Nolan’s 14 2020 was a banner year for Nolan’s FKTs, probably because the races were canceled and the pros had nothing else to do. While it used to have so much mystery and appeal and was rarely attempted and even more rarely completed, its popularity doesn’t change that it’s the most aesthetic 100 mile line in the world and deserves a prominent place on this list. Since I’ve fallen in love with skyrunning, 100s seem less appealing (there’s a reason the Barkley’s not on this list), but I still secretly think about digging out my poles and meditating up some resilience and going for it again. Here’s iRunfar’s interview with new male FKT, and Sabrina Stanley’s video recap of her FKT, and I still love Joe Grant’s video.
The Grand (Teton) Traverse: From time to time, someone will tell me they or someone they know did the Grand Traverse. And every time, I’m disappointed when I find out they’re talking about the race in Crested Butte that’s taking the name in vain. I’m sure that’s a cool race and everything, but there’s only one Grand Traverse and it magnificently and terrifyingly traverses the main 14 peaks of the Teton Range, including the Grand. It’s the ultimate collision of alpinism and mountain running, if one wishes to do it in sub 24 hours, they must have the beastliest of thighs, excellent climbing prowess, and you’ve got to wear a helmet and carry an ax. Record holders have free soloed the 5.8 north face of the Grand in their running shoes. A route like this is so compelling, I’ve been working on my climbing prowess to be able to do it one day. While we’re talking Tetons, there’s also the Picnic (Unofficial Grand Teton Triathalon), circumnavigating the range, and the nearby Cirque of the Towers route to consider.
Tromso Skyrace: the brainchild of Emilie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet, all you need really is to watch the highlights reel and you’ll be looking up plane tickets to Norway. Exposure, scrambling, altitude, snow, the headliner is the Hamperokken Skyrace, a 57k with 15,748ft of gain in “a place to run between the sky and the earth to feel freedom” that “follows the soul of skyrunning.” Held annually in early August.
Matterhorn/Matterhorn Ultraks: Did anyone watch Summits of My Life and NOT get obsessed with running the Matterhorn? If you’re not a climber and don’t find the mountain itself inspiring, maybe you’d like to run around near it in a skyrace in Zermatt? The Matterhorn Ultraks Skyrace is “a magical track” that gains almost 12,000ft in just under a 50k.
Diagonale des Fous/Grand Raid: The Madmen’s Diagonal, about 100 miles and 31,600 ft of gain crossing an island near Madagascar, this highly technical race has a mythical status, possibly as or more technical than how complicated it would be to get there. But, this is a list of the dopest running events and adventures, not a list of the easiest or the ones nearest to you. I loved the look of their 2019 ad:
Approximately four miles into your weekly long run, that you’ve chosen to do in a new place while you’re on vacation.
You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way. – Elizabeth Taylor
Your pacer says to you at mile 70 of your first 100.
“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” – Jonas Salk
You realize right after you pat yourself on the back for having done ALL of your training for a whole week.
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” — Audre Lorde
You say to yourself as you’re chugging Udo’s oil in a hot epsom salt bath while you’re trying to rearrange your budget so that you can afford Normatec boots.
You tell yourself as you enter the Hardrock lottery OR as you step outside for your first day of Nolan’s 14 training.
When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. –Henry Ford
5 minutes into a windy run, when you’ve committed to your new life of positivity vis a vis Joe Vigil.
If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.– Nora Roberts
This is clear, if you don’t go out for a run, you’ll never have the life you want.
“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”– Maimonides
For about 40 seconds I let the demons loose on Grandview and go flying down a flat part of the trail. I turn a corner and there’s a short climb. My heart already feels like it’s about to explode [and not in the fun trying-really-hard way, but in the my-nervous-system’s-broken-and-can’t-regulate-my-heart-rate way]. I know I’ve pushed it too much already. I want to go further, and I want to go faster, and while giving in this little bit by hiking three miles into the Grand Canyon feels like it quenches my thirst a little, it probably made me more thirsty overall, like that water Dumbledore has to drink in Harry Potter six. And I’ll pay for it tomorrow, and for several more days with bad vitals. Because that’s right, I have a device now that measures my heart rate variability, heart rate, basal temp, movement, sleep, and respiratory rate every second 24 hours a day now. I love it and fear it.
