Last Saturday, May 11th, I ran R2R2R in the Grand Canyon for the first time. It turned out to be one of those great moments in life that lived up to all the hype I created in my mind before hand. You know all those things in your life you’ve looked forward too for so long and got so excited about but when they finally arrived they turned out to be “just ok” or worse yet they sucked? For me running R2R2R in the Grand Canyon wasn’t one of them, it was everything I anticipated and much, much more.
There is only a small window of time in the Spring and Fall when a sane person would run R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. That time of year when they have the water turned on all the way across and on the North Rim but it’s still not too hot to attempt it. Those times are early May and mid October each year. This year I planned this trip with four other local friends and runners for May 11th but kept that date somewhat flexible based on the weather and water conditions. On May 6th the National Park Service posted on the back country information area of their website the water had been turned on at the North Rim and all areas of the Canyon so we were good to go.
The morning of May 11th I had the alarm set for 3:50 a.m. but it didn’t matter, friend and fellow runner Andy Gage was sharing a room with me and he was already up and had the coffee going. We needed to eat and get ready so we could catch the 5:00 a.m. Early Hikers Shuttle out of Bright Angel Lodge. More friends and running partners Deron Ruse and Marc Thompson showed up in our room and we hurried around to rush over to the shuttle stop. Not know exactly where the shuttle stop was we parked in the first place we could find. As we got out of the car the shuttle went by and we were already running, but we weren’t in the Canyon, we were running down the road trying to catch the shuttle! Jumping on the shuttle we already had our heart rates up, our blood pumping and a funny moment to remember for several years to come.
After a 30 minute shuttle ride to the S. Kaibab Trail we were ready to start our run. Standing in the parking lot it was 36°, I turned my GPS watch on only to find out the battery was low, low as in it ran for one minute and shut off, even though it had been charging all day the day before. Garmin GPS watches suck, I can’t recommend anyone owning one unless you have a high tolerance for frustrating, high priced technology that you honestly can live without. From that point and for the next hour and forty minutes everything went downhill. Not as in everything went bad, I mean literally every step I took for the next hour and forty minutes was downhill into the Grand Canyon.The views were beyond spectacular. We were six adults running down the trail acting and feeling like little kids on their first day of summer vacation from school. Half way to the bottom we passed a mule train carrying supplies to the bottom, a mile later we ran past two deer grazing at the side of the trail with no cares at all humans were running past them. Through this section and the entire day it was rare to run more than a mile without seeing something that just amazed me. Often time I would take my phone out to take a picture, put it away and 100 feet later round a corner only to see something even more amazing. Our first water stop of the day was at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Canyon after we crossed the Colorado River. We refilled our water and got back on the trail to weave our way through The Box on the way to Cottonwood Campground. The Box is a very cool stretch that crisscrosses Bright Angel Creek several times as it passes through sheer rock walls that appear to be a thousand feet high (or higher, I’m just guessing on the actual height but it was really tall).
Nearly seven miles after leaving Phantom Ranch we arrived in Cottonwood Campground. From here for the next two miles the trail would climb steady then take on a sudden steepness five miles from the top of the North Rim that had me concerned, I didn’t want to be carrying any more than I had to at that point. We refilled our water and unloaded weight out of our packs in the way of extra food and clothing. I brought along a nylon bag just for this purpose, after filling the bag with unneeded items we hid it behind a large rock and would retrieve it when we came back down off the North Rim later in the day.
Remember what I said about new and amazing things every few miles? Going up the North Kaibab trail is a perfect example. Only 1.6 miles before reaching Cottonwood Campgroup we passed Ribbon Falls. 1.4 miles after Cottonwood Campground was Pumphouse Residence, 0.7 miles later was Roaring Springs, 3 miles later was Supai Tunnel and 1.7 miles after that was the top of the North Rim, 21 miles from where we started. In between all this the landscape turned from low desert like we have around home to the heart of the Ponderosa Pine forest with huge pine trees in every direction and the smell of fresh pine filling the air. With the North Rim at 8,250 feet above sea level, nearly 5,800 feet higher than Phantom Ranch, it was windy and much colder at the top. The views were also spectacular as we could make out the snow filled top of Mt. Humphreys to the south, about 80 miles away outside Flagstaff. After spending close to 30 minutes on the North Rim (way too long) Deron Ruse and I were on our way back down the N. Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch. On tired legs going down the steep trail and hopping over the bazillion steps created by the National Park Service was not as enjoyable as one would think. But it was faster than going up and it allowed for me to put in the next 14 miles with a much lower heart rate than I had on the climb up. By time I reached Cottonwood Campground to retrieve the extra food and clothing I’d stored on the way up the temperatures were in the lower 90’s. We were also back in the lower desert with no tree cover so the next seven miles into Phantom Ranch would be hot but there would be some intermittent shade provided in The Box by the canyon walls.
