The absurd idea to run Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon on April 13th started around February when my friend Dan asked a group of us if we wanted to join him on this adventure. This journey would take us over 50 miles and 17,000 feet of elevation gain. I was at a place in my life when I wanted to try something new and work on my beginner’s mindset. It is that state of mind when you are sure of nothing but your weak skills, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment and ready to learn and adapt. Since I was going to turn 30 on April 19th, a week after the run, I thought this would be a great way to cap off my 20’s. At the time, the farthest I had ever run in my life was 10 miles. I had just finished a training plan to help me hit a PR overhead jerk of 405 lbs. I knew my training was going to have to do a complete 360 if I wanted to accomplish running an ultra marathon. Let’s go! I was in.
The trip started out with a change of plans. A blizzard was set to hit Denver cancelling all flights out for the day that we were supposed to leave. To me, this meant it was time for a road trip! I wanted to get an experience that I could take with me for the rest of my life rather than, “check the box,” of running a 50 mile ultra marathon. I told the guys I was going to drive and my friend Dwight said he wanted to join. We had to cancel plans quickly and hit the road driving south to New Mexico to beat the storm. The road trip took us on an incredible drive through the empty desert and vast boundless sky of the American Southwest.
We arrived at the Grand Canyon two days later after stops in Santa Fe and Gallup New Mexico. We quickly loaded up our running packs and got to sleep as early as possible to prepare for the 2:30am wake up call the following morning.
We hit the trail at 3am running past signs warning, “DO NOT attempt to hike the Colorado River and back in one day.” However, we had bigger plans and the humorous warning signs lit a fire inside our group of wild men and women. We flew past those signs into the dark abyss with our headlamps and excitement, which quickly carried us down seemingly hundreds of switchbacks. As our group rapidly dispersed I chose to tackle the first decent alone under a star and moonlit sky. I wanted to clear my mind and set the intention for the rest of the 50 mile journey. I told myself to simply work on taking in the experience and that everything would be revealed to me in one way or another. (oh boy did that happen).
After 9 miles of descending switchbacks I made it to the Colorado River and crossed the bridge to Phantom Ranch. This was the first main mental checkmark I had in my head. It was now slightly over 14 miles to the top of the North Rim with over a mile in elevation gain. I started running along the rolling hills and canyons walls next to the raging Colorado River. As the sun began to rise, it lit up the HUGE red walls all around me. I stopped to take a sunrise picture only to realize that my phone somehow was taking a video for the past 3 hours and was now almost dead! This led me to lesson #1: Take it all in through my own eyes and leave the electronic distracts behind. A good omen and reminder for the rest of my life I thought. I met up with a friend at this point who took a few photos and we began running together next to the river across the bottom of the canyon.
Around mile 15 we had to cross a small section of the river where the water was up to our knees. As I was crossing my left foot got stuck between a rock and the raging river twisted my knee. I stumbled and felt a pop on the inside of my knee, FUCK!
I quickly got my foot out and tried to apply pressure onto my left leg, but my knee started to buckle and give out. My mind quickly went into survival mode and I worked on changing all possible negative thoughts into positive ones as I knew that spending too much time wallowing in my pain would do nothing but make the rest of the run harder and more painful. Turning back was not an option at this point. I had a mission to complete and no other way out from the bottom of the canyon. I leaned on my hiking poles and did a lot of positive mental self talk to “will” my brain, mind, and body together. After a few minutes of light jogging it started to feel okay if I focused on striking the ground a certain way and only up slight elevation. The down was too much impact (I learned this after falling and eating a few rocks).
I was still high (or say “in complete euphoria”) from the experience so far and told myself it would be okay if I just put one foot in front of the other. I had so much food and water in my pack I figured I would be fine. My knee slowed me down A LOT and on my way up to the North Rim I was passed by all my friends who were absolutely crushing it, which inspired me to dig a little deeper.
Finally, after about 7 ish hours I arrived at the snowy North Rim and met my friend Tom there. Tom’s ankle was bruised and he was eating cookies and pizza under a tree. We had a moment of, “holy crap,” this is intense, but absolutely awe inspiring. I looked down at my watch and it read 27 miles completed so far. This was the farthest I had ever run in my life and I was only halfway. Tom was going to rest a bit longer, but I knew if I sat for too long I wouldn’t want to get back up so I put on a knee sleeve I had in my bag and started the descent down the North Rim. Tom had done an ultra marathon before and was faster than me, so we figured he would catch me at some point and told him I would see him out there.
The way back:
Oh man did each step hurt. Going into the race my plan was to run the downhills and flats and power hike up the vertical. After this whole knee experience there was no running down hill at all. My pace was reduced to a limping waddle leaning hard on my trekking poles for support. At mile 33 my gps watch ran out of battery and I was truly alone with no way to tell how far I had gone, my pace, how much further, or the time. It was just me, the sheer beauty (that I am not going to try and describe because I will do it a disservice) and my thoughts. Once I got down the North Rim to the water station I started to really worry about Tom and his ankle. I knew how bad the steep descent of the North Rim felt for me and I was just imagining how awful it would feel on his ankle. I waited a little longer to see how far he was behind me. After 10 minutes I told myself I needed to keep moving and would wait again at Phantom Ranch.
I decided to mentally break up the rest of the trip into three parts. Nine miles along rolling hills to Phantom Ranch, then five miles to Indian Gardens, and lastly 4.5 miles to the top of the South Rim. I told myself this was a treat, that I was fortunate to be here and have this experience. I repeated to myself that I was going to make the most of it and even if I couldn’t run like I wanted to I was going to try and gingerly jog and walk when I had to. The goal was to soak it all up.
