If your dreams aren’t a little bit scary, you need to find some bigger dreams.
I believe this is all pretty accurate. I can’t always recall exactly when I did or thought something, and I’m certain I haven’t remembered every spoken word perfectly. But it’s very close and I’ve done my best to portray everything honestly. If I have misinterpreted what others thought or meant, the fault lies solely with me.
The times given in this tale are often estimated using GPS tracking points and photo timestamps. Clock times are Arizona’s Mountain No DST time zone, or 3 hours behind Eastern Time at the time of my run. I started at 4:22 a.m. local time, 7:22 a.m. ET.
I’m not going to tell this story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.
The Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail. Well after dark. Above Indian Garden. Below the South Rim.
I sat on a large rock by the side of the trail near the sign for Three Mile Rest House and hung my head. I was all by myself. My expensive carbon-fiber trekking poles hung from nearly-numb hands. My breathing was labored and my heart rate was too high. It was pitch black, the moon obscured by cloud. The only light other than that from my headlamp was lightning flashing once in a while off to the north. Not good. It looked distant, but I was going slowly. Ever so slowly. Was a storm coming this way? Would I make it up to the South Rim before it arrived?
It was about 7:15 p.m. The sun had set just after 6:00. I had been out there for almost fifteen hours.
“I wish…” I said aloud, but my voice trailed off. No one could hear me, unless maybe Ethan, the knit finger puppet pig I’d had kidnapped from my daughter’s bedroom for a travel companion, was listening.
The wishes raced through my head. That I wasn’t so tired. That I wasn’t so far from the top. That I had packed one more Clif Bar. Wishes that I had been faster earlier in the day and that I wasn’t stuck by myself, in the dark, three long miles from the rim.
But then I remembered.
“…this,” I finished. “This is what I wish for,” I said more firmly. Trying to convince myself. Trying and succeeding. “This is what I wanted. This is where I want to be.”
I pulled my phone from its pouch on the strap of my pack and opened the app for the GPS/satellite communicator I carried. The phone chimed as a message came in, sent earlier by my wife from Michigan but not received until that very moment when the satellite link was strong enough. She told me that “everyone is cheering you on” and that there was a greeting party up at the rim. I knew that at least a few friends might be watching my progress online. Somewhere up there, invisible in the darkness and seeming far more than three miles away, my mom and some friends waited for me.
I typed up a short message that would, if the device had signal, post to my Facebook page. I hoped that that the text I had just received meant that there was enough signal to send one out. “Three miles to go,” I wrote. “I’m beaten. I’m not quitting.”
I struggled to my feet and turned to face up the trail, leaning heavily on my poles. “Come on, Ethan,” I said to my finger puppet companion. Maybe aloud. Maybe just in my head. “Let’s get to the fucking top.”
My plan to run from the South Rim to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails, then return via the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, had been evolving for months.
The dream of a solo rim-to-rim-to-rim Grand Canyon double crossing had been in the back of my mind for a long time, born years earlier when I read a magazine article about the crazy idea. But I had never really considered it something that I’d ever be able to accomplish. Too far. Too far away. Too hard.
Last year, though, when hiking rim-to-rim over four days with our Venture Crew Scouts and seeing the Canyon and the trails for the first time, I suddenly realized, “I think I could run this.” So I decided to go for it. Because, as my good friend Joe says, “why wouldn’t you?”
My mom lives in Phoenix, so flying into Arizona and driving up to the South Rim made the most sense. Since this was just me going on a run, not an organized event or a race, I was able to choose the timing. I decided on the first two weeks of October in order to get the coolest weather I could while going before the seasonal water on the North Kaibab Trail was turned off on October 15th. I settled on the first full week of the month because of the lunar conditions. Wednesday, October 8th, would be the full moon, and as I’d be starting before sunrise, the extra light in the cloudless Arizona sky would help me on my way. Armies choose the dark of the moon to launch assaults upon their enemies. I chose the light of the moon to launch my attempt to enter the Canyon twice and emerge victorious.
I took a full week for the trip so that I’d have the luxury of being able to watch the weather and pick my day. One of the biggest challenges to hiking or running the Grand Canyon can be the heat. Even in October, temperatures at the bottom often exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit. As virtually every trip plan I came up with had me at the bottom during the hottest part of the day, it was important that I did everything possible to make sure I could at least avoid the worst days and make my crossings when the heat would not be quite so brutal.
I began training for the double crossing in May after running the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan. I’d run a 3:02 five weeks after a 3:03 in Boston, and though the races were a few minutes off of my personal record, I knew I was in pretty good shape and in a good spot to launch a Grand Canyon training program. I ran a lot of miles, more than I’d ever run before. Previously, I had never run more than 67 miles in a week. While training for the Grand Canyon, I ran 71 miles or more in a week eight times, including three weeks of 90 or more. The biggest single week was 105 miles. June, July, August, and September were all more than 200 miles each, with September coming in at an astounding 327. My previous monthly record had been 275 while training for my marathon PR at Boston in 2013.
I had three training runs of 30 miles or more on the Kal-Haven Trail between Kalamazoo and South Haven, the longest of them 36 miles. I also ran my first ultramarathon, the 50-mile Hungerford Games in Big Rapids, in September. The number of miles I ran between the Bayshore Marathon and the Grand Canyon R2R2R totaled 1,130. On my longest runs I wore my running backpack and practiced the things that I would need to do while running the Canyon, especially drinking more than I’m used to, eating solid food while running, and running with trekking poles.
Other training I put in included 15 to 30 minute workouts on the stairmill at the YMCA, going at about 120 steps per minute and working up a sweat that ran off of me in streams to pool on the machine, a few long, hard bike rides in Millennium Park, and stints in a 160 degree sauna lasting up to an hour to help acclimatize myself to intense dry heat. If I had problems in the Canyon, I was going to make sure it wasn’t because I was under-conditioned. The super sweaty guy got some strange looks on that stairmill machine, you can be sure.
Since I’d be running solo, I decided that some sort of tracking/communication device was in order. Not only would it allow people to know where I was and not worry too much if I was behind schedule, but it could be used as an emergency beacon if something went really wrong. People die in the Canyon. An average of 13 per year. At the time of my trip, 24 had died down there in 2014. I didn’t want to add my name to that list.
I settled on a DeLorme InReach SE. It would allow family and friends to track me online, send and receive text messages via the Iridium satellite network, and even post messages to Facebook from within the Canyon where there is no reliable cell phone service. Rather than purchasing it, I rented one online.
I flew into Phoenix on Saturday, October 4th, and my mom picked me up. We had a nice visit and I got in a few short runs from her house near South Mountain. I admit that the 90+ heat, at first easy to run in thanks to the very low humidity, was relentless and surprised me a bit. A planned run on some trails up South Mountain with a pack full of gear and the GPS on for testing had to be scrubbed when access to the trails was blocked off by new housing developments in the area. The GPS test didn’t go very well, either, but at least it uncovered some problems that I was able to straighten out before the big day.
I had been watching the weather forecast continuously for over a week. When the first long-range forecasts had been posted, I had been dismayed at the predictions of highs of 96 at Phantom Ranch. I had known that such temps were possible, but so were temps in the lower 80s. If I couldn’t have the latter, I had been hoping to at least avoid the dreaded mid-90s. Thankfully, as the date approached, the revised forecasts got steadily cooler. By the time I left for Phoenix, the prediction for the middle of the week was for highs of 89 and 90. As the big week began, those numbers fell even further. After careful consideration, I settled on the 9th as the day I’d go. The weather forecast was very slightly better than Wednesday and it was my mom’s birthday. Thursday the 9th it was.
We had reserved a room just outside Grand Canyon National Park at the Red Feather Lodge hotel in the city of Tusayan. It’s not the swankiest place you’ll find, but it’s clean, in a great location, and much more affordable than most of the other options in town. Definitely much cheaper than anything available right on the South Rim. It was a three-and-a-half hour drive to the hotel and less than five minutes further to the park entrance. Wednesday evening we got our park pass, took some photos by the park sign, and headed to Yaki Point to check out the South Kaibab trailhead where I’d start my adventure the next morning.
I had decided to descend into the Canyon on the South Kaibab and return to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail for a number of reasons. First of all, I wanted to cross the Colorado River on the Black Bridge at the bottom of the South Kaibab. I had crossed the other bridge, the Silver Bridge, the previous year with the Scouts, but, when our trip was cut short, plans to cross back on the Black Bridge never came to pass. So I wanted to make sure to do it this time. Secondly, the South Kaibab Trail is two miles shorter than the Bright Angel, seven miles rather than nine, though the rim is at a slightly higher elevation at the trailhead than at Bright Angel. This makes the descent steeper, but, since I’d be going downhill, that wasn’t too much of an issue. Finally, there is no water along the South Kaibab. That would be a problem if coming up the trail at the end of my double crossing when I was tired, dehydrated, and moving slow in warm temps, but it wouldn’t be much of a concern when starting out downhill and fresh in the cool of the morning. The Bright Angel Trail, on the other hand, has water at three locations and ascends at a slightly less intense grade. If I was going to go down one and up the other, going down on South Kaibab and up on Bright Angel was the obvious choice. This plan would make the double crossing total over 44 miles in length. A possible side-trek to Ribbon Falls could stretch that to over 45. There would be over 10,000 feet of vertical gain.
