Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim Fastest Known Time for Women
On January 21st, I sent a short email to my friend Krissy entitled "need for speed". It simply said: I think one of these days you and I should work together to do the FKT at R2R2R. She wrote back "heck yeah, let's make it happen". And so began an adventure. We found a date that worked for us, planned and prepped and got ready to make our attempt on April 19th, 2011. Our time goal: sub 9:25 (Emily Baer held the record at 9:25, set in 2003)
Girl's weekend R2R2R Oct 2009
It was not the first time Krissy and I ran the Canyon together. In October 2009, Krissy, Ellen, Monica and I met up to run the R2R2R together in a fun, take a lot of pictures and have a blast way. It was so much fun. We took our time, stopped lots, took pictures, laughed, ate snickers and lemonade at Phantom Ranch, finishing in 12 hours (returning via Bright Angel).
Krissy and I would be doing a different kind of run. Where our first canyon run was focused on fun and smiles, our Fastest Known Time attempt was about teamwork, efficiency and running fast. I have been very intrigued in doing long trail runs (like the John Muir Trail) and going after various fastest known times on trails. This would be my first foray into the arena. Fastest Known Times are records set on various established trails and usually have a standardized start/finish spot and route. In the case of Rim to Rim to Rim the route takes you from the South Kaibab Trail to North Kaibab to South Kaibab totaling 42 miles and 11,000 feet of ascent.
Between January and April, Krissy and I made our plans, went about our business and prepared to rendevous in St. George with amazing friends from UltrAspire. As the date approached, I was nervous, naturally. When we planned this adventure, my late winter/ early spring plans included qualifying for the OT at Houston (January 31), then running Lake Sonoma 50 mile, hopping over to France for Salomon Advanced Week, then running R2R2R with Krissy. Well, clearly it didn't work out that way.
I ran Houston and didn't make the OT then I ran LA marathon (3/20/2011) and made the Olympic Trials. Less than 3 weeks later, I was toeing the line at Mad City 100k (4/9/2011) in order to earn a spot on this years 100k Team USA. I ran a PR by 13 minutes, won the national championship and punched my ticket to the WC100k in the Netherlands in September. Needlesstosay, each of those races left me feeling a bit underprepared in my training for such intense ascent and descent as we would encounter at the Grand Canyon and also made me feel hesitant that I would be recovered from a road 100k in less than 9 days. 9 days from Mad City to Rim to Rim to Rim. I haven't had time to even post a blog since Mad City, let alone rest or recover. In fact, in between I worked my busiest week yet as a personal chef. It is an exciting time in my life and even when it is exhausting it is still thrilling.
The hosts with the most: Bryce and Melanie.
On Saturday (4/16/2011), after giving an hour long presentation on food and trail running for the Presidio 10, I hopped on a plane to St.George, Utah to meet up with Krissy and Bryce and Melanie Thatcher (of UltrAspire). Bryce and Melanie were amazing hosts for Krissy and I. They provided us with use of their truck to get down to the Grand Canyon including a nice setup in the back of the truck for an amazing nights sleep before the run. They were absolutely key in making this experience a fantastic one. I am blessed to have met such wonderful folks and have them as part of our experience.
For the remainder of the weekend, we fueled up, relaxed, sorted our gear and finalized our details. My Salomon teammate Ted Russel had run the R2R2R on Friday and Krissy managed to debrief with him on Sunday when he gave us the lowdown on the snow levels (none!!!) and where the water was on.
Krissy with our special treats from Monica. Snickers and Lemonade!
On Monday, Krissy and I got in the truck and made the 5 hour + haul down to the South Rim where we had a serious of fortuitous events. First, Krissy realized she had forgotten her annual parks pass which would have gotten us in for free but when we arrived at the gate we were delighted to learn it was still Free National Parks week, so we didn't have to pay to enter the park. Next, we hadn't been able to get a room in the park and planned to camp in the back of the truck instead. When we arrived at the campsite, it said there were no spots available. We were asking the ranger a question about parking for the morning (where we could stash our truck) and secondarily asked if there were any spots available despite what the sign says. The ranger perked up and said "you are in luck" and we were able to get a spot to park our truck, Matt Hart's truck (he ran down with us to Phantom Ranch to video us) and even better we had neighboring campsites that let Jim of Elite Creators, who drove down to take video of us, park his truck in their site. If Monday's luck was any indication of how things were going to go, we were going to be in good shape.
