Running the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
Adventure runs are my addiction. My definition of an adventure run is a long run that takes all day or multiple days, in nature. A run that takes your through a variety of surfaces (dirt, road, mountain, sand and/or snow) and includes challenges like scrambling over rocks, crossing rushing rivers, extreme temperatures and climbing into higher altitudes along with steep descents. I’m constantly asking myself, “how far can I go?” I had my eyes set on the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim (R2R) run for years, but never committed to it for one reason or another. One day, I was having a bucket list conversation with my friend Kristina. We discovered that we both had the Grand Canyon high on our list. The conversation quickly turned to, “Why stop at just Rim-to-Rim? If we’re going to do it, let’s go all the way back to where we started!”
Make no mistake, R2R2R is a big endeavor. I was fortunate enough to have friends to support and join me: two friends. Kristina and Teri, who were planning to run the whole thing alongside me and two others, Aivy and Becky, who would stay back and be a support crew. The support crew planned to drop us (the runners) off at the trailhead before sunrise and then head back to camp and pack up all the tents and gear. Being avid hikers, the support crew would then hike and explore the Canyon for 18 miles or so before bringing the car back to the trailhead to pick us up.
We decided to embark on this adventure in late October. The temps at the bottom of the rim are high most of the year and in the winter, the temps at the top are below freezing and the ground often gets covered in snow and ice. We figured late October, temps would be not too high at the bottom and not too cold at the top. We were right; late fall delivered prefect running temps.
As a running team, we mapped out our route. We thought this journey would have us running about 46 miles and gaining 10,000ft of elevation as well as descending 10,000ft. The plan was to start at the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trailhead (6,860ft) and run up the North Rim via the North Kaibab Trailhead (8,241ft) and return to the top of the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trailhead (7,260ft). We figured our knees would thank us if we ran down the longer but less steep switchbacks that make up the Bright Angel Trail. By power hiking up the shorter and steeper terrain of the South Kaibab, we would be rewarded with new views that would bring us home.
But a couple days before taking off, we realized that the South Kaibab Trail was not an option. You can only access it via shuttle, which only runs during the daylight hours. There are only 11-ish hours of daylight in late October and we figured the journey would take us 13 to 16 hours. This meant we had to do an extra couple of miles and travel up the Bright Angel Trailhead. I felt a bit better about the extra miles after my friend’s trip report revealed that South Kaibab is more torn up by the mules, making it more technical than Bright Angel. I have a habit of taking face plants from getting my foot caught by roots, rocks and holes when my legs are tired. I much preferred the sound of a less technical terrain.
I started training for this adventure about a month and a half before hopping on a plane. I should note prior to running R2R2R, I had trained for and competed in a 200-mile relay race, so I had a good cardio base. However, I’d focused on speed for the relay; I needed to switched my focus to hill power and distance if I was going to complete R2R2R. I started logging high mileage weeks (70 – 80 miles) with each week including the following:
- One flat road speed workout (example: 2 mile warm up, 14 miles alternating mile pace between 6:10 and 7:10 pace, 2 mile cool down)
- One hill workout (example: 3 mile warm up, 6 – 5 – 4- 3 – 2- 1 min sprint up a long hill, 3 mile cool down)
- A 10-mile trail run with 2 – 3,000ft of elevation gain at moderate effort
- The next day, a long 18 – 20 mile run with 4-5,000 ft of elevation gain
- Two days a week of “recovery” runs, which consisted of a distance and pace that felt good at the time
- 60 min of weight training, three days a week
In addition to training legs and lungs, I had to get my stomach in shape; on my runs, I practiced eating. Staying fueled and hydrated is critical for feeling your best, during and post run. If you do not fuel yourself throughout a long run, you will fatigue and have a much tougher time meeting your goals. I started playing with gels and gummies as well as bars and tortillas filled with almond butter. I figured out how many calories I needed to stay strong and energized without upsetting my stomach. Practicing nutrition is so important! Some things don’t sit well and want to come out instantly. Getting sick in the middle of a long run is the last thing you want to happen. After an hour of running, 100 calories every 20-30 minutes are needed for most runners. A lot of eating happens on long runs; that does not keep me from devouring a pizza afterward!
Once landing in the Phoenix Airport, the five of us piled into a small SUV. On the three-and-a-half-hour drive to the park, anxiety began to set in. I was excited by the thought of running through such a beautiful place, setting a new milage PR and knocking something off my bucket list. Being new to ultra running with most my runs being under the 30-mile marker, the idea of running the number of miles it would take to get down one rim, across the canyon and up to the top of the other rim, then turn around and do the whole thing again, terrified me. I was not sure if my body was capable of that many miles.
When the five of us pulled up to the South Rim, our breath was taken away as we looked down and across the vast canyon. The layered bands of red rock and unique combinations of geological color and erosional forms not only decorate the canyon walls, but reveal millions of years of geological history. We peered down the Bright Angel Trailhead and could see endless switchbacks down the canyon.
