• Marcus Kowal

Running the Grand Canyon

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

I'm going to write two different blog posts on running the Grand Canyon: one on my personal experience and one on how to prepare for it (or any long run to be honest with an insane incline) from my experience.


Me, Mishel and the kids drove to Arizona from LA on the Friday. We started out around 5am. We left early, partially to skip LA traffic but also to get used to the early hours. The idea was to get to sleep earlier and adapt to the 4am start time but it ended up just being me sleeping less, as per usual. We met up with my brother and the rest of the R2R2R2 team, as well as Toni, Maddie and Leah from Liam's Life Foundation, who were there to support. We drove over to the Grand Canyon and there's very few things in my life that truly have been "breathtaking". The Grand Canyon can only be described as that: Breathtaking.

It was finally starting to become real.


The rest of the night started feeling like the night before a fight. Antsy. Tense. Just wanting to get started, so that you can get it over and done with.


02.45am: the alarm went off.


Everything was laid out and ready. I didn't want to go through the mental checklist of what to take before I had to leave. I gave the family a kiss and went on my way.

Except I had forgotten my my Garmin watch in LA, which measures distance and my heart rate.

"I'll be alright without it", I thought.

Mistake number one.




04.20: was our official start time.


It was pitch black outside, so we used headlamps to see the trail. We weren't moving fast, due to the darkness and the uneven terrain. It was already hot, however, and 6-7 miles into it, when the sun started to rise, we already had a light sweat going.

The first few hours were absolutely beautiful. The ever-changing nature of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado river made for the most beautiful run I've ever experienced.

Then, the 9.4 ascent up the North Kaibab Trail began at around 9.30am. At first, everything was going according to plan. I had worked a lot of inclines, preparing for the steep rocks but nothing could have prepared me for the insanely steep trails of the Grand Canyon.

Still, I was doing fine.


Or so I thought.

At this point, we had separated a little bit. I had my brother some 20 minutes ahead of me and one of the guys, Mark, behind me. I didn't have my heart rate monitor but even if I had had it, I don't think it would have made much of a difference, as I didn't know how important it was to stay out of my Lactic Acid Threshold. Mistake number two.

As the sun started to rise, it started to get hotter and hotter. I kept trotting along but as we got closer and closer to the north rim, the heat started to become unbearable. There was no shade whatsoever and what I didn't realize was that the sun was also heating up the rocks, which increased the temperature even higher, to at least 125 (51.6 degrees Celsius). One of the Park Rangers who we spoke, while they were giving a fit, young guy oxygen later told us that the temperature could have gotten as high as 150 (65 degrees Celsius).

My body was overheating and I started to get nauseous. Each step started to become a struggle and I was moving very, very slow. I started realizing that this really wasn't good.


However, I had a "don't stop" mentality and kept pushing forward. Mistake number three. I should have stopped to bring down my heart rate.

I tried drinking but by now, my water was just as hot as I was and with the nausea, I almost threw up when I tried to take a sip. David Goggins talks about the "Cookie Jar" in his book Can't Hurt Me. In a nutshell, it's taking a memory from when one overcame something in the past, when the going gets tough. When the voices in your head starts saying "just quit while you're still alive", you use your "cookies" to say "You've been here before. You did it then and you can do it again."

The truth is, I hadn't been here before. I had to smash that whole cookie jar.

I finally stopped to apply some sun screen and force down a gu. Again, I almost threw up but it gave me the energy needed to push through to the top. Once I got there, I realized the last 1.5 miles had taken over an hour.

Once reaching the top, I find my brother lying on the ground. He was hurting bad. "This isn't good", I thought to myself, considering he's a lot more experienced than I am, having completed several Iron Mans. He had his heart rate monitor, which showed that we had been in our Lactic Acid Threshold for over 2 hours straight. Even lightly jogging or walking had kept us there, due to the insane incline and heat.


