2013 Grand Canyon R2R2R #4
October 26, 2013 — Grand Canyon NP, AZ
7:43:13 — 44 miles
This past weekend I returned to the Grand Canyon for what has become for me a routine pilgrimage. Though this marked my fourth visit in twenty-four months, the canyon never fails to blow my mind and humble my ego. During my recent trek through the Alps, many Europeans asked me how to see a land as vast as America, and always I’d reply, “Start at the Grand Canyon; there’s simply nothing else like it in the world.”
I first made the trip two years ago—November 2011—as part of an impromptu journey of fools yearning for adventure, an adventure we lived in the form of a freak snowstorm on the South Rim and witnessing Dakota Jones set the fastest known time for running from rim-to-rim-to-rim (a record that has since been broken). With each return, the canyon presents a new challenge: snow, scorching heat, thick wildfire smoke. On this fourth trip, however, I’d create the challenge myself: I’d run the 45-mile route alone, driven purely by my own will, and see just how fast I could complete it. I’d run it “balls out,” as they say.
Saturday morning I stepped from the rim shuttle and, without hesitation, plunged into the Grand Canyon at first light, following the South Kaibab trail toward the Colorado River. I had split times in mind, but my strategy would remain simple: push hard all day. Having always been a conservative runner I tend to “stay within myself” for fear of an epic blowup, but in five years since my first ultramarathon I’ve learned lessons in pacing, fueling, responding to various feedback from my body and transcending self-imposed limits. Why not test myself? Despite less-than-fresh legs and a forecast for afternoon heat, I’d channel my inner Dakota Jones and fly across the canyon and back with laser focus.
I reached the river in fifty-eight minutes then proceeded north. Seventy minutes later I reached Cottonwood Campground (mile 14), took some salt to keep the aches at bay, then grinded out the climb to the North Rim arriving in 3:45, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Without looking up I stuffed 200 calories in my mouth, reversed directions and began my return to the river. The descent grew warm (as per usual) and I passed dozens of oncoming runners bound for the North Rim. I almost felt guilty ignoring all the stunning vistas, but I was an automaton, a perpetual motion machine.
The last few miles to the river hurt, but I forced the distraction from my mind. Focus! I nearly cheered when I reached Phantom Ranch, but instead kept my emotions in check. Focus! I filled my bottle, drank it down, then filled it again before proceeding. A two-hour, 5500 foot climb through sizzling heat is a long way to go with just a single 20-ounce handheld (a gamble my former, cautious self never would’ve risked), thus taking care of myself had become key. Previously I’ve lacked patience for such self-maintenance, often deteriorating from the effects of poor hydration, caloric and electrolytic intake. But several hundred-mile efforts later I am wiser and more attune to the consequence of neglect.
I climbed through layers of white and red, the sun reflecting from the rocks roasting me like some sort of solar oven. I refused to let it phase me. Focus! Two hours in the pain cave is nothing compared to discomfort I’ve endured at Bighorn and UTMB. It’s all relative. The last few wiggles of South Kaibab came into view and I glanced at my watch. I’m going to finish before 3:00 pm. Rad. I pushed the final stretch and finished just 7 hours and 43 minutes after I’d begun—more than two hours faster than any of my previous attempts.
I’ve had a significant 2013 season. It began with a surprisingly strong fourth place finish (and 40 minute PR) at the Moab Red Hot 55K in February. I then committed to speed-based training which led me to a huge PR of 2:34 at the Eugene Marathon in April. Despite getting dehydrated, hypothermic and lost at the Jemez 50 and Bighorn 100 in May and June, I finished both races learning valuable lessons from each. August took me to France where I placed fourth American at the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, then returned home and won the inaugural Canyon de Chelly 55K in early October. Finally, this: my Grand Canyon PR.
Running for the Pearl Izumi Ultra Team this year has been an enormous privilege. The E-Motion shoes rock and keep me injury-free, and the apparel is comfortable as heck (I love those Ultra Shorts!), but most importantly the team has introduced me to many tough, talented, inspiring individuals. Their feats put mine in perspective, but provide peace of mind knowing that there are rewarding returns on this crazy investment of time and energy known as ultrarunning. I don’t second-guess myself as much anymore.
So what now? My running season is wrapping up and, as snow falls in the San Juans, I’m letting go of my urge to run hard day after day. Time to give my body the rest it deserves. Having dealt with two rounds of serious iron-deficiency anemia, I know the consequences of overdoing it, a crime nearly every ultrarunner is or has been guilty of. This winter I’ll ski, and I plan to do it with the same enthusiasm I have for running. I’ll broaden my skills, meet new people and challenge myself to grow proficient at a different endeavor. My randonee racing schedule will stretch into March, then I’ll return to running trails with a fresh mind and body, and exciting goals and adventures on my mind.
The Grand Canyon is a bucket list run for many (and rightfully so!), but for me it has become a benchmark. I can visualize myself on that first trip standing amidst swirling snow on the South Rim, eyes wide, freaked out. Never would I have imagined that, in two years’ time, I’d return to rip over the same route so systematically. I’m no master but I’ve come a long way, and that’s encouraging. I can strategize and I can respond intuitively. I can regulate and I can maintain. I can suffer and I can focus. Maybe someday I’ll truly find my limits?