Where to begin with this one… I signed up a few days in advance for a road marathon in Toledo, Ohio. After spending the first 3.5 months of the year running big miles on big mountains, I wanted to see how my trail fitness would translate to a flat, fast road marathon. If I can run for 12+ hours up and down mountains in the desert with relative ease, surely I should be able to run my way to a new road marathon PR, right? The only catch really is that I haven’t really pounded the pavement much this year. Of the 700+ miles I had run so far this year going into this race, approximately 30 of them were run on the road. No matter though, this was going to be great.
I decided to try for a sub-3:20 time since the last time I raced a road marathon (in March 2017), I ran a 3:23 on a course that was a quarter-mile long in a rainstorm. I definitely feel like my fitness is better now than it was then, so 3:20 seemed doable. Officially, a 3:20 equates to 7:38 pace but I decided to go with 7:30-7:35 pace because it sounded good.
I chose this race primarily because it was soon and it was close enough to home that I could sleep in my own bed the night before. I originally wasn’t planning on driving down until race day but once I looked up the location of race day packet pick up (a mile from the start line) and all the parking restrictions on race day, I decided to just drive down the day before to get my bib. And I was glad I did, primarily because I discovered that one of the most traveled sections of highway in Southeast Michigan is shut down. I’ve been afraid to do more research on just how long it’s closed but I can guarantee it’s months, possibly even years and I’m not exaggerating. Closing sections of expressway in Michigan for years at a time is actually a thing. But anyway, after an hour and 40 minute drive that should’ve taken and hour and ten minutes, I finally arrived. It was just like every other marathon expo I’ve ever been to: loud and crowded. Guess what one of my least favorite things is? Crowds. I got out of there in about five minutes asking myself why I had decided to sign up for this again.
Race day dawned bright and early and my sherpa, I mean husband, and I were on our way. There was a ton of traffic near the University of Toledo campus where the start/finish was, so we ultimately parked in a neighborhood just off campus. After waiting in the requisite super-long bathroom line and dropping my bag off at gear check, I went to the starting line, since it was now about 10 minutes before race start.
I lined up between the markers that said 7-minute and 8-minute pace, expecting to run 7:30’s. The gun finally sounded and we took off at a jog. I never understand why people ignore corral/start line assignments, but at every road race there are always plenty of people who just start wherever the hell they feel like. Bumping around with thousands of my closest friends in the first 400 meters was really really making me question why I was doing this. I mean yay, I’m having so much fun!
Thankfully I started to get some more space as we went on although I was still looking forward to mile 8 when the half and full courses diverged. Running 7:30’s was feeling pretty comfortable and I was confident things were going to go well. But of course all good things must come to an end right, and mine pretty much ended around mile 14. I came through the half right on pace in about 1:40. Unfortunately this “knee thing” I’ve had going on for awhile did not appreciate being repeatedly slammed against unforgiving asphalt and concrete. I knew it wasn’t going to subside and would probably only get worse, so I came up with Plan B, which was to go for a BQ. I’m not even sure whether I want to run Boston next year but if this was going to be my one and only road marathon for the year (because let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly having the time of my life), I decided I might as well at least try to salvage the day with a BQ.
From miles 14-25, I jogged/hobbled/walked my way forward. My right knee issue was causing me to run with a really weird gait that was leading to my left quad locking up and also a blister on my left foot in a place where I’ve never in my life gotten a blister. I was a pretty sorry sight. Marathoners and relay runners were passing me left and right. Usually in races, I run even or even negative splits and am usually passing people towards the end. It was a humbling experience to be literally giving it everything I had while feeling like I was barely moving. I thought several times about throwing in the towel on my BQ attempt, and walking or jogging ever more slowly into the finish, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t at least try. If it wasn’t enough, fine, but at least I had tried.
It was right around this time there was another runner near me whose husband had been waiting for her at a road crossing. She told him “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Based on the time the clock was at, I’m guessing she was trying to go for a BQ as well. If I had had any extra energy to spare I would have told her, “You know what, maybe you can’t. But maybe you can. All you can do is what you can do, and if it’s not enough, it’s not enough. All you can do on any day is give it your best effort and that means not giving up until it’s over.” For me, when I know I’ve given it everything it a race, I will always be satisfied regardless of what the clock says or what place I come in. Sometimes we have great days, but sometimes we drink too much beer the night before a race (not that I’ve done that), or go into a race with a nagging injury or illness. On any given day your best effort is enough because it’s what you can do.
