Monday, May 21, 2012

Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim Report

The Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim has been on my bucket list since last August when I visited it with my family. This trip challenged everything I know about ultrarunning and nutrition. One of my companions for the trip, Sherpa John Lacroix, called it a graduate degree in ultrarunning. Among the many challenges were:
  1. No support - While there are half a dozen places to get water in the canyon, we had to carry our own electrolytes in individual baggies. And, despite frequent locations to get water, they could still be 2 - 3 hours apart. Everything else we had to carry: food, gear, supplies, etc... As a result, we ran the entire day with a pack weighing in excess of 10 pounds.
  2. 100 degree heat - this was the hottest event that I have ever participated in. The challenge of remaining hydrated was difficult and required great discipline. It was alarming how many unprepared people we encountered.
  3. Vertical gain - this course was at least double the most vertical gain I have done in one day. And, there was very little of the course that was flat or rolling. Only the seven mile section from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood campground qualified. The rest of the time the course is either up or down. 
I am very happy that I "passed" the test, but there were some very tough moments that really shook me.

About the Route

The first thing to know about running the Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim is that there are a variety of ways to do it. The variation comes primarily from two decisions: 1) which rim you start at and 2) which trail to use at the South Rim (the North Rim has only one).  The most traditional route, and the route used to determine the fastest known time, starts at the South Rim and uses the South Kaibab trail to get to and from the bottom of the canyon. This R2R2R route is roughly 41.2 miles.

The longer option uses Bright Angel Trail to get to and from the South Rim and totals 47.6 miles. The primary advantages of this trail is the addition of one more water stop (Indian Garden) and no mules on the trail. Again, most people tackle this route starting from the South Rim. The reason that people prefer to start from the South Rim is that the climb to the North Rim is harder and longer. From the bottom of the canyon, it is a 14 miles and 6000 feet of ascent to the North Rim. Over half of vertical gain comes in the last 5 miles where the grade steepens (12.5%). Starting at the South Rim ensures that you hit this climb in the middle of your day and not the end.

We had long ago decided to start from the North Rim because that was the best place to camp. The decision that would later haunt us was to lengthen the route to 50 miles. In order to lengthen the route, we decided to ascend to the South Rim using the South Kaibab Trail, run along the Rim Trail at the top (adds 5 miles), and then descend back to the canyon floor using the Bright Angel Trail. The route could  be as short as 41 miles and we lengthened it to more than 50. In the moment, this seemed like a good idea. Looking back it added too much time. Our average speed was little more than 3 miles an hour, meaning this distance took us roughly three more hours. They estimate that Rim2Rim2Rim should take 13 - 15 hours for a "mid-pack" runner.  It took us a bit more than 16 with the additional three hours worth of length. I would encourage first time Rim2Rim2Rim runners to try the 41 mile option first!

To Roaring Springs

We woke at 4 am with the intention of being at the trailhead at 5 am. A third member of our group, Jeremy, decided to join us at the last minute and arrived the night before while John and I slept. As we were putting our packs together for the day, we began exchanging ideas for gear and supplies. During our exchange, we decided there was enough light and decided to leave our headlamps behind. Sherpa John made ham, egg, and cheese muffins for breakfast. I only had half the sandwich and added some Perpetuem and granola to my pre-run meal. At 5:15 am we started running to the trailhead which was almost a mile away (adding more distance). Arriving at the trailhead, I was a little alarmed to see the entire parking lot was already full. We were obviously among the late starting crowd.

Descending the trail was an absolute blast. The reality of that I was going to finally do this was sinking in. My body felt rested and good. The weather was perfect and the optimism was high. As we descended, we played a game of leap-frog with the hundreds of other people going into the canyon. We would run past them and then stop to snap some photos where they would overtake us. When we started running again, we would once again overtake them. This went on almost all the way to the bottom. (Most of the people we passed were either doing a R2R only or were just hiking a few miles down to take photos.)

A good photo of me descending the North Kaibab trail.

This is a great view down on the trail that we were descending. The layer of rock we were running on here was red and got our feet, shoes, and socks very dirty. The color of the trail would change all day based on what layer of rock we were running on.

