Grand Canyon's allure has problems

Stunning vistas are just part of what draws runners to challenging Grand Canyon routes. Courtesy Dax Ross

From the South Rim, the Grand Canyon looks impenetrable. At 10 miles wide and a mile deep, the immense gorge appears to be a confusing maze of canyons and cliffs and rocky towers.

Most tourists look down and across to the North Rim from the walls in front of hotels and shops at Grand Canyon Village, having no desire to venture below. They're content to take photos and admire the distant views. Only about 1 percent of the park's 4.5 million annual visitors ever step onto the trails below the rim. Even fewer try to run across.

Jenny Hadfield is one of those special few, having run from rim to rim three times since 2008. Some runners try to set records, some do it for the bucket list experience. Others, such as Hadfield, see it as a test and a way to be totally immersed in the canyon.

"There's something about the beauty, the magnitude of it all, and the fact that we can traverse it and do it in a day," she says. "It is a pilgrimage."

While the canyon rims may be 10 miles apart as the crow flies, people don't have feathers, and so their route is longer and more difficult. The human cross-canyon run is roughly 21 to 24 miles (depending on the route) over sometimes-rocky trails with elevation changes from 4,460-4,860 feet on the South Rim to 5,841 feet on the North.

Plus, runners often have to deal with temperature extremes, a lack of water and wilderness surprises. Yet Hadfield, 47, a longtime runner and coach from Chicago, says running rim to rim is like nothing else.

"For me it's a very spiritual place," she says. "Most people stand at the top, and at the top it's certainly magnificent. But when you stop at the top of one side and you look to see how it is that you're going to get to the other side, it's just ... you can't even comprehend it.

"So you start to make your way down into the depths of this Grand Canyon and layer by layer, it's majestic and it varies in terrain. Just every step of it is absolutely magical. And it's challenging. It takes you to a place where you have to push beyond your perceived strength. And there's something very, very positive that comes from that."

"Dirt-in-your-feet experience"

Like Hadfield, Dax Ross, 41, an ultrarunner from San Marcos, California, wasn't out to set a record. He made his first trek to the Grand Canyon specifically to run it. He loves both running and national parks, so he combined the two.

He did a 48-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim run in 2010. It took him 14 hours. He started at 6 a.m. down the Bright Angel Trail, crossed the Colorado River and proceeded up the North Kaibab to the North Rim, then reversed course. Of the two main corridor trails from the South Rim, the Bright Angel is about 3 miles longer than the South Kaibab Trail but has a less severe descent. Runners attempting to set records usually go down and up the South Kaibab.

When Ross reached the halfway point at the North Rim -- about 1,000 feet higher than the South -- he admits he felt like stopping. He revived on the return, though, and the run is something he treasures.

"It was absolutely amazing," he says. "Being out there, being in the canyon for the first time, I felt like I got to experience what it is. A dirt-in-your-feet kind of experience. Kind of just getting it all in as opposed to standing there taking pictures at the rim and driving away."

Since then, he's run a different route in the canyon, plus done ultradistance runs at Joshua Tree and Zion national parks, and a 220-mile, eight-day trip on the John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney.

"I love the national parks," he says. "I've got a goal of running in all the national parks. And I kind of figured a good way to see the whole thing [park] would be to run it all."

Fastest known times

Rob Krar and Jason Wolfe of Flagstaff, Arizona, and Jared Scott of Dolores, Colorado, are three runners who have specifically tried to set records and also love and respect the Grand Canyon.

Krar, 37, a pharmacist and former track and cross country runner at Butler, started running in the canyon regularly in 2009. He loves its sights, smells and the energy he feels while in it. His training there also helped launch his running career. He was UltraRunning Magazine Male Ultra Runner of the Year for 2013, and his success and trademark bushy beard are well-known in the ultra set (his beard even has its own Twitter account, @RobKrarsBeard, which is managed by someone else).

In 2012, Krar set the fastest known time for rim to rim (2 hours, 51 minutes, 28 seconds), while running with Wolfe and Scott. Running from North to South, all three came in under the fastest known time set by Scott the year before (3:06:10). Then, on May 10, 2013, Krar clocked the fastest rim-to-rim-to-rim time ever at 6:21:47 over the 42-mile South Kaibab-North Kaibab route. The previous best was Dakota Jones' 6:53.58 in 2011.

Krar said his rim-to-rim record gave him "a glimpse of what I might be capable of in a rim to rim to rim." So when he set out to break the R2R2R mark, he says he was focused, prepared -- and lucky. Weather was perfect, the northern trail was empty (the North Rim had not yet opened for the season) and water was available.

Even when he tripped coming down the North Kaibab Trail, he popped right back up with no significant damage, and that's not always the case. It remains the only time Krar has done R2R2R. He knew what he'd done was special.

"To have such a successful day, I took a couple of moments just to walk back to the rim and just look over to the North Rim and have just a few moments to myself," he says. "It was really a flood of emotion. Let a few tears flow, letting it all soak in. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I honestly don't think it's something I could ever replicate."

Scott, 31, lived at the Grand Canyon for a year and a half when his wife worked there. During that time, the former University of Colorado distance runner ran the canyon about twice per week. In May 2011, he broke the 30-year-old record of Allyn Cureton, a longtime hiker and runner who had set the standard of 3:06:47 in 1981. When Scott (running with Wolfe) arrived at the top of the South Kaibab Trail in 3:06:10, Cureton was among those there to congratulate him.

Scott calls Cureton "the history" of canyon running, and Wolfe says having Cureton greet them "definitely made it nice."

"He kind of peered over the edge of the canyon and said, 'Hey, maybe I'll run this again,'" says Wolfe, laughing.

