Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Couch to Ultra in 13 months...

Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen.
Louis L'Amour

Background on me
I was a big fan of Louis L'Amour when I was a wee lad. I was a cowboys and indians fan, but I did not recall many of the quotes that he is attributed with. The first time I saw this quote, I was drawn to it. I love driving to locations rather than flying, because I want to see things; really experience them; try to understand them.

I have logged over 100,000 miles on my motorcycles and I bet less than 5,000 of that was on superslabs. I like wandering the road less traveled. I like seeing old barns that are falling down. I like seeing wildlife in the fields along the road. I like seeing folksy art created by unique people across this land. I like seeing mountains from a far and from up close. It's really neat to see the two distinct views. I have traveled roads that followed rivers just because they followed rivers. When I take a vacation to go somewhere, the end point is known, but little of the route is.

Hopefully, over the next few paragraphs I can tell you what I saw in my travels.

Reader's Digest:
  • Flew to Las Vegas
  • Ran up Mt. Charleston
  • Ran through Red Rock Canyon
  • Ran the Grand Canyon (R2R2R in one day)
  • Flew home

The Idea and Preparation
I hope that was not enough for you, and if not here's the rest of the story. Well let's start the rest of the story with the beginning of the story. In the beginning, the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil, a more contemporary beginning can be found here. While I was starting back into running, I started searching for things like cool places to run and the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) was a common result. I was so drawn to this run since my running club tricked me into marathoning. If you want to see some cool R2R2R reports look at these, I sure did:
There are hundreds more: Google R2R2R
It's hard to read these accounts and not get the twitch to try and do it. Now the only thing about these stories that worried me is the RUNNING!!!! I am not a long distance runner I am a middle guy and prefer track and short road races over marathons. For months the idea of this run kicked around in my head and I would put it out there  for folks in my running club, but there were no takers. Finally, in early November I decided that I had a lot of vacation time coming, and didn't really have any plans for Thanksgiving, so why not look into this. I did a few flight searches for the week surrounding Thanksgiving and the numbers looked tolerable. There were three options, fly into Phoenix and drive up which is a 3.5 hour drive, Flagstaff and drive which is a 1.5 hour drive or Vegas and drive which is a 4.5 hour drive. Vegas was by far the cheapest and I knew I could find things to do there. Besides that I wanted to run up Mt. Charleston and run through the Red Rock Canyon. Vegas it was; so I pulled the trigger. With the flight scheduled, I am now committed. I then announced my intentions to the running club. I was quickly reminded that I was signed up for a trail marathon, Tecumseh, the following weekend. Ooops!!!
Well now that the decision had been made, I had to start preparing. I have never ultra'd before. Hell I had only run 2 marathons. So I have never been moving on my legs for more than 3:30. I guesitmated my Canyon time would be anywhere from 13-15 hours. This was based upon times I heard from others. In my mind I really thought 10 hours might be possible, heck that's only 5 mph and I walk d@mn close to 4 mph. I later found out this was not a valid comparison.
In order to prep I need to figure out how to get enough water capacity. Asking around the answer was resoundingly, Nathan hydration. Some said the HPL #020; others chose Endurance. I chose the HPL #020. Next how would I get enough fuel. I ended up taking much more than I needed, but I wanted to err high, because I was gonna do this solo and in late November there is no help available past the Phantom Ranch to the North Rim and back. My supplies were originally going to be all gels, drink powder and electrolytes. A few Ultra runners chimed in and said I needed some actual food. So the list grew to banans, Slim Jims, Albacore Tuna, Pop Tarts, peanut butter flavored pretzels and cheese and peanut butter crackers. I was going to carry straight water in the hydration pack and carry a handheld for caloric drink. For the competitive R2R2Rers this was super overkill, but I was unaware and wanted to be cautious.
I was not peaking for this event, and the summer was really bad on my mileage. I am trying to run 2000 miles this calendar year, and with how far behind schedule I was, I really upped the mileage. I went from 0 to 60-70 in 2 weeks and kept it there for the last 6 weeks.

