Saturday, 1 October 2016

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim :-)

After years of resisting, I've finally done it and become one of the crowd. Yes, last Saturday, the 24th of September, I - along with 2 good friends Deborah and Leo from Calgary - completed our double crossing of the Grand Canyon.

More commonly known as the Rim to Rim to Rim, the distance covered ranges from 45 miles to 48 miles, depending on which trails are used and how many detours you take to further explore the Canyon. Whilst many runners have crossed the Grand Canyon, the crossing seems to appeal more to hikers with all the local gift shops selling "I hiked the Rim to Rim" merchandise but lacking in "I RAN Rim to Rim to Rim" - I'm convinced there is a niche market here for the infamous Alan Lam and his immensely creative style of t-shirts and stickers!

There has been much debate about runners versus hikers in the Grand Canyon, with hikers complaining that runners are rude and do not fully appreciate the environment, being more interested in doing the crossing as quickly as possible rather than a leisurely pace where they can truly enjoy the magnificent splendour surrounding them. Fortunately, we only encountered one vocally grumpy hiker that had a few words with Leo and the other grumps were those that gave us daggers when we greeted them with cheery hellos as we passed by. Besides, our small group of just 3 people had made the decision to treat this as a nice relaxed training run - sure, our plan was to run as much as possible, but it wasn't a race, pace didn't matter and it really didn't matter how long we were out there so long as we enjoyed it and appreciated the opportunity to be in the Grand Canyon.

Deb and Leo arrived in Phoenix mid week. We'd opted to run on the Saturday but we wanted to keep our options open in case of extreme weather conditions that could potentially hinder our trip. Thankfully the weather was perfect with gorgeous clear blue skies and temperatures that were very warm but bearable - add to that a gentle breeze that blew throughout the day, it made conditions pretty much perfect.

The original plan was to leave at 4am and begin our journey down South Kaibab and returning up Bright Angel. We wanted to avoid the mules if possible as this would really delay things if we got stuck behind them, but we realised that with a 6.20 or so sunrise, we would be running most of SK in the dark and wouldn't get the views we were hoping for. We decided instead to meet at 5am and start the run as soon after that as possible.

We didn't get much sleep the night before - well, Deb and I didn't.  Whilst Leo was lovely and warm in a hotel room at the Holiday Inn, us girls spent a night at the Mather Campground, snuggled up in our sleeping bags and trying to keep the chilly night air at bay. Andy kept me awake gently snoring, Wilson had decided that he wanted to share my sleeping bag, and if that wasn't enough, we had a pack of coyotes passing close to the campground that were getting extremely excited about a kill or something in the early hours. Before we knew it, our 4.15 alarm was calling, and I crawled out of my sleeping bag bleary eyed but extremely excited about the day ahead.

Mather Campground the night before
We arrive at the trail head in the dark and although there were plenty of cars on the parking lot, there was nobody else around - that was until one of the shuttle buses appeared and around 30 hikers hopped off! We didn't particularly want to get stuck behind them, so with a swift totty bye to Andy and the dogs, were were on our way.

The 3 Amigos - Deb, Leo and Del - Photo thanks to Deb :-)
We moved ahead of the hikers pretty swiftly, and as we descended further in to the canyon, their headlamps were like glow worms snaking down the trail above us. It became very quiet and all very surreal - were we really running down a trail in to the Grand Canyon? Heading down,  I lost count of the number of times I exclaimed "WOW!" The trail down was steep and rocky, and there were tons of steps to negotiate as the switchbacks led us even further down. It was still dark but it was still possible to see the mass of the Grand Canyon as it cast dark shadows around us, whilst up above, the sky was awash with stars which were even more visible thanks to the lack of moonlight. Looking east, the sky was starting to get lighter and it wasn't long before we were able to turn off our headlamps as the sun gradually started to rise above the horizon.

Heading down South Kaibab before sunrise
The sunrise was simply amazing and everything was shrouded in a golden light as the light intensified. The temperature was still bearable, but we anticipated that before too long, we would feel the heat of that sun, and it really would make running more difficult.

The sun is rising over South Kaibab :-)
The distance down South Kaibab from the rim to the Colorado River was around 6 miles and it really was one of the most beautiful runs I have ever done. Just the sheer enormity of the canyon was breathtaking and the views as the sun came up were breathtaking. We stopped to take what seemed like endless photos but even they couldn't do justice to how amazing it all was, and although we saw a couple of hikers heading up the trail as well as another group of runners, it was so quiet and peaceful. At one point, I was so mesmerised by everything that I took a tumble and once again battered my arm, my right knee and my hip. The injury looked far worse than it actually was thanks to being covered in the red dust found on the trails, and so for the next 10 hours or so, I had endless people stopping to ask if I was ok and if I needed a band aid!

