Thursday, December 1, 2011

...The Ultra part of the ultra

When last we left our vagabond hero, he had just taken his first misstep….
Part 1


So I had just crossed my first creek on the tops of many rocks and just a few steps on the other side caused me to step down on my left foot upon a rock that moved my left foot under the right side of my body. At this point, my center of gravity shifted hard to my left and I stumbled. I had stumbled a few steps and then was too far off kilter that I started falling to my left. I had bananas in that hand and the camera in the other so I just let myself fall. I’d fallen in a summer sault motion and actually knocked the back of my left shoulder on the rocks that lined the trail. As I fell, I heard something break, and I thought I just broke my camera. I quickly examined the camera and saw it was fine. Crisis averted!
About a quarter mile further I ticked off another mile and my watch beeped. I was curious as to the pace of the mile so I looked down and to my surprise, my trusted Garmin was shattered. My first reaction was the dollar sign lost, but I quickly realized that had it not been for the watch, I might be nursing a fractured wrist.

The next 10 minutes were filled with the adrenaline rush from the fall. During this time, I kept seeing a shine of water from the trail in my headlamp. To avoid blisters I kept avoiding these pools of liquid. Eventually, my luck had run out. I landed in a puddle. After a few more steps, I could sense an icky odor. The odor was the ammonium of mule urine. I splashed myself in it. This odor really lingered and it was awful. After another 10 minutes, I became desensitized to the odor. I was in another section of the trail were I was descending fast. The next section had a deafening rush of moving water and it sounded like it was moving fast, but I could not see it. The water got the best of my curiosity so I glanced left. My headlamp reflected off a rock face that was 20 feet away. So I must have been in a tight canyon with water rushing through. I stopped then wandered towards the rock face wall to see where the water was coming from. As I looked over the edge, the water was 30 feet below in this very narrow small canyon. It dawned on me that I was in danger on this trail. This was the first time that I sensed a fall could be traumatic.
This section finally gave way to a shallower grade and the glow of sunrise. It was becoming light out.  The next landmark is pipe beach. Pipe beach is my first navigation mistake. At every other point on the trail, the trail towards the outhouse was a short trail just to that house and back. So I followed the trail that did not go to the house and ended up on pipe beach at the Colorado River. This is not a bech as much as it is a collection of softball sized rocks on a shallow slop that meets the river. However, I lose any sight of anything that resembles a trail. I had assumed that I would follow this beach to the bridge across the river, but I was wrong, so I back tracked to the outhouse path and for the first time the trail passed by one of these structures and continued onward. About a half mile past this as you trace the river, I met a couple ladies. They were just as surprised to see me as I was them, They asked, “when did you start down?” I said “5:00a”. They were impressed and mentioned that I was making good time. I was emboldened and for the first time saw the silver bridge.
Video coming, sorry
This means I was about to cross over the river for the first time and head into Phantom Ranch. I soldiered on. There were 3 people already on the bridge when I started across. I assume they had camped at Phantom the night before and were just getting an early start on the days hiking. The bridge is narrow, and this became evident when passing another hiker it made me rub the side of the bridge and jarred my handheld bottle loose from my pack. Fortunately it made enough noise that I detected it and was able to pick it up. I had packed all my Cytomax in that bottle and losing that would have been bad. When you cross the bridge there is an old building right there constructed of piled stones. This is an animal shelter. You next cross another little bridge over the end of the bright angel creek. Now on your left you see the tent campers and at this point I can see without my headlamp. I saw this lil deer as well.
This may have been his dad up on the South Rim


