Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hardrock Training Analysis

Wow. It's been a really long time since I've written anything here. I apologize for that. Blogging about running has definitely taken a backseat to actually running, and to life in general.

A quick summary of my life: everyone on my team was basically laid off in June. 18 years, 1 company: done. The severance package was actually pretty generous. I took the summer off to run in the mountains, tackle some long-overdue home repairs, and enjoy plenty of quality time with my family. I started looking for a new job in September, found one, and since then I've been madly scrambling to check everything off of my ever-growing todo list! Yes, we're moving.

Goodbye, Leadville! Hello, Seattle!

We'll keep our beloved, little Victorian house in Leadville. We hope to return once or twice a year, but now our life has shifted to the Pacific Northwest. I moved out here a few weeks ago. The rest of the family will follow in January. It's exciting, but also very sad-making. We'll dearly miss our Leadville friends and the small town life. It's hard to feel like we're not selling out. Exchanging the extraordinary for the typical. No more remote work for me. No more ridiculously flexible hours and zero commute time. No more altitude!

Training is about to get interesting! (I'm not sure it'll even be possible next year!)

Hey, at least I still live within sight of a 14er!

I still haven't found the time to write up a Hardrock or a Leadville race report, but I thought I'd write down a jumble of random thoughts about my training this year. I put a lot of effort into thinking about and adjusting my training for Hardrock. Did it pay off? Eh... probably not, if you solely look at my race performance. But, I'm pretty sure I was in the best shape of my life this year. For a variety of reasons, I just didn't quite execute to my highest potential on race day. I still had a lot of fun along the way, though! Hardrock is an awesome race. Leadville is an awesome race. I love both of them.

If you're one of the few people that get selected for Hardrock and have never run it before, don't be intimidated. It's totally doable. In fact, I'd argue that it's much easier to finish Hardrock in 48 hours than it is to finish Leadville in 30 hours. Hardrock is not 18 hours tougher than Leadville. (I'd say it's closer to 10 hours tougher for a typical mid-packer.)

Is it possible to over-hype Hardrock? Yup. It's a beautiful, beautiful course, and I've signed up for it again next year. I loved it. And I think everyone should probably run it at least once. Go ahead, throw your name in the hat, and you might be able to run it sometime in the next 8 years! But, is Hardrock the be-all, end-all race? Naw... It's an extremely well-organized, thoughtful, and unique event, that's for sure. It is epic. That's probably the best adjective for it. Truly epic. But there are many different races out there, many of which could be just as rewarding as Hardrock. Life is short.

Grant-Swamp Pass.
Why blog about my training? Well, honestly, this post simply started out as a series of personal notes for my future self. I'm certainly no expert, but hopefully writing about my experience training for Hardrock can help other aspiring Hardrockers in some small way. As the Hardrock lottery approaches, I found myself feeling very nostalgic about my training (which I've basically ignored for the past 3 months). I really invested a ton of time into my training this year-- not just my actual running, but also planning for it, analyzing it, and adjusting it on-the-fly. After my nagging injuries in '14, my confidence had taken a bit of a hit. I was beginning to doubt myself. Was running 100's every year even sustainable?

Overall, my training for Hardrock was very, very solid. It’d probably grade it an A-. I pretty much hit all of my training goals. I broke monthly mileage/time PR's for every month from December through June. I set some solid PR’s on many benchmark runs that I’ve run many times over the years. Even though my Hardrock performance was a little bit of a disappointment to me, and I failed to set another PR at Leadville this year (though I did big buckle), I can almost certainly say that I was in the best shape of my life. It was a truly awesome summer that I may never be able to replicate again in the future.

That said, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Most of the changes I’d make would be with how I actually ran Hardrock/Leadville-- not with how I trained for them. (My race day execution adjustments will have to wait for a future post!)

I was coming off an injury-plagued ‘14 season. My training was very inconsistent from June '14 through November '14. I started training for Hardrock before I was even selected-- almost exactly a year ago on December 1st.

Simply stated, my goal for ‘15 was to just run more. Yes, cross-training has its place, but I needed to get off my bike trainer and run. (FWIW, I count biking and skiing as cross-training, and snowshoeing and hiking as running.)

Consistent, easy running. The 80/20 rule. Don't obsess about streaking. Track total training time, not mileage. Focus on vertical-- especially later in the season. Don’t just track numbers, also keep a journal of how each workout feels. Your spreadsheet is your quantitative and your journal is your qualitative. A journal is especially useful for retroactively figuring out when an injury actually started. It’s also great for tracking illness and accumulated fatigue. Basically, it’s great for tracking all the touchie-feelie stuff that’s hard to capture in a spreadsheet. Despite being hard to quantify, that kind of stuff is absolutely key to understanding how your training is going.

