Dreaming of the Desert! Grand Canyon R3 (R2R2R) 2018

Posted by Kelli Jennings on


Originally posted October 2018:

The R2R2R. For many it’s a bucket list run. For me, it was a nagging adventure that my mind equated with being completely healed.  Because, if my knee could run for 44 miles, it could everything and more that it did before I blew it out. And I’d feel healed.

It all started in January of 2017. Each year, I invite clients and readers to list their goals – longterm, shorter term, and nutrition/fitness habit-based. I invite them to think of adventures, races, and milestones that excite them and that will serve as motivation to make the daily-grind habits stick.

That year, I decided to write out and post my own goals and habits towards the end of January. I was preparing for a backcountry hut ski trip above Vail with my husband and friends. In all the hussle required to get out of town when you have 4 kids and  2 businesses, I wrote them out but didn’t post them. I had planned that post for the following Monday.

On that Sunday, I took one sharp turn on a steep roller on my skis, simple enough, and tore both my ACL and MCL in my left leg.

After the task of getting out of the backcountry (I was 9 miles in when I blew my knee out), I settled in during the following weeks between planning surgery and appointments, and I went ahead and posted these goals anyway. If you had scrolled all the way down, skipping all the nutrition-habit stuff, you’d see “Run Grand Canyon Rim to Rim (fingers crossed)” under biking/running goals. It was this I pointed to when choosing my surgeon and physical therapist. I told them I didn’t care how long it took – I just wanted to be who I was before. Or maybe better. My surgeon, looked me in the eye and told me I would. My PT, she asked for a copy of my goals and said we’d make them my 2018 ones. And I did….still, one line, one goal stuck with me, gnawing at me, the next 20 months.

Through the surgery, all the recovery, the milestones of running again, mountain biking, mountain climbing, and skiing (on resort and backcountry), one alluded me. The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim. It gnawed.

September, 2018:

A weekend freed up in the Autumn of 2018. I needed to stop the gnaw, so my husband and I said “why not?” Let’s go for it.

And so, about 6 weeks before our run date, we started planning. We booked our hotel (the last room on hotels.com <$395 – geesh), we started looking at the trails, we started looking at running vests, and we started thinking about R2R2R.

Here’s the thing: I’m not in any stretch of the imagination, an ultra-runner. Twenty-two miles (one way) sounded painful, and 44 impossible. The longest I’d ever run was 15 miles. The longest I’ve ever hiked in a day was definitely under 20. But while I’m not much of a long-distance runner, I am an avid endurance athlete and adventurer. I learned the art of the suffer. The most challenging adventure in my book had been a grueling 18 hour expedition ski up and down off the summit of Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristos. I had spent years building up the endurance to ride off-road centuries and climb mountains (like Kit Carson), on foot and skis long ago, and now I keep up fitness and training week after week. My typical weekly summer training is 3 mountain bike rides (one of which might be 4-6 hours, the other 2 90-120 minutes), one 6-9 mile run, and yoga each  week). Of late, with the cold dark mornings of Autumn, I had replaced my once weekly run with a ridiculous Chariot push up 1000 feet elevation (my youngest of 4 is 4 years old). Not exactly normal ultra running training. But when  I go, I go hard. I try hard to build up anaerobic and aerobic fitness. But still. Forty miles and 11,000 feet elevation gain seemed like a pipe dream. Or nightmare.

October 5-6, 2018:

After meeting my mom on the top of a mountain pass half way between our homes to drop off the kids on Friday (late because of course first there was a soccer game and I’m a soccer mom:)), we headed out early Saturday morning. By this time I was weather-stressed and obsessed. Hurricane Rosa had sent wet, unsettled weather through Arizona all week. In fact, flash flood warnings had occurred through Tuesday. Sunday, our run day, was slotted to be rainy, thundery, and cold.

We arrived at the Grand Canyon South Rim about 8 hours after setting off from Crested Butte, CO. The drive was beautiful and reminded me of our years, so many years ago, traveling all over this state to climb all of Colorado’s fourteen thousand foot peaks. So many hours driving, sleeping in cars, and waking up at trailheads. It was, and always had been, exhilarating and anxiety-inducing. We checked out the South Kaibab and Bright Angel parking situation and trailheads between quick rain storms, and decided to set off early the next morning at South Kaibab. We’d park (if there was room) at a small picnic parking lot about a 5 minute walk away. We’d consider coming back up Bright Angel and figuring out the logistics to get back to our car at that time.

From there, we checked into our hotel room, got our packs ready, and ate a stomach-safe dinner.

