Any trail runner that has stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and looked across has felt the same inexplicable pull.  The thought that one could descend to the river, cross, and head up the other side is undeniable in its effect to motivate and captivate.  For me the seed was planted seven years ago, before I was even trail running, on a camping trip with our then infant son.  We hiked down from the North Rim to just below the Supai Tunnel, carrying the lad on our backs and stopping often for snacks and even to nurse.  Our jaunt under the lip was the perfect appetizer, and as soon as I realized that some people run across the Canyon in a single day I filed it away in the back of my mind.

Enter April of 2019.  I had a week off from work for my Spring Break, separate from my kids at their school and separate from my wife who had to keep working.  Spring Break is always a nice chance for a Peak Week heading into the Canyons 100k race at the end of the month, and this year I was actually not-injured and fit (unlike last year where I backpacked across Joshua Tree while nursing an IT band issue).  The initial plan was to run locally, maybe do Diablo – and then I looked at the weather forecast and saw rain, mud, and more rain and mud.  I was a bit sick of it and also jonesing for some adventure.

What about running across the Grand Canyon?  Oh, the North Rim’s not open yet?  Perfect!  I’ll have to run back as well.

I frantically texted all of my friends crazy enough to join me, with the only qualification requirement being their ability to say “Yes”.  I got close with somebody from LA, but he had to unfortunately bail at the end when he couldn’t get off work.  I hastily threw together gear, trail descriptions, water locations, and even grabbed a campsite before hoping into a cheap rental car (I see you Chevy Malibu) on Wednesday morning and blasting into the desert Southwest.

I got to the Canyon on Thursday afternoon and immediately went to check out the trail-head I would be descending.  When I got my first glimpse through the trees and over the open rim my jaw literally fell open – despite having seen the Canyon multiple times before, there is no preparing for its immense scale and magnitude.  It is bigger than anything I have ever seen before in my life. It dwarfs El Cap and makes Mont Blanc look like a little training hill.  Mountains have defined edges, places where they begin and end.  But the Grand Canyon, like the ocean, seems to go on for as far as the eyes can see.

South Kaibab Trail
The South Kaibab trail descends off that point

I fit in a quick shakeout run and headed back to the campsite to try to organize my gear.  The challenge was going to be finding the appropriate clothes.  It was getting cold already, and would be at about freezing in the morning when I dropped in.  At the river during the afternoon it would be over 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  Additionally, I was well aware that I was traveling into unknown territory solo and had a family at home that depended upon my safe return.  I ended up bringing enough clothes and layers that would allow me to spend the night if things were to go sideways, including a pair of wool tights and my Arc’teryx shell.  In my mind this was also serving as training for the Gran Trail Courmeyer in July, where these items are part of the required kit.  For food I figured on one gel an hour with a small variety of bars to sprinkle in as I got hungry.

Gear for Rim to Rim
Sunglasses and Chapstick were the only things I really forgot

I got a bit of interrupted sleep that night but found myself fairly awake at 2 AM, excited for the big day ahead.  I forced myself to relax and meditate until 4 AM when I woke up, broke down the tent, and headed over to the trailhead.  I had to park about a mile away from the start so a small warm-up jog brought me over to the South Kaibab trail, where I made good use of the bathrooms, filled up my water, and got ready to drop in.

Dropping in South Kaibab
5:15 AM – Let’s do this!

I gathered my thoughts for a second and said a quick prayer to the Guardians of the Canyon, asking for safe passage for the journey that lay ahead of me.   And then, I started running.  It’s committing to drop into the Canyon and the darkness adds a certain mystical tinge to the experience.  You can’t really see what’s ahead of you, and South Kaibab is steeeeeep!  I tried to start slow but the adrenaline was racing through my body and the stoke level was the highest it had been all week.  My heart rate finally started settling down and as I looked around the sun was starting to rise and light up the Canyon walls.  The temperature went up 20 degrees as soon as I dropped under the lip and already my gloves, hat, and jacket seemed excessive.

