Although words cannot describe the feeling and awesomeness of actually standing in the Grand Canyon, let alone running through it twice in one day, I’ll do my best to visualize it for you here. This was one of the runs I had heard about over the past couple of years, but really had no idea what it would take or how to pull it off, I just knew I wanted to do it when the idea was presented to me. I mean, come on, who doesn’t get excited over the thought of running almost 50 miles, from elevations well over 7000 feet down to 2400, then back up again to almost 8000 feet, with little room for error on the side of cliffs and trails maybe a couple of feet wide in a few spots.
Then turning back around and doing it in reverse. All in one day?
Aaron and Sandy were flying into Vegas and driving down, and my flight had me going into Phoenix, so we just decided to meet up at the hotel in Flagstaff where we were staying. Our good friend Phil Turk, who had tackled this beast of a run a couple of years ago, hooked us up with the hotel room, which we were super grateful for. My schedule would be a tight one going into the weekend, as I needed to be away from home as little as possible, getting back to my real job and my family. If I could figure out a way to get paid doing this stuff I’d be a happy man lol! I landed in Phoenix around 2PM MST, picked up my rental car, and drove the 2 1/2 hours on up to Flagstaff. I noticed it was quite a bit warmer than home when I stepped outside of the airport, hitting almost 90 degrees. Hrmmm, a little warmer than expected, but the canyon was supposed to be cooler when we ran through. The drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff is an interesting one, as you seem to do nothing but climb up a mountain, gaining well over 5000 feet in elevation, and the temperature swings on the car dash were crazy, ranging from 93 down to 63, and everywhere in between. I’d hit a peak and the temp would be cool; I’d drop down into the valley and gain 20 degrees. It would be a sign as to what I would encounter the next day.
Even though our flights landed about an hour apart, Aaron and Sandy had about 30 more minutes of a drive than I, but I couldn’t pass up Del Taco…it had been a while. We fortunately arrived at the hotel at the same time, checked in, and headed over to do some carb loading before hitting the grocery store for last-minute supplies for the next day. A few extra power bars, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and a few other miscellaneous items filled our baskets, and we were off. Getting back in the hotel around 6, we fixed up our packs with fluids and food, gels and salt tablets, and whatever else we figured we’d need, then hit the rack around 6:30….midnight would be here shortly.
Our plan leading up to the run was to take off around 2AM from the south rim, as we wanted to run in the cool air as much as possible. The original weather forecast I checked out showed the park ranging from 33 to 69 degrees. Almost perfect weather. The run by the river that afternoon didn’t read the forecast however, but more on that later. We set our alarms for midnight, figuring to leave around 1230-1245, driving the 1 1/2 hours to the park, and taking off no later than 3. I don’t think any of us had a problem getting to sleep…we’d been through this routine before. Midnight came, the alarms went off, and we all jumped up excited for the challenge. We headed out at 1245 (I had to run back up for a last-minute check to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything…Tiff usually handles all of this!), and off we went. Stopping for Aaron’s coffee, we decided I would drive and headed up the road.
The drive into the park was quite interesting. I’d been there before, almost driving up at the same time, as when we moved to WV from San Diego, we stayed overnight in Williams and drove up to see the sunrise at the Overlook on the South Rim. The moon this morning was full, not a cloud in the sky, and we were greeted the whole way up by dozens of elk casually standing alongside the road watching us as we drove by. I’m used to looking for deer along the road in WV, but elk are a completely different story. Especially in the small rental car we were cruising in. Hitting a deer in a car can do some damage, but you should live through it. Hitting an elk…well, death is a possibility. We also had only the one car as we planned on starting AND finishing together, then heading back to the hotel in time for me to catch my flight at 0530 Sunday morning.
We arrived at the park, found a restroom to use, and was greeted by a friendly elk standing in our path on the sidewalk. He was wondering why we were there just as much as we were wondering the same about him.
