Grand Canyon – R2R2R – Running Rim to Rim to Rim
Another epic day of running in a stunning canyon, with a good friend. What else can you ask for?
Now that I think of it, maybe some easier climbs!
The run is tomorrow and I am bursting with excitement. My body has recovered from last Sunday’s Caballo Blanco Ultra and I cannot wait to punish it again!
Finger crossed Terence has fully recovered from his injury.
We head out for a morning jog at a park just outside Phoenix and things don’t look good.
Terence’s ITB & knee hurt and we stop after 3km of slow running on a flat surface.
We stand at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon looking out on the distance. The view is amazing; an endless deep and steep canyon carved by the Colorado River over millions of years. It’s breathtaking.
Where is the North Rim? I can’t see it from here. Oh Wait… must be that side of the canyon in the distance. Gulp.
It’s cold and the wind is blowing. +5 Celsius max, we make our way back to the hotel just outside the park.
On the way back to the hotel, Terence and I discuss his injury and possible backup plans.
I had ITB issues many times before and I know how painful it can get. No way you can push on for 75km with it, especially on a profile like the Grand Canyon. I am confident that I can release some of the pressure on the knee by taping it in the same way my physiotherapist has taped mine in the past. That’s about the only thing we can do.
Friday, the alarm goes off at 4:30AM.
We had originally planned to start running at 4:30 to allow for some extra time and to avoid the mules going down carrying the gear for the people camping at the bottom of the canyon. But we figured if we want to do it and be really safe, we will need to be focused and finish it in 12 hours.
South Kebab Trail to the bottom of the canyon; a steep and technical 10km descent from 2150 meters of altitude to 700 meters.
North Kebab Trail to the North Rim and back; a 25km climb from the bottom of the canyon to the top of the North Rim at 2500m of altitude. Gradual climb for the first 15km and a steep ascent for the last 5km. Rocky terrain. Same way back down.
Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim; a 14 km climb back to the South Rim, slightly easier climb.
We don’t have a map, the trails are obvious apparently.
The head torches are ON, we start running at 6:07AM.
It’s pitch dark, cold and I wear 4 layers of clothes, 2 beanies, gloves and long skins under my running shorts.
As we make the first turn down the trail, the view opens and the whole depth of the Grand Canyon is revealed. Although it is dark and you cannot make out the shapes and boundaries, you can CLEARLY FEEL the immense gap down below.
10 minutes into the run, the sun starts to rise and reveal the colours of the rocks, the trail, the plants and the world around.
10 more minutes and the head torches are not needed anymore.
It is spectacular downhill run, the trail is well maintained, maybe a meter wide, and pretty fast. There are a lot of switchbacks and long stretches meticulously carved around the canyon. But I cannot fully take it in as I am worried. We are moving very slowly. At walking speed almost. There are several big steps going down and Terence is obviously not comfortable.
We cover 5km in 45 minutes. At this pace for the downhill, we are not going to make it. Terence senses my thoughts and tells me that if I really want to complete the Rim to Rim to Rim I should go on my own. The taping seems to work, he is not in pain but he cannot go any faster. He will get to the bottom and decide what to do from there. Worst case, we will meet back at the South Rim.
I continue at comfortable speed and I let myself enjoy the downhill, jumping from rock to rock and getting into the flow. The further down I go, the more spectacular the canyon becomes. The colour of the rocks gets greener and the vegetation grows thicker. It gets warmer too and it’s not too long before I need to take my gloves, beanie and first layer of clothes off.
I get to the bottom of the canyon where the Colorado River flows strong with his brown and muddy water. The view from there is amazing, like one of those Natural Geographic documentaries. Well I am in the same location really!
I descend 1363 meters in 10km and I feel great.
Until I start running again.
My quads are burning and my calves are squeaking. Nothing to worry about but it’s going to be a long day.
The trail continues along the Colorado River for a couple of kilometres before heading up, following a smaller stream of fresh clean water. It’s a gentle and enjoyable climb, I run at peace relaxing and finding my natural rhythm.
This run is all about the experience, so I make the point of stopping several times to take pictures and admire the beauty of the canyon. I also continue to put on and take off layers of clothing, in the shade it’s still pretty cold.
