I was afraid of the Grand Canyon. My mind had created an image of devastatingly sheer trail edges that would have to be navigated by a body untested since my stress fracture. Self-doubt is not a new feeling or one that often proves accurate, but nonetheless it was winning in the days leading up to my biggest effort in a year: running the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim.
I didn’t fully know what I was getting myself into, and even from the bottom of the canyon when I could see the south rim behind me, and the north rim towering above, I couldn’t understand the task of the day. It was unsettling to see my past and future from the middle of a trail in a canyon a mile deep. It all seemed impossibly big. Too big to do, let alone to grasp. Maybe that is why days later I’m still struggling to comprehend the accomplishment.
The plan was to start at 0600 from Bright Angel trailhead, run down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, up to the top of the north rim, and then back to the south rim via South Kaibab trail. In total it was 45 miles, 11,000k gain, and it took 12 hours, 15 minutes. Like most runs the first miles were a shedding of self-doubt and worry, the endorphins came early and strong as the sun rose and illuminated the etched walls of the canyon. The weather was perfect, 42oF and partly cloudy, despite waking in the middle of the night to rain. We shed our gloves and jackets to feel freedom against our skin. It worked, all was possible, now let the adventure begin!
The run down Bright Angel was delightful. The trail is wide, well groomed, and totally runnable. We left early enough that we didn’t encounter mules or tourists, only a few friendly hikers. We cruised by Indian Gardens, the first option to refill water, which we passed without breaking stride. It would be easy to stop and linger, but our day was not one of filling the soul with delicate moments of green surprises, but one of emptying, so onward we went. Devils Corkscrew revealed itself below, switchbacks twisting and taunting. Luckily, we were going down. I’m grateful I was cautious the first 7 miles, as it would be easy to destroy your quads in the first hour. The Bright Angel bridge was the first sign of the nearing of Phantom Ranch; which was pleasantly lively with hikers about. We refilled our water and didn’t dally. From here we ran through Bright Angel Canyon, which, as a friend accurately described, lulls you into complacency. The trail here is rolling, but slightly inclined, which gave me false hope of easy miles on the way back.
The trail cuts left around mile 19, the grade noticeably steepens, and the surroundings shift from endorphin-tinged adventure to gasping breaths of mantras that I am mentally tough. I like climbing. I live for this, but I can’t breathe. Maybe it is the increasing altitude, maybe it is the sinus infection, maybe the dry air, or maybe I’m dying. Luckily, I have a distraction, my calves start cramping. I increase my salt intake. Thankfully I have my poles. Shit balls, this is hard, but it is also exactly what I needed. The trail is carved from the cliff, and for once, I can’t see the bottom or the top of the canyon. We pass the first of two runners this day. He didn’t go all the way to the top. Wait. What? Something about street shoes and snow. We continue onward and up. Near the top of the North Rim I run out of water, which was entirely unexpected. Well, shit, I knew there wasn’t water on the north rim because it was still under snow. My bladder and flask, 2.5 liters, was supposed to last me from Phantom Ranch and back, about a marathon distance. I decided before I reached the top that I would pack my bladder with snow and hope for the best. So, after reaching the north rim, I found some clean snow and packed it in assuming that my sweat drenched body would melt it without issue.
On the way down my calves stopped cramping and I put my poles away, free to run again. I got my second wind, and we were on our way home. The snow didn’t melt as quickly as I thought, so I filtered water at Roaring Springs. This is also where I got my first low battery alert from my watch. I forgot to turn off the bluetooth connection and other battery-sucking settings; amateur mistake. There’s no way it will last to the end. We put it in cruise control and made good progress. But where did that downhill go? Bright Angel Canyon wasn’t the easy trail I had hoped for, and somehow, I ran out of water again 5 miles from Phantom Ranch. WTF? This has never happened to me. I really didn’t want to stop to filter water, and even though we were running along a creek, there weren’t any easy access points. I told myself to suck it up. The faster I run, the sooner it will be over. I ran towards lemonade, a highly recommended stop at Phantom Ranch. My watch kept reminding me that it was on its way out and my track would be incomplete. I mean seriously, the audacity! It also let me know that we were clocking 9-minute miles beyond a 50K. The body is strong, now if only the mind would catch up and realize it’s not, “I can do this”, it’s, “I am doing this”.
Making it to Phantom Ranch was a huge morale boost. Only 7 miles to go! We fill our bladders and guzzle water. Fredric continues as he’s feeling good. I’m glad he did, as I could see I was slowing his progress. He confirmed I had everything needed, knew the route, and he was on his way for a sub-12 finish. A father- son couple quizzed me as I drank my lemonade. I think he was a little curious, inspired, and definitely concerned for my well-being. He even asked to take my picture, I assumed to identify my body when it was found later. That was my signal that it was time to go. Shit, my watch died.
Checking my phone, it was 3:45 when I headed out from Phantom Ranch. On the way out, I chatted with the second runner I met that day. She started a little after we did, but didn’t go to the top either. Reportedly made it 99% of the way and turned around. Knowing that I made it to the top gave me a boost and I ran as best I could, this time going up South Kaibab, which is the shorter but steeper route. I remember being told not to look up, it seems impossible and devastating. Well, right again. But 7 miles is totally doable, so I moved as quickly as I could. I had no idea how fast I was going and repeated the math for 20-minute, 30-minute, 45-minute miles and how long it would take me. I erred on the conservative side and decided I was probably going 30ish, but to my surprise I hit the half-way point and there was a mileage sign: 3.8 miles to Phantom Ranch / 3.5 to south rim. This was the best news because it meant I was doing at least a 20-minute pace. That meant I could beat the sunset if I kept moving. It was a race against time!
I looked up and saw a fuzzy butt, in my delirium I assumed I finally caught up to a mule train. It took me a few minutes of following to realize that the fuzzy butt was alone and had horns. Well, hello, Mr. Bighorn Sheep. I introduced myself and we had a nice chat until he continued straight at a switchback. It wasn’t long after that I heard my name from above. It was Jessica. I expected someone to meet me after Fredric finished. They would be worried, as I had run out of water twice. I was thrilled to see her and to hear that I was so close. My inner thighs started cramping, so I sat for a minute and wished it to be over. Shortly after I started moving once again, I heard the familiar cheers from my husband, and friends; I made it.
The Grand Canyon is everything you have heard and seen. Yet, to be there at the mercy of it, is something else entirely. Go experience it for yourself. Make it to the top, twice.