Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R)

...a descent into the Canyon is essential for a proper estimate of its details, and one can never realize the enormity of certain valleys, till he has crawled like a maimed insect at their base and looked thence upward to the narrowed sky.

John Stoddard, 1898

My muscles are still aching and my mind isn't quite right yet. I am still looking for the right response to the "why" question that I always get. Why would anyone want to run across the Grand Canyon and back? I still have to walk sideways down the stairs because my calves and my quadriceps remain too tight to allow the contraction required for normal, fluid movement, and today, three days after the Grand Canyon run, I'm anything but fluid.

This morning I joined a group training for a 5K, a beginners group, using the running/walking technique to slowly build up to be able to run the 5K distance, it's billed as a Couch to 5K Program, and as we ran, I noticed that some were suffering during the running intervals, enduring the pain, then stretching, talking and smiling after the run, feeling that sense of accomplishment that comes after some good work.

That feeling doesn't go away, and if it ever does for me, for a certain distance, maybe 100 miles, then I have no business running that far.

The feeling was there Saturday night at the completion of the Grand Canyon run and it was still there Sunday morning when we drove out to the South Rim, staring at the silence and the space between us and the North Rim far in the distance.

The Grand Canyon is wide across, wider than I thought it would be.  I was making the trip with three others, Jess Downer, Toby Guillette (who coined the excellent word, "brutiful," to describe the day), and Mike Campian.  The four of us flew and drove from San Diego to do the Rim to Rim to Rim run, and when we arrived late Friday afternoon, we went straight to the South Rim.  I had never been to the Grand Canyon, and it's hard to find the words to describe it, just wow, and I thought, tomorrow we'll be running that, down the Bright Angel trail to the Colorado river, through Phantom Ranch, and then through the belly of the canyon, red cliffs and thousands of years of sedimentary layers towering above us, then running up, what from the South Rim, looked like a sheer cliff, the North Rim, then back, retracing steps, dusty footprints already tired, sweat and for some, vomit. Friday evening, as I watched the sun glow off the red rocks, I wasn't thinking of any of that, just searching for the words, feeling my heart speed a little with the excitement of seeing somethings beautiful and knowing that early in the morning, in the darkness and under millions of bright stars, we would begin the journey, not of conquering the canyon, but fully experiencing it, feeling the pain and continuing on, letting the canyon seep through from the soles of my feet, working through the tired and cramping muscles, straining to cover the distance and keep the forward momentum of discovery.

I don't remember much about the start, just the halo of the headlamp and the dust as the I followed the footsteps and the pace of Toby, Mike and Jess down the Bright Angel trail in the dark, jumping over rocks and wooden beams probably placed there to prevent erosion or to piss off the runners trying to keep the pace. I remember feeling good and hoping I wouldn't twist an ankle in the first couple of dark miles, prematurely ending the journey, thinking we were probably going too fast, but feeling good, excited and glad to be starting the journey.

5 AM start

Sunrise over the Colorado River
Trail carved into the cliff
I carried a pack that held 2 liters of water, about 25 shots of Gu, a couple of bars, some dried mango slices, a small bag of trail mix. This was the nutrition I hoped would last me the planned 12 hours. With water stops every 5-10 miles, I figured a 2 liter pack would be enough, it wasn't. I ended up refilling at every water stop, going through at least 15 liters, and at one point running out of water about 3 miles from the next stop. This was the scariest part of the day for me, the reality of dehydration crept into my head, knowing there was no way to drop out, there were no volunteers out here, grabbing your bottles, refilling them and giving you rice krispie treats, this was the Grand Canyon, and at this point I was 20 miles from my goal, 10 runnable miles and 10 miles that I would end up walking, stopping every 10 minutes or so to gather myself, curse myself out, then try to find the motivation to keep going. When I hit that next water station, I hit it with a vengeance, cutting off the other hikers, actually they saw my condition and offered the spigot which I gladly took, refilling my hydration pack and sucking on the hose simultaneously. This stop is called the caretaker's cabin and if, at that moment, I could have seen the caretakers, I would have hugged them until they asked me, awkwardly, to stop.

