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A continuing story of Rich and Steve's Grand (canyon) Adventure.

Anyone who loves the Grand Canyon enough to take on its challenges also learns to respect, and at times, even fear it. I say that because respecting the Grand Canyon may help you accomplish a Rim to Rim to Rim hike in under 24 hours, but fearing it just may help you survive a Rim to Rim to Rim hike in under 24 hours.

Of course you can hike to the North Rim and back without a self imposed time limit of 24 hours, but I was introduced to the idea of hiking the Grand Canyon, rim to rim to rim, as an unofficial event called the Death March. In order to have completed the Death March, you had to hike from one rim to the other and back in under 24 hours. If you take 24 hours and 2 minutes, you didn't do the Death March, you simply went hiking in the Grand Canyon for "2 days". This is number three in a series of Death Marches that my best friend, Steve Tackett, and I have done in an effort to, well, for the lack of a better word, "Conquer" the Grand Canyon.

As I sit here trying to think of a more appropriate word than "conquer" it dons on me that conquer may very well be the correct word; only it's not the Grand Canyon we're actually trying to conquer, but ourselves. After all, how do conquer the Grand Canyon? Is anyone's ego really that big? That's like saying I conquered outer space because I managed to jump out of an airplane, open my parachute, and land, without breaking an ankle.

No, you can no more conquer the Grand Canyon, than you can conquer the oceans or outer space; the best you can do in any of these regions is to prepare yourself as best you can, both physically and mentally, then get your stuff together and start moving. If you did everything (or just enough) right, you'll live to write about.

A Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim crossing consists of 48 miles of ankle breaking trail, that has 26,100 feet of elevation change, in temperatures that vary from freezing cold on the rims to triple digit heat on the canyon floor. Water may or may not be available at key locations along the trail and to our surprise, dust storms in the Grand Canyon come straight from hell, and do their best to take you home with them.

All in all, if you did your homework, developed a doable plan, and have a rabbit's foot that brings you more luck than it brought the rabbit, you'll leave the South Rim, travel down to the Colorado River, continue up to the North Rim and be back to the South Rim again within 24 hours.

If you're not fortunate enough to have done the above, it'll take you something more than 24 hours to get out of the canyon, as you trip, stumble, and curse your way up the trail. I expect your legs could be quivering a little and your vision blurred, so don't be surprised when an occasional misstep lands you in a puddle of mule piss, which areleft by the pack trains that carry tourists to and from Phantom Ranch. You can expect to be moving at a snail's pace during which time your stomach will feel like a cross between something that will never eat again and something that's trying to eat itself. But that doesn't mater anyway, because even if you were offered something to eat, you would likely just say something smart like, "No thanks, I'm okay. I just need a to stand here a minute (in this little puddle) and I'll be fine."

Of course you'll be fine, and a lovely shade of pale ash too, and your muscle spasms, chills, hot flashes, and cramps will go well with your clammy skin and headache. Not to mention how occasional, yet unprecedented, releases of "natural" gas will make the mule piss, your standing in smell like perfume.

For those who would like an alternative to sacrificing their entire body to the canyon, as described in the above scenario, you can always pay for a helicopter to fly you out, which will only cost you an arm and a leg.

Note:

Before I go any further, if you just dropped in on this page without reading about our first two triple rim crossings, you can either go back to: Rich & Steve's Grand Canyon Adventures and start at the beginning, or you're welcome to continue on with this episode. My suggestion is to start at the beginning, but then I hiked the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim twice before I learned how to do it without killing myself, so why should you be any more patient than I am?

 

With our gear packed and repacked for the final time, moleskin strategically placed upon a couple toes, and both ankles taped for stability, we set the alarm for 2:00 A.M. If we fall asleep within the next hour or so, it'll give us a good 5 hours sleep before we spend the next 20 hours hiking up, down, back and forth across the Grand Canyon.

As I lay there, waiting for sleep to take hold, I kept wondering if I packed enough Endurox, food and miscellaneous stuff, or if I packed too much Endurox, food and miscellaneous stuff. Between those thoughts I was reminding myself that Sunday is Mother's Day and no matter how tired, beat and battered I was after getting out of the canyon, I can't forget to call mom. I also had to wonder how smart it was to tell Kathie I was going to run the San Diego Marathon with her on June 3rd, just 3 short weeks after I completed (or hoped to complete) a 48 mile Grand Canyon day hike.