We finished up out bathroom break, parked the car close to the Bright Angel Trailhead, and proceeded to cover ourselves in Aquaphor, in places that did AND didn’t move. We wanted to carry as little as possible with us, so I was very liberal in my application of the ointment on this morning. Another chafe free run, so I guess I did it just right. Getting our photo taken by a group of hikers taking off at the same time, we stepped off with a cheer and down the trail we went.
Even though we had a full moon, our headlamps were still necessary at this time, and we headed down the mountain excited for what lie ahead. Within a couple of hours, dawn was starting to break, and our lights were off to bask in the true beauty of the canyon. It is just about impossible to describe the beauty and vastness of the Grand Canyon. Even standing in the base of it, looking up at rock cliffs thousands of feet above, it was hard to wrap my mind around how amazingly long this had taken to create, and how each wall and rock had its own beauty to it. Turning the corner on Bright Angel and seeing the Colorado River for the first time there was a sight I’ll never forget. The water was so blue/green, and at first seemed almost impossible to think that river had spent the last few millions of years creating the intricate path through the canyon. The roar of the rapids in some areas reminded me how powerful it was though, and I took it all in as much as possible. We had enjoyed the trek down the mountain, and were now excited to cross the river and get on past Phantom Ranch to start the 13.4 mile trek towards the North Rim. It was early, but already starting to warm up quite a bit in the canyon, so I figured it would be best to move on out. Refilling our water supplies (me with my orange powder Gatorade packs of course) we headed towards Cottonwood campground, with about 7 miles to go to get to it.
The next few miles up the canyon towards cottonwood weren’t too bad, and I was feeling pretty good, so I kicked the pace up a bit, with Aaron on my tail. Sandy told us to move on ahead, she would catch up soon, and I’ve learned over the years to not argue. Continuing to move on, Aaron stayed with me for a bit, then like any good husband should, he said he was headed back to stick with her for a while and would catch up at my next stop when I grabbed some food. I knew I would need to save my energy for the climb, and didn’t want to get too far ahead, so I slowed it down a bit and took the time to grab some snapshots and really take in everything around me. One of the things I embraced on my run across America was the beauty this country had to offer, so I try to absorb as many of the sights as I can when on one of these runs, especially here in the Grand Canyon.
The trail heading towards Cottonwood up to the Ranger station about 5 miles from the North rim ran right along the Colorado, giving way to some gorgeous roaring rapids and amazing formations in the rocks. The trail also started rolling a bit right up to the Ranger station, and then started up the mountain. The one thing I learned very quickly on this run was that when you start climbing on either side of the canyon, you do not stop climbing. There is no give in this journey except in the few miles between the climbs on the South and North Rims. Once you start climbing, even with all of the switchbacks, it does not stop climbing until you get to the top. With the temps starting to approach 80 at this point (yes, a little warmer than I had expected), I forced myself to drink as many fluids as I could (I had a 2 liter pack with me, plus my fuel belt with 4 8oz. bottles), and shoved power bars and salt tablets in my mouth as much as I could on the way up. Aaron caught up to me at one point, but then turned back to run wot bring Sandy up, so I just continued my trek on up the mountain.
With a mile or so to go to the peak, I hit the tunnel and looked down at my now bouncing quad. My legs were on fire from the climb, and I couldn’t do anything but continue to drink as much as possible and remain focused on the task at hand. Just get to the top, take a break to wait for Aaron and Sandy, and head back down again as a team. I hit the top of the North Rim around 11AM, 8 hours after I started, feeling good but certainly tired. Hearing a few people who were attempting the Double Crossing that day as well state that they wished a car was on this side to get into made me think about it as well, but there was no other way to get back now but go the way we came. There was even some snow on the side of the bank at the top, and since my pack was about half empty, not wanting to walk the 10 minutes to the water station, I started scooping snow up and shoving into the bladder of my pack. It immediately cooled my Gatorade down, and gave me some more fluids to handle until I got back down to the ranger station 5 miles down the mountain. Sandy and Aaron showed up, with Sandy following suit, as I told them I’d eaten a lot worse before…a little snow wouldn’t kill me. (I did at least scrape off the top layer before scooping it up). A few others did the same as Sandy and I, and Aaron headed out to fill up his pack at the station, as he was completely dry on water at this point.
