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Tips for Running the Grand Canyon R2R2R

Our first view of the Grand Canyon at sunrise Our first view of the Grand Canyon at sunrise

Recently my fellow friend Frank and I completed the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run. For anyone who likes adventure and loves to power hike, then consider this something worthy of adding to your tick list. You will experience the Park in a very special way. In the midst of the two 5,000ft+ calf wrecking climbs, you will simultaneously be crushed by the magnitude of the Canyon and also inspired by its absolutely remarkable beauty. Sound like fun? Well make not the foolish mistake we did of underestimating this run; the Canyon is unforgiving and HUGE! Conditions can be hot, water can be sparse, and the trail is quite technical (lots of water breaks, rocks, tourists, mules etc). Regardless, the scenery is breathtaking and the trail is pretty much as fun as it gets! It's no wonder the Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world!

Looking ahead on the Bright Angel Trail Looking ahead on the Bright Angel Trail

The trails in the Grand Canyon are well defined and easy to follow, but there are still many seasonal and logistical tricks to know to make your experience even better.  First, choose your route. If starting from the South Rim, the two most popular trailheads to start from are the Bright Angel trailhead (6,850ft and 9.9miles to Phantom Ranch) or the South Kaibab trailhead (7,250ft and 7.4miles to Phantom Ranch). If starting from the North rim, the typical start is from the North Kaibab trailhead (8,241ft and 14miles to Phantom Ranch). The convergence point of all of these trails is at Phantom Ranch (2,480ft) in the bottom of the Canyon. In addition to water, you can purchase snacks, lemonade, and other aid from Phantom. Frank and I chose to enter the Canyon via Bright Angel, run to the North Rim via North Kaibab, and climb the south rim via South Kaibab. This route is approximately 45 miles long and gains over 10,500ft of elevation (that means, it's a 20,000+ ft day with gain and loss). We preferred this route because we got to see a little more of the Canyon than you would on a standard out and back (running the North and South Kaibab trails is a popular option and the standard FKT route). Of course, there are many other remarkable trails to explore in the Grand Canyon, most of which are actually LESS busy then the beforementioned trails.

I sported the Women's Nathan Zeal pack. Its ample storage room and 2L bladder were perfect  for this 12+hr day (note: we did have a resupply during our second passing through  Phantom Ranch, so I didn't fit all of my food in the pack). I had no chafing and highly  recommend this pack for women. I sported the Women's Nathan Zeal pack. Its ample storage room and 2L bladder were perfect for this 12+hr day (note: we did have a resupply during our second passing through Phantom Ranch, so I didn't fit all of my food in the pack). I had no chafing and highly recommend this pack for women.

Another important decision to consider before attempting the Grand Canyon R2R2R is when you are going to do so. Spring and fall are the best options. November and April seem to be some of the most popular months according to personal accounts I have come across online. With the low snow levels this year, we ran March 22 and found no snow at all on the South rim and very patchy snow at the trailhead of the North rim. I should note that the North rim is closed from the first snowfall in the fall until May 15. This is important information for several reasons. First of all, you can't drive to the trailhead. So don't try to run from it. Also, don't tell your husband to drive 5 hours to it to resupply you. Because he won't be there (this happened). Second of all, closed trailhead=no mules! Hooray! I mean I respect the beasts, but being anywhere near their excrement is not something I prefer to do. The North Kaibab trail is also significantly more exposed than the South rim trails, so passing a mule train might not be possible for quite some time.

