Canyon Adventure Training
photos by Brian Fitzsimmons
Thousands of people descend and ascend the famous Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails of the Grand Canyon annually. While it’s not easy, there is one unofficial trek reserved for the crazy: a one-day Rim-to-rim-to-rim Crossing.
3:30am or 4:30am start time? South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trailhead to Start? Rim to Ribbon Falls and back, or should I go for the whole enchilada?
These were just a few of the decisions made by the band of over 25 Austinites who converged on the Grand Canyon the weekend of May 4 for an adventurous, unforgettable, and, dare I say it, epic hiking weekend that included varying routes of 20, 35 and even close to 50 miles for those who dared.
This group was a blend of locals from many athletic backgrounds including mountain bikers, adventure racers, runners, and triathletes - a true living portrait of “Keeping Austin Fit.”
Hiking in the Grand Canyon is common and thousands from around the world descend and ascend the famous Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails annually. While it’s not easy, there is one unofficial trek reserved for the crazy few: a one-day Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim Crossing.
It’s definitely not an official event, but conquering Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim has certainly become “a thing” in the endurance world. In one day, participants traverse one rim of the Grand Canyon (usually the South) to the North, and then back to the South Rim, scaling over 10,500 feet of elevation change each way. Depending on the trails taken, a typical Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim trek is 46 to 48 miles and can take anywhere from 12-24 hours, depending on fitness level, experience, and amount of time running relative to hiking.
Here’s the thing, though. With most running events, you’re used to fully-stocked aid stations complete with a smorgasbord of chips, cookies, gummy bears, drinks, and other treats that volunteers hand deliver to you complete with a smile, a word of encouragement, and a wet sponge to keep you cool.
For this adventure, however, you’re completely on your own, save for a few water spigots along portions of the trail. You pack and carry your own food, gear, and medical supplies and the “volunteers” on this course happen to be other hikers who tender an encouraging word or spare snack if you’re in need. Park Rangers are there to tell you that you have two options: sleep in the canyon for night or keep climbing.
Daunting and frightening, indeed. And, yet, throughout the day, for these multiple packs from Austin, spirits remained positive and energy high, just like the temperatures that rose to almost 90 degrees by midday.
On the evening of May 4, there was a continuous long stream of headlamps ascending Bright Angel trail, like human fireflies in military-like formation. Runner, Lisa Sutherland, recalls this time as one of her favorites. “In the gathering dark, a mile from the end, I looked up only to make eye contact with a big horn sheep no more than 20 feet away,” she recalls. “I actually said, ‘Hi’ like I was greeting a fellow runner on the hike and bike trail, and I swear he stared back with a sincere, ‘you got this,’ look.” She did have it and, while a few struggled with altitude sickness, in the end, the word passed that everyone had successfully completed their individual journeys, a culmination of several months of preparation and group training runs around the hills and trails of Austin.
Hiking the entire Grand Canyon is like living through a lifetime in a day. There are moments of bliss, tears, laughter, dizziness, and despair. There are moments when you want to stay hidden in the canyon forever, wrapped in the magnanimous arms of Mother Nature. Then, there are periods where all you can think about is getting out of the mile-deep hole that you voluntarily lowered yourself into.
“It’s just a long slow run through the canyon with great friends,” said a message on the back of a t-shirt that was designed by one of the runners. You know what? It was that and so much more.
Ready to Plan Your Epic Adventure?
How does one even begin to train in Austin for something like the Grand Canyon? For this Austin crew, it came down to 3 P’s: Preparation, Packing, and Perseverance.
Months of physical training and preparation go into an event of this magnitude. While we may not have the elevation in Austin, we certainly have plenty of hills and trails. Austin athlete and three-time R2R2R2 veteran, John Geissinger, led weekly informal runs around many of the popular outdoor training sites including River Place Nature Trail, The Hill of Life, the Mt. Bonnell steps, and Ladera Norte. It wasn’t uncommon to spend four to five hours doing Hill of Life repeats in the darkness of the morning. Not only is it important to practice climbing, it’s especially crucial to practice running downhill because the descents are long and incredibly steep.
Ultra-runner and sub-12:00 hour R2R2R2 runner, Mallory Brooks, also shared her secret training weapon - balance, hip mobility, breathing work. “I focus on doing unique movements where I'm constantly thinking about what muscles are firing/relaxing, what my breathing is like, and how my weight is shifting. It helps immensely when getting fatigued on long runs.”
In addition to mobility, strength and power are also key components for fatigue and injury prevention. Enter Austin-based fitness company, Hyperwear. This company makes weighted vests which were extremely useful on hill climbs to build stamina and simulate the weight of a full day pack.
Speaking of packing, you carry everything on your back. This includes at least two liters of water to start. Everyone, too, has their own formula for nutrition success that includes an assortment of foods like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, gels, chips, fruit, jerky, liquid calories, gum and anything else you “think” you might crave in the span of 24 hours. Dana Torres’ favorite item she packed? Base Salt electrolytes, which were absolutely necessary in the heat.
In addition to food, don’t forget to pack other necessities like first aid kits, rain gear, headlamps, chapstick, toilet paper, hiking poles and, of course, sunscreen.
Regardless of which distance you traverse, it remains constantly clear that Mother Nature is the boss. Between the rugged terrain, dramatic elevation changes, and sweeping temperature fluctuations, a hike in the Grand Canyon is, at its easiest, still unpredictable.
Perseverance is key, which is why it was all the more special to be sharing the day with fellow Austinites. Says Jennifer Dale, “I wanted to do this as an ongoing search to find the best me.”
No doubt she caught a glimpse of her best self. Everyone did, and life-long bonds were formed through mutual suffering, determination and, yes, perseverance.