Sifting through images I came across this video I shot in mid June during a 4 day backpack trip. It was one of the best hours of the past year. A gentle uphill trail, butterflies afloat filling the air around me, wildflowers in abundance and aspens 🌳 hitting their early chartreuse green. It was a magical morning on trail.
This is Part Two of R2R2R – For Part One click here!
Monday morning, six days from the R2R2R run date my legs felt sorer than I had hoped they would. Not surprising, but not confidence inspiring either. My hope after a 10 miler and 8 miler over the weekend was that it would “shock my system” and serve as a wake-up call that there was still some work to be done yet this year.
With only a short run scheduled Wednesday I went about getting my mental game together. I bought a NatGeo Trails Illustrated map of the Canyon so I could get a visual overview of the trails. I double checked information from the very helpful Facebook group Grand Canyon R2R2R Run! for the latest water information from people that had run the route over the previous weekend. The weather forecast looked to be ideal.
I spent some time in a favorite activity which is my best indicator of current level of focus; putting arrows into a paper target with my Samick Sage recurve bow. I felt that the mental preparation would be critical toward success. Mahting and I had already discussed that negative talk would not be allowed during the run; get busy and get focused. I felt that from a safety standpoint this was vitally important.
Mahting and his wife, and my family and myself all flew out of Denver for Phoenix at 7:00am Saturday morning. We drove a rental in a leisurely fashion to the South Rim and arrived just at sunset. After looking down into the canyon we checked into our respective abodes and met for dinner at Bright Angel Lodge.
Following dinner as we walked out of the lodge we saw two women hobbling and listing a bit. “Have you just run R2R2R?”
“Yes”, came the reply, and then a comment that it was harder than they thought it would be. We proffered congratulations, and this confirmed much of what I’d read from completers of the effort. As I walked toward my room I was slightly envious that they were done.
I gathered my things in my pack and laid everything out on the floor. Scheduled departure from South Kaibab trailhead was 0400. Mahting would pick me up at 0345 and his wife would drop us at SK.
I didn’t sleep very well after initially crashing. The little monkeys in my head had me double checking my list and day ahead. I really wanted to be 10 miles into the thing and started.
Up at 0305 for two cups of coffee, other necessary morning duties and at 0400 precisely we had our photo taken at the South Kaibab trailhead. A slight hitch came as Mahting realized he left his watch back at the hotel. We started Strava apps on our phones but packed them away. Off we walked and soon began bobbing down the trail under a clear, starry, crescent moonlit sky.
The strategy was ultra conservative on the initial descent for safety sake and preserving our quads from the stressful eccentric contractions that result in tearing up muscle fibers. We stopped a few times to look at the awesome vastness of the sky from below the rim. It was almost a blessing not seeing the grandeur of the canyon and task that lie ahead of us. At this point, little step by step chunks seemed enough for us.
Below the cutoff to Tonto Trail we spied a light but had no idea where it was coming from. A few minutes later I said, “Hey, there’s a bunch of lights down there”.
Mahting chuckled and replied, “Yeah, there are two lights. When all you see is black for a period of time I guess two seems like a bunch.”
We quickly arrived at the Black Bridge and crossed the Colorado River in the dark. Soon thereafter we encountered a hiker looking out toward the river. In short order we were coming into Phantom Ranch and there was pre-dawn activity of campers walking back to Bright Angel Campground and what seemed like Phantom Ranch employees beginning their day. We had to ask where the water was and did a lap around the canteen until we found it. Dawn was threatening but we still needed headlamps as we began to knock out the 14 miles to the North Rim.
For the next seven miles, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the trail was. While it was rising in elevation it was completely runnable and I felt every mile we could run was a mile we didn’t need to powerhike. Four hours and 14 miles in we stopped at the Ribbon Falls area to mix some Tailwind in our bottles and double check the map. I commented that after we covered our next 14 miles, we would be at this exact spot. I’m not sure if that was daunting or encouraging.
By the time we came to Manzanita we had pulled out our trekking poles to get over the little “humps” and then swoop on the downhills until we hit a little uphill again. We were able to chat with some backpackers at this water stop who had knowledge of the trail from the north rim. We were just over five miles from the north rim trailhead and one said it was a bit of a grind until we got to Supai tunnel. We loaded up on water hoping not to need it again until we came back to this spot in just over 10 miles.
