Crossing From Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim: The Physical Challenges
We did it! Only 18 months ago, we firmly believed that we’d never do a Rim-2-Rim hike at the Grand Canyon, both because of our physical limitations and because of the timing problems created by our summers abroad. But exactly a year ago, we completed our first one day hike from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim to the South Rim in about 12 hours and this year we hiked from South to North in 11 hours, then crossed the canyon again 2 days later. We had a great time and equally important, we did the event without injuring or depleting ourselves.
It was indeed a bad hair day after 23 miles, but we made it otherwise in good style.
Apparently we’d become a little too successful in recovering from being Type A personalities because when I looked at our hiking log at the end of this summer, we’d only completed a single 20 mile hike in 2017. There was one 19+ miler and one 18+ miler, with the most recent of the 3 being in the middle of June. In 2016, we completed more than 20 hikes of over 20 miles and 5,000’ of gain to prepare for the single crossing.
I had noticed our hike length and weekly mileage drifting down over the summer but hoped that our slower but more difficult trails were maintaining our fitness level. But then, after a rapid weight loss during the early summer, we also realized that our pants were getting snug, suggesting that there might be a problem brewing. There was little to do however, our itinerary was set and the frequent thunder and lightening storms in the Italian Alps made it hard to safely shift to day-long hikes.
Our "make amends" plan was to hit the hiking hard once we returned home in early September. Our 2 week stay was problematic but we vowed to ‘do doubles’ on the weekends for the first time . We’d drive to the Columbia River Gorge on both Saturdays and Sundays to charge up Larch Mountain twice, doing the entire 14 miles and 4,200’ gain on Saturday and perhaps a lesser amount on Sunday. That would push-up our distance and gain as well as our durability for back-to-back hikes in the Grand Canyon, though it still wouldn’t deliver any 20 milers.
Little did we know when we flew into Portland that the heavy smoke and ash hanging over the city was from an uncontained forest fire engulfing our go-to hiking trail in the Gorge. I was barely able to tolerate the smoke in my lungs to hike once each weekend in Forest Park, at the other end of town. There went the distance, the gain, and the back-to-back durability training.
Our 9 day drive to the SW didn’t create any opportunities for big hikes so there we were, arriving in Flagstaff, AZ, our gateway city to the Grand Canyon, going almost 4 months without a long hike. We had done our best: we worked out almost daily on our vertical climber while at home and on the driving days and kept up with our stretching and myofascial release work for the 3+ weeks we were back in the States. It was something, but I vividly remembered how exhausted we were after each 20 miler when we pushed up from 15 mile hikes to 20’s in 2016. I feared that we’d have to go through that training misery again while we restored our endurance. I wondered how long it would take to regain our readiness for epic hikes.
New scenery on new trails near Flagstaff.
On our first full day in Flagstaff, we made our first 20 miler in months but with only about half of the 5,000’ elevation gain typical on those big hikes. It was a start, an encouraging start. Our highest priority was to complete the Rim-2-Rim crossings without injury, so we were relieved we did well with this initial, partial effort.
With having a good hike and a good recovery from it, we were cautiously optimistic that our 7 months of heavy training in 2016 to support the soft tissue changes needed to be durable for the new distances had stuck. In theory, they should have been retained, but only testing would tell.
After 4 days of lighter hiking and rest, we did another 20 miler but with the 5,000’ gain we needed. This second conditioning hike was in the Grand Canyon, down to the Colorado River on 2 of the 3 trails we’d use on our Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim challenge. We did another 10 miles the next day as a durability test on the same, hard trail that would be a part of our event. We were extremely pleased with our comfort and performance on that second hike. No matter that we were slower than last year, more importantly, we were holding up well.
In addition to reassuring us that we’d be safe doing the double crossing with 2 nights off, those back to back hikes convinced me that we could even do it with only a 1 night stay. In 2016 we assessed our brains and our bodies at the end of the Rim-2-Rim and knew that we couldn’t possibly do it again the next morning. We were rummy and hung-over feeling that night; we didn’t even eat our dinner. We struggled to bathe and go to bed. This year after our 20 mile test hike, we felt clearheaded and capable of doing our evening chores and were easily able to position ourselves to launch first thing in the morning for a shorter hike. What a difference and with such seemingly deficient conditioning.
