Monday, January 1, 2018

2017: Lessons in Perseverance

It's January 1, and 2017 is in the books. For me, it ended up drastically different than it began. A year ago today I was having an incredible extended weekend in Grand Cayman with my wife. Now I sit alone, in my apartment trying to figure out how I got here.

I run almost all of my miles alone and without music, as it's my time to meditate, be present, and clear my head. 2017 was my biggest mileage year ever. Over the course of the last 365 days I logged 2,500 miles (that's a lot of head clearing).

One of the frequent questions that get asked of ultrarunners is, "why?" 'Why would you ever think of running 100 miles?' 'Did you lose a bet?' 'Did you actually enjoy freezing your ass off?'

During my frigid run this morning in sub zero temps, one of the reasons or benefits that became so obvious was the lesson of perseverance. In April of this year, I ran the Canyons 100k and suffered through more than 8 hours of walking (my quads were shot half way through the race) and vomiting (my stomach was unable to process calories due to heat and exhaustion). In September, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease the day before the North Face 50 Wisconsin race and despite feeling a lack of energy and vomiting the last 20 miles of the run, I dug deep to levels I didn't realize existed and gutted out a respectable 23rd place finish. The day after Thanksgiving, I joined a group of runners and traveled 86 miles by foot as part of an ALS charity event. The 14 of us ran through the night and raised over $5,000! On December 30 at 4:30am, I ran 26 miles (the first 13 were solo) in -25° windchill along the snowy Military Ridge Trail. And these are just the highlights and don't take into account the hundreds of hours of training (372, actually) and soreness that came with conditioning the body and mind to undertake these feats of crazy.

Most miles are not fun. The legs never feel more fresh after a run than they did prior. Making time to fit the workouts in around family, work, and adult responsibilities is always a challenge. However, every time I get back from a tough run or work through adverse conditions my mind is stronger than before I started. These efforts are always as much or more mental than they are physical. In both of my races (The Canyons and North Face), I found a way to persevere and learned things about myself that only ultrarunning has been able to teach me. The mind, body, and spirit are all capable of persevering though adverse conditions more dire than we think possible.

A friend just recently reminded me that I'm of Norwegian decent and that Norwegians are tough people. My ancestors endured brutally hard winters and sailed the seas through storms with minimal hope of survival. Not only am I Norwegian, but I'm a badass ultrarunner. 2018 is going to be great, in part because of hardships endured in 2017. As the saying goes, what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Life's Aid Stations

Ultrarunning events, particularly those of 50 or more miles, are often compared to life. Runners begin their journey prepared - with fresh legs, energy, and all of the tools for however they define success. Some runners simply hope to complete the journey and feel good about themselves and their accomplishment(s) while others strive to be the best. All motivations are equally valid and are up to the individual to define, accept, and ultimately be satisfied with.

Many runners will begin the event way too fast and suffer significantly or be forced to end the event early. Others will take a more methodical and conservative pace which results in an overall better experience, often times better results, and increases their likelihood of making it the entire distance. It's critical for runners to take care of their nutrition and bodies. Seemingly minor problems such as blisters can develop into much larger problems as the race progresses. There are always highs and lows. A runner can feel like they can't go on at mile 60 but feel strong at mile 70. Regardless of how the race is run, the athlete's body will slow at the end and be wrecked by the finish. And while the pain is significant, the journey along the way is what makes the effort worth while.

My year in running has thus far been defined as the year I've focused primarily on long distance trail events, having completed a 100k mountain run in northern California and more recently, a 50 miler here in Wisconsin. One of my most memorable take aways from these events is how generously the aid station volunteers cared for the runners. I've run plenty of road events where aid stations were identified as a mere place to maybe grab a very quick swig of water before carrying on in an expeditious pace. In difficult 50ks and 50+ mile ultras, they are much more. Unless the runner is going to cary a significant volume of calories and hydration, they are absolutely required for completion.

These volunteers give up a full day or more of their time to ensure runners stay safe and maximize their chances of reaching their goal of completing the event at task. They bake (sometimes quesadillas or pancakes!), set up tents, lay out several different nutrient dense food options, they repair blisters, touch other people's sweaty stuff, fill packs with ice, provide encouragement, deal with those who are moody due to glucose deprivation or lack of sleep, and clean up the mess when it's all over. They are unselfish angels whose character contribute to the culture and spirit of ultra distance running.

