by Peter Holleran
"Make no little plans. They have no power to stir men's blood."       David Hudson Burnham
Ernest Hemingway is alleged to have said, "there are only three sports: motor racing, mountain climbing, and bull fighting. All the rest are merely games." I don't know about that. I find distance running in awesome and amazing locations as challenging a "sport" as anything else. With that in mind, in October of 2004 I set out to do what I had promised myself the year before: to run Rim to Rim to Rim across the Grand Canyon and back in one day - preferably finishing in daylight. I fail to see how this would not be considered more of a worthy sporting event - for a 55 year-old man - than shooting big game, motor cycle racing - or sitting in a sidewalk cafe writing the world's next big novel!
As I have extensively written up this route across the Canyon once already, this article will just relate a few highlights of the latest trip.
Having accomplished the 62-mile Miwok 100k in early May, I knew I was ready to handle going Rim to Rim to Rim. My goal for a safe but steady pace was 12 hours, plus breaks. I knew with the cooler weather in October it would be an easier passage than my trip last September. One factor to take into account, however, would be shorter daylight hours. Therefore I carried a headlamp just in case I was caught in the dark on my return. The temperatures this time were nearly perfect - a low of 32 degrees on the South Rim to an afternoon high of 80 down at the river. I left before dawn at 5:53 A.M., using the light for the first 15 minutes. One hundred yards from the start I twisted my right ankle, not an good sign, but it gave me no problems for the next 45 miles. (Last year I twisted it five times just going from North to South). A little farther down the South Kaibab trail I encountered an early mule train which I had to walk behind for a while. The driver said he would let me pass when the trail opened up. The "wide" spot where he chose to stop was about two feet wider than the rest of the already narrow path. I had to pass by stepping upon a row of stones bordering the trail. There was perhaps one foot between me and the mules and another six inches between me and the abyss! It is an understatement to say it was a little unnerving. After that, however, it was free sailing all the way to the river, which I reached in 1:23. I mentally had to make adjustments from my last year's pace to what I felt could be sustained going both directions this year. Also plugged into my computer were the cooler weather and better physical conditioning. I ended up finishing a half-hour faster each way than my single crossings of last year, even with close to 10 miles of walking and a modest 10-13 minutes per mile pace on the downhills in order to avoid the major inconvenience of an accident. This is not like in the usual race where you can bail out at any time. In the Canyon you are on your own and there is no easy rescue when injured. Once you commit yourself you basically have to finish!
My main pre-run consideration was whether or not to take a Camelback or go with my travel-light fanny belt and hand-held water bottle strategy. The ranger office said that the water sources from Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim (7 miles) were shut off, which would have meant a 14 mile stretch where I would have to carry a sufficient supply. After much deliberation I went with the water bottles, figuring the much cooler temperatures would make hydration less of an issue. I used the fanny's water bottle pocket to stuff a large Safeway sandwich, strategically pre-cut and stored in two plastic bags, carrying two bottles in hand and looping an empty over the fanny's belt. My Race-Ready shorts were filled with Gu and Cliff Bars, and two Carnation Instant Breakfasts were emptied into one of the bottles for extra caloric intake, which I planned for the halfway mark on the first crossing. These were a mistake and almost made me sick; next time I will take something of better quality. Coming back I planned on stopping at Phantom Ranch to refuel. The narrow fanny belt pockets were used for baggies of Endurox and Cytomax electrolyte powder that I mixed with water along the way. I also made sure to carry a small pill-container with Succeed electrolyte tabs (in case of heat), aspirin and ibuprofin (in case of pain). I took just one ibuprofin before starting and one more during the run.
As luck would have it, the water at the caretaker cabin, Supai Tunnel and, more importantly, at the North Rim trailhead, were NOT turned off, and even though I didn't know this until I got there, it made logistics easier. I filled all the bottles on the way up, but was able to rehydrate liberally before starting back down, and only needed to carry one filled bottle thus requiring less effort.
I had reached the North Rim comfortably in 5:40, plus 20 minutes of stops. Once there I was surprised how cold it was, even at noon (low 40's). The elevation there is 8200', and this was the last day before the North Rim shut down for the season. I spent 20 minutes refueling and using the facilities. Then I started to work on the sandwich. It was slow going, and I realized I should have ordered it with bread and not a French roll, which took too much effort to chew!
