About my blog

Welcome to my trail running site. I enjoy being on the trail where I can take in nature and clear my mind. I prefer running in the mountains, but anywhere rural will do. I have completed four 100 mile trail races and many other ultramarathons. I'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Monday, April 17, 2017

Grand Canyon R2R2R

When you visit the Grand Canyon you expect to see vast sweeping views of colored stratified rock revealing eons of geologic history, interesting rock formations protruding upward from the canyon floor and maybe even a glimpse of the serpentine ribbon of water wearing an even deeper groove into the Earth. All I can see this morning though is the oval beam of my headlamp as I run down the South Kaibab Trail, the wind pushing against my body. I camped last night at the Mather Campground with some of my running buddies and three of us left bright and early at 4am while a faster group of five runners left after us.

(Click on photos for larger view)
First light on the S. Kaibab Trail

The trail is tricky to negotiate in places because of log and rock waterbars which help control erosion. Many parts have deep depressions in between the dams from mule train travel. My pace is pretty fast going down because I know it will come to a crawl when we begin to clamber up to the North Rim. Our plan is to run from Rim to Rim on the S. and N. Kaibab trails and return to the S. Rim via the Bright Angel trail because it is less steep and has several water stops. Unfortunately, the N. Kaibab trail is closed two miles from the rim due to construction, but we have heard rumors that workers may not be working on Saturday and that we may get through anyway. We’ll just have to wait and cross that bridge later.

My friend Tommy and I reach Cedar Ridge, a large flat area, where the wind almost knocks us over. We try to stick around for our friend Juan to catch up, but we can’t wait to get out of the gusts. We see his headlamp bobbing along higher on the trail so we blast off. The sky begins to lighten a little revealing a blue outline of castle like rock formations with dark ominous clouds lurking above. Before long we can turn our headlamps off and enjoy the rising sun as we bomb down the twisty trail. 

All of a sudden, clear out of the blue, my right foot strikes a rock the wrong way and turns completely sideways. “Owwwww JESUS!” I scream along with other expletives that are not appropriate for print. Tommy says, “I saw that. Are you OK.” I walk for a few minutes trying to shake it off and then reply, “I think so, but that’s going to really leave a mark.” I jog slowly and the pain starts to subside, but I know if I land on it the wrong way again it’s going to really smart.

Wildflowers along the N. Kaibab Trail

We continue our long journey down the the bendy pathway, about 5000 feet of descent, and see a suspension foot bridge spanning the Colorado River. We pass through a tunnel and cross the bridge, but not before stopping for plenty of pictures. Our friend Juan catches up, but we haven't seen any sight of the others in the faster party. I figured they would have passed us by now, so they must have gotten a late start.

Bridge on S. Kaibab Tr.

On the other side of the river, the slopes of the canyon are covered in bright yellow daisy like flowers called Brittlebush. Native Americans used the plant to relieve inflammation and pain. Perhaps I can make a tincture to put on my bruised ankle, but that would cost time and I would much rather just run off the injury in true ultramarathoner fashion. We arrive at the confluence of Bright Angel Creek so we turn right passing a campground where hikers spend the night on their rim to rim adventure. Our friends finally catch up to us and we all head up the trail to arrive at Phantom Ranch, an oasis at the bottom of the canyon. 

Brittlebush flowers

We fill our water bottles, but the snack shop is closed because servers are too busy feeding the lodgers who had taken the mule train down. After a short rest we continue on towards the N. Rim. The trail meanders along the creek so the incline isn’t too steep which is a pleasant surprise. I guess I was expecting an immediate steep climb with lots of switchbacks. The stream is flowing swiftly; the current crashing over boulders into deep roiling pools. You most certainly would not want to fall in. 

Phantom Ranch

My ankle is very sore and tender so I try to favor it as I run. We cross a series of bridges that span the creek as we make our way through the narrow side canyon. Wildflowers are plentiful and the rock walls sport a pallet of hues from tan and brown to deep red streaked with green vegetation. Most of my buddies are ahead and one behind so I find myself enjoying the solitude of such a beautiful mystical place. Soon I reach Ribbon Falls, a narrow spout of water shooting out of a slot in the canyon wall. 