After checking out the trailhead where I’d start and the trailhead where my mom would wait for my finish, we headed back to the hotel. By the time we got there, it was raining. I was glad I’d made a last-minute decision to pick up a lightweight hooded jacket in Phoenix before heading up to the Canyon. I might need it.
Shortly before 3:00 a.m. on Thursday, my phone’s alarm woke me. I had slept decently well, but I was anxious. After a quick shower, I pulled on my clothes and double-checked my pack and gear. I’d carefully inventoried my load the night before and packed it into my Osprey Rev 6 backpack. The pack was full and getting the filled 1.5 liter reservoir into place was a bit of a challenge. My mom reported that it was no longer raining, and a quick check of the NOAA site showed that the chance of rain for the day had diminished significantly. I held the rain jacket in my hands, trying to decide. I chose to leave it behind, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake.
My complete load out consisted of:
–Orange Nike long sleeve Dri-fit T-shirt
–Race Ready LD shorts with pockets
–Asics low-cut running socks
–Saucony Peregrine 3 trail running shoes
–C9 touch gloves
–Yorkberg Calf Compression Sleeves
I also had:
–Sunglasses with retention cord
–Timex Ironman digital watch
–Bandana around my neck
–Waterproof large band-aids on my chest as nipple guards
–OR plaid hiking hat I wore on last year’s R2R hike
–Pentagon Lights mini anglehead flashlight
–Osprey Rev 6 hydration backpack
In the pockets of my shorts:
–My daughter Shaye’s Panasonic flip-style HD video camera
–Ethan the finger puppet pig in a Ziploc baggie
–2 Hammer energy gels
–1 Clif Bar
–Platypus roll-up bottle
In the backpack:
–Orange Nike short sleeve Dri-fit T-shirt
–DeLorme InReach SE GPS Communicator
–Monoprice USB battery (to recharge devices if needed)
–iPhone Lightning USB cord
–Micro USB cord
–Sawyer SP128 Mini Water Filter (for back-up)
–First-aid kit in Altoids tin:
—-Emergency Mylar blanket
–Extra pair of Asics socks in Ziploc
–Small roll of athletic tape
–3’ length of rope
–Folding Blackhawk Hawk Hook knife
–Black Diamond Ultra Distance Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles (strapped on outside of pack)
–Small tube of sunscreen
–Packet of wet wipes
–Tube of sunscreen lip balm
–Packet of Kleenex
–4 packs of Clif Shot Bloks energy chews
–3 more Clif Bars
–Baggie of 8 apple newton cookies
–4 more Hammer energy gels
–3 Ziploc bags of pre-measured Cytomax sports drink mix
–Stick of Body Glide
–Loksak bag for iPhone in case of heavy rain
–1.5 liter reservoir containing water and 1 bag of Cytomax
And that’s it. The list might seem long, but that was everything I was taking into the Grand Canyon for the adventure of a lifetime. If I needed it, I needed to carry it. But, as I said countless times last year during the Crew’s hike, “Every Ounce Counts,” and I didn’t want to carry anything that I wouldn’t want. The filled pack, with full reservoir, weighed about six pounds. Six pounds of stuff for a long, grueling day in the Grand Canyon.
The bite valve on the hydration pack’s drinking tube was new. The old one had sprung a leak on my aborted test run a few days earlier. Another good thing that came out of that failed effort. A call to a nearby REI store had confirmed that they carried what I needed, and $10 had replaced the leaker with a new one.
Water is heavy. An advantage of hiking or running the Grand Canyon’s corridor trails is the water. There is treated water piped in to a number of locations along the Bright Angel and North Kaibab trails, plus water at the North Rim, so it isn’t necessary to carry 44 miles’ worth of water. My plan was to drink from my pack along the way, fill it up with fresh water and a baggie of Cytomax (1 baggie per 1.5 liters) as needed, and use the roll-up bottle for plain water to keep from getting sick of the sports drink. I knew from marathons, 30 mile training runs, and the ultra that I’d grow tired of the sports drink as the day wore on and the chance to get some straight water via the bottle would be very welcome. I would never be more than a couple of hours from the next water station.
As a side note, I had seen on a Facebook R2R2R group that the water line in the Canyon had broken on Wednesday and that many locations on the North Kaibab were actually without water. The person who had posted reported that park officials had said it would be fixed that day, but it still hadn’t been running at 4:00 p.m. First, I was thankful that I’d chosen Thursday instead of Wednesday. Second, I was fearful that I’d be forced to use my emergency water filter for much of the run. Finally, I was afraid that people would worry if they knew that the water was off, so I decided not to tell anyone. There was nothing I could do about it, there was nothing they could do about it, and I was going anyway. So ‘mum’ was the word and I’d approach the run with the idea that I might have to filter water at a few spots between Phantom Ranch and the North Rim. Hopefully, the line would be fixed by the time I got there.
The morning was cool and dark, but it was dry. There was a slight breeze. The moon that I had been so careful to plan for was cloaked by heavy clouds. I was disappointed in the lack of moonlight, but I was very grateful for the lack of rain.
When we reached the South Kaibab trailhead, it didn’t appear that it had rained there at all overnight. I relaxed a bit about my decision to leave the jacket behind. After a couple of quick photos, I made one final check of my gear, started the GPS tracking service and stood at the top of the trail. My mom took a photo and I checked my watch. After announcing that it was 4:22, I started the stopwatch. Then I turned, took a deep breath, went down a few stone steps, and started down the trail.
It was slow going in the dark. More walking than running. I had planned to start relaxed and easy, in part because it would be tough to stay safe on the steep trails in the dark, especially without the added light from the moon, but mostly because I needed to marshal my energy for the long day ahead. The longest event I’d ever participated in had been the 9 hour, 15 minute 50-mile ultra I’d run a couple of weeks before. This was going to be at least several hours longer than that, maybe more than several hours.
When I’d hit fairly even stretches of trail, I’d jog a bit. When it got steeper or the going got rough or a bit scary, I’d slow to a fast walk. The headlamp provided good light, but it was only a circle a few feet wide on the trail in front of me. I held my little anglehead flashlight in my hand and used it some, mostly to check the drop off the ledges I was making my way along. The drops were usually far enough that the light faded into darkness before I saw anything.
I reached a narrow area where the sides fell away into darkness on both sides. Was this the stretch leading out to Cedar Ridge? It was hard to tell in the dark. It seemed I’d reached it pretty quickly. Soon I emerged out onto a wide open area and my light revealed a building. This was Cedar Ridge. I looked at my watch, but as I’d decided not to carry my schedule with me, I wasn’t sure whether I was ahead of or behind schedule. A photo I took by the sign says it was 4:47 a.m. I shot some video, but I could tell that it wasn’t coming through very clearly in the darkness. I looked out over the Canyon, mostly invisible in the night. Ahead of me, far below, I saw a number of lights. Hikers or runners, probably, who had either started down ahead of me or were headed up in this direction.
I shoved the camera back into my shorts pocket and messed around with my sunglasses a bit. They were hanging around my neck on the cord I’d used on the previous years’ Canyon hike, but I obviously didn’t need them in the dark and they were bouncing around too much when I ran. I quickly figured out that I could use my drinking tube to hold them in place. The tube fed from the pack over my right shoulder, then across my chest and the bite valve attached to the left shoulder strap with a magnet. Simply putting the tube over the glasses cord solved the bouncing issue and it would remain easy to access them when I needed them. A small victory, sure, but a victory.
It took a few moments to locate where the trail led down from Cedar Ridge, but I found it and headed down. The stretch from there to the Colorado River was the only stretch of my planned route that I hadn’t hiked the previous year. This was new territory. In the dark. What could possibly go wrong?
It took half an hour to reach the next waypoint, Skeleton Point. I took a photo of the sign at 5:17. I was feeling good. I thought about shooting some video while I caught my breath, but I had tried again while running and it just didn’t look like anything was showing up. Below, the lights I had seen earlier were still ahead. I guessed that they were runners, as hikers wouldn’t still be so far ahead of me. They had probably been here at Skeleton Point when I’d seen them from Cedar Ridge. They were probably now near the area called the Tipoff.