Not wanting to spend alot of time on the Rim eating, since I wanted to get back before dark, at 12:17 I started back down the Kaibab trail. I tried eating on the run but that just didn't work, so I ate and walked for the better part of a mile before resuming my jog. After the Supai Tunnel I passed some people hiking whom I had earlier passed on the way up, and an older man, said, "look, there's the guy who was running from the South Rim! - are you going BACK?!" I answered, "yes," and he replied "Good Lord, you're looking at a 45 mile day! God bless you, son!" Moments like that are great, and I felt just like a kid. I also realized then that I would never get old, because old age, as Bernard Baruch once said, would always refer to someone at least 15 years older than I am!
I started to fade a bit in the sun on the exposed section between Cottonwood Camp and the "Box", but successfully made it to Phantom Ranch at 3:40. This was a half-hour behind schedule, so after another necessary 20-minute break I knew I would be climbing out of the Canyon in darkness. So be it. I figured it would be a good test of my new headlamp - precipitous drop-offs be damned! The Phantom Ranch snack bar was packed with 20-30 hikers who were finished with their labors for the day, and they eyed me curiously as I filled two large iced teas with 6-8 teaspoons of sugar each, opened a suspicious looking container of capsules and emptied some of them into my drinks, and started scarfing down the rest of my sandwich. A young couple asked, " where are you going?" When I answered, "The South Rim," they replied, "Today?!" - where have you come from?". A-ha! This was the kind of opening I wait for to garner an ego boost. There's nothing wrong with that. Throw the ego a few crumbs from time to time. "Yes, I went from the South Rim to the North Rim, and now I have to get back - er, you see, my car is up there!" Embellishing the drama for the captured audience, I said, "35 miles, this is starting to get serious, ten more to go." This ten miles included the massive climb to the South Rim, a day's effort for most people. The couple remarked that until they heard what I was doing they had felt pretty good about their achievement of just hiking down there.
After replenishing the water bottles with electrolyte mix I pulled out of the Ranch at 4 P.M. It had cooled down nicely, and I was able to run the entire stretch along the river to the Bright Angel trail, and jog/shuffle most of the way up to Indian Gardens, which due to the heat I was unable to do last year. Darkness was fading fast - sunset was at 5:55, and in effect even earlier due to the high canyon walls - and when I reached the 3.0 Mile Rest House I debated using the headlamp. I held off as far as I could, but at the 1.5 Mile rest House I finally put it on when it became pitch black. This was none too soon because I almost made a wrong turn in the near-darkness onto a dead-end spur along the canyon wall, which could have been a disaster. Even though I thought I knew the trail, this tricky juncture took me by surprise. According to his pupil Anaximenes, Thales the Greek philosopher died by falling from a steep hill while enthralled and gazing at the stars in his old age, so I would have been in good company had the same fate happened to me..
I felt energetic in the cool evening air, but slowed considerably because of the difficult footing. Even with the lamp I could not see well enough to run. Nearing the trailhead I caught up with some people who I had passed shortly after Phantom Ranch early in the day when going the OTHER WAY, which was satisfying. Being from the Bay Area they also recognized my Dipsea t-shirt. Finally, I reached the paved path near the top and emerged from the darkness in a vigorous jog, but unfortunately failed to impress anyone as the Rim was nearly deserted!
Elapsed time for North to South was 6:25, plus 0:35 of stops. After hauling my dirty ragged self to the head of the Bright Angel restaurant line and making a reservation for dinner, I went back to my room to clean up.
Running across the Canyon is great whether you do it in one day or two, but I have to say, after doing both, that for me Rim to Rim to Rim was definitely more satisfying. I did not have to suffer sore heavy legs when running on the second day, and I felt like I got more of my fill of the Canyon.
The next morning I had a leisurely breakfast, did some sightseeing, and continued to savor the previous day's experience. From Mather Point I could see a mule train working its way past O'Neill Butte on the Kaibab trail. I was jealous that they were down there instead of me.
This year I flew into Phoenix (much cheaper than Flagstaff) and drove 220 miles to the South Rim. On the way back to the airport I took a side trip through Sedona to see if it was all that it was cracked up to be. It was nice, much greener than its surroundings, with interesting red rocks and Spanish architecture, but still, it couldn't hold a candle to the Canyon. And the New Age hype advertising "vortex tours", "psychic information", and a "metaphysical department store" was a bit much - even for me. I suppose that one should not be too harsh, however, if such gimmicks lead a few on towards greater spiritual matters - the evidence for which is everywhere present to their senses in majestic places such as these.