With all this rushing around in my head I was sure I'd never get to sleep and would be starting a 20 hour hike with little or no sleep the night before. Somewhere between all this thinking and wondering I fell sound asleep, waking up on my own, fifteen minutes before the alarm sounded. I took this as a good omen. Of course, I did drink a quart of water just before I went to bed, which may have had something to do with my eagerness to get out of bed in the middle of the night, but I still preferred to see it simply as a good omen.

 

It's 3 A.M. and we're making fast tracks down the Bright Angle Trail. Our goal is anything under 20 hours, but Steve and I had briefly discussed how, if all went well, there was no reason we couldn't be back in 18 hours - maybe less.

And why shouldn't all go well? We're more experienced and in better shape than either of our first two crossings. We have crackers, noodles, jelly beans, jerky, Endurox, Balance drink and Balance bars to eat. We have S-Caps to make up for sodium loss, caffeine pills for a boost, and both Aspirin and Advil for those things that go bump in the night. All we need to do is pace ourselves correctly and we should be on a record breaking hike.

The temperature was cool and comfortable at 2:45 in the morning as we left the lodge on the way to the trailhead. Thankful not to be freezing, we also knew this meant it could be hot as Hades coming back across the canyon floor later that afternoon. Steve's two sons, Jim and David, drove us from the lodge to the trailhead where, Steve's older son, Jim snapped a "before" picture of us at the trailhead. The picture was taken as we stood behind a sign we later learned was painted with a (very) reflective paint.

Last year the boys met us on the return leg of our trip, at Indian Gardens, with a thermos of hot chicken soup. I can't begin to tell you how much we appreciated that chicken soup, but I think the boys knew, because this year they brought two new and larger thermoses.

With hugs and best wishes from the boys, Steve and I started down the trail. From the beginning, we kept some distance between us as we ran the the first leg of our trip down to Indian Gardens. We did this to avoid having to run through each other's trail dust (something we learned last year). We had decided to run, instead of scurry, down the trail this year. Not a fast run, but it was fast enough to reach Indian Gardens 15 minutes ahead of last year, or ahead of schedule as we put it. We picked up an additional 8 minutes on the way to Phantom Ranch, so this put us 23 minutes ahead of schedule. So far, so good.

Our next check point, after Phantom Ranch, was Cottonwood Camp where we picked up another 8 minutes, then Roaring Springs where we were somewhat disappointed to discover we had lost 11 of our, hard earned, minutes. On the way from Roaring Springs to the North Rim we lost another 14 minutes, putting us only 6 minutes ahead of last year. Too bad that unlike an automobile who's horsepower remains the same mile after mile, no matter how fast you drive it, we could see our downhill and flat stretch running had taken some power away from our uphill hiking.

Another interesting discovery, upon reaching the North Rim, was that the water had not yet been turned on at the water fountain. The official opening of the North Rim was that day, so we certainly expected water to be available. Steve was counting on it so much that as we neared the North Rim he poured out some of his water, just to make the last mile, or so, to the top a little . . . more pleasurable.

Fortunately for us, we met a group of hikers on the North Rim who had a few extra bottles of water they graciously shared with us. Their plan was to hike down the trail the following day and were there checking out the trailhead - a very lucky break for us indeed.

Unfortunately for us, all this took up some more of our valuable time and the unforgiving clock was still ticking, so after filling up with a sufficient amount of water and saying thank you, about a hundred times, we headed back down the North Kaibab Trail toward Roaring Springs.

Feeling great about having water to drink and going downhill again, we picked up a few minutes of our lost time on the way back to Roaring Springs, arriving 22 minutes ahead of schedule. Now it was time to pull out our secrete weapon - Top Ramen. On the way up the trail we had split a pack of Top Ramen into a couple of baggies, added water and stashed them into the hillside behind some the rocks. During our trip to the North Rim and back it had been hydrating, so upon our return to Roaring Springs our lunch was waiting for us.

Well known for being an almost weightless packet, Top Ramen, with a little water, turns into a big bowl of noodles, with high sodium, fat, carbs and calories -making it a standard for many backpackers. Only when you're stomach is already kind of sensitive from fast packing up and down the Grand Canyon, we discovered it can be a bit spicy. After a bite or two, Steve decided it was more than a bit spicy and completely uneatable. He decided to forgo lunch and keep moving. He said I should have no problem catching up, as he wasn't feeling all that well anyway and would be taking it slow and easy. This should have told us something in itself because, under normal circumstances, had I stopped for five or ten minutes to eat, while Steve kept moving, catching up to him again would have been a chore.

