My husband and I recently returned from a week long trip to Colorado. While the primary reason for our trip was a friend’s wedding in Telluride, the decision to extend our trip into a longer adventure seemed like a no-brainer. During the week we managed to squeeze in a wedding, multiple backpacking trips, trail runs, hikes, and visits to towns less traveled. While every single trail and mountain and lake we saw in Colorado was amazing, there are plenty of less specific things that make the Centennial State one of my favorites. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say part of the reason I’m making this list is to convince my husband of my (not so) secret plans to move there someday. So without further ado, here are my seven favorite things about Colorado:
Mountains, mountains everywhere. Who doesn’t love a good mountain, eh? Whether you’re driving down I-70 or camping in the backcountry, chances are you’re going to be surrounded by mountains (unless of course you’re in Northeast Colorado, which looks a lot like Nebraska, no offense). What could be more magical and inspiring than seeing mountains all around you? Nothing that I can think of.
The people who live there and the outdoor culture. No matter where we went in Colorado, everyone we met was so welcoming and helpful. As soon as we mentioned we were from out of state and were looking for trail and backpacking ideas, people were eager to share their favorites with us. From the guy working at the Walmart Kinko’s in Montrose to the guy working at the running shop in Carbondale to the guy we sat next to at a brewery in Leadville, Coloradoans were happy to help us have an amazing experience.
No one is in a hurry. Ok, so this was actually one of my least favorite things too. When it comes to driving, Coloradoans are the slowest of the slow. Maybe it’s because they’re busy enjoying the scenery? After the 6-hour turned 7.5-hour drive from DIA to Telluride, we were feeling less than charitable toward local drivers. When it comes to the trails though, I couldn’t agree more with the take your time attitude. After spending 15+ years competing in running and triathlon, I’ll admit that a lot of times I like to do things fast. While it’s a great gift to be able to cover long distances in a short amount of time, sometimes it’s great to be able to take your time and enjoy the journey and the views (and in Colorado there are plenty of them!). On our last day of the trip, I climbed 14er Mt. Elbert. Shortly after I arrived at the top, about 8 guys arrived in groups of two or three. They all sat down on the summit, a couple beers were opened, some legal plants were passed around, people took pictures of each other. In short, no one was in a hurry to end their journey. Except me of course, only this time it was because I had to get down the mountain, shower, and drive back to Denver to catch a flight. But I promise for the rest of my trip, I slowed down and enjoyed the scenery.
People say it’s crowded but it’s really not. One of the first things people say about Colorado is “Oh it’s so busy, there’s too many people, I would never want to go there.” Sure, if you go to Pikes Peak or the Manitou Incline or the Boulder Flatirons on a summer weekend, you’re going to have lots of company. But trust me, there are lots of less traveled places in Colorado. As someone who has driven across the state multiple times in the last few months, trust me when I say, Colorado is a whole lot of nothing. Once you get a couple hours outside of Denver, I think you’ll be surprised. There are plenty of smaller towns with equally if not more amazing destinations than their more urban counterparts. On this trip we stopped in Carbondale and Leadville, which are both small towns with lots of activities and fewer people (and apparently named after elements). We had planned to visit Silverton (I’m sensing a theme here) and/or Durango on this trip, but the current forest fire near there changed our plans. There is still plenty of solitude to be found in Colorado if you’re willing to get off the beaten path.
So many dogs! A lot of times it seems like outdoor adventures and dogs go hand in hand. I mean who wouldn’t want to share the best part of life with man’s best friend. From stores to trails to breweries to sidewalks, there are happy dogs everywhere. Walk into any local bike or outdoor store and you’ll likely be greeted by a friendly pup. Hike along any trail and you’ll see big dogs, little dogs, all kinds of dogs leading their owners up mountains.
Year round activities! Even though our trip was obviously in the summer, it was easy to see that the adventures don’t end when the snow falls. Downhill skiing is an obvious one, but there’s also Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, mountaineering, fatbiking, the possibilities are endless.
There is so much to see and do, it’s impossible to run out of places to go. Colorado is home to four national parks, eight national monuments, and three national historic areas. There are also 11 national forests and numerous state parks. Exploring any one of them could easily take weeks on its own. I feel like we saw and did so much during our week, but I already have a long list of other places I want to go and activities I want to try.
