Updated: Oct 7, 2020
"Let's get up really, really early and run really far!"
Ever since we moved to Calgary back in 2011, I had heard people talk about the infamous Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) run in the Grand Canyon. I was curious as it sounded hard but an amazing adventure. I remember adding this to my bucket list of runs I would like to do and then to be honest, I sort of forgot about it until a friend of mine in September asked me to join her and run R2R2R. Of course, my answer was "Yes!" (Having done the quick check with my husband and family to see if they were OK with this idea!)
Training was a little varied. Having completed the Sinister 7 this summer and then done loads of hiking in the Selkirks, I had not done masses of long runs. So I did some weight training, ran Lake Minnewanka and did some mental strength stuff as well to get me ready for the run.
We arrived in Phoenix a day before we planned to run and managed to reach our hotel by 7pm at night. It was completely dark apart from the stars. We eventually turned out our lights by 11pm, setting our alarms for 2:15am. Funny enough, as soon as our lights were out, I felt incredibly awake and lay there thinking about our plan, food etc for our run the next day.
So having had about two hours sleep, at 2:15am I suggested we delay our run. Katherine was quite concerned about what would happen if things go wrong. But I just knew running for me on two hours sleep would not be a great idea and it would be a good opportunity to double check the water sources. So we turned over and went back to sleep, planning to get up early, run and get ourselves organized slightly more.
Our day was really useful. I know it would have been unbelievable to see the Canyon in first light but now knowing how hard it was, I am so pleased we altered our plans. We checked out the water supply which was our main concern, and it confirmed we needed to load up on water at the Manzanita rest area in order to make it to the North Rim and back down.
Just breath taking! The Grand Canyon, Arizona.
The alarm sounded again on Wednesday at 2:15am and we were up straight away. The previous morning had been cold so we layered up, but as we headed out at 3am, we both realized that we were going to be really warm! Coming from Calgary, we were not used to having an air temperature of 5º but feels like 8º!
We ran to the start of the Bright Angel, trail took the mandatory photo and then we descended down into the Canyon.
Bright Angel Trailhead at 3:20am, Wednesday 6th November
Katherine was whooping and calling! Her excitement was infectious! But I was concentrating hard on the path, trying to push the pace but avoiding twisting an ankle. It was actually harder than I expected, simply because I found it difficult to get into a rhythm as the steps were at such different distances from each other. (This completely explained the description we saw of the trail the day before, talking about how it was equivalent to doing 200 plus steps!)
Taking a quick stop at 1.5 mIle restroom (in fact I stopped at every single restroom from the start at the South Rim to the North Rim and back! My guts were not the best! But that's ultra running for you!) we stared at the stars. They were fabulous! We were the only people on the trail and it was amazing!
Silver Bridge, 6am.
The Silver Bridge crossing the Colorado river loomed upon us and then as we passed Bright Angel campground, our head lamps picked up eyes staring back at us. Katherine jumped, only to realize that they were the mules which take people down into the Canyon.
We had a rough plan that we would get to the Phantom by 6am, and I think we were closer to 6:30am. We filled up with water, had a washroom break and ran on again. The sun was starting to come up and the scenery was stunning.
Trail towards Cottonwood Campground
Early morning on the trail to Ribbon Falls
We took a detour to Ribbon Falls. I was actually rather out of it here. I remember struggling to understand what we were doing. I'm not sure why, as I had been eating, drinking and taking salt tablets reasonably regularly, but maybe not enough or maybe I was completely in the zone! We filled our water again and crossed the broken bridge which had been washed out in a flash flood.
Ribbon Falls and the washed out bridge!
We passed through Cottonwood campground where campers were slowly getting up and then arrived at Manzanita rest area. It was now about 9am and once I had re-fuelled I felt great. Katherine was just flying, she is an incredibly strong runner.
We knew the next leg was going to be tough as it was the climb up to the North Rim in the heat. We also were taking close to 3 litres of liquid each as there was no water until we were back at Manzanita, a 16k round trip. Our packs were heavy, but it was all good! And what an amazing trail!
The hike up to the North Rim was spectacular. This trail was steep and tough to run but it was definitely my most favourite part of the entire run. The rocks were brilliant colours and varied from blue to the bright red.
Heading up to the North Rim, Arizona
Trial up to the North Rim.
View back down to Manzanita.
Heading to the Supai Tunnel and the North Rim
Supai Tunnel - trying to do a tree pose......
Katherine was moving really well. I again started to struggle slightly. I find it so difficult to eat enough food when I run. I sometimes just do not want anything! But that does no good at all and I have to force food down. The heat was lovely, but thinking back now, I suspect the visits to the washrooms and the heat took it out of me. Not enormously surprising!
Katherine's tree pose....slightly better form than mine!
Nearly there! Only another few kilometres.....
From the Coconino Overlook we still had a few kilometres and I did find this part tough. The heat, the elevation and just not quite knowing when we would reach the top, were all making this last part hard. Finally about 11:30am we saw the North Rim trailhead and we had made it!
North Rim, about 11:30am
Again we wanted to do a quick turnaround so we did not waste much time. So we consumed food, visited the restroom and had a quick chat to an English lady and her family and we were done. Heading back down into the Canyon at noon. It had taken us nearly 9 hours to get to the North Rim. More than we anticipated, mainly because of my washroom breaks!
We took about an hour and a half to get back down to Manzanita, refuelled and continued on. On our way back to Phantom Ranch we passed two guys again. We stopped briefly and exchanged comments. They were doing the R2R2R from the North to South and back and had started at 5am. Both commented that it was harder than expected!
We refilled water at Phantom Ranch area and as I waited for Katherine, I watched as a mule was carried out by helicopter. Rather alarming as the mule did seem rather stressed, but there is no other way out. It did bring it home to me, how remote we really were if something had gone wrong.
We crossed the Silver bridge again and realized how large the Colorado river was and how unsettling running across the bridge was! We had seen neither in the morning as it had been so dark. It was completely breath taking!
The light was starting to fad, and we remarked how we did not realize how much sand and rocks there were on the way up from the Silver Bridge. Running in sand reminded me of my MdS race. I had forgotten how hard it was!
Dusk in the Grand Canyon
At 6:15pm, we arrived at Indian Gardens, filled up with water, ate a little - ok, maybe not that much for me and had only slightly more than 8k left. It was obviously completely dark by now. A couple were re-fuelling here as well and we had a brief chat. They had hiked from the North Rim that morning.
So we had two Prairie Mountains left. Katherine was still moving well and was powering up the climb. I must admit, I found this last part hard. My breathing was out and I was reasonably done. I ate one last fig bar and drank as often as I could.
Finally we passed the last tunnel. Katherine was slightly behind and I waited for her so we could finish the last part together. My shins were slightly sore but nothing else felt too bad.
At 8pm we arrived at the South Rim, back where we had started all those hours ago. It was an amazing experience and a spectacular run. One that I will remember not just for the fabulous scenery but also for spending a load of time with a great running buddy! Thank you Katherine for asking me! Such a fun adventure and I feel very lucky to have been able to run the R2R2R.
Back at the Bright Angel Trailhead. Maybe not quite as energetic as our first photo!!
Map of the R2R2R route in the Grand Canyon.