I pass the Phantom Ranch and the two small camping grounds at the bottom of the canyon.
I will definitely come back one day and camp here with Lidia and the little one. The campground has a magical feeling, a little oasis in the wilderness.
I continue on and the climb starts to become a little more challenging. I’m still running but I’ve slowed down considerably. I keep finding excuses to stop. To take off and put on clothes, to reach for stuff in my backpack, sun glasses ON and sun glasses OFF, pictures and videos, adjust my shoes…
I know this feeling very well: I’m getting tired and my brain is fooling me.
I take a gel, I eat ½ of a powerbar and take a few sips of water.
I reach the only water stop to the North Rim that is open during the winter season and I top up my reservoir to the max. I’m 3 hours into the run and I have drank only 1/2 litre of water, while my shirts are soaked in sweat. Not a good thing, I need to drink more.
I take the opportunity of the refill to rest a few minutes and for a mental check-up of each muscle of my body, from head to toes. Body and mind are in good condition.
Time to make some calculations: what time do I need to be back at the bottom to be safe? I promised Lidia that I was not going run the R2R2R on my own, and I feel uncomfortable with breaking promises. Although I am in the best physical and psychological state to do this run now, I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I don’t have a phone, there is nobody around – literally nobody – and I left my basic first aid in Terence’s bag! I will continue for another hour and then reassess.
The climb gets harder and I smile.
Running alone up the trail, it’s a liberating feeling. There is no noise of water, wind or other people, it’s like the time and space is still and I am floating through it.
In this period of my life, with Lidia and I expecting a baby, I am particularly sensible to the magic of life. How everything, from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, has its own balance and purpose. The will to exist. Nature outsmarts us just being, without having to think or plan it. Anyway, this is a topic for a conversation in front of a glass of red wine but that’s what I am thinking while I keep running and take in the magic.
I am running on an exposed edge at around 1700 meters and all of the sudden I hear somebody calling. I stop, look down and here he is. Terence. We exchange a couple of celebratory cheers of “Yeah! Wooooohooo! Arriba Arriba Arriba!” that echoes on the whole canyon as he runs up to join me.
I joke saying that Terence has a diesel engine that takes around 20km to warm up. But today is proof, his engine is now warm and he is pumped. The taping I did on his knee is working great, he has no pain whatsoever. He is now confident he can do it.
We are both truly happy and relieved to see each other.
We chat and move up the canyon and discuss strategies. We still have another 800m to 1000m ascent to do and time is tight.
As we approach 1900m, the climb gets really tough. Terence leads a couple of hundred meters ahead. The path and climb is not runnable anymore and I am a useless hiker. I blame my short legs. I need to take twice the number of steps!
We are close to the top and I am reluctant to stop so I put my long sleeve on while walking. There are patches of snow everywhere now… good test for my new running shoes!
The last switchback is covered by snow and ice but we can see the top.
We are at the North Rim! 2485m high, 4hours 43mins. 36km on my watch. High fives all around.
We meet two guys that are preparing for the hike down. The time passes fast as we chat, laugh and recharge and take a couple of pictures to immortalise the moment.
I’m so tired that I hold the Italian flag the wrong way around. Doh!
I take out my cacao bliss and its frozen; it is normally in liquid form.
Now that we are not moving, our core temperature is dropping quickly. I put all the layers back and gloves back on. Time to get the hell out of here.
We slide down carefully for the first few hundred meters before charging downhill.
It is steep, narrow and rocky, full of steps. You need to be careful, no protections, only the canyon down below.
The sun is now high up, and the whole trail is exposed.
The first 1200 meters of the descent is pretty technical and steep, and we cover it in just over an hour.
From then on, it’s a slight long incline, perfect running conditions.
We start picking up the pace, running low 5mins/km.
Terence feels strong and wants to push on. We agree to meet at the Phantom Ranch.
I have an energy low and I feel fatigued. I’m short in food/gel supply too. I need to ration what I have left if I want to make it up to the South Rim.
This part of the run is simply amazing. I am happy to be on my own to get my flow of thoughts and movement.
