Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rim to Rim to Rim Grand Canyon

by Paul

I've been to the Grand Canyon before but I had never experienced it like I did this trip. I've been dreaming of this since I was a child. This was a trip my mother and I tried to save up for for many years. We collected coins in jars trying to save up, but we never made it. She got sicker as the years passed by - spending more time in the hospital then out of it, at times. If she wasn't in kidney dialysis, it was to get her blood pressure down to a respectable level. Eventually the coins stopped dropping into the coin jars and we started to live day to day surviving. Dreams fade when you don't have the strength to look that far ahead anymore... when you're doing everything in your power just to keep living for your kids. She was strong willed, survived a long time after her body gave up years before her spirit did. I believe she fought on to make sure her kids were in a good place before she could rest. She fought to live her life the best she could and to give her children everything she could, especially her love.
I have her will now... I had lost it for so many years. I lost it living in the past and holding onto hate of so many things. I forgot the lessons of my mother, the one person I should be living to make proud. I hid for so many years from the true person I could be and fell deeper into that dark place we go when we no longer want to live.
This past year of ultrarunning has helped me learn more about myself than the previous three years running on the road. There is something to this ultrarunning - pushing beyond your physical and going into your heart and mind. Pushing beyond what you thought possible, surviving beyond the point of disaster. My mother did that for years with her sickness and now I want to live for her - to do the things we set out to do and never could.
This trip was that defining moment where I could look at myself and see my mother. I can feel again that love she had for me - that strength she had to hold on for so long. I don't know if there is an after life or not but I could feel her strong spirit with me this whole trip.

I don't know if I lack the words to describe this experience, or if there are no words to describe the Grand Canyon. They say that most visitors going to the Grand Canyon stay near the South Rim and never experience what it is to be inside. After running from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again I have a whole new respect and love for this grand place. You feel so small, such a part of everything when you're down in the canyon - looking back up out of it. It's hard to explain the feeling you get when you're inside looking out the enormity of it all. You really can't grasp the Grand Canyon unless you've been down in it and tried climbing back out of it. Words like beautiful, pretty, gorgeous.....etc just don't seem to do it justice.

The group of nine started out around 3:45am on May 5th on the South Kaibab Trail. We would travel down until we hit the Colorado River, cross the river and head on by Phantom Ranch, then onto the North Kaibab trail, until reaching the top of the North Rim. Then head back down back to Phantom Ranch and head up the Bright Angel trail to the top of South Rim. Total mileage depends on who you talk to - and to me, I don't really care how many miles it was, it was the experience that counted for me. I did wear my Garmin 310xt to check out the elevation map at the end and just to have it on record for me later. My Garmin beeped at me many times letting me know the satellite had been lost. So who knows what the real numbers were, it's now a habit to wear my watch so I do.
For some people in our group, it was their first time experiencing the Grand Canyon, and it was awesome to be there when they first saw it. I remember my first time, it was something to witness it. The thing is, I didn't really experience it like one should until this trip. There were other groups going out that day some to Phantom Ranch and back. My 15yo son Errin was in that group, that also filled me with pride to know he was going to experience the Canyon with me. My wife and 6yo son Jude were hiking to Indian Gardens and back that same day which for a 6yo is pretty darn impressive, nine miles with a 3000ft climb out of Indian Gardens. I was so happy my whole family got to experience this - something my mother and I tried to do for so many years. I believe my kids have the same will and determination my mother did, and it showed this trip.

We started out in the early morning so we could watch the sunrise while being inside the Canyon. So many people only ever see the sunrise from the outside. It was an awe inspiring moment to watch that sun rise and start hitting the different layers of the rock. You just can't explain what it was to see the colors and play of light as it moved down the canyon. We stopped so many times to get pictures - to try and capture that moment - but pictures can never do it justice. You couldn't fit the whole canyon into the frame. No matter what angle you tried, the enormity and beauty of it all could not fit into your frame. I tried - believe me I tried - I just hope some of the pictures came out. Some of the pictures on this post were from friends along the journey that I thought they captured it a little better than I did.

