My first experience as an ultrarunner with the concept of doing an epic run for someone's birthday was a few years ago when Krissy got together a big group of runners to run 30 miles for her 30th birthday. We ran up on Chuckanut and had a blast. Flash forward to now.This past weekend I got together with Krissy, Ellen and Monica to have a girls weekend run at the Grand Canyon, doing a Rim to Rim to Rim run (46miles, 11,000+ ascent, 11,000+descent) to celebrate Krissy's birthday.
Krissy, Monica and Ellen flew in from Seattle to Flagstaff on Friday and I did the same from San Francisco. We all were on 6am flights and so by the time we were all assembled in Flagstaff and had the rental car we were goofy, somewhat caffeinated and hungry as all get out! We headed into Flagstaff, went to Pita Jungle for lunch and then shopped for pre/during/post run snacks, breakfast and other food. We went a bit crazy with the food, but it all got eaten over the weekend!
After stocking up on groceries we headed up to the Yavapai Lodge where we would be staying which is about 1.5miles from where we would finish our run up (at Bright Angel Trailhead). We got dinner, fueled up, sorted our gear for the next day and hit the hay as early as we could for the 5am wakeup. We had to catch a shuttle in the morning to our starting spot at South Kaibab Trailhead and knew that we needed to aim to catch it at or around 6am.
Ooh Aah Point at Sunrise
We were up, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 5am. We all downed some coffee and munched on granola and yogurt/coconut milk keifer, some fruit and got ourselves prepared for the long fun day ahead! We got to the shuttle stop, it finally came and then as we were approaching our transfer point to the next shuttle, we were informed that we may miss that shuttle since it was in front of it and may or may not stop. We really didn't want to have to wait, but the shuttle in front of us didn't stop at the round about. Our driver shouted at us not to chase it, but hell, we are runners, that is what we do! We sprinted off the bus and a few feet only to realize that the shuttle wasn't leaving us, it was going around the round about to pick us up! We jumped on the very full bus giggling at our own antics. We got to the trailhead moments later, snapped some pre-run photos and hit start on our watches and headed down.
I have never been to the Grand Canyon before and it was absolutely breathtaking. The sun was just beginning to peak out as we headed down the steep dirt trail. We were all about fun, there was no hammering, sprinting or putting the hurt on one another. That was the goal and we did a good job of sticking to that for the day. All of us are very strong runners and we were able to stick together.
Down and down we went, stopping every so often to snap some photos or capture some video. I felt really good running down hill and was just blissed out looking at the scenery! We ran into some Big Horn sheep right before we got to the river which gave us a bit of a pause since they were standing in the middle of the trail. Then one of them decided to run towards us and bound up onto a rock. Needlesstosay, when I proceeded past them I was running very very hard in hopes that I wouldn't get head-butted. We crossed the black bridge over the Colorado River and headed into Phantom Ranch Ranger Station for the first time. We saw a few other ultrarunners out there on the trail which was really cool!
We filled up on water, hit the bathrooms and then started up towards Cottonwood Campground and beyond to the North Rim, which was 14 miles from Phantom Ranch. We were about 8 miles in and everyone felt decent.
The heat of the day was coming on stronger and stronger but none of us were worried about it since we had ample water and knew there was plenty more along the trail. The 14 miles up to the North Rim is a gradual uphill for about 7 miles, gaining only 1500 feet up to Cottonwood Campground. After that, you really start climbing going from 4000 feet at Cottonwood to 5000 at Roaring Springs to 8,255 at the North Rim. From Roaring Springs to the North Rim up the North Kaibab Trail is maybe 3.5 miles, maybe even shorter than that. So you get lots and lots of that nice uphill. It was freaking beautiful and we were having a blast. We were still feeling pretty good going up. Ellen was having some less than ideal stomach conditions and I managed to elbow an Aloe plant and skewer my arm with the tip of the plant going a few inches into my arm flush with the skin. My arm bled nicely as shown in the picture above.
