A Grand Day Out
Running across the Grand Canyon and back again
“Going down is making babies, coming up is raising kids.”
This is the wisdom Warren tells me he’d imparted on his 20-something-year-old son as we’re 44 miles into our collective first “rim-to-rim-to-rim” run across the Grand Canyon and back again. My friend Lars Blackmore and I have caught up with Warren and his son Chris, just a few miles away from finishing the final climb back out. Lars and Chris have long stopped talking, so I chat with Warren in an attempt to help keep us all moving upward. A few minutes later, Lars unexpectedly hurls all over the trail in the middle of another one of Warren’s fatherly tales. After that, Warren shuts up and stays up ahead of us all.
“Rim-to-rim-to-rim”, or R2R2R, is a bucket-list ultra-running challenge I’ve been wanting to do for a few years now. It involves running down into the Grand Canyon from the rim on one side, continuing across the bottom of the big ditch, climbing up and out to the other rim, and then, turning around and going back the way you came for a “fuck you, quads!”, fun day in the desert, out-’n-back run.
That actually makes it sound a bit easier than it really is, which was my first of many mistakes underestimating the enormous toll this adventure would take on my body and mind.
See, the thing is, the bottom is not exactly flat.
We started from the South Rim. It’s 6.5 miles and ~5,000 feet down to the Colorado river from the top. That’s the lowest point. The spike in the middle there, that’s the North Rim. As you may gather, it’s a steady uphill effort until it becomes really steep. So, yeah, not flat at all.
A lot of fun, until it’s not
How’d I get into this crazy adventure? There are a lot of gnarly mountains to run in New England, and I ran with my wife Emily in the Alps last summer on our honeymoon, so there’s no lack of #doepicshit hashtags in my life. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe because it was a great opportunity to do a really big adventure with just me and my buddy Lars. Probably it was a little of both. I made a decision a few years ago to not run as many races and shift focus on adventuring in a way that pushed me physically and mentally. Well, the R2R2R really fit the bill, and it’s one of the great wonders of America, and I’d never been there.
We descended down into the big ditch at 5:10 AM on Sunday, October 8th, 2017. It was around 35 degrees F. The run down was pure joy, tempered with a bit of caution. My wife Emily had fallen the week before on a trail run and split her knee open, so I was really freaked out when Lars tumbled in the first 10 minutes and left a flap of skin hanging off his knee. He seemed to shrug it off, but I kept yelling at him to “hug the inside!”, because I cannot even begin to describe what the first part of the South Kiabab trail is like. The sheer depth is breathtaking and downright scary!
We shed our warmer outer layers just a few miles down. As we were crossing the river on the high bridge, we saw a solitary dude, stand-up paddle boarding below us like it was the most normal thing in the world to be doing at dawn, in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. “Yeah buddy!” I screamed out. This was incredible.
The run from the river to where the climb started in earnest up to the North Rim was one amazing view after another. The sun chased us the entire time, leaving us in the cool shadows of the eastern walls of the canyon. The trail was ancient and heavily traveled. I ran at a fast pace with my mouth wide open in awe for miles!
The sun finally caught up with us just before the pump house. There are pipes laid throughout the canyon and water is pumped through them from the pump house. This allows hikers and runners to access water at both rims and various campgrounds and spots along the bottom of the canyon as well. I cannot begin to fathom the work it took lay down this infrastructure. The pump house is also where the real grinding climb up the North Kiabab trail begins. It’s also where things became not fun at all for me anymore.
Going up, and getting down
The North Kiabab Trail was the highlight of the canyon for me in terms of beauty and sheer mind-blowing trail awesomeness. I’m not sure who decided to cut a trail into the side of insanely steep rock walls, but they deserve all the high-fives in the world. This trail is a work of art! And, it was a crazy juxtaposition, because as I climbed higher into the beauty, I sank lower into doubt in my mind. I doubted I could finish this endeavor, after all. And, that in turn made me feel like I would let Lars down, and that caused me to spiral into the dark place that is the enemy of all ultra-runners.
I’m glad that I planned this trip with Lars. If you’re going to embark on a potential 13-plus hour effort with someone, then you want to know that they can roll with your ups and downs. Lars was super encouraging and dragged my sorry ass up the final miles of that trail. It turns out that I was really just having trouble adjusting to the altitude! The North Rim tops out at over 8,000 feet. I live at 1,000 feet above sea level and New Hampshire’s tallest mountain is a little over 6,000 feet.
After some re-grouping at the top, I decided I had to press on and we headed back down the trail. We shed almost 2,000 feet of elevation in the first two miles, and the change for me was like night and day! I felt waaaaaay better, and the run down became fun again!
The easy part becomes the hard part
It’s a 14 mile, all downhill stretch from the North Rim to the low point back at the Colorado river. In the weeks before the trip, I was breaking up this run, analyzing it this way and that, and somehow came up with the idea that this would be the easy part. What I failed to consider is that this easy part begins after we’d already logged 23 miles with a good bit of vertical gain and twice as much descent. If mountain running has taught me anything, it’s that going down can hurt a lot more than going up.
Once we got down into the canyon past the pump house, our world opened up to inescapable direct sunlight from overhead — it was midday after all. I wouldn’t say I was really hot (though temps got up to 86 degrees F), because we had a good breeze most of the time, but we were both getting sun soaked and it started making me feel exhausted in a new and interesting way.