For most of the trip we just were in awe of it all, stopping as much as possible but also being aware that we needed to keep moving if we wanted to complete this in one day. So moved on stopping to refill our water as many times as we could on our way up. We stopped at Phantom Ranch for a refill, Cottonwood Campground, and the Ranger Station on the way up the North rim. I never ran out of water on the journey so that was nice. I did run out of energy a few times, but never water. There is something to be said for climbing 6000ft out of a Canyon and living to tell about it. Funny thing is, after you do that you must climb back down into it, run across the canyon again and prepare yourself for a 5000 ft climb to get you to the top of the South Rim... experiencing every thought and emotion you could have in one day.

Most of the run to the North rim was fun and we were busy taking pictures. There was lots of talking about what we were experiencing, and tons of looking around with open mouths and drool coming out as we gawked at it all. Climbing up the North rim, Jose Luis, Rebecca, Michelle, Carl and I found a rhythm to keep plugging away. We separated sometimes, but we kept climbing up arduously. I got to know these friends more and more as we experienced each step up this climb. I bonded with each of them in a new way, in a way I haven't experienced since bootcamp. You come together during these difficult times and push each other and encourage each other beyond friendship into a type of kinship. You love them for pushing you, for encouraging you like a mother or father or sibling would, to see you achieve all that you've ever wanted to achieve. These friends will forever be etched into my mind as some of the greatest people I know for this journey we endured together.
We regrouped at the top to recover from the climb. I noticed other runners from other parts of the country sitting around gathering their mind and body to start back down. We all knew what we had left to do - it was best to start back down soon after refueling and a much needed break. I didn't want to take too much of a break, in case my legs started to seize up. I like to keep moving because I have these calves that love to cramp up if I stop too much while exercising.
Down the North Kaibab Trail was a nice refreshing run after the slow climb up. I was feeling pretty good as Carl and I took off down the trails. A lot of this trail is wide, but some of it has cliffs on the side... if you made a big mistake you could surely fall to your death. Fortunately for me, when I made my big mistake and fell on my face I stayed on the trail. I felt like a turtle on my back, with my hydration pack under me and my head going downhill and my feet on the uphill, so I couldn't move. I felt like my legs and arms were flailing around. I was careful not to move too much, because I did not want to roll over the side of the trail (cliff). Fortunately, Carl was still around me to help me back up on my feet. A few scratches on my arms, shoulders and left knee - other than that, just my pride was scratched a bit.
At the Ranger Station, another runner doing the R2R2R named Maria had a first aid kit and helped me patch up. I was only going to wash it off but she insisted I take care of it so she felt better. I took her advice and dealt with it right then and thanked her and headed back out. During the trip down I encountered the late starters of our group, Vanessa and Shacky, on their way up the North Rim - sitting in some shade escaping from the sun and heat. My friend Shacky does not like the heat (we share that dislike, more on that later). I also saw my great friend Christine climbing her way up the North Rim with Gordy Ainsleigh (the man who ran with the horses and created the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run). They were chugging along together, stopping every now and again for people to get their pictures taken with Gordy (and of course with our famous Christine). It was great to see them up there, it gave me a lift during the run down the trail. Especially after my fall I needed a little love from my friends.
After seeing them, we all kind of split off into our grooves going different speeds at different times. So we saw each other periodically throughout the journey back to Phantom Ranch. The temperature started rising and it was becoming midday. The sun was at its peak, and there was not a lot of shade to hide in. The sun was taking its toll on me, and I could see it was taking its toll on a lot of us. I saw a guy who was walking and running as much as he could, and I kind of grabbed onto his pace and stuck it out with him. His name was Aaron, he was from Denver and we just talked and walked until we got back to Phantom Ranch.