It is a fast section, you can see the trail 400-500 meters ahead swinging through the canyon. I get excited and I clock a cheeky 4min/km.
Despite all the fun, it’s a very long stretch. It feels longer than on the way out.
Quick stop for a cold lemonade, refill the water bladder and give my legs a break. Now it is official, I am starting to feel fatigued.
My legs are tired and burning from the heat.
It’s 2:45 and my watch says 63km. Only the last long hill to the top.
We start off strong up the Bright Angel trail. It is 4 kilometres longer than the South Kebab trail we took on our way down almost 9 hours earlier. And it’s supposedly easier, with one water stop few a kilometres to the end.
The first few kms are definitely easier and spectacular, there is a slight incline but nothing dramatic. “If it is all like this, it is going to be a piece of cake”, I think to myself.
The view of the canyon up and down and 360 degrees keeps me company. So long you don’t look up its fine. Looking up is daunting.
As we reach 1200 meters, things change quite dramatically. The uphill gets harder and, with fatigued legs, it’s on the borderline of being un-runnable.
I know that if we start walking I will lose Terence. That’s fine, I just want to delay the moment as much as possible. I take my last 1/2 gel and 1/2 bar.
A few minutes later, we start the jog/walk.
No point waiting at this stage. There is only one way. Up. We will just keep an eye on each other.
I push on. Running wherever possible and walking the harder hills.
I still have the clarity of mind to break down the hills in small chunks. I aim at a rock ahead and run to that and a bit further, I can start walking from there if I have to.
But I can feel the “brain fog” is slowly taking over. My legs are certainly heavy but it’s mostly a general feeling of tiredness that stops me from running.
This is not a race and I am not aiming for a time. So I’m happy to just keep going and enjoy the ride.
I don’t look at my pace or time anymore, whether I am walking, jogging or running. I just look at my watch’s altimeter that goes up very, very slowly. 1400… 1500… 1600 … 1620… 1640… 1650…
There are few other hikers on the trail. People that made a daily excursion or camped overnight at bottom of the canyon. They are also puffing going up, and I’m overtaking them. So I am not doing too bad I suppose.
I get to the only water stop open during winter, 5km to the South Rim.
I am tired and I don’t want to take my backpack off to fill my hydration bladder. I take few sips of water and push on.
I just want to get to the top now. Only 5km to go, an hour max?
I am just walking now. I am not even looking at the scenery anymore, just grinding up one step in front of the other.
With still 600 meters of ascent to go, I realise I ran out of water. I drank my hydration bladder dry. It’s warm and I am thirsty.
Not many options now. Just keep going and get to the top as fast as possible.
I hear somebody puffing and walking fast behind me. He catches up and I say’s “Hi”. A German guy that hiked down to the ranch and he is now on his way back.
We start a conversation and we continue the climb together. He is also without water and fatigued, a perfect companion!
We talk about holiday, work, life in Sydney and Munich, sports and running, to kill the time and focusing on something else different from our legs and thirst.
We are both looking only 1 meter ahead of us, but walking together we are definitely faster than we were on our own.
As we climb the temperature is dropping quickly but I cannot be bothered to stop and put my long sleeve on. I just need to keep moving. And find some water, I am feeling light headed.
Luckily, we meet a couple that offers us their spare bottle of ice tea that we drink on the spot.
The funny thing about the switchbacks of the Grand Canyon is that you cannot really work out if you still have 1 or 50 metres to go.
We say goodbye and I finally stop my watch.
It is 6:11PM. 74km in 12 hours and 4 minutes.
I meet up with Terence who arrived 10 minutes earlier. We congratulate each other and take a quick picture to seal the moment.
Terence’s face is pale and his lips are purple.
I am sure mine are the same if not worse. I feel my body is shutting down.
We run to the shuttle that will take us to the parking lot. The last sprint of the day!
We get in and sit/collapse on the disabled seats. We qualify for it.
I put on all the layers of clothes I have, I’m in a cold sweat and my head is spinning.
We must look like shit as all the other passengers stare at us.
We can only look at other and smile.
We made it.
All that’s needed now is a hot shower and a gigantic dinner.
What an epic day.