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GRAND CANYON - Discovery October 2022

R-2-R-2-R October 5 & 6
Our Athletic Event
“How was your Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R-2-R-2-R) this year?” was a surprisingly hard question to answer this season, especially concisely, for our first round trip hike between the Grand Canyon’s south and north rims in 3 years. The words flowed, but reflected the jumble of feelings:
..It was terrible, our worst ever by a lot! I finished the first day 1 ½ hours behind my slowest time of about 12 hours and we both finished the 2nd day 3 ½ hours past our worst time, 2 hours after ‘last light’ and under intermittent sprinkles.
..It was disappointing, heartbreaking, and downright miserable to push ourselves well beyond exhaustion while hiking uphill to 8,200’ (2500 m) and 7,000’ (2100 m) for hours at the end of both days.
..It was a monumental triumph to have done it at all given that I had had 2 serious body failures in the week before, one 3 days before the first crossing, in which I could barely shuffle after a 6 mile (10 km) hike because of severe muscle spasms.
..Though we were beyond depleted when we completed our 2-day event, we again finished with no blisters, no toe nails damaged by the 11,000’ (3360 m) of descent, no swollen or painful knees, and no injuries, which put us in the minority of people on the trail, regardless of their speed. We were stiff, creaky, and deeply tired, but had no specific issues that would require more than a day or 2 of recovery time.
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Our latest upgrades for shrinking the gear we carry for 2 days between the Rims.

..The Citrulline malate sports nutrition supplement we’d both been experimenting with in September was outrageously effective in obliterating the last of Bill’s debilitating altitude intolerance, as well as improving the comfort of our muscles on the trail. It also eliminated the considerable brain fog we both experience after epic athletic events and magically prevented the onset of Bill’s typical diarrhea and general GI distress that always haunts him during big athletic endeavors.
..Exercising beyond our limits brought into view otherwise hidden weakness patterns that are likely to allow Bill to further unravel his decades-old back problems.
..The physical duress reinforced a day’s-old, new model we were considering, which was that the back muscle collapse that we’ve both experienced on taxing hikes is not a failure of the back muscles themselves but a failure elsewhere, causing the brain to deactivate the back muscles for self-preservation. I could barely walk the next day, but my tired back muscles had no difficulty doing their job during my daily, 5 minute, unsupported headstand.
..The extreme stress validated my latest selection of moves for monitoring my spinal imbalances, and then intervening when in the field, to reduce the pain and dysfunction, though didn’t solve the unidentified, underlying problem.

The next morning, after doing little more than getting up to pee and tallying numbers on our exercise spreadsheet while in bed, I found the answer to our desperate and urgent question: “Why did this all-systems failure occur now when we’d happily and comfortably done the crossing a dozen times since 2016?”. Like usual, we were booked for a 2nd R-2-R-2-R event in a week and we needed an answer.

Even with the rumminess of my morning sleepy head and sleep-deprived brain, a rudimentary assessment of the stats for our last 20 months of exercise made it perfectly clear: our training had not included enough 20 mile (32 km) hikes, even though we were ahead of schedule for our total mileage of 2,000 (3200 km) for the year.

Our 3 months spent walking the historic trails in England in the late spring and summer required 2-4 hours of public transportation almost every day to get to and from the trailheads, making our walking days too short for 20 milers. We then spent 5 weeks in the Italian Alps, where the roughness of the trails and suddenly being at moderate altitude, precluded doing such long hikes. We cranked out plenty of 15 mile (24 km) hikes and some serious elevation gain over the summer, but that clearly hadn’t been enough.
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Mules hogging the trail below Bill near the Black Bridge over the Colorado River.

Recovering from the long-term side-effects from my discontinued antihypertensive drugs, my ongoing spinal issues, and asthma-inducing wildfire smoke when we returned home in September, all interfered with doing long hikes. By this time in 2021, we’d completed 6 twenty-mile hikes, 4 of which had elevation gain of around 5,000’ (1500 m); at the same point in 2022, we’d done none.

