Brian Condon: Rim to Rim to Rim
We were car camped in a parking lot about a quarter mile from the South Kaibab trailhead, the start of my little adventure. I had planned on a 3:45 a.m. wake up, but woke up around 3:15 am when a Tesla rolled in to the parking lot with chatty head-lamped passengers nervously shining their headlamps all about. They were probably embarking on the same path as me, the Rim to Rim to Rim route through the Grand Canyon. I laid in bed for a moment, but I was awake and ready to get things rolling, so I slipped out of the car. I had placed my breakfast of Vafels (a calorically dense little treat picked up from Neptune Café) and Red Bull in the front seat.
I had signed up for a 50 mile race in May on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, where I am from. I hadn’t raced in over a year because of race postponements and cancellations, and I was looking forward to a hard effort. Unfortunately, the race got postponed to the fall for a second time. I still wanted that hard effort though, so I started scheming ideas and I fell on the Rim to Rim to Rim unsupported FKT attempt.
A FKT, or Fastest Known Time, is essentially a speed record on a notable route and I was doing it unsupported which just means you can’t get any help, pacers, or assistance of any kind during your effort. You can find more about FKT’s and the guidelines Below.
FKT’s have been a great way for runners and athletes to compete outside the normal race confines for the last year and a half and a lot of Fastest Known Times have been set in 2020 and 2021 because of all the race cancellations. They are a great way to push yourself against great athletes in solitude rather than in huge groups of people on a single day.
The current unsupported record for Rim to Rim to Rim is 6 hours and 38 minutes held by Lars Arneson. I hadn’t ever done the route before so didn’t entirely know what I was getting myself into. Beating that time seemed possible, though very difficult, which is exactly what you want out of goal. You want to get taken to the edge and see which side you land on.
I ate my breakfast in the dark at a picnic bench, shivering a bit, partially from the cold and partially from the sweet pungent smell of red bull, and I stared blankly ahead. The caffeine and sugar and b12 and Taurine and whatever else is in a red bull had not kicked in yet and I was still in the head daze you get when waking up super early for a long adventure.
After eating I changed into my running clothes and slipped on my running vest. I had packed the night before, with what I thought would be enough. I had two Katadyn Befree Microfilter 0.5 L water bottles, two Skratch Hydration Energy Mix packets, 6 gels, and a packet of Skratch Energy chews-not a lot but it was light and I thought it could get me through.
I put on my Petzl 500 Lumen Iko Core Lamp and put it on the lowest light setting to conserve the battery. I’d never run the trails I was about to run and I was told there were some steep cliff drop offs, sharp switchbacks, and rutted out stairs so making sure I had plenty of juice in the headlamp for the entire descent seemed like a good idea. I took care of some last minute business ; ) made sure I had everything I needed one last time and then started my walk to the South Kaibab Trailhead. I was fully caffeinated and focused now. The tension felt like before a race, but I was alone, walking through the woods on my way to run across one of the wonders of the world and back again.
I got to the Trailhead and there were a few other groups of runners just about to start. I didn’t feel like rushing so I told them to have fun and watched them slowly descend into the canyon. I took a few deep breaths, stretched some, paced back and forth a bit and when it felt right I started my watch and took off from the South Kaibab Trail Head sign. It was just past 4:30 am.
My friend in Flagstaff, who runs in the Grand Canyon on a regular basis, had given me splits for different checkpoints in the canyon if I wanted to be on pace for the record. I wanted to take the first descent down fairly easy. Starting a run with a steep downhill isn’t regular for a Colorado runner, the opposite in fact, so I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and start out too hot, trashing my quads in the very beginning. He told me I needed to get to the River between 50 minutes and one hour though to be on track.
Adrenaline was in full effect though and I got moving pretty fast at first - too fast. The trail quickly got choppy though, with sharp turns and stairs and deep mule trodden divots. Jostling with the trail squashed that bad idea of going out too fast pretty quickly and I settled in to an even pace that allowed me to navigate and flow down the trail. I was wearing a Patagonia Houdini as it was in the high thirties to start, but I warmed up very quickly and after a few miles stopped to take it off. I could see a train of other runners descending the canyon together in a stream of headlamps just below me and the enormity of the canyon and the effort hit me. It was going to be quite the day.
Switchback after switchback, I made my way down the dark canyon with hints of the Moon’s light and my headlamp pathing the way. I passed the other runners and we exchanged some hoots and hollers. I was now alone with the trail and task ahead. Time passes quickly when you are working hard and I got to the river in a blink of an eye. It had taken me fifty one minutes, on track with expected time.
I made my way across the Black Suspension Bridge, crossing the Colorado River, and then moved on to Phantom Ranch. My next task was to get to the Cottonwood campground (around 15 miles) within two hours. The pastel dawn ate up the dark night and I no longer needed the headlamp so I squished it down, stuffed it in my pack and got moving. The entire section from Phantom Ranch to Cotton Wood is rolling and slightly uphill with about 1k of vert total. I was working kind of hard to keep my pace around 8:30/mile but felt pretty good overall. As you make your way through the canyon next to the flowing creek the walls close up and it doesn’t seem very big or daunting and I just felt like I was out on a nice long run in a desolate canyon.
I made my way to Cottonwood Camp in just under two hours, still on track for what I was hoping to do. There was only one spot to refill water on the trail at Menzanita rest area at the base of the North Rim climb because the North Rim was closed. I had only drank one half liter of water at this point and still had another half-liter left and decided not to fill up till I came back down.
