Walking around Barr Lake, the centerpiece of Barr Lake State Park in Colorado affords the opportunity to view wintering Bald Eagles. While walking, one took on the role of eagle counter. By the time we arrived at this point the tally was nearly twenty.
Beyond the trees were roosting eagles, the dominant feature of this day. The sun began to play in the clouds mid morning, almost becoming moon like in nature. Eerily, ghostly creating a silhouette of a tree, beckoning from behind, taunting me to gaze its way, to record its image. Black and white overtake the scene, with landscapes of blue across the black, shimmering water above the horizon. My mind retreats from the dominating eagles, of which I do not have the necessary equipment to capture their grace and beauty. I am lost in the morning struggle between day and what appears to be night as the light changes. The air still cool, yet threatening to warm, not willing to relinquish its grip on a February day.
I went for a short solo hike today. It is already February. After finishing off the R2R2R last November, I’ve allowed my body the opportunity to de-condition from regular running. Truly, I did need my left foot to have some time off from the running as I had jammed my big toe a few times in autumn, exacerbating a Hallux Rigidus condition that has developed over the past few years. I’ve spent more time in the yoga studio, focusing on getting stronger, attempting to develop some upper body strength and playing with more and more inversions.
Every year, I lay out some goals for my physical body, but this year I have needed more time to sort out what they might be. My massage therapy business has kept me quite busy over the past five months and the days and weeks begin to meld. I’ll do some trail running this year, but it will be as a way to build strength to move quickly through high mountains. My soul missed nights spent in the wilderness last year, and the slower deliberate pace feeds my very soul.
My wife, Pam, and one of my backpacking partners has expressed an interest to venture forth on the tread of the Colorado Trail once again. We’re starting with bi-weekly hikes to see how her arthritic knee will handle time afoot and afield. We’ve cleaned up some messy eating habits and feel good with the effects on our bodies. Now in our fifties, we cannot get away with bad habits regarding physical and nutritional health as we thought we once could many years ago. I have a client, a wonderful woman who has told me “Getting older is hard work. Getting older is not for sissies!”
I have many clients in my practice, spanning the ages of 11 to 85, various demographics, interests, professions and lifestyles. In the past year, I’ve had four people who have been battling cancer. All four are in their fifties. One, in particular, is facing a tough battle. Making this more challenging is that this person was a friend before they were a client. This friend has been there when we’ve had to bury another friend. And that just makes this tougher; this is a friend who has been a rock for me over the years, a person who brings about tremendous peace in me, tremendous honesty and tremendous reckoning in my soul.
The previous fall, when I was questioning whether I’d attempt to run back and forth across the Grand Canyon, I thought about the future. I don’t know my own future; I don’t know what the end point of my future is. And with that, I said, screw it, I’m going across the Grand Canyon and back, I’m not putting this off.
Last July, when I was logging long miles running, I had a notion to run on part of the Colorado Trail and meet a wonderful gentleman whom I had never met in person. We had met through a Colorado Trail Facebook group and had exchanged some messages. I saw he was going to be on a section of trail south of Bailey, where I was planning on running that day. I caught David Fanning just a few miles into my run in the Lost Creek Wilderness. Upon introducing myself we laughed and traded stories. It was great to finally meet each other in person. David has through hiked the Colorado Trail four years in succession, written a book about the people on the trail and is a wealth of knowledge regarding this wonderful span of nearly 500 miles. I told David that I have been “section hiking” the trail for a few years, knocking out 250 miles and completing the Collegiate Loop. I’ve not been in a hurry to complete the whole trail and told David that “I have the rest of my life to complete it.”
He looked at me, adorned by his trademark “tilly” hat, tilted it to one side ever so slightly and replied, “Maybe.”
