October 9. It’s three thirty in the morning and we’re flying across the Arizona landscape at eighty as pavement disappears into desert darkness ahead and behind. Tired, up since that train wailed by after midnight back in Williams, ready but with reservations about what to expect over the next two days – I feel under-trained, and Rebekah has been rehabbing a wicked case of Plantars that roared out of nowhere after quietly simmering for weeks prior. There is not another car ahead or behind, only our two nuclei in this crappy molecule of a Vegas rental flying through space. It has been weird up to now, with the strangeness that adventure seeking can invite punctuating our experience between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Not fear and loathing, but…an adventure. I look down to see we’re doing eighty-five and look up to see three large elk. Crap. I brake enough to avoid locking it up as they stand frozen at our approaching headlights and we stop in relief. Choice words and disaster averted SO close to our destination.
Their massive black bodies stroll away into the darkness; I bet they’re fast when they open it up and run. We accelerate away with relief and minutes later at fifty-five, I see a coyote on the driver’s side turn to watch us as we make our way toward the South Rim of the Grand Canyon; so much life in the desert at night. Lights behind now, and they approach quickly. We’re doing sixty, and I begin to feel as if we’re slowing. I don’t want to cause a problem…but we’re shooting for a four AM arrival. So, I pick seventy, and the approaching lights make it feel like fifty. And then the car is on our left on this two lane road, and it’s a sheriff making his point that the speed limit is fifty five; crap again! I slow as he pulls away. And then the rabbit. Right there in the road, facing us on hind legs. I sense the force-field of cute fuzziness from thirty feet away, heart already racing from close-calls with elk and the law. No trip to the hospital, no speeding ticket, but I don’t want to squish the Easter bunny. So, I swerve to the left just as the little fella darts right and freezes. I swerve right, and he matches my thrust and freezes no freaking way, this cannot be happening. This all plays out in a split-second, and I wonder what the sheriff is thinking as he looks in his rear-view to see our headlights suddenly careen back and forth across the road in the darkness. Our rental has California plates, and we would be such easy revenue, and I have no idea how I don’t end up in a sobriety walk or behind bars. It’s thirty degrees outside and I guess he wants none of that: he drives, I just drive, and the tire does not go bump, and I know the three of us are relieved as Rebekah and I continue in stunned silence toward the South Rim and two days of amazing trail running that await us. By the time the sheriff comes back at us doing a “swerving traffic-stop” maneuver back and forth across the road with lights flashing from around a curve to make the final point that we’d better slow our dumb-asses down, I am doing exactly fifty-five, and I think our mouths are just open in near-shock. One of us utters wwhhhhaaaaaat?, and then he speeds away at what must be ninety MPH.
Pine forests roll by in silence. An owl flies low across the road as we near the park entrance. I rarely see them, and am excited by this as we cruise through the entrance gates, with green and red lights indicating which lanes to use. All are eerily empty, like in an end-of-the-world story. After some minutes and a few turns parking is plentiful in Grand Canyon Village, where yesterday there were masses of tourists in every direction – on foot, on buses, in cars endlessly turning, driving RVs, on and near the train that makes its way to the Grand Canyon from Williams. Yesterday we circled endlessly in a vain search for parking on our dry run to find the Bright Angel trail head, but we park this morning in less than a minute and jump out. My heart is now racing for all the right reasons. It is in the low thirties, and the wind, probably 20 mph, adds both chill and a rippling whisper to the landscape around us. Rebekah has running tights, I’m in shorts, and we begin to shiver. I pull my buff over my mouth to recycle breath-heat, and with headlamps and packs on, my Salomon belt and two-each hand-helds, it’s across the lot and up the small paved incline to the trail head. And for a minute, we just stand, together, holding hands. There is not another human being, only Rebekah and I and the wind under the stars at the edge of 50 miles and an infinite abyss dimly illuminated by the light of a half-moon.
And we go. The first few turns are easy, with the trail wide and slightly inclined, and we eventually pass through a short tunnel carved through the rock; surreal. The scale of everything is massive, nearly like deep space to me. As we descend from the 7000 foot plus start, wood steps installed to stabilize the trail draw our wondrous gaze from the depths of space above and around, to the powdery dust and trip hazards at our feet; never mind the edge of the trail and the thousand feet of space below. The lengths of wood become a continuous peril, awkwardly placed at three to four foot intervals to steal our flow, with most of the dirt and gravel missing from millions of feet that must churn endlessly up and down the trail near the top each year; no rhythm, and no good time made here in the darkness at 12 to 14 pace. Distant headlamps appear below, like infinitely distant stars. After a time, we turn ours off and stop to take in the world and the stars, with the edge of the South Rim roughly four hundred feet above. Perched back on the surface of the earth and the Kaibab Limestone and the last three hundred million years, ghostly trees cling to the edge of space, moonlit in sharp contrast against the black sky. A shallow sea once created the first three hundred or so feet of rock, an odd idea here in the desert; trail running and time travel.
