Grand Canyon adventure: Rim to Rim to Rim

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, Lucas’ father Rusty approached us with the idea of a family trip to the Grand Canyon, in order to complete a “Rim to Rim to Rim” crossing.  It’s something we’d both heard of; some of our fellow endurance-junkie friends (in both Boulder and Nashville) had accomplished this feat before and both Lucas and I were very interested in following in their dusty footsteps.  Triathlon training never allowed for such an off-road adventure; spending the time and energy to get ready for 46 miles of severe downhill and uphill trail wasn’t warranted when Half and Full Ironmans were on the race schedule.  So now that there are no triathlons in our plans (for a while, anyway), it seemed the perfect opportunity.  We’re still in good shape and we had a hankering for miles and miles of dirt and rocks.


Lucas and I did “train” so that we’d be prepared enough to enjoy the experience, but this training had a much different feel than the very-focused triathlon training regime (that I truly have enjoyed in the past, but am not interested in now).  We did a lot of trail running, and some big hikes (not running, or some running/hiking combination).  The steep downhills and uphills of the Grand Canyon trails wouldn’t all be run-able, but we’d need to have the experience of being on our feet and walking or hiking for hours and hours.

training run3

Green Mtn, Boulder

training run2

Bear Peak, Boulder

training runs

Hall Ranch, Lyons

Starting in March, we’d spend a good chunk of time each Saturday or Sunday doing a very long run or hike.  There are so many options along the Front Range, it was really fun to explore and run around so many beautiful places that we had “neglected” with our road training in the past.  I felt like I was truly re-appreciating some of the main reasons I moved to Colorado (over 10 years ago, now!)  Even spending 3-4.5 hours running/hiking on one of the weekend days was so much less time than the Ironman training requires (5-7 hours Saturday, followed by 2-4 on Sunday…every weekend!)  We’d still be tired after, of course, but not completely wiped out.  Usually we’d find a river or creek to sit in after our long runs – it’s amazing how helpful that is for joints and tendons to recover more quickly (and be less sore) the next day.

training hike Bear Peak

Bear Peak again!, Boulder

Lucas and I flew into Las Vegas the Thursday of Memorial Day weekend, meeting up with 2 Nashville friends – Cary and Christy Graham – and Lucas’ dad Rusty and Step-Mom Mary Anne.  They had rented a van and we all piled in (with LOTS of luggage) and drove the 4.5 hours from LV to the Grand Canyon where we stayed at the historic Bright Angel Lodge.

Lucas and his dad Rusty

Lucas and his dad Rusty, just outside of Bright Angel Lodge at the edge of the Canyon

The day before our run

The day before our run


R2R2R was scheduled for Saturday May 23, of Memorial Day weekend.  When planning the trip, we knew it would likely be pretty hot by then – the suggested timeframes for attempting this double-crossing is early spring (April – mid-May) or fall (Oct-Nov).  Ironically, it rained all 4 days we were there!  The day before our scheduled run, Friday, it rained ALL DAY, even hailing and snowing at times.  We were very hesitant about the next day’s feat, and watched the weather radars like anxious hawks.  Finally we made the call to go ahead with it- it’s what we came for and if we could only do one way due to weather, then that’s what we’d do.

Cloudy GC view

Looking down from Bright Angel Lodge (South Rim)

Mary Ann was amazing and sacrificed her whole day to help support us.  She drove 4 hours from the South Rim (where we were staying and from where we began) to the North Rim, and then waited for us to arrive.  She was a God-send with the weather as it was; she schlepped extra clothes, extra food and water for all of us, and the car provided a heater for warming up and drying off!


Rusty began at 4am, heading down the Bright Angel Trail, one of the main trails down into the canyon (the other option is called the South Kaiab Trail), along with Cary and Christy.  They were all likely to do one way, and wanted to start really early, unsure of how long it would be or how the trail conditions would hold up.  Rusty was also holding out on the possibility of doing the double-crossing, though one-way (23 miles) is a huge endeavor in itself. He is in amazing shape – body and mind!

Bright Angel Trail Sign

Cary & Christy Graham and Whitney

Cary & Christy Graham and Whitney on the suspension bridge over the CO River

Lucas started out at 4:45am, and I got to sleep in and begin at 5:45!  With our staggered starts, we figured we would all get to run/hike with each other for some amount of time, at some point, and no one would get way out in front.   Lucas caught the threesome about an hour in, and then unfortunately they took a wrong turn (distracted after taking some group photos…) and ran a total of about 3 extra miles.  That’s not huge but over the course of an entire day of run/hiking, those approximately 45 minutes were precious time and energy!  I caught up each of them (they all ended up splitting up/spreading out after a while) at various points and we ran or hiked or walked together for a while.  I enjoyed this mode immensely, compared to the recent years of competition where it’s all about getting to the goal (end) as quickly as possible, not enjoying scenery or company!  I finally caught up to Lucas with about 6 miles to go to the North Rim- and they were all very steep uphill miles.  We didn’t really run at that point, fast-hiking was our best option.  The North Rim is very steep and it did rain on us (and had been raining at that side of the canyon for a while during the morning), so everything was quite muddy.  There are burros and horses that leave from each of the Rims at 6:30am each morning to take supplies down to the bottom where there are two campgrounds.  Naturally, they poop right on the trail; normally it’s kind of dry and dusty and just grinds into the earth…but for us, it was super-wet and muddy and it all just blended together – YUCK!  Ce la vie, though, we went on, sliding around and not able to run at all at that point.

