Trail running in Grand Canyon

So, as you know, I had the opportunity to run in the Grand Canyon. No surprise, it was: spectacular, exhilarating and hard. Because, once at the bottom, well, there's no elevator! (I thought Americans had a solution for everything?!)

In order to spice things up for me and the playboy during our road trip with family, I had this great idea: trail running to explore the national parks in a different way. The least I can say is that the playboy didn't greet my idea with great enthusiasm. His concern: leaving his family alone, on the trails. Alright. In my opinion, doing 2-3 trail runs during our trip couldn't be that bad.

Stubborn as a mule, I declared he'll do whatever he wanted, I'll go down Grand Canyon running. We already hiked this trail, twice. And, twice, it was in summer, so it was HOT, really HOT. It would have been impossible (and dangerous) to run. Actually, it may even be forbidden considering all the warnings they give to hikers (more water than usual, early start, double the time to go back up). This time, we were there in April. It was now or never.

In my head, the plan was: run on the way down, run/power walk on the way back up (depending on the temperature). I was excited to reach new parts of the trail. Much to my surprise, I didn't even need to convince the playboy. Trail running was calling him and he could not pass on that.

The night before, it had snowed. It meant, no heat issues to take into account. Good for running. Not as good for my poor little body so used to the Californian sun.

The trail: Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park. Our goal was to go down to the "Three Mile Resthouse" point and make a decision about going further or not depending on the time already spent and our legs' state of fatigue.

At the trailhead, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the Grand Canyon. I was looking at this little trail we could see, far away into the canyon, which looked like ending by a jump into the Colorado River. I told the playboy: "Can you see this trail? Can you imagine how cool it would be to run there?". His answer: "Actually, this trail can be reached from the trail we will take... but, I checked. It's 6 miles to reach the end of it, so 12 miles total... and as the way back will be longer as it's uphill... we don't have enough time". Sigh...

We set off. It was not the busy season so the trail was not that much packed. We had to avoid tourists, on the first kilometer, but, after that, we ended up with experienced hikers.

Going downhill, in the Grand Canyon, obviously, it's pure joy. But it doesn't mean it's easy. Winding trail, wooden logs (I guess to help hikers, but, believe me, it's not a blessing for runners), loose ground, rocks... everything needed to set your quads in fire. We didn't run super fast. Our top priority was to be careful. I loved it. I felt like flying at each bend of the trail.

At the first resthouse (mile 1.5), we pealed off our long sleeves shirts. Not cold anymore! We checked our time. Everything was good. We didn't know well the second part of the trail as we did it only once, 4 years ago (4 YEARS??!! We're getting old...). Still downhill, but steeper. We thought about the fact it wouldn't be easy to go back up...

After 3 downhill miles, we reached our planned turn-around point. We checked our watches. We looked at each other. "Do we carry on a bit?"... "YES, we do!" And we were back running towards the canyon, on a totally new to us part of the trail.

We went fast as we wanted to go as far as possible. We ended up entering the plateau. It was still downhill, but the trail was not so windy anymore, and way less steep. We had made our minds on reaching "Indian Garden" (mile 4.5), absolute maximum.

If we would have been traveling alone, we would not even have wondering about going too far. The opportunity to run in Grand Canyon is rare. First, you have to be there. And, then, the weather has to be right, which is not the case for the majority of the year. On this day, it was cool and overcast. No danger. But Mathieu's family (who hiked a smaller portion of the trail) would have to wait for us. Not so nice for them.

Once at "Indian Garden", I was ok with the idea to turn back and getting ready to do it. And then, the playboy told me: "Wait, there's only 1.5 miles left to reach the point where we can see the Colorado River. It's mostly flat. It means only 5K added to our run. That's the small trail you were dreaming about, from the top. Let's go!" That guy... he still can surprise me!

YEAH!!! GO!!

This part was even more stunning. It felt like we were all alone in the world, surrounded by cactuses in bloom. SO beautiful.

Isn't it pretty?

Highlight of the trip, at the end of the trail: overlook of the emerald green Colorado River. A-MA-ZING.

We enjoyed the moment for a bit and we had to take off to go back up.

We passed Indian Garden again. No pb. Next stop: Three Mile Resthouse.

Well... except, after mile 7, it started to go uphill... gently at first, but nothing else than uphill to the end. I was still convinced I'd be able to follow my plan: run/power walk. Slowly but carefully. I was still high on being able to be in the heart of the Grand Canyon. We also had people encouraging us as we passed them. I believed we could run a fair amount.

But, but, but... my legs were not that fresh (I had run almost 14 miles, on San Francisco trails, 2 days before). I tried ignoring that. I could not have to walk NOW. The real climb hasn't even started yet. Plus, the playboy was just behind me and he didn't complain... I could not be the one to stop first, right?!

I carried on running. Still, something was off: my heart was beating way too fast. I started suffocating. I could not breathe. I had to stop.

I suffocated. I couldn't catch my breath. It felt like my throat was narrowing, getting smaller and smaller. My breathing was a wheezing. It took me a full minute to be able to breathe normally again.

I don't have asthma, but it's how I imagine a asthma attack. It's the first time I experienced that. I put that on the brutal change of elevation in the canyon.

After this scary episode, I stopped trying to push my limits. We started running again, slowly. My heart almost instantly went crazy again. We didn't push further.

Easy start of the climb. The end is way up there...

We power walked the way up. We tried, from time to time, to run a bit, but, clearly, the time we gained by running instead of walking didn't compensate the time it took us to recover from our running stretches.

I have to be honest, I was disappointed. It felt a bit like a failure. I knew I could not have been able to run all the way up, but I would have like fighting a bit. Well, the Grand Canyon has to be earned! I know that now. And, if there's another time, I'll come prepared.

It took us a bit less than 2h30 (effective time) to complete 12 miles. Just for the meaning of it, we ran up the last stretch of the trail.

Until now, it's one of my most beautiful trail runs. Running in the Grand Canyon is a privilege. I'm glad we made it happen.

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Next races

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Miles / km

  • 1 mile = 1.6 km / 1 km = 0.6 mile
  • 5K = 3.1 miles
  • 10K = 6.2 miles
  • half marathon = 13.1 miles = 21.1 km
  • marathon = 26.2 miles = 42.2 km