(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:
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
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.
Sunrise in the Grand Canyon – look at that reflection on the water
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 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.
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 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.
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.
The “finish line”
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
- 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.
- 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).
But it does look like a cat right?
- 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.
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
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.