Monday, April 30, 2018

The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim Run

For the past 6 months or so, I've been set on completing what many runners consider a "bucket list" run: The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (or R3). It's an awesome task: Run from one rim of the canyon down to the bottom, cross the Colorado River, run up the other side, and then run all the way back—41 to 45 miles, with over 10,000 feet of climbing.

My wife has tried to explain the run to non-runners and had mixed success. She was telling our neighbor Ed about it, saying "it's a thing for runners." 

"It's not a thing," Ed replied, confidently.

I guess Ed doesn't read the same fitness websites that I frequent. The Daily Burn rates it as the top trail running adventure to try before you die

I planned to do the run after a short visit with my mom in Tucson at the end of April. My friend Rich would join me in Phoenix on Wednesday, and we'd drive together to the canyon, do the run on Thursday, and fly home on Friday. After studying the various Facebook groups and websites devoted to this "non-thing," we determined that we could probably finish the run in around 12 hours, a fairly easy average pace of 15 minutes per mile.

Before I knew it, it was Wednesday, April 25, and Rich and I were "carbo loading" at lunch with beers and burgers in Flagstaff, just an hour away from the canyon. 

Burgers are carbs, right?
After our meal we headed up to the park, checked into our lodge, and took a half-mile stroll from our room to the edge of the canyon for the obligatory pre-run selfies.

Looking good!

Feeling good!
The sheer verticality of the canyon was evident from a number of vistas:

The river crosses the center of the photo; we'd run up the
smaller canyon on the right of the photo tomorrow
before climbing the north rim

As we discussed our route, a tour group of senior women overheard us. "You're going to hike DOWN THERE?" one of them asked. We explained the run to them and they were awestruck. "That's AMAZING," they said. "You are superstars! Can we take a selfie with you?" We felt a little like imposters as we posed for the photo with them. We certainly wouldn't be challenging Jim Walmsley's sub-6-hour R3!

After a dinner at the pasta buffet at the Yavapai Lodge, we crashed early in anticipation of our 3:30 a.m. alarm. After a bit of a fitful night's sleep, we lumbered out of bed and slathered ourselves with sunscreen. My weather app said it was 31 degrees at the rim, but Rich consulted another app that reported a more-comfortable 43 degrees. We'd be running the first couple hours in darkness, but we expected things to heat up considerably by the time we reached the river. 

This is the satellite-tracking map of our run. We started the beacon
at our hotel so the first part of this track was our taxi ride to the start!
The plan was to pack enough food for the whole trip, but pick up water along the way. The first 7 miles down South Kaibab trail had no water but we expected it to go quickly, so I carried about 2 liters of water, just in case. At 4:10 we headed out into the darkness to meet the taxi that would take us to the start. As it turned out, it wasn't too cold and our thin jackets kept us reasonably comfortable. By 4:25 we were taking selfies at the trailhead in the dark.

Yep, it's dark!

Rich snapped a slightly better photo of me with his flash.
Yes, that's a really dorky hat I've got but it
definitely was effective against sunburn!
About 4:30, we headed down the trail and too realized we were overdressed. The temperature probably rose by 20 degrees as soon as we were over the rim. We decided it would be silly to stop after just a quarter-mile so agreed to go a mile before stopping to strip off our outer layers.

For the first few miles, we ran carefully. It would be incredibly annoying to suffer a fall having barely started the trip. We could see the headlamps of another group perhaps a mile ahead; we figured they were doing the same thing as us! Unfortunately we missed some of the most spectacular views of the canyon due to the darkness, but after a few miles, the sun started brightening the horizon and we stopped for a couple of photos:

First decent view of the canyon!

I sneak into Rich's panorama

The run down South Kaibab was comfortable, but I could already tell that my legs were getting pounded. About 5 miles in we caught up with the group ahead of us: Four guys from Ohio, three of them doing their first R3 run. "You guys are fast!" they told us, "I guess we'll see you coming down from the North Rim while we are headed up!" We stayed fairly even with them and reached the bridge across the river at Mile 7 together.

Headed into the tunnel to access the bridge

Our Ohioan friends snapped our photo on the bridge

View of the Colorado from the bridge

Another half-mile and we had reached Phantom Ranch, where the bell called the guests from their cabins to "second breakfast" at the restaurant. We sat outside on the picnic tables eating our Uncrustables and filling up with water. I decided 2 liters would be plenty to get me to the Cottonwood Campground (6.4 miles in) where there would surely be water. We had heard a trip report saying there was also water at the Manzanita rest stop and the North Rim, and the entire route up to Roaring Springs 8.6 miles from Phantom Ranch went along a creek with water that could be filtered if necessary.

