R2R2R, The Rite of Passage. Becoming a Real Ultrarunner in the Depths of the Grand Canyon.

Spring Break has always been a week of outdoor adventures for the family!  Who is not ready to get out of Dodge at the end of a harsh winter!  In Fact, it is so cold in Baker City, Oregon, that we go to Dodge to warm up a little!!  OK, bad joke and thanks to all the locals who still follow me after mocking our mutual home.  This is Spring Break 2014, you can catch 2013 on my Introduction to Ultra-Marathoning archived November 2016.  And I think 2015 is deserving of a future blog post!!   Anyway, back to the narrative….

We started our trek south a few days early, the double crossing of the Grand Canyon was scheduled for Saturday, March 22 at 6 AM.  We had to drive to Bountiful, Utah to pick up a few Sherpas for the family trek, and Collin, a new addition to the family who bravely married my niece. No offense to my niece, marriage always requires a bit of courage and fortitude.   Collin had signed on to do the double crossing with me, making my wife feel much better knowing that I wouldn’t be going at it alone and thus providing the much needed spousal peace of mind.  We rolled out on Thursday, collected the strays, and finished the long drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to check into our luxury accommodations on Friday evening.  “Luxury” is always tongue and cheek when you travel with my crew, and it usually means better than a tent or the back of the van!  This however, was a rare exception.  The choices are limited on the South Rim, although this is a thriving metropolis compared to the North Rim!  There is a little community called Tusayan about 9 miles from the rim, and although there isn’t anything befitting the lifestyles of the rich and famous, there really isn’t any dumps either.  Vacancy, at least from the hotels’ point of view,  isn’t much of a problem either.  It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Country, and there are only a handful of rooms.  We thought about camping, but quite frankly, the weather in early spring on the South Rim is crazy enough that a tent and 10 month-old wasn’t going to mix very well, and my wife was planning to be the rescue party all day on the rim, and wanted 4 walls and a thermostat.  Therefore, on this rare occasion, The Rushton Family and Honored Guests, were booked for 2 nights at a hotel with a pool and hot tub!  I had a sneaky suspicion that the jets just might feel really nice after the leisurely jaunt to North Rim and back!  I was right!

The plan was simple, arrive at the South Kaibab Trailhead as a family.  Collin and Myself would run down the canyon over the river and ascend on the North Kaibab Trail to the Rim.  We would make our return along the Bright Angel Trail back to the South Rim. Roughly 45 miles and 11,000 feet.


20140322_062219Myself and Collin at the top of South Kaibab anticipating the days festivities.  Notice the bright colors to make a possible Search and Rescue a little easier!


7 kids and 2 older cousins, Adam being the youngest at 6, would Hike to the river and back, also ascending Bright Angel, about 17 miles total.  My wife, with the 5, 3, 10 month-old would drive back to the hotel and enjoy the pool for the day and then come back to sight-see and  look for the victorious finishers and safely transport them back to the civilized world of Tusayan!!


20140322_163114The Rim to River to Rim Crew at the finish….it doesn’t even look like they started!!

We got started about an hour late, 7 AM, which isn’t bad for my herd of cats.  I was a little concerned because I didn’t bring a light, and had no desire to ascend 5000 ft of precipice in the dark.  Another issue was the morning mule train had already started down the trail, so we would be catching the beasts, and we really weren’t sure how difficult it would be to get around them.  As it turned out, we caught them a few miles down the trail, and their guide stopped them relatively quickly and had us run past on the uphill side.  Obstacle number 1, complete.  What surprised me the most was how much abuse my quads took on this steep descent, 5000 feet in a little over 6 miles!

I have a habit of running in cycling jerseys, it always seems to be easy to stow a few items in the rear pockets.  I have been doing this for years and extracting and replacing my stuff again is effortless for me at this point!  I have 3 pockets to divide my gear, which helps me sort different nutrition or garbage into its own location.  It does tend to bounce around at the beginning of a run, especially if you start out with a mobile convenience store on your back!  Such was the case this morning, being magnified 3-fold by the steepness of the descent.  I own a little running pack at this point in my life, but the main beauty of running is the simplicity, so realize you don’t need much more than shorts and shoes to make it happen!!  I also had sodium tablets, which I distributed to several other runners along the way!  And lastly, 2 20 0z bottled waters, one for each fist, which I figured would be important because we had no idea what water sources would be available along the north side of the river!