Minutes after reporting my analysis to Bill, we had a plan. Bill would add 2 columns to our “Activities” spreadsheet so we could readily monitor our big hikes during the year; we’d redouble our efforts to push some of the plentiful 15-mile hikes to 20-milers; and we’d resume dabbling with speed walking intervals to bump-up our average speed. It was a huge relief to have specifically identified where we had gone astray at the outset of our recovery day: emotionally, we were quickly bouncing back from the humiliating performance crash.

We accepted Bill’s proposal to not do another R-2-R-2-R until we restored our 12-hour maximum time for going one way across the Canyon. The next week’s planned R-2-R-2-R would be changed to a one way event, and we’d take the 4-hour van shuttle back to the South Rim the following morning.

The Social Side of the Inner Canyon
The sense of community in the “Corridor,” consisting of the North and South Kaibab trails that converge at Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River, was fun and robust on both days of our big event. Being significantly slower than Bill, I hiked alone much of both days and ‘being solo’ probably added to the attention I received.

On the first day, I started in the dark with a group of 6 powerful-looking, 30-something female athletes who were walking at my speed, but only because they stopped to take photos and I did not. We were on the trail together off-and-on for 11 hours and they showered me with complements and praise, laughingly appointing me their spiritual guide and older-woman role model. They were a delightful mix of what I admiringly call “tough bitches” and yet sweet and compassionate. Like the best of girl-groups, they were overflowing with giggles and laughter all day, creating an uplifting energy that they shared with me on the trail.

One man, perhaps Indonesian, with his darling pre-teen daughter said, “Can I ask you a question?” after holding his head under the first faucet on the edge of Phantom Ranch by the river. The initial question was how old I was, which was quickly followed by “What is your secret?” I have a lot of opinions about what we do right in our lifestyle choices to support our athleticism, but had difficulty being concise after almost 4 hours of descent on the notoriously steep S Kaibab Trail in the heat building into the low 90’s. We chatted longer than was good for my finishing time, but his questions were genuine, and we concluded with him taking a photo of me with his daughter.

On the second day, our return to the South Rim from the North, I picked up 2 new women friends hiking the Corridor with a very congenial and athletic 51-year-old man. The women, aged 41 and 61, showered me with praise for looking awesome and for my athleticism. The younger woman took my photo with which to chastise her mother for not being more active, given mama is a year younger than me. Bill and I interacted with several other small groups on the trails, frequently being referred to by them as “inspirational” given our age.

We were in turn inspired by the tall, silent, solo hiker/trail runner in all black with a full-sized camera around his neck who had hiked our south to north route in 9 hours but was planning to make the return the same day in about 7 hours. Then there was the absolutely miserable-looking group of about 8 teens who I learned had been hiking for about 24 hours when I mentioned the absence of smiles to their trailing adult chaperone. Neither of us approved of putting immature bodies under so much physical stress, but they were still moving in the growing heat.

At the N Rim, our room phone rang just after we staggered into our historic cabin at the end of the first day after hitching hiking a ride from the trailhead to the Lodge in the dark. The young desk clerk, who had handed us our key, joyfully announced that a couple had just canceled their seats on the last morning shuttle to the trailhead, at 5 am. We’d arrived so late that the only available space, on the 3 am shuttle, was a non-starter for us. As it was, we had less than 6 hours of sleep that night. Her news was a huge relief and simplified the contingency planning needed to be performed by our compromised brains, both that evening and the next morning, and potentially spared us walking an additional 2 miles to reach the trailhead.
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Using 4 British, 1’x1’ square, 30-cent, mesh veggie bags to craft knee pillows for Barb’s spine at the N Rim.

The unique, transient, social connections we have during this taxing R-2-R-2-R event are always some of the treasures from the experience. First names are exchanged but there is no pretense of staying in touch, though I readily share our website information with anyone interested in our trove of hiking-related tips. Many of these connections and stories make bigger and more lasting imprints in our minds than the arduous hiking journey itself.

