Race Report: Black Canyon 100K

The Black Canyon Ultras—put on by Aravaipa Running, which also hosts the ultra party known as Javelina Jundred—offers 60K and 100K courses through the desert paralleling I-17 just north of Phoenix in Arizona. While it has a net elevation loss (total loss about 9,000 feet and total gain around 7,000 feet), much of the climbing is in the second half.

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Image (c) Aravaipa Running

In the past two years, the weather has been extreme—with heat afflicting runners in 2016 and cold, wind, and rain causing a course reroute and reportedly miserable conditions in 2017. This year was perfect, with a high around 70°F and mostly sunny skies all day.

I was lucky to have Mike and the girls as my crew. They all got up at 5 a.m. to drive me to the race start and then spent the day driving around to meet me at the Bumblee Bee Ranch, Black Canyon City, and Table Mesa aid stations and, of course, at the finish.

Aid Station Cumulative Mileage Segment Length
1. Antelope Mesa 7.3 7.3
2. Hidden Treasure Mine 12.5 5.2
3. Bumble Bee (crew) 19.2 6.7
4. Gloriana Mine 23.7 4.5
5. Soap Creek 31.2 7.5
6. Black Canyon City (crew) 37.4 6.2
7. Cottonwood Gulch 46.2 8.8
8. Table Mesa (crew) 50.9 4.7
9. Doe Spring 58.6 7.7
10. Finish 62.2 3.6

If you’ve read some of my recent posts, you know that I’ve struggled in longer distances. To prepare for this event, I spent a fair amount of time working through Sage Rountree’s race plan “questionnaire,” thinking about how I would approach this race. One of the questions is, “List three training workouts where you learned something about your mental/physical abilities,” and this one question ended up being invaluable as I faced a few (inevitable) tough spots during the race. Here’s my list:

  1. Owyhigh Loop: I can keep going even after throwing up. (I didn’t throw up, but I attribute that to number 2, below.)
  2. Grand Canyon: I need to take care of issues as soon as they crop up. (Issues cropped up, but I didn’t panic and took care of them early.)
  3. Bridle Trails: Mantras really work, especially when I add F words to them! (I actually didn’t need this that much—but I was happy to know I could use it when I needed to.)

Segment 1: Start to Bumble Bee Ranch Aid Station—miles 0 through 19.2

Just before the start—dawn at Mayer High School

The run starts at Mayer High School with a lap around the track. Mike was there to see me off, the girls were sleeping in the car, and I was thinking about how weird it was to know absolutely nobody at a race. Then, about a third of the way around the track, I saw my friend, Gretchen (who was there to pace a friend of hers later in the day), and with a cheer and a hug I continued my very slow ultra-shuffle around the track.

Slowest lap around a track ever!

We were then off through a couple of local neighborhood streets and into the desert. There were some easy uphills on dirt roads and I appreciated everyone who immediately started walking them. It’s so hard to be patient and conservative at the beginning of a race, but group solidarity helped a lot.

In short order we hit the official Black Canyon Trail trailhead; we’d remain on the trail for the remainder of the day. For a while we were out on what I’d describe as open plains, rolling gently, mostly on double track. Then, a quick turn, and the promised downhill kicked in with fun-to-run but almost always rocky singletrack. We’d occasionally pop back out onto dirt roads briefly, and then make another turn onto more singletrack.


I remember the first aid station—Antelope Mesa—where my strategy (thank you, Heidi Flora) of keeping a flask prefilled with Tailwind powder in the back pocket of my pack made for a quick refill and transition back onto the trail, but oddly I don’t remember the next aid station at Hidden Treasure Mine at all. Regardless, as I neared Bumble Bee, I was excited to see my family and had mapped out what I wanted/needed in the transition.

Bumble Bee might just be my favorite aid station from any race to date: it’s a ranch, and as you come in you see the windmill that is featured in the race logo, you cross a nice open lawn, and everyone’s hanging out in an open, covered picnic area. Meg was holding up a sign with my face (long story that I just don’t know if I could do justice to, so suffice to say I knew my friends back home were there with me in spirit as soon as I saw it), Mike helped me with my transition, I ate some potato chips and salted potatoes, and was ready to head back out. I did decide to change my shoes here since I was getting a worrisome hot spot on my right foot: I’ve had some problems finding the perfect shoes since my previous ones were redesigned and no longer fit, so I’ve been switching three different pairs around for each training run, trying to figure out a good system. Since I knew this might be an issue, I had brought backup pairs for Mike to have at the ready at each crew-accessible aid station.

As I left Bumble Bee, I gave the man eating cows the evil eye, I think they rolled their eyes back at me in disgust, and that was that.

Section 2: Bumble Bee Ranch to Black Canyon City—miles 19.2 through 37.4

Initially there was a bit of dirt road and then long stretches of exposed singletrack. Our first climb of the day was right out of Bumble Bee, and it seemed everyone around me was slowing down. I was fully down with that, as the day was now warm and, for me, feeling pretty hot. We passed through many fascinating areas here—I remember going through a longish burnt-out section, with cacti blackened and crumpled along the trail. There was a dike maybe 20 or 30 feet wide of bright white quartz in the middle of miles of dark rock. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, it was so bright and out of place. And trail markers, rather than dangling from trees, were knee to maybe hip-height, and carefully tied to a cactus or some other cranky plant covered with sharp things. I spent some time wondering if they were actually tied on or whether the trail marking crew simply threw them at the bushes and they stuck.


