“Bite off more than you can chew, then keep chewing”…Joe De Sena, the creator of The Spartan obstacle races, said this was his mantra and it kept spinning in my head as I looked from The South Rim of The Grand Canyon to The North Rim on Sunday evening April the 24th the day before our quest to run rim to rim to rim. The canyon seemed much larger and much more daunting this time than the two previous visits I had made to The Grand Canyon. My two previous visits I didn’t even take a step into the canyon. Each time I looked both ways and across, took a few pictures, and then drove off. This visit would be different, very different.
This time I planned to run from the south rim to the north rim and back in a day… Covering over 47 miles and climbing over 11k feet.
July of last year my buddy Gabe and I were talking about what could be our next adventure, which is always a scary thought. Months earlier we had run the length of Assateague island, not far from our house, and although it was cold and challenging it was not an adventure that would take months of training, planning and preparation like The Grand Canyon. As we started to toy with the idea of running the canyon, my friend Harvey (Jonathon, but I call him by his last name Harvey since we met as missionaries in Chile) said if we were serious he would want to join us for the run. Around Christmas I received the final thumbs up to plan, train and pay for the run. It was a few weeks after this that I found out my brother Jason had run his first trail marathon. He was becoming a runner and when he heard about my running plans for the year and in particular The Grand Canyon run he wanted to be a part of the adventure. He progressed quickly over the months, following the 50 mile running plan we had set up, and was as prepared as the rest of us when April arrived.
We had two airports to choose from to start our journey. We could have flown to Phoenix or Las Vegas. Las Vegas was a little further from the canyon, but costing considerably less to fly into and the hotels were better, so we picked Las Vegas. Gabe and I flew in Saturday night and Jason picked us up from the airport in his car as Harvey was picking up the rental car. It was already late, since our flight arrived at 9pm, but we couldn’t pass up a run in Las Vegas at night. So we met up with Harvey, quickly brought up our bags and changed and then hit the roads for a quick two mile shake off run.
Jason and Gabe were weaving through people and superheros as we ran down the streets of downtown Las Vegas. We ran close to our hotel, Downtown Grand Las Vegas, and when we finished we went straight to the rooftop pool for ten minutes before it closed for the night. It was ten at night and we were all pretty tired. We made plans for the next morning and went to sleep. When we woke up we had a huge breakfast and then to church. Church was only a ten minute drive from our hotel and it was great to attend church with Harvey again for the first time since our missions in Chile. After church we hit the road for a 4.5 hour drive across part of Nevada and Arizona…. In our Mini Van. Toyota Sienna, Just like at home.
Our road trip portion was full of stories, laughter and planning. We went over everything we were bringing and not bringing and made sure we were not carrying duplicates of items (like water purifiers). When the long drive was over and we went straight to the canyon and South Kaibab trail to see where we would begin our journey the next morning. The canyon made me nauseous and nervous. It was intimidating and it probably didn’t help that I read the book “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon”, which relates all the deaths in the recorded history of The Grand Canyon, on the flight from Baltimore to Las Vegas. I made sure no one got anywhere close to the edge. We snapped a few pictures and heard the advice of an overly concerned German man who thought we were headed down into the canyon that night. “Take More Vater!” – He yelled at me. We then drove back to The Canyon Village and our hotel for the next two nights, Maswik Lodge. There is nothing fancy or elegant about Maswik Lodge, but it does have two big beds in each of the rooms and it is located across the street from Bright Angel trailhead, which is where our run that next day should end. We unloaded into our two rooms and set all of our gear out for the next day. How much food should we bring? How much water? A first aid kit? A jacket? Hat? Gloves? These are things we had been asking and planning for months, but we had to ask ourselves one more time and make a final plan. Once we all felt pretty comfortable with our hydration packs and our choice of clothing we headed down to the lodge’s restaurant and ordered some pasta. Spaghetti and meatballs for me and a big bottle of Powerade. I think the Powerade was more of a psychological advantage to me than any actual athletic advantage. The spaghetti on the other hand was pure carb-loading fuel or at least a calorie fuel tank for the next day.
Fueled up on pasta and lots of water we returned to the rooms. We set our alarms for 4am and crashed at around 9pm. I think I woke up four or five time during the night out of excitement. My bed was comfortable and I was tired enough, but I was just fired up and ready to go…. and sleep was getting in the way. One more night of sleep before my dream.
