FKT: Brandon Worthington - Grand Canyon Crossings (AZ) - 2021-09-19

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3d 21h 51m 9s

My 5 R2R2R journey started as a scramble to find a vitual Tahoe 200 course. I craved something that I would feel inspired to finish. Originally my friend Nathaniel and I had set our sights on an unsupported attempt on the Collegiate Peaks loop in CO, but after a warmup hike on the Weminuche High Route, Nathan’s IT band was telling him his hiking season was over.

  In 2012, I recorded my first R2R2R with a CMC and friends’ group loosely organized by Bob Dawson. The groups comradery was special and their collective passion for the canyon was contagious. I also ran my first 100 miler later that season and credit the finish to lessons learned in the canyon. The following years I would return each spring to endeavor r2r2r. In 2018 I journeyed deeper into the canyons more remote places while thru hiking the Hayduke- these memories sustained me for a few years, but each year that past I lamented the canyon’s absence.

            It was no surprise that the canyon bubbled up in my mind when trying to find a course that I could gain 33,000 vertical gain over 200 miles. With a little digging I found a link to Paul Hodge’s article, I was hooked! My plan was to resupply from the north rim parking area and take trail naps instead of returning to a campsite on the north rim which would add 1.5 miles RT. I briefly thought about caching supplies at cottonwoods bear (squirrel) boxes or figuring out something similar at phantom ranch but shrugged it off. I’d simply carrying food for 42 miles. To my surprise all water taps along the corridor were working, an r2r2r first for me! I carried capacity for 1.5 liters split between three, 17 oz soft bottles and carried a befree filter if I need to pull water.

            Wednesday night I pepped my car’s aid station and set my phones alarm for 1:45am in order to be moving at 3am, this would provide me enough time to complete the first double crossing and have enough daylight to prep for the second lap. I woke up, changed and completed all the morning runner rituals. I was almost I ready to go when I noticed a time discrepancy between my car clock and my phone.  I have changed the car clock upon crossing into AZ so I knew it was the correct time, my phone must have picked up a cell tower back in UT? Whatever the cause, of the malfunction I had gotten up an hour earlier than expected. I laughed and settled into the front seat and closed my eyes for next 45 minutes. An hour later the real 2:45am rolled around as I heard other hiking hopefuls gather themselves in the parking lot.

Lap 1: Overzealous

  I begin the first lap just after 3am, the plan was to just take it easy and really spend time gauging out what 5 double crossings were going to take. As I descended it got warmer, +40 degree warmer. It seemed that in no time I was at the first stop, rest house, 1.4 miles above cottonwood camp. I began to jog on and off in this section, it’s a net down and easy trail compared to the big ruts and oversized steps on the rims. Even though I had planned to power hike, the seal had been broken, I was gleefully jogging along. Soon after cottonwood I entered the box and scared the crap out of a sleep walking hiker. Phantom ranch was stirring just after sunrise, as I steadily carried on to the south rim topping out sometime around 7 total hours. I felt good, but had diverged from my plan and moving a little too fast.

Briefly spoke to a ranger at the South rim and thanked the AmeriCorps group building trail near the first rest house. Just before tipoff, the last stop before the inner gorge and the trail intersection with tonto trail, I met up with the AZT hiker I had scared earlier in the box. I apologized and he laughed it off. His trail name was “almost there” and had hiked the AT last year and had recently completed the CT. Upon parting ways we wished each other luck, and I jogged down to phantom.

From phantom I power hiked until the bridge. I jumped in the creek and washed off, it felt amazing as the day was really starting to heat up. Not long after leaving the bridge I came across a group I would name the Texas quartet. They were a group of women hiking to cottonwood and planning to r2r2r over the course of 4 days. I first passed them while heading up the south rim and they laughed as I passed, mostly likely at my comical outfit: glacier glasses, sun hoody and shorty running shorts. But now that I had caught back up with them, they seemed impressed.

They were about a mile from cottonwood moving slowly and couldn’t wait to be done for the day, I explained that I would see them again as my plan was to do five r2r2r’s, I don’t think they understood as they said, “oh no, you’ll be done way before us.” I left them quickly and retorted, “well don’t be surprised if we see each other again.” The rest of the hike out remained slow and steady, I met another AZTer “cowboy” a rancher from Tucson just above the rest house and returned to the north rim in around 15.5 hours RT.

