Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!


Thursday, January 16, 2014

My Date With the Big Ditch: A Solo Winter R2R2R on a Whim

WARNING: Do not attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion. 

 Said No Ultra Runner Ever!

I had always planned to run the famous Rim to Rim to Rim adventure run in the Grand Canyon. I think it's one of those things that I feel compelled to do, just so I can check it off the list as being completed. I always envisioned sharing this adventure with a few close friends so we could encourage and support each other along the way. Maybe a Boys Weekend...some male bonding mixed with intense trail running. That plan sounded pretty appealing.

But that's not what happened.

After spending a week of trail running through Moab and then into the Phoenix area, it was time for Jo and I to load up and drive back to Ogden, Utah. I was still itching for a bit of adventure, pondering another stop on the way home so I could hit some new trails. Suddenly, and with absolutely no fanfare, I blurted out, "HEY! Let's stop by the Grand Canyon so I can run the rim to rim to rim before we go home!"

Like with most of my adventure ideas, my loving bride looked at me, holding my gaze for a few seconds before saying, "Sure. I'll get us a hotel near the rim."

It's fair to say that I really didn't know anything about this run before I decided to tackle it. I wasn't even sure it could be done in January. I got online, read a few reports from runners of varying skill and ability levels, and decided I had gained sufficient knowledge to determine that I could get it done in a reasonable amount of time.

We drove directly to Tusayan, checked into our hotel, and went into the park to get some maps. While eating some overpriced pizza and drinking a few overpriced beers, I laid out my plan for the next day.

The weather was forecasted to be 12 degrees on the south rim when I planned to start my run and a high of 54 during the day, so I assumed it would much warmer deep in the ditch. I planned my clothing strategy accordingly.

We woke up at 3:00 AM so I could get my gear assembled and we were at the South Kaibob trailhead by 4:50. I could see that my bride was a little nervous at the thought of me dropping over the rim in the dark, all by myself. I gave her a few words of encouragement, a soft kiss and then dropped into the canyon at 5:00 AM.

My descent is best described as a moderately controlled free fall. Getting to the river fast was a key element of my plan. My feet skidded along the terraced trail, slipping on rocks, bouncing off water bars, and kicking the occasional mule turd. It was very dark and as my headlamp peered over the edge of the canyon, there was nothing but emptiness to be seen. I focused on staying upright, and most importantly, on the trail.

The fine, powdery dust was my biggest problem. The trail was very dry and my feet were kicking up a dust cloud that swarmed around my body like Pigpen. My headlamp caught the dust more than the trail, which made it very difficult to see my feet. I tripped and stumbled a few times but managed to stay upright.

When I arrived at Cedar Ridge, the trail spilled out into a large open rest area. I wasn't here to rest, but couldn't find where the trail made its exit. I started to circle the perimeter in a counterclockwise circle until I found my way out. I continued my descent, a little miffed that they didn't have the trail marked a little better. But maybe they don't expect trail runners to bomb down to the bottom of the canyon in the dark.

I paused briefly at Tip Off to adjust some gear and I heard a new sound. My ears strained to pick it up but I instantly recognized it as the sound of rushing water. The Colorado River! I was close! I started running with renewed enthusiasm...into the void.

After a few tight switchbacks and some steep downhill, I found myself running through a tight tunnel carved through the stone. The moon and stars were temporarily lost, along with the sound of the river. When I emerged, the sound of rushing water was intense and I found myself dashing across a long suspension bridge. I was in the bottom of the canyon!

I crossed the river and turned onto a nice section of flat, well groomed trail. It felt great to be running on the flats again. I picked up my pace, feeling a bit exhilarated. It was still totally black as I ran through Phantom Ranch. I was struck by the number of cabins in the bottom of the canyon. It wasn't what I expected. It was somewhat surreal running through this small community in such a remote place. There was some light coming from a few of the cabins and I could hear the constant hum of a generator somewhere in the distance. I sailed through this little village, totally unseen.

I was making great time through the bottom of the canyon, enjoying some decent leg speed on flat ground and launching myself over the low rollers along the way.

Shortly before I began my ascent up to the north rim, the sun began to make its appearance in the canyon and I could finally switch my headlamp off and take in the sights.

I had started my run with a down jacket, which I shed before I reached the river. That left me with a light rain shell for warmth. I finally shed that as well, as the temperature and physical intensity rose.

The canyon was tight and it was difficult to grasp where I was running. The rim wasn't visible from below. I felt like I was being swallowed by the steep walls.

The trail was comfortable and runnable for the first 16 miles and I was making excellent time. The last 5 miles before the north rim started to bog me down a bit. There were some steep climbs and a few fast sections sprinkled in. I was able to power up the ascent fairly well, but I was also focused on reserving some energy for the return trip. I kept a cautious but strong pace to the top.

As soon as I reached the top of the north rim, I touched the trailhead sign, turned around and began the return trip. I didn't want to linger and risk getting cold at this point and I was eager to get back to the river.

