How does one go about telling a story in which the accomplishments of the day changed nuances in one’s thinking, and these nuances drastically changed one’s sense of self? Where does one start?
I guess this one shall start before the beginning. Ever since the first time I ran the Grand Canyon, going Rim to Rim, sleeping, and returning the next day, I have wanted to do Rim to Rim to Rim (affectionately, or perhaps not so much, known as R3). It has been one of my bucket list items (the other being to run Zane Grey, but that is a different story for a different time), something so seemingly so big that I didn’t know if I would ever actually be capable of doing it. After my ankle debacle of last year’s crossing in which I learned the indispensable lesson of extreme respect for the Canyon, I was unsure of my ability to run the entire Canyon. But like I said, I’ve always wanted to do it, so I began training with the idea of at least trying.
My training consisted of… running. I knew from previous visits that hill repeats are good training, but what I really needed was a seriously long hill with no breaks that I could do repeats on. For Canyon training, hill repeats are great and all, but on normal hills you get breaks from the up or the down. In the Canyon, you don’t, and this is something that can easily stop you in you in your tracks. So I hit Mount Ord for my repeats. Mount Ord is not too far north of the Valley, and it is about 7.5 miles from the parking lot to the towers, with about 4000 feet of gain. That means I had 7.5 miles up, and 7.5 miles back down, no stopping. Doing this twice would give me about a 50K, so great climbing, great distance, and great time on feet to simulate the Canyon. It was also the perfect time to work on my nutrition and make sure I knew what to expect from my stomach when I would cross.
One week after running Ord I headed to Prescott to participate in a 50K fun run. My plan was just to run however far I I could on tired legs. This run had more climbing than I was expecting, which was a good thing, and while I stopped a few miles shy of the 50K mark, I felt really good about how my body had handled it and felt that I should be able to complete my full Canyon crossing.
Then, a week or two later, disaster struck. During a fun run in the Superstitions, I twisted my ankle. I never twist my ankles! I still had three weeks until the Canyon, so I let it rest, but every time I ran even a little bit it would start hurting again. I knew from last year that even a tiny thing at the beginning of a run at the Canyon can easily turn into something debilitating a few miles later. This was not good.
Matt and I arrived at the Canyon on Thursday, May 14, and were greeted by sleet. And snow. And wind. And COLD. To make this even more of an adventure, we were camping at Mather Campground. Lovely.
Thursday night was cold and miserable. Mather Campground is a really nice campground with flushing toilets and running water and all, but I still had to leave my tent in the middle of the night to walk to the bathroom, and hope I didn’t run into an elk. I can see why chamber pots were popular back in the day.
Friday morning occurred, I can’t really say that it dawned, it didn’t. After breakfast in the lodge, Matt and I hopped on the Hermit’s Rest bus. I’d never seen this side of the park, only ever visiting in the past to run across the Canyon and never really site seeing. Not that there was too much to see on this day. The Canyon was completely filled with clouds. It was surreal standing next to it, looking down and seeing nothing but clouds, and knowing that one wrong step was thousands of feet to my death. It was kind of cool really. Anyway, the Hermit’s Rest bus was nice because it afforded us shelter and warmth. We got off in between the rain to check out the spots that had cleared out a little bit, and to walk along the rim to the next bus stop. I could feel my ankle this entire day and was sure I was going to have to cut my crossing short the following day and save my R3 for a different visit.
Kathi, Lisa, Laurie, and Jeff arrived at the Canyon on Friday afternoon, and we made our plans for the next morning. Our friend Rene had also come up, unbeknownst to any of us, to also do R3, and so we caught up with him as well. Everyone would be running their own run, but Kathi and I decided we wanted to start out together. Matt agreed to drive us to the South Kaibab trailhead, since he would not be running due to a bum ankle. Lisa decided to do a shorter run later because she wasn’t feeling very well.
After another cold night’s sleep, my alarm went off at 3:15. I grumbled and whined and got out of my warm sleeping bag. After getting lost trying to find South Kaibab, we finally got there a little after our desired start time of 4:00 am. We were greeted by a group from the University of New Mexico asking us if we were doing Rim to Rim, or Rim to Rim to Rim, and if so, would we be willing to participate in their study? We said sure! They asked us what we’d had to eat since the night before, if we’d been there and done this before. They weighed us, checked our blood oxygen, pulse, etc. The very best part of this study was that they wanted my trash! I know this sounds weird, but there aren’t any trash cans below the rim. You pack it in, you pack it out. They wanted my trash so they could see what I’d eaten, and they would pack it out! Beautiful!
