Monday, October 24, 2011

Grand Canyon R2R2R

I have been wanting to run back and forth across the Grand Canyon since I first heard of this being done three years ago by the Special Idiots down in Boulder.  I first visited the Grand Canyon with Boy Scouts when I was in high school.  I remember it being a very tough very hot hike from the North Rim down to the river and this was the first time that I seriously though that I might die.  We had been hiking for several hours and it was hot.  We were all out of water and were were still a couple miles from the spring where we'd be able to refill.  I remember all of us (ten or so 13-16 year olds and three dads) huddled behind a big rock just off the trail to try to get some shade.  I had never been so thirsty and I had some worrying thoughts that I might not make it to the spring before succumbing to dehydration or heat stroke.  This might have been a bit of teen dramatics, but there are many stories of disaster in the canyon every year as a result of heat, lack of fitness, lack of preparation and lack of water.  We made it to the spring and I remember the wonderful feeling of seeing clean, cool fresh water shooting out of a rock and drinking 'till my heart's content.

I went back to the canyon again one summer during college with my friend Casey Jones.  I tried to convince him that we could make the trek to the river and back from the North Rim in a day (28 miles), but we instead just went down to Roaring Springs and back for a casual 9 miles.

In 2002, Ean and I took the kids, who were two and five at the time, on a spring break camping/road trip across the west and we stopped to camp at the South Rim after two night in Sedona, AZ.  We arrived at the campground in the afternoon and enjoyed some views of the rim.  We set up camp and went to sleep and woke the next morning to find our tent and the canyon covered in a fresh blanket of snow.  It was too cold for us Californians to make breakfast at the campground, so we bundled up the kids and put them in the car, packed up camp and headed over to the Grand Canyon Village cafeteria for a warm breakfast.  We did still take a short hike in the snow a mile or so down the Bright Angel Trail which was fun.  While we were on the tram heading to the trailhead, Ean and I watched a family with teenage kids getting ready to head down in to the canyon on a backpacking trip.  Their excitement in anticipation of the adventure they were about to begin was evident from their friendly family banter.  Ean and I were envious and we talked about how much fun it would be to take a trip in to the canyon together with the kids one day.

March 2002 in the Grand Canyon
Nine and a half years later, Ean and I woke up at 2:00 am on a Friday and jumped in the car to go meet some friends and drive 700+ miles to finally return to the canyon for the ultimate adventure.  The kids decided they'd rather stay the weekend with friends than tag along on this running adventure.  Ean and I celebrated our wedding anniversary a couple days earlier and we couldn't think of a better way to celebrate our 15 years of adventures together than to go out for another big one.  We met up with Pete, Cat and Shaun at 3:00am and picked up Mike a few minutes later and hit the road heading west over the mountains and south in to the desert.

The drive went by surprisingly fast and before I knew it, we were stopping in Moab for breakfast at the Love Muffin Cafe.  From there, Ean drove us through the beautiful red rock landscape of Utah.  Mike took the wheel as we entered Arizona and hit a pretty serious snow storm.  I had some worries at this point about what our weather might look like the next day for the run, but as we approached the park, the weather cleared and we got some beautiful views of the canyon.

We arrived at the campsite in the late afternoon where we met Lisa and Ron to complete the group. We had just enough time after setting up tents to take a nice walk over to the rim and look across at our next day's goal.  We had a great camp pasta dinner and fire and talked excitedly about our running plans.  The decision was made to park at the shuttle stop and ride the bus to the North Kaibab trailhead at 5:00 am and then return via the longer but less steep Bright Angel trail where we could take a bus back to the cars or the campground.
Standing on the South Rim Friday evening
It got really cold that night, but the tent was warm and I slept well even if I did wake up every hour or so to check the time to see if it was time to go yet.  When the time did arrive, we all scrambled quickly to dress, get our gear together, make coffee, eat and get in the cars to drive to the shuttle stop.  We had some trouble finding the right stop and ended up missing the first bus, but got the second and made it to the trailhead a few minutes before 6:00am.
ready to head down into the canyon
After a couple pictures, we unceremoniously headed down the trail wearing jackets, gloves and headlamps.  Within a couple minutes, I realized that I hadn't really said goodbye or "have a good run" to Ean, who was running down to the river and then back up the Bright Angel trail for an epic 18 mile, 5000+ vertical foot run.  I also remembered that there was a bathroom 1.5 miles down the trail and I realized that I really needed to use it.  As I arrived at the bathroom, the canyon was beginning to light up in the predawn glow and the temperature was rising by the footfall.  After a pit stop in the toilet, I striped off my jacket, wool cap and headlamp and saw Ean arrive with her swift strong stride.  I was glad to have a chance to see her and wish her well on her day's adventures.  We took some pictures and exchanged hugs and kisses and then continued on down the trail.
The run to the river on South Kaibab was the most amazing part of the run for me.  The colors of the canyon as the sun came up and the steep drop off provided non stop awe inspiring views  The smooth wide trail that dropped over 700 feet per mile made the running fast and near effortless.  Shaun and I ran most of this section together.  We walked a bit when we caught the 5:00 am mule train until the mule guides pulled over and cleared us to pass.  We stopped a little later to watch a group of bighorns perched on the talus above us.  And then before we knew it (an hour and twenty minutes), we arrived at the Colorado River and crossed the black bridge to the other side.

