As I stood on the South Rim, staring into the void below, my knees buckled. I had been in the same spot seven years before, gazing in awe at the same view, but forgotten why the canyon got its name “Grand”. I wasn’t a runner back then, (in fact I despised running) and there was no time to even consider a hike down the trail so that was that. Take a picture and carry on. This time was different: I was on the eve of my first Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim (referred to as R2R2R), an epic 78.3K (3300m elevation gain and loss) traverse, from the South Rim to the North Rim and back. Unsupported. Just for fun.
ThinksTooMuch (my brain monkey), instantly hopped on his wheel and wasted no time engaging me in the typical conversation we so often have. TTM: You can’t do this. I mean, look at the size of this thing. It appears bottomless and you can barely see the other rim….. ME: Of course I can. I’m trained for this. Never felt so ready. TTM: Your injured leg will hurt, you might have to crawl out of there. You will most likely fail, so why even bother trying? Me: I owe it to myself. I trained so hard and came this far. I trust I will make the right decisions and turn around if/when the time comes. Truth is, I had made a promise to AwesomeNonRunner (boyfriend) that I would not do the run at the cost of hurting my leg any worse (he knows how my mind works and that I could suffer through a lot to get ‘er dun). A stupid slip on ice ten days before departure sent me to multiple physio and massage therapy sessions, not to mention emotional turmoil – after months of training was my canyon dream over?
I was feeling better (barely), but I knew the ankle was weak and that I would need to baby it carefully if it was going to survive the trek. So I made a deal with my feet. We would drop to Phantom Ranch (the hub at the bottom of the Canyon where one can stay in a cabin and enjoy a nice meal if booked well in advance) and assess my situation-if there is no pain, I would carry on. Otherwise , time to turn around and call it a day (that would still be 32K of rugged trails and spectacular canyon views – it would have to do).
I ignored ThinksTooMuch for the rest of the night and carbed up on pasta before prepping my bag for the next day. I faced major First World Problems as I tried to decide between various clothing (tank top or t-shirt?), food (as long as I can fit the Miss Vickie’s and Brookside chocolates) and gear (how many water containers?) options. You only get one go at this: everything had to fit in a small 12 litre pack and whatever was left behind could be the object of regret for a very long day… Coming from the cold mountains of Alberta, we had chosen mid-March to avoid heat in the Canyon. After training for many months in a very snowy and colder-than-usual winter, the last thing we ever expected was a heat wave in Arizona. Rim temperatures hovered above 20°C and the bottom reached over 32°C – this was a game changer. Bags would be heavier carrying more water, there would have to be more stops and our average pace would definitely be slower.
Half our group set out a 4:00 a.m. They knew they would need more time and allowed for it. TrailDaddy, SpeedyOne and I opted for a sunrise descent and did not regret: the canyon delivered. After a brief stop at the Golden Arches to pick up my three Egg McMuffins, (one for now and two for the trail – I want to mention here that I actually had to train my stomach to function with these things on board… but they worked quite well!) we drove to the parking area and began our run on the Rim trail in complete darkness. Within minutes, the canyon slowly revealed itself in all its glory and by the time we dropped down the South Kaibab trail, the views were breathtaking and my heart was pounding with excitement. Woohoo! I shouted! It was finally happening.
My goal for the day was to enjoy every single moment and take in all the canyon had to offer. I quickly figured out the perfect pace and steps to keep my ankle happy and was thrilled to see that my two run partners were in no rush to proceed any faster. I was fully prepared to run this thing solo, but adventures shared amongst friends are always so much more meaningful and fun. Together we travelled down, forever it seems, crossing path with a mule train along the way (they travel way faster than I had imagined!) and a couple of other runners that had attempted a night R2R2R but got turned back due to a dodgy river crossing before the North Rim climb. That got us a bit worried, but I made the decision then to trust the canyon and just go with the flow – it might not be my ankle after all that would prevent me from completing this dream.
We finally bottomed out at the mighty Colorado River where I peered through the fast, brown water in hopes to catch a glimpse of the Humpback Chub, (don’t get too excited… it’s a fish) but no luck. We did encounter a few folks with fishing rods in hand, but there was no time for chatter. Within minutes, we were at Phantom Ranch, refilling water bottles and fuelling up. I got quite a reaction from overnight hikers when I pulled out my McMuffins – not you average backcountry breakfast I suppose, but a convenient one for a runner on limited time and restaurant options at 5 a.m.
An 11K slight uphill, the next section was fully runnable. It was still early in the day, completely in the shade, yet I could already feel the heat rising. We encountered a couple hikers on their way out and asked about our friends: they mentioned two ladies with European accents and we immediately knew that they were ahead of us and doing great for time. Awesomeness. Our mood picked up up even more, as did our pace. The scenery changed as we got boxed in along a river and high walls that reminded me of Zion National Park. When it opened up, we were greeted by the sun and the North Rim wall ahead, and we finally got a taste for the kind of heat we were about to have to deal with for the better part of the day. Near Ribbon Falls, we were happily reunited with one member of the first group, strolling along with a huge smile on his face.
Content with his experience, he had just decided to turn around and head back, while the EuroLadies went ahead, carrying on with the ascent of the North Rim. We soon reached the much-dreaded Wall Creek crossing. It looked a bit untamed, but coming from the Rockies, we were not new to this type of spring runoffs and after popping our poles out, we sent SpeedyOne ahead (the crevasse poodle) to test the grounds – she easily got across the cold water and we followed in her footsteps, a blessing for my ankle that was beginning to complain. ThinksTooMuch had hopped on his wheel a few times already but I quieted his chatter with some “vitamin I” and carried on.
