The Rim to Rim to Rim is a classic Grand Canyon route, usually done as a 4-6 day backpacking trip, but also loved by runners who are able to get it done in a single day (with great effort!). There are several route options. South Rim to North Rim is the typical direction of travel. The journey is anywhere from 42-47 miles depending on which trail heads are used on the South Rim and any way you slice it there’s about 22,000 feet of cumulative elevation change. The views near the rim villages are nice, but leaving the day hikers behind offers a quieter and more immerssive experience. My motivations for completing this run were varied, however one was above all others… to meet the beast that inspired me to become a runner.
Destination: Grand Canyon National Park
Trail Head: Bright Angel
Distance: ~47 miles round trip, ~11,000 ft gained and lost (468 ft delta/mi avg) via Bright Angel – North Kaibab – Bright Angel
Remoteness: TH’s can be crowded, but early start will solve that. Expect a few people and day hikers on the inner canyon trails and camps
Motivation: It’s the Grand Canyon… If the views don’t knock your socks off… then keep running!
Notes for Runners: You need to KNOW you can do this. Having nutrition and hydration dialed in is key. Plan on starting and finishing in the dark. Mules will be on the trail after 0500. Talk to Rangers about water sources and be prepared to filter water. Don’t underestimate the inner canyon heat. This post is NOT a primer! You should read a primer or three before embarking. Joining a FB group such as this one for water/trail reports and other info is also a good idea.
Notes for Campers: Backcountry Permits go very fast. Be ready to get them as soon as they’re made available.
The Report From our Trip :: April 4, 2015
This trip has been in the making since 2012. That’s when a group of people that I sorta knew (in an interwebs type of way) had been training for, and completed their Rim to Rim to Rim (“RRR”). I was following along and getting stoked by their training reports and eventually their trip reports. I didn’t know this was even a thing; so I started running with the idea that someday, in the not-so-far-off future, I was going to do this. Before 2012, I did NOT run. I’d rather do just about anything else (though I did backpack regularly). In the years following that RRR I’d run a lot and learned a lot about myself. I ran with some of those same guys in fact; I’m happy to call them friends now. In December 2014 I got an email from Art that basically said “hey we’re running another RRR in spring, get in shape if you want to go”. No way I was missing the chance to do this with these guys. It was an easy call… all of my experiences as a runner were about to come full circle.
Sandra D and the kids joined me on this one. We rented a Jucy Van and cruised that bad boy into the Sedona Area (Oak Creek Canyon) for a night, then up thru Flagstaff and finally to the Grand Canyon. Art and John would be meeting us there. They were bringing some friends with them… Jen who I was told is a solid ultra runner, and Aubrey who was newish to the ultra thing, but capable. John and Art have each completed the RRR 3 times prior. Jen had completed it once. Aubrey and I would be getting initiated. Also a fellow runner Jim was heading up to come with us to the Colorado River where he’d turn around for roughly a 20 mile outing. To be honest, I wondered if I might turn back with him…
I had been sick for almost 2 weeks prior, despite making an effort to avoid germs. I’m otherwise usually always healthy, the irony was real. Then, the temperatures in the Canyon spiked up. I felt I trained pretty well for this run, I was still feeling a little shaky though, and the heat was a concern. In Marin I run in 60 degree weather – I didn’t want to become a liability down in the Canyon. When we all met up at Mather Campground we talked it over; I was still unsure then I took a look at the route from the top of Bright Angel. Well, I had to be in for the full RRR at that point.
4:00 AM came early, it always does! This time I had a good night’s sleep though thanks to the comforts of the Jucy van! We stood above the South Rim at 0500. It was 26ºF and pitch black. Headlamps on, ready? Go. This all seemed familiar. We wound down into the dark maze of switchbacks tracing the canyon walls. Butterflies…
Our footsteps sounded out, but otherwise all was quiet. I’m sure everyone was doing the same as me – settling into a pace, starting to mentally prepare and visualize how the day would go… Our pace was very conservative. That was fine with me. I had pre-determined my personal goal of a 14 hour finish. I figured if I went easy on the way out, I could still make that time on the way back. I conceived this back before I got sick, but I still felt I had it in me. Art suggested that it might be an aggressive goal for a first RRR. I always take his advice into consideration, thus a conservative approach seemed wise. I expected a tough course, maybe it would be tougher than I imagined. I drifted out of deep thought, back to the present as the first light of day revealed the canyon to us. Adrenaline rush. Fuck yes.