This week has been one of the most difficult of my life. I've felt anger I've never felt I was capable of feeling, sadness that left me wondering how I could possibly continue moving forward, sleepless nights wondering what the future will hold.

I've always had an ever-changing network of friends I could count on to have a good time with but never had much of anyone I'd feel comfortable confiding in. Fear of being judged or shamed has always kept me from getting close enough to anyone in order to share my darkest, deepest, rawest emotions with. I haven't had the confidence to make myself vulnerable, fearing I'd be perceived as crazy or carrying too much drama. After all, who wants to be friends with a downer?

This week, in my broken state, I was so desperate to make myself feel better that I found the courage to talk to people I trust but have never been vulnerable with. I came to them in a raw state. With some I cried. I talked about my fears, my pain, my mistakes. I've been a ragged runner, exhausted, beat down, on the verge of quitting, and unable to see the finish line. These friends and family members have listened, loved, and given me strength. They've been my life aid station volunteers, and I'm so grateful for them.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Canyons Endurance Runs 100k

April 29th at 9:57pm I completed the most physically and mentally challenging endeavor I’ve ever attempted – The Canyons Endurance Runs 100k. I write this not as a race report or course description for other ultra runners who may be looking to sign up in future years, but for myself, family, and friends. So that as my memory fades I’ll have a reminder of what I went through. So that when I contemplate signing up for one of these again, I’ll remember the pain and suffering I endured for several hours. It’s an attempt to shed some light for family and friends who may wonder why crazy Cody decided to travel to California to attempt something so entirely self serving, require so much commitment and sacrifice, and be so seemingly extreme. I’m writing this now, the morning after the event while my emotions are still raw and my memory mostly in tact.

Let me preface this with educating you, the reader that these events aren't unique, they're not all that unsafe, and there are thousands of people who do them every year. The sport of ultra/trail running is exploding and in an article posted by Ultrarunning Magazine, there were an estimated 247 50-mile, 141 100-mile, and 100 100-kilometer (62 miles) running events in US and Canada in 2016. They vary in terrain, temperature, and difficulty. There are also running events that are upwards of 200 or more miles and winter events that require pulling a sled with required supplies for as far as 160 miles or more across vast frozen tundras. Perhaps I'm biased, but these people aren't crazy. They don't lack value for life (I would argue the opposite). Most don't have life imbalance issues. They like adventure, they like nature, they like the camaraderie associated with trail and ultra running, and they like testing their physical and mental capabilities.

I’ll start with a quick summary of the event. The Canyons 100k (62 miles – although actual distance of this event was 63.6) is a double out and back (25k and back northeast on the trail and then 25k and back southwest on the trail) originating and finishing in Foresthill, CA – a couple hours northeast of San Francisco. The course is entirely on the Western States trail – first used by Native Americans and then heavily worn by horses during the early gold rush years. It’s since become familiar by the Western States 100, the oldest, most prestigious, and arguably most competitive 100 mile run in the US. Demand for entry into Western States is so high that those wishing to enter need to run a qualifying race to enter a lottery. For those applying their first year will only have a 2% chance of being selected (chances increase each consecutive year assuming a qualifier has been completed). Qualifying races are held globally; all of which are 100 milers or difficult 100k events. I selected The Canyons as a qualifier, knowing that if I want to some day run Western States I need to start collecting lottery points now. For reference, I ran part of the race with a guy aged 51 years who has qualified for Western States 6 times without having been drawn in the lottery system.

The course was incredibly difficult, with 9,000 feet of ascent during the first 50k and then 5,000 feet during the second; the equal amount of descent would prove to be the bigger challenge. The terrain was unbelievable – beautiful vistas, the American River, and at least a dozen river / creek crossings (my feet were never dry!) Adding to the difficulty of the elevation ascent and descent was the heat. The Canyons are notoriously hot and temps exceed those in nearby towns, my reference point from where I received my weather forecast. I don’t know exactly how high the temperature got in the second half of the course but my guess is that it was mid to upper 80s or maybe even 90F.

