Sharing The Grand Canyon Experience

On October 18th, 2014, I set out to do something I never imagined possible.  I helped four others experience the Grand Canyon through running!  Almost exactly one year ago, I ran my first double-crossing of the Grand Canyon (rim-to-rim-to-rim) which was a dream come true.  I was lucky enough to have met someone who had done it and was planning another trip.  I wasn’t sure if I had enough training, but decided to go for it since it was a once in a lifetime opportunity!

It was simply a life-changing experience.  Something magical happens when you step outside of your comfort zone.  I didn’t know anyone in the group that was running that day and was nervous beyond belief, but felt so excited to do it!  My fears were real and I knew going into it, that once you enter The Grand Canyon you have very little control.  You can’t control the vast range of temperatures, injury, weather, other runners in your group, fatigue or your body’s reaction to such an extreme undertaking in less than one day.  If something devastating were to happen, a helicopter ride out will cost you around $10,000! Yikes!

All of that nervousness aside, I did fine and had an awesome group leader who was so knowledgable about the canyon.  He helped us in preparing for the trip beforehand by giving us ideas on what to bring, wear, and what type of training base we should have going into this.  Our group did well, overall.  One had sore knees, another bonked nutritionally a few times and one runner decided to go off on his own and it ended up taking him much longer to finish…but we all finished!  We all had an amazing tale to tell and the pride of knowing that what we accomplished that day, few will ever experience.  I was instantly hooked…and super sore!

I don’t know if it’s just me or maybe a runner quirk, but I don’t like to just “see” things.  If it is a beautiful mountain, I want to climb it.  If it is an ocean, I want play in it, surf it and feel the waves crash over me.  If it is a calm sea, I want to feel it wrapped around me.  A forest, I want to feel that soft soil beneath my feet and the take in the scent of pine and moist air.  Even running through a nice, local neighborhood while I am traveling is exciting.  Seeing things you would never see if you just stayed in your hotel awakens me.  I knew that just going to the Grand Canyon to “see” it would never please me.  I wanted to hike it…or run it, if at all possible!

Hard to believe that one year later, I am at the Grand Canyon preparing to run my third double-crossing of the Grand Canyon!  This time is different, though.  I am the only one who has done this before and I am leading a group of four “newbies”.  Again, this canyon is forcing me to step outside of my comfort zone and I am feeling the magic.

Two of the people in the group are personal girlfriends of mine.  I know them well and know that they have what it takes to go the distance.  They decide that for their first time, they would go rim-to-rim and catch a shuttle on the North Rim which will bring them back to Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim.  It’s about a 4.5 hour trip and will cost roughly $85, but this service is seasonal and is not an option in the colder months.  I am happy that they are thinking ahead and are satisfied with trying a single crossing of the canyon for their first time.  If they love it and want to do more, they can always plan another trip and be even better prepared.

The two other people in our group, I do not know at all.  We met each other through a Grand Canyon Running Facebook page and figured out that we would all be there on the same day.  One of them was coming from Canada to run and the other was from Scottsdale.  The one from Scottsdale joined us last-minute when his running buddies had to cancel, but he had taken the time off from work for this trip and didn’t want to let it slip away.  We all met in the town right outside of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, called Tusayan.  We discussed important details, like when and where to meet and what the general plan was in case someone either wanted to go off on their own or was crashing hard during the run.  We all agreed to stay together.  Therefore, you are only as fast as your slowest runner and you are okay with that.  Our goal was to get my girlfriends to the North Rim on time for their shuttle and then the three of us would run back to the South Rim.

The start of another "grand" adventure!
The start of another “grand” adventure!

We agreed on meeting at Bright Angel Trailhead for a 4am start.  The weather was mild, probably around 40 degrees F.  We took a couple of photos and then descended into the darkness at about 4:10am.  It is the darkest dark I think I have ever run in and the silence is piercing.  You, your breath, your footsteps, dust illuminated in your headlamp, and maybe a little conversation here and there.  We stopped at the 1 &1/2 mile Rest House, the 3 mile Rest House, and Indian Gardens.  We lost more time that I had wanted to on those stops, but everyone was feeling good and enjoying the run so far.

This is the first time I have ever started a double-crossing on Bright Angel Trail.  It is a couple of miles longer than South Kaibab and less steep.  I really enjoyed it!  My quads weren’t screaming as much as I had remembered running down SK.  We reached the Colorado River around sunrise on a beautiful morning.  We stopped at Phantom Ranch for water and continued on through the Box Canyon area.  I love this part of the trail!  You run right next to a rushing creek and under the reddish rock carved out over your head.  This is a blessing later in the day, since it offers a nice relief from the sun!

We were slightly behind schedule, by maybe 15 minutes or so, as we reached Pumphouse for water.  We had plenty of time still to ascend the North Rim by 1pm.  However, our Canadian friend was “falling apart”. (His words, not mine.) I sent my girlfriends on their way and wanted to check in with how the two guys were doing and if we needed to change our plan.  I was puzzled because he looked good.  He didn’t look like he was crashing nutritionally or dehydrated.  He looked a little more sweaty than the rest of us, but he was from Canada and I’m sure this weather is a little warm for him.  I couldn’t let him turn around to the South Rim alone, and I didn’t want to leave the other guy from Scottsdale alone on his first run, either.  So, I just said that we had to get him to the North Rim and we had to cross our fingers that he could get a shuttle back to the South Rim.  His second option would be to have his wife come pick him up in a few hours.  She was totally awesome and supported him 110% and would have done this in a heartbeat.

