Every attempt I have made these last few weeks to describe what it was like to run the Grand Canyon has simply been a reminder of how impossible it is to capture its magnitude. There is a reason that over 5 million people each year go to see it, why it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, why hotels along its rim are ridiculously expensive, and why when I heard about other ultra runners doing ‘Rim2Rim2Rim’ I knew I had to add it to my bucket list. It’s a massive goal, and certainly something I wouldn’t want to attempt alone, so I was thankful that when I asked my best run friend, Tania if she wanted to come, she gave an enthusiastic yes and we planned our spring break travels around taking on our biggest run attempt yet.
The night before our planned run, we found ourselves in a hotel in Williams, Arizona with all our gear spread across the hotel bed, fretting over the details. Anxiety in motion. Running an organized race is so easy in comparison; you know there are aid stations and paramedics on standby in case you get in trouble. But there is something deliciously terrifying about running so far self-supported. The only one getting yourself out of trouble, is you, and quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m up to for that sort of responsibility. It meant we had to carry enough food and water, emergency supplies, and the right clothes and gear to accommodate the radically fluctuating temperature of the desert. In those moments of preparation my mind starts to spiral out of control and doubt bubbles to the surface. Are we crazy for even thinking we can do this? Is it worth the risk? Have I trained enough? What if I’m simply not strong enough? Then what?
4:00 am came fast. Tania and I snuck out of the hotel room, trying not to wake my sleeping family, and we hit the road to the South Rim. Thankfully, an early start meant we beat the tourists and we landed a parking spot right at the trailhead. The wind was furiously cold, as we flicked on our head lamps, to illuminate the massive etched rock sign that read ‘Bright Angel Trailhead’.
“Lets do this.”
Excited chatter turned to whoops of sheer delight as the sun began to light up the red canyon walls. Our descent was quick on the well travelled path even though we stopped for lots of pictures, our mouths gaping wide at the views.
“This.” Tania said, “This is my ‘why’”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
Running the distances and places that we do requires a tremendous amount of time and effort. Most of the times its fun, but there are times the workouts just suck and the sacrifice doesn’t feel worth it. And sometimes I wonder why on earth I put so much into it; for what gain. Its difficult to sum it up, other then to play a slideshow of the millions of moments that make all the hard work pay off and to say:
“This. This is my why”
It’s the carpet of colourful leaves blanketing the trail in Edmonton’s River Valley. The jagged rocks underfoot on a trail across a lava field in Iceland. The third mountain summit in nine hours. The training run in temperatures so cold you can hardly see out your iced over eyelashes. The chest-heaving, heart-pumping, quad-burning push up yet another hill. The volunteers handing you food at an aid station in the middle of the night on a mountain. The vulnerable conversations between trail sisters.
The glow of the sunrise waking up the colours of the most spectacular Canyon in the world.
And we were cruising. Just after two hours of descent we reached Phantom Ranch cabins and campground with plenty of amenities for those who booked months in advance.
It was also our last stop for water, a frustrating imbalance of water distribution along the trail this early in the season. We really hadn’t even drank enough by that point to top up our packs, so off we went on the slow grind up to the North Rim. The trail follows the Colorado River along the bottom of the Canyon for several km and then begins a subtle and soul crushing ascent towards the North Rim. After a few hours and a few stream crossings, the ascent became less subtle and considerably more painful, each step rewarding us with increasingly stunning views…and snow?? Wait, what?
We had just pulled ourselves out of the ‘Polar Vortex of 2019’ back home and came all this way to the desert to run on dry trails and here we were finding snow. The elevation at the North Rim is over 8000ft and a particularly brutal winter meant that even this late in spring we were trudging through some pretty deep snow for a few kilometers, post-holing every now and then and thrashing my shins on the sharp ice. But even though I was twitching from the post-trauma flashbacks of our awful winter, the snow turned out to be a life-saver since by now my pack was right empty; some snow, a little water from the spring run off pouring over the canyon walls and a whole lotta prayers that if this water was going to make me sick that it would wait until tomorrow.
