“Maybe I’ll go to the Grand Canyon after my conference in Las Vegas.”
That eventually turned into, “Maybe I’ll run across the Grand Canyon and back after my conference in Las Vegas.”
Not surprisingly, my friend Julie didn’t even bat an eye when I invited her to join me for this adventure, known as the rim to rim to rim (r2r2r). We were both in different places training-wise. I ran the Wild Duluth 100k four weeks prior. A pretty tough race with lots of climb and I was a little nervous I wasn’t fully recovered and would discover this fact while in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Luckily, this didn’t happen and I actually think I hit the sweet spot – recovered but also still able to use my 100k training and race to my advantage. Julie was peaking in her training for a 100 mile race in December.
My conference was November 9-11 (Wednesday-Friday). Julie flew into Vegas on Friday, picked me up, and off we went, making our way to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a little over four hours away. The North Rim was closed since it was the off-season.
Julie and her wife, Romy, had hiked the GC 10 years before, but I had never been, so needless to say I was pumped. We wanted to get there before the sunset – and we barely made it. If you’ve never been, the GC is indescribable. Go see it for yourself.
After taking in the view, we made our way to our hotel, the Kachina Lodge on the South Rim. Our plan was to run South Kaibab – North Kaibab – Bright Angel. Staying at Kachina Lodge was perfect since it’s just a few steps away from the Bright Angel trailhead, meaning we could walk to our hotel room after our adventure. We had a cab pick us up on Saturday morning a little before 4:00am for $10. Small price to pay for easy logistics.
South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch
Most recommendations say to take the first 6-7 miles easy down the South Kaibab trail to save the quads (unless you’re Jim Walmsley of course). We followed the recommendation and took it pretty slow down. My quads never felt blasted and I give this strategy a lot of credit. It was dark when we started and it was exhilarating to know that I was making my way down into the freaking Grand Canyon, even though I couldn’t see more than a few feet around me. We turned off our headlamps at one point to take in the abundance of stars above us and I was lucky enough to see a shooting star overhead.
Every once in awhile, we’d turn our headlamps to the side to reveal a huge drop off or a giant canyon wall surrounding us. I was so anxious for the sun to come up.
We started to see an outline of the canyon against the sky as the sun started to rise. We could hear rushing water – the Colorado River. It became light enough to turn off our headlamps. We crossed the river and ran into the famous Phantom Ranch. Here we filled up our water. I had a 70 oz bladder in my pack and two 10 oz flasks. This felt pretty heavy, but we weren’t quite sure how much water we’d need and wanted to play it safe.
Phantom Ranch – North Rim
We left Phantom Ranch and were enveloped by tall canyon walls on both sides. I didn’t realize this until after, but you’re essentially going uphill from Phantom Ranch to North Rim. Obviously, you know you’re going up when you’re climbing out of the canyon, but it’s less apparent when you’re in the bottom. Since I didn’t realize I was going slightly uphill, I was bummed that I was feeling a little sluggish so early. I thought it probably had something to do with the extra weight of the water, but I thought maybe my legs weren’t as recovered as I thought. I didn’t let it get me down too much, but it was still very early on in the day and I wasn’t looking forward to 40~ more miles of heavy legs.
After a few miles of running in the crack, it eventually opened up. The sunlight was starting to hit the tops of some of the canyons. It’s incredible how the sun can totally change the way the canyons look – the colors look much different, more vibrant.
We rolled into Cottonwood Campground and checked to see if the water was on in case we needed it on our way back. It was and we realized we did not need to fill our bladders the rest of the run. There was a sign that said we had 6.1 miles to the North Rim – and roughly 4300ft of climbing. Oof.
At some point, I realized I stupidly forgot my map. Granted, there are not a lot of opportunities to make a wrong turn, but I was still mad at myself for being careless. We only had one instance of confusion near Ribbon Falls. There was a fork in the trail with a sign that said something about Ribbon Falls. We didn’t think the trail went by Ribbon Falls, so we went the other way. We came to river and we weren’t sure we were going the right way. Neither one of us remembered reading anything about a river crossing. We both went across and Julie went ahead to see where the trail went and came back thinking we went the wrong way.
We made our way back to the fork and I was able to pull up a map on my phone and I quickly took a screenshot. The map seemed to show we went near Ribbon Falls, so we followed the sign. A few guys came up behind us and they reassured us we were going the right way. They said they were from Salt Lake City and one of them actually went to grad school in Davenport, Iowa. Small world (it would get even smaller). They said they started at 6:15, which meant they were booking it.
We eventually started climbing. A lot. The higher we went, the more beautiful the views. I kept thinking about how lucky I am that I am able to do this – physically, mentally, financially. I spent a lot of time feeling grateful.
At some point, I thought we had a little less than two miles left. We passed a hiker and he asked if were doing r2r2r and said we were making great time. He told us we had about four miles left. UGH. He seemed confident, but it just didn’t seem plausible. I know my watch was getting goofy but could it really be THAT far off?