It is funny the comments we received as we ran along the trail. Most were of disbelief, most were sweet and funny. We ran into a solo ultrarunner on his return trip from the North Rim. He informed us that the water was off at Roaring Springs. I kind of freaked out in my head at this. I hadn't filled up at the last stop and my pack was getting very very empty. And we were getting on to mid-day and I was feeling pretty thirsty. Thankfully we ran in to some trail angels, two newly back from Iraq soldiers who gave us a good amount of their water. Their generosity saved our butts. We continued up the switchbacks, hiking fast, running in parts. At about 7,000 feet of altitude, Krissy and Monica were getting headaches and my stomach joined Ellen's in rebellion. I suddenly had a basketball size gut which did not feel nice at all. We continued to the top in what felt like a bit of a death march. No one talked, though we were all still happy to be there, it was just a group lull.
Less than a mile from the top, we ran into a more elderly couple who were hiking the canyon. They and their family had gone South Rim to North Rim in 4 days and were now on the first day of a return 4 day hike. But the woman in this couple (and grandmother to the majority of the rest of the group we come to find out) was not doing well. As we came up the trail, her husband asked us to help her up as she had fallen for a third time and couldn't get up. It took the four of us to help her back up and she was unsteady on her feet. We spent 10 minutes talking to them and it was determined that they were going to go to the remaining 1/4 mile to next rest area (though there was no water there), rest up overnight and then return to the North Rim and wait for their family. It was a scary situation and brings home the reality that what we were doing is far and beyond the capabilities of the majority of the world. An 8 day hike we were running in a half of a day! Its insane when juxataposed!
We continued to the top and triumphantly reached the North Rim (us at the top, pictured left) in under 5 1/2 hours (22+miles). We fueled, begged for more water from some hikers and thankfully were able to fill all of our packs, rested and prepared for the longer trip back. We also talked to a volunteer from the backcountry office who had come out in response to the situation with the woman we had just helped. We felt more secure knowing that their situation was being handled and monitored by the backcountry folks. After a 15 minute break or so, one round of the peanut butter jelly song by your truly (prompted by eating a Larabar Peanut Butter and Jelly bar), taking another Vespa and sipping on some FRS which I had added to my water, we began our last descent of the day back down to Phantom Ranch. My basketball stomach disappeared and I felt like ripping and roaring downhill. The trail is not technical, but it has some rocks and unevenly spaced wooden ties. It is very switchbacky as you can imagine with that kind of elevation gain/loss. We spread out on the trail and each went at a comfortable pace for ourselves. By this point in the run, everyone is on a different page in terms of how they feel and so we just would run for a section, regroup and then continue.
We were all really looking forward to getting back to Phantom Ranch where we would indulge in Lemonade and Snickers bars as part of the ritual of running R2R2R. Krissy had warned us that the 14 miles down to Phantom Ranch could seem very long. And once we got off the more switch-backy part of the descent, back along the creek it did feel a bit long, but I was feeling freaking fantastic. My legs just felt strong and healthy and not feeling the climbing and descending we had been doing. We continued along, section by section, ran into a few more ultrarunners, took a few dunks in the creek to cool ourselves and finally made it to Phantom Ranch. Krissy and I collected some Lemonade for the group and bought a Snickers bar (king sized) for us to share (not more because we didn't need to eat too much and barf). We got a lot of interest at Phantom Ranch which was a buzz with people. People were really interested in what we were doing. Many people asked us if it was ok if they took our picture. They just couldn't wrap their heads around it.