I slowed to take stock of everyone’s mood. Art and Jim were cruising along easily. Jen looked totally relaxed. Aubrey and John were all smiles. We reached the Colorado River in good shape and headed to Phantom Ranch to fill up water. The sun was filtering through the river gorge. Jim was already talking about coming back for a RRR of his own. At that point we said our goodbyes; he turned around and the rest of us headed on towards the North Rim. My hydration and fueling was right on target and I was feeling great.
The water at the pumphouse was shut off, so we filtered from the creek then started up the North Kaibab trail. The scenery on the way up was crazy… steep drop offs and towering rock walls. I got my trekking poles out. I didn’t need them but wanted a little extra push and also wanted to conserve energy for the return trip. I ran the flats and power hiked the uphill; I was moving well. After a while I looked back and Jen was right with me. Art wasn’t kidding… this girl was serious. She pulled ahead and I just tried to match her pace. We were both feeling the altitude change (sea level being our norm) but we still made good time up to the North Rim, making the climb in under 2 hours. On top it was cold but the water was on and tasted great! I wanted to keep moving as too many stops messed with me on the Zion run, but Jen and I talked it over and agreed to wait for the others. About an hour passed, then John and Aubrey pulled up. They were looking solid but ready for a short break before heading back down. Art was having an off day and turned back somewhere up the North Kaibab trail. They told us “get out of here, take off and finish strong!”… motivating words.
Jen and I ran down at a good pace, and even harder across the more mellow inner canyon. We were clocking some fast miles, but it was hot by then (mid 80’s). I pushed a little too hard and paid for it. A couple miles before returning to Phantom I felt my stomach turn. I knew it was going to be trouble later on; this was reason to immediately slow down. By the time we got back to Phantom I wasn’t feeling well. After a 20 minute break I pulled my self together and slowly started running again. This is where it helps to have done some harder long distance runs; the familiarity with discomfort, pain, fatigue… it’s all conditioning. Knowing the difference between being uncomfortable and injured (or ill) is key. I was gonna be alright but needed to be mindful of my effort. Mantra: let’s get this done.
The lower portion of Bright Angel has some very runnable sections. I felt decent. Hunger returned (always a good sign) and I snacked, drank, ran and felt better. Once we hit the steeper section of the trail I could feel the deficit I got myself into earlier. I let Jen know that I was falling off pace; she was kicking ass. I practically stepped on a small rattlesnake but was too zoned out to even notice. I caught up to Jen at Indian Gardens where we took a quick break to prepare for the final 4.5 miles of the steepest climbing.
At the 3 mile rest stop I hit the wall. It was dark again and my shoes heavy, full of lead. Jen was ahead of me by a few minutes now. I could see her headlamp somewhere up above; all else was black up there. She yelled down to me when she hit the 1.5 mile stop. I yelled back “go kill it” and she took off. The last couple of miles I was pushing as hard as I could. The breeze kicked up and the temps dipped down to near-freezing but I was feeling overheated. Stumbling and pushing up the switchbacks I continued with whatever I had left, pausing a few times to puke a little, the last of which was literally 20 feet before I could see the Kolb studio. “Holy hell” I said when I saw it, then I rounded the final switchback. I didn’t wuite make it in 14 hours, but that was fine. It had been another tough and amazing day on the trail. From somewhere up above I heard Jen…. “JACOB!”. I yelled something back and then… a bunch of cheering. What the?? Did we have a cheering squad up there with her? Yes! It was Sandra D and the kids with great timing! They arrived a few minutes before Jen finished. It was awesome to have a running compadre waiting at the end, but having my family there was priceless. It was the culmination of the experience. Several years worth of running had come full circle. An unbelievable feeling.
