Friday, May 25, 2018

Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (30th Birthday Run!)

When I realized my 30th Birthday landed on a Saturday, I knew I had to do something big for it. I toyed around with the idea of a few races (back to back marathons, or some sort of epic ultra marathon), but nothing was really sounding perfect. I would have loved to do some epic mountain run, but May is really too early to get up high into the mountains... which is when the idea of running the Grand Canyon first struck me. Spring and Fall are the ideal times to run the Grand Canyon, and running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is a bucket list item for many ultra runners... it sounded like the perfect idea! Now I just needed to find some crazy people to join me... I posted in my usual facebook groups and was excited to find two friends, Karla and Laura, who were ready to take on this epic challenge! My friend Taryn wanted to come along as well, but not to run, just to see the park and do some shorter hiking, and, as an added bonus, she agreed to drive us around (I did offer to help...).

We made the 7 1/2 hour drive to Tusayan on Friday, leaving around 9am and getting to the park in the early afternoon. After stopping off at a couple of overlooks, we stopped by the Visitor's Center to talk with the Park Ranger's and make sure water was on in all areas (which it was, except for Roaring Springs - which was a detour off trail anyways). The Park Ranger had to give us their warning that attempting to do this in one day is dangerous, not recommended, and could lead to death (the best thing to hear, right?!). After that, we headed to our hotel to check in and then went and got dinner before heading back to the hotel and making sure we had everything packed before attempting to get some sleep prior to our 2:30am wake-up call.

Road Trip!

We made it!

All packed and ready for the next day!

We're running down to the bottom and then up to the other side of that...and then coming BACK?!?

After what was seriously, the worst, night of sleep in my entire life, we were up and ready to go. Taryn drove us into the park and dropped us off at the South Kaibab Trail Head around 3:20am. After a quick bathroom and selfie stop, we started our 16 hour day...

PART 1 - South Kaibab Trail Descent
The South Rim (7200') down to the Phantom Ranch (2500') - 7.2 Miles

Since we started just before 3:30am, it was obviously still pitch black out, and therefore our first several miles were pretty slow going despite being downhill. In the long run (no pun intended), this was actually probably for the best - we were going to be out for a long day, and it was probably better to start off slow and easy anyways! Around 1.5 miles, we got to "Cedar Ridge" an wide overlook area with restrooms. As we were trying to find where the trail went from here, we ran into another runner named Jorge who had started just before us. He decided to run with us for the next couple of miles down (and who we would run on and off with the rest of the day!). Around mile 4 or so, as the sun was just coming up over the horizon, we decided to pick the pace up a little and mix a little running into our power hiking that we had been doing. Finally around 5 or 6 miles in, it was finally light enough to take our headlamps off and run the majority of the way down to the river. This part was truly phenomenal and probably my favorite section of the entire day - we were still on fresh legs, and running was easy and smooth, and the views as the sun came up were just incredible. I think I took about 100 pictures during these last couple miles down to the river!

About to start our day!

Ooh, Aah... I can only imagine the views from here during the daylight!

Light on the horizon!

Laura took this picture of me!

Around mile 7 we made it to the river and crossed our first bridge of the day over the magnificent Colorado River! It's crazy to think that the river I run next to all year in Grand Junction is the exact same river that carved this canyon! After crossing the river, it was just a short trek to Phantom Ranch - the main "camp" within the Grand Canyon (there are other campgrounds, but this is the biggest and the only one with a canteen!). We stopped for a bathroom break and filled up our packs at Phantom Ranch before starting the next section - the first ascent of the day up to the North Rim.

PART 2 - North Kaibab Trail Ascent
Phantom Ranch (2500') up to the North Rim (8241') - 13.7 Miles
  We were in and out of Phantom Ranch pretty quickly as we started to head north on the North Kaibab Trail. The map makes this section look fairly straight, but it was actually pretty curvy as we weaved through canyons and over bridges following the Bight Angel Creek upwards. The next 5-7 miles were mostly runnable, with a gradual elevation gain on the way out. It was still very early in the morning at this point, and we were able to make some pretty good time up the trail since it was still fairly cool. It was interesting to watch the sun make it's way down the canyon walls though as it rose higher and higher throughout the morning. After 5.7 miles we passed the turn off for Ribbon Falls - a detour that would add a little under a mile to our journey - I had kind of wanted to go but I also knew it was going to be a long day, so we decided to wait until the way back to decide if we would add the extra mileage. Another mile and a half after that we passed through Cottonwood Campgound. I could tell we were starting to climb a little more than before so I decided to get out my trekking poles here. One more mile + later and we were at Manzanita, our last major stop before the North Rim. It was starting to get hot by this point so we made sure to really fill our packs, put on sunscreen and eat before we hit the trail for what would be the longest and hardest climb of the day (in my opinion).

Giant Yucca!

