Monday, May 5, 2014

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

It was the best, worst running adventure of my life. A few years ago, a running friend said that she wanted to run across the Grand Canyon. At the time, I was just getting into ultra running and thought that seemed like an impossible goal. However, I've proved to myself on many levels that I am stronger than I think I am.

Last summer, while running up and down Pikes Peak, I decided that running across the Grand Canyon and back in a day (known as a rim to rim to rim, R2R2R, or R3) would be my next big adventure.  It scared me. But at the same time, it also excited me.  It was something big.  And it was something that I wanted.

Viewing the canyon the day before the run. 
But, I didn't know anything about the Grand Canyon, or even how to run across it once, or twice.  The logistics seemed daunting. But I researched, found a few articles online about how to do it, and began reading reports from others who had done it. I bought a book on how to hike and backpack in the canyon. I bought a trail map.  I joined a Facebook group. And with each new resource, I learned.  That's the way I roll.  I am always very prepared in everything to do.  Along the way, I hooked up with a couple of other guys in my running club who also wanted to do this, Scott and Troy (who are also really close friends).  And so it began, the journey to R3 developed.

The training:  I had no idea where to begin.  The route we chose was 47 miles round trip (although there are 3 different routes, either, 42, 44.5, or 47 miles), with about 22000 feet of elevation.  Wow! That's scary. Our route was Bright Angel Down, North Kaibab up, then return.  I had never done anything this physically hard in my life. Plus, it's a self supported run, at high elevation, in the desert. If you screw up, it could result in an airlift out if the canyon and thousands of dollars in bills.  You have to train for the distance, but also be strong enough to do the hills as well.  Hill repeats, StairMaster workouts, and squats and lunges became my regimen. However, it also brought on a running injury back in February and almost prevented me from running altogether.  Thankfully, with custom orthotics and learning how to tape and support my fallen arch, I was able to heal to get it done. My mileage peaked at 50 miles per week, two and three weeks prior to the run, and while I wanted significantly more training, it was all that I could do.  The injury had cost me about 6 weeks. I was willing to accept anything in the canyon, even if it meant stopping short and turning back early.

The goal:  based on what I had learned, healthy, trained mid pack runners should be able to complete this in 14 to 16 hours.  This isn't a race, it's just a run, and I'm only competing with myself.  I developed a timeline for a 16 hour finish.  Honestly, time should be irrelevant, and enjoying the experience should be more important.  I wanted to do well and not be miserable.  I also wanted to enjoy it enough to want to come back.  I also wanted to get out alive.

The run:  my running buddies and I spent the better part of 9 months exchanging messages back and forth about the run.  It helped build a little bit of confidence as we shared tips and advice, and shared some of the training.  The injury set me back, and my confidence waned. But the trip was booked, and I was going to accept whatever my body could give.

We flew into Phoenix on Friday, May 2, rented a car, and drove the 3 ½ hours to the Grand Canyon thinking about the adventure that awaited us.  We arrived around 430 in the afternoon and checked into the Maswik Lodge, just ½ mile from the canyon edge.  While the weather had been cool with rain and snow in the previous week, it was forecast to be hot and 95 at the bottom for our run.  We walked to the canyon edge, walked a bit down the trail, and mentally prepared for what would begin in a few hours.

We initially wanted to start around 4 am Saturday morning May 3.  I had taken an Ambien, was in bed by 730 pm and slept very well.  But Scott and Troy did not.  I woke up around 230 am. They were already awake and thought we might as well leave.  Let’s go!  After quickly getting ready, we were descending Bright Angel trail by 320 am.  In retrospect, given the forecast heat we should have started even earlier.  Starting temp was in the mid 30s, with very little wind. It was perfect.  With no clouds in the sky, it was a magical experience dropping into the vast darkness below us.  We couldn’t see it, but you could sense it.  And you could feel the heat rising from the deep.  It was exhilarating.

The initial descent was very smooth. Down.  It felt comfortable.  I had on arm warmers, lightweight gloves, a beanie hat, a short sleeve shirt, and Columbia hiking shorts with compression shorts underneath.  Around a switchback, and down again. Surprisingly, for me, it was hard to get into a good rhythm, with so many water boards, and many more rocks than I had anticipated.  But we were quickly dropping, and a quick stop at the 1 ½ mile rest house had us shedding our jackets and arm warmers.  And down some more, quickly reaching the 3 mile rest house, with another quick stop to do a self assessment.  However, by this time, I was already experiencing a hot spot on my right heel, which worried me.  I never get blisters on my heel.  Never.  I had been training with my custom orthotic, but I was not able to train for the rocks with such a rugged, steep descent, which I think threw my gait off a bit.  

