So here I sit. Legs up a wall and laptop slightly falling into my face while I try to type in this awkward position. I am searching to find the words to explain the amazing adventure we had in the Grand Canyon. I hope I can capture it here.
It was September some time and I was in the Valley. I tried to motivate to climb but instead I joined the gathering of climbers sitting in the shade around Tom Evans. We must have sat there all day talking about climbing and everything in between. Cheering on the crushers pushing in the heat to send El Cap. I was on the tail end of my fractured foot and itching to get back out running long distances. The previous morning I had free soloed Tenaya Peak, and that morning I had motivated to get in a short run up Cathedral gully finally boulder hopping my way back down at a clipping speed with minimal pain. Needless to say, I was feeling rather invincible. So there I was sitting in the meadow dreaming about my next big objective. Nolan’s 14 crushed me and breaking my foot had made dealing with the crushing even worse, but now I was coming back and ready to train.
The idea to run the Grand Canyon had been in my mind for about a year now. In my mind I always imagined it being this epic feat of days on days on days of running, but when I finally sat down and Googled the distance it only came out to about 42 miles. I was psyched that seemed reasonable and totally doable in a day. The only problem was that I wanted a partner. I made the bad decision to attempt Nolan’s 14 alone. Though I don’t regret it. I think it would have been much more enjoyable with company. This however is a problem I face often. I don’t hang out in running circles. I hang out with climbers. Badass crusher climbers, who don’t particularly enjoy running or at least running for hours on end. But sitting in the meadow my foot finally healing, stoke level high, and sharing a yoga mat with Libby Sauter I had an idea. Libby, an expert in suffering and badass crusher climber, had been running a little bit. A very little bit. I later found out only 5 times in the past 4 years since badly breaking her leg. I thought Libby would be the perfect partner, she’s determined and not afraid to suffer. So on a whim I asked her if she wanted to run the Grand Canyon with me around Thanksgiving. Initially she wasn’t sure if I was serious, but then she got stoked. The only problem was that we had about two months to train for a massive run, and I was still recovering from a broken foot and she had some big El Cap plans.
All this to say we trained… actually not at all. We met up once in Yosemite Valley to run the Rim River Rim River Rim of Yosemite which entailed starting at glacier point running down the 4 mile trail across the valley up the Yosemite falls trail down the Yosemite falls trail across the valley up the 4 mile trail. Roughly 20 miles and approximately 9,000 feet of elevation gain which meant 9,000 feet of elevation loss as well. It would simulate about half of what running the Grand Canyon would be like. When we finished we felt good but that quickly turned into calf cramps and funny walking. In only 3 more weeks it would be the real thing and we would be deep in the Grand Canyon not on the familiar terrain of the Sierras.
We were on a tight schedule. A super tight schedule. Libby only had 3 days off of work so we knew we would be pushing hard to drive down, run, and drive back. But we were psyched! We met up Thursday night made sure we had all of the essentials and started the journey to the Grand Canyon. I had chatted up one of my good friends who guides down there and he made plans to meet us in the bottom of the canyon and help pace us out. Unfortunately he bailed last minute for splitter climbing in Red Rocks. I couldn’t blame him. I’d rather be climbing in Red Rocks instead of running the Grand Canyon. At this point I had entered the apprehension phase, as I like to call it. It’s a phase that happens during all big objectives. The phase where you doubt all of your training and doubt you ability to do anything and everything every again. You think about how great it would be to just take this time and do some nice warm sport climbing in Red Rocks instead of dragging your ass across the Grand Canyon and back. During this phase you come up with a million different ways to get out of doing what you had planned to do. Sometimes you even draft up a text to your partner explaining how your recently fractured foot or bad head cold is going to keep you from following through on your plans. You never do send anything. This phase always passes, but I think it’s natural to feel this way sometimes.
Libby and I drove most of the night Thursday night before tucking away in a interstate rest stop off the 5. The next morning we finished the drive talking about everything and anything to pass the time and getting more and more nervous as the landscape quickly changed to desert. We talked about water mostly. Mainly because we were trying to hydrate, which entailed peeing every 150 miles on the side of interstate. This made the drive drag on forever. And also because Libby had expressed concerns about a 30 mile stretch of the canyon that might be waterless. We talked about it a lot and she planned to carry more water because of it. I on the other hand was very unconcerned about the water issue. I felt like a liter and a half was more than enough for the sections we couldn’t fill up at. I continually tried to assure her we would be fine and it wouldn’t be a big deal. This has often been a fault of mine. I tend to take a no big deal attitude to a lot of things that are actually a pretty big deal. Being with out water in the Grand Canyon with no way of getting out but by foot would have been a pretty fucking big deal. When you first come into the canyon it is littered with signs warning death by dehydration. Maybe Libby was right. I was about to find out.