But with the memory of my own nauseous experience still fresh in my mind from last year's bonk, I was determined to eat my fill, so I wished Steve well and went about eating my noodles. By the way, I also found the Top Ramen to be way too spicy, so I flushed them out with fresh water a couple of times, removing most of the salt and spices (thus flavor) leaving me with a fairly bland, but very eatable meal of noodles ala carte.

Had Steve been there to see what I had done, and followed suit, he may have eaten some lunch too, but sometimes things just don't always work out the way we wished they would.

When I caught back up to Steve, I could see he wasn't looking the best I had ever seen him, but he seemed to be okay, so we kept moving. As we reached Cottonwood Camp our spirits were lifted once again as we realized we were now 40 minutes ahead of schedule. By the time we reached Phantom Ranch we were 55 minutes ahead and even gained 1 more minute between Phantom Ranch and Indian Gardens, putting us a total of 56 minutes ahead of last year's effort.

On the surface this sounds good, but let's look at it this way instead. It's only about 5 miles from Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens, a distance we covered in 3 hours. Yet on the northbound leg of our journey we went from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Camp, a distance of 7 miles in just 2 hours. So what do you think happened between Phantom Ranch and Indian Gardens that took so much time?

Well, last year we also took 3 hours to go the 5 miles from Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens because this is where I crashed, bonked and burned to the ground. This year it was Steve's turn to go horizontal. You'll get an inside look at bonking below, but for now just imagine yourself being totally sea sick and someone offering you a nice meal of sour milk and anchovies. That should give you some idea what my hiking buddy looked like.

If you ever have the opportunity to live through one of these (most uncomfortable) experiences, just sit down in a safe place, and stay there until you can eat and drink again. If you puke it up, don't worry about it, just sit there until you can do it again because until you can eat something, you're running on empty and aren't going anywhere. Let me rephrase that. You can keep going, but if you do, you're no longer living on the edge - you're going down the other side.

With Steve eventually on his feet and moving again, we had still managed to reach Indian Gardens almost an hour ahead of last year. With only 4 miles to go, one might think we should have made it back to the South Rim at least an hour sooner than last year, but remember me mentioning the sand storm from hell?

Between Indian Gardens and the South Rim we were caught in a most amazing sand storm. With steady winds of 20 to 30 miles an hour and gusts of 40 plus, our visibility, and ability, to follow the trail was nil. To assure you we aren't overestimating the wind speed, Steve is a licensed hot air balloon pilot and I'm a licensed sky diver, two sports that require a fairly good ability to judge wind speed. This stuff was blowing and blowing hard.

An interesting thing about being caught in a sand storm like this at night, is not only did it limit our visibility by filling the air around us with flying particles - making us squint our eyes into little slits, but all the sand and dust in the air absorbed so much light from our headlamps that they barely illuminated our feet. Seeing 2 feet beyond our own 2 feet was out of the question.

The problem with having such limited visibility on this section of the Bright Angle Trail is it happens to be the steepest and most twisty/turning section of trail going up the South Rim. In other words, if you can't see the trail and therefore don't turn when the trail turns, you could find yourself hiking off the trail, heading downhill again . . . at a fall rate fast enough to open a parachute . . . if you had one.

The last four miles were slow going, but after 19 hours and 59 minutes of hiking, running, crashing and burning we were once again standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. After everybody hugged everybody, Jim took the "after" picture, of Steve and me standing behind the same (very) reflective sign that was in our "before" picture, then the boys drove us back to the lodge for a hard earned nights rest.

The next morning, before our drive back to Phoenix where I would catch a flight home to California, the four of us ate another great (big) breakfast at the El Tavar Hotel and swore we would never do this again.

But, I can't help but wonder: What if we analyzed all we've learned over the past three hikes and did it one more time. This time we could ease up on the running a little, saving more energy for the long uphills and carve our rest breaks and eating time into stone. Call me crazy, but if we hiked smarter instead of faster, maybe we could, just once, finish a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim hike in better condition than ever before. Well, it's something to think about anyway.

 

Even though this was our third Rim to Rim to Rim hike, our overall ultra distance experience has been very limited. Steve and I have both done a lot of hiking, but we haven't been involved in many organized events where we could learn from more experienced athletes. Steve participated in the 50K leg of the Crown King Scramble in Arizona a couple of times which provided some valuable experience, but in another way that comparison was partially responsible for our undoing this year. Our error was in comparing Steve's 32 mile Crown King Scramble too closely to our 48 mile Grand Canyon hike. I guess this was symptomatic of our inexperience.

