I stand on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as tourist hordes ebb and flow around me. They are schools of flashy fish, their cameras, ice-cream cones, and clackety-clack-against-sidewalks shoes grabbing snippets of my attention. I smell sunscreen and sweat, and the odors cause me to tilt my head to the sun. It looks like a yellow Frisbee in an aquamarine sea.
Past the sidewalk, over the guardrail, and beyond the stubby Utah Junipers is a gaping abyss opening to the north. Earth yields to air, one rocky platform at a time. This meeting of land and sky continues downward for 5,000 vertical feet until there is no more dropping to do. At the bottom courses the poop-colored Colorado River and beyond that, more platforms of rock rise up and away to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. As the California Condor flies, the distance between these rims is 10 miles. Via trail, the journey into and out of the chasm is 21 miles, though there are more meander-ly options.
I visit the Grand Canyon frequently but the Big Ditch shocks the shit out of me every time. Because my undergraduate degree is in geology, I intangibly understand that the Colorado River gashed and gaped the Grand Canyon through the act of simply flowing for millions of years. But I also get how some see such a spectacle, throw up their hands, and declare it a divine intervention. A hole this big is not logical.
I don’t move as I gawk and the world continues its detour around me. To be honest, I can’t move. My legs behave like wooden pirate appendages. The origin of this temporary disability is yesterday’s 12-hour, 42-mile run from here to the North Rim and back.
Running from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other and back is what trail runners call Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, or R2R2R. This might sound outrageous, but the speed with which some runners have accomplished this task seems even more so.
Bethany Lewis is a mother and physician from Salt Lake City, and she currently holds the women’s R2R2R fastest known time (FKT). Last November, it took her eight hours, 15 minutes, and 51 seconds! And Colorado-based Dakota Jones owns the men’s FKT, which he set the day before Bethany at six hours, 53 minutes, and 38 seconds.
Dakota ran a 9:49 minute-per-mile pace and Bethany ran an 11:47 minute-per-mile pace. For 42 miles. With roughly 11,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss. These records are sick, but they only encourage runner folk to go faster. They will someday be broken.
A middle-aged man wearing glacier glasses, a Superman t-shirt, and a bright orange handkerchief bandit-style around the bottom half of his face and I share a water spigot near Phantom Ranch. The ranch is a primitive tourist facility located at the smack-bottom of the Grand Canyon where folks can stay overnight, eat home-cooked meals, and buy snacks and drinks. He’s overnighting at the Bright Angel Campground, a nearby backcountry campground.
Our conversation is a simple exchange of weather, scenery, and recreation observations until he tells me what he thinks about my R2R2R running. “You’re crazy! Why would you do this to yourself?”
I am an ultrarunner, a person who runs distances in excess of a marathon during races or just for the fun of it in pretty places. I frequently field versions of this man’s inquisition. Folks tend to place personal judgment over my running before they know one thing about it. His incredulity is also familiar.
“Let me get this straight,” I say playfully, bumping his shoulder with the back of my hand, “You just told me that you carried four days worth of camping supplies and food to the bottom of this hole in the ground.” He’s got a scarf over half of his face, but his cheeks rise up into fat cherries so I know he’s grinning under it. I wave my hands at the walls of rock stacked like skyscrapers around us, shutting out the sky to one skinny swath overhead. “I’m here for this, aren’t you?”
Rocky terrain, superheated summer air temperatures, and things that’ll poke and sting add elements of risk to Grand Canyon running. In July of 2004, Margaret Bradley, an accomplished and able runner from Chicago, Illinois, and a companion set out on a 27-mile run in the Grand Canyon. Midway through, she and her partner ran out of water and separated. She went off trail in search of water while he tried to complete the run. Margaret became trapped by nonnegotiable terrain and died of exposure.
This past winter, Tahoe City, California-runner Betsy Nye broke her leg while running R2R2R with several girlfriends. The highly experienced athlete has tackled and won some of the United States’ gnarliest ultramarathons, but a freak fall necessitated the assistance of Grand Canyon National Park’s search-and-rescue personnel and helicopter extrication. The Big Ditch can be a mean bitch.
In a mixture of running and powerhiking, I climb toward the North Rim. I just passed Cottonwood Campground, another backcountry campground that marks the halfway point between the Colorado River and the North Rim. It also marks the spot where the trail’s incline kicks up several degrees of steepness and pretty much stays that way until the top.
Interpretive signs announce the name, age, and depositional environment of each rock layer I scale. I learn about the Hermit Shale, that it’s red because it contains iron. I try to think about—really hammer into my skull—its 280-million-year age but the only concrete idea I can muster is that this number has seven zeroes.
