Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Adventures In The Grand Canyon

Last weekend was a blur.  Pretty surreal too.  Kelly and I left Tucson at 5am on Friday morning, driving straight to the Grand Canyon south rim entrance and catching our first amazing glimpse of the Canyon that day at around 11:00am.  We walked around on the rim trail, snapping photos and then took the shuttle bus from the visitors center to Bright Angel Lodge for a lunch of taco salad and roasted red pepper soup.  Yum!  We went by the Bright Angel trailhead so Kelly could see where I'd be finishing the next day.  The weather was perfect---clear and sunny and temps around 58 on the rim.  We stopped by the ranger table so that I could ask when the first mule trains leave for Phantom Ranch so that I could avoid having to try and pass them on the trail.  (Mule etiquette requires you to step aside when the mules pass and apparently it's difficult to get the "driver" to let you pass when running.)  The ranger told me I should be fine if I left by 5:00am, but reminded me of the mule rules.  I was trying to avoid explaining that I was running, not hiking, (running in the Canyon, and even hiking from the rim to river and back is something they frown upon.  But with good reason---250 rescues are made a year.) but it eventually came out and the ranger raised an eyebrow at me and lectured me on proper hydration, salty snacks and electrolytes.   We took the shuttle over to the South Kaibab trailhead, where I would start my run that next morning.  I sat near the edge of that "big ditch" and looked down and across, thinking to myself, "how the hell am I going to do this?"  

After checking into our hotel, I dumped all my gear on the bed and began to put my pack together.  I have an Ultimate Direction Wink hydration pack that fits me perfectly and with the mesh vest straps in front with lots and lots of pockets, I can carry quite a bit.  And yeah...I had a LOT to carry.  10 Hammer gels, 1 roll of Perpetuem solids, 3 small baggies with single serving of HEED, 1 baggie of beef jerkey, 1 baggie of salty nuts, 1 baggie containing 24 Endurolyte capsules, 1 bandana, a small first aid kit, a small camera, my cell phone and I still needed room to fit my moeben sleeves and long sleeve tech shirt after I took them off when it got warm!  Oh yeah...and I had a full 96 oz bladder to fit in there too!  

I ate a spectacular dinner of oven roasted chicken, salad, and a couple rolls and after taking a long, warm shower, I was in bed and asleep by 9pm.  The next morning, I was up a little before 4am, putting last minute things together, filled my pack with water, got dressed and arrived at the visitors center shuttle stop by 4:45am.  It was FREEZING!  40 degrees with a good, chilling wind.  Thankfully, Kelly was riding the shuttle with me to the start and I could give her my extra layers before heading down the trail.   The bus was full--a few hikers, but mostly people wanting to take photos of the sunrise from Yaki Point, which Kelly was planning to do after seeing me off.   At the trailhead, I took one last bathroom stop, peeled off my extra clothes, snapped my pack into place, turned on my headlamp and posed for a pre-run photo.  I looked around for Wayne and Patricia, two fellow Tucson trail runners who were supposed to start around the same time, but didn't see them and decided to start anyway.

I had never been on the South Kaibab Trail before and it certainly lived up to all the things everyone had told me--though rocky and steep, the views were INCREDIBLE, especially at sunrise! About 30 minutes into my run, however, I felt a leak in the bottom of my pack.  Great...I just not have secured the top of the bladder enough.  I stopped for a second to rearrange things and realized I had a true leak in my bladder.  Crap!  I dug through my bag for my duct tape and tried to stop the leak, but it wasn't holding! Frustrated, I started asking hikers coming down if they had any tape.  Within twenty minutes, I had a crazy assortment of duct tape, athletic tape, and even masking tape holding the bladder together!  Wayne and Patricia passed me and Patricia donated a piece of athletic tape and gave me some words of encouragement.  I still had a handheld bottle and thought I could definitely make it down to the bottom and refill at Phantom Ranch and maybe grab another water bottle at the canteen and at least complete a Rim to River to Rim.