The North Rim is closed this time of year, so many of the water stops along the way are not functioning!  Bright Angel Creek has clean water and is conveniently located during the hottest, lower section, so if you have a filter, you should be fine.  If you are winging it like me, The Pumphouse had water going, and I was grateful for it both ascending and descending the last very steep 5 miles to the top of the 8241 ft North Rim….Back to the Adventure!

So I think Collin and I had just blown up our legs over the first 7 miles to the Phantom Ranch, and were looking at a 28 mile out and back with close to 6000 ft of gain, most of it in the last 5 miles!  I was excited because that meant the first 9 miles would be relatively flat, so I took off like a rocket, remembering the conspicuous absence of a headlamp in my jersey.  It didn’t take long before Collin began dropping hints that this may not be his preferred stategy….

I love, and hate running with other people!  Maybe I am just socially awkward, or maybe running is supposed to be my away time.  Did I mention that I have 10 kids?  It adds a factor that I can’t control and can potentially sabotage my efforts.  Collin had never tried anything like this before!  He is, however, an amazing runner!  It may be his youth, but he has a beautiful, powerful, and seemingly effortless stride!  When I run with him, I find a bit of envy creeping into my mind.  The only time I can out run Collin is when he is spent, and I felt that maybe he was reaching for his credit cards!!  We had talked about splitting up if one of us couldn’t make it, and I was thankful that Collin sent me ahead instead of holding me back!!  We decided to meet at the Phantom Ranch, so we could at least start together on the last leg of our journey.  Leaving Collin alone on the trail, I continued my ascent.

The steep part is only about 5 miles, but it is a really difficult 5 miles.  There was only the one water stop, and it really wasn’t enough, but putting one leg in front of the other, I finally topped out on the snowy North Rim.  It took about 5 hours to this point and I started to catch up with other runners and walkers doing the same thing as me!!  I actually enjoyed chit-chatting, and was surprised to find some mutual friends among them!  The endurance community is not very large, and it doesn’t take long before you start to recognize faces at each event.  We would share nutrition and stories as needed, and find out when we were going to be doing the next Ironman or Ultra together!  I was surprised that there were at least 15 or so runners and two large groups of hikers struggling for the coveted R2R2R moniker!!

Something I should mention is the trail itself is not very technical, there was a small potion that had been washed  out and had to be traversed with a rope that had been securely mounted for this purpose.  There is steep cliffs along the trail, and although I really didn’t think I was going to fall off, they made it a little difficult to enjoy the scenery!  I would sometimes stop for a few moments to enjoy the view.  About 12 people die per year in The Grand Canyon, and only a small percentage of these are from falls.  So among the millions of visitors, your odds of survival are pretty good!  I ran the whole way except a little bit near the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail.  I was tired, it was crowded, and I quite frankly didn’t trust my legs on the treacherous switchbacks!!

At the top of the trail there is a warning sign discouraging hikers from attempting to walk the 17 or so miles to the river and back in a day!!  There is actually a story on the sign of a runner who died while attempting the feat.  It is a little disheartening, and I had to smuggle my wife past this sign the first time I took the whole family to the river and back in a day! All the kids stood in front of the dire warning as I distracted my wife by pointing to the beautiful scenery,  it worked perfectly!  We did show her the sign on the way back,  she wasn’t amused!  I did learn a bit from this experience.  One of  my daughters experienced some serious difficulty breathing during the trek.  You drop 5000 ft through a myriad of different ecosystems and fauna.  It maybe wise to carry Benedryl or an Epi-Pen along with you as well.  The hike itself is epic, and if you decide to do this with your kids be ready for a serious challenge!  I did this with an Ironman buddy who refused to run with me to the car at the end, and made me pick him up at the Bright Angel Trailhead with my wife and kids!!


