Attempting to run across the Grand Canyon and back at least for me was quite the humbling experience to say the least. I knew it’d be hard based on the stories of the guys who’ve done it before, but it’s just one of those things you need to experience. There are so many factors even beyond the usual ultra that make this run unpredictable. There are the two relentless climbs and descents of 4,700 and 5,700 feet, the wide range of altitude between 2,400 and 8,200 feet, and the unbearable heat that reached 105 degrees. And of course there’s that whole thing about being from Minnesota that makes all this hard to train for.
|Left to right: Jeff, Tony, Dylan, Joe, John, Brian, Rick, Chad, Roddy, |
Randy, Bateman, Paul, Doug, and TJ.
The Adventure Begins - South Rim to Phantom Ranch
We departed from the South Kaibab Trailhead in two separate groups bright and early that morning – one group at 4:30 and the other at 5:30. I was in the group of 6 that opted for the later start, along with Joe Z, Tony K, Roddy, TJ, and Storkamp. We were also joined by our new friend Dave who we met on the shuttle for the initial 7 mile descent to Phantom Ranch; he was doing the double crossing for the 17th year in a row! After all the talk about which one of us would be setting the pace, turned out we all just tried to keep up with Dave – guess you don’t need to stop to take in the views after 17 double crossings.
|Photo by Mike Bateman: First look at the Colorado River from South Kaibab.|
We pulled into Phantom Ranch at about 1:10 into the run and stayed for probably 10 minutes to take a break and fill up the Nathan vests with water.
Phantom Ranch to North Rim
The 5,700+ foot climb up to the North Rim was sort of broken up into two 7 mile sections – the first a gradual climb to Cottonwood Campground, and the second an increasingly steep trek up to the Rim.
We followed TJ out of Phantom Ranch at a pretty steady pace on the gradual ascent up to Cottonwood. I really liked this section – felt great and the trail was very runnable with much of it along a river.
After filling up with water quick at Cottonwood, we just had a couple miles before another water stop, where we saw our friend Chad who started earlier. Chad let us know that we were close to the rest of the group, and sure enough we caught up them all running together within a mile or two…it was good to see the guys and everyone seeming to look pretty good still.
|Photo by Mike Bateman: Look closely and you can see 5 of us climbing|
up to the North Rim.
|Photo by Mike Bateman: View from the North Rim.|
North Rim back to Phantom Ranch
Within a minute or so of descending from the North Rim, we started seeing all the guys climbing up. It was pretty clear already that it was going to be a long day. Most everyone was pretty close together here, but some were clearly enjoying the climb more than others.
When we passed by our new friend Dave as he climbed, he stopped to tell us that our fellow runner Rick was struggling below with a rapid heart-rate and was pretty worried. After Dave gave us this “heads up” about Rick, he continued to attempt to schedule breakfast for 15 at El Tovar restaurant the next morning for what seemed like several minutes. Joe and I were admittedly moving on while Tony talked breakfast logistics with Dave. Unfortunately, that was the last we heard of Dave. (Dave, if you ever come across this, we are sorry we missed breakfast! The Holiday Inn had all we could imagine for free and 14 guys are hard to move around.)
Soon after that we met up with Rick, who wasn’t looking so good. We debated between getting him to lower elevation and water, or getting him to the North Rim and potential help. Tony – being the nicest guy in the world as always – stayed back to be with Rick, while Joe and I went on ahead. (More on Rick and Tony in a minute…)
|Photo by Mike Bateman: Great view from North Kaibab Trail.|
As we made our way down to Phantom Ranch, the temp was quickly on the rise. I think I was so distracted by the fact that I didn’t want to keep running downhill to notice exactly how hot it was. Once it started leveling out, I realized the heat was taking a bigger toll than I realized. Apparently, the temp at Phantom Ranch was up to 105 degrees that day…
I think we did both the 7 miles to Cottonwood and the 7 miles from there to Phantom Ranch in about 1:10-1:15 each. That put us back into Phantom Ranch in a little over 7 hours.
