It’s something like 5am and the sun is coming up and an older Japanese man is standing timidly like 10ft away from me, his enormous tourist camera in one hand, the other outstretched as if to offer me support without being nearly close enough to actually touch me.
“Are you…okay?” He asks tentatively.
Fair enough, I was probably screaming or coughing or weeping, I don’t remember. Actually, it’s been…four months? And I’m still crying as I type this.
“I’m okay, I just had a really long night.” What to say? To a random stranger. What could I say that would make this kindly man understand? The sun is coming up and it’s 20 degrees and I just ran across the Grand Canyon twice, and I have to get to the kennel the moment they open because Luna had never been boarded. “I’m okay, really, thank you.”
It’s been four months and I haven’t written this yet, this write up of one of my favorite projects and greatest runs of all time, because when we got back from this trip I found out that Luna had a very aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, and this trip was my last big one with her and it is so hard to relive what an extraordinary trip it was without tinging it in the resulting tragedy. But I’ll try.
We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset on Sunday, and spent most of Monday lounging in the back of the truck reading and eating and keeping my legs up. Sometime in the afternoon, I ventured to the ranger station to discuss trail conditions and water. There had been a rock slide that damaged the pipes that bring water to the North Rim, and apparently a significant portion of the trail. The North Rim was scheduled to open that day, and it still did. If you didn’t already know this, the very remote North Rim of the park relied on those pipes for their water supply. While they worked to rebuild the damaged pipes, the NPS had contracted a company to deliver water to the North Rim by truck, by the 10’s of thousands of gallons per day. Incredible, right?
Anyway, a very helpful ranger discussed trail work and water availability and mule train schedules with me, and all the while I carefully did not disclose I was planning to run it that very night. From the ranger station, I drove to the kennel to leave Luna for the night, then off to the S Kaibab Trailhead.
The S Kaibab trail is spectacular, maxing out around 60% grade, and highly technical both by nature and by the erosion from millions of feets tracking it in the mud. It follows a steep ridgeline almost all the way to the Colorado River. An extraordinary amount of tourists attempt to hike down it despite these difficulties, resulting in an average of 250 rescues per year and a lot of very dramatic signage.
I took a picture of another one that I can’t find; it’s a similar illustrated man on his knees with vomit spewing on the ground.
Update: I found it.
So anyway, there was a lot of tourist dodging and while I was still very friendly and courteous, it scares the bejesus out of tourists to pass them at 12mph. Views were great though:
Just before leaving CO for this trip, I remember voicing my significant concerns that I had only been running for one month before this and while I was in banging shape from all the alpine touring and skate skiing, the impact resistance might be a big problem. You can do infinity elevation gain, but joints need to assimilate to impact of running technical downhill. So spoiler alert, 5k later, I see the river and my knees are trashed, the little stabilizer muscles feeling so taut it made me wonder if popping them was something I actually had to worry about.
But anyway, arriving at the river in under an hour looked like this:
and felt like pure joy. The trail here becomes softer and is banked for the last almost mile or so, allowing me to hit almost 15mph however briefly.
Crossing the bridge over the river, the sun was setting and there was a large crew on Boaters Beach cheering me on; I would find out later that they were from Leadville, and I knew many of them! All kismet.
After the river, the trail begins a steady low grade incline that lasts for 7 or 8 miles. It’s like a jungle down there, with creeks and all kinds of foliage everywhere. No exaggeration, it is the most vibrant environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with. If my knees weren’t hurting so much that I was questioning ever being able to walk again, I would have felt I could run forever. It started to rain, but here at the bottom of the canyon it was the warmest and despite and the dark and storm it was still around 60 degrees and the rain felt like it could restore new life to a body that gets broken by ultrarunning time after time.
Mile after mile ticked on, but so did the time, as the clock was getting on towards 3:30 I realized I hadn’t even started the proper ascent of the North Rim, thus thoroughly jeopardizing the 4hr crossing I had hoped for. The North Rim trail was actually super exciting, with tons of exposure, making a full dark ascent interesting indeed. I passed a large group of tourists, maybe 7 or so, that had headlamps mysteriously but were otherwise struggling so majorly that I asked them if they wanted me to call the ranger station when I reached the top. But, they didn’t speak English. And they were still moving, so.
I hit the North Rim at just over 5h. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, to see the TH sign reflected in my headlamp. 21 miles down, and hard earned. I sat in the sand and ate a Larabar and contemplated how far behind I was timewise. It just didn’t seem to matter anymore, like the number of hours could possibly describe the experience. As I started the descent and my knees reeled, I made the call to take it easy before I caused serious damage and didn’t come down balls to the wall.
