Grand Canyon R2R2R: Uphill, Both Ways, Through the Snow

About a year ago, I laced up my hiking boots and set foot on the South Kaibab Trail for the first time. I wasn’t sure how far I was going to go that day. I figured I’d at least make it down to the Colorado River, and back up the Bright Angel Trail.  However, by the time I got to Phantom Ranch, I was feeling pretty good. I decided to make the further trek to Ribbon Falls, most of the way to where you start climbing back out of the North Rim. I ended up hiking about 30 miles that day, and surprised myself a bit.

That hike ignited something in me. I had been running on and off for a few years – having participated in Ragnar, some mud runs, and even a half marathon – but that hike allowed me to prove to myself that I was capable of a lot more than I gave myself credit for.

I vowed to return to the Grand Canyon one day and complete the full double traversal – also known as ‘Rim to Rim to Rim’ or #R2R2R.  Since then, I’ve spent countless hours running across the mountains of Phoenix, Arizona. I’ve completed a marathon.  I’ve even managed to get a 50K in (57K, actually) just a couple of weeks before this year’s R2R2R attempt.  It’s been a heck of a journey, as I’ve lost weight (an unintentional but welcomed side effect) and met wonderful people along the way (shout out to the fine folks at Aravaipa).

After consulting with people on Facebook who’ve spent many hours on these trails, I determined that I should schedule my return visit for October or May – not too cold at the top, and not too hot at the bottom.  Technically, people go at all times of the year – but you have to be ready to face the elements.  Originally, we did plan a trip last October.  But then I had a slight tear in my plantar plate after some ill advised Spartan Race training, and needed some time to rest my feet.  So we set our sights on April of this year, and I figured it’d be a nice way to celebrate my birthday.

I figured our plans would be tentative, depending on how the weather forecast looked. But as the date drew closer and friends started making plans to come in from out of state – we figured we’d make it work one way or another, even as rain seemed likely.

My friend Beck and I arrived at 4am on Saturday morning at the South Kaibab trailhead to get started in the dark before the mule trains hit the trail.  Side note – thank you to Christine and Kimmy for agreeing to wake up so early for us! It was a pretty easy going descent, though there were certainly moments where you could feel it in your knees.  There was one guy doing the full R2R2R solo with trekking poles whom we started leap frogging from the start – I never did catch his name, but he had a blue parka on – so he’s Blue Parka Guy to me.  Blue Parka Guy made quite a few appearances throughout my day.

Baby goat on a rock

As we made our way down, I made mention of ‘Baby Goat Moments’ – to me, those are the moments where you find your bliss on the trail, and you feel like you’re just effortlessly gliding across the dirt, over the rocks, to and fro. Those moments were short on our descent, as you didn’t want to get too crazy with the steep drop offs, and besides – there was a long way to go.

The first moment you see the Colorado River is a magical one.  You still have a couple miles before you get to Phantom Ranch, but it’s a great sight to see as the sun begins to come up and add light to the Canyon.

Colorado River bridge

After crossing the bridge and making our way to Phantom Ranch, Beck and I parted ways. That was as far as he had planned to go. He had thoughts of making it a little further down the trail just as I did the previous year, but I didn’t encourage those thoughts. A few hours later as he was drinking beers at the top, I think he came to feel no regret over the decision. I had more than a few hours left before I’d experience that same luxury. Onwards and upwards!

After a few nice miles of gradual incline, I came upon the turnoff for the Ribbon Falls detour. I still haven’t visited them, as it hasn’t seemed worth the side trip in the midst of these long excursions, but I’d like to stay at the bottom and make a day trip out of it eventually. Regardless, there was already a sense of accomplishment to meet the same distance I did a year ago.

Grand Canyon walls

By the time I started climbing the north wall’s trails (with thoughts of Game of Thrones bouncing around in my head), it had started to rain. Wonderful. But then again, I had to be thankful that it had taken that long to start. Through the mist, occasional downpours, mud, and puddles – I made my way. Eventually, my pace came to a crawl, as it had clearly been raining heavier towards the top and the mud became so thick it was hard to get through. I learned that if there was water running down the trail to step directly in it, as it finds the path of least resistance (in other words, the path with the least thick mud).

North Rim snow

Soon enough, the rain started to turn to sleet, and even snow. What a sight, to be honest! I took my phone out to take some pictures. What if it melted by the time I got back down? Oh, what a foolish thought. I had no idea what was coming..

It snowed more. And I got cold. I think I actually had my rain jacket tied around my waist up to this point – it felt nice and cooled my body down as I exerted effort to make it up the side of the Canyon. But now? Gloves on. Jacket on. Hood up. Let’s keep moving before I freeze to death, okay?

I got closer to the top, and the trail was literally covered in snow. I met fellow R2R2R runners on their way back down, each of whom shared words of encouragement: “Almost there!” “There’s water at the top!”

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Oh, there was water at the top, all right. Also, a lot more snow! I guess I was decently prepared for this, as I wore leggings under my shorts. I saw several others who had shorts and no sleeves, and they somehow managed. Regardless, it was a quick stop to fill my water and turn around to head back down where it’d eventually be… well, not warm… but less cold. Taking my phone out to snap a few shots up here was something I didn’t want to do as it required removal of my gloves and at least another minute or two at the top – but I HAD to do it. Worth it, I guess.

