The Grand Canyon: Breaking down and the break in

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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The S. Kaibab bridge, the tunnel, and the CO river

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.*

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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.

You guys, check out my Threadless store. There’s one R2R2R graphic that I’d already made. I meant to make a couple more GC themed pieces before I posted is but then this would have never gotten posted. https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/

https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/grand-canyon-r2r2r

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R2R2R: run across the Grand Canyon twice…overnight.

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.”

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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.

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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. KIMG0169.jpeg

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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:

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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.