Above all: Don’t get injured!

Cunningham. Probably my favorite picture of the race. Pure joy.

For reference, I consider the 8 weeks prior to your 3-week taper to be the most important weeks of training. All the rest of your training is simply setting yourself up to be able to absorb these final weeks. As a baseline, I consider approximately 50 miles, 10 hours, and 10,000 feet of vertical to be a solid, sustainable training load during this final block. I've had my best races when I've been able to reach those numbers consistently during the final weeks of my training. Ideally, you want to push beyond that a few weeks to encourage even more adaptation. While training for Hardrock, I hit the 80 miles, 20 hours, and 20,000 feet of vertical marks about 3 times (not consecutively). Remember, this is all at 10,000 feet! You probably want to adjust those numbers for lower elevations...

Here's a link to a post which contains all the actual data for my Hardrock training this year.

In no particular order:

Yes, living in Leadville while training for Hardrock is pretty damn ideal. And not just living there for a few weeks, but living there day-in and day-out for 9 years. No one was training at a higher altitude than I was. No one. Think about it. That’s pretty awesome to be able to say. However, training at 10,000 feet is not without its downsides, it doesn't make you superhuman, and it’s certainly not required-- even for a race like Hardrock. It’s much harder to develop power/strength when you’re so aerobically limited. Recovery takes longer. And you’re running in frickin’ snow for more than half the year. What’s truly awesome about Leadville is the easy access to so many wonderful trails and inspiring peaks. Training in Leadville is not dull. It’s inspiring. And it’s supremely motivating in the summer when the trails finally melt out and the wildflowers start exploding. That’s its biggest advantage. I felt totally at home during Hardrock. The high altitude, the crazy weather, the alpine terrain: it’s what I had been training in for months (and living in for years!). Though the San Juans are different than the Sawatch in many subtle ways, they’re about as close as you can hope to get.

Kroger's Canteen. Hardrock summed up in a single aid station.

For the first time ever, I joined the local gym (from December to March). I think that worked out well for me. I called it "weather insurance". Yes, it's badass to run outside everyday regardless of the weather, but let's be realistic. As a father with two young kids and a full-time job, I would often have to train very early in the morning or late at night. In Leadville, it is damn cold at those hours. Like, single-digit cold. At some point, training outside is just silly. I actually respond very well to treadmill training. There are no distractions. It's just me and my numbers: HR, pace, vertical. I never ran longer than 60 minutes at a time. (I would never want to use a treadmill longer than that.) But, 60 minutes 2 or 3 times a week in the dead of winter? Yeah, that's fine with me! It got me off the bike trainer, which was my only bad weather option in previous years. I've also heard the Stairmaster referred to as "the secret Hardrock training weapon" on more than one occasion. I only tried it a few times myself, but I think I'll experiment with it more in the future.

We had a very late spring melt in ‘15. May’s weather was terrible. It took a ton of dedication to get out the door in May. Only having a race as burly as Hardrock on my calendar got me out the door on some weekends. Running down in New Mexico at Jemez also certainly helped.

If I were to train for Hardrock again, I’d probably cut back a bit on the 50-mile runs. I think one mountainous 50-miler is good for testing out nutrition, but the other 50-milers could be replaced by back-to-back 20 milers-- or even just a single 50K race-- run at a slightly higher intensity. 50 milers aren’t necessarily bad, but they lower your overall training intensity.

A hilly 50K run at high intensity is truly the best/hardest workout possible. Target 7 hours of focused, hilly running as your hardest workout. It could be 26 miles with 10,000 feet of vertical or 30 miles with 7,000 feet of vertical or whatever. Yes, everyone loves mountainous 50 milers (myself included), but 12 hours and 50 miles is not strictly-speaking a better workout. At best, when you take everything into account, it’s about the same except with 5 extra hours of time investment.

That said, running the R2R2R in April was awesome! Probably not worth it on a regular basis due to all the driving, but you absolutely must run this at least once in your life. Why not when you’re training for your first Hardrock? The timing is perfect.

All my highest time/mileage weeks were 50-miler weeks. I would’ve liked to have some high mileage weeks where the workouts were more consistently spread throughout the week. Like, a week where I ran/hiked 2+ hours/day for 6 days. That's a bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but hopefully you get my point. My highest mileage weeks were probably a bit too “spikey”, with more than half of the miles coming from a single run on the weekend.

Variety is key. The more different workouts you can do, the better. Mix things up.

