Benedict Dugger devised and successfully completed a 100K route through Grand Canyon National Park.
On Oct. 4, Arizona ultrarunner Benedict Dugger went on a one-of-a-kind trail running adventure in the Grand Canyon. After six previous Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R or simply R3 for short) running adventures over the past two and a half years, the 44-year-old native of Holland was inspired to extend the traditional 42- to 45-mile across-and-back Grand Canyon adventure to include about 20 more miles of trail running above the North Rim and create a 100K running adventure with more than 13,500 feet of elevation gain. “The main reason, besides how happy being outside in gorgeous places on trails means to me, and having the satisfaction of completing a worthwhile goal, was to inspire others to run the Grand Canyon safely, responsibly and enjoyably,” says Dugger, who started a Facebook group called “Grand Canyon R2R2R Run!” to provide a positive message amid the National Park Service’s stricter regulations on trail users. “I knew that doing a 100K version of a R2R2R would bring a lot more attention to my run and that cause than ‘just’ doing a regular R3.” Dugger says he also wanted to take time to visit two of the most interesting features in the Grand Canyon— Ribbon Falls and Roaring Springs—which most R2R2R runners miss because they are each about a quarter-mile off the main route. During his 19-hour odyssey, he encountered an elk, several deer and dozens of other runners and hikers. He ran the entire route in a pair of Altra Lone Peak shoes.
When did you first get inspired about running in the Grand Canyon?
In April of 2012 I had my first Grand Canyon running experience. Living in Tucson, two friends and I decided to run down South Kaibab Trail from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up to Bright Angel Trail. I was blown away by the beauty and totally hooked. At that time that was the longest and most elevation gain I had ever done (17 miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain), but I felt great doing it. It inspired me to do my first R2R2R about five weeks later.
How long did you plan for this 100K adventure?
About five weeks ago, I started considering doing this 100K “Grand R2R2R” run. I was feeling good in my training progression, no injuries and considering I would be out and about longer than usual, including a greater portion of colder conditions at night, the typical weather pattern of the first weekend in October (40s on the South Rim at night, 80s at the bottom midday) seemed close to ideal for an extended run. I was ready to do it by myself but one of my good running friends also wanted to run the Canyon that weekend and I invited her to join me for the run. She was interested so the plan was made to run it together.
I made an announcement in the Facebook running group that I would be at the Maswik Lodge Food Court in Grand Canyon Village on Friday evening before the Saturday run, and about eight other members showed up during the course of the evening. We had a great time talking about our upcoming runs, I had a detailed map that we used to look at routes and landmarks and we shared knowledge, information and inspiration for our runs the next day.
Sounds like you had a great day. How did it go overall?
This was my most successful Grand Canyon run so far. Even with the extra distance my time for just the R2R2R portion was the fastest I have done the double crossing so far going down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel, and that included a significant amount of time chatting with people on the trail, including friends and other members of the Facebook group who were running the Canyon that day; helping other runners and hikers who were struggling, taking pictures and having a great time not worrying about exactly how fast I was going.
What was the most memorable highlight?
One of the biggest highlights of this run was the first-time exploration of the trails near the North Rim North Kaibab trailhead. Uncle Jim Loop winds up and down through the pine forest to a gorgeous lookout over Roaring Springs Canyon with a great view of the Corridor Trail switchbacking its way past Coconino Outlook towards Supai Tunnel. Meeting some hikers there who were having lunch and explaining that I just came from the South Rim (and was going back) was something almost incomprehensible to them when I first mentioned it. The interest and engagement they displayed for what I was doing, how I did it and where I was going was wonderful and fueled me up emotionally to continue onwards. I had never been to Bright Angel Point and now that I have seen how spectacular it is—nothing on the South Rim compares to it—I highly recommend visiting it or including as part of an extended R3.
What was your fueling strategy and how did you execute it?
Nutritionally and fueling-wise, this was the best ultra-distance run I have ever had. The day before, I measured out 20 small ziplock baggies with about 250 calories each of powder of a combination of two-thirds of a scoop of Ensure, one scoop of Coco Hydro Sport and one scoop of Tailwind (Orange flavor). The plan was to consume one baggie per hour, by putting it into the two 20-ounce bottles of my Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest. I ended up consuming a total of 14 baggies during the 19 hours I was out there. Not quite one per hour, but as it turned out, enough to keep my energy levels stable and strong throughout the entire run. This was the first time ever I still felt fully energized after 30, 40 and 50 miles. I was astounded I was able to run an 8- to 9-minute mile pace without too much effort or an elevated heart rate coming back down from Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch. All my previous times I labored to keep it below 10- to 11-minute mile pace at that stage into the run. Going back up Bright Angel from the South Kaibab-Bright Angel trail intersection on the north side of the Colorado River only took 3.5 hours of alternating between running and power hiking, which is also one of the fastest times I have made up so far.