The decent went much better than my run down the south rim. That's likely the result of having daylight to help me along my way, but I also found this trail to be more runnable. I really enjoyed the fast trip back down but my quads were beginning to protest well before reaching the bottom.

I was back to the bottom of the canyon much faster that I expected and my legs were beginning to revolt a bit. I decided to walk for a half mile while my legs took a break and I got some calories in my belly. I ate some Hammer peanut butter gel, a Hammer Bar and spent some time getting my fluid levels back up. After a few minutes of restful walking, I was feeling renewed and ready to push the pace again.

I encountered my first hikers about a mile before getting back to Phantom Ranch. With an early January start, I had been able to selfishly enjoy the trail all to myself up until this point. I flashed a big smile and greeted the hikers as I sailed by them. I'm sure I left some curious thoughts in their minds as I cruised down the trail.

Returning to Phantom Ranch in the daylight was a highpoint of the trip. The ranch is really cool and I wish I had more time to explore what it has to offer. I kept moving but tried to soak it all in as I did.

Before exiting the camp, I saw the famous mule train arriving for their daily supply run. I had planned my trip in hopes of seeing the animals, but I was trying to avoid sharing the trails with them. My timing was perfect, as they were peeling off the trail just as I came along.

I had considered returning to the south rim via the Bright Angel trail. It's about 2.5 miles longer but its supposed to be an easier climb out. I was very tempted to head down that trail but I wanted a "pure" out and back experience, so I continued toward South Kaibab.

Turnoff for the Bright Angel Trail

I soaked up the last bit of flat trail as the Black Bridge came into view. I knew once I crossed it, it would be nothing but climbing for the rest of my day.

Running across the bridge was really cool. I had missed all the scenery earlier in the day due to the early morning darkness. I was in awe of the powerful river that took its precious time carving this amazing canyon.

As soon as I exited the tunnel, I was greeted by a steep climb. I pointed my toes up the trail and settled into a strong power hike.

I was alternating between hiking and running. I only attempted to run when the ascent, trail conditions and my lungs were inclined to play along. I was making good time back toward the top but I wasn't having much fun at this point.

I was getting warm and I drank from my pack liberally. I felt tired, but well hydrated. I was nailing my electrolytes and fuel intake.

The ascent provided me the opportunity to see all the details that I had missed on my way down in the dark. I was a little surprised by how much exposure there was in some sections of the trail and I decided it was probably best to be unaware during the descent. If I had known, I would have been far more cautious and it would have been a much slower trip to the river.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

The emergency phone at Tip Off was piquing my curiosity. I slowed down and desperately wanted to figure out how this thing worked all the way down here but I decided to press on, wondering how many calls are logged on that thing each year.

I found a few stretches of prolonged running and took advantage of every bit of it. The skies were cloudless, the sun was out and the temperature was perfect for running. I couldn't have picked a better day to be in the canyon.

During the ascent, I decided every airline must route their planes directly over the Grand Canyon so their customers can get a glimpse of this natural wonder. There were never less than eight planes flying overhead at any given time. I enjoyed the distraction they provided.

When I reached Cedar Ridge, I knew I only had 1.5 miles left to the top. I stopped and found a perch on a rock so I could take a minute and enjoy the remaining moments of my time below the rim. I reached into my pack and grabbed my last Hammer bar. I engulfed it in a few bites, knowing I would need the energy for the last steep swtchbacks. I reached back in my pack and brought out a PBR that I had saved for this exact moment. I quietly celebrated a personal victory in the making. I polished off the beer, loaded my trash into my pack and headed back up the trail.

After leaving Cedar Ridge, I began to encounter a lot of hikers. Most of them weren't dressed or equipped to be below the rim. Many of them were in street shoes, jeans and weren't carrying water.

I realized the warning sign was designed for THESE people.

After a short while, I began to hear voices echoing off the canyon walls and realized I was hearing people at the rim. I looked up and the edge of the rim was now visible. I hunkered down and ran the last 1/2 mile to the top.

My feet struck asphalt on flat ground and I ran to the trailhead sign, finishing the Rim to Rim to Rim in 9:21:57.

When I erupted from the canyon, I expected to be hugged by my bride. She wasn't there. My grin faded as I looked around and confirmed she wasn't in the parking lot.


I dug my phone out of my pack and learned she was waiting down the road, beyond the gate to the trailhead. The road to the trailhead is closed to public traffic, but we had ignored that when she dropped me off in the morning, Now, with the presence of Park Rangers, she wasn't welcome to park in the lot.

I buckled my pack up and ran the mile to the end of the access road where she was waiting. That is where I got my hug and we celebrated another successful adventure!

I was left with a feeling of accomplishment, but I was also slightly deflated. Running in January means I had limited daylight, so I missed some perspective that I would have otherwise had. I was mostly disappointed because I didn't wait for a time that I could share this experience with a group of friends. It's really an adventure that should be shared.

R2R2R is now checked off the list!

