Wednesday, May 29, 2024

R3 3.0: Beauty & the Beast

Two years ago, I crawled out of the Grand Canyon and was certain that this was a one and done experience for me. But as time marched forward, I slowly forgot about the pain and was curious if it would feel easier the second time. My experience of running rim to rim to rim last year was much better than the first time, but it was still really tough.

Well, because you're reading this, you know that I decided to go back for round #3. But this year was a bit different for a few reasons, some good, some less than ideal. I was far less fit than last year (re: undertrained). We decided to run a slightly different route (re: longer). And Jared joined us for the weekend (re: the more the merrier).

Jared and I flew to Phoenix on Friday night and Roger picked us up at the airport. It was nearly 2am at home so we were pretty exhausted by the time we were settled at Roger's place. Roger woke up at some ungodly hour to go do a short run (?) and thus, we found ourselves already sleep-deprived well before the adventure began.

The 3 of us went to breakfast, shopped for some last minute items (re: croissants, Payday, post-run chips/soda/sandwiches), and then loaded up the car to head north. 

Traffic was a crawl heading to Flagstaff, but we made it to Pizzicleta close to 1pm and snagged 3 seats at the bar for our final rerun meal. Pro-runner and R6 FKT holder (re: he has the fastest known time for going across the canyon twice in one effort) Jeff Browning was having lunch there so we figured it was a good sign.

Traffic was a bit of a snarl getting into the park, but we were still super early for our projected 6pm start time. We actually found a parking spot right next to the Bright Angel trailhead and decided to just go ahead and start early.

At 4:26pm, we began our rim to rim to rim adventure. Roger and I had previously run down Bright Angel to North Kaibab and back up Bright Angel. This time, we ran 5 miles along the Rim Trail before taking the South Kaibab Trail down. Once we hit Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, everything else was the same as prior years.

The Rim Trail is a paved path along the top of the canyon and offers great views and easy footing. The direction we were heading was a slow incline and added a bit of vert in addition to more miles on our legs. By the time we arrived at the top of Soutb Kaibab, we were just shy of an hour in and ready to get to the real thing.

South Kaibab at sunset was a feast for the eyes. We moved at a careful, but honest pace down. This was Jared's first trip to the Grand Canyon and my first time down SK so we were taking lots of pictures and goofing off while Roger forged ahead. As we got further and further down there were less and less people on the trail and it felt like we almost had the place to ourselves.

 I was feeling pretty okay in the first stretch, but I'd been dealing with some self-diagnosed tendinitis in my foot and the descent was making it angry. And I could tell early on that my lack of trail-specific training and overall fitness was going to make this a different experience than my 2023 one.

 But as we hit the bridge to cross the Colorado River with a bit of daylight left, I was in good spirits. It was a gorgeous evening in a ridiculously beautiful place and I was doing the thing I love - running and adventure with friends!

 We refilled our water at Phantom Ranch and got all of our night gear ready to head through the next stretch. Roger asked if we would be okay to just hike through “the box”, aka the 8 mile flattish section from the river to Manzanita, the next water stop. We were all agreeable to err on the side of easygoing and headed off into the night.

 Bats and moths flew in between us as our headlamps bobbed down the trail. There was lots of swatting and shrieking, but also plenty of laughs. It was really warm in this section and I swear it got warmer the closer we got to Manzanita. I remembered from my prior experiences that this section feels extra long because it's relatively boring in the night. But I also remembered to stop a few times and get us all to turn off our headlamps so we could stargaze. With the nearly full moon and clear skies, it was really special to stand at the bottom of the canyon and feel very, very tiny.

 Unfortunately, the closer we got to Manzanita, the worse I started to feel. I went to a really dark place and it was awful. We weren't even 20 miles in and I was spiraling. I couldn't believe how hard it felt and I couldn't pinpoint what exactly was wrong. My feet were achy, especially the one with tendinitis. My heart rate was really high. I felt extremely warm. I was thinking I should just cancel my 100 miler in September. I thought that I might need to turn around at Manzanita and bail out early. Nothing was wrong, but everything was wrong.

Roger asked as we neared Manzanita how I responded with, “terrible”. I said I needed some time when we got there to get myself together. I wasn't even sure what I needed at that point, but at the very least, I needed a short break.

Once we arrived, I went to the bathroom, filled my water, and then lied down on a bench and closed my eyes. I swear I fell fully asleep for 2 minutes while I lied there for probably 10ish minutes. I cajoled myself back upright and though I was saving my croissants and kidney killers (re: Aleve) for later if needed, I decided I needed to pull out all my tricks right then. So I stuffed half a croissant down, popped a couple of Aleve, loosened my shoelaces, and within minutes, I was feeling a million times better.

