Grand Canyon Crossing FKT 2xR2R2R, Self Supported
10/9-10/10: 33h 26m 39s
The Grand Canyon took my breath away. Literally.
My 2:45 am alarm went off after only getting 4 hours of sleep that night after a long travel day. I was in such a deep sleep I woke up startled and confused as to where I was and what I was doing. “Oh yeah. Grand Canyon. Don’t snooze. Get up! You have to run!” My inner dialogue had to convince me to just do and not start thinking. Morning anxiety can push me to the brink of bailing, but if I get up right away and start doing without overthinking the voices become fainter. This was by far the biggest undertaking I have set out to do. I had never run beyond 100km (and that was in a race with pacers and aid stations), I have never hiked or run through the night, and have never set out to do an FKT. Many firsts and many unknown variables lie ahead and I was so nervous that if I thought about it at all it felt paralyzing.
I started getting dressed, lubing the heck out of my feet, and trying one last time to check the weather. The hotel wifi was so bad it didn’t work and my phone service non existent. I was cutoff from the digital world. Probably a good thing because I just settled in calmly for the task at hand and stayed present and focused.
Maybe being so tired was slightly to my advantage because my morning felt calm, in control and smooth. My parents drove me to the trailhead where I saw some other headlamps of runners starting their R2R2R journeys. I went to the bathroom (twice), scouted out the water source that I would need later that day, started my SPOT live tracking and waited patiently for my watch to find GPS. I started my day in gloves, buff and a jacket over my shorts and shirt, which was plenty for running, but not ideal for standing around waiting for my Garmin to connect to a satellite…Green light, “ready.” Here we go. We strolled over from the bathrooms to the windy South Kaibab trailhead and my parents did a 4:00 am countdown for me so the math all day would be super easy and clean.
Nutrition: half a chocolate smoothie (powder mix) and a cup of coffee (which I NEVER, EVER, EVER have)
4:00 am - 5:30 am.
South Kaibab Trailhead to River/Phantom Ranch
Rim to River
“3…2…1… GO!” I began trotting down. Probably more calmly/slowly than I did the last time I did R3 in May. I wanted to stay more patient this time and not blow my quads out on these early descents. I passed three women in neon outfits who were hiking/jogging, just started their R3. They were in great spirits and cheered me on with such enthusiasm. 20 mins into the run I came to a lookout area where the trail gets a little lost with just a headlamp and I began looking up and around for where the trail continued. As I looked up I tripped on a rock and flailed to the ground, catching myself with my hands and knees. “Are you kidding me?! Only 20 mins into this beast and I already have scraped knees? It’s ok, you’re not hurt. Just a friendly reminder that this canyon is harsh. Stay focused. Check in.”
I assessed myself and I patted my shorts pockets which is where I keep a majority of my nutrition and realized all 4 items were missing from my right pocket. I figured they probably flew out when I fell. I looked around for a while and didn’t see anything. Did I need them? 1 gel, 2 bars, 1 packet of chews. Yes. I was going for a completely unsupported FKT so I needed to have them and that mattered more than time/energy lost looking for them. I decided to backtrack and hike UP until I found them or ran into the three women, whichever came first. I ran into the three women after about 6 minutes of power hiking to no avail and they said they had been walking the whole time and had not seen anything. They offered me food and I declined and told them “maybe later.” When I arrived back down to the lookout area where I had fallen I FOUND my four items! I yelled back to the girls and we cheered. Onward.
A mile or so later I ran into a man I had seen at the top, Steve from Denver (R3er). He was hiking back towards me unsure about if he was on the correct trail. I pulled out the AllTrails app and confirmed we were on course. He stuck with me for a bit. It was kind of nice to have the additional headlamp light the way. He had tunes blasting from his phone speaker that I couldn’t really enjoy because I wasn’t close enough to really listen, but didn’t mind either. Eventually I slowed to a walk to take off my jacket as I began to hear the roaring river and Steve went on.
I got to the river at about 5:30 am and filled my Hydrapak with water. I held off on electrolytes because I know there is only so much electrolyte drink my stomach can handle and it was still dark. I hadn’t really anticipated that I would be dealing with so much more darkness than when I went in May.