Although no training plan ever goes perfectly and simulating the race conditions while living in Wisconsin is absolutely impossible, I put in the time and came to the start line in shape. I believe showing up for an event like this without giving oneself the best possible chance of success is irresponsible and disrespectful to the event, the organizers, the volunteers, and the other runners. I am meticulous with my training log and my year-to-date mileage heading in to the event was at 939 miles with 82,359 feet of climbing. I believe I worked as hard as I could work given my base level of fitness while keeping life balance in check and not becoming injured or over-trained. 

These photos were taken prior to race day

Heading out of Michigan Bluff toward Eldorado Creek
Between Michigan Bluff and Eldorado Creek
Between Eldorado Creek and The Pump
The Volcano Creek Crossing at mile 2 and mile 30

The race kicked off at 5:30a, shortly before sunrise. My legs felt great and I set off at what I though was a sustainable effort. I was really strong on the climbs and flats, passing a lot of other runners. I was however highly inexperienced and underprepared when it came to the downhills. The result was a game of leapfrog, whereas I’d catch or pass runners on the ups and they’d fly past me on the downs. My calorie intake was sufficient and I when I arrived in Foresthill after completing the first 50k in 6:40 I was 43rd of 326 starters. My legs were feeling beat up but I knew the 2nd half of the race had an easier elevation profile.

My optimism and goal of having a sub 13 hour finish quickly diminished shortly after leaving the Foresthill aid station. The second half of the race begins with several miles of sustained downhill and within a mile or so I was walking and clearly ran too hard the first 32 miles. The pain in my quads was too significant to push hard with 30 miles of race remaining. By mile 33 the temperature became uncomfortable and my stomach resisted much-needed calories. By mile 38 I was dry heaving with nothing in my stomach to vomit. At one point I was able to suck down a gel but within 5 minutes lost it the same way it went in. I was also cramping. Every time I had to climb over a downed tree, my feet or hamstrings would cramp up. Vomiting was incredibly painful in my abdomen. My body was lacking sodium.

The aid station volunteers were amazing. They filled my bottles, cheered me on, provided humor as my mind began deteriorating as quickly as my body was. Still, the physical and caloric deficit was too significant to recover from by only taking 5+ minute aid station stops. Not only was I nauseous, but I also experienced vertigo every time I’d stop moving forward or step to the side of the trail to allow runners to pass by. Vertigo when on a single-track trail with 500+ feet of fall into the raging American River is not a good feeling. There are absolutely no words to describe the dark mental state I was in – it was an impossible reality of shuffling along for more than 20 miles, vomiting, dizzy, watching other runners pass me by, having quads so sensitive that going downhill felt like someone was hitting my quads with baseball bats. I was also hallucinating – I repeatedly thought there were footsteps behind me but I’d turn around and see no one. I was also certain I saw a black bear cub on the trail, which froze me in my tracks – it turned out to be just a dark spot in a tree.

I wanted to quit so badly. I was broken both mentally and physically. If I had a mile to go, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the prospect of battling for 8 or more hours nauseous and in pain seemed impossible. What was the point of this self-inflicted torture? What am I proving? My friends and family won’t love me any less. Will I love me less? What kind of muscle damage, heart damage, and kidney damage am I doing? I don’t belong on the same course as those who have run multiple 50 mile, 100k, 100 mile events and with people who live in and train regularly on this type of terrain.

These reasons to quit were outweighed by:

How disappointed am I going to be in myself if I throw in the towel? Will quitting make it easier to quit next time? What does it say to my kids when they ask me how the race went and I tell them I quit? What does it say to my family who made sacrifices by supporting my training runs and my mother who traveled to California to watch me run, when I tell them it wasn’t worth finishing?

When I got to Rucky Chucky, the aid station 75k (47 miles) into the race and the second-half turnaround spot I sat down to regroup. I took my headlamp out of my drop bag (finishing in the dark was now inevitable), and read some cards my kids had made for me. All of my time and place goals were out the window. I just needed to finish and could do it as long as I made relentless forward progress the remaining 16, uphill miles.