The Grandview trail is somewhat controversial in history and I had a vendetta, not against it, but with my failure related to it, left over from last year. See, it’s the only trail you can’t get to by bus and so last year, I really wanted to do it but put it off heinously until my second to last day in the park. Then, because I felt tragic about driving all the way there, I attempted to ride my bike, based solely off of the information I had gleaned from riding a few miles down the USFS road I was camped on. There was a sign that said, “Grandview 13 miles.” I said, 13 miles sounds good to me! And packed up.
13 miles later, I arrived at a fire overlook tower, still alongside of the dirt road. I climbed the tower for some reason. I don’t have a fear of heights generally, but the dumb thing was basically a ladder made of that metal mesh that’s see through, which is sometimes cool but also the whole tower swayed and it was hard to see where you were putting your feet since it was see through. I continued riding the road, and saw 14 miles, 15 miles, 16, 17. Suddenly, I was on the paved park road! I made a guess and turned left? 18, and 19. Then I gave up and turned around. When I arrived back in camp, I looked at my map on Strava and saw that I was so close to the trailhead when I turned around, it had to have been a half mile or less. Oh well. The very last day in the canyon was reserved for one more Kaibab to the river and back, so Grandview wasn’t to be in 2019.
So here we are in 2020, and I’ve just learned somehow that OTS is actually a small, unusual, and severe category of the Sympathetic Dominance umbrella. How did it take so long for me to find this? Because unlike OTS, sympathetic dominance is a hot topic on the internet, and lots of people are on its spectrum. The internet tells me that I should stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system by doing reflexology on my feet, eating in such a way that might help balance too much copper in my body, and exercise should be limited to activities like restorative yoga and meditative walking. Because anything at all that activates my sympathetic nervous system will make things worse.
So Grandview was the first trail in the Grand Canyon. I can’t remember the other stories we’d heard before arriving at the TH, but the TH sign paints a picture of some guy that arrived at the canyon to mine, found the mine to be unproductive, and immediately pivoted to tourism. At the time, tourists from Flagstaff were being stagecoached for 12 hours to view the canyon, and there were photographers to take their photos and some amenities, but nobody was entering the canyon yet. So this guy takes his unproductive mine and builds this totally absurd trail down into the canyon, then collects some mules and lets tourists ride them down it. We’re all used to this feature of the GC by now, but I imagine how absurd the notion would’ve been then.
I’m also wondering about this trail, and how impossible it would’ve been for hooves the way it was built, steeply paved in rocks and with pretty big drops often. But then I think, tourists may not have had Yelp yet, but if this guy was killing people on the regular, word would spread and he’d lose his business right?
It’s also really cool to think about how hard to build this trail would’ve been. In some places, he hauled hundreds of trees to frame out and build a trail that just fully didn’t exist on the cliffside. It certainly takes an interesting and probably the only possible path down, traversing cliffs and winding in and out of other large rock features. He must have really cared about it, because there had to have been easier ways to make money [jobs easier than building this trail include: Alaskan fishing, oil riggers, blood worm hunter, sewer inspector, building the Transcontinental railroad, and those explorers that traversed Antarctica by kite boat].
The GC’s gotten some new signage since the last time I was there. I’ve seen in the news that this was a particularly bad year for rescues. I imagine there are folks whose job it is to go on the offensive and find new ways to prevent stupid people from killing themselves there.
At this point in recovery, after overdoing it and relapsing so many times, there’s nothing I’m more desperate to do than to run again. But I understand that I need to get better and that there is no other way but to back off and give it time. Naturally, it was nearly impossible to be on this beautiful trail in the canyon thinking, I have to keep my dumb heart rate down. If I do too much today, it’ll set me back. Because then you’re like, I literally don’t care about anything else besides running this trail right now. Screw being pragmatic! How could I give this up?
Then I kept seeing points I wanted to go to. I wanted to see what it looked like from there, and then from there. What’s down there? I needed to know. But every step down is more steps up and more damage and slower recovery. I just listened to the Rich Roll episode with Apollo Ohno, one, that guy is amazing. Two, he raves about how there’s just nothing better than being a full time athlete. It is the most beautiful thing in a human existence. What are we without it? Wins and losses, boring grown up stuff. When you’re training, nothing exists but the act of bettering yourself every single day.
