29 Years of Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim

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On May 11-12, 2017, I attempted what would have been my 30th annual Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) hike in the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, I fell short this year, having turned around at the Supai Tunnel due to the cold. It was midnight, the wind was howling and the temperature was in the 40's. I was climbing into higher altitude and decreasing temperatures and knew that it would be more than 2 hours to get on up to the North Rim and back to where I was. So, I called it off, 1.7 miles short of the Rim.

Last year I completed my 29th R2R2R and was looking for number 30 this year. That is, one R2R2R per each calendar year for 29 consecutive years. The first two, 1988 and 1989, were 3-day trips with a full rest day spent on the North Rim before walking back. Since then, all but one (1996) have been single day events, or at least completed within 24 hours (some have been overnight, moonlight hikes).

For 17 of the 29 years, I was accompanied by my long-time, good friend, Doug Minderlen. Doug inspired me 30 years ago to get off the couch, exercise, and rise above a typical, mundane physical lifestyle. He has remained a fitness inspiration for me throughout the years and we have both challenged ourselves and each other to be the best we can be. Doug and I are both the same age and have a similar capacity for endurance. Neither of us are elite by any means, but we have learned that we can do things that we previously thought were not possible for us. It is the idea of "doing more" that led us to attempting our first, 1-day R2R2R in 1990 and has kept me going back each year to do it again.

Early Years
When Doug and I planned our first, single day R2R2R in 1990, we didn't know how well we would survive the 42-mile ordeal and wondered if we would crash hard somewhere before the end. We both had walked R2R in one day in the previous year, but had been so tired upon reaching the North Rim that turning around and walking back right away seemed like an impossible feat.

We learned in 1990 and in subsequent years that we were more capable than we knew. We also learned that mindset plays a large part this endeavor. When we arrived at the North Rim in 1989 on a 3-day trip, my body felt as though it was finished and couldn't go on. The following year, when arriving at the North Rim halfway through our first 1-day R2R2R, we were of course extremely tired from pushing hard, but the mind told the body that it wasn't over yet and back we went with no question that we could continue. Of course mental toughness alone can't get the job done. We were also in good physical condition and well trained.

A 1-day R2R2R event for us typically involves pushing hard for best time on the way over, spending only a few minutes on the North Rim, and then trying to recover on the way back. We would still push on the return crossing, but not as hard due to the beginning stages of fatigue. The trip often ends in survival mode, trying to climb out to the South Rim in reasonable time while not completely falling apart.

Middle Years
Single-day R2R2Rs became a way to prove to myself that I'm not old yet, that I've still "got it", kind of like a physical version of a mid-life crisis. During those first few single-day R2R2Rs, Doug and I pushed for best times to see how well we could do. After that, it became a fun challenge just to do it. We still wanted to go quickly and do well, but our expectations relaxed somewhat over the years due to increasing age.

I have been fortunate enough to stay healthy and injury-free so that I could do a R2R2R each year, but Doug has been less fortunate. Nagging injuries and even more serious injuries (e.g. broken bones) have kept him from participating some years. As of 2016, I have completed 29 R2R2Rs in the last 29 calendar years and Doug has attempted 17 and completed 14. When I realized about 15 years ago that I had a "streak" going, i.e, several years in a row of R2R2R completions, I developed an inexplicable, perhaps irrational drive to keep the once-each-year streak alive. This became a bit crazy, even leading in 2000 to a Dec. 29-30 overnight crossing that put me on the North Rim all alone at 3am on one of the longest nights of the year... in retrospect, not the smartest thing to do. Although Doug has not participated every year due to the occasional injury, something as trivial as a "streak" has not been important to him.

For many years, I wrestled with proper fueling for a 42 mile run/hike. It eluded me and sometimes I suffered for it. I could not conclusively figure out what to eat and drink in order to maintain energy levels and not crash and burn before the day was done. In the "quick" years when running some and pushing for best time, I would lose all appetite during the second half and could hardly stand to put anything in my mouth. I ate hardly any food or supplements for hours, which surely affected my performance. I still did reasonably well, but perhaps could have done better or suffered less. In some years, various stages of nausea would set in, and in other years it would not.

The nausea was horrible and really made the end of a trip miserable. I would climb as best as I could, but with frequent stops and feeling the need to lie down. A few times it would lead to vomiting, but usually not. Doug had the same experience on several trips and it was something that we both feared each year. In most years, there was no nausea, but in a few years there was. It seemed unpredictable. Probably it was caused by poor fueling, or perhaps insufficient training, or maybe the early stages of hyponatremia, or a combination of all three... we just never knew.

The slower, non-running pace in recent years has made it easier to consume food throughout the day and to prevent over-extending myself, whereas the all-out pace of the faster years did not. In 2004 Doug and I began using Hammer Nutrition products, most notably Endurolytes (E-caps), Perputuem or a Perpetuem/Heed mix, and Hammer Gel. For several years, neither of us experienced nausea. In 2013, the nausea came back. Surely the Hammer products helped, but were they the final answer? Perhaps not, since I experienced nausea and vomiting again on the 2013 trip. Admittedly, I did not do a good job of consuming the supplements at regular intervals... they just didn't appeal to me that year. In 2014, I switched back to solid food, primarly PB&J sandwiches and fruit, and had good experience with that. I have now used PB&J and fruit for 3 consecutive years ahd have had wonderful fueling results. There has not been even a trace of the nausea or core depletion that I have felt in previous years. I now feel convinced that PB&J + fruit is the way to go. It's too bad that it took me so long to figure this out now that I am older and likely nearing the end of my run.