An hour and 15 minutes after I stepped on the top of the north rim, we were ready to head back down, having eaten and mentally prepared to head home. Our journey down the mountain was not fast, but certainly faster than our climb up it. The temperature seemed to climb about 1 degree every hundred feet, and my quads were now screaming trying to hold me back as I was trying to take it easy down the narrow trails, especially when some looked like they dropped a couple thousand feet just a foot or two away. 4 miles down, I had killed my fluid supplies, and knew I had another mile or so to navigate, so I gave it a few minutes before I asked Aaron for a shot of water to tide me over.
Best. Water. Ever.
We moved pretty good down the mountain, stopping at the Ranger station where we caught up with 5 or 6 other crossers, each of us with our own stories about the run. The water spigot didn’t turn off the whole time we were there, as one bottle or bladder would get filled and another would take its place. At one point, I was filling my 8oz. fuel belt bottles and drinking them down as fast as they were filled. More pb sandwiches and power bars, salt tabs and a couple of advil, and we were off again. Feeling completely re-energized, and with about 8 miles to go before we hit Phantom Ranch, Aaron and I took off at the behest of Sandy, who told us she would be right behind us. Our run through this section was the best of the day, as Aaron and I pushed each other pretty good.
A side note here: Aaron and I have already ran a couple of races together this year, and we have a number of races we’ll both be participating in over the next few months. One thing we quickly found over the past few years was that no matter the distance, our finish times were almost always within a few minutes of each other, from marathons to 50 mile races. Makes for a great training partner, especially since we are racing against the trail, and enjoying every step of the way. Our big race this year will be the Burning River 100 Mile race in Ohio, which I ran a couple of years ago. This will be Aaron’s first 100, but we’ve discussed pacing each other through the whole 100 miles if possible. Typically, a pacer will go for 20-30 miles for those distances, but since we enjoy running together (although that may change after 100 miles LOL!) why not be 100 mile pacers for each other?
Every turn we came around on the way back to Phantom Ranch, every man-made rock wall we encountered, and every landmark that we thought we recognized over the next 8 miles seemed like it would be the one that would bring us right into the ranch. “This should be the last turn” was the 2nd most common phrase stated during this section, only slightly behind “Will this ever end?”. We caught this section at the hottest part of the day as well, with the sun seemingly finding every nook and cranny to beam down on us. Temps were well over the 90 degree mark by this point, and not many other words were said as we ran with the tubes from our fluid pack’s in our mouths doing our best to stay hydrated. We picked up a couple of other runners and held a solid pace, only backing off a bit with less than a mile to go as Aaron wanted to conserve a bit before he headed back to meet Sandy. Phantom Ranch finally greeted us, and I sat down and chatted with a number of other runners and hikers about our journey. We finished at 4PM, which meant we made it down from the North Rim to the Ranch in 3:45, which was a pretty good pace considering the terrain and heat over the last 13.4 miles.
Aaron and Sandy showed up about 15 minutes after I sat down, as Sandy had run a good pace through the section as well. We hung around for about an hour recuperating, getting food and drinks, while Sandy also relieved some pressure on her big toe where a huge blister had formed. Gotta love safety pins! (Sorry, I won’t post that pic here). We wanted to try to get back before too late, as I had a long drive back to Flagstaff and then to Phoenix to catch my 5:25AM flight, so we stepped off to head up Bright Angel. This is where everything got interesting.