Nutrition, Gear and Clothes


Like always, I plan nutrition by the hour…so whether a ride, climb, run, or hike, my nutrition goals are hour by hour. Unlike biking, I shoot for slightly less fluid, calories and carbs per hour, simply because it’s tough to carry on your body than your bike, and anyways, our temps were going to be cool and we’d have plenty of water options along the way.

Our goals were 12-16 oz. fluid per hour (this turned out to be a bit of an overshoot), 40-60 gram carbs per hour, and 200-300 calories per hour. I estimated 18 hours total.

We’d consume half of this nutrition per hour via our sports drink, only drinking plain water when we stopped at water stops. The water pipeline had broken on the North Rim side, so we’d only have water taps at Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Trailhead, and we could use the stream all the way up to the Manzanita rest stop.

I packed:

  • Carborocket 333 (CR333) Enough for 1 scoop per hour after our initial 55 ounces ran out) – 14 scoops. This has been my drink of choice for years. Not too sweet, easily customizable, easy no my stomach even for 15 hours of running.  You can check out CarboRocket Here.
  • 6 Clif shots (gels)
  • 2 Clif Shot Blocks, 4 servings
  • 2 Honey Stinger Waffels
  • 3 Homemade Cookies
  • 2 Everything Bagel Sandwiches fill with 1-2 Tbsp peanut butter and 6 dates each (don’t knock it till you try it, yum).

If it had been summer, I would have worried more about our sodium and added enough salt to our drinks to ensure 600 mg sodium per hour (I would have added 1/8 salt tsp per 16 oz. = add’l 300 mg sodium). Since we’d more likely be shivering than sweating, our appoximate 250 mg per hour, plus a jolt from the sandwiches, would suffice. Our packed fuel was enough to meet our goals per hour, for 18 hours if we drank 12-16 oz. CR333 (made w/ 1 scoop/16 oz), 1 carb option such as a gel, cookie or waffle per hour plus the 2 sandwiches somewhere along the way. If this seems a bit over-the-top nutrition planning, you’ll have to forgive me…I’m a professional:).

We set off w/ 50 ounces CR333 (1 scoop per 16 oz), ready to drink, and packed the rest.


  • Soloman Advanced Skin 12 Running Vest – We used the 2 collapsable 16 oz. bottles that came with, and added a 1.5 L hydration bladder
  • SteriPean – Adventurer OPti
  • Home-printed map w/ listed amounts of fluids needed at each stop (I didn’t want to do math on the trail)
  • Blister kit – duct tape and vaseline
  • Mini first aide including bandaids, neosporin, ibuprofen
  • Black Diamond headlamp
  • External phone charger


  • Altra Olympus running shoes (I heart Altra and Topo – zero drop, wide toe box, and now oh-so-cushy)
  • Technical running cap
  • Long smartwool socks (I prefer these on chilly days since you can simply fold them down once you’re warm)
  • Nike running shorts
  • Running tee
  • Longsleeve wind-breaking light-weight long sleeve w/ a hood (so I wouldn’t also have to pack a beanie) – mine happens to be UnderArmour
  • Lightweight head gloves
  • Packed: 1 more long-sleeve mid-layer tee, 1 lightweight rain shell, 1 extra pair socks

Our R2R2R (R3) Run:

Sunday, October 7, 2018:

We woke up at 2:30 am. We drank some water, heated up coffee we had bought the night before, and toasted (I brought a toaster) everything bagels. We buttered the bagels, grabbed our packs and headed out.

As we drove, we ate a banana each getting in about 80 grams carbs pre-run.

We parked at about 3:30 and started from the trailhead about 3:50. Here’s where we encountered our first “challenge.” My headlamp kept turning off after about 30 seconds or anytime it got a good shake (as in every other step when running down South Kaibab). DANG. Of course we had put in new batteries and turned it on to make sure it worked well. But I didn’t shake it and leave it on for 30 seconds. Ugh. I dealt with this for the first 15 minutes and then it miraculously stayed on for about 30 straight minutes before it completely just died. From there to ’til sun up, I ran with iphone in hand, flashlight pointed down toward the trail.

Ah, the trail. It’s about 5 feet wide and straight down to the river. I swear you’re in some sort of warp world when you run in the pitch black darkness down a steep trail. No sense of what’s around, the progress you’re making, or the vastness of the grand canyon just 6 feet from you. It was puddly, wet, and a bit slick in places. We just ran, sticking to the upside of the trail. For about 1.75 hours, I only saw the trail at my feet and my husband’s reflectored shoes 5 feet ahead of me. We passed through a tunnel and BAM! We were at the Colorado River. What the heck. We’re here? Oh, yeah, we’re here. It was surreal.