Looking back on trail switchbacks

Looking back at Bright Angel Trail switchbacks, as I headed toward the North Rim

I made it to Mary Ann and the car at the North Rim first, stripping off my top layers and drying out my vest and gloves on the heater vents.  I ate, drank, filled up my running hydration pack (a close-fitting small backpack that you put a “bladder” of water inside, along with a few other food items and anything else you can stuff into the tiny backpack space without breaking the zippers!)


Lucas arrived next, followed by his dad about 45 minutes later.  Rusty had done a fabulous job, inspired all of us, maintained a completely positive attitude, and finished up at the North Rim very strong.  But with the weather, he (and Mary Ann..strongly and firmly saying “You are NOT going back out there, Rusty…But good job, I am proud of you!”) decided that the one-way crossing was enough for the day.  Cary and Christy arrived after I had left the car and headed back out on the trail to go back.  I saw them and we all high-fived, cursed the mud, and congratulated each other on completing 23 miles.  So those two, Rusty, and Mary Ann drove the 4 hours (!) back to the South Rim.

Lucas with poles

Almost to the North Rim, on the way up

Meanwhile, Lucas and I were back out on the trail leading back down into the Canyon from the North Rim (called the North Kaibab Trail).  We had both regained some good energy from our rests (about 45 minutes!) in the car, putting on some dry clothes, and filling up our water.  My knee (IT band) was really hurting on the extreme downhill and I ended up using my poles even like crutches at times to carry my weight when my knee hurt to put pressure on it.  Lucas caught up to me and we ended up running the whole way back together.  He was very patient and supportive when I couldn’t run fast (with my knee pain), and then later on when he was very low on energy, I stayed with him.  It was a good example and practice of teamwork and comraderie.

W&L at Phantom Ranch

Whit and Lucas at Phantom Ranch, about 9.5 mi left to go

The last 9.5 miles out of Phantom Ranch were pretty much a hike, which became a slog.  We walked through dusk, were thankful for each other’s silent company that spurred each other on, step by step, up the South Rim and it’s menacing, achingly beautiful canyon walls.  We turned on our headlamps around 7:45pm, and finished the whole trek at almost 9pm.  We walked the last few steps holding hands, and I couldn’t help the tears that formed in my eyes.  It was a special thing to complete, no matter what, but we did it all together which is something we hadn’t experienced before.  It had taken about 15 hours, much patience, sacrifice, and diligence to do those 20ish miles together.  I was proud of us.

behind Lucas hiking

Hiking back towards the South Rim, about 12.5 hours into it

Mary Ann, Rusy, Cary, and Christy were all still up and waiting for our arrival.  They had been so patient!  Rusty had bought us burgers at the lodge grille (I have to say they weren’t that great of burgers but they tasted AMAZING at the time!), everyone was happy and congratulatory, and then Rusty even washed out shoes out in the sink (remember how I said everything was so muddy and horse poo-y…yikes.  That was a real servant-hearted thing to do for us!).  We showered and plopped into bed, absolutely exhausted.  The next day we would all spend talking about the details of our experiences, limping around wearing glory on our lapels, and pondering “the next adventure”, which is something endurance athletes do all the time.  Your race or event can feel horrid, you can swear you’ll never do another thing over 5 miles, and then…often less than one day later you are planning the next event or signing up online for another grueling race….because you can.


We had a little sun at times!  Unusual weather for this time of year.

We had a little sun at times! Unusual rainy weather for this time of year.

I feel so fortunate that I have the fitness, mental strength, and health to even attempt something like Rim to Rim to Rim.  It was an unforgettable way to see the Grand Canyon, or in the silly words of my good enduro-friend Chrissy Nacos (who has also done the double-crossing)- “the Big Ditch”



The elevation of the Colorado River, at the bottom of the Canyon, averages out to around 2,200 feet. The average elevation of the south rim is around 6,800 ft.  The average elevation of the north rim is about 8,000 ft.  The depth of the Canyon at the South Rim, near Grand Canyon Village, measures almost a vertical mile, about 5,000 feet.


There are approximately 1,737 known species of vascular plants, 167 species of fungi, 64 species of moss and 195 species of lichen found in Grand Canyon National Park. This variety is largely due to the 8,000 foot elevation change from the river up to the highest point on the North Rim.  **due to all the rain and the season we ran in, we saw quite a few flowering cactus, agave, and other desert flowers – a beautiful treat!

Flowering desert cactus

One benefit of the rainy weather was a well-watered landscape and we got to see some cactus blooms and other desert flora that are not usually flowering!

The Grand Canyon is part of the Colorado River basin which has developed over the past 40 million years. A recent study places the origins of the canyon beginning about 17M years ago.


U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon in 1903. An avid outdoorsman and staunch conservationist, he established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve on November 28, 1906. Livestock grazing was reduced, but predators such as mountain lions, eagles, and wolves were eradicated. Roosevelt added adjacent national forest lands and redesignated the preserve a U.S. National Monument on January 11, 1908. Opponents such as land and mining claim holders blocked efforts to reclassify the monument as a U.S. National Park for 11 years. Grand Canyon National Park was finally established as the 17th U.S. National Park by an Act of Congress signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919 (Wikipedia)

Whit on bridge

Whit on the suspension bridge over the Colorado River, happy as a clam

President Theodore Roosevelt said of Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”

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