When most trail runners think about the Grand Canyon, embarking on a Rim to Rim to Rim run typically seems like a bold, inspiring and authentic adventure. And it certainly is.
But for some, like Paul Hooge, the Grand Canyon can also serve as a blank canvas and an ideal setting to challenge preconceived limits and pursue bigger adventures. Depending on the runner, that might mean running longer, faster or even more creatively than ever before.
Each 42- to 45-mile roundtrip across the Grand Canyon and back (depending on the route) has more than 11,200 feet of elevation gain and descent and typically comes with plenty of fueling and hydrating challenges, not to mention a wide range in weather conditions, no matter when you do it. It’s a big physical, mental and even emotional undertaking, no matter what how much fitness and experience you’re packing.
Hooge is a trail runner who loves big adventures, especially the self-contrived variety. He was an early adopter to the Everesting concept in trail running, having completed 24 laps and more than 32,232 feet of vert on Boulder’s Mt. Sanitas in 2018, and he also set the FKT for running the 90-mile roundtrip from Boulder to the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak and back in 2013. He’s also embarked on a variety of biking and paddling adventures, as well as having run numerous 100-mile trail races, including Leadville, Bighorn, Brazos Bend and Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
Partially as a means to celebrate his birthday and also because he was itching for an oversized outing after the Covid-19 shutdown, the 58-year-old emergency room nurse from Boulder, Colorado, booked a campsite at the North Rim with the intent of trying to run an unprecedented five consecutive Rim to Rim to Rim roundtrips.
“I have a van, and my plan was to park it at my campsite so I could come back, regroup, refuel, rest and go out again,” he says. “I figured I’d go out and try to do five laps and see how it goes, and I definitely got what I bargained for.”
While a handful of runners have completed double and triple R2R2R runs, Christof Teuscher was the first (and maybe only) one to complete four consecutive roundtrips when he covered 168 miles with 44,000 feet of vert in two days, 10 hours, 10 minutes in 2018. In other words, Hooge set his sights on something that had never been done before.
He began his epic quest at midnight on May 20 with Julia German, a friend and accomplished ultrarunner from the Boulder area. They ran and fast-walked down the North Kaibab Trail, across the valley floor and through Phantom Ranch, over the bridge across the Colorado River and up South Kaibab Trail to the South Rim.
At the top, German opted to split with Hooge and run 3 miles across the South Rim and then venture down the slightly longer Bright Angel Trail and back to the North Rim to complete her own 50-mile loop. Moving at a moderate but consistent pace, Hooge was in his element on his own, even amid hot weather heading down the South Kaibab Trail back to the river. He re-traced his steps along the North Kaibab Trail and back to the North Rim, completing what turned out to be about a 43.5-mile lap (including the 1.5 miles between the trailhead and his campsite).
He made it back to his van at about 5:20 p.m., cleaned up a bit, changed into a new clothes, ate some spaghetti and took about a 3-hour nap in preparation for going back out and doing it again.
“I suspected to be pretty tired after the first one. I had run it a dozen times before and I was always felt like I had a full day when I finished,” Hooge says. “The thought about finishing one and turning back and doing it again, that’s one thing that makes this really hard. You’re essentially back to where you started and you really don’t have to do it again. But for this kind of adventure, you just have to turn around and do it again.”
But, as Hooge knows, that’s no small thing and not done without some preparation and the right mindset.
“For me, these kinds of adventures always seem to be one-third about fitness, one-third about your mental state and one-third about taking care of yourself,” he says. “Those are the elements I focus on.”
Refreshed and refueled, he started his second lap late at night on May 20 with friend Drew Geer, an emergency room physician and colleague, and they replicated the route along the North Kaibab and South Kaibab trails. After they finished that lap in 17:29 (almost 46 miles from campsite to campsite), Hooge got back to his van, showered, ate, slept about 4 hours and went out again, this time solo, to start his third 46-mile lap before midnight.
Hooge finished that lap in a similar fashion and, over the ensuing days, he was relentless in his pursuit and went out again that night. And again the next night. Basically, it was five days of running, showering, eating, sleeping a bit, eating some more and then doing it all over again.
“He’s a legend,” German says. “He’s an amazing thinker and an amazing executor and he always stays positive in his ways. He told me, ‘I try to keep a childlike sense of wonder about everything because it keeps you in a mindset that keeps you going, so why not do that?’ It’s similar to what so many other ultrarunners have said to me, but when he said it that way, I told him that it was such a perfect description of his personality.”
