I tagged the kiosk at the South Kaibab Trailhead at 9:00AM sharp on Tuesday morning and began my journey across the Grand Canyon. The first 15 minutes were cold and choppy. The trail was pretty chewed up and the wind was strong on the ridges. However, after passing through Cedar Ridge the temperature warmed and the wind died down. What a great day to be alive!
I was running with two handheld bottles filled with sportsdrink., had four portions of drink powder, and 10 gels in my pockets. Assuming all went well this would be enough. I was hoping to make the journey out and back in 8 hours but, in the moment, I was just happy to be out on the trail enjoying the sunshine and savoring the incredible environment of the Grand Canyon.
Passing from the red rock outcroppings in the middle of the descent to the darker gray and black rock walls of the inner canyon schist I saw, for the first time, the suspension bridge across the Colorado River. A few minutes later I was across. I had made the descent in one-hour flat. Not great, but solid. I pushed on through the sandy bottomlands next to the river and began the slow, gradual climb up to the North Rim. The few hikers I saw in the area around Phantom Ranch looked at me with a combination of confusion and curiosity. I was having fun.
This next section turned out to be my favorite of the day. The climb through the box canyon formed by Bright Angel Creek is smooth and runnable. Gaining 1800 feet between the river and the Cottonwood Campground over 7 miles, this section makes the climb feel easy. Of course, after getting through the campground in 2:20, the real heart of the ascent to the North Rim begins in earnest. Over the next 7 miles I would gain 4000 feet and go from the desert to the mountains.
I topped off my bottles at Roaring Springs and set about climbing steadily to the rim. My goal was to powerhike the steepest sections and run whenever I could without draining any extra energy. I imagined myself at Mile 40 of a 100 miler during this stretch and it helped me keep things strong but controlled. I tagged the North Rim kiosk in 3:58 and quickly turned around for the descent. After a quick stop to top off my bottles at Roaring Springs again I made it back to Cottonwood Campground in 5:00 flat.
By this time I was starting to feel tired but the temperatures were cooperating and my feet felt fine. In addition, my quads felt surprisingly good given all the early-season descending. I decided to cruise the level stretch down to Bright Angel Campground in the hope that I might feel rested enough to make a solid attempt at 8 hours over the last climb up South Kaibab. I hit the Campground in 5:59, topped off my bottles, sucked down two gels, and jogged over to the bridge crossing the Colorado for the second time in 6:05. I had two full bottles and three gels for the climb. It was time to get to work.
The climb up South Kaibab is relentless and at this point in the day I must admit it was tough to run some of the steeper sections. I resolved to just run everything I could and push hard to strongly hike the steeper sections. Surprisingly, up until this time, I had only passed one mule train the entire day and I encountered my second and last one shortly before reaching Skeleton Point. After getting past the mules (I probably only lost a minute, at the most, here) I had 3 miles and 2400 feet to go. Checking my watch I saw I had less than an hour to do it. I had been running for 7:03.
I ran everything I could from here but about a mile from the rim I realized 8 hours was not in the cards. I ran as much as I could until hitting Jacob’s Ladder and as I ran past the sign that said “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY!” I chuckled and checked my watch. 8 hours flat.
I powerhiked up the last few hundred feet to the rim and tagged the kiosk in 8:11.
Sitting down in the dirt, I drained my bottles and smiled. 11 minutes short of my goal was not enough to discourage me. It had been an extraordinary day in the Canyon. Next March I’ll try to get those 11 minutes back.