Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hard Lessons: The Grand Canyon

Sunrise en route to the GC
The Grand Canyon drew me back again.  Viking Lars flew in after two weeks of training to run the classic R2R2R, and in a blatant attempt at one-upmanship, I was going to attempt the R2R in under 3:19 (Jason's time).  Last minute additions, Jake T and Joe K, filled the car and made for a high level of excitement as they were getting a second chance after being shut down on the drive last week due to snowy roads.  

But, keeping our priorities straight, we snuck in a quick lap on Baldy before driving down.  It was Lars' first ski of the year.  Perfect preparation for a run 16 miles longer than anything he'd done before.  With sore legs and poor training, the former All-American runner turned MMA fighter was in over his head.  Jake and Joe had been running all summer so I knew they'd get the job done but questioned how fast.  Nevertheless, on the drive down I issued a warning: be back at the car by 11:00 PM or get left at the North Rim.  

All of us had commitments early Friday morning and I hoped I wouldn't have to follow through on my threat.  I also hoped I wouldn't be the one getting left out in the cold.  We pulled into Kanab around 11:30PM and found a cheap motel.  The youngsters were soon asleep, leaving Lars to fret about the task at hand and me to battle a GI bug that I must have picked up from some ill advised food choice earlier in the day.  5:30AM came all too quickly and Lars declared that he'd slept for almost a whole hour.  Not good.  

Snowy sunrise over the high plateau en route to the Grand Canyon
Perfect running weather
We hastily packed and dressed for the day with Jake and Joe choosing to represent the JV team by wearing shorts over their tights.  Then it was 80 miles of beautiful scenery, including a gorgeous sunrise over the old burn on the high plateau just before the North Rim.  The open meadows were layered with new snow and a wisp of fog hung in the air.  Passing through I noticed the thermometer read 1 degree Farenheit.  Then 0.  Then -1.  Then -2. Then -3.  And so on until... -12 degrees F.  Huh?   

Snowy conditions at the N. Rim
Fortunately, the temps climbed as we approached the North Rim and reached a balmy 12 degrees at the trailhead.  Eager to get started, the guys jumped out and started down the trail as a pack of 3.  I stretched a bit and then struck out after them, wondering how the snow on the trail would affect my ability to run fast along the descent from the rim.  A few minutes later, I passed the fellas as they jumped out of the way, cheering and hooting me along.  My La Sportiva Crosslites were the right choice for the snow as the burly tread made even high speed switch backs mundane.  

A beautiful wintry morning descent into the Grand Canyon
Jason had given me his splits during his crossing: 45:00 to Cottonwood, 1:37 to the river, and 3:19 to the South Rim.  He had been going for the fastest known crossing time of 3:06 and change but fell short due to poor hydration/nutrition and inadequate specific training.  As a competitive older brother, 3:19 R2R was the goal.  

After having to stop to shed a layer and deal with a blister, I ran through the Cottonwood campground as the watch read 43:23.  Ha, I was ahead of pace...

Then, an emergent bathroom stop was necessary. Then another.  Swearing over lost time, I picked up the pace.  Familiar landmarks were flying by and my watch told me I was still on pace.  Then, while negotiating a rocky section of trail, I caught a toe and felt my center of gravity accelerate ahead of my feet.  I ran faster to get my feet back under me but was only successful in making my impact into the talus slope more dramatic.  Shocked, I rolled over to survey the damage - a bloody arm and a bruised hip, knee, and bilateral shoulders.  Not to mention my smashed ego.  I used to make fun of people who fell running.  Now, it happens with some regularity.  

Bitterly, I could feel the day getting away from me.  The weather was perfect and yet I was managing to fight against myself in every way in a game where each minute counts.  Back on my feet and running, the motivation was gone.  With a new soreness, I jogged the last couple miles to the river, arriving in 1:41.  Decent, but I was too far gone to push hard up the other side.  A man with more character would have gone to failure.  Maybe a man with more character wouldn't try to show up his little brother.  

