by Christine Reed
A little background on my fitness level/training:
I started running in the fall of 2015, after backpacking 650 miles of the Appalachian Trail. After
spending 10 weeks on trail, my legs had grown accustomed to hours of movement a day. The abrupt shift from hiking 15-20 miles a day to laying around the house and going to my part time job left my body achy and confused. I knew that I couldn't continue to dedicate 8 hours a day to walking as I struggled to transition back into the regular world. I was a hiker first, but I decided to try running.
Even with my base walking fitness, I could barely jog for 30 seconds without doubling over from the work. As a child, running had never been my friend, often leaving me in tears in middle school PE. But I was determined to give it a real shot. I downloaded a Couch to 5K app on my phone and set about the 8-week program, which culminated in my running very slowly for about 20 minutes straight, maybe a mile and a half. I felt accomplished and promptly quit running. Six months later, I decided to train for an actual 5K race. I dedicated myself to a training program and completed my first 5K in 33:04. Again, I patted myself on the back and hung it up.
In the spring of 2017, I ran my first half marathon after a grueling 6 months of training. I still didn't love running, but I felt better about myself than I ever had before, and I vowed to stay consistent. Later that year, I signed up for a Trail Running Course. For the next 8 weeks, once a week I met with a coach and 6 other participants to learn the techniques, safety concerns and gear recommended for trail running. Some of my friends found it hilarious that I thought it was necessary to shell out a couple hundred dollars to “learn how to run”.
However, I learned several important things from the course that have been of huge benefit and would prove to be critical to my Rim to Rim adventure.
1. Don't run downhill with your brakes on
2. “Trail-running” uphill usually means walking
3. Don't be afraid of the dark
So, when the opportunity to run Rim to Rim came up, I felt comfortable with my foundation of knowledge and running experience. However, I had maintained a running routine of 3- and 4-mile runs, 3-4 times a week for the last year or two. Nowhere close to the amount of mileage necessary to crush a 24-mile route with 6000 ft of descent followed by 4500 ft of ascent. I had only recently started gearing up to start training for a 50K, but the race was 8 months out, so I was building a base-- increasing mileage VERY slowly.
After much deliberation, I decided to continue my training program unmodified, leading up to the Grand Canyon adventure. This would put me on trail on October 8 with several solid 20-mile weeks under my belt, but no recent runs over 6 miles. But my running partner had assured me that she wanted to take it slow and casual. Yes. 24 casual miles in and out of the Grand Canyon. No biggie…
Arriving in the Canyon:
Candice and I departed from the South Rim the day before our run, riding the TransCanyon Shuttle. We were dressed for our run and carried nothing but our running vests and a pair of throwaway pajamas to keep us warm on the North Rim. I ate a cup of black bean soup from the North Rim deli and tried to get to bed early, but I was buzzing with nervous energy.
When the alarms went off, we bounded out of our beds. We grabbed our vests, donned our headlamps, and stepped out into the freezing October air. After hopping a quick ride to the trailhead, we tossed our long pants and sweatshirts into the trashbin and set first foot on the North Kaibab Trail.
Our headlamps illuminated the ground just before our feet and we trotted down the trail, watching for rocks, roots and other surprises. As the beam of Candice’s headlamp bounced along ahead of me, I settled into a rhythm, relaxing into a manageable downhill pace. We laughed and talked through the dark, marveling at how lucky we were to be on such an adventure.
The sky began to lighten shortly after our start, but the sun didn’t show its face above the canyon walls for hours. We stopped for a moment at the Manzanita Rest Area and I became aware that at 5 miles (and 3650 ft of descent), I probably hadn’t been drinking enough water-- my water bladder was still full. But it was cold and we were running at a casual pace downhill-- I didn’t feel like I had been working hard or sweating much. Candice encouraged me to get some food in, even though I didn’t feel hungry. I squeezed an almond butter packet onto a Honey Stingers Waffle and choked it down. I felt heavy as we turned and continued down trail.
As the alpenglow faded and the sun beamed down in earnest, we stayed in the shadow of the canyon nearly to the bottom. I was grateful that we had started so early and allowed ourselves several hours of running unencumbered by the notorious heat of direct Arizona sun. As the miles piled on, I started to wonder if my legs would be able to change direction after such a long downhill slog. My calves and quads were starting to feel compacted and numb. We slowed down regularly to take photos and I secretly struggled to get moving again each time.
I took note of the passing of mile 13 as we jogged down, down, down. I had never run more than 13 miles before, and that was more than two years previous. I wondered what I had gotten myself into, what kind of person thinks that this is a good idea? What kind of person with my experience thinks that they are capable of this? We arrived at Bright Angel Campground – 14 miles from the North Kaibab Trailhead where we had started and paused for only a moment to refill our water and continue the last few (relatively flat) miles to the bridge over the Colorado River.
Standing on the bridge over the river, my arms raised in triumph, I was reminded of the cruel sign at the base of Mt. Whitney that reminds hikers “Remember: The top is only half-way”. I considered how much more critical this message is when choosing to enter into a mile-deep canyon, with only one way out: UP. I recall my feeling at the summit of Mt. Whitney— defeated, exhausted, terrified. I had laid alone on the floor of the lightning shelter wondering how I would possibly get down. I had given everything I had to reach the end of the 11-mile trail, had continued on in a desperate grind to prove myself and had managed to reach the summit so late in the day, that all other hikers had long since departed. (images below) I compared this to my feeling as I stood there over the Colorado River— exultant, nervous, but not unsure. I knew that no matter how long and difficult the climb to the South Rim proved to be, I was capable without a doubt of dragging myself upward.
