Saturday, 15 September 2012

Running the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim ( or how to turn 28)

I ran the Grand Canyon South Rim to North Rim on my 28th birthday with a guy who I had been on three dates with. In a year filled with impulsive running (and especially trail running) decisions, this one was a stand-out.

Based on my experience, here is a how-to guide to run the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.

Choose a date well in advance.
I got an invite to go to Las Vegas for the weekend of my birthday. Las Vegas itself is not hugely appealing to someone with a 9pm bedtime, but the potential to do one of my "dream" trail runs was enough to book an airplane ticket 6 days before the run.

Give yourself plenty of time, and have your planning completed well in advance of starting the run.
We had one day to get to the Grand Canyon, run rim-to-rim,  get back to Las Vegas, and catch a 10pm flight back to Vancouver. I started planning this on a Monday. The last logistical detail fell into place the Sunday night before the run.

Be sure to make your travel plans in a professional manner, and do not make special requests.
In order to get the logisitics to work in one day, I knew the timing would be tight. Additionally, as running or hiking Rim to Rim is heavily discouraged, there are no companies that arrange for dropping you off at one rim and picking you up at the other. It is a 4 hour drive from Las Vegas to the South Rim, and it is a 5 hour drive back from the North Rim to Las Vegas. In order to help with make the plan happen, I pulled out all the stops: I played the "birthday" card, the running card, and finally, the "will keep calling back until I get the answer I want to hear" card. Most people were very helpful, once the story was explained.

Know your run partner well, and have experience doing runs with similar distance / terrain / elevation profiles.
I met this guy 2.5 weeks before. We'd hung out...3 times? However, Athlinks stalking totally ( counts, right? My run parter has done very fast 1/2 marathons on road and trails, and I can run his 10k pace. For a 400m track repeat. I explained the run to him as: "About 30-35k, some elevation gain, might be a bit warm on the canyon floor." This might have been a bit of an under-sell.

Be sure to taper before the run, in order to be well-rested for the climb out of the Canyon at the end.
My run partner competed in the 70.3 World Championships the day before, in temperatures around 100F. (for all runners like myself: a 70.3 means a half-ironman triathlon - swim 2k, bike 56 miles, run a half-marathon).

Check the forecast carefully. Be sure there will be ample cloud cover.
The forecast was for 23C, 60% chance of rain. The forecast was 3pm, when we were done. The run was mostly cloudless. We hit the Canyon floor around 11am, and the heat was easily 30C.
Give yourself plenty of time to complete the run
Due to the 2:30pm shuttle pickup, we had just under 6 hrs to complete the run. Only one company has one bus that leaves the North Rim once a day. So...2:30pm or bust.

Relax and go at an easy pace!
We started the run going down the Bright Angel trail - switch back after switch back of easy trail. As we descended, we could watch the sun move down the Canyon walls. The hikers we passed made us feel like rockstars: all congratulations and astonishment that we were running.

We made very good time to Bright Angel campground (approx. 14k into the run). The campground had a tap with drinking water, so it was easy to do a water-pack refill. The next water stop was at Cottonwood campground, about 12km further across the canyon floor. On this section, the Canyon floor wasn't "flat" - it was a long, gradual climb on shadeless trail. As the full hit heat us, this uphill started to take its toll. The walk breaks became more frequent, and the time remaining to catch our shuttle got tighter.

Finally, we joined up with the river in a shallow crossing, and were able to lay in the water to cool off. At the time, this was great - except we didn't think about all the sunscreen that was washed off. We made it to Cottonwood campground - and still had another 9k and 2500m elevation to go. Things weren't looking to good at this point - running on (relatively) flat terrain had us pretty wiped, and the hardet part of the run was ahead.

After a couple kms of climbing, we hit the shade of the North Rim walls. The views were amazing, even if we were a bit too wiped to fully enjoy them. At this point, we were about 5hrs into the run, and 50 minutes away from our shuttle meeting time. At the pace we were both going, we wouldn't be able to finish in 50 minutes. I started to get worried that the shuttle would leave without us. We would be stranded on the North Rim for the night and miss our flights home to Vancouver.