I tied my hoodie around my waist, knowing the temperature would drop as we climbed up towards the North Rim. And instead of turning back early, I clipped into my trekking poles and started marching forward. As we climbed, I continued to feel better and the colder air was a welcome relief. 

We saw scorpions, took more night sky photos, traversed sketchy rock sections, and came across a man wrapped in a space blanket on the side of the trail. He was fully coherent and not injured, but was waiting for a medic. We offered to stay with him until the medic arrived, but he said he was ok so we continued on. The medic was only about 2/10ths of a mile from him when we crossed paths so we felt better once we knew help was right there for him. Eventually, found ourselves standing on the North Rim.

A hiking group starting their rim to rim traverse was at the trailhead as we arrived and offered to take our photo after we refilled our water bottles. It was chilly at the top so we made it a quick stop.

The descent was much faster going than the ascent and everyone started to feel better after a couple miles. We stopped to have a snack and Jared realized that he and I had been using each other's trekking poles since likely the top of the North Rim. Oops.

As we neared Manzanita, I really needed to use the bathroom and started to gap the guys to get there faster. Roger prefers to lead and Jared likes to take photos from the back of any of our group runs so I was in the middle of our caravan most of the journey. However, in this case, I forged ahead out of my own necessity.

Down at Manzanita, I used the restroom, filled my bottles, and decided to lie down again while the guys got their gear ready for the next section. It was first light and we could now put our headlamps away finally.

We were all in a pretty good place as we went through the box a second time. The daylight brought us back to life and we were happy to be on the return trip back. Much like the whole run, there were periods of crazy laughter and chatter interspersed with stretches of quiet. Sometimes, we'd hike for a mile or two with barely a few words, checking on each other as we all worked to do this really hard thing. And sometimes, we'd be laughing so hard that tears would be running down our faces.

As we neared Phantom Ranch, we made checklists of what we needed for the climb up Bright Angel. Water, water, water. Sunscreen. Sunglasses. PR was busy, but we were able to find a place to sit and get organized before heading up.


All of us were happy that only the final stretch awaited us. It was going to be hard, but we were going to get it done. We crossed the Colorado again and then began the final ascent.

Even though it was still relatively early, the full sun felt brutal in the exposed sections. I dipped my hat, buff, and sleeves in the few early creeks to make sure I stayed cool. We climbed and climbed and eventually reached the last water stop at Havasu Gardens with 4.5 miles to go. 

Normally, there is also water at the 3 mile and 1.5 mile rest houses, but a pipe recently broke and this was now the last stop for water. I filled up with 2.5 liters just to be safe.

The final stretch was tough. Jared was feeling the way I did the first time, but I knew he was going to get it done. Roger was feeling good and kept gapping us. I stayed back with Jared, making sure he was within my sight as we snaked our way forward. We sat in the shade at intervals and broke up the climb as much as possible. Still, we were passing plenty of people making their way up as well.

There was a ranger standing at the 1.5 rest house checking people as they went down, making sure they knew water was turned off and asking them how much water they had in them. While we had plenty of water and were heading up, I was appreciative of the park service keeping people as safe as possible.

I was dreaming of my cold Sprite and lying down. Every muscle in my body was screaming to just sit down. The sun beat down on us relentlessly. I looked out into the beautiful beast of the canyon, happy to be inching myself out of it.

Roger stayed with us in the final climb and the 3 of us finally finished just before noon on Sunday.

A very nice person took our picture and we were then free to sit down. Finally.

Our hotel room was at the South Rim, but check-in wasn't until 4pm so we hung out sprawled across the parking lot for a bit. It felt nearly impossible to drink and eat as I was just exhausted. But eventually, I was able to finish a sandwich, a Sprite, and a sparkling water. Feeling slightly more energetic, I went to go check to see if our room was ready. Luckily, it was ready early and we could shower and take a well-earned nap.

We hobbled out for an very early dinner at the Bright Angel lodge, cheers-ing with a few beers and then promptly went back to our room to get a full night's worth of sleep.

The morning after one of these things is always a favorite feeling. Completely wrung out, body aching, hungry, dehydrated, and mind fuzzy. There is an odd satisfaction in doing something so hard on your own volition that everything in your body hurts. I exclaim never again as I limp towards breakfast, but really, I'm waiting for the chance to do it all over again.


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