In May a group of current, retired and former military endurance athletes and I are heading to the Grand Canyon to run Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R). Just what does a R2R2R run encompass? Running R2R2R means crossing the canyon twice while covering over 48 miles (depending on route) with 20,000 feet of elevation change. Why would we want to run R2R2R? It’s the Grand Canyon…millions of people stand on the edge and stare down into the great expanse. We plan to run from the south rim, down into to the very depths of the canyon floor climbing up to the north rim and DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN….and in one day.
Such a run can’t be undertaken without getting educated on the challenge. In doing research I came across Paul Baltutis on the Grand Canyon crossings Facebook page. Paul has made seven crossing of the canyon. With his impressive history, I knew I had to reach out to him and gain from all of his experience. I also wanted to share his insight and experiences with my readers.
Thank you Paul for taking the time to take part in this blog interview, I see you’re gearing up for your 7th Grand Canyon crossing, “impressive” when did you run your first crossing and how did you come up with the idea of running the canyon?
I ran my first Grand Canyon crossing (R2R) in 1981. It was an official race set up by the Flagstaff
Running Club- I saw an informational flyer for it at one of the Flagstaff road races. The race course started at the North Rim and took the entire length of the Kaibab Trail – 20.6 miles to be precise and finished on the South Rim. A day before the race a white van would be our transportation to the North Rim. At the Lodge on the north side I remember the group of runners gathered up as “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner was being played being played
At daybreak the white van transported us the two mile drive to the North Kaibab trailhead. It was a bit chilly with a light rain so everyone was anxious to take off- I held back and I lagged behind the whole field just so I could keep an eye on my footing. I knew this was a race, but I also knew this was survival with many unknowns ahead of me.
As we ran to lower ground the temperature got warmer and the running was incredibly fun. I do remember some course volunteers that gave out water- we didn’t carry water back then.
When we started following the Bright Angel Creek I felt great and I was passing several runners. Then we hit the Colorado and then started the climb up the South Kaibab. I said to myself- run every step, run every step – and I did. I passed every runner except one – Dave Knutson, who kept a two switchback lead on me. I knew Dave and a called out to him “I’m catching you!” and I think that probably kept him going to the end. We finished at the top and there was that white van again – it was a marvelous sight! Finishing in 3:21 is a tremendous memory for me. I thought that it was slow- after all I was a 34 minute 10K guy, but looking back that was a tremendous effort and one that I am very proud of. My legs were very sore for the next 4-5 days, I remember they felt worse than the marathon in September- but seeing how we just covered about 10,000 feet on elevation change in 20.6 miles it made sense.
With all of your experience, if you could pass on only one “lesson learned” what would that be?
Prepare like you would prepare for a marathon. When you decide to do it, your attitude will dictate your focus, conditioning, endurance and attention to detail. A positive mindset will go a long way. As far as mileage is concerned, I feel you need to be running 30-50 miles a week and either a long run of 2 plus hours or go for long hikes on the weekend for 4-5 hours. Finding some long gradual hills to train on will also help. Since everyone is different and is coming from their own specific backgrounds- it is really a case-by-case basis how things will go. But if you look at Rim to Rim (to Rim) like training for a Marathon, then you will have a good frame of reference.
In your previous crossings, have you always run the same route? Which is your favorite and why.
Here is a recap of my Grand Canyon hikes.
June 1971 – South Kaibab to Bright Angel
October 1981 – North Kaibab to South Kaibab (R2R)
June 1999 – Bright Angel to South Kaibab
August 2005 – South Kaibab to Bright Angel
June 2006 – South Kaibab to North Kaibab (Day 1)- North Kaibab to Bright Angel (Day 2)- (R2R2R)
June 2013 – South Kaibab to North Kaibab (R2R)
Meanwhile- I will be attempting another R2R2R in October 2015.
Every route is interesting and unique and since they all connect up – they are part of the journey- all parts adding to the whole.
My Favorite, South Kaibab Trail: I especially like going down this trail – it gives you the most spectacular geological views and gives you a sense of the grandeur. Going down the South Kaibab also gives you the best vantage point of what lies deep into the canyon – the Colorado River. The Colorado is hidden by sight on the upper views – so you have to hike quite a way down before you see a sliver of it – it is with much anticipation that you see it grow larger and larger as you get closer to the bottom. At the bottom of the river you are consumed with the water and can only think of the river- the Canyon has disappeared- you just marvel at the majesty of the Colorado.
