Two years ago as we celebrated completing the Rim 2 Rim run through the Grand Canyon, Dayna said “I am so glad we don’t have to turn back around and do it again”. With tired legs, Courtney and I both agreed. But I think all of us inside felt there was a bigger challenge we needed to come back and conquer when we were ready. The Rim 2 Rim was a massive accomplishment in itself, but we knew that one day, we would fulfill the larger goal of the Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim. This year was the year to do it.
We can all 3 say it was the single most difficult thing we have ever done. We all experienced devastating lows (asking if we were going to die down in the Canyon, falling asleep in our hand at Phantom Lodge, near panic attacks and some tummy issues) and incredible highs (the incredible views, the surreal feeling of reaching the top, an incredible adventure with our best friends), but we pushed through and completed our 85km journey. We started in the wee hours of the morning and finished in the night, on about 4 hours of sleep, but we kept a positive attitude through out and finished with smiles and hugs.
After months of training, and some how convincing our friends that it was a good idea to run 85km down, across and up the Grand Canyon, TWICE, we ended up in Vegas. It was our trail family as we refer to, a group of our best friends and people we spend the most time with other than our own family that we managed to convince. We are all a little crazy, and are turning “ultra crazy” and these amazing people decided to make the journey across the Grand Canyon and back again with. We woke up at the wee hours of the morning on Friday to convoy drive to the airport in Bellingham. We stopped for a traditional breakfast of Dennys and then headed to the airport. On the airplane we shared a few beers and talked about how after our run we would let loose a little in Vegas. (Wishful thinking on our part!)
When we arrived in Vegas we grabbed our rental cars and headed straight to a grocery store where we loaded up on all the random things we were sure we would crave… cheddar explosion gold fish crackers, pretzels, gummy worms, PB and J sandwiches, beer for after… you know the usual shopping trip.
Then it was onward towards the south rim of the grand canyon, with multiple pit stops for bathroom breaks… 8 runners pre-hydrating equals a ton of bathroom stops.
We made one last stop for authentic Mexican food for dinner before we made it to our hotel. I don’t really know why we though beans would be a good idea the night before a big run, but it was the healthiest looking restaurant around and we were all getting a little hangry.
The night before a race is always a little chaotic. The night before a self supported 85km adventure run is totally crazy. We made our own little aid stations where we filled up zip lock bags with our snacks for the next day. The task of packing your pack for an 85km run that is all self supported is a little daunting. We all went into auto-pilot mode, quietly counting our bars, our sandwiches, our gels. The room looked like a bomb exploded but we were impressively in bed by 10pm.
Our alarms went off at Saturday Morning at 2:45am and we gave ourselves one hour to get ready and be ready for our pre-run selfie… we were successful in both.
Our hotel was a 5km run from the actual trail head so we already knew we were adding mileage to our already long day. We were out the door by 4am sharp and reached the South Kaibob trail by 5am. The sky was still pitch dark as we headed down the trail. We could see lights on the other side of the canyon of other runners starting their journey.
As we entered deeper into the canyon we looked up and saw a line of lights of others coming down behind us. As the sun rose above the canyons edge, we all got our first glimpses. Sun poured into the canyon, illuminating the red rock, the vastness, the layers, the abnormal rock fixtures. We couldn’t help but to take our time to soak it all in. We were almost moved by tears by the somewhat surreal beauty surrounding us. How lucky we were in that moment to be where we were.
We continued along the 7 mile, 2000m decent down into the canyon bottom. The first pit stop so to speak is Phantom Ranch. Here we stopped for a refuel and filled back up our water. I weighed my pack here and was shocked to see that it weight 10lbs!
The next section of the canyon meanders along a tributary of the Colorado river under massive rock walls. Red rock with layers upon layers with eroded structures dominate the landscape. It is so hard not to stop every 5 minutes and take photos of the surreal surroundings. The trail then opens up into a wider part of the canyon where there is a 22km section of more exposed trail before reaching Manzinito, the last stop before the climb out of the North Rim. We refueled and regrouped many times along the way but kept the pace up despite the amount of photos we were taking. The daunting thought of not being half way was weighing on us so we kept moving.
The climb out of the Canyon to the North Rim was unrelenting but also insanely beautiful. The trail hugged the side of the canyon, etched into the rock. The views got better and better the higher we got, but the sun was also getting hotter. We kept moving motivated by the views of the top of the canyon.