Kathi and I started our watches at 4:20 am and off we went. I have never begun the Canyon this early before, and I loved it. I will do this from now on. We and the couple other rim runners had our flashlights on and we whisked down the trail. Peaceful doesn’t even begin to describe the sense of solidarity between us and runners we didn’t know, along with the awe of the breadth of the Canyon and the majesty of prehistory oozing upwards to engulf us from the Colorado thousands of feet below. Amazing.
Kathi and I went along, running easily. There were puddles everywhere from all the rain of the past two days, and that helped us to keep our pace down. I knew that even though it would be easy, I didn’t want to run down South Kaibab too hard or I would be physically destroyed and would have to quit early. At this point, my plan was just to run easy and pay attention to any twinges that might be trying to turn into something more. If I felt anything like that, I would turn around early. I was hoping to make it to at least Ribbon Falls.
We made it to Phantom Ranch with no issues, and stopped to refill our waters. We found the study people there, unloaded our little bit of trash, answered a few questions, and continued on. From Phantom we began to separate, really each running our own thing at that point. I have found that I do best when I allow myself to settle into my own pace that I can hold, and don’t try to keep up with anyone, so that’s what I did, allowing Kathi to pull away. She and I have run together enough, however, that neither of us was worried about the other. We both know that the other is trail smart, and fully capable in the wilderness. We both knew the other would be great.
So I ran along the Narrows, enjoying the sound of the exceedingly full creek gushing across the boulders. The entire Canyon was incredibly GREEN! I have never seen it so lush and green and before. Getting out into the open area of the creek I began running into the day hikers. I was expecting them because this was the opening weekend of the North Rim. Some of the groups were rather large, but really, the extra traffic wasn’t too bad. Chugging along, I felt great. I’d had no twinges or pains anywhere. I purposely passed right by the turn off for Ribbon Falls. I was pretty sure by that point that I would be fine to make it to Aiken’s Place, and if I could make it there, I could make it up the North Rim, at which point, I would have no way out but to go back.
I stopped at Cottonwood to refill my water and went out again. After that it’s just a short hop to Aiken’s, and it was here that I ran into Rene and his friend James coming down the North Rim. They’d begun their journey a few hours earlier than me. We chatted for a minute, and then I headed up the trail.
As I began the climb, I felt great. I could look up and see snow on the top of the rim, and rounding a corner, I could see the rim where I was actually going was shrouded in clouds. As I went higher it got colder. I’d begun the day in a rain/windbreaker, and warm long sleeve shirt, a tank and arm sleeves. By the time I arrived at Aiken’s, I was down to just the tank and sleeves. Eventually I put my warm shirt back on, not wanting to freeze. On the North Kaibab trail, everything below Supai Tunnel was in pretty good shape. I refilled my water at Supai, and climbed on for the last push out of the Canyon. The northern-most part of the trail was yucky. It was really cold, there was snow everywhere, but the snow was melting. The trail itself was a slick, muddy mess, with water running down the center. All I could think on this part of the trail was, “Where’s the Ruta corner?” This is the final switchback from which it is a straight shot out to the North Kaibab trailhead. My reasons for calling it the Ruta corner date back to two years ago and would take too long to explain here. Suffice to say, I wanted that corner in a bad way.
Finally, I passed the Ruta corner and popped out on the North Rim to freezing temperatures. My time across was 6:24. I remember thinking that wasn’t possible because I’d been going so slowly the whole way. 6:24 is a solid hour faster than I’d ever crossed in either direction before.
Kathi was there at the top, finishing up with the study people. She asked me how I was feeling, and other than great, I knew the climb up Bright Angel was going to blow. She headed out while I checked in with the study people. At this study stop they again weighed me and checked my pulse and asked me a few more questions, this time detailing how I was feeling and how I thought my training compared with the effort of the Canyon. I was feeling really great, other than cold, so I quickly finished this and headed back down for my return journey.
