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Running Rim To Rim To Rim at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim is a 45-mile out and back across the Grand Canyon. Completing the effort had always been on my mind, but the perfect opportunity had never presented itself. Which basically means I had never made it a priority. But, despite a looming 250-mile race in a week, I drove out to Tusayan, camped in my car, and prepared for the crossing. It was my opportunity to tackle the adventure with 11,000 feet of elevation gain.

I had just finished hiking a 35-mile route near Sedona when it dawned on me that this would be the time to knock out the elusive and bucket list Rim to Rim to Rim. After a full day of hiking, I made it back to my car around 7:30 pm, ate a quick dinner, and then drove to the edge of Grand Canyon National Park. On less than 10 hours’ notice, I decided that I would be crossing the Grand Canyon and back in the morning. It is how almost all my endurance endeavors have begun.

Running the Rim to Rim to Rim on the grand canyon national park

Crossing the Grand Canyon (this photo is from my first visit in 2018)

The Crossing

My alarm went off at 4 am, but I was slow to rise. A little coffee and by 5:30 I arrived at the visitor center parking lot and began packing my stuff. I was unorganized, simply just throwing nutrition and water capacity in my running vest. It would have to do. I had no idea which water sources were turned on and which were not on the crossing of the Grand Canyon. I hopped on the next shuttle and started running down the South Kaibab Trail at 6 am. I wished I had started earlier, but getting five hours of sleep was the best I could do.

The South Kaibab Trail is steep. There are steps built into it, and for much of it the grade is unforgiving. It is runnable but not with a natural stride length. Each step down is awkwardly positioned just too closely to the previous to let loose and let gravity pull you downhill truly.

In just over an hour, I reached the river. My body felt great, considering I had hiked 35 miles the day before. I passed Phantom Ranch and saw they had coffee out. I craved it, and I asked to buy a cup. But they gave me one for free. Half a cup is all it took, and then I was jogging through the narrow box canyons. The weather was still pleasantly cool and quite conducive to running. Not until I neared Cottonwood Campground did I notice the heat creeping into the big ditch.

My pace slowed, and I began to feel the slight uphill that would only steepen on the way to the North Rim. I was thirsty. I had already entered a dehydration deficit by not staying on top of fluid intake on the run down into the canyon. Now I would have to work hard to consume enough water and electrolytes for the rest of the day. It was only going to get warmer.

By Manzanita Creek Footbridge, I was no longer running. I quickly transitioned to hiking. It would be that way up to the North Rim. Starring up the steep walls of the Grand Canyon was daunting. I was already feeling the exertion of the day wearing on me, and I still had so far to go. The end of this first climb would only mark the halfway point. With the determination to cross the halfway point, I pushed hard, sweat flowing in streams down my face.

Others were running the canyon and passed me coming down as I climbed up. Of everyone running the canyon, I had gotten the latest start. With the nerves and the question of if I had started too late, I met an Arizona Trail thru-hiker a few miles from the top. His trail name was Hotwheels, and we hiked a couple of miles together before I went ahead.

On the North Rim, I pulled out the avocado I had brought for lunch and carefully peeled it without a knife. Once I had scarfed it down along with an apple, I took off back down to the canyon floor again. It was sad to give up all the ground I had worked so hard to gain, but that is what happens on out-and-back adventures.

The miles flew by almost in the same fashion as the South Rim descent. For as tired as I felt on the North Rim, the descent felt great. Being at the halfway point, I felt quite optimistic it wouldn’t be too hard to close out this goal. I blew past the faucet at a pumphouse and all the way down to Cottonwood Campground, where I realized I was out of the water and parched. Right in front of a ranger maintaining the trail, I tried to turn on the faucet. It was dry. The ranger turned around and told me the next water wasn’t until Phantom Ranch, seven miles ahead. In an awkward moment of being caught without checking the signs, I started jogging.

Coming from Montana, it was hot. The temperature hovered in the 80s, but without a breeze at the bottom of the canyon, it felt even hotter. My mouth was dry, and I craved water. It was a stupid mistake to pass the pump house faucet, but the only thing I could do to remedy the situation now was to make it to Phantom Ranch. Hiking was more comfortable, but running was faster, so I traded off.

The miles slowly melted by, and after tiring of seeing my watch move so slowly, I quit looking at it. And then, as if magically, I arrived at Phantom Ranch. They were still open, and I immediately got a lemonade. I was so dehydrated that I began chugging water. Now I was overhydrated. My stomach felt heavy, but a seven-mile dry climb still separated me from a successful rim to rim to rim.

With my water capacity maxed out, I jogged out of Phantom Ranch. My legs felt good on the flat sandy surface all the way to the Colorado River. As I climbed, my heart was in it, but my legs quickly tired. My energy level was low, and I had lost my voice. These are all the usual signs I experience with dehydration. Even though I had plenty of water now, the damage was done. I powered up the hill to the Tipoff and was exhausted. It was hot, and my heart rate was elevated. I walked over to the small shaded structure, laid down for five minutes, and immediately felt rejuvenated.

The five minutes of peace and calm were what I needed to reset my body. From the Tipoff, I charged 4,000’ straight up to the rim. It wasn’t fast, but it was continual progress. All the personal reward and gain from attempting a daunting 45-mile day with 11,000 feet of elevation was realized in those last four miles. I crested the final switchbacks in the evening light and felt personal pride. I had done something that had always been in the back of my mind. Now I wonder if I can do it faster.

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