I dream of dinosaurs, though the rocks are older than even them and no dinosaur bones have been found at the Grand Canyon. I imagine one heavy enough to make the ground shake with each footfall and wonder what it would be like to stand next to it. Would we look like a pea and a John Deere tractor? An ant and an ape? I lament extinction because wouldn’t life be interesting with these creatures around? Ascending the Earth’s annals, I’m lost in a pretend world.
I reach the North Rim, reenter reality, and pause. The long, skinny needles on the Ponderosa Pines above my head shiver against each other in the breeze, a silent applause. A man walking to his car in the trailhead parking lot shakes his fist above his head and says, “You did it!” Everything celebrates my arrival.
I holler thanks to the fist-pumping man and wonder where he voyaged today. I sniff that sweet Ponderosa Pine aroma, which smells to me like cotton candy. I have to return to the South Rim, so a party now seems akin to celebrating half of a mountain climbed. But half a mountain is better than no mountain, so I let out a whoop as I drop down the trail, letting gravity guide me.
A successful R2R2R is achieved in two ways: bringing the appropriate abilities and managing the variables you encounter. Forty-two miles, massive vertical, and a desert ecosystem require previous backcountry and ultramarathon experience.
Summer is super hot and snow can make winter travel near the rims precarious. Spring and fall are the best seasons for a R2R2R, especially on the later side of spring and the earlier side of fall when the days are long.
Eat, eat, eat! Carry and ingest at least 300 calories per hour. Choose foods you know your stomach appreciates, even when you’re working hard. Grab a bonus snack from the Phantom Ranch Canteen.
Stay hydrated and take in the appropriate amount of electrolytes for the volume of water you’re consuming. If you don’t know how to do that, don’t run R2R2R just yet. Practicing in this unforgiving terrain is unlikely to make perfect.
Process unexpected, incoming variables as they happen. When you encounter technical sections of trail, slow down and move deliberately. If you’re traveling slower than anticipated, consider modifying your route and staying within your physical limits. Feel a hot spot on your foot? Address it before it becomes a blister.
I’m closing back in on Phantom Ranch after my spin up and down the North Rim. These last couple miles of trail are boxed into a canyon where Bright Angel Creek, a tributary to the Colorado River, funnels downhill. So tight is the canyon that the trail has to crisscross the creek on bridges to find a non-watery place to go. It’s only late afternoon, but the bottom of the Grand Canyon is already all shadows.
I see someone walking in my direction and I instantly know from his royal blue shirt that it’s Superman Man. He’s holding a glass of lemonade, which he proffers to me. “The Canteen was about to close. I didn’t want you to miss it.” At the water spigot this morning, I said that I hoped to drink lemonade from the Canteen on my second trip through. I had since forgotten about the Canteen’s closing time.
Superman Man and I sit, and though I’m inclined to guzzle this gift in one gulp, I force myself to sip slowly, politely. In a voice loud enough to carry over the flushing rush of creek water, he asks, “You need this, right?” I ponder his question, whether he’s asking about the cold drink or something else. He continues, “I’ve been thinking. You are like me. Being here makes you bigger and stronger. You need this for the rest of life,” he explains.
We are quiet. “I’ve done the math in my head,” he says after a bit, “It’s a long way up, but I think you’ll finish before dark.” I’m scared of things that go bump in the night—mostly just mountain lions—so I’ve also got my sights set on a sunset finish. “Do you become Superman in the canyon?” I ask him, a smirk smearing across my face. He looks down and grabs the hem of his shirt with both hands. “That would make getting in and out of here easier.”
We say good-bye, me thanking him about 17 times for the lemonade and him looking bashful, probably wishing I would stop. I have about seven miles and 5,000 feet of climbing to do, and he has another three days in this grand chasm. I think we’re both a little superhuman.
Grand Canyon Dirt
Grand Canyon National Park
This 1.2 million
Condors are an endangered bird species that uses the cliffs of the Grand Canyon as a living and breeding sanctuary. The species was decimated to just 22 living individuals in 1987, but thanks to a robust recovery plan, a few hundred now live in the wilds of Arizona and California. Read up on current condor status here: peregrinefund.org/condor.
Are you curious about what it takes to go fast in the Grand Canyon? Read about some of the canyon’s speed-record history here: fastestknowntime.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=west&action=display&thread=13.
The Grand Canyon’s desert is beautiful but it’s often hot and arid, and it possesses spiny plants, stinging insects, venomous snakes, and top-of-food-chain predators. Discover how to travel safe at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-tips.htm.