After hanging out at the Maswick Lodge for a while I was bushed. Sandra and the kids and me jumped on one of the last shuttles to camp and called it a night. Jen waited at the lodge. Art, John, and Aubrey finished about an hour later. The following day we cruised back over to the rim for a quick retrospective. After that it’s never “goodbye”, just “see you again soon…”. Having accomplished a long term goal, the future is open to the next set of experiences. What those will be, I don’t know yet, but I will be running full speed to find them.
What Worked and What Didn’t
I was able to get decently prepared for this run. I ran a lot of hills, and ran them pretty hard. I’d throw in (fast for me…) 8 minute, 7, even 6 minute miles where I could. I didn’t follow any kind of organized training schedule, just ran a lot and did some 30+ miles runs and races. This allowed me to slow down and go at an easier pace, which is really mandatory (especially for a first trip) to take in the scenery. I did bring a little too much clothing however. The temp swing (about 60 degrees) made it hard to determine what would be a good balance. Once we started running I was shedding layers pretty fast. My tights finally came off at Cottonwood. I never put them back on. I never put my windshirt back on. I did go back to my long sleeve, vest, gloves, and knit hat as I approached the final couple of miles. A modest amount of warm clothing should be considered mandatory for a Spring/Fall run. The only gear I had that didn’t really work out was my GPS. The canyon walls and overhanging rock leads to bad accuracy.
My Gear and Clothing Used
Running Pack/Vest – Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin (version 2)
Hydration – 2L bladder, 20oz (2x) bottles up front
Shoes – Salomon Sense Mantra II
Socks – Injinji lightweight runners
Gaiters – Dirty Girl
Tights – 2XU Thermal Tights (worn less than half of the run)
Shorts – Under Armor light running shorts
Shirt – Random tech tee from a race
LS Shirt – Synthetic Brooks quarter zip
Vest – Patagonia Nano Puff
Hat – Brooks AC
Warm Hat – Random knitted beanie
Gloves- Smartwool liner gloves
Windshirt – Patagonia Houdini
Rain Shell – Didn’t bring one
Other – Sawyer Mini water filter, Black Diamond Z Poles, Bosavi Headlamp, Benchmade 707 pocket knife, Sony RX100 camera, Goal Zero Scout 10, Lightweight first aid kit, mylar blanket
Hydration & Nutrition
20oz water / 2 hours.
300 calories of maltodextrin/Perpetuem (in 20oz water) / 2 hours
2L bladder was never used.
Trader Joes Biscotti ~ 190 cals
Pretzel Chips ~ 120 cals
Sunflower Seeds ~ 300 cals
Sport Beans – 6 packs (3 eaten) ~ 300 cals
Dried Mango & Oranges ~ 150 cals
Fig Bars – 2 bars ~ 220 cals
Honey Stingers – 2 waffles ~ 320 cals
Banana Chips – 1 ounce (not eaten… too dry)
Breakfast (pre-run) – about 500 calories of granola/nonfat milk/dried fruit
I carried about 5500 calories worth of food/fuel. I didn’t use all of my maltodextrin and substituted with some Perpetuem borrowed from a friend while en-route. In the end my total caloric intake (excluding dinner) was about 3800-4000 calories. It was not quite enough for me, I bonked around mile 45. If I had taken it easier during the hot part of the day, I probably would have stayed on track and consumed closer to 5000 and probably would have felt better at the finish. My pack was weighing in close to 9 lbs between the food, gear, and water – a bit more than I usually run with!
The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim is an AMAZING way to see the canyon. The trek isn’t for everyone, but it’s an experience that’s hard to beat. Run it if you can, or backpack if you can score permits! Although I felt the Zion Traverse was a little more challenging, the RRR is unique in that it presents the route from the South Rim vantage point in a way that no other run can. The mind-blowing realization of what you’ll be embarking on sets in and the excitement builds. The views from both above the Canyon and from within are outstanding, beckoning to all who take them in to come further and see more. This type of outing is what ultrarunning is all about; it’s a soulful experience. I have no doubt I will return for another RRR… -JD