Rim to Rim to Rim, Grand Canyon, Arizona

                      Elevation Change::  South Rim to River: 4800'    North Rim to River:  5850'

                                                              Scrolling Photos   

May 03, 2014 - After a couple wild weather weeks and stacked adventures, Mike Monyak
and I set up camp at Mather Campground in Grand Canyon Village to recon our crossing
of the Canyon while awaiting the arrival of Mark Cangemi, Matt Lipsey, Jordan Nance,
and Ryan Kocak, who would inject youth and verve into the enterprise of what would
otherwise be just the crazy dream of two old men that never grew up.

The boys arrived later on Friday with eats and beer.  While Jordan cooked up a feast
over the campfire the rest of us coordinated our final plan for the morrow's crossing.
After a few cold ones it was early to bed for an early rising.

The campground was noisy; perhaps it was the anticipation of the coming day, but I
didn't find much sleep and arose at 0345 not in the best of moods to go long and hard.
Mike headed out in advance of the rest of us after midnight to accommodate a hip injury.
The rest of us set out in the brisk morning air to jog from the campsite to where we 
would begin our odyssey on the South Rim at the South Kaibab Trailhead.  At the break of
the morning's light the trailhead was already stirring with early risers who were getting a
start on the day's venture.  We met with Balaszs Rau and his brother on the rim, who I 
had previously coordinated with to prepare, stood for group shots while we were all 
together, then wasted no time in setting out by 0545.


The South Kaibab drops quickly into a series of quick switchbacks as it loses 4800 feet in
seven miles to the Colorado River below.  I've been to this rodeo before and so hung back
to ease down the trail with great deliberation, as the younger guys took over.  I have 
learned to save my quads in the early going so they are not sore for later descents.  
Besides, it was far more than just a run for me, and certainly not an effort whose time I 
cared much about.  I wanted to look around without having my eyes glued to the trail to 
avoid falling.

There were enough rocks, scree, and erosional support to force one to stay alert, but I
found the early going fairly relaxed and enjoyable, stopping to take pictures when the
dance of the morning light and shadows on this remarkable landscape caught my eye.
The other guys disappeared completely from view downslope when I had to squat for a
nature break.  Hopefully this would end two days of diarrhea, most likely from the camp

Gliding past Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point, the pristine green Colorado River came up
fast, taking me an hour and a half to reach Phantom Ranch and a refill on water.  The
rest were likely 15 to 20 minutes ahead of me, but I had found my rhythm and was
enjoying the balmy temps at the bottom of the canyon as I continued with fairly level
running for seven miles from Phantom Ranch to the next oasis at the Cottonwood 

Shadows filled the tight canyon through which the slightly uphill North Kaibab Trail
followed along Bright Angel Creek, filled with an enthusiastic spring runoff.  After a
comfortable tempo I arrived at Cottonwood, the halfway point of the climb to the top
of the North Rim, in another two hours.  After passing several people along the way
I was surprised to see Mark, Ryan, and Jordan, as well as Balaszs and his brother,
filling water bottles and preparing for the first real work of the day.  Having been told
by the Park Service that there was no water on the North Rim, I carried two and a half
liters of water to make sure I had enough for the 14-mile up and back if necessary.

Quickly transitioning out of the water stop at Cottonwood I headed off first, leaving the
rest to follow in their own time.  I felt good and seemed to take on a workable balance
of alternating walking with running as the trail eased into the upclimb.  I was glad to 
have the company of two guys from Kansas city - Steve and Matt - as we went back and
and forth up the switchbacking ascent of the 5800-foot climb to the top of the rim.

The day was heating up to a noticeable degree on the climb.  Of all the parts of the 
canyon I have visited, this rise up to the north rim on the North Kaibab Trail is the
most stunning and remarkable I have seen.  There was a picture waiting at every turn,
so I stopped frequently and made a best effort to bring back the beauty to share.
My legs were starting to scream, becoming severely cramped well before the top, to the
point where I had to stop to stretch and massage them.  I had been taking electrolyte
capsules regularly so far and thought I was staying on top of my hydration, so couldn't
figure what I was not doing that could lead to this.  My energy level and strength were
good from adequate shot blok intake, but the heat was taking its toll on me early.


Reaching the top in exactly six hours I felt good about the effort to this point.  There
were perhaps twenty people lounging, stretching, and refueling at the top, most of who
started their effort an hour and a half before I began at 0525.  After doing the same,
I layed down on the pavement in the sun and let the warm macadam bake the muscles
and bones that had worked so hard to bring me this first 21 miles of the trail.  It felt so
good just to lay there, unwinding, letting the muscles relax their cramping as my clothing
dried on the warm pavement.  There were still remnants of snow banks remaining in
the shade at the top, leftover from the 6 to 12 inches that fell here only the previous
weekend during the late storm that zonked me at Zane Grey.

