Looking for a new challenge? Here's how you can make it truly epic.

*Courtesy of Competitor.com

Photo: Brian Metzler
Photo: Brian Metzler

In 2011, after running dozens of marathons, then 49-year-old Lisa Fichman decided to try a new goal: an unsupported 46-mile run with friends across the Grand Canyon and back, commonly known as Rim to Rim to Rim (or R2R2R). She liked it so much that in 2013, she took on a 24-mile route through Bryce Canyon, and she’s open to doing more runs like these in the future.

Fichman is in good company when it comes to attempting “personal epics,” these days—unofficial, unsupported runs, often of great distances. A quick search through any trail running site will display plenty of interest in these journeys. They offer no recognition or finisher’s medal, no aid stations, no 26.2 sticker to serve as bragging rights. So what makes them so appealing?

“It’s mostly about testing yourself in an uncontrolled environment,” Fichman says. “When you do a race, there’s a safety net in all the support you have. When you run a big, unsupported run, there’s nothing to count on. You have to be ready for anything.”

She discovered just that when she became separated from her running partner during their Bryce run. “I made a wrong turn and had to determine if I should continue on into unknown territory or choose the safe route and take one of the upcoming access trails out of the canyon,” she explains. “I decided to continue on and everything turned out fine.”

The scary incident, Fichman says, was an important one for her. “My wrong turn gave me the chance to test myself like I never had before,” she says. “It was the most important moment in all my runs like this.”

Unlike Fichman, 45-year-old Ben Krensky never intended to run his own ultra, but that’s just what he did recently after a scheduling conflict prevented him from making it to a 100-miler for which he was registered. “I decided not to let all that training go to waste,” he explains.

That thinking gave birth to a 100-mile solo effort down the C&O Canal from Maryland to Washington, D.C. While he brought along enough food and water to run the entire length without any assistance, his parents surprised him several times along the way with treats. “My mom was worrying about me,” he admits. “While I hadn’t counted on any support, I was grateful that she showed up.”

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Krensky finished 20-some hours after starting, having company for a mere seven miles when his teenage daughter jumped in to join him.

Portland couple Erin and Brian Wiesenauer also stumbled onto their personal epics, but took theirs further afield to Europe to run the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB). “We originally planned to hike the 105-mile route in the typical 10 to 12 days but we had limited time, so we decided to run/fast pack it,” says Erin. “We covered it in five days, averaging 21 miles per day.”

The two took advantage of an extensive trail hut system for refueling and shelter at night. “This made it a little easier for us because we didn’t have to carry the weight of a tent, plus sleeping bag and five days of food,” Erin explains. “In total, I carried about 12 pounds of gear and water.”

Everything clicked throughout the run, with no mishaps, and Erin says her only regret was not having more time to spend in the region. They encountered a few others along the way but had plenty of time on their own—something they would never have had were they running an organized race or event. “The best part was running/hiking for 12 hours a day with my best friend on delicious single track trails, with big skies and gigantic Alps at every angle,” she says. “I wouldn’t do it any differently.”

Going for it

Organizing a personal epic, thanks to ready information a click away, is only limited by your imagination. Routes, tips and more can be found on any number of sites dedicated to hikes and runs in any region of the world. Still, it pays to lay down some ground work before actually setting off. (See “Planning Your Own Adventure” below.)

Fichman says the night before her run in Bryce, she and her running partner scoped out the trails with a short walk and also studied the trail maps. “We set off at four in the morning, so it was dark,” she says. “We also packed as much water as we could carry and brought along substantial food. Runners’ food doesn’t cut it on these adventures.”

She also recommends keeping moving as much as possible, even when tired and wanting a rest. “We probably stopped and rested too much during R2R2R,” she says, “but Bryce went smoothly because we kept forward progress.”

The reward for all the effort? A combination of things, Fichman says. “The views were spectacular,” she says, “and conquering your fears is empowering.”

If the idea of a personal epic run appeals to you, know that while the national parks can afford amazing experiences, the National Park Service isn’t necessarily a big fan.

“Right alongside the enjoyment priority is health and safety—of visitor and park staff—and preservation of the resources and values for which a park has been added to the system,” says NPS spokesperson Jeffrey Olson. “People who want to test themselves with a run in a wild place like a national park should contact the park in advance, ask about any necessary permits and discuss their proposed run with park staff.”

Running the 44- to 46-mile R2R2R is no small task, which is why Fichman says rangers at the Grand Canyon visitor center discouraged runners from undertaking R2R2R when she was there.

“That did make me nervous,” she admits, “but the sense of accomplishment makes it all worthwhile.”

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However, a throughly trained runner who carries proper gear, fuel and hydration can create a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Planning Your Own Adventure

If you’re ready to stake out on your own big running adventure, a few pieces of advice from veterans can go a long way:

  • Check into web sites like The Trail Run Project, Fastest Known Time, and iRunFar for route information, forums, and tips.
  • Pack more food and water than you think you need—anything can happen and having a little extra in case your run takes longer than expected could be a literal lifesaver.
  • Study your maps and plan your route well—don’t leave anything to guess when you may be facing countless hours on your feet.
  • Know that trail markers may be missing, especially in more remote areas of parks or trails.
  • Be courteous, especially in the national parks, to other users and rangers alike.