The rolling hills next to the Colorado River while being engulfed in the canyon is probably the most beautiful running path I will ever be on. It was surreal to look up and see how deep down in the pit you are. I tried to jog here for a bit and for awhile it was bearable. However, all good things come to and end and after 2-3 miles the pain became so bad I threw up. I am not sure if this was due to was the blaring heat, the nasty energy goo I had been eating all day, or the damn pain in my leg. My knee just wasn’t having it and eventually my mind-body connection didn’t work very well, because when I told my foot to “move,” it just walked…slowly. I finally made it to Cottonwood Campground, which at the time I forgot existed and thought I had made it to Phantom Ranch. That was a, “YES,” followed quickly by a, “DAMN,” followed by a, “Good, let’s get back after it and keep moving.” Changing my mindset from, “I have to do this,” into, “I get to do this,” helped me immensely. A big picture realization is that stress can be good, because from it you can learn to adapt and get stronger. When I started focusing on befriending my extreme discomfort the more comfortable I became.
Eventually I made it to Phantom Ranch. After briefly chatting with a family about my adventures and doing some very careful handstands to sike myself up, I told them I had to get back to the rim. They looked at me like I was crazy as I took off from Phantom Ranch at a slow pace. About .5 mile in I heard someone behind me, it was Tom! His ankle was now a balloon, but he was able to power hike and we decided to stay together and make the final 9 mile ascent up to the South Rim together. We started off chatting and going over our stories of injury and self doubt along with overcoming obstacles. However, we quickly realized we had a lot of ground to cover and this trek wasn’t nearly over. I took the lead as we hobbled over countless boulders and drainage rocks finally making it the 4.5 miles to Indian Gardens. From here I thought it was only 3 more miles to the rim. I was wrong and at this point slightly delirious, because we still had 4.5 more miles to the South Rim.
That was a shot to the soul, especially as the sun began to set and we started to get our headlamps back out.
It was at this point when I started to look up at…. THE WALL.
The wall is the massive 4,000 foot high rock called the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. If we wanted to get out of here we had to switchback our way to the top of that. It really put things into perspective as I waddled using muscles I didn’t know existed.
It sounds cliché, but this was all about the journey and not the end goal. The more I thought about getting to the top the seemingly further away it felt. If I could just focus on moving one step at a time and making imaginary friends with the spiders and scorpions I saw at my feet the better I felt. After about 45 minutes we made it to the 3 mile mark and we knew the end was, “close.”
What I didn’t know is that those 3 miles would be the longest three miles of my life! The miles and switchbacks never seemed to end. I knew there would be a marker at 1.5 miles, but after an hour I was really starting to wonder if I either missed it or made it up in my delirious state of mind. We would stop every 15-20 minutes for a 1-2 minutes break before going on again. This time Tom led and would usually have to wait for me climbing up. He shared some applesauce with me and we kept moving, because even sitting for 30 seconds stiffened our legs like boards and it took awhile to loosen them back up enough to bend at the knee.
Finally, I reached an outcrop in the rock. I remembered one of these about .15 miles from the rim and thought I finally made it to the top. My heart started to race and tears welled up in my eyes. Unfortunately, there were TWO of these outcrops and I was at the second one, .75 miles from the top (I didn’t know this at the time). All I wanted to do was collapse and lay down. It took almost everything I had to not allow myself to do this. After a lot of mental convincing I allowed myself to sit without Tom for 15 seconds and as I counted in my head I heard my friend Dan yell from the rim, “Mike, Tom is that you?!” This kicked me right up for about 5 seconds and I knew I was close to the finish.
After 5 minutes I finally passed through the hole in the rock, which in my mind seemed like a portal to another dimension. A dimension where I now felt more in tune and alive with the Earth and nature like never before. The Canyon changed me and I took one last look out into the moon lit abyss and let out a war cry and real tears. Tom was waiting for me close to the final switchback so we could finish together. Our friends were at the top with congratulations, jackets and pizza. I felt overwhelmed emotionally to have such support after leaving it all in the canyon. I gave Tom a big hug and then we piled into the same cars that we drove to the trailhead 18 hours earlier when starting this journey.
We drove 15 minutes to a Mexican restaurant and I was living on a cloud of accomplishment and exhaustion. That was easily the hardest thing I had ever done physically and mentally, especially having to push through constant jarring pain in my leg for over a marathon and tons of elevation. When we got to the restaurant it took me 10 minutes to “walk” to the booth and celebrate with my friends.
That night I had trouble sleeping due to the stress and euphoria my body just went through. I was so proud of my friends who all crushed the journey and was just imagining how great they must have all felt. It was really special to be apart of a group like that.
I woke up at 7 am and started packing up before getting ready to drive back to Colorado with Dwight so we could get back to work Monday morning. It took us 13 hours with various stops along the way.
I am writing this on Monday afternoon, two days after the journey. To be honest, I’m having a tough time putting the experience into words. I hope reading this journey inspires you to go outside and create an adventure in whatever way that means to you. Or even just remind you of a time when you pushed your limits and overcame something you thought you couldn’t do. Connecting to nature and myself was the medicine I knew I needed, but I didn’t know how badly I needed it.
You can bet I will be back outdoors very soon on another adventure testing the limits of my mind and body!