Rim to Rim to Rim: Running the Grand Canyon

First off a bit of disclaimer… none the words I type or photos I post will do this experience proper justice.  It was definitely one of hardest things, physically, I have ever done, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and without a question the sickest trails I have ever been fortunate enough to run on.  R2R2R has been on my list of things to do for a long time now.  I’m so stoked to have this checked off and can’t wait to go back.  I can’t thank Toby and the crew of awesome people for getting me out there and to charge this.

I headed out early Friday morning with Kevin, Ryan, and Michelle.  We were meeting up with another group of people who were all either doing R2R2R or Rim to River.  After a mellow drive we were there.  We headed to the canyon and it kind of took my surprise.  I had been there once as a kid but looking at it through different eyes now with thoughts of running across and back had my mind swirling.  It’s just huge, breathtaking, and after checking out the South Kaibab trail head I couldn’t wait to get down there.  I was ready to rip right then.  The route we were taking was straight down the South Kaibab trail, up then North Kaibab Trail, and then flipping and coming back the same way.

The group got together for some mexican food for dinner, discussed the logistics, and then it was time to crash.  5 of us crashed in a small hotel room before the early alarm.  Our group all had different start times.  Kevin and I decided to start a bit later than everyone else doing R2R2R so we could see most of the trail in the light sans headlamp.  We got to the trailhead around 6am and it was in the 20’s, cold for sure, but with all the right gear it wasn’t bad at all.  In retospect it was actually a bit too much gear.  I could have gotten a way with less.  next time. We started with our headlamps but had them off after the first 10 minutes.  As we descended the first couple miles with the sun coming up I couldn’t stop laughing.  It was just awesome… and STEEP!  We took our time and took plenty of photos and video.  We made it down to Phantom Ranch in 1:15 (running time), shed and stashed our cold weather gear, filled up our bottles, ate some, and got back on it.

The next section was rad as we climbed up to Cottonwood Campground.  It was a gradual climb the whole way paralleling the cololorado river and running right next to the canyon walls.

I was feeling good and just rolling along.  My plan for the day was to just keep moving and NEVER get into the red.  I just jogged my “all day” pace and then power hiked all the super steep climbs.  My goal was to learn the route in hopes to go back in the future to see how fast I can actually run it.  Kevin and I got separated a bit at this point.  We both just wanted to run our own pace and never feel like we had to keep up with one another, experience it out own way, and just take it all in.

About 7 miles later I reached the Cottonwood Campground and caught up with Carlyn, Erin, and the rest of the crew that started around 5am.  I hung out, waited for Kevin, refilled my bottle, and then hiked with them out of the campground.  Soon enough I was back running solo and heading up the final 7 miles to the north rim.

The climb was epic, and pretty runnable, but I did do quite a bit of power hiking up all the really steep sections and rock stairs.  I was still feeling pretty good and keeping my effort in check.

I finally got to the north rim in ~ 4:05 (running time), and as Toby described to me the previous weekend,  it was pretty anticlimactic.  I was the only person up there and there were some signs and a bench.  I sat down for a bit, reorganized, ate & drank, and in about 10 minutes I was on my way before I got any colder.

 The descent was fun and I was letting it rip a bit.  I am noticing a huge improvement in my descending skills in the past couple of months.  The racing is working by being forced to run the downhills his as quick as possible.  I passed quite a few runners, hikers, Kevin, and the early morning crew.  I stopped briefly to talk to Kevin and to high five Carlyn and Erin as they powered up to the north rim.

I just kept rolling the descent.  I stopped again at the Cottonwood Campground to refill and to talk to some other folks that were on their way up to the north rim.  It’s crazy the diversity of people I ran into out there.  After Cottonwood Campground I had around 7 miles until I would be back at Phantom Ranch.

About half way back things got a bit interesting for me.  I was staying on top of hydration and nutrition all day but I stopped to take photo and got really lightheaded.  Almost dizzy to the point where I thought I may pass out.  Well there was only thing one thing to do… just keep running.  So I continued along and it kind of went away as long as I was moving.  I finally got to Phantom Ranch in a running time of ~6:06 and picked up my stashed gear before a pit stop.

I had been running for a long time now and was kind of sick of luke warm water.  At Phantom Ranch they have a “canteen” (snack shop) and I was hoping, praying, they had an ice cold coke.  Not the case.  All they had was lemonade and iced tea.  So I purchased the plastic cup and also a refill.  I first went over got some ice and then to the water machine.  As I was filling up my cup I dropped it on the floor spilling water and ice everywhere.  I guess I was kind of out of it.  The nice lady behind the counter told me she clean it up while I apologized repeatedly.  Then I picked up my cup, filled it back up with ice and went to fill it with lemonade.  I guess when I dropped the cup it broke because as soon as it was half way filled up with lemonade it started spewing lemonade everywhere from the side.  sweet.  Again the lady said she’d clean it up and I apologized while she gave me another cup.  This time I filled it up with a mix of lemonade & iced tea. I went back outside and started talking with another runner outside.   After 10 minutes of chatting and him telling me his name, Graham Cooper, it dawned I me that I knew him… well kind of.  Talk about random… he was the former roommate of my friend Ryan… and Ryan and his girlfriend were part of the crew that I came headed out to the Grand Canyon with (they did Rim to River). I also use to ride with him on the super early Tues/Thurs Swami’s rides.  Graham is the gnar.  He’s raced Kona multiple times, won The Western States 100 in 2006, and then went 16:34 at the WS100 in 2011.  Such rad guy.  He’s one of those people, much like Slater, that just exude energy and that I start getting stoked for epic adventures and pushing myself to another level just by talking to them…. ok sorry for getting side tracked…. I ended up using my “refill” to refill by bottle with ice, iced tea, & lemonade headed our of Phantom Ranch.