Smile Sherpa! This photo is indicative of some of the cool trail you run through. Running down the North Rim, there are many places where the trail is literally carved into the rock.

Another great photo of the trail we are about to descend on. You can see the first bridge we would cross (the first of many for the day).

This photo shows one of my favorite sections along the North Rim. This trail was once again carved into the rock and we were running in sort of a channel.

About half way to Roaring Springs we came across this big rock tower. The tower had a short trail that led up to it. Sherpa decided to scramble to the top for a photo

I ran down a bit and took this photo of him raising his arms. He later admitted that he was a little frightened up there.

Here is another photo of the trail as we descended. Somehow the cliff off the left side didn't bother me at all (fear of heights). It was a real challenge for me on the way back.

One of the many cool photos you can take as you descend into the canyon. It was cool to visualize because your surroundings were constantly changing: rock colors, light, height of the canyon above you, etc...

As we approached the first check point (Roaring Springs) there was a trail sign that had us choose between Roaring Fork or Cottonwood. I confused Roaring Fork with Roaring Springs and we went the wrong direction. We were not lost for long, but added roughly a mile to our journey. Sherpa John had a good map and brought it with us. We soon realized our mistake and headed back (uphill) toward Cottonwood. After just a few minutes we arrived at Roaring Springs. I refilled my GoLite pack bladder and my handhelds.  (I brought a pack with a 70 ounce bladder and pockets for two handheld watter bottles).

To Phantom Ranch

Leaving Roaring Springs on our way to Phantom Ranch was awesome. We finally got a chance to do some consistent running on the flatter trail and we remained in the morning shadows. This stretch was the most consistent running we did all day. As we were moving along, someone coming the other way shouted "Sherpa" and we stopped to talk with a group of runners from Arizona. The group leader was a friend of SJ's and they were attempting the R2R2R today as well (from the South Rim). The guy said to SJ later that we picked the "killer" route. I stayed on top of my nutrition and hydration along this route and just enjoyed the scenery. SJ and I agreed after the fact that this was the funnest running section on the whole route.

As we approached Phantom Ranch, the crowd of runners and hikers started thinning and the weather started to get hot. We took a long break here to refill our packs, apply sunscreen for the first time, and eat. It had been about 4 hours since we started and things were starting to get real now.

Here is a cool picture of the bridge over the Colorado River. We would eventually take this bridge across and onto the South Kaibab trail. But first, we went down the river to check it out. Our plan was to get in the river on the way back, but we didn't have enough time.

Sherpa John and I on the bridge. I was trying to act cool -- it didn't work so well.

To South Rim (via South Kaibab)

The trails to the South Rim is completely exposed with little shade and zero vegetation. We intentionally took the South Kaibab trail up thinking that we would rather do the "steeper, shorter" climb so we could run the "less steep, longer" descent back down. There was a part of me that regretted that decision because we were going dead vertical (15% grade) right off the river. And it was pretty much non-stop for 6 miles and 4800 feet. The switch backs were right above our heads and they sometimes looked like the scaffolding from the old video game "Donkey Kong". We joked that we expected barrels to come rolling at us at any time.

Along this climb Jeremy started talking with a guy we called "North Face" because of his pack. He kept up with us for a while. SJ started telling us his "clown story". He is full of stories. The story went on and on about a boy and Bozo the clown. I won't ruin it for anyone that hasn't heard it -- just know that it is a drawn out story. It turns out that SJ was just keeping us distracted from the long climb. The story ends with a LOUD expletive and Jeremy and I started laughing. When we reached the top, "North Face" caught up to us and asked how the clown story turned out. All he had heard was SJ shout the punchline expletive -- from about a mile down the canyon! Now we really laughed.

Having been to both rims of the canyon, I will say that the South Rim has the more spectacular views. This photo is about half way up the South Kaibab trail.

Same photo, only with me in it!

A look down the "Donkey Kong" switch backs.

Donkey Kong -- we promise we won't steal your girl!

Sherpa John demonstrating the warning sign behind him. In case you weren't sure, be careful of the heat. You may get dizzy and could fall into the canyon.