It’s daytime. I’ve run about 8 miles and have not taken on any nutrition but a few sips of water, so I need to take on calories and arrange my supplies for the next section of the run. I run further into the camp and see a bench and a young lady crosses the trail headed to what I surmised was an outhouse. I start unpacking for a brief rest. I take off the hydration pack and the two long sleeve layers as well as my headlamp. When the lady comes back to tend to the animals, I ask her if she knew where I could find water and she directed me to a spigot. I filled up my water bottle and put some Cytomax in and topped off my hydration pack. I then tried to stash my extra supplies. I didn’t want to carry all the weight up to the north rim and back. After placing my cache by the building I started to get back into the hydration pack. At this point I saw the young lady watching what I just stowed away and the raven on the building’s roofline. Nothing good would come of this and she snickered. She chided me that the ravens were pretty clever. So I collected the supplies and ran deeper into the camp. I found a place near the last cabin and rewrapped the supplies in my long sleev tech shirt and started out the other side of Phantom Ranch. The next section Is the box. This area is noted by its narrow canyon with steep walls and several bridges that crossed back and forth across the Bright Angel Creek. This is a rather enjoyable stretch of the trail and has some undulating hills. The creek is always near you. About two miles out of Phantom I see a runner coming at me. This young lad is coming fast. I would guess he was running 7:30s. We raise a hand at one another as we pass. I’m betting we was attempting a fastest known time (FKT). Soon after this I turned a corner and was confronted with a bright red wall in the distance. The canyon amazes you at every new view. Shortly after this you see a long skinny fall on your left across the creek.

This is Ribbon Falls and it’s as beautiful as anything else I have seen so far today. 7 miles out of Phantom, you reach Cottonwood camp. This is a small site with no permanent structures, but it does have a pen for livestock. As I pass through a camper hails me. He asks if I saw a young guy running the other way, I said yes and he tells me the guy is running from rim to rim and back. I then let him know I was too. At this point I realized that the guy I passed was at mile 40 while I was at mile 10 so how early did he start?
One of the bridges in the Box area
So out of Cottonwood as quickly as I entered. I was now thinking that I was 14 miles on my own before seeing civilization again, since the north rim is 7 miles away. At this point you are still making your way up the Bright Angel Canyon and steadily climbing. The next landmark is a bridge that crosses the creek and brings you to the last ranger station. This is a nice house, the one that has the basketball hoop. It has a nice view of the creek and the ranger has a well groomed garden as well. I saw a few people resting here and we waved as I passed by. Now the trail seems to really tilt upward and I am running out of steam. Most ultra runners warned me to walk as many hills as possible so I started to adopt this plan. Even when I was in hike mode I was swiftly passing other hikers. Thankfully, I was wrong about not seeing others on the way to the north rim. Soon you start to hear a thunderous noise and this is roaring springs. Roaring Springs supplies all the water to the park and several local business partners of the park. As you journey up the hill you see the falls of the springs in full view. As you head up here you are running on some cliffs that you really notice at this point. The trail is hewn from the walls here to allow for the trail to pass. You keep rising through this section hoping for the Supai tunnel to jump out. This is because the tunnel denotes you are only 2 miles from the north rim. I am starting to suffer through this region, I am going through water too fast, my legs are tired and the air is getting thinner. Then it happened, the tunnel appears. I am close. But I am now in full walk mode. The hill is too steep and I fear I don’t have enough water to really exert myself. This two miles is just L-O-N-G. I pass by the Ochocino overlook. The surroundings are now woods but as I look up I still have 100 feet to rise. Is the rim rising as I move? There is noticeable snow and packed ice as well but it’s small patches on the trail. And finally, the north rim is my next step.

When you read about R2R2R you’ll constantly hear that the north rim is closed after October 15. Additionally, there is no water. When I peaked out, I was surprised to hear motor vehicles. The road was plowed and several cars had passed by. The water station here has a sign stating that water is available at the backcountry office. Sadly, I don’t know where that is, but I am thirsty. I head down the road about a mile and see no buildings. I start to fear that I can’t get lost over here so I head back to the trailhead. I have water treatment pills and figure I can dip a bottle in Bright Angel Creek to get water so I head back for the south rim. On the way up and having fallen so oft on Mt. Charleston I told myself to walk the ice patches. For the first few I did, but then I got brave. Who knows what happened next? Yep, I fell. It was a full on Fosbury flop and had me land crushingly on a rock that took a shark bite out of my forearm.