His retort has stuck with me since then. Maybe I do have the rest of my life to knock out the remaining part of the CT in sections over years. But, perhaps, I may not. I can’t tell the future, but I can make some plans. Thus, I’ve decided that this year I will hop back on the trail at Monarch Pass and walk the remaining 230 miles or so to Durango. It will take me through the peak part of the trail, the San Juan mountains. I’ll hit it sometime in summer, hopefully meeting other trail souls along its path. I plan to hop off and hitchhike to Lake City and spend a night there. I’ll likely do the same in Silverton, the details I’ve not yet laid out. But, having done enough longer treks and long days it will all be fine.
There will be many other nights afield as well this year. I’ve always wanted to do a month’s worth of nights in the out of doors. Maintaining a business, where I am the sole massage therapist, with no paid vacation, makes that a little tough. But I think this is a good year to carry out this idea. Pam and my backpacking pal, J Rubble, will be looking to log some good miles on the CT. I have a nephew who is planning on coming here next September for an archery elk hunt. My 22-year-old son Ben, with whom I’ve had some great backpack trips, wants to get back at it. We have another father/son duo that we’ve done a trip with. It would be a good time to do that again.
What I love about time afoot on trail and field is that it sparks my thoughts for ink on paper. I started a new journal this year. It is 400 pages. So far, in five weeks or so, I’ve filled over 50. While this journal is not “ultralight” it will go in my pack. It will contain all of my being for 2018. From its pages will come the stories of my year, for trips where I will not have access to a device to quickly log thoughts at the end of a day hike.
I look forward to what this year will bring. I look forward to nights alone looking at stars and I look just as forward to nights spent under stars with friends. There will be days of sunshine and splendor. There will be days of rain, wind and even snow. It will all be good. I know time spent away in the mountains creates a renewal of spiritual riches. It makes coming back to community and friends a great experience and renews daydreams of time spent away. Let not waste a day nor an hour, let not waste a sunrise or sunset, let not waste an opportunity to tell one that they are loved.
I’m up early every weekday. On Fridays, I hit a regular yoga class with other early yoga birds that begins at 5:45. Today, as I move about on my mat and check in with hips, knees and ankles, it feels especially warm and humid in the room. I gave up trying to figure out the degrees of heat and percentage of humidity for each type of yoga class. “Just show up and embrace what happens” is the mantra I try to maintain. Yet, I decide to take a drink and go fill my water bottle to the rim.
As we venture into the sixty minute class, it becomes a journey of valleys and peaks due to my internal thermostat wanting to go haywire. I set an intention to pick which postures I will fully embrace and then recover, finding savasana in the midst of another posture. For me, I need to be able to draw upon savasana at any moment, during any aspect of my life, capturing a few seconds may suffice to get a grasp on a situation.
Opting out of going “full on” represents some growth in my practice as I choose not to feel compelled to dive into each posture, risking poor form and potential injury. I suppose that some years of practice and hundreds of classes has taught me where “not to go”.
I check in with my breathing, attempting to gain some control. My focus gently on the mirrors in front of me, I gain a peripheral perspective of the other students around me, this group of dedicated yogis that I see on a weekly basis, some of which I know by name, others I recognize by sight while some may be here for their inaugural session. I sense grace in movement transpiring around me. Flying squirrels, handstands and figure 4’s surround me as I stand in a passive posture, absorbing the grandeur of a class coming together in the practice of yoga.
In my early days of practicing, well over a decade ago, I would fall into the trap of being self-conscious and ultimately distracted by others around me. I struggled with my practice and my lack of strength. I marveled at the more experienced practitioners. I learned to focus through the chaos in my mind. My focal point became my “hara”, the energetic spot in the vicinity of the navel. I would look in the mirror and hone in on that spot like a laser. It worked and was effective, allowing me to be unaffected by those around me in the room. However, as time passed, I had a revelation that I could not look myself in the eye while facing the mirror. Meeting my eyes, I would begin to teeter, losing focus. I felt this had more to do with my emotional self than my physical self. This…was beginning to feel like deeper exploration of self.