This photo was taken by Jeremy. You can see we were working hard. Look at those sexy calves!

Another photo by Jeremy as we climbed the trail.

I think this photo was taken just after the "clown story".

One our way to the top we finally caught up with the mule chain and a bunch of tourists. I was getting frustrated with the climb and just hit my own gear, dropping SJ and Jeremy for a bit. As I waited at the top, I sat in the shade and nutritioned myself. My hydration plan consisted of about 30 ounces of water per hour (maybe even more) and two S!Caps.

To Bright Angel Trailhead

At the top, we refilled our water again. I ate a Bonk Breaker bar and reapplied sun screen.  Unfortunately, that was my last of three Bonk Breaker bars that I had packed. I wasn't the only one looking for lunch: SJ was getting hungry and we needed to find hot water so he could make his instant mashed potatoes with bacon bits. (Those bacon bits saved my bacon later.) We began running along the rim trail toward the Canyon Village and Visitor Center. We had not expected the trail to be 100% paved and it sucked a little. There was no hot water to be found anywhere. SJ had to make his mashed potatoes with cold water. In the meantime, Jeremy located vending machines at the visitor center and I had a little cash, so we all bought drinks. Jeremy also bought some salty chips that he shared.

We once again started running along the rim trail, this time toward the Bright Angel Trailhead. We were energized but I was beginning to worry that we might not get back before dark. We had spent a significant amount of time at the South Rim. I used Jeremy's last little bit of phone battery to leave a message telling my wife that we were at the South Rim and taking longer than expected. That was 1 pm and she would not get word that we were out of the canyon until almost 10 pm. Just before getting on the Bright Angel trail, we used the restroom and topped off our water supplies. (Note that there are no pictures from here because we started busting our butts to make it out of the canyon.)

To Indian Garden

The descent down Bright Angel was tough. We were running and making good time, but the trail is made of man-made stairs using wood.  The spacing of the wood made it difficult to find a good steady stride. I was really surprised at how technical the trail was all day long. And it was often difficult to see rocks that were hidden/camouflaged by the sand and dirt of the same color. I nearly tripped several times and beat up my big toes. As we hammered down, we saw dozens of runners finishing their Rim2Rim journey. I am pretty sure SJ congratulated everyone of them. Many looked rough, but they had made it.

Temps were now approaching 100 degrees and I was becoming insanely hot. The thermometer at Indian Springs read 105 degrees as we sat in the oasis cooling off. I began dumping water on my head to keep cool. The positive my hydration plan, I was doing a phenomenal job of drinking and taking S!Caps. A conservative estimate is that I consumed 500 ounces of fluid over the course of the day (that is 4 gallons of fluid). About half of that was water and the other half was electrolytes beverages (mostly for calories). The primary beverage was Clip 2, but I also mixed in some Accelerade (for more calories and some protein) and some GU Roctane beverage (for calories and good taste). I am really proud of how I kept up with this and feel it allowed me to complete this journey.

To Phantom Ranch 2

From Indian Garden there is another 5 miles to Phantom Ranch. Running down the trail we came across a woman that was looking for a Ranger. She said there was a person down the the trail that needed help. SJ is trained as a first responder and immediately picked up his pace to go help. I was tripping on the rocks trying to keep up. When we came across the man, he was now on his feet with one friend under his arm holding him up. They had a cool, wet rag on his head. He was covered in salt -- almost like he had rolled in it. His limp arm had a Garmin that read 39 miles on it. SJ began asking him questions about when he last ate and drank. The guy was terse with his answers and acting like a jerk. Then SJ began asking him about his experience running this distance and the guy quipped back that he had run "50 marathons". I think he made SJ a little mad there (understatement). The tradition of the ultra sport is important to Sherpa John, and this guy's actions suggested that he didn't respect the distance he was running or respect us for trying to help him. We tried to convince him to take S!Caps and he refused. Jeremy offered up his Pepsi from the vending machine and he took a few sips and then refused that. Finally, SJ asked if anyone had a ginger chew. I had some of those in my pack. (Are you sensing how prepared we were?) The guy continued to be unpleasant and we let his friends drag him on up the hill toward Indian Garden so he could recover. It was early enough that he probably made it out of the canyon on his own, but I would guess that it will take him quite a while to fully recovery, particularly his ego.