It was then another 4 day mix of easier hiking and full rest days before Event Day. A mere 2 big training hikes after a nearly year-long lapse in targeted training for the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim seemed laughable, but we counted on advise from a friend who was a competitive athlete and was educated as an exercise physiologist. Last year she’d commented that she thought we could relatively coast on our accumulated training for the 2016 Rim-2-Rim and that sufficient rest was more important than more training. We didn’t coast in 2016 but we seemed to have validated her opinion in 2017—thanks Julie.
There were still hours of daylight when we started up to the North Rim.
Buoyed By Success
We were so thrilled with our physical accomplishments and the fun we’d had on the trails when doing our Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim that we wanted to do another pair right away. For a few minutes, we excitedly brainstormed about doing it all again in a week or 2. Our bodies felt unscathed from the big effort but the logistic problems jerked us back to reality.
We’d completed our crossings on October 12th and the season for most Rim-Rim’ers ends October 15, which is when all of the lodging and food availability closes on the North Rim for the season. Some can still manage it, but we can only surmount the logistics problems with great difficulty. And of course, even though services are still open on the South Rim, reservations are often made a year in advance.
Disappointed, we settled for the delight of feeling so capable of doing it again and forced ourselves to channel our energy into the hit-and-miss process of scoring a N Rim lodging cancelation for 2018—the entire 5 month season was already fully booked. A couple of weeks later, it dawned on me to strive for 2 sets of North Rim reservations in October 2018 instead of one. Best to plan for the 2 separate events now--we could always cancel a set of reservations.
“Why? “Why do Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim or Rim-2-Rim at all?” “Why do it more than once?” “Why would you want to do it twice in a few weeks?” The answer is “Because it is FUN!” OK, it’s not fun for everyone, but for folks like us who have the needed durability, who are sensible about it, and who have the right gear, it is a blast. The scenery is stunning and the social experience is wildly uplifting.
A look into the Canyon from the S Rim.
Then there was Jim from San Diego, probably in his 70’s, who completed his 100th marathon the previous month. And Val, our age, that impulsively did Rim-2-Rim 25 years ago in 12 hours wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and tennis shoes and who had zero understanding of what the hike entailed. She lost 5 toenails, but made it in about the time we do it in. And lets not forget the numerous singles and duos doing Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim in a day. What is more telling though is that we know these stories because they are all people who talked to us, some of them for extended amounts of time.
We knew less about the folks at the other end of the spectrum. Usually when someone starts around midnight, it means that they are doing both crossings in 1 day but we then learned about Frank. Frank was the slow poke in his group, so he started each crossing at 1:30 am while the rest of his group began around 5 am. Like us, Frank took 2 nights off on the North Rim between his efforts. Frank was hiking on the same days as us though we never met him.
We did however wonder if a particular security guard had given Frank a ride to the trailhead at 1:30 am. The guard shared that there were plenty of people who took 23 hours to make a single crossing, about double our time. Apparently if you report a missing hiker, the rescuers give the hiker 24 hours to appear before they lead a search, hence the focus on 23 hours. And even with a search, they try to coax the hiker out under his or her own power, perhaps carrying their pack for them.
The fun part is that everyone out there is grateful for the opportunity to do their best— the 6 hour round trip and the 23 hour, one way athletes—and all of us in between.
The Basement Layer, the lowest rock strata in the Canyon near Phantom Ranch.
We were immediately charmed by the uplifting camaraderie at and around Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River our first overnight there back in March of 2014. A frayed woman icing her knees interrogated us when we walked by her dorm porch upon our arrival, wondering how we had made it there looking so fresh. We’d had an embarrassingly late start, which revealed that we hadn’t arrived by mule, but she asked anyway. We purred with pleasure from her compliments about our descent to the bottom on the most difficult of the 2 trails.