Sunrise in the Canyon
Sunrise in the Canyon

South Rim to the River (Miles 0 – 7)

There’s absolutely no way to prepare for the initial descent to the river unless you live on top of a mountain and the start of every training run is a 5000 foot descent.  The trail is an engineering masterpiece, but it’s really a huge section of 1-2 foot steps, spaced just close enough together to never really allow you to get into a nice rhythm of running.  Your quads immediately take a beating, and I was surprised at how thrashed my calves felt from the get-go.  There’s something about the steps and the incline that was literally shaking the whole lower half of my body with every switchback.  And yet, the sun is rising in the Canyon.  The land is silent at this point without the roar of the river to fill the air.  The birds are chirping and you are literally watching the entire world wake up before you.  The magic in front of you more than makes up for the pain below.

The Steps of South Kaibab

I gave thanks for the few runnable stretches and soaked in the magnificent vistas that lay in every direction as I worked my way down to the river.  It’s exhilarating when you finally see the water and begin to hear the rush below you.  Pretty soon I was headed over the suspension bridge to the North Side of the Canyon, where I would begin the 14 mile climb to the other side.

The Colorado
The Colorado

The River to Cottonwood Campground (Miles 7-14)

Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch were just beginning to wake up, and I filled up water, changed into my shorts and a light long sleeve, and kept on moving.  I really enjoyed the stretch right after Phantom Ranch on my way out (it would be one of the hardest parts for me on the way back).  The Canyon tightened up and the smooth, well groomed trail hugged the Northern wall and gently swept you a bit higher up in elevation with every turn.  It felt flat at this point, which I know was just an illusion as I was steadily gaining vert.  My legs were finally starting to feel good again after the descent as I mentally told my calves that they had to get their stuff back together and stop feeling sorry for themselves.

Heading North to Cottonwood Campground
Heading North to Cottonwood Campground

I got slightly off course right before Cottonwood as I became confused about the signed turnoff to Ribbon Falls and the washed-out bridge.  A backpacker coming the other direction told me that I would need to cross “the river” to continue on with the trail and that I should have my trekking poles ready.  I ended up on a small use-trail that took me down to the larger Bright Angel Creek, where I crossed with the water already up to my thighs.  It was no big deal at the time but I did think that it would be problematic crossing again later in the afternoon.  Thankfully I was the one that was turned around, and after sneaking a peak at Ribbon Falls I crossed the creek again and got back on the correct path.  The “river” that the hiker had been talking about was a very small tributary about ankle deep – I easily walked cross and continued heading up Canyon beginning my ascent to the North Rim.

Cottonwood CG to the North Rim (Miles 14-21)

Heading up to the North Rim is when I truly dropped into this run.  My sense of time began to dissolve and I focused on the sights, sounds, and sensations of the Canyon walls.  With the road to the North Rim still under snow this section of trail was practically deserted – the only people out there were either covering a lot of distance in a day like me, or had been out there for multiple days and nights already.  I took out my poles and started climbing as consistently as possible.  As I gained elevation from the river I felt like I was walking through time.  The rock layers and composition were changing as I climbed from layer to layer, and occasionally a spring would erupt out of the walls baptizing me in a welcome shower of cold and fresh water.  I vowed to keep making progress but also not to rush through the experience.  I was not racing, nor going for an FKT or even a PR, and I knew that every minute spent in the Canyon was one that I would never be able to duplicate on the outside.
 
The gradient got steeper and steeper as I worked my way up to the rim, which also corresponded with increased elevation and less oxygen in my legs.  It’s one of the reasons why the Canyon is so unforgiving.  She requires constant focus and awareness, and as you get more and more tired of climbing and the going gets steeper your legs also begin to go anaerobic as they run out of oxygen.  The Canyon makes you dig deeper than you knew you could dig, simply because there really is no other option.  You can’t drop out, you can’t sit down at an aid station – the only thing you can do is turn around and head back, and I wasn’t going to do that before climbing out the other side.
Gettin' steep just below Supai Tunnel
Gettin’ steep just below Supai Tunnel
A little over a mile from the rim there started to be some significant snow on the trail.  Nothing dangerous, but again you had to really focus and watch your steps so you didn’t posthole and throw off your balance and progress.  I thought I was hallucinating toward the top as I saw a hiker that appeared to have a mountain bike strapped across his back.  Yet sure enough, I soon met Ken the Thru-Biker, one of two guys that were riding the Arizona Trail from South to North, Mexico to Utah.  Mountain Biking was prohibited in the park of course so they had just hiked Rim to Rim with bikes and camping gear on their shoulders.  That shut my internal pity-party down pretty quickly and I pushed the rest of the way to the Rim.​
Thru Biker of the Arizona Trail
Rule #1 – There’s always someone more crazy and bad ass than you

