Grand Canyon: Check

3.20 am May 5, I stood in the cold at the top of the North Rim.  Alone, nauseous and scared (of cougars) in the desolate car park, I high-tailed it out of there.  But I’d made it – half way.  With the North Rim closed until May 15, I was committed to returning the way I’d come and completing my journey back and forth across the Grand Canyon.

While the Nancy’s and Mindy discussed their game plan – where and when to start, I was clear.   I would take the same route both ways – the steeper South Kaibab trail.  My limited training made for steeps.  “I’m special needs you guys.  Drop me off at 7 pm and I’ll go on my own.  We’ll meet up somewhere below the North Rim when you catch me.”

6.15pm Friday night.  I hop off the shuttle bus, feeling a tad self-conscious in my running shorts and runner’s pack.  6.20pm, no excuses – I amble down the trail.  We’d driven in a few hours earlier and I got my first ever glimpse of the Grand Canyon.  Buttes and buttresses plunging down to a shadowy and unseen Colorado River.  A massive schism in the Earth’s crust.  Now, faced with it, I’m excited to go to see what it’s like and spend a night out by myself, immersed in one of the seven wonders of our planet.

A full moon rises as the sun sets.  Alpenglow envelops the buttes and walls, gold then magenta.  Camera in hand, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.  The river becomes visible far below, fading into dusk.  4800 feet and seven miles below the South Rim, I trot into Phantom ranch, dazzled by torch light and swarms of people who have hiked down to stay there.  Stopping only to get water at “the Canteen”, I amble on.  The longer North Kaibab trail follows Bright Angel River up a tight box canyon.  The creek roars as the canyon twists and turns.  Occasional moonlight gives tantalizing peeps at soaring canyon walls.  I stash some food and a can of Red Bull under a rock for my return.  Zipping across the trail, a scorpian holds it’s tail haughtily above it’s back.

The box canyon eventually opens into a meadow of moonlight.  Relieved at being able to see, I promise myself that I’ll stop at the Cottonwood campground at mile 14.  I figure that I’ve started too early and am going faster than I anticipated.  I decide to wait and let the others catch up some.  The water tap hisses and nearby campers snore as I don my extra layers (a light jacket, buff and long johns). I settle in on a park bench for a quick bivouac.  Irritated by a mouse snuffling around my pack, I rest uneasily.  Midnight passes, I’m shivering and have to move.  At least Nancy, Nancy and Mindy will be on the trail.  14 more miles, 5800 feet of up and 5800 of down, and I’ll be back here.

I feel surprisingly good and move quickly.  Small clouds of dust swirl from my feet.  It’s strange to be down here alone.  Intense in a way that I’ve not experienced in a long time.  I love it, even if I am slightly obsessed by the thought of cougars.  I come across some trail crew folks out for a headlamp-less hike in the moonlight and acting a little weird.  It’s fun to see them and they urge me on.  Three times I run into groups descending who, like us, have chosen to trek in the cool of evening.  I ask them to look out for my friends:  “Tell them you saw me and to hurry”.

A thundering waterfall and I pass (the apparently) spectacular Roaring Springs.  The trail starts to climb in earnest.  Leaving the soothing moonlight, I feel rather than see, the abyss.  Aiming my head lamp over the edge is nerve-wracking.  The trail is hewn from rock, zigging and zagging up impossible cliff faces.  Every now and then I see headlamp glimmers far, far above.  I cross a bridge and peer over the side.  Nasty.  Hemmed in by cliffs, the familiar sound of crickets mollify my night imaginings.

Nearing the North Rim, queasy and cold,  I sip constantly from my water bladder and munch on electrolyte gummies.  My teeth feel disgusting.  I wish I’d cleaned them before I left.  Supai tunnel is spooky and deserted.  Emerging into forest, I know I am close but it’s prime cougar territory now.  Grabbing a big stick, I forge on.  I’m carrying my ipod but I need my senses working.  I’ll save music for the hot hike out later.