A runner above. I have already mistaken an approaching hiker from below for a runner, which was simply a tired, determined backpacker. As this new light descends at a slightly faster pace, my spirits pick up and, from around a turn approaches Shiue (pronounced Shee-Way). We chat for a moment and learn he is going out and back today, rim-to-rim-to-rim. It’s wide smiles all around as we greet a running brother before he continues past. Rebekah and I will go rim-to-rim today and stay at the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge and head back tomorrow. A celebration rather than all-out endurance, we intend to slow down and enjoy the experience of time and space and beauty, and each other, our first get away since the crazy exchange of wedding vows in the medical tent at the finish of Western States in June – in short, our honeymoon.
We go again as Shiue slowly increases distance, and after a time I stop to enjoy my own personal movie of Shiue’s silhouette as he runs and turns and twists along the switch-backs below, beautifully back-lit by his headlamp against the rock faces, in and out of obscurity by stone formations; surreal, and very cool to witness.
We’re breathing dust from Shiue’s descent, which fills the air like pollen – fine powder that launches into the air with each strike. All perceived irritants, though, are wiped cleanly away by the beauty of our shared experience; just run infinitely down, together. We catch our shoes on the logs without falling a few times. Light begins to illuminate the top of the canyon, which adds to the light of the half moon. Two headlamps approach from below, and we eventually meet two guys in athletic pants hiking up the trail in the slowest death-march I have seen. They are exhausted and carry nothing, and I can’t tell if they have run or simply hiked, but they tell us they have gone rim to rim and back, and they are obviously wrecked. We share sentiments regarding suffering and finishing, and it is clear they have gone the distance. We are all smiles, knowing that we share this great, common experience at opposing ends of our respective journeys.
Grainy half-moon at first light near Indian Garden
Down. The trail straightens, and we enjoy stretches of easy running. We enter Indian Garden after the start from 7000+, an oasis at the bottom of the first big descent. We quietly move through this small tributary section of the canyon, headlamps now off, tents partially hidden by brush to our left behind a low fence. Full-grown trees and plants, greens now; Color returns to the world. We bypass the first year-round potable water source, and by the time everything begins to feel like this will just be a simple drop to a campground on a valley floor, the canyon narrows as the trail transitions down onto a rock ledge above a stream that replaces the sound of wind and foot-strike above, and the ravine slowly widens. When are we? Six hundred million years? Seven?
The trail is now level stone that snakes left and right. Rock rises at right elbow with a drop to the water six feet below on our left. Easy running now, semi-technical with no loose stones, sure-footed after dust and the trip-hazard logs; nine pace, a sweet trot. Green perforates the stream below and the sound of water fills the air. Blue sky erupts in sharp contrast. As the trail opens into space again, the North Rim is a rising, distant horizon. Reds, browns, and oranges of sedimentary layers now occupy the interim distance at eye level in parallels perched atop the unconformities of metamorphosed stone folded in crazy directions, over and over, ad infinitum: this is our world below the surface of the earth. Crisp shadows bisect the view at angle. Now the trail transitions to a vast open space as the world falls away, and our path becomes another massive descent into incredibly runnable switch back trails over roughly a mile, all continuously visible from our perch near…not the top, but this place in the middle. I have never had such a vantage point to plot my course on a continuous, runnable trail before, and as I begin to assimilate the view I get that feeling. I am giddy, wound up in anticipation. We stop as I attempt to capture this ridiculous environment in runner’s paradise with not another soul in the world around us. Our captured panorama seems satisfactory at the moment, but upon later viewing the image via my tiny phone screen, it is clear that all attempts to capture what this place is like, how it truly feels to be in the presence of near-infinite runnable beauty, seem pointless: there is no way to truly understand this place without seeing it, feeling it beneath your feet, breathing it first-hand. Rebekah, on the edge of the world, is minuscule in the image, and the scale is…silly in comparison.
Rebekah at the top of a monster descent – she’s there, right-edge of the left third of this image…no, really…
“Baby, can I run this, can I go?” I am twelve years old again, as I am when I attack a trail with abandon and I leap into gear and go after it. We’re warmed up now after five to six miles, and I have have held back to now because of my level of base and because we’re running together. I push through the first few turns and open it up on the down as the trail straightens and steepens into freedom and flight. The path is cobbles and gravel, and I hurdle the obstacles of elevation change and depressions. I spy two people far below and, rounding a ridge-line, I know I am now out of view of my love, from above; maybe I don’t get out much, but this to me is the sweetest effort and flow in a place that feels like like no other. I come upon a section completely cobbled and peppered with intrusions of stone that jut at odd angles and force an immediate near-stop in negotiation. I hop and stutter-step across, glance at my watch, and find I’m at my calculated max HR. As the trail clears, I’m off again, and now see the two persons, maybe hundreds of feet away. They stand still, and I sense the descent has been rapid, faster than I want to take her I want to live this forever. I turn to see Rebekah above, and am thrilled she’s now in pursuit.
