Sunset at Mather Point, May 3 2014
I ran the R2R2R on May 3 2014 via South Kaibab to North Kaibab and returned through Bright Angel (44.5 miles 20.7k ft elevation change) in 14.5 hours
.This run was my first marathon/ultramarathon and was the culmination of 3 months of training from a base of 20 flat miles a week to reaching a peak of 50 miles with 10k ft elevation change for a week. The longest run was 24 miles with 12k elevation change in the first week of April (this run was also my longest ever).
I had hoped to persuade at least one of my climbing buddies (who are aerobic beasts) to join me on the run, but perhaps unsurprisingly, no one seemed interested in running 40+ miles with 20k+ ft elevation change after the planned three months of training. And so I prepared to run solo.
My R2R2R gear. I switched out the long sleeve wool shirt and hat with a short sleeve wool shirt, sunsleeves and a real sunhat because of the forecasted heat.
Why run the R2R2R? I don’t really have an overriding reason such as testing my physical limits --- I was curious about whether I’d be able to cover a long distance with a lot of elevation change within a day, and I’d also never run more than 13 miles at a stretch prior to the training. Success on this trip would mean that I could now visit the backcountry trails that I’d wanted to visit but would take too long to hike in a day.
I’ve done a number of long days alpine climbing in the High Sierra linking together several climbs in a day where I learnt to dial clothing, nutrition and gear options down to the bare minimum. I used the four 20 mile training runs to experiment with nutrition, water and clothing options for running. The main training challenge would be to remain injury free while rapidly ramping up the long run mileage --- I started to feel the onset of a foot ache near the end of my third 20 mile run and I quickly backed off long runs for two weeks.
2 am. I woke up after going to bed at 8.30 pm and before the alarm I’d set for 2.15 am. Sleep had been fitful the previous two nights for reasons unrelated to the run. I made coffee, ate two bananas, applied a large amount of sunscreen on my legs, hands and face (Neutrogena baby sunscreen had to last the whole day), and got the rest of my gear ready.
My friend Blase volunteered to drop me off at the trailhead at 3 am, and he had plans to run the Rim to River to Rim later in the day.
It was going to be a hot day with temperatures at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor hitting 95F. The heat was the reason for starting at 3 am even though I would miss out on running the spectacular South Kaibab trail in daylight.
Ironically, I'd postponed the attempt from the week before because a major storm hit Arizona on the day I was supposed to run. With major rain, snow, wind and freezing temperatures forecast, I reluctantly rebooked plane tickets after some indecision about having enough margin of safety.
At 3 am, I stood next to the South Kaibab trailhead bulletin board and took a quick photo and then started trotting down the trail. From my training runs, I knew that quad strength was my weakest link and I aimed to run very conservatively on this first downhill with poles out to jog/walk anything that looked steep or had stairs.
Within 15 minutes, the temperature increased enough to stop and strip off my light gloves and the windshirt that was my only piece of spare clothing (I never wore them again). I ran from there to the North Rim in just the wool tshirt without sunsleeves or hat. At this point, I noticed 3 headlamps above me coming down the trail (later in the day, I would team up and run with one of them for about ⅓ of the distance).
I had never run with a headlamp before but that turned out to be fairly straightforward. It was hypnotic to pace downwards and throw up clouds of dust illuminated by light with each step. Before I knew it, I was at the South Kaibab bridge after about 1.5 hours and I’d lost sight of the headlamps a while back.
I hit Phantom Ranch at after 1 hr 50 mins from starting. Plenty of campers were already milling around the spigot in the general store at 5 am and I refilled my 500 ml bottle, ate some Stinger gummies, packed my poles and continued after 10 mins.
Still enjoying myself just before exiting the Box on the way to the North Rim.
Because of my fear of the heat, I was too conservative with the water on the way to the North Rim --- I was aiming to have 0.25L when hitting each water stop as my margin of safety but ended up with 0.5 to 1L instead. The extra weight took its toll on my quads later in the day.
I ran most of the trail to Cottonwood, took 10 minutes to rehydrate with energy drink mix, filled up with too much water because a camper told me that there was no water at the pumphouse station 2 miles further (wrong!). Running to the pumphouse, I discovered there was actually water and rehydrated. I noticed on the signboard there that someone had done their 77th R2R2R yesterday!
Here I met a couple of guys coming down from the North Rim and they were part of a large group that started at 8 pm the previous night. I kept going past this group on the way up and would later catch some of them on the return trip.
Leaving the pumphouse, Sydney passed me going up to the North Rim and I chatted with her for a bit and discovered she was part of the group of the three headlamps that I saw behind me earlier in the morning. We exchanged introductions and then started walking up the steep parts of the trail to the North Rim together.