On the North Rim at 8250 feet, I stare briefly at the sign describing the men who realized this route in the 1920’s.  With winter rapidly approaching, they had to find a route to the Colorado river and South Rim.  It’s not nice up here in the cold, deserted car park and I descend.  Immediately feeling better, I jog down the trail.  Within a few miles, I see headlamps way below and know it’s my friends.  I ditch the stick. The uber ladies are moving well and don’t want to stop.  Mindy is ahead, sunny and happy as usual.  Nancy F is warm and friendly in her “don’t mess-with-me, I’m focused”style.  I want to sit and chat but they are not having it so I press on.

Dawn breaks, pale and insipid and my legs hurt from the pounding.  The unlikely Roaring Springs surge from their source on a cliff face and spill, like a towel hung from a window.  Like a roaring ribbon.  I stop, amazed.  And press on.  I’m being chased now and those girls will eventually leave me behind and despondent.  Running is upsetting my stomach so I walk quickly.  Cottonwood camp comes and goes and suddenly there are swarms of runners heading up the trail.  They are clean and bright and keen.  I had no idea that this route was so popular with ultra-runners but I guess the season is limited.  Like Mt Everest summitters, we are all here together.

Near the Phantom ranch, I glance back and spot Mindy, running smoothly, elegant in her little black skirt.  I feel like a lummox but it’s nice to see her.  Phantom Ranch appears cool and shaded by cottonwood trees.  I share my can of Red Bull with Mindy and she races off in pursuit of a sub-12 hour time.  She’s so sweet, I’m proud to see her so confident and fast.

I wander beside the river, taking pictures of the bridge and wondering at the immensity of the walls and this mighty river – so beloved in the American psyche, yet ultimately restricted from running it’s full course into the Pacific ocean. It occurs to me that I feel fine.  With the last big climb ahead (I like the up hill), I could book and not be too far behind Mindy.  The initial trail is shady and comfortable.  Heaps of people traipse down the trail, their feet disturbing clouds of red dust.  Trying to nose breathe, I push down on my thighs and wind up my pace.  Mules whinny up ahead.  They must leave early, it’s not even 8 am.  People keep wishing me good morning.  It feels bizarre when you’ve been up all night.

A guy from Salt Lake asks me if I am one of the Salt Lake lady runners and tells me that I am half way and that Mindy is not far above.  Emerging from the shady cliffs, the sun beams down yet a breeze stirs and the heat is manageable.  At the half way I see that I’m actually 3/5 of the way in elevation gain.  Teenage feet stir the dust most so I take a deep breath when I see them descend sloppily towards me.  The vista opens up.  I sip water and chew on electrolyte lollies every 10-15 minutes.  The fingers of exhaustion materialize in my periphery but I don’t stop.

Rounding the butte approaching Ooh Ah point, I am definitely hurting but it’s good and I embrace it.  I grab the wall with my right hand and gasp a little but I think I can make the top by 11 am.  Bigger people in jeans, carrying 350ml bottles of Mountain dew demonstrate the Rim’s proximity.  I finally jog – the final few switch backs feel fantastic and I arrive at the top…. to crowds of people I don’t know and who don’t care that I just hiked 42 miles with 10600 feet of both gain and loss, all night.  16 hours 40 minutes, with only one significant stop (caused mainly by my fear of cougars) between 10.30pm and 12.30am.  Hooray!

Eight days of actual running/hiking training. Bronchitis.  Borrowed shoes.  I tell my body good job for remembering endurance.  Back at camp, Mindy feels terrific and made the run in 11 hours 20.  Nancy Russell (mother of four – her youngest being one) makes it right on 12 hours and Nancy Feagin, mother, accountant, climber extraordinaire and woman with motivation problem (over-motivation), comes in in the proud time of 12.20.  We compare calories and wrappers.  Tiny Mindy eats the most, Nancy Russell and I eat the least.  We hobble around laughing at our adventure and comparing hurts.  Nancy F’s calf muscles, Nancy R’s tummy, my glutes (and CAT phobias).  And Mindy?  Well, she wasn’t really sore.

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Am I well enough?

Two days until we start the loooong drive down to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  I still have the cold but let’s not dwell on that.

