An experience from the Grand Canyon April 14, 2012
I entered Grand Canyon National Park from the east entrance at Cameron, AZ. A few miles into the park is a pull off for the first view of the mighty canyon from the South Rim. The long drive down from Utah to meet friends for a rim to rim to rim run had me arriving at the first view at sunset worn from two weeks of bouldering, nine hours of driving and a lot of thinking. I parked at the paved pull off, hopped over the rock wall and took in the power and grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the mighty Colorado below. I felt a surge of power and excitement for the run but I knew it was not my time, yet. I was glad to be there to support some friends whose time was now.
Eugene had organized this rim to rim to rim run with several others from an online forum for crazed folks with a sport for suffering. I had been excited and nervous about taking on such an adventure but knew I had time to condition myself for the run. That is until a hamstring injury flared up a couple weeks before I moved into the van and out on the road. This injury healed after a few weeks, in time to enjoy the running around Bishop, CA. And enjoy them I did until the same injury reoccurred seven miles into a ten mile run. This time stretching, walking and slow jogging would not quell the injury. I walked back to the van in the wind and cold of the desert evening wondering what was wrong, how I could heal this injury and still run the canyon.
One night while camping in Utah I had the sudden urge and need to go for a run. This was a very exciting feeling but it came with mixed emotions. I still felt my leg was too injured to run. At least to run the way I wanted to or thought I needed to in order to be in shape for the Grand Canyon. In the morning I still felt I had to get out on my feet and give it a shot. I took it slow and with lots of stretching up a forest service road in Upper Joe’s Valley. If the leg acted up I would slow down, stretch and correct my posture. I was determined to figure out how to deal with this. An hour and a half later, I was sitting in the frigid waters of Joe’s Valley reservoir, soaking my legs.
As I soaked, I realized that the injury was a minor setback but my purpose for running was more major. I seemed to have let training for one run and my ego get in the way of the day to day joy of running. I remembered that I ran to be out in the woods, desert and mountains in order to reach that magical space one encounters when out on the feet. I was a bit surprised that I had let such silly things get in the way of something I loved. Was I doing this fore the present, personal enjoyment or some acknowledgeable achievement? I was reassured though when the urge to run came back out of nowhere. I knew that the urge and need to run was something I would always have, regardless of place, current physical condition or silly aspirations. When I needed it, running would be there.
Back at the south Rim of the Grand Canyon at 4am on April 14, 2012, at least 4 inches of snow had fallen. We all met at the South Kaibab trail head soon after to start the journey. I was a bit surprised and very impressed that despite the snowstorm, we were heading into the dark, snowy abyss of the canyon. Rob and I planned to only go the Colorado River and back up the Bright Angel trail as the others ran from the south rim to the north rim and back to the south rim.
The trail was slick and the tracks were soon covered again in snow as runners descended into the canyon. The steep drop offs were undistinguishable in the pre dawn darkness. I watched headlamps descend beautifully, the only speck of light around in a huge darkness, until they magically vanished into the unknown as if the canyon had swallowed them up. The darkness broke slowly as the snow clouds resisted letting in the sunrise. The lighting was gradual and a cloudy grey with snow white splashing across the view. At times, this dim lit scene was broken up by the a bright rock red and a glowing lichen green of the canyon walls. One could hardly tell that sunrise was indeed happening. This painted a surreal commencement to the day and our journey.
Rob and I passed mule trains, spectacular vistas and other canyon goers throughout the day. By the time we reached the river, sunshine was hitting us and we were sheading layers. People that had been staying down by the river had no clue what kind of a storm had been happening up on the rims. Two different worlds we were passing through today. The pleasant change in weather down in the canyon made us believe that the guys running had lucked up with a pretty pleasant day to take on such an adventure. However, by the time we reached the south rim at 2PM, the wind, cold and snow was starting to set back in. I quickly found the comfort of the Bright Angel lodge and fireplace. Many others were doing the same.
We hung out for a while and waited for the runners to start trickling in. The snow began to come down even heavier. Slowly folks showed up and informed us of a most difficult and amazing run but ever worsening conditions climbing back up the south rim. I went over to the trailhead to wait for folks and Rob staid at camp in case someone showed up. To my relief, several others had shown up and were waiting at the trailhead. After an hour of waiting, Eugene and Adon trickled in. They told of brutal white out conditions and gusty winds as they had climbed up South Kaibab. We continued to wait. A few others showed up and gave similar weather reports. They had to grip the ground in order to find the trail and not be blown into the dark abyss that had once again transformed the canyon. We all got more worried as the night grew later, the snow heavier, air colder and we could only imagine the remaining runners more exhausted. We hoped they had all staid together and were still moving as the conditions were ripe for a disaster.
I will never forget the face on the last three guys to finish, Marty, John and Art. They finished around 9:30PM at the Bright Angel Trailhead. It appeared they all had hypothermia and severe exhaustion. They shook as they tried to put food and warm drinks into their pale and wide-eyed faces. They all looked as if they had seen a ghost. Perhaps they had. They had stuck it out and pushed each other to get out safely but perhaps not sanely. Everyone that went into the canyon on this day is an inspiration. Most of these people have jobs and families but still find time to get out and enjoy such adventures, not to mention train for them beforehand.
The runners finished between 11.5-16 hours. They all agreed that this run was the hardest thing they had ever done. I was very pleased and inspired by the hike Rob and I had completed and to be around the folks that ran rim to rim to rim. The whole experience and power of the canyon was what I needed to get myself back on track with running. My time will come and I will come back to run with the power of the canyon.