Part of setting a FKT is making sure you are able to provide as much proof as possible of your run. We were excited to have Matt and Jim there and were delighted at the finish when Melanie and Bryce surprised us as well. Krissy and I made sure we set up our verification from the start including:
Announce your intentions in advance. Like a true gentleman (ahem, ladies), pay your respects to those who came before you, and tell them what you intend to attempt and when. (We posted of the FKT website and Krissy called Emily Baer)
Be an open book. Invite anyone to come and watch or, better yet, participate. This makes your effort more fun and any result more believable. (We had Matt, Jim, Bryce and Melanie- the more the merrier)
Record your event. Write down everything immediately upon completion. Memory doesn't count. (welcome to my blog, we also posted on FKT website)
Inspiration from Roch Horton on the drive to the start
Krissy and I woke up after a good nights sleep at 4:30am and got ready to hit Kaibab Trail at precisely 6am. We had our breakfast concoctions, double checked our gear and were at the trailhead with ample time to enjoy the first morning light. Matt and Jim had their cameras on us as we watched time tick towards 6am sharp. I also had my handheld Sanyon HD video camera with me and recording our time stamps to make sure that once we were out of Phantom Rance that we still were able to document and verify our time stamps with video and pictures. We wouldn't be stopping for fun photos or to admire the scenery this time though.
I came into this run with some (ok A LOT) trepidation. Despite the fact that Krissy and I run exceptionally well together and seem to naturally buoy one another, I was afraid that my fatigue from my other two events in close time would slow me down. I was afraid that my road training and minimal vertical in training with the exception of one weekend two weeks before was leaving me unprepared. Running with a partner after such a goal as this requires a special skill and a delicate balancing act. I didn't want to be made to feel like a weak partner or that I was letting her down (an experience I have had in the past- not with Krissy). I wanted to pull my weight and do my part. We had communicated well before the run about my feelings and she just kept saying, "I'm just going to try and keep up with those marathon legs of yours". I knew she'd be hauling me on the ups and I (hopefully) could take us down in one piece and hammer the very runnable grades. We are truly a dynamic duo. That said, I was also not at my best and didn't want to lean to heavily on her or slow her down. When running with a partner, you are not just thinking about how you feel and what you are doing, you are thinking about how your running effects your partner and what you can do to help the team and bolster the other person. I wanted to be at my best for her and for us. I wanted us to get that FKT, bad. I knew she did too. I just knew that I was going to have to work hard for it.
Start of the FKT
6am we stepped off the top of the rim and began our descent. It is steep, it is technical, it is freaking beautiful. My hat immediately blew off my head in a huge gust of wind and I felt like a total amateur trying to get my camera back in my pocket. But once I got over my technical difficulties, I settled into an easy lope behind Krissy. Each step down and down, through time, through history into the earth. The early morning light was perfect, the air cool and I tried to take in the immensity and beauty. Matt ran down with us, videoing us as we fly through corners and over gigantic cuts in the earth, switchbacks that zigged and zagged back and forth. You lost 4700 feet in the 6 miles to the river. We were to the river in 55 minutes and scooted quickly into Phantom ranch a mile later in 1:03. Phantom Ranch was our slowest transition of the day. Krissy filled our bottles and I used the bathroom which required filling and refilling a giant bucket to flush the toliet. 7 minutes later we were out of there and began gradual climb up to the north rim.
Krissy and I took turns pulling up this section. We both felt like we were working hard but moving well and the little incline we definitely felt. It was plenty warm early and I had lingering self-doubt. As we ran along the canyon wall towards the North Rim, I said, "Ok, I have to say this out loud. I am really freaked out right now about the thought of having to go back up South Kaibab". It is steep and I couldn't deny as I descended that I wasn't worried about having enough in the tank to get myself safely out. Krissy soothed my mind and I focused on taking my calories, hydrating and taking in my salts.
Arriving Phantom Ranch
Roaring Springs "Artist House"
Krissy and I were all business. We didn't chat, we didn't laugh or joke, though we carried lightness in our hearts- we just focused. We made it to our second water stop at the roaring springs "artist house" aka the basketball court in 2:23. It was mile 15 and not even 9 am, the heat was setting in. After the "house" the real climbing begins taking it toll and making you work. You get nearly 2/3rds of the climbing to the North Rim's almost 6,000 feet at this point. The North Rim climb is still much easier than the South, but that is relative. It is a grunt and my legs rebelled a bit. I started to cramp on some of the steeper steps and had to settle into a hard walk. Krissy let me set the pace despite the fact she was feeling good. I was frustrated with myself but Krissy kept encouraging me and being patient with me. She kept saying, "I know you girl, you bounce back". And in a short matter of time, I did. I took a hyper Vespa and a more calories and I finally felt good as we inched our way closer and closer. We passed through the familiar tunnel less than 2 miles from the top and got excited at the thought of being inbound! We passed a work crew then saw a solo R2R2R runner on her way back.