I would like to interject a couple of things here:

  1. Always carry some money, a credit card and ID with you.
  2. If you are new to this type of extreme running, don’t do this alone.
  3. If you are new to this type of extreme running and in the Grand Canyon, don’t attempt this run in the hot months or in the colder months when the North Rim is closed.

Luckily, we had all of these things working in our favor.  Our Canadian friend had money and/or a ride, he was not alone, and he chose to run in October when the weather is nice and shuttles are still available on the North Rim.  (The North Rim’s off season is Oct 15-May 15, which generally applies to the General Store and Lodge.  Day use is allowed until snow closes Highway 67 or Dec 1)

 

We ascended the North Rim with a steady pace.  It is a beautiful section of trail that is highlighted with a waterfall called Roaring Springs.  Roaring Springs Canyon takes you along many different terrains and rock blasted out from the side of the canyon to create this trail.  It is steep and relentless, but you are awarded by finishing in cooler, crisp air and among pine trees and their fresh scent!  When we reached the top, our friends were there to welcome us and very pleased that they had accomplished their goal!  They were also happy that they had a shuttle that would be coming by to pick them up shortly!  It was    a fun and social atmosphere on the North Kaibab trailhead.  Lots of people from all over the world, either finishing or setting out on unforgettable hikes.  We spent a little too much time socializing there, but wanted to make sure everyone was okay with the plan before we set out on our return to the South Rim.

My girlfriends and I enjoying the North Rim

The guy from Scottsdale and I left the North Rim around 1:10pm not really knowing if our Canadian friend would be able to catch the shuttle.  We made excellent time down the steep trail and stopped briefly at Pumphouse.  We cruised through the rolling hills of the inner canyon and appreciated the shade of the Box Canyon.  We had hoped to hit Phantom Ranch before the General Store closed at 4pm to grab a thirst quenching, mouth-watering lemonade.  We arrived at 4:20pm. Bummer!  However, we got more water and lingered a lot less this way.  My quads were feeling the fatigue of two massive downhill runs now and I had a hard time motivating them to run just a little further to the start of the climb back up Bright Angel Trail.  We walked and enjoyed the beauty of the campground and a young deer with some of its family members.  Took a few pictures and then started running again (if you can truly call it that).  I sort of dread this part of the run.  This trail is unforgiving.  It feels like endless switch back after switch back, interminable climbing and a top that you will never reach.  But, on the bright side, it is quite beautiful, too!  As you look back, you get amazing views of the canyon as the light continually changes as the sun is setting.  You have a creek running right next the trail, waterfalls and wildlife.  Then… the lights go “off”!  Complete darkness once again.

When we reached the 3 mile Resthouse, it was 7pm.  Wow!  Only three miles to go!!  Real food starts to sound so good! My running buddy from Scottsdale was imagining how good his beer would taste! Being done sounds impossibly good about now!! At the 1&1/2 mile Resthouse, I had cell service and I texted our friends that we were almost there!  Well….almost.  We finished at 8:10pm.  It took us over an hour to complete those last three miles!  The last mile was the looooongest mile…ever!

Originally I was prepared to run back to the South Rim alone.  This was before meeting these two other guys from the Facebook page who joined our group.  Heading up Bright Angel Trail that evening, made me really appreciate having a running buddy along.  Darkness creeping in during the evening somehow feels creepier to me than the darkness of the early morning.  I’m not exactly sure why, but it is.  He said something that evening that I will never forget and must share!  He said, “Only in the running community, is it better to run with a complete stranger than all alone!”  How true is that??

The coolest thing ever happened as we reached the top, too!  I was silently wishing our friends would be at the top when we finished.  Realistically, I thought they would be at the hotel showering or resting.  But, they were not!! I heard my friend call my name in the darkness and I knew we were close!!  She was on the lookout for our headlamps!  The excitement of finishing was real now!  Total bliss seeing all of their headlamps shining in the darkness!!  Plus, there were four headlamps which meant our Canadian friend was able to get back to the South Rim!!  This called for a little celebration!

We made it!!
We made it!!

After a few finisher pics, we headed over to the Maswik Lodge for some “real food” and drinks.  It was so fun to be reunited again and to share our stories and memories from the day.  Everyone was feeling pretty good and I was quite thankful that everyone made it out safely!  Another successful Grand Canyon run!

All of us together again!
All of us together again!

 

I know our Canadian friend was a little bummed about not feeling so great during the run and not completing a double-crossing.  As I fellow runner, I know that I can say nothing to appease these feelings.  He came here with specific goals and those goals were not met.  However, what he accomplished out there was truly beyond ordinary!! Most people should start with just a rim-to-rim and then see how they feel about adding on more to the challenge.  He still accomplished what many cannot and I hope he realizes this.  I do know that he does plan on returning, most likely with a vengeance!

As runners, we are often too hard on ourselves.  This run is meant to be enjoyed.  Yes, you can do better than your last time or add on more miles, but it is not a race.  The beauty and history around every corner of the canyon is one of a kind.  The people who you may choose to share it with are special, too.  Whether you’ve known each other for years or just met to accomplish a run together, a bond is formed regardless.  I think runners are a special breed of people and the Grand Canyon seduces an even more select group of runners and adventurists.  I feel like it is such privilege to have learned from the best in how to successfully lead a group of runners on this type of run.  Having others there to share in the breath-taking beauty and both the physical and mental challenge of accomplishing such an amazing feat, is such a raw form of happiness for me…and, yes, I’m already dreaming about my next adventure-run in the Grand Canyon!!

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