When I got there I was hungry and very exhausted from the climbs and the heat. I went inside the cafe and sat down - I wish I would not have. I just wanted some french fries or something that wasn't gels or bars. I love french fries - and potatoes are my go-to food during long runs. Come to find out they had no potatoes... I did find out later they had sack lunches, I was just too delirious to read the whole sign. But while sitting, a couple shared some of their food with me. I started to get nauseated and dizzy while sitting there, so I went outside in case I had to throw up - and I saw Jose Luis and Michelle filling up their water. I told them what was happening and they encouraged me to settle down, and got me all set to endure the rest of the journey. I went to the bathroom, dumped water on me to bring me back to life, and was ready to walk out of Phantom Ranch to head back up the 5000 ft climb up Bright Angel.
I will always remember these two wonderful people for what they did for me at Phantom Ranch and the walk out of there. Seeing the Colorado again was nice, and crossing it was even better. We crossed the river and I started feeling a bit better with each and every step we took towards the South Rim.
It was nice to have company during these times - my friends pulled me from my doldrums to revive me. This journey was everything I wanted it to be and more. I hit every emotion, went through so much physically and kept on moving to get it done - like my mother would want me too, to make her proud.
I kept plugging along on the climb back up the canyon. My friends and I got separated a bit, only because I was afraid if I stopped again I would nap or cramp. Every time I came to a creek crossing I dunked my hat in and sprayed water over me. I also walked right through them to get my feet wet. I passed right through Indian Gardens, only pausing enough to fill my bottle up. I ended up passing the couple who shared their food with me at Phantom Ranch and thanked them again for all their help. The climb out was pretty darn tough - one of the toughest things I had ever done. Finally, after 15 hours of being out there, I saw my family up on the rim and some of the others cheering me on. By then I was in shambles emotionally and physically. It was wonderful my wife knew me so well, she had fries waiting for me to eat.
At the top, I started crying because this was more than a physical challenge - it was my life long dream! More than that, it was our dream - my mother's and mine together - a dream of a mother and her child. It meant everything to me to endure this awesome journey. If we have spirits, I believe my mother's was with me during this crossing. I was so happy to have my wife and kids there at the end. To have my little family there where my mother couldn't, meant the world to me. My sons showed they have my mother's will and determination during this trip. She will live on through them. This journey has made me realize that I want to live more and grow more each and every day. I want to make my mother proud. I want to make my wife and kids proud of this journey we call life. I gained friends and bonded more deeply with the ones that embarked and endured this journey with me. I believe I have a bigger and stronger family of friends and loved ones.
I just want to thank everyone involved with making this trip happen. For those who helped me during this crossing, I want to thank you from the deepest part of my being. You were all a part of a huge dream in my lifelong journey.
I will live on with the lessons learned from my mother and teach those to my children. To fight for what you want no matter the obstacles. To love others and yourself like today is the last day you might live. I will chase my dreams and goals with every fiber of my being.

I will now post a ton of pictures of the journey, hope you enjoy the pictures as much as I loved taking them.

Gordy Ainsleigh and Errin

Strong willed kids
Fries and dirt
My love and me
The Group
Healthy Day.


  1. One of the best weekends of my life. It was great to share this adventure with you and your family.

    1. Thanks so much for bring there and being a part of my journey. I hope we can work together in 2014 crossing the USA.

  2. Paul that was a beautiful story. Yes I believe in spirits and it is very clear you Mom was there with you. I am so glad you got to live this experience and it sounds like it was everything you needed it to be. Congratulations!

    1. It was an amazing experience, thank you so much for reading our story. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. OMG!! You made me cry! This is a beautiful report filled with love... I am so happy to be your friend.. We need more people like you in this world. So proud of you!

    1. You rock Gaby, thank you for the fuel and your friendship.

  4. What an amazing story! I visited the Grand Canyon 3 years and was able to hike down in the canyon, but it wasn't enough! It is such an amazing place that I need to explore. I've been dreaming of doing this same trip. Good for you to experience it with such amazing people!

  5. It was an amazing trip with some beautiful people. Thank you for reading my story. I went to your chronicles page also and GOOD LUCK on your first Ultra.