Extended Stay at Phantom Ranch
As we were sitting in the cantina eating the Snickers and taking a break, we were a bit surprised to have a Ranger come and ask us, “Are you guys with the group of Minnesotans?” Apparently we stuck out like a sore thumb, and it turns out that our group was already becoming quite the talk of the Ranger radio waves that day. We found out Rick was stuck on the North Rim – a mere 5 hour drive from the South Rim – with no way back. At one point, Joe and I were told we’d have to go get him that night, and we were even given the codes to the gates of the closed North Rim. Luckily though, after 20 minutes of back and forth on the radios, the ranger told us she got him a ride to a lodge nearby, so he could stay the night there.
After all that was settled, Joe and I started to stumble out of Phantom Ranch and back on the trail. At this point, we were pretty worried about everyone else, had stopped caring about how long it would take us, and sort of had the wind taken out of our sails. We left at about 7:40 into the run, and figured it could take 3-4 hours of mostly hiking to the finish.
|Photo by Mike Bateman: Coming back across the Colorado River.|
This 9.6 mile section up the Bright Angel Trail was doomed for us from the very beginning. Joe was bonking from about the first step with the heat really getting to him, and within 10 minutes was throwing up on the side of the trail. In the meantime I was feeling just fine and munching on Honey Stinger chews while waiting for Joe. Once we got moving again, it was pretty slow hiking with Indian Gardens being our next stop for water at 4.5 miles from the finish.
We finally got to Indian Gardens and met up again with Chad there, who had very smartly turned around early before reaching the North Rim and had been going solo for almost the whole day (and probably wondering about that buddy system the whole time). It was great to see him looking good and in great spirits. By this time, Joe was starting to feel better and I was starting to fall apart.
|Photo by Chad Austin: View of Bright Angel Trail from Indian Gardens.|
Then when we were three miles out, Joe told me with all good intentions that we just had “600 football fields left to go to the finish.” I responded, “Is that supposed to make me feel good?” It wasn’t until about five minutes later that I realized he was off by a zero and it was really only 60 football fields. Needless to say though, I’ll never take a simple 5K for granted again…never thought it would take me 1:15+ to move the body just three miles.
As hard and slow as it was, we kept the constant forward motion going to the finish at the Bright Angel Trailhead. We finished about 11 hours, 7 minutes after we started.
|Joe and I at the Bright Angel Trailhead shortly after|
As it turned out for the group, all 14 of us luckily made it out alive and well! In summary, Rick was thankfully just fine and actually made his way to our hotel that night before we did. TJ apparently had some memorable moments to say the least at the water stops, but made it through thanks to Joe’s water bottle and Doug’s S Caps. Roddy was so happy after we met up with the early group and found a more sustainable pace that nothing seemed to phase him after that. Dylan and Randy stuck together through an epic last couple miles that lasted 2 hours and involved some laying down on the ground. The guys you don’t hear about were the ones that had the best run – Holovnia the veteran, Denney the Olympian, Doug, and Bateman, all seemed really steady. Tony and John – after spending a couple hours with Rick on the North Rim and getting in some extra miles – were the last ones to come in under headlamps at about 9:30 that night...we were so relieved to see those two headlamps making their way up the trail. As everyone gathered and came back safe, we enjoyed some food and beer at the bar right on the South Rim before heading to the hotel exhausted.
All in all, this run/hike was without a doubt the hardest 44.6 miles I’ve ever experienced. Given the conditions and heat, I think it’s probably more like the equivalent of the effort and time of a 65-70 mile run on an easier course. It’s a must-do for avid ultra runners, but definitely not to be taken lightly. My only advice for first-time double-crossers is to imagine how hard it could be, and expect it to be harder.
Now even with all this being said, I have found further proof that ultra runners have selective memory. Even though I told myself I’d never do this again many times during the run, almost as soon as it was over I knew that I’ll be back again for more someday. It might be a little while though…