Throughout the years, I progressed from uncertainty in my ability, to confidence after several good performances, and now back to uncertainty again as my age increases and my capabilities begin to decline. That first single day R2R2R back in 1990 was especially uncertain, having never attempted a reverse crossing immediately after an exhausting first crossing. Through the middle years, there was little question that I could do it, but emphasis more on how fast. As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult to get fit enough to start the event with confidence in my ability. The body slows down, the knees ache, and my motivation for intense training lessens, as does my tolerance for pain and suffering. So far I've always made it, but it just seems a little harder each year.

Doug and I were both 39 when we did our first 1-day R2R2R. We will never know if we could have been better or gone faster in our younger years, but it doesn't matter. Our goals have always been to do the best we can do, and accept whatever we get. We both are long past our prime and are no longer capable of the faster times that we saw in the early years. As we get older, my present goal is just to do it, whereas Doug has already resigned himself to not attempting this anymore. It just is no longer fun for him, which I understand since it is starting to become that way for me too.

Being capable enough to do R2R2R helps me to feel like I'm not yet old, but eventually it will prove that I am old or at least too old to do it. I understand that even more now that I am in my 60's. Someday, I will no longer be able to accomplish this feat in one day and eventually not even in multiple days. This year's R2R2R was among the hardest and slowest for me and makes me realize more than ever that my remaining years of single-day R2R2R are coming to an end.

Is 29 years of R2R2R significant? No... only to me. Others have surely done more of them and definitely have gone much, much faster. One thing has remained common throughout the last 29 years... R2R2R is the hardest and most fun thing that I do. I look forward to it with anticipation, glee, and fear every year, and each year I am glad when it's over. Although it is a ton of fun, it is hard enough that once each year is enough for me.

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Below is a high level summary of the first 29 trips.

      —————  TIMES  —————      
  YEAR DATE S to N N to S TOTAL MILES NOTES   (click for detail) DOUG
1 1988 Oct 8 7:54 7:54 3 days 42 3-day trip, w/ Honeywell group  
2 1989 Oct 7 6:26 8:30 3 days 42 3-day trip, w/ Honeywell group
3 1990 May 5 5:06 7:08 12:26 42 1st single day R2R2R, for time
4 1991 May 18 4:42 6:15 11:10 42 for time, first 5-12
5 1992 Sep 12 8:26 7:42 22:25 42 1st night crossing
6 1993 May 22 4:41 6:17 11:05 42 for time, solo, best time  
7 1994 Oct 21 7:50 8:01 18:51 42 night crossing, solo  
8 1995 Oct 8 9:15 9:35 19:15 42 start NR, night, solo/Honeywell  
9 1996 Oct 5 10:34 14:04 3 days 42 Cindy's 1st time, w/Honeywell
10 1997 Oct 10 6:26 9:57 16:37 47 BA both ways, meet Cindy
11 1998 Sep 4 9:09 7:47 17:12 42 night crossing, rain  
12 1999 May 22 5:17 9:24 14:50 42 dn SK, up BA, meet Cindy  
13 2000 Dec 30 8:38 11:06 19:59 44 night crossing, meet Cindy  
14 2001 May 11 8:27 14:20 22:53 50 50 mi, SK, Tonto, BA, sick
15 2002 May 10 7:52 9:32 17:41 50 50 mi, SK, Tonto, BA
16 2003 May 9 6:52 8:30 15:46 42 SK both ways, solo  
17 2004 May 14 5:55 7:39 13:51 44 dn SK, up BA, w/Doug
18 2005 May 4 7:11 7:50 15:25 42 dn and up SK, w/Doug
19 2006 May 5 6:30 7:25 14:08 42 dn and up SK, w/Doug
20 2007 Apr 27 6:11 9:35 16:18 42 dn and up SK, w/Doug
21 2008 May 9 6:40 7:49 14:49 42 dn and up SK, w/Doug  
22 2009 Apr 9 7:00 8:21 15:47 42 dn and up SK, solo
23 2010 Apr 25 7:51 9:27 17:33 42 dn and up SK, w/Doug
24 2011 Apr 16 7:17 8:00 15:46 42 dn and up SK, solo  
25 2012 Apr 20 7:32 9:40 17:42 42 dn and up SK, solo  
26 2013 Apr 27 7:51 11:32 19:50 42 dn and up SK, solo  
27 2014 Mar 25 8:11 9:22 18:11 42 dn and up SK, solo  
28 2015 Mar 24 8:12 9:52 18:25 42 dn and up SK, solo  
29 2016 May 4 9:24 10:58 21:04 42 dn and up SK, solo  

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