May 17 2014

Running the Grand Canyon R2R2R Rim to Rim to Rim to Rim – 47ish miles – 11,000+ft Vertical Gain. Self Supported

Flying over GCStumbling up the moonlit trail surrounded on all sides by walls illuminated by the night sky, dark shadows of trees, spiders and scorpions in front of my every step, crickets and frogs sounding their mating calls, I staggered up, up, up, one foot at a time until the remaining 5,000ft was ascended out of this monolithic gorge.   Hungry, exhausted, blistered, muscles rebelling, these are the last memories as I completed my first double-crossing of the Grand Canyon that earlier in the day I started without really thinking about the task I was about to undertake.

R2R2R_PortraitRewinding to two weeks prior, fellow ultrarunner Colleen Zato mentioned she was getting a group together to do the R2R2R.  With my desire to want to complete this challenge, and optimal springtime running out  and my sickness of the Colorado snow, of course I agreed to run in 90 degree temperatures to get any ounce of sun I could on my skin.  I’d known about R2R2R from Rob Krar’s extraordinary FKT in 2013, and Ultra Pedestrian Ras Vaughn’s sextuple crossing also in 2013.  I’d read both of their reports, heard both of them on podcasts talking about their experience, but still knew nothing of what R2R2R was all about.  Coming from England last summer, I figured it was just one of those things ultraruners should do, and/or try to attempt for fun.  This doesn’t mean I knew anything about the trail, the route, nor was I even trained to run R2R2R – wait, how far is the run?

2014 has brought difficult challenges for my running, or lack or running at all.  In March I ran a 24 hour race, 64 miles, but no training ever occurred. In April, I showed up at the Desert RATS race 50km expecting to run in some heat for a change but rain at the start meant I slogged through 31 miles and last place in over 9 hours.  May 3 brought my 3rd run in two months, a half marathon in the Desert of Nevada.  Going to the Grand Canyon Run May 10th I had not done any training this year, with just a few walking/hiking events.   I must also add that participating in these “desert” races/events meant that I was usually driving or riding 12 hours each way, running the race, driving 12 hours home and working for 12 more hours.  Such is life, and endurance isn’t always limited to physical performance, but enduring long brutal hours with no sleep working, running, working, and fitting in a couple hours of sleep when possible.

The Drive: After work Thursday night, I drove the 12 hours to the Grand Canyon. I’d never seen it before except from the air, so was cool to lay eyes on it for the first time.  I was exhausted, but set up the tent, met with Colleen and the group that would be running the next morning sorting out the plans.  We’d meet at 3:00am at Bright Angel Lodge. 

R2R2R_BriefingAfter 5 hours sleep, I woke up at 2:17am, grabbed my pack – for some reason couldn’t find my GoPro – and walked over to Colleens group camping area, and met up at the lodge.  Group leader Benidict set out the task for the day, giving a great safety briefing telling us some instructions to remember when we were out on the trail that no one would remember unless you were really paying attention.  Only then with 12 people did things start to seem like wow, what are we doing again?  Benidect went around the room asking each person individually how far they planned on going, most of everyone, including me said the North Rim.  I mean that’s what we came here for right?  How far was it again? I’m an idiot who has no idea what he’s getting into.   I ate a thing of potato salad during the briefing.R2R2R_Briefing

My FB Friend Joel has seen a post that I was running R2R2R a few hours before, and decided to come out of the blue and run a spur of the moment double crossing 46 miles and joined us at the safety briefing.  Funny enough, it was he who used his truck to pack 11 people into his truck like sardines and drop us off at South Kaibab trail head. 

R2R2R_DarkThe Run At 3:44am, we were off.  No start gun, just a start of the watch and we descended into the darkness.  About 60 seconds in, I was overcome with joy as seeing all the headlamps gave me a feeling of a big ultramarathon race.  For those who’ve never started an ultramarathon at night, there’s something special about seeing all those headlamps, looking down the hills, or up the hills and seeing the glows moving forward. 



As is usual with events that start in the dark there is no awareness of time, distance or height, you just go.  I guess a few miles passed, an hour and a half and next thing you knew it was starting to get light out.  Everyone kept stopping in amazement to look at the sunrise over the canyon; it did make for a spectacular sight.   I was eating boiled eggs that I’d brought for the journey, 5 total in all.







I soon realized we had a professional photographer among our group!  Giovanni drove overnight also to join this group, and he carries his Nikon camera everywhere, and he was taking photos of everyone as we descended the canyon.  In most races, the race photographer might have one or two good spots that they set up at, but having one following you throughout the event, well that was sure something special too.

