RRR in the Grand Canyon (that's 3 rims).
Grand Canyon R3 5/7/2021
The Grand Canyon is beyond spiritually epic. I’m still digesting and processing the experience I had out there, but here is a jumbled mess of a recap.
The plan was to run from the south rim to the north rim and back to the south rim completely unsupported in one day. This was the first time I had ever done anything like this. I’ve hiked for many days and months with a backpack on my back through mountains. I’ve run trail races and completed ultramarathons. But never a hybrid of the two where I was completely unsupported and had to carry everything I needed for an ultramarathon length trail run adventure. I. LOVED. IT. It was right up my alley and I am hungry for more. Was it tough? absolutely. The heat and elevation is hard on the body no matter how trained up you are (and I was ill-trained at best). But the terrain was “Hollywood” trail (lovely smooth switchbacks) and EVERY. SINGLE. VIEW was breathtaking. Maybe that is why I had such a hard time breathing!
I didn’t come out of the canyon the same person. I soared free through those trails to the rhythm inside me and processed many tough things while also experiencing sublime euphoria for miles on end. The 48-50 mile run (the distance is debated as GPS is unreliable out there) was neatly chunked into 5-8 mile segments according to terrain and water stops. My emotional ride was appropriately portioned according to these segments as well so I broke up this post in chunks to describe the journey by section.
South Kaibab TH to Phantom Ranch/River (0 - ~7 miles): 4:22 am - 5:46 am
I started at 4:22 am after a successful logistical morning drop off to the trailhead from another runner’s mom (THANK YOU PAM!!!). SK TH doesn’t have any parking and the finish was at a different point (Bright Angel TH). We dropped off a car with warm clothes at the end point which was clutch and got a ride to the start.
I wore what I had planned on wearing based on all the advice I had read and heard about it being cold on the rims (arm warmers, buff around ears, light wind jacket, gloves on standby in my shorts pocket), but when I started running down I realized immediately that I was over dressed. It was likely 55-60 degrees at the top which meant it would be an exceptionally hot day for this time of year (and it was). I dropped the other runners and my excess cold clothes pretty quickly on the downhill. I tried to take it "easy" and not completely blast down as I didn't want to burn out my quads too early.
The glimmer of light from the sunrise began to peek over the horizon at 4:32 am and the silhouettes of the canyon formations had a beauty about them that felt different from the daytime colorful versions. The rising crescent moon was absolutely beautiful and I instantly felt at home gliding down the cliff edges on trail. My emotions and excitement were kept at bay. This first part was calm, controlled and effortless.
I arrived at the river by 5:46 am. The sun had just risen but the lower valley was completely in the shadow of the walls of the canyon. I crossed the bridge and regrouped at the water spigot where I felt like the day was just starting and everything before it was just a bonus track.
River to Manzanita (mile 7 - 16 ish): 6:00 - 8:10 am
While I was putsing around with my pack and refilling water Iram, Dermit and Craig rolled in to refill with water. They took off ahead of me and I yo-yo-ed with Dermit and Craig a little and kept them in sight the whole way. This “flat” valley section to Manzanita rest/water stop was a gradual uphill section with the occasional flat or downhill patch. In retrospect I wish I had run more of this section, but didn’t. I got my hiking poles out around Cottonwood Campground (6.5 ish miles from the river) and began power hiking the uphill sections as they became more pronounced after Cottonwood.
Mallory and her crew passed me around mile 10 and she looked super strong. She set out to break the FKT (fastest known time) for r2r2r x2! (That’s FOUR crossings!). The gang seemed strong and in control and in good spirits.
This section was harder than it should have been and it prepared me to want to make sure I ran it in it’s entirety on the way back as I knew it would feel very long if I didn’t.
There was a VERY lovely creek the whole way from the river up to Manzanita. My body remembered the soothing feeling of listening to running water nearby. The sound of the creek nearby put me at ease. All the prep chatter focused on the manmade water spigots but my AT and CT hikes have me oriented towards natural water sources. I kept thinking “wow! How come no one talks about or emphasizes this incredible babbling creek that goes on for about 7 miles?!?!” I put on some music during this section but made sure to keep my left earbud out to hear the sound of the water and settled in, climbing, gradually, and slowly. Water is life.