Jess at the North Rim (he would recover)
The run from that stop to phantom ranch, those 10 miles were beautiful, running along the river, a slight downhill grade that I thought was flat on the initial pass, turned out to be a false flat, a gradual ascent that slowly wore us down for the grueling climb up to the North Rim. That false flat turned into a slight descent, and running through the shade, next to the cliffs was the high point of the day.  With 30 miles under our belts, I felt good.  Jess was sick, struggling with stomach issues, but he pushed through and we made it to Phantom Ranch where they serve the best lemonade in the world. We rested there, 30 minutes or so, my legs needed it and Jess's stomach needed it.

We made fairly good time the next 5 miles, crossing the bridge over the murky brown and swiftly flowing Colorado river, over the knife that had slowly dug through the earth, carving the red rock into names like Isis Temple, Buddha Temple, and Wotan's Throne.

A sign warning hikers not to attempt to hike to the river and back in the same day

That final push up the Bright Angel Trail, from Indian Gardens to the trail-head, was the hardest stretch I've ever had to deal with, emotionally ready for it all to be over, and physically unable to keep a rhythm without frequent rest stops along the way.  I was glad that I was still with Jess, who set a good pace up the hill and even had us running the final 50 or so yards.

The run took us 14 hours.  The distance covered was nearly 48 miles, and the total elevation gain was 11,300 feet.  The weather was gorgeous, around 40 at the rims and between 70 and 80 in the Canyon.

The day after the hike, looking at the North Rim and sure that the distances are off

My equipment list (this is what worked for me; if you are planning a R2R2R trip make sure you do your research and have enough food and water to last you -- know what works for you):

25 packs of GU (I ate 20)
1 Probar -- Kettle Corn flavor (400 calories of organic, real food)
8 individual serving packs of GU Brew (100 cals each)
Small bag of trail mix and dried mangoes
50 Thermolyte salt tablets (I took 48)
6 Motrin (I took 6)
Ultimate Direction Wasp pack with 2 liter hydration bladder (loved this pack)
Moeben arm sleeves
GoLite t-shirt
GoLite shorts
Glove liners (didn't use)
Long sleeve tech shirt
Inov-8 gaiters
Running hat
Adidas Adizero XT trail running shoes (I love these so much that after the run, I made out with their dusty tongues)

I took some jumpy video which I will post soon.
Elevation profile


  1. A group of friends and I will be attempting R2R2R in about a month. I personally have a 2 liter pack, and was wondering if you had any suggestions as to how to modify my gear list to improve my chances of avoiding dehydration. Thanks!

    1. Hi Clark,

      A 2-liter pack was nearly enough for me. I ran out once on the way back from the North Rim and I was out of water for about 2 miles, so it wasn't a huge deal. Make sure you know where all the water sources are (there's a water source table on Andrew Skurka's site) and replenish your supply at each one. You may also want to carry a handheld just in case the 2 liter pack isn't enough.

  2. Thanks Dax! Also, did you find that 8 servings of gu brew was enough? Did you just dilute one pack into your 2 liter each time you filled up?

    1. From what I remember, the Gu drink was enough, but if I were to do it again, I would probably take more just to try to get more liquid calories in, especially on the second half of the run when Gu gel, or any solid calories were really tough to keep down. We also had cool temps, so I drank less than I would have if it were hotter.

  3. Thanks so much! We fly out tomorrow and run on Saturday. Thanks for the advice!

    1. No problem. Have a great trip. I know a bunch of people from San Diego who are running it on Saturday, too.

  4. R2r2r remains the coolest ultra I have done! It is tough, but so worth it if you are prepared. It was a little hotter when we did it and I went through 5 or 6 gallons of fluid.

  5. As a reminder, the South Rim ranger station does not open until May 15th


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