In time, working from standing bow, I discovered the courage to truly kick into my hand, lengthen through my outstretched arm, arc my back through the spine, roll my shoulder open and allow the anterior aspect of my spine to open, looking forward and over my head past those critical eyes envisioning my foot coming from behind my head toward the ceiling.
I embraced the vulnerability and risked my emotional self to explore a new dimension. Standing on my left leg, at times I feel the harmonious length through my hamstring and the yoga magic happens, for a few seconds, once in a very great while, I experience the yoga high.
Today, back in this room as I practice, I am overheating and a little dizzy. I recognize that if I move into my standing bow, tipping forward like a teapot, I may very well become a falling, fainting spectacle. Wisely, I opt out of the posture, again admiring my classmates without judgement, finding such admiration for these early morning yogis. I’m honored to share this space with them, to be here, with this group of people, connected in a quiet, silent energy.
By conserving my resources I discover I can challenge myself in other postures. The class collectively moves into a prayer twist, we’ll be here for a few seconds, allowing for a little “play time”. I move beyond the posture into familiar side crow, and for the first time I extend a leg, taking a leap of faith, I gently counterbalance the extended leg by shifting my weight forward, imagining my ten fingertips creating impressions in my mat, which is now my only point of contact to Mother Earth and I feel an intricate point of balance. I have now moved toward a scissor side crow.
At home I re-created the movement.
Here in this room, with 52 years of experience moving through space as a human, my brain sends an impulse through efferent (motor) neurons to my spinal cord, diverting off to the sciatic nerve and then to a smaller nerve to fire the Gluteus Medius muscle which abducts my hip and pulls it off my bottom leg. Simultaneously, signals transmit via the femoral nerve to the Rectus Femoris, one of the four quadriceps muscles, so that my knee will extend and my leg will straighten. My body has done something new, it has never before been in this position! I am elated to have moved into a new space in my body this morning. ♦
The class moves toward its end. I have experienced valleys and seen the mountain top this morning. I am wrung out, perspiring profusely even after showering. My whole body has flushed this morning; emotionally, spiritually, physically.
I reflect that the greatest gift of the morning was when I gave myself permission to pause at standing bow, gaze from the mountain top and absorb the soft view of my classmates in their amazing practice. From this, I gathered strength for the day. Namaste.
♦ Physiological references derived from the text Trail Guide to Movement – Building the Body in Motion by Andrew Biel
My last day and I wake early and waste no time in hitting the trail. I’m not exactly sure how many miles it will be until I am out to the car today. My recollection of the initial part of today’s trail is one of difficult downhill with a strong chance of blowdowns. I’ve only been on this trail once a few years ago, but I remember it being a bit of a grind.
Before long I pass the camp of the two gals I met late yesterday afternoon. There is an empty hammock but it seems too early for them to be up and about. There is also a tent and it makes me wonder if the tree sleeper got cold or timid during the night and elected to move into the tent with her friend.
The trail is indeed steep downhill for the first few miles but then levels out and I don’t remember this part from my previous journey here. I run into a gentleman that is hiking in to meet a friend. He tells me that he and his friend spend a lot of time every year doing trail maintenance around the state. Last year his friend cleared over 40 dead trees off the section that I just came through! I’m reminded of how much volunteers do for our trails and wilderness areas. I thank him for the work that he does and make a note that I need to get involved in such projects; either organized with a group of just with a friend on weekends throughout the year. It’s a great way to get outdoors, do some camping and take care of trails that need work.
I’m soon on very familiar terrain at the Colorado Trail again. This is the trailhead for the beginning of Segment 4 and I anticipate that I will begin running into some backpackers. This also begins an uphill stretch of just over 1,000’ over the next 4.5 miles. I’ve been on this stretch of trail more times than I can count in my head whether it was a day hike, multi-day backpack trip or trail run. I’m motivated as I move up the old wide road anticipating beautiful aspen forests.