The Day After
Whoa! We were hung-over the day after our ugly R-2-R-2-R; it wasn’t like having a hang-over, but actually being in a similar deranged metabolic state. It was the nasty chemicals our bodies released during the excessive exertion the 2 previous days that were still on board, not alcohol breakdown products, making us miserable.

We slept in, which we never do, struggled to get out of bed, never moved very fast, and wobbled a lot when we shuffled around inside our small trailer. The day-after was literally a day of damage control: “Listen to your body but don’t be overly still” was the general guidance.

We started our day with simple back, hip, and leg stretches that could be done on the bed while looking out the trailer windows at the tall Ponderosa pine trees against the brilliant blue sky. We gently explored what moved, what didn’t move, and what could move that didn’t want to move, to begin the conversation with our bodies. No boot camp mentality here; it was all about being respectful of our heroic bodies without letting them succumb to unhelpful impulses, like just sitting and staring all day. We did sit and stare but succeeded in interrupting it periodically.

We accomplished little on the day after, other than focusing on rehydrating and making it through the “chores of daily living.” We fed ourselves, debriefed after realizing that THE problem was being short on endurance training, thought about doing short walks, and called it a day. We managed to literally push to the side the mess we’d made when we came in well after our bedtime the night before, choosing to live in the dumped rubble rather than do all the bending, twisting, and thinking required to clean it up.

Day 2
Like hoped and expected, Day 2 was wildly better than the day after the epic event. There were still some notably sore muscles in each of us, with the inner thigh adductors being the most surprising. We were close to being on our usual rest day schedule of getting up at 5 am, doing hours of restorative exercises, and eating.

Bill found a new sequence of what used to be called “gluteal amnesia” exercises that have been rebranded as exercises for “dead butt syndrome.” His pattern of aching on the trail was highly suggestive of having weak glutes on one side, which we had also discovered in him about 15 years ago and performing the 6 exercises were instantly diagnostic. Like before, I lacked the dramatic side-to-side strength imbalance that he had, but the routine felt welcome in my body.

This recovery week wouldn’t include more than 1 real hike down into the canyon, if that, but instead we’d focus on short walks on the Rim. I also decided to cross-train with 30 slow minutes on our vertical climber and 10-minute-high intensity interval training (HIIT) routines early in the recovery week to stimulate as many muscles as I could, focusing on restoring mobility, not on increasing my fitness level.
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Everyone’s experience at the Grand Canyon is different.

On Day 2 of our post-R-2-R-2-R recovery, we indulged in my other favorite social immersion activity that is unique to the Grand Canyon, which is strolling along the South Rim Trail with continuous overlooks of the massive canyon while mingling with the throngs of international visitors. Unlike our elder status on the Corridor trail which made us oddities, I doubt that any of these visitors gave us a second thought, except to occasionally ask us to take a group photo of them, but we studied them intently.

Like we often do, we positioned ourselves for lunch on a popular viewpoint rock to simultaneously cast our gaze on the distant red canyon rocks and to study the wildly diverse crowd, a crowd in which English wasn’t often spoken. On this day, the 3 young women in fashionably tattered denim short-shorts and off-the-shoulder blouses, demonstrated their sequence of fetching poses that were surely destined for social media, 8’ from our perch. Coyly lifting one heel, twisting, and rocking back to accentuate their breasts, and then running through an assortment of enticing, well-practiced, facial expressions, while the friends did the photo part of the shoot, required an amazing amount of time. We were entertained and somewhat aghast by their obsessiveness, but they were clearly pleased with how they were capturing their Grand Canyon experience.

After the young women went on their way, a family with 2 small children began posing the 3-year-old girl solo; then mama and the baby with a big pink bow on her head were snapped together with the older girl; then an unseen female tourist offered to take the family photo while complimenting them on how sweet they all looked. Off to the side, the young man with a huge telephoto lens seemed a bit rude in telling someone that he didn’t want them in his photo, but we hoped they knew each other. The 2 older women who looked like they were from another era in the outback of another country with their bulky hand knit beanies and layers of long, mismatched clothes, were mesmerized while leaning over the metal fence, looking deep into the side canyon. We couldn’t begin to guess where they haled from or how they got themselves to the Grand Canyon, but they were clearly pleased to be there.