As I descended from Skeleton Point, I again tried shooting some video. I used my hand light to help illuminate the scene, and I got at least a little stuff that would be worthwhile. I was hoping to get enough footage to put together a little short film after my trip, but I knew it would be tough to film as they day went on and with the poor quality of the shots in the dark, I wondered if I’d have any luck.
I came upon a metal sign that said it was 3.5 miles to the South Rim, 3.8 miles to Phantom Ranch across the river, and that I was at 4,700 feet elevation. About halfway down. I pulled out finger puppet pig Ethan and stuck him on the sign for a quick photo, then packed him back into my pocket and continued down.
Shortly after that, I heard something approaching from below, the first thing besides my own footfalls I’d heard in over an hour. At first I thought it was a mule, but it turned out to be a hiker coming up the trail. He was using trekking poles and his eyes were fixed on the trail in front of him. I said, “Good morning!” but he didn’t respond. He didn’t even look up or acknowledge me in any way. I was the uphill guy and stood aside for him to pass, as trail etiquette dictates. As he went by, I told him to have a good day. Still no response. He had a large pack on his back and he looked pretty rough. No idea where he’d started or how long he’d been going, but he was not exactly loving life at that moment. When he passed, I continued on my way and hoped that I wouldn’t reach whatever pit of exhaustion it was that he appeared to be mired in.
At about 5:45, I noticed that there was a faint trail running more or less parallel to the South Kaibab. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew that I was on the right thing because of the frequent mule crap. The corridor trails are traveled by the mule trains transporting people and goods up and down from Phantom Ranch, and the mules aren’t shy about leaving calling cards as they go. It makes for tricky (and smelly) going at some points, but it’s part of the price hikers pay for having such a great trail system available, so I tried to ignore it the best I could.
I passed a wooden sign for the Tonto Trail – West. That wasn’t my trail, so I kept going. But I hadn’t gone too much farther when I began to wonder. I hadn’t seen any evidence of mules for a while and I was uncertain about that faint trail I’d seen earlier. Since I’d never been on that section of the trail before, I really had no idea other than having looked at maps. I second-guessed and decided that I’d better go back to that intersection and double-check my route.
I jogged back up to the sign and fired up the video camera. In my video, I can hear the uncertainty in my voice. What appeared to be the Tonto Trail went off into the darkness. What I had been running on kept descending, also disappearing into the night. Nothing said anything about the South Kaibab Trail. I looked around a bit, then turned and continued on the way I’d been going. In the video I admitted that I wasn’t really sure that I was on the right trail and hoped to see a sign or at least some mule crap to assure me that I was still where I wanted to be. After a few minutes, I saw a wooden sign and jogged up to it. Thankfully, it was the marker for an emergency telephone out there on the South Kaibab. I was on the right trail. The phone meant I was approaching the Tipoff and a series of switchbacks that would take me down to the river. In the video, the relief is clear in my voice and I joked that I had expected to see a Starbucks by now. Confident once again, I continued on my way.
The sky began to lighten and I was able to see a bit of the surrounding landscape. Details were lost in shadow, but it was impressive and amazing. I finally began to feel like I really was in the Grand Canyon and that my adventure was truly underway. At some point I realized that the faint sound I had been hearing must be the Colorado River, and that fired me up even more. Below, on what I thought must be the Black Bridge, I once again saw the lights of those ahead of me. I shot a little more video, because I wanted to make sure that the people at home would get a good look at what it was like running down there at night. Since I planned to be finished before nightfall, this was my last chance to get footage in the dark. I was still so young and foolish at that point, but whatever.
The light increased, the view went from good to great to incredible, and the river grew louder and closer as I hurried down the switchbacks. I stopped a few times to just look around. I took a few moments to thank God for such a wonderful Canyon and for the opportunity to challenge myself in such an amazing place. I thanked Him for a long list of things that I was grateful for, including my family and friends, some of whom I thought might be keeping tabs on me from home. I thanked Him for the good news a friend had received after a medical scare, I thanked Him for another friend successfully getting through a tough treatment, and I said some more prayers for those who matter to me. I thanked Him for helping bring me safely so far. And I asked for a little more guidance, for the wisdom to make good decisions as I went on, and I asked for the strength to stay strong.
Whatever you believe in, wherever your faith lies, I don’t think you can help but believe in it a little bit harder when you’re down in the Canyon.
I switched my headlamp over to the red LED, as I could now see pretty well in the ambient light. Before I realized it, I reached the dark tunnel that led to the Black Bridge.
It was about 6:23. I jogged through the tunnel and slowed to a walk to cross the bridge, but it was the best footing I’d had in two hours and decided that “I’m running across this bitch.” I said the words aloud on camera, and I wasn’t even really sure why I’d said that. I decided it was kind of funny and that I’d put a caption on the video that says “He said ‘bridge.’ Really.”
I reached the other side, and my spirits were high. Still on camera, I said “Boys and girls, we are through the looking glass now. The only way out is to get out.” I was across the Colorado, on the side opposite the South Rim and my final destination. The sun was rising. The prelude was over.
I stopped at the far end of the bridge, took off my pack for the first time, and sent out a few texts and a Facebook post. I hoped that they were working and that the tracking points were transmitting every ten minutes like they were supposed to be. I knew that loss of signal due to the Canyon walls would interfere sometimes, but once the sats were reacquired, the DeLorme would transmit. I ate a little, drank a little, and peed a little. I packed away my lights at the bottom of my load because I wouldn’t need them again. Then it was time to get moving.
I’d learned from Ed on the R2R2R Facebook group run by Benedict Dugger that there was water at the boat landing just below the Black Bridge. That water isn’t listed on any of the trail guides I’ve looked at, but it would save me crossing the Bright Angel Creek to reach the water over by the campground. Running in the Grand Canyon has become a sort of controversial issue, and one of the biggest complaints seems to be large groups clogging up Phantom Ranch as they pass through. I planned to not use any resources at Phantom in order to be a model citizen, as Benedict often says, on the trail and avoid contributing to the controversy.
Though the boat landing water station can’t be seen from the hiking trail, it’s right where Ed said it would be and I filled my roll-up bottle. It tasted great. Since I’d only taken a few short drinks from my pack so far and it was still almost full, I didn’t bother topping it off. I drank the half-liter bottle empty, refilled it, and jumped back on the trail, sipping from the bottle as I went. That would put a liter of water in me and get me to Cottonwood Campground with only a few sips from the pack. At that point I’d see if there was going to be running water before I reached the North Rim.
I passed a line of Scouts headed toward the river, the first people I’d seen besides the non-talker below Skeleton Point. We all exchanged pleasantries, and once I was past them I drained the bottle, rolled it up and stowed it back in my shorts pocket, and began to jog. The next 7 or 8 miles would be some good running terrain, with a slight uphill incline toward Cottonwood Campground but definitely a lot of easier going. In Phantom Ranch, I passed a group of three runners. “You guys running a double crossing?” I asked. They said they were and told me they’d seen my light behind them on the South Kaibab. “Have a good one,” I said. “I’m sure I’ll see you out there.” They told me to be safe, and I replied in kind. Then I was off.
I made real good time through the Box, an area with steep canyon walls on both sides, passing a number of hiking groups headed out from Phantom Ranch. I stopped for a couple of quick photos with Ethan the pig puppet and took a few walk breaks, but I ran most of the Box and soon emerged into the open. I saw two solo runners headed down and I wished both of them luck as we passed each other. Both appeared to have started from the North Rim, at least looking at their condition. They seemed pretty fresh. I saw a few more hikers along the way, including a couple of older guys resting by a small bridge who gave me a sarcastic-sounding comment about how fast I was going as I passed them. I can’t be sure, but I guessed that they were among those who dislike runners on the trails. Why someone worries about people who like things that they don’t like, I’ll never understand. But there sure seem to be a lot of them.
I came upon a welder, gas cylinders, and tools sitting in the middle of the trail. They were just sitting out there, wrapped up in two heavy cargo nets, almost certainly for pick-up by helicopter. Why I didn’t take a picture of them, I have no idea. But I hoped that they meant that the water line break had been repaired. I would soon find out up at Cottonwood Campground.
I had a bit of trouble at a fork in the trail. I was pretty sure that I wanted the right fork, but a sign with an arrow pointing to the right said “Ribbon Falls via Bridge.” This confused me. I was not going to go to Ribbon Falls on the way to the North Rim, and I knew a bridge led to them. We had come from the other direction in 2013, and I didn’t remember this fork at all. Someone had added “+CWCG” in what looked like Sharpie marker to the sign, but I didn’t understand what that meant. I wanted Cottonwood Campground, not Ribbon Falls, so I took the left fork. But I had only gone a few minutes before I became convinced that I was going the wrong way. I pulled out my phone and opened the GPS app. The little arrow on the screen showed me moving away from the North Kaibab Trail.