The Trip
I flew out to Vegas on Friday the 18th. It was a late flight, 9:30p CST. I got into Vegas at 11:30p PST. The flight was uneventful. I rented a car for the week, because I was planning on spending a lot of time off strip. I went to the car rental location and found how little patience I have. There were only 3 groups ahead of me, but I swear they were being read the owners manual with how long it took each. Finally, a manager walked out and called me to his window. I had my license, credit card and confirmation ready. We rubber stamped the "sign here" and "initial here" cr@p and within 5 mins I was on my way to the car. I just rented an economy, since I knew I had some big mileage and was not there to impress. Turns out they had no economy cars so I got bumped up twice to a Ford Fusion. I actually liked this car, but it had been ridden hard and put away wet a few times. I was in the hotel and checked-in about 5.5 hours after boarding the plane so it wasn't that bad. I was a tad wired so I played a little craps, lost about $40. There was a TGIFriday's in the hotel so I got a beer and an appetizer, then headed off to bed.
The next morning, Saturday, I was going to try and summit Mt. Charleston. I wasn't going to run hard, but need some acclimation and this peak is 12,000 feet. The north rim of the canyon is 8,000 feet, so this would help me better process the oxygen. The first blocking point of the day, was that the location where I though I had to park was closed. Fortunately, there was another trailhead that linked up to where I needed to be so I took that instead. It was colder than I anticipated so I set out with compression shorts a tech tee and a cotton hoodie. I was off. Very quickly it became apparent that I was going to have issues. The trail started at 7500 feet and there was a lot of packed snow to the point of becoming ice.

I was wearing my Brooks Connect shoes. They are very light, but the tread is fairly flat and offered no traction. I found myself on my @rse several times. After a couple miles on the trail I can down and decided to put in some miles on the road at altitude. There was an observatory in the area, so I just ran its service road. I ended up with about 8 miles above 7500 feet that day, so it was success enough.
The rest of that day was just kicking around Vegas. I lost another $40 gambling.
On Sunday, I wanted to run the Red Rock Canyon. What amazes me about Red Rock is that it is so close to Vegas.

From the Rio I was through the ranger station in about 20 minutes. As you travel out you pass a lot of runners on the road with their camelbacks. Additionally, there are a large number of cyclists en route to the canyon. This area is really beautiful, you're sitting in a caldera it seems surrounded by some significant peaks and the colors are wonderful. Even the beige is vibrant here. The grand loop is a single track trail that roughly circumnavigates the park. The terrain is varied and I traveled counterclockwise so we approach the rounded sandstone walls first. You can often see climbers here.

The trail is up and down and twisty and follows dry riverbeds. The ground is not smooth, but very runnable. In some areas you are running above the road and at other times you are far below it. During much of the first few miles you are below the road and rims so you have rather limited views but you can really see the cool features in the faces of the rock walls. Later in the run when you are above the roads you can see all the way to the mountains in just about every direction. At the back side of the park there is a set of trails in the White Rock area that seemed to wind up into the mountains as well.

Now I have a reason to return. I was struggling in the first few miles of this run, but near the end you get on a fairly flat plain and basically cut across the canyon back to the entrance.

During this section I was really flying and it was the first time that I saw another runner. We passed head on and exchanges niceties. The park is packed with cyclists on the roads and hikers and tourists at the trailheads, but there it nobody off the beaten path, for the most part.