The sun was setting so we headed to the Mather campground where we had reserved a campsite for the night. We pitched our tents, packed our running packs and boiled some hot water to make some delicious Mountain House meals. As a team, we had checked only one duffle bag that was filled with our tents, stove, knives and trekking poles. We stopped at a store on the drive to the Canyon to pick up fuel and a lighter. Individually, each of us had a carry-on bag filled with our personal items. We crawled into our sleeping bags around 8pm, setting our alarms for 3:45am.
The next morning, we once again we fired up the stove to make some coffee and oatmeal, changed into our running clothes and laced up Nike Wildhorse (trail shoe of choice). It was a chilly morning (35F), but we knew it would be in the 80s at the bottom of the canyon so we dressed in layers. Merino wool tees by Icebreaker, Nike shorts and compression socks under a thin running tight, the best jacket ever (Arc’teryx’s Psiphon Pullover) and running gloves. I do all my long runs with an 11L Nathan VaporShadow hydration Vest and carry 2L of water in my bladder and half a liter of electrolyte in an Ultimate Direction Body bottle that I tuck in a chest pocket. I stuffed a tortilla filled with almond butter, 2 Cliff Bars, 2 sleeves of Cliff Shot Blocks, 2 Larabars, 8 gels and a bag of Gold Fish Crackers along with a small first aid kit. Somehow all my extra layers were still able to fit in this pack without it feeling too bulky. It is amazing how much you can fit in the various pockets of the pack.
Our support crew drove us to the trailhead and sent us off at 4:45am. It was pitch black and bright headlamps were definitely needed. We moved slowly at first because we struggled to see despite the lights shining from our head. When the sun started to rise, our pace began to quicken. I kept my eyes on the ground to keep from tripping and periodically stopped so I could take in the views around me. The majority of the elevation change takes place in the upper four miles of trail via a series of switchbacks, which seemed endless. We were out of the switchbacks by the time the sun was fully up, exposing the massive cliffs that surrounded us.
As the terrain leveled out, the green blue waters of the Colorado River came into view. The river slithers through the canyon and you cross it by traveling over a suspension bridge. I’ve been on some wobbly suspension bridges and this was not that. The bridge is stable and we were able to run across with ease.
Making our way across the floor of the Canyon, we were surprised by how many water spouts there were to use to fill up our bladders. This run is best to do in the fall because it’s too hot in late spring and summer and there’s too much snow in the winter and first part of spring. Going late in the fall, you risk coming across frozen water pipes. We carried a Katadyn water filter so we could collect water if necessary.
We came across many hikers, a few runners and one train of mules. After we passed Phantom Ranch, a little more than 10 miles into the run, the number of people we saw became few and far in between. There were long stretches when we felt like we were the only ones in the canyon. As we approached the North Rim, traffic started to increase and the people we passed helped cheer us on Halfway up the steep North Kaibab trail, we felt ourselves fading and our stride was a little short of a quick power walk. We talked about our “summit” treat that we would eat when we reach the top. We planned to take a 10 -15 min rest break and my belly was craving the Goldfish crackers nestled in the bottom of my pack. Kristina was counting the steps until she got to tear through her Pringles. Give us salt!
When we finally reached the top, we were swarmed by little gnats. They didn’t bite or sting, but they were annoying! This was our first and only bug sighting. We snapped a quick selfie by the North Kaibab trail sign to prove we made it.
Annoyed by the bugs, we quickly headed back down, without taking a moment for our “summit” treats. We jogged down the steep switchbacks and as soon as the terrain leveled out, we slowed to a walk so we could get into our salty treats. At this point, we started noticing the heat. We spent an hour or so being scorched by the sun. As we got deep into the canyon we were protected by the shade.
We felt surprisingly well as we traveled across the floor of the canyon. When the Phantom Ranch came into view, excitement stirred. We were in the final stretch! As we started making our way up the Bright Angel switchbacks, the sun started to set. I felt pretty well prepared and strong up to this point; unable to be distracted by the beautiful shades of red, orange, and yellow rock, I started noticing how tired and heavy my legs felt. My back ached and all I wanted to do was sit down. Instead, I had 4 miles of climbing to do.
The last two miles we power hiked in total darkness and as we neared the top, I could hear our support crew calling my name. They could see our headlamps bobbing up and down. We ran with a DelRome InReach, which we used to give our support crew updates along the way There is cell service at the top of the South Rim, but not within the Canyon. Our friends greeted us with hugs, fresh clothes and tortilla chips. We piled back in the car and drove an hour and a half to a hotel in Flagstaff so we could shower and sleep in a bed. In the days that followed the adventure, I definitely felt the downhill in my quads. I took a few Epsom salt baths and ate my weight in pizza, and went on some easy hikes in Sedona to keep the blood flowing.
I wasn’t sure if I could run 50 miles in a single day and was so proud of myself for setting a new distance personal record. The views kept me excited and energized. Every turn we took, we got new views, equally stunning to the last and felt like we were entering a new park. This run ended up being one of my all-time favorites.