Last weekend I was supposed to run the Zane Grey 50 Mile near Payson, Arizona. With nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain at an average elevation of 6,500 feet, and a course that’s littered with giant rocks, rocks, and more rocks, many people have deemed it one of the toughest 50-mile runs in the country. Living in Phoenix was the perfect opportunity to train for this race. Close proximity to lots of rocky mountain trails and the ability to go check out the course in person ahead of time were ideal for training for this race. Everything was going great until I ended up returning home to Michigan sooner than I’d planned. Not having the funds to fly back to Arizona and rent a car for the weekend, I decided to do the next best thing: run on one of my favorite trails in Michigan as part of one of my favorite events.
Trail Weekend, which is hosted by local running shop/event company Running Fit has long been one of my favorite races. It takes place at the end of April ever year near Ann Arbor, Michigan, mostly on the Potowatomi Trail in the Pinckney Recreation Area. This trail is a favorite for many people in the area including mountain bikers, trail runners, backpackers, and wildlife enthusiasts. Like most trails and areas of Michigan, Poto (as the locals call it) passes near numerous lakes, through forests, and also contains some of the biggest hills in the area, which is to say they take about 4 minutes to power-hike up. They’re definitely not big hills by most people’s standards but the number of hills and the fact that you’re constantly going either up or down is what most people find challenging about it. My favorite part of this trail is the remote feeling and being able to cool off in the lake after a hot summer run.
Trail Weekend consists of a half marathon on Saturday and a 5-miler, marathon, and 50k on Sunday. For the most fun possible, you can sign up for both the half marathon and the 50k, which is what I usually do and this year was no exception. I originally wasn’t sure about signing up for this race since I had done the Glass City Marathon the previous weekend. When my friend asked me to run the half marathon with her as her first official half marathon, how could I say no?
On race day, after about an hour’s drive, we arrived at the park and got our bibs. The weather for the day was typical Michigan spring weather, which is to say it was 35 degrees, gray, and windy. We sat in the car listening to not very pump-up music keeping warm before going to the start line. There seemed to be even more people than I remembered there being in previous years (turns out there were actually fewer people than the last time I did this race, but there were still 580 finishers this year). After making our way through the crowd, we decided to start with a random group a group that looked about the pace we were planning to run.
After about a minute of running through an open field, we hit the singletrack, and the inevitable standstill that comes with just about every trail race. As we slowly made our way through the first mile, a guy behind us asked “I’ve never run a trail race before. Is it going to be like this the whole time?” I reassured him that it usually spreads out pretty quick, although that didn’t really turn out to be the case on this day. It ended up being at least 4 or 5 miles before we got some breathing room near our spot in the middle of the pack. Except for the bumper to bumper traffic on the trail, things were going really well for the first 6 or so miles. We were keeping a steady pace and we had perfect running conditions. It was around this time, my friend started to get a headache.
About a month ago, on a half marathon distance “training run” in the desert, we discovered that my friend loses an extreme amount of salt. She loses so much salt in fact that I was feeding her S Caps every 30 minutes and she doused all her food in salt for the next few days. She thought in milder (read: cold) temperatures, she wouldn’t need salt pills and hadn’t brought any. Thankfully, I knew better and had packed plenty for the occasion. After I told her I had packed salt pills and she could have as many as she wanted she told me “I’d hug you right now if you weren’t so far away.” After a quick stop for a life-changing salt pill, we were on our way again.
We continued on at a steady pace and around mile 9 we could hear lots of yelling in the distance. There turned out to be a large group of kids (scouts maybe?) who were walking along the trail cheering on runners and giving out liberal amounts of high-fives. After passing through the cheering section, someone (maybe me) said something like “Only 5k to go – piece of cake!” A guy who we had been running near all day warned us not to get too excited as there was a really big hill coming up. I spent the next several minutes trying to think of what hill he could be talking about. As someone who had run this trail at least a hundred times, I thought I would have remembered a hill with that kind of reputation. Turns out, I did remember the hill once I saw it. Usually when I’m on this trail, I’m going downhill though as that is the normal direction for foot traffic. By this time we were around mile 11 and my friend was finally starting to get tired. Barely. She even appeared to be having fun while going up the “monster” hill, although this is probably because I had just said something incredibly funny.
