The Grand Canyon is a hackneyed destination for RV retirees and tourists. It’s one of the biggest canyons in the world, so five million people a year pose beneath selfie sticks and buy t-shirts. I mean it’s a beautiful place, absolutely, but it’s 1900 square miles of ancient, crumbling gray sedimentary rock. Supposedly there is a river at the bottom, but you can’t really see it. It’s more a mile down there.
Standing on the South Rim, you can look eighteen miles across to the North Rim. It is vast. Your mind doesn’t quite compute. Your eyes can’t grasp the depth. It feels like you are standing beneath the magnum opus of an imaginative (and gigantic) artist.
When you pull up to a trailhead at 4am and there are numerous ultra runners checking water tubes and pulling up compression socks, you know you’re with good company. The greatest adventures are the ones that start while the moon is still high. We parked at the Bright Angel trailhead, saddled our packs, double checked the knots in our laces, switched on our headlamps and entered the darkness.
There are two types of rock climbers. Some yank on draws, use their knees, and “beached whale” up the cliff. The other type climbs with a style that is clean, articulate, precise, respectful, and fluid. Climbing, more than running, has taught me that it isn’t what you can do. The trick is how you do it.
I cannot emphasize how deeply this lesson has settled within me.
My hands trembled a little as we started down the Rim Trail to the South Kaibab trailhead; big races often start like this (multi-pitch climbs, too). Sam, Camille and I are starting the adventure of Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: a 29-hour, 50 mile hike through the belly of the Grand Canyon.
As the sun’s rays began to spill into the canyon, the trail turned downward. The South Kaibab Trail is special to me. In my memory, it’s broken into two parts. The initial part is the steep decent into the Kaibab formation, the Toroweap Formation, the Cococino Sandtone, all the way into Redwall Limestone. The trail is like walking on rusty ribs. Each step is just uncomfortably far enough from the last that you have to hop rib bones and shuffle on the sides. The spaces in between are worn out and blown away.
As you descend through the layers and epochs of geology, which are growing more ancient by the mile, the color changes. On the Redwall Limestone, the path plateaus on a short, spectacular desert prairie called “Ooh Aah Point.” Flowers of every bright color tilt toward the sun. Then the trail starts to dip sharply as you descend the steep Temple Butte foundation. A wave of giddy euphoria swept through us. We stood at the entrance to the heart of the canyon.
I wish I could repeat the unadulterated moment of that second-half drop. As you switch back down, you lose the South Rim. You lose all of the tourists and the day hikers. I wish you could feel it. I grinned. My heartbeat bounced off my throat and my wrists.
The desert is alive. In early spring, everything blossoms in Arizona. Every agave utahensis (“Kaibab Agave”) plant had a shoot fourteen feet tall and boasted bright yellow flowers. The smallest grasses were adorned with little white crowns. Opuntia (pear cacti) showcased red, pink, yellow, maroon flowers with circular yellow centers of pollen. The expansive old gray rock was a ruse; the landscape was rich and thriving. I tried to photograph as many species as possible. Some of the blossoms were always tightly sealed.
We hiked on, and eventually we stumbled upon the emerald snake. It was much larger than I expected. The Colorado is a river of character and color. We crossed the bridge and wondered at the undertow below. Signs prohibit swimming.
A strange thing happened after we crossed; I blinked and was awake. Sometimes you don’t know the truth of a thing until it settles on your shoulders. This was the moment for me. Sam and Camille adjusted their shoes while I stared at a gopher snake sneaking along the cliff at my shoulder. I suddenly realized what was before us, what was behind us, where I was. They knotted their laces and we hiked on, playing a round of riddles and passing through the Vishnu basement rocks.
Phantom Ranch is an oasis of civilization 7.5 miles deep within desert landscape. Everything is delivered (and packed out) by mule, as it has been since the prospectors of the 1890s. Inside the mess-hall style chalet we found lemonade and beer-drinking paddlers. Sipping lemonade and stretching out our toes into sunshine, packs off our backs, was one of those moments that you think, I’m doing it right.
After we filled our packs again, we left all vestiges of day-hiker, ranger, and community. For the next ten hours, the only people we encountered were ultra runners or backpackers out there for the long-haul. The next time we saw Phantom Ranch would be in the ungodly morning hours, and I would have different feels than my carefree departure foreshadowed.
Mid-May is a gamble if water spigots will be 1) on and 2) potable. They were. It made me want to run the whole thing. I didn’t have my vest; I had a pack. I had packed and I was eating like an ultramarathoner (spoiler: big mistake). We left the Ranch mid-morning and entered The Box.
The Box is the longest stretch without water (seven miles). It is where the trail ceases to simply cross the giant expanse of land and instead begins to crawl up a box canyon. The trail follows a rushing tributary that flows into the main gorge up to the North Rim. We wanted to push through the Box by the time peak heat filled the Canyon.
In the box, the walls close in, Bright Angel Creek rushes loudly beside you, and willows and cattails crop up along the banks. A few waterfalls and springs reveal themselves as you hike further back.
We started to climb a gradual but persistent incline. We climbed more. In ultramarathons, I feel the first major change in my body around mile 30. I felt it hit similarly here. We were 25 miles in, but I wanted more. My legs still felt fresh. I should have eaten, but we were so close to the top. I never thought a mile could take an hour.