I would recommend contacting a Ranger in the Grand Canyon to get the most up to date status on water refill locations and trail conditions. We refilled water at Phantom and the Pumphouse (a stop midway between Phantom and the North Rim). We had the option of refilling water at several campgrounds on the Bright Angel trail but it was not necessary. According to the Ranger Frank spoke with, there is also a spigot at the North Rim that is flowing this time of year, but it is a 10min walk from the trailhead. It turned out that our longest stretch without water was a little over 10 miles (from the Pumphouse to N rim to Pumphouse). This figure can be a little deceiving, however, as it includes the last 5 grueling miles up to the North rim (which we hiked) and took us about 3 hrs. I completed the run with a 2L bladder and found this was a sufficient amount of water for my size (130lbs) and for the conditions (highs in the 60s, partly cloudy). Frank, however, only had a 1.5L bladder and suffered from serious dehydration and cramping starting before we gained the North Rim. His symptoms continued over the next few hours, despite watching him drink over a liter and a half of water at both Pumphouse and Phantom Ranch. So spare your kidneys and bring more water folks!

Speaking of North Rim! Frank and I stoked to have made it! And temporarily forgetting that we get to do it all again…..yay Speaking of North Rim! Frank and I stoked to have made it! And temporarily forgetting that we get to do it all again…..yay
Charging up the North Kaibab trail in the Cascadia 9s. Due to how technical the trail ended up  being, I was pretty happy with my footwear choice. The Cascadia gave me enough  support throughout the day, even during the last few grueling miles to the South rim.  They are stiff enough that the bottom of my feet weren't too sensitive the morning after and their traction never disappointed. Charging up the North Kaibab trail in the Cascadia 9s. Due to how technical the trail ended up being, I was pretty happy with my footwear choice. The Cascadia gave me enough support throughout the day, even during the last few grueling miles to the South rim. They are stiff enough that the bottom of my feet weren't too sensitive the morning after and their traction never disappointed.

Do not attempt this run without a headlamp and an extra layer. I wore shorts, a polyester T, the OR Echo long sleeve, and the North Face Apex jacket. This outfit was perfect because I had a couple of extra layers in the morning when it was chilly, but the combined weight of my jacket and long sleeve T was only 6.6 oz! When things heated up and I stuffed both layers in my pack, I barely knew they were there. Another caution I must bring up is to NOT underestimate your hydration strategies. In addition to seasonal spigot closures (most of the water sources are turned off from 1st snowfall until May 15), breaks in the water lines can result in any water refill location to be CLOSED at any time. My point, do not be utterly dependent on water fill-up locations! Looking back, we got lucky carrying as little water as we did. Any warmer of weather or one less water source anywhere could have caused serious hydration issues for us both. In retrospect, a 2L bladder with a 20oz handheld would have been a better option for me and potentially even more water if you are bigger.

Little Frank. Big Canyon. Little Frank. Big Canyon.

The Bright Angel-N Kaibab-S Kaibab loop took us around 12.5 hours to complete. I would like to recommend an 'average' time that it COULD take you to complete this run (in order to help with your planning purposes), but unfortunately any number I gave you would be pretty much pulled out of my...hat. For your calculation purposes, I can tell you that most of the trail is runnable. The 5 miles immediately before the South and North rim are steep - expect to hike. For what it's worth, the men's FKT of the R2R2R is 6hr and 21min set by Rob Krar last fall. The women's record is 8hr 25min set by Darcy Africa in 2011. So...chances are, it will take longer than that - but maybe not! Also, remember that even the bottom of the canyon is over 2,000ft of elevation. If this is high for you, then you might want to consider spending a night or two at the rim of the park acclimatizing.

Are we there yet? 2 miles to go Are we there yet? 2 miles to go

For any of you folks looking to try a new, exciting adventure run, I highly recommend something in the Grand Canyon. There are plenty of non masochistic activities for family and friends to do while you are out having your soul quest. The weather is beautiful in the spring and fall and, as mentioned before, the Grand Canyon itself is truly a majestic site. Take this run seriously, as weather, trail hazards, and lack of resources pose significant risk. Bring your finest gear (available at www.sagetosummit.com). Be smart. If you have the option, bring a good friend and a camera and have your good friend use it taking photos of you. Ok have fun!

Resources for trail information:

Good resource for Grand Canyon running:

In case you really feel like geeking out/have some down time at 'work':

 

 

 

 

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