The unimaginable scale of the Grand Canyon makes this half mile of running heaven look like 100 yards
I take the next insane drop as the trail falls again into turn after turn, and come to a screeching halt in front of father and son backpackers. I am all smiles as they stand there in a sort of stunned silence until I greet them in the warmth of love and intense connection with the world I experience each time I find flow in pursuit of what I love most after my daughter and wife if you run trail, you know what I describe. I mean, it can be like this: I can catch my foot on a root-mass at six-pace on Brooks Creek trail off of Montara Mountain Trail, ninja-flip from forward inertia into Coyote Bush, and the feeling can be magical, animal. Standing into sudden, dripping blood and covered in dirt with heart pounding in excitement, I will howl back at the mountain in answer, and I’m sure I look insane, as if I will grow fur and fangs, and it just doesn’t matter, because at that moment I am truly alive. Today in the Grand Canyon though, I don’t hook a rock or slide out over a cliff edge during nearly a mile of crazy, all-out technical descent. This, in a word, is awesome. This. Is. Heaven.
I offer “how are you in this magnificent place on this incredible morning?”, or something similar. The dad and I exchange pleasantries as I radiate joy, and the son quietly observes the mad-man. I speak of the immensity of this amazing creation, and finally draw the boy into conversation and a smile. In the back of my mind I reflect that I have a minute or two before Rebekah arrives, and as I say goodbye and bolt to have a go at the last turns down to the straight-away at the bottom, I see her come around the corner, out of the corner of my eye – Rebekah powered down the trail nearly right behind me! This, to me, is hotter than hot. I coast near the bottom as gravity releases me from its tug; I am spent and walk it out. My love eventually comes up behind me, commenting on my knack for beating myself up. I think I respond that it’s all simply a matter of lust.
The trail has leveled into nearly-flat, straight sections that wind left and then right through this side-canyon that would be grand in its own right, never mind that it is a tiny tributary ravine in this massive world in the ground. We trot along the valley floor at ten, eleven pace, and I eat. It’s warm now, and we long ago pulled the upper layers off – shells, arm warmers, gloves, cap, buff – to just shirts and head cover. Rebekah’s arm warmers are gathered at her wrists; was it really thirty degrees earlier? Conversation has bounced onto and off of both my back and her Plantar fasciitis throughout our journey. Rumblings about my back lead to mumblings that because I have dealt with the new malady of insane low back pain since early July, I had to back WAY off of my running plans during ten weeks of the Summer, and will probably suffer after fifteen or more miles. Rebekah scoffs. She’s seen me roar in and out of training health and intensity like a yo-yo, and won’t stand for my negativity. Her foot though…Barely two weeks before she left for a medical conference in Vegas, where I flew to meet her before our adventure, her foot pain increased dramatically from low-grade discomfort, and she had to start wearing what I call the “franken-foot” the night before her flight out. This is the ugly, black canvass and Velcro-over-rigid-frame boot that stabilizes your ankle at ninety degrees to allow healing of tendons and muscles that feel like fire when they’re inflamed. Plantar Fasciitis can be excruciating, and as the reality of a running honeymoon across the canyon and back sank in, comments about her latest run at Rio Del Lago 100 on November fourth became heavy and realistic. We both had reservations about this adventure, and agreed that, in the end, she would just do what she could. But man, she’s just doing it, and we’re running the Grand Canyon. Together.
We come upon a shelter near the Colorado river. At this point Bright Angel Trail either drops down to the roiling flow below, or turns right to become the River Trail, which allows an ascending trace above one of the largest inland rivers I have seen. Our path transitions from rocky and wide, to deep, soft sand and wider, and it’s like running across a wide beach now; effort and focus in increasing, mid-morning heat. Rocky hills become cliffs, and then we are two hundred or so feet above the water on what is again a technical negotiation of stone intrusions and dips and turns at the edge of space, but also now mule poop. The River Trail tacks East for 1.25 miles before you can turn to cross the Bright Angel suspension bridge to Bright Angel campground and beyond. But if you want more of this amazing space high above the water, you can continue for roughly another 1.25 miles to the Kaibab suspension bridge at the foot of South Kaibab trail – and if anyone who reads these words makes this pilgrimage, I highly recommend you make it a 2.5 mile adventure of technical trail with change-up conditions and single-track that clings to cliffs 100 to 200 feet above the Colorado River; this is a thrill to negotiate, another nothing-like-it run in this never-land of running.
