Rim to Rim: On the Run in the Grand Canyon

Much ado has been made about barefoot running since McDougal’s book “Born to Run” was published in 2009. However, little note has been taken of the case that the author makes that we were born to run or more specifically, that our species advanced through evolution by virtue of our ability to run long distances. Perhaps if he had been an anthropologist, his concept “Born to Run” would have been more newsworthy. While we may really have been born to run, many of us (including me) just didn’t make that discovery until much later in life.

The Rim-to-Rim runners, rarin’ to go


Colin, Lisa and I were an unlikely trio of endurance runners. Colin and Lisa, siblings and 20-plus years my juniors, had never run an endurance event before our Grand Canyon rim-to-river-and-back mission. By contrast, I could be characterized as a relatively experienced ultra-runner but I had never done anything quite like this big descent. We had been brought together by the unexpected passing of our long-time dear friend (and retired owner of Zephyr Music & Gifts) Bob, who had volunteered to me last summer that he would like to join me when I attempted to run the Canyon from Rim to Rim.

Bob had accompanied me to 50 kilometer- and 50-mile trail races to provide moral support in the past. However, this time his rationale was less altruistic and more personal. His deceased wife Marge had complained to him about never having taken her to the Grand Canyon. The ever enterprising Bob figured that in lieu of that missed vacation, he would deliver her ashes to the Grand Canyon and spread them with Chris and me next spring. When Bob died last November, I knew immediately that we had a mission.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes one to put a friend to rest. We had a heart-felt wake for Bob at our home and it seemed as though there were others who might be interested in joining us in our Arizona sojourn. In my view, people are generally pretty good at assessing their own ability to undertake a challenging endeavor and I did not want to preclude anyone from joining me, if they wanted to do so – particularly Colin and Lisa, who had regarded Bob as an alternative father figure. My only surprise was that it took them no time to consider the challenge and incumbent hardship and commit to joining me to take Bob and Marge’s ashes to the canyon bottom.

Morning sun
Morning sun

I first met Colin in 1967, when his father Paul, Bob and I were serving as conscripts in the US Army in Germany. Colin was 3 months old and had just arrived with his mother Helen from Napa, California. As 20-year old draftees, it was a toss-up whether we were worse at soldiering or parenting. Nevertheless, we’ve all come a long ways since then. 46 years, two continents, 1500 miles between homes, and we’re still friends. Colin’s passion is spending time at his property in California’s Trinity Alps, where he loves hiking and sleeping outside under the stars. He resembles Steve McQueen with a goatee and is every bit as tough as we might recall that legendary actor, but is disposed to be equally as sincere and considerate. I knew that he’d finish the 17-mile down and up run into the Big Ditch, if he had to crawl to the rim.

Horses are Lisa’s passion. She’s athletic, witty, very smart, and has been resourceful enough to integrate those attributes into a self-employed career focused on training horses and their riders to jump over a variety of difficult objects. As an occasional runner, she had flirted with the prospect of running a marathon. However, this run would definitely be more difficult. I hadn’t known her quite as long as her brother, but if there were any deference due, it was to her. She had spent nearly 16 hours a day for a couple of weeks with Bob, while he was in the hospital. Those were hard times. Bob suffered mightily.

Lisa probably worried more about our adventure, than Colin and I but she had good reason. She had been ill for nearly 3 of the 6 months that we had available to train. If it’s true as Chris says:  “Salesmen are the best ones to sell to”, then it’s also true that teachers are the best ones to teach. Likewise, Lisa was an enthusiastic student for my periodic coaching tips to help her prepare for the longest run that she had ever done.

Ashes to Ashes

Our trio managed to get two training runs together, when they returned to Bellingham from California twice before our Big Descent. Each time, the temperature was in the mid-30’s and it rained steadily, like non-Puget-Sounders probably imagine our weather, rather than the intermittent showers with which we natives are more familiar. Quite a contrast to the Grand Canyon, which would almost certainly be clear and dry with a temperature variation of 40 degrees in a mere 6 hours due to its high desert climate. We were soaked, determined, and nearly ready for our rim to river and back mission.

We had agreed on three goals:  Spread the ashes in the Colorado River, have fun and finish safely. The Parks Department discourages such one-day trips, since they must rescue about 250 poorly prepared adventurers a year. Our strategy was to descend on the South Kaibab Trail, purported to be the more scenic route, which we could enjoy more, while descending, rather than ascending the trail. Spread the ashes and check-out the Phantom Ranch. Was it really there?  Our Bus Driver had raised doubts. Finally, we’d return by ascending Bright Angel Trail which is a more gradual climb and had water available. We also agreed:  “no experiments”. Everything that we wore, ate or did, had been previously tried in our training regimens.

On the switchbacks
On the switchbacks

We love our high-tech phones, but surely none of us wanted to read, when we awakened for our big day, that the temperature was 22 degrees. It was just one more thing to cause worry. We convened in the lobby of the Grand Hotel for moans, groans, a few photos and piled in to our vehicles. The temperature seemed to increase by a degree for every mile that we drove. I discarded one layer and hoped for the best. We disembarked from our bus at the trailhead (The park discourages as much car travel as possible) and departed after hugs, kisses and an enthusiastic cheers from our Team Bob supporters, who had travelled from far and wide to see us off.

