The wind blows across the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, 20 mph constant. Mitsu and I hurriedly grab hats and gloves, pull on running vests and slam car doors in the dark in front of the Bright Angel Lodge. It’s 45 degrees as we quickly walk a couple hundred feet to the Bright Angel trailhead, where the lights of the South Rim disappear and a big black hole eats up the horizon.
My layering strategy—a pair of running shorts and a hooded wind jacket over a thin long-sleeve synthetic top—is basically me betting that today’s forecasted winds will disappear once we step below the rim. A hundred steps down the trail, it’s quiet again, and I’m relieved to cross “hypothermia” off my list of Things That Could Go Wrong During My Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Run.”
Items still remaining on that list:
- Shitting my pants
- Spraining or breaking an ankle or other body part crucial to locomotion
- Tripping and falling off an exposed section of trail
- Finishing way too late to get to the Cornish Pasty place in Flagstaff
- Realizing that my entire life up until this point has been a lie
- Discovering that I’m not tough enough to do this after all
- Running out of food
Just kidding. I have literally never run out of food in the backcountry. I have 4,380 calories stuffed in my running vest:
- 10 single-serving packets of Skratch Labs Sport Hydration Drink Mix (800 calories)
- 3 small bags crushed Kettle Chips (660 calories)
- 8 chocolate Clif Shots (880 calories)
- 2 Vega One bars (540 calories)
- 2 Panda Raspberry Licorice bars (200 calories)
- 3 packages Black Cherry Clif Shot Bloks (600 calories)
- 5 Cinnamon Honey Stinger waffles (700 calories)
We run by headlamp, the canyon dark beyond our personal LED-lit bubbles. The stair-stepped trail makes it hard to establish a stride, so I intermittently walk and jog. After 15 minutes, I remove my wind layer.
The canyon starts to light up in the pre-dawn minutes, and a few hundred feet above Indian Garden, we run into the first backpackers hiking up and out of the canyon. I was worried about being quiet as we ran past the campground so we didn’t wake anyone, but it looks like almost everyone is packed up already.
Mitsu stops at the restroom and I fill up my water bottles while I wait. Almost five miles down so far. We mostly run the rest of the descent to the Colorado River and meet more hikers on their way up from Phantom Ranch. We cross the river on the silver bridge, and pass Phantom Ranch at Mile 10ish at 7:15 a.m.
Around Mile 15, Mitsu’s strained something-or-other has grown increasingly painful, and he decides to turn back. We make plans to meet back at Phantom Ranch when I come back through in a few hours. I tell him I’ll hustle so he won’t have to wait too long, and also so I can maybe get a coffee before the canteen closes for dinner. For a second, I consider bailing with him, because drinking lemonade at Phantom Ranch sounds way more fun than finishing the 5,800-foot climb up to the North Rim.
Here’s the great thing about the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: it’s basically a semi-supported ultramarathon. There are water spigots in six places along the trail, and in season, seven others. You do have to carry all your own food (unless you time it right and can buy candy bars from the canteen at Phantom Ranch). There are no aid stations, no volunteers sweeping the course, almost no meeting places for anyone to “crew” you, and hopefully not that many other people. And if you snap your ankle, it’ll probably be a long time before you get rescued. I brought a space blanket and some water treatment tablets. My mother told me to be careful, so I did that too, for her, and also to avoid being a pain in the ass for the park service.
I reach Manzanita, mile 17.5, after a bunch of power-hiking and jogging. The water, which has been turned off for a few months, has been temporarily and fortuitously turned on, so I fill my bottles. The wind is blowing steady and gusting up to about 30 mph, so I make a vow to only pee in pit toilets the rest of the day, in order to minimize stops and also to minimize accidentally spraying myself with my own urine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve just had some windy restroom adventures out there and realized that peeing on my own face wasn’t really my thing.
A Brief History of the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim:
- 13.799 ± 0.021 billion years ago: Big Bang happens
- 5-6 million years ago: Grand Canyon is formed
- Early 1900s: The Cameron Trail, which was originally built to Indian Garden by the Havasupai tribe and will later be known as the Bright Angel Trail, completes its route from the South Rim all the way to the Colorado River.
- 1925: The South Kaibab Trail, another trail from the South Rim to the Colorado River, is completed.
- 1928: The North Kaibab Trail, connecting the North Rim to the Colorado River, is finished, completing a rim-to-rim route.
- Sometime after 1928: Somebody hikes the whole thing from rim to rim in a day
- Also sometime after 1928: Somebody hikes the whole thing from rim to rim to rim in a day
- 2016: Jim Walmsley sets the Fastest Known Time for a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run, 5 hours, 55 minutes, 20 seconds*
- 2017: Cat Bradley sets the women’s FKT for the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: 7 hours, 52 minutes, 20 seconds*
- 2018: I decide to run the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim*.
