Waking up on Friday morning, I was more nervous to run than ever before. No marathon, ultra, training run, or otherwise had given me butterflies like this in the past. I was almost 1,000 miles from home, at elevation and ready to spend the day, from sunrise to sunset, in Arizona’s biggest hole.
We’d packed up our gear the night before, spent a few weeks checking maps and routes and gathering tips from friends, but no amount of preparation could shake my nerves and excitement. Luckily I’d read a few chapters from Wild on the plane, and had hoped to carry the author’s mantra with me on the trails.
Our adventure started just as light was sneaking up over the skyline on the South Kaibab Trail. It was 5:45am, and we’d gotten a little bit of a late start. Starting off down South Kaibab, the trail was a little steeper and more technical than most people prefer. Charlie had decided that we should do this section on our way out of the South Rim because it has no water and we would be most alert in the morning with the trickier trails than on our way back. A few miles later, the sun peeked out over the rim, turning the entire canyon a gorgeous orangey red color.
We ran down slowly, spotting some deer and hikers on our way. About 7.5 miles later, we made it to the Colorado River crossing and made our way to Bright Angel Camp.
The further into the canyon we dropped, the warmer it got. And even before 8am, it was warmer on the trails than any day I’d spent running in San Francisco. From Bright Angel, we headed North, taking North Kaibab Trail. There were about 7 miles of gentle incline along a little stream until making it to Cottonwood Camp. We ran to Cottonwood, making good time, refilled our hydration packs, and kept going in the direction of the North Rim.
After Cottonwood, North Kaibab Trail steepens considerably, so we slowed down, hiking a few sections, and then more, until finally we’d resolved to hike the rest of the way to the North Rim. This part of the trail is mostly exposed to morning/afternoon sun, steep and wasn’t getting much wind. I was getting hot and the elevation had me breathing hard and not feeling my best.
Of all things I’d heard and read about the Grand Canyon, I knew hydration is key. So I sipped my hydration pack constantly, taking in a ton of fluid and refilling it at every opportunity. By the time we made it to Supai tunnel, 1.9 miles from the North Rim, my stomach was sloshing around in all directions. I was properly hydrated, but getting food down was another story. I wanted to get to the top, but also knew that we had 20-25 more miles ahead of us, and climbing all the way up to the North Rim could put the rest of the run in jeopardy.
We were 21 miles in, I was sitting in the shade slurping down GU Brew, trying to warm myself up to the idea of fuel, and it was time to weigh options. Charlie sat with me patiently, trying to help me get food down and making friends with all of the other hikers who were camped out like we were at this resting place. Knowing my body, what I’m capable of, and what my heart set out here to do, the decision was pretty clear. Skip the last stretch to the top, try to regain my rhythm, be thankful for the incredible journey my legs and lungs had already given me, and enjoy the rest of the adventure.
It’s never a painless decision to cut a run short. As soon as we started descending, getting into lower elevation in the canyon, and I’d gotten some fuel in, I felt brand new. Of course thoughts of “I should have just gone all the way up” passed through my head. But, if there’s any place to be TOO conservative, it’s in the Grand Canyon. If you feel sick or get stuck on a trail, it cost $4,500 to get airlifted out in a helicopter, and that’s after finding one of the rare emergency phones.. (Thank you, hotel concierge).
We took North Kaibab Trail back down the way we came, focused on getting back to Phantom Ranch for a lemonade. Phantom Ranch is really the only place to stop that has a store with food and drinks and any semblance of civilization, but also the hottest part of the canyon, in our case it had gotten up to 100 degrees. By the time we made it to Phantom Ranch, I’m pretty sure Charlie would have sacrificed one of his limbs for a lemonade, but luckily they accepted cash, so he bought a glass and took a few minutes to cool off.
A few hours later we were back at the Colorado River and we crossed over the Silver Bridge to get to the Bright Angel Trail. We took a break after the river to sit and watch some rafts go by and prepare ourselves for the final 9.5 mile climb back.
Bright Angel Trail was breathtaking as the other trails before it. We finally started to cool down as the sun was setting and we ventured into more shaded trails. The moon peeked out in the late afternoon, and the trails had gone quiet. At this point, most of the campers seemed to be settled in, so the wildlife got noisier and more noticeable by comparison.
We stopped in at a trailhead about 5 miles out and took a photo just before it went completely dark, pulled out our headlamps, and settled into the final, dark hike. With the wind coming out of the canyon, the dusty switchbacks blew dirt in our faces with every step. Like the final miles in any feat of endurance, our legs were heavy and we slowed down a bit. A huge blister wrapping around my toe burst a few miles out, making every step on that foot excruciating. About an hour after sunset, we made it to the South Rim and collapsed onto the shuttle.
Our trip to Arizona wasn’t complete, but Day 1 of adventuring was over. My Garmin went in and out all day, and reported 46.5 miles, but the trail maps show closer to 43 miles. Regardless, it was the amazing day I’ve ever spent in my running shoes. I wouldn’t say that Rim to Rim to Rim (or almost there in our case) is a route to be run, it’s a route to be adventured. The beauty and challenge of these trails are hard to beat, I know it won’t be long until I go back and tackle them again.