Chronicles of an Endurance Athlete's Wife

Married to an Ultra Runner

The Grandest Canyon

By now it has become glaringly apparent that I tend to do things that I am neither physically or mentally prepared for.  (See previous posts on topics such as: road biking 2000 feet up a mountain 5 weeks after giving birth, running up that same damn mountain 3 years later and then right back down it, running a trail half marathon when the furthest distance I’d ever run prior to the race was 6 miles, etc.)  I haven’t yet decided if it’s stubbornness, boldness, adventurousness, stupidity, naivety or my husband’s overwhelming confidence in my abilities that moves me to attempt these feats.  Whatever it is, I did it again.

A few weeks ago, my friend Mary Jane called me up to ask if I wanted to join her for an overnight trip to the Grand Canyon.  I’m embarrassed to admit that despite having lived in Northern Arizona for five years, I had never been to the Grand Canyon (other than a quick “how’s your mother” over a little bridge once on a road trip home from Utah.)  The thought of spending a night in a charming lodge on the edge of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World with some badass women was alluring, and I figured I could maybe even run a few miles down and up, then spend the rest of the morning sitting in a warm cafe reading a book and eating mediocre pastries while waiting for my seasoned runner friends to make it back from the bottom of the canyon.

Somehow, the plan quickly escalated from a quiet canyonside breakfast, to a quick 5 mile jaunt, to running down the Kaibab trail and back up.

“If you’re going to run the canyon, you might as well just go for it,” my husband said supportively when I started to second guess my choice to run the 13 mile Kaibab out-and-back on my own.  Mary Jane and our two other friends were planning on running 7.6 miles down the Bright Angel trail to the Colorado River, followed by a few more miles along the water before crossing a bridge and climbing 7 miles and 5,000 feet up the Kaibab trail for a hearty 17.7 mile loop.  Um yeah, that’s a strong Hell No for me, dawg.

True, I had been running a little more than normal over the past couple of months, averaging about 22 miles per week.  That being said, the majority of those miles were spent on a treadmill at exactly “0” incline with a fan spewing a steady cool breeze in my face and the option to quit was as easy as pushing a giant red button that says STOP.  Yes, yes I think I will, smart little fake running machine.

But somehow (and even in retrospect I’m not even sure how it happened) I went from second guessing my decision to run Kaibab to committing to the full 17.7 mile loop the morning of the trip.  Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was pride, maybe it was the fear of running in the canyon alone, maybe it was my husband’s persistent belief that I could do it.  Whatever it was, the day after Halloween I loaded myself into Mary Jane’s car with an inordinate amount of snacks and a shaky resolve to push myself farther and harder than ever before.

We arrived at the canyon just as the sun was setting. Standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that night, I was completely blown away by her beauty, vastness and sacredness.  Looking down into that monstrous, beautiful chasm as the sky blazed its signature sunset hues of pink and orange, I was overcome with a sense of reverence.  There really is nothing quite like the Grand Canyon, and I finally understood the hype.  Still, I was in disbelief that a human (let alone myself) could run down to the bottom of it, and then (hopefully) back up all in a single trip.

After gawking like a little child over the South Rim, MJ and I met up with our friends Sam and Mackenzie for a delicious and overpriced meal at Al Tovar, then settled into our “rustic” room (ie Sam and Mackenzie were smart enough to bring sleeping bags to avoid using the hotel sheets).  I fell asleep quickly, looking forward to a night uninterrupted by cries for “Mama” and slept soundly despite the roaring nervousness and doubt that had borne into my gut ever since I decided to run the whole loop.

I woke up the next morning to a loving text from my husband, encouraging me that I could do it, he was proud of me and to not get dead.  The four of us packed our bags, double checked our hydration sources and laughed about the strange selection of food I had brought: a bagel and cream cheese, 2 PB&J sandwiches, 2 protein bars, a small stache of my kids’ Halloween candy, salted cashews and a bag of Corn Nuts, all per my husband’s request.  I didn’t even mention that I had forgotten to pack the 3 bean and cheese burritos he had urged me to make.  At the very least, I would not starve to death.

After a few mandatory pre-run selfies, we took off down Bright Angel.  It was a difficult balance between making sure to stay on the trail while still taking in the beautiful scenery unfolding around me.  There’s nothing like running between the mammoth rock walls of the Grand Canyon to make you realize your trifling significance in the macrocosm of nature.  I held back tears on multiple occasions, not from pain but from respect and awe.  “You save that salt and water, damnit,” I told my hypersensitive self, struck by the large WARNING sign I had seen about the dangers of going to the river and back in one day, which was accompanied by a drawing of a man vomiting violently on his hands and knees.  Note to self: going to the river and back will turn you into one of Daenarys Targaryan’s dragons spewing fire at her demand for Dracarys.

We were cruising, and I felt invigorated by the feeling of weightless flight that accompanies hardcore descent, despite the tightening in my calves.  We made it to Indian Gardens- an uncanny oasis of water and trees after stark desert-like foliage- and I felt strangely good.  For the first time, I started to believe that maybe I could do this.  When we finally rounded the corner for my first glimpse of the Colorado river, about an hour and 20 minutes after we began, I was torn with ambivalence: I made it to the bottom, but ohholyhellwhathaveIdone, now I have to climb OUT?!  It was really the first time I realized that I was literally about to climb out from the bottom of the MOTHER FREAKING GRAND CANYON.  Like, from the bottomest bottom of it.  (Later, my husband deadpanned that I hadn’t really done the whole thing because I didn’t get a rock from the bottom of the Colorado, which he said was mandatory.  I only believed him for 5-85 seconds.)

After running across a long suspension bridge, we refilled our packs, ate some snacks on Boatman’s Beach, dipped our feet in the crisp water, and started our ascent.

“This is when shit gets REAL!” MJ called out, having made this exact loop multiple times before.

And she was right.  For as glad as I was that my screaming calves were taking a backseat to my climbing quads, nothing could have prepared me for the relentless climb.  Mile.  After. Mile.  After. Mile.

It was grueling.  It was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done.  There was a point- about 1 mile from the top- that I actually thought I wouldn’t make it.  But then MJ, who had been mountain-goating up ahead, dropped back down to rally me for the last few thousand meters.

My legs were wobbly and my breathing was labored.  Casual day hikers descending for the scenic view looked at me with pity and apprehension.  Maybe I even looked like the Dragon vomiting man on the signs.  Probably.  But I did it.  The whole loop took me just under 5 hours, but I made it to the top.

It was then that I realized that part of the beauty of the canyon is that you have to EARN it.  You have to endure the physical duress, the mental games and the self-doubt to experience her true grandeur.  Like so many things in life, beauty is forged through hardship and we don’t really see its grace until after we emerge on top.

It has been two days since I climbed out of the canyon, and I have to say that the soreness I feel is unlike any other.  As I hobble around the house, I can see my husband smirk in quiet satisfaction.  “Oh, are you sore?” he snickers, and I immediately regret feeling little sympathy for his post-ultra run woes in the past.  How bad could it hurt?  I used to think.  But now I know.  Oh, honey.  I know all too well.

Still, despite the pain of climbing and the soreness aftermath, I am already planning my next trip to the Grand Canyon- to see her beauty, to feel her unparalleled energy,to be ensnared by her inevitable pain, but to emerge at the top stronger, always.

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  1. Fantastic recap Steph. Thanks for bringing me along on a route I have looked at many times but may never get to actually experience.
    But then again, if you can do it, why not me? You’ve set a high bar.

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