Nutrition: Sipped on some water
5:30 am - 7:53 am
River/Phantom Ranch to Manzanita
Through “The Box” NoBo
I ran 98% of this section! It is almost entirely “uphill” with a few false flats and a few short downhill spurts, but it’s a gradual climb following the Bright Angel creek upstream through a narrow canyon to get across the “valley.” This is where my GPS light was always blinking red (sorry to all those tracking at home!). GPS in this section is always bad on every device in this area so I’m still not sure if it is 9 miles or 11 miles from the river to Manzanita, but the mileage doesn’t really matter that much out there. Water sources, landmarks and time of day were my “berry markers” (my cave-woman instinctual bearings for survival and general orientation/memories). I counted the bridges that zigzag across the creek: four plus a boardwalk, and a small creek crossing with rock hopping.
The sun rose during this time and watching the tops of the canyon light up one by one looked so majestic. The rocks seemed to take on personalities and I would look up and see a king or a queen taking to their throne for the day and reigning over the kingdom below; all the plants and animals still dormant and subdued in the shadow of night time. The contrast of seeing the tops of the canyon walls light up with the shadow of everything below it felt like dramatic percussion vibrating through my body with exclamation and conviction. What an energizing way to greet the day.
The last few miles between Cottonwood Campground and Manzanita were rollers instead of the gradual climbing of the first 80% of this section. I ran the downs and power hiked these steeper ups. I was in the shade THE. ENTIRE. TIME.
I felt proud that I ran almost all of this whole section NoBo because in May for my R3 I hiked most of it because it was uphill. One of my goals this time was to RUN it both ways (Nobo & Sobo). And I did.
Nutrition: I ate a Skratch bar little by little during this section (raspberry & lemon flavor)
8:00 am - 10:05 am
Miles 18ish - 23ish
Manzanita UP to North Rim
I got out my poles and iPod shuffle and switched from runner to hiker and clicked into “climb-mode” (basically don’t stop until the top. A lesson learned from my cycling days).
I think this section between the north rim and Manzanita is my favorite both uphill and downhill. It is so dynamic and has so many different views and layers. It is a shorter climb than the south rim (5-6 miles versus 7 up SK or 10 up BA). The north rim feels like different land from the south rim and holds a different energy. I know that sounds vague or maybe cliché, but if you’ve been there you know. It’s just the truth. Maybe it is because it is at higher elevation, but it just feels more dramatic.
Each time I pass through the landscapes of the Grand Canyon I see something new and different while also becoming more familiar with it. The trail and its surroundings started to feel like home, as the sensorial input integrated into my being with memories new and old. I remembered an overlook and certain views or how the path hugged the canyon walls. I recalled the little downhill section and bridge that broke up the climb and take you from one side to another side of the smaller canyon within the grand one. There is a particular switchback that marks a change in ecosystem from low elevation desert scrub to woodland trees. I remember the first tree at that switchback had striking flowers on it in the spring, but was almost unnoticeable now in autumn as it was and losing its foliage. I gave it a knowing look acknowledging that I saw its majesty. The little tree and I shared the secret of its spring-time flowers and it’s living on the edge while all the other plebeians marched downwards without even giving it a glance.
I stopped briefly to fill up my small front water bottle at Supai Tunnel and continued on, dancing to my jams and enjoying the morning and my taco. Being a Saturday (arguably the most crowded weekend of the year for the Grand Canyon due to the holiday and amazing weather window), I contended with many runners and hikers heading down as I marched up. Swaths of them headed into the canyon, happy, clean and fresh.
I arrived to the pine forest ecosystem of the north rim, stowed my poles, and convinced myself to take a gel. I didn’t even refill with water because I still had so much from Supai Tunnel.
Nutrition: Bean and potato taco on fresh H-E-B Bakery flour tortilla, Coconut powder electrolyte mix, a few Cliff chews maybe?
10:10 am - 11:18 am
Miles 23ish - 29ish
North Rim DOWN to Manzanita
I began running down and thoroughly enjoyed each step, song and view. I stopped to take pictures even though I was attempting a record-breaking timed run, but I couldn’t help it. This section flew by and I was making up some time in my original estimates. Good spirits, controlled efforts, focused and steady, I ran. It felt good. My hip injury was unnoticeable and everything seemed to be going as smoothly as possible.
Nutrition: Lemonade Hüma chia gel + caffeine, Coconut powder
11:24 am - 1:16 pm
Miles 29ish - 37ish (Manzanita to River/Phantom Ranch).
