Lower Grand Gulch: Collins Spring to the San Juan River OAB FKT

Mixed Gender Team Fastest Known Time

Maria Steinhauser and Luke Garten

Time: 10 hours, 32 minutes

4-18-2019

Luke Garten and I set out to get the speed record for the lower section of the Grand Gulch, which starts just above the Narrows at Collins Spring and ends at the San Juan River.  I had rafted the San Juan River in 2010 and hiked a couple miles up the Grand Gulch, so I had an idea of the terrain to expect.  The guy who had the FKT up until then had recorded 32 miles, although he reported that he had gotten lost and popped out on top. As it turned out he must have cut off a lot of mileage in doing so since he dropped back into the gulch further down canyon. Luke had mapped it out and made a GPX file that said it was closer to 35 miles.  We had just run a hard and fast effort in Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas (each of us separately running it and getting the female and male unsupported FKTs for Turtlehead Peak) and two longer runs, one in Grand Canyon National Park and one in Zion National Park, as this was a stop on a longer road trip.  Our legs were tired going into it, but we were ready for the challenge.

There were sparse trails in the canyon, but it was not always obvious which trail option was best, and there were a lot of times that we were route finding, deciding whether to follow the creek or run in the grassy, bushy sand above.  Sometimes we would get a little distance between us due to the thick willows and scraggly cottonwoods that were exploding with vibrant, green spring leaves and littering the creek bed, blocking our line of sight to one another, or we would take divergent routes around obstructions or scrambling down and around boulders.  We had fun yipping and yooing to each other and listening to the echoes as we ran, orienting ourselves to one another. There were a lot of low-lying branchy bushes, cactus, and trees to bushwhack through. We ran over short sections of slickrock, but unless we were climbing over boulders or rock hopping, almost everything was sandy, be it dry sand, wet sand, or quick sand (more on that later).  Even though our overall elevation gain was around 2600 feet, it felt like we were climbing a lot, navigating down and up sandy dunes as well as climbing up and scurrying down boulders. 

Luke and I ran the first 10 miles focused and making good time.  Then we started looking for an arch, which according to the map at the trail head was about two-thirds of the way to the river.  When we found it, it seemed a lot farther than I thought it was going to be.  The sand was starting to wear on me.  We hit 18 miles and didn’t seem anywhere close to the river; every time we came around a turn in the canyon, there was another turn in the canyon ahead. We checked the GPX on Luke’s phone and it confirmed that we had a long way to go still. It was hot and the reflection on the sand made the heat seem even more intense.  The terrain was getting slower to navigate as we neared the river, and we had slowed to a walk. Our spirits finally started to pick up when we got within a mile of the river.

We came upon a place where the gulch narrowed and dropped off over a table-like spillover of the creek bed.  The only way down was to walk along a 20 foot section of crumbly, exposed cliff that dropped off 50 feet below.  It suddenly dawned on me that I had been in that exact location, debating whether it was worth the risk to cross or not when I had hiked up from the river years before.  Luke went over it safely exhibiting no fear.  I started but then reached a section where I had to take a big step and grab a rock in one movement with zero margin for error.  It wasn’t a rock that I wanted to hang all my weight onto either so the move would require some grace and precision. I froze and my legs started shaking from the adrenaline. I yelled to Luke, “I’m scared!  You might have to just go to the end without me.” But then I saw my line and went for it, one footstep at a time and made it over. We ran the rest of the way to the river and my watch read 21.5 miles.

There was a colorful rainbow of rafts and a big group of people on their last day of a week-long river trip stopped for lunch on the sandy beach. They asked us about our run and offered us food.  Luke said he would love some, but then it dawned on him that our FKT effort wouldn’t be unsupported and so he declined.  We had plenty of Gu gels to make it through our run.  The silty-green water was high and seemed to be moving well so we walked along the shore looking for a place to swim where we would be able to safely get out of the water. I took my shoes off and dumped a half cup of sand and pebbles out of each. We both jumped in the river to cool off and wash off some of the salt from our skin. It felt so refreshing! I wrung out my wet shirt and put it back on, feeling the coolness breath new life into me. We ate our banana and almond butter sandwiches we had packed, asked someone to snap a photo of us, and then we were off again with a new bounce to our step and a renewed determination to continue pushing the pace.

