Alyssa's blog part 1
Alyssa's blog part 2
For some reason, I spent the first few minutes of my R2R2R experience thinking up a subtitle for this blog post. How pathetic is that? Talk about not living in the moment, huh? However, this day was a very unique experience and I knew I would want to write about it even before I got out of the car. This was my first visit to the Grand Canyon. It was my first big run on my busted knee. And it was a long day with a bunch of cool, fit runner girls in their mid 20's. Sounds perfect, right? Except that all 4 women are taken and (this is the kicker) they are all super intelligent. Funny how the pendulum swings so quickly from "every guy's dream" to "every guy's worst nightmare" as the intelligence quotient increases and the availability factor decreases ;) Hence, "Into the ditch with 4 chicks" began, and off I went, at the back of the train of sinew and grace, surveying the scenery, the rock walls, the water stops, the mules, and yes, the glutes as well. We made a few pee stops. We passed a bunch of mules. We saw a few people at the various campgrounds. We saw the sun rise, and overall it was all smiles and good cheer. A beautiful way to start the day.
We wound up descending the Bright Angel trail which is a longer way to the river than the South Kaibab option, mostly due to parking and shuttle logistics. I was feeling very fortunate for the chance to see Bright Angel as I had assumed we would start/finish on South Kaibab and I wanted to see as much as I could see of such an amazing place. For some reason, the extra time and distance didn't bother me at all, and I guess while descending it really shouldn't matter. We reached the river and meandered our way to Phantom Ranch, still smiling, taking photos, eating a little bit, ready for our first water stop. This canyon thing, it just seemed so easy. I didn't understand why someone felt it necessary to post all sorts of warnings of imminent death and dismemberment awaiting those who attempt to hike to the river and back in a single day. I was in complete denial of what I was getting into.
Let me backtrack a bit, briefly. I spent Thursday busting out a couple of job interviews and driving out to Flagstaff (and stopping for froyo in Phoenix at Yogurtology, my first $10 yogurt ever!) I arrived at an address I was given to by Alyssa, my pacee friend from the HURT 100 in January, walked right through the unlocked door, woke up the dog and the friend who in my sleep deprived state I thought looked almost like a shorter version of Alyssa herself, and found my way into my sleeping bag. I had done my share of research of the upcoming adventure during the week leading up to it, and read a lot of "I took too much stuff". Also, my rock star coach had busted out a 9 hour crossing the Tuesday prior, so I figured I'd be relaxing with a cold beer and hot pizza by 3pm based on our 4:00 planned start. I took my 1.5L pack and shoved 6 or 7 purefit bars in and a pair of gu's. What could go wrong with that plan, right? I mean, it's not even 50 miles, and I can just cruise the two big climbs, why worry?
So, there I sit, at Phantom Ranch, having refilled my water and I start adding up the food I have left and I start to get worried. The "canteen" opens at 8 and it's 7:30, so there are no coffee or breakfast options to consider. To add insult to injury, two campers walk out with steaming cups of coffee while I watch and someone inside locks the door. Oh well, rules are rules, and I'm not waiting around for 30 minutes just to get some food, real men don't need food, right? I think Alyssa inquires about water ahead and finds out that the spigots are all turned off. Being a fool, I figure since I only drank half my 1.5L of water on the 10 miles coming down, I should be fine for the remaining 15. Never mind that no water elsewhere means 30 miles, not 15. Never mind that I have enough food for maybe 3-4 hours and we would be lucky to be halfway by then. Screw planning, I'm a camel, I'm a bear, I don't need food or water, I just run. Right? Not really.
We say goodbye to Claire and Anna, the two Flagstaff residents who can run in the canyon any weekend they want to and are wisely heading back up to the south rim to save the R2R2R stupidity for a later day when the course actually has water. Alyssa, Jen and I head north along the river, marveling at the beauty of the canyon as it narrows around us and we cross over a 3 or 4 bridges. The noise and mist from the water in the river are refreshing distractions from the growing heat and dessicated air. I am daydreaming about Aaron Ralston, both admiring what a badass he is for cutting through his own arm, remembering the vivid description in his book of cutting the final nerves, and simultaneously admiring his stupidity for being in a narrow canyon by himself. Much better to be surrounded by young, hot, tough women, right?
