Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: 46 miles in the Grand Canyon

(Originally posted August 21 – This is coming a little late, but I wanted to post it before this weekend comes up – another big race on the horizon!)

In May, I ran across the Grand Canyon and back, a feat known as rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r). In this activity, you start at one side of the canyon, then run down to the bottom of it and up the other side, then back down to the bottom and up the original side, to end where you started, all in one day. It includes about 11,000-12,000 feet of climbing, and the climbing and descending comes all at one time. The overall profile looks a little like this:

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This is a lot of climbing (image source). I actually started at the North Rim, so just pretend the first half comes after the second half in this profile.

Will was running a 50-miler near(ish) the North Rim, so my plan was to start from there. My plan also included these elements:

  • Start very early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. It can get up to 100 degrees at the bottom of the canyon, even in May
  • Carry all the water and liquid I would need. I’d heard there were a few water lines that were broken towards the bottom, so I wanted to be prepared to not rely on them
  • Pick up some food at the North Rim, since they have a bunch of little shops and convenience stores and things. I’d be able to get something meaningful, like a burger, to help with the caloric intake

The beginning

I started around 2:30 in the morning. I was feeling pretty good about my early start – I would have several hours to cruise downhill before the sun came up and it started getting hot. I took my time going down – no reason to rush.

After about ten minutes on the trail, I took off long sleeve shirt. It was already really warm, even in the middle of the night. Possibly the first sign that I hadn’t fully thought this activity through. I didn’t use the long sleeve shirt again this day.

I also turned off my GPS at this point, because it wasn’t doing so well in the canyon. It said I was going pretty slow (like a mile an hour), and that was just depressing. I ran the rest of the trail by time and feel rather than distance.

At this time of night, the canyon feels very big. You know there’s a huge empty space in front of you, but you can’t see it because its dark. It’s just a big, gaping, hole. I was very alone – just me, the trail, and the stars.

It was also possible to see the lights from buildings at the South Rim – all the way across the canyon – really ethereal. The distance between the rims is only about 12 miles as the crow flies, so it was easy to see them, especially as nothing was obstructing the view. It made me think a lot about what capabilities we have as humans – there’s really no fast way to get to the other side of the canyon unless you fly. Even though it’s only 12 miles away, it still takes four hours to drive around, and 6-8 hours to walk/run it. (Nighttime running is great for philosophical thoughts).

About two hours in, I saw another headlamp coming up towards me. The first sign of life! Maybe it was a hiker who was getting started early. After a few minutes, he came around the corner – a runner! He had no time to stop and chat, but what I did catch from him was that he was also running rim-to-rim-to-rim … and had started before midnight in order to escape the heat. This was maybe my second hint that I’d not planned as well as I’d thought. He was coming up the canyon as I was descending – my first descent. He was almost halfway done with his attempt, and I was just getting started.

A little later I ran past Cottonwood Camp, where some folks were just waking up. I didn’t know that there was a campsite there, so I was really confused as to why I was hearing voices just off the trail. Too early for hallucinations.

The next stretch, between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch, was some of the most beautiful miles of the whole trail. The sun was just starting to come up, and the light was reflecting off the water in a really beautiful way. The trail was man-made, and put right between the steep canyon wall and the water. A very cool trail – I hadn’t been on one like that before.

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Sunrise in the Grand Canyon – look at that reflection on the water

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Trail on the right, water on the left (of the picture)

At Phantom Ranch, I crossed over to the south side of the canyon and began the climb up. It wasn’t too slow, and I felt fairly good at the time. 95% of tourists to the canyon go to the south rim, so it got a little crowded as I made my way to the top, but people were generally really nice and gave me space (not that I was going much faster). I got to the top of the South Rim around 9am or or so – I’d made really good time going across. I was feeling good and went to find some food for my halfway snack.

The middle

The problem was … nothing is open for real food at 9am. There were a few places I saw to get a burger, but they didn’t open until around 11am – too late. I tried to find a gift shop, but most of them were fancy places that sold things like hand-painted bowls, or chocolate that looked like colorful rocks. Nothing substantial. I finally gave up and bought a huge bag of gummy bears, mainly because I didn’t want to waste any more time. I also tried to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine, but this also did not work as the vending machine was broken. I just refilled my Camelbak and got going.

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Feeling pretty good at the South Rim. Check out that sweet green shirt that got a whole ten minutes of use before turning into a butt cape.

