by guest contributor Elizabeth McGurk
The following is the accounts of a one Elizabeth McGurk, former athlete of mine and current bad@$$ and probably the toughest person on the planet not named Chuck Norris (and possibly tougher than him)
We traveled to Flagstaff together, with my daughter and her fiance’, but don’t ask about either,
I’ve changed some of the words, none of the names and claim none of the credit or responsibility to the absolute BEAST this young woman has become, I simply relish the idea that I may have played a small part in her development as a runner…
Here’s the deets…
Pre travel email, two weeks out…
The plan is to take south shish kebab out to north lamb kebab, then north lamb kebab to bright angel. About 47 miles, 10k vert.
According to the Grand Canyon parks service, this whole trek is difficult and dangerous. They have two rules:
- Don’t do it.
- Don’t do it alone.
- Be prepared to drink mule piss.
With that in mind, I will be prepared with the following:
–SPOT tracker/satellite phone
This thing is either going to be the reason I don’t die or the reason you’re able to find my body when I do. Peace of mind either way.
On my end, the SPOT has a map feature that I can use to prevent myself from getting lost. I’m also going to use it to mark water stops along the route. The SPOT allows me to send/receive texts and calls, and to send an S.O.S. to local rescue crews as I tumble off a cliff.
On your end, I’ll get you and Jake set up with the SPOT app on your phones before I go. You and Jake will be able to send messages to me, receive calls & messages from me, and track my location. You’ll be able to see the moment a mule kicks me off into the canyon.
–I’m also bringing a Phone phone
I have things I’m bringing, (waffles, nuun, etc) but I’ll also want to make a quick sweet potato mess the night before, just FYI. Are sweet potatoes TSA sanctioned items? Do they have to be less than three ounce potatoes? Maybe we can swing by a store in AZ so that Jake doesn’t have to smuggle potatoes onto the plane the hard way.
-Nanospikes (just in case)
-Expensive @$$ Patagonia outer shell
-Expensive @$$ Suunto GPS watch
This watch has a map function: I’m going to upload a map of the route to it, then while running, it will show me where on the map I am and will alert me if I’m off-route.
-filter flasks and a reservoir with an inline filter
-gross @$$ water purifying tabs
-first aid kit (as if I’ll be alive to use it)
-waterproof map (just in case all the tech shits the bed)
–Cash. Lots and lots of cash for the potential four hour shuttle ride/Uber back to south rim.
–maybe bear spray? For use on people, not bears.
I will start with full flasks and I’m bringing filter systems/purifying tabs with me. According to the parks website, *some* water sources are open, some are not.
I have a primary water game plan:
- Assorted rivers + puddles
- Indian Garden
- Bright Angel Campground
- Phantom Ranch
- Cottonwood Campground
- North Kaibab Trailhead (this allegedly has water year round despite what the ranger site says)
And a secondary water game plan:
- Assorted rivers + puddles
- Mule piss
And a tertiary water game plan:
- Mule piss
- Bear spray someone and take their water
- Shuttle back to south rim
The temps on the south rim when I start will probably be 30-40, then down in the canyon will get up to 70, possibly 80 depending on time of day, north rim should be 50-60 by the time I get there.
I would like to start early, ideally by 4AM, but I can start later if getting out that early is going to throw a huge wrench in your day of relaxing with Jake and Tori.
A conservative time estimate for this run is 13 hours. If it takes me 13 hours I will bear spray myself. I’m shooting for 10-11 hours.
Bail plan #1: I run down south shish kebab and realize that I’m an idiot. I turn around before it’s too late.
Bail plan #2: I run down south shish kebab all the way to the lamb kebab/angel junction and realize I’m an idiot. I head up bright angel. This loop is about 18 miles.
Bail plan #3: I somehow make it all the way to north rim. I use that sweet sweet cash to catch a shuttle or an Uber back to south rim. About 23 miles.
Bail plan #4: I’m completely F*screwed and I use the SPOT to call for help. I bear spray myself in the face while I wait to be rescued. I apologize to Jon and rangers everywhere. I become one with my idiocy.
