Words can simply not express my R2R2R journey. The crossing of the Grand Canyon (GC) twice had such a profound, positive impact on me as a person. Let’s take a look at “the day”. I am going to separate this into six sections for it is how I approached the double crossing in my mind: 1) the first descent, 2) the “floor” of the canyon crossing number one, 3) the first climb, 4) the second descent, 5) the “floor” of the canyon crossing number two, and 6) the last climb.
A bit of background on my trip out to the GC…I drove down by myself on October 30. My family plans changed a bit, which I alluded to in my Week 7 blog post. That said, the drive was spectacular! I took a more scenic route through Colorado, down to the Four Corners and over to the GC. It took about 11.5 hours to get there with one stop (yes, just one!). Upon arrival, I wanted to get a look at the Bright Angel trail, my starting point, so I hustled to the rim and figured out my logistics for the next morning. The sunset was amazing!
I then headed to the Mather campground in the GC park, checked-in and settled in for the night. I knew I had an early morning ahead of me so my lights were out just after dark. I did not bring a tent, so I car camped, literally, in my car. It was a bit cramped but it did the trick. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep well anyway so my accommodations didn’t really matter too much. I think I fell asleep around 8:00pm and woke up every 2 hours from people making noise around me in the campground. The last time I woke up was 2:00am and I decided to not go back to sleep and just take my time waking up. With the car packed up, I headed down to park in Lot D, about a 1/4 mile or so from the Bright Angel trail. I decided on this trail instead of the South Kaibab trail because it was, well, longer, and I wanted as much distance as possible!
Now to the good stuff…oh, and please excuse the length of this blog post. I am recounting the 13 hour and 33 minute journey in as much brevity as possible! This was total running time and included bathroom breaks, water stops and socializing with hikers in the canyon. Luckily, the battery in my Garmin lasted the entire time!
The First Descent
It was about 30 degrees at the south rim of the GC and I was pretty bundled up. I get cold pretty easy and even though I studied the weather forecast beforehand, I did not want to be unprepared in case Mother Nature made any changes. I had minimal supplies in my GoLite running pack: a 70 ounce water carrier, two additional bike water bottles, a multi-tool, running poles and my nutrition.
My first surreal, somewhat spiritual connection came as I was just about to begin. Looking over the south rim at 3:25am with only about 1/4 moon illuminating the morning, it was dead quiet with no signs of life anywhere. I truly felt like I was alone standing in one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It was calming and a bit eery (remember, it was Halloween!). With my powerful headlamp turned on and my pack secure, I began the descent. Now, I had hiked the GC when I was younger and had read about all of the R2R2R ventures that other runners had so I thought I was mentally prepared. Nope. Not at all really.
Even though everything I read stated the extreme difficulty (aka-quad burning) descending the first 9.5 miles, I didn’t think too much of it. That is, until I passed the first tunnel and was introduced to all of the logs/railroad ties methodically placed as aids to help hikers and prevent erosion of the trail. These were my nemesis as some of them had nearly a foot or more drop after them (think of stepping down 2-3 stairs at a time). This prevented me from getting into a good running rhythm. No problem though as I simply slowed down and reminded myself that I had a long day ahead of me and having my quads blow out too soon would be a recipe for disaster.
As I tried to run down the trail, passing the 1.5 mile house, 3.0 mile house and the first campground at 4.5 miles, I saw nobody. Honestly, not a soul! The only thing I did see quite often were glowing eyes in the distance as my headlamp guided my way. I believe most of these eyes belonged to deer but there were a few I was suspicious about (remember again, it was Halloween so I couldn’t help but have a few ghosts and ghoul thoughts in my head!).
The first descent went by extremely fast in the dark. As the trail transitioned from super steep to less steep, I heard a steady roar. Surely this must be the Colorado River. I couldn’t see it but I sure could hear it! A few minutes later, I came to the suspension bridge so I knew I had just finished the first of six legs of my trip. Crossing the suspension bridge in the dark with only a headlamp was a bit nerve racking since I couldn’t see my surroundings. Additionally, the bottom metal grate where I placed my feet on the bridge seemed loose with every step so that didn’t add any comfort to my mind. I crossed the bridge as fast as I could and knew the next campground, Phantom Ranch, on the floor, was near.
The Floor Crossing Number One
It was still pitch black and once I made sure I was on the correct trail (there are a few trails that lead in different directions in the GC), I continued through Phantom Ranch. Campers were just starting to wake up and caught the wonderful aroma of coffee and bacon. Yes, I did want to stop but I was here for a reason and it wasn’t to eat breakfast. As I continued on, I could hear another, smaller river that I followed for quite some time through this “side” canyon. As it turned from night to day, the light allowed me to see the awesome landscape. There was quite a bit of vegetation and the canyon seemed to open up a bit. I could see quite a ways in the distance and was trying to take it all in while trying to keep my footing on the trail.
I knew I had about 14 miles to the top of the North Rim but my GPS was not working properly and my recorded miles were inaccurate. I had read about this in other posts but didn’t know it would be so bad. When my Garmin alerted me of mile 24 (which was supposed to be the turnaround), I stopped and looked up only to find that I was still quite a ways from the top. Initially, this deflated my mental state but I regrouped quickly, stopped looking at my watch and just focused on moving forward.