Through “The Box” Sobo
Not too long after leaving Manzanita rest stop I came upon two other women runners (R3ers). I was behind them for a brief second but then I tripped and fell and decided to pass them. I had to run my own pace no matter what. Not long after a young 20-something R3 runner was chilling on the side of the trail. Cory, engineer & track runner from Boston whose R3 training comprised of a 19 mile run (and he’d climbed Mt. Washington before). He leapt into the R3 because a buddy invited him out there and here he was on the long stretch back to Phantom Ranch waiting for some company. He ran behind me through the box and counted the bridges for us. He kept asking how many more miles and I didn’t really have a clue. I knew time of day and when to eat and drink and landmarks. He was chatty and I told him I may not be too conversational because I was on a more focused type of run out there. We parted ways just before reaching Phantom Ranch as he (smartly) would head up Bright Angel (BA) and I back over to the steeper/shorter SK Trail. In the spirit of both the unsupported and self supported categories I felt that this was not “support” as there is only so much one can do to control how strangers behave and what they do on the shared trails. If anything, I was helping and supporting him (or in his words “dragging him along” as he yo-yoed behind me).
Nutrition: Bobo’s bar, Coconut powder, Cliff Chews, half a Hüma gel?
1:30 pm - 4:50 pm
Miles 37ish - 45ish
River/Phantom Ranch to South Kaibab Trailhead
River UP to South Rim
I began hiking up South Kaibab slowly.
It was hot, sunny, and I felt like my heart rate was getting too high for the exertion level. I decided to take a mini “break” and maybe sneak in a nap while it was still warm out. I realized napping in the middle of the night could be quite dangerous or impossible due to the cold temperatures, so better to squeeze it in now if I could. I stopped at a beautiful lookout spot with a flat rock and my eyes glazed over. I set my alarm for 5 minutes on my phone, propped my feet up on my backpack, laid down and closed my eyes. I was SO tired yet I couldn’t relax enough to get in a tiny snooze. My heartbeat was racing and my breathing shallow and labored. What was going on? Too much caffeine maybe? I NEVER have caffeine but reserve it for giant efforts like this so I decided to quit taking caffeine (which meant no more salt tabs because they all had caffeine). As I sat up a hiker walked up and asked to take my photo because where I was sitting was so picturesque.
I charged on slowly up South Kaibab. I had a difficult time finding a rhythm like I normally do. I decided maybe the altitude was getting to me. Everything felt harder in my respiratory system than it should have. My legs were fine. Uphill climbing was no problem. I hoped that the run back down might help change up the gears some and so I just kept pushing on.
A mostly sunny trail with patches of shade transitioned to a mostly shaded trail with only patches of sun and the temperatures were beginning to change. The shade helped. A lot. I expected this climb to be full sun as it would have been in May during these hours, but I enjoyed a LOT of nice shade on my way up. I was also terrified of running out of water during this section as there is no water. I filled up to max capacity (3 liters) at Phantom Ranch as a result and my pack was HEAVY and I ended up not drinking half of it.
I poured out most of my excess water at the top and had a quick transition to begin running down. I wanted to get back to the river in daylight. I left just before 5:00 pm and had estimated that I would be leaving the south rim for my second lap around 6:30 pm. I was an hour and a half “ahead of schedule” (which I knew was a dangerous mind game because the crux still lie ahead). Sunset was at 6 pm.
Nutrition: Coconut powder, Cliff Chews, Vegan Quesadilla, Fritos
4:56 pm - 7:00 pm
Miles 45ish - 52ish
SK TH - River
I began slowing down during this section. Not due to lack of energy, motivation, or even blown quads (which yes, they were feeling it at this point no doubt!), but because I was having a hard time breathing still. Damn.
I enjoyed this time of day to cruise down the canyon because the sunset was absolutely phenomenal. Different parts of the canyon gave light shows as they called the day to a close. The top throne parts were now on fire in deep reds, oranges and pinks and this transition to night was truly magic and spiritual.
I found my pace slowing and I had to turn on my headlamp just before arriving to the black bridge for the third time that day. This time in the dark, but I could still make out silhouettes of the canyon against the black sky.
Nutrition: Coconut powder, Cliff Chews, Fritos
7:00 pm - 10:43 pm
Miles 52ish - 64ish
River to Manzanita
While the Canyon had gone through the theatrics of a sunset and transitioned beautifully in its closing set into a most perfect dark night sky glittered with stars, I was having a harder time transitioning into night runner. I tried taking Mallory’s advice to listen to my phone out loud (and not use headphones), but it drained my battery quickly and the roaring creek I was running along made it kind of difficult to hear at times. Also, I wasn’t afraid. She had told me that night time was all about managing my fears. I remembered asking her “what fears?” (I had never run or hiked all the way through the night like this before). “Animals, other noises,” she had a point. And I did hear other noises out there and saw some eyes with my headlamp (oh hey raccoon! And mule deer family!) but nothing that startled me or pushed me into fear zone. I kept hearing footsteps really close by, but not another headlamp in sight. The noise that kept causing me anxiety throughout was the strange sound of my own feet. Every time. But for some reason the pole stabbing and my footsteps sounded like there was a delayed echo and I heard them more than just the time my foot or pole hit the ground. I shrugged it off to sleep deprivation and paranoia, but it was slightly distracting and disturbing because it sounded like someone was right behind me.