Upon each of our dozen or so visits to the Ranch and beyond, we’ve felt bathed in acceptance and acknowledgment. We likely rate as "very average" on the scale of talent and athleticism on display in the inner canyon and yet we feel fully included in the elite club. Even the anorexic looking, barely clad trail, runners give us a smile and a nod and will give a quick answer to a question like “Rim-Rim-Rim in a day?” or “What time did you start?"
This fall we heard from intermediate and advanced trail runners: “You are clearly very seasoned hikers,” “You are inspirational,” and “You’re the coolest people on the trail.” What’s not to love about those spontaneous comments? My new high UPF Terry Bicycles cycling jerseys that were a superb base-layer for these 50-60 degree temperature fluctuations days received several enthusiastic compliments, including “fashionista.”
My intent this fall was to put my head down, focus on our speed, and visit less. But then it was Bill who couldn’t pull away from a picnic table conversation on the first day of our Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim. It became very clear that it wasn’t just me or us that enjoyed the reunion feel of these canyon events, it was a feeling shared by many of the people there, including '100 marathon Jim'. And no wonder, our long days on those canyon trails were common experiences and a bit of socializing spiced up the day for most all.
At the end of Day 2 of 2 on our first-ever Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim, we were keen on posting a good crossing time. Our less-than-ideal summer of hiking hadn’t left us in tip-top condition for these hard trails and we’d hoped to redeem ourselves. But a delightfully curious, former competitive athlete on the trail sucked us into long conversations that included many stops while we all waited for her out-of-condition friend to catch-up. We yielded: the social opportunity with Chandra was more valuable than recording a quick time for our log.
The difficulty of “Up” takes many by surprise.
On one 20 mile hike to the Ranch and back after our big event, Bill developed GI distress that lasted for about 8 hours. The objective quickly shifted from speed hiking to making it back to the South Rim by dark. Several leisurely rest stops helped him and I took the opportunity to have longer conversations. I chatted with a pair of women who were in a group of 6 backpackers with one member “not making it.” I visited with them 3 times over the course of several hours, learning more about their struggling companion and that they were each carrying about 10 pounds of her gear. They presumed that the helicopter they heard had hauled her out.
I finally found the right words, “What is your shoe story?”, to ask why one of these 2 capable women was wearing what looked to be indoor grade shearling booties. She quickly replied “Blisters all over my feet—I wouldn’t be making it without them.” Her companion and I had been swapping minimalist footwear stories, so it was a fair segue that revealed the range of experiences in the canyon.
“Are those Bedrocks?” came from behind us a bit later. A capable young outdoors man/mountaineer named Todd was making his first hike in the Grand Canyon and was unhappily wearing his newly resoled, favorite boots. He too had Bedrock sandals, sandals I’d just purchased that week in Flagstaff. He loved his Bedrocks for running and being out-and-about but was sure his feet couldn’t handle the pain from the rocky terrain in them. “Rocky terrain??” was my silent reaction.
My newest minimalist shoes: Vibram’s Furoshiki & Bedrock sandals with Vibram soles.
That day we also heard the stories from a pair of college athlete trail runners from Wisconsin having their first “to the river” experience and all of the mistakes that they had made, primarily because of bad guidance from local family members. She dismissed our recommendation of using poles in the future to prevent the serious knee pain she was experiencing but they were convinced that they could be more strategic about their gear selection. And we had a fun exchange with another young couple who had also been hoping to catch-up to the presumed woman that had obviously shed her shoes part way up to the Rim, leaving clear foot prints in the sandy stretches of trail. They too enjoyed the notion of the brain making up stories to make sense of the world, which lead to exchanging fun vignettes. As they dropped back, she thanked us for the entertaining distractions which it had made it easier for her to keep trudging uphill.
Yes, it’s a blast being in the inner canyon. Beautiful scenery and endless engaging conversations about our passions with like-minded people make us want to go back to the party again and again. We would be back, and soon.