Both of us had enough food and water. So we decided that I would run up the rest of the trail, hold the shuttle, and then come back to meet my partner. With the extra kick of adrenaline (I hate being late for things!) I took off along the trail, running on the flat parts and powerhiking the uphills. I started to pass lots of hikers who, when they saw me running, would cheer me on. I felt like a rockstar! With my heart feeling like it was about to explode out of my chest, I made it to the top of the trailhead at 2:31. From there, it was still one mile by road to our shuttle meet-up. Luckily, some hikers saw me and offered me a ride to the meet-up location. I arrived - sweaty and frantic - at 2:35, to discover the shuttle was waiting still waiting for us. WHEW. Even better, they had ice water and coke. Best of all, they drove back to the trail head, where I picked up my run partner. Who promptly curled into a fetal position in the backseat of the shuttle. (You can't say you've given a trail run your all until you've gone into a fetal position, or at least really really wanted to.)

Take lots of photos so you can share the experience

We took some pictures. And I wish I could describe this in a way that could explain the peace and exhiliaration I felt running in one of the most beautiful places I have visited. In the pictures, you see a muddy river, hazy sky, and red rock. You see green shrubs, and, in the distance, canyon walls. You don't see the narrow overhangs, looking up through a rock slot to see blue sky far overhead. You can't hear the deafening buzz of the cicadas, and the far off rushing of the river. You can't feel the heat come off the valley floor in warm waves as you descend further. You can't feel the sudden coolness of shade when the trail goes alongside the river in a narrow cliff. I can't explain the feeling of looking far across the canyon floor to see the faint zig of the trail as it hugs the cliff to climb over and up. The excitement of not knowing what the views are like around the next bend. The climb out of the Canyon floor, watching the endless cliffs and feeling the cool of the forest. The ache in my legs and the relief of exhaustion that comes with 6hrs on the trail.

Be sure to properly stretch, ice, and re-fuel
Upon finishing the run, we drove (sat) for 5hrs. And had the following performance food to recover (yes, that is a frosty in the cupholder - dairy is good, right?).

Debrief - what did you learn from this experience?
In the end, garmin said 39.6km, 2500m elevation, and 5:54. It was one of the more epic adventures of the year, and even with all of the misadventures, I would do it again in a second! Thanks Donovan for being my run buddy! (this is some sort of triathalon training, right?)

4:45a - wake up, eat breakfast, finalize packing. Leave from Henderson (NOT Las Vegas!)
5:35a - go down to get cab to drive to the North Las Vegas airport. The cab takes 45 minutes. Realize that you are supposed to arrive 1 hr before your flight. Realize that you set your alarm an hour too late.
5:45a - Leave in cab. On the way to the North Las Vegas airport, stop at thw MGM hotel to store luggage at the bell desk. Say that you are staying at the hotel, and will be checking in later. As it is early, you are wearing a run skirt, compression sleeves and gesturing frantically, the desk does not question your explanation, and instead writes you out a luggage ticket to get you out of there as soon as possible.
6:30a - Arrive at airport. You are the last guests. As the adrenaline is wearing off, grab a coffee to boost energy.
We flew with Vision Holidays. - even though we booked a one-way flight, they let us join the bus tour into the Grand Canyon, and went out of their way to drop us off at the trailhead.
7a - fly out to the Grand Canyon in a tiny plane!
8a - sneak on the bus to the Grand Canyon with the rest of the tour.
8:15a - bus driver drops off rest of tour at viewpoint. He then leaves them to drop us off at the Bright Angel Trailhead, 10mins away. He also informs us that we are crazy.
8:38a - start trail!
route: Bright Angel trail to canyon floor, meet up with North Kaibab trail.
2:30p - get picked up on North Rim by Grand Canyon Tour Company Shuttle.
8:00pm - arrive back in Las Vegas, and pick up gear from MGM. Instead of leaving us at MGM (as was supposed to happen), Mark (the shuttle driver) drove us all the way to the airport.
8:25pm - arrive at airport. smell awful. check in.
10:00pm - flight back to Vancouver!


  1. Best R2R report I've read so far *smile* I'm from Vancouver too. And I'm heading to the GC in October.

  2. Las Vegas Sightseeing
    The South Rim is the most visited area of the Grand Canyon, and it's where almost all of the lodging, restaurants, and beautiful vistas are located. If you choose a South Rim bus tour, make sure to give yourself some time to explore historic Grand Canyon Village. Many of the lodges are historic and gorgeous, and there are some great dining options, like the historic El Tovar restaurant.

  3. If you plan to start your las vegas tours , you will go to the West Rim and descend to the canyon floor in a chopper. Then you are given a half an hour to explore the region by foot.
    las vegas tours

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