I did not run this section like I did the first time. I hiked 90% of it this time and only ran about 10% of it. It was a gradual incline and my heart rate and breathing would not calm down unless I hiked. “Hey - why don’t you give running a little try? You like to run” and I would try and like it and then my breathlessness would catch up to me and force me to slow down to a hike. I just surrendered to it and figured I would hike all the way to the north rim and then surely by then some variable would have changed and I would run from the north rim back all the way to the river. It would be nice and cool with no people and this breathing thing would be better going downhill.
It was dark. REALLY dark. There was no moon and the occasional headlamp from another hiker coming through was the only source of other light, but that became more sparse as the night wore on. I needed a rest again. My breathing was labored and I decided to set another 5 minute timer. I loved the moment when I was laying down and turned off my headlamp and really absorbed the darkness, stillness, the stars and the faintest outline where the rim of the canyon meets the sky. Wow. Again, I elevated my legs and closed my eyes, but to no avail. So I got back up and started hiking.
I switched from music to an audio book and that helped my attention span and focus a lot.
After Cottonwood, where the downhills are more pronounced, it seemed easier to run than hike, so I ran those. While doing so, I stumbled and my toe smashed against a rock. I felt a sharp stab on my left big toe. There was definitely a blister there and it hurt. But I don’t give blisters too much attention at that stage (I had noticed it earlier in the day as well but it wasn’t loud enough to do anything about).
I sat down around mile 60-something to address my feet. Dirt, dust, and sand kept creeping into my socks by my heel. I wore the thinest Injinji toe socks available which meant they were ankle socks. They saved my feet when I did R2R2R and so far had done a decent job with the double. But all the grit getting into my sock meant friction and chafe. I didn’t want to experiment with the trail sock (which was a higher sock but mid-weight vs lightweight) during this event. No new gear. I had used them some in training, but stayed with my lightweight tiny ankle socks instead.
I looked down at my shoes and saw that my toe blister had popped because the left big toe area was soaked. This seemed like a good thing (and it was because I never noticed it again). I took my shoes and socks completely off, hosed off my feet and brushed away every lingering dirt particle. I then reapplied Trail Toes lube on every surface of my foot that comes in contact with my sock, and put my socks and shoes back on, adjusting the lacing slightly. It felt like I had brand new shoes and socks on! Onward!
I realized moments after I left when I was reaching down to enjoy some plain pasta that my little baggie of pasta was gone! Oh no! I had carted it around for hours on end to enjoy it at this very moment and it was nowhere. I backtracked to look for it some, up and down one roller and decided it wasn’t worth it to keep looking for it. It wasn’t where I had done my foot maintenance so it must’ve fallen out earlier when I stumbled and my blister popped. I had already enjoyed about 70% of it, and if I was lucky maybe I would find it on my way back because it would STILL be the middle of the night! Something to look forward to… (I never recovered it).
Nutrition: Plain pasta with a drizzle of olive oil and salt. yum.
10:50 pm - 2:22 am
Miles 64ish - 70ish
Manzanita UP to the North Rim.
I finally saw some lights and ran it in to Manzanita. I exclaimed upon arriving “I can’t believe I’m actually here!” There were maybe 4-5 other people there “having a party” (legs in emergency blankets, tiny lanterns out and it looked like one of them was enjoying hot ramen! WHAT?! I told them I could not be joining for the party and had to keep moving, but just having a small conversation with them lifted my spirits and was a nice moment. It felt like rolling into an aid station at a race or something. The girls at Manzanita told me that it was drizzling while they were up at the north rim (but that was at 6pm) and there had been some lightning. I thought I had seen some lightning earlier on but chocked it up to just seeing and hearing strange things. I had actually entertained the thought experiment of “well if there is lightning at the north rim it will be too dangerous for me to go on and I’ll have to quit.” What a gift from the universe. But then I also realized that their weather beta was from 5 hours prior and by the time I would get to the top the weather would certainly be 100% different than their drizzle and lightning warning.