A photo posted by Joshua Schlag (@schlizzag) on

If I thought heading uphill through the snow and mud was rough, downhill wasn’t much easier. My pace was turtle-like, as I did everything I could to not slip and fall. I only fell on my butt once on an icy patch. Overall, not bad. Things could be worse. I met a guy who had lost his contact lenses. I couldn’t imagine. I mean, I guess I could, as I was prepeared for such a situation with spares in my pack – but I wasn’t about to brag about my preparation to that poor soul.

Eventually, the trail started to appear less muddy. My shoes started to dry out a little bit. Wait, is that the sun?

SUNLIGHT! DRY TRAILS! Baby Goat Moment engaged! At this point, I noticed a couple of guys catching up to me on the downhill. Not today, Junior! I got to open up the throttle and fly down the hill for a few miles before getting to the next water stop. IT. WAS. AWESOME.

At that point, I changed out my socks to some dry ones I had in a Ziplock. My feet have looked worse, but it was nice to dry them off a bit. What a time to be alive.

Fifteen minutes later, though, the sky would start dumping rain down the Canyon again, and I once again became soaked from head to toe, slogging my way through the mud and puddles.

At this point, it was somewhat miserable. The majesty of the Grand Canyon had been lost on me – I just wanted to finish the journey. After a brief pitstop at Phantom Ranch, another hiker asked if I was headed all the way back up. I responded with a question of my own – “That’s the only way to the top, right?”

After leap frogging each other all day long, Blue Parka Guy passed me one last time as he headed up Bright Angel Trail, and I continued on back the way I came at South Kaibab. On the way up, I met a nice young couple who seemed to share the experience I was going through. They were just heading down to camp, but were friendly and wanted to make sure I was well equipped to finish the journey. Headlamp? Check. Snacks? Check. Water? Check. Will and determination? CHECK.

As I got nearer to the top, the sun was setting. No matter how tough things got, this moment stopped me in my tracks. I’ve seen some great sunsets in Arizona, but this one was unique. I spent the entire day in the Grand Canyon, and by the time I got back to the top the sun will have called it quits before me. I came across a couple of guys from USC and took their picture in front of it. I didn’t think I was going to pass anyone on my way out, but the desire for a supreme pizza from Pizza Hut and an IPA started fueling my pace. I bid them adieu and pressed on.

At this point, I think I was going a little crazy. I couldn’t get Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City” out of my head. I don’t know where it even came from, but it wouldn’t go away. Just a few miles left. There could be worse things to be singing on a loop. I wonder if anyone heard me…

After 16.5 hours, a little after 8:30pm, I called Beck to come get me. I was shivering and wanted nothing more than to get a warm shower and put dry clothes on (and eat pizza and drink beer, of course).

I got back to the hotel, did all of that stuff, and fell asleep with a slice of pizza in my hand while texting my girlfriend about the day’s events. Yeah, I guess I earned those Z’s…

The recovery process from such a thing has taken a couple of days, but I think it’s gone about as well as I’d hoped it would. My knees were a wreck that night, but by the next afternoon I was sitting and standing without a ridiculous amount of effort. My feet started to swell up and become even more sore than they initially were. I don’t know much about how the body works, but I’d guess the initial focus was to fix my knees and then send help to my feet. As of Tuesday, my feet are MUCH improved, and I’m looking forward to going on a light recovery run soon.

We saw this book in a cafe before we left town. It’s probably good that I didn’t read it before this effort, but I’m glad I won’t be in a future edition.

Will I be back to do this run again? Yeah, probably. I’d love to see how much time I could shave off with better weather and trail conditions. But ultimately, I’d love to spend a little more time in one of the most beautiful and wondrous places in the world.

Strava GPS Info: (and yes, I maintained satellite connectivity for just about the entire trek!)

Race Report: Whiskey Basin 57K

aidstation

After last month’s Mesquite Canyon fail, I was determined to get another 50K lined up so I could get that notch in my belt. Of course, the good folks at Aravaipa Running just happened to put together a new race in Prescott. And of course, I already had friends who’d be there. Game on!

First of all, this course was (mostly) fantastic:

  • Amazing views – coming up on mountain passes was something to look forward to, as you always got a new perspective on Prescott and the surrounding area
  • Not a ton of steep grades – there was certainly climbing involved, but it was mostly through lengthy switchbacks
  • Did I mention the views? The finish was at Watson Lake, which itself is a sight to be seen, especially for this desert dweller
  • Trails were very runnable, with the exception of a rock bed area past Goldwater Lake. I mean, that part could be runnable too – but certainly a bit dangerous. I heard stories at the following aid station of people showing up bloodied from falling over the rocks. But hey, that’s trail running!

I guess I would say my run was satisfactory. I could do better, but I did about what I was shooting for. A touch over 9 hours at a 15 minute / mile pace.

I was pretty happy with the way things were going in the first half of the race. Decent enough pace. Leap frogging with some new friends and other runners. Great stuff.