Lap 2: Heat and caffeine crash

  With daylight ending, temps on the north rim had begun drop fast. I packed up everything for a second trip while I still had light. I wanted a quick turnaround, for the next out-n-back, but I was tired. The allure of a nap was too much to pass up. I laid down and crammed myself between my seat and aid station supplies. After getting some sleep- but mostly tossing and turning I woke up and decided I had enough. It was time to go.

I felt good jogging down the north rim, moving as well as I had the first lap. I made it to the rest house with either running or power hiking all the way to phantom. As I passed the bathroom on the far north side of phantom a ring-tailed cat dashed in front of me and then settled in behind a tree. Its tail seemed about the length of its body, I did not know at the time what the animal was, it was a mystery I’d solve later after talking to some locals. Super neat!

After the excitement of the sighting had passed, I felt suddenly sleepy, I was hoping to climb the +2 miles to the shade structure at tipoff and take a rest. But as I made my way through phantom ranch, I knew that wasn’t a possibility. I’d need to stop and sleep. Possibly catching psychosomatic resonance as I passed under the soft red lamppost lights of a sleeping phantom ranch, I could hear the whining of AC units, and the idea of an air conditioned cabin weighted on my mind. I found a wash out just outside phantom, took off my shoes, covered myself in my emergency bivy and slept.

            Upon waking I didn’t feel much better, still sleepy and feeling hot but not sweating with the stillness at the bottom of the canyon! “Oh no!” I thought, “had I been taking the right dose of electrolytes?” I popped a Nuun and carried on. I struggled through the inner gorge and made it to tipoff still too early in the morning to have the hope that daylight will bring the feeling on energy back. I rummaged in my bag for caffeine, I had not yet taken any, but found I’d hadn’t packed anything with caffeine! I hoped the minor headache and not sweating was simply caffeine withdraws and not a different underlying problem. Sleep had me in a firm grasp. There wasn’t another option, so I slept. This time it was a touch more restful, cooler than the canyon floor, but overall, I worried about the stoppage time. I was paying for the speed of the first lap.

            I woke to a glowing blue sky. Light was starting to return to the canyon. The objective now was to make it up and back to phantom ranch to buy a coffee before carrying on. I made it up easily and started a controlled shuffle back down to the bottom despite the headache and lack of sweat.

 As I entered phantom, I spotted my third AZT hiker, “Noodle” and he fit the bill of a thru hiker. He was quick to jet as he needed to make the post office by 4pm I wished him luck. I wasted little time hiking and digging out some cash for coffee at the general store. The moment of truth, cold brew in hand, I slurped down half the glass and crossed my fingers. I went about refilling water and reshuffling items in the pack. I sat down in a spot of shade and enjoyed the feeling of being around others after a long night. After ten minutes of chatting with some other hikers and finish my coffee I felt amped and ready to press on.

            This would be the hottest day in the canyon. I took a dip in the creek at first two bridges. After a good wash and the caffeine conundrum behind me I decided it best to do some solid power hiking and temper any time expectations. I settled in and crossed paths with three pieces of the Texas Quartet just below the rest house. They took lunch on the North rim and were now heading back to cottonwood, as we parted way they said, “Oh we’ll see you again.” YES, exactly! It was I small boost to he some familiar faces, if only for a moment.

            Solid hiking gave me an opportunity to get in and out from the car with daylight left. I passed a group of 5 women from Tucson that were planning to turn back around and head back to the south rim via Bright Angel. This was the groups first r2r2r, and I shared in their determination as I told them I was planning 3 more double crossings after topping out. It sprinkled a bit of rain here and there. I hoped for more to come. We arrived at the north rim around the same time, we wished each other safe travels.  

Lap 3: Blowin’ up? Or blowin’ it up?

            It felt good getting back to the north rim, I knew that this lap would be pivotal. Just one more crossing and I’d be halfway. I made sure to stock up on plenty of caffeine products and took off. I passed a man heading back to the north he exclaimed, “wow, that was a quick turnaround.” With downhill momentum all I had time to muster was, “Thanks!” Plugged in my light just before the rest house and made great time into phantom, this whole trip up and down the south rim would be under the cover of night- I was passing scorpions and tarantulas left and right, was informed that the tarantulas are out looking for mates this time of year.

            I buoyed by the canyon’s nightlife and the caffeine monsters inside me seemed satiated. I soon found myself again at the foot of the south rim. I long slow grind to the top would reveal a 47:21 halfway split! I was excited about the possibility on going sub 100 hours and by well I was feeling now compared to the previous night. I made my way down to tipoff’s shade structure, which had now solidified its place in my mind as the canyon’s best trail napping set-up. I plugged in my devices to charge, and got some rest.  

