Grand Canyon Run 2000

by Jim Wolff

I will always remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time when I was thirteen years old. My parents, my two sisters, and I had driven east from Los Angeles in our weathered station wagon across the deserts of Southern California into Arizona. We then turned north, climbing into the forested mountains near Flagstaff where we spent a rainy night. The next day we drove to the south rim of the Grand Canyon parked in the first turnout available and ran to the edge, Mom and Dad yelling after us to be careful. Almost a mile deep and several miles wide, the canyon like an angry gash filled with pink, red, and brown ridges so large it seemed to go on forever. The brown Colorado River meandered like a long serpent appearing at the end of side canyons. The scale made it difficult to believe it was nearly three hundred feet across. What would it be like to go down there I wondered. The clean dry air smelled of juniper and sage, and I knew this was something I would not forget.

Years later, when I took my own kids camping at the Grand Canyon I again imagined hiking down to the bottom and back again. But it was summer and too hot to even imagine going down there. Instead, we confined ourselves to the south rim and the awesome views available there.

Many years later I started to run marathons and eventually began to run on trails. Coincidentally, in the interim, the Grand Canyon has also become a popular place for runners to run. From all over the world, they challenge themselves by running across the canyon. Many go from one side tot he other sometimes within the same day. The distance between the south rim and the north rim is approximately twenty-one miles and over four thousand feet of elevation loss and nearly six thousand feet of elevation gain. The rugged trails, distance, and high altitude all combine to make this a significant challenge even for the fittest athlete.

In the spring of 2000 when several of my running friends started discussing running across the Grand Canyon in the fall, I immediately signed up to join them. For the next few months Paul Spencer, Amy Chan, Larry Mercer, Kirsten Poulin, Todd Carey, and I planned the trip. Kirsten had run across the canyon and back before so we relied on her for expert advise on what to bring and how much water to carry, etc. Paul kept everyone organized, provided information, and arranged for ground transportation in Arizona.

Everyone, except Larry, who was going to drive and stay at the Bright Angel Lodge, planned to fly to Phoenix Arizona on 14 October 2000. From there, we would drive to the south rim of the Grand Canyon's and stay at the Yavapai. We would meet at the Yavapai Lodge cafeteria Saturday evening to have dinner and discuss the Sunday run down the South Kaibab Trail. We would run to the north rim and stay overnight at the Grand Canyon Lodge and then either run back the next day. Larry's wife Ruth would meet him there and they would drive back to Los Angeles via Las Vegas. Anyone who did not want to run back could take a van back to the south rim, a four hour two hundred mile drive through Indian reservations and the edge of the vast Painted Desert. We would have to carry everything we needed including any change of clothing.

Paul, Amy, and I flew from Burbank to Phoenix on the same plane. At the airport, we met up with Kirsten and Todd and then took a shuttle bus to the nearby rental car facility. Paul had rented a large van with plenty of room for everyone. With Paul at the wheel, we headed north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. In Flagstaff we stopped for lunch and enjoyed browsing in a couple of old town shops. I noticed that Flagstaff has grown considerable since I was there as a teenager. The traffic was bad and it was good to get out of town and out into the mountains again. Instead of taking the faster main highway west from Flagstaff, we took the less traveled and more scenic road north.

I did not take too long to get to the Grand Canyon. When we got there stopped at a turnout and walked to the edge. Paul, Amy, and Todd had never seen the canyon before and it was interesting to see their reaction. I pointed to the north rim and the path we would be taking up Bright Angel Canyon. The weather was excellent; clear skies and moderate temperatures.

After checking into the hotel, we all drove to the trailhead to check it out. Wooden barricades blocked the road leading to the Kaibab trailhead. Evidently, traffic is restricted to the park shuttle busses. Ignoring them Paul drove down the road to the parking area where we parked and all got out. Many hikers were sitting around waiting for the shuttle bus. Many of them looked tired and I assumed they had hiked to the river and back. We took several group photographs and then drove to the Bright Angel Lodge. We enjoyed the views and visited several shops. Along the railroad, tracks Todd, Amy, and Paul tried to get some up close photos of several deer that had assembled there in the late afternoon. We drove back to the Yavapai Lodge and rested before meeting in the cafeteria for dinner.

We met for dinner and reviewed the next day's plan, deciding what time to meet in the morning, how cold we thought it would be, and what each of us was going to wear. We all got to bed early but I stayed up and watched French movies on the Sundance cable channel while I prepared my clothes and pack.

Sunday morning we had a quick breakfast and took the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead about four miles east of the lodge. We started about an hour later than planned. The delay let it get a little warmer and lighter and we were all a little tired and still getting used to the altitude. The shuttle bus was surprisingly full, another indication of how popular it is to descend into the canyon. At the trailhead, it was cold and quite windy but we all knew that as soon as we started to drop down into the canyon it would warm up. I was the only one wearing shorts at the start. We spent several chilly minutes taking photographs of other hikers and then having them take pictures of us. Several of us needed time for a quick potty break but then finally we took off down the well-maintained trail.

We dropped quickly down a series of twisting switchbacks that lead gradually northward toward the end of Yaki Point. It did not take long to warm up and the wind decreased almost immediately. As we reached a sharp turn near a rock outcropping with expansive views of the canyon, about one mile down, we stopped to remove our warmer garments and take a few photos. Below the rim, I felt the warm embrace of the canyon. Between the rocky sections of trail, little clouds of pink dust rose with each step. Below Yaki Point, the trail followed the top of a long ridge that lead around a huge rock formation towering above a flat plateau. In the middle of the plateau, I could see above me both rims of the canyon; a view I had only imagined an hour before. The sun got higher and deep blue shadows fell abruptly in the side canyons nestled between sheer cliffs illuminated with spectacular morning sunlight.

As we ran across a relatively flat section of trail, Amy, who was running directly behind me, tripped and hit her knee on a log placed perpendicularly across the trail for erosion control. We all stopped and silently hoped she did not have a serious injury that would prevent her from running. She was lucky to have hit only the fleshy part of the upper knee rather than more sensitive tissues. A slight abrasion was easily cleaned and bandaged. She also took a couple of Advil. We started to run again slowly and this allowed the blood to circulate helping all of us to avoid getting stiff.

As we got lower in the canyon, we passed the first of several mule trains. I began to think of them as walking urine delivery systems hauling human cargo. These wonderful animals seemed designed to drink, process, and then efficiently deliver Colorado River water to the dryer sections of the canyon. The fragrant puddles they left behind remind me of an Iowa dairy farm in the summer time every time I hopped over one. I thought the river looked a little low. I was thankful to be running down the trail instead of depending on these sure-footed but slow animals. The riders seemed happy enough but I assumed they would be as sore as I would by day's end.

At the end of the plateau, the trail dropped steeply down the final section leading to the wide Colorado River. Here we passed by the Great Uncomformity, the place where the horizontal sections of sedimentary rock end suddenly end and large sections of vertical rock begin. The rocks nearest the river are nearly two billion years old and are among the oldest exposed rock on Earth. As we descended around each corner, the river got wider and the black suspension footbridge came into view. Just before crossing the river, the trail enters a tunnel ending at the south side of the footbridge. The bridge is only about four feet wide and arches fifty feet or more above the river.

On the north side of the river, the trail turns west and then turns north again as it enters Bright Angel Canyon. Tall green Sycamore trees stand in stark contrast to the surrounding brown and red cliffs. The swiftly flowing Bright Angel Creek filled the air with the gentle sound of water as it spilled over and around speckled granite boulders. This point in the journey marked the beginning of the fourteen-mile climb up Bright Angel Canyon to the North Rim nearly six thousand feet above us.

About half a mile from the river we arrived at the famous Phantom Ranch, composed of several small cabins and a small store and restaurant. In the store I bought a couple of postcards and stamped them with a rubber stamp that read "Carried by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon". If you ever visit, be sure to bring the addresses of your friends or family. I could remember only two addresses and sent one to my wife, Leona, and one to my father. I placed the postcards in an old leather saddlebag for pick up later that day. We sat around for a while eating, drinking, and resting. It was a nice place to take a break and the shade provided welcome protection from the sun. The day was getting warmer and we still had a long way to go.

Larry started out first and quickly got ahead of Kirsten and I. We kept seeing him about four hundred yards ahead of us whenever the curves of the canyon allowed us to see that far. We noticed that sometimes he walked but a other times was running. Still, we never seemed to be able to catch him although we ran constantly. About fifteen minutes from Phantom Ranch Paul and Amy caught up with us and rushed ahead. Amy now seemed fully recovered from her fall. We wondered where Todd was but continued to keep up a steady pace walking only the steeper hills. Eventually we got to within about thirty feet of Larry and I yelled at him to stop. He did reluctantly and told us he was having some trouble with cramps in his quads. He explained that if he ran he could not run slowly, which explained why we saw him walking and then running fast.

Larry, Kirsten, and I ran together for a while until I had to take a break. Kirsten and Larry went ahead. I took several photos and enjoyed being alone in the middle of the canyon. A little while later I looked back and saw Todd rounding a bend so I waited for him to catch up. We then ran together to the Cottonwood Campground, seven miles from Phantom Ranch. Everyone was waiting for us there and it was good to see that they were doing well (Larry's cramps aside.) From Cottonwood Campground we could look up and actually see the Grand Canyon Lodge nearly three thousand feet above us on the north rim. It looked small. I contemplated the effort required to get up there and knew it was going to be a long day. The temperature had risen into the low eighties. We refilled our bladders and bottles with water and took off again.

Paul and Amy charged off quickly leaving Todd, Kirsten, and I to run together. Larry trailed behind taking care of some personal business. In the two mile between Cottonwood Campground to Ribbon Falls, Todd fell behind and we waited for him there near some buildings in the shade. From here, it was about five steep miles to the north rim. The elevation was about five thousand feet, which meant it was getting harder to breathe. When we started running again, Kirsten took off and left Todd and I in the dust. She impressed us with her energy and ability to power up such a steep incline. Todd and I stuck together for about two miles but with every step, I got further behind. The last time I saw Todd, he was three switchbacks above me in the red cliffs. I took his picture. At this point, neither of us was running any more. The exhaustion, steepness, and altitude had reduced us to hiking mode. The slower pace allowed me to enjoy the beauty of the canyon and contemplate my insignificance. I also wondered how the others were doing.

The trail was created in places that might seem impossible except that I was there. Long straight sections of trail were cut across slender shoulders of sheer cliff on one side rising straight up and on the other side dropping straight down for hundreds of feet. I wondered how many rocks were waiting to tumble down on my head. I noticed the opposite side of the canyon, the striations of texture and color, and the plants holding it all together and I imagined I was a bird flying through the canyon. As the trail got higher, it also became more precarious.

At some point as I slugged my way up a narrow set of short switchbacks I saw Larry about one hundred feet below. I stopped and we yelled back and forth to each other. He was still suffering from cramps but making progress. Just the fact that I could see him was an indication that he was gaining on me. Either I was moving slower or he was feeling better and going faster. I think I was slowing. Great, I thought, in another hour I will be passed by a guy with cramps in both his quads.

Just after crossing the small footbridge about two mile below the rim. I meet some English tourists who encouraged me as we exchanged greetings. They were impressed that I had come all the way from the south rim. Larry finally caught up to me and I tried to stay with him as long as I could. He was determined to power up the hill and disregard the pain and cramps he was suffering from. He soon got ahead of me and I resumed my introspection. Like other times before on Mt. Whitney and elsewhere, high altitude had taken its toll on me. My body requires a lot more time to acclimate - one day was not enough.

I kept a close eye on the rocks an indication that the trail's end was close by. I knew the white Kaibab limestone was the last section of rock at the rim and I could see it directly across the canyon. I also began to see more and more day hikers descending into the canyon, a sure sign that the trailhead is near. They all looked so happy and refreshed, having just stepped off the tour bus and walked down hill for a mile or so. I would like to see the expression on their faces when they decided to turn around and realized just how steep the trail really was. Actually, I did not wish any of them any discomfort. I only wished that Larry would be at the trailhead with his wife Ruth waiting faithfully to drive me to the Grand Canyon Lodge. Nevertheless, I was taking so long to get up there I doubted this dream would pan out.

