As I have said before about running in the Grand Canyon...it is my church, my holy place, and each time I go in there I feel like I am in complete bliss (through the highs and the lows...and because of them). The double crossing (or R2R2R) is like a pilgrimage that I have been very lucky to travel four times already. Hopefully there will be many more of these running 'meditations' in the canyon in my lifetime. But I can't control the future and more runs in the canyon or not, this last one was a good one.
I started the run at 5:15 am, hoping to beat the heat and also not have to run in the dark. I spent the 20 minutes or so before 5:15 getting my stuff together and waiting for enough light to see on the trail without a headlamp.
Once it was light enough, I was off immediately, running down the S. Kaibab taking care to not run to fast down this super steep trail to the river and trash my legs.
Keeping a moderate pace, I felt pretty darn good running down the S. Kaibab and cruised pretty comfortably down it's length. To add to the comfortable running, the temps were really nice as the sun didn't rise until after I made it down to Phantom Ranch saving the real heat for later.
People and animal sightings were minimal but enjoyable on the S. Kaibab. I only ran into 4 people on its' entire length. Very similar to my experience last year running R2R2R. A very quite trail. Just the sounds of my breath, my feet padding along the trail and the occasional bird chirping.
Oh yeah... the best animal sighting of the run happened just below 'tip off' on the S. Kaibab when I got to see a California Condor up close. It was just hanging out on a rock about 50 feet from me on the trail and didn't seem concerned about me at all. I slowed for a few minutes to soak in the special moment. These are some bad ass birds, and BIG. They can have up to a 9.5 foot wingspan and weigh 23 pounds!
I reached the river in 55 minutes, a touch faster than expected and 5 minutes faster than last year. I filled up on water quickly and was off again. I was feeling good and wanted to push pretty hard up the N. Kaibab to the North Rim and make sure to match or come in a few minutes under my North Rim split from last year.
As I ran through Phantom Ranch I was surprised to see lots of people milling about. It was barely 6 am and it might as well have been 10 am for all the chatter and action around camp.
This was the opposite experience from last year. I remember only seeing a couple people up as I went through a sleeping and silent camp last year. Maybe there were a lot of people heading to the rim that morning and they were getting early starts to beat the heat.
Once out of Phantom Ranch every thing went quite again. It was back to the sounds of my breathe, feet, birds...and a new sound, the roaring of Bright Angel Creek.
This now sound was one that I welcomed. I enjoy running the winding trail along this creek every time I run R2R2R. The powerful roar of the creek is very invigorating to me. It gets me fired up for the charge up the big climb to come later on the N. Kaibab.
After miles and miles of cruising along, feeling good and really enjoying myself I finally popped out of the inner canyon of Bright Angel Creek. I ran past Ribbon Falls, ran with some deer that didn't want to leave the path for quite a while (cool!), noticed many beautiful wild flowers, passed Cottonwood Campground (saw a bunch of people at Cottonwood unlike last year when Cottonwood was a ghost town) and reached the faucet near Roaring Springs in good time. I was, again, 5 minutes ahead of last years time as I got to the Roaring Springs faucet in 2:33. I filled up with water, again very quickly, and was off toward the North Rim feeling good.
The final 'climb' to the North Rim is always a tough one and this year it was more of the same. There is a fair bit of running to be had just below and just above the spectacular limestone layer (my favorite part of the N. Kaibab) but the rest of it is true power hiking for me with a few quick dashes here and there to help save time.
After the final sandy sections (seemed worse to me than in past years...) I quickly made my way through the fir and aspens to the North Rim Kiosk and N. Kaibab TH. I tagged the sign and immediately turned and made my way back down the N. Kaibab toward the river.
I came in, again, 5 minutes under last years time, reaching the North Rim Kiosk in 4:16. I still felt good and was psyched to be under last years time. Maybe, if every thing worked out, I would be able to keep it together enough to put a strong effort in going back up the S. Kaibab at the end (unlike last year when it took me a painful 2:45 to get back up the S. Kaibab).
Heading back down the N. Kaibab, I focused on a strong but comfortable pace and kept myself entertained by knocking down ornamental cairns along the way (just like last year but not nearly as many...I hate those things!).
To my surprise, I felt pretty good all the way down to Phantom Ranch although I was starting to feel the heat of the day. I had kept well hydrated and was taking in plenty of calories and electrolytes so I was hoping that the heat wouldn't bother my to much when I went for it on the final climb up the S. Kaibab.
I was still 5 minutes under last years pace (I was at the river again with a time of 6:45). Excited to see what I had, I filled up on water, guzzled some more right out of the faucet and was off.
Running across the bridge to the S. Kaibab, I was still hopeful to maybe make it under 9 hours if I could just squeeze in a 2 to 2:10ish hour ascent of the 4.500 ft/7.5 mile climb of the S. Kaibab.
Well, that did not happen...
A few minutes up the trail I started overheating pretty quickly and really had to slow down the pace. It was reaching noon and the thermometer at Phantom Ranch read 91 degrees. The temp was only going to climb for the next few hours so I knew it wasn't going to get any cooler until I got a few thousand feet out of the bottom of the canyon.
I resigned to being smart (it helps to have run in the canyon a lot...gives me a bit of respect for how dangerous it can be when it is hot in there) and pushed the pace only as hard as would keep me just below red lining.
In the end, I walked most of the lower 3/4 of the S. Kaibab, ran only a few flat spots and then when I was near the rim and started cooling back down went all out to the rim charging along the last long flat and final steep switchbacks to flat ground and the end.
I definitely felt way better near the rim but passing tourists felt otherwise as displayed by their startled looks and offerings of water and help as I passed them.
When I did finally reach the S. Rim I had most definitely not reached my goal of going under 9 hours. I just couldn't crank it out in that heat with my fatigue. I was flat out too hot and to tired to make a strong push up the S. Kaibab.
I did reach the S. Rim with a new PR of 9:26:46. Shaving 3 minutes off my previous best. Now, that was something to get excited about...if I had the energy.
Looking back...I think that if I had done this run a few weeks earlier, instead of the Zion Traverse, in better weather and more rested I may have been able to bust out a strong finish instead of falling apart at the end, yet again. But... then I wouldn't have been able to do the Zion Traverse (which was rad!!!) and doing both this spring was really, really awesome. So, I'll take the beat down and like it and look forward to doing it again next year and seeing what happens. I have dreams of someday being able to crank out a 2 hour ascent of the S. Kaibab at the end of a R2R2R effort... That will be the day I go under 9 hours. Well, looking back at my splits, I will need to be able to move a bit faster coming down the second half of the N. Kaibab too. It seems that I slow down a bit near the end every year. So, the goal would be to just be in better shape all around. All right.
In the end, PR or fall apart, under 9 hours or over 14 hours,...
...it's just another unbelievably awesome pilgrimage to my Mecca, the Grand Canyon.