The Strip
On Monday, I decided to get up and just run the roads. Most of what the tourists know of Vegas is the strip. I like the strip but because of it's grandiose architecture no because it's where you gamble. The strip is laid out mostly north south and I-15 shadows it along the stretch of big casinos. I have been to Vegas before so I know how to get around by car and avoid the strip. One of those ways is Commercial Avenue. It's just behind the strip and basically parallels it into the downtown area. I chose to head downtown on Commercial and then come back on the strip. Commercial is also where a lot of the sex stores, gentleman clubs and sex apparel stores are, but on a Monday morning it's pretty barren. On the way downtown I get a little treat, I had passes Rick's Restoration of History Channel fame with his own show and appearances on Pawn Stars. It is in a very unassuming part of town and it's just a small driveway wide entrance that filters back to the shop which is along the railroad tracks near downtown. After that I continued on to the Fremont Street Experience. This is a feature that the downtown casinos put in to draw folks back from the strip to come to the downtown casinos. It's a neat overhead canopy that runs for a few blocks downtown. At night it's the backdrop for a cool light show. At 7:00 am on a Monday morning this place is a ghost town. There were only a few people walking with their coffee and Krispy Kremes. I did see three street sweepers. Vegas is very good about keeping itself clean. Once I got through the downtown area, I headed back up Las Vegas Boulevard, the strip. The first few blocks you are going through bail bondsman row then you hit some basic metro storefronts and finally you get to the Stratosphere. This starts the big time portion of the strip and now I am seeing plenty of runners. The strip has too much foot traffic to enjoy as a runner later in the day and most runners like to run early so it makes sense to hit the strip early if you are running. It's a different experience to see the casinos from the street or sidewalk without the throngs of people. They build 'em big out there and the sheer size makes you feel so small. I ended the run at about Flamingo and the strip and that's where Caesar's is. I walked through the forum shops and just marveled at the stores and the statues and the interior. I had been there before, but it's still just colossal. It's also kinda cool to see a 1/4 inch diamond up close ;) This mornings run was about 10 miles and this was the last I planned on running until Wednesday when I'd attempt to cross the Grand Canyon, twice.

Te rest of this day was going to be spent wandering in the car. I left Vegas heading west and figured I check out the California/Nevada border. I had a tourist map that showed there was a town called Calvada near the border and that was as good a target as anything.

I like solitary roads and this was one. you climb over a pass descend into a valley then turn down a road that seems to go nowhere; the Spanish Trail. About half way down the road there is a roadside marker explaining what the Spanish Trail was.

And it was basically the route the the missionaries took to get from Salt Lake Utah to the Los Angeles area on the Pacific coast. It's high dessert, so there's no grass, but a lot of shrub like ground covering. The ground is beige, but the plants are green. It is pretty in its own way. I then traveled up to the edge of Death Valley and then south the 29 palms, before jumping on the highway back to Vegas. I finished up the night with a sit-n-go no limit tournament where I scored a second place and $600+ from a $80 buy-in. Wow, I'm paying for the trip.

Moving Basecamp
On Tuesday I was going to drive over to the canyon. It's about a 5 hour drive. I got up early and packed the stuff that I needed and headed out. The first stop was Boulder dam, but I took the new bridge they built over the Colorado just downstream of the dam. I was disappointed because the structure does not allow any views of the dam. From here you follow a state hwy to Kingman. It's highway, but the terrain is undulating enough to keep you interested. I stopped in Kingman for breakfast. They have no G1 or G3 connection so I can't download local maps ;( This was annoying because I wanted to explore route 66, but didn't want to without making sure I had enough time to get to the hotel at the canyon. About 30 miles before you make your last turn off the highway to get to the canyon, you enter the Kaibab National Forest. You're at elevation here and you can really smell the pine scent.

You also get a great view of Humphrey's Peak, the highest point in Arizona. The run into Tusayan, AZ is a straight shot and you're climbing most of the way. The hotel is in this town and the Grand Canyon National Park entrance is just a mile further.

I drove up into the park and got my pass, then I walked up to the south rim. I had been at the north before, but this was my first stop at the south rim. It's breathtaking and I could write a billion words to try and describe it and there are pictures, but GO THERE!!!