And so I trudged along, making my way up 4,000+ feet of ascent over the remaining distance. I stopped by the remaining 2 aid stations and was comforted by vegetable broth, quesadilla, and coke. I made to sure to repeatedly thank the volunteers, for whom I am so grateful. I saw brightly colored orange and purple wildflowers along the trail and it seemed as though Paul and Lucas were along the course, cheering me on (Paul’s favorite color is purple and Lucas’ is orange). I was in a delirious, emotional mental state; I called out to the flowers every time I saw them, “Hello Paul and Lucas!” I’ll admit it; I cried a few times.

As the temperature lowered and my electrolytes replenished, my appetite crept back. Unfortunately my headlamp battery started to die (I had no idea I’d be on the course as late as I was – rookie mistake by not bringing a backup battery and putting a fresh one in before the race) but I found a woman with a bright light who I could follow. I returned the favor by making good humor and exuding optimism (she was in rough shape as well). I never lost my outwardly focused humor throughout the entire race; in hindsight, the lighthearted quips were the best means I had to cope. At the last aid station, I joked, “think if I push hard I can catch the leaders?” An aid station volunteer replied, “you’ve maintained your humor!” To which I said, “it’s the only thing I have left!!” By mile 61 I found a second wind and ran hard to the finish line, finishing in 16:27:40 and in 121st place. The 2nd half of the race took me 9:47 as compared to 6:40 in the more technically challenging first half. Out of the 326 starters, 102 of them dropped or fell so far behind that they missed aid station cutoffs and were required to leave the course. So while I wallow in my suffering, nearly a third of the field had a more challenging day than I did.

The lessons learned transcend race strategy or preparation. I learned how to dig deeper and for much longer than I’ve ever done before. As someone who is always finishing road races in the top 5% or so of the field, I now understand that these events aren’t always about the finish time, place, or even completing the 63+ mile mountainous course. They’re about the battling self-doubt, testing one's ability navigate out of a deep mental cavern, fighting through significant physical limitations, problem solving, respecting the course, respecting the distance, appreciating the volunteers, and embracing the unique camaraderie with and admiration for fellow ultra distance trail runners – a community that’s unique to any other I’ve been part of.

I spent 8 hours telling myself I’d never do an event like this again. There’s a required level of experience and wear and tear on legs that’s required for success in ultra distance events (typically defined as any distance longer than a 26.2 mile marathon). Shorter distance road running / marathon fitness does not directly translate to finishing an ultra. If you’re in shape, you can fake a marathon finish or even a 50k. When I say “fake,” it’s not that these accomplishments aren’t earned or noteworthy (I’m incredibly proud of my finishes). However, if you’re well trained with little experience and go out at a reasonable pace you can make it 20-25 miles before really suffering. Even when your pace slows, there’s so little race left that your finish time isn’t significantly affected and you’ll never be chasing cutoff times. Everyone I was hanging with in the first part of The Canyons 100k had completed more than 10 ultra distance events. They floated down the steep, technical descents, their stomachs held, and their quads kept them running. They absolutely suffered and worked hard but they had better self developed tools to work through the challenges that inevitably come with races such as this. I believe in the case of long ultras, there’s no substitute for experience. If I could do it all over again, I’d run several 50ks and maybe a more flat 50 mile or 100k before doing The Canyons. Lesson learned.

I’m thankful for so many things. My wife and kids made sacrifices I’m so appreciative of. Although I do my best to work training around family fun and commitments, I am certainly absent for large chunks for time for reasons that are entirely self-serving. I’m thankful for my mom, who gave up an entire weekend only to fret at the finish line wondering why it was taking so long for me to complete the second half of the race and not realizing I had a headlamp in my drop bag. The volunteers and race organizers were critical to getting me to the finish line. They are selfless, caring, and wonderful people. I will return the many favors. I’m privileged to be part of the Madison Trail Runners. Although I don’t make group runs as often as I’d like, I’ve learned from them and they inspire me every time I refresh my Strava feed. Lastly, I’m grateful and have a tremendous amount of respect for everyone who toed the line with me. Some of them suffered more and less; all of them had the courage to fight the mental and physical battles that come with an event like this.

Will I put my name in the hat for a ~2% chance to run the Western States 100 mile in 2018? Absolutely.

