I'm imposing a 30-mile-per-day limit on myself. My body simply is not engineered to go farther than that in a single day without the aid of a bicycle.
I'm not exactly sure what started me on this long-distance hiking kick. Part of it was the idea of covering a lot of ground with nothing but my own two feet. Part of it was curiosity. I have been able to log all-day mountain bike rides and some long bike/hike combinations while ultra-climbing mountains or exploring slot canyons. Would this endurance translate to running and hiking all day, covering 40+ miles.
My first long-distance hike/run was the trans-Zion which is about 47 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing. With essentially zero running-specific training, I was able to complete the trans-Zion back in June, but it took a painful 15 hours to do it.
With several months to train and with lessons learned from trans-Zion, I figured I would fair much better on the other local must-do ultra: a double crossing of the Grand Canyon, a.k.a. the rim-to-rim-to-rim, or for short, the R2R2R. The R2R2R via the North and South Kaibab trails amounts to about 42 miles and 12,ooo feet of climbing.
That's a lot of climbing, so to prepare, I did steep hill repeats nearly every day at lunch, and then I'd run up the local "cardiac hill" (the C-trail located here in Cedar City [4 mi/2000ft vert.]) on the weekends. In September, I sped-hiked Mt. Timpanogos with good results and no pain, so I felt like I was finally ready to conquer the Grand Canyon.
I wanted to be away from my family for as little time as possible. So after being home for most of the day on Friday, Oct. 1, I headed out at about 5 p.m. and by about 10 p.m., I arrived just outside the NPS boundary north of Jacob Lake in National Forest land. I drove a mile down a forest service road, found a grassy patch, and rolled out my sleeping bag. I slept on and off for a few hours until my watch alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. By 3:00 a.m., I was at the North Kaibab trailhead with flashlight in hand, and peering over the edge into the black abyss.
I started my stopwatch, and after a few cautious steps over some tall water bars, my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting conditions and I naturally started to charge downhill.
With the steady downhill grade, I quickly eased into nearly a full-out sprint down the seemingly endless switchbacks. Little did I know that this fast pace, only minutes into my grand adventure, would doom the rest of the day.
Here's the problem. Two problems really. First, the Grand Canyon is essentially a 6000-foot inverted mountain. It never occurred to me that I should have trained to complete a massive descent right off the bat. All of my training, and pretty much all of my adventures up to this point focused on and started with a CLIMB, and then much later when my body had completely warmed up, finally a descent.
The second problem was that I did not warm up whatsoever. I intended to, but being immediately faced with a seemingly easy downhill coupled with the excitement to finally be doing what I had dreamed about doing for months, I couldn't help but start running.
Within a half hour of running down the North Kaibab, I noticed a slight pain on the outside of my left knee. I had never felt pain before in this area. I ignored it for a while, just assuming it would go away. But it just got worse -- a lot worse.
With considerable but tolerable pain I made the 7-mile and 4200-foot drop to Cottonwood Camp in 1 hour 45 minutes. I took a few minutes to refill my Camelbak and started out again into the darkness. The brief rest seemed to make the knee pain worse but I pushed on.
By the time I reached a relatively flat section known as The Box, I was really hobbling and walking a lot more than running. Despite the pain, I was still enjoying the hike, but I knew it was going to be a much longer and grueling day than planned.
At 14 miles (3 hours 45 minutes into it), I walked through Phantom Ranch and into the Bright Angel Campground. I again refilled my Camelbak, and immediately continued on, now, along the Colorado River. With the rising sun I was finally able to turn off my flashlight and get my first glimpse of the inner canyon.
It took four hours to get to the Colorado and I felt like I was making decent time even though I was slowed down by my knee. At this point I figured it was the continuous downhill giving me pain, so I looked forward to finally go uphill and experience a different range of motion.
The Colorado was blood red. I was surprised to read that the graceful "Black Bridge" across the river was built clear back in 1928. Prior to the suspension bridge's construction, a cable car contraption was used to cross the river. The car, really a metal cage, hung precariously from a single cable and pulley and could hold a handful of people or a single mule.
On the other side of the bridge, the South Kaibab Trail begins its 7 mile and 4500-foot ascent to the south rim. Just as I expected, as soon as the trail turned up, the knee pain dissipated. I didn't run up the trail but I was moving pretty quickly and most importantly, pain-free. Once up on the inner gorge's rim, full morning sunlight was spilling into the canyon making its characteristically long shadows.