*There are two different routes to do a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. The one that utilizes the South Kaibab Trail is 42 miles total, and is a little steeper on the South Rim side. The one that uses the Bright Angel Trail is 48 miles total, and is less steep on the South Rim side. You can imagine if you were trying to set a record, you’d do the 42-mile version. I was not setting a record, so I chose the 48-mile route.
After hiking nonstop up 3600 feet in 5.5 miles from the Manzanita rest area, I pop out on the North Rim to an empty North Kaibab Trailhead parking lot. I feel like pig vomit but at least the next 14 miles are all downhill. The wind continues to blast and I’m now at 8241 feet and getting chilled, so I quickly fill my water bottles, throw all my food wrappers in the trash can, and walk the first ½ mile of the trail while pouring crushed salt and pepper Kettle Chips into my mouth.
What’s not really productive or nice to think about here is that if I were fast like Cat Bradley or Jim Walmsley, I’d be finished or nearly finished by now. Alas, I am not fast. Also, I like bread and sitting on my ass 40-50 hours a week for work. So here we are, headed back into the maw of the largest canyon in Coconino County, Arizona. My ears and nostrils are fully coated with blown dust. I run 90 percent of the next 5.5 miles back down to Manzanita.
I have crossed the 50 km mark, and I’m starting to think it will actually feel good to stop running downhill and start hiking uphill around mile 39. I stop at Manzanita, where another guy is resting on his way up to the North Rim, and we chat a little bit but the wind is gusting up to 40 mph so I can barely hear anything he says.
There used to be a basketball hoop here, right at this ranger residence a few thousand feet below the North Rim. A ranger told me once that they used to play full-on pickup games here, and every once in a while, the ball would bounce into the creek and float eight miles all the way down to Phantom Ranch, and basketball would be over until someone hiked the ball back up to Manzanita. They got rid of the hoop sometime in 2010 or 2011, regrettably.
I am officially eating shit. After moving as fast as I could for 9.5 hours, I hit the proverbial wall in The Box, the tight inner gorge of Vishnu Schist that winds along Bright Angel Creek for the final five miles to Phantom Ranch. This morning, The Box was almost completely shaded, and now it’s not. I start giving myself any excuse to walk: too rocky, slightly uphill, too hot. When I see hikers, I jog, not wanting to give a bad name to my fellow dipshits who come down here in running shorts and funny-looking vests and try to cross Grand Canyon National Park twice in a day. At one point, I lean into a tiny bit of shade to try to check the GPS on my phone, a desperate move. I’m close to Phantom Ranch and all the Lemmy Lemonade I can drink, or at least all the Lemmy Lemonade I can buy with the $11 cash I have in my running vest.
I open the door of the Phantom Ranch canteen and see Mitsu at a table, the remnants of an Arnold Palmer in front of him. He asks if I want a coffee or lemonade, and suddenly for about two seconds I feel like I might vomit. In a flash of bravery/stupidity, I say it would probably be best if we just keep moving. We get up and walk. Between Phantom Ranch and filling my water bottles at the horse corral next to the river, somehow 30 minutes go by.
As we walk across the silver bridge, I watch the blue-green water of the Colorado roll by 30 feet below my feet. I decide that the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is a hell of a great experience, but also far from the best way to see the Grand Canyon. I think about the backpacking trips I’ve done here and the monthlong raft trip, and watching the colors change, and this seems like trying to squeeze a marriage into a first date. But even if it’s too fast, it’s still pretty amazing.
I definitely have two huge blisters now, and some new pain in my heel that I hope isn’t some sort of stress fracture. We keep hiking, and about a quarter-mile from Pipe Creek, a 3-foot long snake falls off the rock wall to our left and Mitsu barely avoids stepping on it as we both nearly piss our pants in simultaneous shock, and then we realize it’s not a rattlesnake as it slithers off the trail. First time I’ve seen the old snake-falling-out-of-the-sky trick. Mitsu too.
We’re only a few hundred feet from the 3-Mile Resthouse and I am pretty sure Mitsu has started hiking faster in an attempt to get us out of the canyon faster. I am filled with equal parts contempt and gratitude for this strategy but say nothing, choosing to instead think of something positive, like the fact that the next Clif Shot I eat might be the last one of the day, or maybe even the month, or that maybe after we top out on the South Rim after another 2,100 vertical feet, I’ll pull my head out of my ass and give up ultrarunning for something more enjoyable, like breaking rocks with a sledgehammer.
We arrive at the Bright Angel Trailhead. It’s cold and windy. We get into the car, turn on the heat, drink canned coffee drinks, and drive straight to the Cornish Pasty place in Flagstaff.