We made it about 1000 feet across the Silver Bridge, crossing the Colorado River for the final time, when Sandy said she wasn’t feeling good. I rounded a corner just as I heard her getting sick. The heat really got to her through the section heading into Phantom Ranch, as it did a number of people I encountered the rest of the evening. She wasn’t the only one I saw doubled over letting it fly, which isn’t an uncommon thing, especially considering the conditions. We walked a bit after that, and then she and Aaron told me to go on ahead so I could get to the car to rest a bit before the drive back. I hated to bail, as I wanted us to all finish together, but they threatened me with my life, so I said ok. Feeling really good at this point myself, I took off on a nice steady jog towards the climb up Bright Angel, drinking and eating along the way. Even though I had drunk well almost 5 liters of fluid that day, I hadn’t peed in about 9 hours, so as it got cooler and I continued to hydrate, it finally hit me, which was a good thing. I had been sweating everything out all day, but not using the bathroom is always a concern on ultras, as it is a quick sign of not hydrating enough. Leaving the restroom at Indian Garden, I started the climb up the mountain.
It seemed like it would never end.
Around 7, it was starting to get dark (they don’t observe daylight savings time, so it was darker earlier), so I busted out the headlamp and continued my climb. Looking up the mountain the next couple of hours, and back down behind me, it looked like fireflies on the trail. Spread out over who knows how far, I could see headlamps slowly making their way out of the park. The most disturbing were the ones ahead of me, that looked like they were miles away, yet still miles away from the South Rim that was visible due to the moonlight. At one point I stopped glancing up, trying to keep my mind off the fact that I still had a long way to go. Almost 18 hours into this journey, my mind would play little tricks with me, as I would glance up a couple of times, see lamps heading up the mountain, and just shook my head when I realized some of the lights I thought were headlamps and really far away were stars shining just over the rim of the canyon. I caught up to another runner at one point, who had just got sick as well, and after asking him if he needed anything, my next words were “Drink”. It sounds nasty, but in these conditions, the worst thing you can do is not rehydrate after vomiting. It’ll only get worse if you don’t.
Finally arriving near the rim, I was hiking up with another crosser, and we were passed by a couple of hikers heading down. It was just past 9PM, and I figured it was good time to head out for them, as they wouldn’t have the heat to deal with if they were double crossing as well. The other runner mentioned the red backpacks and said it was the medical team heading down to help someone out. There are all kinds of warnings on the trial about not hiking down to the river and back in one day, and here we were running down, up the other side, back down, and back up again. I’ve got issues.
Hitting the rim at 9:12PM was a gratifying moment for me. I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I would when I got to the top, but I was certainly wore out. 21 hours after we had woken up to take on this beast, I had accomplished what seemed almost impossible. Then the thought crossed my mind; I hope the med folks weren’t headed down for Sandy. I headed to find the car and clean up, then proceeded to bring the car around closer to the trailhead entrance so they wouldn’t miss it when they came up, as we discussed that before I left them on the trail. If felt good to sit down in the car for a bit, and I could certainly feel the fire in my legs from all of the climbing I did that day. Time continued to pass, as the clock said 10, then 1030, and no sign of them. At 1045, I sent a text to Sandy hoping she was ok, and 2 minutes later, my phone rang, with an Arizona number popping up. Sandy explained to me that she was staying at Indian Garden that night, as she didn’t want to deal with hypothermia since the temps were now quickly getting back down into the 30’s. The ranger station had provided her with a silver blanket, then a sleeping bag and cot for her to crash, as it was not wise for her to continue on, which was the best move. She said Aaron had started up the mountain, and would be here shortly. I had jokingly told them I needed to be on the road by 1AM from Flagstaff to make my flight, but here it was 11PM already, and the time seemed to be moving quickly. My first concern however was Sandy, but she told me not to worry, and seemed more upset that I might be late than herself. I told her to just take care of herself and everything would work out fine.