Morning on the Colorado, looking back at Bright Angel suspension bridge
Approaching the Kaibab bridge, the trail swiftly drops to a dark tunnel that opens onto our wood and steel path to the North side of the Colorado. Up above on the last of the wide, sun-soaked trail down, though, we encounter a preferred mule pee-stop. I gotta say – there is nothing quite like enjoying crisp, clear, low-humidity desert air in paradise before stumbling into a wall of breath-stifling ammonia. I warn Rebekah before I hear her recoil and gasp behind me, and I chuckle and cringe in response; I’m sorry, this is just so wrong. At the tunnel entrance we empty our shoes, assess calories, and check the gear strapped to our packs. We capture images in the solitude of a place we want so badly to enjoy again and again, all the while accepting that three kids and jobs and goal-races may make it too difficult to repeat the journey anytime soon. As we move on, I now capture a most evocative image of the woman I love, with her luminous, sly smile inviting me to follow her across the Colorado river to the waiting adventure of the second half of today’s journey.
Rebekah inviting me onward to our next adventure
It’s up, UP I tell you
The Colorado is brown today, not like the pictures I’ve seen of a blue river. The bridge-tread has been chewed up by mule hooves as we cross the great divide. On the other side, the trail turns right, loops down and under the bridge, and then heads West before turning right and away toward the North Rim. This arid place is devoid of most vegetation next to an immense quantity of water, and to me is reminiscent of the Sea of Cortez, a magical, amazing place I love and wish to show my family someday. Baja is, though, a much more serious place now than when I explored it extensively in my 20’s, due to the collective American appetite for drugs; this thought haunts me again and again.
Bright Angel campground appears now and morphs into Phantom Ranch, and if you have your head down to make pace goals after the river and don’t read about this place, you can mistake it for simply a research facility with Rangers, scientists, and some campers – we just grab water from the year-round source and go. The trail now becomes deceptive and seems to require just a little more effort. You notice it at times when you drop into a vast expanse that allows you to scan the world ahead, and you think you’re seeing things…but from the river on, you are in a near-constant ascent for roughly 17 miles from 2400 feet elevation at the water to the North Rim trail head at roughly 8300 feet. At times you wonder: why am I working so hard? What is up with the HR?
Ascent and descent in a magical place. There are deep, narrow canyons that become wide and easy spaces, and a stream is either on your left or right; there are bridges. Intermittently, plants and low trees, cactus as you’d expect. No animals. At about mile 16 there is a notable ascent, before a beautiful drop back toward the stream and a sign posted at a trail head turn for the bridge that crosses to Ribbon Falls. The bridge is “closed”, with the warning posted at the trail head stating the bridge is unstable, so we carefully make our way across toward the beautiful waterfall clearly visible from the main trail. I jog ahead after brief conversation regarding Rebekah’s foot – she is pushing through discomfort – and rounding a ridge toward the right, I meet a group of backpackers. They get the smile treatment and my warm greeting with near-indifference in return, and then I am climbing up and scrambling down and around toward the falls, which are obscured by above-head high vegetation. I reflect that I am so lucky to have met my match in a woman who can be as tough as nails and is independent and adventurous, sometimes more than I, and I wait for her at the base of a tricky climb.
But she does not arrive. After about five minutes, I decide she doesn’t want to make the passage through the vegetation, which is thick and tall and in sharp contrast to the rest of our journey. I scramble over to the falls that are strange and like nothing I imagined, and take in the weird and beautiful formation and the flora that have taken hold in this tiny, remote sliver of a canyon. Another five, and I head back, passing the group of backpackers who completely ignore me. I spy Rebekah turn from my direction and bolt for the trail; I follow, sensing a disturbance in the force. And then I learn that she couldn’t make sense of the trail, and that the group of backpackers I greeted so freaking WARMLY with that positive energy I broadcast at everyone I meet on any trail told her they didn’t see anyone when she asked if I passed them on the way to the falls. WTH??! As she tells me she searched everywhere, including back South on an adjacent trail toward the way we came from for nearly 15 minutes in worry, I become angry and embarrassed and curse the idiot backpackers repeatedly (why in the hell would a group of people do that?). We continue our journey in silence, and eventually take 15 minutes to hash out the situation, and I patch things up amidst ironic reflection on earlier ruminations about my independent, adventurer-wife.