We jogged in to Phantom Ranch a few minutes later and filled water (even though I hadn't drank much) and ate a bit.  Cat ran in before I had even put my pack back on and the three of us headed up Bright Angel Creek together.  This was another really nice section of the run.  It was relatively flat on a nice trail that followed and occasionally crossed the creek though a cool, shaded, narrow rock canyon.  We ran together at a comfortable pace and shared the joys of running beautiful trails with good friends.
We spread out some over the 7 mile stretch to Cottonwood Campground, where I stopped again to eat and fill my water.  I set out again knowing that I would soon begin the long climb to the North Rim.  I was still feeling good and excited about the climb.  When I passed Roaring Springs I had a vague memory of the spot from my hike with Casey more than 12 years earlier and then the real climb began.  I wasn't very fast through this section, but I felt really good.  I enjoyed the steep switch backs on the trail that was often just a ledge cut in the rock.    As I climbed, I thought about how much better I felt on this long run following a few weeks of mostly easy, low mileage running compared to how I felt 7 weeks earlier in Leadville.  The climb continued on, sometimes painfully as I passed many hikers, a few runners and a couple of large groups of mule riding tourists.  I was glad to see Pete and Mike on their way back down and hear from them that I was only about a mile from the top.

Standing on the North Rim
I was keeping an eye on my watch as my running time approached 5 hours and I began to think that a sub 12 hour R2R2R was possible.  I made it to the top in 5:20 and stopped to fill water, visit the bathroom, eat my PB&J and talk to another group of R2R2Rers from Missouri.  It was much colder on the North Rim and I cooled off quickly and was forced to put all my warm clothes back on.  After 10 or 12 minutes I decided it was time to start heading back.

Cat, almost to the top
Before I had gone very far, I ran in to Cat who was looking very strong and was less than a mile from the top.  A few minutes later, I hit the mule trains that I had passed on the way up and had to stop and move off the trail several time to allow them to go by.  The other group of runners that I had met at the top caught up to me here and we all ran and dodged mules together for a while.  As had happened in the morning coming down from the south rim, the temperature went up quickly as we descended lower in to the canyon, so I used one of the forced mule train stops to strip off my gloves, hat and jacket again.
on the way back down

I took it pretty easy on the steep descent back to Roaring Springs where I stopped to fill my water and then ran well over the next 10 miles back to Phantom Ranch.  I knew I would need to cover this stretch pretty quickly to make it back to the river with enough time to climb the final 9 miles up the Bright Angel trail and arrive at the South Rim in under 12 hours.  I also knew I needed to be smart and pace myself to have the reserves I would need for that final 5000+ foot climb.

I arrived back at Phantom Ranch with about 8 hours and 40 mintutes on the clock.  I stepped inside the cantina and with the $5 I had stashed in my pack, I filled my hand bottle with lemonade and bought a king size bag of peanut M&Ms.  I talked briefly with some hikers and campers that were relaxing outside while I refilled my hydration pack and they were interested in what I was doing, how far I'd gone, how I was doing.  I told them that I was hopping to get to the top of the Bright Angel Trail before 6 pm to finish the entire rim to rim to rim journey in under 12 hours.  They wished me good running and I headed out towards the silver bridge and back across the river.

Doing the math as I ate M&Ms and sipped the cool, sweet lemonade, I figured I needed to keep up sub 20 minute miles all the way to the top to ensure a sub 12 finish.  This seemed doable and so I proceeded up the trail with confidence.

There were a lot of hikers heading up the Bright Angel Trail in the late afternoon, so my trip up consisted of running/hiking a bit, catching up with a hiker or group of hikers, and exchanging some greetings and well wishes and then repeating.  I was happy to go on like this since I was getting pretty tired and I had been running solo for the last 30 miles. 