Back on the trail, the first few miles were very runnable, going through a narrow canyon that crossed the Bright Angel Creek several times on well-constructed bridges. I glanced at my watch a couple times, where I was being given credit for knocking off a 9:20 mile. I was pretty sure I wasn't going that fast, which meant that my Garmin's mileage would be way off. With no real way to know exactly where we were, the only thing to do was to continue plugging along. The narrow canyon was beautiful, and would be enormous anywhere else in the world, but here we knew we were in just a tiny corner of a canyon system that stretched many times farther and deeper. If we had been suddenly transported to this canyon, we'd have no idea what incredible expanses lay beyond. 

Entering the small canyon formed by Bright Angel Creek

Rich coming up the trail
After a few miles of this, the canyon opened up a bit, and we had the first bits of direct sunlight. It was going to be a long, hot day. The North Kaibab Trail was 13.5 miles long, and we'd be running both directions on it. More than a marathon on just the north half of the canyon alone!

A cactus beginning to bloom in the morning

A flowering, pink prickly pear
Throughout the run we had seen quite a bit of wildlife: Deer, squirrels, ravens, butterflies, but nothing dangerous--until I rounded a corner and heard something I'd never heard in person: The unmistakable razzing of a rattlesnake! Fortunately this guy decided to move off the trail as soon as he saw me coming:

Glad this was a shy fellow!
It was quite a slog to the Cottonwood Campground, which was buggy and had no water other than the creek. Since we were pretty sure there would be water at Manzanita 1.4 miles away, we kept going. Sure enough, we reached Manzanita and found a tap and plenty of cold water. The Ohioans were here too, but just heading out. I guess they weren't as slow as they thought (or we weren't as fast)!

After Manzanita, it would be 5.7 miles and 3,600 vertical feet to the North Rim. The trail ascended steeply and there was very little running, just steady hiking as the day got progressively hotter, even though we were now over 4,600 feet in elevation. 

Roaring Springs emerges from the side of a cliff
View of the canyon from North Kaibab trail

I'm in a canyon!

Rich heads up the North Kaibab Trail

I also made a short movie which should give you a sense of what it was like to climb this section:

About three miles from the rim, Rich sat down on a rock. He looked absolutely exhausted. We weren't even halfway through the run and here he was almost totally spent. I didn't feel great but I was pretty sure I was in better shape than Rich. I didn't want to stop. I suggested that I could go on ahead and he could turn around if he needed to. He agreed that might be a better plan. If he was really exhausted, I'd probably catch up to him, depending on where he turned around, and we could finish together. So I plodded ahead by myself.

After another mile I met up with two of the Ohioans, who also looked to be mightily struggling. I stopped to refill my soft flasks with water from my main bladder. I had about a liter of water left, so I was in good shape to get to the top where I could refill.  "Do you think you could spare a little water?" asked one of the guys, "I miscalculated and I'm completely out!" I gave him a half-liter, figuring even if I went without water for the last half-mile or so I'd be fine.

We hiked together towards the rim, eventually running into the first two Ohioans on their way down. "There's nice cold water at the top," they told us. "You are nearly there! We've only been descending for 8 minutes tops." I picked up the pace and soon was at the top ahead of the Ohioans. I had started cramping in a new spot, my left hamstring near the knee. I've had problems with my high hamstrings for years, but never down by the knees. The pain was excruciating!

Then I sat down for a moment. Big mistake ... I got a massive camp in my right calf (the OTHER leg) and it took a tortuous minute for me to stretch it out. I decided to stay on my feet for a while as I limped over to the faucets to fill my flasks. I drank nearly a liter of refreshing, cool water from the tap and finally felt almost human again.

By then the second two Ohioans had arrived. "You saved us, dude!" one of them told me, "we were both out of water and I don't think we would have made it without your help." We chatted and ate for another ten minutes or so. They wanted to do something to thank me, so I took a couple of "fun size" Payday bars as a fair trade for the water. As it turned out, I would be glad I did.

Finally I decided it was time to go. I filled all my bottles with 3 liters of water, took a quick selfie at the North Kaibab Trail sign and then headed back down.

Due to the cramping in both legs, I decided to go easy at the start. Honestly I don't think I could have run if I had wanted to. Walking seemed just fine for now, even if the downhills are supposed to be where you make up time on this route. Amazingly, five minutes down the trail, I ran into Rich, headed up. "I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I got three miles from the North Rim and then turned around," he explained. He actually looked much better than he had when I left him.

