Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: 46 miles in the Grand Canyon

(Originally posted August 21 – This is coming a little late, but I wanted to post it before this weekend comes up – another big race on the horizon!)

In May, I ran across the Grand Canyon and back, a feat known as rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r). In this activity, you start at one side of the canyon, then run down to the bottom of it and up the other side, then back down to the bottom and up the original side, to end where you started, all in one day. It includes about 11,000-12,000 feet of climbing, and the climbing and descending comes all at one time. The overall profile looks a little like this:

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This is a lot of climbing (image source). I actually started at the North Rim, so just pretend the first half comes after the second half in this profile.

Will was running a 50-miler near(ish) the North Rim, so my plan was to start from there. My plan also included these elements:

  • Start very early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. It can get up to 100 degrees at the bottom of the canyon, even in May
  • Carry all the water and liquid I would need. I’d heard there were a few water lines that were broken towards the bottom, so I wanted to be prepared to not rely on them
  • Pick up some food at the North Rim, since they have a bunch of little shops and convenience stores and things. I’d be able to get something meaningful, like a burger, to help with the caloric intake

The beginning

I started around 2:30 in the morning. I was feeling pretty good about my early start – I would have several hours to cruise downhill before the sun came up and it started getting hot. I took my time going down – no reason to rush.

After about ten minutes on the trail, I took off long sleeve shirt. It was already really warm, even in the middle of the night. Possibly the first sign that I hadn’t fully thought this activity through. I didn’t use the long sleeve shirt again this day.

I also turned off my GPS at this point, because it wasn’t doing so well in the canyon. It said I was going pretty slow (like a mile an hour), and that was just depressing. I ran the rest of the trail by time and feel rather than distance.

At this time of night, the canyon feels very big. You know there’s a huge empty space in front of you, but you can’t see it because its dark. It’s just a big, gaping, hole. I was very alone – just me, the trail, and the stars.

It was also possible to see the lights from buildings at the South Rim – all the way across the canyon – really ethereal. The distance between the rims is only about 12 miles as the crow flies, so it was easy to see them, especially as nothing was obstructing the view. It made me think a lot about what capabilities we have as humans – there’s really no fast way to get to the other side of the canyon unless you fly. Even though it’s only 12 miles away, it still takes four hours to drive around, and 6-8 hours to walk/run it. (Nighttime running is great for philosophical thoughts).

About two hours in, I saw another headlamp coming up towards me. The first sign of life! Maybe it was a hiker who was getting started early. After a few minutes, he came around the corner – a runner! He had no time to stop and chat, but what I did catch from him was that he was also running rim-to-rim-to-rim … and had started before midnight in order to escape the heat. This was maybe my second hint that I’d not planned as well as I’d thought. He was coming up the canyon as I was descending – my first descent. He was almost halfway done with his attempt, and I was just getting started.

A little later I ran past Cottonwood Camp, where some folks were just waking up. I didn’t know that there was a campsite there, so I was really confused as to why I was hearing voices just off the trail. Too early for hallucinations.

The next stretch, between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch, was some of the most beautiful miles of the whole trail. The sun was just starting to come up, and the light was reflecting off the water in a really beautiful way. The trail was man-made, and put right between the steep canyon wall and the water. A very cool trail – I hadn’t been on one like that before.

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Sunrise in the Grand Canyon – look at that reflection on the water

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Trail on the right, water on the left (of the picture)

At Phantom Ranch, I crossed over to the south side of the canyon and began the climb up. It wasn’t too slow, and I felt fairly good at the time. 95% of tourists to the canyon go to the south rim, so it got a little crowded as I made my way to the top, but people were generally really nice and gave me space (not that I was going much faster). I got to the top of the South Rim around 9am or or so – I’d made really good time going across. I was feeling good and went to find some food for my halfway snack.

The middle

The problem was … nothing is open for real food at 9am. There were a few places I saw to get a burger, but they didn’t open until around 11am – too late. I tried to find a gift shop, but most of them were fancy places that sold things like hand-painted bowls, or chocolate that looked like colorful rocks. Nothing substantial. I finally gave up and bought a huge bag of gummy bears, mainly because I didn’t want to waste any more time. I also tried to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine, but this also did not work as the vending machine was broken. I just refilled my Camelbak and got going.

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Feeling pretty good at the South Rim. Check out that sweet green shirt that got a whole ten minutes of use before turning into a butt cape.