But enough philosophy for one day. After a long, grueling journey I had finally reached mile 25. I decided to just run as fast as I could to the finish and see what happened. Thankfully there was a slight downhill, also I guess considered a significant downhill in Midwestern road marathon terms. The race finished on the 50-yard line of UT’s football field so the last few steps were on astroturf. I crossed the line with an official time of 3:32:07, a far cry from the 3:20 I was hoping for, but technically a BQ (but still only fast enough to gain entry into Boston in 2012-2017, not so much this year in 2018).
After laying on a bench and then laying on the ground for a while, I decided to go in search of my drop bag with warm clothes and some food. They also had this nifty BQ bell to ring. On the roughly mile long walk back to the car, of course my knee barely hurt at all. I guess it’s only upset when I’m exerting a force of 7x my body weight on it.
At the end of the day, like I said before, I can’t be disappointed with my performance in this race because I did everything I could do on the day I was given. Do I wish that my body had agreed with my idea to race a road marathon and that everything else could’ve gone perfectly and I skipped away merrily with a PR? Of course, who wouldn’t want that. But the reality is that very few races follow that story. And let’s be honest, the most memorable races are never the ones that feel effortless or where you ran the fastest, it’s always the ones where you have to endure aches and pains, upset stomachs, foul weather, and just general bad days. After all, if running was easy, no one would do it.
When it came time to drive back to Michigan after a brief stint in Arizona, the first question my husband and I had to answer was “Which way are we going?”. I told him our options were to take the boring route again that we had taken through New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma or we could take what I deemed the “fun” route, which would take us through Utah, Colorado, and then some other less fun states. But still, it was less boring than the alternative.
“OK”, my husband said, “Well we don’t have to decide right now. ”
I told him “Actually, we have about 30 seconds to decide.”
Unfortunately for us the point where the boring route and the fun routes diverged were at the entrance to the neighborhood. A half mile into our drive, we had to decide. Guess which route won? The fun route of course! Off we went, north through Arizona toward Utah. After a brief stop in Flagstaff to run and eat lunch, we finally made it to Utah.
At first, it definitely didn’t seem like we had chosen the more fun route. It was desolate and dusty (and then snowy) and we basically saw nothing for the first couple hours. Then we got to Moab. Moab is a surprisingly busy and somewhat large town for being in the middle of nowhere. I suppose that’s no surprise given that Moab is home to two national parks, a state park, and has a huge offroad driving scene. After getting some food and beer (4% ABV as per Utah state law of course) at the Moab Brewery, it was time to plan the next day’s adventure. Since I had just been to the Grand Canyon, the opportunity to visit two national parks in one week was enticing. I knew that Arches National Park didn’t really have much in the way of trails, it was more of a drive your car and park and take pictures kind of place, but there was one trail I thought would be worthwhile.
All the way at the back of Arches NP, there’s a campground and a trailhead for Devil’s Garden and the Primitive Trail. Combined together these two trails are supposed to be about 7 miles and you’re supposed to see a ton of different arches. Perfect, I thought, for a short excursion before getting back on the road. Leaving the trailhead, the trail is a wide, crushed gravel path packed with people. Even though we had gotten there pretty early in the morning and it was kind of chilly, there were already plenty of people out. After seeing Landscape Arch, we hopped on the Primitive Trail in order to get away from the crowds.
According to the NPS, “the primitive trail is most difficult. Expect difficult route finding, steep slopes, narrow drop-offs, and rock scrambling.” The trail is supposedly marked with cairns although we didn’t see many, at least in the beginning. It probably doesn’t help that some of the cairns are about six inches tall. Immediately after turning onto the primitive trail, we found ourselves with a group of people who didn’t know where to go. “I think we’re supposed to scramble up that rock face.” The group seemed skeptical but I checked Trailforks which had a dotted line for this trail and confirmed, we were supposed to go up. At the time, it seemed like kind of a sketchy scramble, but as it turned out there were steeper and more exposed stretches later on down the trail.
