Thursday, September 15, 2016

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim (R2R)

I’ve always loved adventures and a big challenge, so when I heard about running across the Grand Canyon from Rim to Rim (R2R), I knew that it was on my list of Must-Do’s. A running buddy from the Pacific Road Runners in Vancouver, an English guy called David Parker has run the R2R and gave me some great info and advice. Convincing my wife to do it with me took all of one second as she loves a challenge as much as I do. So during a trip out to California to visit her brother Tim and his family, our chance had come. 

Now there are options to doing the R2R. The sensible choice is to hike from the North Rim to South Rim over two or more days, staying overnight in one of the campsites or a lodge called the Phantom Ranch within the canyon. The elevation change is greater at the North Rim than the South Rim, so most hikers choose north to south as it’s easier. We decided to run the R2R from south to north in one day.  However, there are some crazy fools that actually run across the canyon and then back again (R2R2R). We had considered this option for a nano second and dismissed it. You have to be either a lunatic or insanely fit to do this. We are neither. At the very least, not run across the canyon twice in September in 36 degrees like it was on this day. That’s our excuse anyway.

The trail through the canyon is split into two, separated by the Colorado River. The North Kaibab Trail starts from the North Rim and from the South Rim there are two trails to choose from, the South Kaibab Trail and Bright Angel Trail. We used the South Kaibab Trail as this offered better views of the sunrise as we started the day. Here are the stats:

South Kaibab Trail: Rim to river 6.3 miles with elevation change of 1480m (4,860ft)

North Kaibab Trail: Rim to river 14.2 miles with elevation change of 1780m (5,850ft)

Total Distance: 20.5 miles.  Total elevation change of 3260m (10,710ft)

We stayed the night before the run at the Bright Angel Lodge located right on the South Rim. We wanted to start the run at the South Kaibab trail head before dawn, so experiencing the sunrise from within the canyon. Also ensuring we made it to the North Rim in time for our return shuttle ride back which departed at 2pm. So we set our alarm for 4am and hit the hay.

In a very bleary eyed condition, we boarded the 5.00am Hikers Express shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trail head. Then at approximately 5.45am we began our journey, entering the trail in the half light with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Any nervousness was soon forgotten about as we were met almost immediately with the most amazing views of the canyon. Just the sheer vastness and majesty of what lay before us was quite overwhelming. We looked at each other and just smiled, both knowing exactly how each other was feeling. This was going to be epic! The light was slowly changing as we made our way down the initial part of the trail. The sun was looming behind the canyon to the east. The trail itself was quite steep and technical, so it was proving quite difficult to keep our eyes on it to prevent falling, rather then admiring the incredible views. We allowed ourselves the occasional break for gazing and photos of course, this was not a race and the scenery was rather special!

Then the sun was starting to appear and the most amazing sunrise was happening before us. We stopped and watched in awe. The South Kaibab Trail is located to the east of the canyon, so the sun’s rays were suddenly flooding into the west, illuminating everything with a beautiful orange glow. A definite OMG moment. We took a few more pics and carried on. We were conscious of how much time we were taking for all these breaks. We had a return shuttle to catch at the North Rim.
The trail weaved it’s way lower and further into the canyon and the temperature was slowly rising. We began to get glimpses of the Colorado River below us which is where the South Kaibab Trail turns into the North Kaibab Trail. This is also where our first pit stop was at the Phantom Ranch. We were going to refill our hydration pack bladders with water and electrolyte tablets, down some energy bars/gels and have a toilet break. Our friend David Parker had warned us about the homemade lemonade and the effect that can have on a runners digestive system, so we declined that one. We were glad to get to the Phantom Ranch also as it signalled the end of the steep and technical South Kaibab Trail. Zoe had suffered a pretty serious knee injury earlier in the year, so this was going to be a real test for her knee. In fact we had held off from making a final decision whether to run the canyon until a few days before. So Zoe was taking things a little more gingerly on the downhill than normal, it wouldn’t be good if her knee blew out in the middle of the canyon.

We set off from the Phantom Ranch feeling good. It was getting hotter by the minute now but we knew this was going to happen. We were taking our time and staying hydrated. Wildlife spottings were happening along the way. We had seen a Big Horn Sheep on our descent into the canyon, then we spotted a Mule Deer. Thankfully no rattle snakes or scorpions so far. From there we entered a narrower section of the canyon and we were running in the shade for quite a while. This provided cooler temperatures which were very welcome. It was interesting to see how the canyon is made up not of just one vast expanse but narrower and differing gorges and water ways.
We had heard that the Ribbon Falls were not to be missed. So we took the side trail that was signposted for them. It was certainly worth the extra effort to see this beautiful waterfall and spend a few moments cooling off. Once back on the main trail, we were really starting feel the heat as we were in the section of the canyon known as ‘The Box’. An area known for its intensity of heat due to the lack of air movement because of its geography. We arrived at the Cottonwood campground, our final pit stop before the big push up the ascent out of the canyon. 

Our legs were feeling fatigued as we left the campground but luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, we did not know quite what an almighty struggle lay ahead of us. We were sweating a lot now too. We had put electrolyte tablets into our water bladder, eaten salty snacks, taken energy gels and then salt tablets. We didn’t want to start cramping. Especially now as we began the climb out of the canyon. 

We were starting to walk more now as the steeper sections came. Our tired legs were reminding us of what we had already done and our brains we’re telling us of what still lay ahead.  We dug in. The tail began to twist and turn more and more as it snaked it’s way up and around the canyon walls. We were looking at our Garmin’s to see how many more miles lay ahead. The running opportunities were becoming fewer and fewer. It was becoming a battle just to keep walking up the ever steepening trail.

We were still taking in the incredible views of the canyon but on a less frequent basis now. Mile after mile came and went, we were starting to pass more and more hikers coming down the trail, who had started their hike from the North Rim. They were looking fresh and were walking with a leap in their stride. In comparison, we were starting to stagger now and were probably looking in a pretty poor state. We were now longing for the end to come. Our Garmin’s had run out of battery life a while back, so we were now guessing how many miles there were left to go.
I’ve suffered at the end of many marathons, the last few miles have been tough. However, this was becoming a whole new level of suffering. Our legs were completely shot. The distance covered was significant but the elevation change combined with the extreme heat had taken its toll.  We  were having to search for energy that was no longer there. It was now about the will power to get to the end.  The pressure to make it up in time for the shuttle ride back was a real burden but at the same time a blessing, as it kept us going when all we wanted to do was stop. 

At 1.31pm we reached the top of the trail and exited the canyon. It was total relief. I’m not sure how much longer we could have gone on for.  Without doubt, it had been the toughest physical challenge that we’ve ever done! However, we had to walk another 0.7 mile to our pick up point for the shuttle, so we staggered on walking like John Wayne himself. We then grabbed a very welcome coffee and waited for the shuttle back. We had done it. Total exhaustion but an overwhelming sense of achievement filled our bodies and minds. 

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