Sitting down to get water at the river, I felt sorry for myself.  Why did I drive that far and sacrifice time away from Jessie and skiing?  Why such bad timing with the stomach virus or food poisoning?  Why do I keep falling?  Then I remembered where I was and really looked around for the first time since leaving the trailhead.  I remembered I had 3 friends having a grand adventure just up the trail who were discovering the canyon for the first time.  I remembered that I do this stuff because it makes me feel alive and fuels a deep happiness.  

I got up and decided to walk up to the South Rim, planning to regroup with the other guys.  While walking, I noticed the tiered sweep of the land and the snowy conifers capping the Northern rim.  The red sandstone was stunning in contrast to the subdued greens of the sage, freshly invigorated by recent snows and rain.  The day was painfully beautiful with a sharp breeze and a paucity of tourists and mules and I was starting to enjoy myself.  

Alone on the South Rim, I began to wonder about the other guys.  Walking back down the first switchbacks, I suddenly saw two figures moving much too fast to be random tourists.  Now it was my turn to shout encouragement as Jake and Joe strode past, 4:18 into their day.  I quickly asked about Lars and found out they had left him for dead back at the river.  Worried, I walked on, hoping to turn the next bend and see Lars chasing down the others.  

And there he was, just around the next bend.  Head down and jogging, the man had been suffering for hours in solitude.  I cheered him on and he yelled at me to wait for him as the view back across to the North Rim must have been rather demoralizing.  I laid down on a rock to bask in the sun and watch hawks catch thermals above the South Rim.  Some minutes later Jake and Joe came hopping back down the trail, looking cheerful, they asked for the key, saying I had better be back by the 11:00PM deadline.  That would depend on Lars...

Joe descends back to the Colorado River 
Ten minutes later, a rather spry looking Lars came trotting along and we were off.  He had made the South Rim in 4:35 and was intent on gaining bragging rights over another friend of ours.  His goal: 10:57:22.  

We ambled down the South Kaibab trail, catching glimpses of the youngsters below as they switch-backed toward the river.  Soon we were reunited at Phantom Ranch and a game of cat and mouse ensued.  I was continually impressed with all three of the guys as they were all having great days.  Lars, who had run ~10 miles/week over the last month was now 30 miles into this run and still light on his feet.  I caught him craning his neck to look around the next turn, hoping to catch sight of the others.  

And then it happened...  The inevitable implosion.  Walking slowly, his voice told me to go ahead and catch the others.  His face said otherwise.  I ran ahead.  

Catching the others at the Cottonwood campground they too were now dealing with fatigue and walking stretches.  I ran a stretch with the guys to gauge their mood (which was still high) and then sat down to wait for Lars again.  The sun was getting low and would soon be hidden by the towering walls.  

Having eaten his umpteenth gel, he was recovering and fast hiking the up and jogging any flats/down.  Falling into a steady pace, Lars made his push for home.  Over the bridge and through the tunnel it was now getting dark.  Back on snow, the rim felt close but Lars was starting to sway.  I'd given him my poles miles earlier and wonder if he would have collapsed without their support.  At some point we became aware that the moon was full and its powerful beams were reflecting off the snowy slopes.  Marching through the forest I was now content with a day gone awry that had been salvaged by the power of the natural landscape and by sharing the success of others.  

And a success it was.  Lars topped out in 10:36 gaining temporary bragging rights over our friend.  Jake and Joe barely missed their goal of sub 10 hours but had a grand time anyway.  No one missed the 11:00PM deadline and we all rode home with another adventure to remember as we go work, bleary eyed and happy.  

(All photos by Jake Trauscht)


  1. Well done. You sat out a pretty sketch weekend of snow pack anyways - probably for the best.

  2. Like the evidence of deeper thinking going on during/after your efforts Sherpa. I've found that long events are a great time to let the brain do its wander/focus thing (it wanders, then focuses somewhere unexpectedly). Good to see you debate the important things and realize that what you're doing at the present is important - living in the present is important. Speed records, well, you can't have 'em all. At least not all at once... ;) Still, I support you pushing your limits. Inspiring as ever, buddy.

  3. speed records on anything with the word "Grand" in the title are never onsights. good luck with fitting your pieces together on the speed/endurance puzzle. great insights this time.

  4. nice report. i still need to get out there. crazy how when we try to go fast/hard we miss some of the beauty. good for the viking. glad the jv team added not only shorts but basketball shorts...