We continued on while route finding and occasionally leading others off trail on accident. We saw some more arches, but for both of us our favorite part was the scrambling, the exposed sections, and the general views of cool rock formations.
one of the few signs on the trail
there’s a steep drop off on either side of the “trail” here
Overall, this was a cool excursion since it was basically on our way. I can’t say I would go out of my way to go to Arches NP again since it’s not really my style. I much prefer places where you can get out on the trail and experience things instead of just taking pictures of stuff from a parking lot. If you ever find yourself in Moab with a couple hours to kill and aren’t afraid of some exposed trail and a little route finding, you’ll definitely have fun here.
I call those things in the distance Dr. Seuss rocks
Running from rim to rim to rim was really never on my radar. Honestly, before moving to Arizona, going to the Grand Canyon at all wasn’t really even on my bucket list. This wasn’t for any particular reason, I just never really found myself in this part of the country. After seeing pictures of lots of friends enjoying the Canyon from the rim this year as well as a few people who did extended runs and hikes below the rim, I decided what better way to see the Grand Canyon than on foot..twice..in the same day. Never mind the fact that I would be going by myself and had zero knowledge of anything Grand Canyon related except that it was a huge hole in the ground. Enter: the internet. This was one of the few times I’ve been grateful to live in an age where you can find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about a faraway place all while sitting behind your computer. Thankfully, tons of people had already run or hiked R2R2R before me and they all have blogs, so information was plentiful. Everyone has their own opinion and advice: Go down this trail, start at this time, bring X liters of water, stop for lemonade at Phantom Ranch (the best advice really). After reading through the first several pages of google search results regarding people’s R2R2R adventures, I had formulated a plan.
Planning to run from rim to rim to rim isn’t just like running around your local park with plentiful drinking fountains, cell phone service, and the chance to bail early if you’re not having a good day. You can’t just go out there and hope for the best. There are warning signs posted all over the park saying don’t do this, don’t do that, bring food, bring water, it’s hot out there…as they should. Despite all the warnings, some people still choose to go down into the canyon unprepared. I met one such person around mile 42 of my journey. As I was coming up the final climb of the day, there was a woman saying she had called the emergency phone because she didn’t have enough water. I spent a few minutes trying to help her open a box that supposedly had “emergency water” in it, but had to continue on if I had any hope of getting myself out of the canyon before I ran out of water (spoiler alert: I ran out of water just before the top). Anyway, moral of the story is you can’t be over prepared for a journey across the Grand Canyon and back or any journey below the rim for that matter.
Beware of puking?
Summary: it’s hot and you can fall off the trail into the canyon
Where to stay
There are tons of places to stay both within and nearby the park. I won’t begin to pretend that I looked into all of them and since I was planning this about a week in advance during peak times, I didn’t exactly have a lot of options. Originally, I was planning on camping for two nights, both the night prior to and the night after my R2R2R excursion. After thinking about it some more, I decided to get a room at one of the lodges within the park for the night before which turned out to be the right move. I was so glad to be able to charge my phone and drink a cup of coffee before this adventure. I also spent the two nights after my run at Mather Campground within the park. My campsite was huge, the bathrooms were relatively clean, and they even had nice reflective signs so you could find your spot easily in the dark (attention Michigan State Parks: we need these). It was also one of the quietest busy campgrounds I’ve ever been to, people-wise that is anyway. My fellow campers were all pretty quiet, but my site turned out to be approximately 50 feet from a busy road which basically had people whizzing by at all hours of the night. It was really fun to try and sleep with the constant road noise and lights flashing through my tent. I would probably stay at this campground again since for $18/night you can’t really go wrong, but I would definitely choose a different site far, far away from the road. But then I guess when you plan more than a week in advance, there might be more than two options.