We filtered water at the spring about a mile up the gulch and continued rock hopping.  Walking along the exposed cliff from earlier didn’t seem as intimidating the second time.  Perhaps it was because I had already proven to myself that I could do it, or perhaps it was because I was so happy we were heading back in the other direction, our base camp serving as a beacon that was pulling my tired body home.

At one point we were running in soft sand in the creek bed and Luke sunk—quickly.  I immediately stepped off to the side as I felt myself sinking as well.  In the time it took Luke to turn around to face me, he had already sunk up to his thighs.  “You need help?” I asked him. 

“I think I can crawl out,” he responded with uncertainty, but he had already completely lost use of his legs and his arms weren’t going to reach much past the sink hole he was sinking into. I knew that the more he struggled to get out the more he would likely sink, so I threw him a firm hand and leaned back with all my body weight to pull him out, just as I had learned to do when pulling someone back aboard a raft after being thrown out in a rapid.

The rest of the run was a grueling push through the relentless sand. I contemplated walking but figured my suffering would last longer then so I continued running, down and up the sandy bank alongside the creek bed.  Sometimes we had to run through dry low-lying bushes that scratched my legs like barbed wire reaching out to claw at my skin. I noted, too, that the willows and sticks that seemed fairly easy to run through when we were running downriver, now heading in the opposite direction seemed more like loaded atlatls aiming spearheads at us. There was no avoiding these skewers while maintaining a running pace even with a high level of concentration, so I just allowed my legs to succumb to their torture and tried to block the pain out as much as possible.  Some of the bushes had inch-long burrs on them that clung onto my shoes and shoelaces as I ran through, and they would scratch against the inside of my calves and shins until I picked them off.  My running form was sometimes altered due to uneven sand and rocks, and probably fatigue was playing a role as well, and my sand-covered trail shoe would catch that same—now raw—area on the inside of my legs.  Pretty soon the top layers of skin had been completely sanded and scratched off on the lower insides of my legs, and each time my foot caught that spot again or I had to run through a cluster of bushes, I would wince in agony.  But we kept running. 

The goal we discussed as the sun got lower in the sky was to get back before dark, and that seemed like a powerful incentive.  I had been out after dark many times before, but I hadn’t brought long sleeves along thinking we were only running 31 miles, and I knew that in the desert the heat can feel intense but the discomfort of the cold after nightfall can make the heat of the day seem like a dear friend you long to return to.  We pushed on. 

As the sun dipped behind walls of the canyon casting dim shadows, and the light turned to a golden color that radiated off of the red and pink sandstone walls, I played a familiar game in my head, counting down first with 10K remaining, then 5K remaining. I pictured my everyday short-run routes and imagined that I was running on fresh legs with only that short distance to run.  It’s just a 5K, I told myself.  That’s nothing. Just a quickie after a workday.  “Shall we do the last push at race pace?” Luke suggested. We picked up the pace, both of us smelling the barn as we began our climb out of the canyon, running in concentrated silence.

When we reached the car, we had run 43 miles in total.  We still had enough light left to drive back to our base camp, which had a beautiful view of the top layer of the canyon country and a lovely alcove that was protected from the breeze.  We bathed by dumping water over ourselves, standing in the final rays of warm sunlight.  My legs burned intensely as I soaped them up and rinsed them off. We got into sweatshirts and long pants just in time as the sun dipped behind the horizon and the colder temperatures descended upon us.  We celebrated that night with beef and whiskey, campfire and moonlight, triumph and camaraderie.  That was a huge effort, and one that made it near the top of the list of most difficult efforts of my life.  The thrill that was added with the unknown route and the isolation of a canyon that sees scarce brave travelers made this a remarkable adventure that will be tough to outdo.

Check out my Strava activity here.

Watch this video that Luke Garten made.

Check out the Lower Grand Gulch Fastest Known Time leader board as well as other FKT routes here.