Manzanita water stop to the North Rim (16 - 23 ish): 8:20 - 10:30 am
After about 9 miles from the river across and up the valley to Manzanita I stopped and filled up with water, electrolytes and got out a homemade taco for the trek up to the north rim. My body was tired of the gradual effort of running/hiking and I was ready to change gears to a steeper prolonged power hike and put running on the back burner for a little bit.
I didn’t really see anyone the whole way up to the north rim. I left Manzanita before Dermit and Craig, who then stayed behind me the rest of the day and Mallory + crew, Iram and another guy Brian, were all too far ahead of me to see.
I tuned into my jams, worked on my taco three separate times and hiked. This hiking zone felt like second nature and my body just knew what to do. Occasionally there were small running segments, but mostly it was just a steep 2 hour 10 min hike up. I found my rhythm with my poles and only paused occasionally for a photo and to catch my breath.
The trek up the north Kaibab trail was so different from the south side. There were flowering trees, beautiful waterfalls and different rock formations and views. At my slower pace I noticed the lizards sprinkled throughout and even saw a 6 foot Gopher snake!
I settled into my head and got to work. This section was a get-it-done-without-any-drama section because I knew the real physical effort of the day would be beginning AFTER the halfway point. This rim climb and first half of the day was the preface for what lied ahead and I knew it was all still part of the warm up. Literally. I just went with it and submitted to the steep and tough hike with a NBD attitude. I had some trouble breathing. I think it was a combination of effort, altitude (climbed up to almost 9k feet), dry air and dusty air in my lungs. At times my lungs burned and they felt like smoker lungs.
About 0.5 mile from the top I started to see the folks ahead of me running down. I had been awaiting that moment to cheer them on and just see familiar faces. It also meant I would be getting close to the top. Mallory and Allison were first as she was on a no-nonsense mission of speed out there. Even with that focus, in typical Mallory spirits she gave me an energetic cheer telling me I was SO close to the top! Then I saw Brian who told me about the ICE cold water only minutes away and next I saw Iram coming down who encouraged me to hurry up and come catch him. All the people running downhill seemed so happy and I remembered how delightful the run down the south side had been earlier that morning and looked forward to the second wind I undoubtedly would get at this turn around spot.
Minutes after seeing everyone I arrived at the top. I had my pit stop to do list recited in my head of things to get done up there: Fill up with water. Put away poles for the run down. Wash off my face and body to cool down and get salt off my skin. Once I rinsed my body in the water spigot the biting flies attacked me and I rushed out of there (the bites are STILL itching!). I completely forgot that I had told my dad I would text him from the north rim. I remembered a few minutes down trail but by then I had lost service and the text didn't go through...
North rim DOWN to Manzanita (mile 23 - 29 ish), 10:38 am - 11:41 am
The music on my playlist was ace (thank you Iram!) plus my caffeinated lemonade Hüma gel pushed me into the euphoric stage of the run. Every run has its highs and lows and in ultra running I find that the highs and lows are even more pronounced. This was the HIGHlight of the day. I felt that some of the emotional processing from the first canyon crossing had been sweat out and washed off at the top and I was a new woman. My spirits were flying, soaring, free and in total ecstasy. I hadn’t felt this type of overwhelming alive feeling in my entire body in WAY too long. It’s these moments of extreme high that make these kinds of events addicting.
I began belting out loud to the tunes in my ears, dancing and twirling in pure freedom. I felt light and high and absolutely nothing could bring me down. I went with it. Loved it. Relished it. I couldn’t believe the beauty that I got to fly through.
I caught Iram a few miles down, we took a picture and shared some smiles and then I kept flying down all the way to Manzanita.
Manzanita across the valley to the river (mile 29 - 38 ish): 11:45 am - 1:45 pm
I filled up with water and had a quick turn around. This next section wasn’t the euphoria I felt flying down hill, but the gradual downhill made the running feel like it was flat. I ran the whole way to Phantom ranch/the river. I passed Brian who was struggling with about a mile to go. About half a mile from the river I started to fade and realized the heat was taking its toll on me and I desperately needed a pit stop to revive me. There was way more hustle and bustle at Phantom Ranch the second time around and I sort of just stumbled through. I started to think I needed to go to the bathroom as the Speednut gel was not settling well, so I looked for water and a toilet but couldn’t easily find either. I ended up not needing to use a toilet and went back to the water spigot near the black bridge. It was upwards of 95 degrees and the sun was INTENSE.