I decided to regroup at Soap Creek Aid Station since my stomach was feeling just a little bit off and I was feeling more than just a little bit hot. Most of my standard food wasn’t appealing, and my stash of stomach-soothing oyster crackers was waiting for me at Black Canyon City. I sat down in a chair and gnawed on some pretzels and drank, then took my phone out of airplane mode to text Mike and let him know I was slowing down and taking a break. My phone immediately starting dinging, and dinging, and dinging, as I was inundated with well wishes and cheer from friends back home—I cannot describe how uplifting it was to see those come in. I then filled the OR ActiveIce Ubertube (aka a special-fabric buff) Heidi had loaned me with ice. That ended up being a lifesaver!

From there, the trail remained rocky. And then it got rockier. Seriously.

There were a few rocks.

As we neared Black Canyon City, I finally fully understood the name of the trail and area. Ahead the bluff was a solid black rock: the sun reflected off of it, and it was really quite pretty. Just past that bluff was a muddy river crossing. I really didn’t want to get my feet wet and resigned myself to it anyway as I watched others plod through, but a guy in a green shirt showed me a way across just downstream, and I kept my feet dry. (Thanks Green Shirt Guy!) By now, we also had made it down to saguaro country. I tried to get good photos of them, but mostly wanted to keep moving. The one time I did stop completely, a guy ran into the middle of my picture. Ergh.

Finally, I hit the downhill to Black Canyon City. Downhill is always awesome! … except when you know it’s an out-and-back and you’re gonna have to turn around and go back up it.

Coming into Black Canyon Aid Station. I’m behind Green Shirt Guy.

Black Canyon Aid Station was a mental test. First, it marked the end of the 60K course, so there were all these runners eating pizza, drinking beer, and sharing “my race is done” trail stories, but I wasn’t done. I tried to take it as a power anthem: you’re not done because you’re totally badass and going the full distance. That didn’t really work—I just wanted to be done and join the party! Also, shortly before my arrival, Abby had biffed on rocks in the parking lot (have I mentioned yet that there were lots of rocks?) and skinned basically her entire right knee. Mike had taken her to the first aid tent and they’d done a nice job of cleaning her up and bandaging her, but there were still crocodile tears pouring out now and again. She told me she just wanted to go back to the hotel, and going back out on the course was a serious battle of personal commitment and mommy instinct—I wanted to take care of my baby!

But back out I went. I was over halfway, and I was determined to finish!

Section 3: Black Canyon City to Table Mesa—miles 37.4 to 50.9

After leaving the aid station stocked with pretzels, vanilla gu, and oyster crackers, as well as extra water and Tailwind as the next aid station was nearly 9 miles ahead, I started climbing. I knew I had an immediate climb up what I had descended; what I didn’t know was that past the out and back there was a lot more climbing. I was a little worried about pushing hard on the climbs and not having enough for the finish, so another woman and I buddied up for the next hour or so. Chatting with someone else helped pass the time and it was fun to share stories of her trail adventures near her hometown of Calgary and talk about our favorite races.

Once the climbing was done I kicked into running again. But, oy! the rocks! My feet were pretty unhappy, and my fear of stumbling grew as my legs tired. I had seen many people with scrapes from falling on rocks throughout the day (and Mike said he saw several people at the Black Canyon first aid station getting cactus pulled out—ouch!) and I really really didn’t want to become another statistic. So, power walking to the beat of tunes provided by my bootcamp coach when it was rocky or uphill, and shuffle running through a growing blister and aching feet when it wasn’t—that became the name of the game.

The sun set and headlamps came out, making the rocks appear even more treacherous. But the sun setting brought the gift of colors in the sky, and the darkness brought out stars that were huge in the deep dark of the desert and a sliver of a crescent moon that took forever to set on the western horizon. I think my favorite thing running through this part of trail in the dark was the forests of saguaro cacti, silhouetted by the sky and sometimes illuminated in the beam of my headlamp.


For a time I was running alone, and then I briefly joined another group of runners. One woman and I speculated on how much farther that next aid station would be—this would be a very long nearly 9 miles for many of us!—she was out of water and despite stocking up for this section I was running low. Here we heard what we thought were people cheering and we got excited thinking the aid station would be just around the next bend, but no, it was a pack of coyotes howling. Dammit! But, finally we saw it, and we were all so happy.

The bit between Cottonwood Gulch and Table Mesa is a blur. I remember lots of rocks and consequently lots of walking. I remember needing to pee and—keeping in mind Ana’s story of getting prickers from a bush in her pants at Javelina that she shared at a recent Boldly Went storytelling event in Seattle—looking for a spot well away from anything that looked sharp, and then stumbling straight into two bushes in the dark before I got my lights back on. Doh! I remember two guys ahead of me suddenly stumbling around trying to find the trail, and how much they appreciated my timely arrival and call of “trail’s over here!” I also met a guy from Wisconsin at some point; he asked if I was focused on a sub-17 and I remember saying “I have no idea anymore, I just want to finish!”

Finally, Table Mesa—and my family—appeared out of the darkness. I dropped my pack, told Mike exactly what I wanted (pretzels, 1 gu, oyster crackers, 2 waters and 1 Tailwind, nothing else), and headed to a porta pot to pee. (Apparently, after getting behind on fluids after Bumble Bee, I had finally caught back up!) And in the porta pot, I leaned my head in my hands and briefly let myself cry. I wanted to be done so badly, and my feet were just worked from the rocks. I got myself together, had a cup of ramen noodles and broth (soooo good!), and headed back out. It was a glorious moment to hug each of my kids and Mike and say, “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

Meg’s there to greet me as I come in to Table Mesa Aid Station. I don’t think I’ve seen her yet and I clearly am pretty beat at this point.

Section 4: Table Mesa to finish line—miles 50.9 to 62

I now had a 7.7-mile section to Doe Spring, and then a 3.6 mile final section to the finish line. Oddly, I had passed a few people between the top of the climb out of Black Canyon and before Table Mesa, and again I passed some folks. It was like a snail race! Once again coyotes serenaded from the surrounding hillsides. The crescent moon glowed red as it finally made its final descent beyond the horizon. Crickets chirped. I peed somewhere off the trail again.