Jen decides she wants to cruise a bit more, perhaps Alyssa and I are getting antsy to crank out some of the tough sections, or perhaps she is just smart, knows she hasn't run 50 miles ever before, and wants to take the pressure off. We agree to catch back up on the way back, and since everything I've read implies there's almost zero chance of getting lost, I'm only worried about some sort of crazy hippie trying to molest her. Jen is a high school math teacher, though, so she knows how to manage teenage catholic school boys full or raging testosterone, so I'm confident in her ability to outrun, outplay, outlast any of the 110 lb stoned, bearded hippies she might encounter. I tend to doubt that anyone 10+ miles from civilization can do her any harm, but I think both Alyssa and I are at least slightly nervous at the thought of leaving her alone to fend for herself for what will be hours. Much better to have companions along, much better to feel the warmth of a familiar voice nearby, even if you are running on your own power. As we roll past one of only 2 trail junctions, Alyssa leaves some rocks indicating the direction, and off we head to Cottonwood. I had read about these places, so the names were familiar, but the scenery was unknown. I was transfixed by the variety of terrain after Phantom Ranch, the first section being tight along the river, then a bit of a desert landscape after that, and after cottonwood were the notched cliff edges and steepest climbing towards the north rim. We were lucky to find the cottonwood spigot turned on as I was just about out of water, and while I was smart enough to fill up, I neglected to indulge myself by chugging as much as I could, yet another foolish mistake. I somehow assumed that water on at Cottonwood meant water on elsewhere so I pulled the "my grandfather was born in the desert, I'm part camel" card. Smarty Alyssa offered me her handheld bottles to fill, but I had too much pride to take aid from a friend, I declined on sheer principle and ego, no way was I going to show weakness at mile 18! I didn't even let on that I knew I didn't have enough food. I was ignoring the obvious, something I'm really good at doing when running long.
From cottonwood, the work began. The milepost at the ranger house said 7 miles, and I gotta say, those 7 miles were very difficult for me. Some of the most difficult miles I've ever run, partly because I had no idea where we were or how much was left, and partly because I just wasn't climbing well at all. We passed only a few people along this section, one guy who had turned back and "given up" and a family with two kids, all using poles and moving leisurely, presumably having camped the night before. We crossed a bridge near Roaring springs as the only break in the climbing, and also signaling the steepest section yet ahead. A guy with compression calf sleeves and poles was gaining on us from below and for a while I tried to push to stay ahead of him, but the inevitable pass came well before the tunnel. Thankfully he was helpful and offered up some encouragement about what lay ahead and approximate distances to and from the tunnel, which was the only landmark I knew of. Two other guys descending from the north rim mentioned we had an hour to go, after Mr. Badass R2R2R w poles guy had dusted us, and his positive energy effectively evaporated by those two debbie downers. I tried to cheer up Alyssa with the suggestion that "maybe they meant an hour to the lodge" which I knew was 2 miles from the north rim, and I was also pretty sure they were calculating time for hiking not running, but I also knew we weren't running any of this section anyway. We passed a dry spigot, made it through the tunnel, and reached the snow line. Spirits were poor. I ran dry on water. The trail kept going. Alyssa took a break at one of the switchbacks and I barely even noticed. I was consumed with summit fever, only, this wasn't a mountain, and the top would be a parking lot with no views and, as I found out soon, no water.
I thought we might be able to buy some water off someone parked at the north rim. I thought there might be a hot dog stand set up by some enterprising family looking to make some cash. I would have paid $20 for a 20oz bottle of water, possibly even $40. I had taken every bill in my wallet, well over $100, just in case we needed it because money is light and doesn't take up any space. Two not-super-fit ladies descending near the top lifted my spirits when they mentioned we were close and seemed very confident about the actual distances. Finally I emerged, followed soon after by Alyssa, and met up with that other R2R2R guy in the calf sleeves.
