Inspired by the efforts of some of the most dynamic professional ultra runners across the country, rabbitELITEtrail athlete Wes Judd gave his first Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim effort a go in the midst of moving from Santa Barbara to Chicago. Not in search of an FKT however, but rather an awe-inspiring experience in one of the world's most stunning places a runner can visit.
Standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at 5:30am, in a predawn vacuum of light, the only way to know that a 5,000-foot deep chasm lies in front of you is the wind—warm air viciously rising up and out of the emptiness before you. It’s the type of knock-you-off-your-feet wind that you’d expect above tree line while approaching a summit. It was the only stimuli I had while blind at the precipice of the Canyon early one Thursday morning late last month, and perhaps that was for the best. This was my first ever time here and retaining a bit of ignorance was strategic. I had heard friends describe the slack-jawed awe that overtook them while looking across the enormity that is the Grand Canyon. It was good that I was spared that experience. I was about to run rim-to-rim-to-rim, and simply focusing on that task was enough.
Running R2R2R was a plan that came together quickly. I had spent the better part of the fall training for the North Face Endurance Challenge marathon in Marin. After a spring and summer of ultras,including my first hundred, I was excited by the prospect of redeveloping quick, powerful legs and testing them on the punchy hills of the North Bay. However, after the drifting wildfire smoke from the nearby Camp Fire rendered San Francisco’s air qualitythe worst in the world, the race was rightly canceled. I was left with fitness and a void on the race calendar. Running R2R2R had always been on my bucket list, and as fate would have it, I was already planning on driving through Flagstaff in late November during a cross-country move. Sure, I spent the fall honing quickness and explosiveness and not the type of monster durability you need in the Canyon. (For the unfamiliar, a R2R2R run consists of around 42 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing and descending each.) But I felt fit, and experience and enthusiasm was enough to carry me through rest, I thought.
My timing was such that only a week before my planned run the North Rim was closed to road traffic and many of the water sources in the Canyon were shut off for the winter. This was a double edge sword: I’d have the chance to attempt a R2R2R early in the off season, when the temperatures were cool and crowds thin. But should anything go wrong, I’d have no fail-safe. I endeavored to mitigate that risk through preparation. I read everything I could and spoke with a number of other runners with intimate knowledge of the Canyon. The only confirmed functioning water source at that time of year was at Phantom Ranch, at mile 7 and 35 of the out-and-back run, which meant that I’d need to carry plenty of my own. I employed my Ultimate Direction AK Mountain Vest, which I loaded with gels, Picky Bars, stroopwafels, drink mix, layers, first aid, maps, and 3.5 liters of water. (For those keeping score, the water alone weighted nearly eight pounds; with everything else squeezed into my pack, it felt as if I was running with a weighted vest. But hey, safety first.) Only a few weeks before I was set to go, Ida Nilsson, Sandi Nypaver, and Taylor Nowlin, who had all planned on running the North Face as well, albeit the proper 50 mile distance, made monstrous R2R2R FKT attempts, with two of them dropping the mark. Not that I had any intention of setting a record nor running that quickly, but that acted as the last bit of stoke that I needed to fuel the fire.
My headlamp cut through the darkness like a dull yellow razor as I began descending from the Rim down South Kaibab trail. I had been warned that the initial switchbacks were quite exposed, occasionally turning the corner to reveal a thousand foot drop. Given my total inexperience in the Canyon and the fact that that my sight was limited to the ten feet in front of me, I chose to run at a very conservative pace. Occasionally, I would glace off trail, looking down into the black void in a futile effort to better see the Canyon. It swallowed the light from my headlamp like a black hole. The only means by which I could track to my progress was a slow rise in temperature as I dropped lower into the Canyon, and the early, gentle whispers from my quads, which were not accustomed to beginning a run by descending almost 5,000 feet.
It wasn’t until I reached No Hands Bridge at the bottom of South Kaibab that I saw the early glow from the rising sun on the horizon. It was also at this point that I first ran into hikers. I said hi. They asked where I was headed. To the other side and back, I responded. They reacted with surprise. I laughed it off and continued running. However, not long after, as the sky began to turn shades of blue and pink and the darkness was slowly erased, I was finally able to see the Canyon. I looked behind me, back up South Kaibab. Let me tell you: if standing on the edge of the canyon fills you with reverence, seeing it for the first time from the bottom, gazing up at climb that you will face later in the day, is a lesson of awesome acceptance. In a moment, the true scope of the task ahead was put into stark context. I took a deep breath and continued onward.
About a mile past No Hands Bridge is Phantom Ranch, the largest camp in the Grand Canyon, with a dozen or so cabins and year-round water. I had on me what I thought would be enough water for the entire run, but I still took the opportunity to top of both handheld bottles, from which I had been sipping on my descent. I said good morning to a few of hikers staying overnight, took advantage of the toilets, snapped a few photos, and continued moving. The next section is what Rob Krar, in hisR2R2R FKT report for iRunFar, called the Box: three-to-four miles of relatively flat running through a high-walled gorge following the Bright Angel Creek. This section provides a chance to shake off the preceding 4,700 foot descent, mentally prepare for the climb ahead, and enjoy one of the day’s few opportunities for easy cruiser miles.