Each switch-back revealed a more spectacular view of the utterly sublime Canyon. After a half-dozen switchbacks, I couldn’t continue to take in the beauty without hollering as loudly as I could “YAHOO!!!”. Meanwhile the trail was requiring more and more careful attention to its surface, which was quickly becoming unpredictable. I was wondering how any runner could possibly compare the beauty of one trail to another because one dare not cast his eyes away from where his feet were about to land. Our paces necessarily slowed in order for us to plot our steps.

Colin had tailed us by a hundred yards or so, due to a sore knee and probably a preference to run his own pace on our training runs. Surprisingly, he spurted ahead of us and gained steadily on our cautious pace to the river. The inconsistent trail was bordered by even larger more irregular sized and configured rocks. Colin was dancing down those rocks like Fred Astaire – or perhaps he was just channeling his 12 % Choctaw blood. I’ve seen a lot of fast ultra-Trail-Runners, but Colin’s rock dancing was the prettiest running that I’ve ever seen.

Ultra-running is an individual sport that feels like a team sport. There are always acquaintances to be made along the way, who become comrades against the common foe, the trail. As we made those acquaintances, we’d visit on the run and they would pass us. Then we’d pass them and trade positions periodically along the way. Despite any separation, there’s always the mutual feeling that we were bonded and would meet again.

Rose on the Rocks
Rose on the Rocks

As the verdant Colorado River got wider, compared to the green sliver that we had observed from the rim, I reminded Lisa that I had forecast our 6.5 mile descent to be 1.5 – 2 hours and consequently I would have to sprint to make that goal. Unfortunately, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a pitch-black tunnel. I couldn’t even see my hands, let alone my feet. The darkness lasted about 15 seconds too long and I had to walk to daylight, the bridge over the Colorado, Colin and Lisa. Wow!  Cool, we made it to our first leg and nobody else was in sight. Perfect, we were ready to do it.

Like the rushing river, my excitement gave way to anxiety about our return and I just wanted to complete our mission and begin our ascent. Fortunately, Lisa was still thinking clearly and wanted to first determine the wind direction to avoid ashes blowing back at us. We each had packed an equal share of Bob and Marge’s ashes and cast our bag contents upstream. There wasn’t much to see, until the ashes floated nearly 100’ to the green surface, where we could watch white traces swiftly float down stream, under the bridge before disappearing in the swirling water. Our fond and final farewell mission was complete. Now, we just had to climb back to the rim, ten miles distant and 5,000 feet above us.

Rim to Rim

The Bright Angel Trail was even better. Instead of climbing, it was mildly undulating and roughly followed the river for a couple of miles. What a surprise! It was way more fun and far less challenging than anticipated. We were able to run at a quicker pace, than we had going up or down – quite a thrill!

Then the climb started. Buoyed by our heady run along the river, we didn’t have to slow too much – at least for a little while. However, the heat, elevation and fatigue were becoming more evident. Most running climbs evolve into a silent pilgrimage to the top with a lot of different head trips wandering around one’s awareness.  This was no different except for the occasional quips about renting space to sit in the rare opportunities for shade along the trail. Frequently, the longer the climb; the greater the separation, Colin was paying the price for speeding down the Canyon by tailing us. Lisa was exhibiting athletic ability by cruising way ahead of us without apparent effort.

We reconvened at each of the two watering holes along the way for mutual support, but after those respites, the separation would resume. The Bright Angel Trail is much more heavily traveled than the South Kaibab. Despite my faith in humans to make good self-assessments, it was amazing to see how many people were poorly prepared for their journey down into the canyon. The last two miles were the hardest. Personally, I was beginning to wonder whether I could have successfully run the Rim 2 Rim (South to North or vice versa) as I had originally intended. I heard a faint cheer further up the trail. It must have been by our Team Bob fans, waiting on the rim, when Lisa arrived at the finish.

My finish was less dramatic. The Bright Angel Trail ends at a T. Lisa went right, where our supporters were and I went left, where I knew that I would land in a bar, because it was certainly beer:30. Colin went to the left as well. We guys stick together, even if we’re wrong. One Stout beer and I was already planning on how I could do Rim 2 Rim next year and have company.

There are two places in our USA that every American should visit at least once. One is Washington DC and the other is Grand Canyon. Five of our troupe of nine viewed the Grand Canyon for the first time.  Millions from all over the planet visit the south rim every year. Few ever make it all the way to the river. Bob and Marge accomplished both, which was a fitting tribute to the mark they left on our memories.

Team Bob
Team Bob

Foster Rose discovered his “inner runner” late in life, and has since been making up for lost time. He lives in Bellingham, where he has owned The Greenhouse, a store offering “a spirited collection for the home”  with his partner Chris Foss since 1972.


One comment

  1. My boyfriend and I hiked the S Kaibab trail down to Colorado and then came back up to the south rim via Bright Angel in just under 7 hours. It was absolutely amazing! I personally liked the S Kaibab better than Bright Angel…it was steeper but the views are breathtaking and the hike was just more interesting in my opinion. We took a shuttle from Bright Angel Lodge to the trailhead at 8:00 and it was 29 degrees out, but by the time we got to the bottom, it was about 70 degrees. I feel like you just can’t visit the Grand Canyon without checking this epic trail off of the list. Just don’t forget your trekking poles…they are a life-saver on this trail!

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