So I got up and dusted off the shame of the fall to continue down the hill, I was running again, but because I can’t pace myself I run too fast I was under 8 minutes for several miles and knew this would be bad, but couldn’t stop myself.
I passed the Supai tunnel in 1/3 of the time it took to rise from it to the north rim. I am now looked at the box end of the canyon that bright angel kicks you out of to reach the top. Now we’re just reversing ourselves, but you start to notice something this direction. There is a bridge you crossed before the Supai tunnel. On the way back you see this bridge for a long time switching back and forth and only coming inches closer with each pass. The same phenomenon occurs later with that northern most ranger station. His roof had a helipad and it’s noticeable as you look into the canyon below, but again it just taunts you because it’s about 2.5 running miles away. This is very deceiving because your mind is try to convince itself that you’re only 200 yards away until it then tries to determine how am I going to get down that far in just 200 yards? During this section you are in earshot of roaring springs and every once in a while get a good view of it. When I finally got to the station I decided to stop and look for water. He has a bench and prior race reports said that he sometimes puts out lemonade. There was a box on a bench and I was fully out of water so I hoped it was refreshments. However, it was just a box of chalk for travelers to make a claim on the chalkboard. I wrote my name and looked to see if there was a way to safely get to the creek to dip in. There was no way I felt comfortable with, so I moved on. The trail is very runnable again because we’ve descended off the wall, but I am getting more wary without water and don’t want to push it. It’s 4-5 miles to Cottonwood. Fortunately, the trail crosses the creek in this section at grade so I did dip my bottle and drop a tablet in. I then checked my watch because I had to wait 15 minutes to allow the tablets to take effect. I felt better now because water was coming. I passed a family here and the husband mentioned to his wife that I was probably do a rim to rim and then he asked me and I confirmed. He was not impressed but the wife was. I am seeing more hikers and assume they are just wandering out from the campgrounds since the north rim would be a strange objective this time of year. You get another view of Ribbon Falls just before you enter Cottonwood. In Cottonwood I was hoping there would still be campers there with potable water.
Looking south from about Cottonwood

Sadly, everyone had broken camp and I was low on water again so I looked for another place to dip the bottle. I didn’t look that hard because I knew Phantom was only 7 miles away. What I forgot was that I has already run 30+ miles and just 7 miles was not “just”. I was foolish and would have been better served to find water. I kept conning myself that even if I did dip, I would be back in Phantom by the time it was treated, but I was very wrong.

When I finally got back to the box I was in the walk any rises mode. I was too tired to run up even small hills without water and my feet are really getting sore now. I am starting to dream about just soaking my feet in the creek at Phantom. I pass a mother – daughter in the box and see they only have a water bottle between them, so I assume Phantom is close. I asked them how far and they said 30-45 minutes, but if I can run walk it should be much shorter, so I try to mount a head of steam again and trudge forward. I got into Phantom at 9 hours 30 minutes. At this point Rick’s watch battery went dead.
I was relieved to be back at the ranch and went to my cache that I’d stored earlier that morning. It turns out the raven found the bananas, Booo! However the rest of the food was intact. I am really suffering at this point. My legs are putty. I am dehydrated and I am hungry. I head over to the ranch store. This place is really packed. There are 4 long tables in here and three are fully loaded and there are 10 people in line. I first think I’ll grab a seat and rest while the line works its way through. The flaw in this plan was that each customer must have been applying for a mortgage; then line was not moving. The folks at the store have a water container inside with cups so I drink 2-3 cups while sitting and standing in line. The cashier is a chatty fellow and reminds me of Deputy Droop Along from Quick Draw McGraw. He was kind enough, but there was no fire in his belly. When it became my turn I ordered the lemonade. What a treat this is. It'ss sweet and tart and hits the spot. I then head outside and figure out what I can eat and tried the jerky. Fail, jerky is just too hard to eat for the return so I scrapped that. I did eat 6” of slim jim, half a pouch of tuna. I ate two cheese and peanut butter crackers but that was too dry as well. My next task is to refill the water. I drink a full Cytomax while there and prepare another for the last push up the hill.
While I was at the ranch, I saw a group of younger adults who all had full body suits on and was not sure why. Outside I overheard their conversation and they had come by water. I was finally restored enough to chat and started talking with them. They had come in by kayak, several of them. They were on a 13 day tour and the reason they were doing it in 13 days was that kayaks can’t hold as many supplies. Apparently, the raft travelers can go 30 days on the river. My first thought was who gets 30 days off?  This group put in at Lee’s Ferry. This is just below the Glen Canyon Dam, and I had been there before when I visited the north rim. They were going down stream until they got to Lake Mead. I also learned that at the start one of the guys kayaks was 250 pounds. And these kayaks had to be pulled fully from the water each night that camped. This was to avoid a rising river from sweeping the kayak and supplies away.
I stayed in the ranch for 45 minutes and was feeling very recovered. The best thing I did all day was stashing a dry pair of socks here. The change of socks was very rejuvenating. After the rest, I started the jog out of the ranch. At this point, I figure I am over 40 miles and this makes me an Ultra runner. It also makes me tired. At the end of the ranch I cross back over the bridge.