If someone is considering running R2R2R for the first time advice to you have for them?
If you are crossing for the first time, it would be helpful if you travel in a group., It is helpful to do this with someone with experience because this run/hike is unique – a guide could help alleviate some concerns you might have of the unknowns.
Do you have a R2R2R specific training plan?
No real specific changes to the marathon training plan – except to skip long runs occasionally
and go for longer hikes, in the 4-5 hour range. If you can find some long climbs or can get to train at elevation, great – but it isn’t absolutely necessary.
What type of items do you carry with you during the crossings?
Equipment/Gear: It’s pretty basic: Besides what you are wearing, Trail Shoes, shorts, and shirt with a cap with neck protection you should carry extra pair socks, two extra tops (base layer long sleeve and a light jacket) Camelback backpack with room for nutrition (power bars. gu’s, trail mix, PB&J sandwiches, etc….) (There is a general store at Phantom Ranch to re-supply the basics) Travel light! What you bring iswhat you carry.) Spring and fall more necessary to bring rain gear or a heavier jacket.
What months did you make your pervious crossings? In your opinion what is the best month to run the canyon?
I’ve done the crossing in twice in June and once in October. I would pick April/May and September/October to be the best times. The Colorado River is at 2500′ – so the during summer months June, July, and August it is well over 100 degrees and desert hot. The N. & S. Rims are nice that time of year- but the best of all worlds would still be April/May and Sept/October. October- bear in mind there might be snow that time of year- so it’s a fine line which months to pick!
What’s the funniest thing that has happened during one of your crossings?
I have a video of a group of us cooling off in the Bright Angel Creek- it is pretty funny,
The other humorous thing I remember is trying to keep up with a female French tourist going
up the Bright Angel Trail- she was wearing a pair of short- shorts, so we had motivation to keep
up with her because of the view. (Anything to keep on moving forward – Brian)
What would you consider the most important piece of gear to take with
on a crossing?
We will talk about Water later in other question- but all your gear is important!
Shoes and socks- tried and tested
Backpack for nutrition and food – tried and tested
Shorts and shirts and jackets – tried and tested
Hat and with neck covering and sunglasses and sunscreen – tried and tested
To get ready for the amount of climbing and descending, what exercises or running drills do you recommend for a first time runner?
When I trained in Flagstaff I had all the necessary terrain to train on, But in San Antonio I could not replicate the elevation changes so I went on long runs and tried to find the longest and steepest hills to climb-all of them were woefully short of being long enough or steep enough
but you have to train where you live.
In your opinion what is the absolute hardest part of the R2R2R run?
The last 2-3 miles on the climb up to the North Rim seems to be the steepest and you are running low on gas- same can be said for the return trip up the Bright Angel, you are tired and the switchbacks seems ENDLESS! The desert bottom trek can be grueling during the summer – with temps hitting 110-115.
I’ve heard horror stories about runners getting stuck behind the mule trains, has this happened to you? What is the best way to avoid this?
I’ve never been stuck behind a mule train- they are usually going in the opposite direction-so you just stay off to the side and let them pass- Not sure what we would do if we were stuck behind- I imagine that could be a problem
Water is life, what hydration plan works best for you? Do you hand carry, have a camel back or fuel belt?
Figuring out what method of water carrier is your most important piece of gear- during the summer – I believe a Camelback backpack (72oz or higher) is necessary for hydration. During the Spring and Fall a 3-4 bottle waist belt 32-48 oz) should be sufficient. It’s important to practice with this gear beforehand to see how the fully weighted equipment feels on your back or hips.
What is your average time it takes to cross the canyon?
I ran North to South in 3:21 – I was a sub 2:40 marathoner back then! I would say my average has been 6-8 hours with a max of 10 hours due to the heat.
I have never attempted R2R2R in one day – I believe it is a waste of scenery to use your headlamps and miss out on one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. Slow down – relax – take two days – or watever time it takes! Take your time and soak in all in! You will create memories that will last a lifetime! Who wants to bee constantly looking at the ground or running at night? The adventure will make it all worth while.
If I keep doing R2R’s I might consider the 4 day trek – staying at Phantom Ranch or Indian Gardens.
Good Luck and Peace!