A few more miles down the road we ran into a family with a young boy (11). The curious boy saw us running along and started asking a bunch of questions. He was wearing black with a huge back pack and surfer-style sunglasses. Looking behind him, he told his parents he would meet them at Phantom Ranch and began running with us. The kid was an absolute crack-up. In our few miles together, he asked dozens of questions about what we were doing and entertained us with his commentary on topics such as cliff diving from canyon into the Colorado River.

When we arrived at Phantom Ranch, we once again refilled our packs. SJ did a genius thing -- he placed a collect phone call to his wife from a pay phone. In the message he said his name was "John Phantom Ranch OK". When his wife heard the name and was asked to accept the collect charges of $9, he hung up. His message was delivered: we were at Phantom Ranch and we were OK. It was late, and there was no way we were getting out of the canyon before sun down, but the only thing to do was start working hard.

To Roaring Springs 

As we left Phantom Ranch we were about 38 miles in for the day and still faced a 14 mile 6000 foot climb back to the North Rim. Damn. We started running along. The first 9 miles to Roaring Springs are pretty gradual and mostly runnable. Our pace was a combination of fast walking little hills and running downhill.  Jeremy had stayed behind at Phantom Ranch to eat some dinner as he was starting to bonk. He eventually caught us (before Cottonwood) and even shared his last orange with us.

When we arrived at Roaring Springs, there was a gentleman sitting on the bench all alone. He introduced himself as Sam and asked if we would give a message to his wife at the top. His message was that he was not going to make it to the top and he planned to say the night at Roaring Springs. There is no place to camp at Roaring Springs so we immediately began asking questions. He was attempting a Rim2Rim and was exhausted. He was obviously dehydrated and had only consumed 96 ounces of Gatorade all day -- he was very deficient in both calories and electrolytes. Worse yet, he only had a few warm items to wear and a space blanket. We knew the temps would drop down to the 40's (or lower). Jeremy volunteered to help him  to the top.

SJ and I stupidly left our headlamps at camp. We had expected to be out of the canyon by dark. Fortunately, Sam had lots of lighting so Jeremy gave us his headlamp and told us to get going and get word to Sam's wife. He would coax Sam out of the canyon no matter what it took.

To Finish

We now had a 5 mile and 3000 foot climb standing between us and the top of the canyon. The first few miles went along well and we enjoyed the setting sun and cooling temps. I had switched to Perpetuem for fuel at Phantom Ranch and it was going down smooth. After a few miles we started slowing dramatically. Despite being on top of my nutrition and hydration, I was getting hungry; I needed real food. SJ had some bacon bits remaining from his lunch and I gobbled those down. It felt amazing to have that fat and protein satiate my hunger pains for a while. As darkness continued to roll in, I had my first moments of the day where I started feeling my fear of heights. The odd combination of light somehow drew the edge of the canyon into my peripheral  vision and I became terrified. The best way to keep moving forward was staring at John's shoes.

The climb was getting harder, darker, and now cold. I finally had to ask SJ for the headlamp so I could illuminate from behind, lighting the trail for both of us. Having only the one head lamp may have been a blessing -- we were forced to stay and work together. He was starting to crash and had to keep moving for me. And I had to stay and help him. We were grinding along at a little better than one mile an hour now. I was disappointed because it was apparent there would be no post-run feast or celebration. It was going to be too late when we arrived back at camp. It was all survival now.

The really difficult part of this journey for me was the "time on my feet".  I have never been up and working that hard for that long. My first 50 miler only took me 10 hours. The highs and lows I experienced in the canyon were much more dramatic. At one point, I was thinking that I wasn't prepared and might consider dropping out of Leadville 100. I just couldn't understand -- and still can't in some ways -- how this run turned out so hard. While I am thinking about all this, I am trying to keep SJ moving forward and up the canyon so we can get out. He was starting to bob-and-weave a little and finally told me he was "wrecked". He has run fourteen 100 milers and almost 40 total ultras. When he said this was one of the three toughest things he's done, I started to get the picture. I found that both comforting and frightening. Either way, we had to keep moving.