The way back down wasn’t so bad. There were a few people who I saw on the way up who recognized me coming back down and gave me a thumbs-up – that was pretty fun. It was starting to get warm, so at Indian Garden I stopped and got some water (the spigots were working after all). I then got stuck for 20 minutes behind a mule caravan, which was a little frustrating because I was moving pretty quick at the time (e.g. and importantly, faster than the mules). I was pretty patient, but finally made some noise about this being a multi-use trail on public lands, so they finally let me pass (but not before adding another thin film of dust to the collection already on my skin and clothes). I think this is where the toenail on the big toe on my right foot got messed up from slamming the front of my shoe (it still looks gross, five months later).

Phantom Ranch was a bit of a turning point, and not in a good way. It was getting really hot. I knew I had really under-estimated water, and I was getting worried about food too – e.g., that I didn’t have enough of it. Fortunately, the water situation in the canyon was not desperate, so I guzzled from a spigot, doused my shoes, and kept moving.

Remember that beautiful trail I loved so much on the way in? It turned into a hellish oven in the afternoon – no shade, no trees, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to sit. This six mile stretch was just awful. I was dizzy, worried about food, drinking too fast through all of my water, and I couldn’t go for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time without stopping. I’d sit in whatever sliver of shade I could find right up against the canyon wall, stretch my feet out in front of me, and pray nobody would come by and ask what I was doing. (One group did, but they were pretty nice and didn’t judge too much). It was a pretty dangerous situation, and I was embarrassed at my bad planning.

To take my mind off of the struggle, I dipped into my podcast queue. TED Radio Hour is fantastic for these sorts of activities – just thought-provoking enough to take your mind off of the painful reality of the situation, but not complex enough that it’s confusing or frustrating or hard to follow with the limited mental capacity that often comes with these sorts of activities. I made a rule that I could only stop at the end of an episode (about 40-45 minutes) and kept moving.

(I found out later that it was in the high 90s around this time.)

The food situation was becoming desperate. I’d only packed a few Clif bars, maybe a PB&J sandwich, some Gu, and that gross mess of gummy bears from the South Rim (which were mostly gone by this point). I knew I could make it back to the top with what I had, but it was going to be really tough.

When I got back to Cottonwood, I decided to see if I could call upon my fellow trail adventurers for help. After a bit of chit chat with a couple at the water spigot, they asked how I had packed my food, and I said I had done it quite poorly. Then – to my eternal gratitude – they eagerly offered to offload some of their food to me. They were doing rim-to-rim and had way overpacked, they said, and definitely wouldn’t need a ton of what they brought. I’d be doing them a favor by taking it! This seemed too good to be true, or they were being far too polite. Either way, I didn’t have to think twice to take them up on their offer. And honestly, I’ve never tasted a better tangerine. Thank you forever, nice Grand Canyon hikers. You made my next few hours so much more bearable.

The worst was over.

The end

The last bit of the run was mostly a climb. Specifically, a 4,000-foot climb back to the top. It was a slog, but it was mostly walking/hiking, and it had started cooling down – the heat was behind me. I knew I would make it at this point – just cruising to the finish.

Lots of other people were finishing up their hikes too – it was fun to meet them and play a little leapfrog as we passed each other back and forth. I met a couple of teenage girls who were doing rim-to-rim by themselves – SO COOL! We hiked together for a little bit.

 

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Taking a break on the climb back up

The Grand Canyon is made of layers of rock deposited over several millennia. One of the cool parts about climbing back up the other side was being able to see the sediment color change with each layer. At first the trail was orange dust (to match the orange walls of the canyon at that elevation), then white, then red, then yellow, then green … it was a very unconventional way to mark progress, but at this point, the vertical elevation was a more helpful progress marker than mileage. It felt a little bit like walking through time.

Getting to the end was very uneventful. There was no finish line, and nobody was waiting there [Will said he’d be back at the hotel]. I bummed a ride off of someone to get the final two miles back to the hotel (thanks, Canyon friends)! and tried not to get their car too dirty. They said they were actually shuttling a lot of their hiking buddies back and forth just then anyway, so a little dust didn’t hurt.

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The “finish line”

 

The aftermath

This was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I think it’s the longest “unsupported” run I’ve done. This was one of about three runs I’ve ever completed where, at the end, I felt nauseous, had some trouble breathing consistently, and didn’t have any desire to eat food (unreal).

A few things stuck out about the next 12 hours, and I took pictures of them

  1. This cross-section of the canyon layers in the hotel lobby. The layers take on a whole new meaning when you’ve been through literally every single one of them.

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    It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ocher and peach …

  2. This cat painted on a white rock. All of the rocks at the hotel had little animals painted on them, and I thought that was a pretty cool detail for a park to add. (Spoiler alert – it wasn’t a cat. I was just getting very close to hallucination state. It was water / dust damage).