And then there was rustling in a big bush of some sort right beside the trail. My first thought? Oh my gawd, it’s a javelina! Now, seriously, I have no idea why that was my first thought, but it was. I quickly turned my head, and there was a cow munching on that bush. I laughed at myself, and enjoyed the rush of positive energy that came from laughter. I’m such a dork!

I ran with the guy from Wisconsin for much of this final section, and he commented that it looked like I was going to get my sub-17 after all. I was pleased, but more than anything I was happy that I was going to finish this crazy endeavor I had set out on. I was creating new curse words for every rock I encountered in the trail (owie owie owie), but outside of that I took time to look up in the sky and marvel over the brilliance of the stars, and I shined my light up and down saguaros that caught my attention. It was miserable and mystical and exhilarating at the same time.

At Doe Spring aid station, I inhaled a cup of ramen and broth—briefly stopping to eject a moth that flew into my cup—and then set out for my final 3.6 miles. At first the trail was a relatively smooth dirt road: could it be that I was done with rocks and could run it in to the finish?! Dammit, no, the trail once again cut off onto a final section of single track and I was back to powerwalking and trying to avoid kicking rocks.

But now there were more smooth sections, and Wisconsin guy and I could hear a generator in the distance. Could that be it?! Are those cheers or more coyotes?! Finally, it was real: there was the finish! In the last 50 yards, Wisconsin and I passed two more guys, and then I stopped just before the finish line to call for Meg, and they passed me as I waited for her and I lost two places (oh well!), and then Meg and I ran across the finish line together. Mike gave me a huge hug, Abby gave me a huge hug, someone gave me my finisher’s belt buckle, a photo was taken, and then I fell apart. It was a happy and relieved and exhausted kind of falling apart though!


My brother said the funniest thing to me yesterday, as he watched me struggle to walk into a restaurant at the hotel we’re staying at. He said, “It’s amazing that you’re in such good shape that you can hurt yourself so badly.” It’s one of those oxymoronic statements that capture ultra running so perfectly. This run hurt a lot: but it also gave a lot.

We get to run in beautiful places, and because we go far, we get to see a lot in a shorter period of time. I went through several microclimates, saw different flora (no fauna except the cow), and saw incredible rock formations.

I was able to prove to myself that I could turn my experiences, especially last year’s struggles, into lessons learned that allowed me to perform better and do something harder than I’d done before. When I couldn’t find my inner bunny last fall, I was worried—but I think I found a stronger bunny (or am I carrying this whole bunny thing too far?). I definitely found a stronger me through this journey.

And best of all, I got to share it with my family. Training for ultras often means long periods away from them. I feel selfish sometimes, pursuing a sport that takes me away on weekends, something that I rarely share with them directly. To have Mike and the girls there, and seeing their joy for me, simply amplified my personal joy and made it a deeper and more meaningful experience.

Oh, and my friends back home? From prerace notes and gifts, to those goofy heads on a stick, to a postrace care package and notes of caring, to finding out Mike was managing an all-day text stream updating them on my progress along with all the messages I received directly with all those dings on my phone up at Soap Creek—just wow! I am so lucky! Mike said, “You have a lot of friends, Ellen,” and I said, “And they’re freaking awesome!”


Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

So, we did it! Heidi, Sarah, Wendy, and I completed the R2R2R on Friday. It’s now Sunday, and I’m finally starting to be able to pull my thoughts together enough to at least try to articulate what I experienced—from the never-ending vistas that just kept unfolding to the physical challenge, the jokes and hilarity we shared, and definitely the pain we all experienced too. (Update: It’s now Thursday … and maybe this will go up today. I’ve been sucked back into “real life” so quickly that time is flying.)

R2R2R was fun, amazing, horrible, awesome, painful, all the things! I think I’m going to try to unpack this by parceling the experience by sections of the trails, but first I’ll share the list of feedback we developed for the NPS. Developing this list was unendingly funny to us: you know, funny in that way that only an intense shared group experience can create. I had that on a two-week backpacking trip in the Sierras with my brother and two of his friends back in college, where we still quote some pieces from the Mad Libs we did on that trip. I hope some of the ones from the Grand Canyon stick as long.

  • The Phantom Ranch canteen hours really need to be expanded. We came through too early for snacks and caffeine in the morning, and we came in too late for anything in the evening. Boo!
Phantom Ranch
  • The NPS should allow Amazon Prime drone orders to be delivered in the canyon. They’d make a killing on a cut of the take: We would have paid a premium for an ice-cold Coke our second time through Phantom Ranch.
  • They may not realize it, but they’ve done a poor job of housekeeping on the lower parts of the Bright Angel Trail. I mean, really, they’ve let the sand build up to several inches deep! And that SUCKED after close to 40 miles. Some serious trail work with a broom is desperately needed!
Bright Angel Trail—the dreaded sandpit!
  • Why don’t they have emergency mule service? Like 1-800-MULE-CAB? They could make a killing on that too.
  • Back to the Phantom Ranch canteen—they have beer but no sodas? What’s up with that?!
  • Thumbs up on the ventilated, very clean composting toilets that are spaced every few miles, along with the potable spring water nearly as frequently provided.

For me, doing R2R2R was a goal—but perhaps more of a dream, because “goal” sounds like something you check off and this was more something that fed my heart and soul—for a couple of years. I don’t really remember when I first heard of people running it, but once I did it stuck. And last year, when my friends and I started talking about focusing on going on great adventures with great friends rather than always looking for something with a race bib and timer, I brought this up as an option. Over the spring and summer, it started firming up, and then a Facebook event page was created, and then we booked plane tickets, and then all of a sudden it was time to go do it!

