The ExperimentThough I sometimes do them out of necessity or an excess of competitive spirit, I don't enjoy epic days. Beyond a certain point the body starts breaking down, and it is no longer a matter of keeping up a good pace, but simply ignoring sore feet and chafed loins while plodding along on dead legs. It's not so much about pushing yourself as about putting yourself in Coma Drive and going on. My usual attitude is that if something takes me to that point, I should come back to it when I'm faster.
Having heard about a south-to-north-to-south round trip of the Grand Canyon from others, and having done south-to-north a couple of years ago, I though it was probably too long to be fun. But I was passing through, and my curiosity got the better of me: I was almost certain I could average 3 MPH for 48 miles, but maybe I could do better. 3.5 MPH would get me back in time for dinner, and 4 would avoid headlamp time. If I could jog 6 MPH (a 10 minute mile) on most of the downhills and some of the flats, stay near 3 MPH on the climbs, and avoid lengthy stops... it was on.
I slipped into the park late to avoid the $25-per-car fee, struggled through the South Rim's eternal road construction, and curled up in the car near the visitor center. I think someone pestered me while I slept, but I pretended to sleep through it. The next morning, I found my way through the twisty maze of roads to the South Bright Angel trail for a leisurely start at 6:10 AM. To keep spirits up, I told myself that, despite carrying a full day's food I was just going to the river, and could turn around there if I felt like it.
I rewarded myself with a long break (pop-tarts and a bit of trail mix), directing some French tourists toward the Uncle Jim trail while I slumped with my back to the informative sign. Being assured of a sub-14-hour trip, a bit tired, and not wanting to waste energy running the dusty, uneven trail, I started the return trip at a fast walk rather than a run. However, I sped up on the better trail below the tunnel, and ran more after being inspired by several groups of south-to-north runners heading the other way. Unless I bonked disastrously, I was on time to reach Phantom Ranch for beer hall, and the south rim for a shower and dinner; anything more was gravy.
As I headed up Pipe Creek, I realized that I would probably not be running any more. The trail was slightly uneven, and my legs complained loudly when I tried to jog. Unsurprisingly for the time of day, there were few other hikers on the trail, so I put on the headphones and tried to settle into a fast, sustainable walk. At least for the time being, it seemed to work. As a sign of my fatigue, I started to be irritated by the steps spaced perfectly to exercise only one leg, rather than simply taking a big step when one leg was tired. The only people I passed were a large Mexican family carrying little more than junk food (up or down? SAR practice?) and a backpacker looking more miserable than myself.
I was feeling beat and slightly sick as I pulled into Indian Gardens but, if I kept up my pace, I would still finish in under 12 hours including my beer stop. I sat for a few minutes, unhelpfully told a couple that the trail to Plateau Point was "over that way," and plodded onward while forcing down the last packet of pop-tarts. I was still passing people, and was thankful that I would at least be done before they were, but as I approached the base of the Redwall, I knew that I was toast. I tried to stop looking up to the rim and to concentrate on taking steady and relaxed steps, avoid stepping in manure, and not stop until the 3-mile hut. I passed a ranger, probably sweeping for potential canyon victims, but I guess I looked better than I felt.
I gave myself 5 minutes to slump on a rock near the 3 mile hut, distracting myself by reading the sign warning people "turn around or, failing that, at least drink water and rest with your feet up." Then the slog went on. I was still (barely) on pace to finish in 12 hours, but at this point I was more interested in being done sooner than in beating some arbitrary time. The stretch between the 3- and 1-mile huts was definitely the worst, climbing through the endless Supai without the distraction of tourists strolling down from the rim. I sat down on a couple of rocks, but mostly managed to keep up a respectable plod.
I began to see people again while going through the Coconino and Toroweap, and took pleasure in passing them even though they were old, out of shape, and/or having fun. I also encountered my last "friendly" wildlife of the day, some bighorn sheep that simply stared threateningly from the side of the trail as I passed. I shooed them away in exasperation, earning strange looks from some nearby strollers. My left heel and the ball of my right foot felt bruised, but I picked up my pace a bit in an attempt to finish in under 12 hours (not including beer hall, this time), or at least before the sun set on the north rim. I made it with seconds to spare, traded picture-taking duty with a Navy man finishing a day-hike to the river, and wandered off to sit in the lounge, torn between my desires to eat, shower, and sleep.
Am I glad I did it? Yes, because I would have been left wondering if I had bailed out, and because I now know I can finish a 50-mile ultra in a respectable time. Would I do it again? Probably not without more preparation. It was about 5 miles and 2 hours too long to enjoy.
Splits6:05 -- South Bright Angel trailhead
6:55 -- Indian Gardens
8:02 -- Phantom Ranch
10:06 -- ranger station below Roaring Springs
10:54 -- Supai bridge
11:47 -- North Kaibab trailhead (10 minute break)
2:43 -- Phantom Ranch (approx. 20 minute break)
6:25 -- South Bright Angel trailhead