I took my hydration bladder out of my minimalist pack to verify that it was empty, indeed it was. I found the north rim spigot and verified it was dry, indeed it was. I walked around the parking lot looking for signs of life and there were none except for Mr. Poles guy who was calmly preparing for his return to the south rim. So, I proceeded to do what any decent guy would do when confronted with such a situation, I stole food off a helpless, 100 lb ultrarunner. Think of that for a second, 200 lb me stealing food from 100 lb Alyssa, food that she carried for 25 miles and up 5000 feet. We're talking zero shame, none, not a shred.
However, shame and OCD can coexist, and despite not having any water, not a drop, I refused to put snow in a bottle. There was just something nasty about it, even after scraping away the top layer of pine needles and dirt. Some dog coulda peed in that spot. Or it might have a high concentration of exhaust from the 1 car that drives by each day. So, whatever, I just couldn't do the snow thing. But Mr. Poles guy gave me some chlorine tabs. Hey, what a bright idea! Why didn't I think of that? I should be carrying chlorine or iodine in my pack at all times, it takes no space, no weight, and it could really save my sorry bum in a pickle. The plan, after eating all of Alyssa's pizza and a few of her mojo bars, is to make it to the waterfall about a mile or two below the rim and fill up on water, then subsist off the existing food to Phantom Ranch at which point we can hit the canteen and refuel.
Now, the dumbass in me still thinks I could maybe have made it back to cottonwood with cottonmouth. Because once we start descending, all of a sudden, it's not so bad. That blister I had started to feel in my heel doesn't hurt when my toenails are jammed into the toe box and the pressure is off the heel. The altitude doesn't seem so bad while descending, each step seems slightly easier than the last. So, we make it to the waterfall and there's another lady there so we stop to chat. She had hiked in the day prior and camped out at cottonwood, then she was going to do the north rim for day 2 and head out on day 3. A much more reasonable plan. One which I could never do.
As we are talking, the subject of chlorine pills comes up. I ask how long after adding them before the water is drinkable and the consensus is 30 minutes. The cottonwood camper lady says she just uses a few drops of bleach, which makes me cringe thinking about it. I decide to go caveman style because I figure in 30 minutes we'll be reasonably close to cottonwood anyway, so what's the point of using chlorine tabs and carrying water around only to drink it 5 minutes before reaching a safe water supply? I figure the real value of the waterfall is that it provides an unlimited source of water, so I might as well chug away. I fill Alyssa's bottle, chug it, and fill it again, chug some more, and top it off. Away we go, down down down down down. We see things that seemed to take hours to get through, and now they just fly right by. Gravity is a wonderful thing when you weigh 2 bills and you're heading downhill.
This section is perhaps the only part of the day I'm actually proud of. Alyssa alludes to it in her blog (check the links at the top) as well. We were clicking as we ran down from the north rim. I almost felt like I belonged to that exclusive club of ass kickers who have finished 100 mile races. Not yet, not yet for sure, but I'm starting to earn my spot. So, anyway, we trade off the lead, we hit a rythm and the miles just tick by. It's kind of like dancing when you're on trail anyway, each footstep requires some degree of mental energy, some more than others. When you are with someone else it is even more like dancing because it's so easy for one of the two to get dropped, bored, disengage, etc. To share steps with someone is a bit of a "moment" and it took me back to pacing her at HURT, and back to other runs with Rod and Mike and Jeff where pace becomes a feeling, not a question or a number. This portion of the day, after the fatigue of 25 miles, 15 of which were spent climbing, was the true essence of what I wa there for. I started thinking about western states and about 100 milers in general during this stretch. It's really difficult for me to wrap my head around the challenge of pushing myself through 50 miles of hell only to be halfway done. I can't fathom how difficult that will be when I attempt it this June. But the one thing I think I know about ultra, particularly about 100's, is that you absolutely _have_ to be able to run the easy stuff. And if there is anything easy about R2R2R, it's the stretch from the north rim to phantom ranch. Fifteen miles of steep to shallow downhill running. Sure, you could hike it, but that won't save much energy and the longer you are out there, the more behind on calories you get, the more you allow yourself to be roasted by the sun, the harder it is to get yourself back home.