             I woke to voices and headlamps coming down the trail about a half hour before dawn. I quickly packed up and tucked in behind a group of 4 or 5 men running down south kaibab. I learned these men were veterans with a team RWB event headed for ribbon falls and then back up the south rim via bright angel. I left the group when they stopped about halfway through the gorge.

However brief, it felt good to be running with others in the dark- I continued to feel good I decided I’d skip water at phantom and continue through the box to cottonwood in the early morning hours. I was flying! No need for questions, strap in- I was either blowin’ up or blowing it up… I hoped for the latter.  I crossed paths with the Texas Quartet once more in the upper reaches of the box. They stepped aside, we traded smiles and well wishes. This would truly be the last time I’d see them!

            Above cottonwood throngs of people emerged, it was Saturday morning, and I was catching traffic. The hikers were in great spirits, I was stoked for them, I after an hour or so I became exhausted with saying hello to everyone. This gave me even more reason to settle into a solid pace and simply give a look that I might not have the energy to respond. Above the rest house it cleared out, and I most hiked with occasional cross traffic. Just above Supai the man that had commented about the “quick turnaround” on the north rim the previous evening spotted me and said, “So, how many laps does this make?”, “three” I said. He said he didn’t want to hold me up and gave congrats. I topped out just under 56 hours, taking more than 12 hours off the previous self-support three trip time! No blow-up yet.

Lap 4: Here comes the rain

            Spoke to a ranger at the north rim as well as the gentleman who had congratulated my third lap, he was a runner from the flagstaff area and followed r2r2r happenings. My watch beeped and gave a caution signal- I would learn later that its data bank was full. It still tracked vert via the barometer and total distance. I would have to rely on the in-reach tracking intervals for the final 2 laps. Just before heading out, it started to rain. Yes! It was a welcome change after the heat of the previous few days.

            The rain made it easy to run all the way to the box. But unfortunately, with the moisture I started experiencing more chaff than I would normal expected, also the cooler weather made my sinus’s a little more congested. I felt a sinus headache coming on, so I walked a few miles of the box. Another r2r2r runner flew by on his way back to the south rim. I continued bidding my time as the view from Phantom would be better vantage to spy bad weather on the south rim. The ranger at the top of the north rim recommended for that I take bright angel trail if the weather looked bad, it would provide somewhat more shelter from the storm if needed, but at the cost of adding overall miles to trip.

            Arriving at phantom I sat down with Nick, the runner who had passed me in the box, he had gotten back just in time for the 4pm store closing. We chatted for a moment, as I explained my plans, his friend Sean showed up shortly after. We instantly bonded over our shared WS100 buffs, but daylight was burning, and the rain was over. It was time to shove off.

            The normally hot and still inner gorge felt wonderful. The canyon looked refreshed after the rain, the sky somehow bluer and the foliage a vibrant green. I spotted a rainbow over a distance butte off to the east. The setting sun also lit up the window of desert view watchtower, Jimi Hendrix lyrics echoed in my mind. As I climbed above skeleton point, I would contend with slick mud and large standing puddles in between the oversized steps. I was moving well and thought I’d even reach the rim before dark.

Above the last rest house, I was quickly losing light, I’d have to stop and pull out my light. There was a bit of resistance to stopping momentarily to get out my light. This simply laid bare my tired minds stubbornness, it finally took tripping on a step to jar my mind into action. I sat down and took a breath while I switched my gear to night mode. Not long after I was on top of the south rim.

            I was careful on the descent with the puddles and mud. My light did a good job picking out the puddles and the mud that surrounded them. With cautious but solid effort, I made my way all the way to the canyon floor. Phantom’s nightlife was really ramping up. The croaking of frogs could be heard in every corner of the canyon. I ran into Bret? and Chase from Milwaukee whom I briefly met on the descend off the north rim earlier that afternoon. They wished me luck and I took off, in no less than thirty second after departing I cross paths with a Grand Canyon Pink Rattlesnake! I jumped aside as the snake slithered to higher ground. After the initial shock revealed we were now safe distances from one another I snapped a picture. Now infused with the adrenaline from the encounter I had little problem running the next few miles.

            Eventually the excitement caught up to me along with a tiredness I couldn’t shake. Cottonwood simply couldn’t come soon enough. Finally, the downed cottonwood what marked the campgrounds southern edge flashed into view. I ripped off my shoes and cuddled up with pack as a makeshift pillow, threw my emergency bivy around my legs and conked out.