The way back down wasn’t so bad. There were a few people who I saw on the way up who recognized me coming back down and gave me a thumbs-up – that was pretty fun. It was starting to get warm, so at Indian Garden I stopped and got some water (the spigots were working after all). I then got stuck for 20 minutes behind a mule caravan, which was a little frustrating because I was moving pretty quick at the time (e.g. and importantly, faster than the mules). I was pretty patient, but finally made some noise about this being a multi-use trail on public lands, so they finally let me pass (but not before adding another thin film of dust to the collection already on my skin and clothes). I think this is where the toenail on the big toe on my right foot got messed up from slamming the front of my shoe (it still looks gross, five months later).

Phantom Ranch was a bit of a turning point, and not in a good way. It was getting really hot. I knew I had really under-estimated water, and I was getting worried about food too – e.g., that I didn’t have enough of it. Fortunately, the water situation in the canyon was not desperate, so I guzzled from a spigot, doused my shoes, and kept moving.

Remember that beautiful trail I loved so much on the way in? It turned into a hellish oven in the afternoon – no shade, no trees, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to sit. This six mile stretch was just awful. I was dizzy, worried about food, drinking too fast through all of my water, and I couldn’t go for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time without stopping. I’d sit in whatever sliver of shade I could find right up against the canyon wall, stretch my feet out in front of me, and pray nobody would come by and ask what I was doing. (One group did, but they were pretty nice and didn’t judge too much). It was a pretty dangerous situation, and I was embarrassed at my bad planning.

To take my mind off of the struggle, I dipped into my podcast queue. TED Radio Hour is fantastic for these sorts of activities – just thought-provoking enough to take your mind off of the painful reality of the situation, but not complex enough that it’s confusing or frustrating or hard to follow with the limited mental capacity that often comes with these sorts of activities. I made a rule that I could only stop at the end of an episode (about 40-45 minutes) and kept moving.

(I found out later that it was in the high 90s around this time.)

The food situation was becoming desperate. I’d only packed a few Clif bars, maybe a PB&J sandwich, some Gu, and that gross mess of gummy bears from the South Rim (which were mostly gone by this point). I knew I could make it back to the top with what I had, but it was going to be really tough.

When I got back to Cottonwood, I decided to see if I could call upon my fellow trail adventurers for help. After a bit of chit chat with a couple at the water spigot, they asked how I had packed my food, and I said I had done it quite poorly. Then – to my eternal gratitude – they eagerly offered to offload some of their food to me. They were doing rim-to-rim and had way overpacked, they said, and definitely wouldn’t need a ton of what they brought. I’d be doing them a favor by taking it! This seemed too good to be true, or they were being far too polite. Either way, I didn’t have to think twice to take them up on their offer. And honestly, I’ve never tasted a better tangerine. Thank you forever, nice Grand Canyon hikers. You made my next few hours so much more bearable.

The worst was over.

The end

The last bit of the run was mostly a climb. Specifically, a 4,000-foot climb back to the top. It was a slog, but it was mostly walking/hiking, and it had started cooling down – the heat was behind me. I knew I would make it at this point – just cruising to the finish.

Lots of other people were finishing up their hikes too – it was fun to meet them and play a little leapfrog as we passed each other back and forth. I met a couple of teenage girls who were doing rim-to-rim by themselves – SO COOL! We hiked together for a little bit.

 

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Taking a break on the climb back up

The Grand Canyon is made of layers of rock deposited over several millennia. One of the cool parts about climbing back up the other side was being able to see the sediment color change with each layer. At first the trail was orange dust (to match the orange walls of the canyon at that elevation), then white, then red, then yellow, then green … it was a very unconventional way to mark progress, but at this point, the vertical elevation was a more helpful progress marker than mileage. It felt a little bit like walking through time.

Getting to the end was very uneventful. There was no finish line, and nobody was waiting there [Will said he’d be back at the hotel]. I bummed a ride off of someone to get the final two miles back to the hotel (thanks, Canyon friends)! and tried not to get their car too dirty. They said they were actually shuttling a lot of their hiking buddies back and forth just then anyway, so a little dust didn’t hurt.

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The “finish line”

 

The aftermath

This was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I think it’s the longest “unsupported” run I’ve done. This was one of about three runs I’ve ever completed where, at the end, I felt nauseous, had some trouble breathing consistently, and didn’t have any desire to eat food (unreal).

A few things stuck out about the next 12 hours, and I took pictures of them

  1. This cross-section of the canyon layers in the hotel lobby. The layers take on a whole new meaning when you’ve been through literally every single one of them.