Now, there's one other special memory from this section. Alyssa started realizing what a total f-up I am and began restricting my privileges to do harm to myself. She called for food and salt breaks every hour, and handed me 2 of her salt tabs each time, since I, of course, brought none. I pretended to be annoyed by this, I think I even called her Mama Godesky once or twice. But, secretly (or not so secretly now that I'm blogging about it) I was thrilled to be bossed around by a woman again. I mean, it's been over a year since anyone has bossed me around, and I really have missed it. Us men, we're really all the same, we're just like dogs, completely lost without a master to give orders. So, I have to say, one big highlight of this day in the Grand Canyon was drill seargent Godesky's court ordered nutrition breaks. Because I'm too much of an idiot/wimp to call out for a pee break or a minute to sit on a rock in the shade, but if she said to do it, I felt compelled to comply. I mean, how can you argue with someone who has a drawer full of belt buckles?
We make a stop in cottonwood where I finally refill my empty hydration bladder, chug most of it's contents, and refill it again. A man comes through heading north and we find out that Jen is maybe 2 miles ahead on her way back to phantom ranch. The misery of the north rim climb is far behind us, and the day is shaping up as well as can be hoped for at this point, although it does seem very hot as we're in the 2-3pm hottest part of the day. Cottonwood has some shade, so we linger a bit, and we see Mr. Poles guy blast through, I assume he stopped at the ranger house/basketball hoop for water, whereas I decided to blow through that b/c it was only two easy miles to cottonwood and I still had some waterfall water in the bottle.
So, Alyssa and I head off toward the narrow part of the canyon, on our way to Phantom Ranch, in pursuit of Jen, and attempting to ignore or at least pretend to ignore the fact that it is now pretty damn hot. One of the photos of me during this stretch looks strange, but at the moment I was contemplating jumping into the river to cool off, despite a fairly rapid flow rate. I was hoping that the mist from the rapids would cool us off and it did to some degree, but it wasn't enough. I had hallucinations of having packed an inflatable raft in my pack (why would I carry an inflatable raft if I didn't even bring enough food, a hat, or sunscreen?) which we could use to cruise down the river to phantom ranch or maybe all the way to the bottom of the Bright Angel trail. A six pack and that inner tube sure sounded good to me at that point. In the midst of my daydreaming, we spot Jen up ahead, and we reach her maybe 1 mile from the ranch, just in time for a little victory shuffle to the canteen. Alyssa says we got there with 5 minutes to spare, but my watch said 3:58 at the time, and I remember distinctly how they locked the door to keep us out at 7:30, so I hustle through the campground, drop my bag, and proceed to pull a Moses by stacking 2 of every type of edible species on the counter, and then quickly switching to Jonas and swallowing them whole as if I were a whale.
At this point we all realize we're pretty trashed. It's 4pm, probably 4:20 by the time we leave, actually, and we've got 7-8 miles to go. In a normal world, getting that done by sunset wouldn't seem like such a tall order. Even a casual runner, when asked to make it 8 miles and given 2.5-3 hours to do so would not seem so daunted. But ultra running isn't about common sense. It's not about 8 miles / 3 hours = OK. In the world of ultra, 8 miles can take 4 hours, heck it can take 5. It's a parallel universe, but it does happen, I've seen it happen, it has happened to me.
We don't really have a plan, and if we just consider Jen and I, the leadership on this expedition is clearly lacking. So, as expected, or perhaps by default, Alyssa picks up the slack, makes the call to head up S. Kaibab, agrees to take the shuttle to the car, and come back to pick us up. I sort of foolishly thought maybe we would all make it to the shuttle in time. But mostly I wasn't thinking. Because that's what I do. I switch my brain off when I need it most. Like snowboarding into a tree. But, whatever, it's how I roll. It's infinitely frustrating to the smart, well prepared, dedicated athletes who get stuck babysitting me, but it's one of my intrinsic fatal flaws. So, Alyssa mountain goats up the hill, encouraging us, snapping photos at the halfway point, and generally kicking ass in a nonchalant, no-frills, anyone-can-do-this-because-its-easy fashion. Meanwhile, I'm whining and moaning my way up the S. Kaibab trail envisioning my coach bouncing up like a jack rabbit at 8 minute pace. And I am also envisioning Lipke cranking up the S. Kaibab in his compression socks, swinging his arms, and crushing the group he caught up with based on the stories he told me a month or two ago. The blister on my heel really starts to hurt here because each footstep seems to take a minute or longer. Each water bar is an goal and a hard won accomplishment. I think about climbers on Everest, from what I've seen of video footage, where each step is laborious and exhausting. Then I realize I'm at maybe 4000 feet, it's not cold, and I'm just being a total baby about this whole thing. People hike the S. Kaibab trail every day, lots of them, maybe even hundreds on the weekends. Suck it up, Dave, suck it up and keep going. Heck, you should turn around at the top and do the whole thing over again if you want to properly prepare for western states, quit being such a slacker.