11PM and no Aaron. 12AM and no Aaron. 1230 rolls around and still no sign. I stepped out to the trailhead and looked down to see a few headlamps climbing the mountain, but of course had no idea if one of them was him. It was cold too…temperature gauge in the car said 36 at this point. I sat down, and looked in the rearview mirror at a headlamp making its way to me. 1240AM and he made it! He hopped in and we headed down the road. I spent the next 90 minutes with the window down, radio up, scratching my head doing my best to stay awake, hoping the massive Elk standing alongside the road would continue to just stare at me as I drove by, and not step out into the road becoming a major roadblock at any point. Finally getting back to the hotel, I ran in (as fast as I could) and washed all the red dust off myself in the shower, while Aaron kindly shoved all of my gear into a garbage bag and into my suitcase, and I headed out the door. 215AM….I’ve got time. The sweet tea and double cheeseburger I picked up at this point was the best meal I’d ever had in my life. Aaron was going to sleep at the hotel for a bit as Sandy wanted him to get some rest and then head up the next morning. The ranger station had her taken care of, and I’m glad he didn’t drive back up that night.
Only 2 hours 15 minutes to go, I can fill the car up, drop it off at the rental place and check in to get on the plane.
Most miserable 2 hour 18 minute drive of my life.
Why 18 minutes instead of 15? At one point I pulled over for a 3 minute power nap. It was absolutely necessary. Of course I called my wife while I was driving and told her I was good, but I think that just worried her even more. Since we had no cell coverage all day in the canyon I hadn’t been able to contact her, so she was already stressed out the night before until I called her at the finish, and this didn’t settle her nerves any better. I assured her all was good, and motored on down the mountain to Phoenix. I went the wrong way on I-10, heading west instead of east when I exited, which worked out ok because there was a gas station right off the exit. I filled up, headed east towards the airport, dropped the car off and caught the shuttle to the terminal. Running in as best as I could, I punched in my name into the e-checkin.
E-Checkin is no longer available. UGH.
I went up to the counter, the lady asked where I was headed and did her best to punch in the info as quickly as possible. 7 minutes too late. She found a flight that left an hour later, but could only get me on standby in Charlotte for a potential connection that would only put me a couple of hours behind schedule. I thanked her for her help, and trudged towards the gate. Grabbing the worlds largest cinnamon roll at one of the shops, I wolfed it down and proceeded onto the plane where I promptly fell asleep. I don’t remember the next 3 1/2 hours, only waking up just before we landed in Charlotte. Fortunately, there were 2 available seats and 2 people on standby for the next flight, so I boarded and barely remember sliding the clasp into the buckle, or putting the buckle over and around the clasp (shameless George Carlin reference) for the 1 hour flight to Pittsburgh.
I spoke to Sandy on my drive back home to Morgantown, as Aaron had went back up that morning and met her as she was making it out of the canyon. She said she felt a ton better, and I was happy to hear her in great spirits. I hated the fact that we didn’t finish together, but safety in situations like this is always the priority.
All in all, an epic adventure for sure. as my Facebook post stated, 31+ hours of no sleep, 48 of the toughest miles of my life, missed flights but successful standbys. Finally home. #DreamBig, it’s worth it! Others inspire me, and I hope I can inspire others to #DreamBig as well!
I hope you enjoyed the journey. There are lots more photos on my Facebook page and on the site here. I’ll be at the Pittsburgh Marathon this weekend, working the Fleet Feet booth, where they have given me the opportunity to sell my book Freedom Run, and then running the marathon Sunday morning. Continuing to move forward to honor our Veterans and show that you can do anything you set your mind to.
At the young age of 39, I took on the greatest challenge of my life, an effort that pushed me both mentally and physically like I had never been challenged before. I completed a 3452 mile 100 day run across America, capped off with a 100 mile finish from Annapolis MD to Rehoboth Beach DE in under 24 hours, all to raise awareness and money in support of the men and women I consider my heroes, those that have worn and now wear the US Military’s uniform.
My book, “Freedom Run”, was released in April of 2013, detailing my journey to honor those who have bravely served, and describes the life-changing events of my run across America. MORE>
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