Wednesday, February 26, 2014

RUNNING THE GRAND CANYON

Sue took this about 30 mins after I left
As most of you know I intend to run the R2R (Grand Canyon North Rim to South Rim) in October. The goal is simple however the preparation and planning is a little more complicated. The number
one way to train for something like this is to run on equivalent terrain or what is known as specifity training. The obvious flaw in this particular statement is that there is only one Grand Canyon and finding an equivalent training ground is virtually impossible. Therefore as I live in Europe I had only one option which was go to the Big GC and do a practice run there ... and that is exactly what I did.

6:30 am
Sue and I spent a few days in Monument Valley in Utah, another fabulous, mystical place, before going on to the Grand Canyon in Colorado. For those who have never been it is impossible to describe, it is quite simply 'Awesome' and I mean that in the truest sense of the word.
I decided that I would run down to Indian Gardens and back. This is about 2/3rds down from the South Rim and a steep gradient of 3500 feet. There and back its about 17k. The trail guides say this should take between 6-9 hours ... but I was going to run it of course. I thought this would be a good initial test to see what is involved, the R2R is 2.5 times longer and about twice the elevation.
        I didn't sleep well the night before probably due to jet lag and nervous anticipation. There are so many warnings about entering the Canyon and even a book called 'Death in the Canyon' (which to date has recorded over 700 deaths) and so by the time I was ready to go I was absolutely terrified!
I had breakfast at 5:30 am at the Lodge (this is America folks) and just before sunrise I set off into the unknown. It was very cold with ice and snow on the trail making it a little tricky. I really didn't know
The trail
what to expect because it is so unique so I just ran it my normal way. I did prepare as if it was an ultra and took 2.5 litres of water, gels and all the usual stuff that I would take on the R2R itself. As I always say to my clients you should train for an event exactly as you would do it on the day.
       Its very, very steep but the trail was wide enough not too panic too much about going over the edge so I went quite fast ... and of course within 15 minutes my face was in the dirt. I hit a rock, fell and cracked my knee open, not a good start. It was very bloody but otherwise okay and for the rest of the day hikers would comment on it and ask if I was alright. I would of course shrug and act as if it was just a scratch. I didn't slow down after this I just focused more. About half way down I began to get a little concerned about how tough it would be coming back up but pressed on marvelling at all
the beauty around me. It is breath-taking as you descend through millions of years of erosion resulting in giant, vividly coloured rock faces. It makes you feel very small and insignificant, 'We are stardust', I thought to myself.

Awesome
       I zipped along the switchbacks and as I passed 3 female hikers, one shouted out; 'You sure know how to intimidate a girl!' I laughed and continued down whilst trying not to get too over-confident (which apparently I am prone to do). I could now see Indian Gardens way in the distance on the valley floor below and though it looked really close, it wasn't. This is also something that happens in the canyon, its very deceptive. As my quads ached a little at this point, understandable as they weren't used to this sort of treatment and constant pounding, I eased back. I drank and ate as I would do for any long event, as I hadn't carb loaded (because carb loading is bullshit), trust me. I passed a few hikers coming back up and soon I could here voices, which was weird as I thought I was in the middle of nowhere but I actually I had arrived at Indian Gardens which is an extremely basic campground with about 20 trees for shade and more importantly a water tap. There were a few tents and people were slowly waking up and chatting about there adventures, it was quite surreal and very rock and roll. At this point I stripped of my woolly hat and two layers of clothing, filled up my bottles and got ready for the big climb back to the top, it looked somewhat daunting; 3500 feet straight up!
I'd gone from freezing to quite warm, even though it was only February but they do warn you about this. It was only a few more k's to the river and though tempted I kept my discipline as I had never climbed out of the Grand Canyon before and figured I should respect its magnitude.
I took off really quick though as the first few yards are easier and flatter; consequently I nearly ran straight into a wild deer - scared the hell out of me.
Mule train
I used my poles to power hike and then ran when I could. Within half an hour I passed the hikers I'd seen earlier who were going back up. This filled me with confidence as one shouted 'Tell me you haven't just gone to the Gardens and back?' ... 'Yep', I replied with feigned nonchalance. I have to say I felt very strong and really kept up a good pace which surprised me as I have had quite a few injuries of late and was worried about a relapse. After about half an hour I encountered a mule train coming down and so I stood to one side to let it pass (Canyon etiquette). The lead rider shouted 'Howdy, have a great day'. Brilliant, I was loving this and tough as it was I just kept powering onwards and upwards, it is relentless but you just stay focused and keep going. I just felt very grateful the whole time, it is a stunning place. Within about 500 feet from the top I started to tire a little and my thoughts floated off to how I might feel in October after maybe 7 or 8 hours of this. As I reached the trail head on the South rim the sun suddenly hit me as fortunately I had been in shade nearly whole way up, I felt fantastic. The guides say 6-9 hours, I had done it in 3.5 hours including my change around at the bottom.  I looked back across the canyon to the North Rim ... roll on October.

    Technical facts

Distance - 17 k, Elevation - 3500 feet, Water consumption only 1.5 litres including electrolytes, 2 gels, 1 shot blocks, 3 S-caps(not really necessary), 1 cliff bar. My gear was 2 running vests plus a cold weather running top, woolly hat, neckerchief, gloves, camel back, side bottle, telescopic poles, rolled up rain top, compression socks, Cascadia 8's shoes, phone (didn't work- no signal), torch, whistle.

Done
 Final thoughts

I could easily have run a lot further though I doubt faster, my quads and hamstrings ached a bit but the big surprise was that I ached in my hip flexors which I don't normally get; guess I have to stretch even more than I do already. The weather, though cold, was perfect. I realise that the compounding effects of going Rim to Rim will require me to be in superb shape and I will need to run a lot more severe gradients in training. The biggest danger I can see is that if you twist or break something you are in deep trouble. My friend Gemma asked me if I'd figured out an exit strategy if something goes wrong ... apart from a $10,000 helicopter rescue I don't actually have an answer. This is what makes it so dangerous, there is very little room for error if you want to run it in one go. It was an invaluable experience and I learned a lot, preparation is everything and come October I will be ready.


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