Saturday, May 18, 2013

Just Roughin - Backpacking Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

Relax folks. This is not another running event and I presently am in no shape to run the Grand Canyon. This is about a backpacking trip I took last spring with an awesome company called Just Roughin'It " . I wrote bits and pieces of this write up last year but totally forgot about sharing it. Thought it might be worth putting it together while they are still lingering in my memory. Taking into consideration my zero experience in backpacking I was looking for a guided tour and this company fit my needs perfectly.  They provided all the backpacking equipment, which I figured was a plus as carrying them from NJ appeard too impractical for me. This company also took care of all the permits & campsite reservations which I had heard was difficult to get during Spring time.The group had myself from NJ, A couple from Florida(Mark & Cheri) and two incredibly fit and athletic Canadian ladies(Paulette & Meg) in their late 60s. Our super guide Jayci led us through this four-day Rim-to-Rim adventure.

Map of the hike we were about to embark !!
I flew to Phoenix the night before the trip began and I was picked at my hotel next morning around 4 am. I met the wonderful Cheri & Mark from Florida and we began our 4-hour drive to Grand Canyon. On the way we stopped at Flagstaff to pick our Guide Jayci & the two Canadian ladies and were off to the north rim. Upon reaching the Bright Angel Trail head at the north rim, we grabbed the backpacks and  packed all the essentials.  Camera hanging round our necks, Camel bak filled with 2-litres of water along with couple of Gatorades and we were ready to go. 
All Set to go.
Pack weighed about 40 lbs. and  initial miles were not fun at all.  My extremely weak upper body and ankles started complaining after about ½ a mile or so.
Geared up. That pack is heavy.
Day 1: We started our descent along the north rim at about 11 am just when the temperature had hit the lower 90s.  Our job was to go down the north rim for about 5-6 miles with a elevation drop of 4000 ft. Destination for the first night was the Cottonwood campground. The journey that begins from Roaring Springs Canyon was a visual treat. It begins with a evergreen forest reminding of some of eastern national parks but within few miles you get to see the spectacle of the Red Canyon. Being inexperienced hikers we demanded many lunch, snack and pee breaks throughout. Our guide was patient and knew how to push the pace. He does this trip every other week with amateurs like me. After lot of huffing and puffing we made it to the Cottonwood campground. Here are some pictures I took along the way. Im no photographer by any standards, but it was not easy to focus on taking a picture with a 40 lbs pack pounding your upper back.

 Upon reaching the campground we setup our tents and feasted ourselves to very nice pasta dinner cooked on the spot by our guide. Campground had a compost toilet and a creek nearby for us to fill water. I was very nervous with all those crawling lizards and chamelons around our tents. Jayci told that they were food to the rattle snakes and it certainly didn't ease the tenison. But I was exhausted by the day's adventure and dozed off pretty quickly.

Day 2: Woke up nice and early to the coffee smell that Jayci was preparing along with Couscous breakfast packed with nuts and cranberrys.I fed myself several servings of it to prepare myself for the second day's hike. It was quite a task packing the tent and sleeping bag back into the backpack. Everyone were very sore from previous day's hike and forced ourselves to wear the backpacks again as we headed towards the Bright Angel Campground. 4000 ft of desent continued on day 2 for another 5-6 miles.  Within a mile away from Cottonwood campground was a very steep side hike to Ribbon falls. It was a perfect spot to get wet as the day was only going to get hotter.

Ribbon falls - a side hike on Day 2
Journey to Bright Angel campground was the hottest 5 hours I have experiened in my life. Drinking Gatorade and water every 20 mins or so was not enough. We were forcing ourselves to salty snacks every 15-20 minutes just to ensure we don't get dehydrated or develop any kind of heat stress. Despite all our efforts, the oldest member of our group Meg(aged 70) succumbed to severe heat stress and dehydration. Jayci's superb experience in handling the situation came to rescue. We all shared carrying the contents of Meg's backpack. Jayci signalled myself, Cheri and Mark to move ahead sensing the two Canadian ladies would need lot of walking breaks to get to the campground. We were dumbstuck by the heat and the scorching sun. Bottom of the Canyon felt like an oven toasting us to depletion.
Dumbstuck bearing that heat !!
We finally made it to the Phantom Ranch at around 3 pm, threw our backpacks away and drank several glasses of lemonade.