Ideally, I should’ve kept doing mile interval workouts throughout my entire training-- even when the weather became pleasant and I moved off the treadmill. I'm more instinctively drawn to hill workouts, but speed workouts have their place.

I could probably make my training much more periodized than it was. I did take easy weeks in ‘15 (when I was sick or busy or injured or whatever), but my hard weeks could’ve been even harder and my easy weeks even easier. More than once it's struck me how the ideal training plan seems to involve periodization at almost every level: you want your training load to fluctuate on the monthly level, the weekly level, the daily level, and even within a single workout. It's almost like a fractal...

Unfortunately, I seem to require consistent stretching to survive training at 7+ hours/week. A quick dynamic stretching routine prior to the run, then some static stretching after the run. (And sometimes even some stretching during the run!) This is critically important during the first couple of days following a hard workout! I hate stretching.

I survived my training, but I felt like I was on the edge a lot of the time. A fair amount of illness. A back injury (unrelated to running). A sprained ankle. Nearly constant early-season AT soreness (leftover from '14) and knee aches (i.e., runner's knee) that never really went away for long. My injuries seemed to correlate more with my midweek training volume rather than any particular long run. Or, rather, I think I was most injury-prone 1-2 workouts after a long run (when I was still very tight)-- not during the long run itself.

Oscar's Pass. Racing yet another thunderstorm.

I don’t really need to train as much as I did pre-March. Yes, I need to get myself into a place where I can absorb my first hard training block in March, but I could easily do that with 5 workouts/week. More is generally better, but I could “ramp up” my training faster than I did, I think. Block-driven training requires more disciplined, quality workouts, however.

Assuming you’re still running quality workouts (i.e., speedwork, long runs, etc.), I don’t think you necessarily need to mix in tons of vertical until June. I love focusing on vertical-- I think it strongly encourages quality, and makes you think more about time rather than distance-- but it’s probably not strictly necessary so early in training. Certainly your final “block” of training (i.e., the final month before your taper for Hardrock) needs to be all about vertical, vertical, vertical. But, prior to that, your training can look like it normally does for any other 100 miler (e.g., Leadville).

There was definitely a benefit to bumping my typical 3-hour early season (February-April) long runs up to 4-5 hours. The extra time was solely due to increased vertical-- not miles. In fact, I ran fewer miles per long run even with the 2 extra hours! These harder long runs probably don’t need to happen every week, however.

Respect the 14er! There’s something very unique about climbing up and bombing down a mountain. It really works the glutes/quads in a way that’s hard to replicate. You need to get to a place where hiking a 14er doesn’t make you sore for the following day’s workout. For those of you that don’t live near a 14er, a 3-4 hour run/hike with the maximum amount of vertical you can find is a good substitute.

Ideally, I’d do much more hiking at a higher intensity. Beyond conversational pace. Early season snow, plus my ankle injury, impacted how much hard power-hiking I could do. Easy hiking: yes. Power-hiking? Not so much.

Consider using a weight vest for hikes-- especially for shorter, midweek hiking routes. I never did this, but I think it might be worth experimenting with.

Though I didn't try it that often, I think 2 runs per day has its place during peak training. Usually 1 hard and 1 easy. Or even 1 run and 1 hike. It’s a safer way to boost volume. Mile-for-mile, it might even be better than running 7 days/week.

I liked periodically tracking RHR and MAF pace during training. I don't usually do that. I should’ve kept it up during the summer, though... It was more of a winter activity when I was stuck on the treadmill.

The more I look at my HR data, the more I’m convinced that altitude compresses your HR ranges. Your lows are higher and your highs are lower. My RHR would be about 5 bpm lower at sea level (high 40’s), and my perceived “MAF” HR would be about 10 bpm lower at altitude (low-to-mid 130’s). It’s a little tough to correlate precisely because my training at sea level is typically on much flatter and easier terrain than my training in Leadville, but 140 bpm at Leadville feels way harder than 140 bpm at sea level (e.g., Florida or Boston). I think that’s the easiest way I can state it. 140 bpm does not feel the same at altitude as it does at sea level! It feels significantly harder. My HR barely ever spikes into the 150’s in Leadville. At sea level it spikes into the 150’s all the time-- even into the 160’s. In both cases, my perceived effort feels almost exactly the same. Alternatively, if I hold my HR constant, I seem to run about 30-45 seconds/mile faster at sea level on similar terrain (on, say, a 5 to 10-mile run). What does this mean for MAF training? Well, I don’t see how you can blindly stick to your textbook MAF HR at 10,000 feet! It’s going to be too high to be a truly easy effort. You’ve got to adjust it towards the lower end of the MAF spectrum. Alternatively, just run by feel. A MAF run should feel like a MAF run no matter the altitude. However, your HR is going to be significantly lower at that level of effort at 10,000 feet. YMMV. We’re all an experiment of one, etc., etc., etc.. But that’s what 6 years of training in Leadville has taught me.

