I had been thinking that this run would be the “peak event” of my “rest year”. Actually, I don’t know if I have ever gone so low, or slow
In September of 2007, the day before I ran the Flagstaff (Trail) Marathon , I made a brief visit to the Grand Canyon. I just hiked, at most, a half mile in, then back out, as it was a day to rest. I was amazed at the sight. Truly amazed, and overwhelmed. It was so big as to be incomprehensible. It didn’t even look real. I knew I would be back. In the intervening years, I thought about how I would return. This year, I have talked to Bimblers who had truly explored, top to bottom, the canyon (Chipper, Spuds, El Toro, Nadia, Shellygirl, Lefty, …) and after much internal debate, decided to aim for the “El Toro Method”: Rim to Rim to Rim.
The date and the (financial) logistics were determined by a work trip to Las Vegas. I knew from reading blog accounts that early September was still too hot to do the run, but it was the window of opportunity that I had, so I took it. I wasn’t sure I was ready, as my preparedness (both physical and mental) in this post-Beast year has been subject to question. I told several Bimblers that I would use the Jay Peak 50K as my test of physical preparedness. As for mental preparedness, well… fortunately, none of us Bimblers hold each other, or ourselves, to very high standards in that particular area!
I eventually settled on a South Rim start, strictly due to lodging considerations. With my late planning, there were no lodgings available at all within the park, and no desirable accommodations available outside the park.
Early Wednesday afternoon, the conference in Las Vegas adjourned. I left my inexplicably (not that I am complaining) upgraded room at the Bellagio for some more modest accommodations. I took a shuttle to the airport to pick up a rental car, drove to REI, picked up a rental tent, sleeping bag and pad, and headed east. I took little time out to sight see and then I took the “express” route, forgoing Flagstaff, so as to get to the canyon as early as possible. I did take a moment to roll down “America’s Main Street” aka Rte 66, in Williams AZ, which is where I exited I-40. From there it is a little over an hour to the park entrance. I REALLY wanted to get there before dark, but I needed dinner, and food for the following day(s), so I wound up eating at McD’s in Tusayan, at the park gate.
I arrived at the campground after dark. The gatehouse was closed, a sign said to drive on in, but make sure to check in between 8 and 11 in the AM. Uh huh. I then set up a tent I had never before seen, in the dark. It actually went pretty well. I got back in the car to see if I could find the trail head, and the nearest parking, to make things easier in the AM.
The 4AM alarm came too soon, although the 3 hour time difference jet lag made things a little easier. Pop Tarts and a 5 Hour Energy (another “Breakfast of Champions”) and I was driving the 2 miles to the parking lot. I fumbled around trying to find the pedestrian route to the trail head, but not too badly. I advised Loopy, and Spruce of my departure. Loopy suggested I TXT when I got to the North Rim. I doubted that would be possible, and I was correct. Spruce asked when he could call out SAR (Search And Rescue), I suggested he wait until mid-day Friday.
The temps had been forecasted to be in the mid 30s overnight at the South Rim. I knew that was warmer than ideal. Many other runners have written that even when the temperature is a little below freezing at sunrise, it is too hot at the bottom. I never felt cold Wednesday night, and the car thermometer showed 45 degrees at 4:30 ! This was one of the things I had worried about. The other was the trepidation about running this alone.
Funny thing is, that did not wind up bothering me. I remembered all of the Bimbler feet that had trod this trail, and it made me feel much more comfortable. There was nobody around when I started down, into the darkness. Lights at the lodge on the North Rim were barely visible in the distance. As soon as I dipped down about 100 feet or so below the rim, I looked up to see an amazing display of stars, the moon, and the Milky Way. Before very long, maybe 45 minutes, I met the first hikers headed up. During this time, after 3 Mile House and before Indian Springs, the sun lit up the canyon, from top to bottom. One hour in, I was at Indian Spring, an amazingly green oasis with a campground.