Mt Whitney - 2014
We crossed the bridge and turned toward the Bright Angel trail, knowing that we had already crossed the mileage half-way point, but hadn’t quite reached the physical exertion half-way point. As soon as the trail turned noticeably upward, my legs turned to jelly. I tried to maintain a jogging pace and keep up with the easy 16- 17-minute pace that Candice was setting, but as we crossed an ill-conceived sandpit on the trail, I staggered to a walk.
From that point on, it was difficult to maintain much more than a walking pace. Candice and I had discussed that we would likely slow to power-hiking on the uphill half of the day, but to call my pace a “power-hike” would be charitable at best, but more accurately a downright lie. We pressed onward at a significantly slower pace, but were still ahead of our 12 hour goal time.
On the south side of the canyon, the sun beat down on us. The October weather had been kind thus far, but we stopped and shed our sleeves—counter-intuitively, it is easier to stay cool in the desert with your skin covered, but it is uncomfortable to be sure.
As we climbed and climbed and noon rolled around, I counted down the miles and longed to reach the Indian Garden campground. I have day hiked many times on the Bright Angel Trail, and the climb from Indian Garden (universally considered the most difficult section of trail) was at least familiar. We moved slowly but consistently and stopped rarely for breaks; Candice matched my pace with a kindness I hated to take advantage of.
A few miles past River Rest House, we came around a dusty corner to discover a line of hikers stopped on the trail. As we approached, those in the back of the line turned back to explain that someone had fallen from a mule and a helicopter was coming to evacuate. We could see on the switchback above that a mule train had in fact stopped and was blocking the trail. Some of the hikers had been waiting about 15 minutes and were antsy to continue on their way.
I happily plopped down on a rock on the edge of the trail to rest my feet which were screaming by that point. A couple of trailrunners turned to us for sympathy, they had run South to North the previous day and were on their return. They complained loudly that there was no reason we shouldn’t be able to pass the mules and continue up the trail. I cringed internally at the lack of sensitivity of somebody being so impatient to get their miles in that they are upset by the inconvenience of another person requiring a helicopter evacuation.
Eventually, the mule train backed up the trail (after some helpful suggestions from our fellow trailrunners) to allow the group of hikers accumulating to pass. We continued onward, but soon turned back when the sound of a helicopter buzzed in the air, we watched it land. I considered the risk of entering the Grand Canyon on any given day and the fact that helicopter rescues are not at all as uncommon as one might think. (129 helicopter medivacs were performed in-canyon in 2016.)
When we finally reached Indian Gardens, I felt dead to the world. Hikers and backpackers crowded the area and we went straight for the water station. A headache had been creeping up on me for the last hour or so, and I wasn’t sure if it was due to dehydration or heat exhaustion. I thought back to the dozens of people whose stories are chronicled in Death in the Grand Canyon, a comprehensive list of each and every person who had met their demise in and around the canyon. An entire section of the book is dedicated to those who perished due to the elements, and the most common cause has historically been dehydration and heat exhaustion. I had wisely decided to read the book cover to cover in the weeks leading up to our run, so that I could sufficiently freak out at every signal of our impending doom.
I soaked my long sleeve shirt and pulled it dripping over my head, chilling my hot skin instantly. I found a place to sit and drink water and considered the 4.5 remaining miles to the South Rim. With more than 3000 ft of elevation gain, these last miles would take no pity on the state of my body. We made friends with a hiker, Lindsey, before continuing upward. She had hiked from the South Rim to the Colorado River and was on her way back. While this hike is advised against using scare tactics and statistics, she seemed in good spirits and would surely reach the trailhead no later than we would. I wondered if I would be feeling better, worse or the same if we had set out from the North Rim at a walking pace rather than running.
Lindsey accompanied us for the last 4.5 miles of the trail, keeping Candice company while I trudged along behind them. Mercifully, this section of Bright Angel Trail has a rest stop every mile and a half-- these landmarks provide confirmation that you are, in fact, gaining ground on the seemingly endless uphill grind.
The elevation on the South Rim is 6860ft and as we climbed into thinner air, every step became heavier and more difficult. By the time we reached the first tunnel, less than a quarter mile from the trailhead, I knew the end was near, but couldn’t muster the energy to move any faster. When we emerged behind the Kolb Studio we grinned from ear to ear and exchanged enthusiastic but exhausted high-fives. We had done it!
BEFORE and AFTER
24 miles from the North Kaibab Trailhead to the Bright Angel Trailhead signified the longest day hike I had ever completed, the longest run I had ever attempted and the entry into an amazing club of hikers and runners that pride themselves on impressive endurance. I am eternally grateful to Candice for her planning, organizing and enduring patience. And for asking me to go on this crazy journey in the first place. And to Lindsey for showing up at the perfect moment and brightening our day, when I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t suffering even when I was laughing.
Choosing to run Rim to Rim was over-ambitious to be certain, and I would definitely do it differently next time. But I wouldn’t take back all the pain, the challenge, the difficulty… and even now looking back on the day, those things pale in comparison to the smiles, the beauty and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
The kind of adventures that leave you exhausted and hurting are the kind that show you what you’re made of, what you’re capable of, and how to care for yourself. I think I’ll keep searching those out, I will stay overly ambitious and make promises that my legs hate me for keeping. And hopefully prepare better in the future.