He also discusses this new documentary he’s in, The Weight of Gold, about the mental health of Olympic level athletes in the US, and how for him he’s 10 years into a journey of having to work on every single day being okay with not being an Olympic athlete anymore. I’ll never understand his level, but I do get it when every day I think about how badly I want to be there again. Being in the GC, too, it just reminds me how fit I was last time I was there. To maximize your potential, to be your absolute best every single day, to rip technical descents, fly past the tourists, and burn the ascents, to jump in the river. God, to see the fucking river! To sprint the bridges. There’s nothing else.
Here’s the trailer for that docu, which sounds awesome but it’s on HBO so who knows when I’ll get to see it. Great trailer though, it’s three minutes long and I cried. Five stars.
I was soaked to my skin, rivers running down my face and jacket, shoes squishing, and now with each step I climbed higher above Skeleton Point, I brought myself further into a winter storm. 40mph winds whipped around hail and snow, the clouds shifting quickly hid then revealed bits of the canyon below. It was the last day of my almost month in the Grand Canyon, and of course I had wanted, needed, felt compelled to do S. Kaibab to the river and back just one more time. While I knew I wasn’t in mortal peril if I kept moving, my teeth chattered so loudly as a constant reminder of my misery (honestly, I’ve been cold af before and overwhelmed with bouts of shivers but as my teeth chattered somewhat painfully, I was so surprised when it happened that it must not have before).
From higher up on Kaibab the day of the storm
The day before, I had attempted to mountain bike through the national forest to the Grandview Trailhead, but had given up the run without ever finding the trailhead (what a blessing GPS is, for I then got to look upon the map of my ride and see how very close I came to such a trailhead indeed before giving it up for lost and turning home). That night I put in some token miles on 302, just so I didn’t get too far behind, but secretly I was hoping that this day that I didn’t run to the river and back would leave me unusually well recovered for Sunday’s S. Kaibab run, and that maybe I might just PR on the 4,800ft climb.
Between Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point
When I got on the orange line bus at the visitor’s center to be taken to the trailhead that day, the bus driver warned the occupants, “You’re not going to see anything. If you want my advice, walk over to the blueline bus and get a drink in the village.” And everyone shrugged, got off the bus, and walked over to the blue line. Sure it was raining, but I knew better, because the Grand Canyon in a storm is a sight to behold. The steep, technical trail my heart was set on, however, that I now refer to fondly as the River Kaibab (WordPress won’t let me post a video of the river Kaibab) was not for the faint of heart. I slip slided my way down in delight, because having the trail to myself was plenty to make up for the fact that nobody is going to PR when the trail’s a slip and slide, and though I knew I should’ve brought a real goretex shell instead of a water resistant ski jacket, I couldn’t be that bothered to be concerned, because the temperature rises enormously from rim to river. They (the national park staff) say it’s an average of 20 degrees, but I’ve seen days where it’s a 40 degree difference.
The first picture I took on my first trip down Kaibab this year. The Colorado River from S. Kaibab
The GC is a real mindfuck for folks used to mountains, or any folks at all, hikers or otherwise, because even though it’s obvious that you *go down first* then have to *go back up* it’s somehow not obvious to the majority of people. All hikers of a certain age, personality, or disposition will always say to someone who is running down something when they are laboriously walking up it, “Sure is easier to go down!” And I’ve always taken issue with it because while it’s slightly less tiring than ascending, the wear and tear is much higher and more painful so I’ve always thought of them as different but equal challenges. Until I spent a month in the Grand Canyon running down 4,800ft FIRST. I’ll never change my stance on the much higher wear and tear from descending, but I do now concede, fine, yes, it’s easier. Which means in the Grand Canyon, the every run or hike will become harder and harder from the second half to the bitter end with no relief until you’ve crossed the last step and are safely back on the bus.
The CO river from Kaibab, on the edge of the moon curve
So here’s how I ended up spending almost a month in the Grand Canyon. I had mysteriously thought Flagstaff would be a cool place to do some between seasons training. I say mysteriously because now looking back, I can’t figure out why I thought Flagstaff was such a mecca for runners. Was it some combination of the internet and running magazines? The fact that so many famous runners choose to live in that heinous cesspool? I had this idea that it was basically Boulder but in Arizona. I told someone that, after everything happened, and he said, “No, Flagstaff’s really methy.” And I thought truer words were never spoken but this is the wrong time to be hearing them.