I blinked. CWCG. CottonWood CampGround. Someone else who knew the sign was confusing had tried to help out a bit. I went back to the fork, double-checked the sign, and decided that my initial feeling had been correct. I took the right fork. There’s a bit of a hill there, but once I reached the top I could see that I was headed in the right direction. Soon, I reached Cottonwood Campground. I kept going until I hit the water, and I was relieved to see it dribbling out of the drinking fountain attachment. A huge raven sat there, drinking water from it. I tried to get a pic of him, but he hopped away before I could take one. So I took a couple of shots of him on the trail. He hopped away and watched me, apparently waiting for me to clear out so he could get back to his hydration. When I sat on the bench near the water, he gave up and took flight. It was 8:11. I’d been going for just about four hours.
The running water made me feel better. I took off my long sleeve shirt and put on my short sleeve. I sat and ate a bit more and drank. My pack’s reservoir was close to empty, as I’d made a point to drink some extra after seeing the welder, gambling a bit that the pipeline was fixed and that I’d be able to refill. I rinsed it out, filled it with cool water, and dumped in a bag of Cytomax. A camper from the group site which we’d used the previous year chatted with me a bit, asking what I was mixing in my water and what my plans were. As we talked, a third runner from the north came through, again looking pretty fresh and probably seven miles into his day. I sent a few messages, got out my hiking poles for the uphill coming soon, and stuffed the sweaty long sleeve shirt into the exterior bungees on my pack so it could dry out a bit in the sun. I felt really good and looked forward to the next phase of the journey.
As I set out from Cottonwood for the climb to the North Rim, I shot a little more video. I took in a little of the scenery and noted the amazingness of sending text messages from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I joked about my disappointment in the lack of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts along the trail, this being America and all. I put the camera away and settled into a rhythm of jogging and walking with the poles, making good time up to the water station at the Pumphouse below Roaring Springs. It, too, was running, and I figured that the water at Supai Tunnel, far above, would be running, too. Good news.
I also figured out a better way to use and carry the poles. One of the wrist straps had broken off during a training run, and I’d failed to get it replaced. So I’d decided to cut the other strap off, as well. The poles are very light and easily fold into thirds, rather than half, for carrying or stowage. But with the constant shifting from run to walk back to run, I found that simply grabbing the poles in their middle and carrying them extended while running was much quicker and easier. The only risk was that tossing them to grab the handles when shifting back to walking could mean losing a pole if I missed. I vowed to be extra careful in places where the drop-off was big. As I went, I became better at it and decided I was glad that the strap had broken. I would never have found this method if I’d been using the straps.
Put simply, the steeps above the Pumphouse are tough. There were a few sections I could run, but not only did the terrain dictate that I walk most of it, it dictated that the walking was slow. I was still less than half-way done, and I knew how important it was to conserve my energy, so I took it easy and took frequent 30-second breathers. I passed an increasing number of hikers, most of them coming down. I passed an NPS Ranger chatting with some hikers and hoped that there wouldn’t be a discussion about was the runner being safe enough and courteous enough. He checked me out as I passed but didn’t say anything other than hello.
It was getting warmer and I was getting tired. The trail, which I knew would be tough, was much tougher than I had expected. I thought back to the aborted return trip the previous year with the Scout Crew and wondered if we’d have been able to make it. Obviously, we’d have made it. There was only one way out. But it wouldn’t have been pretty. It was far more difficult than the Bright Angel Trail, and that trail had been tough enough to warrant a drastic change in plans. I stopped to catch my breath and eat a little while checking out the amazing scenery. I took a pic with Ethan at 9:08, and then the Ranger passed me. Wow. He was obviously making pretty good time.
After some more tough climbs I hit a section that was more or less level, and I ran for a bit. It felt really good after all the uphill hiking and it lifted my spirits, which had been flagging a bit. I passed the Ranger talking to some other hikers and kept on my way. Shortly, the trail got steep again and I slowed to a walk. I came upon a couple of girls, probably in their mid-20s, hiking up. They had camped below, though now I can’t recall whether they’d come from Bright Angel or from Cottonwood. While we chatted a bit, the Ranger, incredibly, passed us. “You’re a machine!” I commented as he went by. How had that guy caught up so quickly when I’d run a fair amount of the distance since I’d passed him?
I said good-bye to the girls and continued upwards. I sat for a bit at a turn in the shade where the breeze was cool and the view was good. The North Kaibab was kicking my butt, and I still had about three miles of it to go. I shot a little video at 9:30, and looking at it now I can see how tired I was.
Just before I reached the Redwall Bridge about 2.7 miles below the rim, I saw a woman approaching, headed down. She looked like she was dressed for a trip to the mall and, except for hiking boots, appeared to be very out of place. She had a handheld bottle and a small fanny pack. I said hi as we passed and she seemed pretty nonchalant about things. She was kinda cute, and I laughed to myself about how she’d probably be looking a lot less attractive on the return trip up. After a quick rest in the shade above the bridge, I continued on. I needed to reach Supai Tunnel. I needed to reach the rim.
The next mile or so to Supai seemed to take a very long time. It was warm and the sun beat down pretty good on most of the trail. There was not much shade. I reached the tunnel at 10:15. Thinking about it now, the time between the rest break in the breeze and Supai seemed far longer than 45 minutes. And the rim was still 1.7 miles away.
Immediately above the tunnel is a water station and some shade. I took my pack off and rested for a bit. I saw that my phone battery was low so I dug out the cord and the USB battery to recharge it as I went. I chatted with a couple of older guys headed down. They were glad to see the water going because they’d heard about the pipeline break the day before and a friend had reported no water. They were quite pleased when I told them that I’d got water at the Pumphouse, though there was a little confusion when they told me that the Pumphouse was called Roaring Springs. The Roaring Springs stop is actually a picnic area near a Ranger station close to the actual Roaring Springs falls, which you can see from the North Kaibab Trail. You get there via a well-marked side trail about three-quarters of a mile above the Pumphouse. I had skipped the side trail on the way up and have never been there, but there is seasonal running water available there. Looking into it since, I gather that there is a fair amount of confusion about which place is called what.
As we talked, the Ranger hiked in from uphill. He’d been to the rim and was 1.7 miles back down already. “You’re relentless,” I told him. He laughed and we talked for a bit. He told me that the water pipeline had been recharged the previous afternoon at about 5:00 and asked if I was doing an R2R2R. With a little trepidation, I told him I was. He asked a bit about my plans, then he said that I was doing it the right way and it sounded like I was well-prepared. He said I looked to be in great condition. I mentioned the woman who I’d seen by the Redwall Bridge who didn’t look like she was so prepared and he said he’d keep an eye out for her. Just as I was packing up to leave after a 15 minute rest, the three runners I’d seen at Phantom Ranch came up through the tunnel. We spoke a bit and exchanged names. Tim, Ted, and Jason, I think. It turns out they had a fourth guy, but he was struggling and was still a ways back. I wished them luck, we told each other to be safe, and I was off for the final push to the North Rim.
Though tired from the climb, I felt good and the break had really restored me. Plus, I admit that the Ranger had not only not admonished me for running a double crossing but had commented that I was doing it right and was looking good encouraged me. I had wondered if I’d have to spend time explaining myself to someone, and I hadn’t really been looking forward to it. Instead, I’d received mostly encouragement and looks of awe from those who found out what I was doing.
The last stretch to the North Rim was tough but straightforward. There are a lot of trees so the direct sun was limited, and the climb to over 8,200 feet made the air a lot cooler. I said hi to a lady in glasses who seemed very familiar and I spent the next several minutes trying to figure out who she reminded me of. I never did figure it out. I then came upon a couple stopped by the side of the trail and noticed that the woman was watching me as I ran up, looking a bit impatient. The guy was struggling to remove some wind pants or something, almost falling over as he tried to pull them off over his shoes. She was dressed for hiking, he wasn’t, and I got the feeling that she was more than a little frustrated with her guy. I hoped his apparent cluelessness wouldn’t get her into trouble out there. She had a lot of freckles and I tried to remember her so that I could see if they were okay when I met them on my return trip. A few minutes later, I chatted with a big-bearded guy who was camping on the North Rim and had hiked down to Coconino Overlook. He was now headed back up to feed his dogs. The trail became easier to run and I pulled away from beard guy, enjoying the cool and the easy running. Still, I admit that I was very glad to see the final steps up to the trailhead.
I reached the North Rim at 11:22. Though I didn’t know for sure at the time, this was only fifteen minutes later than I had predicted.