"That's awesome," I said. I briefly entertained the notion of running back up to the top with him, but then thought the better of it. "You go up to the top, take a nice break, fill up with water, and then head on down. I will just walk until you catch up to me." My legs still didn't want to run, so this seemed like a better idea than joining Rich at the top and then possibly getting dropped by him later!

So I made my way down at a steady walking pace, taking time to shoot photos as I went.

Redbuds blooming on the trailside

An imposing cliff
I made another video crossing a neat bridge deep in the canyon:

About five miles from the rim, Rich finally caught up with me, and we picked up the pace a bit as we headed towards the Manzanita rest stop. We took a quick break, refilled with water, and continued on down the canyon. We were drinking much more water along this section as the day got progressively hotter and we spent more time in the sunlight. I had been carefully applying sunscreen all day and didn't notice any sunburn. My dorky hat was really paying off in this section, keeping my face and neck shaded so I didn't have to worry about the sun in those areas (though I slathered the sunscreen there as well, just in case!).

It was here, about 8 miles from Phantom Ranch, that Rich and I both began to experience painful blisters. Mine was on the left heel, and Rich's was on his toe. His got bad enough that he decided to stop, only to realize that neither of us had anything to pierce it with. Frustrated, he pulled his shoe back on and continued down. He couldn't run on steeper downhills but managed to pick it up to a run on the flatter sections, which fortunately were becoming more frequent as we got closer to the bottom.

Cactus flowers now in full bloom
We re-entered the narrow canyon near Phantom ranch and once again my Garmin started reporting irrationally fast paces. At one point I logged a 5:28 mile, which if it had any basis in reality would have been my fastest mile ever. This close-up of my Garmin route seems to show me springing from canyon wall to canyon wall when in reality I was just plodding along the trail at the bottom:

Spider-Man would have difficulty duplicating this route!

We knew we were getting close to Phantom Ranch but we weren't sure exactly how close. We passed the two lagging Ohioans, who had again run out of water. They didn't ask us for any because we all believed we were near the ranch and the creek was right there if they really needed it. I was expecting  to see the ranch around every corner, but it took us about 30 minutes longer than our least-optimistic estimates to finally arrive, despite being able to run much of this section of the trail.

Rich and I were hoping that the Phantom Ranch Cantina would be open and stocked with cold Coca-Colas. Unfortunately it was closed; It was nearly 6 pm and the cantina closed at 4. We weren't even close to making it.

Again we sat at the picnic tables outside, eating our Uncrustables and refilling our water bladders. There were lots of campers lounging around this area, and while they had all hiked at least 7 miles to get there, to us who had just run 34 miles in the blazing heat, they may as well have been lazy full-service resort guests. They all seemed somewhat in awe of us, and amazed that we still had 9.3 miles to go. The Ohioans made it to the ranch and we traded notes for a while until it was time for me and Rich to make the final push home.

Both of us were already nearly totally spent. The thermometer at the ranch read 95 degrees in the shade. But the sun was going down, so we were hopeful that temps would decline on our way out of the canyon. There would be no running from here on out; it was a 9.3-mile hike to the rim.

We crossed the river on the second bridge and turned onto the Bright Angel Trail, which, depressingly, didn't immediately head out of the canyon, but instead proceeded along the river for nearly 2 miles. I took my last photo of the trip here, of a blooming cactus above the river:

We finally reached an attractive-looking beach where the trail turned up the side of the canyon. We decided that if we ever came back to run the canyon, we'd just run down to this beach, hang out for a few hours, then climb out, skipping the brutal heat of the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim.

A quarter of a mile up the trail, I began to hear the bleating of sheep. I hadn't realized there were sheep in the canyon; we might as well have been in Scotland with all the racket from the sheep. But I never saw one. Finally I realized that I wasn't hearing sheep at all; the noise was produced by frogs croaking in nearby Pipe Creek. But though we crossed the creek several times, I never spotted one of these curious croaking frogs in the water.

After a while, the creek dried up and the trail hugged the side of a cliff. The moon had risen and cast a subtle glow on the trail, making us think we might not need our headlamps even though we would probably not arrive at the rim until after 10:00. Just then I heard a rattling from the spot where I was getting ready to step. Another snake! This one was smaller than the first, but coiled in position to strike. I stopped just in time, and used my trekking pole to try to guide it off the trail. It moved only reluctantly. There was a cliff extending upward on the left of the 4-foot-wide trail, and a drop-off on the right. I guess it was understandable that the snake didn't want to leave the trail. I nudged it to the edge of the trail and then quickly moved past it.