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    But it does look like a cat right?

  3. This book in the gift shop. The canyon is no joke. I wasn’t in any danger of dying, but we runners like to kid that the vultures are always circling. 

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    That skeleton was me

Advice for people thinking about doing this

  • Leave earlier in the morning. Apparently 2:30 wasn’t early enough to avoid the heat
  • Pack more food. Carry it in your hands if you have to. Protein!
  • Bring and drink lots and lots of water! (Also salt – I forgot salt)
  • Late May is probably too late, because it really does get hot

Overall

This was a really fun run. It’s one I’d had on my mind for a few years (one of the main reasons I wanted to do the NPS internship was to possibly have the opportunity to take on this run). It really is an epic adventure in one of the coolest and most iconic parts of the world. The Canyon forces you to reflect on our place in the world, as cliche as that sounds – this is a huge geological formation that no human effort could possibly recreate, and that no human effort could tame.  We keep coming back because of how awe-inspiring places like this are. These places force us to respect them and to contemplate them. They will be here long after we are gone.

For me, running is a way of honoring the space and getting to know it. This run is one I will never forget.

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Stagecoach 100: Flagstaff to Grand Canyon

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Running through the Aspens around mile 15

It’s been two weeks since I finished the Stagecoach 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon in Arizona that starts in Flagstaff and ends at the Grand Canyon. There are a couple of reasons for this delay.

  • It was a pretty drama-free race. It was difficult, but not impossible, and I made smart decisions the whole way.
  • It was a hard race, but three was nothing particularly insane about it [e.g. awful weather, impossible terrain, etc]. The elevation was a challenge – averaged 7,500 ft of altitude the whole time – but that wasn’t a huge barrier.
  • For the first time since I started racing, I’m very ready to take a break from racing for a while. There’s nothing coming up on my calendar [can’t remember the last time that happened] and I don’t have any immediate plans to sign up for anything. Feels good.

Pre-race

I signed up for Stagecoach race after running Zion in April. Zion was a very hard race, and, if you remember, they shortened the course to 90 miles due to weather. While I made up 10 miles on my own later, I was deeply dissatisfied with not officially running 100 miles on the course, especially after how awful the training for that had been.  I wanted to find another race that I could run to take advantage of the training I had done and the 100-mile shape I was in.

To train for Stagecoach, I did pretty much nothing in comparison to what I had done for Zion. Zion training involved 30 mile training runs almost every weekend. For Stagecoach, these this is the complete list of long training runs I ran that were greater than 15 miles:

  • A failed 50k in the Marin Headlands, where I only ended up running 18 miles.
  • Canyon Meadow 50k. Somewhat fast race but not eventful.
  • San Francisco Ultramarathon, which is the marathon course twice. I was exceedingly slow on the second loop because I wanted to run with friends. This was a pretty lazy (but fun) race.
  • Mount Diablo 50k, which was brutal and hilly.

And that’s it. Four long runs, one of which barely counts, over the course of six months.

Psychologically, I wasn’t concerned about finishing. It may be cocky, but I didn’t think the training was going to hold me back from completing the race. I felt like I had maintained my training decently. Also, I knew my dad was going to come up to crew me, and Will was going to pace me for a bunch of miles, and those psychological boosts are really helpful.

The race itself

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With Dad at the start. It was cold.

I’ve summarized the race this way: It sucked, then it didn’t suck so much, then it sucked again, then it sucked more, then I finished.

1. First, it sucked. (miles 0-20)

The start line was cold. Runners could start at 7am [early start] or 8am [official start]. I started at 8am because that’s what I’d been planning to do – the 7am option was a late add.

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Runners start running

 

 

Honestly, the first twenty miles were mediocrely fun from a mental standpoint. We started at 7,500 feet of elevation, and spent the first several hours climbing to almost 9,000 feet of elevation. On the plus side, this was the highest part of the course, so it was nice that it was early. On the minus side, it isn’t fun to start a race walking uphill with limited oxygen.

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It really was pretty

I spent the entire section of this race trying to appreciate the scenery [which was gorgeous] and not looking forward to 90 more miles of running. I idly wondered if I should drop out, because I was bored and slow and 100 miles is a long way.

2. Then it didn’t suck so much. (miles 20-65)

At mile 20, I saw my support crew for the first time, and it was a great energy boost. Dad was there, and he brought along a sailing buddy who we’d both raced with, Rollin. Rollin had never been to an event like this, and he was definitely more excited than I was to be there at this point, which was really cool.

This was also the first time I saw Will during the race – he’d flown in late the night before, so I didn’t see him at the start. It was great to see him, and he walked for a few minutes with me out of the aid station.