I spent about thirty minutes at the North Rim trailhead. I refilled my reservoir with water and Cytomax, ate quite a bit, and rested in the cool air. I checked the GPS, which appeared to be working fine, and set the device out to make sure it got a clear view of the sky so the messages I was writing would go out before I headed back down. There were a lot of people up there, and many asked where I’d come from, usually responding with amazement when I told them the South Rim. I guess that no one understood that I was going back, because when I said something about it suddenly everyone was amazed all over again. A woman said it was like meeting a famous person and I laughed, a little embarrassed, but she asked to get a picture with me by the trailhead sign.
Off to one side, a guy was strapping a disassembled bicycle to his backpack. I asked him if he was doing that big trail and was going to carry his bike across the Canyon. He said that’s exactly what he was doing. I’d heard of this before. The Arizona Trail runs north-south across the state from Utah to Mexico, passing through the Grand Canyon. Often, people biking the trail hike across the Grand Canyon and have their bikes sent on the shuttle to the other side, but this is considered to be the lesser way to do it. So those who want full credit carry their bike as they hike through the Canyon. “See?” I said to the people who had been going on and on about my double crossing. “There’s always somebody a little bit crazier.” I took his picture. The guy laughed and I helped him get his straps adjusted for his crossing. He asked if he should go up South Kaibab or Bright Angel. I told him that I wasn’t sure if it mattered for the Arizona Trail goal, but he probably wanted to go up Bright Angel on the other side of the river for the same reasons I did: lesser elevation gain and the water. He agreed and I gave him a couple of pointers about the trail. Then he was off.
Just as I was preparing to leave, the three runners I’d seen ahead of me in the dark, down at Phantom, and again above Supai Tunnel came up to the trailhead. I talked to Tim a bit and found out that their fourth guy was really struggling. I could tell he was concerned. I said that they needed to be careful and be smart, and he agreed. I thought I could tell that he was worried that the fourth guy could make it all the way back, and I also wondered if he was maybe a little frustrated by getting slowed. He looked fit and fast and fresh, and I figured that if he’d been on his own he’d probably be far in front of me. We parted and I headed back down at 11:50. It was cool enough that my fingers were chilled almost to numbness, in part from holding my water bottle, probably. But it was definitely cool and the half-hour rest had brought my core temp down a bunch, which is exactly what I wanted. I kept my poles out, figuring that I’d be mostly hiking down to Roaring Springs. I knew I must be behind my estimated schedule, but not by too much. And things were going well.
I ran a few of the easier downhills near the rim and realized that I was able to run even a lot of the steeper sections using the poles. It was a bit of a pounding, but not too bad and I was on the return trip. I decided to run what I could, which turned out to be quite a bit of it. At that pace, it didn’t take long to catch bicycle guy. He was less than a mile below the rim and chatting with the two girls I’d talked to on the way up. I stopped and spoke with them for a bit, wished bicycle guy more luck and the girls a good day, then continued down.
After a while, I realized that what I was doing with my poles on the steeper downhill sections was using them like ski poles in moguls, with a rhythm that helped save the legs a bit and made taking the switchbacks easier. I passed the woman I’d seen earlier that looked like she was dressed for the mall. She was working uphill but looked okay. I’d been wrong about her. She had it under control and still looked just fine. I made pretty good progress, but by the time I reached the water above Supai Tunnel I was ready for a quick break.
The lady with the glasses that had seemed so familiar was there, and we talked a bit. Her name was Ginny and she worked with an outdoor tour group and had been to the North Rim to set up permits or something. She said she’d hiked R2R several times in her younger days but now usually didn’t go below Supai. I said a job that included any hiking in the Canyon couldn’t be all bad, and she laughed that it was pretty good for retirement. She was clearly in good shape and, though probably older than most of the hikers I saw that day, she knew what she was doing and was obviously good at it. Once again, I had underestimated someone in the Canyon. Though there were some people who didn’t seem to know exactly what they were about, most of them were on top of it. She said I looked real good, that I had a lot of energy in my voice, and that I should be fine for the rest of my run. That carried a lot more weight with me than all the gushing from those at the rim. I said good-by to Ginny and went through the tunnel. I wish I’d taken a picture with her.
I reached Redwall Bridge at 12:38, crossed, and just kept on going. It was warming a bit, and the downhill running was pounding the legs a little, but I was going good and just kept at it. A younger guy sitting by the side of the trail saw me and asked, “How far do you think to the top?” He sounded a bit desperate. I stopped and thought about it, but, before I answered, a woman hiking upward said, “About four miles.” I agreed with her. She passed us and the guy replied, “That far yet?” and now there was more than a bit of desperation.
“Yeah,” I said. “And it’s not easy going. But you can do it. Just take lots of breaks. In the shade if you can. It gets cooler as you go up.” He calmed down a bit. I asked him if he had water, and he said he did. “Just do small chunks at a time. You’ll make it,” I told him. He didn’t necessarily look convinced, but there wasn’t anything I could do for him. “Good luck and be safe,” I said, then I was off again. I hoped he’d make it okay.
At 12:52, I had the camera out to shoot some more video, but a couple coming up the trail approached and asked if I wanted them to take my picture. I said “sure” and they took a couple, then I returned the favor. The guy seemed a bit standoffish through the whole thing, or maybe he was struggling a bit and just not feeling so great. He wore a Texas Rangers hat, so maybe that explained his bad mood. As a Tigers fan whose team had just been eliminated a few days earlier, I decided not to bring up baseball. Anyway, the woman was friendly and I was glad for the picture. I had had her use the still camera on the video camera, though, and the colors turned out a bit weird. I should have had her use my iPhone.
After a little more running I caught up with the two older guys I’d spoken with at Supai on the way up, the ones who’d been asking about the water. We chatted for a bit while I caught my breath, then I was off again. I was just about out of the steepest downhills and wanted to get to Cottonwood where the running would get easier. My quads were really feeling the pounding now, and it would be nice for a break from all the jarring. Despite the tough down miles I was feeling fine, and when I reached the Pumphouse below Roaring Springs I hopped off the trail and took off my pack to dig out a Clif Bar. I also think I re-filled my reservoir here, but I can’t remember for sure.
I talked for a minute with a couple who were just leaving the Pumphouse. They were impressed that I had come so far already and wished me luck, and as they left a pair or runners that I didn’t remember seeing earlier came down and stopped. The woman saw my Clif Bar and laughed. “See?” she said to the guy with her. “Chocolate mint Clif Bars!” That’s the flavor I was eating, and she held one up, too. We laughed about our excellent taste in energy bars.
I figured they must have just started at the North Rim, but it turned out that they both had started at the South Rim that morning. Both had begun after 5:00 and the guy had done 4 extra miles. I was kind of surprised, as that meant he’d started almost an hour after I did, run 31 miles compared to my 27, and had caught up with me already. Wow. I wasn’t going as fast as I had estimated I would be, but I certainly wasn’t going slow. This guy was flying, and runner woman was almost as fast. It was weird that I didn’t remember seeing them, because the guy was wearing a bright yellow shirt similar to the one I wear when racing. I thought they were a couple, but it turns out that they’d met by chance in the Canyon and had decided to run together for a while. I wondered if they wanted me to join them, but I was really enjoying the solo aspect of my run and said I’d let them go first so that I didn’t clog up the trail as they raced by. They took off and after another minute or two, I followed.
I reached Cottonwood pretty quickly, running a lot. The yellow shirt guy and runner woman were sitting on the bench by the water, and I gave them a wave. Since I’d had a longer break than I’d planned at the Pumphouse and I was feeling really good, I just took a long drink from the water fountain (where the raven had been drinking that morning) and just kept going. I knew that those two would catch me pretty quickly.
Since I was behind my time estimates, I decided to forego Ribbon Falls. I was a little disappointed, but it would add close to a mile to my trip plus the time to check out the falls and take pictures. This turned out to be a good decision, because not much later my right ankle began bothering me. I slowed to a walk, suddenly worried that I’d overdone it with all the downhill running. The pain wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t small, either. If it got worse I could be in trouble. I decided that, even though I was in great running territory, I should walk for a while to rest it a bit to see how it did. I tried to give that side extra support with my trekking pole.
I was surprised that yellow shirt guy and runner woman hadn’t caught me yet. Now that I was walking, they’d be on me any minute. But still they didn’t appear. I decided that they must have taken the Ribbon Falls detour. That welder was still sitting there in the middle of the trail, waiting to be choppered out.
Then, of all things, it began to rain. It was light at first, and it felt good. The sun was shining where I was, and the rain appeared to be hitting the entire width of the canyon. Soon everything was glistening wet in the bright sunshine. It looked amazing. I shot a little video, and, while I did, I spotted yellow shirt guy not too far back and closing fast.