The First Climb (to the North Rim)
Overall, the floor was very fun and I was able to run almost all of it until just after the last water station when the trail really started to get steep. At that point, it was a power hike. I was surprised at the trail sometimes as it was just against the rim of the canyon with a very steep drop off on the other side. Kudos to the rangers and volunteers who built those trails. Some of them were quite sketchy if you were scared of heights.
After a very slow hike up to the north rim in Roaring Springs Canyon, and having run out of water, I finally made it to the beginning of North Kaibab trail, 6 hours and 25 minutes later. I stopped briefly to shed some layers but didn’t wait around too long because I knew I had to descend quickly to get to water. They turn off all water on the north rim after mid-October and I knew that but I just didn’t expect I would consume as much water as I did. Not to worry though. I had been in that situation plenty of times when training for the Leadville 100.
The Second Descent (north rim to the floor)
Having put in 24 miles (and my longest training run was, incidentally 24 miles), my legs were a bit fatigued. Miles upon miles of hiking up steep terrain really took its toll. However, when I started to descend, I felt surprisingly good. Actually, very good. The north rim descent was much easier to run as the trail wasn’t as steep and didn’t have as many “obstacles” in the path. I was actually able to hold quite a consistent running pace without blowing up my quads. The run down was spectacular as I would go in and out of the sunshine and I was able to take in the great beauty of the canyon. However, I did notice that the north rim is very different than the south rim. The former is much richer in vegetation and doesn’t as many of the traditional cliffs you see on the south rim. The latter has more cliffs, is steeper and just seems more enormous when you are standing at the Colorado river looking up.
In all, this descent was fun and somewhat uneventful. Until, I reached my water stop at Manzanita Point.
The Floor Crossing Number Two
Just as I reached my second crossing of the floor of the canyon, I stopped to refill my 70 ounce water pack and met a couple of hikers. In fact, I will say this crossing is where I saw the most people the entire day. Hiker after hiker and all were very cordial and seemed to be in awe that I was running. Back to the first couple I saw. As I was filling up my water pack, the gentlemen was asking me a bit about what I was doing and after telling him, he asked what I was eating. I was wearing a super cool Generation UCAN singlet and explained I was doing the entire double crossing on all Generation UCAN energy bars and drinks. I asked him what he was eating and his response was fairly typical, at least what I have seen among some hikers: Snickers, peanut butter and Ho-Ho’s, none of which sounded appealing to me at the time. We cordially said our goodbye’s and I was on my way, running down the trail.
Mile after mile (I was guessing at the distance) elapsed and I was just really, really wanted to be at Phantom Ranch again not only because then I knew I only had 10 miles to go but also because I had not seen any of that terrain since it was dark when I first passed through. I was eager to see the Colorado River, the campgrounds and well, the gnarly terrain that I had come down about 8 hours earlier.
I ran just about all of this second crossing and had already surpassed the highest elevation gain and loss I had done in training. My legs were getting more and more fatigued be each passing mile.
I stopped briefly to fill up one water bottle but I think fatigue got the best of me because I forgot to check my 70 ounce water pack. Guess what? I ran out of water about a mile after I left this water stop. Doh!
The Last Climb
I just about teared up when I reached the Colorado River. Words cannot describe the sheer beauty of the river, the canyon and the millions of years this natural wonder has existed. Seriously, looking over the South Rim, which many visitors do, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the enormous landscape that lies below both rims.
After stopping for some photos and videos of the river and the suspension bridge (much easier to cross in the daylight!), I looked up and was a bit intimidated. This is the part that I hadn’t seen in daylight and knowing I had to climb roughly 4300 feet in 9.5 miles was definitely a mental challenge. That thought lasted for about a minute before I snapped out of it. I was in the Grand Canyon and crossing it not once, but twice. I felt enormous joy, pride and accomplishment and continued onward to take in all of the scenery of my first descent.
I must say, the next 5 miles were gorgeous! There was always different trail terrain (rocks, sand, log steps, and stream crossings, with extremely beautiful vegetation and colors. It is amazing how different the landscape can change from one part of the canyon to the other. I was soaking up the beauty and getting more into power hiking mode due to the steep incline.
It wasn’t until I had about 5 miles left (I was 43 miles into the journey mind you) that I really started getting into “that place”. You know that place where you doubt yourself, wonder why you are there and start letting your mind get filled with negative thoughts? Yep, that’s where I was. To add insult to injury, I had been out of water for about 4 miles or so and was really thirsty. Luckily, I knew that the campground that was 4.5 miles from the south rim was not far and that was my motivation. Get water, fix the mind and get ready for the final stretch!
Upon reaching the campground, I was pretty tired. My legs were very heavy and I could feel both quads fatiguing with each log step that I went up and over. Luckily, I had brought running poles with me and I used them far more than I would have ever imagined. They were definitely a good choice of equipment to bring!