To get to the next aid station, I listened to a few podcasts. I also met a guy from North Andover who was running his first 100. He was pulling like 8-minute miles, so he quickly left me in the dust – I’d see him later.

I also met an absurdly inspirational guy named Larry, who had just turned 70. This race was his 21st 100-miler (!). Also, he’d run all 21 in just 7 years. The dude has been running 100-milers every four months. I spent a good chunk of time walk/running with him, and we spent most of the next forty miles leapfrogging each other.

I saw Will and Dad again at mile 34[ish? hard to remember]. Originally, I’d planned to pick up Will at aid station 68, but it was becoming apparent that I might not get there until midnight or 2am, which would be really late. I like to leverage my pacers in the early hours of the morning to prevent me from falling asleep, and I worried that I’d be hitting the sleepy phase long before mile 68. So we re-worked the plan to have him join me at mile 54 instead. This required some herculean logistical creativity on Dad’s, Rollin’s, and Will’s side, which I really appreciated. I left them at 34, looking forward to seeing Dad and Will in a few more hours [Rollin, intelligently, went home and to bed].

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Someone was taking pictures so I had to run into the aid station

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With Will at mile 34

Around mile 45, it started getting dark. We were running through open fields at this point, and there were tons of cows – very southwest vibe. The cows were mooing. By this time, I was pretty much alone – Larry was far enough either ahead or behind that he wasn’t within shouting distance – so I moo-d back at the cows.

Around mile 48, there was a cool aid station with a drone taking video of the race.

Around mile 50, I saw an AWESOME meteor. It was red and firey and shot right across the sky.

Around mile 51, I was getting a little tired, and it was fully dark. Milky Way all the way across the sky was visible to the naked eye. I slowed down a little bit, looking for camaraderie to get me to the next aid station. I found two guys running together, blasting some pretty sweet jams from their backpack, so I ran the last few miles into the 54-mile aid station with them.

At mile 54, I had some soup that Dad prepared and picked up Will. It was a good plan to grab him here instead of much later, and I was very happy to have him this early in the race.

Just after this aid station, we heard some elk in heat. Guys, this is a crazy sound. I thought it was emergency vehicles. Listen to this if you don’t believe me. All that whiny metallic-sounding stuff is the animal sound.

The next several miles were pretty fun. We went to an aid station that had candles leading the way to it, and it was a pretty easy trot to get to mile 68 [at least, I remember it that way].

At the mile 68 aid station, I was getting tired. I took my shoes off and switched socks. It was about 2am at this point, and a little sliver of orange moon started to rise.

3. Then it sucked again (miles 68-?)

Miles 68 through 80 were pretty tough. This was a very very long slog, made slower by the fact that it was dark and the trail was tricky.

I was also getting tired, so asked Will to keep the conversation going through asking me questions. His favorite questions to ask were “What’s your favorite [thing]?”, ranging from ‘What’s your favorite Disney character?’ [Ariel] to ‘marine animal?’ [Leafy Sea Dragon] to ‘tree?’ [Eucalyptus]. We had a lot of miles, so the questions got more granular: favorite book ‘from before middle school’ [I think I said Narnia] and ‘from after middle school’ [No idea what I said here]. He got very creative in finding categories of things to ask about that might include a favorite. When he ran out of ‘favorite’ questions and I got more tired, he started on hot-button political issues, which *really* stoked the fire, as his and my opinions differ materially on many political issues. I definitely was not falling asleep on my feet anymore, so this worked really well.

4. Then it sucked more (miles ?-88)

At one point, it got pretty tough. I’d thought we’d gone about six miles since the last aid station, but then a runner behind us said we’d only gone three. That realization was one of the most depressing moments of the race. Everything seemed pretty hopeless. I really, really didn’t want to keep moving forward. That, coupled with knowing the only way to get out of this misery is to keep moving in some direction, is a really hard thing to balance. Want to stop moving + have to keep moving [even if you want to quit the race] = extremely demotivating.

The only thing to do was truck along. I plugged into some podcasts and kept marching.

At some point the sun came up. This was also depressing, because I still had a lot of miles to move, and usually the sun coming up is the sign of the end of the race. Not this time. Lots of miles to go.

The mile 80 aid station was literally the worst aid station ever [at least, it seemed that way at the time]. Around mile 79, we reached an asphalt road with a sign pointing right. To get to the mile 80 aid station, it was a fairly steep downhill for a mile to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Going down the hill was brutal, because you knew you’d have to turn around and come right back up as soon as you got to the bottom. It seemed like an unnecessary detour.