The climb started to get steeper and the sun was starting to feel a little warm. We took breaks to get our heart rates down. We knew the climb was going to be tough but we didn’t expect to have to take breaks. The altitude probably played a factor, too. It was a grind making our way up and it was obvious we were both focused on getting out of the canyon, one step in front of the other.
We passed a couple guys who said the trail head was about a mile away. Hooray! We knew we’d run into a group of women who started about an hour earlier than us. I “met” one of the gals via the r2r2r Facebook group (great resource, by the way). We almost started at 3:00am with them, but decided against it to get another hour of sleep. We saw a few women, and one of them yelled out, “Are those our runner gals?!” We introduced ourselves and talked for a few minutes about our days so far. They were a great group and I hoped we’d catch up with them when we turned around. They said we didn’t have much left.
We finally made it to the North Rim and we gave ourselves 10 minutes to eat our sandwiches and sit down for a few minutes. We met a few guys up there who were also doing r2r2r. One from LA and the other from San Diego. Apparently, there was some misinformation about the water being on at the North Rim. It wasn’t and they needed water so they hitched a ride about a mile or so away to get water. They took off a few minutes before us.
North Rim to Phantom Ranch
Julie and I didn’t stay long – it gets cold sitting around in sweaty clothes. Now it was time for the run part! I was feeling pretty good so I ran ahead of Julie for a little bit to open up. I realized soon after that that it might be a stupid idea to split up. I waited for her to catch up and we made our way down, taking in the bonkers views the whole way. We stopped to take a few photos along the way. For realz, the views from the North Rim are magnificent.We caught up to the fellas we had met at the North Rim and then eventually to the group of women.
Side note: Maybe I’m making this up but I swear whenever we passed another pair or group of women hiking or running, I felt like there was this mutual sense of recognition. Of course, we exchanged pleasantries, but there was something more. Like both groups were so happy and proud to see another group of women exploring and adventuring together. Maybe this is all in my head but it sure did make me feel good. #girlpower
We ran with the group for awhile but eventually ended up getting in front of them. We had a goal of getting to Phantom Ranch before 4:00p.m. to buy some food. Phantom Ranch closes at 4:00p.m. every day to prepare food for the campers. We hit Cottonwood Campground and were making pretty good time but Julie’s legs were starting to get a little tired and she wasn’t sure if she could make it by 4:00p.m. I was still feeling pretty good and offered to run ahead and see if I could make it. She was jonesin’ for a Coke so she sent me off.
This was probably one of my favorite few miles because it was the slight grade downhill (remember that slight uphill out of Phantom Ranch?) and I felt like I was fllllyyyyyiiiiing. There’s nothing like opening up on smooth, slight downhill on the trails. I was probably smiling the whole way. I was a little worried of tiring out my legs but knew after Phantom Ranch, I’d just be doing a butt-ton of climbing anyways, so who cares? Weeeeeeee!
I made it to Phantom Ranch at 3:45 and grabbed us some food and a couple of their famous lemonades (no Cokes at Phantom Ranch!). I sat next to a few other runners, one who was doing r2r2r with a big group and who also ran ahead to get food for his buddies. He was with a gal who was joining them for the climb out. I soon learned that Kurt lives in Salt Lake City but went to grad school at the University of Iowa! Then a few of his other friends ran in and I found out he was born and raised in Iowa City and was just back in IC visiting his parents the previous weekend. I swear, Iowans are everywhere.
Julie got into Phantom Ranch right at 4:00p.m., yelled to a girl who she thought was me saying she was getting some food, and then ran into the shop to get some food. She came out a few minutes later looking much calmer and joined us at a picnic table. We stayed for maybe another 10-15 minutes and then headed out. It did not feel great to start running again after sitting.
Phantom Ranch to South Rim
Well, this was pretty much just a looooooot of hiking. After a few minutes of hobbling, we ran out to the Bright Angel Trail and across the Colorado River, which was magnificent. We took lots of photos and then went on our merry way.
The sun was starting to go down so we knew we didn’t have much longer before it got cold and dark. I think maybe we ran a mile or so and then it turned into hiking. And then we pretty much hiked all the way out. So. Many. Switchbacks. The group we met at Phantom Ranch eventually caught up to us and passed us. They were looking really strong. We caught up to them at Indian Gardens campground where we stopped to use the bathroom and take in some food.
I remember thinking we were closer to the top than we actually were (don’t trust your watch in the Grand Canyon, folks!) and being a little bummed but just put on my game face and kept on truckin.’ I think I thought it was like a six mile hike from Phantom Ranch, but it turned out to be more more like nine (I think, it was awhile ago. why didn’t I write this way sooner?). It was dark by this point so we couldn’t see much, although the moon was looking real pretty.