We began the chug away from Manzanita and Mahting was easily powering away from me on the uphill sections. A few miles before I had begun to feel a little less than stellar. Part of the problem was lower abdominal pain. My lower abs are my weakness and I felt I had given a little back during the two week layoff, even with doing some plank work and dolphin yoga poses during my period of inactivity. Additionally, I ate a little bit too much on the travel day Saturday so there was a little bit stress from that. But we pushed along, shuffling and jogging along on the occasional flat sections of trail. It became evident that the push to the north rim trailhead would be a grind.
We took a quick break at Supai tunnel and the last 1.7 miles to the top was quite nice. We began seeing people both dayhiking and backpacking down from the rim and this was a nice spirit lifter for both of us. We topped out at exactly 7 hours into the day at 11:00am. We didn’t dally long as the gnats were horrendous and we had plenty of water to make it back to Manzanita. The weather was overcast and the temps were perfect. We could not have asked for a better day.
As we now ran back toward the canyon bottom I hit my high point of the day. At 24 miles everything felt good from foot to head. The trail was good, the views were awesome and barring emergency we were going to finish. How else would we get back to the south rim?
We filled water again at Manzanita and made off for Phantom Ranch nine miles away. Through here Mahting’s knee began to give him some fits, so I set pace and we cruised along. We passed by Ribbon Falls again and at this point the biggest challenge was the water bars. At points they seem like they are two feet off the trail and I continually had to assess whether I stepped over them or bounced off the top of them. Again and again, either way I wanted to get over them without tripping. At one point I commented that I didn’t feel it was necessary to parkour in order to get over the highest water bars, but after 30ish miles it sure felt like I was doing that.
Somewhere just before Phantom Ranch I made a comment that I hoped would not bite me in the ass. I told my running pal that after ten hours I felt I could make an assessment on R2R2R. The run was not turning out to be as difficult as I had imagined it would be. Now, lest anyone reading this thinks “Hey, sweet, I can easily do this crazy thang!” let me explain. Our weather was perfecto. The trails were clear of any potential winter detritus. The sun never shone brightly, keeping temperatures in the 60’s or maybe low 70’s for highs midday in the canyon. I can’t remember there being any significant wind. There were enough people on the trails to keep our spirits high but not so many that we felt it impeded our pace. Finally, we went super conservative on pace. We never stopped for long, but we also never ran too fast. Granted, we didn’t get full appreciation for the sights of the canyon because we were fairly focused on good foot touches all day long and the sun didn’t present us with the brilliant colors off the rocks because of the cloudy conditions.
I had estimated that we’d make Phantom Ranch at 2:30 and when we came in I grabbed my phone and it was right on the nose! Sweet! We grabbed some candy bars, pretzels, lemonade and settled into a nice snack time at a picnic table. With nine miles to head out of the canyon via Bright Angel we even laid back on the picnic benches to rest our eyes. We spent 30 minutes there and then headed up toward the south rim.
As we made way to depart, another runner that we’d seen earlier heading to the north rim caught and passed us. We met him again shortly where he was filling water at a spigot below Bright Angel Campground. He had spent the whole day alone and asked if he could join us. Sure thing! The three of us journeyed on and took some photos crossing the silver bridge, with the turbulent green waters of the Colorado river coursing underneath our feet.
The first few miles were runnable here and we encountered a couple just off the trail. They seemed to be hiking, but the gentleman was laid out and did not look real well. Upon inquiring if they were okay, she said they were just going to the campground and that they would be fine. But when our third amigo, Mark, passed by them just after us, she said they were heading to Indian Garden, miles further and up! That sort of puzzled us and I’ve thought often about them, hoping they got on okay.
It brought up an interesting feeling for me. With 36 miles under foot at that point I was feeling fine, yet I’d been out there for a very long time already. It’s a little harder processing situations after that much time afoot. The reality of the canyon is that you accept quite the responsibility for yourself when you head down. If she had said, “Hey, we really need some help here.” I certainly would have stopped. But I don’t think I was in the state of mind to make an honest assessment of how they really were.
We had a DeLorme InReach for shooting off messages to our wives so they would know we were doing well and not in trouble. It also gave them coordinates with each message so they could see exactly where we were at. Had it been necessary we could have sent an SOS, heaven forbid. But since the run I’ve thought about people that climb Everest and pass by climbers that may literally be dying before their eyes. I cannot fathom what that must be like. I was grateful for having an emergency beacon/device with us, for I rarely head out without it anymore.
The remainder of the trek was perhaps a little anticlimactic. Put one foot in front of another. Keep moving. Keep eating. Keep drinking. We didn’t catch many more folks as most of the day trippers were out of the canyon. A mile from the top we donned the lights to finish in the dark, hitting the top 14 hours and 44 minutes after we started.