We passed other R2R2R parties who had already reached the top and were headed back down. Once we reached the top we celebrated with whatever we had in our packs that we were craving (gummy worms!) and refueled our water. We stayed as long as we needed to rest and refuel.
I think mentally, getting half way for everyone was like making a little check in our minds. We knew we were half way, and we knew what we were up against on the way back.
On the way back down is when I personally hit my low. The thought of heading back down into the canyon was terrifying me. At this point I knew I was completely committed to finishing the distance and I would have to climb back out of the canyon at km 70. I was feeling border-line anxiety. When we reached the bottom of the North Rim climb we stopped and collected ourselves. I pounded back some food and refilled my water but nothing seemed to settle the anxiety. We had dropped 2000m in an hour, and the elevation change was giving me vertigo and making me nauseous. Not wanting to stop for too long we powered hiked on. When I felt my energy was just not bouncing back I forced a gel down my throat. Honestly up until this day I have hated gels. I have refused to use them during my running. That day, they saved me. Fast energy, easily absorbed calories, it completely stopped me from bonking.
When we reached the open part of the canyon, the sun was pounding down on us. We were guzzling water down but being mindful of the 22km in between water fill ups. To keep moving we started running to landmarks and then walking, alternating back and forth so we wouldn’t need to stop. We ran into other runners and hikers who were also struggling with the difficult feat of the canyon. We found one hiker without water and gave him some of ours to get him safely to the next camp site. We also found another R2R2R’er who had fallen asleep in the shade. We woke him up and made him stick with us till Phantom Ridge. No person is left behind in the Canyon.
We had heard of cold, fresh lemonade once we reached Phantom Ranch, and it was literally all we could dream about. It is what motivated us to keep moving. When we arrived, we were heart broken with the Ranch being closed. As we refueled and wallowed in our sorrow, a man stepped out of the Ranch holding a glass of ice cold lemonade. Yes it was extremely bold of me, but at km 75, my filter was gone. I said to him “Is that for us”? He was a little alarmed but walked over and graciously donated his cold lemonade to 5, dirty, smelly, tired, crazy trail runners.
Once we felt ready to move on from Phantom Ranch (even though in the moment I think we can all say if the option had been there, we probably would have stopped, but now looking back we are so glad there wasn’t that option!), we put our heads down and started the 12km climb out of the Canyon to the South Rim along Bright Angel Trail. We chose this way for the way back because although longer in distance, it is a more gradual trail. This climb was the hardest section of the whole run. It was unrelenting, constantly steep, and unimaginably long. It truly felt like eternity. We did what we could to stay positive, we kept motivating each other, encouraging one another as we trudge in the dark of the night by the light of our head lamps. Whenever someone started to dip into a low spot, the others stayed positive. We did what we could to motivate each other. We started “switch back killing”, every time we did a switch back, we were one closer.
The worst part of all was being able to see the lights at the top of the ridge, the little beckons of hope guiding us to the top. But they also caused us to despair at times as they looked impossibly far away. But we pressed on, step by step, until we reached the top of the canyon. Courtney and I both devastated our “team mates” when we reached a hole in the canyon that we remembered as the top. My brother was nearly in tears when we realized we weren’t at the top, he said to me “Hailey I really hate you right now, you lied to me!”… oh the emotional roller coaster of ultra running.
When we reached the top, we were elated. The feeling was incredible, but we were far too tired to really embellish the feeling. We just simply hugged each other and jumped in the cars that we had filled with Bananas, potato chips and fresh water. It was too late by the time we were showered and back at our hotel rooms to eat anything, so our pizza cravings had to wait until the next day. Completing something this magnanimous is pretty surreal. I don’t think it really hits you until it’s complete. When you are in the thick of the challenge, your soul thought is getting through the run, but once you stop and your body comes out of auto-pilot mode, you finally have a chance to reflect and take it all in. It was a life changing experience to say the least and I think we can all say that we once again learned how strong we truly are.
Would we recommend this challenge to someone else? Yes, if you want the sheer challenge of it. But if you want to go enjoy the Grand Canyon for what it is, we would recommend sticking to the Rim 2 Rim so you can take in all the beauty a little better, because by the time we are on our way back, the canyon was no longer our best friend. Are we glad we did it? Of course, but we are glad the challenge is behind us, and we are looking forward to our next adventure!