R2R2R Background

R2R2R basically means you start at one side of the Grand Canyon, go down to the bottom, go up the other side, and then turn around and go right back down and then up to the side you started on. We decided to start on the South Rim, descending the South Kaibab Trail, going up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim, and then back down the North Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail. This involves some 47ish miles and somewhere in the range of 11,000–12,000 feet of gross elevation gain and loss.

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Map copyright National Park Service. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/intro-bc-hike.pdf

Some people run all or most of it, and complete it in very short order. The current fastest known time (FKT) for the full R2R2R is 5 hours, 55 minutes, and 20 seconds. It would be awesome to be able to run like that! We finished in just under 20 hours, and I’m not sure I would call it a run: Sure we wore our trail runners, and we used our running packs, and we did run parts, but we also did a lot of “purposeful hiking.” No shame there, but for those for whom technicalities matter I want to be clear that it’s hard for me to call this a run even though I’ll refer to it as a run throughout.

Preparation: Thursday, October 5, Phoenix to Grand Canyon Village

IMG_0100We started the day with a quick shake-down run in South Mountain Park, on a trail that started just outside the door of our condo. It was good to move after packing and traveling most of the day before.

After a quick trip to REI because someone couldn’t find her sunglasses when she was packing (yep, that’d be me—doh!), and a yummy breakfast at Biscuits (I totally recommend them if you’re in Phoenix), we packed up the rental car and started heading north. For lunch, we detoured to Sedona (gorgeous!) and started some new dreams looking at the trails there … but no, we had to focus on this trip’s objective first! We drove up the lovely Oak Creek Canyon, and then after running into some road construction that delayed us by 15 or 20 minutes, we were back on the main highway. We stopped in Williams to stock up on food and got a kick out of the Route 66 signs. We finally arrived at Grand Canyon Village right at sunset.

Classic Sedona
Grand Canyon sunset: that oh-my-gawd moment when you remember just how striking and BIG this place is!

With four of us trying to sort gear and make decisions about food, clothing layers, emergency supplies (read: 10 essentials), and water, every surface in our hotel room at the Maswick Lodge was covered. How many calories would we need? What would appeal and what would we be able to eat during the run? What clothes would we need with a temperature range of 36 degrees in the morning and 85 to 90-plus degrees in the afternoon? There were some hilarious moments as we found, lost, and then refound stuff we had laid out on the beds, but we finally got it together and were in bed around 10 p.m.



South Rim: South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel Creek (6.4 miles, net –4,860 feet)

Alarms rang at 3 a.m., and we got ready pretty efficiently. We had the phone number for a taxi service that runs in Grand Canyon Village, and the taxi picked us up right at our planned 3:45 to take us to the trailhead. Our taxi driver was a bit odd, but he got us to our destination at 3:59 a.m. (We were one minute early—a miracle!) When we asked the taxi driver to take our picture, he said no, he had another call waiting for him, and he took off. Hmmmph! Fortunately, a couple walked up just then, and we got our preadventure group picture after all.

A little sleepy but ready to go at the South Kaibab Trailhead

To us city-dwellers, it was dark-dark out, but once our eyes adjusted the harvest moon illuminated the outlines of the canyon and various formations as we descended. There was lots of whooping and hollering, we were so excited to finally be on the trail!

Waterbars at night do not make for easy running



Night sky and hints of the canyon rim
Moon on one horizon, sunrise on the other
Beauty shot

It was such a thrill to see the Colorado River as the sun rose, realizing we were close to our first major milestone of the trip. After another 20 (or 30? or 40? or 500?) switchbacks we crossed the Colorado River on the Black Bridge.


The river is brownish from the sediment it carries downstream and flowing fast. There are plenty of signs suggesting that trying to swim in it is a really bad idea. My National Geographic map warns that “Swimming [in the Colorado River] can be fatal.” Guess I’ll skip that adventure!

As I look back on it, I think I found South Kaibab to be more challenging than I had anticipated. I’m the one who loves letting loose on the downhills, right?, but it was steep, with lots of waterbars and rocks, and I know I was being conservative because I was worried about getting injured so early into the adventure. It was also kind of emotional, because it marked the first leg of the adventure that I had dreamed about for so long, and there were times when I couldn’t help but stop and soak it in, thinking, “We’re finally really doing this!!!”


After crossing the Colorado, it was a quick scamper down the trail to Bright Angel campground. The campground sits along the banks of Bright Angel Creek, just upstream from where it joins the Colorado River. We’d be following Bright Angel Creek for much of the next portion of our journey. After our first water refill of the day, and a quick stop in the fully plumbed bathroom, we turned toward North Kaibab Trail and Phantom Ranch.

I loved seeing Phantom Ranch; it’s been kind of mysterious and “far away” since I had first visited the Grand Canyon with my mom on a mother-daughter trip some 20+ years ago. It’s actually not that exciting of a place, but I enjoyed the resident deer nibbling on the ranch’s trees and grass … especially this determined one who was using the fence designed to protect the trees as a way to reach the tree’s apparently yummy leaves.


Colorado River to North Rim via the North Kaibab Trail (14.3 miles, net +5,790 feet)

The Grand Canyon isn’t a canyon that’s singular. Everywhere you go, new canyons appear, new features are exposed, and new springs and creeks pop up. For the next seven and a half miles we trekked along the cheery and gurgling Bright Angel Creek, which has carved its own subcanyon that veers away from the Colorado River to the northeast.

Bright Angel Creek

These seven-plus miles are a delight, with around a 1,000–2,000 feet gain spread over the distance. Bridges took us across the creek numerous times, and we encountered probably 30+ day hikers, backpackers, and trail runners along the way. We were able to see Ribbon Falls from the trail and decided to skip the side trip because we were behind schedule.