            Upon waking, I felt determined to ascend back up the north rim before sunrise. I also reminded myself that the next time I’d be here I’d be on my way out, saying my goodbye to the canyon. Above the rest house I could see headlamps bobbing down the trail. In a strange way the lights made me a little less tired. There was no need to start conversation, the narrow headlamp beams possibly narrowing the user’s focus as well. Swimming against the flow of traffic led me all the way to the rim just before sunrise. Four laps in the book: total time of 74:32.

Lap 5: Letting go.

            I started down the north rim trail after stocking up for the last time. I brushed my teeth, just before heading out, which seemed to start a cascading effect of blowing out and coughing up bloody mucus. It didn’t feel good. The symptoms persisted until Supai. After using the restroom, the coughing cleared up. I apologized to my poor airways that had taken so much abuse with the heat, dust, and mule excrement. I recognized my distress and let it go just as fast.

 I started to catch back up with all the folks I had seen on the climb. These groups gave me good pacing targets. I peeled off the trail just before the box to take my last dip. I water felt wonderful! Especially on my feet, which blister wise had held up, but were now swollen to point of constant ache. I drenched my shirt before leaving the creek and tucked in behind a group of four power hikers just as I entered the box. In previous laps I would be running this gradual down, but the box was starting to heat up and reminded myself to just keep moving.   

            Arriving at phantom was a good checkpoint. I pulled out cash for one more cold brew. As I waited for the line to thin out, I recognized a woman that could only be an AZT hiker, we were quick to start up conversion and within moments we planned to hike the south kiabab.  Her trail name was “Sketchy”. She’s a badass hiker, a triple crowner (AT, PCT, and CDT) and numerous other trails- she had recently finished hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail. I couldn’t imagine my good fortune/timing. Let go. The canyon will provide.

            Sketch and I were steady on the climb. I completely forgot all about the heat or how close I was to finishing. The day before, I had thought this climb would be a complete ass kicker, but now I was thoroughly in a state of flow.  I lead the way as we hiked and chatted. We ranged in conversation from the serious to the silly. At one point we traded vomit stories, classic thru hiker trail talk! In seemingly no time we topped out at the south rim. We snapped a picture and said farewell. Each leaving the other with a book recommendation from our travels.

            I made good time down to phantom. I said goodbye to the tipoff shade structure that had been my go-to nap station. Phantom at sunset was a much calmer scene than during the day. Campers and staff were eating dinner and deer were grazing along the banks of bright angel. I felt good and promised myself I would try to make it out of the canyon without another nap.

            Nightfall came just as I entered the box, I flipped on my lamp and ran as much as I could. In order to capture the most of what was left, I adjusted my eating timer to 30 minutes. For much of the run, I was eating dense calories half a larabar or bobo bars every 40 mins. I also mixed in some sugar in the form of jellybeans and peanut butter M&Ms or animal crackers- but none of that made me feel good. Potato and corn chips had a place way in rotation. I thought the increased energy would help me get back up the north rim, but a few hours after sunset I felt tired again.

            I’d notice these culvert access tubes that line the trail coming out of the box, if I wasn’t going to make it to cottonwood picnic tables for one more nap, I planned to use one of these sheet metal structures to get me off the ground. It wasn’t long before a spotted one and jumped on and sprawled out. To my surprise these were cool to the touch. It made sense. I just hadn’t thought much about it. If there was water running below these of course they would be cool. I hiked up the back of my shirt so my skin could make contract with the cool metal. It was amazingly! After laying down for just 15 minutes I felt ready to move on.

            I pasted the rest house and was soon making the long haul out. I kept pressing, knowing the pain would be over soon. I was confident I’d go sub 4 days, but how much faster could I go? I took stock of my remaining food and decided I take a small bit every 20 mins. It also popped into my mind that I could plug into some tunes. I plugged in, singing along to eclectic blends of rock, rap, and electronica. Gorillaz “Feel Good Inc” didn’t exactly make me feel good, but it had me moving! I passed through the Supai tunnel one final time and noticed the turning aspens and towering ponderosa overhanging the trail that signaled the trails upper range. A brief wave of emotion washed over me as I realized I’d be finishing in the middle of the night with one to around share. An understandable emotion, I was tired, I acknowledged it and let go! True to its nature, the canyon once again had filled my soul and left me with some unforgettable memories, I can’t wait for the next trip! My journey concluded with an overall time of 93:51.