The Return Trip
Carefully sliding down the North Rim, I ran into my friend Benedict, who I didn’t know would be there. We chatted about the Canyon and what it was like that day along with his recent Canyon adventures. He is the administrator for the Facebook group “Grand Canyon R2R2R Run!” and is an amazing resource for all things Canyon related. After taking a few pictures together, I continued on. He was going as far down as Supai Tunnel and was bringing snacks and things for strangers, while spending time enjoying the Canyon.
As I trucked along back down the North Rim, I continued with my slow and steady mentality. I still had way too far to go, and way too much climbing to go too fast down the rim. A little below Supai Tunnel I ran into Jeff and Laurie on their way up. We exchanged quick hugs and continued on our ways.
I stopped at Aiken’s to refill my water, and then I was out. I knew from there it was an easy, gentle downhill all the way to Phantom. By now, I was in a “get it done” mode. I continued running, but I was getting really tired. Knowing that this section was easy did not make it easy. I forced myself to keep a running motion, and told myself that once I got to Phantom I could sit down, take a break and eat a meal. I passed a few people whom I’d apparently passed earlier in the day because I began getting more comments on what I was doing. People wanted to know if I was doing the whole thing, what I thought my time would be, etc.
Finally Phantom came into view. I again refilled my water and for the first time all day, I sat down on a rock to eat. I’d eaten throughout the day, usually something small every couple of miles, with a larger amount here and there, like a half sandwich, but always while moving. At Phantom I ate a baked potato that I’d brought with me. I opened one of my electrolyte tabs and dipped the potato in it for some delicious salt. I also ate beef jerky and a fruit rope for dessert. So basically I ate meat and potatoes at Phantom! I told myself I was going to sit there for 15 minutes, but after 10 I was done eating and didn’t want to sit anymore, so I got up and started walking. Even though the next couple of miles was absolutely runnable (not even remotely steep yet) I decided I was done running. I would just hike as solidly as I could.
Walking out of Phantom I ran into my first and only mule train of the day. It surprised me that I didn’t see any mules, or any signs of mules, on the North Rim. I found out later from Laurie and Jeff that they started later that day. My encounter was brief and I moved on.
I did not mention earlier how brown the Colorado was. Other times I’ve visited it’s been a beautiful jade green color. On this day, after all the rain and snow and whatever else, it was really high and really brown. Going along the lower part of Bright Angel I was able to see the river in all its untamed, dangerous majesty. There were even people in rafts getting ready to hit the rapids!
Eventually I turned away from the river and began my ascent. I just hiked steadily, picking off hikers in front of me to pass. That’s fun. I passed a group of three young guys below the Devil’s Staircase. A little while later, two of them came up behind me and passed me running. I let them go by, and they crapped out a little bit up the trail, and sat down. As I began to go by them again, they asked me if I’d done the whole thing (I guess I’d probably seen them earlier in the day too), to which I replied that I had. I stopped to chat with them for a bit. I found out one was from Washington State and one was from Washington DC. They asked about crossing history, and then they asked my advice on training (hit the hills, lots of hills), and what my strategy was (eat early and eat often, and the same goes for water and electrolytes). The final question that made me laugh inside was, “What’s the rest of the trail like?” My reply? “Up.”
I continued on my way, finishing the Devil’s Staircase without any of the misery of the last time I did it. It actually didn’t seem like a big deal this time. I was now really looking forward to Three Mile house because Matt said he’d be there to pace me out. I was ready to see my friends, but I still had a few miles to go, and I knew they were tough miles.
Coming into Indian Gardens, I heard cheering and there were Matt and Lisa! I think I squeaked, I was so happy to see them! The park ranger that they’d been talking with asked how I was doing and I said tired, but good. He said tired is fine. Tired is not a problem. The park rangers are really awesome. All of them that I’d seen that day asked me if I was running R3, and how I was doing, and smiled and wished me luck. They have such a hard job, I think especially so at the Canyon, because there are so many people from so many walks of life and so many physical capabilities. The Canyon will very quickly show you what your physical capabilities are, and people often end up in dangerous situations or dead. Through all of that, the park rangers are there, caring and helping when they can.