Rather than letting up, the rain intensified. It was still sunny out, but the rain was thick and heavy. Even so, I had no need for the rain jacket I’d left in the hotel and was glad I’d not bothered to carry it along. I shot some more video and kept watching for yellow shirt guy. He was nowhere to be seen, which I couldn’t understand. The rain was cool and refreshing, but soon the humidity began to pick up. The rain let up a lot and left behind thick, wet air. I was still walking due to the sore ankle, and I was glad that I wasn’t trying to run in that humidity. After so much dry and thin air, it seemed incredibly heavy and oppressive. A stretch of trail that had been a little wet and muddy on the way out was now flooded, and I had to carefully pick my way along its edges, hemmed in by brush through that section. Thankfully, when I emerged from the brush the rain let up even more and the air was dryer. I was reaching the edge of the Box and I began passing under Canyon walls that had shielded the trail from the rain.
I decided to give running another shot. There were only a few more miles of good running left, and if I could manage to cover them quickly I still might have a shot at finishing my trek before dark. The ankle was okay, though not great, and I kept up a pretty good pace. I took a few walk breaks, but I knew I was racing the sun and I was probably going to lose. There would be very few chances for good running once I crossed the river, so I’d better get in some miles while I had the chance. I’d often catch a bit of a breeze and the sections in the shade were actually quite pleasant. I was getting tired but still going strong.
I continued to wonder why yellow shirt guy and runner woman hadn’t caught me yet. I wondered if they’d run into trouble of some sort. Maybe a sore ankle or something had forced them to walk, similar to me. As I wound back through the Box, I kept glancing back for them. At one point I did glimpse them, figured that they must be okay, and that they’d catch me soon. But then I didn’t see them again while I was in the Box.
I snapped a picture at Phantom Canyon just before Phantom Ranch. The previous year we’d crossed the Bright Angel Creek that snaked through the Box and up Phantom Creek to some waterfalls. The water had been knee-deep or more in places, but now Phantom Creek was almost completely dry. I came out of the Box and into the sunlight, with only a short distance to go until I reached Phantom Ranch. I passed a family with a little girl hiking slowly toward the Ranch. I believe I’d seen them in Cottonwood Campground on my way through that morning. “How old is she?” I asked, and they told me four years. “Wow!” I said. “That’s awesome!” I asked her if she was tired, but she and her mom both said no, she wasn’t. “Good job!” I answered. “I’m very tired.” Then I laughed and took off again.
I slowed to a walk just outside Phantom Ranch. It was warm and sunny and I really was starting to feel pretty tired. It was after 3:30 and it was clear that not only would I not make it to the South Rim before nightfall, I had maybe overdone it a bit in the Box and would need an extended rest at Bright Angel Campground before crossing the river and starting the ascent.
Just then someone behind me said “This seems like a good place to walk!” It was runner woman and yellow shirt guy. They commented how I’d cruised through Cottonwood and had been “flying” through the Box. It turned out that runner woman wasn’t actually going up to the South Rim that afternoon. Her family was camping at Bright Angel and she was teasing us about how she’d be relaxing in her hammock while we struggled up towards the rim. I didn’t quite understand, because she’d said she was doing an R2R2R and I thought she meant that she was going to the top and her family was camping up there. She mentioned a group of three runners she’d met that had had a guy drop out at the North Rim. I figured this must be Tim and his buddies, and guy #4 had been forced to bail.
We hiked into Phantom Ranch and they stopped at the water near the Canteen. Though I had not been planning to use any of Phantom’s resources, I was talking with these guys and the place looked mostly empty. There was no one at the water, so I changed my mind and decided to stay and chat for a bit while I rested. I re-filled my reservoir which still had about half a liter, but I didn’t add any Cytomax. I decided that I’d go with a weaker mix for the time being. This might have been a mistake. I ate a bit and drank some water, and I suddenly realized that I was a lot more tired than I had thought.
I sat there for almost 20 minutes. When I finally figured out that runner woman was not going to the South Rim that day, I was afraid that the guy was going to want me to go with him. First, I pretty much wanted to finish it solo. Talking to people I ran into along the way was one thing, but I was enjoying the solitude and hoped I wouldn’t have to seem unfriendly and decline an offer to join up. Secondly, despite the fact that they’d not caught up with me while I was running, I suspected that he was going to go up the trail far more quickly than I was. I didn’t want to feel pressured to keep up with him and I didn’t want him to feel any pressure to wait up for me.
We talked shoes a bit, and it turned out that he and I both wore the Saucony Peregrine 3s. His were red and mine were blue. The woman asked to see the tread, and I lifted my foot for her to look. “I was following your tracks all the way down South Kaibab this morning,” she said.
They took off and I waited for them to get ahead a bit before dragging myself to my feet. Despite the rest, I was still pretty tired. I decided to walk to the water near the campground and then rest again. I checked the GPS, but it seemed like it was having trouble. I sent a message out, but it didn’t go immediately. It would, eventually, when the connection was re-established. I was moving slow, trudging through Phantom Ranch and across the bridge to the Bright Angel Campground side. I took a photo of the thermometer at the other end of the bridge at 4:04 p.m. It was 81 degrees. Though it felt warm, I was thankful that it wasn’t the previously-forecast 96 or, especially, the 105 that it had been the previous year in July when I’d last seen that thermometer.
I shuffled past a restroom where we’d seen a scorpion a year earlier and then someone called “Hey, Michigan!” I looked up to see runner woman sitting at a picnic table in one of the campsites beside the trail. I waved. “Where’s your hammock?” I asked her. She replied that her lazy husband hadn’t put it up for her yet. A guy looked up from a stove and laughed. She said something else, which I think was an invitation to join them for a bit, but I was too tired. “Gotta keep moving,” I mumbled and kept on my way. I was really dragging.
I reached the water station past the campground, filled my roll-up bottle, and sat on a rock. I was very tired. I sat there for a long while, eating my last Clif Bar (I think) and some Clif Shot Bloks. I drank quite a bit of water, knowing that there would be no more until Indian Garden and that there were some hard miles between here and there. My pack would have to last through them and get me up to the water we’d used in the campground the previous year. I sat for about 15 more minutes, finally getting up and deciding to hit the nearby restroom quick. It was the first time that I’d peed since crossing the Black Bridge nearly ten hours ago, but I was relieved (no pun intended) to see that the color was good. I had thought that I was keeping up pretty well with my hydration and this confirmed that I was in pretty good shape. TMI, I guess, but an important thing to watch when crossing the Canyon.
I actually felt a lot better after the second rest stop at the bottom, and I headed out for the Silver Bridge. I thought I shot a bunch of video by the river with Ethan, but it turns out that I had not pressed the button hard enough and I was just talking to myself. Bummer. I’m positive that it was seriously hilarious stuff. Probably Oscar-worthy, but lost forever. I then took a couple of pics and crossed the Colorado River.
The first stretch on the South Rim side of the Colorado is called the River Trail, and I think it sucks. It’s very sandy and tough going and I remembered that I hadn’t liked it very much last year. I didn’t enjoy it any more this time around. Despite the relative lack of elevation change, the sand made it tough to run and quickly sapped what little strength I’d regained at the second rest stop. I decided to just walk.
As I slogged on through the sand, I began to wonder if I’d missed an intersection somewhere. I didn’t think I needed to watch for one and that the River Trail led right into the Bright Angel Trail, but nothing looked familiar. I began to fear that I’d missed a turn and was going to end up having to double back. I looked for Peregrine 3 tracks on the trail, because yellow shirt guy, an experienced Canyon veteran, was ahead of me and had said he was going up Bright Angel. But the sand made it impossible to make out any details. I checked the GPS and it appeared to show me on course, but I remained skeptical. Not knowing what else to do, I trusted the GPS and kept on going.
After a while, the trail turned away from the river and passed a set of restrooms. This must be what’s called the River Rest House, but for the life of me I don’t remember it at all from last year. I rested a minute or two on the bench outside, then got back up and kept on going. As long as I kept moving forward, I’d eventually get to the top. After a bit, I spotted a Peregrine 3 track. Not a guarantee that I was on the right trail, but close enough for me. Yellow shirt guy was up ahead somewhere. I decided that I wasn’t going to make any more rest stops until I reached Indian Garden.
The next several miles were pretty brutal. It was still light out, but I was resigned to the fact that I’d spend a lot of time in the dark. I wanted to be out of Indian Garden before nightfall, but I’d rest a bit there, water up, eat something, and change socks. My feet were good but my socks were filthy and my shoes had a lot of sand in them from the River Trail.
There is a tough series of switchbacks called the Devil’s Corkscrew below Indian Garden. I was moving forward, head down, and my energy was failing when I reached them. As I climbed, I began to doubt that I was even on the Corkscrew and that more, tougher switchbacks were still between me and Indian Garden. But then I passed an area that I remembered from the Scout trip, a section where some of us had been talking about medieval archery. Reassured that I was, indeed, on the Devil’s Corkscrew, I kept plugging away. It was impossible for me to run, but I kept up a steady pace and motored on toward Indian Garden.