Elevation profile in relation to time as recorded by my Garmin

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016 Running in Review

“Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of spaceships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort.
In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being – a call that asks who they are …” - David Blaikie

It's December 23rd and my 2016 training log reads 2,004 miles; my previous annual high was 1,970 logged in 2014. Many of them have been on the treadmill; most of them have been logged alone and without music or podcasts to pass the time. While many of the runs have been in preparation for a specific race or event, many more runs have been with the purpose of quieting the noises in my head and to achieve a state of mindfulness within myself and my surroundings.  The following images are glimpses of some of my favorite runs of 2016.

New York

Central Park

Times Square


Red Rocks (Las Vegas)

Costa Rica

Ice Age Trail (near La Grange, WI)

Devil's Lake (WI)

Governor Dodge State Park (WI)

The Grand Canyon

Norwegian Cruise Lines (Bahamas)

Iola Trail Run (WI)

Camrock (WI)


Northern WI

Mount Baldy (CA)

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Kim. We were at 7,500 ft and he was on his way to the top of Mt. Baldy (10,000 ft). He tried to convince me to make the trip to the top but the sun was setting, the trails north of 8,000 ft were snow covered and the sun was setting - the last thing I wanted to be was exposed, in freezing temperatures, without a headlamp, long pants, proper footing, and nutrition, so I politely declined. I kept telling him it was getting dark, the temps were dropping, and the snow would get deeper the closer we got to the top; his repeated reply was "short cut, short cut, short cut!" Mr. Kim is 79 years old and he climbs Mt. Baldy almost every day and will summit it 250 times in 2016 alone. His English was broken so I couldn't understand everything he was saying, but I made out the following.."Mountains are more important than home, mountains are more important than hospital, mountains are more important than church..." More on Mr. Kim here:

San Diego

San Francisco

Ice Age 50k (La Grange, WI)

8th Overall, 2nd in Age Group

Miami (Florida)

Track Workout!

South Beach

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sally McRae Western States Post

This Instagram post from Sally McRae was too good to not share. This Saturday is the Western States 100, perhaps the most prestigious 100 mile race in the US.

When I step up to the Start line everything around me fades away. The noise; the opinions; the people...there is no room for anything else except my one goal. I do not care who is to my right or my left; I don’t give a second thought to this runner’s accolades or that runner’s experiences. And while I hold a deep respect for my competitors, I am not there to race against anyone except myself. We will have arrived at the same start line but our journeys are not the same. This is the way it should be. For the past 4 months I have invited you on my journey- allowing you a peek into my training, my mind, and the places I've grown to love. My hope was that in sharing these things you too would be inspired to follow your own path in whatever it is you love; and that you'd come to realize there's great things waiting for you if you dare to go after them. For me, I devoted myself to training harder than I have ever trained for a race in the past. I got on the race course 15 times; I trained with a strength and conditioning coach every morning for 2 hours before my runs; I climbed until my legs shook; I changed my diet; spent hours a day on rehab and recovery; slept more; and sacrificed almost every minute of spare time to focus on this race. And all while knowing that nothing is guaranteed. So when I step up to that Start line, I will be focused. Am I nervous? A little- I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I want to believe that I gave everything I possibly could to this race. And when that gun goes off, the test begins and the same question that I've demanded myself to answer EVERY. DAY. Will be asked once more, "What will you give today Sally?” My Best. Because my best is ALL that I have left in me. Wishing ALL runners racing #WS100 this weekend a strong and triumphant race! May you not lose focus on your goal, but keep your eyes on the prize. Give YOUR best my friends and nothing less. Much love to you!💛 2 Days. 13 Hours. 58 Minutes. Heart rate: 170 #joshua1v9 #giveYourBest #niketrail #eyesOnThePrize #zoomwildhorse
A photo posted by Sally McRae (@yellowrunner) on

A Dry Heat: My Grand Canyon Adventure

Running the Grand Canyon was something that had interested me for a couple years. I first learned about it from a work acquaintance and now friend while attending a work event in Indianapolis. As I immersed myself further into distance, trail, and ultra running (defined as anything farther than a marathon - 26.2 miles), I heard of more people attempting what's known as a Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, R3, or double crossing. Depending on the route, it's between 42 and 48 miles with more than 10,000 feet of climbing.