I wind up trudging somewhere between Alyssa, "I run stronger than any guy" and Jen "Even in the midst of misery I have a pleasant voice and a smile", something of a no-man's land, while the winds pick up. I look over my shoulder and see the sun setting behind the walls of the canyon and realize we will be out after dark. My heart sinks even further, it might be sharing space with that blister by now. So, I take shelter, fish out my headlamp, turn it on flash mode, and wait for Jen. A real man would have descended to escort her, but I'm not a real man. A real man wouldn't have left her to suffer alone in the first place but that's not my style. A real man would have realized this situation and been the one to sacrifice his nads to get the shuttle and bring the car while the ladies cruised up together. But I'm just here to write blogs about the stuff a real man might do, not to actually perform such duties. I ain't no real man!
So, anyway, Jen approaches and I tell her I think we should stay together as night falls. She agrees, and still seems in very good spirits, somehow when someone smiles and graciously says "I'm having trouble" it doesn't seem nearly as bad as if they are swearing, crying, or whining about how bad they feel. So, off we go, up a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. We meet up with a couple who is having some serious trouble, the man is apparently having stomach problems and the woman is helping him, carrying all the weight and worried. We hike together for a bit, but as it gets darker and the winds pick up, my patience is diminishing. It is during these sections where I am the least proud of my efforts of the day. I left Jen 10-20 meters behind on section after section while hiding in whatever crevice I could find in the rocks. Part of my excuse for this is that I didn't pack a jacket, so I was starting to get hypothermic, part is that the wind and sand that kicked up was no fun at all and taking shelter while semi-protected from the wind seemed logical, and part is that I was just plain incapable of doing much else other than saving myself and documenting the time and location if Jen did get blown off the cliff. I'm sure in daylight, with calm winds, this section would have been beautiful. In fact, I bet it would have been completely stunning. Instead it was without question the most miserable part of the day. The last 2 miles seemed to take an hour, maybe even 90 minutes. The turns kept coming and with a headlamp in a sandstorm I couldn't seen more than one or two waterbars ahead. Much of this section is very exposed, and with the wind and the cold and lack of visibility I was starting to freak out. The couple in distress didn't help any, I was worried about them, worried about Jen, and worried about myself. I wanted it to be over, I wanted to be at the top, but I had no idea how far it was and I didn't want to think it was going to end soon because I had called out "I think this might be the last little bit" over 30 times by that point, another one of my super awesome qualities.
And then, poof, all of a sudden, it was over. it was like the fog that slowed traffic down on my return to San Diego that suddenly disappeared just past Riverside on the 15. One moment I was borderline panicked, the next I was looking at lights and paved parking lots and working spigots. Jen got in touch with Alyssa with her phone and found out that she was on her way with the car as planned. Then Jen called 911 and was connected to the park rangers and used her sugary-sweet voice to explain about the couple in distress a few miles below. I suspect they probably made it to the top about when help would have arrived, but they said they would need a ride to their car and I suspect a basic medical checkup might have been the right thing to do. But I always worry about the costs involved in a situation like that. Personally, I would have to be in very bad condition to call for rescue, I've just never experienced anything where I actually felt my life was being threatened. But, who am I to judge the value of someone else's life or health, and the man had asked for help specifically, so I assume he was willing to pay for it if they were presented with a bill.
