Monday, April 25, 2016

Rim to Rim to Rim - April 2, 2016

"Let's go a little further," I yelled up to Greg, "I see a lake; let's check it out and we can turn around there. It's cooler when runs and workouts are defined around natural borders." It seemed fitting, too. It was my first time in Arizona and a big goal of the trip was to tackle the infamous Rim to Rim to Rim run. It is 48.8miles worth of trails with about 10,800ft of elevation and some of the most jaw-dropping views you can place upon your eyes. Greg and I booked our flights a while back and extended the invite out to a couple others. That was for tomorrow, though... right now we were about at our turnaround point for the 12mile shake out run on the Arizona Trail.

Races and runs that are defined by natural borders or occurrences always seem to move me a little more. The coolest thing about running the Boston Marathon is starting way out in the suburbs and then getting into the city and realizing how cool it was to actually run in-to the city from so far away (yes, I know, the distance is a set 26.2 miles but what I mean is that it isn't a course looped around itself or doubled back just to squeeze extra distance in... you start in Hopkington and run to Boston... it's the coolest).

The Rim to Rim to Rim is defined by starting at one rim of the Grand Canyon, running to the opposite rim, and then running back. (Yes, in case you were wondering, there are plenty of signs along the way warning of how dumb this idea is...) We drank a few beers the night before, laughed a little about "why we do this", and before you know it I was standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with three others as the sun's beams welcomed us into what turned out to be one of the most memorable days of my life.

The cast:
Greg; training for a 24hour race around a one-mile track to qualify for the 24hr USA Men's Ultra Team.
Rivers; Elite endurance athlete, coach, all round heart-warming, genuine, naturally funny, and awesome dude. Greg and I met Rivers while on the Iron Cowboy's journey to 50-50-50 and stayed in contact since.
Drew; Rivers had met Drew during the Iron Cowboy adventure, too. Small world! Drew was training for a sub-2:30 marathon in a few months...
The only person we were missing was the Iron Cowboy himself... which came up multiple times during the day.

So, if you are wondering what kind of business I had being amongst these people, that makes two of us. I had neither the speed of Rivers and Drew, nor a fraction of the endurance Greg has been stockpiling in his cardiovascular system the past year or so. Greg had finished the Ghost Train 100 back in October when I pushed the eject button and yelled "no mas" after 75miles. I had rolled my ankle (again) pretty badly in this 100miler attempt and it hasn't been the same quite since. I took the whole month of January off from running, February I had logged about 20miles per week, March had averaged 40miles/week. But there I stood, April 2nd... ready to run.

I had no idea if I could finish this run - but I knew I was going to
. Greg is one of the best training  partners (let alone, friends) a guy could ask for and no doubt he would have carried me out of the canyon on his shoulders despite me outweighing him by about 40lbs if he had to. Spoiler alert: He damn near did.

We rallied at 2:30am for breakfast, picked Rivers up, met up with Drew (who had also flown in to AZ the same night and was running on no sleep; we found him reclined in his rental car catching Z's in a McDonalds parking lot), we dropped a car off and packed our supplies for the day. Best case scenario we would be about the for 11hrs... worst case was... well... I don't know actually, we didn't talk about that much but I was guessing 16hrs was the lower limit of our abilities depending on what the Canyon actually threw at us.

The Gear:
I was rocking my Orange Mudd double barrel pack and a hand-held. This thing is so money. It carried all my calories for the day, extra clothes, sunscreen, my phone, and yes, a couple nips of Fireball should we ever need it. Check out their stuff here if you need a pack.

I wore Altra - The One 2.5. These are not trial shoes at all. Super minimalist. Very little cushioning. Typically a road racing shoe. I like them a lot tho. They are the only shoe I can "feel" the trail on. Call me crazy but the low stack height is the only way I seem to keep my ankles aligned properly and not sideways over rocks and such. I react to the trail a lot better with less shoe.

I started a regimen of Tranzend about a month beforehand which was one of the best things I had going for me. This stuff not only helped with the semi-swollen ankle but also is huge on overall stress management in the body.

The bottles were filled with Tailwind Green Tea Buzz. Aside from that necessity- I will eat just about anything. And I did. I think around 9,000 calories total for the day.

The Scene:
There we stood with a few other hikers, a lone tree, the sun, and four smiles ear to ear. The descent along the switchbacks is like nothing I have ever run before. Gravity takes a hold of you and all you really do is stear your hips where you want them to go. Then you hope for the best. A mistep could mean anything from another rolled ankle, to actually rolling down the Canyon. We joked about what our last thoughts would be as we tumbled down to imminent death (yes, if you haven't noticed by now we are definitely a strange bunch of people/thoughts). I said mine would probably be something like the sound Mario makes when he is really small and gets eaten by a mushroom or Koopa hit him with spitting fireballs. Greg said he would be pumped to get the FKT down the trail and to make sure that someone sent his Garmin data in.

We caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River around mile 7 and then checked into the Phantom Ranch shortly after. 1hr 30min had passed but for the first time I can remember in my life, time stood still. It was just a non-factor. It was simply not a thought. It was, however, time to refill bottles, eat a bit, and change some clothes. It was 38 degrees Farenheight when we left the cars. The forecast said it supposed to get up about 80 in the Canyon throughout the day. And it did.

The next 9 miles or so are gradually uphill. But the kind of uphill you don't realize because you are spending all of your extra energy taking in the scenery, telling stories, laughing at jokes, quoting movies, singing, and wondering what is around the next corner. We were running at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was absolutely spectacular and again, another 2hrs had passed unknowingly and we had gained about 1,000ft since Phantom Ranch. Another bottle refill and we were off...