We refilled all our water bladders and flasks at Cottonwood Campground, prepping for the big climb as the sun (and the temps) continued to rise. The climbing is gradual at first, and slowly steepens toward Manzanita, which has water and a ranger facility, and then gets serious about ascending from there.

It’s really hard to put the climb to the climb up North Kaibab Trail up to the North Rim into any kind of coherent sequence or frame.

I remember marveling over the changing colors of the earth—reds, whites, blues, greens, oranges, blacks—not only on the cliffs towering above but even in the dirt of the trail. I’d hike on orange dirt, and then it’d turn black, and then white, and then orange again.


There were cliffs that I can’t even describe, towering above us and carved by wind and water over the millennia.


There were places where the trail was carved into the cliffside, with a huge drop on one side and more towering cliffs above us.


There was Roaring Springs, another place for water—which we foolishly skipped—where a spring-fed waterfall cascaded down the cliff across from us.


And there was heat, and sun, and I started to suffer. I was hot and starting to feel a little woozy and off kilter. With about four miles still to go before the top, I started to worry about whether my water would hold out. I tried to just keep plugging away, but with about two and a half miles to go, I called out to the rest of the group and sat down in the shade.


Friends are wonderful, and going on adventures with friends is wonderful. But, I think sometimes you realize the depth of the friendship you have with some people only when you’re at a dark moment. Heidi handed me a flask of Tailwind, Wendy gave me some gulps of water from her flask and some life-saving Sour Patch Kids (who knew? in “real life” I think those things are disgusting!), and I suddenly felt better.

In this section of trail, the earth is orange-red but above us the cliffs were a fascinating white striped with blacks, grays, and greens. This was one of my favorite features, so striking. We continued on and after another half mile or so, we hit our next landmark, the Supai Tunnel.


Just beyond the tunnel is another water fountain—hallelujah!—and we doused our OR ice sleeves in water, filled up again, and headed up. We hit our first mule train a few minutes later, but they passed us quickly, and we were quickly able to continue.

As we gained altitude on North Kaibab, we moved from cactus and manzanita to juniper trees and other high desert plants. In the last mile, we were surprised with the red and yellows of fall colors decorating aspen and maple trees.


As we climbed, I tried to avoid thinking “I’m almost there,” because as the canyon unfolds there seems to always be another layer to ascend that you couldn’t see before. But as the number of day hikers increased and the sky opened up again, I knew we had made it! We popped out at the trailhead of the North Rim and oohed and aahed over the views, ate some, and refilled water (although little was needed since we’d refilled only two miles previously).

Topping out on the North Rim

There’s a bit of a side story here too. Our friends, Angel and Tim Mathis, have a venture called Boldly Went. They host adventure storytelling forums, connect adventurers, and produce a weekly podcast, among many other related things. On our drive from Phoenix the day before, we had listened to a few episodes of the Boldly Went podcast. In one, Angel describe the term “yogi-ing”; it’s used by through-hikers (people going the full length of trails like the PCT or Appalacian Trail) to describe the subtle approach to bumming yummy snacks off other hikers. Well, at the North Rim, we encountered a couple of people who were supporting several R2R2Rers and who just happened to have a cooler of cold drinks. We decided to give yogi-ing a try, and managed to bum an ice-cold can of Coke from them. Seriously, this Coke—which the four of us shared—was the best thing in the universe.


Wendy texted this picture to Angel, celebrating our success with yogi-ing, and I texted my husband, Mike, with a progress update, and then we were off!

You would think that going downhill would be easier than up. In a way it is, but it also becomes grueling when you’re doing it for miles. My BD z-poles became crutches as I navigated hundreds of rock drops and water bars.

No trip hazard here!

We were now descending the same nearly 6,000 feet that we had climbed over the previous several hours. Our landmarks were the same, but they came up more quickly, and we focused on maintaining our fluids and food as we still had a long way to go. At a water stop at Manzanita, we signed the message board: HHRG R2R2R Wendy, Heidi, Sarah, Ellen. Who knows how long it will be there or who will see it?


After Cottonwood Campground, we had the seven and a half miles along the Bright Angel Creek to traverse again. Here, Sarah and I felt the urgency of the waning daylight and set getting to Phantom Ranch before needing headlamps as a goal. Sarah and I ran most of this section together. It was fun to run a bit and feel good, and the four of us did arrive at Phantom Ranch without needing to don the headlamps.


The canteen at Phantom was once again closed, so we dug into our packs desperate to find something that would appeal and did some sharing and comparing. With water refilled, headlamps on, and stomachs sort of filled, we headed off to the Silver Bridge to cross the Colorado River again and start our journey along and up the Bright Angel Trail.

Bright Angel Trail to South Rim (9.6 miles, net +4,460 feet)

After Silver Bridge, we encountered the beach trail. As in lots and lots of sand. In all honestly, the sand was HORRIBLE after 40 miles and on now-tired legs. This is when we started getting goofy and detailing our list of improvements that we would send the NPS once we finished this thing. Seriously, didn’t they know there was this much sand on their trail? They needed to do a much better job sweeping the sand away for us!


We traversed the gently rolling trail along the Colorado for about a mile and then started heading up along Garden Creek. It was pitch-dark at first and we paused to turn off our headlamps and gaze at the stars. It was beautiful. The moon rose again and started to show us the shadows of the cliffs above us. The rocks continued to radiate the heat of the day, and we stayed warm despite the sun’s having set. Garden Creek gurgled along next to the trail, the crickets chirped, and despite being tired, I think we were all excited to be on the last leg of our journey.

