100 Miles By Foot: Tackling Grand Canyon Ultra Race

The zip of a tent door pierced the night air followed by an exclamation: “Looks like Christmas out here!”

When I signed on the dotted line to run a 100-mile race along the rim of the Grand Canyon, I didn’t expect six inches of snow to add to the challenge.

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The snowy start of the Grand Canyon 100; all photos by Sean McCoy

The Grand Canyon 100, May 16-17, was an epic adventure and my first 100-mile footrace.

Starting at 8,500 feet on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, the course wound 50 miles through a forest of Ponderosa Pines to lookout points along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and back.

My First 100-Miler

My goal was simply to finish this first 100-miler, and it seemed nature was postured against me before even reaching the starting line. Scheduled for May in Arizona, I’d envisioned warm, if not hot, spring weather — not a heavy blanket of snow.

But that’s what I found as I left the tent and headed to the start. I shivered with 50 other runners in the pre-dawn twilight, steeled for a long, hard day. 3, 2, 1…

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Six inches of snow along the trail

Launching out of the start, I found a comfortable pace while skittering along the slick, snow-covered track. The first half of the race was predominantly downhill, so I rolled along, trying not to let my legs fatigue on the unstable surface.

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I gazed in awe, running through meadows frosted white by the overnight dump. Snow hung heavy on dark conifers while birch stood stark white in the morning light. My feet pounded forward, carrying me briskly along.

Run It Yourself! Learn How Here

The snow began to wane after a few hours, about 25 miles into the race. In its place the trail turned to mud. Sticky, heavy, slippery mud.

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Slipping and sliding, I worked to keep on the trail. Mud clawed at my feet. Pine needles mixed with the quagmire and stuck to my shoes. My pace slowed dramatically as I reached the 30-mile mark.

Into The Pain Cave

The snow and mud had really sapped my energy, and things started to hurt. With 70 miles remaining to run, I questioned my sanity.

I had decided to try a 100-miler because I didn’t know if I could do it. I wanted a challenge that I was not sure I could overcome.

As I slogged my way up a steep, muddy hillside, I realized this run was going to push me to the limits.

But, thinking back on a mantra shared by running legend Scott Jurek, I realized that was what I’d come for. Things were about to get sore in my world. The pain cave was locking the door behind me, and it was time to buckle down.

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Finally, dry trail

There was no other way this thing was going to get done. One foot in front of the other.

The next 30 miles are a blur of fast walking and slow running. I winced and panted my way through towering pines and past overlooks of eye-watering beauty.

I forced myself to stop and take photos, to enjoy this trip to a place I had only imagined and seen in photos all my life.

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The author’s first glimpse of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is one of those few places truly worthy of the word “awesome,” and as the Rainbow Rim Trail occasionally offered glimpses into the abyss, runners were treated to some of the most remarkable views I’ve experienced during a run.

A vast open space loomed in front and below. Subtle hues of red, green and brown illuminated under the shadows of skittering clouds. I stood for several minutes, eyes wide and entirely unconcerned about running, just letting myself digest this feast of a view.

I would see into the canyon many more times during the run, and I stopped nearly every time — race pace be damned.

Grand Canyon 100 (15)

The beauty of the place may have slowed me down, but it also inspired me to keep going. More views awaited as long as I was running in the light.

A Little Help From My Friends

Aid stations were critical, and at the 50 mile point I took a little more time to fuel my body. While many runners blazed in and out quickly, I took time to linger, eat some real food, and drink up the delicious broth and company these rare oasis provided.

My goal was to finish, not win, and I decided a little more time at aid stations would help me reach the end.

My wife/crew chief/pacer
My wife/crew chief/pacer

For those running 100 miles, aid, and likely crew and pacer support, is mandatory. Running 100 miles unsupported, while possible, would be one heck of a nasty feat. Pacers, crew and aid station workers are the angels of the running community, and mine were my wife and parents — also complete rookies to 100 mile crewing, and they made it possible, keeping me positive and moving forward.

Miles To Go Before I Sleep

Along the way, runners shared wisdom and encouragement. As day turned to night, their headlights floated ahead and behind, bobbing reminders that I was not alone in my struggle through these dark and quiet woods.

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Middle of the night

The night was long. My feet hurt with every step, and I lived on the encouragement of my pacers, who joined me for “short” 15-mile segments in the deep dark of early morning.

The watch on my alarm sounded at 4:30 a.m., reminding me that I’d been now awake for 24 hours. I longed for my sleeping bag. But step by step, I moved forward, relentlessly, toward my goal.

Into The Light

The sun soon rose and I bid farewell to my pacers, determined to finish the last 15 miles on my own. With the rising sun, the frozen ground once again melted, forcing long tromps across muddy meadows and slow progress.

Things got weird around 8 a.m., as my weary mind started playing tricks on me. At one point, I leaned over to stretch and watched as the dirt “flowed” along the trail like a stream. “Wooo,” I thought. “Not real.”

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Things got weird as the sun rose

And there were the voices. And the self doubt. But even as the pain made me question the finish line, I reminded myself that the afternoon would be here soon, and I would be recovering in a tent. I had the choice to recover in success, or in failure.

I chose success, and plugged on.

The finish line came in a blur of ringing cowbells and cheering supporters. I was tired and emotional, and I jogged across the finish and sat right down in a chair to pick out a very cool and unique belt buckle made by a local artist.

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I had made it. I sat for a moment to savor what I can only describe as powerful, nearly overwhelming, relief. I hugged my wife for a long time and choked back a few hard to explain tears. But craving a sleeping bag, I wasted little time getting into my tent and my feet up.

100 miles is a heck of a long ways to run, and I’d come across the finish line in 27 hours, 43 minutes, and 19 seconds, far behind the winner’s time of 18:03:44, but still my fastest, only, 100-miler to date.

The Grand Canyon 100 was an incredible experience, and one I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in a western ultra. Will I run 100 miles again? Well, right now I’m not so sure. Ask me in a couple weeks.

tagged: #editorspick

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Managing Editor Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in Denver, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.

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