Down.  I continued on, knowing that I had to stop to take care of the hot spot quickly or my run would end. We reached Indian Garden at 4.5 miles and I stopped to assess the damage.  A quarter size blister had already formed.  Ugh.  I taped it as best as I could and moved forward. It felt better, but still hurt with every step.  

After Indian Garden, the first light started to peak over the canyon. It was breathtaking to watch the canyon come alive. And within another 20 to 30 minutes, we were able to turn the headlamps off. We quickly reached the Colorado River shortly after sunrise and stopped for a few pictures. 

At the bottom at the Colorado River.

Pressing onward, we crossed the Silver Bridge, past Bright Angel Campground, and on to Phantom Ranch, total distance 9.9 miles in just under 3 hours.  We were a little behind schedule, but I honestly didn’t care.  It was already warmer than I thought it would be, it was already 70 at Phantom, and time goals were melting.  I checked my blister, and it had gotten bigger.  There was also a larger group of runners who had commandeered some of the picnic tables, and the flies and mosquitoes were buzzing around me, which annoyed me even more. I applied a blister gel pad, retaped it, and pushed onward.  I headed out of Phantom Ranch in a bad mood, heading out ahead of Scott and Troy, knowing they would catch me.  

After Phantom Ranch, the climbing begins. Up. It’s gradual at first, at 3 to 5% incline, through the box canyon up the North Kaibab trail.  It actually turned out to be a really pleasant stretch, running along the creek, enjoying the almost 2 billion year old rocks, and finally acknowledging what I was doing.  It wasn’t hard work, and my legs actually felt really good. This is a 7 mile stretch, it actually passed pretty quickly for me, arriving at Cottonwood Campground.  Miles weren’t fast, just slow and easy forward progress. Up.  And, about 4 ½ hours into the run, the sun finally peeked over the cliff tops, beating down on you, and it warmed quickly.

We arrived at Cottonwood Campground for a stop, to refill water bottles and hydration packs, and eat. My goal was to eat and drink all day long.  To graze.  To never get behind on nutrition or hydration. And I feel it worked.  My stomach actually felt great most of the day, despite the heat. I had a large variety of food.  I was drinking Hammer Perpetuem in my water bottle and water from a 2L Camelbak. I had Clif bars, Kind bars, Larabars, Honey Chocolate Waffles, homemade beef jerky, Hammer Gel packs, and Strawberry Newtons. I also carried a bottle of Coke that I intended to stash in the creek to enjoy on the way back down, but forgot I had it, so I carried it with me all day and never even touched it (although Scott and Troy would drink some late in the night). I also took an S cap once an hour, and twice an hour when it got really hot.

After leaving Cottonwood, the steep climbing really begins, at 12 to 17% incline. Up. We did meet a park ranger coming down the trail, and she informed us that the water was on at the north rim, but not at Supai Tunnel. That was a huge relief.  We would need it.

It was only 1.7 miles to the Pumphouse residence, but the work was much harder with the steep ascent. Up.  We stopped to fill water bottles, and for the only time of the whole run, I felt like I wanted to throw up.  I didn’t stay there long, since I felt better if I kept moving, and again left ahead of Troy and Scott, knowing they would catch me.  It worked, my nausea passed quickly.

The climb up the far North Kaibab trail was hard.  A lot harder than I thought it would be.  It climbs 3400’ over 5.4 miles.  Most of the trail is fully exposed to the sun, which was getting hotter by the minute.  You do catch a break with some shade under an occasional tree or rock ledge, but we were slowly being cooked. I actually felt pretty good, but Scott started to suffer.  As we climbed higher, he got slower, and we had to take more frequent breaks, eventually able only to move for a minute or less at a time because his heart rate was just too high.  And he was getting really nauseous.  I was also losing track of time, my goal had become irrelevant.  It had moved to a mode of survival as we still had 27 miles to go to get ourselves out.  Troy was feeling good I think so he continued on ahead of us. I stayed back with Scott, moving up the canyon one switchback at a time. Foot by foot. Up. 