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    It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ocher and peach …

  2. This cat painted on a white rock. All of the rocks at the hotel had little animals painted on them, and I thought that was a pretty cool detail for a park to add. (Spoiler alert – it wasn’t a cat. I was just getting very close to hallucination state. It was water / dust damage).

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    But it does look like a cat right?

  3. This book in the gift shop. The canyon is no joke. I wasn’t in any danger of dying, but we runners like to kid that the vultures are always circling. 

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    That skeleton was me

Advice for people thinking about doing this

  • Leave earlier in the morning. Apparently 2:30 wasn’t early enough to avoid the heat
  • Pack more food. Carry it in your hands if you have to. Protein!
  • Bring and drink lots and lots of water! (Also salt – I forgot salt)
  • Late May is probably too late, because it really does get hot

Overall

This was a really fun run. It’s one I’d had on my mind for a few years (one of the main reasons I wanted to do the NPS internship was to possibly have the opportunity to take on this run). It really is an epic adventure in one of the coolest and most iconic parts of the world. The Canyon forces you to reflect on our place in the world, as cliche as that sounds – this is a huge geological formation that no human effort could possibly recreate, and that no human effort could tame.  We keep coming back because of how awe-inspiring places like this are. These places force us to respect them and to contemplate them. They will be here long after we are gone.

For me, running is a way of honoring the space and getting to know it. This run is one I will never forget.

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Running around New York (literally)

Starting out in the morning. This GoPro is definitely a fashion statement.

Today is my Marathon Birthday – I’m turning 26.2 years old (the .2 is 20% of a year). To celebrate this holiday that I have made up, I decided to run around the island of Manhattan – about 32 miles. I also used a GoPro to make a video about it – check it out above!

I’d run many of the paths around New York before, but there were some parts I thought would be tricky from a navigational perspective. I conveniently found this grassroots ultramarathon organized last year – the Madhattan – where 50 people ran the the same self-supported ultra I was attempting. I used their map as a template to help me prepare for the tricker-to-navigate areas, especially the north east part of the island, where the trail on the east side of the island ends.

I’d read a trip report from someone who cycled it, as well. He put it reassuringly: “It’s an island. You won’t get lost.”

 

This is where I started. I took this with my Android phone!

With these encouraging words in mind, I started running from the West Village area about 5:15 in the morning. I’d decided early on to run counter-clockwise, because the Staten Island Ferry area – where people go to visit the Statue of Liberty – becomes impassible to pedestrians by about 8am on the weekends due to mass quantities of tourists. I also started early because this was my first time using a GoPro camera, and I wanted to capture pictures of the sunrise.

Heading north along the East River was gorgeous – the sun was just rising, and the first 7.5 miles were along a well-marked trail that I was familiar with. I had to jump off for a bit and onto 1st Ave due to construction, but was back on the trail within a mile or so. I also noticed a bit of a headwind, which I hoped would pick up on the way back down and give me a boost going the other direction. I saw almost no other runners or cyclists out.

Sunrise at the southern tip of Manhattan. Taken with GoPro and edited in Lightroom. This camera is legit.

After about 120th Street, the trail along the water ended and I moved onto the streets. It was still pretty early at that point, so there weren’t a lot of people or cars – I could basically jaywalk against red lights. I picked up the trail again and took it most of the way up to the northernmost tip of the island, where I ran an extra two blocks and almost crossed Broadway Bridge, leaving the island. Fortunately, someone gave me directions to Inwood Hill Park – northwest part of the island – which I immediately also failed to follow correctly. I somehow ended up on the wrong side of the fence protecting Columbia’s football stadium, and, instead of running around again, just climbed over to escape. Clearly, the well-meaning cyclist from above had never met someone with as bad a sense of direction as I have.

Inwood Park was beautiful. So lush and green – there was even a little part where I got to run on dirt trails for a bit!  This part of the run also threw into sharp relief the fact that New York City smells really bad in a lot of places. Inwood Park smelled fresh and foresty – such a nice change.

Trails at Inwood Park, next to Columbia University. I’d love to run more of these trails before the summer is over – so beautiful.

Shocking zero people, I got lost in the trails and asked a guy for directions to the Hudson River Greenway – the path that goes along the west side of the island. He pointed me in the right direction. I did this part a little differently than the Madhattan runners did – I ran about the same distance, but a slightly different route, due to my great navigational abilities.

