An Ultrapilgrimage

On December 9, 2011, in Epic Backcountry Trips, Friends, Running, by Meghan

About six weeks ago, I became obsessed with running rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R) in the Grand Canyon before calendar year 2011 ended. It took about 37 minutes to inspire Danni into a similar obsession. Even though I like to think it was my sense of humor and the fact that I know when to shut up on a long outing that convinced Danni to join the fray, we all know the R2R2R ultrapilgrimage is an easy sell.

Before I knew it, Danni and I were road tripping it to Grand Canyon National Park‘s South Rim on the long Thanksgiving weekend. We talked for almost the entire nine-hour drive, except for this moment:

Danni catches flies on our roadtrip to the Grand Canyon (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Danni will probably want to kill me for publishing a photo of her mouth-wide-open nap, but she won’t. Our friendship has been sealed tightly with backcountry days, redrock play, a long run through a deep hole, and enough junk food that she’ll suck it up and laugh. By late afternoon, we rolled into the national park and upon this sign and view:

Grand Canyon first-view sign (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

A late afternoon glimpse into the Grand Canyon from Desert View (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

It’s good that one has to park and walk to the first view of the Big Ditch because I imagine that simultaneous driving and gawking would cause lots of unintentional Thelma-and-Louise-like launches. Good grief, Grand Canyon, you are a stunner!

After playing tourist along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim road, we hightailed it into Tusayan, a tourist-trap town just outside the national park’s boundaries. Over a pasta dinner and pack packing back at our rented hotel room, we created our R2R2R plan: start early enough to finish in time for pizza and beer. We possess simple motivations.

My Ultraspire pack and visor are ready to go (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit)!

We dropped onto the South Kaibab Trail at about 6:45am the next morning, as before-dawn light from beyond the horizon created a pastel world. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon as a tourist, hiker, backpacker, and R2R2R runner a total of five previous times, but I’ll never become accustomed to its beauty. This is how the Grand Canyon woke up that day:

Me posing in the almost-dark just below the South Rim on the South Kaibab Trail (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

These pastel colors preceded dawn (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

I think this is pretty much the coolest photo of me running EVER (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

Here's Danni running as sunrise starts to light the tippy top of the Grand Canyon (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Sunrise catches us about half way down the South Kaibab Trail (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

And then the world became a ball of sunrise fire (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Danni descends the South Kaibab Trail in the long light of dawn (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

After a seven mile, almost 5,000 vertical foot descent to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we began the 14-mile jaunt to the North Rim. I like to run behind people and bliss out on scenery and the goings-on of my noggin, so I fell in behind Danni about a 1/4-step back. I think she wondered why I was breathing down her neck, but I found her to be the perfect metronome for climbing out of the Big Ditch.

All the water spigots along the North Kaibab Trail were off, so we stopped to collect and purify water from the creek at Roaring Springs. While stopped, Danni got a little excited about her massive tuna sandwich and ate the whole thing. She held up the wrapper afterward and said, “I hope that wasn’t a bad idea.” She was worried about seeing that sandwich again on the 3,000-ish vertical feet we had between us and the North Rim. Apparently Danni has an iron gut, though, and those 600 sandwich calories stayed down while we went up.

Here's Danni and her stomach of steel running uphill (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Danni and her jazz hands are happy to be climbing to the North Rim (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Once we got to the North Rim, Danni was so excited that she hugged my breasts. Kidding, I think. It was, perhaps, pure happenstance that her cheek rested on my chest in the below photo:

Timer photo of Danni and I at the North Rim (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

By the way, I’d like to take a moment with this photo to point out the calf-sleeve trend we started on our day in the canyon. Lots of hikers either commented on or fixated their gaze upon our trendiness. One woman even lifted her pant leg to show us hers! I suspect calf sleeves to be the next Grand Canyon fashion trend.

If what goes up must come down, then it was our turn to blast off the North Rim for a wild and wooly descent back to the Colorado River. I love a good downhill run. Danni is such a good friend that she didn’t mind me taking four of five blast offs on our way back to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Of course, on one of those times in which we were separated, Danni took a nice fall.  She turned up a little dusty and with a raspberry on her knee, saying she turned the trip into an injury-avoiding roll. And I missed the whole show!

Danni and I begin our descent from the North Rim (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

I love a good downhill (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

And, I freaking love the Grand Canyon (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

At one point, I started looking at my descent photos on my camera’s LCD screen and I thought I was seeing God or an angel chasing Danni downhill in every photo. Then I looked closer at my camera lens, I realized it was a bead of my own sweat. See what I mean:

My sweat chases Danni downhill (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

I think the last few miles back to the Colorado River were Danni’s least favorite of the day. I’m pretty sure she was hating on the idea of having to ascend back to the South Rim. She was even talking about riding a mule out. In this photo, Danni might be pondering how much it’d take to bribe the use of a mule from Phantom Ranch:

Danielle Coffman runs along Bright Angel Creek (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Turns out, Danni pretty much loved the ascent. She got all giggly and goofy as we powerhiked. Sunset and darkness happened when we were about two miles above the river, headed up the Bright Angel Trail, so we didn’t take any more pictures.

I won’t lie that I was elated to reach the top. My engine stopped running at about hour 12, which coincided with our passage past the Indian Garden Campground, 4.5 miles from the trailhead. Folks there were enjoying campfires and friendly chatter, and I would have been content to join them. We pushed on, motivated by the promise of real food and a real bed. At about 8:45pm, 14 hours after starting our 45-mile journey, the Bright Angel Trail leveled off on the South Rim. We hugged and high fived, then waddled off to the car and a pizza-and-beer dinner.

Here's how happy Danni was to be done, too (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

The Grand Canyon R2R2R has become an ultrapilgrimage of sorts. Some ultrarunners run R2R2R fast, some go slow, but everyone makes their way back and forth across that beastly hole in the ground. And most do it with the companionship of their ultrarunning friends. This was my third R2R2R, and it’s a pilgrimage that gets better every time. Thanks, Danni, for a grand journey and for an even-grander friendship.

17 Responses to “An Ultrapilgrimage”

  1. Ewa says:

    Wow! I would be happy just hiking that, forget running. 🙂
    I am also noticing you have a much more optimistic attitude than I do. My hiking/running credo is that what comes down must come up and guess what it always does.
    Loved the God or angel images.
    Great adventure, girls!

  2. I’m with Ewa, wow. That is awesome! You ladies are so freakin’ badass 🙂 I love hearing about the little things in long runs, like the sandwich thing. Makes me (half) believe that you are human and not running goddesses.
    Those photos were incredible, I’m going to have to see the Grand Canyon someday. What season is the best?

    • Danni says:

      Karen I’m no expert but I think spring/fall are the “best” times to go — most people do April or October I think, depending on how tolerant you are of heat… that said I’ve been in January and it’s lovely though there can be a lot of snow on the North Rim that requires some postholing.

  3. jeff says:

    awesome, meghan.

    each time you post one of these amazing adventures i can’t help but think, “most people wouldn’t appreciate how blessed their lives are. i’m so glad that these types of things aren’t wasted on meghan”. you live a blessed life, my friend. thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. Gretchen says:


    It has been decided that R2R2R is excellent Hardrock training. I am lucky that I, like you, have a badass friend who is always up for an adventure. (Actually, I think in this case, it was her idea!) Unlike you, I have never been to the Big Ditch before, so I’m particularly excited.

    Glad you guys had such a great run. What beautiful colors!

    You are total badasses!!!

  5. Marine_AT_Hiker says:

    Great narrative…..even better photos! Might have to hike this some day! 🙂

  6. Danni says:

    You are truly the perfect partner for such adventures. It was really wonderful to be able to go do this with you. You keep me laughing even when you should probably just push me off a cliff.

    BTW, I like the picture of me with my mouth hanging open. I’d forgotten about that. Evidently I’m like a kid when I get in the car and sack out pretty easily…

    • Meghan says:


      Thanks again for this outing and for your friendship. You, too, are the perfect adventuring partner: laughy, flexible, gracious, strong of mind and body.

      Also, I’m glad you like the sleeping picture.

  7. olga says:

    OMG, Gretchen had never been to GC!!! This is, like, almost as excited of a news as Danni’s iron gut (and tuna sandwitch that survived canyon heat) and the gender prefernces of both of these ladies (come out of the closet, you!). Anyhow, badass ladies you are, great times!

  8. You girls rock. I can only imagine the continuous string of hilarity that ensued as you ran down and up and down and up the big ditch.

    I’m not sure about Danni’s iron gut. We once did a 20-ish-mile hike in Glacier and both got sick from snarfing huge turkey wraps while we were marching on the steepest part of the climb. But maybe she’s improved over the years; I sure haven’t. I made a bad tuna decision in a bike race a month ago and I’m not sure I’ll ever eat tuna again.

  9. JeffO says:

    Each time I see/read my friends’ R2R2R reports, it feels like nagging – get thine ass to the Ditch and git er done dude.
    Beautiful photos.
    And I bet you two could record your conversations and sell them as comedy routines. I can only imagine the fun you have.

  10. Meghan says:

    Thanks y’all. I kind of wish I could have had each of you in my pocket for the day’s ride (Well, maybe not, literally, in my pocket. That would have made climbing out of the Grand Canyon twice pretty hard.). What an adventure we would have had!

    Our Earth rocks. It’s filled with people and places beautiful enough to make you cry and jump with joy. Whatever, whoever floats your boat, get out and spend time in those places and with those people. Life is what you make it, that’s for sure.

  11. Paige says:

    Love! What a fun adventure. I still have yet to even see the Grand Canyon, let alone run its delicious trails. Lucky girls you are!

  12. Good to see y’all have been having fun whilst Keith and I enjoy the 3 B’s of Australia – (that would be beer, BBQ and beaches). How cool is that to see 2 of my favorite peeps are out having yet another grand adventure together? Ladies, you do in fact, Rock.

  13. Meghan says:

    Paige and Leslie, thanks girlfriends!

  14. Patrick McKenna says:

    Great report. I hope to complete the same pilgrimage this May.

  15. Zach says:


    I’m doing the R2R2R this year with some great friends.

    Thanks for sharing!

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