People-watching vignettes don’t get any better than on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon when the tour buses drop their loads of guests. What a delight to be there in the post-covid era with the international crowd finally in full force, thoroughly enjoying themselves in their own ways. Large distinctive belt buckles against bare bellies, unusual sunglasses, implausible shoes, and folks that ranged from impeccably dressed to those pushing back against nothing with rebellious attire, constantly amazed us. It’s simultaneously an intense immersion and yet when we exit the crowd, we don’t quite know where we have been. I settle for enjoying the ride without being able to draw any conclusions and look forward to the next round of free lunchtime entertainment on the beautiful outdoor “patio”.
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The innovating to customize the traveler’s experience is endless.

Day 3
Predictably, we were nearly normal for comfort in our bodies and for smoother movements on Day 3, despite the thrashing we’d given ourselves. Bill was wearier than I was, and I’d even started feeling a bit restless and perky at the end of the second recovery day. “Easy does it” was still the watch word, but our recoveries were well under way and there still were no signs of any problems other than usual reactiveness to exertion, which was wonderfully reassuring.

Throwing everything at our recovery included taking turns using a clay-filled hot pack, a massage gun, and doing more online research, in addition to our daily self-care routines and short walks. At bedtime on the 3rd day, we discovered 2 straight-legged, single leg lifts that were the most targeted-to-our needs glute strengtheners, one side-lying and the other face down on the floor. Things were looking up for tackling our different issues, but it would still take us all the available days of that week to largely recover from our exhaustion.

Crossing #2 October 13
Back At It
Putting the fun back in crossing between the Grand Canyon rims was the primary goal when we made our second attempt on October 13th, a week after we struggled to complete our first R-2-R-2-R event in 3 years. That huge gap between our actual performance and our expectations during our last round trip through the Inner Canyon reminded us of how we had struggled in 2014 when we began training for hiking to Phantom Ranch and, eventually, hiking between the rims. Back then, we repeatedly hit the wall when trying to boost our distance from 15 miles to 20.

Over and over we max’ed out, collapsing on our trailer floor after each 15-mile effort. We pressed-on for 6 months until something in our bodies switched over and we were able to complete the challenging 20-mile distance without depleting ourselves. In 2022, we’d hoped that being on schedule for completing 2,000 miles for the year would carry us, but it did not. Sadly, it became clear that we had to rebuild whatever was gained in 2014 and then lost during covid, that allowed us to do those last 5 miles of 20-mile hikes with relative ease.

Fortunately, we were able to quickly spin our dismal performance this season into an opportunity to move forward without getting sidetracked by berating ourselves. We recognized that the peak bagging we hope to do each November in Southern California was in peril if we didn’t immediately step it up. We set our resolve to complete one 20-mile hike each of the next 5 weeks to jump start the restoration of our exercise capacity. We hoped that it would be enough, or we’d have to abandon those classic hikes this year in deference to safety.

The good news intermingled with the bad experience was that there was nothing left to improve upon in our gear selection, logistics, or conditioning for our feet, knees, or legs. We finished the disastrous, almost 30 hours in 2 days on the Corridor trails, with nary a blister or injury. We’d heard the cacophony of complaints about painful knees and quads the first 2 hours into both of the 2 days of hiking, but we weren’t some of them, and I am among those with X-ray findings of deformities in my knee joints. We were thrilled that we hadn’t lost ground on the resiliency of those critical body parts, only in our systemic endurance.
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The S Kaibab Trail is a popular destination for sunrise photos, though most don’t journey this far.

The bonus from the bad trail experience was discovering a new, highly sensitive measure of muscle recovery from significant overexertion for both of us, which was stability with sustained standing on one leg. I have a morning exercise that I’ve performed almost daily for over 20 years which entails standing on one leg for over a minute, twice on each side. It wasn’t until our 6th recovery day after the double crossing, the day before our next crossing, that I felt strong and stable in that stance. On previous days, I’d had to rest a few moments to complete the exercise on each side.

