How it all came to be.
I was far from ready for Hardrock 2019 with about 2 months to go, but I knew I could still do a solid four week crunch that would kick my ass enough to get it done. So when this year’s race was cancelled in early June, about 7 weeks out, because of absolutely insane levels of snow and associated damage still on course so late in the season, there was inner conflict.
Common sense felt like it was a win. Kamikaze ultra instincts felt denied. And we still had a big trip locked in to Colorado, probably our last outing as a couple before baby makes three late in August or early in September.
So within about an hour of Hardrock cancelling, I signed up for Leadville 50-miler. It might be half as long but at least it would only be a few days after we landed so no time for altitude acclimation and plenty of time to feel like maladapted crap. Tahoe 100-miler would still be happening the same weekend as Hardrock had been scheduled for, but I feel like 100-milers should be a metaphor for life, and if life feels like an out and back maybe something’s missing.
Then, just half an hour after I signed up for Leadville, Tiffany – a friend from HOKA in the US who was going to crew me – messaged to say that she and a friend would be doing Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim on July 10 and ask if I wanted in. Briefly entertaining the idea of doing the 50-miler then travelling rapidly to Arizona to do the iconic Grand Canyon run, just for total carnage, it was a good thing that I spoke with my coach and friend Andy Dubois. Knowing my current (low) level of training he recommended focusing on the canyon run rather than turning up already cooked.
Fast forward to the days before this run/hike/crawl and Hailey and I were skirting the south rim of the canyon. Just a couple of tourists sleeping in a pretty deluxe van and taking in the sights, I knew the mission was foolhardy and likely to meet with objections from campsite operators. Even when the really nice dude running the RV park started to say how some people thought they could do the canyon in summer but usually over-estimated their own fitness and ended badly, I just said nothing.
At least I paid extra attention to a number of pages of Over The Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, a locally sold book detailing a century or more of literally fatal mistakes people have made adventuring in the Canyon.
Two obvious tips – don’t do anything in the Canyon in summer, and especially between 10am and 4pm. But surely we’d be mostly done by then…
The Big Adventure.
Hailey and I had checked into a nice hotel room near the jumping off point into the canyon. I’d had a short afternoon nap after sorting my gear because I expected the night to be a long one filled with hazards and unpredictable levels of fatigue. Tiffany and Nathanial, meanwhile, had worked through the day only arriving at about 9pm (HOKA is a magic brand to be part of and continues to explode on the basis of user evangelism, but the success of great ideas and great product is inextricably linked to a small global army busting their asses every day. Just saying.). They then prepared super quickly with our originally intended time of 10pm still in mind.
I’m not sure how your running goes at the end of an extended work day featuring 4-6 hours of driving but for me that’s usually a non-starter. Yet these two were ready to go in under a half hour. Respect.
Hailey drove us to the top of South Kaibab Trail and after some fun and photos and slightly anxious but mostly upbeat goodbyes the mission began.
The descent was steep and dusty. Tegyn Angel had warned me about this so it wasn’t too surprising, but visibility still went to hell at pace. Any cooling breeze was left behind pretty quickly. Expectation of seriously crusty snot rockets over the coming days was high. Did I mention it was dusty? We ditched our light jackets as we dropped lower where there was only the baked-in heat of the day glowing back at us from soil and rock.
The main recurring theme was how far Jim Walmsley would be across the Canyon by now, based on his record Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim. Unsurprisingly, by the time we were only just reaching the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the first descent, Virtual Jim was only 10 minutes from the North Rim, about 25km further on.
Here, Tiffany tapped out for the night. She had water and shelter in a populated space, and was just bone tired from working her ass off after a long day. It was probably the only sensible decision any of us made the whole trip. Kudos.
Nathanial and I rolled along, resorting just once to old school paper maps to work out where we were and how to get where we were heading. The climb was moderate and sustained with a number of water opportunities along the way. We hit the real climb on the north side early enough in the night to catch a spectacular and well-timed sunrise as we were about to top out. The hidden switchbacks felt like they’d never end but by this time we really didn’t care. The adventure was real, we’d made it halfway, and with every passing minute the expanding reach of the first light of day revealed more wonders in greater detail and more epic scope than we could really properly absorb.
Hilariously, one old-timer told us ‘600 feet of vertical elevation to go’ as we were climbing and he was waaaaay off. His advertised remaining climb estimate was so off anything feasible that everything for the rest of the day was measured in increments of 600. Spirits were high after a few fresh minutes on top of the north rim. Nathanial celebrated by falling asleep in a toilet block and then we were descending again, hopeful that a brief text message relaying our progress had reached Hailey back at home base and tucked up in bed.
More and more incredibly vast and extraordinary interlocking monoliths were revealing themselves with each passing moment as we rolled downhill. The colours and patterns on a massive scale and with wide variety across rock faces hundreds of metres tall were attention-grabbing enough. But these were woven over and through structures bigger than anything humanly achievable, with a randomness so total that it just felt unquestionably authentic. Every shift of the light and change in viewing angle presented new wonders to rival the pyramids for scale and audacity.
Just as the descent felt like it was starting to flatten out, Tiffany appeared. After much needed rest she’d resumed the voyage at first light. Back in a trio, we travelled quicker than we had at any time during the night. Nathanial runs bloody quickly when he wants to, with a semi-pro background in triathlon and years of serious training laying strong foundations for legitimate athletic pursuits. With him off the front, Tiffany in the middle and myself off the back we made steady progress.
And then at about 9am, some cosmic prankster opened a blast furnace. By 9:30 I felt cooked from the inside out. My stomach quit doing anything useful and even with legs that felt good, my internal energy systems just left the building. Reduced to a hike, I became the anchor in the trio. Encouraging the other two to take off rather than being chained to my pace I had no luck. They were sticking with me. Friendly bastards.