Going up the North Kaibab Trail.

We reached Supai Tunnel and I was concerned whether we should keep going.  Scott was getting progressively worse, having dry heaved a couple of times.  He had nothing in him.  I was worried, knowing that we still had to save enough energy to get ourselves back.  I was fine, but Scott was in bad shape.  Scott said a couple of times that I should go on and summit without him, but there was no way I would leave him. I thought to myself that we would either summit together, or go down together.  I suggested once maybe we should stop and turn around. After sitting and resting and getting his heart rate in check again, Scott said that he really had to make it to the top, so we pushed on.  It was 1.7 miles.  Up. It took a long time, although I didn't look at the watch.  Step by step, we made it.  We kept meeting other runners coming down, and they would all say it was only ½ mile. There were mostly wrong. Eventually, around ⅛ mile from the top, Troy came back down to meet us, and walked back up with us.    

We had made it across. 23.5 miles, and 11000’ were behind us. It took about 9 ½ hours, notably longer than planned (my original goal was 6:45).  But 23.5 miles and 11000’ were also ahead of us.  It worried me. Scott had been sick. There was very cold water at the trailhead on the North Rim which helped tremendously. We cooled off by dumping water on our heads.  We rehydrated.  And we just rested, almost a full hour. The flies were very bad though, which annoyed me.  I swatted them away with a bandana.  Troy had already been up on north rim for awhile, and he was starting to seize up so he decided to start back down.  At some point shortly before 2, I thought we needed to get moving again, and also thought that going down would be much easier.  Yes, it was work, but it would be much easier going down than coming up.  Scott was also feeling better, which was a huge relief.  My quads were cramping very badly though, and I was worried what would happen on the descent.  I took a couple of salt pills and tried to self massage them a bit before we started down. 

At the top of the north rim at the North Kaibab Trailhead, halfway there.

Surprisingly, I think we felt pretty good going down the North Kaibab Trail.  We didn’t have to stop for breaks, and we were able to capture the scale of the canyon we had just climbed up. It was amazing.  I wish I would have taken a picture.  My blister, which was feeling pretty good climbing up, really started to hurt again though with every step when going down. Nothing to do but bear it and ignore it.  Down.  And my quads felt OK thankfully.  And Scott and I were in pretty good spirits. We knew were going to get out of the canyon, we just didn’t know when. But I also didn’t care about time. It was hot, we were sweating profusely, Scott was feeling better, and life was OK at the moment. The views were spectacular, despite the sheer 500-1000 foot dropoffs just another foot off the trail.  We joked and laughed a little. It was a good stretch. 

We caught up to Troy just as we reached the Pumphouse residence.  He had taken his time, took a few pictures, and had slowed down. I was starting to feel pretty dehydrated at this point though and mentioned it to Troy. I think Scott was fighting off the nausea again. After another break there in the shade, rehydrating, and soaking hats and shirts in water, we headed down to Cottonwood Campground.  It was still hot. The sun was beating down on us.  At Cottonwood, we decided to take another long break and try to wait out the sun a little.  We ate. We drank. They snoozed.  It wasn’t really sleeping, but just recovery to get us through the next stretch and to cool off a bit. I was wearing a Columbia Freeze Zero neck gaiter, which I think helped keep me cooler than you would think. It’s sweat activated, and really works when it’s soaking wet.  It was like a mini refrigerator pulled up around my neck and face.  It felt great.

Heading out of Cottonwood was a very long, 7 mile slog.  Temps were in the mid 90s, running into a 15 to 20 mph headwind. It felt like a blast furnace. The close black rock walls made it feel even hotter.  We were descending at 3 to 5%, and able to clock 16 to 17 minute miles, but it just never seemed to end. The sun was just falling below the west canyon walls, but it just seemed to go on forever.  It was also during this stretch that the vision in my right eye got very blurry.  I’m pretty sure it was from my dehydration, but it also felt like I had some sand or dirt in it. I was a little worried about having vision in only one eye for the climb out.  We took a trail shortcut near Ribbon Falls which avoided one of the hills (asinine hill we were told), and we almost got lost. It was only 1/8 mile off the trail so no big deal. The same park ranger that we had met earlier in the day saw us and helped us get back onto the trail after an impromptu, unscheduled creek crossing. She gave us a check-out to make sure we were good to continue.  She suggested we rest and snooze at Phantom Ranch, and we said we had been doing that all day long.  She wished us luck and we continued on, nothing else to do but keep moving forward. Up. 

