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Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, or R3. 48ish miles. 11,000' of elevation gain. 5K' down the South Rim, 6K' up and down the North, then 5K' up the South again to finish. Only three trails comprise the entire route, and could optionally be only two except we chose the longer but more gradual Bright Angel trail, which adds two extra miles. This was an adventure with my friend Dana, and not a race.
I wasn't sure how to approach this run, as I had never had any other course have so much elevation gain or loss all at one time. I certainly didn't train like it was a 100 miler. Maybe more like a 50 miler. I had also not used hiking poles anywhere near this long. I didn't use them at all for Rim to River 100. This would also be my longest time carrying a full pack of water and fuel with the possibility of needing to filter water.
Dana and I started at 3am with a goal of 17ish hours moving time. Neither of us approached this run like a race, but we did have a goal to keep moving, and maybe most importantly no complaining. 😁 Our route was South Kaibab to North Kaibab to Bright Angel, or SK NK BA in Grand Canyon runner lingo.
I quickly learned from the drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff just how quickly the temperature changes in Arizona. Our run was no exception. We faced the potential of 50 degree swings in temperature. The temperature was in the 30's at the start and incredibly windy at the South rim. I was so cold I could barely put my phone in airplane mode I was shaking so badly.
I started with poles to try and save my quads as I knew descending 5K' would be relentless. I also had a heads-up about the
"steps" in the trail, but it didn't really sink in until I was there. Logs were placed across the path to help prevent erosion, and each step down/up could be a few inches or knee high. Dana didn't use poles the entire descent of SK, which was seriously impressive, especially since she's shorter than I am. My quads were fatiguing even using poles to soften the step downs.
The first mile down the 6+ mile SK trail was relentless winds and a brief sideways pelting wind, causing us to pause behind rocks to wait for the winds to calm. Some parts of the switchbacks were completely exposed with sheer cliffs below.
After a couple of miles the winds subsided and the temperature started to rise as we dropped in elevation. After stopping to peel jackets we turned off our lights to appreciate an unprecedented darkness except for a very bright moon.
Even with the brightness of the moon we could see the milky way, and it was stunning. After letting our eyes adjust we could begin to see the magnificence and vastness of the canyon. This was my very first experience of the canyon; from the inside. I hadn't seen it at all before this. I didn't visit the day before, and even after I still haven't seen the South Rim overlook in the daytime! Luckily my wife took plenty of pictures.
The first six miles I barely touched the 2L and 20oz of fluids I was carrying. If I do this again I'll just drink the 20oz and fill the bladder at Phantom Ranch, which is 7 miles in. Dana, on the other hand, was really staying on top of her hydration and moving quickly through it. We didn't stop at Phantom Ranch for water. After beating a line of mules out of Phantom Ranch, we started winding our way through the bottom of the canyon. You absolutely do not want to get stuck behind the mules. They have the right of way, and leave a horrendous mess behind the them.
I wasn't sure what to expect inside the canyon. In my mind I had pictured more wide-open space, but really the trail almost always ran along a winding river path cut into the hillside. Heights were not a concern, but some areas after Phantom Ranch had some signs of frequent rocks falling from above which was sketchy.
With a few miles before the next water refill site, Dana announced she was out of water. I was actually a bit in disbelief because I had still barely touched my 2L bladder and she had emptied hers. I assumed a malfunction, but nope, she was out. We paused so she could filter water from the steam, but as we walked off trail I somehow managed to kick a prickly pear cactus and ran a cactus needle under my left middle toenail. Yes, ouch is right. I bet you winced a little reading that. I immediately pulled off my shoe and sock to see if it was still there. Yep. I carefully pulled out a 3/4" needle, followed by a little 1/4" piece it tried to leave behind. I'm not a cactus expert, so far a while the only thing on my mind was hoping it didn't have any kind of irritant on it. Thankfully it didn't, and my toe was absolutely fine after a few minutes. I wore Topo Pursuit shoes, which have amazing toe protection. I had to lift my toes in just the right was for the needle to come through the TOP of the shoe and under my toenail. I still don't understand how I managed it.
I knew a lot of people hiked the canyon, but I didn't realize just how many and the number of campsites available. For the most part it was easy to pick out the day hikers, campers, and Rim to Rim people. Time of day crossing paths with people combined with how far someone was towards the North or South Rim made it obvious who was running the full R3. Other runners/hikers knew we were there for R3 and encouraged us. They called us awesome and amazing. The energy was palpable. It felt like a race with people psyching each other up on and out-and-back section of a course. You could tell R3 was a big deal and everyone was genuinely excited to see people complete it.
R3 isn't recommended by the park. If you ask the rangers they will tell you not to do it. Rim to Rim is difficult enough. People have died just doing Rim to River (Rim to the Colorado and back - 14ish miles). You won't find stickers or anything at the shops for R3. They just don't want to encourage people to do it. I'd say Rim to Rim is very manageable for a marathon runner. Dana and I agreed R3 takes the grit of someone who has a 100 miler under their belt.