The weariness of our hip stabilizing muscles also showed when doing a single-leg deadlift, which helps me monitor the difference in the wellness between my right and left sides. A silly-feeling marker for that weakness the first few day's post-hike was that we were both wobbling into each other, when puttering in the trailer or strolling on the rim. Curiously, when powering up or down a hiking trail during our recovery, we didn’t notice any weakness or wobbling. Trusting we were sufficiently recovered from the previous week’s effort, with headlamps on, we again caught the first hiker bus at 5 am to the S Kaibab trailhead, hoping for the best on our third and last crossing of the year.

A Struggling Trail Runner
At about the 14-mile (22 km) point of our last event, between Cottonwood Campground and Manzanita Springs rest area on the north side where Bill was waiting for me, I passed a trail runner going my way. In her rainbow-colored, knee-high compression socks, bright clothes, and typical vest-styled mini-pack, she had been easy to spot while I was gaining on her, despite the low scrub occasionally blocking my line of sight. When I got closer, I could see that on the steeper bits, she nearly slowed to a stop while struggling to lift a knee high enough for her foot to clear the rock. There was no way I should have been overtaking a trailer runner at any point on these trails.

In hindsight, I saw that I had instinctively asked her a more probing question than my usual trail chit-chat, which was “Where are you spending the night?” I don’t believe that I’ve ever asked that specific question, especially of a woman; usually with a trail runner, my conversation starter would be “Are you stopping at the N Rim or going back tonight?”

We habitually survey other hikers when in the Inner Canyon, scouting for folks in trouble, and her reply “I’m going to take the shuttle back to the S Rim” was a glaring red flag— the last of the twice daily shuttles would depart within the hour. When I told her that, she replied “Well, then I’ll turn around and go back to the S Rim.” Another red flag, this time with warning flares, filled my brain, along with the thought “This is how people kill themselves in the Grand Canyon” because she would be walking for many additional hours in temperatures in the 90’s (mid-30’s°C).
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Palm Springs RV Park friends, Bruce & Ann, were a few doors down from us in Trailer Village.

I kept walking during another brief exchange, not wanting to stop because I had been steadily going uphill in the heat for 3½ hours and was eager to rest in the shade to eat. Not surprisingly, she was a little argumentative when I told her that turning around was a really bad idea and her testy reply clarified that I didn’t have the reserves for engaging with her further. I took a few more steps, turned around and said “Come with me another mile to Manzanita Springs where my husband is. He has more resources than I do, and we can figure out a plan for you.”

Of course, Bill was chagrined when he heard about my reference to his superior resources, which had only been a faint hope in my mind, that he could get an internet connection to confirm the shuttle schedule. I’m generally the better brainstormer of our twosome, but Bill had the advantage of having eaten and rested in the shade for 45 minutes, and I knew that he and I could readily develop a plan for her while I ate and he did the talking.

I also knew that our 2 walkie-talkies would connect with each other a few minutes before reaching Manzanita Springs and I immediately began preparing my briefing for Bill. I filled him in, urged him to watch for a Ranger, and asked him to try to get online to check the shuttle schedule, for which I knew the website name. The park service has a meager ranger station at Manzanita, so even though we hadn’t seen one all day, the odds of encountering a Ranger would improve from there to the N Rim. The walkie talkie connection was a bit rough, and Bill repeated “I should find a Ranger?”, “Yes, yes, we need a Ranger!!” was my urgent reply.

What I didn’t know was that there was a Ranger working with volunteers that day at the rest area who had already checked on Bill because Bill was seemingly lingering too long. The Ranger’s radar was apparently still focused on Bill because as soon as Bill parroted “I should get a Ranger?” the young man was there at his side.

