[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Almost two years ago exactly, a group of my friends traveled to the Grand Canyon to run from the South Rim, to the North Rim, and back again. Despite the beauty of the canyon, I had a tough day. I didn't come prepared with the proper nutrition to fuel me for nearly 50 miles and (unbeknownst to me at the time) I had low iron levels. I made the trip in about 13.5 hours, with a solid hour stop on the north rim.
Last weekend, I went back to the canyon to run the same route expect this time, I had two additional years of mountain running under my belt and better knowledge about fueling. This time, I was not suffering from low iron and I knew exactly what to expect.
There were five of us at the start; two of whom were going to Ribbon Falls and back. We coordinated rides so we had cars at the end, near the Bright Angel trailhead, and a car at the start, near the South Kaibab trailhead. These two trails both go up the south rim, and I highly recommend doing both of them if you can. You could run down South Kaibab and back up South Kaibab, but the route we did (down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel) is a bit more fun. The trailheads are only a few miles apart, so if you needed to run back to your car, you could.
We started around 4:20 a.m. heading down the South Kaibab trail with jackets on and headlamps lit. It's steep in sections, with large steps and sharp switchbacks. One of my friends took a tumble a few miles down, landing near a pile of mule poop. The trail winds down for about seven miles, and by the time we reached the Colorado River, the sky was light enough for us to see. The river was a murky brown color, silty from the recent monsoon season.
At the bottom of the trail, we ran through Phantom Ranch, a glampy sort of campground where you can rent out a cabin or buy snacks at the snack bar. We filled up water and continued on, the trail following a rushing stream that made talking to each other difficult. From Phantom Ranch to the last water stop before the climb up the North Rim was a little over seven miles. We ran under canyon walls and over bridges, past the Ribbon Falls turn-off, and through Cottonwood Campground. One nice thing about running Rim to Rim to Rim is the abundance of water spigots. If they're all on, there is water every 6 miles or less. Be sure to check for updates on water shutoffs before planning your trip. There is also plenty of natural water you can filter.
By the time we started climbing the North Rim, I was feeling good. My legs were a bit tired from all the miles I've put on them in recent weeks, but I knew I could climb a few thousand feet without a problem. When we arrived at the top, we discovered that the water had been recently turned off in preparation for an upcoming storm. We had enough to get us down a few miles to another water spigot, so the lack of water wasn't an issue. At the top of the North Rim, a father was helping his adult kids, giving them water and food before they headed back to the south rim. He held a long leash carelessly, knowing the giant golden retriever at the opposite end wouldn't go anywhere. "What's his name?" I asked, patting the dogs enormous head. "This is Theo," the man answered, "he's a big ball of love."
We put our jackets back on before heading down the North Rim, and only a few minutes down, we all stopped to take them off again. The North Rim tops out at over 8,000 feet, but the bottom of the canyon is warm. It was also protected from the strong winds of the day, making us sweat easily. I stopped to put sunscreen on my face and the backs of my hands. I was wearing my favorite sun shirt that protects my arms and torso and dries quickly. "I'm trying to maintain my youthful glow," I told my friends.
On the way back, we strung out a bit as we headed back to Phantom Ranch. I thought about how wide the gap was between my previous experience and my current one; how I had to make some big mistakes to learn, and how each challenging run makes me better prepared for the next. I also thought about the night before, when we all sat around a fire at a nearby camping spot. We could look up and see so many stars that I wanted to stay bent backwards, so I wouldn't miss a thing. I thought about how peaceful and quiet it was, sleeping among the ponderosa pines. I wanted that peace always. And finally, I thought about how nobody is guaranteed anything. How none of us know when our time is up, and how that's as good a reason as any to say yes to running through the Grand Canyon, or "yes" to any other difficult, beautiful thing. Life is too short to stay stuck, I decided.
And then, I ran out of water. I passed a hiker and surprised him, "Ought to give me more warning hun," he said. I apologized, and he chuckled, "Go on, then," he said. At Phantom Ranch for the second time, we stopped a bit longer, eating food and refilling water and taking stock of our bodies. All that was left was the climb up Bright Angel. The trail winds along for a few miles with a steady incline but not much intense climbing. Four and a half miles from the top there is a water stop where we saw a family of scraggly dear. After that water stop, the climbing got steeper. There was another water stop three miles from the top, and another a mile and a half from the top.
It got dark and I pulled out my headlight. It immediately dimmed, signaling that it was dead. "My headlight is definitely dead," I told my friend, and pulled out my phone to use as a flashlight. We passed groups of hikers, and a couple park rangers heading down, ostensibly to help someone having trouble at the bottom. We passed another park ranger closer to the top, who was there simply to make sure people were okay. "Big storm coming, are you all okay?" he asked. "We're fine," I answered, giving him a smile.
We were fine, and we were almost done. By the time we reached the top of Bright Angel, the wind had picked back up. The minute I stopped moving, I was shivering. We started walking toward my car, which was parked about a mile away. As we walked, we neared a bus stop, "Last bus of the night!" someone yelled. "Does this bus go to the backcountry lot?" my friend asked the driver. It did, so we hopped on, relishing the warmth of the bus as it brought us to our car. I was tired, but happy. Cold, but content. Stinky, but absolutely ecstatic.
P.S. The Grand Canyon is majestic and running through it is the best way to see and feel everything. Before you go, check the weather, read up on how to have the best day possible, and invest in a solid headlight, like I didn't.