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My Journey to the Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim


the Grand Canyon, seen from the rim

Becoming Ultra

I started running at the age of 22 when I joined the Army 27 years ago. Running has been a part of my life in some form or fashion ever since and physical fitness has long been a passion of mine. I am someone who likes to challenge myself.

I joined a CrossFit gym in 2014 and I learned about Spartan races. It took until 2016 to finally get someone to agree to do one with me. From 2016 to 2018 I ran 14 races all over the eastern United States and loved every minute of it. It was in 2018 I decided to take things to the next level and do a Spartan Ultra, a race that is 50 kilometers with 66 obstacles, and 11k feet of climbing. Midway through the race, the obstacles were becoming cumbersome, I just wanted to run.

Enter, Ultra Running. Running took on a whole new meaning and became one of the loves of my life. I continued to seek new distances and ways to challenge myself.


Dana carries a large stone in a Spartan race

Since 2018 I have run eight ultras including a 100 miler, in six races and two unsupported runs.

As I became immersed in the Ultra running world, it wasn’t long before I heard about a famous run called the Rim2Rim2Rim at the Grand Canyon. I had never been to the Grand Canyon and I don’t know that I can put into words what drew me so strongly to it, I just know that it did.

On one hand, it seemed within reach, a hard challenge that I had the ability to accomplish. On the other hand, it scared the crap out of me. It was just scary enough to be exhilarating, knowing it would force me to face some of my deepest fears. I knew this would be hard, and I knew it would be beautiful, and I wanted to experience it.

Dana at the Yeti 100


Will I Still Be Able to Run?

After my Yeti 100 miler at the beautiful Virginia Creeper in September of 2021, I was dealing with significant pain that led to a diagnosis of a hip disorder and labrum tear along with some glute and hamstring tendinopathy.

I was recommended for a pretty invasive hip reconstruction surgery and wondered if running was still in the cards for me. I was so scared I would lose the ability to engage in a sport I had come to love so much.

After several second opinions and a lot of self reflection, I opted to not have surgery and did all I could to learn about form, body mechanics, alignment and how to work with the body I was given to run healthy. I met with multiple professionals from physical therapists, to chiropractors, massage therapists and even tried acupuncture. I was willing to do what it took. It was a long road, and I learned so much. But in my opinion, for the long term, my most important ally was my running coach.


The world of run coaching is vast, there are so many to choose from. From 2014 up to my 100 miler, I had a wonderful, encouraging, and supportive coach. She successfully ran many ultras herself, and trained many athletes to finish lines, including me. But, she didn’t feel knowledgeable enough in my diagnosis to feel comfortable safely providing my training and programming. At that point I made the decision to seek a new coach that understood my faulty biomechanics and special training needs to run healthy. It took a lot of searching and interviewing and trial and error, but I felt I met my match.

Miles and Mountains Coaching website

I started with my new coach, Josh Fields, in the summer of 2022. I immediately told him my long term goals and we started to rebuild. He made significant changes to the programming I was used to and as a result, along with all the physical therapy and strength work I was already doing, it wasn’t long before I was increasing miles and continuing to run pain free.



Decision Time

As the year turned to 2023 I said to Josh: I want this to be the year. And he said let’s do it. I was feeling great and I knew it was something I wanted to do, so rather than pick a hard race or focus on an arbitrary ultra distance, why not go for the thing I have dreamed about. I ran a tough 50k in April and was feeling strong, so plans moved forward to run the big one in October. I secured a running partner, we set the dates and booked our flights, I couldn’t believe this was happening! I was beyond excited.


Dana runs around the bend in the road

Training

Although this is when I officially had the Grand Canyon goal in my sights while training, my coach would say I’ve been training for this all the years I’ve been running. He has taught me to focus on the big picture, not just the goal right in front of me, that progress happens over years, not months. And I trained. Like I always do, with consistency.


I followed my coach’s adaptive programming, listened to and took care of my body, and continued taking it one step at a time. I joined a Facebook group dedicated to running the Canyon. I read all the advice. I vacillated between terrified and confident, sometimes within the same moment. I gathered all the information I could and just kept running.


