The Grand Plan


A few years ago, probably about four to five, I came across an article in outdoors magazine. It detailed four men who had just finished the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim in under 24 hours (22 hours to be exact, and I was immediately fascinated. The author explained that those who attempt this 43-45 mile journey have to be three things: in top physical condition, have the ability to bare a significant amount of pain, and lastly, a little sick in the head. From that moment, I knew one day that I would do it. In this article, which I have attempted to find since, it detailed that if a person finishes this amazing journey in under 24 hours, it is considered the Devil’s Marathon. I have yet to hear anyone else refer to it by this name but regardless, the name was dubbed and it has been on my life list ever since.

Every year in addition to having a number of yearly goals, I try and do at least one thing from my Life List (my growing list of all the things I want to do before I die); and this year finally, the Grand Canyon r2r2r (rim to rim to rim) was on it. Thankfully since I began ultrarunning, there has consistently been at least a few people down to do something adventurous, scary, and absolutely amazing with me. Thus I joined an amazing team consisting of one awesome girl, Korina (we had run together in the past), and two guys: Breck and Omar.

As the day approached I was anxious and uncertain, but mostly excited. Knowing that I have been prone to nausea I had a steady plan in place and was serious about sticking to nutrition every 30 minutes or so. Overall I felt really confident, but with ultras you just never know how they’re going to go. There is so much time where something can go wrong that is why it is hard to plan for everything. I was lucky enough to have two of my fave buds Mark and Bill (also know as Vampire) head out to the Canyon with me. We left Friday for the long eight hour journey.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, it was late and time for bed. I assembled my pack for the journey keeping in mind a few things. There is water in the Canyon that is already filtered so I opted to only bring my 3L bladder for liquids. For food I loaded up: 6 gels, Cliff bars, three PB&J sandwiches, two avocados and three hardboiled eggs just to name a few. I also anticipated that it was going to be freezing so I wore all of my fairly warm running gear, and opted not to bring running shorts to change in to. Everything in my small pack had to be intentional and had to have a specific purpose because we weren’t hiking, we were running, and carrying only what you need is essential. A few short hours later I was up at 2 am; I then drove passed a few herds of deer and into the National Park to meet my three running buddies for the day.

It was early, we hugged, introduced ourselves, and mentally prepared. Omar’s awesome girlfriend drove us to the trail start at South Kaibob near Yaki Point, and as soon as our feet hit the ground we were off and running the 6.3 miles (4860 feet elevation loss) down to the Colorado River in the Canyon. It was dark but not too cold, and it smelled like heaven. The run down into the Canyon was a perfect warm up. As sun started to rise we saw people camping who were just waking up. They looked at us, minimal gear, running shoes, excited faces, as we ran passed camp. That’s when I had the burst of energy of “we are really doing this!” Running down into the Canyon was challenging. The terrain was okay, but you’re still at a bit of elevation and realize the number of miles you have to put in had the potential of getting really overwhelming. I remember constantly using my coping skills (positive self-talk, deep breathing), and staying grounded. I took one mile at a time knowing where my strengths and my weaknesses lay. I knew that if I began to get nauseated, that and that alone would seal my fate; so whenever I started to feel a little funny I dialed it back, ate a little nutrition, and continued.

Eight to nine miles across the Canyon and starting up the north rim (NR), we were all feeling good but we knew that the climb up the NR was going to be challenging, and we would be hiking this section and not running it. Five to six miles down from the NR summit, we stopped to eat a little something, drink, and go to the bathroom. What I have learned on these ultras is that you want to be really mindful about the amount of breaks you take. I don’t like to take breaks, I would rather slow it down a bit and recover than stop entirely. Not only does your body have a hard time moving again, but you don’t want your mind to start to enjoy the comforts of stopping hours before you intend to. You have to stay ahead of your mind because your mind is your biggest asset but is also your biggest challenge out there. As we began the climb up the NR it was rough. Significant altitude gain caused thin air, tired lungs, and tired legs. It seemed as if we would never arrive. About a half a mile before we got to the top, we noticed a weather shift. Even though we were super hot the cold coming in could not be ignored. When we reached the top (6-7 hours) the snow started falling. We knew that we could not enjoy the 15 minute brunch like we had intended because we were at high risk of hypothermia. We chowed down a few things, I put my rain jacket back on, and began the run down.

