If you are going to run for a long long time, it might as well be a beautiful location so I was excited to take a run at the Grand Canyon Ultra in 2014. The race was tougher than I expected with unseasonably high temperatures and I decided to call it a day after 50 miles. This year, I was headed back intent on avenging my DNF.
The Grand Canyon ultra was reconfigured this year as an out/back style course (rather than loops). The 100 mile race started and finished at the Kaibab Lodge near the North rim of the canyon. I had been monitoring the weather for the race and each check yielded a forecast that was both cooler and wetter. Within a couple days of the race, the forecast was calling for a full on winter storm including heavy snow and freezing temperatures. Training in the midwest isn’t great for mountain running…or running at elevation…but we do cold and snow well so I loaded up my bag with cold weather gear and set off for Arizona (via Las Vegas) for the race.
Driving to the race, I was greeted with this update. Ugh.
I was staying at Jacob’s Lake – approximately 25 miles from the start and got settled in on Friday. After a decent night of sleep, I was up at 4:30 and out the door by 5:00 so that I would be at the start thirty minutes before the start. The sun rose around 5:15 and a fresh thick layer of snow was visible. I deposited my drop bags and huddled near the fire pit to stay warm while waiting for the start. At 6:00, we were off and running…or hiking.
Since I was solo on this run, I had planned three drop bags:
- Stina Aid (Miles 15/21/85) – Fuel Bag 1 (1,000 calories), Fuel Bag 6 (600 calories), Dry Socks
- Locust Point Aid (Miles 38/68) – Fuel Bag 2 (1,000 calories), Fuel Bag 5 (1,000 calories), Headlamp & Batteries
- Crazy Jug Aid (Miles 50/56) – Fuel Bag 3 (300 calories), Fuel Bag 4 (800 calories), Night gear & Batteries
Each bag was also loaded with some dry clothes and I had a spare set of shoes at Stina which I ended up not using.
Leaving the Kaibob Lodge, we had a 1.5 mile hike to the high point of the course near 9,300 ft before starting a 13.5 mile descent towards the North Rim of the canyon. With about six inches of fresh snow on the ground, it was slow going at the start but absolutely beautiful. Even hiking rather than running, I could tell that the elevation was having an impact and worked to keep my effort measured. We finished the climb and started the descent. The snow was soft enough to absorb the pounding but also tacky enough to not be a giant slip and slide. The next 13.5 miles went by quickly descending through some beautiful high alpine meadows. A nearby runner mentioned that we would have to climb back up later but that was 70-80 miles away and a problem for the next day (literally).
We hit the Stina Aid (Mile 15) and it was almost like being in a different climate. What snow had dropped was quickly melting and the sun was coming out. We started a six mile section that would only be run on the ‘out’ leg of the course to Stina Point. The trails were a bit muddy from the melting snow but our first glimpse of the canyon made it worth the effort. In addition, we got to see the front-runners coming back which was fun to see.
Stina Point had a turnaround point with a hole-punch attached so that runners could mark their bibs indicating that they can covered the distance. After some photography, it was three miles back to Stina Aid where I grabbed some fuel from my bag and headed off. We had a couple miles on fire roads before starting a 19 mile trek along the Rainbow Rim trail.
The Rainbow Rim trail is the type of terrain the trail runners love – reasonably well maintained trail hugging the north rim of the Grand Canyon with views that went on forever. The trail would alternate between short sections right along the edge to longer sections traversing beautiful alpine forests. I also got a chance to run with elite ultra runner Kelly Agnew for a couple miles. He is coming back from an injury so he was doing the 50k race as a supported training run. Kelly is so knowledgable about ultra running and races and it was great to run with him.
After passing the North Timp aid, all of the 50k/50mi runners had turned around already so the course really cleared out. I found myself running near a runner named Amy from Phoenix and we were moving at a similar pace and started working together a bit. Amy had run many of the same races as me and we shared a bunch of miles chatting away. We ended up running nearly 10 miles together and they were really enjoyable. I was feeling the altitude a bit and didn’t want to push so early in the race so Amy moved on and gapped me a bit. It should be noted that Amy had a terrific race and ended up coming in first female!
