13 September 2016

TBT: Rim to Rim to Rim, Yosemite Valley

A time-honored tradition in the ultrarunning scene is to complete a rim-to-rim-to-rim run of the Grand Canyon: 48 miles, 10,000 foot elevation gain (and equal descent).

The National Park Service unequivocally states in all of its Grand Canyon literature:
Over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year. The difference between a great adventure in Grand Canyon and a trip to the hospital (or worse) is up to YOU. DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day. [sic]
Yosemite ranks only slightly behind the Grand Canyon in number of rescues per year, though Yosemite has a much higher diversity of incidents. The Grand Canyon incidents revolve almost entirely around one problem: going down the ditch, surpassing one's limits to return back up the ditch. I have long said that Yosemite avoids having even greater numbers of rescues because the majority of visitors start at the bottom of the ditch rather than the top. 
However, one can, if so desired, drive to the top of Yosemite's south rim, at Glacier Point, and return to Yosemite Valley via a couple of different trail options. Many people take this option, but it is almost exclusively one-way, with convenient bus shuttles to help with the logistics.
I so desire.

In spring 2015, while trying to get some serious vert training in, I decided to make a go of my local rim-to-rim-to-rim: Glacier Point to the top of Yosemite Falls to Glacier Point, via the 4-Mile Trail and Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, 20 miles, 5,000 feet of ascent (and equal descent).

Though it was a depressing fourth consecutive year of low-snow, drought conditions in California, I couldn't help but enjoy the lovely early season running in the Sierra highcountry. There are few years in Yosemite's history when I would have been able to drive to Glacier Point on April 4, so I took advantage and found myself up there with scant few people early that morning.

The morning graced me with cool weather and a Yosemite Falls rainbow, and I enjoyed a breezy, low-key effort down the 4-Mile Trail switchbacks. Along the way, I encountered several hiking parties headed the opposite direction, getting an early start on their floor-to-rim-to-floor hikes. Many of them were surprised to see me, and one remarked, "You already ran to to the top?!" I reassured him I hadn't: "I'm not crazy enough to do that." (And by "that," I meant, "get up that early." He didn't need to know my particular type of crazy...)
Never a bad day in Yosemite.
I hit the valley floor feeling only a touch of wobbly legs from the descent, crossed Swinging Bridge, and popped over to the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail after a quick swing into the Camp 4 restroom. As a Yosemite local for many years, I had done these trails literally dozens of times, but I enjoyed this new spin of an adventure. I also enjoyed the camaraderie of hikers on trail - the usual assortment of, "You're running this?!", "Wow, you go!", and "Can't you go faster? Har har."  

I reached the top a little more slowly than expected, but I had to remind myself that the best vertical training is slow and consistent. "Time on your legs, no matter how slow" has proven to be one of the most effective training techniques I've found for prepping for ultramarathons.  I tried to remember that as I trudged up the final sun-exposed switchbacks to the top.
Trudge-a-rific.  Halfway there.
Upon reaching the top, I treated myself to a Snickers bar and some seaweed snacks, and chatted with a roving PSAR volunteer (Preventative Search And Rescue). PSAR volunteers are a hearty group of hikers who gift their time to help educate the public about safety issues out on trail and respond to incidents as need be. This gentleman had driven two hours from the Sierra foothills several days this week to volunteer. His enthusiasm for Yosemite and meeting new people was infectious, and I left with a spring in my step.
Also known as Cho'lok.
The descent down Yosemite Falls was typical of every other time I had tried to run down Yosemite Falls - like running down a wavy sheet of slanted construction paper with finely-ground coffee and broken bowling ball chunks coating the top. In other words, hard to run.
Slippery beast.
As I descended, I started dreaming of the ice cream sandwich I would buy at the Yosemite Lodge gift shop. My legs turned to jelly, and I was grateful that my running flow was punctuated by bits of walking behind large groups of pokey hikers. I reminded myself that once I reached the valley floor, I was 3/4 of the way there.

