Thursday, June 23, 2016

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. 

1 comment: