It started with a mug of Pale Ale at Figueroa Mountain Brewing, as most good ideas do. We were sweaty, smelly, and dusty from the Rancho San Juan preview run. Sean Garbutt, Greg Lowe, myself, and Luis and Beverly Escobar were enjoying the cold beer when I mentioned “I’m thinking about running Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon this spring, hopefully Sean can go with me or I’ve gotta find someone else.” “When do you want to go?” asked Luis. We grabbed our phones, picked a date that we were all available, and it was set. We were heading to the Grand Canyon. We ordered another round and bought hot dogs from the stand outside…even though I couldn’t find the vegan option.
A few months later we were in Northern Arizona. We had started by sending a message to a few friends, created a quick Facebook event and BAM, it exploded. At the peak we had 35+ people RSVP’d and had reserved 6 full campsites in the Grand Canyon’s Mather Campground. We reserved a whole corner of the campground in an effort to keep our shenanigans consolidated and away from the other normal campers. On Friday, April 18th, the Grand Canyon was invaded by a group of dirtbag trail runners.
We rendezvoused at the “We Cook Pizza & Pasta” joint in Tusayan, AZ to have burgers and beer. Just kidding…we ate pizza, duh! Luis gathered everyone around and said “Well, this all started a few months back with some cold beers at Figueroa Mountain Brewing…” Blah, blah, blah, already talked about that. While Luis gave his presentation and disclaimer for the weekend the pitchers of beer were emptied, refilled, and emptied again (a few times). We finished the pizza, purchased fire wood, and headed into the park. Not all 35 people actually made it, but we had a great group of runners and friends. It was definitely going to be a weekend to remember (at least most of it).
Everyone found their assigned campsite (kinda) and set up camp. As the sun set we brought out the guitars, camp chairs, and beer. Greg unveiled his treat to the group, a nice bottle of tequila. I remember pulling the topper off the bottle, taking a swig, and then nothing else.
In the morning I woke up incredibly too early the previous nights events, before the sun was even coming up. I sat straight up and remembered that I was at the Grand Canyon and that we had several people in our group who had never seen it before. I hustled around to everyone’s cars and tents and woke them up. Amidst groans and “go back to bed’s” I told them to get their butts up, we were going to have a Grand Canyon Sunrise. Most everyone got out of bed and we crawled in a truck as we drove to Mather Point. There we stood and watched as the sun peaked over the rim and the rays slowly illuminated the layers of strata that we would be traversing the following day. If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon for sunrise or sunset (or both, like we would experience the following day), you are really missing out. It is magical.
After the sunrise we headed back to camp, a little cold, hung over, and hungry. Luis was making coffee and we settled in for breakfast. Everyone else was up now milling around and we started preparing for the day’s adventure. Luis planned to lead us down the Grand View Trail, a technical trail a little to the east of the main thoroughfares of the Grand Canyon. We squeezed everyone into 2 pickup trucks, clown car style, and headed out. A few people scored and sprawled out in the back of Luis’ truck which had a cap on the back. The rest of us ended up in the back of Tyler’s truck, sans cap, and totally exposed to the frigid polar wind (but I’m not complaining).
We spent several hours hiking down the Grand View Trail. It wasn’t a run day, it was a fun day. We hiked, took breaks, shared stories, took turns burning sage, and generally enjoyed the time with good friends. As we neared the top of the rim and the parking lot we could see a thunderstorm rolling in. The group would stop on the trail to admire a lightning strike across the gorge and then remember that we were exposed ourselves and take off, picking up the pace. We made it to the top just before it started raining and celebrated with some warm PBR’s.
Once back at the camp it was mid-afternoon and someone suggested we should run a beer mile (I have NOOooo idea who would ever suggest something like that). So, against our better judgment we marked out an eighth of a mile course along the road in Mather Campground, grabbed cuatro cervezas each, and toed the line. (Yeah, we knew we were going to be running 45 miles in the morning, from South Rim to North Rim to South Rim…but heck, how many times in life do you get the chance to do a beer mile in the Grand Canyon!) As the reigning All We Do Is Run Beer Mile last place finisher I had no real goals other than to not throw up. We took the Beer Mile oath in French (thanks to Flint) and got to it. If you want the play by play of the beer mile antics you have to ask…for now, just know that I’m still the reigning All We Do Is Run Beer Mile last place finisher…but I finished!