After 2 hours, I had arrived at the Silver Bridge, Bright Angel Campground, and Phantom Ranch. Finally, I saw a fair number of people stirring, seemingly proving that being at the bottom of the canyon was perfectly normal. The climb up to the North Rim (via the North Kaibab Trail) is almost twice as far as the South Rim (via the Bright Angel Trail). I really thought it might be ALL a power hike. I was wrong. I was feeling good, and the early inclines are gradual, so I ran uphill for at least an hour past Phantom Ranch. Somewhere around Ribbon Falls is the first steep up, and that’s where I started a walk/run cycle.
The scenery going up to the North Rim was very different from the south. Lots of water, more trees, but also more “closed in”. The canyons were steeper and narrower, and the trail felt more exposed. I chatted with a ranger who asked if I was headed back, and I told him, somewhat unconfidently, “yes” and he told me I was doing fine. When I went through the Supai Tunnel, I knew I was getting close. At about 6 hours and 20 minutes, I popped out in the parking lot at the North Rim trail head. I contemplated going to the lodge for some resupply, but it was a 3.5 mile round trip. I rested, ate 2 bars, guzzled cold water, and refilled my pack and handheld. I amused myself, maybe a little too long, listening to 3 ladies mapping out their journey on the kiosk I was sitting beneath. They were discussing their about-to-begin journey to the South Rim. It seemed a little late in the day to start, and they didn’t really look “the type”. They shuffled off back to get stuff from their car, saying “maybe we will go about 2 miles down, then turn around”. I got a BIG chuckle out of that.
After 20-30 minutes, I headed down. I knew that a lot of the upper part of the trail would be too steep/rocky/exposed for me to run, but I also remembered that gentle downhill that would take me the last several miles to the Colorado River. It didn’t work out that way. I actually ran a little more of the upper steep part than I expected. About 1/2 hour after leaving the rim, I crossed 4 women coming up strong. We all grunted out “hellos”, after I passed the last member of the group, the first one turned around and shouted “Hey, are those Promise Land shorts?”. All upward and downward progress halted while we sorted out races and acquaintances in common. They were all from the DC area. One of the women, Michelle, had been in Guilford for the same wedding that Dan Lehman (RD, Highland Sky) had come up for. It turns out that Dan had asked Michelle to do that Bimbler run we all did, but she complained about “too many bugs in Westwoods in the summer”. A VERY small world!
Buoyed by a chance sighting of almost-but-not actually familiar faces, I continued at a good pace down through the “no fall” zone, aka, “one fall here will be your last” zone. I became confident that once I reached the mild downhill from Ribbon Falls to the Colorado, I would really fly. That was totally wrong. By time I got down to the level of Ribbon Falls, I am pretty darn sure the temperature was in the triple digits. My all too modest maintenance plan of 1 Honey Stinger, 1 salt tab, and one liter per hour, which was much more than typical for me, but much less than what was necessary, became intolerable at the nine hour mark. Nothing would go in, except for some water. Fortunately, the water supply was seemingly infinite and everywhere. The work was now beginning.
My first hallucination, a large elk, turned out to be real. What a relief to know the high temps had not totally beaten me down. Unfortunately, I could barely run. Lots of reasonably quick shuffling was the best I could manage. My next hallucination was a Mountain Goat, blindingly white. It was a rock. Oh well. The next mind trick was not an hallucination, just a ridiculous obsession. I started noticing a particular kind of cactus, sort of like a prickly-pear, close to the ground. Every so often, I would notice a single specimen, totally dried up and yellowed, but seemingly charred in places. I came to the sad (and no doubt incorrect) conclusion that they had experienced the cactal (?) equivalent of “spontaneous human combustion”, which was a phenomenon I had never previously believed in, but was now convinced it was imminent. This bothered me, not so much because it would be my demise, but because I had never considered it in my seemingly thorough contingency planning.