Leo heading down South Kaibab - never ending twists and turns
and stunning views all the way :-)

Reaching the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon was the first major landmark of our trip and as we crossed the bridge that would take us to Phantom Ranch, I never realised how wide it was. It wasn't exactly the lovely, clear waters that one would expect but rather orange and muddy looking but then I suppose being in desert country rather than mountains, it wasn't really surprising.

The next 13 miles or so would take us across the Grand Canyon and up to the North Rim via North Kaibab. Being much flatter down below, and with there being access to campgrounds, food and water, we really noticed how many people were about. We came across a few more runners, but in the main, it was groups of hikers. The trail now became more of a gradual climb and things became much greener too as there was water for vegetation to thrive and things became far less rocky, although the cliffs still towered above us, looking extremely grand and imposing. Things were starting to warm up, but the high cliffs still gave some shade, and we made good progress as we ran through.

Colorado River

North Kaibab and down in the Canyon - picture thanks to Deb :-)

Rolling trails and lots of greenery ;-)

By now, both Deb and Leo had gone on ahead, and for the next several hours, I found myself running/hiking on my own. I spent so much time gawping at my surroundings, saying hello to people and taking pictures. I was absolutely loving it down there and having plenty of fun. Each time there was a water fountain, Deb and Leo would be waiting for me and we'd be sure to refill our water bladders and try to nibble on some food, but I was starting to get ravenous after a couple of hours - Stinger Waffles, whilst tasty, weren't exactly giving me the energy I needed, and I found the climb up North Kaibab pretty tough.

The trail up to the North Rim didn't have the same open views as the South, but we were treated to plenty of green and as we climbed higher, the fall colours were starting to show in the trees. At one point, the trail appears to cut through the rock and you are literally overlooking the cliffs with a huge drop off to the side. This was one of my favour sections although I was also worried that having already fallen, I didn't want to get too close to the edge, just in case I tripped again!

Heading up to the North Rim via North Kaibab

Cliff edge trails and stunning views :-)

Loved this section of trail to the north rim :-)

Deb and Leo on the climb up to the North Rim - still having fun!

After what seemed like an endless slog up the trail, I finally reached the North Rim where both Deb and Leo were waiting for me. I reckon they had already been there for a while - Deb was cold with waiting, but I really needed to eat, so we sat and relaxed for a while longer whilst I refuelled on turkey sandwiches, raw tomato, rice pudding and some dried mango pieces. 

Top of the North Rim ... and half way!
 The return leg back to the South Rim followed the same route and we made quick progress on the downhills. Throughout the day, we had successfully avoided the mules which meant no unwanted delays, and with it now being after midday, whilst there were plenty of hikers heading down the trail, once we hit the bottom, things were pretty quiet. I found myself running alone again and even though we were retracing our steps, I still had the impulse to take pictures, particularly now that we were no longer in the shade and the sun really was shining overhead. We really noticed the heat now too, and at every water refill opportunity, we were refilling with cold water and dunking our heads and hats under the cool water. It felt so refreshing but it wasn't long before things dried out again and we were eager to reach the next.

Shortly after Cottonwood, we took a slight detour of a couple of miles and headed to Ribbon Falls. Apparently this was a popular location for folks to take a dip and cool off in the heat of the Canyon, but whilst the cool, clear water was extremely refreshing - and yes, Leo did take a "shower" under the actual falls! - I wasn't brave enough to dunk myself and was perfectly content to just cool off the legs and clean up my earlier wound from the fall. It really was quite pretty at Ribbon Falls but for some reason I had got confused with Havasu Falls so was unfairly a little disappointed - I guess it means I will just have to go back with some other friends someday for a visit to Havasu Falls instead :-)

Leo cooling off at Ribbon Falls

By now we had probably covered around 30+ miles, and with the climbs, my legs were starting to complain a little. Add to that the soreness from my bruised knee and arm, I was starting to slow even more and was doing a fast hike when I needed to. I was still pretty much on my own and yet I felt perfectly content as it felt like I was the only person in this vast canyon even thiough I knew a couple of miles ahead, the crowds would be at Phantom Ranch drinking their ice cold lemonade as their reward for completing the R2R.

When I finally arrived at Phantam Ranch, Leo and Deb were already on their second lemonade which just goes to show how far behind I must have been. That lemonade tasted AMAZING and hit the spot perfectly - despite drinking tons of water or water with Tailwind, it felt good to have a different flavour drink! We spent about half an hour or more just chilling at Phantam Ranch, but we knew we still had a fair way to go with a 9 mile climb up Bright Angel Trail back to the rim. Bright Angel wasn't  meant to be as steep, but it was a longer climb and we knew that it was likely we wouldn't be finished until after dark.