After the beer mile the thunderstorm moved in and started dumping rain. We huddled 14+ people under Flint’s camp awning and decided that instead of trying to cook dinner in the rain we may as well hit the cafeteria at the Yavapai Lodge. We ate a big dinner, returned to the campsite, had a little campfire time and then it was off to bed. It would be an early morning.
Running Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
We all started stirring in the early AM hours on Sunday. The goal was to be on the trail by 4:00 AM. The group piled into Tyler’s truck driven by Papa Clemens and Shackey’s Rialta and we headed off in the dark to the South Kiabab trailhead. As we left our chauffeurs we headed down the dirt trial, headlamps drawn.
We trekked in the dark for several miles, running some downhill, prancing a bit, and hooting and hollering along the way. Eventually we stopped on a plateau for a break and ended up spending about 30 minutes watching the sun light up the sky. The group spread out as we continued down, reuniting every few miles at picturesque stops. Near the Colorado River we finally ran into Tiffany Guerra. She had left us the previous night to run Rim2Rim2Rim by herself, at night. Baller. She needed to get back to LA by Monday morning and this was her only chance to get across the canyon and back, so she spent all night running through the Grand Canyon all by herself. It’s fair to say that we all had a runner crush on her that day.
Just past the Colorado River we plodded into Phantom Ranch. We were 3 hours in by then (albeit it was still early, only 7:30 AM) and some of the guests were up and moving around. We entered the area to cheers from several groups of hikers…which was interesting. It’s amazing how many people visit the Grand Canyon but never set foot on a trail, let alone get to the bottom. We had all accomplished something amazing whether by running or hiking, and we reaped the benefits of that by experiencing the bottom of the Grand Canyon in all its glory.
After a short break, refuel, and top off of water we were moving again. From here our merry group started splitting up. Greg and Sally would enjoy the Phantom Ranch area before trekking back out. Bobby, Michelle, and Crista would join us through the slot canyons and then take the side trail to Ribbon Falls before heading back. The rest of us continued on to our next break at the pump house and then up the North Rim.
I guess I should probably mention that this was not the first time that I’d done Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. Nine years ago my Aunt Karen and Uncle Jim Warrick took Tyler and me to the Grand Canyon to hike Rim to Rim to Rim. Tyler and I hadn’t done much hiking before that, but Karen and Jim were expert backpackers and planned everything for us. We spent 4 days exploring the canyons, enjoying side trails, nature talks, lunch breaks, and star gazing. This run would be different, but I appreciated the days we spent below the rim and knew the trail we were about to encounter.
Nine years ago, just out of high school (I had lived my whole life in Indiana), and not much of a backpacker, the Grand Canyon was awesome…until we got to the North Rim. There the trail gets a little more narrow and is cut into the side of sheer cliffs, with rock wall on one side, and 1,000 foot clean drops on the other. I crapped my pants. Well, I didn’t, but I wanted to. Jim and Karen have good pictures of us inching our way along the trail, both hands on the wall, trying not to look down. All of this of course while Uncle Jim is running back and forth on the trail playing paparazzi. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to this part of the day (let alone crossing it twice, once on the way up, and then again on the way down).
Nine years later (and countless trail miles traversed) I attacked those same trails with much more vigor. I wasn’t nervous about the height or the steepness or the sheer drops, I just ran (or hiked…it was still uphill). We continued to climb as dark clouds formed overhead. The temperature dropped and sprinkles started to fall. Eventually we crested the North Rim about 8 hours after we started from the South Rim. We sat and relaxed for a bit, refueled, took a photo, and then got moving again to keep our bodies warm. Snow was piled on the North Rim where the road had been plowed over the winter, but otherwise the trail was all runable.
The return passage down the North Kiabab Trail was fast. We stopped to regroup only once until we were back at the pump house. Once there we were surprised by the sudden lack of potable water. For some reason the water source had been turned off and no one was there to turn it back on. Crap. No one had a water pump purifier, but we did have iodine. We were pretty thirsty already and I had planned to mix my cold water and couscous concoction for some real calories, but without potable water it was not going to happen. We found out later that the water was turned off because of a water line break, bummer.