The only picture I have from Flagstaff, backside of Mt. Elden
After spending 16 days in desert running paradise, it was getting too hot and I was itching to order shoes for the season, and have access to citylike things, like grocery stores. I was also stoked to get in on what the internet advertised as a bunch of different running groups that hosted regular group runs, so I headed up to Flagstaff. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t. I found a lot of the national forest was closed for “logging operations” and the only forest road that was open, I pulled the trailer down and discovered a permanent homeless camp. I thought the situation was remedied when I moved to the east side of town onto State Trust Land, which was conveniently closer to the Mt. Elden trailhead and situated right on the Arizona Trail. For the sake of wrapping this up, while I was out running laps on Mt. Elden one afternoon with Pippa, someone broke into the camper. They appear to have only stolen a stun gun, leaving three pairs of skis and all of my climbing equipment that were in plain view for the sake of ransacking the whole place, presumably looking for cash. I’ve never been burglarized, and I can’t even tell you how much it upset me. It removed my sense of safety, it destroyed my optimism in humanity, it broke my fucking heart. I packed up immediately and ran away to the Grand Canyon, where I hid in its splendor for almost a month.
**EDIT: important new information came to light last night when I was packing for Whitney and realized those useless [probably] meth head scumbag robbers took my mountaineering axe. I bought it at Smokey’s shop in Leadville for $15 like five years ago. Congratulations, assholes, you’ve stolen the least valuable piece of equipment I had, but now I have to buy a new one!
The CO river, looking south from the S. Kaibab bridge
Anyway, so I was telling you about my last run in the Canyon, in that totally insane storm, but that wasn’t really wanted I wanted to tell you about. In the previous years, I’ve run a lot, even getting up to 100 mile weeks not last year but the year before. But I’ve always only run because I wanted to, because I felt like it, because I loved it, and because it’s fun. I’ve never gone through break down training, always preferring to comfortably recover as long as I thought I needed and I’ve always run by feel. Which is to say, I don’t know that I’ve ever truly trained. Until now. I ramped up my base in the desert and in Flagstaff, kind of painlessly really. When I arrived at the GC, it was time to finish what I started in Flagstaff which was adding tons and tons of elevation gain to that high mileage and doing it all as hard as I could on that day, without proper recovery.
From the Hermit’s Rest trail
This is a controversial method of training and I don’t highly recommend it, but when I made the decision not to go work for RMI this season and instead commit myself to running as hard as I possibly could, and really seeing what I’m capable of, I knew there was no other way to do it. “Denton called it ‘breaking down,’ although Cassidy preferred the nomenclature of certain Caribbean quasi-religious groups; walking death was much closer to it. Quite a bit more, really, than the simple exhaustion of a single difficult workout, breaking down was a cumulative physical morbidity that usually built up over several weeks and left the runner struggling to recover from one session to the next.” OAR always puts it better than I do, and my deepest comfort in these last weeks has been reading and rereading the Breaking Down chapter because, since I have no friends going through it simultaneously, Cassidy understood what was in my totally crazy, swinging, weary mind the best.
From S. Kaibab, just below the Tip Off
Frequently, I found myself struggling greatly to drag myself the last 500, 1,000, 1,500 feet out of that damned Canyon and thinking, this is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never been this tired. It’s like the end of a race. My joints are all tin man-ing, my muscles so thoroughly exhausted they’re useless, my mind just desperate to stop, stop, stop, make it stop. It’s actually been the perfect training for mental toughness, because it’s hard to imagine what feat I might put my body up to that will hurt more than running to the river and back day after day after day. “Didn’t I see you here yesterday?” The mule train leader asks innocently. “No, that was on Kaibab. I mean yes, I saw you yesterday. But not here. Yesterday I did Kaibab down and back, today I came down Kaibab but I’m coming up this way.”