If the weather is at all questionable, or some other unforeseen event (like TSA losing all the shit I need for this run) happens, then I’m prepared to fully bail on this run and drink beer with you for 13 hours instead.
Did I miss anything? Let me know if you see any glaring lapses in planning.
Watch out, AZ, the Enchilada Posse is about to crash your spring break!! AYAYAYAYYYY!!!!!
Post run breakdown:
I don’t usually do big post-run reports, but we got stuck in Phoenix because of some airline excitement, so I had all the time in the world to write over the last couple days. (We’re home now, finally.)
The plan was to start at 4AM down South Kaibab. I packed my pack the night before with everything except for some real food (a sweet potato/avocado slurry) which was in the fridge. My stomach doesn’t do well with nothing but sports bars and sticky goos, so bringing real food was going to be the key to keeping things down later in the run. I grabbed my sweet potato mess from the fridge, my pack, headlamp, threw it all in our baller rental (a Kia Soul) and we headed north.
We got to the trailhead at about 3:45, and you’ll notice I didn’t start running until 4:19. That’s because I was scared sh*tless. The thought of running alone in the dark down a steep canyon trail I’ve never seen was really not appealing for some reason. I dragged my feet, telling Jake, Tori, and Smith that I might wait for sunrise.
Just then, perfect timing: we saw some other R2R2R runners arrive and set off at about 4:00. The thought of those guys tumbling down the trail ahead of me was somehow comforting, so about 20 minutes later I finally bucked up and set off down South Kaibab myself.
The trail started in a familiar way- some trees, a sign telling you to turn back unless you’re prepared for backcountry, etc. That’s where the familiarity ended; it quickly became clear to me that my scared sh*tlessness was somewhat rational. Even in the pitch black, I could tell that the trail I was running down had a quick shortcut to the canyon floor, and not the kind you want to take. It was freaking me out a bit, so I ended up descending at a pace that was much slower than I had planned on. Maybe in the daylight I would’ve been less weirded out, but in the early morning darkness all I could tell was that the canyon was out there and that the edge of the trail was where I didn’t want to be. The known unknown- a vast, invisible canyon; a giant hiding in the dark- was really unsettling. I kept descending and eventually started to settle in, feeling more comfortable with each step.
By the time I hit Ooh-Aah Point I was feeling a lot more comfortable. It was still pretty dark, but I was finding my bearings and enjoying the surprisingly smooth trail. It was starting to get a little lighter out, though I still needed my headlamp. I stopped to take a look at the faintly lit canyon scene, and as I turned, the light from my headlamp caught the glint of two big eyes off trail. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t have been scared totally sh*tless earlier because I almost shit myself right there.
The eyes bobbed at me, and I heard something on the opposite side of the trail: more eyes. More noise, more eyes. Three sets, bobbing and peering through the darkness at me. I prepared myself for the possibility of having to slap some mountain lions around with a soft flask. I was ready. The gleaming eyes got closer, I reached for my soft flask, and finally I could see them: they were fuzzy little mule deer. They cleared their nostrils at me, grazed on some scrub, and bobbed along by. They, in fact, had no sh*ts to give about me. If there’s a spike in my heart rate in that mile it’s because of those adorable, blasé canyon deer. With that nice adrenaline boost, I continued on.
The sun slowly rose as I went but I never got to see it rise over the canyon- I stayed just ahead of it on the descent. By the time I hit Skeleton Point it was finally light enough for me to start appreciating where I was. I stopped.
Before leaving on this trip, I called my Grampa to tell him I was going to run in the Grand Canyon. He couldn’t have been more excited for me; he told me that it was something he had always wanted to see but had never gotten around to. He said that when my Grammy started to get more and more sick, he had planned a trip for them to finally go see it, but she eventually became too sick to travel. She passed away before they had the chance to go together.
So, with one single service bar on my phone, standing at Skeleton Point, I called my Grampa. I told him where I was and we both laughed out into the canyon. I was able to talk to him for a few minutes before the call dropped, and he asked me if it was as beautiful as people say. I told him it definitely was.