Here's a list of all the gear I took for a winter R2R2R adventure:

- Running tights
- Short sleeve tech shirt
- Long sleeve tech shirt
- Smartwool socks
- NB 1400 shoes
- Outdoor Research Helium II waterproof jacket
- Outdoor Research Transcendent down jacket
- Running gloves (2 pairs)
- Kahtoola Microspikes
- Osprey Rev 6 hydration pack (1.5 liter)
- Hammer Nutrition peanut butter gel (2 flasks)
- Hammer Bars (5)
- Hammer Endurolyte Fizz Tabs (1 tube)
- Candy bars (3)
- Cell phone (airplane mode to preserve battery)
- Trail maps

Thanks for checking out my story. I'll be resting in preparation for the Coldwater Rumble 100 mile trail run on January 25th. More fun and adventure in the Arizona desert!


  1. Incredible and so fun to read!! This is on my bucket list but I have a long way to go before I attempt. It's awesome though to read about those who do it and are willing to share all the details. You're amazing!

    1. Thanks for reading my story. Good luck with your GC plans. It's definitely a worthy bucket list item!

  2. Hey Kelly, its Shane from Cajun. This was a great read, I've really been enjoying your blog, keep the adventures coming! I hope to see you and Jo at the Moab Trail Marathon this year! I'll be hitting you up for some course tips!

    1. Awesome! Thanks, Shane! I hope we get a chance to meet up in Moab. Let me know how I can help with your race.

  3. Bonus Mile at the end - brutal! Good job!

    1. Yeah, it wasn't ideal, but I ran right into a big herd of elk along the way, so that was cool.

  4. Wow - congrats!!
    Sounds like an amazing run... whether by yourself or with others.

    I (and my family) had planned to hike the canyon while traveling in the area one year... but then a snow/ice/rain storm came through and they were recommending people wait a few days. We didn't have time to wait (life/work/etc) so we had to leave. Then a few months later the accident from hell changed my life and for years I thought my dream of doing the canyon was lost. But now that I've recovered better than expected... I'm dreaming again... and this post has motivated me to make it happen sometime.
    Again congrats on an amazing run!

  5. Thanks for reading, Janet. If you still want to do the canyon, I know you can get it done. You've done a lot of amazing things since your accident that are much harder than this. Good luck with your future plans!

  6. Good one on you!!!! I still have yet to get an R2R2R in. With plans to modify the Backcountry Management Plan this spring, I hope to get it in when I return to the states in late June. Was shooting for a fall trip, may need to think about a summer trip. I know it can be hot ;)

    1. Thanks, Lynette! A summer trip would be tough. The temps in the bottom of the canyon can be insane. I got pretty warm during my run and it was 12F at the rim. But if that's your only option, then you have to do it! I hope you get it done and have an amazing time!

  7. Thanks for the concise play by play, and the packing list. I'm looking forward to doing this run sometime in the next year. I'll probably start on the North Rim, though. My first trip may be just a down and back.

    1. That's very cool, Bill! I hope you have a great trip. Let me know how it goes.

  8. Love that you had time to take so many excellent pictures! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Capturing my adventures is always a priority. I usually run with my iPhone in my hand so I can snap quick pictures on the fly.

  9. I've done R2R2R a handful of times, but always during "primetime" (April/May or Sept/Oct) since I've assumed the portion of North Kaibab above Supai Tunnel would be extremely icy or snowpacked. What was your experience with ice and/or snow? Thanks for the great trip report.

    1. Normally, there would be snow and ice to deal with on the north side, but the weather has been very dry and warmer than normal lately. There was some snow at the rim and scattered around the trail near the top but there wasn't anything on the trail to slow a runner down much. The conditions were excellent.

  10. I finally carved out a little time (you know, like the wind and water have done to that thar ditch) to read this and it was well worth the wait. Pretty stunned out how your endurance has shaken out considering the efforts of the last 45 days...solid work to say the least. I "celebrated" my 22nd birthday at the GC many years ago and it was one of the worst days outdoor in my entire life (before or since) due to the traffic congestion, ever present generator hum, the unexpected obstacles of unavailable permits (I was young and uninformed) and the sight of high-priced cocktails being delivered by waitresses to fancy tables just inches from the edge of the North Rim. Destroyed all kinds of visions I had of the place and left a foul taste that's lingered since and kept me from ever returning. I know the beauty and the magic ARE still there and that I've bogged down on the nasty peripherals...thanks for the reminder. Be well, my friend.

    1. Thanks for finding the time to read it and also taking the time to leave some feedback. I have to say that running the canyon was definitely a different kind of running and I might go as far as to say it may have been a bad idea to push it that hard. I'm hoping to recover in time to have a respectable showing at my next race, which is rapidly approaching. The canyon is an amazing place, but its far from being one of the wild destinations that I would enjoy finding myself in. It's developed and can be crowded with tourists. There are more "epic" adventures in this part of the world, for sure. Maybe we can go find them together?