The variability in the pace from the splits above is the equivalent of a diesel engine sputtering and eventually breaking down into a heap at mile 39. I would run a mile, and then walk for a bit. My right knee was really starting to get cranky on any of the steeper downhill sections. This start/stop gait began to coincide with any slight rise in the trail. A few miles past the 50k mark, I’d pick out a bolder or shrub ahead and tell myself: “Just run until you reach that, and then you can walk for a bit.” The Phantom Ranch was coming up at mile 39. About a half mile before I reached it, I decided that I was done running for the day. I would walk or hike from here on out.
Lars was well ahead of me at this point , off on his own personal mission to get to the Phantom Ranch as quickly as he could — for what bit of solace, I did not know. Often, the milestones we impose on a ultra-effort make little sense other than to simply comfort us that we’ve made some progress. I was looking forward to the Coke that Lars said he would purchase for me, but I had accepted miles earlier that there may not be Coke there, or the Ranch could be closed. This is the zen of distance running in action. Remove all expectations from your mind. Things will not go as you plan.
The Ranch was bustling with tourists all looking a hell of a lot cleaner than me or Lars. “How the hell did they get down here…?” I muttered to myself. I found Lars inside and he handed my an empty plastic cup. “No Coke, but they have lemonade.” I filled the cup with ice from the machine, (how do they power this place?), and filled it with lemonade. I headed straight back outside for the long unoccupied bench beside the door — I was intent on going to sleep.
I took my shoes and socks off first, and then I sipped the lemonade. My stomach revolted and said NO WAY. I put the cup down, laid out on the bench with my head on my pack, pulled my hat over my face and immediately fell asleep.
I’m not sure how much time we spent at the Phantom Ranch. It’s really just a blur.
I give Lars my lemonade.
I try to eat, but I only can get down a little food.
I see Warren and Chris at a picnic table — when did they get here?
A woman says I look exhausted and I hope she’ll offer to let us stay in her cabin.
We have to go.
I lay down again, and there is deer poop in the grass.
Lars is broken. I can only drink water, and I hate it.
We have to go.
I put on my shoes. Warren and Chris say goodbye.
I fill my water bladder and Lars’ too.
We have to go.
I feel a tiny bit better. The food must be helping.
“We have to go now.” I tell Lars, and he seems to snap out of it and agree that we should. Two other R2R2R runners who are hanging back offer us supplies. I ask for ibuprofen, and he gives us three each. I want to hug him. We begin walking down the trail to the river. “This is the pace I’ve got left, but we can do this.”
Mule piss and camaraderie on the South Kiabab
I’m hoping we can catch up with Warren and Chris because at this point we could use the company and I need some distraction. We’ve got 6.5 miles and almost 5,000 feet of climbing to do before we get out of this ditch. Lars seems to be in full-on focus mode, so he’s not talking at all. Luckily, we’re moving at a decent pace (20 mins/mile) and the climbing feels a whole lot better on my legs. I start telling Lars about a show that I like, just to keep us distracted and moving up. Periodically, we pass huge puddles of mule piss from the packs of them that carry supplies down to the ranch, but it doesn’t bother me — we’re going to finish this.
We have to stop now and then. We catch a glimpse of Warren’s orange shirt up ahead. We’re getting closer to them. We round another switchback, we take another break, we get a little closer. We toil, and we get it done. This is the work that you put in to finish something that seems impossible. When you have nothing left to give, but you don’t have a choice, you find a little more — because you have to. Night is approaching. It’s close to 13 hours that we’ve been out here. Still, we mine deeper into the depths of our bodies to find a little more.
We finish the last few miles with Warren and Chris. Warren drags us up the trail with his enthusiasm. Chris and Lars are mostly silent, and the sun is going down. I switch on my flashlight for the last 20 minutes. It’s windy as hell — not a good night to spend down in the canyon. I see flashlights up above, and finally dare to look for the end of the trail. 13 hours, 31 minutes and 29 seconds after we’d taken our first steps down South Kiabab, we stepped back up onto the rim. 46.8 miles, 14,131 feet of climbing.
We caught the last shuttle from the trail-head to the Visitor Center parking area. We drove back to our motel, and I climbed directly into my bed — just got under the covers with what I was wearing. I was starving, but I could not eat. I sipped at a Gatorade the entire drive home, each sip seeming to bring me closer to vomiting. I needed sleep, and I needed it now.
Lars took a long shower and I awoke when he stumbled back into the room.
“Was it glorious?” I asked.
“Felt amazing to wash off all the dust.” Lars said.
So, I managed to hobble into the shower and let the hot water sooth my aching muscles. It was glorious, indeed.
The next couple of days of recovery were unlike anything I have experienced. Simple tasks like putting on a jacket, or bending down to put on my shoes sent my muscles cramping and left me feeling exhausted liked I’d done a solid workout. I felt hungover — my brain was always lagging behind. I could finally eat though, and the first cup of hot coffee I had made me teary. For the next couple of days we laid around in our beds in hotel rooms eating, napping, and watching TV. It was perfect.
This was an epic way to close out a great year of adventures. This year I ran over 50 miles on the A.T., ran a 50k and a crazy half-marathon in the White Mountains, 50k on dirt roads in Vermont in the spring, took 7th place at the Mighty Wapack spring trail race, and had a great time running with Emily, Lars, Brando and my dog Arlo. I’m looking forward to resting up through the holidays.
Details: 46.8 miles, 14,131 feet of climbing, 13:31:29 elapsed time (10:51:50 moving time)
Strava activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/1222341501/overview
Visualization based on GPS data: