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May. 11, 2012
Three Clif Bar Employees Tackle Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
Standing atop the south rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time, staring across at the north rim, overwhelms the senses. Your brain struggles to process the scale and beauty of it all. It looks fake as if it had been drawn by hand, the red hues exaggerated for our viewing pleasure. We could see the route we were about to run and it seemed so unbelievably far. Indeed it was far. 23 miles from the Bright Angel trail head to the top of the North Rim. But it appeared more like 230 miles away. The Colorado River, at the base of the canyon was not visible. Just a dark sliver of rock above it that the Colorado had cut through over time.


The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) run, or Double Crossing, is a quintessential trail runner’s adventure. A rite of passage. Starting from the South Rim on the Bright Angel trail, we would run some of the most beautiful and treacherous 46 miles of trails on the planet to the North Rim and then back again. Along the way we’d experience close to 2 billion years of geological history, barely registering a blip in its life.

We began our descent into the blackness at 3am. The cloud cover kept any natural light to a minimum. We could see the headlamps of another group of runners ahead and below us. But that was about it. The temperature in our rental car had read 41 degrees but felt much warmer as we descended. Within a couple hours we had made it all the way to the Colorado River some 8 or so miles down. At this point it was just starting to get light and we were ready to stash our headlamps as we had been getting buzzed by bats attracted to the light.


We ran alongside the Colorado river for what seemed like just a few minutes before crossing the Silver bridge into Phantom Ranch - one of only two places left in the U.S. whose mail is still delivered by mule. From there we stashed some of our gear (jackets, hats, gloves) and began the long climb up (14 miles & 5,500’) to the North Rim along the North Kaibab trail, passing through every ecosystem to be found between Canada and Mexico. We ran through The Box, a massive canyon carved out by the Bright Angel Creek with steep, 1,500 canyon walls on either side. The canyon was as wide as 50 feet at times.

As we continued the climb, the trail began to get very rocky, steep and technical, leaving very little room for errors. At this point we began to marvel at the engineering feat of a trail in this environment and location. Sections of the trail are literally carved into the side of the rock along with the Sutai tunnel.


The climb to the North Rim can be described simply as relentless. Unending switchbacks take you back and forth across the cliff faces, all while gaining enough altitude to make us sea level dwellers feel a little light headed and short of breath. But of course, with the elevation, the larger views of the Grand Canyon became spectacular once again and motivated us to the top.

After a short rest and few photos we hit the impossibly long descent back to the canyon floor. While it was great to be losing altitude and ticking off miles much more quickly, we all knew that this is where our legs would take a major beating. Plus, in a few short hours our legs would be called upon to climb 5,000 feet back up to the south rim. We all started to realize that that final climb home, while shorter, was going to be much harder.


Once off the steep descent, we had a fun and very run-able 5-6 mile section down to Phantom Ranch. The trail was gently downhill and meandered along the river, which created a breeze that made the 90 degree temperatures tolerable. Our only mishap of the day happened when we got separated upon entering Phantom Ranch. Although we knew that we were very likely all fine, we still spent both mental and physical energy tracking each other down. But once reunited, we enjoyed a couple of the famous lemonades served up by the Ranch’s canteen.

We pushed out of Phantom Ranch with the final climbs imminently before us. We motored through the gentle uphills to the 4.5 mile to go point, then took a few minutes to eat, drink and contemplate the final climb up to the south rim. Summiting the north rim had been tough, but we were relatively fresh. With 41 miles already covered, the heat, and 2 crushing downhills in our legs, this one was easily going to be the toughest climb any of us had ever done.


The climb called on all coping skills and tactics to get to the top - counting steps, picking a point to run to, catching the hiker in front of you, dreaming of salty french fries, whatever. The pace was tortoise-like and the distance turned over so slowly. Seeing my watch add a tenth of a mile was a small, but important victory.

Finally, we started to see landmarks on the rim and knew the end was near. One more tenth of a mile and we topped out, giving each other a round of well deserved high fives and congratulations. Immediately we agreed that running the rim to rim to rim was one of the coolest experiences ever. And unlike some trail races where you swear off the sport upon crossing the finish line, with this one, we all agreed that we had to do it again in the future.
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We like getting our heart rates up, taking a big breath of fresh air, savoring delicious food. But we also love telling stories and here's where we type 'em up. (BTW, it works both ways; leave a comment—please and thank you.)

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