Grant-Swamp Pass

I hesitate to say it, but I think bodyweight matters. The lighter you are, the faster you are-- especially going uphill. During peak training, I weighed less than I did than when I thru-hiked the AT 13 years ago! Crazy. I didn’t actively diet or reduce my caloric intake, but my increased training load (with more consistent early-season running) definitely had an impact. My power-to-weight ratio was probably the best it’s ever been.

I can’t necessarily point to one single reason, but I definitely recovered faster/better from both Hardrock and Leadville than I have from any of my 100’s in previous years. My legs were totally solid both during and after my goal races. I wasn’t afraid of attacking the downhills during Leadville, for example. I knew leg strength was not going to be my limiting factor. I think this is one of the main benefits of massive amounts of vertical during training and lots of 5+ hour runs.

Not that I’ve really run a lot of 5ks-- in fact, I’ve never even officially raced one-- but, I broke my 5k PR in August while running at 12,000 feet! That’s 3 back-to-back-to-back sub-7-minute miles. At 12,000 feet! Given my general lack of speedwork, I feel that this is pretty solid evidence that you can, in fact, get faster at shorter distances just by increasing your training volume and focusing on lots of vertical. As I’ve read somewhere before, hill workouts are like speed workouts in disguise. I’m sure actual, legitimate speed workouts become more critical as your goal pace drifts closer to 5-minute miles (i.e., you need to work on leg turnover and developing more fast-twitch muscle fibers, etc.), but if you’re happy in the 6’s (like me) then you can get there by simply hammering the vertical and increasing your overall training time-- even if most of your runs are fairly slow.

Spending 4 days scouting out the Hardrock course 2 weeks before the race was very helpful. It definitely helped me visualize the course, the climbs, the conditions, and the aid station locations better. It also gave me the opportunity to do a ton of hiking fairly close to the race. It was a little nerve-wracking to log 20+ hours of training 2 weeks before Hardrock, but I think that it's relatively safe as long as the training consists of hiking at a relatively relaxed pace.

During my taper, I tried to focus on simulating the conditions I would experience during the race itself. I actively planned my runs to coincide with afternoon thunderstorms. Many of my final shakedown runs were at night. I sought out snow fields and scoped out river crossings. These final runs helped me test out a variety of possible gear options, and definitely led to me making helpful, last-minute tweaks to my gear strategy for race day itself.

Cataract-Porcupine. The final thunderstorm approaching.
My stomach continues to be my limiting factor in 100-mile races. I can fairly reliably make it to the 10-12 hour mark without any trouble, but then I always start to battle nausea. I switched to Tailwind this year, and it’s good. It’s fine. But, it didn’t change my life. It basically seems to work as well as maltodextrin for me. I tried to lower my hourly caloric intake this year (from 300+ calories/hour to 250 calories/hour), but I didn’t really notice much of a difference. I tried ginger chews. I tried increasing my salt intake. I tried Zantac. All these adjustments seemed to help a little bit, but there was no huge nutrition breakthrough. Probably my best stretch of nausea-free running was when I paced my friend, Alex, for 61 miles at Wasatch! I felt great almost the entire time and I was just grabbing random “real” food at aid stations: hot dogs, burritos, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, etc. I drank a fair amount of water and even ate gels in between aid stations. Why didn’t I get nauseated? Who knows! Probably because of my lower effort level, the lower altitude, and because I never got dehydrated because I started pacing so late in the afternoon. I’m still searching for that elusive 100-mile race where nausea isn’t a major factor!

The final climb. I crushed it. Fear is a powerful motivator!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hardrock Training Summary

Yes, this is the course!

I apologize for my silence during the last two months, but as you can probably guess things have been a little crazy. Training has taken priority over blogging about training! However, I did want to write up a quick post before I head off to Silverton tomorrow.

In short, I'm ready.

I've trained more for Hardrock than I ever have for any previous race. Will it pay off? We'll have to wait and see. As I like to remind myself, solid training is necessary, but not sufficient for running a strong race. There's still that pesky execution part that happens on race day. My training has given me the possibility of attaining my goals, but has certainly not guaranteed that I'll achieve them. It will take discipline, focus, and drawing on my years of hard-won 100-mile experience.