Bill briefed the Ranger on the little that he knew of the situation and has soon as Bill and I waved to each other, the Ranger came to the first picnic table where I envisioned using the bench to treat my aching hip. Knowing that my face was surely bright red from the heat and exertion, I opened with “I know I look like it, but I’m not the woman in trouble.” Kindly, the Ranger took me at my word, so I had enough time to brief him on the story, including that the hiker was a bit defensive and argumentative, and that I had my hands full just completing my own hike without wrangling with her.

My trail runner soon appeared at the shaded rest area, I waved to her, and cheerily said “I found a better resource for you than my husband” and the Ranger took over from there. He invited her to sit at the next of the 2 brown metal picnic tables where they sat face-to-face for about 30 minutes. I could eavesdrop on parts of their conversation while I ate and he did an absolutely masterful job of causally chatting with her and unobtrusively intermingled medically relevant questions like “Have you had muscle cramping?; How much water have you had today?; and Are there people expecting to see you at a particular time?”

I was amazed by the Ranger’s patience in letting her ramble on about things like “I’ve attempted Mt Everest twice” while he answered all her various questions, such as the frequency of rattlesnake bites in the Canyon. I slowly realized that his “Nothing better to do that chat with you” affect was part of his ploy to have more time to assess her condition and to get her to rest, hopefully for serval hours. He was so, so smooth, as well as being genuinely kind and helpful.

Like he had stated to me, they see situations like hers all the time and the priority was to prevent a medical emergency in the middle of the night. He thanked me several times for connecting him with her, which I appreciated.
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The Navajo Bridge over Marble Canyon seen during our shuttle ride between the Rims.

We learned a lot from talking with the Ranger and from listening-in, information that will help us the next time we encounter a hiker in trouble. His options for her were:
..using his satellite phone to contact the N Rim lodge to determine if they had a cancellation for the night. If so, she’d need to walk the additional 5 miles (9 km) with 3600’ (1,100 m) gain, a trudge that would take me 4 more hours without stopping.
..she could walk the 2 miles (3 km) downhill to Cottonwood where he would procure a sleeping bag and mat for her to spend the night outdoors on a bench and then she was to continue hiking out at 4 am, which seemed unnecessarily early to me.
..she could proceed with her plan to continue hiking through the night to the S Rim, which she selected.

The Ranger further elaborated on her chosen plan, which began with getting her name and cell number. He would give her contact information to the dispatchers staffing the 5 emergency phones on her route out. If she had issues, she was to use one of those phones and the Rangers would devise Plan B for her. (There is absolutely no cell service below the Rims and basically, none on the N Rim.)

I was surprised and pleased to infer that anyone could use the emergency phones for ‘consults’; I thought they were only used to hail a chopper in a dire situation. We’d noticed over the years that there were tiny helipads near each of the red phones and we knew that there were Ranger resources and mini clinics at the 3 campgrounds in the canyon. The well-marked phones were clearly an intermediate solution that we should consider employing when coaching seriously distressed hikers in the future.

We were a bit taken aback to note that our congenial Ranger was packing a pistol and handcuffs but reassured to know that he and all the other Rangers in the Corridor were trained as EMTs. He mentioned that they had pumped 11 liters of fluids into a dehydrated hiker to get him out, which is in the range of 20-25% of a person’s total volume. A bit of trivia that Bill learned directly from the Ranger was that when he tested the temperature of the sand near the Colorado River during the summer, he found it to be 180° when the air temperature was about 120°.

As soon as the Ranger went back to check on his volunteers and Bill exited for the pit toilet, the 51-year-old woman turned to me and very authentically thanked me for my help. She explained that she now realized that she had underestimated the difficulty of doing R-2-R-2-R (a common and sometimes, deadly, mistake); that she had expected to easily do this round-trip event in one day, the event for which we take 2 days. She acknowledged that she erred in not taking a significant break at Phantom Ranch, which is about 1/3 of the distance of the entire hike but where essentially everyone stops for a water break. And she said she made peace with doing “Rim to almost Rim and back”, though had really hoped to make it to the N Rim.

