A national park since 1919, and one of the natural wonders of the world...both for good reason
“This is supposed to hurt.” Or is it?
I distinctly remember being at Phantom Ranch on my first trip into the Grand Canyon a decade ago. I was staying at the Bright Angel Campground, doing a day trip or two exploring the place in the early fall before classes started. It was my first time, and I was captivated by the beauty as I became oriented with the washes and temples that are trademarks of the Park. When filling up my bottles with water in the morning, there was a pack of minimalist runners stretching and refueling on the Phantom Ranch steps.
“What are you guys up to?” I probed.
“Rim to Rim to Rim.” One retorted.
And in a moment, they were gone. I did my day hike bringing me back to Phantom’s spigot hours later, and ironically, they were there too, having just completed the descent from the North Rim. They looked haggard, and still had the South Rim to conquer before they could rest and reflect while I enjoyed a leisurely 100m walk to my cozy sleeping situation in the warm Canyon bottom. Whatever their internal state was, their external one revealed excessive fatigue and distinguishable lack of enjoyment. “Boy, what an awful way to spend the day” I thought to myself.
Where does this trail go?
I’ve since made a few return trips to the canyon – to see and be with friends, to explore and to experience the overwhelming scale of the place and each time, as I gazed over the exposed sandstone, that image of the haggard runners resurfaced as I contemplated their ambition. Still, the idea of the feat stuck around and this fall – when discussing our nation’s parks with colleagues at a campfire, the ‘r2r2r’ topic was breached. A veteran of the affair scoffed “I’d never do that again,” a knee-jerk reaction of vehement rejection akin to my first encounter with such athletes, but my apprehension was muted this time: perhaps it wasn’t so bad, and perhaps my perception of the outing had aged well and become more palatable.
I’ll pause and say I’m not a runner. I run when all of the other cardiovascular options aren’t available: road and mountain biking, skinning, swimming, scrambling…anything, but I can appreciate the purity of the sport and the simplicity of only needing some socks, sneakers and a pair of shorts. I’ve been a frequent recipient of its mind-clearing qualities, but don’t make running goals per se, only default to distances when I crave the exercise high and peace of mind.
Autumn mornings casting their slanted rays on the GC's splendid Paleozoic layers
That’s changed a bit in the last 12 months, though, mostly because of forces outside of my control: frequent work trips this year to a part of the country where road biking would be foolishly unsafe, no vert and rocks to scramble, and no trails for the fat tires. Then came Southern Utah, where yes, mountain biking is fabled, but where many trails remain off-limits, are too technical for a flowing ride, or require the high clearance vehicle I do not possess. That opens a new door: when the routes and views are inspiring, and the temperatures or access make alternatives dubious, running can be a great option: covering lots of gorgeous terrain quickly with no risks of flat tires or other hurdles.
Well, you made the North Rim, now repeat what you just did
After nearly a cumulative month based in the high, delicate Southern Utah desert, it was time for a change. My open mind for the region's stunning beauty was saturated, and a change was nigh. Time to head back west to the Sierra. Upon stopping for petrol, however, I stood jaw agape taking in one last 5-minute window of 10’ shadows and the Sun’s last brushstroke on the stunning red cliff sides of canyon country: I may have been done with Utah, but not with the southwest. The Grand Canyon beckoned. A quick flurry of networking revealed a good college mate was still working and residing in the canyon and selflessly offered a wonderful alternative to bivying in the near single-digit nighttime temps gracing the rims. The day temps were perfect for an extended outing: r2r2r was becoming more tangible. I had just wrapped up yet another trip to BBQ country, and yearned for a bigger day – push the exercise envelope a bit and ‘clean out the tank.’
If I must run, please may my trail look like this...
The same networking blitz exposed the downside to my schedule: although such an experience would no doubt be intensified if shared, few share my flexibility meaning I would be solo on the trails – not literally, as year-round, people probe the canyon’s main thoroughfares – but figuratively, as I would have no one with me I knew and with whom I could console and share, or going at a similar pace, whatever that may be.
...and like this
I preferred minimalist preparation: Just a rough goal of what I thought was achievable given my personal experience, assurance that safety was not compromised by making sure water was available where needed and I would carry margin with me should the unexpected happen. That meant a planned 4am departure from the South Rim, with a small daypack containing additional clothing, plenty of calories, a bladder for eased hydration and a small flask of old vine zin – remembering the French do things right and part of the biblical adage “…
” I made a goal of 10 hours c2c, thinking that by jogging a good portion of the downhill’s and false flats, and maintaining my typical uphill pace when as light as I planned to be, averaging 4mph was feasible over the course of a day. 0345 alarm, and downing a banana and last gulps of water at the trailhead by 0420…this was happening.
Some 'trail work' eliciting smiles as my hip and ankle cried foul
I chose the shortest distance: Sticking to the famed Kaibab trail – its north and south legs – meaning it would be just shy of 42 miles if completed [what was my longest run again?]. With the crescent moon already set, the entire first descent was by headlamp. No matter, I’d done the same path to the river at least twice before so was familiar and not fearing the visual FOMO. I saw a trio of headlamps not far behind as I dropped into the ditch, and their presence was motivation to keep up the pace – getting to the Colorado in well under 2 hours.
Save yourself heaps of loot: have a beer for breakfast and note the forecast...lovely!