I re-enter the Lost Creek Wilderness proper and bump into a group of three weekend backpackers. I plan to stop where the Payne Creek Trail heads north off the CT and have breakfast there. I arrive around 9:00 and partake of nutrients with two guys and dogs that are doing a two night loop. They have come off the Payne Creek trail and have not yet decided on a loop. I pull out my map and we take a look at it as I offer suggestions for potential loops. I make sure that they know about the tricky signage farther along the trail and in a bit I bid them adieu and make my way northwest.
I’m looking forward to this last stretch of trail. I have about nine more miles back to the car and I only know a small portion of this trail having hiked it with Pam a few years back. The tread is in great shape and I make good time. I’ve got some sore calves but I feel pretty good considering I’ve covered over 70 miles in the last three and a half days. Eventually I come to a low point in the valley and Craig Creek. It’s a pretty beautiful spot and the three backpackers I had seen earlier are looking for a camping spot. They’ll have a full day to relax and fish. Great for them!
Climbing out of Craig Creek, the breeze is strong but not so much that I would classify it as windy. The trail moves upward, the sky is bright blue with patchy white clouds. It is mid June and the world is alive here! Wildflowers are emerging in earnest, perhaps the greatest number I’ve seen in a concentrated area yet this year. Summer, officially a few days away on the calendar, is making its presence known in this part of the Platte River Mountains. I stop frequently to snap photos of this palette that broadens out in front of me. Butterflies flit about everywhere. Tiger Swallowtails dominate the scene, big, bold, yellow and airy as they ride the breezes landing upon flower after flower. I chase after them time and time again attempting to capture them on film.
Authors note: I must confess that this scene plays back in my mind as I write this in December. I have been obstreperous over the past six months, running wildly throughout Colorado, hiking, running, hunting, touring and having a wonderful time. Penning the last day of this trip had fallen off my radar, but now as Iook over my excursions of 2017 this few hour period finishing off this trip was one of the very best highlights of the year.
Backpacking in Colorado can be a fickle mistress. The season is relatively short, especially if you want to be in the high country. Much of that time can be spent dodging storms or drying out gear. One can get sucked into the trap that it’s all butterflies and meadows, stargazing while cowboy camping with no need for a tent. I’ve chatted with a friend about this and if you read the outdoors magazines you can be caught off guard once you arrive in the backcountry and experience it firsthand.
But on that day it was just like one envisions it to be. It is what calls to me now as I daydream looking out my window behind the keyboard of a laptop, thinking about trips for 2018 and nights spent afield. The few challenging days spent afield are wiped from my mental hard drive when I think back to finishing out this fourth day.
As I make my way up this trail I have now slowed down to the appropriate pace for observing nature. I am like a toddler, distracted by all that is amazing to me. A butterfly here, a flower growing out of a rock there, the colors are vibrant, more amazing than any colorwheel I have seen in art classes. I move into a magnificent aspen grove that moves from a draw, fed by a stream up and over the ridge of the mountain. I yearn to spend a night or two right here, to set camp, to wander aimlessly from ridge to ridge, aspen grove to deep timber, and back to another aspen grove. What treasures lie here? What is there to discover? How many come through this trail and how many venture off of it to find what lies in the deeper forest and timber? These questions are ones that force me to make mental notes, bookmarking this area in my mind as one that I need to come back to in the future. Much more exploration is necessary and I desire to learn the lay of this land, close enough from the trailhead that one can arrive here in a quick morning but far enough away that there won’t be much company.
I crest the top of the trail and enter the north side of the mountain, now moving into dark timber and making my way farther north. The trail becomes rockier, rather steep and trickier to navigate. I begin to run into people making their way south. They inquire about where I’ve come from and ask “how much farther to the aspen groves?” I try to give an accurate answer, but I’m never sure whether I’m much help with that or not. Groups travel much slower than individuals, much less gaining elevation on a rocky trail. I default to the “Romanian Answer”, trying to be as helpful as possible, offering hope, but knowing they are really on their own after I leave them.
