I'd heard about people running "Rim to Rim to Rim" at the Grand Canyon, but it wasn't until my first visit to the Canyon in April that I knew I had to give it a go.
Delane and I had taken a short trip to Arizona in April. During the trip, we spent 2 ice cold and rainy/snowy days staring at what was mostly cloud cover blocking the views. I had promised myself this was time with my wonderful wife and I wasn't going to make this a running vacation. But I took a bit of time during a particularly nasty storm, bundled up, and ran a couple miles down the Bright Angel Trail. After a mile, I dropped below the cloud cover and got an unbelievable view. That place is truly a wonder of the world.
All along the touristy areas, there are signs advising people to watch out for the dangers of the Canyon. There were warning signs about not attempting to go from the rim to the river and back in one day had me hooked. I wanted to do well over twice that.
When I caught wind of a few of my GUTS running friends planning a November trip, I knew it was time for me to go.
I've been jazzed about this experience for a long time. Ever since I booked the flight, I've been excited and nervous about R2R2R.
Things have been busy at work, so this trip couldn't have come at a better time. Except for the weather. Apparently, the heat is usually the challenge. It can get amazingly hot down in the Canyon. But the weather forecasts 10 days out called for a much different story. Each day, the predictions got worse. The day before we left, the forecast for the South Rim was 18, a high of 57 at Phantom Ranch, and 15 on the North Rim.
Was I nervous about the distance; not a bit. About the time on my feet; a little. About the cold; much more so.
We were planning a pretty typical route. We planned to leave before sunrise from the South Rim and take the South Kaibab trial 7 miles down to the Canyon floor. We'd take the the North Kaibab Trail from Phantom Ranch, past Cottonwood, and up to the distant North Rim. The return trip would bring us back N. Kaibab to the mighty Colorado but we'd head out the longer but more forgiving Bright Angel Trail.
The weather forecast had the group reconsidering the start time. We ended up starting around 6:45 as the sun was coming up.
John and I took off for the fairly quick trip down South Kaibab. It's a 7 mile trail that drops extremely quickly. We took our time heading down, stopping to take some photos and to enjoy the beautiful sunrise hitting the canyon walls. The first view of the Colorado river was exciting and beautiful.
We arrived at Phantom Ranch after about 1:20 and started removing some clothes. It warms up a bunch in the bottom of the canyon and the cold temps up top had given way to some really nice 40's down at the bottom. Top off my handheld (I had 2 liters in my hydration pack, but had started the run with an empty handheld).
John was only planning to go to Cottonwood and then head back, so I met up with a few other guys that were going all the way to the North Rim and John and I decided I'd run with them. I was excited to have company up but quickly realized these three guys were on a much different pace than me and I left them behind after a mile or so.
The 7 mile stretch between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood was my favorite stretch of the run. It goes up slowly through the Box Canyon and is the one place where you can really find a nice stride.
I made fairly quick work of this stretch given all the stops for photos and arrive at Cotonwood right at the three hour mark. I hadn't yet consumed any of my hydration pack water, so I topped off my handheld and got mentally ready for the 7 mile push to the North Rim. I knew there was no water waiting on me until I returned to the campground (14 miles later). They cut off water sources as the weather gets cold, so make sure to check in advance with the rangers office so you know where water will be available. I had my first bite to eat here.......a slice of cheddar cheese......and moved on.
Sally had warned me that there are some narrow stretches here where the drop-off will ruin your day. While they were wide enough for me, some of this stretch will leave those squeamish of heights a bit dizzy. With about 4 miles to go, I passed a couple of guys that had started super early. They said there was some good snow on the rim and that it got super cold after the Supai tunnel (2 very difficult miles from the top). Sure enough, as soon as I got to the tunnel, the temps began to drop quickly. This stretch is steep and slow and it took me around 35 minutes for the last two miles.
I spent 15 minutes looking around the N Rim and getting some calories in me (a Balance Bar). And I had to snap the required picture to prove I'd made it to the top.
I started the steep and snowy trip back down. While it was downhill, I had to take it a bit easy as the snow and terrain doesn't make for a rapid decent. About 2 miles down, I passed Sally. Was super surprised and excited to see her, as I thought she was turning at Cottonwood. She never stops amazing me about how darn tough she is. After a quick exchange about whether I should wait for her at the bottom, we were both off.
I got back to Roaring Springs and shortly after realized that the Rangers House had water. While I wasn't out, my bottle was dry and I'd used a decent bit of my hydration pack. Topped off my handheld and was off for the short stretch to Cottonwood. I spent a fair bit of time here, as some issues needed addressing and I wanted to make sure I was ready for the last 16 mile push.