R2R2R_Run R2R2R_Cave Sprint R2R2R_MissionR2R2R_Bridge Run R2R2R_River R2R2R_Bridge  R2R2R_w Girls

R2R2R_Descend RiverCrossing the Colorado River and making our way to Phantom Ranch, it seemed like Colleen, Rachel, Debbie, Giovanni and I were going the same pace, effort and stayed together.  Coming out of the Ranch, entering Canyon walls and into the 7.2 mile gradual climb to the next water station, the time went by pretty quickly, chatting away.  Around 15-16 miles the heat started warming the canyon, (8-9am) and we started some gradual climbing towards the North Rim.  We regrouped with and made good progress, stopping to rest a bit when needed.  R2R2R_Cave SprintThere was discussion whether we should turn around at a bridge 3 miles from the North Rim summit. I was feeling strong at that point, when we reached the bridge, I said I was going to push on and climb to the top as I was sure we had plenty of time (our agreed 8 hour cut off to turn around), and I feel my climbing speed is a strength no matter how far I go, I always feel I can still climb better than go on flat or descend. 

The last three miles, I just watched the elevation on my watch climb pretty quick, and noticed the trees getting larger and larger indicating closeness to the top. 


IMG_2979 IMG_2981Around 8,300ft elevation there was the North Rim trail head, and that was that!  Took me about 7 hours 5-10 minutes to get here.  I rested, refilled my water, and waited to see if the girls would come up behind me. They did, they were so happy they pushed on, and made great time getting to the top.  I mentioned to Rachel that I was concerned I didn’t have enough food for the way back, as I’d been eating regularly like I would on any hike/run, but didn’t have much left at all.    We took some photos, I ended up meeting a group of Canadian runners who’d been told to look out for me by Dave Melesan and sure enough they ran into me on the North Rim!  What a small world!

The Return

Our journey was only half way over.  The trek back would be much harder from the heat, fatigue and anything else that would be thrown our way.  We started our decent, and ran into Giovanni making the last .7 mile push to the top, he was struggling with Achilles pain, but we were all happy he’d make the R2R2R.

Colleen and Rachel led the way down into the abyss; I was jogging a little not really thinking much of anything, but had that lingering feeling of what to do about having too little food.  I had some shot blocks, probably 4-5 gels, a bag of banana chips, and think this is where I’d eaten the last of my raisins and apple sour candy things. I didn’t really “feel” like running even though it was down hill, it was more a mental thing, still just going, walking fast, and dropping back from the girls.   I last saw them as they descended the bridge that was 3 miles from the rim, I was about 1 minute back.  This downhill portion offers some of the most spectacular views and eye opening cliffs, walls, rocks both above and below you.  There is no barrier keeping you should you accidentally stumble off the trail.  Some of it’s a bit scary but if you keep your eyes forward, you get through. 

IMG_2970Down this section towards a water refill point, I ran there and ate some shot blocks and a gel, but my quads were starting to hurt, get real sore from the 3-4000ft of decent here.  With my quads going out (around 8-9000 total feet of decent now), I moved slower and slower.  My feet were hurting too, small blisters were forming, but I’m used to it and just kept going.  About 8-9 miles from Phantom Ranch, I ran into Ultra Pedestiran Ras and his wife who were traversing the entire Arizona trail from the Mexican border to Utah.  I’m not sure how many people stopped them that day, but I couldn’t believe the luck that I saw him after reading his reports from 2013.  What a coincidence, yet a nice little boost to talk with the guy who knows this crossing so well and holds the record for crossing the Grand Canyon six consecutive times. 

Lows A few miles later, I was hitting some deep lows.  The trail descended gradually, I had 7.2 miles to Phantom Ranch, where I wasn’t sure if it was possible to get food, and I didn’t know the time lemonade stopped being served.  I suspected possibly 5pm, and made an arbitrary goal of trying to go at least 2.5 mph to reach Phantom Ranch by 5 just in case.  Sounds simple, but I was struggling, and trying to ration my remaining calories for the climb out of the Canyon.  Every mile seemed slower and slower.  I stopped for 15 minutes at one point to try an clean up my feet, and popped my blisters just with my fingers.  Though there were cactus everywhere, none would cooperate in giving me their sharp spikes…!  Soon as I started walking again, I was so pissed off, the popped blisters were so painful, I’d not covered them or taped them or anything, they were causing me to limp.  I knew the pain would pass, but seems like everything about the situation was just negative. 

More LowsI still kept moving, but each mile still took about 23 minutes to complete.  I had plenty of water, that was good, but still only enough energy from about 1 gel every 60-90 minutes.  Eventually mile 36.5 came upon me, Phantom Ranch, and down to 2,400ft elevation.  Low and behold, the ranch closed at 4pm to lemonade, and I could hear and smell food being prepared for the guests of the ranch and I wished with every ounce of energy I had that there was someway I could get food.  Non-guests were allowed anywhere, nor food.  I refilled up all my water, and tried to used the restroom – apparently only for guests as the toilet was locked.  I needed to use it pretty bad.  All through Phantom Ranch heading toward the Colorado River I saw lots of people settling down for the night, all I could think of was how I needed food, and hoped I would be ok for the hike back out of the canyon.  Not only did I physically hit the lowest point in the canyon (2,400ft), emotionally I was at one of the lowest lows I’ve ever experienced in an endurance event.  IMG_2976To make matters worse, crossing the Colorado River via Bright Angle trail bridge, the bridge was a metal grate, meaning you can see through though below, and there’s 1 inch by 4 inch holes.  I’m not a fan of heights, but usually get though fine.  The only time I’m really terrified and “scared of heights” is heights over water.  It was everything I could do to not freak out, and just forced myself to keep looking forward, walking one step at a time, hope I didn’t trip.  The Colorado River is wide. I hated this bridge.  There was no way to give up, but if there was an easy way out I would have taken it.