While the 5,500-foot climb to the North Rim is the run’s biggest and takes you to the high point of 8,000 feet, it begins gradually, the grade almost imperceptibly increasing over the course of seven miles. Like a frog in a pot of cold water slowly brought to a boil, as the metaphor goes, the difficulty of the climb is never obvious until, almost before you realize it, you’re reduced to a hike, hands on knees, searching for oxygen. It was around this point—eight miles past Phantom Ranch—that I saw Manzanita rest area. While I wasn’t aware of it ahead of time, the water there was still switched on. I took the opportunity to refill my main bottles and stashed the additional 2.5 liters worth that I was carrying in my pack. I was confident I could make it to the North Rim and back before finishing my bottles, and the prospect of hauling an extra five pounds up to the top was something I wanted to avoid.
Running when I could and power hiking the rest of the time, I switch-backed up North Kaibab until snow and ice dotted the trail. I checked my watch: I was at 8,000 feet, 21.5 miles into the run, and the body was feeling it. I had been eating and drinking well all day, so I wasn’t on the verge of bonking, but the day’s effort began to settle in as I finally crested the last switch back and saw the North Kaibab kiosk. My watch told me I had been moving for almost exactly four hours. I didn’t have a time goal nor any real sense of how fast I could run in the Canyon self supported, but four hours one way felt good.
I ate a stroopwafel and quickly began descending back the way I came, as to keep the near-freezing temperatures from wreaking havoc on my body. While I could feel my energy slipping away on the subsequent 5.5 mile descent back to Manzanita, it was the first opportunity I had to look down into the Canyon from above. I spent the majority of the next hour staring out in amazement, clipping my toes on rocks and roots as I couldn’t be bothered to look at the trail. This was also when the reality of my isolation became apparent. Since leaving Phantom Ranch, I had passed only one other person. Twenty miles from my car, in one of the world’s largest canyons, with fatigue slowly settling in, I felt deeply alone.
By the time I reach Manzanita again, down 3,500 feet from the North Rim, the vista had vanished and the only stimuli I had was the feeling of mounting pain in my legs. Music, I thought, would be a good distraction. I put in my headphones and spurred on by tunes and new bottles of GU Roctane, I hammered the nine miles back through the Box to Phantom Ranch, clocking a few sub-seven minute miles in the process. By the time I reached Phantom, with nothing left but the 6.5 mile, 4,700-foot climb out South Kaibab, my body was cashed. My lack of ultra-specific training started to really show here. At 36.5 miles, this was my longest run since San Diego 100 in June, and I still had literally the biggest sustained climb of my life ahead. But, remarkably, I managed to smile. I often can’t help but smile during moments like that. Part acknowledgment of the absurdity of this sport, part appreciation for what my body is capable of, part unfiltered indulgence of masochism, I laughed through the pain as I crossed No Hand Bridge. I took a moment to grab fresh bottles out of my pack and assumed the familiar position of hands-on-knees power hiking.
My energy remained relatively stable for at least a mile, but at some point soon after, I began to feel the familiar sensations of a bonk: abnormally labored breathing, total loss of appetite, heavy legs, an unshakeable lethargy. Santa Barbara, where I had been living and training, has plenty of steep climbs, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for the Sisyphean task that is ascending out of the Grand Canyon on South Kaibab. It climbs, climbs, climbs—up steps, over ruts and roots, switchbacks and boulders. The trail turns from dust to dirt to mud and back to dust. Its steep grade eases for a tantalizing second before returning to 20 percent. It does this time and time again. I forced myself to keep my eyes trained on the trail in front of me, as gazing up to the top of the Canyon, towering thousands of feet above, was utterly demoralizing. There are plenty of races and long runs with net elevation gain greater than 4,700 feet. But when tackling all of it in a sustained 6.5 miles—that at the end of a 36 mile run—it has a way of feeling like the most arduous task of your life. The lactic acid builds and builds and builds without any respite. The climb took me nearly two hours, during which I had plenty of time to think back on the FKT reports I had read from Rob Krar andJim Walmsley, both of whom reported running most of that final climb. If there was a specific element of their FKTs that I most admired, it was this fact.
When I finally made it to the top—wheezing, exhausted, elated—I collapsed on the kiosk and smiled. A nearby tourist, noticing my crumbled position, reminded me to drink water, as the elevation is quite high here on the South Rim, she said. “Thanks,” I responded. “You’re absolutely right.” I checked my watch:total time of 8:36, with moving time of 7:58. I don’t know what I anticipated, or how I expected to feel at the end of this, but lying there on the South Rim, vest still stuffed with extra layers, first aid, bottles, and wrappers, I was perfectly content. I alone got myself from one side of this beast to the other and back. I was reminded that preparation and fortitude can be enough to make up for a few gaps in fitness. And I learned that sometimes the most meaningful accomplishments in this sport can happen in total isolation, without the fanfare of enthusiastic aid station volunteers, cow bell-clanging spectators, or the pressure of other competitors. Sometimes all you need to feel validated are sore legs, burning lungs, and the knowledge that you left everything you had on the trail.