The last three miles to the North Rim is deceiving and shrouded. Trees stand tall (unlike the South Rim, which was mostly barren and open) and the climb steepened. The first wave of struggle and pain began to rear its ugly head and hit our hiking party. Finally, we saw the Supai Tunnel we had been searching for. We summited the North Rim.
It was an empty parking lot with some snow. We ate, put on warm clothes, and took an hour to rest. Happiness settled in our stomachs. Just as we left, the sun began to slip beneath the rim at our backs.
The descent from the North Rim was wildly fun. A fire burned in all of us and laughed our way back to all-day pace. Everyone felt rejuvenated. A few miles into our decent, the darkness enveloped the gorge and the degree of our isolation settled into my mind. Not a soul was trekking our way. No one was behind us. I stopped on the trail. We switched off our headlamps. The heat still warmed us from the earth. Crickets.
By night, our path was marked by the moonlit trumpet flowers of the Sacred Datura. Though bright, white, and beautiful, five sinister spines curl off the five points of the flower. It is drastically poisonous. The tightly sealed buds I had been trying to capture during the day opened magically at nightfall. A new landscape spread itself at our feet.
We held the company of big green centipedes, friendly black millipedes, silver frogs, and the occasional scorpion (notably, we also discovered a black widow, which is merely fifteen times more venomous than a rattlesnake). I felt alert and surprised that the desert was replete with life in the middle of the night.
As we entered The Box a second time, my runner’s eating habits caught up with me. In hindsight, packing to run 50 miles does not look like backpacking for 50 miles. I found myself nursing a severe calorie deficiency and simultaneous electrolyte shortage. I fell behind. I had to stop every fifteen minutes to go to the bathroom. Alternate fevers and chills rattled me. My guts started to slither. I knew where I was headed and it felt terrible. I kept walking.
The hours from 1-3 in the morning are blurry. I remember walking in a strange mindset; I felt highly alert to my surroundings, but I was bonking. Thankfully Camille kept up a steady stream of chatter that directed my focus away from my rotten stomach and engaged my mind. As we drew closer to Phantom Ranch, time slowed. I swear it stopped altogether. The moon rose high above the canyon and shone on the landslide of Bright Angel shale beside us. The desert was quiet. The silver trail stretched into the darkness in front of us.
The sign for camp popped up. I changed clothes and took my emergency dehydration supplement (that I never thought I’d need). I had plenty of water, but I needed electrolytes badly. My body hurt worse than any race. I was sweating in the cool night air. I had a brief moment of questioning the safety of my endeavor. I waved it off.
We crossed the Colorado a second time and I hit my lowest point (which happened to also be the lowest elevation of the canyon). Two tears slipped from eyes. I held my stomach and fell behind. I wanted to hike, I loved what we were doing, but I hurt. We had seen this hilarious warning sign at the beginning of our hike, and we joked that we should take a sharpie and draw some crumpled cans next to his knees. Now I just felt bad for the poor cartoon guy.
Very gradually, the supplement began to stifle the sourness and balance it out. We began ascending on the Bright Angel Trail; excitement slowly rose in my bones again. After an hour or two of not needing the bathroom, taking in calories, and seeing the darkness begin to recede, I started to feel hopeful again. This new trail was beachy and felt like the broad desert of the start. As spirits perked up, I reflected that the low is something you need to learn to surf. It’s not permanent. Ride it out. I felt grateful to be where I was, doing what I was, even at the time.
The sun rose.
Halfway up the ascent we found Eden. It’s an inexplicable place of water, foliage, and wildlife that begs to be photographed. We found cliffs and rock formations that knock you back in awe. As soon as the sun rose above the rim, I knew that it was in the bag. We did it. We were doing it.
Eventually we found foot traffic and photographers again. We stumbled into mainstream tourism looking markedly more tired and dusty than the rest. The final mile to the rim was slow and hard-earned. We stopped often to look behind us. Even in that moment, it seemed too good to be true. Too expansive to be real. Too magical to be fact.
We counted the final winding switchbacks and tunnels that led us to the top. I ambivalently wanted to be done – mentally I knew I had overcome and we had done it – but I didn’t want it to end. Before I knew it, I was pulling off my gators at Sam’s truck.
Sam and Camille instantly fell asleep in the seats. I slipped on my Chacos, brushed my teeth in the parking lot, and walked back to the Canyon. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Absentmindedly I wandered from sign to sign, to the geology museum, to the lip of the Canyon.
I have my first 100 mile race coming up. I had just learned how hard 29 hours on your feet is. I need to go twice the distance and half the elevation in the same amount of time.
I don’t know if I can do it. If I’m deeply honest with myself, I don’t.
I know how hard I’ll try. I know what strategies I have, what plans, what drop bags, what pacers. I know what I can control. That part isn’t so hard. Being a distance runner isn’t really about being in control, though, is it. It’s more about the guts and the tenacity to persevere and do work and enjoy the moment (several thousand moments strung together, really).
I learned something in the belly of the beast. The lows aren’t waves to pummel you into the ground and drown you in the undertow. The lows are there to surf (I have a feeling I’ll remember that in a few weekends at Kettle). I’ll pocket these lessons and the encouragement from friends until I need them again.