John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Run Report: 2012 - Grand Canyon - Rim to Rim to Rim

This is one of a handful of race/run reports that I wrote before I started this blog.

I ran Rim to Rim to Rim yesterday. For those not familiar with it, it's a 42 mile out and back run on the South and North Kaibab Trails of the Grand Canyon in Arizona with ~11000 ft. of ascent in it. swarmthink has a great run report of it which, though I had planned on doing it at some point, gave me a push to go run it this year.
My basic loose plan was, 6 mph downhill and 4mph uphill for a total of 8.5ish hours. I say 'loose' because every ultra runner I have talked to says that for a first ultra of a distance significantly longer than 26.2, one should have no goal pace in mind, so I wasn't going to hold myself to this pace, but use it more as a nutrition and time planning guide.
The Loadout
I started off at 6:30am (Cali time) as the sun was coming over the horizon and immediately realized that the steepness of the trail and the mild technicality of it was going to knock me from 6mph to something like 4mph. No big deal, I left myself like 2-3 hours of daylight time to work with. The weather was High of 50(ish) and low of 15 (degree F).
Sunrise from the South Kaibab Trail
The trip down to Phantom Ranch (the camp at the bottom of the canyon) was uneventful. I filled up water and headed for the top. During off-season (now), there is no water on the North Kaibab trail nor at the trailhead, so I knew I needed to make it up to the top and find water at the Backcountry Office, which serves water year round. I was power-hiking anything greater than a slight incline, and ultra-running (ie slow jogging) anything flatish.
A buck at Cottonwood Campground

Nutrition-wise I had planned 4000 calories for the day, and was going to snag some extra candy bars at Phantom Ranch on the way back if I needed more, so for 9 hours this worked out to like 450 cal/hour or so. As of 9 miles up the 14.3 mile North Kaibab trail, I was on-plan for food and drink, except that I was consuming more water than expected.
Even though I had 3.1 liters of water with me, I blew through it all in about 9-10 miles and was starting to get dry mouthed and thirsty. This isn't a great thing to be happening with 5 miles and 3700 ft. of climbing to go up to the top, but I hammered through without, trying to eat what I could, but failing at eating much. My pace slowed considerably over these miles and I think this point of the run set me up for some pain down the line.
When I hit the North Rim, I headed up the Bridle Trail to search for the Backcountry office, because I couldn't remember quite where it was. This lead me on a 3.5 mile goose chase through silent, deserted, freezing campgrounds and lodge-sites before I located it (because I neglected to realized that there were signs for it on the road, but not on the trail...shit, about 3 miles wasted up top...whoops!). This was interesting, because it was literally deserted, not and animal or person around and everything was eerily still and quiet and cold (North Rim is at 8500 ft.), kind of like a horror movie. At one point, I was contemplating whether to find the nearest tourist site to get water, or just risk the technical descent down to the river and bottle dip (~5 miles, or 14 miles to purified water) But luckily, I decided to run back to the trail on the road and I found the water, filled the bottles, drank, filled again, ate, and headed out. This took about an hour or so, but by 1pm (Cali time) I was headed back down the hill. I felt quite good on the descent, but overall, I had definitely underestimated the toll that the descending would take on my quads. The eccentric loading was brutal! I rolled into Phantom Ranch 3 hours later at 4pm, grabbed some water and headed back up the South side of the Canyon.
Sunset from the North Kaibab Trail
I had not planned for darkness (gave myself a 2 hour time buffer for mishaps), so I had no headlamp. Being that I'm surefooted and ready to finish, I chose to head up anyway and deal with it. I was hitting great pace even though my legs were screaming at me, because I wanted to get the run done. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to continue at this pace once it got pitch black. I was quite concerned about falling over the edge into the canyon (this shit happens and people get lost and/or die this way every year!) so I slowed it down to a crawl (not literally) to make sure I could get my feet planted and stay upright. About halfway up, I realized that perhaps I could use the LCD on my camera as light. This worked well enough, and my footing got better. About the same time, (top of the switchbacks, near Skull Point), the wind started howling (or maybe I just got above the protection of the arret I was climbing). At 6000 ft. and 15 degrees, the wind is cold. Windbreaker and hood went on and I continued. This is where I really started feeling the effects of the dehydration/nutrition debacle from earlier in the day. I was having trouble consuming enough water to stay satiated, additionally, I was again having trouble taking down food of any kind (had bean/rice burritos, clif bars and honey stinger waffles). So by the top of the climb, I was exhausted. Drained from climbing, and drained from focusing hard on footing and whatever nutrition I could manage. Finally, in the bitter cold and howling wind, I made it to the top.
At the top, normally there's a bus, but it's winter, and there's no bus after 6pm, so I had been counting on running to my car (since I long before had realized that my time goal of 3-4 pm finish was out the window). I refilled bottles, and trudged my way to the car on battered legs. Ended up at about 48 miles in
13 13.5 hours.
So what happened?
First off, my climbing is just not up to par for this run. I have been working on it for months, but not enough. I plan to up the weekly vertical to maybe 10000 ft. and continue working the squats and lunges.
Secondly, my descending, while technically solid, was not up to par. Need more work on the quads to take less of a beating from the eccentric loading.
Thirdly, running out of water, even if it's only 50 deg. out, is not an option. This shot me because I spent about 4 miles climbing and 3 miles finding water where I ate and drank basically nothing. This deficit made it hard to be able to eat and drink enough over the next miles to recover because my stomach was not happy about any of it.
Fourthly, should have brought a headlamp, but didn't to save space in the vest. If I do it in the winter (ie no water and short daylight) again, I'll bring one.
It was exhausting, physically and mentally, because of the situations that I put myself in, but it was a good first foray into the world of ultra-marathon distance running, and I guess I couldn't have it any other way, because I love to get into epics (even if this time, I was pushing the limits a bit terms of margin of error for injury or mishaps on the way up the South Kaibab, which was essentially 0). If you've got the chops, I highly recommend the route! I've been backpacking the Canyon for 12 years now and I will definitely be back to do R2R2R as I wanted to!
If you guys with more experience at these distances want to throw in some advice, feel free. Though I'm a relatively quick (3 hour) flat-land marathoner, I am a trail running and ultra-marathon distance novice and could use the knowledge.

Run Time:
  • 1:28 - Phantom Ranch
  • 5:29 - North Rim Arrive
  • 6:18 - North Rim Depart
  • 9:37 - Phantom Ranch
  • 12:34 - South Rim
Other selected awesome pics:
Cool rock/falls area in Bright Angel Creek - North Kaibab Trail 
Muav/Redwall Amphitheater

Supai Tunnel - North Kaibab Trail

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