I could tell I was blasted and if I stopped too long here and bought a lemonade it would be harder to keep going. In retrospect I probably should have just collected myself and regrouped and I definitely should have asked someone if the silver bridge was open yet (this was the direct route to the Bright Angel trail but there had been construction prior so we had been told we’d need to take a detour that added some mileage, time and climbing). It turned out that the silver bridge opened THAT day (which was early) and most everyone got that memo because they talked to other hikers. I was so blasted I didn’t talk to anyone and just went back the way I had come that morning and got water down by the river and crossed the black bridge. Ooops.
River to Indian Gardens via Bright Angel Trail (mile 38 - 43 ish): 2:00 pm - 4:30 pm
I struggled pulling myself together at the water stop. It was SO hot and I was in total sun (instead of the shaded water spigots back 0.1 mi at Phantom ranch!). I did enjoy the view along the detour on the river trail as it was unlike anything else we had seen out there (cliffy trail along the river’s edge). I got my poles out and knew this section would be HOT and HARD. I was already about 38 miles in and it was 2:00pm and above 95 degrees.
After the detour I saw a runner coming across the silver bridge. It was Brian. I had passed him rolling into Phantom Ranch but he had the sense to get an ice cold lemonade to recoup and not take the detour. We hiked a little bit together and then he started running. I was not ready to run up. The body was done with running and ready for uphill hiking. The heat and sun took it out of me this section and was BY FAR the toughest section of the day.
I crossed a creek a few times and took off my pack and laid down on my back in the creek to cool my core body temperature down. I was having a nearly impossible time getting down fluids or nutrition and found that I could only manage sucking on some chews and letting them slowly disintegrate in my mouth. I kept moving, but this section was slow. I was hiking, but there was no “power” in my step. This section was not very difficult in terms of terrain, but was the low point for me as I was overheated. I didn’t quite realize to what degree until I arrived at Indian Gardens.
Indian Gardens to the top of the South rim/ Bright Angel Trailhead (mile 43 - 48 ish): 4:30 - 6:05 pm
I arrived at Indian Gardens and pulled out my practically FULL Hydrapak. “Oh shit!” I said out loud. I realized I had only consumed about 0.25L of my water+electrolytes and that was a PROBLEM. I guzzled water, showered under a spigot, and took off. The pit stop was under 5 mins. Brian was there and told me there would be more water in 1.5 miles so I knew I could stop there to refill/cool off again. I saw Allison and Ann Marie and said hi, but I couldn’t really muster conversation. They were all still chilling there when I left along with a slew of other day hikers. I knew I couldn’t stay long or it would get increasingly harder to leave.
The moment I left there (about 4:30 pm) I felt like a brand new human. OMG SHADE! This came as a total surprise. No one told me the last part would be in the shade and how awesome that would be! It felt like I had already arrived and all I had to do was a bit of bonus work (up up up). The real work was over. The sun had fallen behind the walls of the canyon and the drop of temperature in the shadow made a world of difference. I found my real power hiking rhythm for the first time that day. I would say this last 4.5 mile section back up was a second high point for me emotionally. I would guess for most people this last bit is one of the toughest/slowest sections as it is SO steep and already 43 miles into the day, but I think I found a third wind and my body remembered how powerful I was and the hiking rhythm with my poles felt natural and good. I cruised, danced and smiled. The music, shade and ability to get down some chips and water made a big difference.
I paused briefly at the 3 mile rest house and 1.5 mile rest house to put my head under the water spigot and drink some water, but kept moving. After the 1.5 mile rest house I turned my phone off of airplane mode and texted my family that I was about 1 mile away from the south rim. The "north rim" text I had attempted to send earlier went through first and for a few minutes my dad thought I was just now arriving at the north rim at 5:30 pm... YIKES!