The true climb started. Mostly in the sun, this was by far the most gruelling part of the day, with a few improvised waterfalls caused by the snowmelt above, which I gladly showered under. We eventually caught up to the first group and after crossing Redwall suspension bridge, offering spectacular views, we carried on to the final and most difficult section of the ascent. Endless switchbacks, damaged trail, postholing snow… Don’t think, just walk. We eventually found ourselves in a forest of tall evergreens and out of nowhere two hikers appeared and told us we had just about arrived. Badass they called us for doing the trip in one day (they were camped below at Cottonwood and day-tripped to the top). Just then I saw the North Rim sign, half buried in the snow and let out a huff of victory. We had made it. I was there.
There was only one way out: back the way we came (the North Rim Road is closed in winter). I had my final McMuffin, finished my chocolates before they melted and shared the Miss Vickies. There are no scenic views to contemplate at this trailhead – one has to descend a mile to reach the Coconino Overlook. But I was quite enjoying the fresh air and greenery. With a little less than the marathon distance to go, we could not linger forever and soon proceeded to descend back into the fiery heat of the Grand Oven…
By the time we returned to Manzanita (the only watering hole available at this time of year on the North Kaibab Trail as the taps are turned off on the North Rim this time of year) we were all pretty much out of water. But the next section would be the easiest and fully rehydrated, we all powered along. Oh look, horsies! I shouted as I spotted the animals not too far ahead. Nobody answered and I felt like a complete idiot when I actually ran past the “heard” of rocks. Was I actually begin to hallucinate? Had the heat finally gotten the better of me? ThinksTooMuch barely made a few turns on his wheel. He too was getting too tired to care (my friends later admitted that they both also spotted the “rock heard” and felt equally crazy when they realised there were no horses). My leg was beginning to hurt again and I decided it was time to get to the Ranch so I picked up pace and broke ahead. TTM: How can you run so fast? Where is this energy coming from? You should slow down. Surely you will bonk. Your leg will be f*ked. ME: I feel fine. No, I feel great. Let Her Run!
In the heat of the day, our friends had decided to turn around a short distance from the top and I was glad to meet them again at Phantom Ranch. We all took a much deserved break (including a change of socks) together before the final ascent back to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. Though longer than South Kaibab, this trail has an easier grade and drinking water midway. At that point, I didn’t think we would run anymore, just a steady power hike climb to to the top. But the terrain was flatter than expected in some sections and feeling good, we figured we may as well run what we could. I took the lead and pushed us ahead, picking up pace. Night was coming and the further we could get before pulling out headlamps, the better. There were groans of protest but my two buddies carried on in my steps. As the sun set, the canyon displayed a new side of itself. Bats came flying in, all around us and I could not hide my delight. Soon new sounds resonated between the high walls. Baa! Baa! Chanted the chorus of invisible sheep. There must have been hundreds of them, but I looked up everywhere and could not see them. It’s coming from the creek, TrailDaddy said. My “sheep” were actually frogs (thankfully they were not rocks) in full mating ritual. I got distracted. TTM: your friends are gone. It’s dark. You’re f*ked.
I proved that devil wrong again as I quickly caught up to my friends, only to realise that SpeedyOne had decided she was determined to get out and was making us run sections that were not necessarily flat. Cursing joined the night chorus and to complete the orchestra, the wind decided to join in. Strong wind. I threw on a warmer layer, ate the last of my snacks and pushed on the final miles. The Pinyon Jays would lie in the middle of the trail and our lamps reflecting in their eyes made them eerie. TrailDaddy kindly called out every half kilometre (my watch had died a couple hours earlier), some which seemed endless, but we eventually picked up speed (yes, thanks to SpeedyOne, we actually ran the last mile) and finally reached the tunnel just below the trailhead. That’s when I saw the Ring-Tailed Cat (a marten with a raccoon tail – I swear I saw it!) but at that point it totally could have been a hallucination so I did not insist until I could verify online. We had all secretly hoped that our friend who had turned around earlier would miraculously be waiting at the trailhead to kindly give us a ride back to our car and save us 3 km of flat asphalt pounding. And there he was! Hugs and high fives, emotions maxed out, we were back at the top after a most amazing adventure. 15h20 of complete bliss. I felt a bit broken but knew there was no permanent damage. I had pulled it off.
The boys went to get the car while SpeedyOne and I waited in the bathroom, sheltered from the cold, for the last two runners, who we knew were not far behind. The celebratory dinner was take-out at the Golden Arches (not much else was open and quite honestly all we wanted was a shower and a pillow) and I ate my burger in a half daze. Though exhausted, everyone was happy and I felt fortunate to have been able to share this trip with such a wonderful group. It would take another 36 hours for me to really process what I had just accomplished (an avalanche of unexplained emotions and tears at the Vegas airport and throughout that day). Within a week, my body had healed itself and I was able to resume regular training.
A lot of introspection happened during my run. But isn’t that why we do these challenges – to push oneself and come out on the other end with a different perspective and outlook on things? Feeling we know ourselves and our limits a little bit more. Knowing deep down that, yes, we CAN.