The first few miles of the Bright Angel trail were much less steep then South Kaibab and I ran much of it.  About four miles after crossing the river, I arrived at Indian Gardens which is a nice campground with water and bathrooms about 4.5 miles down from the rim.  There were a lot of people here and I walked towards the water spigot, but realized I really didn't need to fill.  Having enough water was one of my biggest concerns planning this run.  My heightened concern was probably due to my first Grand Canyon experience where I thought I might die of thirst and  the many stories of death and disaster in the Grand Canyon due to heat stroke and dehydration.  The week before the trip, I went to REI and bought a new 70 oz hydration bladder to replace the 60 oz bladder in my pack.  I also carried a 20 oz hand bottle that I figured I would add Gatorade powder or electrolyte tabs to throughout the day.  Heading down in to the canyon in the morning, I made sure to drink regularly and I refilled at Phantom Ranch even though I had 50oz + still in my pack.   I did fill again 7 miles later and I filled my hand bottle with Gatorade for the trip up to the North Rim.  I filled my pack again before heading back, but I realized that I had been carrying twice the water that I needed all day and it wasn't getting any hotter.  On the way back I drank when I was thirsty and only filled my pack twice and left the hand bottle empty lashed to my pack (except for the lemonade fill at Phantom Ranch).  Much to my surprise, having enough water was never an issue.  I could have nearly done the whole run with only a hand bottle (maybe two) and carried a fraction of the weight.  If the day had been hotter, it would have been a whole different deal, but with the cool air and partly cloudy skies and numerous water stops along the trail, my pre-trip concerns about water were entirely unfounded.

The trail got steeper after Indian Gardens and my pace slowed to a steady hike, but I maintained pretty close to 20 minutes/mile.  I started counting down the miles, but the Garmin was not much help here.  The Grand Canyon with its 5000 foot canyon walls is not very GPS friendly and my Garmin had been doing weird stuff all day.  On the trip up to the North Rim, I checked the elevation on my watch and it ready 5500 feet.  A mile later after a ridiculous amount of steep switchbacks and high rocky steps, I checked the elevation again and it said . . . 5500 feet.  After that I stopped looking.  On the way back up to the South Rim, I was getting suspicious mileage readings.  According to the maps, it was 1.5 miles from Indian Gardens to the 3 mile point (a spot 3 miles from the top with a bathroom and water) and then another 1.5 miles to the 1.5 mile point.  Both of these spots were more that two miles by GPS and somewhere in the last 3 miles, the Garmin totally flipped out a started beeping mile splits every second and my overall mileage jumped from 45 miles to 158 in a matter of seconds.  Check out lap 51 on where I ran 109 miles in 8 tenths of a second.  In addition to the GPS malfunctions, my internal odometer was failing too; those final miles seemed to go on forever.  Finally as time was getting short and late afternoon was turning to evening, I saw the top and ran the last half mile to the trailhead.  There was a nice couple there that took my picture and asked about my run.  I told them I had run from the South Rim to the North Rim and back and they asked how long that took.  I looked at my watch and told them . . . 11:50!

I was cooling of quickly, so I headed down to the shuttle stop and put my warm clothes back on.  It was nearly dark and getting very cold when I got off the bus at the entrance to the campground.  I shivered all the  way up to the campsite where Ean, Mike, Pete and Shaun were waiting.  Ean had had a great run to the river and back up Bright Angel and was already showered and relaxing.  Pete finished the double crossing in 10:20 and was looking fresh.  Mike finished in 11:00 and Shaun had got back just a little before me after having decided to turn back a few miles before the North Rim with some muscle cramping.  I grabbed some clothes from the tent and climbed in the car with Mike and Shaun for a trip to the showers.  Eight minutes in a hot shower and lots of warm clothes and I felt much better.  Cat (who finished just minutes after me) was at the showers when we finished, so we all regrouped and headed to the Grand Canyon Village Pizza Pub where we easily finished off three large pizzas and shared our stories of the day.

It was an awesome run that I will always remember.  It wasn't nearly the epic sufferfest that some have described.  It was one of those runs where everything went really well.  The weather was perfect, I had the necessary fitness base and was well rested.  I was in the canyon with a good group of friends.  It really couldn't have been much better.

There is already talk of going back next year and I am definitely in.  The Grand Canyon is a unique and inspiring place to visit and an amazing place to run.  It was another great Fort Collins Trail Runner adventure.  I can't wait until the next one.


  1. A cliff hanger? In a post about the big ditch? Argh!

    Hey - the videos are coming back listed as private.

  2. :) Thanks GZ. I'm new to posting on youtube. I'll be back with the exciting conclusion later.

  3. Can't wait to find out what happens! Nice details...I had forgotten about some of them. I like reading about our trip from different perspectives and also finding out what you crazy R2R2R-ers experienced without me!!

  4. I hope you make it back to the South Rim. Great story so far.

  5. Sorry for the delay in the story's completion. I had it almost done last night when the power went out and and I lost all my updates. I will get it done tonight. Thanks for your patience.

  6. As I said to Ean, I'm jealous. Next year. As with the others, I can't wait to see if you made it back!

  7. Wow! 109 miles in 8/10 second! You're my hero! :)
    Seriously...thanks for a great adventure! It was an amazing day with amazing friends. What an experience!!!

  8. Alex, I like how you summed up the really wasn't the horribly painful experience that a lot of the reports were touting! Everything went smoothly and the run was amazing...never felt like I was going die out there or have to get rescued!

  9. Alex,

    thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed the article and your blog is a nice way to keep in touch with the group in FC.