Having spent a lot of time over the past few years running on roads, I decided to run a trail 50k (31.1 miles) this spring. Running roads can get mundane and be hard on legs. Trails ease the impact and provide much more diversity - there are substantial elevation gains, elevation descents, roots, rocks, creeks, and more scenic landscapes. While I don't like the time it takes to do the long training runs it takes to complete an ultra, there are many more trail ultras than short trail races and my ability to finish toward the front of the field seems to be better in longer races.

I ran into a different work acquaintance, friend, and fellow endurance athlete this past January and mentioned to him my interest in doing an R3 this fall. Coincidently, he had plans to run it the first weekend in June. I told him I'd love to do it with him, as running with others would be much safer but that I was nervous to do it during the summer months. The Grand Canyon has extreme temperature variations. In the winter, there will be snow in the high elevations and several of the water stops will be turned off. In the summer, temperatures are typically well over 100 degrees in the canyon. The ideal times are therefore either Spring or Fall.

After giving it a lot of thought I decided to do a double crossing of the Grand Canyon the first weekend of June. Despite the risk of high temperatures, it was a convenient time for me to go because I needed to be in Las Vegas for work the following week and could simply extend my trip by 2 days.  Furthermore I knew I'd be in great shape coming off the 50k race in mid May. Unfortunately my buddy was going to run it June 3 and I didn't want to miss my son's birthday, so I couldn't go with him. I therefore decided June 5 would be the day and I would do it solo.

Although going solo poses some additional risk, there were several reasons I was in favor of it. First, by going solo I could go at my own pace and know that I wouldn't accidentally push someone beyond their limits and someone else wouldn't push me beyond mine. I could go at my own pace and as fast as my body would safely allow. Furthermore, running is something I do to put my mind in a meditative state. I rarely run with others or with music. Running alone for that amount of time would surely have cognitive health benefits I would not be able to achieve if running with others.

My first 50k trail race on May 14 went well. I finished 8th overall (209 finishers) and 2nd in my age group. The plan was to use the 3 weeks between the 50k and the Grand Canyon to make sure my body was fully healed from the damage of the 50k race and to acclimate myself to being exposed to extreme heat. Following the race, I took 6 days off and then began logging miles with multiple layers of clothing. I also sat through 6 sauna sessions at 180 degrees, whereas I would sit as long as I could handle it, run 2-4 miles on the treadmill and then revisit the sauna. On the Thursday before the R3 I made it for 2x 30 minute sessions with a 4 mile run in between.

My flight was scheduled to leave Madison for Phoenix at 5:30a Saturday morning, and the plan was to start my run from the south rim of the Grand Canyon Sunday morning shortly before dawn. The day before I was supposed to leave, I began to get really nervous. The forecast was calling for record temperatures of 111 degrees at Phantom Ranch, which is at the bottom of the Canyon. Although I knew I was in good shape and worked to acclimate myself for high temperatures, I was very inexperienced when it came to adventures like this. On a Facebook group dedicated to running the Grand Canyon, a concerned moderator posted a note, asking if anyone in the Facebook community was going to run that weekend. I replied and stated I was planning to run but that I felt confident in my preparation. My post triggered a series of responses from several concerned people, some of them calling me an idiot and others expressing genuine concern. The moderator composed an extensive post making several suggestions - one of which was to leave at 6p Saturday evening in order to minimize my time running in the heat of the day. I agreed to consider his suggestion, depending on how I felt when I arrived at the Canyon Saturday afternoon after a long day of travel.

At about 10p Friday night, as I was finishing my packing, my buddy who ran it that day gave me a call. His crew of 3 people had made it from the South Rim to the North Rim but decided to spend the night before heading back to the South Rim. They had some other friends who were hiking the Canyon and therefore had access to hotel rooms on the North Rim. He said the heat was unbearable and that one of the guys in his group suffered significantly the last several miles, moving very slowly and at times appearing as though his health may have been at risk. He was completely caught off guard on how difficult the run was and how the heat affected them.

At this point I was really getting really nervous. I questioned, "Should I cancel my trip? Should I cut the run short and do a Rim to River to Rim? There's no shame in staying safe." I decided it was too late to cancel my flight so after four hours of sleep, I grabbed my bags and headed to the airport.