The S. Kaibab bridge, the tunnel, and the CO river
Here’s the river after a week of storms, it turns brown from all the run off. Looking back at the tunnel and the S. Kaibab trail, the opposite perspective from the last photo
For an example, I tried reading Moby Dick and got stuck reading and rereading the first page for 40 minutes. It may have well been in Arabic, I couldn’t understand a word. I eventually started listening to podcasts during recovery time because my eyes were too tired to read for very long for a while. I did find myself depressed, which isn’t a state that’s normal for me and made dragging myself out for yet another, Jesus God, 17 miler, the worst thing I could possibly do. I would fixate on something I said or something someone else said in a recent or not recent at all conversation and think about it all day long. I also thought about everything I’ve ever done that I wasn’t proud of, that wasn’t very fun or inspiring. I was frequently too tired to cook or eat.
The only picture of me I took this year
The real saving grace of this misery was the Canyon itself, because who could ask for a more inspiring place to run? Or a simpler place to carry out the miles and elevation gain that needed to be done? Through combinations of biking and running and riding the shuttle buses, I was easily conveyed wherever I wanted to run and to the store and home again without ever having to drive or the inconvenience of starting or ending in the same place as my car. Despite that heinous winter storm on the last day, the weather was consistently cool up high, hot on the bottom, and when storms did happen they weren’t dangerous like they are in the mountains. I was sleeping at 7000 and staying reasonably acclimated, and anywhere I went had free potable water available. Plus, if ever too hot, I could jump in the Colorado River. Every step I took brought me new, extraordinary views. The S. Kaibab trail is the absolutely most spectacular trail I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s so spectacular, that I wish I had never used the word spectacular before, so that I could use it now and it would feel like that word most solemnly belongs in the Canyon and nowhere else. Plus it has this vibrancy, which I’ve never really understood until Skylar came out and visited for a couple days, went to the Yavapai Geology Museum and told me that the rocks at the bottom are 1,700 million years old. Of course! The bottom of the canyon is one of the oldest places on this planet! And sometimes despite Everything, I would feel strong and tireless even just for a moment and I’d know it was the Canyon itself filling me back up.
Sun setting from Cedar Ridge
Or there’s those bridges, the two bridges over the river, running across those bridges is delightful and restorative somehow. Maybe the water from the springs is also restorative? I learned while I was there that all the water that supplies the park, its millions of visitors, and the small town of Tusayan comes from a spring somewhere in the canyon, which they don’t know the source of and they don’t know how much is left. So that sounds sustainable. Something else I never learned the source of is the plumbing at the bottom of the Canyon. At Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch, there are actual bathrooms with tiled floors, mirrors, tan stalls with locks that barely work, electric lights, and toilets that flush. Toilets that flush! Why?! Every other bathroom in the canyon (and there are many, for obvious reasons) are solar-assisted composting pit toilets. But at the bottom of the canyon they have some sort of sewage system!? I’ve never been willing to inquire about this because I either don’t want to ruin the mystery or I don’t actually want to know the answers.
The bottom of the canyon (s kaibab bridge in the distance) from the Bright Angel Creek bridge
Writing this, you guys might already know I’m at the Whitney Portal and looking back. I don’t yet know if the break down training worked, I’ve just finished high mileage and after Monday, I’ll start an almost three week gradual taper (during which, in theory, I will finally recover!). But what I do understand about it is this, every day, I’d go out and run further and higher than I wanted to, than I knew was wise, and I did it as hard as I could. Every day. For no other reason than I said I had to. “But then his life was most certainly focused on The Task. And hadn’t he decided at one time or another that he would do whatever was necessary to become … Whatever it was he could become?” I had decided that this week, I’d run 85 miles and 20k and next week I’d run 90 miles and 21k and somehow or another, those miles must get done. A random guy I saw resting on the side of the trail said to me one day, “That’s a good pace, but are you having fun?” And I smiled and said something like, “Who could not be having fun here?”
just below Cedar Ridge
But when I really thought about it after, yeah, somehow, I’m having fun. Despite all of it, “weary beyond comprehension,” sometimes I go out and run and it feels amazing. I don’t know, I mean maybe fun’s not exactly the right word, or your definition of it. But every day, I work as hard as I can to get better, faster, stronger than I was before, and that makes me feel free. It is profoundly satisfying. And it feels primal, like this base necessity to see what I’m really made of. Do you ever watch an inspirational sports movie and the football coach is making an outrageously dramatic speech about luck being what’s left after you’ve given your all? It makes good movies, seems a little silly in real life, but I honestly think things like that in my exhausted mind all the time. I don’t know that I’ve made it sound all that great, I don’t know that it could be made to sound that great, because even someone gifted with words like old JLP made it sound pretty miserable, “All joy and woe.” The thing is, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.*
I think this is the only picture I have from the Bright Angel trail
*Except when I ran over a rattlesnake and it launched itself up in the air and tried to bite me, that was fucking terrible. The worst. I still love you GC, but that was a shitty thing to do.