It is now that I begin to make connections when Rebekah shares how the group of backpackers responded when she asked if they had seen me: there is a growing schism between backpackers and runners in the canyon. This becomes clearly evident during our two-day adventure, with some backpackers who broadcast with zero subtlety that they are either happy and receptive at our positive, warm and courteous demeanor as we request to safely pass on the sometimes-treacherous trail, or greet us through clenched teeth, choice comments, or both; they are clearly not cool about us even being here, and are at times outright-rude. I knew nothing about this prior to our adventure. Rebekah explains that although the park service will not allow racing of any kind in the canyon, runners go for it anyway, organizing illegal, group bomb-runs, which are now getting the attention of the park service in a way that does not bode well for all of us to enjoy this amazing place in the future. My only thought now is this: all of us runners are ambassadors in each encounter with the walking or hiking-set, and we each carry the responsibility to not screw up the canyon as a place to enjoy during once-in-a-lifetime trail runs in this amazing place – or anywhere, for that matter. Food for thought.
She’s in the picture, Just look…
We’re moving again, and I am feeling it now. I alternate calories in a search for my metabolic sweet spot to offset increasing fatigue; the training deficit generated by getting past the back pain is now rearing its ugly head. Quads, glutes. The world still rises up and away as early afternoon shadows lengthen, and the canyons alternate from narrow to wide and back – truly spectacular. I sometimes feel numb to the beauty and scale and stop to just breathe it in and recapture the wonder and watch Rebekah run ahead. I catch up to her, but now she is always either right there or ahead of me she’s doing so well with her foot, but this is work…
Miles of up and down, and then it’s seriously up as our path lifts toward the left, or West, and away toward the North Rim, and it’s here that we stop to take in Roaring Springs at 4500 feet, a pure water source that pours from the side of the canyon and supplies all of the fresh water we will enjoy on our journey through a series of pipes buried beneath the trail.
Slow fade; a tank that feels half-empty rather than half-full. It’s focus now, as we bring some effort to the party, pushing higher up the canyon walls to more spectacular vistas. Shiue approaches. I say “there you are”, and the three of us stop and talk about the run. As we exchange pleasantries, I ask what his go-to nutrition is, and he offers only Tailwind; drat. I was looking for some kind of secret sauce I might not have thought of, as I always am. His English is broken, and he shares that he is from Singapore and that there are no mountains there; the elevation change is difficult all around. I am heartened by my exchange with Shiue, like my experience with David, a young and determined trail runner from Venezuela, by way of Panama, whom I paced into the finish at Miwok this past May. Trail running truly is a burgeoning, global phenomenon.
We have by now climbed out of the dark and jumbled metamorphic rock and back into sedimentary layers that alternate color and surprise from every vantage point. The trail has transitioned from steep hillsides with precipitous ledges far below that make me joyous in wonder, to amazing single-track somehow carved into the side of vertical cliffs that freely can offer fear when tackled in a determined climb if you focus on the possibilities – don’t lose your step! As I put my head down in effort, everything stops making sense regarding what we are seeing and feeling on this edge of space; just push.
Don’t look down!
Stone towers flank the endless ascent
As we make our way from the edge of wide expanses to tighter and higher canyons, Rebekah calls out that the stone columns rising in immense towers to our right resemble temples in Cambodia. This is nearly lost on me as breathing becomes the focus now. My HR is great – low and slow, but I am breathing hard-and-ragged as we make our way toward 8000 feet; it is clearly evident now that we spend most of our lives three feet above sea level. At one point I take off running on a down with attempted joy, and on the ensuing up I feel my lactic threshold drop like a rock like someone has swooped down and placed ten pound weights on my ankles. Gels and instant calories have no discernible affect now, only pace, and I slow to catch my breath. Rebekah displays much less effort as everything becomes simply the goal: make it to the North Rim and a waiting meal. As we climb and the air thins, the temperature begins to drop. The trail transitions from a precipitous stone path carved into the side of vertical cliffs into well managed trails; that powdery dust returns with the occasional minefield of mule urine as an intermittent horror show, but now also color in the increasing foliage – Fall reds and yellows that pop the surrounding geology into still more amazing contrasts – add green and blue, and all becomes electric. We reverse the order of removing layers five hours earlier, and replace arm warmers and hats, and now people begin to appear – the brave ones who have elected to hike down hundreds of yards into the canyon. By the time we stop at Coconino overlook to rest for a moment I am nearly delirious with narrow vision and decide to just chill. Asking a couple which way the trail is when it’s time to go, the one we only just left, they point us in the correct direction and we’re off; I’m still out of it.
Winter is coming………..
At the top it feels freezing cold in my calorie-depleted state; it is roughly 45 degrees and the sky is crystal-clear and deep blue. I had discovered by mile ten that I did not do the math correctly: there was not enough room in my pack for clothes, gear and all of my calories of choice – and I did not correct for that in the rush to get to sleep the night before; I might not have enough calories for the return trip! So, I then backed off consumption of nearly everything, and now suffer for it. Rebekah seems in a better mental space. It is 2:00 PM, Autumn shadows are long, and I’m shivering. It feels like Fall in a place with actual seasons.
