Although some might argue that we’re nuts for substituting a 9,000 calorie-rich meal for a 9,649 (to be exact) calorie-depleting run, Thanksgiving seemed like a fitting occasion for our pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon. Running the rim-to-rim-to-rim is a sort of rite of passage… or self-inflicted hazing… for an ultra runner. But for me, it’s the reason I run – for the challenge, the adventure and the privilege of experiencing some of the most amazing corners of the earth. And for that, I give endless amounts of thanks.
So let’s begin… with some talk about the weather. The ranger station predicted lows in the 20’s at the rims, so we dressed accordingly: long tights, long sleeves, jacket, mittens, buff and hat. But before we even made it to the trailhead (we ran a few miles from our campsite) we were already stripping off the layers. Within another mile or so heading down the South Kaibab trail we finished our striptease and donned the shorts/skirt and t-shirt that we weren’t anticipating wearing until the middle of the day. I would gauge that the temps were comfortably in the 40’s before the first rays of light.
With only about 10 hours of daylight to play with we decided to set off well before dawn in an effort to finish before dark. What we wouldn’t see on the way down the South Kaibab trail we’d see on the way back up. Zig-zagging down the narrow and precipitous trail in the dark was mysterious and exhilarating – we couldn’t see anything but could feel the depth of the canyon. It was amazing!
We ran the 7 miles down to the Colorado River conservatively, watching our footing and trying to avoid over-pounding our quads so early into the journey. We turned our headlamps off shortly before crossing the Black Bridge where we finally had enough daylight to take the first half-descent photo of the adventure:
After Phantom Ranch, the trail meanders on a gentle slope along the Bright Angel Creek for about 8 miles.
The trail along the entire route is super runnable, and during this particular section it’s almost too runnable. While you can make good progress and enjoy the views (with a half-eye on the trail because every few dozen yards there are these 12″ vertical slabs of rock that are primed and ready to trip you with pleasure) there’s no change of pace for this long stretch which sets you up for all kinds of achyness on the second time through.
After a quick water top-off and chat with overnight hikers at the Cottonwood camp and it was time to start the 5-mile climb to the North Rim.
We saw our shadows and felt the warm sun rays pretty much right as the trail started to climb spectacularly.
The trail twists and turns along the massive canyon walls, full of surprises.
Looking ahead sometimes we simply couldn’t make out where the heck the trail would take us!
We ran well until the Supai tunnel but our energy levels dropped dramatically in the final mile to the North Rim. The water spigot was off at the trailhead so we only hung around long enough to snap the obligatory sweaty trailhead photo and shove a much needed calorie dense tasty treat down our throat.
Thankfully, we still had some 22 miles to go – plenty of time to get a second wind! Which we did pretty much two minutes after we set off again :-)
This 5 mile section was as spectacular on the way down as it was on the way up, so we took our time snapping photos at every bend and from every vertigo-inducing angle.
One of my favorites moments on the trail (can you see me?):
Flappin’ my wings, singin’ a song and havin’ fun!
Lots of steps to get down to the river (2,500′) from 8,250 feet above sea level!
I’m so tiny:
We refilled and chugged water at the Pumphouse spigot which wasn’t supposed to be on but was, and then we hit the runnable 8-mile section back to Phantom Ranch. Ryan and I took turns setting the pace and pushed along quite quickly here despite starting to feel the effects of running for over 8 hours already.
Back at Phantom Ranch, the second time through. Feeling pretty tired and beat from the blazing sun. I indulged with a soapy face wash in the camp bathroom – getting that crusty salt layer off my face automatically rekindled my energy.
Running by the campsites near the river reminded me of when I overnighted here on a 2-day north-to-south hike with my friends Bess & Hallie in 2005. Back then I could hardly fathom running a marathon, much less an ultra, much less here! It makes me wonder what adventures await me 8 years from now…!
At this point we had a decision to make: Head back up the South Kaibab trail to catch the views we missed on the way down? Or head up the (longer but less steep and less scenic) Bright Angel trail for the sake of variety. Ultimately, what flipped the coin for us was that we wanted to make it back to the campsite before the shower block shut at 6pm, so we opted for the shorter/steeper return via the South Kaibab.
Quintessentially Grand Canyon!
The Grand Canyon revealed in all its mighty glory!
Our kingdom for a day!
Altitude and lots of vertical are things we’re pretty well adapted to living in a place like Boulder. Unfortunately, mountain running is literally the opposite of canyon running. It does you no good to be good at running UP and then DOWN when you’ve got to run DOWN and then UP. The final 5,000′ climb up to the South Rim was a hard slog. We ran when we could but mostly power hiked and took advantage of every opportunity to stop, turn around and enjoy the view over the Canyon.
A final look back…
Finished! The last rays of light dressed the rim in a gorgeous fiery glow.
Unfortunately, we decided to catch the bus back to the campground which ended up taking longer than if we had just run there. So in the end, we didn’t make it back in time to catch a shower. After a warm veg chili, we climbed into our sleeping bags, tried to ignore as best we could our state of disgustingness and slept like the dead (well, I did at least. Poor Ryan had punctured his ExPed mat so slept on the ground). All part of the adventure, right?!
A video compilation of our journey (and my pathetic film making skills on iMovie):
For those who like to geek out on gear & stats, here’s what we ate, how we dressed and how long it all took:
Open water spigots
- Phantom Ranch
- Patagonia running skirt
- Icebreaker GT150 sports bra, long & short sleeved shirts
- Drymax Lite Trail socks
- Inov8 Roclite 268 trail shoes
- Ultraspire Surge pack
- Black Diamond Spot headlamp
- 1.5L water reservoir
- Nikon Coolpix AW100 (for video)
- Golite shorts
- Icebreaker GT150 long & short sleeved shirts
- Drymax Lite Trail socks
- Inov8 Roclite 315 trail shoes
- Lowepro Photo Sport 200AW pack
- Black Diamond Spot headlamp
- 1.5L water bottle
- MSR HyperFlow water filtration pump (didn’t need it in the end since more water spigots were open than expected)
- first-aid kit
- Leki Makalu trekking poles (in case of a twisted ankle… thankfully didn’t need’em)
- Nikon D300 with 10-24 lens (taking photos – while running – in canyons with dramatically contrasting light ain’t easy!)
Total time (rough time estimates from what I can remember):
- Tent to South Kaibab trailhead (South Rim) = 5:00-5:30AM (30 min)
- South Kaibab trailhead to Phantom Ranch = 5:30-7:15AM (1 hr 45 min)
- Phantom Ranch to North Kaibab trailhead (North Rim) = 7:15-11:05AM (3 hrs 50 min)
- North Kaibab trailhead (North Rim) to Phantom Ranch = 11:05-2:20PM (3 hrs 15 min)
- Phantom Ranch to South Kaibab trailhead (South Rim) = 2:20-5:10PM (2 hrs 50 min)
- TOTAL TIME = 12 hrs 10 min
Our GPS tracking info put us at 50.4 miles with 10:20 running time (12 hours total time). But the GPS went a bit crazy in the narrow canyons and squiggles all over the place. It also reckons we put in a few 6 and 7 min/miles which is just absurd. I’d put the mileage at closer to 46, but who really cares.