It’s like a whole new world of possibilities and new performance levels just opened up to be experienced and discovered. I calculated I consumed about 3,500 calories from these liquid powder calories, and another 500 to 600 from three energy bars, dried figs and tangerine slices and a handful of salted crackers. The main benefit of having a full amount of energy throughout the entire run was that I was able to enjoy it fully, pay attention to my environment and other trail users (in need) and let my body dynamically experience the joys of flying on the downs and power hiking the steeper up hills.
What were the biggest challenges of the 100K? Did anything come up that you didn’t anticipate?
I would say running 12-plus miles on the North Rim at 8,200-plus feet of elevation immediately after doing the R2R portion was harder than I anticipated. Maybe I had not fueled enough just prior to that, but I do believe the altitude had an impact on my energy levels. I also made a mistake in the route on the North Rim Trail on the way to Uncle Jim Point. I overshot the trail turnoff by 1.5 miles so I ended up doing an extra 3 miles on the North Rim and 1,000-plus feet of elevation gain. As a consequence, I decided to skip the 3-mile Plateau Point portion of the run on the backend, since I had already done the miles. It also gives me something to look forward to for the next 100K Grand R3.
Other challenges consisted of slowing down to stay with and help fellow running friends who were having a rougher time with the run. My friend who started the run with me wasn’t quite feeling it that day, and once we got to the Colorado River and it had turned light, we decided to go at our own pace. If we had gone at her pace we would not have completed the 100K in the planned time of less than 20 hours, and she was not up for staying with my pace. It ended up working out for the better that way, but ideally we would have been able to continue on much longer together.
My alarm did not go off that morning, or I slept right through it. We were originally planning to start running at 12:45 a.m., but ended up starting at 2:45 a.m. Because of that I finished later than anticipated, but still in time to have pizza and a beverage at the Maswik Lodge Pizza Pub before they closed at 11 p.m.
What inspires you about running in the Grand Canyon?
I am inspired by the full sensory connection of being in such a magnificent and expansive natural place that engulfs you from every direction with its oversized beauty. My eyes see the stark shapes, the vivid colors, the abundance of vegetation and wildlife, the sparkling stars on a clear night, the moon illuminating the trail with a faint glow, the sun penetrating the deep canyons during the day or clouds creating unique shadow patterns on the rocks below.
I am inspired by letting my body move freely through such an environment; with having a strong sense of being fully alive. I am inspired by how being there makes it easy to be fully present—right here, right now—and not distracted by consumer culture or tethered to electronic communication devices. I am inspired by being able to experience all of this at times on my own, and at times with others; to run alone, and to run together; to meet strangers who end up knowing me from the Facebook group; to meet fellow Grand Canyon travelers on a similar journey and to share stories and experiences.
I am also inspired by capturing the beauty and magic of the Canyon photographically, and then sharing it with family, friends and the running community. When I first started researching Grand Canyon runs less than 3 years ago (and had never ventured below the rim before), reading Davy Crockett’s blog about doing R2R2R set off my imagination and crafted the idea that one day that could be me. Similarly, there may be other people who see my pictures and stories and it inspires them to turn this dream into a reality.
What do you think about the new regulations being imposed for trail users in the Grand Canyon?
The opportunity to run in the Grand Canyon is facing greater challenges now than before. Increased popularity, more unprepared runners, straining of Inner Canyon resources during peak weekends, coupled with a push within certain factions of National Park Service for tighter regulations, in conjunction with a negative PR campaign among certain other user groups blaming runners for a big part of trouble on the trail, in addition to the faction of runners who are not educated or care about proper trail etiquette and Leave No Trace principles, provides a need and great opportunity to describe and promote positive use and running experiences in the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon is the wrong venue for racing, ego and purposely seeking extreme challenges. That’s how folks get into trouble most of the time, and if this pertains to a runner, it gives other runners and the community a bad name. If I want to race, I’ll sign up for one. If I want to do a hardcore challenge in which I push myself to the edge, I’ll pick a tough race or training run and go all out. If I want a transcendent, almost spiritual, awe-inspiring moving experience, I go to the Canyon. I like both types of experiences, but the Canyon experience touches me deeper and makes me a better person.
What kind of message are you trying to spread?
My goal is to keep the Grand Canyon open and accessible for safe, respectful and responsible running and runners, by promoting sustainable-use practices and being a voice of reason advocating running and day use interest on the Canyon trails. With over 3,500 members in the Facebook group, I had a good opportunity to create a positive story in the middle of the uproar and controversies surrounding permitting and potential restrictive changes to trail use in the Grand Canyon of the past four months.