Bright Angel Trail is a much gentler trail than South Kaibab. The trailhead is a bit lower, and it spreads the elevation over a greater distance. Thank goodness it was gentler! Everyone’s feet and legs were starting to hurt, we were becoming less eager to eat, and it became an act of discipline to keep moving purposefully, keep hydrating, and keep eating.

Another nice thing about Bright Angel is that the campgrounds, bathrooms, and water sources are placed closely along the trail—I think the longest stretch was a bit more than three miles. As we drained our hydration bladders, we all shifted to going with less water, which lightened our packs and made for happier backs and shoulders.

There was a fair amount of delirious hilarity as we counted scorpions and mice and other creatures on the trail. There were too many crickets to count, but we did see three mice, five live and one dead scorpions, one black widow spider, and one bat. We refined our improvement suggestions for the park service and mourned the lack of emergency mules that could have carried us the rest of the way to the South Rim. And then we grew quieter and hit that silent place, where you are suffering and just want to be done, so you set yourself to the job of getting it done and we got it done.

As we neared the top, the next day’s runners and hikers started their descents, and we watched a few runners as well as ten or so hikers heading down. The wind started to blow, and I remembering noting the folks coming down were wearing a lot of clothes compared with our shorts and t-shirts. And when we topped out, oh my gawd it was cold! Our bodies were taxed and had no ability to manage the wind and cold, and we were instantly frozen.

A woman who was sitting on a bench bundled up in blankets at the trailhead asked us about two older gentlemen she was waiting for, and we provided an update on their status (they were probably still at least an hour from topping out), and then she took our picture.

Happy and tired!


Done! 12:02 a.m. Saturday, October 7

A quarter mile walk that felt like 100 miles took us to our room, and we pulled on jackets, blasted the heat, and basically fell apart. Heidi and I sat on a bed with the comforter over our legs, inhaling chips and mango salsa. Wendy filled the tub with hot water and Epsom salt and we somehow all squeezed in to soak our aching feet. We tried to open bottles of Mexican Coke and Wendy finally found a handy lamp on the wall to pry the cap off, but ended up spraying two-thirds of the bottle on the floor in the process.

We managed quick showers and then collapsed into bed. I remember Heidi fell asleep instantly, and I’m not sure about Wendy and Sarah, but my feet were throbbing and I had a rough time getting my body to relax enough to sleep. Despite our 2 a.m. bed time, we were all up by 7:30 the next morning. Stomachs were still dealing with 20 hours of trail food, and it was difficult to eat. Walking around was an exercise in mind-over-body control, and we staggered around to a few sights and gift shops. We searched everywhere for R2R2R stickers but had to settle for a MacGyvered version.


Our adventure ended with a stay in a resort in Phoenix, where we lazed by the poolside and let our bodies recover while our minds processed all we had seen and done.



Before we left Seattle, we all took the time to think about and share our goals for R2R2R. Among our top goals were simply finishing and not rushing—taking the time to savor the sights and experiences, take pictures, and have fun together. We all agree that our trip was a resounding success! If you’re going on something big with a group, I think sharing your goals in advance is imperative. If our goals weren’t aligned, it wouldn’t have been as much fun as it was.

We were also realistic about our physical abilities and the possibility that one or more of us might struggle. Being able to be open about how I was doing on North Kaibab was so important: I was able to address the issue early on, which kept me from digging myself into a hole and having a harder time recovering.

Good group dynamics are another key to a successful adventure. Whether it was easy going and tough, we laughed and appreciated our friendship and sharing that incredible place together.

As I write, I laugh a bit at all of us too: We have a list going for 2018’s adventures, and as we suffered up the last few miles and through the past couple of days of recovery, we were crossing things off the list. I bet they’re back on there within a couple of weeks!

20258430_10155777849179905_7412224924257020464_nFinally, as always, I want to recognize the support of my husband, Mike, who encourages me to pursue my dreams and covers things on the home front for my training and adventure time. I love you, babe.

My kids put up with a lot too. Abs and Meggy, you’re the best! I love you.


Plants! I always have plant pictures, but this time saved them for the end.


And Trail Signs! That’s the other thing I always include, so here they are.



NOTE: Photo credit and copyright—Wendy Abbey, Sarah Brouwer, Heidi Flora, and me. Text copyright me.

Owyhigh Loop: An UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge

A few weeks ago, my friend, Ana, messaged a group of us looking for run buddies for several routes that she’d planned as part of her training for Mountain Lakes 100. When I saw the UPWC Owyhigh Loop on her list, I bit! I’ve been eyeing the UPWC routes and was eager for more exploration around Rainier—new trails, new views, new challenges! This route offered it all, and made for a wonderful long day on the trails.

For those unfamiliar with the UltraPedestrian thing, you can check out their Facebook page and read about some of the amazing adventures people have been doing locally lately. The Owyhigh Loop is a new UPWC route this summer and is made up of several trails that encompass approximately 36–40 miles and 8,000-ish feet of elevation gain of the northeast side of Rainier: Fryingpan/Summerland, Wonderland, Cowlitz Divide, Eastside, and Owyhigh Lakes trails.

We projected 12–14 hours for the route, and the forecast promised heat, sun, and smoke, so on Saturday I picked Ana up from her place in Seattle at 4:30 a.m. so we could get an early start. We were on the trail by 7, and started the 2,000-foot climb up to DSCN0374Summerland in relatively cool temperatures. This was my fifth visit to Summerland in the past few years, and it’s one of the few “touristy” destinations that I think really live up their billing. Unfortunately, this year we missed the wildflowers, but it’s always a breathtaking place.

A little higher we began to encounter a bit of snow and a few late-blooming fields of purple daisies. As we ascended to Panhandle Gap (elevation 6,800), we ran into more snow than I’ve seen up there before, but there was nothing challenging.