He suffered a few blisters and a few bouts of sour stomach, but generally it went as well or better than he had planned. He was consistent with his efforts, completing every lap in the 14- to 18-hour range. Along the way, he faced temperatures as low as 17 degrees and as warm as 110 and a bout of severe winds at the top of the South Rim at one point, but he didn’t have to contend with any thunderstorms or lightning. He started at night to avoid having to deal with the warmest weather of the day until he was returning up the North Kaibab Trail.
Out And Back, And Out Again
On every circuit, Hooge wore Hoka Speedgoat trail running shoes, a pair of shorts, a hat, a green Rocky Mountain Runners short-sleeve T-shirt (and sometimes a long-sleeve shirt), plus a hearty waist pack and a smaller waist belt that carried extra jackets, energy snacks, a tracking beacon and water bottles. (His packs weighed 3.5 pounds before water and food.) Although he started out by fueling primarily with GU energy gels, Gatorade and water, he says he eventually transitioned to dried sausage, cheeses and other real food as the days went on.
“There’s a funny story along the way … A lady stopped me in the bottom of the canyon and she says, ‘I keep seeing these guys running by themselves wearing the same green shirt you’re wearing,’” Hooge says. “She wanted to know what the shirt was all about and what all of the runners were doing. I told her, ‘No, that’s just me you’ve been seeing. I just keep going back and forth.’”
Hooge completed his fifth roundtrip at about 4:20 p.m. on May 24, breaking through an impromptu toilet paper finish line that German had fashioned at the last step of the trail at the North Rim trailhead. In all, he covered an almost-unfathomable 226 miles with about 58,000 feet of vertical gain in four days, 17 hours, 22 minutes and 46 seconds.
He submitted his data to the Fastest Known Time (FKT) site for verification on May 26, but it’s expected to become first official FKT for five continuous double-crossings of the Grand Canyon. Although he didn’t get any support from anyone, he had the creature comforts of his van as a built-in aid station and two runners with him for part of the way so he figures it will be considered a supported effort in FKT vernacular.
Hooge’s incredible effort has been the most stunning highlight of a two-week stretch that has seen hundreds of runners complete some form of the Rim to Rim to Rim running adventure. During the span of time in which Hooge was completed his challenge, Meng Zhao of Frisco, Texas, completed two double-crossings in self-supported fashion — 84.73 miles with 22,421 feet of gain — in 21 hours, 37 minutes and 39 seconds.
Two weeks ago on May 13, elite Nike-sponsored trail runners Addie Bracy and Corey Connor jointly set a new unsupported women’s FKT for the south-to-north-to-south Rim to Rim to Rim roundtrip of 8:06:41, shattering Katie Arnold’s previous mark of 9:15:00.
As for German, she had her own epic experiences based out of her own van from the campsite she shared with Hooge. After that initial 50-mile loop on the first day, she kept tabs on Hooge over the next few days and ran a variety of trails from the North Rim, including a 22-mile out-and-back to Imperial Point and another 13-miler on Finger Mesa.
Then she set out with him as he started his fifth and final lap at 10:30 p.m. on May 23. She quickly got ahead of him and when she reached Phantom Ranch, this time she decided to reverse her course and run up Bright Angel, across the South Rim, down South Kaibab and back on North Kaibab for another 50-mile loop. Just a few moments down South Kaibab, she bumped into Hooge, who was energized by the fact that he just had a half lap away from completing his epic endeavor.
“When I saw him, he said, ‘I feel like this is the victory lap because I already have it in the bag’ and I was, ‘yeah, that’s the attitude to have!’ says German, who estimates she ran 170 miles in four days. “He was alive and happy and as spry as could be. It was fantastic and the whole thing was inspiring. It’s hard to be around someone who is doing something like that without thinking, ‘What am I going to do today?’ And that’s why I wanted to go when he first mentioned it. I had my adventures and he had his epic, historical endeavor.”
Hooge was happy to achieve his goal but was self-effacing about it when he finished and grateful for the runners who joined him and the inspiration gleaned from his friends in the Rocky Mountain Runners group in Boulder.
“This was just a challenge for myself to see what I could do,” Hooge says. “Some people care about these things, but if you’re doing them for others and what they think about it, you’re going to be a disappointed person. Some of these things become a little pointless, for sure. If it wasn’t for Rocky Mountain Runners and other people, you wouldn’t really think a lot of this stuff was possible, and you wouldn’t be inspired to do it. One thing that’s inspiring for me is that I’m not an elite runner and never have been. I’m 58 and not fast, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and can’t have your own adventure that can pretty impressive.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and now serves as a contributing editor.