Scottie won a Sports Emmy yesterday for outstanding camera work on The 2011 Ironman World championships.  As a moto-shooter, he spends all day using his considerable core strength to get creative shots (one position he describes is “the brokeback”  a position involving him facing backwards on the bike with legs wrapped around the waist of the driver – all the while keeping with the cyclist being filmed).  Scott’s been nominated for Emmys before and he actually won one in 1999 for sound in the Eco-Challenge.  He also won a National award for museum media for his work with Kate Raisz on the new Utah Museum of Natural History.  I will think of Scottie and be inspired – he works super hard and is very courageous.

What can I say about my pending trip into the Grand Canyon except that I hope that I make it!  The trick will be to start really slow.  So many times, I have started too fast and blow up 20 hours later.  My goal is to make it in 20 hours.  If that’s not realistic, then my goal is to walk through the night to the North Rim and back down to the Phantom Ranch (a distance of about 35 miles with 10 600 feet of elevation loss and 5800 of gain).  If I’m too knackered, I’ll get a room at Phantom lodge or just crash under a tree for a few hours.  Often I’ve been 2-3 days into a race, completely exhausted and then I take a two hour sleep and am completely good to go.

One crazy factor about this gig is that I expect to be on my own.  The other ladies are fitter – Mindy and Nancy R being competitive ultra runners.  And Nancy F has time goals that I am quite sure, are not realistic for me.  I’ll be back with the report on Monday.

ImageScott filming in the Grand Canyon (the time he flew in a microlight and filmed Will Gadd motor-paragliding across it)

Taken Down

The big training day was cold and wet.  I was cold and wet.  I’ve tried to deny it but I have problems with my immune system…. or something.  The following day my legs felt fine but my throat felt that familiar tingling tightness.  Another bout of bronchitis (my 3rd this year) was looming.  I hit the vitamins, to no avail.  With two weeks until “the event”, I was effectively finished with my training.  It was a good, focused 10 days!

Years ago when I was training for the iconic Coast to Coast (in New Zealand) and aiming for the female win, I asked a friend of mine, Annabel, if she wanted to join me for a training ride.  “Nah, training’s cheating”, she told me airily.  That’s how I am now.  My lifestyle (+ the 10 day leg sort-out) is the training and I reckon it’s probably enough to get me through.  I’m not looking for a record, I’m just trying to make it.  I saw Annabel racing in the C2C.  A true outdoors woman, she was cycling along at the back and chatting with some bloke.  Happy to be out there and completely in her element.  I aim to emulate that twenty-year old vision of joy.

Today I managed a quick cross fit session with Nancy (we do these 1-4 times a week to exercise and catch up while the boys play).  Nancy makes me look less A-type – more A-, perhaps B+.  However, the ramped up running programme had affected her too and she had strained a calf muscle (although she was no doubt, still climbing hard).

“Nancy,” I spoke sternly. ” Teaches us for deciding on big projects last minute in our mid-40’s!”  Yet that’s the thing:  Time, jobs, kids, families…. we don’t have the time or whatever but we keep on keeping on.  We are kinesthetic ladies, so we keep on striving as athletes and we stay (sort of) balanced.  At least we remain athletes.  And because of that we are set up to take on projects like legging it across the Grand Canyon.

Big day

Yesterday I tested the legs on a 7+ hour local jaunt.  Kim Coupanas from Golite, sponsor of our adventure racing team back in the day, generously sent me a Rush pack.  It’s received great reviews from ultra runners and was brilliant for yesterday’s training session.