Wolfe, 37, began running the canyon in 2008. He estimates he's run it 50 to 75 times. He's also a hiker who's backpacked and camped with his son on the canyon floor. To Wolfe, every trip down is special.

"Every time I go down there, I get a new appreciation for it," he says.

Part of that appreciation comes from learning over and over again how tough it can be. The heat -- bottom temperatures can be 100 to 110 degrees between late May and early October, 30 degrees higher than on the rim -- and steep return are to be respected. Wolfe says many runners come to the canyon with no idea what they're in for.

Appreciating how the canyon can beat you up makes the successful runs all the sweeter, and having to focus so entirely on running and surviving is liberating mentally, he says.

"You get down to the bottom and there's very few things as difficult as running out of the canyon," he says. "So you run down and it's really easy to get to the bottom, but then you get there and your legs are hamburger, just from the pounding, and you look up and there's really only one way to get out, and it's run out. So there's something about that, that singular focus, that for me makes everything so simple. Life can be so complex, with the day to day.

"But I think when you're climbing out of the canyon, making that next step, that's all you're focused on. It's that survival mode. There's something special and pure about that."

More runners, more issues

There are no broad statistics on the number of runners who do R2R or R2R2R runs in the Grand Canyon. Everyone agrees, though, that the number is increasing. The rise in popularity of ultrarunning since the early 2000s has coincided with more runners on the trails that link the rims.

Wayne Ranney, who's been a backcountry ranger and guide in the canyon since the mid 1970s, recalls the buzz in 1976 when his boss talked about encountering a man from New Zealand running rim to rim, something Ranney says was "unheard of." Now, during the spring and fall when the weather is best for cross-canyon hikers and runners, he's seen an "unbelievable" growth in runners.

"It's off the charts," says Ranney, a Flagstaff, Arizona, resident who is president of the Grand Canyon Historical Society. Magazines, websites and runners' blogs have increased awareness of running the Grand Canyon. Runner's World, for instance, put the canyon in its own special category ("One for the Trophy Case") in its May 2011 ranking of the top 25 trail runs in America.

"Running across the hole in America's backyard might be the single-most satisfying achievement in domestic trail running," it said.

That kind of notice just boosts the number of runners in the canyon, says Ranney, and the problems that come with it. Restrooms and trails weren't built for that kind of traffic. Ranney says he's seen an increase in the amount of human waste along some trails. Ranney and others who regularly run the canyon have seen incidents when runners haven't respected hikers and mule trains.

The National Park Service started a monitoring program last year, and during the busiest weekends in spring 2013, it reported up to 800 people per day were traveling the inner canyon, with 400 to 600 hiking or running rim to rim. The park currently is working on a new backcountry management plan, with the draft environmental impact statement to be released for public comment this summer.

According to park officials in response to questions submitted to the park's public affairs office, the plan "will include some strategies to address the very popular rim-to-rim day use, both hiking and running."

"Increased day use in the inner canyon in general has resulted in increased user conflicts," officials said. "Other issues related to inner-canyon day and overnight use include abandoning or caching gear on the trails, increase in litter, crowding at restrooms and attraction sites, and general concerns with trail courtesy."

Runners such as Scott and Krar fear that if runners don't clean up their act, the park may require runners to get permits. Scott says some runners have been ill-prepared and need to be rescued, others bump into hikers or are noisy early in the mornings when they run by campgrounds, and some run in packs of 10 to 20, which creates problems for hikers.

"A lot of them are just not very considerate of the other users in the park," he says. "Which is kind of a sad thing because you think runners are overall a very nice group of people.

"They just don't realize there's other people trying to experience the same amazingly beautiful place that they're in," he adds. "So yeah, there's some issues that need to be addressed."

Davy Crockett, an ultrarunner from Saratoga Springs, Utah, also has concerns. Crockett, 55, estimates he's run more than 1,000 miles in Grand Canyon since 2005. Fourteen times he's run rim to rim to rim, with a best of about 12 hours. Now he's more interested in running and exploring less-traveled trails.

"When I started, only a handful of pretty fit and experienced runners were doing that," he said of canyon runs. "Now the word's getting out and more of these articles are being read, more causal runners are attempting this and making a lot of mistakes. I've heard rangers concerned that people are treating it like Disneyland."

He says he tries to spread the word across the Internet for runners to do their homework, be prepared and be courteous to others. Even experienced marathoners, he says, have no idea how difficult the canyon can be, particularly if they're doing R2R2R.

"They usually can make their first crossing well," he says. "But when they get down to the bottom the second time, now they're past the farthest they've ever run and now they're in over 100-degree heat and still have to climb out 5,000 feet."

To Ranney, it all points to one thing: Running in the canyon needs to be managed.

"This is not the proper place," he says. Running "seems very benign," Ranney says, but doesn't fit with the purpose of a national park.

The canyon's pull

Many runners say, though, that they can really and truly appreciate the park by running in it. And for many who have run rim to rim, the canyon keeps pulling them back.

For Hadfield, her three trips have been emotional journeys. In 2008, she ran the canyon with her brother to celebrate their adventurous father, who had recently died. In 2012, she ran it with five women to celebrate one of their member's 60th birthday. And in 2013, she ran again after her brother -- her partner in 2008 -- died.

She says running the canyon following her father's and brother's deaths was a way to "mourn actively."

"Going to the depth and then climbing out, that's very symbolic for me in terms of how you mourn," she says.

For Krar, the canyon is a wonderful place to run. It offers exquisite beauty and supreme punishment.

"As an athlete and someone who enjoys pushing myself to extremes, it's special to me because it's not all positive," he says. "I've had some really desperate days in there, and I've learned so much about myself on the good days and the bad days.

"It's a magical place."