Reaching the top of the North Rim was…well…a little disappointing to be honest. There’s not much of a view, there was a lot of snow, and there was nothing other then a sign. The absolute best view of the Canyon is the top of the South Rim, where tourists can stroll along the edge and snap gorgeous photos. It’s the reverse of summiting a mountain, where the reward is for those who are strong enough to get to the top of the mountain, everyone else can only enjoy the view from the bottom. But the canyon rewards, shall we say… the lazy? You can stroll along the promenade while enjoying an ice cream cone and witness the best of the breathtaking views. The real kicker? Because we started and finished in the dark, I didn’t even get to see the view from the South Rim. And now here we were on the North Rim and there was nothing even remotely spectacular. In fact, there was just…nothing. Then two guys drove past on a snow mobile. That hilarity sorta made it worth it. We sent a few texts to family and friends, snapped a few pictures, and turned around to do it all over again.
Descent felt easy. After the uphill grind it felt great to cruise downhill again and I was able to maintain that momentum once it levelled out again at the bottom. We cruised through Phantom Ranch where we were disappointed to discover we were too late to access the canteen that allegedly sells lemonade and chips as they were closed for the night, but we did stop to chat with some women who were pretty fan-girl over what we were doing and they offered us snacks to fuel the upcoming ascent. We politely declined, partly because we wanted to keep moving, but mostly because by this point in the day, neither of us felt like eating. This is where ultra running gets really tricky, in order to keep going, fuel is an absolute necessity, but even the best trail snacks can become unappetizing. Thankfully, we didn’t really feel nauseous, but we did have to force down a bar or two and hope it stayed there because we knew we had the biggest climb of our lives looming and we were running out of daylight real quick.
Pit stop at the flush toilets (Whaaaat? How luxurious), handwash with warm water (which felt really good after a leaky maple syrup gel and double dipping in Squirrel’s Nut Butter all day…Google it…it’s gross) a fresh top-up of a non-bacteria ridden water and we put on our game faces.
“You still think this is a good idea?” I asked Tania.
The ascent up the South Rim is considerably steeper then up the other side, you gain some serious elevation really quick. This is where ultra running goes from a shuffle to a death march, although ultra-runners don’t like to call it that, we call it ‘power-hiking’ to make ourselves feel better, but really, it was pretty slow. And then we lost the last bit of daylight and things were starting to feel a little demoralizing with so much left to climb on exhausted legs.
And then the most amazing thing happened, one by one, the stars started to appear. With no lights to interfere, they were breathtaking, a beautiful reminder that we are so small in a very big universe. It highlights a strange paradox; to find significance in those moments when you realize how insignificant you really are, but I think that is why it is so important to seek those experiences in nature. Those moments remind us we are part of something much bigger then ourselves, it pulls us out of ourselves, draws us closer to those around us and begs us to be better stewards of the world so we can live up to our potential of being an important contributor to the big picture. Staring up at the stars was incredibly humbling and I was overwhelmed with gratitude that we got to be there to experience it.
Something else magical also came out; a lot of creepy crawly things, including a small and rather translucent scorpion looking thing, which I wasn’t too scared of because he was tiny and couldn’t get me. But later I was leaning up against a rock while waiting for Tania to use the outhouse and had the terrifying realization they could crawl out of the rocks and kill me much faster then the bacteria riddled run-off water would. I pulled away from the rock and stood in the middle of the trail instead, fighting off the vertigo that came when I remembered how steep the drop off was. Soon, we could see the lights of the hotels at the top of the rim and it was only a few more minutes of straight up and we reached civilization again after 77 kms, 4800+ m of elevation gain, 16 hours on the trail, 12 hours of moving time.
The day left us exhausted, yet elated knowing that we had accomplished such a massive goal, but most of all it left us completely full of gratitude. A relatively small number of people have had the privilege of traversing the entire Canyon in one day like we were able to. Sure, we have trained hard to get to a place where we can do crazy things like this, but it was also thanks to our supportive families, flexible work schedules, finances that allowed us to travel and healthy bodies that co-operate with our big goals.
The real hero of this story? My husband. He brought the kids to the Canyon and they hiked 10km, he had to bribe them with a trail of M&M’s and ice cream at the top, but they did it. Little do they know, this is all part of the bigger plan to train them to love these adventures as much as I do so we can all go back and run the whole thing together one day.