Heading back south to Phantom Ranch.
We reached Phantom Ranch around 630 pm.  It was busy with a lot of folks milling around, eating dinner, playing ball, and just relaxing.  We rested here for a full hour, again, just trying to recharge the batteries enough for Scott and Troy to keep going.  They were both not feeling good.  Troy had not eaten in a very long time, he was just very nauseous and didn't want to eat anything. I think his calves were really hurting too.  Scott had dry heaved again (better out than in), and also napped on a bench. I was still feeling generally OK with no major issues.  My stomach was fine, I was trying to drink a lot more water, tried to wash out my eye, and felt ready to go. My blister from earlier also felt a lot better. I just wanted out of the canyon, ready for this adventure to be done. It was fun, until it wasn’t, and now I was ready for it to be over. 

Troy and Scott not feeling well at Phantom Ranch.

The final challenge of this run, despite that it’s self supported, the mileage, the elevation, and the desert climate, is that the hardest part comes at the very end.  You still have to climb 9 miles back out of the canyon, ascending 4400 feet. That may not sound huge, but after you’ve already run 38 miles with 17500’ completed, it’s hard. Very hard.  And in our case, through some pretty brutal heat. We thought ascending in the cooler, darkness would help.  Surprisingly, it didn’t really cool off that quickly once darkness fell, it would take at least a couple of hours.

We left Phantom Ranch around 730 pm, knowing that nightfall would be upon us within 15 minutes. I started off in the lead, although I missed the Bright Angel trail turn, and kept going another ¼ mile to the South Kaibab Trailhead and the Black Bridge. It was dark, and my vision was still a little blurry. Once I realized my mistake, I doubled back, and then spent the next mile trying to catch Troy and Scott.  They were moving quickly, a lot quicker than I thought they would be.  The rest at Phantom really helped them I guess.  

I finally caught them at the River Rest House. We still had a long climb ahead of us. Up. We pushed forward, stopping to rest whenever we needed it, and eventually reached Indian Garden.  It felt like another long slog getting there though.  I was out of water, and Troy was too.  We had crossed a couple of streams, and I did have a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, but I think I was too tired to think about it or even remember that I had it. But Indian Garden was only a mile away. 

Still 4 ½ miles to go to the top.  Up.  We finally made it to Indian Garden.  My GPS had died, and I didn’t even look at my phone for the time.  I was fading, just very, very tired from a day that should have been over a couple of hours ago.  By this time, it had cooled off quite a bit, and it was getting breezy.  Temps were back down into the 60s or maybe 50s I think.  I tried to sleep on a bench at Indian Garden but just couldn’t get comfortable. I was getting chilled, it was windy, so I put on my arm warmers, hat and gloves, and after 30 minutes, I decided that I couldn’t stay any longer.  I had to get myself out of the canyon.  Now.  

Troy was shivering a little.  I had an emergency mylar blanket in my pack which I gave to him.  Scott was sleeping hard, tucked into the jacket that he had started out in.  Scott’s nausea was also gone in the cooler temps, and his numerous power naps gave him enough energy to get him through. He was doing much better.  Troy was still feeling nauseous though, still not able to eat, and had dry heaved a couple of times.  He had a couple of sips of my Coke before Indian Garden, but that was it. I gave Troy the blanket, wrapped him up, gave him a spare set of batteries for his headlamp since his was fading, and headed out. Up.  I knew they had to get themselves out, but also knew that Scott was helping Troy quite a bit. They just needed some rest to do it. I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to take advantage of the fading energy that I had left.

The last 4.5 miles was alone and in the dark for me.  I was leapfrogging two other runners from Dallas and Nashville that we had been chatting with since the north rim, but mostly, it was just me. One switchback at a time.  Up.  I stopped when I needed to rest. The wind was getting a little stronger, so I stopped wherever a spot was out of the wind for short breaks.  I was still feeling relatively good though, still eating, still drinking.  Stomach felt mostly ok, I was just getting extremely fatigued.  And ready to be done.  I did notice 2 more headlights coming up the canyon far below me, and I prayed that it was Troy and Scott. I tried to yell out to them, but the wind was blowing my echo back to me, they couldn't hear me.  One of my fears was that Scott or Troy would fall into a deep sleep down in the canyon and begin to suffer hypothermia. Thankfully, they had started out about 45 minutes behind me.  

