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Gobsmacked: Rim Running in the Grand Canyon

susanf_aboutGobsmacked*. The only word I can think of to describe trail running in the belly of the Grand Canyon. It was an 18 month project that came to fruition on September 11 when 7 of us started from the North Rim at 4:00 A.M. and descended into darkness with only our headlamps to light the mule shoe imprinted dirt trail and rock walls. We stopped at a watering station near Roaring Springs to refill our hydration packs and to put away our headlamps. We were only 4 hours in to what would turn out to be a 16+ hour trail run, but none of us could take our eyes off the continuous beauty of the tall looming canyon walls, the overflowing streams and waterfalls (thanks to recent rains), and how the sun was slowly climbing higher into the sky turning dark rock into luminous shades of pinks, oranges, greens, and purples.

Ask any ultra trail runner and they will say that running Rim to Rim (to Rim) is either on their bucket list and/or they know someone who has done R2R2R. In my experience with these athletic projects, the first step to making it happen is to get a date on the calendar. We originally planned to run in the spring of 2014 but hotel availability on the north rim dictated we would run it in the Fall (despite calling 9 months in advance to book rooms).

Why start at the north rim?

Two reasons. First we would be running towards guaranteed water and food sources since the south rim is much more heavily traveled and offers a variety of restaurants and amenities. Second we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves, given the recent controversy of rim runners in the canyon, so we picked the less traveled end to start from. We were literally the only people at the north rim trailhead when we started (and finished). The only down side (or rather up side) to finishing on the north rim is covering a greater elevation gain on tired legs since the north rim climb is approximately 6,000 feet of gain from the lowest point at the Bright Angel suspension bridge (versus 4,000 feet of gain on the south rim climb). Now that we had a timeframe and a start location, we could back calculate when to begin training.

Our kickoff meeting/happy hour was held in March where 10 of the 13 runners met at a friend’s house to discuss initial rim run plans. Topics covered included: guidelines for running (no one runs alone), travel plans, routes (Bright Angel vs South Kaibab), water sources on the trail, and establishing weekly group training runs. The official training start date was set for May 1 with the assumption that everyone could run 20 miles as a base.

Between May 1 and September 1, the group piled on the training miles. Long runs consisted of 50 mile days (13 miles in the morning and 37 miles in the evening – thanks to the Capt Karl trail races). We road tripped to Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort, Texas several times to run 30 miles in the heat of the day. We ran hill repeats on the Hill of Life, Smokey Valley, and Beauford. We also incorporated power walking into our weekly runs because let’s face it, we would be power walking! And while we ran, there was always discussion around hydration packs, water purification systems, food, trekking poles (to use or not to use), and all possible “what if” scenarios. While we kept the destination in the backs of our minds, we were definitely enjoying the journey!

Training Run at Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort, TX. (credit: Susan Farago)

Training Run at Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort, TX. (Credit: Susan Farago)

Trail runners have been running the rims as far back as the late 1970s but recent issues of overcrowding and a strain on park resources have caused the Grand Canyon National Park to take a hard look at impact and usage. In July, an article came out from Competitor Magazine citing the key concerns and issues facing the park, including runners rushing past hikers on narrow trails, leaving litter, throwing up, and cutting in line at water stations. There has also been an increase in the number of large groups doing events or crossings for charity fundraisers which adds to the already overburdened park staff and resources.

The park began collecting data in the summer including people count, trail usage, and park patron feedback. Feedback has included a call to ban runners. Based on this data and input from other resources, the park will release a new draft of its backcountry management plan. All this discussion of permitting and banning runners was making me nervous and I kept thinking, “Just hold off until after September 11.” Trail Runner Magazine posted an updated article about running the rims which stated, “Organized, non-commercial activities in the inner canyon, including rim-to-rim runs, will require permits beginning September 15.” Our group came in under the wire by four days.

We had our last planning meeting in August where we finalized the travel and run timeline, picked a south route (Bright Angel), and discussed contingency plans. The original group of 13 runners was now down to seven. We were extremely fortunate to pick up a trail Sherpa, the boyfriend of one of the runners who would meet us at the south rim with supplies and would be a way to transport anyone in the group back to the north rim if they did not want to continue. We were set.

A few days before we flew to Las Vegas, massive rains and flooding hit Nevada and Arizona, leaving parts of the I-15 freeway into St. George, Utah completely destroyed. Our itinerary was tightly packed and left little room for error. We flew into Las Vegas early Wednesday morning, drove to the North Rim Lodge (a 4.5 hour drive which turned into almost a 6 hour drive due to road detours), met everyone for dinner at 4:30pm, and then headed to bed for a “heels down” start at 4:00am on Thursday. Our backup day was to run Friday morning which would have made for a tight check out timeframe on Saturday. Fortunately there were a few days after the rains where the canyon trails had a chance to dry out. Thursday would be our day.

By the time we started our run, there were a few small standing puddles on an otherwise nicely packed dirt and rock trail. The weather was 46 degrees, windy, with clear skies. We posed for a quick photo at the north rim trailhead and then headed into the canyon.

Climbing up the Grand Canyon south rim via Bright Angel Trail. (Credit: Susan Farago)

Climbing up the Grand Canyon south rim via Bright Angel Trail. (Credit: Susan Farago)

Video of the run:

Grand Canyon 2014: Rim to Rim (to Rim) Run from Yellow Bird Flight on Vimeo.

Running Rim to Rim to Rim was the hardest physical endeavor I have ever undertaken. But never once did I want to quit. The canyon gave us the perfect day. We made a point of being polite to other trail users, packing ALL of our trash out, and being respectful of the trails and resources we were using. And while we only got yelled at once by a park ranger on the south rim who hollered, “SLOW DOWN!” (which we did), we were utterly thankful for the opportunity to run the canyon. Gobsmacked.

Hard earned self-made rim stickers. (Credit: Susan Farago)

Hard earned self-made rim stickers. (Credit: Susan Farago)

*“Gobsmacked combines the northern English and Scottish slang term gob, mouth, with the verb smack. It suggests the speaker is utterly astonished or astounded. It’s much stronger than just being surprised; it’s used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks.” (

– Susan Farago

More Grand Canyon Goodies:

About the author

Susan Farago Susan Farago discovered her love of the outdoors as a child during family hiking trips to Lake Superior’s north shore in Minnesota. As an adult, her passion for sport and fitness evolved into competing in long distance events. Susan discovered trail running in 2005 as a way to cross train, and she has been enjoying running with the birds and trees ever since! Susan co-founded Trailhead Running in 2012 in order to share her love of the trails with other women. For more information on Susan, check out the About page.

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