We jogged to Bright Angel Campground, and then to Phantom Ranch. We used the facilities. With the quick, cool descent we didn’t need to refill our fluid, and we’d be next to a stream for many miles to come, so we continued. And continued. Did I tell you I wasn’t well trained as a ultra runner coming into this? Well, I told the truth. These 7-8 miles of flattish trail sucked the life from me. Crushed my soul. I can climb and descend all day, but run on flat? I’ve got about 3 good miles in me. I could feel my spirit breaking a bit, and it was much too early for that. A little while after passing Cottonwood Campground, we decided to refill the fluid we’d need for the ascent up North Kaibab. We arrived at Manzanita rest stop and started discussing if we’d make it in time to just the shuttle back after just doing the Rim to Rim. Our time and space really was warped, and we were faltering a bit.

And then  the trail started rising to meet our feet.

I was elated. Mike snapped a picture and saw that it was only 9:30 am. What? We’d be way too early for the shuttle. Let’s do this.

Where the canyon bottom had discouraged us, the climb (again, we’re climbers), invigorated us. We knew how far we had to go, we knew we were making progress, and the now-lit-up canyon had filled with sunlight. It was spectacular. One of my favorite things about endurance adventures is the range of emotions, obstacles, and mental strength (or lack thereof) that comes with it. You don’t find this in 10K. You need hours to feel this crazy.

We powered up. It was glorious. The mountain-ous climate was cold and beautiful. Changing leaves, red rocks, and huge clifs. The box area is everything you’d hope it would be. And, oh the switchbacks. The didn’t end. It started to sprinkle light rain. We passed a group that was made up of 3 support crew and 1 blind hiker. They had started at midnight and planned the R3 as well. If that doesn’t inspire, I don’t know what does.

Hurry up and head down before we change our minds!

We topped off at the North Kaibab Trail Head in near freezing rain. The plan was to quickly deal with/stretch Mike’s flaring-up IT Band, get fluid, and get down to warmer weather as fast as possible. We did, hopping over slick mud mixed with mule poop.

Lots of mule poop on this side. Once again, we dropped fast. We used the facilities at Manzanita, and kept going. We knew what was ahead…the never-ending flatlands.

Again, these were tough. C’mon, Phantom Ranch has GOT TO BE just around this corner. Wait, this corner looks exactly like

the last 6. Are we somehow running in circles? Am I crazy? Am I speaking out loud? Who cares. Where if the damn Phantom Ranch?

At last, we arrived at Phantom Ranch and

refilled our fluids. Quick hip opener

stretch and onward. Since we wanted to see what we had bombed down about 12 hours earlier, we decided to once again

ascend South Kaibab. We felt good crossing the bridge and climbing up to the Green Plateau. Due to a math error (whoopsie) on my part, we thought we were much closer to the top than we were when we saw the worst sign I’ve seen: South Kaibab TH: 3.5 miles. What the? I really thought we we within 2 miles or so. Since you’re in canyons within the canyon, you can’t see the summit while climbing this side. Dang.

The hurt started to set in and it’s all you can do to smile rather than count the hurts. Two hot spots on each foot. My knees are feeling it a bit. My glutes! I’m proud of this one…I focus on engaging glutes to take pressure off my knees. It went on FOREVER.

Surely that sign was wrong. It got dark about about 6:30. IPhone back out.

Switch backs. Puddles. Climbing.

And, then, the sweet sweet trailhead at South Kaibab appeared under our aching feet.

Oh. Yeah. YEAH!!!

It was 7:00 pm. It had taken us 15 hours total, and according to Strava, 13 hours moving. A 5 minute walk in the dark, the same but opposite of our walk 15 hours before, back to the car.

It never ceases to amaze me that one minute your body is charging (okay, maybe dragging) up a trail, and once you let it relax,  for even just ten minutes, it can cease up so bad you can’t get out of a car. Your legs literal forget how to work. Knees don’t bend, quads don’t pull, the sight of stairs sends your brain into a bewildered state of fright. Noooo, not stairs!

We stiff-legged it into the hotel, ate chicken potstickers and downed water, showered, yoga’d, and headed (ever so slowly) to the excellent Mexican restaurant across the parking lot for burritos, water, and then margaritas.

Lessons Learned:

Always triple check your headlamp. Maybe leave it on for a minute and shake it around.

When you develop hot spots, check your feet. I ended up with 4 huge blisters on the outside of my big toes and outside of the ball of my feet. They simply felt like hot spots and I expected to see tender red skin when I removed my shoes. My shoes have large toe boxes, so maybe this is why I didn’t really feel any pain. By the time I checked them, it was far to late to apply duct tape or do anything about it.

Even if you’re soccer parents-of-4, set your goals, plan your adventures, and go for it. You don’t have to settle down or settle for it. We ain’t never getting older;).

That’s my Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim story.

Nourish Your Body. Fuel Your Adventure.


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