About a mile from the end, a large group of people had gathered on a large rock overlooking the canyon I had ascended. Some were taking pictures or just enjoying the view, lounging on the rocks eating snacks and talking as I crept passed. A group of senior citizens had just started walking back up the trail. My competitive juices surged. I gained on them slowly but when they stopped to rest, I was able to zoom by at two miles per hour. We exchanged friendly greetings and they asked where I had come from. Their jaws dropped when I told them. "Wow, that's fantastic. I could never do that!" they exclaimed. I felt like I had won the New York City Marathon, their encouragement gave me renewed strength to get up that last half mile.

Then, there it was, after eight and a half hours, the trail ended at the edge of a large parking area full of cars and buses. Larry was not there; so I immediately asked two guys who where headed to their car for a ride to the hotel. "Sure, but where is the hotel?" they asked. I told them it was about two miles down the road and squeezed into the back seat of their Mustang. As we drove down the winding road through the forest, they asked me a strange question. "Where is the Grand Canyon?" the driver asked. I realized that from the trailhead and the road the forest obscured the canyon. They had driven hundreds of miles to see it and were still wondering where it was. I told them not to worry that they would be able to see it clearly from the hotel. This cheered them up and soon we pulled into the parking lot outside the Grand Canyon Lodge.

I thanked my drivers and limped into the lobby, checked in, and walked to my room. On the way I bought some Gatoraid and drank it down quickly. In the room I stripped off my pink dust covered clothes, took a shower, and washed the dirty clothes at the same time. I had brought one clean shirt and a clean pair of shorts and socks. My toilet kit consisted of a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, a small hairbrush, some SportSlick, and a few bandaids. That was it, lean and mean. I called the office and got in touch with Paul. We arranged to meet at the dinning hall at six o'clock for dinner. In the mean time it was time to rest up a little.

As I lay on the bed contemplating our accomplishment, I also thought about running back the next day. I was tired and sore. I wondered if I really wanted to run another difficult twenty-one miles in just a little over twelve hours? Finally, after a lot of soul searching I decided to take the shuttle bus back to the south rim. It would cost about sixty dollars and take four hours but would be worth it the way I felt. With my decision made I soon drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke it was time to go to dinner. It was a struggle to walk the short distance to the restaurant in the main lodge. My legs were stiff and sore but I was refreshed from the nap. The air was getting cold. Paul and Amy were in the lobby outside the restaurant and soon everyone else arrived. We all had our cameras and when out on the porch to take some photographs of the canyon. We were seated at a round corner table that didn't have much of a view. None of seemed to mind. It was nice just to be able to sit down. We ordered our dinner and let Larry pick out a bottle of wine. Then we noticed that the sun was starting to go down so we all went outside for some group photos with the canyon and setting sun behind us. The view was excellent and it was amazing to think we had run across that great canyon and were not over one thousand feet above the south rim.

At dinner, I told everyone of my decision to ride the van back the next morning and everyone seemed to understand. Larry would be taking off with his wife Ruth to drive back home. Only Paul, Amy, Kirsten, and Todd would be running back. After dinner, everyone just wanted to get back to his or her room and relax.

The next morning I got up early and headed down to the little coffee bar near the lobby. I got a coffee and a sweet roll. I also arranged to ride the van back to the south rim. The cost for this four hour plus ride is sixty dollars. I asked the driver if he would be able to take some of my friends to the trail head and he said he could if there was room. Again, I saw Paul and Amy walking up and the Kirsten and Todd. We all hung out in the coffee bar for a while. The conversation turned to whether anyone had extra Powerbars or Powergel. Since I was not running back, I offered what I had.

When the time came to get on the van, there was room for the runner. I noticed that one of the other passengers was the woman I had met on the trail the day before. There were only two additional passengers, two women from New York. We drove the few miles to the trailhead and I said good-bye to my friends and took a picture of them standing stiff and cold at the trail head. I had mixed feelings about leaving them there but the decision had been made and I accepted it. We pulled away and turned right onto the main highway leading north across the great Kaibab Plateau.

To be continued.

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