Rim to Rim to Rim

Rim to Rim to Rim

“Not your first, not your last, enjoy your now, now will go fast."  — Alexi Pappas

I woke with dreary confusion as the 2 a.m. alarm clamored its way into my unsuspecting ears. Nerves had kept me in a restless sleep for most of the night, but sometime after midnight that had changed, because it took my mind several seconds to pull itself from deep slumber into the realization of what lay ahead. 

Months ago, also after midnight, the joy of New Year's Day and several glasses of champagne were enough for Liz to convince my sister and myself that it would be a brilliant adventure to run across the Grand Canyon. Rim to rim. Down one side, across the bottom and up the other — 25 miles. 

After a bit of excited fantasizing and a few more glasses of champagne, an even more brilliant adventure took shape. Rim to rim to rim. Down one side of the canyon, across the bottom, up the other, back down, back across and back up — 44 miles, or over 50 miles depending on the route chosen. 

This day was different. The excitement was more subdued. Microwave oatmeal landed on stomachs already tossing with anxiety. Our packs were packed with what we hoped was enough fuel for 50 miles. Our shoes, socks and running clothes were set out. As we got ready, we filled our water bottles with enough water to get to the first refill station. We donned hats to protect us from the desert sun, even as we yanked on pullovers to protect us from the frigid cold of the desert night. And as we adjusted our headlamps, we swiped glitter across our faces. 

We’d seen Alexi Pappas, olympic runner, writer and filmmaker do the same before she took on the New York Marathon. We saw how this simple act helped her, and everyone watching her, remember the joy in a sport that can be consumed with pain, seriousness and hostile competition. 

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No, we weren’t about to compete in the olympics, or compete at all for that matter. But 50 miles across the Grand Canyon and back is a serious undertaking, one that shouldn’t be entered into lightly. For us the glitter was a reminder of the joy in the process that led to that anxiety-ridden, hotel morning, a reminder to enjoy the unknown process that lay ahead of us. It was our hope that we could accomplish this difficult, likely painful task and still revel in the adventure of it, the knowledge that we could push our bodies to their limits all while still rejoicing in the lighthearted beauty of sparkling cheeks. 

On the short car ride to the edge of the canyon we had no way of knowing if we were prepared. We had spent months running long distances, training our feet to endure tens of thousands of steps a day. But would it be enough? We drowned out those thoughts with pump up songs and coffee, now eager to get started. 

We stepped off the edge of the South Rim, down the Bright Angel trail, around 3:20 a.m. My headlamp illuminated the narrow trail in front of my feet, but each time I turned my head in one direction or the other, I was faced with stark rock wall on one side and the vast darkness of the drop off on the other. It was several hours of slow, tedious downhill trotting before the tops of the canyon walls emerged from the darkness, distinguishing themselves from the dim, early morning sky. All different shades of darkness. 

Just after sunrise we crossed the Colorado River and made our way to Phantom Ranch. The pale green river was a stunning sight as it coursed through the muted rust of the rocky canyon. And everywhere it and its tributaries snaked, life emerged, vibrant and green from the floor and walls of the otherwise dry and dusty canyon. This was one of the first surprises the canyon offered us. Photos of the Grand Canyon always display its hard, magnificent, rocky structure. As the sun rose and we made our way into the bottom of the canyon we were all taken aback at her verdant softness, at the magnitude of leafy life she held. 

After Phantom Ranch, the trail led us through something called “the box.” Steep canyon walls border a narrow tributary with just enough space for the thin rocky trail to run alongside. Following this several-mile portion, the walls suddenly fall away and open up onto expansive fields of cactus, wildflowers and shrubby trees. While we were running through these fields the sun was finally making its appearance over the edge of the canyon and somewhere along the way we had to stop and apply sunscreen. 

While we were in the fields I was running behind both Megan and Liz and I remember thinking that if we were going to see a mountain lion, this is where it would happen. The abundant foliage is where any big game, deer, elk or large rodents would be rustling around for food and therefore a large predator could reasonably be close by. I sped up until I was practically stepping on Liz’s heels and tried to keep my fear in check. 

The day before, when I learned that mountain lions are occasionally seen in the Grand Canyon I had done some furious last-minute research. I found that someone is more likely to die by an automobile accident involving a deer near the Grand Canyon than by an encounter with a mountain lion in the Grand Canyon. I also learned that if you see a mountain lion you cannot run or hide as instinct would encourage. Instead you should remain standing tall and make direct eye contact (what a metaphor), be very still or slowly back away and, I’m guessing, hope and pray that she doesn’t find you appetizing, or you don’t in some way trigger her predatory instincts. 