We quickly joined a group of five other scenery gawkers at the Gap. Mt. Adams took over the horizon and the expanse of Ohanepecosh Park spread out below us.

Looking back


Mt. Adams and the Wonderland Trail from Panhandle Gap

We took a bunch of photos, and then started the glorious descent through down to Indian Bar. Here, there were fields of purple lupine and red and magenta paintbrush still coating the hillsides and big, fat, bumbly bumblebees were in their own kind of heaven. There were several snow crossings, but again nothing difficult. The final bit down to Indian Bar features about a million water bars, but that’s OK because I didn’t mind slowing down to look around. Within a mile or so of Indian Bar, the trail winds through fields of blueberries, which made me wonder about bears, but I didn’t see any.

Wildlife Sighting!

I was a bit ahead of Ana when I arrived at Indian Bar, so I found some comfy rocks near the water where I could refill my hydration pack and have a snack while I waited for her. It was a nice, quiet moment to relax and enjoy the view, but Ana abruptly interrupted my reverie as she came up and exclaimed, “Did you see that bear?!” Apparently there was a bear hiding in the blueberry bushes, but s/he was content stuffing him/herself and waddled off when Ana hollered, “Hey bear!” So Ana got the points for wildlife sightings. (I don’t think the bees count.)

After Indian Bar the Wonderland Trail pushes up and out of the Ohanapecosh Park and then wanders up and down, and up and down, along a ridge. This was a busy section of the trail, with many backpackers looking pretty hot as they climbed up from Box Canyon on their way counterclockwise along the route. We leapfrogged two guys doing the full Wonderland Trail a couple of times, and passed few folks out for day hikes, but mostly just kept trucking along with the occasional stop to appreciate Rainier as well.

Be sure to stop and look behind you between Indian Bar and Cowlitz River Trail … it’s well worth the “wasted” time!

Just as you’re done with the ups and downs, you hit the intersection with the Cowlitz River Trail, where we started the 4-1/2 mile descent toward Eastside Trail and the Grove of the Patriarchs. Cowlitz is a nice change from the busy Wonderland Trail; we DSCN0412saw only two other people on this section of the route, and the trail was less worn and dusty. However, I love it when I can let loose on a descent, but Cowlitz is not one of those trails; it was more Parkour course with trees still blocking the way in places, and parts washed out with rocky drops and grooves. And while it was nice to be in the shade after the climb out of Indian Bar, it became stuffy and a bit oppressive. By the time we popped out on Stevens Canyon Road, we were both feeling a bit beat up.

We found the connecting trail after a brief hunt (cross the road and turn right; it’s only 10 feet thataway), and made our way on the Eastside Trail past Silver Falls and up to the Grove of Patriarchs. A drinking fountain for easy water refills and another snack, and then we were off. Here we had a bit of a debate over whether the UPWC route required a lap around the Grove, and I’ve never been to the Grove so was eager to see the famous towering trees, but a long line to cross the one-at-a-time suspension bridge settled it and we headed back to the Eastside Trail. (We both agreed that we were a bit—OK, a lot!—tempted to stop and swim in the river like so many others were doing here, but sucked it up and kept on going.)

Eastside Trail takes you up about 1,000 feet along a little more than 6 miles of trail and is shaded the whole way—a gentle ascent reminiscent of the Siuattle River Trail we’d run earlier this summer. There are many pretty little creek crossings and waterfalls along here, but we saw only three people on this stretch of trail.

Zen Moment

In an odd juxtaposition to feeling like we were out in the wilderness with still a ways to go, because the trail runs parallel to Highway 123 we were serenaded by distant Harleys, the thumbing of bass speakers, and trucks most of the way. By the way, Eastside Trail is a bit overgrown in places and lots of spiders are building their webs here, so watch out!

Eastside Trail + a Million Spiders

When we reached Deer Creek we refilled with water one last time and had a snack. We now had 2,000’ of climbing over 4.7 miles to get up to Owyhigh Lakes and the beginning of our final descent.

Much of this climb is in the woods, so there were few views, and we focused on steady onward progress. As Ana reported in her blog, my stomach had begun rebelling against the journey and the day’s heat, and I don’t really remember much about the climb except that I was pretty happy when it was over.

As we arrived at Owyhigh Lakes, we herd an elk bugle and I spied a small herd of elk wading in the larger, eastern lake. (Finally, points for wildlife sightings!) When I looked back a minute later, they were running south across the meadow and looked like a flickering film reel as they went in and out of the trees in the near-dusk light.

Reflective Owyhigh Lakes

We took a moment to find our headlamps, knowing dark would come before we got to our car. This final section is 4.6 miles down 1,600 feet, and we were thrilled to find smooth, buff trail the whole way. I was pleased to run most of this, despite my unhappy stomach, and it went by quickly. Once we reached the road, we had an easy mile on pavement to the car.


As a post-note, everyone but the cat was sound asleep when I got home, and after a quick shower I slipped into bed with heart and soul full. The next day, my husband and I packed up the car and the kids for two days of car camping—and I have to say, that hammock was mighty comfortable!




White River 50 DNF (aka The Buck Creek Marathon)

So, here I am starting a blog and what happens? I have a really sucky day and DNF for the first time. Do I want to write about it? Not so much. But, I learned some really important lessons and I don’t want to forget them. And, I really need to process it and I’m going to go into “stream of consciousness mode,” so watch out.

In the week leading up to White River 50, the temperatures rose into the 90s and the oppressive gloom of smoke from wildfires to north and east hung heavy over us. It was not my ideal scenario for this race, and while everyone was sending me encouraging notes I was already thinking, “I don’t really want to do this.” My head was not in the game.

