In mid-February I started an 800-mile trek from Arches National Park to the western boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. I finished a day earlier than I anticipated, on Tuesday March 17th, and could think of few better things to do with an extra day at the Grand Canyon than running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, a classic 42-mile ultra run. (For more info on running RRR, I’d encourage you to read the article I wrote for BackpackingLight.com about it.)
I was hardly running on fresh legs. I’d averaged 26 miles a day for the previous 32 days, and the miles were generally very hard-won, with hundreds of miles of off-trail travel and numerous super-technical sections where averaging .5 mph could be considered fast. On my last day I had hiked an easy 14 miles to finish, but the four days prior to that had been especially difficult — I was hiking entirely off-trail, barely being able to squeeze in 20 miles/day despite solid 13-hour efforts; one day included 8 miles of Mahoosuc Notch-like terrain along the Sinyella Fault.
I borrowed a very small Mountainsmith waist pack from a long-distance hiking friend who works for the wildfire program at the Grand Canyon. It had held a 20-oz bottle, my ID and some TP, and about 8 oz of Powerade mix (which was the only drink mix I could find at the park store). I started down the South Kaibab trailhead carrying 2 zip-lock bags of Fig Newton’s in my hands, each with about 350 calories. I knew this was a sub-optimal situation but it’s what I could scrap together.
I was four switchbacks down the trail when the water bottle popped out of the sleeve, fell on a rock, and fractured. (I think it’s safe to assume that Mountainsmith did very little, if any, product testing here…) I drank what water I could salvage (about 10 oz) and kept running, not sure what I was going to do — it’s really not advisable to try to run 42 miles without a functional water bottle, though if anyone could do it, it may be a guy who just hiked 800 unsupported miles across the arid Colorado Plateau.
I hit the Colorado River in 1:01 and then ran through Phantom Ranch, where I was able to obtain a 32-oz disposable water bottle from the recycling bin. Crisis averted. Though with it being a substantially bigger bottle, it would not fit in the bottle sleeve and it therefore became a 2-lb arm weight when full. I reached Cottonwood CG in 2:26 and soon thereafter began the steeper portions of the North Kaibab Trail, many more of which I was able to run than when I first did RRR back in April 2008. I reached the North Rim in 4:06, slowed by a few minutes by the lingering snow patches above the Supai Tunnel.
I cranked all the way back to the Colorado River, which is easy to do since it’s a long gradual descent; I could really stretch my legs, which I think created a sight for people day-hiking from their base camps at Bright Angel and Cottonwood CG’s. I re-reached Cottonwood CG in 5:17 and the Colorado River in 6:22, around 2pm.
The intense sun and high-noon temps made getting out of the Inner Gorge uncomfortable and I was almost out of water by the time I reached the Tipoff and the Tonto Trail. No biggie, though, almost done. At the Tonto Trail I was unexpectedly greeted by Dave James of Bridgeport, CT, who was out for a short 9-mile run of his own. We hiked up a few steep portions of South Kaibab before I had to cut him loose — his legs were much fresher than mine and I just couldn’t run what he could. But I got a second wind and picked up my pace, pulling in sight of the South Kaibab TH around 7:55, which really surprised me because I thought I was on 8:20 pace — having Dave in front of me really helped during the last 4.5 miles. I reached the trailhead in 8:02, which meant that I negative-split the second half, running it in 3:56. My satisfaction with the performance seemed to follow the pattern of the only other ultra runs I’ve ever done (2nd place finish at Leadville, 4th place finish at San Juan Solstice, 9:40 split for RRR). I firmly think of myself as a backpacker first and foremost, so being able to perform well as a runner too is a bonus.
Photo courtesy of James Q Martin