Mercifully, we saw flashlights shining back down at us. It was Sam's family at the trailhead. Our climb and our day were over. They began asking if we knew anything of him. In exchange for a ride to our campsite, we explained that our buddy Jeremy stayed behind to help Sam out of the canyon, assuring them that Jeremy knew what he was doing and that they would be fine. SJ estimated they would be 2 - 3 hours behinds us -- it was 2 hours exactly. Sam struggled to keep food down and stay upright, but he made it out of the canyon.

Nutrition Hydration

I am very happy with my nutrition and hydration. In fact, there were points I had to back off because my stomach was sending signals that I was taking in too much. The one mistake was that I should have brought more solid food. I was unprepared for a 16 hour journey and ran out.  Without SJ's bacon bits, I may have crashed as well. Below is a list of all the items I remember eating. It adds up to more than 5,000 calories.
  • 9 packets of Clip 2 (155 cals with protein and fat)
  • 1 GU Brew (150 cals, 2x sodium)
  • 2 GU Roctane Brew (250 cals)
  • 2 Accelerade (250 cals with protein)
  • 2 Perpetuem (270 cals with protein and fat)
  • 3 Bonk Breaker Bars (250 with protein and fat)
  • 6 Honey Stinger Gels (120)
  • 1 Honey Stinger Waffle (160)
  • 1 Arnold Palmer
  • 1 Orange
  • 25 S!Caps

Closing Thoughts

After reviewing my Garmin Data, discussing it with SJ, and processing it mentally, I am feeling better about the whole experience. It is tough to compare, but this event was plain hard. We all agree the best choice would have been to turn around at the top of the South Kaibab trail and take the shortest route back (about 42 total miles). All of us sensed that we were taking too long at the top of the South Rim. But we were all still optimistic enough not to make that choice. I guess it was good we didn't because we may not have been able to help those that we saw along the way.

I am so thankful that SJ and Jeremy went along with me on this journey. It was a real joy to get to know each of them and we worked extremely good as a team. Between the three of us, we always had what was needed to overcome any problems. It didn't hurt that they kept me laughing the entire day. SJ has a wealth of knowledge and experience and we tapped much of it. Jeremy was a great guy to meet and fun to have along. At one of our low points, he chimed in "man this is a big !@#$% ditch". It was perfectly timed!

The car ride home was long, but it was also the much needed time to discuss and process the event. In those conversations I remembered why I do this; I do it for the adventure, for the people I meet along way, and for the stories I get to tell. We accomplished all three of those objectives!

One last thing to anyone that comes across this write up on the Internet and considers a Rim2Rim (R2R) or Rim2Rim2Rim (R2R2R) adventure, please be prepared. I felt very frightened for many of the people we saw in that canyon. This is a vast distance and hard event. Gatorade is not enough -- it is glorified sugar water -- and does not provide enough calories or sodium for those extreme conditions. Do a little research and prepare yourself. Please.


  1. Great story! It's so well written, I almost felt like I was there with you. Congrats!

  2. That's awesome -- you guys rock! Very cool that you stopped to help others -- even if not always appreciated!

  3. What a great story you told, and more importantly, what an amazing accomplishment. Congratulations!

    "The only way to define your limits is to go beyond them" ~Arthur C Clarke

  4. Congrats! I did R2R2R last year and I think it was my favourite run of all time. Sounds like you had a good time. Strangely enough this run was the inspiration to sign up for Leadville this year in an attempt to find something just as cool to do.

    It is mind boggling how many people try and do the double without any real understanding or long distance trail experience. I guess ignorance is bliss (but it can get you killed in places like this).

  5. I really enjoyed your writeup! This is on my bucket list, and at age 72 I better get to it soon. My wife and I did a "tame" R2R in 1994 ( It was one of my best adventures so far. Since then, I have done some marathons and triathlons, but no ultras. Congratulations on your feat.