If you know me, you know that I’m about as stubborn as a mule (or a donkey, or whatever the most stubborn thing in the world is … maybe as stubborn as a two-year-old?). So, of course, rather than soul searching and making a wise decision, I headed down to Crystal Mountain on Friday to pick up my race packet. Before heading down, I had to try to squeeze in a few hours of work on a hot project, then make a stop at REI for new flasks since I misplaced some heaven only knows where, and then make a run to Target to get birthday presents for the girls (they turned 8 the day after the race). All of these errands got me caught up in traffic, so when I got to Crystal I sooooo was not feeling the vibe.

Do you hear me making excuses already?

Race morning I lined up at the start line with 2 liters of water, a plan, and my head feeling a bit clearer and ready for the challenge.

Am I ready? Not so sure.

The race starts with a little jog along a dirt road and then on to a single track—where we promptly piled up into the classic inchworm walk as runners navigated a few downed trees that blocked the trail. Then we were off across Highway 410 and onto the White River Trail, where we were able to start finding our pace amongst the crowd.

I hit the Camp Shepherd Aid Station right on schedule, and headed straight through as planned. Shortly after, a man in front of me tripped on a root and landed chest-first in the dirt. We were all alarmed as he didn’t move right away, but he’d knocked the air out of himself and couldn’t reassure us until he got some air back.

At the Ranger Creek station, about to go down Palisades … back in the day!

After that, we were all off and soon to hit the steep switchbacks that climb up the bottom of Palisades. This was my second time up Palisades, and I have to tell you it is one heck of a lot more fun to mountain bike down that it is to go up on foot. At this point, I was feeling great—eating on schedule, drinking well, minding my pace—and even had a fleeting thought, “If this goes well, maybe I will try a hundred sometime.” Ha! on me I guess.

We continued to climb, and finally reached Ranger Creek at 11.7 miles. I was surprised at this point to be feeling thirsty and a bit out of it. So I kept climbing, kept drinking, and held to my plan.

Yep, this is when things started falling apart.

After Ranger Creek, there’s a long section where runners are going both ways. Basically this means that mid- and back-of-the-packers are still going up, and the fast folks are going down. Deception Pass has a lot of out and back on singletrack, and I hated it when I did that race and I hated it now. Usually trail runners are awesome, courteous, supportive people … but something about those out and backs on singletrack brings out this I-will-not-yield thing, and I spent a lot of the next several miles jumping out of the way for other runners and feeling really grumpy about it.

My fab friend Wendy helped me restock water and food at Corral Pass.

Finally I reached Corral Pass—the BEST aid station on the course, since it’s run by High Heel Running Group and I got to see awesome people with huge smiles and loud cheers greet me. (I only have a photo of Wendy and me, but I saw all y’all, and thank you! You guys are the best!) It was here that I think I made a clear mistake: I wasn’t feeling that good, but I have a personal rule to get in and out of aid stations as quickly as possible. So, with my friends helping me refill water bottles and resupply food, and I tried to shove down some potato chips—and didn’t have enough spit to chew them. But, I rushed on and started my way down.

And started walking. And then desperately needed a bathroom (I’ll exclude the TMI details). And there was nowhere to go. After a couple of miles, I finally found a place I could scramble behind the trees, and thought thankfully that I could run again. This was true for a bit, and I reached Ranger Creek feeling ok. And then, I had to go again. And there was nowhere to go. Finally, after about 2 miles of walking, I found a place to scramble off the trail. Oh, thank goodness, maybe I can run now! Uh … no … GI distress struck again. And then there was Highway 410, and my wonderfully supportive husband Mike, and all I could think was GET ME TO THE PORTAPOTTIES. I blew through Buck Creek AS to get to the portapots, and started hyperventilating (which I’d never done before and it’s really rather scary when you can’t breathe), and then I said, “F it.” So I dropped.

DNF. Failure. I sucked.

I didn’t want to see anyone, or talk to anyone, and I’m still ignoring the FB posts about the race and the HHRG aid station.

Today, I feel like I’m starting to get my head back in the game. I’ve got some things coming up, no races for me but adventures that I’m very excited about. And I want to take stock of some lessons learned.

  • I need to commit: don’t even start … OR get it together and start out with the right attitude. Why was I there? Because I really wanted to do that race! Was I thinking about that purpose? No, I was whining about the heat and the smoke.
  • Never wear new socks on race day. Those suckers were sliding down my heels and driving me absolutely crazy. Not a game-stopper, but an irritant for sure.
  • Listen to my body and revise the plan if I need to. I think that if I had been thinking strategically, I would have stopped at Corral Pass and spent some time resting and getting my body back in line. The inability to masticate potato chips was a pretty big red flag. I was drinking the amount planned, but clearly with the weather I needed more. If I had taken the time at CP, would the GI issues have not occurred? I don’t know, but I would have had a better chance.
  • Don’t give up so easily. My head wasn’t in the game, my stomach wasn’t in the game, but the bottom line is that I gave up. Really. When I got to Buck Creek, again I could have sat down and spent some time seeing if I could get things back in line. But, all I could think about was the lack of places to go to the bathroom on Sun Top Trail. So I quit.
  • Stop eating crap food. I have a chronic form of colitis, and it is often triggered by (1) crap food and (2) stress. Sure the whole girls’ birthday thing and the rush job created stress, but in truth I know that I’ve been eating foods for months now that exacerbate things. (Y’know, like dairy, and fried foods, and wheat, and corn…) If I want to push my body and ask it to perform, I need to respect it. Maybe I can get away with it 90–95% of the time, but when another factor—like the heat—gets added to the equation, it just ain’t happening.

So, on blog post 2, here I am basically vomiting my disaster onto the page. You didn’t need to read this far. But thanks. Happier stories to come …