We got to the North Rim in about 5hrs45min total time. 23(ish) miles in and we were back up the 551 flights of stairs we descended earlier. It was 11:30 in the morning but I can't say enough about the feeling of time being non-existant. The only thing I really knew was that I was exactly where I needed to be at that moment in my life. I ate my PB&J sandwich, Greg threw a few snowballs, Drew howled at the wolf waiting for us at the North Rim, and Rivers sat in the big pile of snow with his burrito... We posed for some selfies and got our legs moving again. The pipes were all still winterized so there was no way to refill bottles at the top. Bummer.

Back down we went. The trail was filling up a with a bit more people so we stopped to chat a couple times. Some hikers, some runners, some campers - everyone had a story and it was pretty awesome. People curiously questioned what paths we took - if we were doing 3 rims, when we started, what we were eating, etc. It was fun to chat but we were making great timing and needed to keep moving. around mile 30 we were able ot stop and refill bottle. I took the liberty of taking a dip in the river. My legs were feeling it by this point. Not killing me terribly but after the pounding of the two steep descents and an epic number of switchbacks - I was feeling it.

Little did I know what the next 7 miles back to Phantom Ranch were going to entail. This was by far my favorite part of the day (Consequently, it was the same part of the day that probably roasted me toward the latter climb back to the South Rim). Call me Achilles but I was going to down in flames happily. About a mile after we refilled on the descent, the trail flattens out a bit... The same "sneaky ascent" I mentioned previously comes full circle and the trail turns into a slight downhill but not drastically noticable over the distance. The chatter, stories, and jokes stopped and I am sure that all of us fell into step tacitly. There was this magical rhythm that just overtook us. I didn't know it at the time but what I was experiencing was "flow". I can't speak for any of the other guys but their silence seemed to say it all.

Rivers led us out and he picked up the pace very gradually. He is a sub-2:20 marathoner, he's trained and raced with the best runners. He is also a family man, lives life with a smile plastered on his face, and goes where the wind takes him; he's also funny as all hell. I look up to the guy on more than one aspect of life. So when he started opening up a little gap along this section I had to ride the wave. I stayed on his heels and it seemed like he took my close proximity footsteps as a sign to push it harder. I was  a frog in boiling water. We ripped the next 6-7miles in less than an hour and along the straight sections we were no doubt around 6:30-7min/pace. I don't recall much of this section except how glorious it was to be running with friends at this other-worldly venue. These moments in anyone's running career are un-plannable and indescribable. Truly, a runner's high.

We checked back into Phantom Ranch 9hrs and 30min after the start (again, I only know these times by following the GPS data after all was said and done). 38miles, 10 to go, and they were all uphill. It was just now that I realized the error in my ways of trying to keep up with Rivs. I hadn't eaten or drank anything in the past hour or so. Not by choice. The miles to come were going to hurt.

Our way back up, we chose to take the Bright Angle trail. We wanted the extra shade and we also would likely never do this again so we had to see both trails... (What's an extra few miles at this point anyways?).

Well, it turned out to be about 3.5hrs of shuffling, skipping, sometimes running, but mostly fighting the urge to put the two nips of Fireball down the hatch and call for a helicopter evac. We had to battle sand running, big steps, little kids, people with cameras, and the imminent (but alas gorgeous sunset) over the last 10miles (we somehow lost Rivers and Drew to a bathroom break at the last check in... we thought they were up ahead, they thought we were behind... neither of those things were true. We doubled back and waited a bit; they moved forward a little further and waited for us a bit...).

It was fitting that Greg and I shared the last 10miles together though. I knew in Greg's heart of hearts he wanted to pin this run sub-12hrs and for a while I thought if I shuffled along we could do it but as we went on I was limited mostly to a 12-15min pace on the "flats" and hiking the steeps. Any time my heart rate rose above 140-145ish my head got dizzy and I felt faint. Greg ushered me along like a champion though. I told him to keep going knowing that he would have none of it even as the potential for the sub-12hr R2R2R slipped out of reach. I was so hungry - but couldn't eat.

Any endurance athlete knows this feeling and it is sort of an unwritten rule that the subject can't be held accountable for much of what he/she says and does at this point. Well, I pushed that rule a bit. Greg was forced to deal with my hangriness (noun. unwarranted feeling of anger toward anything and everything due to pure hunger) for longer than anyone should (maybe I was secretly being a douche of a friend in hopes he would ditch me and make up time to hit his sub-12 goal?). Either way, I watched in disgust as he cheerfully offered to take pictures for strangers who I equally wanted to push off the trail. He still found time to offer me water and tell me I was doing well as I ran for 30seconds and then walked to get my heart rate down. He almost pried the pack off my back to carry it for me - but I wouldn't allow that. I still found the energy to demand he "stop belittling me" and tell him he was being a jerk for sticking with me... It didn't phase Greg one bit though - he just kept on about "how awesome it was we get to spend a little more time here." It was the same "runner's bond" that brought me to drive almost 2hrs at 1:30 in the morning to deliver him pizza as he set the FKT along the MA Mid State trail.

When we got to about a mile or two to go I shaped up and got my shit together. We trotted to the finished line. I know at the time Greg wanted to punch me in the face but we decided upon a hug. The struggle was epic but the day was surreal... Rivers and Drew came up about 10minutes behind us and we laughed at how we managed to get lost on a single track trail...

Toward the end of the ride home Greg asked what the distance was from the North Rim to the top of Mt. Humphrey's (which we could see from the North Rim). Our best guess we came up with was about 90-100miles. I knew exactly what he was thinking I didn't have the mental capacity to verbalize it yet, though. It was a great run... but definitely had it's ups and downs.

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