Oh how sweet it was to be on the way back. Even though I was still meditating on the remaining climb, I knew I had 14 miles of steep downhill or slight downhill before then and I was looking forward to not having to work so hard for a while. We took a video with the sign, told some hikers about what we were doing and asked them to take our picture. 4:29 at the North Rim We hustled off and spent less than 3-4 minutes at the top. It felt good to change gears and I was happy that my legs weren't feeling worked from the first downhill. I was hoping that I would have legs to "do my job" and take us hard down back to Phantom. I figured we could take nearly an hour off our ascent time without breaking ourselves but I was going to put as much effort out there to ensure we didn't have to cut it close on the final ascent. I was tired, I was hurting, I was swirling in my own head. I decided to focus on my job and switched off my brain. The initial descent is quite steep and technical so I encouraged us to not rush and hurt ourselves. I kept the pace backed off to make sure that after the "house" when things became super runnable that we had our running legs. We passed a shirtless runner with only a single bottle (we ran into him in Flag the next day, his name was Cameron from Auburn). We passed the solo female runner and said hello. As we passed, she said, "hey are you Devon?" I said yes. Then she said (though I didn't hear it, Krissy did), "You are the Banshee!" Krissy relayed this along to me and I had to laugh. We introduced ourselves and her name was Tracy, she was running the R2R2R to celebrate her 40th birthday! Rock on fellow runners!
On the downhills, I didn't feel as good I would like and the intermittent hills made my legs cramp and go wild. And my mind went wild with it. I was feeling more and more intimidated by our final climb up South Kaibab. I spoke up and told Krissy that if I didn't start feeling better, I was going to make her leave me at the River. She immediately said no, that my safety was more important. I told her that I could make it out of the canyon, I just wanted to sacrifice myself for the goal. I felt like I was slowing her down. I felt like I was holding Krissy up, I felt worried that I physically was beyond my limit and would have to crawl out of the canyon inch by inch. I told her I would insist and that I didn't want this to be about me. We ran in silence for a while and then she said, "it's not about me, it's about us. I am not leaving you". I put it out of my head as much as I could. We powered along, I pushed and pushed. Krissy told me she was in the pain cave and we fell silent working our way along the canyon wall and rive back towards Phantom Ranch. It was hot but there was an occasional cool strong gust of wind that kept us moving forward. I drank a great deal, ate more gels, took salts on the half hour interval. I was hurting. Hurting in a way that made me wonder if I was just going to sit down and take a nap at Phantom Ranch. It is a dark, scary place when you are 5,000 feet below where you need to go. I was encouraged only by how hard I could run at that point but I could feel my energy leaving me. I was hoping, praying, and wishing just to make it to Phantom Ranch, then I would start hitting the FRS and caffeinated gels. There I hoped that I would be able to find my next gear.
Instead, the wheels suddenly went flying off. Less than 1/4 mile outside of Phantom, Krissy took the lead and told me to just tuck in but I hit the wall. I was so deep in the pain cave that I couldn't get myself under control. I wheezed and shuffled and we finally made it into Phantom Ranch in 6:50. We had just under 2:35 minutes to make it 7 miles to the finish from Phantom, 1 of which is relatively flat. I had a defining moment. I knew that we could still make it. Krissy knew we could still make it. I was on the ropes and the moment was upon me whether I was going to give up and let go of our goal or dig perhaps deeper than I ever have, cast off everything else and squeeze every last drop out. I could quit or I could fight. F that, I am a fighter. I focused on just continuing to move forward. I wouldn't stop.
Krissy had told me earlier in the day that South Kaibab wasn't runnable for her either, so I knew that to be the best teammate I could be, I just needed to follow her feet and match her march up the hill. We ran to the bridge, crossed through the tunnel and began the hardest climb of my life. On our first trip to the canyon, we had gone up Bright Angel which is longer, but has more water and is a more forgiving grade. Krissy and I had been able to run a significant amount of it. South Kaibab is not so generous. We were going to have to work for it.