Showing how giant the Yucca is compared to Laura!

The sun was getting closer and closer...

More giant Yucca!

And then came the sun!

Right after Manzanita, the climbing really began! I was glad I had my trekking poles as we started ascending a lot. The first few miles were fine, but after that, it got really hot, really fast, and I went from feeling great to wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. This was going to be a LONG day. We had been running back and forth with Jorge, and as we got further into the climb, Laura and Jorge took off while Karla and I lagged behind a bit going at a much slower pace then them. I wanted to try and keep up at first, but I knew it wasn't smart - we had a long way to go still and pushing too hard on this uphill was not a great idea. Nevertheless, we kept at it, going our own pace, and still making decent time. By this point we were passing a ton of people who were coming down from the North Rim while we were going up it.

These next few miles up were pretty but uneventful as we just kept making our way up and up and up. The sun was seriously beating down on us by this point which was making me more and more tired and thus more and more nervous as to how we were going to turn around and come back! That being said, I'd like to say I have a decent amount of experience now to know that a lot of times you can feel this way, and most of the time you still end up getting it done! So I just kept hoping that once we made it to the top, I'd be able to recover a bit and get a second wind on the downhill... that still didn't make it less challenging though as I continued feeling exhausted going up. Karla and I saw a snake cross the trail at one point, but I was very happy to see it was NOT a rattler (I read some race reports of people seeing Rattlers which left me terrified of that happening!). About 2 miles to the top we came to the Supai Tunnel water stop where we topped off our water before continuing up.

Us with Jorge on the climb!

I got us all Carpe Diem tattoos!

Another mile later we came to the Coconino Overlook where a lot of North Rim day hikers were leisurely enjoying the views. We continued on and on. Karla had the elevation gain showing on her watch and I think I asked her every 5 minutes what our elevation was to know how much further we had to go. As we got higher and higher, we did start to have more tree coverage which was nice. FINALLY, after was felt like forever, we saw the road, and cars, and we were THERE! We had made it to the North Rim - 8,241' (climbing up from 2500' at Phantom Ranch)!

We made it!

PART 3 - North Kaibab Trail Descent
North Rim (8241') back down to Phantom Ranch (2500') - 13.7 Miles

We stayed at the North Rim for about 10 minutes, recovering and enjoying the most delicious cold water ever! Our arrival time to the North Rim was just over 7 hours - getting there at 10:40am. Our only goal from here on out was to get back to Phantom Ranch before the canteen closed at 4:00 for some Lemonade (everyone talks about how you have to get lemonade from Phantom Ranch!). Since it was mostly downhill, I felt pretty confident we could make it in time, however, it was still getting hotter and hotter, and we would only be getting more tired as the day went on, so I knew we still had to keep our pace up! As we started the descent down, Laura took off again, but Karla and I stayed together running as much as we could on the downhills. As I had expected, the rest break at the top combined with now downhill running made a huge difference and I felt a lot better for the first couple miles down North Kaibab. That being said, the heat was also really starting to get to me, and even though we were headed downhill, the miles still felt like they were taking forever. 

This gal had a vintage Skirt Sports skirt on, so I had to get a picture!

Finally, after what felt like forever, we made it back to Manzanita again. It was nice and shady, so we stopped here for a few minutes to use the restroom, fill up our packs, and I tried to eat a little. I was actually having trouble eating due to the heat. I usually like salty foods, but all of the salty food I brought was so hard to chew because my mouth was so dry. The only thing working for me were Clif Shot Blocks, my Tailwind (although I was SO sick of it by this point), and my candy bars (despite being very melted!). I tried to eat as best as I could and we continued on.

Any water I saw, even if it was just a tiny bit like this, I was stopping to soak my hat - it was SO hot!

In another mile and a half we were back to the Cottonwood Campground. This would be our last water stop until Phantom Ranch, which was about 7 miles away. That might not sound like much, but when it's 100 degrees out and you're about 30 miles in, 7 miles can take a LONG time. Meanwhile, the thermometer at the campground showed OVER 100 degrees in the shade... yikes (I so wish I had gotten a picture of it, but I didn't think about it until after!). We topped our water off again, I soaked my hat, and we continued on.  

From Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch was really, really hard. It was runnable, and honestly, we ran more than I thought we would given the heat...but this was such a long, HOT section. I was seriously dying in this heat. I have done short runs in 90 degree heat, but nothing like this. It was a struggle. Not to mention the fact that this is the main section of the course where GPS gets really messed up because you're on the bottom of the canyon floor, so we had no idea how much longer it would be until we got to Phantom. It was definitely one of those "just put your head down and keep moving" sections. I was hot, miserable, and wondering why in the world I decided this was a good way to spend my birthday....