It’s something like 5am and the sun is coming up and an older Japanese man is standing timidly like 10ft away from me, his enormous tourist camera in one hand, the other outstretched as if to offer me support without being nearly close enough to actually touch me.
“Are you…okay?” He asks tentatively.
Fair enough, I was probably screaming or coughing or weeping, I don’t remember. Actually, it’s been…four months? And I’m still crying as I type this.
“I’m okay, I just had a really long night.” What to say? To a random stranger. What could I say that would make this kindly man understand? The sun is coming up and it’s 20 degrees and I just ran across the Grand Canyon twice, and I have to get to the kennel the moment they open because Luna had never been boarded. “I’m okay, really, thank you.”
It’s been four months and I haven’t written this yet, this write up of one of my favorite projects and greatest runs of all time, because when we got back from this trip I found out that Luna had a very aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, and this trip was my last big one with her and it is so hard to relive what an extraordinary trip it was without tinging it in the resulting tragedy. But I’ll try.
We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset on Sunday, and spent most of Monday lounging in the back of the truck reading and eating and keeping my legs up. Sometime in the afternoon, I ventured to the ranger station to discuss trail conditions and water. There had been a rock slide that damaged the pipes that bring water to the North Rim, and apparently a significant portion of the trail. The North Rim was scheduled to open that day, and it still did. If you didn’t already know this, the very remote North Rim of the park relied on those pipes for their water supply. While they worked to rebuild the damaged pipes, the NPS had contracted a company to deliver water to the North Rim by truck, by the 10’s of thousands of gallons per day. Incredible, right?
Anyway, a very helpful ranger discussed trail work and water availability and mule train schedules with me, and all the while I carefully did not disclose I was planning to run it that very night. From the ranger station, I drove to the kennel to leave Luna for the night, then off to the S Kaibab Trailhead.
The S Kaibab trail is spectacular, maxing out around 60% grade, and highly technical both by nature and by the erosion from millions of feets tracking it in the mud. It follows a steep ridgeline almost all the way to the Colorado River. An extraordinary amount of tourists attempt to hike down it despite these difficulties, resulting in an average of 250 rescues per year and a lot of very dramatic signage.
I took a picture of another one that I can’t find; it’s a similar illustrated man on his knees with vomit spewing on the ground.
Update: I found it.
So anyway, there was a lot of tourist dodging and while I was still very friendly and courteous, it scares the bejesus out of tourists to pass them at 12mph. Views were great though:
Just before leaving CO for this trip, I remember voicing my significant concerns that I had only been running for one month before this and while I was in banging shape from all the alpine touring and skate skiing, the impact resistance might be a big problem. You can do infinity elevation gain, but joints need to assimilate to impact of running technical downhill. So spoiler alert, 5k later, I see the river and my knees are trashed, the little stabilizer muscles feeling so taut it made me wonder if popping them was something I actually had to worry about.
But anyway, arriving at the river in under an hour looked like this:
and felt like pure joy. The trail here becomes softer and is banked for the last almost mile or so, allowing me to hit almost 15mph however briefly.
Crossing the bridge over the river, the sun was setting and there was a large crew on Boaters Beach cheering me on; I would find out later that they were from Leadville, and I knew many of them! All kismet.
After the river, the trail begins a steady low grade incline that lasts for 7 or 8 miles. It’s like a jungle down there, with creeks and all kinds of foliage everywhere. No exaggeration, it is the most vibrant environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with. If my knees weren’t hurting so much that I was questioning ever being able to walk again, I would have felt I could run forever. It started to rain, but here at the bottom of the canyon it was the warmest and despite and the dark and storm it was still around 60 degrees and the rain felt like it could restore new life to a body that gets broken by ultrarunning time after time.
