The course is largely runner’s choice. Steele and Callaghan opted to start and end at North Kaibab Trail at the North Rim, though you can also start at the southern edge. Over the first 12 or 13 miles, there’s a 6,000-foot drop to the bottom of the canyon. “It’s single-track, all dust and dirt,” Steele says. With cottonwood trees, streams, tiny cacti, a waterfall, and sweeping views of the canyon itself, it’s at once beautiful and grueling.
Fourteen miles in, you hit Phantom Ranch, the only lodge within the canyon’s staggering walls. Just ahead is the Colorado River. Once across the bridge, athletes can choose their own adventure, ascending to the South Rim via Bright Angel Trail or South Kaibab Trail.
While the latter is shorter by a few miles, it’s still considered the more aggressive option by some runners. South Kaibab is a continual steep climb while Bright Angel’s switchbacks allow for more subtle gain. Once at the South Rim, you double back.
Steele’s summer was full of hundred-mile weeks while she prepared for the Teton Crest Trail and the Steamboat Stinger trail marathon in Colorado. While her endurance was up to par, she still needed to prepare her glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves for all the elevation gain and drop. “I don’t go out and eat vert every day, so I really focused on those uphill muscles,” she says.
Two to three times per week she logged lower-body sessions, lunging and squatting to failure, lifting, and spending 30 to 45 minutes on the Stairmaster—sometimes with weights in hand. “Everything was really intense,” she remembers. “I would literally be pouring sweat, going as hard and fast as I could."
On top of that, Steele went to hour-long HIIT yoga and 45-minute cycling classes weekly. Instead of putting in major mileage, she took to the foothills near her Salt Lake City home every week as well. “You can go out for four miles and gain three thousand feet of vertical,” she says.
In November, the pair set out around 5:30 am, just before sunrise, with packs full of supplies. Steele brought a 1.5-liter bladder pack, a one-liter bottle, electrolyte and salt tabs, and mostly whole foods. “We are both very strong advocates of real food,” Steele says. “I get sick of sweet things really easily and I just want savory, which is hard to find in energy gels and bars.”
As they descended into the belly of the canyon, the sun crept up over the horizon, flooding the sky in blue and purple light. Steele wore a baseball cap, sunglasses, a tee, leggings, and used hiking poles for support. (She eventually shedded the shirt, though other hikers were bundled up in puffer jackets.)
Calories were a priority from the start. Steele aimed to eat something substantial—foil-wrapped pizza slices—every five to six miles with smaller snacks in between. She brought Kit Kats, KIND bars, trail mix, and what she calls “chip drink” (potato chips crunched up in a bag, then poured into your mouth), a hack she uses to maximize calorie intake.
Her hydration strategy was a bit less structured. “I’m a gulper; Anna is much better at consistently sipping water."
As they approached the Colorado River, Steele was struck by the beauty of the scene. “It is gobsmacking, this crazy little Garden of Eden at the bottom of a giant ditch in the world,” she says.
After crossing the bridge, they opted for the Kaibab route toward the South Rim, a decision they would later regret. “You’re in a completely different environment, rocky and desert-like compared to the trees and waterfall of the north side.” Steele recalls a steep, slow, painful, and hot ascent that left her demoralized by the time she reached South Rim. (Since completing R2R2R, the women have seen photos of Bright Angel and wish they had gone that more beautiful, less intense route.)
Their mentality took another hit when they realized the water station at the rim had been shut off that morning due to construction. “It was an unexpected, unpleasant surprise,” Steele says. “Luckily, we met an amazing local named Ronnie who had just finished her hike and she gave us two liters of water from her truck. She’ll forever be our Grand Canyon trail angel.”
With half of the day’s mileage complete and enough hydration to hold them over, they headed back down South Kaibab.
When the women stopped at the Colorado River for a pizza break, a man walked a pack of mules across the bridge, bringing supplies to the campsites. “You’re running so many miles and you’re crazy tired and these mules are just so adorable,” Steele remembers. “That was definitely a highlight.”
At Phantom Ranch, around mile 30, Steele got a lemonade. “I threw up later because I chugged way too much, way too quickly." She hydrated in bursts and wishes she had sipped more consistently when walking and going uphill.
On the final climb up North Kaibab, with eleven hours on her feet and 44 miles in the books, the lows took a backseat.
“Most people never explore the nooks and crannies of this popular place,” she says. “When you realize you’re finishing what you set out to do, all the reflections and feelings of the day start culminating and you forgive the bad stuff. It’s so special to take in that much of the Grand Canyon in one day.”