By the second half, I realized I wasn’t taking in calories as I should have. And then IT band issues started up. And then the rock bed came into play, and THAT slowed me down a fair bit. It is what it is. Just kept moving, though, and soon enough I was back on nicer trails and hustling to the finish.

IT band issues and other things will happen.  But I can keep training, building in proper recovery time, and doing things like using my foam roller to decrease the likelihood.  Nutrition shouldn’t be a problem, though. I had extra gels and other things in my pack I probably should have eaten along the way. I just need to simplify that plan and not just wing it along the way. By the time you realize you need it, it’s too late.

Overall, it’s pretty cool to know that just a few months after logging my first 26.2, I was able to put in 36+ miles on trail with a few thousand feet in elevation gain along the way. The human body is capable of amazing things, and I’m excited to keep seeing what people are capable of in that regard. I’m thankful for the friends I’ve met through trail running, as well as my other friends who I’ve run with over the past year. Next up? A return trip to the Grand Canyon! This time I’ll be bringing my running shoes… Stay tuned.

Here I am while doing a recovery hike the next day. Am I doing it right?

A photo posted by Joshua Schlag (@schlizzag) on

 

Race Report: Mesquite Canyon 50K (DNF)

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After finishing my first marathon in January, it didn’t take long for me to want to push myself further. When a buddy of mine mentioned the Mesquite Canyon race, it just seemed like the perfect fit. Add about 5 miles to the marathon distance and put it in some gnarly but scenic mountains, not too far from home? Sign me up! And so I did.

After a few longer training runs on South Mountain, I felt adequately prepared – physically and mentally. I knew my legs were capable. I knew how much I had to hydrate. I knew how much I needed to consume for fuel along the way. I was ready.

Come race morning, though, I guess I was a bit of a mess. I mean, I left my house with confidence. But of course, I left my race bib on the counter. And (I’d learn later) I grabbed an old pair of shoes with worn out tread. Whoops. Maybe it’s this same level of aloofness that led to my later mistake.

Regardless, the bib wasn’t a big deal – they simply gave me a new one. Side note, for a moment here – Aravaipa Running puts on a heck of an event, and they’ve really got everything taken care of. Logistics, trail markings (well, I have a bit of a note on that), aid stations + volunteers – it’s all very well done, and it was just really cool to be a part of something much bigger than my usual weekend solo runs. The weather was gorgeous and everyone had a look of joy on their faces as we got started.

Start of today's Mesquite Canyon 50K at White Tank Mountain Regional Park!

Posted by Aravaipa Running on Saturday, March 12, 2016

The first 6 or 7 miles felt great! I was moving at a pace I felt very comfortable with, and I was going to beat my ‘worst case scenario’ goal of 10 hours, with little problem. Heck, it felt like 8 hours was in reach. I’m not a speed demon by any means, but if I’m back of the mid pack or front of the back of the pack – that’s okay with me.

splits

The problem came right around that seven mile mark, though. I was following a couple of guys, including a guy named Flint who had stories of running with the Tarahumara down in the Copper Canyon of Mexico. I decided to stick with these guys for a while just to listen in. Along the way, we ended up going right when we were supposed to take a left. As it turns out, we were just a few of many who made the same mistake. A group behind us followed for about a mile before turning back. I even heard the race leaders tacked on an extra 2-3 miles for the same reason – they had the pace to overcome the mistake, though. We overcommitted to our mistake, and lost 80+ minutes wandering 4.5 miles off course. Yeah, NEW worst case scenario. If only I had taken a second to look up at the sign when we first passed it – I would’ve realized the need to turn left at Ford Wash, even though it didn’t appear (initially) to be the right way. Up to that point, we had simply been following orange polka dotted trail markers, and there was one next to the intersection to the right (wrong way). It became understandable how we made the mistake, and course markings probably should’ve been more clear, but I was still kicking myself.

By the time we got back to that point, it was rather disheartening, but we figured we’d press on. It was going to be my first 50K, dammit! It became more disheartening, though, as we saw fellow 50K runners returning from the aid station (it was an out and back section) and realizing how much further we had gone and that we may not make the cut off. I didn’t recall exactly what the cut off time limit was, but I figured I’d make it to the 13 mile aid station at Bajada, regardless – so it didn’t matter to look it up.

As I made my approach, I could see it in other runners’ faces. We totally missed the cutoff, but they didn’t want to be the bearers of bad news. Instead, we got words of encouragement, which were certainly appreciated – though, part of me wanted to clarify to everyone why we were so far behind! I got to Bajada, and the volunteer there was really delicate about the matter, but I already knew. He just confirmed it. I was angry. I was sad. But those feelings will only get you so far. I knew where I had screwed up. But I also knew that I would’ve been on a decent pace had I made the correct turn in the first place. I would’ve completed my first 50K, and my preparations were more than adequate. I felt good thinking about that, at least.

I declined a ride back to the start, instead opting to get a few more miles in under my feet since I wouldn’t be allowed to finish the race. It was a nice time to reflect a bit before relaxing with a beer. Next time, I’ll be drinking that beer out of a pint glass that finishers are awarded with!