We did run back by the turnoff for Ribbon Falls during this trek. Karla and I were too tried and worried about making it back to Phantom Ranch by 4pm, so we decided not too go, but told Laura she should go check it out if she wanted. She did and I saw the pictures and it does look pretty awesome... maybe next time (and by "next time" I mean maybe if I'm not doing R2R2R, but just R2R, or just down from the North Rim etc.).

Meanwhile, we continued on... about a half mile out we saw a sign... we were ALMOST there (to Phantom Ranch)! We picked it up and FINALLY made it. Getting to the Phantom Ranch Canteen was quite possibly the BEST feeling all day - it was nice and cool, and we all got Arnold Palmer's (Lemonade/Iced Tea mix - this was actually PERFECT because a Lemonade alone actually sounded way too sweet to me at this point). The best part about it was the ICE! I prepaid for a refill just so I could have a second cup of ice! I also bought a little "Phantom Ranch" pin because I needed something to commemorate this crazy adventure!

Quite possibly the best thing ever!

Saw this little guy as we were leaving Phantom Ranch!

PART 4 - Bright Angel Trail Ascent
Phantom Ranch (2500') back up to the South Rim (6840') - 9.5 Miles

After 15-20 minutes at Phantom Ranch we figured we better head out and start the ascent up Bright Angel Trail. I was honestly really worried about this. We had about 4500' of climbing to do to get out of the canyon over the course of 9 miles - however, I knew from looking at the profile that the majority of the climbing would take place in the last 4 miles. The first few miles started with going over the Silver Bridge (this bridge was actually pretty scary - it was  really long with just metal slats along the base that you could see through, and it felt like it moved the entire time you were on it!), then following the Colorado River for about a mile before turning south. I had read in some other blog posts that this mile along the river would be sandy, so I was actually pleasantly surprised that it wasn't nearly as sandy as I expected. There were definitely sandy sections, but the entire thing wasn't sandy. After that mile, we turned off and meandered into a canyon before starting the climb up towards Indian Garden campground.

So we came down South Kaibab, but would go up Bright Angel - Bright Angel is longer, but has water stops, so most people do this one on the way "out".

Saying goodbye to the Canyon floor!

Bright Angel Trail is the most popular trail that people hike down in the park, so as we made our way further and further up the trail, the more and more people we saw and the more and more people we passed. Laura had once again continued ahead of us (can you tell she's way faster than us!), so it was just Karla and I trucking along slow and steady. As we made our way into Indian Garden campground we stopped for a few minutes to rest and try to eat for a bit. From this point we had 4.5 miles to go. We had thankfully gotten some cloud cover in these later miles which was seriously a godsend. It had been SO incredibly hot on the floor of the canyon, I wasn't sure how we were going to do this climb out, but the cloud cover made a WORLD of difference and I was surprised to not feel completely miserable. Yes, I was tired, still hot, and ready to be done, but I wasn't miserable like I had felt going up North Kaibab!

Bright Angel Trail consists of SO many switchbacks - it's actually kind of cool to see what you come up so easily!

From Indian Garden on up, there were water stops about every 1.5 miles, which was actually very helpful. Unlike the last few miles into Phantom Ranch where we had no idea "how much longer", this gave us a nice way to break up the final climb into short sections. From Indian Garden, we headed up to the 3 Mile Resthouse where we filled up our packs and headed out again. After that point, our next and last major stop was the 1.5 Mile Resthouse. At this point, I was finally able to get some cell service so I texted Laura and Taryn from here letting them know where we were. We had 1.5 miles and about 1000' of elevation gain to go. We could totally do this. Meanwhile, we kept passing more and more people as we made our way up. It seemed funny because we felt like we were moving SO SLOW...but compared to all of the tourists who were just easy dayhiking, we were apparently going fast. We actually only ended up getting passed by 1 person the entire ascent up Bright Angel, by a guy who had come one-way from  the North Rim.

Over 90 degrees - this was 1000' UP from Phantom Ranch!

I had to get one "contemplating the meaning of life" picture!

After what felt like forever, we passed a guy who told us we had about 10 minutes to the top...this was amazing. We were going to finish BEFORE 8pm. When she dropped us off at 3:30am, I had told Taryn to tentatively expect us around 8pm, but as the day had gone on, I wasn't sure it would be possible to make it by then...but we did! We could finally see the top, and more and more people, and finally, we were at the last switchback! Thanks to Karla, we decided to run up the last tenth of mile (I totally would've walked it if it had been just me!) which was awesome and meant we had MADE IT! 16 hours and about 15 minutes after we started, with 11,000' of elevation gain and 11,000' of loss, over the course about 45 miles we had made it back to the South Rim!!! The sun was just starting to go down too - perfect timing! Karla and I had a fireball shot to celebrate finishing and then we headed back to the hotel.