Approximately three miles down the canyon I see Mark! Mark had not intended to do the r2r2r, but unbeknownst to me, he left just short after we did, at 3:40 am. I asked Mark if he wanted to just turn around with us now, as he was still some miles from the NR and the weather was bad, but he was determined to complete the challenge. I was worried about Mark, not safety worried because he is skilled in emergency knowledge (I met Mark and Bill on the San Diego Mountain Rescue team), but more lonely worried. I know how it feels doing these things when the night falls, and being alone can be very difficult task. We made a safety plan, and off he went.

There wasn’t much talking among the four of us on the way back. I took this time, as I always like to, to think about my life and the direction I’m headed. I reflected on the decisions I’ve made and are making, and was excited about new ideas I wanted to implement when I returned to San Diego. I felt…almost home free at this point. I knew that I was on the way back to the south rim and no matter what I had to finish because it was my only way out of the Canyon. But more than that, I was happy that quitting never entered my mind. There have been many times in the past that I’m working through talking myself off a ledge (basically every time I have done a 100 miler), and it was nice to not have to use that mental reserve. Instead I could use my mind to focus on other things and it was a very beautiful and cathartic time for me. THEN the rain came. It was raining and raining. I centered myself and smiled knowing that the rain is my weakness, and just kept moving. Breck and I decided to grab a lemonade at the camp right before Bright Angel (the route we were taking back up the south rim). I stood there knowing that we had nine miles of approximately a 5,000 foot elevation gain before the victory was ours. It was amazing standing down there and looking up at that Canyon, having no idea how in nine miles you would be on top of it. It doesn’t make any dimensional or logical sense to the mind’s eye. It looks like it is just miles and miles above; but we were ready to get moving. We drank our lemonade on the go and started up the south rim via Bright Angel. *We opted for this route because it was less of an intensive elevation gain than South Kaibob which was only seven miles but more intensive, and it dropped us approximately 1.2 miles away from the hotel.

Breck and I talked here and there throughout the three hour journey to the top. We talked about missing mutual friends, mass incarceration, girls, boys, but it was the silent moments that meant the most. Because every step we took seemed like we were getting farther and farther from the summit and we quietly battled our internal struggles to keep moving. The eyes and the mind were playing so many tricks and nothing seemed logical. Miles made no sense, only time did. Finally we started to pass people coming down or going up. We would ask how long until the top, and they would respond in miles, to which we would say, “Time! How many hours until the top?” Slowly the hours became less and less. About two miles from the summit we passed a group of people. They asked us where we came from and we told them the journey of the day, they said “yes us too, we did the south rim down to the Canyon and now we’re back up.” I continued without saying much, but wanting to yell back, “No! We did the south rim to the north rim back to the south rim, we have done 43 miles!” Staying quiet almost ate me up inside. I’m not one for glory, but it was something about doing this amazing journey that made me want to yell it from the mountaintop.

About less than a mile to the top I remember seeing a lady in converse, carrying a coffee cup and laughing. I knew at that point that we were almost there. People would ask us about our trip, applaud us, and were so encouraging. A few times it brought tears to my eyes because I had actually done it.

When Breck and I got to the top in just under 14 hours and 30 minutes there were few words but lots of hugs. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there’s something very intimate about enduring an adventure/challenge with another person…it bonds you for life. I thought about Mark out there by himself and I wished he was with us…but I knew that he would make it…and make it he did! Mark completed the Devil’s Marathon in under 24 hours and it took courage, stamina, and guts to be out there that long solo, I don’t know if I could have done it.
This experience, as with all of my ultras, has changed me. I wish I could bottle it up and drink it. As the years pass, I realize that I grow more and more into a person that is best on the trails. The outdoors change you and you are always better for it. I remember standing at the top looking at that beauty and not believing that I had just traveled the entire canyon…and as much as I was proud, I was also reminded of how small we as people are, but with so much potential to do great things. I carry the words of John Muir in my blood, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
Heading up to the north rim.


2 thoughts on “The Grand Plan

  1. Hi Sam. You met my husband, Alan, at Poway’s DMV line back in April (?). Your suggestion to avoid a back country permit in the Grand Canyon by just doing a r2r put us into action. We completed our r2r last week (north to south) on Oct 25-26. Alan completed it in 13 hours and I took a little longer (14.5). He’s ready to do it again. I’m ready to saunter with a backpack and enjoy side trails. Thanks for the inspiration. Your description of your r2r2r is spot on. We experience similar deep feelings about our adventure. Let us know when you are doing an activity in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.


    1. Hi Elaine! So happy to hear that you and Alan did it! Actually I haven’t written a post in a while and this actually motivated me to get writing again. Would love to hear more about your trip. A friend of mine and I completed much of the Tahoe rim trail a month or so ago. Anyway so great to hear from you and I would love to hear about any future adventures!


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