I ran the mile from Phantom Ranch to the bridge crossing over the river and to the base of the South Kaibab Trail.  I was feeling ok but long day was starting to wear on me and my stomach was not too awesome.  I didn’t feel sick but couldn’t eat.  I think the sugar and acidity of the lemonade turned my stomach upside down and inside out.  I have never had this feeling before.  I was trying to eat a larabar, then some dried mango, then banana.  I really couldn’t get anything down.  Awesome.  Only 6 miles and over 5k of climbing to go!

I crossed the bridge and started the climb.  Right off the bat I new there wasn’t going to be any running anything super steep.  There are a lot of sections that are “steps”.  Either they are cut out of the rocks are made with wood.  With the state I was in and my stride I couldn’t get into any kind of rhythm running up them.  So I I jogged when I could and did A LOT of power hiking.  Damn it was steep.  The super steep switch backs leading up to Skeleton Point cracked me on a whole new level.

At this point I was getting tired… the kind of tired where I would have really liked to lay down and take a nap.  My legs were actually feeling good which kind of a shock to me.  No aching, not a single sign of a cramp, but it was taking everything I had to keep moving forward.  I still couldn’t eat.

On the drive out to the Grand Canyon my friend Matt had sent me a link to Dakota’ Jones blog about when he ran the Grand Canyon.  I read it during the drive and one line was now stuck in my head as I power hiked with my hands on my knees and kind of laughing a bit:

“You’re going to blow up on the ascent back to the South Rim. Stop deluding yourself – it’s going to happen. You can’t avoid it”

Well… I was blowing up… or already blown.  I just kept pressing on, making sure to drink, and try to eat, but the eating still wasn’t happening and I just gave into the fact that whatever I had in me was now going to have to get me to the top.  With just over 2 miles to go I caught a hiker who was moving well.  I ended up talking with him a bit… another legend.  It was his 6oth+ R2R2r2 (done in the last 8 years) and his 5th crossing in the last 5 weeks.  Gnarly.  I could still jog the flatter sections but there was NO running on anything really going up.  I finally reached the final switchbacks and was so thankful.  There hasn’t been times in my life whether it be in a race or training when I have been that stoked to hit the “finish line”.  I didn’t have much, if anything, left in the tank.

I made it to the top with a “moving” time of 8:47 and a “total” time of 10:25ish.  I spent a lot of time taking it all in, filling bottles, and taking some breaks, but I wanted to see what my moving effort was so when I go back I will have a goal to shoot for.  I think I can go under my “moving” time for “total” time the next time I head out there.  I learned a lot about the route and what it will take for me to put in a solid effort.  The times of of the tops guys in the sport have put in out there are pretty amazing and its seems that they have all suffered out there as well.

I probably ended up running at least 32 of of the 42 miles pretty much solo.  It wasn’t the plan… it just kind of happened… but I’m kinda glad it did.  Don’t get me wrong I like running with people and my friends but it was good for me.  I know I’ve tried to explain this before but running lets me think as much or as little as I want.  When I run I can get so deep in thought that I kind of detach and really don’t feel my body moving underneath me (sorry to get all trail runner hippy on you).  I see everything and am super aware of my surroundings but at the same time super deep in thought about everything other than running… this run took that sensation to another level.  It was full on sensory overload and while I was taking it all in I was also replaying the last year of my life, the good and the bad, and I think I am finally coming to terms with everything.  I suffered a good bit out there on Saturday, got back up the south rim pretty smashed, but with a much cleared head.  I needed this experience.

Here’s a little added bonus and some dumb luck.  On the same day we ran out there so did some super fast dudes.  Sage Canaday was out there with a couple others and the got a lot of video from the run.  They ran the same route we did  but climbed up Bright Angel back to the South Rim.  I crossed paths with them descending from the North Rim right before I got up there.  Pretty rad because the timing and views they captured are pretty much the same I saw on that day.  Check the out the video (i’m the guy coming up the North Rim @ ~4:35ish, you can barely tell… and it’s killer to see them taking down some IPA’s the night before & beers right after!  my kind of guys!).  Sage Canaday is also racing the NF50 so it will be interesting to watch him rip it first hand.

  5 comments for “Rim to Rim to Rim: Running the Grand Canyon

  1. November 8, 2012 at 10:34 am

    That’s incredible James. Great job, and fantastic pictures! wow that’s beautiful.

  2. November 10, 2012 at 8:49 am


  3. Brian Zembower
    November 13, 2012 at 3:33 am

    James, awesome write up one your experience. Something that is def on my bucket list. Keep the posts coming and keep pushing yourself and finding new limits, I need the solid reference to continue to try to seek that inner clarity which you speak of. Have a kick ass week.


  4. November 13, 2012 at 6:53 am

    EPIC – only word to describe the pictures and the video and the fact that I saw a Deviant Dale’s located in the video – what a great experience!

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