The thing about the Grand Canyon is once you have descended you are committed! That is unless you want a $50,000+ bill for an emergency helicopter rescue. So the thought of not only going up and down the canyon once but twice to conquer the ultimate feat of running rim to rim to rim made me a wee bit nervous!
Just two weeks ago, a great friend of mine and successful ultrarunner himself, Ryan Sullivan, invited me to join him on the epic rim to rim to rim journey. I have a very hard time turning down any kind of running endeavor even though I am often in over my head. Therefore, I immediately agreed to join him. This route would be the farthest, longest time on my feet, and the most vertical gain and loss I had ever run. Ahhh! What was I thinking?
For those of you who are not familiar with the route, here is a brief description. The route begins on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at the South Kaibab Trailhead. You begin by descending 4,850ft in about 6.5 miles before hitting the river. This is a gnarly downhill with thousands of “steps.” You then run along the river across the canyon floor on a smooth rolling trail before making the final push up to North Kaibab. From the bottom of South Kaibab to the highest point of the Canyon, North Kaibab (8,300ft) you gain approximately 5,700ft over 15 miles. Then guess what? You turn around and do it all over again the other way for a total of 42-43 miles with about 11,000ft of elevation gain for the day.
How did our day unfold?… 3:30AM – coffee, bananas, and gear check before heading out the door at 4:00AM. We left from my home in Flagstaff AZ, making the 70 mile drive to the canyon. Ryan and I had decided that we were not going to set any time goals. Our main goals were to have a long, chill day in which we soaked up the every ounce of the beauty around us. Oh and also to drink and eat a lot!
Before I had time to grasp the entirety of the feat ahead of us, we arrived at the canyon strapped on our headlights and our adventure had begun. We maneuvered down the many steps of South Kaibab with our headlights bobbing up and down. Somehow managing to make it down to the river without falling! The first light of day appeared as we crossed the bridge to North side. At this point, there is one of the only water facets that was still on (water is turned off seasonally). We topped off our bottles, thinking two bottles would suffice until we returned to this point 29 miles later (oh - how we were wrong…more on this soon!)
Then, we continued on what we termed “middle Kaibab,” the river trail that links the two rims. This was by far my favorite part. It is still Fall down in the canyon, with trees presenting yellow, orange and bright red leaves. We encountered very few people and enjoyed the peacefulness of running along the river. We were thankful to be able to find a smooth running rhythm after the jolting downhill of South Kaibab. Ryan and I took turns leading keeping each other in check to make sure we were not running too fast too soon (mostly him keeping me in check J).
About 16 miles in, we reached Cottonwood campground where we encountered campers getting their breakfast and commenting how crazy and awesome we were, hehe! At this point, I was pretty happy with how I was feeling. I felt very controlled and the legs were moving well, but I knew the first big climb was on the horizon. A few miles later we found that climb! Up, up, up we went. I was happy to find the North Kaibab trail to be a bit smoother than the South trail but with intermittent bouts of extremely steep steps. It was getting warmer, and we were in and out of direct sunlight. I noticed Ryan had already nearly sweat through his shirt, and we were just half way up the climb! Not long after, he mentioned he was out of water, and his climbing legs didn’t seem to be working the best today. I knew this could be potentially disastrous considering it would be nearly 15 more miles before we got close enough to the river to filter some water.
I made it to the North rim peppy and excited about the day followed by Ryan strolling up seemingly a little less optimistic and clearly dehydrated. We sat down on the curb for about 10 minutes and ate peanut butter and jelly tortillas until we were beyond annoyed by the gnats swarming around us. Then, just as I was thinking about how the day would play out without water (I only had a few sips left) a car pulled into the parking lot! With no shame, I asked if they had any spare water. The couple was happy to give us two bottles of water and wish us well on our journey. Saviors!!! With our waters topped off, we had an instant mood change and were ready to keep rolling!
Back down North Kaibab we went, past Cottonwood and across middle Kaibab. We were both feeling good but anticipating the final and hardest push back up South Kaibab. Ryan had definitely gotten a second wind, running smoothly across the canyon floor with me in tow. As we approached the final climb about 36 miles in, I could tell that I was losing a little bit of steam and felt as if the roles had reversed. I was the one feeling the effects of dehydration and lack of energy. Ryan and I had worked together seamlessly up to this point and kept one another in check but we had decided on a “no hurt feelings” rule for the final push up to the South Rim. Meaning if one of us felt good, it was A-Ok for us to split up and reunite at the finish (I knew this was not going to be me!).
I hung with Ryan for about 2 miles up South Kaibab (he had definitely gotten his climbing legs back) before I started feeling pretty wobbly and dizzy. I urged him to go ahead and finish the day on a strong note. He reluctantly but easily pulled away from me up the trail. I knew the last 4 miles were going to be super tough. Despite moving at a turtle pace I stayed positive and knew I was going to finish an epic day I would never forget. I began running into more and more encouraging people telling me my friend wasn’t too far ahead, and I was almost to the top. As I willed my legs and mind back to the trailhead where we had begun nearly nine hours ago, I felt fulfilled, happy and so so so relieved!
The human body is an amazing machine. Sitting here now, I am so thankful for the ability to use my body to enjoy the splendor of the world around me. I could not have asked for a better person to do this with. Ryan had me laughing the entire time and always reminded me to stay positive. I definitely could not have and would not have wanted to have done it without him. Although sometimes I get myself into situations I think are over my head, it’s these adventures that leave me feeling so full of life.
Take risks, have fun, and share those experiences with someone who makes you a better person.
P.S. If anyone wants more information on the route or needs a place to stay when visiting the Canyon don’t hesitate to contact me! You can also find some highlights and data on our rim to rim to rim adventure on my Strava or Instagram.