Call dropped, I took off my pack, put my headlamp and some layers away, and just stared, smiling like an idiot. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to see what I was seeing. I took some pictures to show my Grampa, but they really didn’t do it justice, so I shoved my phone in my pack and made some adjustments (one of my water reserves had been digging into my shoulder for the last two miles), and at this point I realized that I had left my sweet potato fuel in the car.
Not the end of the world, but not great. Like I said, my pack was stocked with Skratch, Spring, and Picky Bars, but my stomach isn’t a huge fan of even the fanciest sports fuel after about 30 miles. I didn’t consider turning around, I just adjusted my fueling strategy based on what I had with me and figured if I could make it to the last few hours without any stomach issues it would be a win.
I wasn’t sure how much time I had killed, and the forgotten fuel screw up had partially snapped me out of my awe-struckedness and back into ultra-mode. I knew I was taking way too much time on the descent, so I tried to pick up the pace and take fewer pictures.
The insanely cool switchback system after skeleton sort’ve thwarted my “fewer pictures” plan. From where I stood, I could see smooth, rock-lined switchbacks winding down into the canyon for miles, and I caught my first glimpse of the Colorado River. I made my way down to The Tipoff and paused to explore and take a few more pictures before continuing on. I saw my first canyon emergency phone in the shelter at the Tipoff: a red box mounted to the shelter wall and hard-lined to civilization. These dot the trail as you go; a last resort for the underprepared. I made a note of it in case my fueling mistake became a fueling disaster later in the day.
Onward. I descended and descended, and finally laid eyes on the black suspension bridge I would take over the Colorado. It looked like a twig over a puddle, and slowly it grew until it was life-sized. I rounded the last turn and found the world’s darkest and scariest canyon tunnel standing between me and the bridge. It’s short, but it bends toward the bridge, meaning you can’t see through to the other side of the tunnel until you’re in it. Which means you have to go into the scary black tunnel to find out that it’s not a scary black tunnel. I did the old, “I’m gonna do it-nope nope turn around not doing it” twice before finally power walking like a grandma on a mission through the damn thing. Once I was far enough in I could see out to the bridge and it wasn’t scary at all. Again, unsettled by the known unknown.
The suspension bridges over this part of the river were cool as hell! The Colorado was wide and loud at this point, and surprisingly blue. Arizona is so dry; it seemed like all the water in the state must have ended up right there in the canyon. I took more pictures and picked up the pace, knowing I was close to Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch.
When I arrived at the campground, I was again struck by what I saw. Lush, creek-side campsites were starting to come to life as people made their way out of tents to camp chair coffee. A furry mule deer was being picky about which greens it pulled from a tall shrub. Soaring canyon walls hemmed it all in; the sun was up, but it wasn’t reaching us.
It was a private canyon oasis, there for those who took the time to reach it (and took the time to get the camping permit). I walked through, partially not wanting to disturb campers and partially wanting more time to take it in. I caught up with some other first time R2R2R runners from Mexico (they were the guys who left 20 minutes before me) and we chatted and took pictures for each other before moving on to the ranch.
Phantom Ranch was as beautiful as BA Campground, with a touch more of a tourist vibe. It was an oasis for those who muled their things down and reserved cabin accommodations over a year in advance. I passed by a team of mules tethered outside of one of the larger ranch buildings; they were much bigger than I had imagined them to be and they looked like they meant business. I wanted to pet the business mules, but refrained, figuring they must get a lot of unwanted attention from canyon visitors. I filled my soft flasks, put sun screen on, and ate one of my bars before moving on.
This next part of the trail was the definition of canyon backcountry, and the part they warn you about before you set out on a traverse. There was nothing out there but wilderness, and it was stunning. North Kaibab runs parallel with Bright Angel Creek, so the trail was dry and dusty but the surrounding terrain was green and alive. Flowers of all colors, shrubs, and cacti lined sections of the trail. Lizards skittered from rock to shrub, darting in front of me as I ran. I started to notice the temps rising and picked up the pace here, knowing that this would be the last flat-ish (there’s a slight grade) section before climbing up to the North Rim. My next water stop- Cottonwood Campground- was on the other side of this human-free stretch.