Once we were fed, watered and rested we headed out to finish up the day. We had a bit more than 10 miles to go on the return portion as we were heading up a different trail (Bright Angel) than we had come down in the morning. Bright Angel is a much harder climb than the one we had done up North Kaibab to the North Rim, but that is all part of the fun eh? We crossed the river and headed along the river trail that loped up and down. I was still feeling good as was Krissy and we lost ourselves in conversation heading up the trail. We stopped and waited for Ellen and Monica who were never far behind and then continued on our way. With about 6 miles (my Suunto lied to me and said it was only 5 miles to go, sorry ellen!), we stopped again to bring everyone together when Ellen and Monica suggested that Krissy and I continue up the climb at our speed and that Ellen and Monica would go their speed and we didn't have to wait for them. They suggested that we run back to the lodge and get the car and come back and get them at the trailhead. It was funny they suggested that, as I had just thought the same thing and told Krissy the very same. Neither of us were keen on leaving anybody but since we were in pairs it seemed like a logical thing to do. We made sure Ellen and Monica had their headlamps and enough food (as Monica was out, I told her to "shop" in my pack as I had plenty food left) and headed up the hill.
We were running well, chatting away and I was struck by what a difference a summer makes. I know I have said it before, but man, I am such a better uphiller than I use to be. I actually loved the climbing. I was feeling pretty good. I could tell that my last Vespa had worn off, as we ran up since I was feeling in definite need of some sugar (or conversely putting the snickers into my system made me need the sugar, but whatever). I ate a pack of sharkies and we continued climbing and climbing. When we reached the 4.5 mile Rest Hut, I realized that my watch had been wrong when I told Ellen and Monica that we were only 5 miles out, since it had been about 30+ minutes since left them and we were running faster than 1mph. Oops! As I mentioned earlier, there are wooden ties on the trail that I believe help keep the steeply graded trail from eroding to rapidly and provide footing for the mules and humans. We took to calling the ties "dumbasses" after the mules and since they were not only oddly spaced but made us really lift our knees and legs up to get over them. Which is fine in a short run but when you are at mile 42 or something and going up a 15% grade, they are less appreciated. We hiked fast where the grade required and ran where we could. Ok, ok, I am sure Krissy could have run the whole dang thing but she had dead-weight me to hold her back. Not that I was going slow, as we barely did any walking, but still. While I am proud of my progress running up hill, I know that I am still slower than the truly good hill runners and I just don't want to frustrate anyone. Krissy and I were getting close. We just kept focusing on the while rocks above our head and reminded ourselves that according to a few sources the last 1.5 miles is the hardest grade. The white rock signifies the last layer before you get to the top.
For the first time all day, we checked our watches for time and we were nearing 12 hours. That got us motivated and we started running pretty hard to try and make it under that arbitrary (since we hadn't been doing it for time all day) marker. We busted ass though. "Hey Look" I exclaimed and pointed to our left. It was the lights of the Bright Angel Trailhead. It was close but was a few long switchbacks away, we pushed and pushed. We got a lot of comments as we did. I am sure we left a wake of slack-jawed, gawking, astonished people as we were moving really well. We skid into the finish in 11:54 (just after sunset) and celebrated with a big hug and a few pictures near the trailhead sign.
Krissy and I then got to work getting back to the lodge and hammered out the 1.5 miles+ on the paved trail back to the lodge. It was very humerous to me how fast we could run on the road after all that climbing. Guess it is a good sign for Western States! We sprinted into the room and started throwing everything we could think of that they might want when we picked them up. We filled an entire grocery bag with food. Chocolate Soy Milk, chips, crackers, apples, bars, water, etc. We grabbed coats and hopped into the car (ok, massive SUV) and drove back the meetup spot giggling and energetic, sipping on our chocolate soy milk (with a kombucha chaser for me) and Wasabi Rice Chips (random and disgusting sounding, yes. Delicious combination after nearly 50 miles, definitely). We were nearly perfectly timed with Ellen and Monica and they hopped into the car and we headed back to lodge. We had to take a picture of our dirty dusty feet all together (above) and we all faired pretty well with only a few blisters. My feet had absolutely no problems and were comfortable in my Salomon Whispers all day! We went into overdrive mode and all of us 4 girls showered, changed and were out the door to our 8pm reservation at El Tovar!
We had a delicious dinner and celebrated Krissy's birthday and our insanely fun day! I am so glad that I got to join the girls for this adventure and we are already on to planning the next adventure! What a great run, great weekend and great friends. I am truly blessed to have been a part of it!
Happy Birthday Krissy! Love ya!