After the fielded portion at the bottom of the canyon we made it to the last rest stop before the North Rim. Here we encountered several other people running and hiking rim to rim to rim. Their energy and camaraderie was enlivening and we set off on the last four and a half miles of trail, with 3,000 feet of elevation to climb, determined. 

This was easily the most difficult portion of the trail. We were approaching midday, the sun was shining hot, and at the same time we were approaching 8,000 ft. elevation. Much higher than any of us live and train. We distracted each other with both meaningful and lighthearted conversation. We avoided gazing upwards, knowing we had to climb all the way up the walls that towered before us. 

Hours later we crested the North Rim. The relief, though complete, was short lived. Snow piled beside the roadway and as I sat to rest and eat what food I could, several muscles in my legs cramped up. It was here, at the top of the North Rim that I became truly scared for the first time. The sun was hot, yet I was shivering cold, I felt delirious, couldn’t sit down due to the cramping in my legs and we were only halfway done. We had to turn around and go back. I did what I could to fight back tears. After all, there were several other runners at the top of the North Rim, they all had to do the same thing we were about to do and crying would only smear my dusty, glittering cheeks. 

We didn’t rest long. We filled up our waters, got some food out of our packs and started on our way back down. Though the descent was a relief from the brutality of climbing several thousand feet, it presented its own challenges in the form of screaming joints and painful feet. Our arrival back into the semi-flat bottom of the canyon was bliss. We sailed through miles 30 - 40, on track to negative split the two halves. 

We arrived back at Phantom Ranch as very different people than when we had strode in from the South Rim earlier that morning. The remaining 9 miles seemed like a herculean feat — and it turned out, they would be. 

When the sun set around 7:45 p.m. we had four miles left to go. It took us well over two hours to complete those last four miles. The exhaustion was like nothing I had ever felt. My muscles weren’t burning from the climb, I wasn’t horribly out of breath, and yet, I could barely walk a tenth of a mile without needing a break. 

Total darkness settled long before we reached the top, so we couldn’t look up and see how much farther we had to go. We could, however, see the headlights of other runners and hikers, slowly making their way up the Bright Angel trail to the top of the South Rim. They formed a gradual procession along the path that ran back and forth across the canyon wall. From the bottom looking up, it was hard to tell where the headlights ended and the stars began. But there was something reassuring about seeing those lights, ahead of us and behind us, all on the same path. 

During one of our last rests before the top, a group of hikers passed us. Our headlamps shone into one another's eyes as we congratulated and encouraged each other. One of those hikers told us that our glitter was still sparkling and I honestly think this was the extra push that we needed to get to the top. It brought us back to our joy, to the adventure and pulled us ever so slightly from the depths of exhaustion. 

Sometimes finishing a daunting task or accomplishing a looming milestone can feel bittersweet. Finality has a way of leaving us feeling a bit empty, hanging. This was not the case for me as I crested the South Rim after 19 hours of running and hiking across the Grand Canyon and back. We had pushed our bodies to their utmost limits and experienced the grandness of one of the seven wonders of the world in a very complete way. 

The Grand Canyon formed millions of years ago, though some of the rocks it exposed are billions of years old. After the Colorado Plateau got pushed up thousands of feet by the same forces that created the Rocky Mountains, water from those mountains ran down and across the plateau, forming the Colorado River and, eventually, the Grand Canyon. Anyone who has sat on its ledge and looked into the abyss has felt the pangs of dizziness caused by its almost incomprehensible vastness. Forces of such magnitude can make humans, especially a human lifetime feel so small and trivial. We are but a blip on the earth’s journey, which itself is tiny in comparison to the journey of the universe. 

Our lives go quickly, and at times it feels like we are racing through those short lives as fast as we can.

Somewhere along the trail that day, Liz had reminded us of a poem by Alexi Pappas, “not your first, not your last, enjoy your now, now will go fast.” That entire day we couldn’t be anywhere but exactly where we were. The now. If we weren’t present, we could have easily slipped off a trail, or stumbled on a rock. One step after another, again and again and again. Until we had walked more than 100,000 steps and our bodies were done. We got to see the Grand Canyon from a thousand different angles and in every single light. 

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