I am contemplating going up South Kaibab, because I want out as soon as possible, and while it’s steeper the shorter length is appealing. Then I start calculating and feel that I’ll still be really close to dark going up that way and then I have to catch a shuttle back to bright angel and I don’t know how late that runs. Plus my mind is not doing math well and I think I have a Chicagolander who will call a search and rescue team if I am not out within 2 hours, and I don’t want the $4000 bill. See how your brain turns to mush when you run too much. I stick with Bright Angel. After crossing the bridge I am seeing new sights that were masked by darkness earlier in the day. There are a couple neat sandy beaches and soon I come upon Pipe Beach for the second time and turn into the canyon wall away from the river. I think this was the last I saw of river for this trip. As I ascend out of the inner gorge I am still seeing new sites. I also am amazed that I actually survived the descent in the dark, there is some ugly footing and severe drop-offs in this area. I don’t know the name of the creek in this section, but it’s the one I poked my head over that morning. I didn’t recall as many switchbacks on the way down, but again the darkness probably messed with my bearings. I passed the creek that claimed my Garmin earlier; there was no remorse from the rocky trail siding. As I passed Indian Gardens for the second time I was still running more than walking but I was running out of steam. The new socks could only overcome so much of a 40+ mile effort.  I really wish I was not feeling so decimated, because this section of the trail is really runnable and your seeing open land as you cross through the Tonto Plateau. I meet a few hikers down here still, but they are scarce as they should be. If you are down here at this point, you are not going to walk to the rim before darkfall. As I transition out of the relative flatness of the plateau onto the final cliff wall to make the final ascent, I am running on empty and ruing the day. The experience has been awesome, but the body is so very tired at this point. I pass the 3 mile house and try to guesstimate the finish time it should be 1 hour if I can just walk at 20 minute miles (3mph). Sadly I have no working watches anymore so I can’t track progress. I am relegated to hiking. Even in hike mode I am passing everyone, but my goal isn’t to beat them it’s to get out of this canyon.