I decided my route would be to go down Bright Angel, up and down North Kaibab (non-negotiable really since it’s the only trail), and then up South Kaibab to end the day. Most (or at least many) people who choose to do both trails go down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel and for most that’s probably the way to go. There is more shade, more water, and the trail is less steep than South Kaibab, however, it’s also a couple miles longer. Personally, and I’m probably in the minority, but I prefer steep uphills to steep downhills. Especially since I was going to be starting in the dark, I wanted to go down the less steep, more runnable trail. It all boils down to choosing the best route for you. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I’d do the same thing because I have more confidence in myself doing a steep climb at the end of the day than going down a steep, rutted downhill in the dark.
Even though I was happy with my trail choice, it came with a price, which I new going in. The main logistical concern regarding anything South Kaibab related is the lack of parking. You cannot park at the trailhead (or even drive and drop someone off directly in front of the trailhead) if you’re not a shuttle bus. Right now within the park, there’s a ton of construction and even the shuttle bus doesn’t even drop you off right in front of the trailhead. I think technically you could park your car in a parking spot along the main road approximately a mile from the trailhead, but I felt bad taking up limited parking spots for an all day excursion. I was sure I wanted to end here though so I was left with a few options since I was all by myself. All the options involved parking near Bright Angel Trailhead at the beginning of my day. To get back to my car after coming up South Kaibab, I could either:
Take the orange kaibab shuttle to the visitors center and then take the blue village shuttle back to bright angel
Call the Grand Canyon Taxi Service (which operates 24/7) for a ride back to my car
Hitch a ride from some poor unfortunate soul who happened to have a working vehicle and was willing to transport a dirty, smelly, slightly delirious runner to any point at all closer to my car than the South Kaibab Trailhead
Run along the rim either to the visitors center to hop on the blue shuttle (2.5-3 miles) or if I was feeling really ambitious, run along the rim all the way back to Bright Angel (5ish miles)
When I came up with these options, I didn’t really think that option 4 was a likely scenario. One of the other options was sure to pan out right? Yeah, not so much. But more about that later.
The Big Day
The morning of April 9, 2018, I woke up at 3:30am with the plan to eat breakfast, fill up my pack with water and Coke, throw everything else in my car, and be headed down the trail at 4:30. So, at 4:55, after some minor confusion navigating the one way, construction-filled streets, and a brief call to my husband, I finally made it to the trailhead. Being thousands of miles away, I had given him my full plans including what trails I would be taking and approximated that it would take anywhere from 12-15 hours before he would be hearing from me again.
With all the details taken care of, I was finally on my way down the Bright Angel Trail! I had been running for no more than 10 minutes when I saw three pairs of glowing eyes staring back at me through the darkness. I stopped in my tracks and started talking to whatever they were. Mountain lions was the first thing that came to mind because wouldn’t it just be fitting to get mauled by wild cats 10 minutes into a 50 mile run? Thankfully, they were the first of many mule deer I saw that day. I told them I was just passing through and wouldn’t bother them. They seemed to be using the trail as well and stepped politely to the side so I could continue.
A few minutes later, I came upon something else reflecting up ahead but thankfully this time it was just a hiker coming up from Indian Garden campground. We chatted for a few minutes and he told me a little bit of what lay ahead and told me to have a great day. Continuing on down the trail, I had already warmed up to the point where I didn’t really need my jacket anymore. It was also getting lighter out and soon I wouldn’t need my headlamp either. The lighter it got, the better the views got.
looking down the Bright Angel Trail
1 and a half mile resthouse
Last significant downhill portion of Bright Angel
The further I got down Bright Angel, the more people I started to see. They all appeared to be hiking out from either Indian Garden or Bright Angel Campgrounds or Phantom Ranch. They also told me I was the first person they saw descending the trail that morning (since everyone else who was running R2R2R that day had started down South Kaibab). Eventually, I arrived at the mighty Colorado River! And it was..very green. For a second I thought I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day. This must be why certain water spigots near Phantom say “Water from River. Not for Drinking”. Nevertheless, it was a pretty cool sight to see. After about 10ish miles and 2 hours and 40 minutes, I crossed the first bridge of the day, the Silver Bridge! I didn’t take any pictures while actually on the bridge because I couldn’t stop visualizing my phone falling into the abyss and ending up washing ashore in Mexico or something.