The last couple miles of the course somehow seemed the longest/I think they actually were the longest based on course markings. Just before mile 13 (which was definitely more than 0.1 miles from the finish), we heard some 80’s music blasting from a guy carrying around a giant speaker. I can’t remember what song it was but I’m pretty sure it was one of the songs found in Happy Gilmore, which obviously means it was great.
After we turned off the trail onto the grass field toward the finish, my friend tried to walk up the last (small) hill. “No more walking!” I yelled. “We’re almost there.” Bystanders probably thought I was a mean friend but whatever, you’ve got to run the final stretch.
After crossing the finish line, we walked around for a few minutes and looked for a willing volunteer to take our picture. The wind blowing off the lake and still-gray skies made it not a very hospitable environment to hang out in after finishing a race. There was one guy though who decided to brave the elements even further by wading into the lake. I’ll be the first person to say there’s nothing better than being able to lounge in a lake after a run, but usually I prefer to do that when it’s warmer than 40 degrees outside.
Despite his dip in the lake, he at least seemed to have avoided hypothermia as he managed to hold his hands steady enough to take a great picture of us. Running this race with my friend for her first half marathon (and on a trail no less) made Day 1 of Trail Weekend especially memorable this year. After nearly 16 years of running, sometimes I forget about what it’s like to be new-ish to the sport. Being with friends and helping others to reach their goals are two of my favorite things about running, and I was able to do both on this day. This might have been her first half marathon and first trail race, but it definitely won’t be her last as evidenced by the permanent smile attached to her face and the number of times she said “This is so fun!”.
After the freak mid-April snowstorm that covered half the country a couple weeks ago, it seems as though it’s finally spring. If you’re not fortunate enough to live somewhere like Arizona, this probably means rain, and plenty of it. Don’t be discouraged though, soon enough, people in Arizona will be baking cookies in their cars while the rest of us are enjoying more “mild” summers in the 80’s and 90’s. Until then though, we have rain and mud to deal with.
Every year around mid- to late-May, I start seeing tons of runners everywhere. “Wow, so many people! I wonder where they were a month or two or five ago” I think. Inside is the answer. Although people from the Midwest seem to be somewhat more hardy than people from more mild climates, people here have their “weather rules” too. Oh, it’s too cold out, it’s cloudy, there’s snow on the ground. The list goes on and on. The most extreme case of this I heard was from a friend who moved to Texas whose triathlon club there instituted rules such as:
If it’s colder than 70 degrees, we don’t bike outside
If it’s colder than 50 degrees, we don’t run outside
For swimming, the water temperature must be at least 75 degrees and everyone must wear a wetsuit and neoprene booties and cap at all times
I just made that last one up but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of them. The truth is there’s (almost) no weather that’s bad enough to forgo an outdoor activity. With the right wardrobe and the right attitude, it can even be fun! For a true representation of sporting weather badass-ery, check out surfer Dan and his beard. This guy surfs in Lake Superior in the winter time. If you’ve never been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, trust me when I say Lake Superior is freezing cold even at the height of summer. While we can’t all be surfer Dans, we can try a little bit harder to get outside in all types of weather. See below for some tips on how to embrace the rain and mud this spring!
Mentally prepare yourself – **This is the most important one** If you find yourself looking out the window formulating excuses about why you should probably just skip today’s workout or thinking about how if you do go out there, you’re going to be cold and wet and miserable, stop right now. Instead, tell yourself what a badass you’ll be for going out there on a day when everyone else is huddled inside. Tell yourself how fun it’ll be to splash through puddles and feel the rain hit your face. Going into anything with the right mindset will set you up for a better chance at success. In 2016, it rained during every single race I did over half marathon distance (that’s roughly 15 races and no, I don’t live in the Pacific Northwest). If I had stayed home every time it rained that year, I would’ve barely done anything at all. You never know what the weather is going to be like on race day so you need to be ready for anything and everything.
Phone a friend – If you already tried to mentally prepare yourself and still can’t seem to convince yourself to do it, try calling a friend. In this case, the dumber the better. On days with terrible weather when I make my husband join me my husband voluntarily joins me, I always tell him how awesome he is for being out there, but usually he says “I’m not awesome, just dumb.”
Dress for success – Usually I don’t wear a rain jacket while running unless it’s under 45 degrees, and even then I might not wear one depending on how fast I’m going. I have an Ultimate Direction Ultra jacket which I love. It keeps me dry in all but the most monsoon-ish weather, its super light, and it packs down small so I can put it away when I inevitably get too hot.
Bring a change of clothes and a towel – If you’re driving to a trail or some other place, bring a towel and a change of clothes with you. You’ll get cold fast after sitting in your car sopping wet for a few minutes.
Leave the phone at home – Since phones and water don’t really mix, it’s best to leave it at home. If you’re out for a longer adventure or in a more remote area where this isn’t feasible, try putting your phone in a ziploc bag before putting it in your pack.
Embrace the mud – I recently did a trail half marathon in Arizona of all places where most of the course was covered in mud. Throughout the race, I watched people tiptoe carefully around the “muddy areas”, which I repeat, was most of the course. If you think there’s a chance the mud in front of you might be quicksand that will drag you underground, by all means, find a way around. But when it’s pouring rain and everything is sloppy, you’re going to get dirty eventually so just embrace it. One of my favorite mottos is “If you ain’t dirty, you ain’t having fun” so it comes as no surprise that I’m usually the dirtiest person at the end of every race.
One of the most important aspects of participating in endurance sports is nutrition. I’m not talking about how many servings of vegetables you had yesterday or whether you’ve been eating a rainbow of fruits although I guess that’s important too. I’m talking about consuming adequate nutrition on a 3 or 4 or 5 or 24 hour long adventure. It’s not enough to check all the boxes on your training schedule, you have to practice eating too. Wait. Practice eating? That’s something everyone could get into.
Some people have stomachs of steel and can consume packaged bars and energy gels all day long and feel great. Some people eat nothing but fruit a la Fruitarian and feel great. While these options might work for some people, the best way to find out what works for you is to experiment. Most ultra runners I know will consume at least some “real” food during a race (i.e. they don’t subsist only on gels and bars). And let’s face it, eating the things commonly found at ultra aid stations sounds way more appetizing anyway.
My current favorite things to eat on long training runs/races/adventures are:
Justin’s Almond Butter packets – I actually just discovered these and I can’t believe it’s taken so long. They’re 200 calories each and barely take up any space at all. They definitely need to be eaten with water though unless you want that whole nut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth thing
PB&J sandwiches – Outside Online just wrote an article about the amazing properties of the PBJ sammy and I couldn’t agree more. You just cant go wrong with these, except for of course if you’re at a 100k that requires you to make your own sandwiches and they have honey instead of jelly, and you get immediately swarmed by bees, but I digress.
Fruit/Chia bars by KIND – kind of like a grown up fruit roll-up except you know, made with actual fruit
Watermelon – There’s nothing better during a hot summer race than some delicious watermelon. Bonus: it hydrates you too
Popsicles – On the topic of summer races, last year I did a race where the race director stood in the middle of the woods with a cooler full of popsicles while playing ice cream truck music from her phone. Needless to say, it’s now my favorite race
Salted Almonds – Salted almonds are another one I recently discovered. I shared some of mine with a fellow racer at a recent 50 miler and he loved them too so it’s not just me. Lots of calories in just a few bites, and electrolytes too
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches – aka The Holy Grail of ultra food. Anytime I do a race where they have grilled cheese sandwiches, I know it’s going to be a great day. They taste even better if it’s dark and cold outside
Beer – Just kidding about this one. Kind of. While I personally can’t fathom drinking a beer during a run, I recently volunteered at a 100k where a woman rolled into the aid station at mile 37, ate a pizza and drank a can of PBR, then continued on her way. Lady, if you’re reading this, you’re my hero.
What are your favorite foods to eat while training/racing/adventuring? I’m always looking for new ideas! Leave your answer in the comments.
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.