I worry about my foot as I climb out of the canyon because I know the trip back down will be harder on my weak ankle. I think about turning back early because I don’t think we’ll be able to pass through the construction zone two miles from the N. Rim. Is it worth continuing while favoring a bum ankle if I won’t get an official R2R2R? (Is there really such a thing as “official”?) Nevertheless, I keep going enjoying the scenery all the same.

Ribbon Falls

In a while I crest a hill only to see a raging waterfall, fast flowing creek and no bridge. It seems impassable to me because a slip would mean going over the waterfall. Everyone else seems to have forded the creek though or I would have seen them return. Another guy comes from behind me and uses trekking poles while stepping on exposed rocks to negotiate the stream. I think about turning back, but then my friend Juan arrives and plows through the water which is about shin deep. I decide to go for it and get through with no problem other than having sopping wet feet. The water is ice cold and actually makes my ankle feel better. 
The scary waterfall

I start to run with heavy shoes that squelch with each step. Glad to have that stream crossing behind me, I press on, climbing higher and higher. I see a long ribbon of water cascading down beneath a tower of rock. I’m now high enough that juniper trees and stunted pinion pines dot the canyon walls. I stop for a great view of the cascade along with five other waterfalls that are gushing out of the cliff face below like vomit spewing out of gargoyles’ mouths.

The trail becomes steeper the higher I go and at one point the narrow path has a towering jagged cliff rising upward on one side with a precarious drop off on the other. A trip here could send you off the cliff down, down, down where you would crater several thousand feet below. I pass a natural amphitheater, an indentation in the red rock wall, that is streaked with black and white minerals. A little while later another one appears, hemmed in by sheets of red and gray slate surrounding a tree full of purple blooms.

Juniper trees
I’m totally inspired by the scenery and run for a bit longer when I hear rocks crashing down the canyon walls and wonder if there is a rock slide. Am I safe here? Soon a runner comes towards me and asks if I’m with the running party that is ahead. I confirm that I am and he says that several of our party got past the construction zone before work began but that no one else is allowed to pass. I keep going in hopes of reaching the Red Wall Bridge, the end of the line. Soon my friend Tommy returns and I decide to head back down with him since I won’t make it to the N. Rim anyway. We are only about two miles shy of reaching the N.Rim. Too bad.

Natural amphitheater 
Tommy’s IT band and knee are bothering him and I’m still running gingerly on my bad ankle so we take our time getting back down to the canyon floor. The temperature heats up the lower we go and the air feels sultry. We stop for water at the Manzanita rest house, cross the stream beside the scary waterfall again and pause at Cottonwood Campground. Several of our friends catch up to us confirming that three runners made the rim, but the rest came back early. We sit around and commiserate how tired and beat up we all feel and how we are dreading the climb back out of the canyon. 

Tommy crossing the stream

After freshening up a bit we get a move on where the faster runners pull ahead. Eventually the ones who made the North Rim pass us as well, but we meet up again at the Phantom Ranch and they are open for business. If you’ve never had lemonade after running over 30 miles in a sweltering canyon, you have no idea how good lemonade can taste. The line is long, but well worth the wait. In addition to the nectar of the gods, I buy a pack of Oreos to supplement my chia seeds, salami, crackers, Fritoes, dried apricots, gels and candied ginger. Our running friends leave while Tommy and I take a much needed break. Pretty soon Juan pulls in looking equally beat.

Colorado River

Tommy and I head out and pick up the Bright Angel Trail, cross the Colorado River on another suspension footbridge and run along the south side of the river on the gently rolling trail. Before long though, we are climbing back out of the canyon where we meet a group of hikers. In my usual late-in-the-day jocular manner, I ask, “Is this the way to the cable car?” They give the proverbial polite laugh, without looking the least bit amused. We climb higher where the flowers bathe the slopes in bright yellow and a seep on the side of a rock face has created a lush hanging moss and fern garden. My ankle feels a lot better now; I think it healed itself already because I’ve been running for so long. Either that, or I’m completely numb at this stage.