After twenty-five minutes of such indulgence I broke from the allure of complacency and
started the fourteen-mile descent back to the river, fully hydrated and a bit less crampy
than when I arrived.  The water at the North Rim had unexpectedly been turned on, 
so we were all able to take a long draught of fresh cold water.  If it hadn't been for the
fact that the awaiting trail was all downhill I likely would have stayed longer.  I moved
easy and deliberately to avoid stumbling and baby my cramping muscles.  

Not far from the top I eased past Mark and Jordan, about a half hour behind in their 
ascent.  Matt had reached the top not long before me according to Mike, who was well
in advance of all of us due to his early start.  Everyone was doing well.  Ryan had turned
at Cottonwood Campground and apparently proceeded to return back to the South Rim
from that point.  Aside from stopping to take more pictures, I ran the entire descent into 
the infernal bottom of the canyon, without much problem from cramping.  Looking back 
up the retreating canyon walls I could see or hear no one bringing up my six, nor did I
pass a single person before again reaching the water and shade of Cottonwood CG in
a snappy drop time of one hour and forty minutes.

Filling two bottles while chatting with a backpacking couple on their way up the trail I
wasted little time before reengaging the final seven miles back to Phantom Ranch at
1340, eight hours and fifteen minutes into the day's effort.  My cramping was at bay and
I felt I was on track to make Phantom Ranch by 1530 hours.  Without hurry, my legs 
continued to carry me on the mostly gradual downslope toward the river over several
miles of extreme exposure to the sun, without much reprieve from the shade.

Despite drinking generously and eating electrolytes like candy, my legs started to
cramp once again - very painfully, reducing me to walking some, even on the level and
down mild slopes - all in the open sun, which was cooking me as ambient temps rose
above one hundred degrees.  Temps in the shade at Cottonwood were 95 degrees on
my thermometer.  After about three miles of reduced tempo in the canyon's oven I
was beginning to experience the effects of heat exhaustion.  When you can feel the
temperature of your brain rising, it is not a good thing.  Anytime there was shade I
lingered; where there was cold water I doused my head and face, all the while
attempting to continue through the inferno with the ambition of reaching Phantom Ranch,
at any delay, to stop in the shade, drink and rest, until early evening.  My adjusted
plan was to stop for perhaps two hours at the ranch until six o'clock before proceeding
further to return to the South Rim.  Weather conditions were unquestionably health 

Sitting down along the trail with less than a mile and a half to go, my leg cramps were
so severe I could find no relief from drinking or by taking electrolytes.  Becoming nauseous
I put my head between my legs and dry heaved once.  Sitting there only momentarily I
quickly found myself crumpled on the ground, face in the gravel, passed out from the 
condition of exhaustion I found myself in.  My initial reaction was one of amusement as I
picked myself up and assessed that I sustained no further damage.  It's not the first time
I have passed out from extreme abuse during exercise, so I knew I had to take extreme
measures to pull this one out.

It wasn't too long before the guys from KC that I had run up the canyon with - Matt and
Steve - happened along and inquired as to my condition.  I admitted that I was in 
trouble.  I needed assistance and was not too proud to admit it.  My brain was cooking
and I was stranded with debilitating muscle cramps, so these two trail angels set to 
bring me aright by pouring cold water from the adjacent Bright Angel Creek over my head
and upper torso to reduce my brain and core body temperature in a hurry.  My lucidity
and sense of humor rebounded fairly quickly with their generous intervention, and I
cooled to the point of being chilled.  Drinking more and downing more electrolytes I
felt the life returning to my still crampy legs.  Changing into a dry shirt I rested as
the runners I had stopped with at the North Rim passed by.  Matt continued to the river
to check on a third member of their party who was having his own problems there, while
Steve hung with me for as long as it would take to see me through.

Upon the arrival of Mark and Jordan, Steve was able to continue and rejoin his buddies
while my team stayed to support me.  Matt had notified the park ranger at Phantom Ranch
of my condition, so it wasn't long before a ranger named Della hiked back up the trail to
attend to my medical condition.  After lots of questions, vitals tests and blood sugar
sample I ultimately signed a liability waiver to continue under my own steam.  I improved
to the point where I could walk out at 2 to 3 miles per hour, which is about what I would
have done without running anyway.  While I had been hammered pretty low, I felt
strong enough to continue without further intervention.

Della recommended I stop at Phantom ranch for an IV infusion of saline solution.  It would
certainly have led to a more rapid recovery, but I didn't want to further impose on the
park service and felt I could rebalance my blood hydration situation and electrolyte 
imbalance gradually on my own, especially since the delay had allowed the sun to retreat
and temps were moderating.  The park service was already in overdrive coming to the aid
of many people in trouble from the heat.