First stop after an ordeal like this? Gasoline. Because we had none. How classic is that? Fortunately, Jen got the meds she wanted from Mama Godesky who bought them at the gas station while we sat motionless in the car. I was actually cramping up really bad in the back seat but foolish pride kept me from saying anything, I just squirmed around a bit. My one request was food, go figure, the two skinny runner chicks were probably ready to get coffee and go dancing, but fat boy needed to stuff his fat face with fat food. And wash his hands. Oh the joy of clean hands after 47 miles in the ditch. I cannot begin to explain how wonderful that felt, to finally put soap on my hands at the end of the day. I proceeded to eat 90% of a veggie pizza while the two girls picked off a fingernail sized sliver or two. Jen and I had 20 oz orange crush bottles which was kind of a fun little throwback moment. I don't think the conversation made any sense at that point, we would laugh without saying anything funny, and we would stare at each other with blank expressions for minutes at a time. I took off my shoes and discovered my quarter-sized blister on my right heel, which impressed me because I thought it was only a pea sized blister.
I fell asleep during the ride back as tough-as-nails Godesky guided us back to Claire and Nathan's pad in Flagstaff. I would have had to get a hotel room (if there were any to be had) or sleep in the car if she hadn't been able and willing to pull that drive off. There's no way I would have avoided crashing and killing all of us, not even for 10 minutes. Once at Claires, I threw down a brownie, took a heavenly shower, and cuddled up in the dog's spot on the couch and poof, I was dead to the world.
In reading over some other accounts of this day from other runners, I have trouble comprehending a 9 hour R2R2R time, especially on a handful of gu's and bars. I needed 16 hours give or take, and I probably should have taken about 10,000 calories. I must have eaten at least 4000 calories over the course of that 16 hours and it wasn't nearly enough. Rough math says that the stomach can't absorb more than 400-500 calories per hour during exercise. I tend to think that when it comes to ultra, though, you have to throw the math out the window sometimes and go with your gut. My gut said feed me, and without Alyssa's extra food, I would have been in a pretty bad spot. As it was, the 2 king sized snickers, 2 king sized m&m's, 1 package of oreos, cliff bar, luna bar, and lemonade I threw down at Phantom Ranch made no noticeable changes to my bloodsugar. There was no euphoria. No spike in alertness or activity due to sugar entering the bloodstream. All I got from that binge was a bloated stomach which ruins what might have been an otherwise cool photo. I assume the damage had already been done by that point, there was no way to get back up and over the cliff I had thrown myself off of.
Another topic that embarasses me to admit is the hat situation. I have like 20 or more hats from various races, yet they were all in one paper bag in my disorganized garage. I had one hat in the car and I took it strapped to my pack but I didn't secure it well and it must have fallen off early on the bright angel trail. So, my forehead is now peeling and I got far more sun exposure on my head than I ever wanted to. I think the common advice as far as clothing goes is to be minimalist, but then again, if you are human and run the risk of finishing after dark, then you want that jacket, gloves and beanie, even if it means carrying them around all day in a 100 degree canyon. Hawaii boys aren't awesome with temperature extremes, but if you do R2R2R, you have to be able to deal with it and the easiest way is to have the right gear. Take the hat. Take the beanie. Take the gloves. Take a jacket.
On top of that, I really blew it with the water. I wasn't thinking. If I did this again, I'd just wait till the spigots were all on, which happens later in the spring. Or, if I had to do it again before the spigots got turned on, I'd take a 2L bladder and fill two handhelds as well. That's a lot of water, but in retrospect, water is the key to life and dehydration is the easiest way to ruin your day. Then again, the waterfall water didn't seem to wreck me, unless I have leptospirosis without any symptoms, so maybe the minimalist water trick was OK if the waterfall is flowing. I definitely think chlorine/iodine pills are a smart thing to carry, and a small tube of sunscreen as well. And I think I'll look for a slightly bigger pack if I try this again, make sure I have a jacket, and actually bring some sort of food other than foil wrapped nutrition bars. Something about being out in nature all day while working up a sweat just demands variety of fuel.
A huge thank you to Alyssa, Jen, Claire and Anna for a wonderful, memorable, absolutely incredible day in a mesmerizing place. I am truly blessed to have the health and good fortune to have been able to share this experience with all of you. It will stay with me as a permanent memory of just how intense life can be when you step up to the plate.