Birthday Adventures: Running Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon

girlfriendsThe phrase “girlfriends getaway” may not conjure images of dusty trails and hydration packs. But for six runners, a 24-mile trek through freezing weather and blazing heat became an epic celebration.

What do you get for the girl who has everything? This was the question that had been swirling around in my head in the months leading up to my friend Gayle’s 60th birthday. My girlfriends and I love to bond over sweat sessions, so in an endorphin-filled moment after leaving the gym with a mutual friend, Shari, the answer became obvious: We’d celebrate by running.

“How about running the Rim to Rim?” I asked Shari. The Grand Canyon’s North Rim and South Rim are connected by a demanding 24-mile passage. I had first experienced this trail with my brother after losing our father. It was a soul-soothing journey, and one I’d always planned on repeating. Without a moment’s hesitation, Shari blurted out, “That would be amazing. Let’s do it!” The Rim to Rim Birthday Adventure was born.

Mapping a plan

We settled on a group of six Chicago-based ladies: Shari, Gayle, her stepdaughter Katy, myself and two of our friends, Janine and Maddie. It takes most hikers three days to complete the Rim to Rim. We wanted to challenge ourselves to finish in one day, running the whole time rather than hiking and camping. It’s one thing to agree to train for a 24-mile run through a canyon; it’s another bag of beans to actually make it happen. Luckily, Gayle has the organizational skills of a world-class event planner, and soon the weekend’s itinerary was on paper.


On the edge

The group started training together months before the Rim to Rim Birthday Adventure, but two weeks prior, we began to taper our mileage so our bodies would be fresh for the adventure. Anyone who’s run an endurance race knows that tapering is a necessary part of training—and that it can drive you completely insane.

For me, the extra time and energy created by cutting back on running was now replaced by fear—which in turn made me a crabby, indecisive mess. I was happy to arrive at the airport to find my friends were knee-deep in taper madness as well. When multiplied by six, that’s enough craziness to make you laugh so hard you cry. And we did just that as we waited to board the plane to Vegas.

Quality bonding

The birthday celebration officially launched when we packed our luggage into a 12-person passenger van and headed three hours northeast to St. George. We checked in at the Red Mountain Resort, relaxed with massages and talked logistics over a healthy dinner.

The next morning, we woke early and hit nearby trails for a short, easy run to loosen our legs. But the Resort sits at around 5,000 feet—so the workout at altitude wasn’t exactly easy. The realization that our undertaking would demand hours of running in thin air gave us all a shock. Thankfully, collective apprehension has a bonding quality. We were in this together. Our van rolled out to Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim, the final staging area before our Birthday Adventure.


Let go of the reins

The day before our run, we headed to the trailhead at North Rim, soon-to-be our starting line. From the top of the trail, we could observe the entirety of our upcoming journey. We gaped at the finish line at the South Rim and the miles of layered rock we’d have to navigate—one step at a time.

As with any adventure, nothing goes completely as planned. While talking to a park ranger, we discovered that the water pumps were out of order on the first 14 miles of the trail. This is similar to toeing the line of a marathon and hearing there will be no fluids on the course. To make it to halfway point safely, we’d have to carry all the water we’d need on our backs. Gulp.

Rising to the occasion

We awoke the next morning ready to go. Packing additional lightweight plastic bottles and iodine tablets in case we needed to resort to stream water, we were prepared for the challenge.

At 5:14 a.m., we stood shivering at the top of the trail, singing “Happy Birthday” to Gayle. Our packs were heavy, but our hearts were light knowing our journey was finally about to commence.

Janine took the lead and we all fell in line behind her, making our way down the steep, rocky trail. The air was crisp and fragrant from the high alpine forest dotted with Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine. Our normal chatter gave way to silence as the sun filled the canyon beneath us. We ran with the rhythm of the terrain.

“My GPS watch says we just ran a 2-minute mile!” Shari yelled. “Mine isn’t working either,”Gayle replied. There aren’t any mile markers on the Rim to Rim, so without working watches, there was no way to know how far we’d run. We would have to measure our progress by the landmarks on our maps and keep our eyes peeled for Roaring Springs, the Black Box, Phantom Ranch and the Silver Suspension Bridge.

Forward progress

By mid-morning, we finally reached the Roaring Springs, just five miles into our journey. What would normally take us less than an hour on roads in Chicago took us several hours on the technical trails in the Grand Canyon.

Instead of becoming discouraged, we focused on the next checkpoint, the Black Box, five miles away. As we continued our trek along the spine of the canyon, dark rock walls provided shade from the searing sun before opening up into the valley. Frustration and fatigue set in. At six hours, we still hadn’t reached the landmark.

Minutes later, we stumbled upon a trail sign informing us that we had not only reached, but passed the Black Box—we were only a quarter mile from Phantom Ranch, the official halfway point! It turns out the Black Box was the name of the beautiful black shale walls that shaded us from the sun, not an actual box, as we had assumed. You can take the girls out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girls.

Once we reached the ranch safely, water was readily available, and we were able to lighten our loads. We took a short break to relax, refuel with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and mentally prepare for the nine-mile climb up to the South Rim.

Crossing the canyon

We set out across the Silver Suspension Bridge. While our legs ached from 14 miles of downhill running, it was hard to feel anything but gratitude as we stared in awe at the aquamarine Colorado River beneath our feet and red rock canyon walls towering around us. You can’t see this view from any bus window. You have to earn it, and we had.

Mules passed by us as we headed up and along the trail toward the base of the South Rim. By this point, our group was struggling. Bonking blood sugar levels, nasty falls and altitude stress had taken a toll.

It’s one thing to falter on your own, but it’s entirely different to struggle with women you love. In a marathon, you can suffer in solitude, but on a team, individual weakness affects the group. None of us wanted to let the others down, and this motivated us to continue. The bond grew stronger through every challenge as we took turns giving and receiving love and support.

Final ascent

It seemed like days passed before we reached the next water stop at Indian Garden Campground, a mere three and a half miles from the bridge. We filled our bladders, sucked down a gel and started our final ascent.

The last section of the trail is a series of steep rocky climbs that zigzag back and forth up to the top of the South Rim. As a group, we decided to dedicate each switchback to friends and family who couldn’t be with us on this journey.

Shari started an emotional message to her sister Sandy and her husband Tom. I honored my father on the next switchback, and by then we were all in tears. Janine said, “To Gayle, because if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t be here. Let’s plan for your 70th birthday—bigger and better!” Maddie devoted hers to her son and husband, and Katy to her dad. Finally, with a smile on her face, Gayle dedicated one to the girlfriends, “I could have never done this without you and I can’t thank you enough.” Shouts of “Happy birthday, Gayle!” echoed down the path as we continued to climb.

Finish lines

finalFor the last few hours, all of us had been longing for the finish. Exhausted from the miles, hills and heat, we ached to put our legs up and rest. But when the top of the trail appeared on the horizon, I realized that I didn’t want it to end so soon. Pushing beyond my comfort zone in the company of my closest friends was an experience to treasure.

We savored the moment together by taking one more photo a few hundred feet from our final destination, and we looked back at the canyon that had taken us from dawn till dusk to cross. Beyond words, we moved in harmony to the top. Reaching the peak, we sighed with amazement, and embraced in a group hug to celebrate the start of a whole new decade of life for our dear friend Gayle. Most birthdays are all about giving, but this one allowed us to share love, laughs and an adventure we’ll never forget.