Since Rich didn't have trekking poles, I waited for him, then tried to keep the snake pinned to the side of the trail so Rich could pass. Then snake kept rattling and trying to move to the center of the trail. Understandably, Rich didn't want to go by. Finally I got the snake to move aside a bit, and Rich zipped past. It was the fastest I'd seen him move all day! After that we decided maybe it would be better to wear our headlamps so we could spot snakes sooner!

Soon the creek reappeared, and we crossed it several more times. At one crossing, it was unclear which direction to go. There was a faint trail heading up the canyon wall to the left, or a drop-off back down to the creek. The trail didn't seem distinct enough to be our route, but there was no other sign of a trail in the darkness. We didn't want to head up a trail only to have to turn back. Finally we decided to cross the creek again, and fortunately found the trail on the other side!

The trail climbed up and up until finally we reached Indian Gardens campground. Halfway to the top in terms of distance -- yeah! But then I looked at the altimeter on my watch and realized that our elevation was just 3800 feet. We'd climbed 1400 feet but had another 3000 feet of climbing to get to the rim! I decided to focus on the positive and only told Rich the part about being halfway there. I ate my last Uncrustable and the last Payday bar the Ohioans had given me. We refilled our water and continued on. Even in the darkness, well after sunset, the thermometer here read 80 degrees.

Slowly, steadily, we plodded on up the hill in the darkness. Some of the steps carved into the trail were very tall for our tired legs; I dreaded whenever we came to one of these, and struggled to avoid cramping as I stretched my leg to climb it. Rich had to stop several times. I wanted to keep moving but didn't want to leave Rich behind, so I stuck with him at these moments. We could see a pair of headlamps far below -- that must have been the Ohioans. Ahead of us was another set of headlamps that seemed to be getting closer, but we could never quite catch up.

We reached the 3-mile rest house. At an elevation of 4700 feet we had barely completed half the climbing to the rim, despite having hiked over two-thirds of the distance. We kept moving. There was water at the 1.5-mile rest house, but we still had over 1000 feet of climbing to go. We did finally catch the headlamps that were ahead of us, a pair of hikers who had wisely only gone to the river and back that day. As we continued, slowly the silhouettes of buildings on the rim came into view above us. A couple more switchbacks and we had made it! We were at the top. It was 11:15 pm.

We walked down to the shuttle stop and could see that no shuttles were running. It was still two miles to our lodge, but fortunately Rich had phone service (mine did not), so we could call a cab. The dispatcher told us it would be 20-25 minutes. We didn't care; we waited. For the first time in 19 hours, I was cold, so I put on my emergency jacket and a long-sleeve shirt that had gotten soaked earlier in the day when I hadn't screwed the top all the way on my water bladder. I didn't care; it was definitely warmer than wearing nothing.

Finally our taxi arrived and Rich and I stood up to get in. After a few seconds the driver unrolled the window and asked if we had called for a cab. Couldn't he see we were moving toward him? Then I realized we were actually moving like sloths in slow-motion. From the driver's perspective, we weren't moving at all! Hilarious. "Yes," I said. "And do you know if there's any place still open on the rim were we can get a Coke?"

As it turned out, there was not. Even the vending machines in our lodge were broken, so we made due with Miller Lite (don't ask why we had these) and potato chips in our room. Rich had two sips and was asleep on his bed. I managed to finish a whole beer and a half-bag of chips before showering and turning in. I finally got to bed around 1:00 am, but had to set an alarm for 6:00 so we'd be able to complete the 3.5-hour drive to the airport in Phoenix in the morning. Somehow I managed to do that drive without my legs cramping up, and successfully caught the flight home. I had done it. We had done it. An amazing experience, one I'll never forget. Sure, it had taken us about 6 hours longer than expected, but we had survived, and both of us had completed the entire trip, under our own power.

I'm a tall guy, 6'2", and I'm usually not able to sleep on airplanes, but that day, I slept for all but 30 minutes of the flight home. I guess I was tired....

More details of the R3 run are below:

Partial Strava recording (watch battery died 12 hours in):


  1. Congrats on the R3 finish. I plan on going in summer, I know it is going to be super challenging with heat! How do you describe your style? Did you Run and hike or just hiked the whole thing? Thanks for super detailed report.

  2. The plan was to run as much of the trail as possible, but by the time we started the steep part of the climb to the north rim, there wasn't much running. We were able to run the flatter section of the North Kaibab trail heading down to Phantom Ranch, but were too exhausted after that to run at all and hiked the last 9.3 miles.

  3. Amazing. Thanks for posting. Love the stories about the snakes too. And I noticed the interesting juxtaposition of this statement, "His got bad enough that he decided to stop, only to realize that neither of us had anything to pierce it with," just above a great photo of a cactus. Hmmm. Again, Congratulations! That is an amazing accomplishment.