Cold Lemonade welcomes us.
Ensuring we were peeing every hour or so was necessary to avoid dehydration. After couple of hours Jayci, Meg & Paulette made it to the ranch. We looked at a nearby Thermal-gauge that explained why we were so drained out.

We reached the campground, setup the tents and went for a short hike to Colarado river. Despite the brutal heat the water was freezing and swimming felt like heaven. Meg came out of water feeling much better.

Black bridge. Another option to cross the colorado river
It was time to eat dinner and crash. Don't remember what I ate but it was a heavy carb dinner for sure. I was so damn tired and I didn't think of lizards or possible rattle snakes that night at all.
Yikes !. I saw those little reptiles on my tent at some point.

Day 3: We knew from the beginning Day 3 and 4 would require us start climbing up the south rim.  It was an added stress to already depleted and weary bodies. We fueled ourselves with coffee and breakfast and reluctantly began our journey towards the Indian Garden Campground. Crossed the colorado river walking on the majestic silver bridge to get to the bottom of south rim and the ascent began.
Silver Bridge to cross Colorado river

Temple of rocks
Meg was still feeling effects from previous day's brutal hike. We carried most of her contents in our backpack to ensure she could walk comfortably. We stopped and took breaks as the group needed and slowly started climbing up those steep steps along the trail. Surprisingly it was not as hot as the previous day and we had become pros carrying the backpack as well. So the hike felt lot more easier than first two days. There were several creeks along the way for us to dip, wade and wet ourselves.

There's  lunch..
We made it to the Indian Garden campground as early as 1:30 pm. Set up our tents and took a nice nap. Woke up couple of hours later. Chatted about variety of things that mattered to each of us ranging from Running, Football, Hunting,  Grizzles , Mountain Lions, Yoga to Bhagavad Gita & Vivekananda. We unofficially hired Jayci to guide us on a hike to Yellowstone.

Later that evening headed for another 2-3 mile side hike to Plateu point. That hike felt very easy as we had left the backpacks at the campground. Plateu point is certainly the highest vista on the canyon and the views around are absolutely stunning. This is a photographer's paradise and I really pity my useless skills in that department.

Day 4: Final day's ascent began very early around 4:30 am after Coffee & Granola/Milk breakfast. Meg looked like she had new springs on her feet. She felt great and was raring to wrap up the final day's hike. It was worth waking up that early and starting the hike while it was still dark. We got the opportunity to watch the sun rise and hum "Here comes the sun".

Here Comes the Sun
Canyon we are leaving behind
Few hours into the hike, we stopped for a snack and this visitor peeked at us out of nowhere.  Jayci told he was very popular at this spot and at times does not hesitate to scare the people around. It was a delight to watch him climb down the steep rocks and then run wildly disappearing into the canyon.

He was not shy at all.
Last leg of the ascent was not at all strenuous  Everyone felt a sense of fulfillment as we climbed the last few steps of the Bright angel trail on the south rim.

Finishing up. No worries

Well earned prize
Highly recommend them.
Finally had the luxury of restaurant food and modern rest rooms after four days. Needless to mention a shower was in order. During the hike I saw several runners attempting to run Rim-to-Rim in a single day and make a return run back to starting point the next day. Watching them run with such insane level of endurance & conditioning in brutal conditions was mind blowing.

After the trip, I was dropped off at Flagstaff airport. Waved good byes to the terrific group. I picked up my rental car and drove to Sedona for a relaxing 2-3 day trip. 40 mile drive to Sedona from Flagstaff was spectacular. That is listed as one of the top 10 scenic drives in the country. Sedona itself is a great vacation spot. I would highly recommend Sedona to folks with families and kids. Within few miles outside of Sedona you get to see the wilderness that is very different to Grand Canyon. There are several fun trips you can take like the Pink Jeep and Helicopter tours. I also managed to do 5 hour kayaking at Verde River before flying back to NJ.