The route I was attempting

The route I was attempting. Click to enlarge.

Immediately after leaving the park, just after mile 20, the battery on my GoPro died. Fortunately, I had been forewarned of the device’s short battery life, and had brought two backups. This also provided a good opportunity to eat my sandwich. Since I still wasn’t clear on where the Hudson River Greenway was, I looked around for someone I thought might give me some additional guidance. A woman on a bike was nearby, and, deciding she was a likely candidate for solid information about bike trails, I asked her. She gave very good directions. Once on the path, it was a straight shot back down to West Village.

The last ten miles weren’t overly challenging, although my feet were in a bit of pain from the sidewalk pounding. I was fortunately aided by a tailwind – the previously identified breeze had picked up quite a bit, and my speed picked up (a very small bit!) as well.

By this point, it was midmorning, and a lot of walkers, runners, and cyclists were enjoying the good weather. However, the trail was wide and I was familiar with it, so it wasn’t difficult to avoid other pedestrians.

Other pedestrians out in the wild.

About four and a half miles out, I passed the yacht club – I use that as a waypoint on a lot of my runs. There’s a family of Canadian Geese with two little baby goslings – they were swimming around in their normal spot.

The last two miles were probably the most difficult. This was territory I was familiar with, so, while I wouldn’t get lost, it wasn’t visually exciting. My ankles were also very sore by this point.

 

During these two miles, I really appreciated the loud city noise and the fact that it’s pretty par for the course for New Yorkers to talk to themselves; I made up some pretty terrible songs, which I sang to myself, during these last few minutes of running. My improvisational musical abilities spanned topics as diverse as the number of miles I had left, the neon yellow shoes of the guy who just passed me, the number of miles I had left, the kid on the bicycle who just passed me, and the number of miles I had left. I told myself that people were looking at my head-mounted camera, not my crazy talking-to-self tendencies.

I finished right back where I started, with a view of One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty.  After turning off my GoPro, I made a beeline to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.

Putting together the video was a lot of fun, too. Somehow adding music to pictures is weirdly inspirational.

Overall, this was a really fun run. For people interested in doing it, I’d advise you to spend some time with the maps of the area – that helped me avoid a lot of possible extra miles. As for me, I like getting back to leisurely long runs, where I don’t have to worry about time and can just enjoy the scenery and the feeling of taking on a new, and sort of crazy, challenge.

Check out the GoPro imprint on my forehead!

50k Fun Run (Lake Chabot 50k)

Scenic Lake Chabot! Credit to ebparks.org for the photo.

Some runs are quiet, pensive, and lonely. During some races, you might not talk to someone for hours.

Lake Chabot 50k on Saturday wasn’t like that at all. The scenic and flat course attracted a lot of runners; I don’t think I ran a single mile without conversation of some sort. Sometimes, the lack of alone-time while running can be difficult – it’s hard to get in the proverbial “Zone” – but, in this case, that friendly camaraderie was just what the day called for. Beautiful scenery and friendly runners kept me moving to one of my fastest 50k finishes ever.

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Why You Should Run Like a Super-Villain

Super-villains have capes, and so did our Lake Tahoe Relay team.

Who’s your favorite super-villain? Is there one bad guy who you’ve always been fascinated with?

Runners and super-villains have a lot in common. In fact, I’d say that the best runners would make the best super-villains. I’d go even further to say that we runners could have a lot to learn from the best super-villains.

Check it out:

Super-villains set lofty goals.  Magneto, of the X-men universe, wants to protect the world’s super-powered mutant race from being regarded as sub-human. He pretty much wants to change the way the entire world thinks – I’d say that’s a lofty goal.

Good runners set impressive goals, too. Our goals could be finishing a race, finishing a race quickly, hitting a weekly mileage goal, or something else. Good runners set tough, but realistic, goals.

Super-villains believe that, through hard work, they can get anything they want in life. Syndrome, from the 2004 animated film The Incredibles, was slighted by the main character as a child. Syndrome spent the next several years of his life plotting revenge and building an enormous robot, Omnidroid, to defeat his new nemesis.

Runners set goals, and then, through hard work and dedication, train to achieve them. We run, then run, then run more. We run sprints. We run hills. We run short distances. We run long distances. Some of us occasionally cross-train. Runners and super-villains both know that hard work pays off, and the only way to get the results we want is to work at it. Strong runners and strong super-villains have strong work ethics.