Mahting wondered whether we would really come back out to eat if we headed for showers at our respective lodging. Wisely, we opted to head right into Bright Angel Lodge for dinner with our wives. It was a wonderful way to end the day.
Come Monday I moved more gingerly and slowly than I ever have in my life, requesting help to get down off the curb at one point in the day! But it was all muscle damage. Neither of us suffered blisters and while Mahting had a tweaky knee and foot we were pretty well off considering what we’d done.
Some notes for those either doing this for the first time or even a 2nd time.
- In my opinion it is wise to calculate and know how many calories per hour you will need and stick to a plan on fueling and drinking.
- In the week before, begin making a concerted effort to hydrate the body. Especially if you are flying into the area from out of state.
- Tailwind worked really well for Mahting and me. He used three PB&J’s in addition to Tailwind and I used primarily gels with the Tailwind plus some pretzels for solid food.
- Pick a general pacing plan but don’t stress if it goes long on the outward leg. Taking into account it was two miles longer and we stopped for 30 minutes at Phantom Ranch we did negative splits coming back.
- Not having GPS or watches on our wrists was very freeing. We moved by feel and trusted our bodies. It worked out great.
- Strongly consider taking along either a Spot or InReach device. It provides tremendous peace of mind and it’s nice to be able to shoot off a pre-loaded text indicating to loved ones, friends or support that you are doing fine, maybe behind schedule but still fine or send a real time message if you are having problems or issues.
- The Facebook group has all the information needed to do this and was an invaluable resource but was not overwhelming if you use the search function on the group page to find out the answers to the questions you might have!
- Respect the canyon, prepare for it to be harder than anticipated but hope for it to be better than that. Be positive and know if will involve discomfort and some suffering. I felt, that given some unknowns around my downtime just before the run that I could always just hike out with my headlamp given that I do a lot of backpacking and hiking.
The sensation is intense, like needles being plunged in and out of nerve endings in the area of my left hamstring. I try to breathe through the burning, knowing this is not the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I attempt to relax my grip so as to become one with the discomfort.
The nurse practitioner gently tugs the gauze packing out of my leg and says “This isn’t getting better. I’m going to ask your doctor what she thinks”.
It’s now Tuesday and I’m in the sixth day of a serious staph infection. I’d been to the ER on Sunday and even after numerous antibiotics and a now open 3.5 centimeter wound in my leg where they dug out pus and infection, an area from the back of my knee moving toward my hip is red, inflamed, taut and warm to the touch. A culture has indicated staph infection resulting in cellulitis. I have no idea how I picked this up, but it’s putting a serious kink in my activity level.
I’m 20 days away from running down into the Grand Canyon, up the other side to the north rim and a return trip to the south rim. It’s a trail run (not a race) that is known as Rim to Rim to Rim, or R2R2R. The route is 44.2 miles long with over 10,000 feet of elevation loss AND gain. Trail runners complete it as a sort of “rite of passage”.
I think I first heard about this when a friend of mine, many years younger, ran it for the first time in 2015. He then did it a second time in 2016. When I read about his account it was the first year that I had taken up running and backpacking. I believe I secretly thought to myself, “That is pretty darn impressive.” I probably googled around on the subject and quickly discovered that this was not something for the faint of heart.
Sometime in 2016 a client shared with me how she had also done R2R2R. I was helping her through an injury as she was preparing for another trail marathon up and down Pikes Peak. I was duly impressed that she, too, had conquered the Grand Canyon. Again, I investigated online about this demonic run, and again, realized that this was currently far beyond my physical capabilities. In 2016 I had done my 3rd and 4th trail half marathons, but less than ⅓ of the distance that would be required to complete the Grand Canyon run.
However, sometime last year I think I first voiced my secret desire to try and do this. I felt that the old biological clock was ticking and I needed to do it sooner rather than later. (I later found this not to be true, at least for me) I confided in my good friend and running partner, Mahting, but pretty much left it at that.
With a hole in the back of my leg vast enough to stick the entirety of my thumb into, it is necessary to have gauze stuffed into the wound on a daily basis. It’s called a wound, like I’ve been shot, or I have diabetes and I now need wound care. Gratefully, a good friend, who is a physician’s assistant has acquiesced in helping with the daily chore. Actually, she didn’t really acquiesce because when I asked for her help she replied, “Oh, you don’t need to twist my arm, I love pus!”. This was a statement that I found to be true of most nuts in the medical community. As a different medical professional shared with me, “We feel like we’re doing real good when we can take pus and infection out of a wound, because it happens right before our eyes.”