My May was full of racing: Collegiate Peaks, Jemez, and the Dirty 30. I finally broke the 4-hour barrier at Collegiate Peaks and managed to finish in 19th place. It was probably my strongest race ever. I paced myself perfectly, running the first 3 miles at 8:05 min/mile and the last 3 miles at 7:55 min/mile. The Jemez 50 was certainly a solid workout. I was battling a head cold, so it was a bit slower than I'd hoped, but it was fun and instructive nonetheless. For my service requirement, I volunteered at the Sage Burner 50K down in Gunnison. Troy Howard and I manned an aid station together. It was a ton of fun to chat with him about Hardrock. I learned a lot, but what I was most impressed by was his genuine enthusiasm and excitement for the race. The Dirty 30 was by far my most fun race of the year. It was the first sunny day in a long, long time. I probably wasn't fully recovered from Jemez the week before, but I felt really, really good considering. I had no previous PR to beat, so it was a much more organic race. I was surprised by how technical the course was, but I loved it. I probably ran some of my best downhill miles ever, dancing around all the rocks! May was another all-time PR for me for training time and miles in a month.

June brought with it a shift in focus from running to hiking. My final training race was the re-scheduled Quad Rock 50. Oh. My. God. It was brutally hot. Especially for this poor Leadville resident. I was exactly an hour slower than I was last year, but with an almost 60% DNF rate, I was happy that I managed to finish at all. It was a good reminder to respect the heat and drink, drink, drink! Quad Rock was my third ~50 mile, ~11k vertical run of the year. That definitely gives me some confidence heading into Hardrock.

The highlight of June was my 4-day scouting trip of the Hardrock course. Alex and I were hoping to backpack the whole thing, but too much snow still clung to the high passes. (And I was also nursing a sprained ankle.) It would've been too much of a slog to make it worthwhile. So, we drove around to each aid station and did short out-and-back day hikes. We focused on the later sections of the course-- especially the sections I'll be running at night. Wow! The course is absolutely amazing! Truly stunning. Words cannot do it justice. (Believe me, I hate that phrase, but it is appropriate in this particular case!)

Grant-Swamp Pass.

I'd estimate that we only saw maybe 30-40% of the course, but I feel like that's enough. I saw most of the potentially confusing sections, and was able to get a feel for all the major climbs. I definitely readjusted my expectations for the race a notch or two towards the hiking end of the spectrum (rather than the running end). Yes, I need shoes with a burly tread. Yes, I'm going to use poles for the entire race. Yes, I need to up-size my running vest to a larger capacity. Yes, I am going to start off incredibly conservatively!

Tapering is driving me crazy. I feel sluggish and out of shape. The last few weeks have been a lot of long, slow, low-intensity hiking. I'm second-guessing everything. But, those worries are just pre-race nerves. My insecurity talking. Deep down, I'm confident. Well, as confident as I can be before taking on such a huge new monumental challenge!

I'll close with some charts which detail what my training has looked like for the last 7 long months. Frankly, I'm amazed that I was able to pull it off. I set some pretty lofty goals for myself way back in December, but I think I did a pretty good job of meeting them. There's always more you could do. One more workout. One more mountain you could climb. But, I'm done.

I've done the work. I've got the beard.

I ready to stop thinking about Hardrock and actually run Hardrock!

A big thanks in advance to the small army of crew and pacers who will be taking care of me on race day! You guys rock!

Hardrock starts Friday morning. It's been a long, long time coming.

Wish me luck!

All my training from December through the end of June.

A month-by-month summary. Every month was a PR for that month.

2015 vs. the 3 previous years.
This was my go-to spreadsheet: comparing this year's training to previous years on a week-by-week basis.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Month in Review (April)

April training history.
I wanted to post some quick thoughts on my April training before we slipped too far into May. My increased training load, and just general life craziness, has made carving out the time to blog a bit harder to justify lately. Still, I enjoy reading about how other folks' training is going, so I wanted to make an effort to contribute rather than just lurk.

Sierra on spring break in Fruita. She lost her first tooth.

This April was by far my best April ever, but only marginally tougher than March. Roughly +45 minutes running, +4.75 hours training (which includes some biking), +14,000 feet vertical, but -32 miles running. (But, when comparing April and March, I have to consider the fact that April had 1 less weekend than March. That can have a significant impact on my numbers as weekends are when I usually go for my long runs.)

At a high-level, April broke down like this: easy week, hard week, hard week, easy week.

4 weeks of training.
The first easy week was due to illness and spring break travel/family time (camping in Fruita). The second easy week was due to my right knee acting up (so extra biking). I think I've got that lingering injury under control now... Consistent daily stretching seems to be the solution. The two hard weeks sandwiched in between were my two hardest weeks of the year. So, that’s something.