I also found out later that the cabin was a mile from a great view of the Grand Canyon, which raises the question as to why they didn’t run the course down there and back, and take out two miles somewhere else. Would have been an awesome view.

The next few miles were tricky because I kept thinking I saw the mile 88 aid station. I was minorly hallucinating [nothing compared to Pine Creek]. This time, literally everything looked like a man-made structure. I saw huts, hobbit holes, ski lodges, tents, cabins. Basically, I was wishfully hallucinating the next aid station. Talk about a roller-coaster of emotions – thinking you see an aid station, then realizing it’s a mirage.

5. Then I finished (miles  88-100)

Finally, we got to the mile 88 aid station [it did not look like any of the mirages I’d visualized. Dad was there. I think we got in at 8am, and we’d been planning to get there at 6am, so he was pretty anxious. It was really great to see him there. He’d had a couple of hours of sleep, but not many. After we’d last seen him, dropping Will off at mile 54, Dad ran around for a few hours in the dark helping rangers safely deliver runners who had dropped out to their cars or crew. It’s really neat how much Dad likes to help out random runners at my races – he does this sort of thing pretty much whenever he comes along.

Originally, Will was going to stop running with me at mile 88, but he heroically agreed to continue plodding with me. Ultimately, he ended up doing 46 miles of the race with me, which is insane and awesome in its own right.

The final miles were pretty tough. I was moving pretty slow – mostly walking, but ran as much as I could. Will set his phone alarm to go off every 17 minutes, which was a good goal, because it motivated me to chunk the task into one-mile increments to beat the clock.

The finish line

Was extremely uneventful. We ran under a freeway, then ran down a path, and finished in the IMAX movie theater parking lot. The finish line was literally one orange cone. There were maybe 20 people there. Dad ran across the finish line with me and Will [I wish someone had a picture of this – it was really cool]. The belt buckle is neat. Also, the race director seemed very earnest when he thanked me for coming, which was awesome. He seemed to really care about each individual runner.

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Finisher buckle

When we drove by the parking lot two hours later, everyone was gone and the cone was removed. The race was over.

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Running with Will to the finish line

Reflections

  • Support. One of the best parts of this race was having the support of Dad and Will. Seeing them at mile 20 was a literal game changer. I had been grumpy and not excited for the first few hours of the race, but seeing them come out to support me was really inspiring and motivating.  I’m someone who is motivated by defusing the worst-case-scenario, e.g. I think of the worst-case-scenario and then say “well that’s not so bad.”  In those early miles, I thought about what it would feel like to drop out. Fear of other people judging me for failure is a pretty big deterrent from dropping out, but realizing that Dad and Will would still love and respect me even if I dropped out was really cool. I could fail and they’d wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
  • Data. 45 people started, 28 finished. I’m proud of crossing the finish line. Timing-wise, I finished in 28 hours, which is fine. Slowest 100-miler, but also most difficult. Not sure if I could have gone faster, but it doesn’t really matter to me. Only woman under 35 to finish. 4th 100-miler I’ve run.
  • Decision-making. I made great decisions throughout the race in terms of pacing [go slow and walk a lot], fueling, gear, and asking for support [e.g. having Will come early] . Wouldn’t have changed anything. Very proud of the process.

Overall, I’m proud of what I accomplished on this race. That said, I’m very ready for a break. Running is fantastic, but there’s also an opportunity cost to doing so much of it. Other sports are probably cool, and hanging out with friends is cool. Also, doing more 100-milers, or taking on a longer race, isn’t that inspiring of an idea to me right now. Maybe something will change, but for now I’m pretty comfortable with my empty race calendar.

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Running through the Aspens

Some additional details that may be interesting for runners:

  • Trail was overall pretty runnable. There was a lot of double-track dirt road, and the tire-tread areas weren’t super easy to run on. There were also a lot of pretty rocky sections that were difficult to run on when tired. The hardest single-track was at night around mile 70. Markings could have been closer together to help decrease late-night paranoia. There were no insane stretches of climbing/descending that were unmanageabley[sp?] steep.
  • Aid stations were great. Everyone was friendly. The stretches of 10+ miles were hard, but that would be true anywhere. Carry your own food/gu even if you think you don’t need it.
  • Gear – it was cold at night, but not unbearable as long as you were moving. I brought a running jacket and the inside puffy part of a snow jacket [not worn at the same time] and some light gloves and was fine. Wore shorts the whole time. I like to use handwarmers, but they weren’t totally necessary. Used a handheld 20-oz bottle for water and nothing else. I brought extra batteries because that is smart.
  • Cell phones do *not* work on “most of the course,” which is what the race packet said.