Mountain Dave’s ‘Grand’ Experience

8 11 2007

Written by F4 trail runner, Dave Butler

And then there was one……..

October 31, 2007

When I started running in July 2005, I had modest goals: lose some weight, get out a little more, get in better shape.  I had lost my way a bit in life, losing some focus of the important “stuff.”  I’d just gone through 14 difficult months – emotionally, physically, mentally – after my Dad had passed away from cancer in May 2004.  Other than that, I had no huge complaints.  I had a wonderful lady at my side.  We had just moved into a new place in a fantastically vibrant North Boulder neighborhood 3 blocks from trail access.  There were great neighbors everywhere.  I had a good job, though too far from home for a reasonable daily commute.  Then I started trail running utilizing the close proximity to the beauty of the Foothills to regain focus and reground myself.  I was never good with patience, but I knew I would need to commit to the long haul (literally and figuratively) for this trail running thing to work out.  Patience, not one of my stronger suits.


So, it was with great amazement that less than a week ago I found myself at the Grand Canyon, in the parking lot of the South Kaibab (SK) Trail at 2am on Friday, October 26, 2007 under a full moon.  40 degrees or so, no wind to speak of, starry-bright sky – perfection.  Standing there with 2 former co-workers, Kirk and Chris, we were about to set out on all our first R3 attempts.  We had water and a varied assortment of runner’s nutrition and energy products with fun names like GU, shot blocks and Clif Bars.  If successful, we would cover about 45 miles each.  We would descend over 10,000’ total; and more daunting was the fact that we would ascend about the same.  I figured we were looking at somewhere between 12 and 18 hours.  But how would I know?  I’d never done anything quite like this before.  The longest run I’d been on was about 5 – 6 hours, though I’d been on 10 – 12-hour day hikes before.  I’d been over 12- & 13,000’ mountain passes and 14,000’ peaks.  And I had just finished 2 12-day stints in Oklahoma for work in a little over a month’s time; I figured I was on my feet for upwards of 12 hours most of those days.  All those places were/are familiar – I knew what to expect; friends, peers, coaches had brought me through all those experiences – slow and methodical.  That should prepare me, right? 


Kirk and I started running around the same time, and he’s developed into a phenomenally talented runner taking full advantage of some incredible natural abilities.  Chris has been running a bit longer and is the beneficiary of good genes (his Dad was an ultrarunner) and a recent finisher of the Bulldog 50K Ultra in Malibu, CA.  Me, sure I’d done 20+ miles a few times.  I had done a couple back-to-back 15+ mile training runs over the last couple months tacking on 30+ miles in a weekend.  I had fooled around with hydration and nutrition and pace and breaks during these training runs, but no watches or monitors.  A techno-gadget guy I am not.  More stuff to concern myself with – I have trouble enough with hydration and nutrition.


So there I was, 650 miles from the familiar surroundings of Boulder and its hinterland.  After some encouraging words from Veener, my wife, (e.g. – “Good luck, be careful, way to go!!!!” and “You guys are nuts, but enjoy – I’m going back to bed.”), we were close to departure.  The Grand Canyon.  Unbelievable.  And here I was, ready to “run” it (or at least cross it, on foot, within a fairly short time frame.)  The full moon was out, lighting up everything around.  The mules were restless from these human intruders disturbing their rest.  Oh, the mules – never will one forget that smell.  After a few pictures, we were off, down the SK Trail.  The steepness of the SK Trail was about what I’d expected.  The distance of the steps however, was unfamiliar and disturbing – they were built for mules.  Too long for 1 human step, too short for 2 full steps.  I developed a foreign stutter step that made it difficult to establish a rhythm.  As downhills have always been comfortable for me, I was already using a little more energy than I’d hoped.  Oh well, enjoy the place.  Few eyes greet this great abyss under such circumstances.  We played with our headlamps – clicking them on and off to conserve the batteries as well as absorb the moonlight naturally.  We were able to enjoy several sections with no artificial light polluting our paths.  Chris scared some deer or sheep off the trail a bit above the Black Bridge.  By about 3:30 or so, we were approaching and crossing the Black Bridge over the mighty Colorado River.  I stopped mid-span to soak it all in.  Looking downstream, the moon seemed to have perfectly centered itself over the river just for us – lighting up the walls and the river – casting its light for all to see.  Well, for all those who were awake and here at that point in time.  Not too many I figured.  We watered up at the Phantom Ranch campground and continued on our way.  We only saw one person stirring at Phantom Ranch.  Ahhhhhhhhh, solitude, I could get used to this.