Coming into the Bright Angel Campground/Phantom Ranch area was exciting because I felt like I had found “civilization”. There were people and buildings, and of course, the canteen! As it was still before 8am, there weren’t many people out and about yet and the canteen was closed, but I had my sights on a cold glass of lemonade later in the day after my return from the North Rim.
The first few miles on North Kaibab after leaving Phantom was one of my favorite sections of trail. There were huge walls on either side and the trail ran along a stream for a while. This section was also very runnable (i.e. it’s basically the flattest stretch of trail all day). Through here I didn’t see a ton of people, but I did see a few guys carrying mountain bikes on their backs (since bike wheels are not allowed to touch the ground in GCNP). I can’t even imagine carrying a mountain bike on my bike for a few minutes, let alone all the way across the Grand Canyon. My 10 pound pack was plenty.
After passing through Cottonwood Campground, I started to see some people leaving the campground for day hikes. I kept forgetting that it was still early in the morning since I had already been out on the trail for over 4 hours. Since it was still early, it was also still “chilly”, by Phoenix standards anyway. I had ditched my jacket hours before but it was the perfect temperature for shorts and a tank top. After Cottonwood, I arrived at Manzanita Rest Area, site of the last water on the trail this time of year before topping out at the North Rim. After filling up with water, I started to climb! After the initial climb past Manzanita, there’s a section of trail that’s probably the most exposed part on this route. Although I’m not afraid of heights, it was a little unsettling to be next to a several thousand foot drop off. Thankfully, the trail is plenty wide so I kept to the inside. This time of year, there isn’t much traffic on NK, so I didn’t have to dodge people either. Around here, I ran into a fellow R2R2R runner who was already on his way down from the top. When I saw him, for some reason I thought that meant the rim was near ish, but as it turned out there was probably still a good hour and a half of climbing to go past that point. Luckily, I ended up having plenty of company en route to the North Rim. There were a couple guys hiking up from Cottonwood and also two more R2R2R runners from Texas. The six of us climbed for a while in the same vicinity up and up and up. Just when I started thinking the North Rim was elusive, we finally made it to the top. And best of all, there was water – ice cold water right at the trailhead! After refilling my water that was basically gone, eating a quick snack, and attempting (unsuccessfully) to get a phone signal to text my worried husband, I set off back down the trail.
Made it to the North Kaibab Trailhead
The way down went by much more quickly than the way up. After spending hours (or at least what felt like hours) trudging up from Manzanita, I made it back to Manzanita from the North Rim in just over an hour. After a quick refill, I was back on the trail. At this point, I started to realize that getting back to Phantom prior to 4pm for my glass of lemonade was going to be cutting it close. But as always happens when you start thinking about how delicious a nice cold glass of anything sounds on a long run, I was committed. In the runnable stretch between Cottonwood and Phantom, I took fewer pictures and picked up the pace in hopes of making it on time. I was so excited when at 3:57pm, I arrived and the sign outside the canteen said “OPEN”. It had definitely heated up a little bit since the morning and I can’t think of a single time in my life I’ve been so excited to drink a glass of anything, especially after working so hard to get there on time. To my dismay, when I walked into the canteen, a bunch of people started walking out and a girl who was working was setting tables saying “We’re closed, come back tomorrow.” Despite the crowd streaming out, I stood by the counter looking sad. Eventually a man came over and asked me what I wanted. I ordered and paid for my $4.75 glass of lemonade while telling him my story of how I had run extra fast to get there just so I could drink this delicious ice cold beverage. He seemed unmoved by my story, but thankfully handed me a cup anyway. I almost cried I was so happy. I then went outside to sit down and enjoy my drink. While I was sitting under some shade, I started talking with a few people who were staying at Phantom who were asking me all kinds of questions about what I was doing out there, how long it would take, what was I eating, you’re all by yourself?? They were mostly nice but there was one woman who seemed to think she was an ultrarunning expert. “You’re eating pretzels? That can’t be enough.” “You know there’s signs posted everywhere saying you’re not supposed to go to the river and back in a day.” “You’re not drinking plain water, are you?” I wanted to be like, Listen lady, I’ve made it over 3/4 of the way across the canyon and back already and I’m currently just fine so it seems like I know what I’m doing. Instead, I told them it was great chatting with them and thanked them for sharing their shade with me. All that was left now was a 7.5 mile, 5000-foot climb back out of the canyon – piece of cake!