I met another hiker who was making the trip back up to the south rim. She was a delightful young German woman who lived in New York City. We shared some conversation as I feverishly made my way to the water source and found the conversation was quite nice as it took my mind off of the fatigue I was experiencing. She, of course, asked what I was doing and once I told her, she passed along congratulations. We continued chatting about what I did, where I was from and how she thought Colorado would be such a better place for her to live since she loved the outdoors. Like I said earlier, hikers are some of the nicest people whom I have met.
Conversation was good but I was on a schedule and I knew from my 100 mile ultra running days that every minute you stop, you lose the motivation to keep going. I told her I needed to keep moving, so we parted ways and I continued. I had 4.5 miles left and I knew it. I also knew from coming down this trail in the dark earlier that morning that it was not as easy trail to descend which means it would be a bear to climb, especially in a high fatigued state.
I reverted back to the inner ultra runner in me and just focused on the mantra of “one foot in front of the other”. It worked well but I will say that most of my motivation was not letting the wonderful German woman catch me. I knew she was just a few hundred yards behind me so I used that as a motivator to not slack off.
I was sucking down water like crazy, not only because I was thirsty but because I knew any weight I could shed while climbing would only make my life easier. I made it to the 3 mile house and started calculated when I would arrive at the South Rim. That kept my mind busy for a bit. “One foot in front of the other”. I was using my poles quite a bit at this point and really started feeling fatigue build up in my upper body. That was okay. Anything to take the pressure off of my quads!
As I passed the 1.5 mile house, there were other hikers enjoying a rest break. I greeted them with a quick hand in the air and kept my pace. I didn’t mean to not make conversation as I had with everyone else I encountered but I was so close to the top that I could taste it! Resting would only make it worse. Onward I traveled.
You may think it was over right? I mean, I only had 1.5 miles left. Those last 1.5 miles seemed like an eternity! I swear I could have crawled faster than I was walking. At least, that’s what it felt like. This last bit of trail gained just over 1000 feet, which would explain why I was feeling like I was moving so slowly. Regardless, I tried to keep my cadence higher and was really finding a new rhythm! I was trying to calculate how much farther I had based on time and trying to identify where the trail may end at the south rim but the switchbacks made it difficult to see the top. It wasn’t until I saw the last tunnel that I knew I had made it.
I softly screamed with excitement because I knew that I had done it. I was grinning from ear to ear and felt as as big as the world as I finally reached the south rim, my starting place some 13 hours and 33 minutes earlier.
I had no plans for after the R2R2R. Since I didn’t know how long it would take me to finish, I was just going to wing it. After a few finish photos, I power walked to my car, changed into some comfortable clothes and had sipped on a recovery drink that I had mixed up earlier that morning. It was getting dark and I didn’t waste any time with starting the journey back home. I made the “short” drive to Moab, Utah and spent the night. The next morning I woke up and finished the almost 6 hour drive home (through snow mind you on top of Vail Pass). I just really wanted to get home and see my family and share this amazing adventure with them!
As I mentioned throughout this journey, Generation UCAN has supported all of my training and R2R2R crossing. I specifically planned to do this double crossing on UCAN products alone and am proud to say that is exactly what I did. Of course, I had favored more metabolic efficiency in my daily nutrition plan so I was able to utilize my fat stores as energy more efficiently so I knew I would have no problem at all using all UCAN products (and no simple sugars).
I consumed 7 UCAN bars (4 cinnamon and 3 coffee), 2 UCAN chocolate protein packets mixed with water, and 3 scoops of UCAN Hydrate watermelon. I also had three pieces of sugar-free gum. If that doesn’t sound like much, it’s not. In fact, I averaged 118 calories per hour, 14.8 ounces of water per hour (I wish that was more around 18-20 ounces), and 165 milligrams of sodium per hour. No signs of hyponatremia or significant dehydration (I was peeing throughout, even in the last 5-6 miles). And, the best part was that I did not have any GI distress. Zero. Nada. None. That was a huge success!
Total TSS was the highest I have ever had (at least measured), at 738. Yowzers, it’s going to take a bit to recover from this one!
I’m going to do it again. Ha! That’s a good one! Nah, I accomplished what I wanted to do so no reason to repeat it again, at least solo. Perhaps I will hike it with my wife and kids someday. Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see…
I have no events planned as of now but will be shifting back into shorter distance triathlon training and strength training again as my eNRG Performance Junior Tri Team starts training again in a few weeks. It will be good to get in the water and on my bike more but I will still get in some great trail runs, just a bit shorter in length!
A huge shout out to all of the great companies whose products I used on this journey, including Generation UCAN, Halo Neurosport, iKOR Labs, Trigger Point, Compex, Recovery Pump, Kelty poles, and Birota Foods.
Thanks for reading and being part of my R2R2R journey! It was truly epic and I would highly recommend it to anyone. I am not sure if it will change your life but it sure will give you a different perspective of the important things in life!
Stay tuned to my next adventures!
PS-If you plan on doing the R2R2R, feel free to reach out and ask me any questions. I’m happy to help! One thing that I learned is to not trust GPS in the canyon. My total miles on my Garmin turned out to be 54. In looking at the map, there were many “squiggles” where I know I did not travel in the canyon so the signal does bounce around quite a bit.