I make my way easily back to the trailhead where I’ve left the car. Over four days I’ve not encountered a single drop of rain. This has been a great trip. I’m happy about the loop through this vast US Wilderness area, and excited that I have yet to visit every trail here, prompting reason to return and bring friends along.
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.
Pam and I drive past Western State College in Gunnison, my first time here, and make the right hand turn on Highway 135 toward Crested Butte. Cruising into town with Mt. Crested Butte off to our right, I look at Pam and say, “What the hell was I thinking? There is no way out of this place but up!”
Of course I knew this. When I signed up for the Grand Traverse 40 mile mountain trail running race a few months ago I saw that the first 17 miles were largely uphill; with miles 10-17 gaining altitude from 9300’ to 12,340’. Yet, on paper it always seems benign compared to literal feet on the ground. In total the race had about 7,000’ in elevation gain. For 20 miles from 15 to 35 it would never dip below 11,000’. It was a classic mountain trail running race. In the previous two years I had run four half marathon trail races and have done a large amount of backpacking. This year I have had eyes on running R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. My friend Mahting felt the Grand Traverse would be a good prep run for R2R2R.
The alarm starts singing at 4:20 am. The race starts at 6:00. As per my usual training I forego eating before the race. The glycogen stores are full. Eating now will just create digestive issues later. I have two cups of coffee and we’re off to Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Along with Pam, are Mahting and his wife, Erika. Mahting suffered a foot issue a few weeks back so he is here as good friend and giver of race advice. He has finished various ultras and a 50 miler last year. It pains him to not be running today. Along with Erika, we have had some training runs together in the weeks before this.
There are a few things I wrestled with regarding equipment in the past week. Largely which shoes to wear, bringing along trekking poles and using a headlamp at the start. The sky is brightening and I don’t want to bring the headlamp for just the first 20 minutes or so. My three cohorts tell me it’s foolish to risk a fall and not using it. I go with the headlamp. I also opt for the trekking poles even though the majority of folks do not have them. I want something to help me keep pace on the steep climb to Star Pass. I go with an old set of shoes that already have 450 miles of wear on them and have a newer cushier pair in a drop bag at an aid station 23.5 miles into the race.
6:00 comes and the race is off. It is slightly downhill the first mile before turning into single track as we wind our way through aspen forest. I’m forced into a pace. Hundreds of runners line out and I have no choice but to follow. I feel like I am on a elementary school trip and we are in a line “indian file” jogging through the forest.
I’m not used to running in a line with so many people as 95% of my trail ventures have been solo this year. We’re maybe four or five miles into the race and I’m trying to watch the roots, rocks and things that might trip me up. We come along a slight downhill bend and I see barbed wire on the right edge of the trail. I think to myself, “Don’t fall on that” and immediately I am on the ground! Thankfully, I fall straight on the trail and I bounce up immediately knowing people are right behind me. I am dirty, cut up but have mostly just hurt my pride. From behind I hear “You’ve gotten your fall out of the way early, you’re good to go”.
The first aid station is at mile 9.5 and I’m slightly alarmed. The pace has been faster than I want, mainly because we’ve been on some forest service road and also because everybody is running really fast in my opinion. I have a pretty good idea of what kind of average pace I can maintain for the race. According to last year’s results it would have meant about 35th place overall. But I was running way faster than that pace and there were well over a hundred people in front of me, probably more. One of two things was happening. Either a lot of people were going to blow up, or because there were almost twice the entrants from the year before, there was greater depth to the field.
Mahting’s sage advice to me, which was also repeated by Erika numerous times was that in the early parts I needed to A) go slow and B) eat a lot. I cover the first 9 miles in about 1:36 and change, translating to a 10:43 pace. This is way too fast for this early considering how much elevation needs to be ascended. I’m slightly panicked but fill up my water, move some things in my pack and move on. The aid station has broken up the single file action and after just a short while I need to step off the trail anyway. Even with not eating before the race and usual morning rituals, there is some rumbling in my gut. Nature calls. I spend what I feel is too much time resolving this issue but am much better in the digestive area when I get back on the trail.
