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.
Stephanie took this photo of me—well, more the burger I made for her—after we hiked 9 miles on the Dipsea Trail on July 4th. We’d intended to make it all the way to Stinson Beach for “halfway hamburgers” at The Parkside Cafe, but we turned around mid-way and headed back early—so I made them at home instead. But first I studied the advice in The Food Lab to up my burger-game. It worked.
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…?