Having completed the Crown King Scramble's 32 miles in 7.5 hours, Steve had an average of 4.2 miles an hour. One may think that even if we slowed down to 3 miles an hour towards the end, we should be able to do an additional 16 miles in about 5 or 6 hours, for a total time of under 14 hours for the 48 miles. At face value, I agree completely.

Only let's do some math. Steve completed 32 miles in 7.5 hours, but was totally exhausted when he got there. This would make a 4.2 mile per hour pace unrealistic for a 48 mile event in the first place. In order to save some energy for the final 16 miles we would have to slow down during the first 32. Let's say, in order to conserve energy, we slowed the starting pace to an average of 3 miles per hour. At 3 miles per hour it would still only take 16 hours to complete the 48 miles . . . if we did everything right, didn't bonk and could maintain that pace for the entire 48 miles.

Now let's say we didn't do everything right or we simply over estimated our abilities and bonked for an hour at mile . . . 39. Even with my limited experience in ultra distance events, I know if you were averaging 3 miles per hour before you bonked and still had 9 miles to go (up the South Rim yet) you would be lucky to average 2 miles per hour after you got moving again, so now let's do the math one more time. The first 39 miles at 3 miles an hour equals 13 hours. Add in an additional hour for downtime during the bonk and we're at 14 hours. Now add on the 9 remaining miles at 2 miles an hour (4.5 hours) and we have a new finish time of 18.5 hours.

That is unless we couldn't quite average 2 miles an hour on the way back up the South Rim. To keep moving again (at a steady pace) after a bonk is almost impossible - especially when you have 5,000 feet of elevation gain to go. So, let's be a little more realistic and say all we could average on the way back up the South Rim was 1.5 miles per hour. Now we have a finish time of 20 hours, or in our case 19 hours and 59 minutes. (Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to do the math - after the fact?)

On our last trip, I marked down the time it took us to reach five key locations along our hike. This gave us an opportunity to check our progress along the way. Not that our only goal was to beat our prior time, but if we were moving more quickly between check points, we equated that with being in better shape and being better prepared, which was our goal. What we didn't count on was becoming obsessed with how much time we spent at each food cache, water stop and photo opportunity.

Unfortunately, when Steve started keeping a mental log of the time we spent at rest, we both became a little obsessed with our down-time, and it was the beginning of the end. We just didn't know it yet. Even when we were a full hour ahead of last years time, we couldn't shake the idea that we were wasting time and should keep moving.

At one point, when Steve told me our stops had already added up to forty minutes, we became even more convinced we were wasting too much time. From that point on we started to shave minutes off any and every stop we made. In no time at all we're cutting away at our down time by minutes. All it cost us was . . . about an hour and a half, maybe two, when Steve bonked on the way back up the South Rim . . . just like I did last year and right near the same place.

To say our haste was totally responsible for Steve's bonk wouldn't be totally correct, but I think you can see it's still the underlying cause. Technically, Steve bonked because he ran out of gas - the result of not eating enough during the first twenty or thirty miles of our hike. Part of that was the direct result of our inexperience at eating on the run, but it also had to do with our food choices. Not only did the Top Ramen not work out exactly as we expected, but because we had been training on the same foods that we took on our hike, we were tired of them already. This being the case, we just didn't have a taste for them anymore and didn't eat as soon, or as much, as we needed. Had we selected something new (but tried and true) to eat along the way, maybe we would have eaten more.

Unfortunately, there's just no better education available than the one offered at The School of Personal Experience, so this year you could say Steve and I graduated to a new level with the class of 2001. With 3 hikes behind us I guess this kind of puts us in the . . . 4th grade next year. Cool!

One thing for sure - the next time we do something like this, both of us will be placing eating ahead of clock watching.

Points to share:

Everything you do in an ultra adds up. If you wait too long to drink and eat, it'll catch up to you. Drink soon and drink often - Eat little bits continually along the way. Just like an automobile, the human body can't run on empty.

Listen to your partners. They can have a much better perspective on how you're doing than you may have yourself. If they offer you assistance don't think, "No, I'm fine". Instead think, "Yes" and "Thank You".

Read, Listen, and Learn . . . all you can about what the body goes through in an ultra event. Then pay special attention to all those things all the experts seem to agree on.

Listen and learn from everyone who has done what you're planning to do. The advice of someone who has been-there-and-done-that is priceless.

Yes, these are the exact same points I shared after last year's hike.

 

 

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