After jogging across the black bridge, I downed the rest of breakfast and rehydrated at Phantom, stretched and attempted to shake the pounding descent out of my legs and was back on the trail. With a smile I recounted those runners I had seen a decade prior – my turn to see what this double canyon crossing was all about.
"Backpacks are for mules and jackasses"
My timing was to ensure I didn’t overheat while taking in the narrows section of the north Kaibab, and what a wonderful way to usher in Dawn – with her fingertips of rose. Before I knew it, I was refilling water at the Roaring Springs Ranger Station, and getting on the business end of the North Kaibab. With perhaps just two or three 50m exceptions, the entire trail from that point goes up – after all, there is 6k vert to get from the River to the North Rim and there are no aerial trams. The jog became a brisk upward walk.
Perhaps one of the most litigious rivers in the world, meandering like it doesn't notice
The pace was fine: steady, with periodic stops to take in what I view as one of the main allures of this National Park: the improbability of the trails snaking their way through the canyon. It’s one thing to look down on the network from the rims and trace their faint markings around bluffs and trenches, but another entirely to be in the belly of the ditch looking for where the trail goes next - the scale becomes even more real and inspiring with the first-hand perspective being surrounded by intimidating cliff walls and precipitous drops. The first time you experience the trails, it’s fun just guessing which wash the trail takes, which buttes they skirt, and which slopes they ascend. I’m not a fan of humans’ large impact on the natural environment – especially in our fragile National Parks – but that doesn’t stop my sense of awe and respect for the explorers [of both dark and light complexion] who first conceived the paths of least resistance from the rims to the mighty Colorado, and the fortitude to make them a reality.
The South Kaibab wastes no time in getting to the business
The splits that I did remember were those of the record holders:
, Women at mid 8’s. When I was getting tunnel vision from my calorie deficit at the North Rim trailhead, my watch read ~6hours…I was definitely not breaking records and it was humbling to know that by the time I began my second descent on the day, the Men’s record holder was already drinking a victory beer at his car. Ouch. While on the upper descent, there was an extended wave of runners – kitted up with gu vests and neon compression socks – I felt out of my league, but no matter, we exchanged passing pleasantries as I continued to bound down the north side. I snuck in a couple of stops to capture the moment, to replenish water at Roaring Springs, then a quick stop to say hello to a certain fish counter near the Cottonwoods Campground.
Time splits forgotten, leaving ample stops for ogling and photos of what's next...
Six-ish miles of gentle sloping downhill and the claustrophobic nature of the narrows pushing you to go faster, I figured the lower part would be cake: the most cruiser part to run…my hips and right ankle disagreed. I jogged some sections until pain crept in and just hiked briskly. One of my favorite quotes of 2013 is the one gracing the opening of this post. I rarely have that much discipline, so when it hurt, I mitigated pain with a slower pace, stretching and picture taking. That was the deal breaker on time: I knew 10 hours were out of the question, so I re-calibrated: safely get to the car without use of the headlamp or nauseating pain, and enjoy the ride.
I'm still convinced someone was ascending with nothing on their feet but calluses
Refueling at Phantom, a quick payment of respect to the mighty Colorado and I was crossing the black bridge again, dropping the tranny into the climbing gear and gaining vert. The rest of the climb was butter. Since I wasn’t worried about time splits, I focused on absorbing the splendor of the Canyon in the golden hour…and it was unforgettable. Sure, I questioned the discipline and drive: “why don’t you push it harder and at least set a bar?” but in the end, it wasn’t about a faster time, it was enjoying the full experience. I was light [for me, even with the excess clothing I packed], moving swiftly, in good spirits and the temperature was perfect. The Canyon is one of our country's crowning achievements: Preserving a work of nature that is unparalleled the world over, and I have no problem appreciating the efforts of my predecessors to ensure I see no cars or other development below the rims. I didn’t answer the invitation to the house of pain for the remainder of trail and was better off for it.
"Where Did I just come from?...oh, let me look"
Back to the car without need of torch, clocking in at what I call 14 hours flat. Since I mitigated pain, even with the post-effort soreness in the following days, I left the Canyon vowing to do it again, maybe gun for a fast time, maybe not, maybe change the route, or keep it the same. Most poignant was the uninhibited freedom of movement: no overnight gear enabling you to go as fast as you want, when you want, but also to stop, take pictures and enjoy a work of nature as desired, and of course basking in the euphoria of seeing new and inspiring terrain. I was glad to see my opinions on what is ‘fun’ in an outing change over the course of a decade, as it still evokes a smile at how silly I thought those people were years ago. My bottom line is the Canyon might not be on the travel docket every year, but that makes each return all the more poignant and I’m already looking forward to my next objective there. I’ll stay open to what waits around the corner, and I hope the same to you, whatever that corner is, wherever you are.
My calves may have been dysfunctional for a couple days after, but I sure had fun...and I'd do it again
P.S. The opening quote is from a couple of the
I know on their effort on Mt. Rainier this year [and incidentally who were partial motivators in this undertaking]. It's a mantra I've adopted for motivation when I get haggard. Even better than my prose is Andy recounting
making my times comically drawn out. Bravo, gentlemen on your motivation, times and eloquence.
Some splits for my memory, and for you to laugh at:
North Rim: 1000
Beer at Das Turbo: 1820
OR helium jacket
OR incandescent hoody
Asics neo33 running shoes
(2) pairs of darn tough socks
(2) Deli sandwiches
~250g of salty, crunchy, fatty, oily bits
(2) gu chomps
(2) 'Apgar breakfast sandwiches'