I’m now in my home as my friend changes the packing and my wife observes, somewhat aghast, hence the reason to recruit the friend to do such dirty work. “How soon before I can run, exercise, sweat, etc?” I ask.
“Matt”, she patiently replies, “I can see your hamstring, that is how deep the wound is. I don’t think you should be doing any running at this point.”
I begin to fully comprehend the severity of what has been going on with this infection and my leg. I’m fine with possibly not doing the Grand Canyon run and to be quite honest, maybe even a little relieved. I’m very grateful at this point for the medical community, their knowledge and expertise and the fact that if I lived in a different country, this could have been quite, quite serious. I begin to find peace in the fact that the run may not happen. But I decide that I won’t out and out cancel the trip. My whole family and Mahting and his wife are going as well. At the very least it will be a family vacation for four days.
One of the morose attractions of attempting R2R2R is the fact that people die in the Grand Canyon; a lot. Once dumping into the “Big Ditch” and beginning to cross to the other side there is no option of calling ones significant other and asking to be picked up. If there is an emergency it involves a Search and Rescue team and substantial financial resources in order for a person to be pulled out of the canyon. I read at an interpretive sign on the south rim that there are 250 rescues a year in the Grand Canyon. Upon investigation I find that there are rather interesting maps such as this one.
770 people have died in the Grand Canyon since John Wesley Powell and his crew made the first river exploration in 1869. On average 12 people die in the canyon each year by suicide, accidental falls, exposure, drowning, aviation accidents, rockfall and even mules falling on people. This ain’t no walk in the park folks.
I shared with a cycling and running friend earlier this year that Mahting and I were going to attempt to do this challenge. “You’re crazy! You’re going to hate the training involved, you’re going to hate the preparation and you’re going to hate actually doing it.” Gee, what a buzzkill.
In reality I enjoyed the training all summer and even the preparatory 40 mile Grand Traverse race that I had done over Labor Day weekend. But truth be told, I was running on fumes in preparing for this endeavor. I had archery hunted ten days in the month of September in weather that at times was snowy, foggy, rainy and cold. While I had succeeded in filling the freezer full of venison for our family, I had lost about five pounds over the course of the month. I was a little mentally burned out from a long year of running, hiking, camping, etc. I believe now that my body and immune system was effectively wrung out; creating a prime situation for a crazy bug to nab me.
I knew that I had all the base mileage I needed for the GC run, but I felt my remaining training was best invested in runs involving heavy elevation gains and losses. So I spent my time on the trails around Boulder, finding 5 mile loops that afforded me at least a thousand feet of vertical per lap. My last long run was to be five loops around Mt. Sanitas in Boulder. It would be about 27 miles with over 6800’ of elevation gain and loss. What typically has worked for me in past preparation for long endurance events has been topping out my training at 70% of the distance required. With the running, I try and match that number for the elevation as well. It worked fine for the Grand Traverse, so I was comfortable with the R2R2R preparation. And it was during the time after the Grand Traverse that this whole ultrarunning thing became much less mysterious and scary to me. At a point in the summer I had moved beyond the distance of 18 miles in my runs which had been a bit of a hurdle. My body had become accustomed to the steady tap of many hour runs and miles beyond 20 in a single shot. The body is amazing. And I’ve been fortunate to have a body that has always adapted well to hard work and long hours. I’ve also become wise enough in how my body works that at 52 I have much more confidence in my ability than I did 30 years ago. But the staph infection put its grip on me two days before that last long run which in fact would never materialize. I would not have the mental peace of mind that I had put in the proper physical preparation for the R2R2R.
However, I was at peace as to whether it was necessary to accomplish the feat this calendar year. I decided that if it wasn’t meant to be on November 12th, I would just come back in the spring and do it. On October 25th Mahting and I exchanged some messages about my predicament. I assured him I was still on for the trip and going to be doing something in the canyon and I was sure to be rested!
After just over two weeks of no running or physical activity related to exercise the gash in my leg had healed enough I felt that I needed to do a few runs to see what transpired. Eight days out from our run date in the canyon I drove to Boulder to do a few laps on Sanitas. With the music motivating me on the drive up I decided that this was going to happen. I couldn’t go into this with any doubts about completing the run. I just had to decide to do it. And at that point there was no turning back mentally. I was all in.
For part 2 of this story, you can jump right to it by clicking here.