A R2R2R in the Grand Canyon, in the ultrarunning world, is basically, a 41-48 mile run (depending on which trail you take) from either the south rim or north rim of the Grand Canyon DOWN to the bottom of the Canyon UP to the other rim back DOWN to the bottom and back UP to the south or north rim. Elevation gain of over 11, 000 feet total. Temperature range (in April) of 20-40 degrees F at the south rim to 90 degrees at the bottom to below 20, with the possibility of snow, at the north rim. I'll be taking the Bright Angel Trail starting at 6800 feet, descend 2400 feet, cross the bridge over the Colorado River, climb 8240 feet on the North Kaibab Trail up to the north rim and reverse it all for my return. My total R2R2R route will cover a little over 47 miles. Time? I'm shooting for a goal of under 16 hours. This means that in order to return before dark, I'll need to start my run before 3am.
Twenty-three years ago, in 1988, my dad ran a R2R2R when he turned 40. The entire family went to cheer him on. I remember waiting, along with my mom and three younger brothers at the top of the south rim for my dad to finish. I saw a sign at the top of the trailhead, warning hikers of the danger of attempting to hike from rim to the bottom of the canyon and back in one day and chuckled at the thought of my dad defying all the odds and RUNNING double that amount in one day. I watched as hikers and backpackers emerged from the trail, tired, spent but so obviously triumphant and proud of their accomplishment. Many of them asked my mom to take their picture. A couple times, she asked if any of the hikers had seen my dad. "He's running it", she'd say. "and we were expecting him by now". And the hikers eyes would grow wide in amazement. "Running the canyon? Are you kidding?"
Back then, in 1988, running the canyon was an uncommon feat only attempted by small handfuls of an equally small ultrarunning community. Ultrarunning and trailrunning wasn't as mainstream as the marathon or triathlon at that point. "Ultrarunning", those distances covering more than 26.2 miles, in particular, were considered extreme and well...crazy. Running the GRAND CANYON? Well, that was just plain old RIDICULOUS! And MY dad was doing it! Did I think he was crazy? You bet. I wanted to be JUST like him.
In 1988, there wasn't GU or S-Caps or Clif Shots. My dad had to rely on water, gatorade, and whatever whole foods he could fit in his small waist pack with two 20 oz. water bottles. Yep...no hydration packs either. Today, in 2011, there are entire websites and blogs and how-tos on the subject of running the Canyon. No one knows how many ultrarunners run the canyon every year, mostly because the Park doesn't sanction these runs , but you can bet the number has quadrupled since the 1980's. The National Park Service still strongly discourages rim-to-rim hikes or even day hikes from rim to river and back and rescues are frequent. Still, today, more and more R2R2R's are attempted and even a "Double Crossing" (R2R2R2R2R) isn't such a strange feat anymore. Today we have hundreds of gels, goos, electrolyte tablets, drinks, hydration packs, headlamps, apparel, etc to get us through an ultrarun. The plethora of options is downright overwhelming! Makes me think: Did my dad and all those crazy ultrarunners back then have it RIGHT? The minimalist in me thinks I could find success in a R2R2R with the mere basics. However, the first thing my father said to me when I told him I was embarking on my own R2R2R, was "Of course, today, I'd do it differently". Yeah...there's something to be said for hydration packs and electrolyte tablets and lightweight, easily digested food.
So, as I train up in the mountains near Tucson and southeast AZ for the next two and a half crucial months, I'm also putting together my list of R2R2R essentials. My biggest concern? Whether or not I'll do the entire run in my Vibram Five Fingers. I've spent the last two yearstransitioning completely to either barefoot or Five Finger running. I can run pretty rocky terrain in the Vibrams and now for a few hours straight. The barefoot and Vibram training has benefited me in some life-altering ways and in fact, is the reason, my orthopedic said, that I avoided reconstructive surgery on my achilles this past summer. My feet and ankles and legs are so strong now, that I worry if I go back to shoes, I'll actually create damage by supporting my feet in a way that will hinder my strength in the mountains. But I've never done a 16 hour run in my Vibrams. Can I handle THAT much time, on THAT much elevation change, on THAT terrain in the Grand Canyon?
Hmmmmm....For more on barefoot and Vibram training, stay tuned!