The first steps up the hill nearly stopped me in my tracks. Cramp, cramp, cramp. "This is a death march". I gasped aloud. My fight was fighting back. Krissy encouraged me, supported me and I relentless forward movement. Each step got better, I wouldn't stop moving. I put my hands on my knees and slumped forward, using my entire body to climb. I followed Krissy's feet up. We encouraged one another and were pulled towards the top like their was a magnet at the top (thanks Roch).
South Kaibab is an amazingly beautiful trail. The switchbacks are carved into the side of steep faces and you can look out into the entire canyon unfolding below you. Step, step, step. We released primal growls, grunts and deep heaving breathes. Upward. I fell into a rhythm and knew we would make it out. We started to see more and more people and I knew we were getting closer and closer. The more people, the closer to the top. We even found our running legs on small flatter sections and it felt really good to change to a running stride. I focused on draining my hydration pack to lighten my load instead of drinking from my bottles. I focused on taking in my Saltsticks and calories frequently as my body battled the effort, the depletion, the lack of recovery, the altitude. We caught up to a hiker dude who stepped off the trail for us as he ascended but then he pretty much immediately passed us back moving easily. He made a comment about working a full day and still moving that fast and that fired us up. Krissy said she really wanted to beat him up the hill after that comment. I wanted to as well but knew I wasn't ready to push any harder. I was red lining, I was at my max.
"Are you Krissy?" One solo hiker asked. "Yes" Krissy responded. "Great work, keep going. Melanie told me to encourage you guys. Go girls". Both Krissy and I had had an idea that Bryce and Melanie would come down but we both nearly cried with joy moments later when we heard them cheering from high above. Their energy drew us up, pulled us to the top.
Krissy and I are actually in this picture. Yeah for crazy nice cameras!
We hit the 1.5 mile shelter (where there is no water) and the hiker dude was resting there. He said, "27 minutes to the top and you are rockstars". I looked at my watch, it read 8:43. I smiled and said, "if we make it to the top in 27 minutes we will be rockstars". We could still do it. It was the first time in the entire climb that I could actually believe that we could still make the record.
Bryce and Melanie told the hikers on the trail to watch for us and what we were doing and the majority of the hikers we passed offered amazing encouragement. The trail was pretty crowded on this perfect early afternoon day and we were buoyed by each encouragement, each "wow good work", each "superwomen!!!". Krissy pulled me up the hill, pressing forward and I worked as hard as I could to keep up. Bryce and Melanie cheered and rallied us on, taking amazing photos and documenting our every step. We hit the steep switchbacks and glimpsed the top. We could see the promise land, we could hear Matt and Jim waiting at the top yelling. I found my final gear, pushing through cramping, fatigue, fear. Our steps matched one another and we zigged and zagged through the final switchbacks, up and out.
9:12:29. We had done it. We had broken the record and established a new women's fastest known times on one of the crown jewels of FKTs. More importantly, we had done it together. We had worked together, we took our opposite strengths, we took our intensely strong bond of friendship and we turned ourself into a machine.
This run is not easy. Even if I hadn't just run LA and Mad City and had plenty of specific training, it is not easy. It is a beast. I swore to Krissy on the final ascent that I would never come back again (even though I already have my next trip planned with Nathan, Brett, Larissa and Sarah in October), I know I will. I know that the Canyon invokes that kind of response from me because I still have more to learn from it. I have more fight to give it. I learned a great deal of how deep I can dig, I think I can dig even deeper. I learned how much my body has to give even when I don't think I have anything left. I faced some demons and self-doubt and realized that there are things that I still need to mourn and forgive.
I know that I couldn't have accomplished this goal without Krissy. She was my rock. She went with me into some dark spaces and helped pulled me out. She was patient, kind and wonderful. Even though much of those 9 hours was spent in silence, I think our friendship deepened like the canyon we crossed (twice) and I know that I have a true friend who always has my back.
I have no idea how long our record will stand. In a lot of ways, I hope we inspire a challenge to more women to get out and get after FKTs. Krissy and I pushed each other to elevate our game and hopefully our run will inspire others to elevate theirs. The record doesn't matter in the end, the journey does and we did it. We did it together.
Krissy, Bryce, me, Melanie, Matt and Jim
I am so grateful for our wonderful supporters- Bryce, Melanie, Jim and Matt. It really made my experience to have you be a part of it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!