We have two miles ahead of us as we begin to make our way to the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge from the trail head, and as we move across a now-alien landscape along asphalt with railing or signs in linear, unnatural shapes, and at times parallel another straight-line walking path, there are intermittent buildings that offer up confusion if you don’t carry a map or are a first-timer is THAT the lodge? We banter and bush-wack up a low hill in a fuzzy search for sanctuary only to find the huge building is some kind of compound – and it’s NOT perched on the edge of the canyon! The occasional car or motorcycle passes, most likely with tourists whose biggest inspiration is probably making the arduous descent a few miles into the canyon on mules to take pictures, or maybe a day-long hike to pitch a tent at Cottonwood; our perspective must seem warped to some people. Bright yellow Aspens contrast the tall pines at 8300 feet elevation this feels like the longest two miles. Eventually, a multitude of small buildings appear in the midst of the pines along the flat road, and as we approach the lodge, which is still out of view, the scene becomes eerily familiar, before it occurs to me that this all feels like approaching aid at Foresthill; weird.
We run off the road and into the wide driveway toward the front entrance, with tourists everywhere in their clean smelling clothes who either stare at or ignore us. I can’t imagine what we must look like entering the lodge – sweaty, dusty beasts risen possessed from the canyon, odoriferous at the least and at most….well, I wouldn’t want to stand near me. We have no real clothes, only our gear and tomorrow’s clean layers in packs on our backs as we check in at the Lodge in a warm lobby SO grateful for heat after the plummeting temperatures outside. The guy at the counter in this amazing, old, wooden building perched at the edge of space is great – animated, personable, helpful, offering information on the general store and the shuttle that will take you from the lodge back to the trail head 24 hours-a-day upon request, but I really get my hopes up when he coyly points us in the direction of ‘dining room reservation’ so we may reserve a table by the huge windows to watch the sunset. I picture sitting across from my beautiful, sweaty, dusty wife with a tall, refreshing IPA and an amazing meal or two, sizzling hot on the table, with two for Rebekah as well. “excuse me: can I have two more steaks and another beer?”…I see it all play out and salivate as we wait in line to make a reservation in a hungry, fuzzy daze, like pig pen in that cloud of Grand Canyon dust and debris hovering in the air….and then I focus on the little hand-written sign: earliest reservation available: 9:00 PM. It is 3:00 PM, and after road-running, registration and the depletion of running across the grand Canyon while restricting calories, there is no freaking way we are waiting six hours for that romantic moment. But wait – there is a deli and a full saloon!
At the Lodge deli we discover amazing Elk chili and pulled pork sandwiches, great pizza and a host of other delights as we restock the metabolic larder for our return trip in the morning. At the saloon there is Bright Angel IPA and a real old-west atmosphere; a guy to our left runs cattle in the Summer and mules here in the Fall; tourists crowd in from all-elsewhere, and the bar tender really really knows what the heck he is doing (I swear that with the way he handles the tourists he could hold down a mortgage). IPA and water offer a hydrated glow, and we have had it – it’s back to the cabin for a good night’s rest, a hot shower, pure heaven’s rest stop on the way to an amazing day two.
There and back again
I sense she is worried about Rio in my dream-state throughout the night ….
Irritating alarm. Things hurt; I am stiff and sore. Rebekah awakened multiple times to deal with her foot. It is 5:00 AM and we quietly get it together – pack our disgusting clothes from the day before, sequester the bars and sugar and gels and little packets of aminos in every nook and cranny. Today it will be candy for me after the remaining gels are gone. I have never eaten candy to now, like some kind of weird, lamo-“purist”, as if I would be breaking a mythical rule in a game of good-sugar/bad-sugar; today I wonder where I will fit the snickers and peanut M&Ms. It is dark and in the 30’s as wind tears through the pines outside, in imminent, sobering balance to the hot, hot shower in our heated enclave. In the saloon, it is crowded with backpackers awaiting the 6:00 AM shuttle. The heated glass case FULL of huge breakfast burritos with bacon or sausage – or plain, beckons, and although expensive, they are heaven and probably 1500 calories – between these and the candy we bought to stretch the gels, we will have more than enough. There is coffee and the noise of conversation.
We are first in the van, eager to go. The driver is too talkative. He’s been up all night drinking coffee and driving backpackers to the trail-head. He over-shares that his wife is back home in the Midwest and that he works for “an intelligence agency” and comes here to clear his head; it occurs to me then that anyone who freely offers that he DOES, either really DOESN’T, or SHOULDN’T. At the trail-head it is a scramble to get a move on before the backpackers necessitate a request to pass. I am still stiff as we trot down the first few steps as dawn begins to awaken the world; Rebekah is favoring the foot. It feels like this will be a long day.