MMMMmmmmmmm…………….   Bacon…   3:45 am, the Ranch-hands are up and cooking as we swing by another mule barn.  It took a lot out of me not to stop, introduce myself, and join them for breakfast.  I could always continue later, right?  But, onward-forward; on to the flattest section of the trail we went between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood, slowly rolling, ascending and descending gradually, along Bright Angel Creek on the North Kaibab Trail.  2 more folks were passed in the Cottonwood area – brief pleasantries were exchanged as we all continued on our respective ways.  Soon, the Canyon reasserts its magnitude – immensely high walls giving way to no person and seemingly nothing at all, although water will always have its way, given enough time.  Almost 2 billion years of geology and history has been exposed through here.  Absolutely remarkable when you realize who you are.  Though in the moment, we are small creatures, insecure and inadequate in size and significance.  We are now at the mercy of everything: a turned ankle or a faulty step; an errant rock or agitated wild beast; fatigue and faulty nerves.  The enormity of this whole venture hit me as Kirk muscled on ahead and Chris and I were taking it easy.  I was getting tired – probably haven’t been drinking or eating enough I thought.  We stopped for some strange semblance of breakfast – some GU and shot blocks, some Accelerade-laced water.  Almost gourmet here in the Canyon.  I’ll save dessert for later – my sport jelly beans.  It was now about 5am or so.  On we go. 


Chris now moved out, easily, in front of me.  In the high distance, Kirk flashed his light – progress.  Venus was higher above us still, but the angle was such that it looked like it was sitting on top of one of the cliffs – it felt like Venus was closer to the North Rim than I was.  Perhaps it was?  I kept moving.  But for the first time, I felt uneasy.  I was enjoying the solitude now, but my legs started talking to me – and not in a pleasant tone.  I kept going, pushing and exerting more and more energy.  Definitely not eating or drinking enough – I popped 2 more electrolyte tablets and a couple of shot blocks.  We were well past Cottonwood so I figured we “only” had about 4-5 miles left to the top of the North Rim.  What’s 4-5 miles when you’ve already done 16+?  And it was getting light out – sunrise.  I was able to permanently douse my lights; at least until my return, if it lasted past sunset.  That was definitely a possibility considering my physical state.  Plus, I knew our two cohorts, Linda and Travis were probably on top, close to the start of their North-to-South R2 attempts.  When the Canyon bests me, they will at least be by soon to push me the final few miles.  And Johnny O (hubby of Linda) was waiting at the top with his bum hip, selflessly acting as our savior and willing aid station volunteer, radio and camera in hand, cooler in trunk, bananas and precious real food waiting for consumption.  Only a matter of time before I arrived there.  But the cramps, oh the cramps.  Calves, quads – 2 important muscles to get UP (and down).  Ouch.  They started controlling me now. 


My breaks became more frequent, stretching took the place of looking around absorbing the views, the geology, the beauty.  Who’s that up above?  Am I about to pass someone?  A lone hiker, apparently down for a view of the sunrise a few miles down.  His words: “If you’re with those 2 you all are doing pretty darn OK.  I’ll definitely lose this race uphill.”  Ahhhhhhhh, the always welcome mental boost.  Onward, forward – there’s Travis coming on down – fresh and vibrant.  He hands me Chris’ radio, we talk for about 2 or 3 minutes.  I watch him bomb downhill and over the bridge.  I yell out a hoot and a cheer – progress.  Soon thereafter, here’s Linda.  Same exchange – pleasant and uplifting.  She tells me I’m almost at Supai Tunnel which will mark 2 miles to go – on the first half of my trip.  I can do this.  Or not.  My walking has become increasingly labored and I’m swinging my legs out to get up some of the steeper stairs in the interest of not encouraging my calf cramps – they won’t take no for an answer.  Three more very healthy-looking, light-traveling R3-er’s are now heading down my way.  I find out later they’re in from Idaho, though I swore I recognized two of them from the Boulder area – the mind games continue.  And there is the Supai Tunnel – 2 miles left.  I swear the last 2 miles have taken the better part of 2 hours.  It’s a touch past 7am.  I look up to the lighter shades of the shales and sandstones of the North Rim – still have to move through an entire geologic period; I hope it doesn’t last that long….. or perhaps I do.  Some sections flatten out – I run for 10 yards here, 20 yards there – on the downhills and flats.  No chance on the uphills – back to “power” hiking.  Not here, it’s turned into a survival walk.  The human contact has increased and the temperature has decreased as I near the top.  Just keep moving I tell myself, though I realize I haven’t been in the mood to eat since well below the Supai Tunnel.  But I notice the trail widen as the flora changes ever-so-slightly.  What’s that sound???  A truck.  I’m near a road.  The North Rim parking lot and entry road?  Oh, has civilization ever sounded better?  I think not.  And suddenly, a trailhead sign, an entrance sign, a port-a-potty, and a familiar face – Johnny O. 