We decided to run down to the closest shop, just under a mile away, to get some ice and start cooling down our systems. Before we did, my brother started to projectile vomit. He was in bad shape. So I did what every good older brother does: I got my phone out so that I could film it! (Don't watch if you have a sensitive stomach!)



We waited for the rest of the group to join us. As they did all started to drop in, we began to understand how bad the whole group was hurting, with one exception: James, the man who was behind the whole event, had meticulously made sure he kept his heart rate below the Lactic Acid Threshold and was in great shape.

While we were waiting, I was learning about the 8-10 deaths the Grand Canyon sees a year. Since the 1880s, some 770 lives, which averages some 12 lives a year, have been claimed by the Grand Canyon (17 lives in 2018). Most common causes of death? Dehydration, heat strokes and falls.

Out of the group, 4 decided to not continue. It was definitely the smart thing to do and I know they could have finished it too. They had ran 26 miles through insane heat and elevation. These were tough men who it had been an honour to share the trails with. I know some of them will be back to complete the #Rim2Rim2Rim.

As we started heading back, I got this sudden burst of energy.


I knew I was going to complete it.


There was absolutely nothing that was going to stop me. It's a powerful feeling. My brother and I kept a high pace all the way down to the Colorado river. At times, we were averaging 7:40 minute miles. As we got down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Thomas tried sending a text to Mishel, to notify her that we should probably be back by 06.30-06.45pm.

I'm so, so happy that the text didn't go through.

"Only 9.9 miles to go", we said, as we started heading up the Bright Angel Trail.

Only.


With twenty-twenty hindsight, it's almost cute how naive we were. We thought we'd average 12 minute miles, so some two hours to get to the top. It took us almost 4 hours. Earlier when met the Park Rangers, they told us that they had had a very busy day, because of the heat (there were two helicopter rescues that day). When I told one of them that we were doing Rim to Rim to Rim, her answer was "You're insane."

As we continued the ascent up the trail, and were met with monsoons. The strong winds made us a little nervous, as the trails weren't very wide and the drops are very steep. It also started to rain, which made it more slippery, as it began to get darker and darker. The team that was with us later told us that there was a lot of lightning at the edges of the canyon but we didn't see them on the inside.


It was almost like the Weather Gods said "What else fun can we give them?" At the same time, the cooler temperatures felt like heaven.


The last five miles took over two hours. It was like walking on the highest level on a Stair Master, for two hours straight, in complete darkness. Every time I looked up to see the silhouette of the top of the south rim, it felt like we hadn't gotten an inch closer. My neck was cramping, from having to look down for so long so that the beam from the headlamp could give me some inches of light.


We arrived at the top after seventeen hours and five minutes. The Liam's Foundation team, Mishel, Nico and Luna and some of the guys were there to greet us.


Wes, an OCR World Championships athlete and Ninja Warrior athlete, had headed down the trail for a bit to meet us. It was nice to walk the last few hundred meter together. This is a beautiful video of the run that Wes put together.


I also want to give an extra shoutout to James, who on his way back had to wait for a Ram with its lamb to cross his path and then a rattle snake. I don't have the video of him trying through rocks close to the rattle snake to get it to move off the trail. All in all, it was the most horrendous and yet most beautiful thing I've ever done. It tested me in every possible way and I hope it sends a message: I did #50for05 (50 miles for a lowered BAC to 0.05). I did this, because my son was killed by a drunk driver. I did it for him. But I also did it to make sure other innocent children's lives aren't taken by such a selfish and senseless act.

It makes sense.


More than 100 countries have done it.


All of their statistics show that lowering the BAC saves lives.

However, we have opposition. Specifically, the American Beverage Institute, who receives donations from Budweiser, amongst others. It's an uphill battle. But if I can conquer the Grand Canyon, do you think I'm going to let a dark lobbying firm, who puts profits before people stop me?

This fight is a marathon, not a sprint.

And we are going to win it, one Grand Canyon at the time. #rememberLiam #50for05 #Rim2Rim2Rim


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