Upon leaving Indian Gardens the fatigue really started to get to me. I should have eaten a little more out of Indian Garden, but I didn’t. Lisa took off up the hill, and I kept up my best hike. I still felt fine, just so… very… tired. The climb to Three Mile House is a bit of blur. I was now starting to get in my own head because the last time I’d climbed out Bright Angel, I’d felt really nauseous for the last mile. I was getting nervous that this would happen again.
We shot right by Three Mile House and on up to the next water stop, 1.5 miles later. Somewhere in there, I think, Matt made me eat a few bites. I sat down to do so and those couple of swallows helped immensely. I blew by the 1.5 mile water stop, while Matt stopped to get water. I was by now very grumpy. Someone there asked me if I was bonking, and I kind of wanted to push them. Did it look like I was feeling all chipper and spry?!?!?! Somehow, even with having the emotional capacity of a two year old at that point, I only replied, “I’m getting out of here.” And kept going.
Eventually I got to the point where on the previous trip I’d felt really sick; I didn’t this time. I didn’t feel great, but I wasn’t sick. However, I couldn’t look up. It was demoralizing to see the people on the switchbacks up above me. It was much better to look back at what I’d already accomplished.
My breathing got heavier and heavier. The urge to start cursing was at a low simmer, however it never actually reached a full boil. We came upon a park ranger who had been helping a seriously sick woman who was now making her way up the trail. I barreled by, but Matt chatted with him as we passed, telling him what I was doing. A few people had cheerily told me, “You’re almost there!” to which I’d wanted to respond with a push (this seems to be the theme when I’m grouchy). I was NOT almost there. Even if I only had a mile left, that is NOT almost there in the Canyon. The ranger, knowing this about me from Matt called out to me as I went up the trail, “Nice job! You’re almost there!” with a huge grin on his face.
Eventually I reached the lower tunnel. Then I saw a guy run by in flip flops. I really was close now. I passed the upper tunnel and the end was in site. And I was out.
I sat down by the Bright Angel sign and just… sat. Wait. Had I just….? I had. I had actually just done a double crossing at the Grand Canyon all at once. I’d done something I’d always wanted to do. No really. I did it. And I did it pretty much by myself. Something in my heart shifted. I really am an ultra-runner. I’ve called myself an ultra-runner since I ran my first ultra, but this. This was close to 50 miles, with over 11,000 feet of gain, and a little less than that in loss. I’d just completed an incredibly strenuous self-supported 50 miler (essentially, close enough in trail terms). And my time? 14:34. Huh. Well okay then. I guess I’m really there.
I found the study people and they weighed me and did vitals again. I’d only lost 2 pounds the whole day, so I would say I did great! I filled out their questionnaire again, but then I started shaking because I was super cold. After a hard effort I always get cold, and it was much colder and windier on the rim than it was down at the river.
Kathi and Lisa were waiting in the car, Kathi was freezing too. We headed to the showers at Mather. These showers are $2.00 for somewhere between 8-10 minutes. I’d purposely brought way too many quarters so I could take a super long shower after my crossing. I desperately needed to warm up, and a hot shower is the fastest way. After three rounds of quarters (shh, don’t tell) I felt much better. Afterwards, we all headed to the lodge for dinner and I was excited to eat spaghetti with meat sauce. With dinner done, I was beat, so I crashed early.
The next morning we tore down camp, had breakfast, and enjoyed one last time at the rim before heading home.
I am happy to report that I finished this effort with no injuries, no blisters, and no chafing! The only thing I’ve had has been tight muscles, but those are loosening up now. I can walk normally again, no more hobbling. Two days ago, so three days after my crossing, I went on a “run”. It was slow and painful, but it helped to loosen me up further. Yesterday I did a hike/run, and again, it helped to continue to loosen things up. My plan is to take it easy, mostly hiking probably, until my next grand adventure in a few weeks!
Here’s my Strava for the day: https://www.strava.com/activities/306773259/embed/4a9cf4280215e8652c5f8b8175333683767f65ea.
It gave me 49.2 miles, but I can see that I lost GPS in a few places and my watched jumped a bit, so I think it’s more like 48 miles.
* Most of these pictures weren’t mine- they were either Kathi’s or Matt’s. I took a couple of them, but eh. Whatever. Run on.