20140322_162950It Obviously wasn’t all fun and games!  7 year-old Adam


Alright, I think you left me at the top of the North Rim.  The descent was pleasant to the 9 mile flattish section that leads to Phantom Ranch.  I didn’t push it too hard and my legs felt surprisingly good as to absorb the steep pounding with minimal discomfort.  I was starting to get thirsty, and I knew it would be over an hour to the next watering hole at the river!  This was a hard section, even at the end of March it was hot,  I couldn’t even imagine trying this in July or August!  As I was running, I came across a tiny spring, right in the middle of the trail!!!  I scraped away some sand, and started to suck water, a precious few drops at a time!   I was really parched and didn’t want to get any farther behind on my hydration at this point and still had a few miles to The Phantom Ranch!  When I arrived, my first priority was fluid.  My second was tracking down Collin, I didn’t realize how difficult this would be!  I wandered up and down, between buildings and asking everyone if they had seen a tired looking guy in a cycling jersey!  It took a good half an hour, but we finally crossed paths.  We sat down, shared some nutrition, took some salt tablets, and planned our final 10 mile ascent!  At least water wouldn’t be a problem, as there were several stops along the Bright Angel Trail that had clean water!   Collin had followed me about halfway up the steep ascent on the North Rim before deciding he had better save enough energy to get home and turned around.  He covered close to 40 miles, which crushed his previous record for miles in a day. Although he didn’t finish he was really pleased with his side of the adventure!!

We started the ascent together, but it didn’t take long to realize that he was not going to hold my pace.  I amused myself by running up the steep switchbacks and hurling insults at him from somewhere up the canyon.  I think he took it in good humor, at least we are still friends and occasionally do some runs together.  The other hikers weren’t exactly sure how to take it.  I hope they enjoyed the intended comedy, and for the record, I didn’t say anything that bad or mean!!  I know I am not the only trash-talking ultrarunner!

As I got near the finish, I had to ascend a roughly 2 mile, really steep section to the top.  This is mentally difficult, because you can see the rim seemingly a few minutes away!  But the canyon is huge and you have no perspective!!  It is always farther than you think to the next visible landmark!  My wife and kids are a great support, and I kept looking for them at the top of the rim and listening for an encouraging shout.  It never happened.  When I finally reached the top, it was quickly becoming cold, and I was really wiped out.  I borrowed a cell phone, and told my wife where to find me.  Apparently, she had picked up the hiking party and somehow lost the car keys.  I went into the Bright Angel Lodge and laid down on a hard wooden bench.  There was a lot of traffic through the area, and the cold air would rush through the door every few minutes and chill me to the core.  I was trying to rest, but was mostly just shivering pathetically in the lobby.  A hiker walked passed and asked if I was OK, she had just finished the same route as me in over 24 hours non-stop.  She said I looked awful and  gave me her blanket, noting that I appeared to need  it much more than she did.  I was very grateful, and yes, pathetic was very apt to how I was feeling at the top!  It took a long time for my wife to figure out where I was, and she was still looking for parking when my nephew came in to officially rescue me!  We still had a good hour wait for Collin and I couldn’t think of anything except for food and the hot tub!!!  It took me about 11 1/2 hours to finish, although my GPS watch died shortly after beginning to descend the North Rim and I really didn’t get an official time.


20140322_062811The Hiking Crew at the starting line!!


Getting back to the hotel was probably the best part of the day, at least it felt like it at the time!!  Truthfully, I couldn’t even imagine climbing into a sleeping bag or tent.  It took a good 30 minutes in the warm jets of the spa before I even started to feel warm again!  The kids all had a great time, but they were pretty worn out as well!  We drove back to Salt Lake the next day at a leisurely pace, my legs were stiff, and getting out of the van was a challenge, but we managed to enjoy ourselves along the route!  This was definitely one for the books, so if you live in the Western US you have got to knock this off your bucket list!


Image may contain: 10 peopleCrossing the Colorado on our trip home!!



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