4:00am came quicker than I though. Actually, I woke up 15 minutes earlier on my own and thought while I am up I might as well take a shower to feel extra fresh for the run, as if that would help. More than feeling extra fresh, the shower did wake me up. I threw on a long sleeve tech shirt with a short sleeve tech shirt over it, shorts, injinji socks, Hoka Hoka shoes, a light jacket, a pair of gloves and a hat. I had to make sure I had a place to put the cold weather clothes as the temperature changed throughout the day. We called a taxi and the dispatcher said we had to wait 20-30 minuted for the driver to arrive. So we double checked everything and then said a group prayer asking for safety and weather that would be manageable. We knew we would be asking for too much if we asked for perfect weather. The taxi van arrived and we piled in. We were minutes from the trail at South Kaibab when I said, “This is what it all comes down to… This is what we trained for.” Little did I know that it was near impossible to train to run The Grand Canyon on the pancake flat terrain of Delmarva, where Gabe and I are from. We were prepared mentally, but our legs had never felt the thrashing of quick elevation loss and gain we were about to encounter.
The taxi driver dropped us off at 4:50am right in front of South Kaibab trail. It was pitch black, but it would stay that way for long. We topped off our water bottles, took a picture (that didn’t turn out), and took our first step into the canyon…. Running. My heart was racing as we began our descend. It was steep and it was dark, but we were moving.
Before the “pain party” began we were enjoying the downward steep trail down the canyon. The sky was slowly beginning to lighten up and after only 20 minutes in the canyon we could turn off our headlamps. The canyon was coming alive and we were in runners’ heaven. Every turn presented us with another heavenly view. The canyon was more beautiful than I could ever imagine. The trail was well kept and not too technical, but the degree of the slope was new and somewhat difficult for me. My flatland feet had to get used to this terrain and do so quickly.
After months of worrying about the mule train and how much they would affect our run we quickly realized they were not that big of a deal… And we realized they are faster than we thought and they never stop to take pictures. After two or three miles the mules passed us as we took a quick bathroom break. We took off after them and began gaining ground with a goal to repass them in a mile or two, however our desire to capture pictures of the world around us surpassed any real desire to pass a bunch of… mules.
Three miles into our run we had dropped 2,040 feet in elevation change and were able to stop for a moment at Skeleton Point and see the sun sneak over the north rim. I had never run a far distance with my brother and this was a perfect opportunity to do so. He was strong and determined and his long legs helped him float down the canyon. All four of us were trying to come up with Trail names for each other as we ran. A lot of crazy names came up, but only one suck… for anyone of us. Gabe became Tonto and the rest of us just kinda stayed Trent, Jason and Harvey. Tonto was a great name for Gabe because he had a Mohawk and there is a Tonto Trail on The Grand Canyon.
Between Skeleton Point and Tip Off we ran what I felt were the most runnable switchbacks of the entire day. The running was fun, relatively fast, and very scenic. We kept stopping to soak in the views and then running back and forth down the canyon’s south rim. We took turns at the lead and just ran with reckless joy. The trails had many steps on them which were at times difficult to time well with one’s stride, but we kept moving.
At the beginning of our run the temperature was just under 30 degrees and after 4.5 miles when we arrived at Tip Off we were ready to shed some of our layers of clothing as the temperature was in the mid 4os. The temperature would continue to rise as we ran further and further into the canyon.
With less than a mile to go before Bright Angel Campground, we could see the suspension bridge crossing the Colorado River and see a few camping tents. When we arrived at Bright Angel/Phantom Ranch Station we had run seven miles and had dropped 4,780 feet. We decided to take South Kaibab down at the beginning instead of Bright Angel because South Kaibab doesn’t have water stops available. South Kaibab trail is also said to have the best view as well, which I tend to agree with 100%.
We arrived at the bottom of the canyon a little over two hours after we began. Phantom Ranch did not open until 8am and we were passing through around 7:20am, which was probably a good thing so we were not tempted to sit and drink lemonade all morning. We did fill up our hydration packs and our water bottles. We made sure to eat a few Cliff Bars and Kind Bars. My hydration pack was filled with water and Tailwind, which is a like a Gatorade-like drink. It is full of electrolytes and other bonk-proofing goodies.
Running on the bottom of the canyon on paper looks flat and easy… It was neither. It was less difficult than climbing or dropping elevation quickly, but for a flatlander like myself there was plenty of climbing even in the canyon. There was also some rain as we move closer to Cottonwood Campground. The temperature at the bottom was near perfect for this time of the year at 68 degrees. We enjoyed the rain and the views of the river as we ran along side it. We were cool and well hydrated.
Cottonwood was a welcomed stopping point 7.2 miles from Bright Angel campground and right before the 6.8 mile climb up North Kaibab Trail to the north rim. We filled up our hydration vest and ate some chomps and split a few Cliff Bars. We should have eaten even more. I should have eaten more.
The climb up North Kaibab Trail was slow, difficult and exhausting. We were gaining 1,000 feet of elevation each mile. We were not running this, or at least most of it. The terrain was too steep and too technical for us to expend energy trying to run it. Had I tried I would have never had energy to do the return trip. I fueled up on GU before starting the uphill power hike, but I should have consumed more food. Two miles before the top of the North Rim I felt light headed and a little dizzy. Harvey asked if anyone felt this way. He is a dentist and had some great bedside manners with us as we struggled up the canyon. He was genuinely concerned for us and kept reminding us to drink and eat. I think he kept us very well hydrated and well fueled. I was just a little off towards the end of the upward North Kaibab Trail. I fixed that at the top. It was also windy and with mile to go it started snowing on us. The snow was a surprise and the wind was frightening.
Arriving at the top of The North Rim was an amazing experience. We were tired, hungry, and sore, but more importantly we were ecstatic to accomplish such a feat of endurance and perseverance. However… We knew we were only halfway done. I ate two energy bars and finished off my half full water bottle. We filled up everything and then Gabe approached me and said something like this….”Hey Trent… I’ve been meaning to ask you.. Do you mind if I head down North Kaibab on my own and meet you all at Phantom Ranch?” The guy just wanted to fly down the canyon and I couldn’t hold him back. Jason and Harvey were also fine with the idea and Gabe was off. We rested a few more minutes and went down the same trail we came up. Following in the footsteps of Tonto.
The return down North Kaibab was a lot faster and a lot more fun than the uphill painfest we encountered going up. Harvey and I talked about the importance of overcoming obstacles in life and how these type of endurance challenges can prepare us for other difficulties we may face as well as how everyone in our mission is doing now… But… More importantly I was just trying to not fall off the cliffs. I was nervous and yet full of adrenaline. I was certainly less scared than when I began in the morning, but I was still cautious and slowed down when I needed to. These trails were cut from the mountains. They were only a few feet wide and I hugged the mountain a few times.
The return from Pumphouse Ranger Station to Bright Angel Campground covered 8.6 miles of runnable rolling hills. There were times when I thought I was running only to look back and see Jason covering the same distance at the same pace walking with his long legs. We were pushing forward…. some miles quicker than others. We sang Army marching songs that Harvey taught us and even tried to sing a few Spanish church song to keep thinking and keep focused. Harvey told us “Happy face, Happy Race”. Well you can see in the next picture my face is not very happy. We were over 40 miles into our trip and my legs were getting heavier by the minute.
Harvey, Jason and I ran into Phantom Ranch wondering where we would see Gabe. Would he be sitting near a tree? Would he be sleeping on a picnic table? Would he be staring at the river or the mountains? We were very off in our thinking. Gabe was feasting. Gabe arrived well over an hour before us at Phantom Ranch, befriended a few people, and was invited to eat dinner with them. Not just any dinner… a sit down Steak and Potatoes dinner with corn, peas, and a salad. Oh and chocolate cake. The girl in the middle of the picture above somehow was able to get us all some steak and potatoes… and so we ate. We spent more time than we probably should have on our return to Phantom Ranch, but we were enjoying ourselves and meeting some wonderful people. Then after 30-40 minutes, we actually stood up. Ouch. My muscles were stiff. We had 9.5 miles to go and 4,380 feet of elevation to gain. So we had to get moving. We decided before we began that we would go down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel on the south rim. We crossed over The Colorado River for the last time and headed up Bright Angel.
The walking dead. That’s how we felt at the time trekking up Bright Angel. The trail to Indian Garden Campground was not too steep over the 4.5 miles we covered. There were a few mines that Gabe and Harvey explored. By the time we arrived at the campground it was dark and we had to get out of headlamps. It was also getting chilly once again so we pulled out our jackets and our hats. The final climb of five miles was strenuous and sent pain throughout my calves and quads. I had strength still, but every step was painful. We had to mentally support each other as well. Often with humor. We talked. We sang. We moved. It was a push and a pull. We pushed upward and we pulled each forward with words of encouragement. It was dark and we were depleted. The end was near. We felt it.
At last we saw the Bright Angel Trailhead after numerous switchbacks and false alarms. We left the canyon the same way we entered hours ago. On foot and with high spirits. They say you don’t conquer the canyon the canyon conquers you… and that was true today with us, but we enjoyed every minute of it. Fifty-four miles later and with over 11k feet of elevation gain we were proud to walk back to our hotels knowing we had just completed the rim to rim to rim… and fall instantly to sleep.