When I was leaving Phantom, I crossed paths again with the guys from Texas who I had climbed up to the North Rim with. They had come down SK in the morning and were going back up BA, the opposite of what I was doing. I wished them good luck on their last climb and we parted ways. Immediately after crossing the River again (via the Black Bridge this time), I started to climb, like really climbing. Ten minutes after I started, the Black Bridge was already a tiny speck below me.
It also was finally what I would consider “hot” and sunny. Remember earlier how I said most people go back up Bright Angel because it’s more shaded and has water stops? That definitely started making more sense for the first few miles of the climb out. I don’t know what exactly was causing me to feel so terrible during this stretch but I had to sit down on rocks/the ground a few times in the first hour or so of the climb. Thankfully after that, the sun started to go down resulting in a lot more shade along the trail. The damage was done though, and I noticed that I was starting to run low on water with a few miles to go. It was around this time that I ran into the hiker who had run out of water who was using the emergency phone. While it might seem kind of mean to not offer someone more help than I did, I had to make my own safety a priority. Running low on water after 12 hours on the trail with darkness approaching, I had to keep moving. The only thing worse than sending an emergency helicopter for one person is sending an emergency helicopter for two people. She seemed perfectly fine and coherent and had successfully made contact with whoever was manning the emergency phone, so I felt that she was going to be just fine.
As I continued to climb, I started to feel better, although my lower back was starting to hurt from being hunched over climbing for so long. As it got closer to sunset, there were amazing views in every direction. I knew I was getting close to being done and really wanted to avoid having to put my headlamp back on so I kept moving at a pretty quick pace. I had to convince myself to stop and take pictures because how could I do this entire journey and then not take pictures of the best part.
As I got closer to the top, I started hearing cars up on the park road. You know you’re getting close when you hear cars! Despite the fact that it was getting somewhat dark, I still didn’t get my headlamp out because I was “almost there”. Eventually I was actually there. When I emerged from the trail to the South Kaibab trailhead, I saw absolutely nothing and no one. It was also finally dark enough to require a headlamp. Now that I had completed the “official” part of my R2R2R run, I had to figure out part 2 which was: How the hell am I going to get back to my car/civilization on the other side of the South Rim? Luckily for me, I was prepared with my trusty list of 4 options as outlined above. One by one, I started going through them.
If you read around in the Grand Canyon literature and ask various people, they’ll say the Kaibab shuttle runs until approximately a half hour to an hour after sunset. By the time I finished I wasn’t sure if the shuttle was still running and didn’t really want to wait and find out since it was getting colder by the minute. I also couldn’t really figure out where the shuttle picked up. There was construction at the trailhead and the road leading to it so the pick up spot turned out to be about a quarter mile away as I found out the next day. Option 2 (a taxi) was also a no go: according to my phone there was “No Service” to be had. With those options crossed off, I started walking along the rim trail toward the road. Since it was dark out at this point, there were only a couple cars and none of them seemed especially friendly (i.e. they didn’t ask me what the hell I was doing staggering around in the dark). At this point, resigned to my fate, I decided to just suck it up and start running the rest of the way to the visitors center still without water since I had run out just before finishing the climb.
Finally, after making it to the visitors center, I ran onto a blue village-bound bus and then proceed to sit and wait and wait for 15 minutes until the bus finally started moving. Still, I was thankful to be on a nice warm bus and to not have to run the remaining 2 miles. At long last, I made it to my car. I chugged a bunch of water and ate a couple pieces of pizza before changing clothes in a bathroom and setting off to find my campsite and get my tent set up.
After a few hours of fitful sleep, I woke up and decided to be a traditional Grand Canyon tourist for the day. But first, it was time to shower. For the low, low price of $2 in quarters, I got 8 minutes of hot water at the Mather Campground shower/laundry building. After that I rode the bus around and wandered along the Rim Trail while indulging in pizza and ice cream. Looking at the canyon from the rim is awesome in its own right but to be in the canyon, especially to go all the way across and back, is something I’ll never forget.