I arrived at Cottonwood, found the water spigot, and took my pack off. I took some more fuel, rearranged some things that had been bothering me for a few miles, and took my flasks out to fill. I turned the spigot and nothing came out. There was another closer to ground level that I tried- nothing. Water in the canyon is not to be relied upon: it can be turned off at any time for any number of reasons. Thankfully, I had partially filled a reservoir at the ranch thinking this might happen, so I had a little over half a liter left to get me to Manzanita Resthouse, which is just before the climb up to the North Rim.
I was hot and feeling dried out when I got to Manzanita, so I had my head down as I approached. When I looked up, my first thought was, “This has to be what heaven looks like.” From the open, hot trail I stepped under the shade of thriving trees and looked out over the blue creek cascading down into the canyon. I found more runners at a picnic table, enjoying the rest from the sun and chatting as the creek rushed behind them. I filled my flasks, put more sunscreen on, and soaked my hat before starting the climb up to the North Rim.
Initially, the climb wasn’t so bad, but soon the heat caught up with me. It is hot and it is dry in that canyon. There’s no clever way to describe it: it’s brutal. The sun beats down in a way I’ve never felt and there are long stretches with no shade and no escape. I had a few thousand feet of facing off with the sun, but it felt like a few more.
The views on the climb up to the North Rim were different: redder, sharper. The rocks on that side of the canyon seemed to be more colorful in general: purple, orange, white, dusty blue all mixed together. I climbed around the aftermath of a few rockslides as I made my way closer to the top. I passed Coconino Outlook and didn’t stop this time- I had blown through all of my water and was feeling dizzy.
In fact, I recognized that I was so hot and lightheaded that I thought I would have to pull the plug on the whole run. I had cash for a shuttle back to the South Rim in case something like this happened, but I was less than happy to think I might actually need to use it. I hiked up and up, switchback after switchback. Some idiots told me I only had one more switchback to go and about four later I reach the trailhead.
At last, the North Rim. I found two runners from Pittsburgh who had set out at 3AM. They were searching for water, which I knew was shut off at the trailhead but was on at the Backcountry Office- a little less than a mile down the road. As we headed over together I grabbed some snow out of one of the last snowbanks of the season to shove under my hat. The North Rim had to be about 20 degrees cooler than the sun-baked trail, and I could feel my core temp coming down.
We reached the office spigot and took turns filling bottles and reservoirs, chatting about races and bucket-list runs. I put more sunscreen on, ate, and wished the Pittsburgh runners luck before starting back down towards the trail. I filled a sandwich bag with snow and shoved more under my hat. There was no way I was going to shuttle back to the South Rim. I knew I could get me there in the heat; I would just have to be careful about it.
I reached the trail head and started running the descent. As I went, the sun tried to kill me. I swear. I put the bag of snow on my neck, and when that felt too cold I switched it to my head. The bag went back and forth like that until it had all melted. I saw the Mexican R2R2R runners ascending as I descended and shared the snow tip with them- they were surprised that there could possibly be snow at the top with how hot it had gotten down below.
I was out of water again by the time I got back to Manzanita. Knowing that water at Cottonwood was off and that the temps were higher than when I had crossed earlier, I took as much water as I could and layered on more sunscreen before moving on.
The next part of this write up is to be taken with a grain of the salt I was covered in because I was hot. Hot. Hot hot hot. It’s a bit of a blur from Manzanita on.
I was cranking through water, dipping my hat wherever I could, and talking to lizards. The shade I had enjoyed earlier in the day was gone: nothing but unfiltered sunlight radiating down into the canyon and onto me. I actually pushed the pace in this section because I knew that time in the sun would work against me in a much more serious way versus effort in the sun.