Mile after mile ticked on, but so did the time, as the clock was getting on towards 3:30 I realized I hadn’t even started the proper ascent of the North Rim, thus thoroughly jeopardizing the 4hr crossing I had hoped for. The North Rim trail was actually super exciting, with tons of exposure, making a full dark ascent interesting indeed. I passed a large group of tourists, maybe 7 or so, that had headlamps mysteriously but were otherwise struggling so majorly that I asked them if they wanted me to call the ranger station when I reached the top. But, they didn’t speak English. And they were still moving, so.
I hit the North Rim at just over 5h. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, to see the TH sign reflected in my headlamp. 21 miles down, and hard earned. I sat in the sand and ate a Larabar and contemplated how far behind I was timewise. It just didn’t seem to matter anymore, like the number of hours could possibly describe the experience. As I started the descent and my knees reeled, I made the call to take it easy before I caused serious damage and didn’t come down balls to the wall.
Crossing the 7 miles on the bottom of the canyon to the river was absolutely surreal. It had stopped raining, but was cloudy, so the dark was complete. Just me and my headlamp and the plants and creatures and water rushing; the backpackers all tucked into bed and it felt as though they ceased to exist, and I was all alone. Do you remember that Third Eye Blind song, Motorcycle Drive By? 1999. “I’ve never been so alone. And I’ve…I’ve never been so alive.” The balls of my feet just sweeping the sand, and I, cruising the darkness.
Crossing the river for the second time it felt like I was on another planet, my headlamp barely illuminating the bridge around me but the feeling of being swallowed up in the rushing movement of the river overwhelming. And so, with knees that were barely holding my weight, quads that had properly been banged, and 35 miles already come and gone, I ascend the brutally steep and long south side of the Grand Canyon.
Kripa in Sanskrit is the word for Grace. We have this idea of grace in the west, like it’s all about ballerinas or beautiful things. I suppose the idea of saying Grace is closer to the real concept, that holds up in basically every other language. Kripa, anyway, is to honor something with your presence. With your attention, your devotion, your will, your intentions, your body. Last year, in the Tetons, I got really into the idea of honoring a landscape, a line, a mountain with my presence, intention, and body. To put so much time and effort into finely tuning this instrument to cross any terrain seamlessly and in style, [I used something similar when describing this run to another person and she assumed by “in style” I meant “looking good”] so that when the time comes, I can properly honor the landscape and its’ lifeforce. I believed [believe] there is nothing more perfect.
[Aside, this post is a couple years old, but I still get inquiries about how to train. I’m a coach now, and have since lived in the GC, and I’ve written a number of training plans for the Grand Canyon double crossing, if you click this picture it will take you to my coaching website]
This double crossing was imperfect; I trashed my knees so early on that I couldn’t do the whole 42 miles full out as I had intended. However. About halfway up the south side, there was a light behind me so bright I was sure that a large group of people with headlamps must have somehow just caught me without my noticing until they were right behind me. I whipped around, startled, and saw, instead:
the clouds had finally parted, revealing an almost full moon, a sky full of stars, that so thoroughly bathed the canyons below me in light that all depth, rock, water, shadow was now made of liquid silver; iridescent and fluidly moving with the energy of life within. I can think of few times in my life that I actually found something breath-taking literally. So overwhelming, I couldn’t even be moved to weep [or perhaps too exhausted and dehydrated?]. And once again, as I had emptied myself, given everything of myself, sacrificed and destroyed, to and for this environment in the name of divine Grace, the environment filled me back up. Have you ever thought about what it really means to be FUL-FILLED?
And then, if you really want to know what happened next, I knew I was getting near the top, a group of runners was on their way down. Or, I guess I think of them that way because they were wearing running vests and running shoes and backward hats, but they weren’t running at all. They were attempting a R2R2R as well, and told me they hoped to finish in less than 30 hours. I smiled. Then, at like 430, the sun came up:
And I staggered to the Trailhead. And I screamed or wept or coughed, I don’t really remember, causing that poor tourist to reach out to help. I walked to the car. It was so cold, and I didn’t really have the energy left to homeostasis my body temperature, so I shook wildly. I drove to the kennel. I got a coke from one of those NPS vending machines that features old photo inlays of whatever park you’re in and isn’t labelled brand-wise. It was 75 cents. I was there to get Lu the moment they opened. And we carried on.