A few people headed north were just the right amount of company to prevent my mind from totally sliding over the edge…
I came into Phantom Ranch in full Death March mode. Phantom Ranch was packed with people…indoors in the air conditioned spaces. I knew that the little dining hall / cafeteria had odd hours, but I could not recall whether it would be open or not. It was !!!!! And it was air-conditioned. As best I can recall, my $10 bill bought me 2 Cliff Bars, 3 lemonades, and 2 iced teas. I dumped my pack, put my head on the table as the room started to spin, and waited to pass out and hit the floor, all while there was a crowd of people drinking beer, enjoying themselves, and to my sensibilities, being totally obnoxious, and uncaring to the fact that I was about to expire. Every 5 minutes or so I would struggle the 10 feet to refill my cup with ice, and wobble back to the table to rest my head again. Finally, at 4PM (about 1/2 hour after I arrived) the woman at the counter very pleasantly announced: “Everybody out, we are closed until 8PM”. The “party people” all retreated to their cabins, while I took just a moment to lie flat on my back on the bench outside the door. Really, just a moment, using my refilled and cold hydration pack as a neck-pillow. Really, just for a minute, two at most, because I had places to go… Suddenly, a shout! A head was sticking out the window directly above my chest telling anyone within earshot (I was the only person I could see) that the 4:30 Nature Talk was starting. I had fallen asleep! Or passed out, or returned from the dead. Whatever. It was time to go.
Somehow, I got it in my head that there was a spot, between Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River, where my phone would work. I really wanted to TXT or call, so I wasted a lot of time hunting for that imagined spot to no avail. Finally, I “crossed over” and got serious. 7.5 miles to go, all uphill. It was getting late in the day. I crossed through the sand dune area near the river that reminded me of Cape Cod, but I did not sight any whales or seagulls. I took that as an encouraging sign as to my mental state. Then it got steeper, and dusky. A young couple crossed me hiking down to Phantom Ranch (they had no camping gear, and were not equipped to be out for lots of hours). No greetings were exchanged. I do not know why. I think they we re a bit nervous about the impending darkness. I, on the other hand, was anxiously awaiting it. The last “stuck in my head” song of the day arrived: The Sound of Silence. Pretty much just the first line, “Hello darkness my old friend”. I knew the dark would do at least three things for me: bring cooler temperatures, hide the distance remaining, and hide the precipitous dropoffs, which were getting increasingly scary as my shuffling grew more wobbly. I am very afraid of heights. I am glad I have mastered that fear, but I have not subdued it.
The darkness did bring another new experience, and the change of scenery, such as it was, was nice. There was only one “gotcha”. The lights of the lodge on the South Rim came on, tantalizingly close. But they got no closer, for hours. The switchbacks, which were unquestionably necessary, made it impossible to perceive any true progress toward the finish. My final hallucination, or not, was someone coming up the trail behind me. Like the elusive lights from the rim, their headlamp would appear, sometimes near, sometimes not, as the switchbacks veered left and right. The last mile to the finish I never saw the headlamp, and I remain unconvinced as to whether or not I ever really saw it. It did quicken my pace however
At 8:30PM, 15.5 hours after I started, I popped out at the trail head I startled several “tourists”, although I am not sure whether it was the headlamp shining in their eyes, or the odor that was, no doubt, emanating from me, or perhaps my appearance that caused their slightly frightened looks. I made my phone calls, announcing how horrible the whole thing was. By the next morning, I had changed my mind, just like we all do the day after a race, so I am asking for a little bit of understanding on this point, Loopy!
No dinner, no shower, just a shuffle back to the car, a scary low-speed drive to the campsite, and I was out like a light. The next day was busy but not hectic as I broke camp, took a scenic route back to Las Vegas, returned my camping gear, and got to the airport for my red-eye home. While waiting in the airport, I wrote most of this report. Editing it today, I can’t believe how incoherent it was (is?). The flight home, and subsequent 4 train rides to my vehicle waiting for me at the Guilford train station were quite uncomfortable, but the pain still subsided WELL before Bimbler’s Bluff
I think it was the post-Bluff soreness that reminded me to FINALLY post this article! Thanks for reading…is anybody still here? If so, I am sure you are going to do this run. Can I come?