It was last April during a 3-mile run at Arches National Park that I offhandedly said to Megan, ‘We should run Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon sometime.’ We were mid Girls Trip to the Desert, where we ride bikes, not run, so the idea was quickly forgotten over discussions of where to ride the next day.
When I got a text from Megan back in November asking if I was still game for a R2R2R in the spring, I’d been running some, and figured, ‘Why not?’ Megan and I have a history of doing Stupid together, and this was right up our alley of biting off more than we could most likely chew.
I started training. I got shin splints. I rested. I trained again. I got hurt again. Which brings me to the 4am alarm clock going off the morning of our run.
Megan had trained well for a flat 50-miler on the roads of Bozeman. I’d trained decently well for a steep 20-miler in the Tucson Mountains. Megan was ready for the cold of he morning, I was ready for the heat of the day. Together, we decided, we were perfectly ready to try to cover the 44 miles and 11,000-ish feet of elevation gain and loss.
After hardboiled eggs and cinnamon rolls for breakfast (Breakfast of Champions!), the 4:30 shuttle bus dropped us off in the darkness at the trailhead. What we were attempting all of a sudden got real.
So we did what we always do, we dove straight in. Down. The moon was well on its way down to the west.
The sun started to make its presence known in the east.
Headlamps were soon ditched and we stared in wide-eyed wonder at the magic place that we were in.
Approaching the ‘run’ as rationally as we could, we tried not to push the pace on the way down. We found ourselves at the black bridge and Phantom Ranch just in time for them to serve second breakfast at 6:30.
‘Where did you girls come from?’ was the common question as we filled water in front of the cantina. ‘Based on the sweat on your backs, it wasn’t just the campsite.’
I made a quick note that the cantina closed for snacks at 4:00 and looked at my watch. 9.5 hours to make it to the north rim and back if we wanted lemonade, which really was one of my main motivators in the run.
Temperatures stayed cool as we made our way up the Box towards Cottonwood, slowing to a power-walk whenever the trail kicked up, discussing the sage advice that we’d gathered from various runners about this trek, which seems to be a rite of passage for ultra runners. Maybe if I finished this, I could consider myself a faux ultra runner instead of just a faux runner.
We filled up all of our water capacity at Cottonwood, thinking that the water would have to last us the seven miles to the rim and the seven miles back.
We ran into a trail crew a few miles later. ‘Have you seen a guy carrying a bike this morning?’ I asked. I’d checked the tracker before we started down and knew that Joe was only a few miles past Phantom Ranch as of 4am.
‘Yep. He passed by here about 10 minutes ago.’
We go up!
It took us the better part of an hour to close that 10 minute gap. As the miles passed, I started to think that maybe he’d hold us off, but as it turns out, legs with 600 miles of hard pedaling and carrying a bike and bikepacking gear are no match for fresh legs with a liter of water of extra weight.
It was great motivation to see Joe still walking strong. No matter how much we were suffering, he was probably suffering more.
In the end, we put less than 20 minutes on him in the final few miles to the rim. I recognized the look of absolute relief from when Scott and I had schlepped bikes across the Canyon two years ago. That trip has made all trips into the Canyon seem relatively easy.
We ate. Chatted with the three other runners who were there. Rejoiced in the fact that the water spigot at the rim had been turned on in the past 12 hours. After the appropriate amount of sitting, Megan said, ‘Eszter, I think it’s time to go home.’
‘You’re going to make it back to Phantom by 4, no problem,’ the three other runners said. They were going out to do some extra credit running on the rim before heading back.
‘It’s easy running all the way back to Phantom,’ Joe told us. ‘Just be sure to take care of your bodies on the way down. And then fuel up big for the climb out.’
We hobbled down the first couple of big steps from the rim laughing. ‘The running is going to be easy, Joe Grant said so,’ was our frequently repeated joke as we lost the elevation that we’d just gained.
While I wouldn’t call it easy, we made great time to Cottonwood, where we stopped to re-lube feet (lubing feet, who’d have thunk?), douse all of our clothing in water, and fill up with what we thought was enough water for the seven miles to Phantom.
Then the heat hit.
The breeze saved us for a while, but once in the Box, we started to roast. Thank goodness that it wasn’t going to be a hot day, because any warmer would have been truly miserable. Water ran out, the heat increased. Shade was savored.
We trotted into Phantom at 3 and ordered up two lemonades and two apples. Megan declared it the best lemonade ever, and I wasn’t going to disagree with her. We sat for a while, cooling our core temperatures and eating whatever we could stomach. I’ve yet to crack the code of eating while running, and I spent most of the run clutching a bag of candies that I could never quite eat with glee.
Then it was time to face the facts. A 4,700 foot, 7 mile climb out. Rule #1 of the Canyon: If you go in, you have to get yourself out. As we left the Phantom, I did a quick assessment of legs, energy, and psyche. ‘I think I’m probably done running for the day,’ I declared.
‘I think that’s a great idea,’ Megan agreed.
And so, with absolutely zero intention of pushing the pace on the way up, we marched away from the river.
We met up the Maurizio Doro, the Italian, just a few hundred feet up from the river. He was in amazing spirits for being so far into the AZTR and about to be facing a long walk through the night.
We ran into Sam a few more miles up. He seemed slightly more concerned about the night ahead, but moving strongly. I have to admit, that even with as tired as I was, I was a little jealous of the adventure they were about to have.
We made it through the Redwall and did the short flat traverse to the next steep pitch. I had to laugh a little at how effortless running the flat had been in the morning. Now, we savored the view at walking pace.
A mile from the top, we heard a holler from above. Scott! We’d been carrying SPOT Traces as a test run for some Trackleaders.com events this summer, and Scott had come down to celebrate the last mile with us.
His presence definitely turned the final switchbacks into a party instead of a slog.
I can see the top!
We reached the rim, and as we’d been plotting since the bottom, ran the final little paved section to the shuttle bus stop. It was one of the more pathetic jogs I’ve ever partaken in, and we laughed the whole way.
We’d done it! Gracefully! And the best part was, there was never a doubt in my mind that we’d do it. We’d been on so many silly adventures together in the past that we had complete trust in each other to hold it together, at least enough to finish, if not gracefully. There are very few people in this world who I have such faith in.
Scott took over care duties that night, feeding us quesadillas (best quesadillas ever!), making sure that we drank water, and putting quarters in our hands so that we could go to the pay showers and rinse 44 miles of Grand Canyon dirt off of our legs.
What a Grand adventure. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.