I landed in Phoenix at about 10:30a that Saturday morning, picked up my rental car and made my way north. I made a detour to see Sedona, which is a beautiful town about half way between Phoenix and the Canyon. A hiker or runner could easily spend several days exploring its beauty.

I eventually made it Tusayan, AZ, which is about 6 miles south of the Canyon, and checked into my hotel. I was able to get about 45 minutes of sleep and then began packing for the night that lie ahead.

The goal was to pack light - whereas I'd minimize the beating my legs would receive that would inevitably come with almost 11,000 feet of descent. However, I wanted to bring enough nutrition and emergency supplies in case something went wrong. Traveling in the dark, with incredible heat, and in a place I'd never been created so many opportunities for things to go poorly. In my pack I included the following:

  • 3L of total fluid carrying capacity (a 2L bladder and 2x 500ml flasks)
  • Almost 3,000 calories of bars and gummies - the goal was to pack the most calorie dense, healthy items I could find with a mix of carbs, protein, and fat
  • 4 pouches (1,000 calories total) of Hammer Perpetuem drink mix which I used in one of the two 500ml flasks)
  • Enough Endurolyte (electrolyte capsules by Hammer) to allow me to maintain a safe electrolyte / water balance in excessive heat for up to 30 hours; a common mistake made by endurance athletes in extreme heat during prolonged events is taking in too much water without sodium, causing Hyponatremia - a potentially deadly condition resulting in brain swelling
  • Amino acids to minimize muscle damage
  • A headlamp, a backup battery, and a spare headlamp
  • Collapsable carbon trekking poles
  • Body glide for inevitable chaffing
  • Bandaids
  • Sunscreen
  • Extra contacts
  • An emergency blanket
  • A water filtration system
  • A backup battery charger for my phone and watch
  • An ambient temperature sensor
  • My phone
  • A selfie stick
  • Sunglasses
For clothing I wore Altra trail shoes, blister resistant socks, very lightweight running shorts, a shirt designed to cool the skin, cooling sleeves, and a lightweight hat.

While on my drive from the hotel to the Canyon I was greeted by several elk, including this big guy.

I made it to the South Rim of the Canyon at about 6:15p that Saturday evening with the temperature at 88 degrees. The enormity of the Grand Canyon is something that pictures cannot represent. I had seen so many pictures and read so many tales of Grand Canyon adventures that I thought I knew how it would feel to stand at the South Rim; I truly had no idea. I had intensely conflicting feelings of both excitement and fear. At this point I tried to call home twice in order to tell my kids I loved them. 

I grabbed a shuttle from the Visitor Center to the start of the South Kaibab trail. There are two commonly used South Rim trailheads for R3 runners - Bright Angel and South Kaibab. South Kaibab is at a slightly higher elevation, is about 3 miles shorter, and has no water stops. I elected to go down South Kaibab and back up Bright Angel which I anticipated would be the most difficult and hot part of the trip. Even though Bright Angel would be a few miles longer, having 3 water stops in the last 4.5 miles of the journey would likely be needed in order to make it out safely. 

At 6:38p I began my journey. I ran as much as I could while taking care of my quads. The path was rough, requiring me to walk more than I was hoping. Running along the South Kaibab trail while the sun was setting in the Grand Canyon was incredible. The pictures below do not do the intense colors caused by the setting sun reflecting off the red canyon rocks any justice. 

I eventually made it to the Colorado River. The frequent stops to take pictures and challenging trail conditions meant it took me almost 2 hours to go the first 7 miles. Oddly, even though the sun was setting, the temperature climbed. By the time I made it Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Canyon and on the other side of the Colorado River, the temperature was 95 degrees. Just before Phantom Ranch is Bright Angel Campground. As I walked through the campground, I was approached by a barefooted man asking me where the Ranger station was located. His wife was feeling the effects of the extreme heat and needed medical assistance. I helped him find the Ranger station and then found my first of many water spigots. 

While I was filling up, I met a couple (Troy and Eefy - a shortened Nigerian name) from Phoenix who were hiking R3.  Troy had hiked in the Canyon before and has had multiple encounters with rattlesnakes. He warned that they're nocturnal, especially in summer months when the temperatures at hot. This advice, although much appreciated, made me incredibly paranoid. As if it wasn't nerve racking enough to be moving swiftly through a foreign place with the only light coming from a headlamp. The added stress of thinking every stick was a snake surely raised my heart rate by 5 bpm. 