So, I continued on my way, trying not to worry about the water issue and made it down to the Colorado and black bridge in about an hour and half (despite 20 minutes of hassle with my pack).   I stopped at Phantom, refilled my handheld, bought an extra water bottle, drank some HEED, took some more endurolytes and went to the bathroom.  I had 14 miles to go up to the north rim with not water availability.  My pack was still holding water, so I decided to go ahead with my plans and head up to the north rim.  Patricia passed me on her way back from the 3rd bridge.  She had decided to turn back there, her legs were really hurting.  Wayne was up ahead somewhere, hoping to get to Roaring Springs.  Running along the river was a great distraction, especially as I went through "The Box"--a huge canyon carved out by the creek.  I crossed several bridges and then started really climbing.  There were some murky, wet spots, but other than that, I didn't get too wet, even at Wall Creek where I had to cross a small waterfall.  At this point, two other runners passed me going the other direction.   The female, I recognized as Darcy Africa, a phenomenal ultrarunner from Boulder, CO.  Turned out she was going for a FKT (Fastest Known Time) and trying to break the record that was set just four days before by two other well known female runners:  Devon Crosby-Helms and Krissy Moehl.  They had run their R2R2R in 9:12.  The way Darcy looked, however, she was well on her way to breaking their time!   Darcy gave me a thumbs up and told me I looked great and to "get after it!"--just the inspiration I needed!

At Cottonwood Campground, I felt the taped up bladder in my pack give way and break open, water poured down my backside.  I knew of only one other runner/hiker on the trail at this point and that was Wayne, but I had no idea how far ahead he was from me, so I decided to press forward.  I still had over 24 oz in my handheld and the extra water bottle from Phantom Ranch full as well.

My legs felt good and my feet were holding up very well.  Once I hit Roaring Springs, however, I had to power hike some of the steeper sections.  I hit the Supai Tunnel, with 2 miles left to the north rim and saw a hiker heading down the trail.  After explaining what I was doing, he offered me an extra water bottle!  Unbelievable!  He told me he was camping for the night at Bright Angel and had plenty of water to hold him until he got back down and actually thanked me for lightening his load!  I seriously almost kissed the guy!  I was getting colder as I climbed higher and it really felt like I'd never get to the north rim, but finally, the trail leveled out a little and I saw the forest ahead of me and the trail head!  I put on my long sleeve again, checked my watch and realized I could make good time and even be ahead of schedule if I pushed hard back down to Phantom.

I got down in almost half the time it took me getting up North Kaibab and by the time I got back to Phantom Ranch, I was ahead of schedule by almost an hour!  At Phantom, I took another bathroom break, refilled my water bottles (now I had three!), checked my feet for blisters (none!) and considered, for about a minute, whether or not I'd head back up the South Kaibab, instead of my intended Bright Angel Trail.  The difference was, Bright Angel is a little over 3 miles longer.  Also, the FKT runners go back up South Kaibab and I thought, briefly, that it would be cool to get a benchmark time for myself just in case I decided somewhere down the line that I'd want to attempt an FKT.  Yeah...the thought was pretty short lived as I remembered that there are no water stops on South Kaibab and there was no way to tell Kelly that I had changed my mind.  So, I pushed on toward the Bright Angel Trail, crossed the silver bridge and enjoyed the short lived flat, sandy trail slightly above the Colorado River.  I saw some groups of rafters below and heard a few shouts of "Whoo hoo!  You're crazy girl!" and "Nice Job".  Once I hit Pipe Creek, I realized why I needed those water stops.  I had almost depleted my water again and the switchbacks and Devil's Corkscrew were looming ahead.  Still, it was pretty breezy and overcast and it made for an easier run uphill, not having to deal with the heat.  I refilled my water bottles at Indian Gardens with 4.8 miles to go.  But I knew the hardest, steepest part of the trail was ahead of me.  The cuts in the trail from erosion logs were killing my pace at this point as I had to jump over or onto them.  I really didn't want to walk any of it, but in a few places, especially as the trail got more crowded with hikers, I welcomed the brief moments of powerhiking instead.  Passing was getting a little annoying, especially as I got closer to the 3-mile rest house and crowds of hikers appeared.  It boggled my mind how so many people could be so clueless as to hike down without water, in sandals and jeans.  I saw one woman heading down wearing a long skirt and sandals.  She was carrying a massive camera...but no water bottle.  And she looked at ME like I was crazy!!!  I did get a lot of funny looks.  At this point I was getting a lot of comments too and people curious about what I was doing.  One little kid said to his dad, "she looks really tired".  Ha Ha--you have NO idea kid!