As any ultra runner can tell you, when executing an endurance event, it’s not just about the miles, it’s about having a plan for all the things that will go wrong. So my research involved knowing what I was up against. Knowing and training for nutrition needs, knowing where the water sources were and how to navigate filtering water if necessary. Dealing with extreme and varying temperatures. How will I navigate my fear of heights? Blisters, chafing, satellite communication, the list goes on. I did all I could to be physically, mentally and emotionally prepared, but there are always unknowns, so part of it is just trusting myself that I am capable.


My run programming looked so different from when I trained for my hundred miler.

In this training block I never did a long run that went longer than 3.5 hours. Yet I still managed to rack up as much weekly mileage as I did for my 100. I didn’t do as much vert training. Is that enough? Will I be ready?

I trusted my coach that my fitness was what mattered most, and we were training me to be fit, while adding in some specificity in the final weeks of training. But because this was still new, I still wondered, is it enough?


My training block went exceptionally well and it was taper time. I couldn’t believe I was getting ready to run through the Grand Canyon, twice, from Rim to Rim and back again in one go. In a place I had never before seen. It felt surreal.



Arriving at the Grand Canyon for Rim2Rim2Rim

We arrived at the Canyon, checked into our lodge and walked to the South Rim. As I looked out over the Canyon for the first time, I was in awe at what I was about to attempt. It was overwhelming. Even now, it’s hard to believe. It just looked so vast!

Mottled light in the Grand Canyon


Time to Run: the Experience

Monday, October 2, 2023, 3:15am, it was go time. Decked out in rain jackets, headlamps and vests filled with water, electrolytes, food, gels, first aid, water filters, and a Garmin InReach, we set off down South Kaibab Trail into the Canyon.


Dana and Mark set off into the Canyon by headlamp

It was immediately harrowing, as the temps were in the 30s, there were intense gusts of wind and pelting rain. At one point, the wind was so strong we had to hide behind a rock face because we were on an exposed switch back. The rain felt like sharp needles on our skin.

I was a little scared of what this meant for our day, as the danger of what we were attempting was immediately apparent. Thankfully, the weather calmed and we had ideal conditions the rest of the day.

We made it into the Canyon and across the Colorado River before daybreak. We passed through Phantom Ranch and saw the donkeys start to make their way down the trail. A friend had told me, don’t let the donkeys get in front of you! So I pointed and told Mark, my running partner….run!! We raced the donkeys and thankfully got ahead of them and never looked back.

a stream

We wound our way through the bottom of the Canyon seeing amazing views along the way. We were in such high spirits, chatting, laughing and having a great time. It is hard to describe the views from the bottom of the canyon, there are massive walls and mountains all around. And the view changed at every turn.

I ran out of water with 3 miles to the next fill station. My pack was so heavy with other stuff I didn’t notice my bladder empty. I had a filter but the stream was not close by. We had to bushwhack through some cacti and other such desert brush for me to get to the stream to filter water. Mark, my running partner, hit a cactus with his foot and got a needle stuck under his toenail through his shoe! He tended to his foot while I hiked down a 4 foot rock wall to the flowing stream to filter water into my pack. Double crisis averted and we were back on our way.

We saw SO many people at this point on the trail. Every single one of them were so happy and friendly! Many asked us and were in awe that we were doing a Rim 3. It was so encouraging and kept things in perspective the humbling challenge we were embarking on.

Making good time, we began the 5 mile hike up the North Kaibab trail where we were to meet Sean, my wonderfully supportive husband who drove 200 plus miles to be at the North Rim for us, to refuel, fill water, get real food, and head back out.

We were 1.5 miles away when we got stopped by a ranger who said we had to wait 45 mins to an hour due to a helicopter pick up. Wait - what?

It took me a minute to wrap my brain around what was happening and not let it deter me. We were in such good spirits, feeling so good, and making such good time, so we settled in to wait.

