Thirty hours, fifty-eight minutes, and fifty-three seconds. That’s how long it too me to complete the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim run — an undertaking encompassing 140 miles and nearly 40,000 feet of elevation gain.
OK — not fair. That’s my combined time from three separate trips this past year, but it got your attention, right?
Typically when I run the same route too often I get bored. The Grand Canyon is an exception. Every time I return, the mighty chasm blows (and re-blows) my mind. It is perhaps the most beautiful, unique, awe-inspiring geological wonder our planet has to offer. To descend to the canyon’s depths — from cool coniferous ledges to the hot pits of hell, only to re-emerge on the opposite rim — is a journey that spans eras: billions of years. Then, to turn around and see it all in reverse… it’s an experience unlike any other. Shared with friends, the experience becomes cemented in memory.
My first trip to the gorge took place a year ago when six other hooligans and I (“Tally-Ho”) journeyed to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, our gear and bodies crammed like sardines into two modest motorcars as we barrelled across desolate wastelands of northeast Arizona. We arrived at the rim village ready to pitch tents, but not equipped for the surprise winter storm threatening to dump up to a foot of overnight powder. So camp we did not, opting instead to cram ourselves (yet again) into a motel room no larger than a garden shed, then spent a restless night listening to the howling wind shake the trees and batter the windows.
Had I been alone, I’d probably have canned the run without a second thought, but thanks to the power of peer pressure (and perhaps some stupidity) I succumbed to the excitement and we seven intrepid souls plunged over the south rim at first daylight, wind-whipped snow obscuring our sight and hands frozen by temperatures well into the teens. As we dropped in altitude, however, I immediately appreciated the dramatic elevation-induced climate difference (i.e. a 40 degree gradient) between canyon rim and floor. I spent the next ten hours plodding along with my good friends Steve and Brandon, the three of us in perpetual awe of our surroundings.
My second visit ocurred in April when resident Durango Hardrocker and fellow crazy-person Leah and I made very spontaneous plans to tag the trench’s rims, primarily in an attempt to escape the muddy thaw of the San Juan Mountains. This time, thanks to mild spring conditions, we did pitch tents on the rim and proceeded to enjoy warmth in the mid-50s when we embarked from the South Kaibab Trailhead at 4am the next morning. Of course, the law of Grand Canyon temperature gradients held true, and many hours later we found ourselves crawling back up the south rim, withering in the searing 90+ degree heat, water depleted, humbled, and craving an ice cold beer.
I found this experience to be more humbling than the last. The sheer “mystery” of the R2R2R run had been replaced by a new challenge: oppressive heat. And those who know me know that heat is my Achilles’ heel. As a result, it took me nearly an hour longer to complete the route, but I’ll chalk it up to priceless lessons learned.
I made my most recent sojourn to the canyon this past weekend with Boulderites Dan “Stormin” Gorman and his buddy “Ragin” Sage Canaday (creator of VO2 Max Productions, White River course record holder — his list of accomplishments is impressive). Being this my third visit in under a year, I felt more like a tour guide than a participant this time around. Dan had never run more than 20 miles, so I was interested to see how he’d hold up to what I would consider a rather post-graduate run. Fortunately he’s a tough dude with an excellent sense of humor. The duo arrived at my place in Durango Thursday night, then we made the five hour drive midday Friday on a leisurely schedule, stopping to take pictures and check out the thriving towns of Kayenta and Tuba City. At the rim, we enjoyed some beers at sunset then checked into our sleeping bags by 8pm.
At 5:30am we hit the trail, lamps on our heads, and dressed for frosty conditions. When it’s not fire or ice, it’s something else. The weather turned out to be perfect: calm with a low around 30 when we started, peaking in the upper 70s midday. But what we did not anticipate was the smoke. Indeed a forest fire burning on the north rim spewed a thick plume that poured into the canyon walls, like water in a ravine, while we slept. So despite ideal weather, we spent a good time sucking down ash with every breath.
As we descended back toward the river on our return trip a light breeze diffused much of the smoke. Sage and I reached Phantom Ranch shortly after noon, and though Dan had dropped back a little during this stretch, Sage offered to stay and wait, so I took the opportunity to set off alone for the final climb back to the south rim. On my previous visits 40 miles of legwork had reduced me to a hike by this time, but today something felt different. Having just paced 40+ miles at Javelina the previous weekend, I by no means felt perfect, but I did manage to run every step of the final climb which, for me, was a huge accomplishment — especially granted my lackluster training these past two months.
I tagged the rim in 10 hours on the dot and proceeded to entertain a few tourists who genuinely colored me insane for doing what I’d just done. I then retreated to the rim-side cantina for a beer where Sage and Dan joined me not long after. Dan certainly appeared humbled by his first ultramarathon, but I am frankly impressed with his performance running more than twice as far as he’d ever run before — and on a difficult route.
Sage captured the run with a well-crafted clip:
Strangely, this is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of starring in a R2R2R flick. Here’s one Brandon put together last year:
I ought to end this post with a sentiment or a takeaway, but honestly all I can say is three times down and I’m already looking forward to the fourth. Can I go sub-9? I’ll have to find a new way to make it challenging. Regardless, the Grand Canyon is (and probably always will be) near the top of my list of destination runs.