After the Corkscrew I came to a section of trail that was flooded and muddy. A short wall of stone had been built along the outer edge of the trail, and I climbed up on it to avoid getting my shoes weighted down with mud. I hadn’t gone very far along it, though, when I lost my balance a bit and I leaned to my left and planted my poles in the mud to catch myself. I looked over to my right and saw that it was a several hundred foot drop almost straight down. I decided that I should probably not walk on that wall anymore.
I jumped across the mud and walked along the edge, trying to keep my shoes dry. Shortly after that, I came to the first trees of Indian Garden. I was relieved to have come so far but I cautioned myself that the campground was still a ways off. I kept going for what seemed like a very long time, each time I thought I was arriving at the campground ending up disappointed when I discovered that I wasn’t there yet. That stretch was probably as demoralized as I got on the entire run. The light was fading and I knew that I didn’t dare stop if I wanted to change socks, refill water, and get my light out before darkness fell.
Finally, I saw the edge of the campground. I was so relieved to have finally made it. Except that it wasn’t actually the campground. Once again I was disappointed. My mood went off a several hundred foot drop almost straight down.
The sky was getting dimmer and I decided that I wasn’t going to take the time or effort to change socks. A sock change had been a life-saver in the 50-mile Hungerford Games ultramarathon, but my feet were fine and I didn’t want to bother. It would save me five minutes and daylight was going fast.
Then I really did, finally, reach the campground. However, to get over to it I had to cross a couple of streams. The stepping stones were well under the surface of the bubbling water, so I searched for an alternate crossing. I found one, but it, too, looked almost impossible to get across with dry feet. I tried jumping for it, but I was too tired and both feet got wet. I guess the sock change was back in the schedule.
I had planned to head straight for the water near the group campsite we’d used the year before, but when I saw a bench I collapsed onto it. I drank some more, and I can’t remember if I had a Clif Bar left or not. If I did, I ate it here. I ate some more Clif Shot Bloks and I looked at my Hammer gels, but I couldn’t bring myself to take one. I’d taken several throughout the day, but I decided that I was about gelled out. I changed my socks. Unlike at the Hungerford Games, both feet were in good shape. No blisters. No blood. I texted that I was at Indian Garden and okay but that I was moving very slowly. I got my headlamp out, disappointed that I needed it again. I rested there for between 10 and 15 minutes. By the time I got up from the bench, it was almost dark.
One of the reasons I’d wanted to get out of Indian Garden before nightfall was that, the previous year, we’d had trouble getting off of the campground trails and onto the Bright Angel Trail in the dark pre-dawn hours. I didn’t exactly understand how the trails all connected, so I wanted to get onto the right one while I could see everything. But I still needed water. So I set off to find the water station.
After a few minutes, I realized that I was actually on the Bright Angel Trail and headed out of Indian Garden. I’d accidentally got myself onto the very trail I was afraid I’d miss. Except, I’d done it before I filled water. So I had to go back and find a trail back into the campground. The crowd in the group site we’d used the previous summer was a bit rowdy and sounded like they were having a good time. Rather than pay them any attention, I found the water, emptied and re-filled my pack’s reservoir, and dumped in most of a bag of Cytomax. I wondered if the decision earlier in Phantom Ranch to dilute my sports drink had contributed to my poor performance on the way to Indian Garden. I decided that it probably hadn’t helped, but a few more calories of sports drink wouldn’t have made that much difference. I filled the roll-up bottle with water, drank it down, and filled it again.
Four and a half miles to go. Three 1.5 miles sections, with water at the end of each section if I needed it. I decided I was not going to rest until I reached Three Mile Rest House. I found my way back to the main trail and started up. By the time I left Indian Garden, it was completely dark. Dark, as in basically pitch black. Far above, I could see two points of light that I thought might be the South Rim. They looked a long ways away.
It didn’t take long for the going to get tough. I climbed and climbed and kept on climbing. Though I wasn’t moving terribly fast, I was moving steadily. I looked at my watch and tried to figure how long it would take to reach Three Mile Rest House if I was moving at three miles an hour. At first, I was still sucking on the water bottle with my poles grasped in my other hand. Finally, I decided that I needed the poles more than I needed more fluid right now, so I dumped the remaining water and stashed the bottle. Gripping the poles in hands that were nearly blistering from a long day of hard going, I picked up a little steam and powered up the Canyon. Far above me, I saw a light moving along the trail. I wondered if it was yellow shirt guy. Looking back, I saw some more lights exiting Indian Garden below me. I wondered if it was Tim and his two buddies.
In 2011, I had run up Pikes Peak in the 13.32-mile Ascent race. I had often referred to it as the hardest thing I’d ever done. Earlier in the day, as I approached the Devil’s Corkscrew, I had tried to decide if the R2R2R was tougher than the Pikes Peak Ascent. At the time, I’d decided that it was, but only because it lasted so long. The Ascent had only taken me a little more than four hours. This was going to take four times as long. But now, in the dark and really running out of steam, I decided that this was just plain harder. Period. Well, that’s one of the reasons I was doing it, right? Because it was hard. Achievement unlocked, I guess.
I reached Three Mile Rest House five minutes faster than I had expected, and I sat down on a rock by the edge of the trail. I was beat. It seemed that the lead light behind me was maybe gaining, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t really even care. That’s when I got the message about people cheering me on and the greeting party at the rim. Buoyed by the idea that people were there even though I was by myself, I renewed my resolve to reach the top.
The first stretch above Three Mile Rest House went relatively quickly. I kept thinking about everyone out there who was watching and waiting. Also, even though every step I’d taken since 4:22 that morning had been reducing the number needed to reach the finish, that number now seemed to have shrunk to a level that each step actually made a meaningful difference. I had a long ways to go, but I knew I could do it. I just had to keep plugging away.
Once again I tried to estimate the time it would take me cover the next 1.5 mile section. Mile And A Half Rest House was up there somewhere, and I figured I should get there at about 7:50. I kept pushing. I’d rest again when I got there, then rest one more time between there and the top. From here on up, nothing was going to make me feel any better no matter how long I sat down. Rest breaks were only going to delay my arrival.
After I’d gone a ways, something moved at the edge of my little circle of light. I had seen a number of gray squirrels down in the canyon, but this was no squirrel. It was, in fact, a skunk. He pattered along up the trail in front of me. I slowed a bit to let him pull away. As bad as I felt, I’d feel worse if I got skunked.
Finally, the little guy decided to give up on the trail and began climbing the canyon wall to my right. I gave him a wide berth as I passed, ready to shield my face and make a run for it if he looked ready to let loose. Thankfully, I passed him without incident. I chuckled a bit and kept on, rounding the switchback as I ascended slowly toward the South Rim.
And there was the skunk again. He’d climbed up to the next section of trail and was pattering along ahead of me once again. I saw that it was a spotted skunk, not a striped one. I didn’t care. I doubted that they smelled any better. Finally, he gave up and climbed the canyon wall, this time on my left. I passed carefully by and rounded the switchback. You already know how this goes.
There he was again on the trail in front of me, watching me approach, his tail twitching in a manner that I took to be threatening. Then he began climbing again. Up to the trail above. I sighed. This could go on forever.
I’m not sure how many times I ran into him. At least four or five. Finally, he climbed up further while the trail continued ahead, curving around an outcrop and not switching back for a while. I hoped I had left that little stinker behind. Several times I’d thought about snapping a photo of him, but I was just so tired. I knew I’d regret not getting a pic to go with my story, and I do, but I just didn’t care at the time.
The repeated encounters with the skunk had broken up my rhythm a bit, and I began to really struggle again. I looked at my watch. It was 7:41. Only nine more minutes or so until I should be reaching the Mile And A Half Rest House. I could do anything for nine more minutes. But as I soldiered on, I realized I’d made a math error. I wasn’t supposed to get there at 7:50, I was supposed to get there at 8:00. I didn’t have nine minutes to go. I had nineteen.
“That pretty much sucks,” I think I said. There may possibly have been some naughty words, too. I can’t really remember.
I kept going. There wasn’t any choice. There was no retreat. The only way out was to get out.
At one point in there somewhere, I saw a headlamp on the switchbacks below me. Despite my slowness and the distraction of the skunk, I’d managed to gain a fair amount of ground on the guy behind me. I couldn’t believe it.
Then, not far away, a headlamp came around the corner. I think it was the outcrop where I’d finally ditched the skunk, but wherever he was, he was the guy behind me. He’d gained a lot of ground on me. That headlamp on the switchbacks below was actually the second guy. He’d also gained a lot of ground.