I filled up with some water and began marching up to the north rim.
This section took me an hour and a half longer than it had earlier that morning. I was still technically 10 minutes “ahead of schedule” when I departed Manzanita but I knew I had lost my 1.5 hour lead time in one of the easiest sections leading up to Manzanita and now I was embarking on probably one of the toughest sections and I wasn’t exactly feeling better.
I kept hearing this very strange high pitched sound. It sounded like rodents maybe? I would stop, take out my headphones and listen. It was my own breathing! The wheezing had become so bad that the high pitched sound accompanied with each inhale and exhale sounded so foreign it had to be a creature, so I kept stopping to look around and listen, only to continue to have the same realization over and over again.
I had all of my layers on at this point: gloves, buff, long sleeve shirt over short sleeve shirt, windbreaker jacket and hood. I made sure to add the layers just before getting too cold because once you get cold it is much harder to warm up. I got my hand warmer out put it in my sports bra in an effort to warm up my chest and lungs. My lungs were burning. They hurt so much. Every breath of cold air triggered more breathlessness. I used my buff to cover my mouth some in order to warm up the air before inhaling it. This seemed to help some. I’m not sure the hand warmer in the sports bra provided any relief to my lungs, but for some reason I felt that warming up my lungs might relax them because they felt tight, spastic, and on fire. I wanted to shed my sports bra because the constriction around my chest was bothering my breathing ability. On every uphill I completely unclipped my backpack in the front to provide some openness in the chest. It made it a tiny bit less terrible.
I had a very difficult time drinking water or eating (especially while moving). The amount of breath holding involved for a tiny sip of very cold water was a dramatic assault on my lungs. I wished I could have drank enough water to get to the warm water that was next to my back/body heat, but I would sip and sip the cold water in the hose and then gasp for air like I’d been under water for minutes on end drowning. I somehow managed to get a taco down during this stretch. I would take a small bite, gasp for air, then just hold onto the bite in the sides of my mouth until it began to disintegrate. There really was no chewing involved and somehow I got the whole thing down.
Just keep moving. I had to keep moving. I would take short breaks to calm my breathing down, but otherwise I had to keep moving or I would get too cold. The buff around my face was my lifeline.
As I neared the last mile or so my headlamp was fading and dimming to its death. I was going so slowly that I didn’t need a super bright light so I figured I’d change headlamps at the top when I stowed my poles.
This climb was very lonely. The last 7 hours had been very lonely. I just felt fragile and on the verge of crying but there was no breath or excess energy for that. I was just so disappointed at how slowly I was being forced to move. I didn’t even get water at the top of the north rim. I stowed my poles as a sign to myself that I would run down and got out a new headlamp.
A truck pulled up right in the middle of my 5 minute break at the top. OMG! This is my bail out chance! I envisioned asking to sit in the truck for a minute just to feel the heat blow on my face. That would be throwing away my unsupported effort and would toss me int he self supported category which I wasn’t quite ready to do. I thought about just asking for a ride to… anywhere and bailing, but it would be 6 hours of driving for my parents just to get to this side and then another 6 hours to return to the south side. That didn’t seem to make sense. But I could easily justify that my shortness of breath and wheezing was a medical emergency and going on would not be wise. I thought about all the the folks following my tracker back at home and how maybe this was bigger than just me. I had a whole community with me holding space in the universe for me to press on. I stood up, and tried out running. The first few steps down were large steps and I tripped and fell. The hiker that had been dropped off by the truck commented “oh man! That’s not a good way to start.” Are you serious right now? I thought to myself never uttering a word to him. It’s 2:30 am, sub 30 degree temps and I’m NOT starting… That little bit of anger lit a fire in me and I was determined to just stay in front of his headlamp the whole way down.
Nutrition: Bean and potato taco, some chews that I sucked on, Fritos (I lost my baggie at some point along the way up but got to enjoy probably 80% of them before losing the baggie that was never found).
2:30 am - 8:45 am
Miles 70ish - 85ish
North Rim down to River
I did. I managed to stay in front of the naysayer’s headlamp and eventually lost it. I jogged some, walked some, ran some. Somehow I made it down without too many issues. Downhill was going much better than uphill breathing wise, but going down stairs was SO hard on my quads. I had to find a rock or something to stabilize and help me stumble down the steps. I eventually got my poles back out. Peeing was tough. I couldn’t squat anymore so I tried to pee against a wall or something to lean on to help me squat and take the weight off my quads some. The fact that I was peeing was good considering I tapered on my water intake significantly in the cold.