Once I reached the valley floor, I dunked my head and shirt in the Camp 4 sink to cool down. I knew I was taking more time resting than I really should have, and once I got myself going, I resolved to keep an even effort for the rest of the run. I was pretty tired and knew the Yosemite Lodge would be wicked busy, so I decided to skip the ice cream sandwich in favor of finishing sooner rather than later.

Bad choice.

About halfway up the 4-Mile Trail switchbacks, I started to bonk.  I reached into my pack for an energy bar, then drank a little water from my hose...only to find out that I was out of water. In the bustle of Camp 4 and my decision-making about the Lodge, I had not only skipped an opportunity to get some easy calories, but I had forgotten to refill my water bladder. I knew I had to eat something, as I had eaten nothing on the entire descent down Yosemite Falls in order to focus on my footing and keep my hands free for potential slips. I started to feel nauseous and hiking quickly became desperately hard. I knew I would have to get some calories in, but with my mouth parched, gutting down an energy bar would be unpalatable, if not ineffective. 

I sat down on a rock at a switchback in the trail and rued the fact that I knew this trail like the back of my hand. I couldn't fool myself into thinking I was almost there. I wasn't. 

A couple hikers passed me, headed down. I mustered some positivity, smiled, and said, "hello." Despite my predicament, I couldn't bring myself to ask if they had any extra water. Part of this was pride - I wanted to finish this thing on my own. Another part of this was protecting the public opinion of distance runners. Ultrarunners sometimes receive flak from other users.  They are derided for traveling "too fast" through beautiful landscapes.  They are cast off as wilderness users who act like they own the place, not giving other users the space they need.  Any predicaments that occur while running are "deserved" since nobody should be doing that to their bodies, anyhow. A look at one rim-to-rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hiking website spells out the disdain:
Want some running advice? Unstable rocks and trail conditions can roll/break your ankles and send you flying over the edge to your death. Runners also spend their day looking down at the trail instead of looking up and enjoying the magnificent Grand Canyon. Oh – and runners do not have the right of way on the trail – mules do, then hikers. Seriously, what is the point of being in the GC if you don’t even see it?
I couldn't be that ultrarunner who was underprepared and needed saving from a nearby hiker. I would be polite, and damn it, I would finish this thing on my own.
Things got dark back on the south side of the valley.
After they passed, I had a flashback to an article I had read wherein the brain reacts to holding sport drink in one's mouth, even if you spit it out:
It's the brain that's influenced by mouth rinsing: fMRI studies have shown that certain regions of the brain light up when you have carbohydrate in the mouth, whether it's sweet or tasteless.
In essence, one's brain is temporarily tricked into putting out more effort, more easily. 

Though I didn't have any sport drink, I did have some ginger chews, so I put them in my mouth and tried to suck on them as long as possible as I soldiered on up the hill. Whether it was the placebo effect or true brain trickery, it worked.

As I pushed the last couple of miles, a woman hiking down the trail looked familiar. I realized I had seen her a few hours earlier on her way up and my way down. She exclaimed, "You're running this again?!" I chose not to correct her since, for all intents and purposes, I had basically run two Four-Mile Trails. Instead I gave her an impish smile and a shrug.
Looking back on the route.
I made sure to get an ice cream sandwich on the drive home.
I hope more people will be inspired to try this route on for themselves. Perhaps there is an FKT waiting to happen?
Check out my post on my mixed feelings about the FKT phenomenon.

Hutchinson, Alex. "When and Why to Swish-n-Spit Your Sports Drink: New Research Shows the Longer the Drink Stays in Your Mouth, the Bigger the Boost." 
     Runner's World. Rodale Inc., 17 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
LaPena, Frank R., and Craig D. Bates. Legends of the Yosemite Miwok. Yosemite National Park, CA: Yosemite Natural History Association, 1981. Print. 
N., Jean. The Adventure Of A Life Time: Hiking Rim to Rim To Rim (R2R2R) In The Grand Canyon, 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2016. <http://www.r2r2r.org/>
National Park Service. "Day Hiking." Grand Canyon National Park. U.S. Department of the Interior, 2016. Web. 11 Sept. 2016. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds great fun. Have done Grand Canyon down and back in a day as a walk with Bob way back in late 80s. We didn't run tho. Fancy the Yosemite run


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