As usual, I wasted way too much time stopping to take pictures. But it seemed like every time the trail would crest over another geologic step in the canyon, a more impressive panorama would present itself and demand to be photographed.
Climbing the South Kaibab was the most enjoyable leg of the trip for me. I felt no pain, temperatures were pleasantly perfect, and my stomach felt great -- I still craved food.
I made it to the south rim from the river in 2.5 hours, meaning it only took me about 6 1/2 hours to cross the Grand Canyon! I didn't celebrate this accomplishment for long. As I sat and chewed on a bagel, all I could think about was how bad it was going to hurt going back down the South Kaibab. I briefly entertained the idea of taking a shuttle bus back to the north rim, but I resolved that I was going to finish this thing. I felt like I still had plenty of gas left in the tank - I simply had to ignore the pain. It was only 21 more miles and nearly 6000 feet of climbing to go!
Above: looking across the canyon to the north rim. Man, it sure looks far away.
Just as I fretted, within just a few strides of downhill motion my knee started to hurt worse than ever. I now hiked with a limp and I'd even skip a bit down the trail to avoid bending my left knee as much as possible. I'm sure a few of the passing tourists were wondering why such a gimp would torture himself by climbing down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Even with the limp and pain, I swear I was still enjoying the trip up to this point. I can deal with the mental aspects of pain. The real problem was that my knee issue was preventing me from running, which I had planned on doing a lot of on the downhills.
Another semi-related issue loomed ahead. I knew my stomach would be shutting down soon -- it always does. I had hoped this wouldn't have happened until I was at least halfway back out of the canyon. But, being slowed by my knee, I would have to finish the final 14-mile climb on a sour stomach and close to zero caloric intake.
I made from the south rim back down to the black bridge in a little over 2 1/2 hours, roughly the same time it took me to go UP the same trail. My appetite had waned, and this was about the last time I (think) was able to take in some calories.
Above: remains of an Anasazi village along the Colorado River. The village was first discovered by Maj. John Wesley Powell during his 1869 expedition.
Above: an NPS helicopter takes off just below Bright Angel Campground.
It was early afternoon by the time I reached the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon -- the hottest time and place to be in these parts. The thermometer at Phantom Ranch read an even 100 degrees. A brief thunderstorm added, what felt like, 100% humidity. But the heat was the least of my concerns. Now that the grueling South Kaibab descent was over and I was hiking uphill once again, my leg began to feel better, but I couldn't eat. The thought of eating another cracker, Gu, or even the m&ms I bought at Phantom's "Canteen" store, would cause me to gag.
On a good note, I still enjoyed a sense of wonder as I entered the long narrow Box. Yes, I had already hiked through in the morning, but that was in the dark. I was hoping to finally be able to enjoy the scenery along Bright Angel Canyon.
Above: Bright Angel Creek where it crosses the campground. Notice the stone piles creating little pools for people to cool off in.
Above: a bridge over Bright Angel Creek in the heart of The Box.
The 14 mile-long North Kaibab Trail can be divided into two parts. The first 7 miles from the Colorado River to Cottonwood Campground rises a relatively gentle 1,500 feet through the scenic Box and past Ribbon Falls. The last 7 miles from Cottonwood Camp to the trailhead, on the other hand, rises a leg-crushing 4,200 feet.
About 2 miles into the box, my stomach cramped and everything I had attempted to ingest for the preceding hour or so came up. My energy reserves soon petered out, and I was now moving by sheer willpower. Somehow, I forced myself to keep up a steady pace and I passed several groups heading up the trail.
Above: fly fishing for tiny little fish in Bright Angel Creek.
I covered the 7 miles to Cottonwood Camp in about 3 hours. Total cumulative time from the north rim was about 12 hours. Hoping to recharge energy levels and perhaps get my stomach working again, I took a good half-hour nap on a bench at Cottonwood. It didn't do any good.
That last 7-mile stretch to the rim would be the toughest hike of my life. The first couple of miles to Roaring Springs were slow but bearable. Then, the trail gets really steep as it zig-zags up a tributary of Bright Angel Creek.
I slowed to a snail's pace and started to take breaks every couple of hundred yards. Hikers that I had blown past hours before had now caught up and began offering words of encouragement. Then more hikers, mostly backpackers coming from Cottonwood Camp I'd never seen before started passing me. I'm talking about frail 80-year-old men, 9-year-old kids, and obese folks -- what I wouldn't give to have their energy!
