Wednesday – We left San Francisco at 6am—before sunrise—and arrived in Joshua Tree National Park at 5pm—after sunset. We had expected the trip to take 9 hours, but with stops along the way and some traffic, it took 11. So we didn’t hold out much hope for one of Cottonwood’s first-come, first-served campsites—and yet, several were unclaimed as we circled the campground in the dark. We settled on one (#A9) that we later discovered had wide, sweeping views of the desert valley to the south. Unlike several recent cold desert-Thanksgivings, (all of which were inspired by our first trip to Joshua Tree in 2008) the weather was in the 70s during the day and the 50s at night all week—we never put the fly on our tent. For dinner we grilled sausages over a wood fire.
A dozen people were prepping to backpack across the Grand Canyon when Matthew and I arrived at the North Kaibab Trailhead just before 4 in the morning on June 11th. They were up an hour before sunrise to beat the heat—most would call it a day at Cottonwood Campground, 6.3 miles away. Signs warned people not to hike down to the Colorado River and back again in a single day. Precisely what we were attempting to do—twice.
The idea blossomed after we returned from the John Muir Trail last summer, averaging 20 miles/day, 11 days in a row, covering elevation changes as grand as the Grand Canyon and in some cases grander. We had no doubt that we could tackle a 23-mile rim-to-rim dayhike, unburdened by 30-pound packs. But could we turn around and head back, re-crossing the canyon, for a total of 46 miles? This was uncharted territory for the both of us. Before logging 48 miles during the 4MPH Challenge last March (my proving ground for the Grand Canyon), the longest I’d hiked in a day was just shy of 30 miles on the Ohlone Trail. Matthew had run 25 miles at the San Antonio Marathon—before collapsing from dehydration a mile before the finish line!
North Rim to Colorado River
Our target pace was 2.875mph, or 46 miles divided by 16 hours—roughly the daylight we had available. We were dead-on all the way to Cottonwood Campground—disconcerting because we had hoped to move faster on the downhill. It seemed unlikely that we’d be able to maintain the same pace heading up to the South Rim. I discovered midway that my cyborg elbow had started swelling—a bout of bursitis that cropped up a week earlier—in the middle of my final training hike on Mt. Diablo. My intensive use of hiking poles seemed to trigger the condition, so I packed up my left hiking pole—a disappointing setback. On the long, gradual stretch to Bright Angel Campground, we gravity-jogged occasionally and banked half-an-hour—of which we used 20 minutes at Phantom Ranch to refuel and change socks (both my big toes had poked through!). While there, I was able to make a $25 collect call so I could leave Stephanie a voicemail indicating our progress.
While making plans with Danny last April for a joint dayhike of Skyline-to-the-Sea, he told me about an oddball ultra-marathon—the 4MPH Challenge—where each “runner” maintains a pace of 4 miles-per-hour—essentially a brisk walk. If it takes you less than an hour-and-a-half to complete the 6-mile course, you wait until the hour-and-a-half is up before heading back for another 6 miles. And if it takes you longer, you’re out! It continues back and forth like this until there’s only one participant left. In that way, it’s fairly unique—a race won by distance, not time.
I found the constrained pace compelling. I typically estimate 3mph for dayhikes, but that includes snack breaks, photo-ops, etc. Subtract dallying and 4mph seemed doable. That said, I didn’t give it serious consideration through most of 2016—organized competitive racing isn’t my thing. But Danny must have mentioned it again, so in early December, I signed myself up “in the interest of trying new things”.
I officially started “training” at the beginning of February, walking 2.3 miles to (and sometimes from) work, whenever the weather was clear. I timed myself to get an accurate sense of my pace. For the most part—backsliding only after that jog down Mt. Diablo—I was able to reach my target: 4.25mph. But the question remained, would I be able to do so over 6 miles with 200 feet of elevation gain and loss, and then repeat that feat again and again and again…?
On Saturday last weekend, Danny and I hiked 13 miles from the Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center to the summit of Mount Diablo (previously), and then jogged all the way back down. My quadriceps complained all week. I did this (in part) because I’m “training” for a “race” on March 18th called the 4MPH Challenge, taking place just west of Redding. It’s a kind of ultramarathon, with no set distance, that you walk, briskly. The only requirement is that you complete each leg of the 6-mile course in 90 minutes or less. Hence 4MPH. The “winner” is the person who walks the farthest. Wish me luck.
We bought a Jeep. When I tell people this, I forget that I have to clarify. A Jeep Wrangler. The One True Jeep. We call her « La Jeep ». She was born in 2006 and traveled 93,000 miles to find us. She’s the last year of the TJ generation. Sport trim with a 6-speed manual transmission, midnight blue paint, and 30″ tires. We got her to go off-road.