With every stop, I would turn my headlight off and just sit on a rock in the darkness. Feeling so small, alone, in such a vast expanse.  The sky above me.  The canyon below me.  Resting for a bit in the dark, then moving forward.  Up.  I reached the 3 mile rest house, and checked for a cell signal to let my wife back home know that I was still alive since we were well past our expected finish time.  I had a 3G cell signal (AT&T) on the south rim, but nowhere else below in the canyon. Thankfully, here at 3 mile, the signal finally returned and I sent a text that said I was OK, that Scott and Troy had been sick and were struggling, and that I had 3 more miles to go.  Then the 1 ½ mile rest house.  Up.  And I finally reached the south rim.

At 210 am, 22 hours and 50 minutes after I had started, I was done.  I was exhausted, I didn’t feel the joy. There were no cartwheels or hand stands. Just relief.  It was very windy and cold.  I tried to take a self picture at the trailhead, but it was too dark. I was spent.  I hiked the ½ mile back to Maswik Lodge where we were staying.  I posted on Facebook, texted my wife that I was done, and instantly fell asleep on the bed.  No shower. Still in my canyon clothes.  Done.

Scott and Troy finished about an hour behind me, just under 24 hours. I was glad when they walked into the lodge room, thankful that they made it out.  And by then, I was happy.  I finally was feeling the joy of the accomplishment that we all had just finished. Yes, it took much longer than our original goal. But in the end, it doesn’t matter how long it took. We still finished, on our own two feet, without needing an airlift out. Helping each other when we needed it, sharing the joy, some of the pain, and the journey together.  We made some smart adjustments to get us through.  And while we may have also made mistakes, we adapted.
We all took showers, and I think Scott and Troy fell instantly asleep.  It was about 430 am, but I was getting very hungry.  I still had plenty of trail food, but none of that sounded appealing.  I decided to take a quick nap, and then got up to get breakfast from the lodge cafeteria at 6 am.  I enjoyed the Grand Canyon breakfast.  Scrambled eggs, chicken fried steak, 2 pieces of toast, country potatoes, and hot decaf coffee. I felt awesome.  I walked over to the south rim and peered over the edge one more time.  I looked across the vastness to the far north rim where we once were, just 17 hours earlier.  And I was content. I wondered if or when I would be coming back.

We traveled the 3 ½ hours back to Phoenix to spend the night with Scott’s uncle and aunt.  It was a wonderful evening reliving the memories of the canyon.  Scott’s uncle Bill cooked us a steak dinner, we enjoyed a couple of beers, and felt the glory of our accomplishments.  

A vague idea that had developed a few years ago was complete.  It wasn’t easy.  It was damn hard.  It was definitely an adventure, probably the most exciting one of my running career. By far, it was probably the physically hardest thing I've done.  And I feel proud.  Yes, the destination was pretty cool, but the journey was just as important.  I learned a lot about myself, my abilities, and things that have made me not only a stronger runner, but a stronger person.  Up!


  1. How fantastic! Two weeks from today I'm doing the same thing (solo) and can't wait. Like you, I have no plans in finishing in a specific time, just finishing. Based on your report I plan to leave an hour earlier than originally planned and PRAY that there isn't a heat wave!

    1. That's a good plan since it will continue to get hotter. Leave as early as possible. And take every advantage of shade that you can. Even when you need a break on the climbs, stop under a tree or a rock ledge. Good luck! It's an awesome experience.

  2. Really enjoyed this RR. When I find a RR I enjoy I usually will go to the beginning of the blog to read more. Have you read your first post from 2009 lately? Very interesting to read that post after reading this one.

    1. Kim, hello! Thank you for the comments. And I had not looked at the first post in many years. Thank you for reminding me!

  3. Congrats Van, I loved reading your r2r2rr. This day was a long time coming and it's great you were able to get it done. Now that a few days have passed, how does it feel in retrospect? Have you already marked your calendar for the next rim crossing? :D

  4. Amazing and inspirational! Congratulations, Van!