I’d delayed for a day, hoping for less “spring-like” weather.  After a lean winter in Utah, we are getting snow.  Yesterday was rainier and colder than the day before.  I went anyway.  Feeling like it’s the flats and downhills that will prove my undoing, I headed up the Pipeline track.  After an initial climb of about 1000 feet, it’s mostly flat/gradual climbing until Mt Aire.  I trotted 10 miles from home to the top of Mt Aire (8620 feet) in rain and later, snow.  From the top of Mt Aire, I rang Scottie who said he’d come for a run and bring me snacks.  Heading back down the Pipeline, I came face-to-face with a moose.  Like really face-to-face.  I could smell her musty odor.  Adrenaline pumping – because moose are unpredictable – I dashed up the slippery hillside, grabbing a tree as she cantered past within touching distance.  A few minutes later, Scott came round the corner and I was back in civilization.  Spirits lifted by seeing my husband, getting some more food and the easing of the rain, I headed up Grandeur peak (8300 feet).  I made pretty good time and crested the summit in only a couple of feet of snow.  The very familiar descent was enjoyable with Salt Lake City sprawled beneath like a carpet and the setting sun casting ‘Jesus rays’ over the mountains.  Staggering a little by now, I cranked the volume on the ipod to drown out the freeway as I jogged the last two miles home.  A hike as much as a run, I figure I did about 25 miles with about 6000 feet in elevation gain and loss (ie, Just over half of that of the Grand Canyon trip).  Today my legs feel a bit worked but am really trying to focus on hydration.  Tellingly, it’s not my quads that hurt now but my hamstrings – probably from the long flats.

Although I enjoyed my day out (and the night before – a night ascent of Olympus with ultra runners, Mindy and the other Nancy), I have no desire to compete in ultra running.  In fact, I wish I’d run the Grand Canyon back in my fitter days.

One week in

I’m hurting a bit.  Inspired by Nancy, who, last Sunday hiked Mt Olympus (3800 feet elevation gain), Grandeur (3200 feet) and then climbed 5.12d (27) at the gym, I raised my bar.  Skipping the climbing – apart from a few easy crack climbs, I joined Nancy for the snowy Olympus climb.  I managed a few local 1-2 hour jogs and joined Nancy again for the Olympus-Grandeur double last Wednesday.  The Rim to Rim to Rim involves over 10000 feet of elevation gain (and loss).  Loss is my biggest worry as the lactic build-up from fast downhills can be debilitating.  I plan to start hiking down the South Kaibab trail as soon as I arrive at the Grand Canyon – a 4800 foot descent, quite likely in the dark. My quads, trained only on a recent diet of ski touring, are not in shape for fast descents.  Downhill skiing rarely bothers my legs.  With plenty of time to think on my running hikes, I mentally calculate my running prowess over the past two years and figure that I’ve averaged 1-2 runs/month during that time.

Luckily the Anglems skyped me from Christchurch, NZ.  Nat is a sports doctor who tends to many of the South Island’s athletes – especially endurance ones.  Kristina won all the major adventure races in her day, including top 10 placings overall in NZ’s Coast to Coast and the length of NZ multisport event in 2003.

“Hey Nat, I’m planning to do an enduro run across the Grand Canyon on a month’s training.  What should I do?”

Without a blink, Nat tells me to practice running slow so that I can recover and not arrive at “the event” tired.  He tells me what I suspected – that I could blow the whole thing by going too fast on the first downhill.  He’s completely casual with what I am proposing.

With the other ladies all ultra runners and Nancy really keyed up, I figure I’m on my own.

Action

I’ve been mulling the blog question for a year.  Seana told me that this is what writers do.  Being a mountain guide, I need to promote that area of my work.  And a mum.  And a wife – my husband, Scott does fascinating work (www.scottsimper.com).

Mostly life is just chopping wood and carrying water (in the words of Buddha).  Really, it’s backcountry ski guiding and domestics;  but every now and then, I do something else.  With winter mostly over in Utah, I have decided to hike/run the Grand Canyon from rim to rim to rim (starting at the South side), with my friend Nancy Feagin and a couple of ultra running ladies.  Pure ridiculous-ness given that my training has been a combination of backcountry skiing and 2-4 sessions of cross-fit a week, for the past five months.  However, with a month to train, I’m committed.  It’s something I have wanted to do for years.

This initial blog will document my training and the actual grovel itself:  a 42 mile trek with 10 300 feet of elevation gain and loss through one of the great scenic wonders on our planet.  It’s not a race, so my main goal is to accumulate some foot miles and get my quads into gear for the downhills.  I am an experienced hurter from my adventure racing days.  Scottie has Obie covered (although Grandma Dixie was on stand-by for a while).

I think I’m good to go.