Hannibal Lector and his unsuspecting bride in their first cold stop at Coconino Overlook
I begin to loosen up in tentative expectation of an actual run back across the canyon I am so lucky. We stop at Coconino Overlook for the requisite selfie, clear-headed this time. As we move lower into the canyon and look up, it becomes an unfolding joy to see sunlight break across the North Rim of the canyon, illuminating trees like fire on that Kaibab limestone immediately beneath the moon ; how lucky is lucky?
Further. I feel good. No, really good. Rebekah has gone ahead as I grab pictures of the sunrise. I approach backpackers who must have left at 4 or 5; I feel late leaving at 6. I say “whenever you’re ready, with respect, on your left – or right”. A man in the group shouts “Wow! aNOTHER courteous runner!” To counter the bad taste previous knuckle-headed runners have obviously left in these backpacker’s mouths, I then offer “how can you expect good if you don’t freely offer it?” The man cheers “hooray”, and they all move aside; one small victory in our PR war of good runner over evil runner. This type of exchange plays out repeatedly.
The canyon is a new creature now. It is still precipitous drops all around as we trot infinitely down the winding, cliff-hanging trail; Rebekah and I agree – the North Rim is the more amazing of the two. The awe becomes numbing; sometimes we never quite see the bottom of the depths below; true sky running. Occasional determined backpackers alternate between cheerful and irritated. Why are there no animals? R is having a tough time; today it is MY turn to be patient. She has to stop several times, but my worry about her run at Rio is tempered by the weeks she has still before race day; she will be okay. Eventually we descend back to alternating wide and narrow spaces as we focus on pace.
I now observe that in the narrow canyons there are huge piles of debris every so often I missed this yesterday; so dramatic; where was my head? These are rock falls, large enough to force a meander of the trail so backpackers can avoid the obstacle. And they’re huge – rock falls that would kill you if you happened to be in the wrong place. Yosemite and our collective human lust for adventure come to mind; sobering. Runners, ones and twos – a group of four, pass us on their way to the North Rim; a group of backpackers with one poor soul who removes his sock with a look of despair just as we pass; much busier today. We finally reach the turn to Ribbon Falls and my chance to make up for yesterday, and we make a bee-line together, and when we arrive the morning sun begins to break upon a sacred, magical place:
This formation is nearly thirty feet high!
We have pace goals, and spend 20 minutes and no more. We take the trail out that R used to look for me yesterday, which traces the stream to a tough traverse with a sketchy jump to a far rock to get back to the main trail. A lot of cactus now, and as I stare at and swing wide of a prickly pear to bound up the last embankment to the trail, I hear alarm and choice words behind – Rebekah looked up and away just as she approached the same cactus; oh man, this is not good. Repeated attempts to clear stinging fibers from the fabric of her tights after pulling needles from her thigh evolve into complete removal of said tights to rid her of unwanted torment; not the ideal form of acupuncture.
Eventual success with Rebekah’s pin cushion thigh, and we’re off as I lead the way; I feel good and aggressive and start to get antsy. Progress eventually brings us to Phantom Ranch and the discovery of the canteen, with food and drinks and lemonade on tap – an amazing find, and one the entire world knows about – but not apparently me. Do some reading, there is plenty on this place; the lemonade flows crisp and cold, and will power you for miles.
I don’t know if they spiked the lemonade to electrify the machine, but this stuff was DYNAMITE!
We get our lazy butts in gear and head for the river, then turn for Kaibab bridge and the longer route along the water. Distant rafts make their way to a sand bar in a long line, yellow blobs that come together, before shoving off to separate again on the current, and as we pick up pace, I am suddenly animal and take off to chase the yellow boats down river like a dog after checking in with my love. The lemonade has offered a heady infusion of sugar, and now I am loose and warmed up with plenty in the tank as I charge the path up and along the cliff edge, twisting and turning along the walls and ridges and WATCH OUT FOR THE MULE POOP, and I push and as I feel each pebble and stone under foot, things disappear in the fade to unconscious flow and meditation; I am in flight. I glance down to the river through half-mast eyes to see I am racing the boats, and guess I am hitting it pretty hard; I am deeply satisfied as I check in with both my soul and every cell in my body for…some minutes my Movescount will record my pace jump from 14 to 7, to 6, and then 5, before 6 and 7 again, with 8 through the sand, over the ensuing 2 kilometers; now THIS is what I came for. As I wait in refraction for the love of my life, I feel a weight descend like a blanket as I realize the easy stuff is now over, and it will all be up from here.
God, the creator, Buddha – all had a hand in this meditative trace through a land that defines superlative description
I feel great. R arrives, and she is working hard and looks serious. I offer M&Ms, a Vespa; baby, are you drinking? What can I do!?