Most people only see the South rim of the grand canyon as it is much more accessible and open year round, but I would argue, from my short stint, that the trails on the north rim are more fun and just as beautiful. Most of the trail is narrow and built into the side of the cliff as it winds up to the rim. The climb was long and hard but I felt like I was managing ok.
I was expecting the top of the rim to be at just over 21 miles and was hoping to get there in two hours and fifteen minutes. I was moving at about 12-13 minute pace. I got past mile twenty one on my watch and could see I wasn’t close to the top; there were many switch backs to go. I wrapped my brain around this little snafu and decide to walk the rest of the climb and use the small break to take care of myself-drink the rest of my water before the descent down and eat a couple gels (I had only eaten two at that point-approximately 200 calories). The north rim is significantly colder. Between the altitude and cold my arms started to numb and I needed the calories to process quickly after the effort coming up the canyon. I finally reached the North Rim where a trail crew greeted me with a bit of surprise (it was only 7 am). I took a quick picture at the North Kaibab Trail Head sign. I had reached the checkpoint in just over 2 hours 30 minutes. I was about 15 minutes behind schedule a this point.
(Me unsuccessfully attempting a selfie getting my time at the North Rim)
I made a conscious decision to run the descent down the north Kaibab in a relaxed manner even though I was behind schedule. It was still relatively early in the run and the 15 minutes could be made up later. The descent down was super fun. The north Kaibab trail isn’t nearly as rutted out as the South Kaibab and I was able to get into a good relaxed flow down. I didn’t have any water bouncing around, the calories and caffeine from the gels I had eaten had kicked in and my arms gained blood flow again. I started to see the other runners that I had passed going down south Kaibab early that morning making their way up. As I passed people, everyone seemed to be in high spirits moving along together and having fun. I found my way back at the Menzanita Rest Area still fifteen minutes behind, but I was feeling good and felt I could make up time on the next section. I stopped and filled up both water bottles and dumped the Skratch packets in too. I ate two more gels (only two left). Some other runners were hanging out and we exchanged pleasantries, but I was trying to move fast. I was more than a little shaky trying to fill up my bottles; I was definitely still low on calories and hydration, which is more apparent when you stop running and try to do something with dexterity.
The eight mile run back to the Colorado River is rolling and while it was slightly uphill on the way out, it is slightly downhill the whole way back! Rolling trails are my strong suit too so this is where I needed to make up time. I started to drop 7 to 8 minute miles no problem and was feeling really good. I was making up time, but I also knew the effort would catch up to me and I would just have to hope for the best the final 6,000 foot climb out of the canyon. I drank the last of my Skratch infused water and ate the last two gels I had left. In hindsight I should have drank more diligently on the way back and then refilled my bottles in the creek (that’s why I brought the Befree filtration bottles) but I got preoccupied trying to make up time. In hindsight I also should have brought more calories-that was just a mistake from hubris trying to make things simple and light.
I reached the river still a little behind schedule but not by too much. If I had a really good final 6 mile climb I could be close to the FKT. As I crossed the bridge and braced myself for the final push I started to feel the early stages of a bonk and bonks come on fast. I was out of water and calories and still had to climb a long ways out.
My legs were the first thing to go. My calves started cramping, then the quads, then pretty much everything. My back started to seize up too. To get the FKT you have to run a good chunk of this last climb and I knew at this point the FKT wasn’t in the cards. My friend in Flagstaff had told me a lot of people have run good times in the Grand Canyon and have been close, but then fall apart in this last section. I was now another victim of the climb up the South Kaibab and I knew it.
It just so happened to be Free National Park Day. The amount of people grew exponentially as I slowly stumbled my way up. I got a lot of looks and more than a few “are you okay?” questions along with “Did you go all the way down to the river?” I mumbled that that I was doing fine and just having some cramping issues and that I was coming from the other rim, not the river, at which they would look at me quizzically trying to figure out what I had just said.
The waves of cramping and nausea only increased though. I was having a hard time walking with all my muscles seizing up and at one point I just laid down next to some rocks at a turn up a switchback. I made sure to acknowledge any hikers inquiring about my health as to keep them from sicking the rangers on me. I was not doing well, but it was just a bad bonk, a place I’ve been a few times before, and I was fine even though it probably looked bad. After about a seven minute rest laying there in the dirt, the cramping subsided and I got myself back up and moving. Luckily the cramping stopped and I was just left with nausea and general fatigue. I could deal with that so slowly started making my way up. The rest of the climb was very slow and seemed to go on forever.
I started the adventure with the intent of doing the whole thing unsupported and though I wasn’t going to come close to the record I wanted to finish what I started, so when people offered me drinks and food the entire way up I had to politely decline. One woman offered me what looked like an entire gallon of tropical juice, which was very kind, but torture in actuality.
I made my way through the throngs of tourists in the last mile of the climb and I finally reached the South Kaibab trail head sign where I had started early that morning. It had taken me just over eight hours. I had about thirty seven great miles of enjoyable running almost entirely by myself through one of the most beautiful places in the world and six agonizing miles stumbling uphill through lots of people.
I started this attempt looking for something that would bring me to the edge so I could see which side I would land on. I landed on the wrong side this day, but had a great time getting there and now I know the trail and know what improvements I can make if (when) I try to take another crack at it. Adventure recreation is all about enjoying the journey, however it goes, and continuously improving that journey through experience and process improvement. Essentially, keep getting after it!
My splits and map got a little wonky in the canyon but here is my Strava map and data for anyone who wants to ever take on this beautiful route as an FKT, in a single day, or over the course of a few days. I would highly recommend it if you can.
(Saw this in a shop in Moab on the way to the Grand Canyon: A sign of what was to come)