I used the few shaded sections there were to motivate myself: “just need to run to that shade up there” over and over, trying to ignore the sun I was running through to get to the shade. Back through Cottonwood, back through the dry, open backcountry sections, along the creek, for what felt like 50 miles in itself, and finally I reached Phantom Ranch. It felt like crossing a finish line, and I had a little under 10 miles with a few thousand feet of climbing to go.
I stopped at the water spigot. It was in direct sun, so I turned like a zombie and found shade next to a ranger house. I hobbled over to it and swung my pack off. I took my long sleeve shirt out of my bag. I took my hat and my short sleeve shirt off. I shuffled to the spigot and soaked all three articles of clothing. I shuffled back to the shade and put the soaking wet long sleeve and hat on. I wrapped the wet short sleeve around my neck. Back to the spigot to fill my flasks, then back to the shade to put more sunscreen on. I ate another Picky Bar and was out of Skratch. My stomach was beginning its revolt, right on schedule. I felt slightly cooler as I slung my pack on. It was time: onward. To the climb!
Out of the ranch, through Bright Angel Campground. A few campers cheered for me, apparently knowing that a runner looking that ragged in the campground must be on their way to finishing up R2R2R.
I decided to ascend Bright Angel Trail. It was not entirely a deliberate decision. My sun fried brain figured that while BA trail added mileage, it would also be a gentler ascent. It was one part logic-driven decision, one part heat-induced whim. I sent out a check-in ping with my GPS tracker/sat phone so that Jake, Tori, and Smith would know which trail I was coming up.
I crossed the silver suspension bridge, the sister of the black bridge I had crossed in the morning, and found a mule train on the other side. I stepped off the trail and let the business mules pass before beginning the climb. About half a mile in, I discovered that the bottom of BA trail is a mother fricking sand pit. 40ish miles in, hot, and climbing on sand was not what I wanted in that moment. I told the lizards how pissed I was about the sand and kept going. Eventually the trail firmed up and my climb became a bit easier.
It was the opposite of any long run finish I had ever done. In New England, a big mountain run usually goes ascend-ridge run-descend, not descend-river run-ascend-descend-roast run-ascend. You get the point: climbing to finish the run was different.
I did the idiot newb runner thing and kept looking at my watch. 44.13 miles. 44.14 miles. 44.17 miles. 44.20 miles. Awful. I tried to stop doing that and just focused on climbing. Then I had a thought; I turned and looked out at the canyon. It was beautiful. I kept climbing. I peeked at my watch. 44.23 miles. Dammit.
I picked my head up from my GPS watch prison and spotted a large group ahead of me, with one person shouting directions to the others. As I got closer, I realized that one person in the group was in an off-road/trail wheelchair and the rest were coordinating their efforts to pull this person up the trail. They had three people towing, one spotting, and three lifting & turning the chair over obstacles. This group of people had hiked down into the Grand Canyon with their chair-bound friend and they were now coordinating the hike out.
A place that some people never get to see, and a trail that some people never venture onto, and this group was making it happen for their friend.
I can’t describe how this scene hit me. I felt grateful for every fraction of a mile that read out on my watch after that.
I reached Indian Garden; it was absolutely gorgeous but I was toast so I powered (read: crawled) by it. I climbed and climbed. I met some runners from Mass and they were helpful for passing the miles. They had run something shorter (I know they told me what they ran, but I just don’t remember) and they were really interested in R2R2R. They had awesome questions for me and I could hardly spark enough brain cells to answer. I think they understood the exhausted ultra gibberish I was speaking.
Mile 45, 46, 47, 48- at 48.5 I looked up and suddenly a Jake appeared. It was my Jake. He covered the last mile and a half with me; he recapped his day for me and I tried stringing together mine to share with him.
Switchback, switchback, tourist, switchback, tunnel, selfie sticks, tourists. Someone asked us to stop and take their picture. Jake looked at me and we both smiled, “yeah we can take your picture.” The guy was super nice, but I guess a little oblivious. One canyon tourist picture later, it was done.
Finally, the South Rim.
For the first time that day, I turned and looked out over the southern end of the Grand Canyon.
It was as beautiful as people say it is.