I could very quickly pick out some points of interest like the phantom ranch, it's a small sliver of green along the beige floor of the canyon and with the point of reference it's easy to see the Bright Angel Canyon that you'll be running up as it filters to the north rim. With pictures in hand and awe in mind, I head over to the Bright Angel trailhead to scout out the mornings start. It's pretty neat, the kolb studio is there just perched on the ledge of the rim. There is a water spigot from roaring springs so I draw a bottles worth. It's really good water. I decided to head down just a bit. As I descended I could tell this was steep, uneven terrain and the erosion barriers were going to be a pain. I ran down to 1.5 mile house and back. It wasn't that bad, but I knew that this coupled with 46+ miles would be a bear the next day, so I started tuning down my expectations.

Next, I went to the hotel and checked in then I stopped at "We Make Pizza and Pasta". Turns out that's what they make, so I got a beer and pizza. ate about half and headed back to the hotel. All that's left is waking up and running. I lay out the clothes and fully loaded hydration pack for the morning, set my alarm and go to bed.

It R2R2R Day
At 4:00 the alarm goes off. I forego a shower as I took one the night before and I was anxious. I ate a poptart and a banana. I loaded up the frosted window car and head up to the park. There was nobody driving or moving about the whole trip up to the trailhead. I get a great parking spot near the trailhead, make a few texts so the folks that wanted to worry about me could know when too long was and I slung on the pack. I figured I had two hours in the dark so I strapped my camera to the back of my pack and I was carrying down two bananas for a late afternoon snack. Issue one: where was the trailhead again? While I was close, in the dark and having a new moon, I really couldn't differentiate any cabins I saw the day before. There were about a billion visible starts. There is no light noise here so they really stand out. I was thinking how nice it would be to stare at on my run down into the canyon. So I just headed straight to the rim then walked towards the trailhead. Ok we are there, this is it. Step ONE!!!

I step into the canyon and start my two watches. I had mine which I feel nekkid without and a friend lent me his, because it had longer battery life. After about three steps I here the chime of my camera opening. I reach back and close the camera; before the next switchback it opens again. Ok, I'm going to have to carry it in hand, and now I am worried, because both hands are full, so how do I catch myself in the event of, well let's not think about that right now. I descend and since I am high on adrenaline, I pass the first two tunnels and 1.5 mile house very quickly. Now I am on virgin ground to me. Several times already I have over run the switch back and had to turn around to catch the trail. It' amazing the focus required to keep on the trail in the dark. Moreover, you are concentrating so much on the trail, because you need good foot placement so as not to roll an ankle. I started down with compression shorts (reduces need for glide there) a tech tee and long tech and a light shell. It was 38 degrees at kick-off and it rose almost as soon as I started descending so I felt good temperature-wise. I go past the 3 mile house and come upon Indian Gardens. This is the first light I have seen this morning, and it reminds me to glance up at the rim. It's neat to see the speckles of light in the distance and Oh, yeah the stars are out, but I haven't been able to gaze upon them. At Indian Garden there are signs to ensure you are on the right trail, but I was confused so I dickered through here. You can end up on the lookout point trail, or the east Tonto trail and that would be bad. I navigate correctly. At this point you start heading down into the inner canyon. The trail is sandy, under the surface ankle rollers. But it is very runnable here. The grade isn't as steep as those first 4.5 miles. Ten minutes past Indian gardens I came up behind someone, but I didn't know this yet. They heard my footsteps and jostling pack, so I did not hear them until he shouted out, "coming through." I screamed like a little girl and jumped ten feet. I was not expecting to hear human voices in the pitch of night nearing the bottom of the canyon. We both had a good laugh and on I ran. Just past him I had my first creek crossing. The water is low this time of year and there are several rocks exposed to tip toe across. Once on the other side, I started running again and it happened. I planted my foot ....

Cliff Hanger time.  Stay tuned for the rest of the story...
Part 2 -->
“The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast,
and you miss all you are traveling for.”
Louis L'Amour

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