Post-Adventure Thoughts:

Overall, this was an AMAZING experience, and definitely a bucket list item for anyone (whether you do an out-and-back like us, or even just a one-way). It was so beautiful and such a different experience than just seeing the Canyon from the top. Even though it was incredibly hard, looking back on it now, it wasn't "as" hard as I was expecting. I honestly had a LOT of anxiety in the weeks leading up to this. Reading other peoples race reports, and the National Park Service "warning" against going to the river and back in one way left me really nervous and scared for it, and because of that I actually had trouble sleeping in the few days leading up to the trip... That being said, it is a seriously hard endeavor that you need to be prepared for. The heat was BY FAR the hardest factor for me. I've done long ultra's, I've done races with a lot of climbing...but what I had not done before is run in this kind of heat for this amount of time. It was hard...and as I briefly mentioned, I struggled eating which was new for me. So if you're thinking about doing this, definitely be prepared and understand that it is hard, but if you're an ultra runner who has done 50 milers with a lot of climbing, you will be fine - just know it's going to be a long, hot, and tiring day!

Taryn took this picture from another overlook - showing a bunch of the Bright Angel Trail switchbacks!

  • Trekking Poles: I had debated in the weeks before whether to bring Trekking Poles, but I am so glad I did. They help me significantly on the uphills (they keep me from "hunching" over as I hike uphill), and in the later miles going up Bright Angel they really helped on some of the sections with "steps" to push off from. I would most definitely recommend poles when doing this!
  • My Salomon Advanced Skin 12L Pack: Scott got me this new pack as an early birthday present and it was great for this trek. It holds so much stuff. I honestly know that I packed too much, but I'm the kind of person that would rather have more than enough than not enough so I was glad I had this pack that will hold a crap ton of stuff (I had a light rain jacket, bolero, gloves, buff, extra socks, tons of food (that I didn't eat nearly enough of), and some basic emergency supplies (space blanket, poncho, matches, extra contacts, whistle, bandaids), along with a full 1.5 Liter reservoir and a 20oz collapsible water bottle.
  • Our hotel: we stayed at the Red Feather Lodge in Tusayan - just minutes from the entrance to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It wasn't anything fancy but they had 24/7 coffee in the lobby AND a Mexican restaurant in the parking lot that was open until 10:00pm - perfect for my post-run birthday meal and margarita!

  • Fueling: I really struggled eating on this run. It wasn't the "keeping it down" that was an issue (which I've had one bad experience on), it was more actually wanting and feeling okay to eat. I think this had to have been the heat. My mouth felt so dry and gross the entire run, which I think was a combination of the heat and how incredibly dusty it was. What I did end up eating was 3 packages of Clif Shot Blocks (I would say these worked the best because they were so soft in the heat, they were really easy to eat), 3 packages of Tailwind, and some small candy bars. I also had quite a few electrolyte tablets which I think also helped a lot since I wasn't eating a ton.
  • Cooling Bandana's: okay, these didn't not work... I just forgot them! I was so mad at myself, I swore I had packed them, but I apparently didn't. Since I didn't have these, I ended up just using my buff and hat and wetting both of those everytime we had access to water.
  • My watches: no surprise here since they are both getting pretty old, but both of my Gamin Forerunner 220's did not last the entire trek. Thankfully Karla's watch did last, so she let me steal all of her Strava data!
  • Mileage: I've read different reports on what the actual mileage is. According to the National Park maps, it should be about 43.9 miles. Karla's garmin clocked it at over 48 so if you do this be mentally prepared to think you're a lot further than you actually are! If you go up South Kaibab instead of Bright Angel, it will be shorter, but with no water, that would be extremely hard to do this time of year!
  • Elevation Gain: I've also ready varying things on this, but I believe it's in the high 10,000's (so lets just round up to 11,000').
  • Weather: The temperature was in the high 30's when we started at 3:30am, and got up to over 100 on the canyon floor in the heat of the day. Be prepared to be HOT on this run unless you do it in the late fall or early spring (but then you have other things to deal with - such as less water stops and less daylight!).
  • Pace: We finished in 16 hours and 18 minutes, which at a 43.9 miles is about a 22 minute pace. Not fast by any means, but given the amount of elevation gain and stops, I'm pretty happy with this!
The route!
Elevation Profile

Overall, this was an incredible experience and definitely a unique way to spend my 30th Birthday! I'm really glad I did it and it left me extremely thankful for friends who want to do crazy things, my husband who is supportive and doesn't mind me running off to do crazy adventures, and for a healthy, working body that can endure some pretty hardcore stuff to see some pretty amazing things in this beautiful world! I know a lot of people make a big deal out of turning 30... I mean I'm a "real" adult now...but I'm honestly pretty grateful to be where I am and ready to bring on the next 30 years!


  1. Awsome! Thank you for posting!

  2. The heat can really take it out of you. Great job out there. Sounds like you are ready for WSER! 😁


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