You know, it sometimes seems cliche to use the word ‘beast’. When hanging out after crossing the line at TNF50 I told Dean K. I had worked with Terri Schneider – to whom I give eternal gratitude for coaching me after I stumbled into her path in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Dean said she was a beast when she was a competitor, and I thought that was odd and funny at the time; this was years ago, and one could then call me naive. Rebekah has changed my perspective as we have grown to truly know each other and I have watched her transcend suffering to achieve her goals, and it is no exaggeration when I say my wife is a beast. I am a freaking wienie when it comes to blisters bursting on my feet, although I have run through losing a chunk of cartilage from my femur, which just felt, well, weird, and I’ve torn my hamstring from over-training. These things have intermittently sidelined me from running, or nearly so, but I recovered I am so lucky. But what is real pain? Pain is information, as Terri says, and her post here about taking on a 160 mile ride across Bhutan and compartmentalizing pain from an injury in the Tour Of The Dragon, exemplifies my opinion that women just have a higher tolerance for it. Rebekah is as fierce and determined as any human being I have known. By now we have run nearly rim to rim to rim and, mellow pace or not, it will be over more than 50 miles when we finish…but she does not once complain or even comment about her horrible Plantars foot pain throughout the day, and I don’t think I would be that strong. This is respect where respect is due.
I am a dumb-ass this is admission, where admission is due. In my excitement to get back on the trail – and high on lemonade, I forgot to refill my bladder and bottles. Okay, about 16 ounces and six or seven miles during the heat of the day. Make it work. As we power up the monster switch backs on our way up to Indian Garden, really leaning into it, I winge about my situation a little before I realize I still have a Jr, and attack the propolis and orange juice, and it is perfect. It is hot, we are grinding up the incline like bison who smell water, and I feel powerful, alive; this is tempered by my concern for R’s foot. Sometimes I wait, but she mostly just chews through the climb. By Indian Garden we have been approached from behind by a backpacker who we first hear coming by the random sounding clatter of clicks from his poles as he flies up behind us. I turn to glance back and see, to my horror, it is Kumaji, the spider-armed operator of bath house mixtures from Spirited Away, and his poles look like incredibly long arms as he scrambles up the trail and into the tighter, rock ravine we’re moving through like an arachnid why, oh why do I sometimes see things like this? I comment to R that we should turn it up and a power hike becomes a leap into higher gear as we pull away from spider man. We hit the spigot at the campground and go.
Hikers now. Tourists. We’re climbing into the realm of dust and trip-hazard logs and day-hiking tourists, and we blaze past all. Rebekah hands me a caffeinated gel and now I really feel my chemistry and my ears buzz, and I’m in that place like on a high as I grope for altitude in visceral trance; I never do caffeine on the trail – woohoo! I have to catch myself again and again as I slow for my love; I am pushing her, I know it. I alternate between sheepish and intense like Jekyll and Hyde as I both race and stop to breathe; my racing breaths mean nothing now; I am electric. R booms over the loud speaker “Where are you going?” in vicinity of tourists and hikers who must chuckle we are so near the top. “To that ledge, there” I answer, as I leap up the next eight steps and wait. I talk at and to everyone that inspires me, as I always do when I race or intensely go after my trail high. I share with a man who also works to make the South Rim as we pass that we live three feet above sea level; he offers he lives below sea level and is from the Netherlands. A group of Chinese tourists ask Rebekah in admirable English where the trail leads to and where have we come from as they descend step by step in animated conversation – she tells them 25 miles and points toward the North Rim, now nearly level with us, and they sort of just stare, not knowing what the hell to say.
I am nearly howling with intensity now. We approach the tunnel through the rock and I take my love’s hand, and we push together, nearly running to the top as I get people’s attention to keep everyone safe, and when we crest the top of the trail head, I whoop in elation.
Sweet contentment at a job well done.
Life at the top
It you get a chance, DO this trip. No, MAKE the chance, in any variation – North to South, South to North, run in on the trail from the East and hook into North Kaibab trail for the North Rim – more problematic, as you would have to do that fully unsupported, but the trails are there in this amazing land of endless running possibility. Thank you Kristin for offering tips and hints that proved invaluable and allowed us to plan a chance to slow down and really enjoy the journey; she made the trek a few years back. Thank you Rebekah – for coming up with the idea and making it happen in the midst of our hectic lives.
There is plenty of information on this run on the web, from a great, no frills piece by Tropical John at ultrarunning.com, to various blog posts with pictures and descriptions – and if you actually READ through everything, you might be better able to plan your lemonade stop; stuff is amazing on a long run. Two things about Williams, a small town with plenty of reasonable motels one hour from the South Rim, that you should know about: 1. An amazing little Mexican restaurant called La Casita, which has GREAT food, and where the owner and cook will practically sit down to talk to you; they love a compliment, and more than earn it with their big servings and great salsa; 2. Historic Brewing Company, a rustic place with damn good food and the most amazing Alternative Facts double IPA, one of the best we have had.
Fly and be free ~