Friday, 6pm: I had just finished up my afternoon yoga class when I went downtown to meet up with my buddies on the patio of our favorite brewery. It was there that Eddie, who I had talked to in the past about my ultramarathon training endeavors, asked me to join him in running the Grand Canyon the next day. At first, I was doubtful and did not commit. I was not that far into my training and only logged up to 20 miles at a time on my long days, and I had no idea how my body would react to such steep terrain. However, I could not stop thinking about it...I had hiked the canyon several times, and had been dying to run it for a while. I couldn't just turn this opportunity down! I often try things way outside of my ability and-- well-- it doesn't always turn out successful, but at least I am used to it, right? After a beer and some pizza, I said yes. I knew that I was strong, and this would just be a test… what am I getting myself into?
“See you at 5am, Eddie.”
Saturday, 5am: Following a 4am wakeup call, I parked my car outside Eddie’s house, holding my pack, filled with 70 oz of water, a soggy panini, salt tablets and clif bars. We jumped into his truck and were canyon-bound on the highway, scenery slowly coming into view as the first morning light illuminated the passing trees.
We pulled into the Grand Canyon National Park two hours later, where we boarded a shuttle bus to the last stop: The Hermit Trailhead. We were expecting the run to be a fully difficult and tasking experience, especially considering this late in the spring temperatures were expected to be high. The morning was just starting to warm up when we began running down the trail. Chatting and making our way down the rocky switchbacks, we took in the exposed views from the Hermit trail, ending our downhill section where the hermit intersected with the Tonto trail. My feet were already hurting from the high-impact downhill, but there was no turning back, we were stoked! We stopped shortly to refuel and prepare for the long stretch ahead, which ended at Indian Gardens where our next water refill stop would be. Thus began the unexpected crux of the run: cranking up and down steep rolling hills in 100+ degree shadeless heat-- for 25 miles.
We were expecting the Tonto to be the “easy” section of the run; since it hugged the tonto plateau, it seemed that it would be relatively flat at sustained, so we did not worry about it at all. What we did not expect, however, was the nonexistent water sources combined with the blazing, relentless heat. In fact, no part of the Tonto trail was easy. It was a primitive, unmaintained trail that recieved little traffic. The only people we passed were backpackers, who undoubtedly thought we were crazy for traveling with nothing more than our running packs and minimalist shoes. The trail was technical, and the sun was inescapable. It felt like the heat was boiling my brain, and I was slowing up with every mile. We sought refuge under a large boulder, where there was a patch of shade about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long. As we nibbled on squashed paninis and sipped water, little did we know that this would be the last shade encountered for the rest of the Tonto stretch.
The trail travels up and down creek drainages, zigzagging around what Eddie and I deemed “alligators:” the protruding formations that we dreaded due to their sneaky nature. Every time we approached one, we could not see beyond it-- we only hoped that it would be the last one. So we would turn south and push uphill until we came to the creek crossing, where we would once again switch directions and head north toward the next precipice. Hopefully approaching the bend, expecting to see flat terrain, we would turn the corner and instead look upon the next alligator. At this point we would repeat the process, over and over…
After a few hours, I noticed the lightness of my pack-- not good, when that weight came from water, and the only other water in our vicinity was running down questionable creeks. Not good. My fears came into reality when it finally happened: Trying to take a sip from the camelbak hose, and getting nothing. We ran out of water. We did not know how far we had gone, or how many more miles until we would reach Indian Garden. The sun was hot, and our thirst was yet to be quenched. We continued to run, until Eddie became dizzy and was forced to stop and rest. Things were serious: we had no water, and my running partner was fading fast. I considered leaving him there to run to the gardens myself to bring water back, but quickly realized the dangers with that plan. I wasn't doing too hot either, and who knows how far that would be! We needed to stay together, and we needed to get to water. So, after the break, we kept running. The next hour or two went like so: run run run, stop, rest, hope, run run run, stop, hope, run, hope, run, hope, run run run...
Finally, we came around the the final alligator. Turning the corner, we saw the lush greenery of Indian Gardens in the distance. We could see it! We were in reach! The two of us nearly cried as we used this excitement to propel ourselves down the last mile to the oasis. We passed more and more people who had day packs and still smelled alright-- a sure sign that we were close, being that few take the Tonto more than a couple hundred yards unless they are backpackers. I ran ahead of Eddie and reached the stream before the water refill station, where I immediately submerged my entire head in the shallow cool water, giggling in relief. I looked up and saw my partner approaching, laughing as well. Together, we threw ourselves at the refill station, where we inhaled the water out of our camelbacks just as fast as they were being filled. After drinking at least three litres of water each, we promptly passed out on the benches of the crowded area. I must have napped for an hour, after which we ate the majority of our food and filled up on water one last time.
We still had to run up the last four miles of the Bright Angel Trail to reach the rim. We thought we would run it, at least. I soon realized the bad combination of running over a marathon in distance, while severely dehydrated, and napping immediately afterward: my legs had stopped working. It was such a strange sensation… running did not hurt necessarily, but it was as if my legs had forgotten how to do the motion. I have had dreams where I try to run but can only move in sinking slow-motion, where I almost cannot control my own body. The strange thing was that this was reality now. Fortunately, we had daylight left, and Eddie was happy to hike with me. There was no way I was running the last push.
As we hiked the Bright Angel, we talked and laughed and wondered. We were thankful for our bodies, for water, and for our lives. The Grand Canyon is a magical, beautiful place-- it is also a demanding place, just like any wild area. Yes, thousands of people walk her trails every year. However, there will never be a time that the canyon will be easy for me-- or anybody. There is always something special about going farther than you thought possible, and finding the necessary respect for these places. As Eddie and I reached the rim, we had undoubtedly gained a refreshed sense of respect for the canyon. We finished, drove back to Flagstaff, and pulled straight into our favorite indian food restaurant to stuff our faces with tiki masala and naan bread.
There is a beauty in this sort of suffering. Looking back, I would have done it all over again (maybe with a water purification system…). Our Grand Canyon run was hard, but it was perfect (it also ended with perfect Indian food, which is my favorite thing ever) because I bonded with a friend, and we pushed our limits. These are the sorts of adventures to be remembered, because people can always grow from these experiences. Also, let's face it: A little type II fun is good for the soul.