Darkness finally falls at about the 1.5 mile house and I don the headlamp again. I really thought I was done with this when I crossed the Colorado the first time today, but the canyon has exacted a toll on this first timer. I am really envious of the blue shirt that ran past me 7 hours earlier as I knew he was already sipping beer and telling stories of a great canyon day. The tunnels that I should be seeing are just eluding me and I hunch over every couple switchbacks just to rest. I sadly know this is not getting me closer to the rim, and I can't really make out the lights of rim buildings so I am in a miserable place mentally. I come to the first tunnel and it lifts my spirits a tad. I then try to occupy my mind waiting for the second tunnel at it too comes and goes. After this tunnel, I was happy to see it was only one more switchback to crest the south rim. The Last Step; ahhhh.
Oh wait, it’s not over I need to touch the sign and get back to the car. I don’t want to make this extra 50 yard walk, but I must. I pull the keys from my pack and chirp the lock. Amazingly, the car is just in front of me, woot! I could walk around a 1.5 foot tall stone wall to get to it or just climb that wall. I went for the beeline. Then at the wall realized, I could not raise my foot the required 1.5 feet. I am stuck just a few feet from the car. So I sit down on the wall, carry my legs over set them down and I am at the car. I quickly, quickly is relative now, take of the hydration pack and the sensation is heaven, nothing weighing on my shoulders for the first time in 13 ¼ hours. The last 30 minutes of the hike was in the dark and I was just wearing the tech tee, so I got very chilled. At the car, I fumbled to get the phone out and tickle the keys to alert the same people that chose to worry about me that the worrying was over. The messages were short and I started the car seeking warmth. I did not have the energy to change into the clothes that I laid out on the back seat. I navigated out of the park and started down route 64 towards the interstate. I had to get back to Vegas tonight. As I passed the little town where my hotel was I stopped at Wendy’s to get two burgers and a soda. It went down well. I had to choose a drive through as I felt I could not get out of this seat for some time. At Williams, where the Interstate meet 64, I filled up the tank. I then pointed the car at Vegas set the cruise at max speed and shot out. It was an ok ride, I was tired and my eyes were playing tricks on me, but I soldiered on. As I crossed back into Nevada, I felt I was being dangerous so I pulled off into a casino parking lot and took a 30 minute nap. This rest was enough to get me back to the hotel. I walked through barefoot and was going to ignore anyone who has a concern with it. I dove into bed and fell fast asleep.
The next day I woke up. That was a good start. I next pushed my legs over the side of the bed and they were not happy. Their mood did not improve when I applied weight to them. I shuffled to the shower and stood in the hot water for 30 minutes. Now I needed food. Turns out Vegas has plenty of ways to feed you so I hit the buffet. I scarfed down quite a bit then decided I needed to start the healing process. I was gonna walk the strip today and take in the architecture. It was Thanksgiving. I shuffled along looking like the 2000 year old man. In Vegas they now have pedways over most intersections. So you take the escalator up, walk across and take the escalator down. On occasion, the down escalator would be broken. It must’ve been a sight to watch me descend these stairs. I had two hands on the rail with all my weight and old ladies with walkers and canes were passing me. They gave me dirty looks. The rest of the day preceded much the same.
The next day was check-out and travel day. So I loaded up the car and checked out. Today, I wanted to find a poker table and just putter around until it was time to get to the airport. I decided on the Venetian since it had the largest room and most players. On the way I stopped in Casino Royale, they are known for cheap craps tables with 20x odds and played about 45 minutes increasing my bank roll from $100 to $400. Craps is a short run game so at this point I cash out there and head for poker. At the poker table, I am really just here to relax and enjoy a few beverages, but to my surprise I find a really soft table. That coupled with some good hands at the start and I went from my $200 buy-in to $350 very quickly, at this point I thought I might lock it down, but a few guys start picking on my blinds and I am waking up with hands. Within a 5 minute stretch there were two different guys that sat down with $100 and immediately dumped their entire stack to me. So now my stack is hovering between $6-700. I decided I was gonna head to the airport at 2:00p to catch the flight home, and was disappointed when my alarm went off, because I felt I could beat this table all day. So I head to the airport and noticed at check-in that the flight was delayed. Drat!!! I could have stayed at the poker table longer.
Well since I have no driving duties for about 6 hours, I mosey up to the bar and get me a tall, cold beer. Shortly after that a couple headed to Chicago come in; they are in the same predicament. We chat about how the time in Vegas went and how it sucks to get delayed, then we try to figure out if we can get bumped and do one more day. It was a very enjoyable couple hours. Then it turns out that we were all seated next to one another. As an added bonus I had the only empty seat on the plane next to me. We all order a round of beer, chat and fall asleep. The O’Hare landing and car retrieval was uneventful and I bee-lined for home and went to bed. Time to dream another dream.
What did I learn:
  • Bring more light or start at sunrise. I think much of the suffering could be attributed to coming down the first hill too slow and pounding on my quads. I traveled slow, because I didn't have the light to be confident.
  • I had too much food, and did not trail test the jerky or crackers. So the Slim Jim and banana were a good call.
  • No need to bring a camera next time, but I liked having it for the first trip.
  • Stop and eat more frequently. I tried to be too efficient and only stop when there was a camp. For instance I should have peeled layers sooner in the day. A shot block or two coming down the hill would have been a good idea. But really I think you need to stop and fix what you need to as soon as possible and not wait. Even though it’s a PITA to unpack and repack, it would be better in the long run, and this is a long run.
What did I do right:

  • I chose to cross the Grand Canyon
  • I brought dry socks
 In the end, I survived. I still maintain that I am not an Ultrarunner, but I did cover the distance. I am very glad I did this solo, because I feel it was an acheivement, but I'd entertain this again with a group. I definately want to do a 4-5 day hike through here some day.
Hope you enjoyed and if not, read something else.

Total mileage 48
Total Time 13 1/4 hours

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