So here is what I was able to conclude from the experience.  The direct sun and temps in
excess of one hundred degrees certainly placed a stress burden upon my system, as well
as that of many another hiker and runner this day, but not everyone succumbed to that
stress.  Of our group, not only me, but also Mike and Ryan were severely affected and
required or should have accepted further medical assistance.  Despite drinking what I
believed to be an appropriate amount, my body was dehydrated to an extreme.  After
drinking perhaps a gallon of water after the incident I still did not pee again for over
five hours.  The real kicker though is that I was unexpectedly hyponatremic.  The sodium
levels in my blood were excessively low - not from drinking excessively - but in large part
because my levels were low to begin with after two days of diarrhea.  What distresses me
the most, and is most eye-opening, is that the electrolyte supplements that I was taking
from both Hammer and Succeed were not working, and were fairly worthless.

The one valuable lesson I walk away with is that electrolyte supplements should not be
counted on to balance blood chemistry.  Sodium needs to be taken up in a food substrate,
like crackers, chips, pretzels, salty potatoes.  I have experienced these conditions before
and will no longer depend on electrolytes, but aim to carry chips and eat more of such fair
at the aid stations of race events.  In retrospect, had my sodium levels been good to start
I would have made it through, still suffered, but not bonked completely such as that I
needed medical attention.

Mark, Jordan, and I walked at a reasonable tempo the mile plus back to Phantom Ranch.
I felt good and did not feel the need for further attention.  Nonetheless, I took advantage
of the generosity of a park ranger there and a couple German hikers that supplied me 
with some salty snacks.  There were still 9.5 miles to climb from the river back out of the
canyon.  It was 5:30, so the three of us proceeded across the river to hit the Bright Angel
Trail and get as far as we could before having to resort to headlamps to finish the climb.
As the weakest link I set the pace for the others to follow.  We climbed the five miles
up to the campground and water at Indian Gardens at a hearty 2 mph uphill tempo.  I
was good to go, but feeling the day's effort increasingly.  I nibbled on snacks and drank
drank drank, but was still running a huge deficit and certainly was yet unbalanced with my
sodium.  After forty some miles of the heat of the day I was feeling a bit heady, slightly
dizzy, as the temps dropped, and conveyed that to Mark and Jordan.

Stopping for water and a bit of rest at the oasis at Indian Gardens a young park service
employee Callie inquired as to our condition.  Upon offering that the park ranger would
provide a sleeping bag to stay the night I opted to exercise discretion rather than
continue the last pitch of 4.5 miles back to the top with Mark and Jordan, who had to 
finish in order to get back to Phoenix for an 0600 early flight home.  Callie got me to the 
ranger who set me up with a sleeping bag and pads at a campsite.  He gave me a box of
backpacking food and snacks along with a Primus stove to cook with, encouraging me to
eat at least a thousand calories and continue to drink drink drink.

The park ranger Matt and I talked awhile on his front porch about the canyon's impact on
hikers and runners.  Many people had needed attention on this unusually warm day.  
Their experience over the years was that 97 degrees was the threshold that once
breeched generally led to many people having heat issues requiring medical support.  Park
service personnel were all prepared to deal with it; they were out in force on the trails 
to aid and assist those like myself.  Aside from their readiness and professionality, perhaps
the thing that impressed me the most was their compassion and empathy despite dealing
with such circumstances most of the year.  I am indebted to their support and readiness
far more than I can convey.  As I am to my trail angels, Steve and Matt, who likely saved
me from more egregious heat damage, and my comrades Jordan and Mark who saw me
through. I have a lot to pay forward, and I will not forget.

After a restless balmy night battling leg cramps at Indian Gardens I arose at 0500,
returned my rolled bag and pads and remaining food to the park ranger's porch, before
striking out for the final 4.5-mile climb which I achieved without difficulty or duress in
2.5 hours to arrive at the conclusion of this epic adventure back at the South Rim at
0800.  With no fanfare I caught the village bus back to the campground where I rejoined
Mike, caught up on the balance of everyone else's day, broke camp, bugged out, and
drove to Albuquerque for the start of the journey home.

I guess I can check one more item off my bucket list.  Everyone told me this one would
kick my butt.  While I didn't expect the unusually high temps we experienced, I believe
I would still have said that I had my butt handed to me this day.  It is a surprisingly
tough adventure.  How some quality runners do this in six to seven hours eludes me.
I figured I was moving 13.5 hours to complete the 43.5 miles of the route.  While I
perhaps could have gone quicker it would have been counterproductive to me on even
a day with more perfect conditions.  Time didn't matter.  The accomplishment mattered.
And in the end, only the narrative matters.  So I'm smiling, still recovering, but readying
myself for the next awesome challenge that awaits in the mountains of northern Georgia
in but ten days... and dreaming that this lifestyle never draws to a close!!!