And I’m done, for today.  It’s about 8:40am.  I decide to call it good at a successful R2.  I’ve made it 21 miles, down about 4,700 vertical feet, then up almost 5,700 vertical feet.  I’m cramped and cold.  I am only able to stretch about 3 or 4 minutes until I start shivering.  I take to the warm confines of John’s car.  Kirk arrived around 8am and also decided to call it a day; he was crashed in the front seat.  Chris arrived at about 8:20.  As I got in the back seat next to Chris, he had a banana in one hand, Gatorade in the other, he was recharging his Garmin battery, and had a look on his face that I could not fathom nor comprehend at that moment in time.  Without saying a word, he told me he was heading back out to complete his R3.  At about 9am, he re-entered the sometimes friendly, sometimes ominous, always Grand environs of the Grand Canyon via the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail once more – this time reversing everything he’d done over the previous 7 hours.  John then drove off with 2 very tired, but safe, R2 finishers, on our way back to the South Rim 200+ miles away by vehicle (10 miles as the crow flies).  And oh, what a ride. 


We arrived back by about 2:00 or so, I ate some – limped around a bit trying to loosen up.  And there in the South Rim parking lot were those 3 R3-ers from Idaho looking rather chipper considering what they’d just done – their first half.  We exchanged some gleeful banter (they thought I’d turned around and finished already – that was a momentary ego boost).  I ‘fessed up on my successful R2/unsuccessful R3 and they offered some positive words of encouragement for me to keep in mind when I decide to try this divine madness again.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the ladies that we took the Sag Wagon back, Veener had already headed down the Bright Angel Trail to bring me back up the last few miles.  The first couple water stops on the trail had been turned off, and being the sensible one she is, had already headed back up.  I bumped into her around ½ – ¾ mile down the trail and she did a double-take and couldn’t quite figure how I’d passed her.  I was too mentally drained to perpetuate the joke, so I came clean with my one-way-only-journey and we proceeded back up to the top of the South Rim.  I watched The Idaho R3’ers head out and back down the Bright Angel Trail on the second half of their journey – they were making it look easy.  Back to our group, I will let Chris fill in his own details of the hours between 9am and 5:30pm, but, as John and I stood on the South Rim, we successfully greeted Travis at about 5pm and at about 5:15 or 5:20, Chris came into view.  Gone were his running tights, replaced by shorts (the Canyon floor reached about 90 degrees that afternoon), and a yellow shirt and hat.  A successful R3 was had.  Linda successfully came in around 8:45 that night as John hiked down to meet her soon after Chris’ triumphant re-entrance to the South Rim at 5:30 or so.  All safe, all tired, all sore, all successful.  As far as the R3, and then there was one…………  congrats Chris!


What went through my head on top the North Rim?  I’m pretty sure I could have made it back down the North Rim.  I may have made it back to Cottonwood Campground.  There was a slight possibility of actually walking back into Phantom Ranch.  But then there’s this climb back up the Bright Angel Trail – another 9 or 10 miles covering about 4,300 vertical feet to get back atop the South Rim.  That was not happening.  The thing is – all those parts are a package deal; if any part of that is not a sure thing (nothing truly is down there), or there is more doubt than realistic confidence, you don’t go back.  Period.  The Canyon is a beautiful and unforgiving place.  If you’re lucky, it will chew you up and spit you out on your own 2 feet with all (most) mental capacity still intact.  If you’re unlucky, the Rangers or Search and Rescue will find you and you spend an unhappy night at a campground somewhere.  There’s no reason to venture beyond the limits of the former.  The employees and volunteers who assist, rescue, or worse – recover – those who were unprepared or simply unlucky, have a hard enough job.  It is each individual’s duty to ensure those good people don’t have to assist or rescue you.  But to push your own limits, within reasonable boundaries, is fine – just stay in regimented control as long as you can.  Oh, by the way, I will be making another R3 attempt next year.  And next time, I’ll almost know what to expect, having been there before.  But anything goes in the Canyon and one must be prepared.  Happy Trails!




One response

13 11 2007

what an adventure Dave!

Scott says he’ll introduce you to me at one of the F4 runs.

a rim-to-rim GC outing is on my todo list!!

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