The North Rim to Cottonwood Campground (Miles 21-28)

I chatted with the Thru-Bikers for a minute on the rim as they were very excited to get back to riding their bikes, re-stocked my Gu pocket on my vest, ate my last Larabar, and decided to keep on moving.  I left a minute before the 7 hour mark – happy with my progress, especially considering my Ribbon Fall shenanigans, and also happy with the fact that a finish before sunset seemed probable.
 
The top part of the trail is steep and steppy, but once you get a bit past the Supai Tunnel the North Kaibab Trail descent becomes the stuff that trail runner dreams are made of.  It was buttery, it was smooth, and it was gorgeous.  I turned my body on auto-pilot and set the gearshift for the high gear of my soul as I let the Canyon guide me back down.  #PureBliss.
Descent down North Kaibab trail
This is why we run

Manzanita Rest Area to Phantom Ranch (Miles 28 – 35)

Manzanita Rest Area was totally pleasant and had wonderful clear, cold piped water – the only piped water on the North Kaibab stretch this time of year.  I chatted with a backpacker celebrating his 60th birthday and found that it was a bit hard to hold conversation with people at this point.  I had been solo for my whole journey thus far and had seemingly turned everything inward.  Like a psychedelic journey, I was doing fine keeping everything together in my own head but I learned that I wasn’t quite ready for outward communication yet.  I fumbled through the pleasantries and was anxious to keep on moving down the trail.
 
The final section coming back into Phantom Ranch was the most trying for me, as it seemed quite flat in comparison to everything that I had done so far and the day was definitely heating up.  What appeared to be a lush, beautiful part of the Canyon on the way out had turned into a radiating oven of grey rocks on the way down.  I pushed on through this section, trying to keep moving at a decent pace and finally convincing myself that I would spring for a famous Phantom Ranch Lemonade if I had the opportunity when I finally got there.​
North Kaibab Trail along the river
Heading back to the Ranch

Phantom Ranch to the South Rim (Miles 35-42)

I cruised into Phantom Ranch, fairly excited for some chips and lemonade and quickly realized that I was not quite ready to handle that scene.  The scene at Phantom Ranch was like trying to buy some concessions during a particularly challenging set break – the line was 30 people deep, I didn’t really remember where my money was in my pack, and oh yeah, the whole talking to people thing.  I sucked it up, popped an electrolyte tab into my water bottle, filled my other two bottles, and began the slog back up South Kaibab Trail.
Enjoying the views on the haul up South Kaibab
Enjoying the views on the haul up South Kaibab
I had briefly thought about heading up Bright Angel but at this point in my run the known was worth a lot more to me than the unknown.  I was also suddenly attracted to the symmetry of the plan – in my mind it made sense to head up the exact same way I had come down.  It turned out to be a good choice, as the gradient was not too severe on the way up and the ridge views were fantastic once again.  Additionally the trail was uncrowded and I saw minimal people (and one bighorn!) on the way back up.  I re-emphasized to myself that I was in no real rush – it was clear I would make it in before dark, and it seemed foolhardy to be rushing out of the spiritual Canyon for what lay on the rim.
My last shot in the Canyon
My last shot in the Canyon
At 13 hours and 19 minutes I crested over the lip of the South Rim, my journey complete.  I could not have been more happy with the experience.  I was blessed and cradled by the Mother Earth for the entire day – the Canyon is a wonderfully magical, sacred space, and I possessed the body to carry myself on a moving mediation between its walls from Rim to Rim to Rim.  Running in beauty from sunrise to sunset is the best use of a day on this planet that I can imagine, and I am truly humbled to have experienced it between the sacred walls of the Grand Canyon.
 
 

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