Did I mention I don't use poles much? This also means I didn't have a great frame of reference to where I was placing my pole tip in front of me. A least 10 times I stabbed Dana in the heel. Luckily I had the rubber tips! 😂
The North Rim section had my favorite views; sheer cliffs drop-offs, high mountains with waterfalls coming out the side, just magnificent and breathtaking. The climb up North Kaibab was going smoothly until we met a group of people sitting on the trail. A ranger stopped us and said there was a helicopter extraction happening. We assumed a rescue (and so did Dana's husband Sean). It turns out they were air lifting out rocks that were blocking the path. Basically trail maintenance. Maybe 30 minutes and we were heading back up the rim. The mules had been through recently and the odor was rough, especially for this guy who needs to breathe through his mouth to move enough air. There were puddles of mule urine that smelled like someone just shoved my head into a bucket of ammonia. I was very careful not to step in the green puddles. I did not want to smell like that all day. 🤢
Dana's husband Sean made the hugely long drive to meet us halfway and gave us aid at the North Rim. A sandwich, Coke, and replenished my supplies and I was ready to tackle the return trip. Huge thanks to Sean!
On the way to NK we decided to hit ribbon falls on the way back. On the return trip we saw the bridge was out but knew there was a way around. At this point in our journey we were getting short on sunlight, and decided to skip the falls and make the most of the daylight we had left. Halfway up the South Rim we decided skipping the falls was definitely an excellent decision.
Our second half got progressively quieter as the conversations were replaced with fatigue and simply focusing on keeping the legs moving. We were making good time even though it didn't feel like it. I couldn't trust the average pace on my watch because the GPS went crazy a few times and gave me some extra miles. After it gave me a 6:30 mile I knew it wasn't to be trusted. 😅
Arriving at Phantom Ranch for the second time really made it feel like we were almost finished. Home stretch. Just one little climb. A smaller climb than we just did a few hours before. Nope. That would be one of many dashed hopes of being close to the finish. We saw a rattler and bull snake on the same stretch before Phantom Ranch.
Bright Angel Trail was a never-ending beast. Our minds and bodies were tired. We both kept calculating the finish to be sooner than it was. Endless switchbacks continued to greet us. The canyon rim never seemed to get closer. We questioned why we do this. We talked about what hurt the most and how sore we would be tomorrow, and how laughable it was that I had a horse riding tour two days from now. I had not slept much the past couple of days and I was feeling it. If I blinked too long my body wanted to immediately fall asleep. I didn't even feel like that during Rim to River 100. We agreed that R3 was not like a typical 50 miler. Maybe more like a 100K. To finish something like this you have to both trust your body can keep going, but also completely ignore all signs it gives you to stop. Those log steps were absolutely endless. I was really relying on my hiking poles. I was convinced my arms would be absolutely trashed tomorrow.
Aside from the wild start, we were blessed with absolutely perfect weather. Both directions we were primarily in the shade. We never experienced super hot temps in the canyon. The hike up the South Rim via Bright Angel never got super cold, and I didn't have to put my jacket back on.
The thing about thinking you're nearly done is you start eating and drinking less. You worry less about stuff chafing or hurting. You focus on finishing. Well, I wasn't eating and for the first time ever I got nauseous during a run. A very brief sit down and a snack and I was good to continue.
Dana got to experience my race hiccups. After a certain amount of fatigue my diaphragm predictably will object to being used and I get hiccups. These were mild, thankfully. They were much worse during Rim to River where I was pushing myself harder.
Back to the neverending Bright Angel Trail. We'd come upon signs stating the mileage to the trail head at the top, but couldn't make ourselves believe it was that far away. Our miles were slow. Close to 30 min miles as we continued marching up switchbacks. Finally we could see and hear Sean at the top. I was very grateful he didn't hike down a ways to meet us and result in more false-hopes of being finished. Emerging at the trail head was the best feeling. I've never been so tired after a run, and even though I was on my feet for another five hours at Rim to River, I was happier to be finished with this run. It was an absolutely amazing experience, but we were ready to be done. 😁
A couple big hugs, some blurry pics, and Dana and I parted ways until the next adventure. Next time we'll plan a day after so we have time to recount the experience. Dana, thank you so much for letting me tag along on your adventure! :)
We had zero falls, cramps, dehydration issues, no issues really, and only got turned around a couple times, but Dana had AllTrails up to get us back on track.
The aftermath: I honestly expected to be wrecked. I wasn't. I was tired, but that was expected. I had a couple little heel blisters. No toe blisters. I expected my quads to be incredibly sore, but that wasn't the case at all. My feet were sore, as well as my calves and Achilles. (The Topo Pursuit are zero drop). For recovery I wore compression socks and knee sleeves the second night. I also foam rolled the second day after. That's all. The horseback riding went fine, I haven't sworn off ultras as I might have said halfway up Bright Angel Trail, and I'm ready for another ultra adventure. 😊