I finally put the trekking poles to use with the steeper trail ahead. For a while it is a mix between short jogs and power hiking. I begin leap frogging with a few runners and one is a young lady in a tutu. I remember seeing her in the first few miles. As she comes by me I say “I’m nicknaming you ‘The Bishop’. Think about that for a few hours and let me know when you figure it out.” Nothing like some older guy throwing riddles about in the midst of a high altitude endurance event. (After the race I saw her again and she had to ask her parents what I meant. She was overthinking it!)
The trail is now really steep and it is pure hiking at this point, with the exception of one person coming behind. A woman on the shorter side, light in weight and my age or a little better is actually jogging up the mountain toward the aid station and Star Pass. She goes by me and I never see her again the rest of the race. She is impressive!
I reach Star Pass, 17.5 miles into the race. This is what I consider my first of three phases of the race for me. I arrive here about 15 minutes later than I had hoped. But I’m happy to be here and at the highest point of the race. I strap my trekking poles to my pack, finished with them for the day. The first bit of downhill off the pass is still not easy. The trail is very rocky and it’s a shuffle going down. But now I’m mentally preparing for what I feel will be the hardest part of the race; undulating terrain for 17 more miles all between 11,000-12,300’. In fact we’ll hit 12,300’ two more times during this stretch.
I now begin to pull people back. My strength is the long haul. I’ve sacrificed all speed in my training for endurance, the ability to diesel along for many hours at a time. This is where a life of being an endurance athlete reaps benefits. I’ve ridden long miles on bikes, and covered long miles with a backpack. Now, I only need to keep moving forward, with a relatively light pack on my back.
The next aid station is at mile 23.5 and I’ve been contemplating whether I will change out my shoes and socks. Earlier on there were numerous creek crossings, with two of them in shin deep water. The wet terrain was now largely behind. When I get to the aid station I decide to switch out my shoes and socks; for no other reason than to have a few more minutes to sit down. I’ve now been gone for over five hours and it’s all becoming a blur. By placing a “drop bag” of things I might need, I am able to don the new footwear, leave my poles here and get rid of some other items like my headlamp and a base layer that I know I won’t need because the weather is absolutely perfect. I keep the rain shell in my bag just in case and finally get out of the aid station, probably having spent too much time here. I grab a handful of potato chips from the food table and power hike up the remaining bit to Taylor Pass.
Things have really stretched out now with the participants. I can see just a few people ahead of me and the vistas are long. Where is everybody? I climb the pass with two others and we begin a “shuffle” down the other side. I am with a guy and a girl, the guy commenting that his stomach is in a bad way. I leave them behind and have two men in front of me for the next five miles. They are only a few minutes ahead of me most of the way until we arrive at the next aid station at 28.5 miles. They get in and out ahead of me and a younger guy arrives just before I leave, as I had passed him a mile or so before. I wolf down half a dozen slices of watermelon before departing and this is the best tasting thing I’ve had all day. My fuel has consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the first five hours and now I’ve switched to stroop waffles and gels.
A half mile out of this aid station I realize that I have foregone hourly stretching during the race. I stop, doing some horse stretches, deep squats and twist my lower back while opening my shoulders. This feels soooooo good. When I begin running again I feel anew! On a rocky downhill section my legs feel really stable and I motor by one of the two men that had been just in front of me for the previous six miles or so.
The other of the two is ahead of me on a long climb shortly thereafter and he and I link up with about nine miles to go. I spend more time with him than anybody else all day. Before the race I had looked at the registrants and the majority of runners were younger than me. I roughly figured that I was probably one of the 20 oldest in a race of 226 registrants. This is slightly unusual because in the world of ultrarunning there are more and more people over 50 running these longer distances. My new friend John tells me about a young lady of probably 20 or so that he saw vomiting after about 15 miles. “Those of us that are older tend to do better in these ultras. We’ve experienced a lot of “suck” in our lives. So this doesn’t seem that bad”, he says.