At the 1.5 mile rest house, I decided to kick it into gear.  At this point, I had nothing to lose.  I was way ahead of schedule by over an hour and though my legs and back were hurting, my lungs were holding up really well and I wanted to push it to the finish.  I started thinking about chocolate cake and an ice cold beer (not together.  But what the heck!) and how this was the most awesome way to celebrate my birthday EVER.  When I saw the Bright Angel Trailhead and the rim ahead, I pumped my arms in the air and kicked it into gear!

11 hours and 8 minutes after leaving South Kaibab trailhead that morning, I arrived at Bright Angel Trailhead!  Almost 44 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain.  No blisters. No falls. No stomach problems.  Minus the problems with my hydration system, I was feeling pretty good!  Tired, yes.  And once I stopped running, I started cramping up, but overall, I was ok!
                                     The End.  The sign might be holding me up, but I feel Great!

Kelly had made a huge banner for me and put together a great finishing package of snacks and goodies!  Back at the hotel, I sat in an ice bath, called my parents, and told them about all my adventures (and misadventures) in the Grand Canyon.  And after a pizza dinner and warm shower, we opened a bottle of champagne and watched "The Blind Side"...which I barely made it through before falling FAST asleep!

A couple of other notes:
*After having issues deciding what shoes to wear for this run, it turned out that my New Balance Minimus were exactly what I needed.  No rock bruising, no issues with my toes sliding on the downhills, and I felt flexible and confident on both the steep downhills and uphills!  And best of all--no blisters at ALL!

*Turns out Darcy Africa DID post a FKT that day.  She did it in 8:28!

*This run was by far the toughest run I've ever encountered.  But it is also BY FAR, the most spectacular run I've done.  It felt surreal, especially the next day, when Kelly and I returned for one last glimpse before heading back to Tucson.  Looking at the vastness, the incredible, intimidating size of the Grand Canyon, I could hardly believe I had JUST run it, the day before.  If you haven't been to the Grand Canyon, you MUST go!  You will never see anything like it on earth!
                                                    The day after.  Look--I can squat down!

So what's next for me?  Well...I have the Warrior Dash (a 3.4 mile run and obstacle course) this weekend (however slow I may be after last weekend!).  And I have the Skyline 50K in Northern CA in August and then the NorthFace Endurance Championship 50 miler in San Francisco in early December.  Meantime, I'm going to spend some more time doing CrossFit and maybe take that skydiving trip I've been talking about!  Stay tuned...


  1. Fantastic!! I'm truly in awe that you set off to do this solo. It sounds like an absolutely incredible run, and you've just added yet one more thing on my "to do" list. Congrats on persevering through the water mishap too!

  2. Having a leaky water bladder would have definitely caused me to reconsider that run. Kudos to you on shear bravery and stamina. You freakin' rock!

    I visited the Grand Canyon once before, many years ago. And, after reading this report, I can't wait to go back to try running it.

  3. Congrats on a fantastic adventure, that's rad that you saw Wayne and Patricia...and Darcy! So rad, can't believe how much she killed that FKT. Have fun with the Warrior Dash, wear the helmet with pride, I raced one in Texas last November and had a blast.

  4. Awesome time!! Sounds so fun, I cannot wait to run r2r2r! I am going to attempt r2r2r this upcoming April.

  5. Looks like that is an Ultimate Directions bladder. They have already replaced two of them for me for free. Two years ago I had the same experience with that bladder on a r2r2r in October when the water was turned off. I had to drink creek water but came out no worse for the wear. I gave up on that bladder and use an MSR in the Ultimate Directions Diablo pack. Great time, by the way. We do Bright Angel both directions every year in is addicting!