With high temps, climbing elevation, dark night, and fear of rattle snakes, I walked most of the remaining 14 miles to the top of the North Rim. I took care to make sure I consumed plenty of water, electrolytes, and calories. I'm guessing I probably went through 6 liters of water that evening before finally making it to the North Rim at about 2:20a Sunday morning. Despite feeling like I was drinking a lot, my urine was dark yellow and I wasn't urinating frequently which meant I needed to drink more. The dry air and extreme heat was taking more fluid from my body than I thought.

After 21 miles I made it to the North Rim; the temperature was a mere 44 degrees and it was windy. Although the air left my arms, legs, and torso dry, my back - covered by my hydration pack - was completely drenched. I was so preoccupied by the heat and forecast at the South Rim (a lesser elevation than the North) that I didn't think about how cold it might be at 8,200 ft in the middle of the night.

Instead of immediately heading back to the South Rim, I decided to camp out on the North Rim for a couple hours. I was tired and really wanted to see the North Rim in daylight. Luckily I packed an emergency blanket and tried to stay covered and warm on a park bench. Unfortunately all I could do was stare up at the sky, filled with amazingly bright stars, and shiver. Eventually I decided it would be best to move into the bathroom, where I was able to curl up in the corner and catch 30 minutes or so of sleep. When I came out, Troy and Eefy were there. They had made it and were going to head back as well. 

At about 4:20a with the sky still dark, I headed South - again, trying to run as much as I could without doing crippling damage to my quads. I was so happy I waited to make the return trip. The North Rim was so beautiful and very different than the South Rim. Again, the pictures on this page do not do what I witnessed that morning any justice. 

As I moved South, the temperature rose in a hurry. I'm guessing that within 30 minutes of it getting light, the temperature was already 75 degrees and by the time I had dropped from 8,200 feet to 2,800 feet the temperature was over 100 degrees. Perhaps what was more difficult was the pain I felt in my legs and feet. By mile 30 I had descended approximately 9,000 feet with a pack on my back and at times as much as 3L of water. Every step hurt and running was not an option. There were times I'd try but only make it 40 or 50 feet before slowing to brisk walk. I convinced myself that walking was good though, because I was going to need the energy to get back up the South Rim.

I spent a bit of time at Phantom Ranch, resting my feet before choosing the Bright Angel fork in the road and crossing the Colorado River. I checked the temperature at the Colorado and it was 104 degrees. I took a picture of the temperature reading on my watch, as part of my effort to document the journey and thinking that his would be the highest it would get. A few minutes later it was 106. I took a picture. Then it was 109. I took a picture. Then it was 112. I took a picture. The last temperature picture I took read 121 degrees and my watch logged a max temp of 126. I ended up veering off the trail and soaked my sore legs and feet in the Colorado. This made them feel a ton better, and I began climbing the remaining 9 miles of my journey. 

Between Phantom Ranch and the next water stop was only about 5.5 miles but it seemed like forever. GPS readings were inaccurate due to the signal bouncing off the Canyon walls and I was rationing water, not knowing how much further to the next water stop. This was the only point in the trip where I was concerned about dehydration. I was never dangerously in trouble though, because I carried a water filtration system and there as a creek that kept me company along much of the Bright Angel trail. 

At one point, with temps in the 120s, I decided I needed to cool my core temperature. I was able to find a creek and laid my entire body in it for several minutes. It was amazingly refreshing and gave me a much needed boost in spirits. 

I'm guessing the average temperature from the Colorado River to the top of the South Rim (9 miles and 4,400 feet of climb) was 114 degrees, and there was no shade. Thankfully there were 3 water stops the last 4.5 miles. Without needing to ration water those last few miles, I would guess I consumed at least a liter per mile.

I made it to the top of the South Rim at about 2:30 that Sunday afternoon, after 45 miles and more than 10,000 feet of climbing. It was a journey I will surely never forget. There were so many moments that Sunday when all I could do was pause, smile, and try to take it all in. I was so grateful to be there not only to see the Grand Canyon but also experience the Grand Canyon. I truly believe that if there's a higher power, he was there with me in the Canyon that day.