Friday, April 22, 2016


       The 42 mile run across the Grand Canyon is an ultra running classic.  The route goes down the South Rim, across the Canyon, up the North Rim -- then back.  Rim to Rim to Rim.  I've had the pleasure of running it three times now, but somehow managed not to post about it, so here goes.

         The Grand Canyon is one of those places you have to see in person to appreciate.  It does not matter how many pictures or GoPro videos you've seen, the first time you stand on the Rim is still completely different and special.  
View from the South Rim
     It only makes sense to run R2R2R in the Spring or Fall. Temperatures in Winter and Summer are too extreme.  But even in the Spring or Fall, the weather is usually a challenge, mostly because the temperature varies so much throughout the day. The South Rim sits at about 6,800 feet elevation, and the North Rim is just over 8,000 feet.  The Colorado River, at the base of the Canyon, is just 2,400 feet.  Early morning on the South Rim can easily be 50 degrees colder than midday on the Canyon floor.   And so it was for us.

      It was snowing as we drove into the Park on Friday afternoon, April 15, 2016.  I had never camped in the snow before, and did not have the right gear.  It was cold that night, and I did not get much sleep, but it really wasn't that bad.  Thank you, Panthea, for helping put up my tent!

The Camp Ground
First Night
       The run takes the better part of the day, so it is wise to start at sunrise, in order to give yourself the best chance of finishing before dark.  Our intention was to do just that, but we didn't actually get to the South Rim until 6:30 am, nearly an hour after sunrise.  There were a total of perhaps 20 other runners who ran R2R2R that day, and we were apparently the last ones to start.  Most started at 5:30 am, but at least two guys, who were mostly walking, started at 2:30.

     It was about 32 degrees out when we set out.  We were dressed accordingly.

On the South Rim, 6:30am
Gwen, Panthea, me, Stephen, Kelley and Marshal

        The South Kaibab Trail drops sharply into the Canyon.   At times the trail is runnable, at other times it turns into roughly hewn stairs created with logs and/or rocks.  In fact, along the entire course, there are rocks and log in the trail itself, designed to keep rain water from washing the trail away.  Jumping over those water barriers is easy enough early in the day, but gets harder as the miles go on.

Descending the South Rim

Kelley and Me
Descending the South Rim

Stephen and his Goodr sunglasses
South Rim Descent

        The South Kaibab Trail descends over 4,000 feet in about six miles before reaching a tunnel that leads to the bridge over the Colorado River.  It was much warmer when we reached the bottom, even though it was still early.

Bridge over the Colorado River
       About a mile past the Colorado River, eight miles from the South Rim, lies Phantom Ranch, the only semblance of civilization in the Canyon.  Registered guest arrive by mule, and spend the night.  They can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.  Runners and hikers can always get water and use the clean bathrooms.  At times, they will sell lemonade or soft drinks to non-guests, but do not count on it.  Kelley was able to buy a lemonade this time.

       After the Phantom Ranch, the trail winds into a narrow canyon and begins to climb, slowly at first, but then more and more steeply.

In the Canyon
      I took it very easy down the South Rim, and as far as Phantom Ranch, in the early morning cold.  When the trail and the temperature began to rise, I began to run with a bit more purpose.   

In the Canyon
      There are several water faucets along the course after Phantom Ranch, at Cottonwood camp grounds, Manzanita, on the climb up the North Rim and finally on the North Rim itself.  But these faucets sometimes need to be turned off, lest the pipers freeze and burst.  Before we left, I called the Park Ranger's office, and asked which faucets would be on.  The Ranger said that all the faucets North of Phantom Ranch we be off for another month.  No big deal. The trail follows a stream, and I took along water purification tablets.

        But the water was on at both Cottonwood and Manzanita. That's the third time in a row the Ranger has said faucets would be off, but in fact some or all were on.  I suspect that the Rangers don't want people to feel too confident.   Similarly, there are few signs giving distances between locations, presumably because this could be misleading given the terrain. Yes, it may be just five miles to the top of the South Rim, for example, but it is a very steep five miles. In any event, there was plenty of unexpected water along the route, and no need for purification tablets.

       The climb up the North Rim starts in earnest after Manzanita. The North Rim is over 1,000 feet higher than the South, yet the climb is less severe.  There is a good deal of runnable ground, not to mention some amazing views.

Climbing the North Rim

Climbing the North Rim

       I ran with Stephen for the first nine miles, then slowly moved ahead.  About half way up the North Rim, I caught up to Gwen. Marshall and Kelley were ahead of me the whole day.  I only saw them once, while I was finishing my climb of the North Rim and they were descending.

Climbing the North Rim

Near the North Rim
      The North Rim was cold and snowy.  I asked a group of runners from Nebraska to take my picture in front of the sign, and then quickly turned around and headed back down the North Kaibab Trail towards the South Rim.

North Rim
         I ran reasonably well down the North Rim, but by the time I reached Manzanita, about 28 miles into the run, I was feeling a bit tired of running downhill, and I wasn't much looking forward to the gentle downhill run across the Canyon floor.  To make matters more complicated, the nozzle on my hydration pack was giving me trouble.  Gwen caught back up to me at Cottonwood on the way back, as I was trying to get the nozzle to cooperate.     

In the Canyon, heading back to the South Rim
      I began feeling better after stopping at Phantom Ranch on the way back.  At that point, I knew that the running was over for the day, and that the only thing remaining to do was to hike the South Rim.  

Bridge over the Colorado River
Afternoon, looking towards the South Rim

      I felt strong on the final climb up the South Rim, and caught up to Gwen again about a third of the way up.  We worked together the final four miles to finish in 12:15, a respectable time. We made it to the top at 6:45pm, well before sunset and did not need to use our headlamps. Kelley finished in 11:15, and Marshall was somewhere in between us. 

      Stephen, by far the least experienced of the five of us who attempted R2R2R that day, finished his second ultra ever in a very respectable 16 hours.  He was alone most of the day, and hiked much of the South Rim in the dark.  Well done, Stephen.

      Running across the Grand Canyon in a single day is, in many senses, an extreme thing to do.  But I am lucky enough to be in good enough health to take it on.  More importantly, I have a great group of friends who are supportive, capable, experienced and calm.  As a result, running R2R2R seemed like no big deal.  But I know that it is, and I am grateful for being able to do it at all.

      My first experience at R2R2R, several years ago, was very different.  It was my first ultra and, despite being in excellent condition and having plenty of running experience, I did not know what to expect.  As it turned out, I did just fine, but one of the other runners in our group was not.  He "bonked" badly, and I had to half-carry him up the South Rim in the dark.  But that's another story, for another time.

    Finally, a few more pictures, just because I can: