"Do not imagine the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unsual road, for it is very long...one plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping."
-Peter Matthiessen 'Snow Leopard'
-Peter Matthiessen 'Snow Leopard'
We were a few miles into the 1st Annual (even though that doesn’t make sense, we are hoping it become annual) Turkey Trudge when I broached the subject.
You’ve heard of Turkey Trots, a local 5-10K race before everyone pounds food for the rest of the day. Well this year Mitch texted me on Monday night while I was working and said ‘You want to run 26 on Thursday morning?’ I thought about it…last time Mitch & I ran together was at the Wild Duluth in October, wasn’t sure I had a marathon in me in 3 days but thought ‘what the hell, been a while since I’ve seen Mitch might be fun.’ So I agreed and the Turkey Trudge began to take shape.
We would meet at my house in Mpls, and I would be in charge of 13 miles in my city arriving at the Minneapolis-St. Paul border where Mitch would take over with 13 miles eventually ending at his house where his wife & kids would give us a ride back. (In the end it turned into 27 miles with some fun snow & trail running, hopefully we do get it again next year.)
Anyway, early in the Turkey Trudge I floated the idea to Mitch…’Would you be interested in doing the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim run again this spring?’ When I was in the Canyon in the fall, my buddy Matt and I kicked the idea around, he had tried to run it once but didn’t quite make it, but had hiked it numerous times. This year he was thinking maybe he would have enough time to train.
Mitch, Greg & I had run it back in 2014 and while we finished & had a great time, physically it took a toll on us. So as Mitch & I talked about it that early, snowy November morning we talked of lessons learned from the first go round and what we might change this time.
By December the plan began to take shape, Matt was in, Mitch was in, my brother Alex was in, and a buddy from Ohio U, Cano wanted to join from Florida. Emails began to fly as the route was plotted, maps were studied and training kicked into high gear.
That’s how we found ourselves standing in the PHX airport, Alex, Mitch & myself having arrived early Thursday morning (somehow Mitch & were dressed exactly alike) waiting on Cano to arrive with the rental car. Once there we piled in and drove North to meet Matt.
We loaded up on supplies at a local Walmart before hitting the road for a roughly 3 hour ride to the Canyon.
Along the way the conversation rolled from races we’ve run, books we’ve read, and what kind of things we would need for this adventure. The weather was a real wild card, the canyon was getting hit with rain/snow and cold temps, but the forecast changes seemingly by the hour making it hard for us to plan ahead.
After driving through rain, snow & sleet we finally arrived at the Canyon only to find it socked in by a wall of clouds and fog. Like nothing I had ever seen before. You couldn’t see anything, there was a massive gaping hole right in front of us but as we stood at Shoshoni Point all we saw was a dull grey, like standing too close to a wall in an old building.
We waited and slowly the canyon showed itself, a Grand Peep Show if you will. Clouds parted to show glimpses of the red, white and green buttes and mesas that make up one of the most amazing places on earth.
Eventually we got a full look deep into the canyon & all the way across to the North Rim before snow began to fall & we headed back to the car. A quick lunch and peek in to the abyss at Bright Angel lodge and we were back at the hotel beginning to sort out what we would carry the next day.
Over the course of the months leading up to this trip Alex and Matt decided that they would hike for the day instead of run. Both are very strong hikers and wanted to experience the Canyon that way. They would start shortly after we did and take the same route down and out but in between explore some different areas.
So it was Mitch, Cano & I worrying over do we bring a rain coat and a long sleeve or just one, how many Cliff bars, sandwiches can we fit, how much water to start. After a half hour or so our packs were loaded, heavy with food, water and trekking poles. (The trekking poles were a new addition this trip, something we didn’t have in 2014 and they would make a world of difference.)
Grabbed a quick dinner and crashed out with alarms set for 315 in the morning.
We rose, ate and hit the road arriving at the trailhead by 430. A quick goodbye to Matt & Alex and we dropped in to the inky abyss.
Moving slowly over the dark trails, working to get our footing we treaded lightly down South Kaibab trail. Skipping over the logs in the trail, donkey leftovers and puddles from the previous day’s rain/snow we eventually made it to Skeleton point where we got our first glimpse of the inner canyon.
The sun was slowly rising to our right and behind us a trail of head lamps followed, groups of runners who took the first shuttle bus starting their run.
The first 7 miles are quad crushingly downhill, not only that but you’re constantly skipping over rocks, logs and other obstacles that make it even more challenging. Mitch & I had the benefit of nothing having run it before but spending a lot of time running trails in MN, while Cano didn’t have the experience coming from Florida. You could see he was trying to find his rhythm on the trail, thinking about where to place his feet so as not to turn an ankle or go down.
The sun was up when we hit the Tip-Off and got a great view of the green water of the Colorado flowing through the Canyon. We worked out way down the final sections of switchbacks arriving at the river in under 2 hours which was what I had hoped.
Made our way to Phantom Ranch and filled up with water and grabbed a snack knowing it was a tough 7 miles to our next stop Cottonwood.
We left Phantom and headed into the Box, a narrow section following Bright Angel creek, in 2014 this was the section that coming back was the hardest mentally. The walls of the canyon soar seemingly straight up but tease you with views of the south rim. You think you’re almost there but every time you turn a corner there is another wall. On the way out in ’14 we also didn’t realize that you climb nearly 1,500 feet over this section and went out hard before realizing how hard it was.
This time around Mitch and I found our normal rhythm, running and talking like a couple of old hens at a bridge game. We talked of work, music we were listening to, and counted the bridges so we knew how many we’d cross on the way back.
During this stretch Cano dropped back, searching for his own rhythm but struggling with the altitude. Even though were at the bottom of the Canyon we were still around 2,500 feet above sea level and for someone who lives at or below sea level even this was a challenge.
Together the three of us walked for a while as we cleared the Box into the open section of inner canyon. The sun was high now, a few clouds hanging over the South and North rims but clear where we were. Mitch & I surged ahead for a while rolling into Cottonwood in under 2 hours, feeling strong and like we were working but not pushing. We met a group of 4 women who were running it there, they were just ahead of us and we would leap frog each other throughout the day.
As we filled water, and grabbed some food Cano rolled in and said he was done. He felt fine, but was struggling running so he was planning on just hiking for the rest of the day. We went over a plan on where to meet after and made sure he was okay physically before we headed off to our next stop, The Pumphouse.
Cottonwood to Pumphouse is a quick jaunt, we arrived in around a half hour, signed the chalk board and pulled out our trekking poles for the climb to the North Rim.
We leaned into the climb, aided by our poles and set a nice pace up to Roaring Springs and then plowed through the layer cake that makes up this ascent.
Starting with the green layer, combining running and power hiking (walking with a purpose we called it) we moved into the red layer which is some of the most beautiful rock I’ve ever seen. We switch backed up through there, crossing the bridge and headed to Supai Tunnel. Just beyond the tunnel we came across a small older man who was pushing through the climb without the aid of poles, but with a pack and a mountain bike strapped to his back.
We recalled that there was a mountain bike race called the Arizona Trail Ride which started a few weeks ago and followed a trail from the Mexican border all the way to Utah and that part of it went through the Canyon. But you weren’t allowed to bike on the Canyon trails so people had to carry their bikes on their back. This guy said he’s slept for a few hours in the rain/snow last night and had just been humping this huge pack the rest of the time. He was beyond inspiring and humbled us, every time you started to think you were tough, there was always someone stronger. It was amazing to see him just slowly making his way up.
We left him and continued our climb, low clouds hung over the final layer of this cake, the white layer. It felt like we were getting closer but the clouds always felt just beyond our reach. Switchback after switchback, were we getting closer to the top or was it moving away from us?
Finally, we caught the clouds and moved into the ponderosa pine which signified the top of the North Rim.
As we stepped out of the trees at the North Rim we came across another biker who had just finished carrying their bike through the Canyon. After I committed a social faux pau (I was so impressed when I arrived at the rim by the biker I bellowed ‘You sir are amazing’ only to have them turn around and reveal it was a woman, I quickly countered with ‘You mam are amazing’…next time a simple ‘hello would probably do.)
We chatted with her for a bit as we filled our water, turned out she was from Ohio and had gone to Ohio University, same college as me, and was now 15 days into her ride with 60 miles left. It was truly amazing.
This was planned as one of our longer stops, prior to the North Rim our stops had averaged around 8 minutes, 10 tops. We made to the North Rim in under 7 hours which we were very excited about. Fill up, get some food down, check gear/shoes etc. and keep moving. Here though we sat down, ate a sandwich (or choked it down in Mitch’s case) sent a text via Sat Phone to Matt & Alex, updated them on Cano’s deviation and plan and rested in total for about a half hour.
In 2014 on the way back down from the North Rim I flew, tossed myself at the hill like a snowboarder dropping in a halfpipe. It was one of the most amazing things I have done, totally dialed in flying down the switchbacks, but in the process I wrecked my feet and toes and it made the rest of the run a challenge.
This time Mitch & I worked together, I followed him at a much more deliberate pace taking care of not only my feet and toes but also my quads. The sun was coming through the clouds now and we knew we’d have a hot run back through the inner Canyon and the box. Our conversation never lagged, chatting with people on their way up who dogged us for trailing the group of women who were a few hundred yards in front of us.
We rolled back to the Pumphouse, made a quick stop to stow long sleeve shirts and then I took the lead, back to Cottonwood where we would fill up for our final long run section. Packs were heavy with water as we set out from Cottonwood, sun beating down we set a solid, steady pace though the heat.
The plan on the way back was to take what we thought was a short cut to Ribbon Falls, check out the falls (and bypass a big ridge that would require a hearty uphill.) We made it over to the falls, enjoyed the view then began to search for the rest of our short cut. What we didn’t realize was there was no bridge back across the creek.
Rather than backtrack to the bridge we found a cairn pointing to the short cut but had to ford the creek in the process. We took off our socks and shoes and stepped into the icy cold water. It took your breath away but felt great on our battered feet. The rocks at the bottom acting as little massagers as we waded to the other side.
Once there we dried our feet, put on fresh socks and continued on towards the Box.
We hit the Box feeling strong despite the heat. We had plenty of water and mentally knew what was ahead of us. I took the lead and set a fast pace through this section which now helped us by being slightly downhill. Our conversation slowed and eventually stopped as both of us locked in knowing that this section could make our break our run. To this point we had been very smart, not pushing, monitoring calories, hydration, pace but now we knew get through this section and while there was still a formidable climb ahead the worst was over.
Bridge one, done, then bridge two, bridge three shortly after that. We slowed and walked for a bit as the sun sapped our energy, then bridge four and finally bridge five. Another half mile or so and we made it Phantom Ranch. We stopped and rested in the shade, both feeling the effort of that section. Drinking as much water as we could and just relaxing for a few minutes. Still roughly 10 miles to go but in our minds the worst was behind us.
We filled up at Phantom knowing on the way out only Indian Garden (about the midway point) had water. We walked and ate down to the river, crossed the bridge and began the rolling river trail. After a few minutes trying to get our legs to work running in sand we just pulled out the trekking poles and did a combo power hike/run until we turned on to Bright Angel trail.
In 2014 by the time we hit this section on the way out we had to use our headlamps and never really got to see what it looked like.
This time the sun was till high in the cloudless sky and we drank in the views. I had crushed a lot of food and Phantom and was feeling it in my stomach as we leaned into the climb. Between the heat, and my body trying to digest the hundreds of calories I slowed, focused on my breathing and waited for my body to absorb it all.
As we had all day, Mitch took the lead. Knowing I was struggling a little bit he led and kept up a steady stream of conversation until it passed and I was back to normal. All day we switched off, if one needed a few minutes to get through something instinctively the other took over. As we climbed the first rise I was back and we continued our banter throughout the climb.
After a few miles of desert type climbing trees began to appear around a creek that ran down the South Rim, we knew we were getting close to Indian Garden. Eventually it appeared like an oasis, trees, stream, buildings, benches, campground. This was the last water stop over the final 5 miles out. We didn’t want to carry a ton of water weight to the top so had to be smart. Filled up bottles and decided to just keep draining our reservoirs in our packs.
Texted Matt & Alex who had met up with Cano on the South Rim so everyone was together which was great. They were just waiting on us.
Off we went, the trekking poles ticking like a metronome, setting the pace and we followed. Switchback after switchback, amazingly even this late into the adventure we felt good, strong. Our splits from Indian Garden to 3-Mile rest-house to 1.5-Mile rest-house were eerily similar despite the fact that it felt like we were slowing down.
The altitude forced us to work harder on the climb out but our pace stayed the same. As always happens when you are getting close to the end our conversation turned to food. Should we eat first then shower & hot tub, or vice versa. After a few minutes of debate, I finally just gave in and told Mitch all I wanted to do was lay down on my back for like 5 minutes when we got out of here. I said ‘I don’t care what we do after that I just want my 5 minutes’ we laughed remembering how I asked for the same thing back in 2014.
We were getting close, you could feel it, the sun had not quite set and we didn’t need headlamps as we turned into the final switchback. Then I heard someone yelling, I turned back to Mitch and said ‘That sounds like Matt.’ He responded ‘It is’ we looked up and there was Matt & Alex leaning over looking down on us from the top of the rim. Everyone laughed and they headed down to meet us at the final tunnel. We climbed out together, 15 hours and 10 minutes to cover the roughly 48-50 miles of trail, a 4-hour improvement over 2014.
Everyone had a blast, Alex & Matt spend the day exploring and even spotted a couple big horn sheep. Cano had spent the day in the Canyon climbing out a few hours ahead of us, and everyone was on a high.
We grabbed some food headed back to the hotel where I finally got a chance for my 5 minute lay down, making the most of it while smashing jalapeno poppers…
In 2014 the day after our R2R2R adventure the three of us were walking like extras in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Barely able to move, quads, calves, feet shot.
This time around we were moving better, not normal but a huge improvement over last time. We lingered over the breakfast buffet telling more stories from the previous day’s adventure while rain/sleet/snow fell outside.
Cano had to head back to PHX that morning to fly back to FL, the rest of us decided we felt good enough to take a hike and headed down Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa, a 6 mile round trip hike to an old miner’s cabin and more spectacular views as the fog slowly lifted.
We ended the trip with an epic Uno battle in the hotel room, punch drunk with laughter before crashing and heading home the next day.