An Even Worse Trail Runner Rescue
A week later, a man on another trail told us of his recent encounter with a failing trail runner while they were both approaching the N Rim. The experienced local hiker quickly determined that the guy was in serious trouble and learned that he had been out of water for some time, which was an unforced error on that trail with several water stops. The hiker generously handed the trail runner his Nalgene screw top bottle, a popular, wide-mouthed, reusable bottle, filled with water. The trail runner was so out-of-it that he couldn’t figure-out how to unscrew the cap from the bottle—the hiker had to do it for him! We never, ever, have even been close to being that wasted!
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A condor directly below us on the Navajo Bridge over Marble Canyon on the Colorado River.

Our Event
Tending to the trail runner slowed us down a bit, but the big drain on our speed that day was us. We were slow to recover from the stresses of overtaxing ourselves on our R-2-R-2-R the week before and we reached the N Rim at the same time, 6:30 pm, both weeks. Ever since we began doing the big Crossing, we’d almost always finished in the daylight at 5 pm or before. We were disappointed to still be so slow and yet, we were pleased to have done it given we clearly weren’t fully recovered. Rather than be celebrated as a fun Crossing, it would count as one of those 20-miler training hikes on our way to rebuilding our endurance for summiting the California peaks.

Our revised plan of only walking one direction was an acknowledgement of defeat and yet, the more miles we walked towards the N Rim that day, the clearer it became that it was the only sensible plan. The next morning, it was even more clear: we could immediately tell that we didn’t have the reserves needed to walk back like we did the week before; we were not even close to being sufficiently recharged. Once back at the trailer after the shuttle ride and having eaten lunch, my body made its lack of readiness for “doing doubles” all the clearer: I was limping and in pain by mile 3 of our 5-mile recovery stroll the afternoon of the shuttle ride. It was a little scary to confirm that we didn’t have a great way to assess when we were too depleted to do a return hike, but we also hoped that we wouldn’t ever again need to know.

Interestingly, we easily passed our newly discovered test for degradation of the hip stabilizing muscles needed for endurance hiking, the standing-on-one-leg-for-a-minute exercise. Testing the day after the single Crossing and again the following day didn’t reveal deep muscle fatigue, which was good news. My resistant/persistent hip issue was painfully riled up the first full day back at the trailer, but we seemed to be totally unscathed from our big effort in every other way. But given our poor finish and ‘out-of-sortedness’ the day after the event, we had a high level of confidence that we weren’t ready for another big one any time soon, even though there was no specific failing to point to, we were simply depleted.

October 15th is the official last day of R-2-R-2-R season for most of us because it’s the last day the services on the N Rim are open until the following May. We would leave the Grand Canyon for Flagstaff on the 16th, then return in 5 nights for another 2-week stay. We’d already selected a 20-mile hike to do each of those 3 weeks as part of our program for rebuilding our endurance for doing R-2-R-2-R in 2023.

“How much training is enough training?” was always a hard question to answer, but we’d gotten it right every year since 2016 until the covid disruptions. We had known for years what enough training was; now we knew what wasn’t enough; but we didn’t know exactly where the sweet spot was between the two extremes. Like when we started training for hiking to Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River, we’d have to make our best guess again, but with the benefit of a little more hard-won information.

Looking Back
A small, lingering, social regret of mine from hiking to the N Rim on our third Grand Canyon Crossing of the season, was never again seeing the deeply tanned, fit, and energetic two-some I passed several times after reaching the Colorado River. They were clearly very capable but had the classic, first-timer rhythm of “go fast and stop,” whereas I was using my default plodding, tortoise approach.

They dropped behind me at Cottonwood to rest and tend to his blister, then stopped for another long rest 2 miles later at Manzanita Springs, where Bill and I chatted with the Ranger and the trail runner. A second, long rest so soon was not a good sign.

