Monday, October 10, 2011

Running the Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim to Rim

Cold morning view from the Kaibab Lodge
I'm not sure when I first heard about the idea of the rim to rim to rim.  It might have been from Adam or Jared a couple years ago.  Regardless, I have been planning on doing it this fall and was rather disappointed when a work shuffle left me without apparent time to join Jared and Jason last week.  

After skiing Friday, I convinced first myself and then my wife to make a one day trip to the Grand Canyon on my day off, so I could attempt the fabled Rim to Rim to Rim run.  She is 31 weeks pregnant and the standard accommodations in the back of the Subaru just weren't going to do.  The GC Lodge had no vacancy and the Kaibab Lodge had a single room with a double bed.  We took it.  I arranged a shuttle for 6:45 in the morning and then we were off driving into the night.  Arriving at one AM, we set the alarm for "early" and went to bed.   

Since Jessie couldn't run with me and no other partners materialized, I went and found the shuttle driver alone.  Seeing my breath and the snow on the ground felt like a good omen.  I do better in the cold and I was hoping the temps would be mild throughout the two impending canyon crossings.  

The secret is in the white powder.
However, it wasn't without some trepidation that I started running down the choppy trail at 7:15 that morning.  Unsure as to why, I haven't had a "good" run in weeks.  But, throwing caution to the wind, I decided to roll the first five downhill miles.  The air were cool but I shed my jacket 5 minutes into the run as the sun was strong.  Arriving at the first watering hole, I took a look at the crowds and kept moving.  From there, 8-9 miles of mostly gentle downhill follow a side canyon to the Colorado River.  

The canyon was beautiful with the early morning light playing off the walls and the sounds of the creek providing a musical accompaniment to the Fanfarlo I was playing on my ipod.  I took a pull off my gel flask around an hour in and had to keep reminding myself to drink.  The running was easy and relaxing and I was enjoying the moment.  

Descending from the North Rim

Following North Kaibab Trail endlessly downward
I trotted into Phantom Ranch around 1:45, looking to refill my water for the climb up to the South Rim but found a hoard of people lined up at the spigot.  Eager not to waste time, I kept going and found another just before the river crossing.  Crossing the bridge as the watch ticked over to 2 hours, I felt strong.  Jason and Jared had given splits to the South Rim, 50K, and the finish and I thought I was ahead of their pace, which provided ample motivation.  Once across the river, out came the poles and away went the camera.  I was able to run/shuffle much of the 4800 ft climb to the South Rim but never pushed.  Walking when prudent or when held up by mules, I started to see more and more people without packs.  Then the final switchbacks.  Then the South Rim.  3:43:30 into the day.  

Striding quickly to the fountains, I must have appeared frantic to the tourists posing for pictures and eating their lunches.  I fumbled with my pack (Jason's, which I used for the ability to carry poles), mixed more EFS drink, spilled half on my shoes, choked down a gel flask, wet my head, played tourist for 1 min taking pictures, and then I was off 10 minutes later.  Looking across the expanse to the North Rim was intimidating and my legs were giving the first inklings of bad times ahead.                   

The long descent back to the river doesn't lend itself to smooth running as it resembles a broken staircase littered with equestrian droppings.  Losing elevation led to hurting legs and a more tempered pace.   At this point I began to question my nutrition strategy, which was to drink my calories.  With water available every 5ish miles, I had planned on mixing EFS, Hammer, and Cytomax products for an energy source supplemented by gels.  Lately, I haven't been able to stomach food on long efforts and this day was no different.                                                                                                                                                                                  

Ooh Aah, just below the South Rim

Dropping back to the River, the bottom of the canyon is the narrow gash in the center of the picture.  North Rim is visible in the distance. 
I crossed the Colorado River for the second time right as the watch read 5:00.  After quickly refilling my water for the third time, I set off at what I felt to be a sustainable pace for the remainder of the run.  Figuring I had 8 miles of gentle up hill before hitting the main climb back to the North Rim, I thought I could count on 9-12 min miles, after which, fast hiking and jogging the lower grades would take me home.  Mental calculations had me hoping for a total time of just over 8 hours (really slow compared to the record but relatively fast).  My pride began to swell and my taunts to friends were already forming in my mind.  

Then reality.

The temperature was too warm. I had started too fast.  My nutrition was abysmal.  I forgot electrolyte tabs.  I was experiencing whole body cramps.  Damn. 

I sat down at mile 34 (of 42) and tried to stretch.  That just led to cramps in the antagonistic muscle groups.  Salvation came in the form of other runners attempting the R2R2R, when they gave me a handful of salt tabs.  I took a few and kept walking.  Afraid to run, the strategy shifted from moving fast to finishing.  Every time I tried to even walk at a more upbeat tempo, my quads would threaten utter rebellion.  

The mental calculations commenced again.  This time to evaluate the damage.  15-25 minute miles for 8 miles?  Huh? 
The bridge over the River Colorado 

I didn't run another step over those 8 miles.  And, in spite of not being able to run, I was happy.  I almost pulled off a great run and was going to finish (which I had questioned on the drive down).  The scenery was still spectacular but leaning on my poles didn't allow me to carry my camera and I was too lazy to get it out of the pack.  When the canyon walls closed down, my watch would temporarily get confused with the intermittent satellite signal so I couldn't trust it not to lie to me.   As I approached the top I started asking the hikers how far was left.  Some guy said 3 miles.  Another lady said 2 miles from the tunnel.  The tunnel came and went.  A father and young boy thought a mile and a half.  The views dissipated as I marched into the forest.  Then I could hear cheering above.  Rounding a bend an animated gentleman said 200 meters and pointed onward.  Feeling relief, I stumbled out to the trailhead 9 hours and 12 minutes after starting and walked past a hoard of people who had just finished their own adventures.  

Then, as tends to be the case, the second part of this endurance endeavor was a long drive home, since I had to be at work early the next morning.  Luckily, Jessie provided lovely conversation for the majority of the ride home...except when she fell asleep.  Just outside the park, we drove through an old burn and passed through what may have been the most picturesque vistas of the whole trip.
Old burn on fire again

Golden hour

Total Time 9:12:38
42+ miles
10-11,000 vertical gained
10 gels 
4 water stops
uncountable muscle cramps
13 hours driving
5 hours sleeping

Here's the data from my sketchy watch.  There vertical is oddly doubled but the map should be accurate. 


  1. No endurolytes? Lucky you got back out. You crack me up. Try a breakfast with low glycemic index. Keep the adventure high and stories a' comin'.

  2. 22,000 ft?! this is gonna be a bitch

  3. Grand Canyon Tour Companies
    I hiked from the S. Rim to the N. Rim for my 30th Birthday. It was spectacular. The views are amazing and the lodge is timeless. You feel like you have stepped back in time. Make sure to make reservations in advance - we booked a year in advance as we had 6 that hiked across and a support crew of 2 to shuttle us back home.