Ethan dying Easter eggs in the desert.

My R2R2R adventure was the cornerstone of my training in April. No question about that. I can't imagine April without it, and I don't know what I could have possibly substituted for it. It was a huge dose of quality, both mentally and physically.

Though I didn’t make it up Mt. Elbert in April as I had hoped, I did hike up Mosquito Pass once. It's always windy up there, but this time the wind was so strong it felt like it was going to tear my jacket off! 60 mph, maybe?

Climbing up Mosquito Pass. (Before the mid-April blizzard.)

Damn windy.
When you look at the data a little deeper, I do like the fact that March and April were fairly different even though my total running time wasn’t that different. I basically traded lots of flat, sea-level miles in March for more vertical in April. And I did far more running at altitude in April. I ran some fast stuff. I ran some slow stuff. April had a pretty good mix of runs.

A week-by-week comparison of April training for the last few years

One thing to keep an eye on, though, is that I think I’m pretty well adapted to my standard long run of 4.5 hours and 1 mile of vertical. That's about 3 laps up and down Midland Hill in Buena Vista-- what has become my go-to long run this year. I don’t really feel that sore the day after, nor do I have low energy, etc. So… I gotta raise the bar on that in May, somehow.

My current training for Hardrock is very much influenced by my past training history. Since we're all an experiment of one, I feel like historical training numbers are an invaluable tool in shaping my training plan-- such as it is-- and gauging how things are going. Hardrock presents a unique challenge for me not just because of the course, but because of its timing-- more than a month earlier than the Leadville 100. So, I'm always looking slightly ahead on the calendar to see what I was doing back in '14, '13, '12, etc.

The good: I trained more in April ‘15 than I did in any past May (except May ‘10, which was an all-time monthly PR that stood for a long while).

The less good: I trained less in April ‘15 than I did in every past June! I’m pretty close for some Junes, but my April numbers are way behind my June ‘13 numbers.

So, yes, I’m 4 to 6 weeks ahead of my normal training schedule/fitness. (Hooray!) But, I’m really going to have to kick things up a notch in May if I want to beat my June ‘13 training numbers. I can't become complacent. May cannot look like April.

And, of course, I want this June to be my all-time toughest month of training ever. I think I'm on track... But, we'll see what May brings!

See that red hump from '13 that I'm approaching? That's what I want to beat!

I'm less worried about past distance PRs since I'm focusing more on vertical for Hardrock.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

R2R2R Report

I was a bit anxious during the week leading up to my R2R2R attempt. On Monday, after my toughest week of training this year (12+ hours, 60 miles, 10k vert), I had begun to feel a dull ache in my right knee. Runner's knee. It was the same knee that gave me trouble after Bighorn last summer. I spent most of the week stretching my legs and hips and icing my knee in a desperate attempt to recover in time for Saturday's adventure. I hit the bike trainer for the first time in almost two months to try to give it a break from the impact of my typical everyday running schedule. Finally, after warming up on the bike, I went on a tentative 2-mile run on Wednesday to see how it felt. Okay. No pain. Some pops and clicks, but much better than it felt on Monday. So-- what the hell-- I decided to give the R2R2R a shot. A questionable decision, for sure, but I had been planning this trip for too long to abandon it so easily. And I certainly didn't want to bail on my running partner, Alex.

Thursday morning, in a rush to beat the incoming storm, I threw all my gear in the Subaru and managed to escape Leadville. The roads were pretty dicey all the way to Minturn, but once I hit I-70 conditions weren't too bad-- just one localized blizzard outside of Rifle. It figures, just a week after I had swapped the snow tires off both our cars, the biggest storm of the season strikes. While I was away at the Grand Canyon, my wife got to deal with the 20+ inches of snow that fell on Leadville! So much for my dreams of the local trails melting out soon! Having camped in Fruita on spring break just two weeks ago, it felt very strange to drive through it again and see the mesas blanketed with snow. I stopped at The Hot Tomato, grabbed some pizza, and continued on to Moab, following beautiful 128 along the Colorado River.

Just outside of Moab, I hopped out of the car, stretched some more, and went on another test run to visit Morning Glory Arch. It was cloudy and chilly and the skies spat rain and hail on my return. I arrived back at the car soaked and numb, but no worse for wear. My knee was a little grumpy, but fine. I ate dinner, snagged a campsite in Sand Flats, enjoyed a beautiful sunset, and slept in the back of the Subaru. It drizzled all night. The pitter-patter on the roof of the car seemed out of place in the desert. I awoke to more clouds and drizzle. I was just below the snow line.

The sun sets over Moab.