Passing through the Parissawampitts Aid Station, I knew that the tough part of the race was directly ahead.
Via the course description, Matt describes this section as:
“From there, we will link together some decommissioned forest service logging roads and an old trail called the Rim Trail that hasn’t been used much in a couple of decades which will connect us over to the spectacular Crazy Jug overlook.”
He added the following in the pre-race email:
“The section between Crazy Jug and Parissawampitts aid stations has a couple of rugged and steep scramble sections (about 100 yards each) that the 50/100 milers will need to negotiate.”
I like this description from elite ultrarunner Kelly Agnew in his 2014 race report:
“The next stage of the race takes us onto a trail section that hasn’t seen a trail runner since Christ was a carpenter. The race crew had found this ancient trail sketched on a piece of parchment paper in some vault in the Forest Service office, then decided to resurrect it for this race. It was narrow, soft and had uneasy footing because of the 12 inches of pine needles and forest mulch that had slowly accumulated since it’s well designed abandonment….
Then the hills started…They were gradual at first, then I encountered a couple of relentless goat paths. Going down was as time consuming as going up. The footing was so loose that I was sliding more than running, and even hiking was a challenge.”
Well I have a couple choice words to describe this section but I will try to keep this blog G rated. I made it through the five mile section but the amount of running was minimal at best. The sun was due to set in about two hours so I knew that I would be returning back through the section in the dark and was frustrated about it.
At this point, my friend Lynette McDougal caught up with me. She had some medical challenges during the Zion 100 and was back looking for some redemption at Grand Canyon. She was really upbeat and didn’t even complain about my bitching about the last segment. We worked through the Crazy Jug aid station and made our way out to Monument Point to see a truly spectacular view of the Canyon.
Monument Point was mile 53 and the furthest point ‘out’ in the race so now it was time to head home.
I had three miles to get back to Crazy Jug and focussed on getting plenty of calories down. I wanted to have plenty of energy for the scrambling between Crazy Jug and Parissawampitts. As if on cue, the sun set just as I was leaving Crazy Jug and starting into the most technical section of the course. As tough as the section was, it should be noted that it was incredibly well marked. Some of the sections were nearly vertical (with soft/technical footing as well) but at least you knew where you were headed. I took my time determined to finish the course but at the same time not wanting to kill myself in the process. There were a couple of downhill sections that were so steep that I resorted to the oldest/safest method of descent…the buttslide. It seemingly took forever but I finished the section and made it back to Parissawampitts unscathed. I was 100k into the run and had nearly 17 hours left on the clock to cover the 39 miles remaining on the course.
Between the altitude, terrain and accumulated miles – there was a lot of hiking in the next 20 miles but I did manage some running and worked to be as efficient as possible only stopping for a couple minutes at an aid station to clear my shoes of debri and apply a fresh batch of blister-shield to my feet.
I made it back to the Stina Point aid station (mile 85) around 6a. I knew that I could cover the remaining 15 miles in less than 10 hours…but I also knew that 13.5 of those miles would be uphill and that I still had some work to do. I dropped my Petzl Nao headlamp which had once again worked perfectly through the night and got moving.
I expected these miles to be muddy given that they were snow covered the day prior but the first 8-10 miles had actually managed to drain quite well. It wasn’t until the Dry Parks Aid Station (mile 94.5) that the trails got pretty swampy. I put on some music (Daft Punk) and just kept moving until I eventually crested the climb.
1.5 miles to the finish…mostly downhill…and I managed to run a good portion of it. All of the usual suspects were hanging out at the finish cheering in runners including Lynette, Turd’l, Matt and Cherri. I finished in 27:35 – 12th place (10th guy) out of 35 finishers and 52 starters.
It was by no means my fastest 100 but it was another great adventure. We seemingly ran through four seasons and spent nearly 70 of the 100 miles running along the rim of the Grand Canyon!
- Hoka Rapa Nui Trail
- Injinji socks
- North Face GTD Tights
- North Face Better Than Naked Shirt
- North Face Better Than Naked Jacket
- Julbo Dirt Sunglasses (day)
- Ultimate Direction SJ Pack
- Garmin 910XT
- Petzl NAO Headlamp