Getting to Phantom Ranch before they closed at 4:00 p.m. was a major goal since I’d heard so much about the “Lemmy” lemonade. With my GPS dead I was running on nothing more than a guess as to how many miles I had left and if I was running at the correct pace to arrive in Phantom Ranch on time. As luck would have it I did make it to Phantom Ranch in time and purchased Lemmy’s for both me and Deron who was somewhere behind me. Prior to going to the Grand Canyon I had read numerous recaps from other runners and they all raved about how good the Lemmy was. Did the taste live up to the hype? Yes. Am I glad I drank one? Um, sort of. It’s like many things I’ve done in my life, I’m glad I did it once but I have no plans to do it again. After waiting five minutes for Deron to arrive and resting at Phantom Ranch again for way too long we took off down the trail for the Colorado River. Almost immediately I wished I hadn’t drank that Lemmy (and the refill) as the sugar was really starting to upset my stomach. For the next few miles walking through the sand along the Colorado River I drank as much water as possible trying to dilute the Lemmy. It was the only time all day my stomach bothered me. The next time I do this I might take a sip of Lemmy just to taste it and stick to water like I should have this time.Leaving Phantom Ranch we had 9.9 miles left, but that included almost 4,500 feet of climbing over the last eight miles with the steepest miles being the last five out of Indian Garden. By time I hit the Devil’s Corkscrew I felt good but was taken back by how winded I got going up through the Corkscrew. It wasn’t until I reached the top and looked back that I realized even where I was and how steep the section of trail was that I just climbed. From there into Indian Garden was just a mile but it seemed to go on forever. I had stopped to take several videos along the way and was now behind Deron and going solo.
I thought I was feeling good as I entered Indian Garden, I had a nice visit with an old timer who had been hiking since 7:00 a.m. and thought at the pace he was going he wouldn’t be out of the Canyon until close to 1:00 a.m. Little did I know until after I got home and was watching videos I’d taken that I might have felt great at Indian Garden but I was actually delirious. All along the trail I kept talking to myself about “Indian Garden this…Indian Garden that…blah, blah, blah”. But in my video I immediately started it with “I’m approaching Phantom Ranch” then later in the video I called it “Phantom Ranch” again. If I’d been riding one of the Grand Canyon mules up out of there I could’ve been arrested for riding under the influence the way the video sounds.
The rest of the hike (there was no running up those steep trail left in me at this point) was uneventful other than the number of people I passed. It’s unbelievable with all the warning signs posted on the South Rim, and along the first few miles of trail toward the top, the number of people sitting and laying along the trail out of water and only little 16 ounce convenience store bottles in their hands that once held what precious little water they had. It’s also amazing how many people you see in flip flops, sandals and flats instead of decent shoes one would think appropriate on a trail in the wilderness.
As I reached the trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail after being in the Grand Canyon for 48 miles I knew I was the last person in our group out of the Canyon. My friend Andy was waiting for me with my hooded sweatshirt and that “where in the hell have you been” look in his eyes. I had slowed down considerably coming up the trail from the Colorado River but it wasn’t just physical. I have over an hour worth of videos and close to 50 pictures on my cell phone to prove I can waste as much time not moving on a scenic trail as anyone.
To finally bring this to a close I want to make a couple quick statements. First of all the Grand Canyon is an absolutely beautiful place and the diversity of it’s views and mini ecosystems tucked around every corner are something everyone should see at least once in their life time. But that’s only a small part of what makes running in the Grand Canyon so great. Taking time to notice the incredible number of man hours it took to get the Grand Canyon trails and campgrounds where they are today is mind boggling. If the Grand Canyon was virgin territory today and we had to start over with unlimited man hours I can’t believe we could accomplish in the next 20-30 years the amount of work that has already taken place. To think about the bridges being built, the number of buildings, stone walls and tunnels built through thousand feet high blocks of granite, all without the use of modern construction equipment is more than my simple brain can imagine. And last but not least what makes running in the Grand Canyon memorable is the people you meet on the trail and in the campgrounds. There are so many interesting people from all over the world in the Grand Canyon, if you don’t stop to say “hi” and visit with them for a few minutes you aren’t fully experiencing the Grand Canyon.
So what’s next? It sounds like a trip to Flagstaff to run the trails around and to the top of 12,637 feet high Mt. Humphreys is in the works for early June. Then on June 8th I’m running in a 65K night race on trails near my house. If all goes as planned I’ll go an extra 8.2 mile loop when I finish to get in over 49 miles as I peak for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run on July 20.
Until the next time…be safe and have fun!