The La Sals in the distance.

I met Alex, Erin, and the kids for a quick breakfast in Moab before hitting the road again. I drove through another snow storm in Blanding before driving through Monument Valley in the haunting clouds. It was still surprisingly chilly. Snow laced the sagebrush and accented the red slick rock. As I got closer to the Grand Canyon, a few spots of sunshine began to break through the clouds. I arrived shortly after noon and went on another short, easy test jog along the paved Rim Trail, weaving through all the tourists. The canyon was as majestic as ever. My knee seemed to be cooperating. I met Alex at our campsite in Mather Campground. We spent a leisurely afternoon catching up and making final preparations for our run. After a quick dinner at the lodge, and a beer or two, I set my alarm and curled up in my sleeping bag, breakfast at my side.

I woke up at 4 am, ate my breakast (two pieces of banana bread, a smoothie, and an espresso), and crawled out of my bag around 4:30 am or so. After fumbling around with our gear, and some final stretching on my part, we drove the short distance to Yaki Point, parked at the nearby picnic area, and headed out. It was about 5:30 am and just getting light. The idea was to leave as early as we could without needing headlamps. I wanted to enjoy the views as we descended the South Kaibab Trail into the canyon.

What followed was an amazing, amazing day of running. I'll spare you the blow-by-blow details, and try to summarize my experience as best I can.

First, the plan. It was quite simple, really. South Kaibab to North Kaibab and back. Roughly 42 miles and almost 11,000 feet of vertical. (We parked about a half a mile away from the trail head, so it ended up being about 43 miles total.) Many runners we met along the way planned to ascend back up Bright Angel Trail, which is a mile or two longer, but has water at Indian Garden. Instead, we simply retraced our steps taking the shorter, steeper, drier South Kaibab Trail. (Which is considered the standard route, I'd say.) We each had enough water capacity to survive the 2-3 hour climb.

We heard reports that the water was actually turned on at the North Rim, which would make our lives much easier. It meant we wouldn't have to carry as much from Cottonwood Campground up to the North Rim.

Alex has run the R2R2R route 5 or 6 times. (So many that he's lost count!) I attempted it with him in '13, but I had to turn back due to a bad case of the stomach flu. Now, two years later, I was back for some redemption. Alex is training for Wasatch-- a September race-- so his training is just getting started. (In contrast to, say, last year when he was training for Bighorn-- a June race.) And, while I'm almost certainly in better shape than I've ever been in April, I was nursing a gimpy knee and I really wanted to take the time to soak in the scenery and enjoy the day. In other words, this was not a FKT attempt (far from it!) nor were we chasing PR's. The plan was to take things easy, don't rush, take lots of pictures, and have fun.

And that we did!

It was a truly spectacular day. Perfect weather. The recent precipitation seemed to have washed the dust out of the air, making for very clear skies. It was hot at the bottom of the canyon in the afternoon, but not too hot. I'm sure it can be far, far worse. Within, I'd say, 30 minutes we had peeled off our hats, gloves, and long-sleeved shirts. Though frigid at the rim at the start, it warmed up quickly on the way down. If you're willing to suffer for a bit, you can skimp on extra layers if you'd like.

We took it super easy on the steep downhills, chatting away. Alex has a degree in geology and is a fantastic companion to have in the Grand Canyon, as you might imagine.

We refilled at Bright Angel Campground, snacked, used the facilities, and headed off through the narrows gently up to Cottonwood Campground. The whole R2R2R route can be roughly broken up into: 7 miles down, 7 miles flat, 7 miles up, turn around, repeat. The flattish section from BAC to CCG is very runnable (in both directions). Once we emerged from the narrows, it was all new terrain to me. I was forced to turn around and stagger back to the South Rim shortly after the first set of bridges in '13.

To my utter amazement, my knee was holding up just fine. It somehow survived the initial 5,000 ft descent to the river-- not exactly how you want to start a run when you're suffering from a knee injury! My confidence was building as the miles clicked by. It looked like the day wouldn't turn into the limping disaster that I had feared. We were in shadow almost all the way to Cottonwood Campground, where we stopped and took our second break. A short while later we stopped at the Pump House, where the water was also turned on. Then began our ascent to the North Rim. Up until this point, we'd seen backpacker activity around Phantom Ranch, and Cottonwood Campground, but only met a few folks out on the trail. The trail population would increase as we neared the turnaround.