Interestingly I had thought about this a few miles before catching John. I was far enough into the race to make an evaluation on the effort required to finish. My assessment was that while it was challenging it was not the hardest thing I had ever done physically. When compared with emotional challenges I have had in my life, it was a piece of cake. It was mainly about patience, good sense, proper fueling and perseverance. I had coined my own mantra for the day. JKM, or Just Keep Moving. As long as I moved in a forward motion it would eventually be over.
John and I worked well together and with about six miles to go a number of people popped into view. Most of them were walking and none of them looked well. There was one sitting just off the trail, head in his hands. A kid of about 19 was walking and not having a good time of it. I could now “smell the barn” and began to jog up a slight hill. I passed two more guys, one of which was holding his hip and visually limping along. All of this motivated me as I picked up the pace.
Since I’ve been a teenager I’ve always been a racer. And I’ve learned over the years how to become a good finisher. I found a true stride for the first time in 34 miles and opened up the throttle. I flew into the last aid station with one thing in mind, Coca-Cola. The gentleman at the aid station exclaimed, “It’s a 35 mile warm up and a 5 mile race”. I drank some coke, filled my 500ml bottle with the same and set off flying down the mountain. The final five miles dropped 3200’ zig zagging on single track down the Aspen ski hills. The first mile after the aid station was through dark timber, on soft peat trail. Emotion began to well up inside of me as I began sobbing thinking about my son, Ben, my wife, Pam, Mahting, Erika and a host of others that had been more intimately involved in helping me prepare for this race.
I began to catch people all the way down the mountain as I ebbed in and out of this crazy emotion that would rise in my throat and then subside. Finally with a mile to go, I was caught by a young man and I followed him in to the finish. I saw Pam holding her phone for a picture as I crossed the line. I stumbled for a bit and then fell on the grass, fairly exhausted but feeling more emotion than I have in any other endurance event I’ve ever done. The race did require an intense amount of concentration and it was a relief to relax. In the end I was correct in the fact that the field held an incredible amount of depth. I ended up being 90th across the line. The same finishing time a year before would have yielded 34th place. I remain in awe of how fast people can move across high mountains on a trail run. It is a testament to the high level of fitness people maintain. In short, it’s just pretty damn cool to be a part of it.
- Notes on my training plan in the months leading up to the event for those that find that interesting.
Having been an endurance athlete most of my life, I have experience about how my body works. However, it has taken three years to adapt to being a runner from having been a lifelong cyclist. About ten years ago I began practicing yoga, but never maintained the practice during summer months. Last November I took yoga up again and have maintained the practice all summer for the first time in my life. Yoga played a huge part in me finishing this race.
I ran throughout the spring building an aerobic base, running maybe 2-3 times a week. In mid June I did a four day backpack trip then took one week completely off before more specific training for this race. I used a very rough plan over 13 weeks to prepare for this race, mostly in 2-3 week blocks and largely going off perception of how my body felt. I do not use a heart rate monitor while running but go by perceived rate of exertion. I did this race wholly “by feel” as my Garmin watch battery won’t last for nearly ten hours. I tracked my race using the Strava app on my phone which I looked at periodically throughout the race.
My totals and averages of activity over the 13 weeks leading up to the race and including the race were as follows. I ran three days a week only four times during the 13 weeks. I consumed roughly 225-250 calories per hour during the whole of the event. I ate one last gel with 5.5 miles to go and finished it out on Coca-Cola. I never came close to bonking.
- 312 miles of total running
- 24 miles per week average running
- 2 runs per week average
- My highest week was 36.8 miles of running three weeks out from the race
- My longest run was also that week and was 28 miles and just under 7 hours
- 167 miles of total hiking
- 12.84 miles per week average hiking (this is a bit skewed b/c the backpack trip was 84 miles in four days) which was week 2 of the 13 weeks
- 35 days of yoga
- Average of 2.7 days a week of yoga
- Link to Strava Data