Crossing the 7 miles on the bottom of the canyon to the river was absolutely surreal. It had stopped raining, but was cloudy, so the dark was complete. Just me and my headlamp and the plants and creatures and water rushing; the backpackers all tucked into bed and it felt as though they ceased to exist, and I was all alone. Do you remember that Third Eye Blind song, Motorcycle Drive By? 1999. “I’ve never been so alone. And I’ve…I’ve never been so alive.” The balls of my feet just sweeping the sand, and I, cruising the darkness.
Crossing the river for the second time it felt like I was on another planet, my headlamp barely illuminating the bridge around me but the feeling of being swallowed up in the rushing movement of the river overwhelming. And so, with knees that were barely holding my weight, quads that had properly been banged, and 35 miles already come and gone, I ascend the brutally steep and long south side of the Grand Canyon.
Kripa in Sanskrit is the word for Grace. We have this idea of grace in the west, like it’s all about ballerinas or beautiful things. I suppose the idea of saying Grace is closer to the real concept, that holds up in basically every other language. Kripa, anyway, is to honor something with your presence. With your attention, your devotion, your will, your intentions, your body. Last year, in the Tetons, I got really into the idea of honoring a landscape, a line, a mountain with my presence, intention, and body. To put so much time and effort into finely tuning this instrument to cross any terrain seamlessly and in style, [I used something similar when describing this run to another person and she assumed by “in style” I meant “looking good”] so that when the time comes, I can properly honor the landscape and its’ lifeforce. I believed [believe] there is nothing more perfect.
[Aside, this post is a couple years old, but I still get inquiries about how to train. I’m a coach now, and have since lived in the GC, and I’ve written a number of training plans for the Grand Canyon double crossing, if you click this picture it will take you to my coaching website]
This double crossing was imperfect; I trashed my knees so early on that I couldn’t do the whole 42 miles full out as I had intended. However. About halfway up the south side, there was a light behind me so bright I was sure that a large group of people with headlamps must have somehow just caught me without my noticing until they were right behind me. I whipped around, startled, and saw, instead:
the clouds had finally parted, revealing an almost full moon, a sky full of stars, that so thoroughly bathed the canyons below me in light that all depth, rock, water, shadow was now made of liquid silver; iridescent and fluidly moving with the energy of life within. I can think of few times in my life that I actually found something breath-taking literally. So overwhelming, I couldn’t even be moved to weep [or perhaps too exhausted and dehydrated?]. And once again, as I had emptied myself, given everything of myself, sacrificed and destroyed, to and for this environment in the name of divine Grace, the environment filled me back up. Have you ever thought about what it really means to be FUL-FILLED?
And then, if you really want to know what happened next, I knew I was getting near the top, a group of runners was on their way down. Or, I guess I think of them that way because they were wearing running vests and running shoes and backward hats, but they weren’t running at all. They were attempting a R2R2R as well, and told me they hoped to finish in less than 30 hours. I smiled. Then, at like 430, the sun came up:
And I staggered to the Trailhead. And I screamed or wept or coughed, I don’t really remember, causing that poor tourist to reach out to help. I walked to the car. It was so cold, and I didn’t really have the energy left to homeostasis my body temperature, so I shook wildly. I drove to the kennel. I got a coke from one of those NPS vending machines that features old photo inlays of whatever park you’re in and isn’t labelled brand-wise. It was 75 cents. I was there to get Lu the moment they opened. And we carried on.
4 thoughts on “R2R2R: run across the Grand Canyon twice…overnight.”
Wow, what an EPIC blog post! You are such a f-ing badass. Please, carry on.
Aw thanks brother!
Sarah, thanks for this write-up! In process of mentally and physically preparing myself for similar adventure. Out of curiousity, did you run any long distance/ultras prior to your R3? I run 20-30 miles weekly and wonder whether to this is suffice of a basis for a double crossing in 13-16 hours. Thoughts/suggestions?
Thanks for your comment! By the time I did the R2R2R last year, I had done races in 50k, 50mi, 100k, and 100mi. This time last year, I was doing 60-80 mile running weeks (with 20-30,000 feet gain), the 60 mile weeks were lower because I was doing a lot of cycling miles getting ready for a bike tour also. 42 miles is a long way, but the 12k gain and loss is what’s really brutal, especially bc the trail is so technical. The accumulation from the first section down to the CO river is enough to make your joints creaky and put a crease in your thighs, by the time I came down off the North Rim, my knees hurt so bad I couldn’t take advantage of the descent. Mileage, as much elevation change as you can get, and really pounding some technical downhills for resistance training I think is the recipe. This run is much harder than, say, a typical 50 mile race (actually, I did a 50mi with 12k gain and the GC was so, so much harder for so many reasons). However, it’s not a loop, and it’s a personal quest, so if it’s not going well, you can turn around whenever you feel like it. Most recreational ultra runners I know that have done it are more in the 20-24hr range, if that helps. Jim Walmsley’s write-up on iRunfar.com is also a really good thing to read in terms of route details and training.