Bright Angel Trail

Heading up Bright Angel Trail for the final 9 miles

Leaving the Canyon as we started our climb up the sandy trail was a little sad - who knew when I would next be down here? So many visit the Grand Canyon every year, and whilst there are people that head down, many others don't and they perhaps never get the chance to see what I would consider to be the real Grand Canyon. It looks mighty impressive from the top, but there is so much to see at the bottom too. The sun was setting and I had the urge to take yet even more pictures and the trail wound back up the hillside and the mighty Colorado River got small the higher we climbed.

Bright Angel didn't offer the same open views as South Kaibab, but it was still nonetheless beautiful, and there were sections with flowing water and lush vegetation - a mini oasis! I happily splashed through the streams that crossed the trail, enjoying the cooling sensation on my feet and legs, and I felt extremely happy but tired. I spotted a couple of deer on the climb back up and one of them was on the trail happily grazing away. Even as I approached it, it didn't seem to be afraid of me and she just sauntered in the bushes and carried on eating, almost oblivious to me passing by.

Local wildlife on Bright Angel

Deb and Leo had once again gone ahead, so I made my merry way up the hill at a half decent pace. I passed a couple of hikers on the way  up, and as darkness started to fall, and with something like 4 miles I finally gave in to using my headtorch again.

Whilst Bright Angel wasn't as steep, there were many, many switch backs, and every time I looked up, the top didn't seem to be any closer. I could see the light of several headtorches up ahead of me and would occassionally hear voices, but it seemed to take forever before I finally caught up with the crowds. Yes, there were lots of people towards the top - those who had maybe visited just for the day and only got partially down, or maybe those who had stayed overnight and were now heading back home, but either way, I was somewhat surprised to see so many people still heading back up. I passed many of them with ease but then I became aware of somebody right behind me that no matter how fast or slow I progressed up the trail, they stuck with.

I turned to look and it was a chap who had seen the 3 of us on South Kaibab at 6am - over 12 hours ago! He had been down to the river but lost track of time, and he was unprepared to be returning in the dark. He was trying to stay with me because my headtorch was so bright and he could see where he was going! We got chatting and I discovered that his name  was Stephen and he came from East Germany. I spoke a little rusty German with him which he seemed to appreciate, and we walked the last mile or two together. It was nice to have some company after so long, and it was nice to finally reach the Bright Angel Lodge and to share that "finish line" with somebody.

Deb and Leo were waiting at the top, both chilly from the night air, both tired, but I think still both happy. I think we were all glad to have finished - it had been a very long, tiring, but momentous day and I for one was happy - we had completed the Rim to Rim to Rim :-) 

My Suunto gave me a distance of around 48 miles and around 10,000 ft of climbing, but it was also telling me that I had done a 3 minute mile at one point, and it told me that even though we had been out for 14 hours, actual running time was around 10 hours. I didn't really care how long it had taken - I was happy to have ticked something off my bucket list, and all I wanted now was a hot shower and some proper food. We all finally got round to having both, and whilst Leo headed back to his warm and comfortable hotel room afterwards, Deb and I returned to the campground with Andy and the dogs and sat around the campfire to keep warm whislt once again admiring the millions of stars in the skies above.

The Rim to Rim to Rim was a wonderful experience and I'm glad that I was able to share it with 2 good friends, even though I didn't really get to see that much of either of them because I wasn't quite as fast. A couple of months ago, I thought that I would have to cancel our plans and save things for another time, but then i didn't want to let people down at the last minute. I knew I wasn't as fit and fast as I was earlier in the year, but I knew that I would finish even if it took all day. Why did I want to do the Rim to Rim to Rim? A year ago to the day, I left Calgary and we started our journey south to Phoenix to start a new life. After Bryce Canyon Ultra in June, I had no major races planned until the Javelina Jundred at teh end of October, and so I wanted to do something different that didn't involve training for a race - something I could do for the sheer enjoyment of running. The Grand Canyon is pretty much on our doorstep, and with Arizona being known as "The Grand Canyon State", it made sense to celebrate my first year Arizona anniversary running across the Grand Canyon. Would I do it again? Yes I would as I feel that everytime I see the Grand Canyon, there is something magical about it that never ceases to amaze me. Will I celebrate my 2nd Arizona anniversary at the Grand Canyon? Probably not. Leo made a suggestion for next year's reunion and I have a sneaky feeling that next year will see us reuniting at the Mogollon Rim where we take on the Mogollon Monster 100 mile trail race. It's a race I've had my eye on for the past couple of years, and being in nothern Arizona, it makes perfect sense. So for anybody else that wishes to join in the next round of celebrations, you know where we are and we'll see you in September 2017!

1 comment:

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