We eventually split up since I had a slightly longer gait and moved faster uphill with my poles out. Passing through the different layers of rock on the spectacular North Kaibab carved out of the rim was quite the treat, Supai, Hermit, Coconino, Toroweap and finally Kaibab layers.
I hit the North Rim about 5 hrs 50 mins after starting (8.50 am) and discovered that the water was on. I unpacked, lounged around eating and drinking, took some photos. Sydney arrived about 10 mins later and she remarked that it was surprising there were no flies around. Sure enough, a few minutes after she said it, the flies appeared and she beat a hasty retreat back down the trail. I stayed another 10 mins to enjoy the silence before heading down.
Sydney heading up North Kaibab shortly after the Pumphouse.
Throughout the day, I managed to consistently get 2-300 calories an hour by eating 12 Stinger energy chews, 6 Hammer gels, 1 tube of Hammer perpetuem solids (not tasty! I bought them on sale a couple of days before while strolling through REI to buy some gels), 15 servings of energy drink mix. The only food I had left was the 4 Kind bars and 3 peanut butter cups that I brought as my food reserve. I also drank 15-20L of water to wash all the food down. I brought but did not use additional electrolytes because all the energy food contained loads of them.
I passed perhaps 20-25 runners on the way down from the North Rim at various points and had brief conversations where it seemed everyone had started around 5 am that morning, and they were glad to hear that the water was on because the temperatures had started to climb. I don’t think I saw any of these runners again later in the day.
I caught up with Sydney at the pumphouse and she asked if we could run to Phantom Ranch together because one of the runners coming up had seen 3 large snakes on the trail. I was intimidated not because of the snakes but because through our conversation at the North Rim, I learnt that Sydney was running this for the 4th time and it was a training run for her main objective, which is the UTMB race (100 miles, 65k ft elevation change !!!) later this year. On top of that, she’d done a 50 mile race the weekend before!
Sydney on the North Kaibab trail.
I ran ahead and she followed close behind. I kept my poles in hand even though I didn’t need them in this section in case I encountered some snakes. As we ran, we chatted to distract ourselves from the building heat --- no snakes were sighted on this run. Weather records indicate that it was 95F by noon, and our decision to start at 3 am paid off because we got to Phantom Ranch just after noon, about 9 hrs 15 mins after starting, and it was just starting to get really really hot (see these three trip report1 report2 report3 from runners on the same day).
I was elated because I was injury and blister free, had sufficient food left, and I knew I could make it out well before sunset even if I walked slowly the rest of the way up (which I did). On the other hand, my quads were feeling an incredible pump from the 11k ft of downhill, which was twice as much as I’d ever done before and it wasted my chicken legs.
I made a call to my wife to let her know I was ok, hung out for about an hour, and started heading up the Bright Angel trail at 1.20 pm. Sydney stayed to wait for her friends and they showed up just as I was about to leave. Both the heat and also Sydney had convinced me to go up the Bright Angel trail instead of South Kaibab as originally planned, and it worked out well because I could carry less water and take my time on the trail.
Sydney and I at Phantom Ranch.
The rest of the time passed in a blur from the heat (it reached 98F by 1.45 pm) and I lost track of time while placing one foot in front of the other and trying to hide under my sunhat. Before I knew it, I was at the 1.5 mile rest stop where I could get cell reception, sent a text to my wife and Blase to let them know I was almost at the top of Bright Angel and to meet me there.
I got to the top sometime after 5, took the obligatory finish photos, and then we went to Mather Point to watch the sunset.
Serene and I at the Bright Angel trailhead.
I didn’t suffer as much I’d expected during the run, probably because I’m conditioned to sweat profusely in the heat and also I managed my nutrition better compared to previous long days. I’ve had alpine climbing days at altitude where I suffered significantly more --- on the hike out for those trips, I felt like I wanted to collapse and curl up into a ball. On the other hand, the soreness that hit me the following day was pretty bad, I was limping to breakfast, in the airport, and on the trip home. By Wednesday, the soreness had mostly cleared.
I used everything I brought with the exception of the emergency gear (fortunately) and the headphones since I didn’t listen to any music on the run.
I sweated so much that the salt crusted up on my shirt.
Book air travel on Southwest. When I had to postpone my run, it was very easy to cancel the original tickets and apply the travel funds to new tickets with no additional fees.
Bring ultra light hiking poles. I used the black diamond ultra distance poles that weigh 10 oz total for the pair. The pair weighs about the same as a 250ml water bottle in the hand, which means you can comfortably carry them in hand while running and whip them out to tackle steps or steep sections - very handy for lessening the strain on the quads.
Spare socks. I brought a pair and really appreciated it when I felt a hotspot forming on the return trip to from Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch because of the heat.
Do squats. I would definitely add on a squatting component to my training next time to help handle the downhills.
Bright Angel Canyon cutting through the picture vertically. The route runs through the canyon up to the North Rim (far side). Back to index.
Back to index.