Rim-to-rim-to-rim: running across the Grand Canyon and back

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I’ve been lucky enough to have multiple adventure buddies in my life but my brother is the real OG.  

As kids, Corey and I climbed pine trees, spent hours building elaborate snow forts and raced boxcar trains that passed along the edge of our parent’s property. We talked about the day we would be big and fast enough to hop on one and travel someplace new.  This never happened, of course, but as we got older we both continued to run.

Much later in my life, in the middle of a collegiate track season and on spring break in Arizona, I somehow found myself standing in an REI next to Corey and staring at a wall full of sports goo and power bars. We were about to run across the Grand Canyon - and back.

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This day jaunt is known as the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (or r2r2r).

We started before sunrise passing signs that read “do not try to go to the river and back in one day”. To the river and back was approximately 11 kilometres. We were planning to go 67.5 kilometres with an elevation change over 3,000 metres each way. Before we descended the South Kaibab trail, Corey murmured, “We’d better not die. We’ll look like real idiots.”

Our way down was aided by the helpful push of gravity and we leapt, full of energy, over every stair and jutting rock. We made it to the Colorado River as the sun rose full in the sky and the premonition of desert heat surrounded us.

From here, we made our way through “The Box” - a section of trail hugged by steep canyon walls that winds playfully alongside Bright Angel Creek.

Eventually, The Box folded open into a valley and exposed us to the late morning sun where we were hit with our first wave of thirst. Water bottles empty, we hurried to the next campground expecting running water.

There was none. We were idiots - idiots for not researching where and when potable water flowed in the canyon, for not bringing a filter or iodine tablets…and quite possibly for choosing to continue our journey instead of turning back. We were only 13 kilometres from the north rim and we thought for sure there would be fresh water there.  

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The climb up to the north rim, however, was longer and steeper than we anticipated and when we reached the top, we were shocked by more of the unexpected. One, it was deserted (quite opposite of the bustling south rim). Two, there was snow. Three, there was no running water.

Needless to say, we didn’t stay on the rim for very long. I threw some snow into my water bottle and we booked it back down to the creek as fast as our dehydrated bodies would allow. Filtered or not, it was our nearest water source.

We drank straight from the Bright Angel Creek (Note: I do not recommend drinking from non-potable water sources) and ate from our dwindling supply of sports goos and power bars. After recuperating under the shade of some cottonwood trees, we were back moving through The Box, happily out of the rays of the sun and to our chilled beers in the Colorado River.  

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The last miles up to the south rim may be the longest and rawest I have ever felt. By this point, our legs were stiff and unwilling to move and our stomachs were empty, aching for real food. We were about 13 hours into our adventure and when the sun finally set over the canyon, we were left panting in the dark. At one point I sat, legs sprawled into red dirt and ate a granola bar that fell to the bottom of my stomach like rocks. The wind blew the sweat cold on my skin and I experienced a terrifying sense of exposure and vulnerability I know I will seek over and over again.

By the time we crept over the ledge of where we started full of energy 16 hours prior, my body was begging for stillness and sleep. But the canyon wasn’t done with us yet. We had missed the last bus back to the parking lot and begrudgingly our 67.5 kilometre run then turned into 74.

It was because Corey was there, accepting the absurdity of the situation alongside me, that I smiled and we kept running.  

Read more: Walking, jogging and hobbling 250 kilometres in New Zealand for Racing the Planet 2019 with Sarah Josephsen

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How to be the best adventure buddy you can be:

  1. Know limits. Everyone needs a little push, but it is important to know when to push and how much. Pushing your partner or yourself too much could bring on tension, an early end to the adventure or an injury.

  2. Always have snacks to share. Spirits drop when blood sugar levels do and nobody likes a hangry adventure buddy. It’s amazing what a handful of trail mix will do for your happiness and energy.

  3. Practice humility and be okay with failure. A lot of adventures require you to learn as you go or to use new skills you aren’t super confident in yet. Ease pressure by not taking yourself so seriously and letting your partner know you are there to support them.

  4. Positivity! Things hardly ever go as planned and sometimes that is the best part. Embrace what comes your way - it wouldn’t be an adventure if nothing went wrong.  

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Kailyn lives in California, USA where she works 9-5 as a glorified garbage lady specialising in landfill diversion and zero waste practices. She spends the rest of her time exploring new trails, racing ultra-marathons and grocery shopping.