I kept on going. I didn’t really care that I was going to get passed. It wasn’t a race. But I was a little dismayed that I was fading more than the other guys out there. I hoped that it was Tim or one of his group, the guys I’d seen before dawn and several other times along the trail. I had been expecting them for some time as I’d been slowing.
Finally, I reached the Rest House. I sat down heavily, breathing pretty hard and feeling near the point of collapse. I ate a couple of Clif Shot Bloks. It didn’t take long for the next headlamp to approach. It was Tim.
“Nice work!” I said. “Go get it!”
“You okay, Shelby?” he asked as he passed. “You need food?”
I shook my head. “I’m good. I’ll see you at the top.”
He nodded. “I gotta keep moving.”
“How about your fourth guy?” I called after him. “He okay?”
Tim stopped and looked back. “Yeah,” he replied. “He took the shuttle from the North Rim.”
“Glad he’s good,” I said wearily. “I’ll see you up there.”
Then Tim turned and continued on his way. He wasn’t moving terribly fast, but I could see that he was going faster than I was. Once he got around the next bend, I groaned and stood up slowly. My legs were weak and my will was pretty much broken, but I wasn’t going to give in. The only way out…
I recalled something I’d said to my son Trey after I had reached the top of Pikes Peak in the Ascent race in 2011. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Whatever kills you but doesn’t make you quit makes you invincible.”
I might almost be the walking dead, but I was also almost invincible. And nothing was going to stop me now.
I started moving. Forward. Upward. One foot in front of the other.
Retreat? Hell. I just got here.
That last mile and a half is pretty fuzzy. I recall that the lightning I’d been worrying about didn’t seem to be getting much closer. And at some point the nearly-full moon came out for a few minutes. I remember thinking that I could sure use my friend Charlie, who had paced me through the last 20 miles of the Hungerford Games and had kept me going when I wanted to lay down and curl up. He wouldn’t let me walk so slow. He wouldn’t let me feel so sorry for myself.
I knew that soon I’d have to curve around left then sharply back to the right to a long switchback that led to the final stretch. I sat and rested. It was my very last sit. I took a long drink of my Cytomax. I could barely taste it.
I rose and continued on at a crawl. I ran into a couple of hikers in the dark. They sorta surprised me. They were stopped in the trail and stepped aside to let me pass. “Have a good evening,” I muttered, trying but probably failing to sound friendly.
I went ahead a little and noticed lights behind me. It was the hikers. “You guys are going UP?” I asked, surprised. I’d thought they were headed down. When they said they were, I called back “Well, then your evening ain’t gonna be so good, I guess.” I’d meant it to be funny, but in retrospect I wonder if it sounded mean or discouraging. I hope my failed attempt at humorous commiseration didn’t make them feel worse than they already did.
I pushed through a couple more switchbacks and I saw that I’d gained a lot of ground on the hikers. Holy crap, I thought. If they’re going that much slower than me, they must really be less than thrilled with things right now.
Looking ahead, I saw Tim’s light on the far side, turning up the long switchback. It looked so far away. I’d kept wondering when I was going to get there, and now I saw I still had so very far to go.
Dejected, I sat down on a rock. My very last sit hadn’t been my very last sit, after all. I don’t know how long I sat there. At least a couple of minutes. I was too tired to feel disappointed. I was too tired to feel discouraged. Hell, I was too tired to feel tired.
A headlamp approached. I thought the hikers had caught up with me, but it was just one guy. He was from Tim’s group, I supposed. “Go get it,” I said weakly as he passed. I think he only grunted in reply.
I stood and started moving again. It actually didn’t take too long to reach the sharp right turn toward the long switchbacks. I cut the turn short, thinking that every step I could save would make a difference at this point. My leg buckled a bit, and, to be honest, I think I was kinda close to going over the edge. Closer than I wanted to be, anyway. I don’t know how far down it went at that point, but it was far enough that I decided I’d better stay the hell away from the edge.
I told myself that I needed to remember to get Ethan out when I reached the tunnel that was near the top. That tunnel would be my signal that I was almost there. I didn’t want to get him out earlier and increase the risk of losing him. But I wanted him out for the finish. I wanted him in the pictures and I wanted him to be able to see us reaching the end.
I fought my way up the long switchbacks. This stretch had been a killer the year before as the Crew ascended. It was a killer again this year. A year ago I’d done my best to encourage the Scouts to keep going. That they were doing good. That we were almost there. When my words hurt more than they helped, I just walked alongside, trying to silently will them to the top somehow. This year, I needed someone there to help me. I knew I was almost there. I knew I could make it. I knew it, but I wasn’t so sure I really believed it.
Suddenly, I was passing through the tunnel. It just appeared out of the darkness. I hadn’t even seen it coming.
I was supposed to do something at the tunnel. What was it? Take a drink? Stop to rest? What had I wanted to do when I reached the tunnel?
I thought about leaving him in my pocket. He was just a little finger puppet, after all. He couldn’t see anything. And I was so tired.
But he was also my little companion. He was the friend with me because no other friends could be with me.
So I pulled him out. “We’re just about there, Ethan,” I said as I stuck him into a little pocket on the strap of my pack. “We’re just about there.”
I didn’t know if I could walk all the way up to the rim. It was so far.
So I started running. I was going to run.
I was going to finish my R2R2R run running.
To call it a run is probably a gross overstatement, to be honest. But I gave it everything I had left. Someone called from above. “Shelby?!?” I was pretty sure it was my cousin Dawn.
“Shelby who?” I called back. A moment later cheers erupted from somewhere up there. I was pretty sure it was the trailhead, but it might have been Heaven.
I was so close.
I rounded a corner and saw Tim and the other guy who had passed me. They stood at the side of the trail. “You’ve got a cheer squad up there, Shelby,” Tim said. “So we’ll let you go first.”
“Aw, guys,” I said, feeling bad that they’d stopped. Then I realized that they were probably really waiting for their third team member so they could all finish together. I kept going. “Thanks!” I called back.
I was looking for a sign near the top, the sign that the Scout Crew had assembled at just before reaching the rim. I couldn’t see it in the dark. And as I took a switchback, my legs almost gave out. I had to walk. I didn’t know it, but the sign I was looking for was right there at that switchback.
I kept going. I had to be close.
The trail switched back to my left and also kept going forward. Which way was I supposed to go? I thought straight ahead, but I didn’t have the energy to go the wrong way.
“Are you guys up there?” I called. No answer.
“Which way?” I called. “I don’t know which way to go!” I felt like an idiot.
“Follow my voice!” my cousin called.
Straight ahead. Time to run again.
I ran with everything I had. But barely faster than a walk.
Suddenly I could see light. I could see the top. I could hear voices.
South Rim? Heaven? Either way, I was going to cross that line running. I pushed the pedal to the metal, maybe even speeding up a little, as I ascended that final hundred steps.
I stepped up onto the rim and slammed my poles onto the ground. I had made it.
I was on the South Rim. I was in Heaven.
My mom was there. My cousin Dawn was there. Dawn’s significant other Karla was there, snapping photos.
My mom hurried over and hugged me. I hugged her back.
“Happy birthday,” I told her. “Happy birthday.”
In my excitement and exhaustion, I forgot to stop my watch. But looking at the timestamps on my mom’s photos of the start and finish, both taken with the same camera, I ran from 4:22 a.m. until 8:41 p.m.
16:19 elapsed time.
Sixteen hours. Nineteen minutes. It had felt like forever.
It had flashed by in a moment.
The next day, my legs stiff and sore, I was back at the Bright Angel Trail. I looked out over the Canyon. I looked down at Indian Garden and the path that wound its way up from the Garden’s trees. I noted that it didn’t look that far away. I also noted that it was a lot farther than it looked.
I promised then and there that I would never run another Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. And I promised that I would, probably, keep that promise.
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. – Romans 5:3-4
I didn’t mean for this story to be so long. I didn’t mean for it to ramble on so much. But it felt like an incredible adventure, and the words just flowed out as I wrote and I kept remembering things I’d forgotten. The R2R2R double crossing was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I guess I can’t help but feel a little proud of it. If I’ve been a touch melodramatic in my telling, forgive me. I do so love to tell a good story.
Sometimes, I must confess, I might get a tiny bit sentimental. But, please, don’t tell anyone.
If writing this all down will keep my memory fresh, it will be worth it. If reading this account helps a fellow adventurer prepare for their own R2R2R double crossing, it will be worth it. If hearing this tale inspires just one person to chase after a crazy dream and do something that everyone else thinks is totally insane, it will be worth it.
To those who helped me get prepared,
To those who encouraged me on my way,
To those who waited for me at the top,
To those who followed along that day.
I was out there by myself. But I wasn’t alone.