Finally onto the other side, ready for the 9 mile climb out of the canyon.  I’d not paid attention to the elevation profile of any map, and didn’t know we went for 1.5 miles along the river before climbing.  I was a little worried because the trail wasn’t climbing and seemed to be going no where.  Eventually it turned up towards the rim.  A happy sight.  It was here that there are bathrooms, and I was so happy, I stopped and did what I needed to do, and grabbed toilet paper should I need it the remaining portion of the journey. 

About a half mile later, I finally saw Giovanni, I’d wondered what happened to him, and knew if I was going as slow as I was, something must be wrong with him too because it wasn’t possible to go much slower than me.  I sat down, waited for him to reach me, he asked how I was doing, and I said I just needed food.  He gave me three honey oat dry bar things, and I ate one right away. With 7.5 miles to go, I’d save the 2nd one for 5 miles to go, and last one at 3 miles to go.  I also still had my 2 handfuls of banana chips, but these too I would save till 3-4 miles to go. The climb wasn’t too bad, but I was wondering why my watch wouldn’t go about 3,100ft, I thought we were climbing much more.  I reached Indian Campground at 8pm, there was water here, and I saw Giovanni again. From here it was 4.6 miles and about 3,800ft to climb.  At my rate of just under 2mph, I figured it would still take me 2.5 to 3 hours to get out. 

Throughout the day, there was no cell signal anywhere, but around 8:20pm could start to see the top of the rim, far away, and it seemed like I was in a place that should have a signal, since there was a clear view to the Bright Angel lodge area.  I was able to make a phone call, and send a couple texts to say where I was and expected to reach the top by 11pm.  A little less worried, but knowing I would eventually get out, I relaxed a little and just kept climbing.  The moon out (it wasn’t full) and very bright. Anywhere the moon was on the trail, I didn’t need my light.  I’d never seen the moon so bright in a place that had no snow.  Since Indian Campground, I had a better awareness of exactly how much distance remained and feet to climb. 

Reaching 3 mile camp area, I filled up on water again, and stopped and rested for 10-12 minutes, my legs so tired and feet always desiring to be up.  I got to study the map for the remaining elevation, it was still quite a ways up.  One step after another, the moon lighting the path most of the way, I could still see lights on the trail far up and wondered who they were.  I’m guessing that the spiders come out at night, because there were so many everywhere on the trail.  I saw a scorpion too.  I kept wanting to sit down and rest every ¼ to ½ mile, but would be spooked about snakes, scorpions and spiders in the rock holes. So I didn’t rest as much.  I think it still took me 45 minutes to climb each mile, maybe quicker I’m not sure. About 9:45pm, I saw two other runners coming down, they asked me if I had enough food and water, I said I had plenty of water, so they gave me a full thing of shot blocks.  I ate them so quick!  200 calories was awesome. They let me know it was just under 2 miles to the top, and congratulated me on what would be this accomplishment. They were just setting out on a complete R2R2R crossing themselves.  Their words felt good, I knew I would make it, eventually.  Another hour later and yes I finally made it out of the canyon. But I couldn’t find the Bright Angel Lodge!  I was wandering around cabins and had no idea where I was.  It was getting cold and windy up here, but I did find the lodge.  I collapsed on the bench inside, it was 11:15pm. 19.5 hours for a mere 46-47 miles and 11-12,000ft of elevation gain. 

IMG_8043 IMG_2982Took a couple photos of what it looks like to reach exhaustion, yet accomplish a self supported crossing of the Grand Canyon in a very slow fashion.  My journey was not over. I got in the car and had a 12 hour drive back to Colorado. I didn’t drive right away, but shared driving responsibilities as we headed back.  I didn’t eat much, I didn’t need to, plus there wasn’t any stores open along the way till about 6am. I was supposed to be at work around 1pm Sunday afternoon.  By the time we reached Colorado a little late, a full snow storm was dumping 6-12 inches of snow on the ground!  Now to go to work too?   After a 19.5 mile run, 12 hour drive with no rest, how can one simply comprehend this?  Well, it’s all part of an endurance life.  There’s times you can’t quit, you simply must go on, and do what it takes to survive. Life is about survival.  Keep on going, never giving up.  Because of the snow, my work was cancelled for a short while, so in the end, I didn’t even need to rush back.  But had it not snowed, I would have went straight to work, still without a shower, and with no real rest.  Thankfully I got a couple hours.  That’s my long story. 

Permanent link to this article: http://www.israeltherunner.com/running-the-grand-canyon-r2r2r/