There was literally no elevation gain for about 9km. It was the downhill equivalent of douche grade. Not enough slope for gravity to help, and a gradual build up of heat that just meant anybody not really acclimated was going to have to be sparing with their physical resources. Meanwhile Nathanial and Tiffany, with plenty of time on feet in Texas and Arizona respectively, were smiling pleasantly and making it look easy enough that I really knew I was sucking completely.
After some decently elongated time had passed, we rolled back into Phantom Ranch with relief. Group mind had dreamt up a fantastical consumer oasis, with varieties of ginger beer, Coke and coffee for all. Instead there was Iced tea or lemon squash. Throw them together and it’s an Arnold Palmer, which is still not a ginger beer or a Coke. But there was ice! After sitting in the frosty rushing creek for some time, we loaded our hydration systems with ice and prepared for the final showdown on Bright Angel Trail and the climb that would deliver success or shameful front page news.
As we got ready to leave, a ranger had a quick chat with us and asked where we were heading. We told her ‘just back up to the south rim’, not mentioning that we’d already been going for about 14 hours, or that Walmsley would have been done in both directions about 8 hours ago, leaving time for a meal, a shower, a nap and cold beers, while we were still just 75% of the way to our ultimate goal.
She recommended against South Kaibab, the steeper but shorter way out. I was relieved, sort of, that we’d be going up Bright Angel, given that it seemed to be the classic R2R2R route. And of course I thought she was just trying to spook us when she said, “take care on Bright Angel then, the sand has been melting shoes today”.
Once we were across the Colorado River and beginning the climb to sweet sweet freedom, I realised she hadn’t been exaggerating. Exposed to bake in the sun all day, heavy soft sands radiated heat that was palpable halfway up the backs of my legs.
After some really fun geological touring together, this actually felt kind of serious. Nathanial and Tiffany wanted to stick with me but eventually the rope was cut and they moved off at their own cruising pace as I ground up the first of many switchbacks. Fortunately I’d brought an insulated bladder that meant the water I was sipping at was still cold, which brought some relief. Water exposed in the tube after the bladder quickly exceeded body temperature so I was blowing it back into the insulated reservoir, just to keep it cool.
I was dripping about a quarter of a litre at a time into my drink flask and mixing in a half sachet of Tailwind, balancing uncertainty about when the next water stop would be with a desire not to puke from drinking hot water while avoiding running out entirely.
It took me literally two kilometres to get through half a Spring gel packet, nibbling and trying not to throw up from a mix of heat exhaustion, low blood sugars, general nausea, and good old fashioned fatigue from being a donut-munching under-trained chubster.
A defining moment came when I chose to tramp through a few metres of mule piss and shit, rather than taking the foot-wide trail lip next to it and risk overbalancing and tumbling into the abyss to my right.
Looking across the canyon at where we’d come from, I tried to reckon which rock layer I was now level with, but all of my guesses were utterly inaccurate. Even the Garmin mocked me, showing 00:00 as my min/km pace, even though the feet were still moving, sort of.
After a sustained grind and low on energy and water I hit an algae-pocketed stream and lay down in its coolness. A ‘Good Work!’ message that Tiff and Nathanial had scrawled in nearby wet sand also buoyed my spirits.
Filtering some water and getting to my feet, the trudge resumed. Nathanial had been convinced into going on ahead and Tiffany – still in long pants and a long sleeved top, even in the middle-of-day sun – was waiting at the next water stop to see that I was ok.
Frank Fumich was playing in my head, saying that it was gonna get ugly but it was gonna get done. I dunno – it was already plenty ugly. The beautiful oases on Bright Angel Trail gave way to more open and drier terrain, as well as my favourite sign of the whole trip. An illustrated man, shirtless, sunburnt, on all fours and vomiting expressively, supported the message that Rim to River to Rim is a long way to hike in one day with an astonishing 1500m of climbing and you probably shouldn’t attempt it, especially in Summer.
Thanks, Vomiting Sunburnt Guy. Noted.
The rest of the climb was mostly what you’d expect – scenic, relentless, fatiguing. What you wouldn’t expect is for a mate to stick it out with you when their day could have been done hours sooner. Thanks so much Tiffany, you frickin’ rock.
There were moments in the middle of the day when I was focused on just getting back to Hailey and our imminent firstborn in one piece. The thought of them was part of what kept me going no matter how utterly basted I felt. Cloud cover late in the day partially erased the memory of how deep I’d had to dig to keep going just hours earlier, but a thermometer showing 100 Fahrenheit in the shade at 4pm was an objective reminder that it had been a savagely hot day.
Looking back across the vast labyrinth of rock and space stretching to the horizon, it was still hard but utterly exhilarating to try to comprehend what we’d all done over the preceding day.
So here’s a thing – if you’re looking for challenges, make it easier for yourself to have a hard time. Just go completely under-prepared and relatively unconditioned and do whatever distance you want in the middle of summer in the hottest place possible. That, or run naked in the Arctic. Just make sure that you’re doing something that good, well-informed friends have advised you is a bad, probably really dangerous and ill-conceived idea with a risk of serious consequences.
Once the final, final, final switchback of the day was completed, reunited with Hailey and the posse after staring into the red distance and mentally reviewing the events and journey of the preceding 19 hours, I tried to partake in a team beer. It was more symbolic than actually digestible.
What did we learn? Just the usual. Do things that scare you. Bite off more than you can chew and chew like crazy. Be bold. Be mostly prepared. Be grateful that you can have these epic natural experiences by choice. Friends rock, support crews absolutely kick ass, and whatever doesn’t kill you might just make for some cherished memories.