Super-villains will prepare for years to execute a cleverly-crafted plan. In the first Harry Potter book, Voldemort, whose end-goal is to kill the titular character, tries to do so by concocting an elaborate plan: borrow someone else’s body to steal a magical device, which he will then use to create his own, new bod, which he will then use to kill Harry.  Complex.

Runners’ plans are sometimes just as elaborate. We prepare for months, and sometimes years, for our races. Some of us have carefully regimented training schedules. In addition to training almost every day of the week, runners pay attention to the details: we read course descriptions and race reports. We pour over weather forecasts and course maps. We prepare mental strategies to help us through difficult parts of the race.

Super-villains have backup plans. Wile E. Coyote’s backup plans are numerous, and, despite their regular failure, he doesn’t hesitate to try again.

When I crewed for Badwater, my runner had two full minivans of contingency plans. These plans included extra socks,  several pairs of shoes of different sizes, boxes of medical supplies, crates of different snacks, gels, and bars, extra shirts, batteries, headlamps, iPods, chargers, GPS devices, radios – you name it. He was prepared for anything.

Super-villains ask for help. Darth Vader, of Starwars fame, was very willing to delegate tasks to his loyal, highly-motivated Stormtroopers. He somehow managed to recruit, and train an entire Imperial Starfleet of Stormtroopers, who would follow along with his plan.

For runners, these people could be the ones who cheer you on, train with you, give you advice, motivate you on rainy days, or meet you at the finish line with Dunkin Donuts (hint to my Boston Marathon supporters next week! 😉

On the other hand, heroes make pretty bad role models for runners. Heroes:

  • Are solitary .  They prefer to work alone, instead of relying on teammates.
  • Use their talents rarely. They don’t keep their abilities in top condition, instead opting to save them for emergencies only.
  • Are reactive. They wait until bad things happen, then try to solve the problem, rather than anticipating potential pitfalls.

In summary: super-villains would make awesome runners. And runners: we could do worse than looking up to some of the bad guys.

Who’s your favorite super-villain? Is it Jafar because of his awesome hat? Or Goldfinger because of his strategic shenanigans? Which bad guy inspires you?

Why do you run?

Santa Cruz, CA, where I ran my first half marathon.

Motivation is a complex concept.  In theater, the most compelling actors are those who understand the motivations of their characters. What does this character want? What does this character want to accomplish? What is motivating this character?

When I first entered the world of ultrarunning, I asked several elite ultrarunners why they ran.  Their answers, superficially, seemed compelling. One runner said he did it to see how far he could go. One runner said she ran in honor of a dead relative.  On the surface, these seem like acceptable, persuasive motivations.

However, the deeper I get into this sport, the more I realize that motivation is never just one thing. Rarely can motivation be summarized in a pithy elevator pitch. Motivation is many-layered, difficult to describe, and, most importantly, changes over time.

I run for many reasons, and have run for many more reasons. My motivations for running will inevitably change in the future, too.

However, the reason I started running was humility.

The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135-mile footrace in Death Valley. The race is run in July, when temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees.  It starts at Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. It finishes about halfway up Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Cumulatively the course boasts 19,000 feet of elevation gain. The course snakes through some of the most treacherous desert in the world. Runners have to run on the white line on the side of the road to prevent the soles of their shoes from melting.

I had the opportunity to crew for a runner who participated in this outrageous excuse for a weekend activity. Just watching him run this race was transformational.

Afterwards, a half marathon didn’t seem like something worthy of being called a challenge. A runner would have to run ten back-to-back half marathons to approach the distance Badwater covered.

I ran my first half marathon around a 0.5-mile track at UC Santa Cruz. I ran it by myself. It took a very long time. The varsity cross-country team started training after I started running, and left before I finished.

My first motivation to start running was the realization that no matter how far I ran, someone would always have fun farther.

Today, when asked why I run, I give a crisp elevator-pitch of a response. Motivation is too multifaceted to sum up in a single conversation, and, most of the time, casual conversationalists don’t want to hear more.

Whatever their motivation, runners keep heading out to the trails. Every day, runners are compelled to get out of bed and tie on a pair of running shoes. Something’s got to keep them moving. Something’s motivating each and every runner.

No two runners run for the same reasons. I’d also wager that there are very few runners who run just for one reason.

And there are many of us who may never be able to fully articulate why we run. But, until we can’t run anymore, we’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And delivering pithy one-liners that don’t adequately describe our real motivation.

Question: What do you say when people ask you “Why do you run?”