them) and what to pack (as lightly as possible).

Repeating this run was good and bad for me. The good part was finishing stronger than the first time, knowing my gear and nutrition plan worked (at least the second time) and getting yet another long run under my belt prior to the Canyon. The bad was knowing that, even though it was a sunny and warmer day, it still wasn’t even close to the extremes we will face later this month. Still, I know I will be attempting this with seasoned runners and we have vowed to leave no one behind. If any of us has a bad day, we all do. And we also know we aren’t doing this for time but for the experience, camaraderie and beauty of it.

As much as I am nervous, I am equally excited for this run. While I have been to the Grand Canyon before, I haven’t made it down to the Colorado River before and never seen the North rim. I can’t think of a better group of people to be doing this with. Wish us luck and good weather.

Oh yeah, and the following weekend is The Relay. That should be a nice recovery run.