At some point, I smelled cigarette smoke and was confused. Who SMOKES in the Grand Canyon? Come on, people! We eventually came across a group of 4-5 women who were sitting at a rest area on a switchback. I noticed a pack of cigs in one of the girls’ pockets. I felt a little bad for them since they seemed waaaay out of their element. I also felt annoyed because they clearly didn’t do their research or properly prepare for doing a hike of this caliber. They said they had been hiking all day and were all feeling really tired. Julie told them to just keep going and rest at every switch back if they needed to. One of the women asked if they could hike out with us and Julie replied, “If you can keep up!” Needless to say, that’s the last we saw of them.
We continued on, wondering how many more damn switch backs we’d have to switch. Grand Canyon, I love ya, but we were ready to be out of the big ditch. It started getting a bit windier, which was a good sign we were close! We had already put on our jackets a few more miles before but our legs were getting a bit cold.
All of the sudden, BAM, we popped up out of the trail! We were done! Yahoo! It took us about 16 hours and 30 minutes total. 46 miles and roughly 10,000ft of climb and descent. A little later than we anticipated but not by much.
We took a few pictures and then Julie got a look in her eye. Kinda crazy but not mad. She needed food. PRONTO. We went into one of the visitor centers and she hit up a gift shop but she didn’t find anything to hold her over until we got to our room and ordered food. She found out there was a restaurant in the building we were in and that was it. She pretty much sprinted (ok, not really) to the restaurant telling me I didn’t have to go but she needed to – it was a matter of life or death. I followed her in, wondering if everyone could smell us.
We sat down, ordered a few IPA’s and burgers, and cheers-ed to a most epic day.
Ok, this next part is for my pal Joshua Sun, who wants to know what are three things that went well and three things that didn’t go well. This is actually really difficult because Julie and I got soooo lucky on so many occasions. The weather was perfect and the water was on. Those two factors are the ones that most scare me since you can’t control them. But we had a perfect weather day and most of the water was on. But here’s what I’ve got:
Three things that went well (that I could control):
- My gear worked great. I bought another hydration pack with more room (Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta) and was really pleased with how it performed. I had only used it on one other occasion so wasn’t sure – but I had no problems and it held a ton of stuff. We both used poles which were very helpful. The only thing that bothered me were my gaiters. I don’t wear them ever but was worried about sand/rocks getting in my shoes. They ended up being super annoying so I took them off. That was really the only gear hiccup. See gear list below!
- The company! Julie and I run together often so we knew we could handle 16+ hours of each other. Neither one of us was trying to set any records and were both a-ok with taking it easy. Our pace and personality complemented each other. Truly, I wouldn’t have wanted to do this with anyone else!
- I was really pleased with how my body held up. Like I said before, I was really nervous that I wasn’t recovered from my 100k. But it seemed to be the perfect amount of time off. I was pretty sore for awhile afterwards, while Julie was able to jump back into training right away. Taking South Kaibab super easy probably also helped with this.
- Oh and one more – the logistics worked out perfectly. $10 cab to get to the South Kaibab trailhead? And being able to walk to our hotel after? These two things made our adventure so much easier.
Three things I’d do differently:
- I put way too much water in my pack at Phantom Ranch. Definitely wasn’t necessary and just weighed me down!
- Moved out of Phantom Ranch a bit quicker on the way out. I’m all for taking everything in and we definitely did that. We stopped and took pictures when we felt like it and soaked in the beautiful views. But it takes a long ass time to climb out of the canyon. And once the sun goes down, those views are gone. I mean, it’s still an incredible feeling to know that we’re climbing out of the Grand Canyon – but those views definitely help.
- I forgot my map! Make that list and check it off when it actually gets INTO your pack.
- Ok, another. I don’t think I brought enough food food. Ya know, like non-gels, real, actual food. We ate a few sandwiches at the top of the North Rim but I wish I had more of those tasty squished avocado sandwiches later on in the run. I can use gels through a race, but a long slow effort like this would be a lot nicer with some food food (for me, anyways).
- Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 3 (dude version cuz my feet are supa wide)
- Patagonia Stride Pro shorts (LOVE these shorts, have multiple pair. if you dig lightweight material and a high split, buy these shorts)
- Merino Wool tank
- Injinji socks
- Brooks Sureshot sports bra
- Trail Sisters hat and buff. yay #trailsisters
- Patagonia Houdini jacket (wore this in the morning and when the sun went down)
- Arm sleeves
- Poles: Black Diamond Distance Z Z-Poles, Oxide Black, 110cm
- Pack: Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta
- Water Filter: Sawyer Pen. We both had one just in case but never needed them.
- Water: Two 10 oz flasks in front, 70oz bladder
- Watch: Garmin 910XT
- Food: Lots of gels, bagel/avocado sandwich, dried bananas, Larabars, Tailwind in baggie
- Misc: Rocket Pure Friction Therapy lube, headlamp, sunscreen, chapstick, gaiters, kleenex in baggie