Above: Roaring springs issues from near the base of the Muav Limestone. This massive spring supplies water to all facilities at both the north and south rim via underground pipeline. This would be the last picture I took on the hike before the sun fell.
I welcomed the encouragement for a while, but I soon turned very grumpy. As hikers approached, I would usually be sitting or even lying on a rock and they would say something like, "whoa, you don't don't look so good. Do you have enough food and water?"
"Yes," I'd explain, "but my stomach has shut down and I can't eat or drink anything." Then I'd have to listen to whatever their favorite remedy was -- typically some drug. Ibuprofen, Immodium, electrolyte pills, etc. "I'm telling you, I'm not going to keep any of that stuff down."
Then I'd get a reminder of how the Park Service discourages trying to go all the way down to the river and back in a single day. And I'd ask them, "what does the Park Service say about going all the way to the river, then up to the south rim, back down to the river, and then back to the north rim in a single day?"
"Wait, you started where? The north rim? And you've already been to the south rim?" And on and on. All of this explaining took way too much energy that I didn't have.
I started to avoid eye contact with passing hikers, and I became less discrete with my vomiting. Who's going to start a conversation with someone puking their guts out?
Yes its gross, but vomiting is the only way I could get a little energy boost to go on. This was my modus operandi: (1) I'd hike about a hundred yards and nearly collapse, (2) after resting a few minutes, I'd take a swig of water which would immediately induce major hurling [I guess it wasn't too gross considering I was upchucking clear water], and (3) for about 3 to 5 glorious minutes I'd have enough focus and energy to amble along until I'd nearly collapse again.
Words of encouragement from others soon turned to utter concern for my life. One guy insisted on staying and walking with me, which really irritated me -- and I let him know it. I was downright rude to a tremendously Good Samaritan. I honestly never doubted for a second that I'd eventually make it out on my own. I knew what I had to do to get out of there and my warped survival instincts were telling me that this yakking irritant wasn't going to help. Finally, I convinced him to leave me behind AND not to report me to the Park Service. I was happy to hear the sound of his ground-crunching boots and flashlight fade into the darkness. But less than a minute later, I could hear him about 20 feet directly overhead, where a tight switchback had led him. Then, came a dozen bright LEDs shining down into my face with the final warning: "you know... I'm your last chance, there's no one else coming behind me."
"Thank goodness!" I snapped back.
He really was the last one out of the canyon that night. Except, of course, for me.
There is really not much else to say. I recall feeling a little relieved when I reached the Supai Tunnel because it meant I only had a bout a mile and a half to go.
I also remember the subdued elation when the sweeping headlights of a passing motorist on the rim appeared to only be a stone's throw away.
As I passed the the North Kaibab trailhead sign, I forced myself to stop my wristwatch timer even though I had no interest in looking at my final time. In fact, I had not looked at my saved splits and total time until I started to write this post.
I staggered over to my car, took my shoes off, unzipped my sleeping bag to use as a blanket, reclined the seat, and finally got some rest. About 4 hours later, I woke up hungry. Four hours is actually a pretty quick time for a GI recovery for me -- it's taken twice that long in the past. I had cold pizza and soda in a cooler, which hit the spot, but it really hurt to swallow. It felt like I was trying to swallow jagged-edged rocks. Apparently the multiple reversals of the acidic contents of my stomach burned up my throat pretty good.
My final time was 18 hours, 19 minutes, and 27 seconds. It took me 6 hours and 15 minutes to climb the final seven miles up to the north rim. It took me 1 hour and 45 minutes to descend this same segment earlier that morning.
Those last 7 miles of hell are why I'm retiring from ultra-long distances. It is one of my grandest accomplishments, but the price was too high. If I knew it was going to hurt that bad...if I knew it was going to turn me into a nonsensical jerk to fellow hikers... and if I knew it was going to give me a serious case of iliotibial (IT) band syndrome [this is, as I would later learn, what happened to my knee] that would take more than a month to recover from -- I would not have considered doing this.
The next morning, I drove another mile down to the lodge at the end of the road and watched the sun come up over that canyon.
It was nice to be able to drive home during the day and take in the fall colors that were in full swing on the Kaibab.
I know I'll be back to the Grand Canyon. But, next time I want to enjoy it with someone else, and yeah, I'm going to take my time and soak in the sights. Plus, I still haven't seen those top 5 miles of North Kaibab trail in daylight.