At this point, I knew I was super low on calories and needed to get refueled. Phantom Ranch has a canteen (warning, it closed at 4) and I knew I could take a break and refuel there. Back through the box canyon (and mostly downhill this time!) and I was back to Phantom Ranch. Took a few more breaks here including eating a Gel.
I popped in the canteen and ordered up two postcards and a king-sized double snickers. There where 6 or 8 people in there and I enjoyed chatting with other hikers about their experiences. Definitely take a few dollars for a postcard. They have a special stamp on them that says they were transported by mule. A nice touch. After writing my postcards and devouring the snickers, I topped off my bottles and got mentally prepped for the 9 mile trek out.
After a half mile you reach the Colorado again on a bridge just downstream from the one you crossed off S. Kaibab. A super nice site to see and it meant only 8.5 or so miles to go!
The first couple of miles of Bright Angel were a bit disappointing. The trail is sandy and follows the Colorado downstream for a good part of that. The main issue was that I wasn't yet gaining much elevation and it meant the last few miles would be much steeper.
Once I started climbing, it was no joke. I ran a decent bit of the next couple miles to Indian Gardens but there were certainly more walk breaks getting thrown in. I arrived at India Gardens campground at about 4:10 in the afternoon and was completely tapped. My legs were screaming and I had almost no energy left. I ate a gel and a piece of cheddar cheese, drank a ton of water, and started the long last 4.5 miles to the top. This was the last water I'd have available, as the 1.5 and 3 mile aid house water faucets were closed. I will estimate that I ran maybe 30% of this last stretch, the rest being hunched-over power hiking. I was ready to get out before the sun dropped and the temps plunged. I knew I had about 2 hours of light left.
I will not say the last stretch was pretty, but it was 5:30 when I rounded the last turn and popped out less than 50 feet from my room. I'm certain that the tourists I stopped to take my photo at the top of the trail had little idea of the challenges and personal growth I'd experienced during the day.
Total Food Consumed: 3 slices cheddar cheese, 1 king sized Snicker bar, 2 gels, 1 PureProtein bar, one mini LaraBar (probably not enough). Just learn to fuel a bit better.
Total Water Consumed: 4x20oz handheld + 50ox from my hydration pack = 130oz (probably not enough)
We should take a little something away from everything we do. What did I learn?
I have the most amazingly supportive wife. She didn't even blink when I told her I wanted to go. And even though I'm sure she was worried, she still knows more about what is good for me than I ever will.
I've got some amazing friends. Both those encouraging me and especially Sally, Janice, John, Reece, and Trevor who were will for me to tag along and flooded me with details on the trails.
The Canyon is a rare piece of beauty and can also be an extremely unpredictable environment that needs to be respected. But what a blast!
Great write-up...I'm doing a r2r2r in early March 2012 and would like to ask you some questions...mostly to do with race time compared to ultra times (such as Mountain Mist).
Tim Pitts, Huntsville, AL.
I meant to say run time on rim run to ultra race times (such as Mountain Mist).
TP2. I ran Mtn Mist last year and this year. Little muddy last week, eh? :) I assume you were there?
The Canyon is not very technical. It's really pretty smooth running. Having said that, there are a few hills! :). I took it easy at Mist this year and ran 4:50. The Canyon took me about 10:45 but I wasn't racing....it was all about enjoying the experience. If you read the report, you'll see I hung out a bunch and took lots of photos. If I'd run more steady, 8:30 should have been do-able without pushing too hard. Figuring it's about 50% longer than Mist, it's probably 1-2 hours "tougher" than Mist 50K. Hope that help. Have a blast.
Thanks a lot for the feedback! Yeah, I saw your race results for MM. I finished about 15 minutes behind you. I have some photos with you in it and when I read this blog post I thought you looked familiar! This is Tim Pitts (with an S) - my friend Tim Pitt finished a few minutes before me.
5 more weeks! I see you have some longer distances in the bag too. How did your legs feel comparatively, the next day? I'm doing the R2R2R on a Friday, then on Sunday running Mesquite Canyon 50K then ascending Mount Humphrey's on Monday (weather permitting). I have never done nearly this much elevation change so that was my biggest concern.
Are the trails pretty well marked? I know it is pretty much just one way down and up the other side, but wasn't sure about the box canyon part as you leave Phantom Ranch and head toward Cottonwood.
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