On the way to Sedona
Chapel of Holy Cross
Cool jeep ride
It was a trip of a lifetime for sure. This was the trip that made me fall in love with National parks of Western United States. I took a road trip to Yellowstone National park in 2006 with a group of friends. I'm sure it will be lot of fun backpacking there as well. Of course there are mighty Colorado,  Glacier, Badlands, Yosemite & Zion national parks. Hoping to experience some of these parks as time & resources permit.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Club running & Marathons.. Life is Good

Joining Raritan Valley Road Runners club in January was indeed the best decision of the year. All I was trying to find was a group of people with interests similar to mine. What I actually found was a bunch of motivated, high endorphin souls who are dedicated and involved with the sport of running a million times more than I am.  Watching some of these runners just stroll around the park itself is very inspiring.  It is a peaceful sight that can crush your ego and pride and tell you to just shut up complaining and run. I’m thankful for these running acquaintances that can race and crush their PRs week after week and at the same time can remain incredibly humble and helpful to any new building runner. Few of these wonderful friends stuck with me on all those long Saturday runs and tolerated my yapping most of the time.

Speaking of Marathons, my first one last November at Philly was quite a disaster. 2 weeks before the race Hurricane Sandy hit our area. I was hit with Flu and Bronchitis around the same time. Missed most of taper runs. High on antibiotics. Couldn't eat properly on days leading to the race. On race day itself I had bad pacing from the start, not enough nutrition, bonked after 17 miles. You name the mistake. I can assure you I managed to do it. But I did finish in 5 hr 9 minutes.

I took few weeks off from running.  Went to India for a vacation that included two weeks of intense Yoga training. Returned home by Christmas and felt ready to start some serious running. I signed up for New Jersey Marathon and trained for it starting January.  I was bothered with Achilles Tendinitis & a left ITB issues for first couple of months. I cut down on swimming and Yoga and instead took up Physical Therapy to treat these issues.  It worked great and I was able to wrap up my training and get in all the runs prescribed by Hal Higdon.  I was pleasantly surprised at how calm I was on the days leading up to the race. Carpooled to Long Branch with a fellow runner from my club. Reached the race location pretty early and met up with few more club members who were running the race as well.  Headed to the start line & it was chilly & cloudy around 48 degrees when the race started. Sun was out within an hour into the race and it warmed up to 65 degrees with a cool refreshing breeze throughout. It was the perfect running weather one could have hoped for.

My only strategy was
a) Run comfortably to the next water station
b) Stop & Drink water/Gatorade / Gel as needed
c) Resume running focusing to the next water station.

I maintained this strategy throughout the race. I was really calm and surprised that none of my body parts were bothering me as I was rushing to the finish line.  I saw few super fast club friends cheering for me at the finish. My official finish time was 4:43:20.  Nothing stellar but a satisfying one for my level of conditioning and training.This was an improvement by 26 minutes over my Philly Marathon time. My time during the 20-mile training run was around 3:28:00 and I was hoping to finish the race around 4:40.  To be able to execute the race so close to my target and finish with no cramps or aches felt very sweet. I was constantly reminded of that cute 8-year-old boy who died during Boston bombings last month and the images of legs and arms flying in the air during that horrific act. My mother slipped and fell down few years ago in her bathroom and broke her hip. Since that hip replacement surgery she is pretty much bed ridden. This happened to her just a year after my dad passed away. They were together for 55 years. My uncle got his left leg amputated due to an infectious tumor a week ago. I think remembering these incidents made me realize how fortunate I am and felt very calm / thankful for what I can do and not fuss about pace and finish times.

Collected the finisher medal and took some pictures with the members of my running club. We gathered for a post race eat out at a near by restaurant. Some of those runners in the 50s had clocked 3:40, 3:35 times and missed Boston Qualification by few minutes. I was so impressed at what these athletes were capable of doing. I can only dream to be in their shoes one day.  It was awesome to see many friends break their marathon and half marathon barriers. I only wish them the best on bigger and better racing future. Overall it was a perfect evening and reached home feeling great. Spoke to my Mom this morning and she sounded very happy to hear at my race results. It was one of the best conversations I had with her that I’m going to remember for a long time.Few days after the race I still feel good. I managed to do few slow 2-mile walks, Yoga & few swim laps. I expected the delayed onset muscle soreness to kick in by 2nd day. Some how it spared me this time.

Life is really good. Can’t complain!! .