Dana and Mark waiting

My Garmin InReach does not send messages instantly. I had messaged Sean but it didn’t go through and my poor husband, knowing I was close, was sick with worry that the helicopter was for me. Finally my message went through and it turned out it wasn’t a rescue anyway, just the rangers doing trail work. Ugh! But our spirits remained high, we got to Sean, had a good reset and headed back down the trail for an even bigger descent back into the Canyon.

We kept up a good pace back through the Canyon as we made our way to our final climb up Bright Angel. As we passed back through Phantom Ranch, it was dark again, there were a lot of campers around and a large group of people having dinner in the main cabin, laughing and having a good time. I wanted to empty my trash and make sure I had enough fuel for the remaining miles ahead so Mark and I entered the dining area. I guess we were a strange sight to see because we were getting stares from the diners as we took care of our packs. We must have looked like what the cat dragged in.

At this point we were tired but still feeling good, in good spirits and moving well. Then we started climbing. This part feels hard to describe. I checked the map and did a double take…we have 8 miles of climbing….8 miles. I thought we were almost done. You may as well have told me we had another 40 miles to go and it would have felt the same. But…okay…we got this. I knew we were going to finish.

These were quiet, dark, painful miles. The climb kept getting steeper, the switchbacks more intense, and the light at the top seemed to never get closer.

Mark and I had made a pact to not complain on this journey. And for 40 miles, that was easy. We were having a great time and felt amazing. This last 8 miles, that got harder and harder, so we hardly said a word. We just kept working, we kept moving. I kept looking up thinking we aren’t getting any closer.


Interestingly, while our perception was one of painfully slow movement, the data showed that we actually moved just as efficiently on this climb than on the previous climb to the North Rim when we were fresher, in the sunshine, and feeling great.


We hit the last water stop with still 4.5 miles to go. How can that be? Are the miles stretching out as we go? We had to dig deep. Sean messaged me telling me he was going to hike down some to meet us. I asked him to please not do that. I needed him at the top. I needed to know I was making my way to him, that he was at the finish. So he stayed. Eventually we got there and I collapsed in his arms and cried. It was a sweet, sweet finish.




What I Learned

The amazing thing is, Mark and I had no issues. Other than the expected physical and mental challenge, we had no stomach issues, no muscle cramping, no falls or mishaps or a million other things that could have happened out there. I attribute that to a combination of luck, experience, training, and professionals who have taught us well. And for the unending support of loved ones. It can’t be overstated how invaluable that is.


As I write this, it has been a full week since this incredible experience and achievement. I feel so many feelings. A combination of awe at what I accomplished and swelling grief that it’s done. And layers of feelings in between, including a newfound confidence to reach even higher.

Because I finished without pain, with only minor soreness and recovered well, I learned that my training was exactly what it needed to be. I got to both the start line and the finish line, injury and pain free. Something I previously thought would not be possible for me.

A lot of people in the running community focus on races. I have too and will again. But there’s something distinctly different about a goal like this. There is no medal at the end, no aid station volunteers cheering you on or crew to bandage your blisters. There are no timing mats and cut offs, no medical staff waiting on the sidelines.

It’s about the journey. The rewards are in the experience, the in the moment sense of awe of what is around you, and what you are setting out to do. And it’s up to you and your own two feet to get you through. And while there is no finish line tape, or a crowd when you cross, I found it to be one of the sweetest finishes.

The most important thing running always teaches me is, no matter how magnificent a thing, and no matter how painful, it passes in a blink. So be present. For every single bit of it. I have learned to be present and I am grateful. That presence allows me to remember all of it. The beauty and the pain. And I embrace all of it. It’s part of the journey and the story. And in the end, it’s all beautiful. I will hold these memories close to my heart.



Where Do I Go From Here?

Right now I want to let myself be with my accomplishment, allow my mind to rest and reset and allow my body to fully recover so it can be ready for the next crazy thing I set my sights on. And while there will be races, this gave me a hunger for more limitless adventures in the beautiful wild.

I’m sitting with wonder, where else can my feet take me?


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