Saturday, August 4, 2007

Grand Canyon Run, April 2004

Please note that the picture is from Zion and only shows the pack/gear I used in the Grand Canyon.

Here's the summary of my Grand Canyon double crossing:

Water. It's what a desert doesn't have and it's what I needed. My mouth was cottony dry and I'd been walking for the last 4 steep miles. I'd thought that 1 1/2 quarts should last 14 miles, but on the steep south facing walls of the Grand Canyon the still, dry heat took more out of me than I had expected. The occasional moist rock tempted my tongue, but any puddles were filled with colorful orange slime that looked more threatening than my dehydration. I had been running for 18 miles and had only a trickle of Cytomax left to get me to the North Rim and back the 10 miles to water. I had just decided that it would be best to turn around when I saw a nearly melted patch of snow beside the trail. While it was to small to drink from, I expected I'd find more up the trail and continued on. Two more dry miles went by and now, fully committed, I could not safely turn back without snow or water to replenish my withering body. The buzzards peacefully and silently floated overhead.

The Grand Canyon experience from the rim is impressive but it is really hard to get a complete perspective if you stay on the rim. Following the footsteps of many runners before me and against the advice of the National Park Service, I was planning a double crossing of the canyon. This is a 46 mile, 11,000' run and exposes a runner to a large sample of the Grand Canyon's zones and beauty. In the summer there is water available every 4-7 miles, but in the spring freezing temperatures were still recorded at night on the rim and many of the water sources had not been turned on. The temperatures were predicted to be moderate--upper 60s on the rim, low 90s in the canyon bottom. After a good meal the night before (first in 5 days due to a lingering stomach flu) and packing as much Cytomax, Clif Shots and Bars as my pack would hold, I caught the 6:10am bus to the South Kaibab trail and began running at 6:30.

Dropping into the canyon gives a very different perspective than that from the rim. The early morning light and shadow, the cliffs rising ever taller as you rapidly descend the wide switchbacks are the reward for this kind of exertion. There is a certain healing away from the crowds on the rim and a stillness that makes the pressures of the life I usually live easier to bear. There is a sense of anticipation of what is to come as the trail shows you first a 1500' sheer drop into a narrow rock crevasse then replaces it with squiggly red rock lines embedded in otherwise black rock. The cliffs change from white or color stained limestone, to brown, black, or even reddish shale, sandstone, and schist. It was quickly that I arrived at the Colorado River, crossed the upper bridge and proceeded to the junction with the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails.

The nature of the trail changes dramatically here. While on the South Kaibab trail I had been running over dry terrain through multiple cliff bands and over sloped plateaus, the North Kaibab trail follows Bright Angel Creek through a narrow, serpentine river canyon with the trail sometimes blasted into the sides of the 1000-2000' cliffs. Here it was spring and cactus and many other plants were in bloom. After five miles the canyon widens and you pass by Ribbon Falls with spectacular Oza Butte (a massive bluff of grey/brown rock crowned by a temple of white limestone) at the head of its canyon. After passing through Cottonwood camp (14 miles, last water till you return here 14 miles later) the trail becomes about twice as steep, leaves the river canyon and ascends the steep cliffs of Roaring Springs Canyon. Roaring springs is a wonder. Coming out of the base of a cliff, 500' above where a river should run it is a "spring" of over 100 gallons per minute that makes up most of Bright Angel Creek. Imaging 5 fire hydrants discharging water at the base of Half Dome and you get the idea. The trail above the springs is often carved into the side of cliffs, but unlike further down the valley, there are stomach knotting drops instead of a river to view. It was on this section that I ran a bit short of water and heard the buzzards whispering my name. Fortunately I did run into a useable patch of snow (where I stayed sucking the water and eating snow for 15 minutes) and then at the North Rim parking lot four hikers kindly gave me water and likely saved my trip. It had taken 1:20 to run the 7.5 miles to the canyon bottom, 1:30 for the 7.5 to Cottonwood camp, and an additional 2:15 to go the 7 miles to the North Rim. There had been additional down time with an elapsed time from the start of nearly 6:30 by the time I began the return trip.

Once replenished the trip down Roaring Springs and Bright Angel canyons went much better. The 14 miles took just under 2:30 and had me back at Phantom ranch just before 3pm. I had guzzled water at Cottonwood Camp and felt better though my stomach started to bother me. I drank an iced lemonade at the Phantom Ranch bar (in loud use by a rowdy beer drinking crowd) which upset my stomach and was to make my last 10 miles less than comfortable. I left the ranch at 3:30, first on the easy trail to the lower Colorado River crossing, then paralleling the river for a mile, then leaving the river and ascending Garden Creek. I'm sorry that much of the scenery on this section escapes me. I'd run till I felt I'd puke, then walk until my stomach felt better. If I could have thrown up and started over I would have felt much better. I do remember crossing several small streams and steep cliffs with colorful moss and slime, seeing blooming cactus and several species of lizards, and hearing noises coming from the creek that I eventually determined must come from bullfrogs the size of a loaf of bread. I'm not sure if my stomach's rebellion was a residual effect of the flu, due to my previous dehydration, or to too many salt pills. My stomach finally settled at Indian Gardens Camp and the last 4.5 miles saw much more running despite their greater average grade. Approaching the final 3 miles of switchbacks and 2500', the layered rocks became beautiful again and I looked forward to a speedy reunion with my family who were waiting for me when I arrived at 6:10pm. My watch recorded 10:05 of running, 11:40 elapsed time. At the top I gave brief respects to Allyn Cureton who holds the 7:51 record for a double crossing (in 1981, second to the last year a race was allowed), to the canyon itself, and thanks for the health, motivation, and family support required to complete such a tour.

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