I arrived to the trail head at the top and just laid down. I thought I would have cried but I didn’t. I just couldn’t believe I finished on such a high note and felt remarkably good. I didn’t really want it to be over now that there was shade! 13 hours and 42 minutes since I had started from this same rim. I was the first one from the Austin crew to arrive back at this trail head (some when back South Kaibab trail which is shorter and steeper than Bright Angel). It was an interesting feeling to finish something and absolutely nobody around knew what I had just accomplished. The tourists were all taking in the view from the rim going about regular pedestrian life and I had just gone to the spiritual depths of the Grand Canyon TWICE and purged some emotional deadweight and reconnected with a lighthearted and joyous version of myself. It was anticlimactic, no familiar faces, no applause or recognition, but I had a secret inside me that was shining through every cell in my body for anyone to see as I interacted with the world. I had just experienced magic.
The top three concerns I had leading up to the run ended up being non factors which was kind of a miracle. 1) My hip injury. I felt it say hello early on in the valley from miles 7-13, but it was very mild and eventually went away completely when I started hiking up and stopped running. It still hasn’t been an issue 3 days later! 2) GI distress. I was pretty concerned I would have runner’s diarrhea since I’d been having issues in my training, but I didn’t need to go once. I took care of my business beforehand in the morning and that was that. phew. 3) Undertrained. This really didn’t affect my time out there at all. I’m sure I could have done it faster if I had trained more but fast was not the point of this adventure run. I took probably 100 pictures while I was out there and took my time when I needed to. There was no rush or sense of urgency as it was not a race. However, I was REALLY sore two days after and that was a big verification that I was undertrained for what I did. But the months of hiking on the AT & CT gave me the experience, confidence and mental strength to fall back on which helped tremendously. You can’t “train” for experience.
The next morning I was so fortunate to be able to be at the finish line for Mallory as she completed what I did TWICE (yes, a QUAD crossing of about 100 miles!!!). She crushed the supported FKT by over two and a half hours and completed the feat in 25 hours and change. Super inspiring. I later looked up the FKTs for the Grand Canyon and the UNsupported record for what she did for women is 40 hours. It sort of seems like low hanging fruit to me just waiting for someone to go smash it. There is a small voice in my head whispering to me “you should go do it…”
First 7 mi, nada: carried 10 oz pickle juice and 5 oz water but didn’t touch it.
From the river to manzanita drank about 1L water and some pickle juice. Ate a Skratch pistachio & cherry bar in two sessions.
Manzanita to north rim: Ate a homemade bean and potato taco in three sessions up the mountain. Drank ~1.3L Tailwind and the rest of my pickle juice. It was not easy to get the taco down bc it felt dry in my mouth, but it was necessary.
North rim down to manzanita I had a lemonade Hüma gel (caffeine) at the start of this leg. Drank water (0.5 - 0.75L of water?)
Manzanita to Phantom Ranch I ate half a lemon Bobo’s bar (this was a good choice) and drank 1.25L water. I ate about half of my other taco but something tasted “off” and I think the beans or potatoes had started to spoil. (Homemade tacos two days prior w iffy refrigeration due to travel was a little bit of a gamble).
Phantom to Indian Gardens: I attempted to have a Speednut Spring Energy gel + caf (these have 250 calories!) but could only get about half of it down. I sucked on some Skratch matcha chews (about 4?). I drank like 0.25L of Tailwind and maybe 5 oz of water. NOT ENOUGH. This was the hottest section and uphill and I struggled to get ANYTHING down and bent over and felt like I was dry heaving/about to vomit at one point. I slowed my pace and laid down in creeks to cool my body temp down significantly. I ate maybe 1/4 bag of a 2 oz mini bag of Fritos to get something solid and salty in me.
Indian Gardens to top of South rim I ate 3/4 of the rest of the bag of Fritos and gave up on Tailwind and got down maybe another 0.75L-1L water.
I took in 5 salt+30 mg caf tabs over the course of the day. This was ESSENTIAL.
I also took 400 mg Ibuprofen twice throughout the day.
Food I carried and DIDN’T eat:
2 Spring gels (Canaberry)
Plain shell pasta + oil + salt (I ate this within 30 mins of finishing and it was great).
Half Bobo’s bar
2 Justin’s peanut butter packets
Rest of Skratch chews