We substituted with creek water and threw in iodine. I gave it about 5 minutes and guzzled as we ran. We were now back in the flat section of the canyon on the north side. It was long, winding, and exposed. By now it was mid-afternoon and it was hot, really hot. There wasn’t a lot of talking in this seven mile stretch. It was Phantom Ranch or Bust…and bust wasn’t an option.
After a lot of head down forward progress we one by one filed into Phantom Ranch and collapsed around the water spigot in front of the main cafeteria. It was 4:15 PM and the ranch store closed at 4:00 PM. One dollar lemonade for thirsty runners? No dice. Ten dollar lemonade for parched runners? No dice. Several $20 bills for a little lemonade for some seriously thirsty pissed off runners? No dice…they just were not going to give us anything. We sprawled out around the area, Manley on top of the picnic table, Sean in the grass, Luis nestled between some rocks and tufts of grass a few steps in front of a bunkhouse. We were a sad sight.
After about 45 minutes of eating, drinking, and lounging we started stirring. I visited the restroom to lighten my load and came back to hear Cat screaming expletives at a bird for stealing her granola bar, Luis puking his guts out in front of the occupants of the luxury cabin, and Maria entertaining a crowd of tourists asking about “her land” and “her native ancestors of the Grand Canyon”. It was like some weird version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, time to roll!
We donned our packs and lumbered south, out of Phantom Ranch, across the Colorado River, and up to the South Rim. We were not going to be out before dark and I felt bad because I told my dad to meet us at the top at 5:00 PM. With no cell reception I realized that this might be just as long of a day for him as it was for us.
We wound our way up Bright Angel Trail and through Indian Garden campground where we stopped to refill water and choke down the last bit of trail food we could muster. We shared a few Gels, Shot Bocks, and salt tabs and started up. The group of eight runners had paired off into duos that would attack the climb. First was Cat and Sean, the kids of the group who seemed to have been holding back all day. They took off, bounding up the trails and whooping and hollering around the corners to hear their echoes. We could only see their two headlamps bobbing up the cliffs until we couldn’t even see that. Next was Flint and Tyler. They had been hiking the uphills all day together. From the pump house to the North Rim they held back behind the group, but made it just a few minutes after everyone else. Now, with energy in reserve, they were powering up the climb. I hung with Luis, his stomach had been causing problems since the dry water stop at the pump house. It was a silent ascent as we both put our heads down and worked to grind out the climb. Manley and Maria were right behind us. Manley’s longest run recently had been about a quarter of the distance he traveled today. He knew the Canyon well and along with Maria knocked out the last few miles with an even climb. Ultimately, I knew back in January that I did not want to attack the Canyon alone, and we all came out in pairs, everyone there to support each other.
Most importantly, Papa Clemens, Kathy, Grandpa Clemens, and Beverly were all there at the top waiting for us! They had waited patiently, for several hours, constantly checking the hikers coming up the trail to see if it was us. They had missed dinner, were shivering in the cold wind, but had carefully guarded the stash of cold beer for our triumphant finish! Luis and I crested the South Rim amid rambunctious cheers (from 8 people) and promptly sat down. I cracked open a beer and enjoyed it. Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim with amazing friends, check. A 45 mile, 17 hour day that I’ll never forget!
Eventually we all limped back to the trucks in the parking lot and drove to Mather Campground. There the rest of our crew had just climbed into tents to go to bed, but several of us prolonged the evening with celebratory toasts. Then we passed out, hard.
Monday morning we were up and moving around camp. We shared more coffee and oatmeal and started packing. It was done, we had accomplished the goal we had come for, it was time to go home. But no one seemed to be going anywhere fast. Yes, we had come to run Rim to Rim to Rim, but I think more importantly, we came for the fun and fellowship with good friends. We had one last group meal at the Yavapia Lodge cafeteria for breakfast with more coffee, omelets, bacon, and pancakes (I still couldn’t find the vegan options). Maria shared parting words and gave Akabill amulets to everyone and then, just like that, a group of close friends were again heading their own ways across the Southwest, the United States, and beyond.
Yes, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve now run the Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim to Rim. But I can do that with anyone, anytime, anyhow. What I will never forget is how a group of dirtbag trail runners, photographers, Canadians, college kids, hikers, campers, and my Grandpa all came together that weekend to share in the beauty, simplicity, and uniqueness of life.