Hanging garden

Tommy pulls ahead of me and I’m all alone again. I climb and climb along steep switchbacks from hell. I look at my Suunto gps watch to see how fast I’m moving. All day it seemed to have been acting erratic in the canyon and I wonder how accurate it is in here. At one point it clocks me going 35 mph and I’m climbing up! The only explanation is that I’ve passed through a wormhole in space-time, entered a parallel universe for a few seconds and returned to my present location. OK, that sounds like an alternative fact, but It could happen; especially when you are delirious from running for over 12 hours.

Switchbacks from hell!
Anyway, soon I’m high on the canyon walls and can see the tiny path in the distance that led me here (minus the wormhole). I make it to the Indian Garden Campground where I stop for a much needed water break. After leaving, I travel through a lush riparian area with huge Cottonwood trees, abundant grasses and then pass a double waterfall that spills around a large flat topped rock. 

Side-blotched lizard
A Side-blotched lizard, brown with small turquoise spots, suns himself on a rock. I slowly plod up the trail wishing all along that I was already on the rim, but it still seems to be a universe away. If only I could find that wormhole again. I pass the time by watching a Western scrub jay flit from rock to rock and branch to branch. He seems to be following me; perhaps hoping I’ll drop a crust of bread. I turn another corner and a squirrel is eyeing me as well. 
Western scrub jay

My energy wanes the higher I go and I have to stop to pull food out of my pack. I eat dried apricots and candied ginger in hopes of a sugar rush. My throat is completely parched from sucking dry air even though I don’t feel thirsty. Each time I turn another switchback I think I’ll pop out on the rim. On the horizon I can see clear to the other side of the canyon with towering pinnacles and flat topped mesas of all colors. I’m at the same elevation as a few of the cap rocks, but continue to climb on the never ending trail.

I begin to see many tourists who have ventured a short distance into the canyon so know I’m nearing the end of my journey. I keep peering up to the rim to see how much farther it is. A beautiful almost full moon hovers above the rim. The wind picks up and the temperature plummets the closer I get to the top. I pass through a tunnel in the rock and then see a rustic wooden house perched on the rim of the canyon, the Kolb Brother's Studio. 

Emery and Ellsworth Kolb were photographers who began working in the Grand Canyon at the turn of the 20th century long before it became the developed park it is today. They even ran the river in wooden boats and brought back the first ever motion pictures of canyon expeditions. I turn one final switchback and arrive on the rim proper elated that this 14 hour 46 mile adventure is finally over.

Kolb Brothers Studio, the sweetest sight ever when you are doing R2R2R!
I duck into a bathroom to put on a dry shirt as I’m soaked through with sweat from the arduous climb. I also put on my raincoat, but when I step out into the wind, a cold chill radiates through my body and I start to shiver uncontrollably. I run into the lodge where I’m able to recover and warm up and then call my friends to get a ride back to our basecamp. 

Everyone had finished but Juan and I was worried about him because it was cold and windy on the rim and the sun would be setting soon. By the time I make it back to camp and clean up though, he arrives and we all head out to a tavern for a well deserved meal. Everyone is exhausted from a brutal day in the canyon. It was great sharing the trail with such a strong group of runners. Congratulations to our three “official” R2R2R runners Ed, Steven and Eric and also to the rest of the crew who were so close; Mike, Marco, Peter, Tommy and Juan. I had such a great time that I will return to the Grand Canyon soon to take care of some unfinished business.

P.S. This is what my foot looked like Monday morning after a 10 hour drive after my Grand Canyon weekend!

I iced it and used arnica gel and was back online by Wednesday. (That black toenail is from the Bandera 100K. It's hanging on for dear life.)

See you on the trail.


  1. Great job bud
    Now excited about going.

  2. What an adventure Greg! Stunning pictures too.

    1. Thanks Richard for reading, glad you enjoyed the photos.

  3. Great job bud
    Now excited about going.