The canyon was surprisingly lush. The light green of new leaves popped out on the trees and cacti. Flowers were everywhere. Some kinds I recognized, others were new to me. All beautiful. The North Rim of the canyon is much wetter than the South Rim, and in places water gushed from steep cliff faces. The trail was dramatically cut from the canyon walls. An engineering feat which was at times vertigo-inducing. As we climbed, we started crossing paths with other backpackers (who had started from the canyon bottom) and more and more runners. I'd say there were about 3-5 folks attempting the R2R2R in front of us, and maybe another dozen behind us. I was actually expecting more given the timing of our run-- the peak season for this kind of crazy adventure.

The North Rim is about 1,000 ft higher than the South Rim and felt very different. Chillier, certainly. Snow still lingered from the recent storm. Aspens made their appearance. By the time we had finished our snack I was almost shivering in my shorts and t-shirt. It was time to get moving again and warm up.

I stopped and took 100's of photos on the return trip. The scenery seemed to demand it! I was high on endorphins and loving life! I kept thinking to myself, "This, dammit, is why I run! This is why I slog down the Boulevard everyday during winter!" Believe it or not, I was a little skeptical that the run would be really worth the 9+ hour drive to and from the Grand Canyon. (That's a lot of time in the car. More time than I spent running.) But, yes. Yes, it was! The R2R2R should be on every runner's bucket list. It's totally worth it.

Roaring Springs

A burst pipe. All water on the South Rim is pumped from the North Rim.

Approaching Phantom Ranch
I had been running with my iPhone in airplane mode to conserve its batteries. The best spot to get cell reception in the canyon is on a little hill across from Ribbon Falls. (You can thank Alex for that beta.) From there, I happily texted my wife to let her know that I was 31 miles into the run and feeling fantastic. Euphoric. It was growing hotter as we continued to descend down to Phantom Ranch, but it was manageable. The key is to really take advantage of the water at all the spigots. Don't just fill up your bottles (I was carrying two 20 oz handhelds), but also drink some water on the spot, wet your hat, and carry a bandanna and keep that wet as well. Typical ultrarunning heat management stuff.

At Phantom Ranch, I bought a few Snickers bars to fill my stomach for the final climb ahead. (It's a good idea to carry some cash with you for just this reason. The R2R2R is actually quite civilized.) I also slurped down another Clif sweet potato pouch. I'd been drinking Tailwind all day and it was getting the job done, but it was also nice to eat some savory food every once in a while. So, each leg I'd get about 500 calories from Tailwind, 100-200 calories from Clif pouches, and maybe 100 calories from a GU. I'd try to polish off 20 oz of Tailwind every 45 minutes and drink maybe an extra 10 oz of water at the various water stops. For the final climb up to the South Rim, I brought two 500 ml soft flasks to carry extra water, which I filled at Bright Angel Campground.

I managed to grunt up the final climb without digging myself into too deep of a hole. I must confess that I did start slacking off on nutrition a bit as I neared the finish, and I probably suffered more than I had to. There were a few sections that I hiked that I probably should've jogged, but at least I never completely imploded. By the time we were climbing, the sun was low enough that there were actually some nice stretches of shade on the way up. A breeze also kicked in the higher up we got. So, the heat actually wasn't too brutal. I continued to shake my head in amazement at the scenery and stopped to take plenty of pictures. We met Alex's wife and kids just past Ooh Aah! Point, maybe a mile from the South Kaibab Trail Head. Despite tired legs, all the dust and dirt, and (in my case, at least) being encrusted with salt, we still had smiles on our faces!

The Hardrock beard is coming along nicely! A little more gray this time, though...

What a fantastic, fantastic run! I'm so glad that I carved out the time and went back this year to finally complete it. Without a doubt, it was a great training run for Hardrock and the highlight of my spring.

Some numbers.

As you might imagine, GPS doesn't work so well in the canyon. Mine was flaking out in the narrows and for most of the climb up the north side. So, all you can really do is go by time when you're checking your watch. Your mileage and your pace are almost always wrong.

To SKTH 0:06:46
To BAC 1:16:07
To CWC 1:32:30
To NKTH 2:06:03
To CWC 1:17:18
To BAC 1:13:02
To SKTH 2:32:37
To CAR 0:11:43

TOTAL 10:16:08
R2R2R 09:58:21

Now, that's all moving time. As I do on all my long runs, I stopped my watch whenever I stopped to refill water, snack, visit the bathroom, shop, take pictures, text my wife, stretch, etc. My total elapsed time was 12:27:17 (including to and from the car). So, obviously, that's a lot of stopped time. But, I have no regrets! I can't imagine racing through all that scenery, always on the clock-- at least on my first trip. My pace was very easy throughout. I doubt my HR ever went above MAF.

I wore Hoka Cliftons. They worked really well, I think. Tailwind has a frickin' ton of salt!