The athletic couple left Manzanita about when we did, took their relative-sprint approach to start on the steep trail after I’d said, “Start slowly here” and she had concurred, and then they were nowhere to be seen. Though he had always taken the lead, at this 5-mile point from the N Rim, it was clear that he was the struggling one. Anytime we subsequently got a glimpse of them far below us on the switchbacked N Kaibab Trail, she was either leading or they were sitting to rest, which was worrisome to us.
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A colorful horn toad posed for Bill

The man had pressed me at Cottonwood, and then Bill at Manzanita Springs, about how long it would take to get from there to the N Rim. He finally revealed that they had 7:30 dinner reservations and it was currently about 2:30. He pressed and pressed and the best we could say was that it would take at least 3 hours; in our de-conditioned state that day, it took us 4 hours to do those last 5 miles and 3650’ (1,100 m) of elevation gain.

We reached the upper trailhead in the dark at 6:25 pm after not having seen them behind us for about an hour, hitched a ride to the Lodge, and had the key to our room by 6:45, which didn’t bode well for their dinner. They too would need to pick-up their key at the Lodge desk across from the dining room and they may not have known about the 2-mile, uphill, walk from the trailhead to the Lodge.

Twelve hours later, I searched for them again among the 20 creaky hikers assembling for the first of 2 shuttle rides to the S Rim for the day. I knew that they weren’t walking back to the S Rim but, beyond that, didn’t know anything more of their plans, though there weren’t many options.

I was sorry we never saw them again; I would have liked to know what time they got in and that they were OK. We finished at the front of our cluster of 9 lagging hikers and these 2, who were the youngest, were struggling the most of our informal group; last year, similar straggling stragglers of our cluster got off the trail at midnight. I knew too that they would likely love to share their story with people who had been there with them. And I was also eager to share my amazingly slow paces for the last 2 miles to help him understand how unpredictably hard that bit of trail is.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I’d turned on my watch app’s audio function the night before our event and while the sun was setting on the N Rim Trail, I finally understood why we couldn’t give the young man a good prediction of how long the last 5 miles to the Rim would take.

Much of the day, my watch had been auto reporting my current hour’s pace, which usually had been 22-23 minutes/mile. At the end of the 2nd to the last mile of the day, the voice in the watch reported a 50 minute/mile pace, and for the last mile in fading daylight, it was 40 minutes/mile. I was not stopping to rest, only continuously plugging away at our customary “maximal sustainable pace” like I’d done all day.

These numbers highlighted in a way that I’d never before understood, that it is the wicked steepness of these last 2 miles, combined with the day’s effort of already having walked over 18 miles, much of it the heat, that clobber the pace of most of us. We had always assumed that the altitude effect of finishing at 8200’ was an important component of the distress, but we had no such struggle when hiking to Elden Lookout’s 9,200’ summit 10 days before in Flagstaff.

I would have enjoyed the closure for me from sharing with the young man my discovery of why those notorious last miles are so hard and, I would have hoped that he would have an even better understanding of why this event was so difficult for him. He was farther past the edge of his performance capacity than we were the last 25% of the hike and yet he didn’t have the benefit of knowing why. It’s easier and safer to be bold in the future if you understand your past experiences.

It’s a Wrap
We did our 3rd Crossing and 2nd Corridor event on October 13th and the 15th was the last day of services on the N Rim, bringing a close to Rim-2-Rim season for all but the most heroic athletes. Not by coincidence, the 16th was the last day of our allowed 14-day stay in the Trailer Village RV Park within the National Park.

Once again, we’d make the 80-mile (130 km) drive across the often desolate, 7,000’ elevation plateau to Flagstaff to restock for our 2nd of 2 two-week stays in the National Park. Shortening our usual 7-day layover in Flagstaff to 5 days would immediately be felt. Flu shots would be the first stop once back in town, the next day it would be doing 2 weeks worth of laundry, and 2 days after that, it would be a 20-mile hike around the base of Elden peak. Filling the truck gas tank, returning a package, and several trips to the grocery stores to fill our refrigerator and pantry would gobble-up our time as well. It was, however, a welcome change in venue and repeating that particular rhythm reminded us of how lucky we were to have this 6 week interlude in the Arizona high desert every fall.