When we got to the Grand Canyon Friday night the sun had just set. We drove to the entrance gate to ask the rangers questions about trailheads and water. They assured us the water would be off from Phantom Ranch to the North Rim and gave us instructions on parking for the South Kaibab trail. It looked like we would have to park a mile away from the trailhead which meant we would be adding an extra 2 miles on to the run, one before and one after finishing the canyon. When you are already running 42 miles an extra 2 miles doesn’t seem like a big deal. We drove out of the park and slept in a hotel parking lot about 5 minutes away from the entrance. We got the van organized and started to pack our food talking about what and how much we needed for fueling. The excitement started to surge inside of me. It was finally going to happen. We made a game plan for the morning. We would wake up at 4:50am and drive into the park locating the pull out where we could leave the van. Then we would eat breakfast, get dressed, and prepare any more food and water for the trail. We wanted to be running just as the sky got light enough to see. We were in bed by 7pm.
Click headlamps on. It was morning and I was excited. We drove into the park and found the parking spot no problems. We quickly prepared and peered out into the darkness. It was 5am and the moon was set. The night was dark. Very dark. But not only dark it was bone chilling cold and the icing on the cake was the wind. We knew the night running would be slow so we wanted to make sure we did the down hill in the daylight maximizing our fresh legs and gravity. We both laid in my bed in the van in our warm sleeping bags just waiting for dawn to break. Staring out the windshield we laid in silence. At 6:15 am it was time to go. Everything on, car keys check, time to go! A quick glance at the clock showed 6:22 am as we started our way on the paved rim trail. We quickly gained warmth and Libby shed her puffy before we even got to the trailhead. At the trailhead we didn’t miss a beat plummeting down the extremely icy trail and trying not to loose it in front of a few men standing with there hands on there watches looking like they were ready to start what we had started a few minutes earlier. When the trail stopped being icy we knew we were rapidly loosing altitude and could relax a little bit. Libby looked back at me and said “I think we are going to get passed today. Those guys looked fast.” As the sun rose the canyon opened up below us. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was beautiful.
We made quick progress of the South Rim. Using the GoPro a lot and taking photos of the views. We had both forgotten to use sunscreen which we feared would by a huge problem by the end. Libby joked “A ginger and a cuban run the Grand Canyon without sunscreen. Which one gets more burnt?” followed by “A runner and rock climber run the Grand Canyon. Which one gets more worked?” Libby shouted “Damn it I get fucked in all these scenarios!!” When the Colorado River finally came into sight we felt a relief that 1/4 of the objectives was finished only 3 more to go. The trail was closed for a bit which redirected us through a campground but we kept moving till we got to Phantom Ranch. At Phantom Ranch we chatted up the tourists and refilled our water. Our plan was to carry a little extra water for another 5 miles and then stash it before summiting the North Rim. This would help break up the 30 mile stretch which we feared could be waterless. Libby took an extra 2 Liters and I added an extra 1 Liter to my pack. We headed for the North Rim. The problem with the North Rim is that it is ever so slightly going up hill for 15 miles. So slightly that you don’t really notice it and don’t understand why the flats feel so hard. We made progress but barely talked at all. We had distance between us and the extra weight on our backs wasn’t helping our speed. We stashed the water were we thought would be appropriate and felt a little lighter and faster. Less then a mile from our stash we came up on the campground below the North Rim. It looked under construction and a few people were milling about. I tried the water and to my surprise it began to run. Damn it I thought we didn’t need to bring all that extra water! O well we kept moving. By the time we reached the final 5 mile push which ascends the North Rim we couldn’t believe how terrible that section of trail was. Neither of use were excited to retrace our steps through that on the way back.
At this point almost 20 miles into the run the two fast looking men we had passed at the beginning finally caught up to us. We chatted for a bit of the up hill and then they charged on ahead. Libby and I couldn’t believe it had taken them so long to catch us. Even after we kept what we thought was a crawling pace for almost 10 miles. We ascended the North Rim slowly making jokes and chatting along. We could tell we were getting higher as the trail became more icy. I looked back at Libby and said “Just remember it only hurts because it’s hard!” To which she responded “And it’s only fun because it’s hard.” We continued up hill. When we reached the North Rim the two men were just leaving we exchanged hellos and figured we might see them again on the downhill. The North Rim kind of sucked. There were no views and everything was covered in snow. Libby and I sat in the road with our puffy jackets on to keep us warm and eat a bit before heading back down. I lamented that the nice thing about the Grand Canyon in the winter is that you have no other option then to finish at this point. We laughed a bit at the thought we were only half way done. Our laughing often turned into painful coughing which then turned into occasional gaging. The North Rim was the closest I came to vomiting as Libby made a joke and I laughed coughed gaged a bit.
It was time to go again. I moved slow on the initial downhill because of all the snow and ice. I couldn’t imagine how terrible it would be to slip and break or tear something that far from help. Libby moved a little faster ahead of me. Almost out of the snow Libby ate it hard. This was exactly what I was afraid of. She quick did a check and everything seemed okay. Phew now it was just downhill downhill and downhill. As we passed some backpackers we joked “It’s all downhill from here… Until its uphill again.” We could see the two guys in front of us. We were gaining on them slowly. Libby thought we might be able to catch them. After all, we were definitely faster then them on the downhill. But then it hit me. “O my god Libby I am going to shit my pants right now. O my god I am going to shit right here. O my god!” I quick ripped my pants down kicked up a little hole by the side of the trail and relaxed. Rupturous farts exploded from me but I didn’t actually shit. I felt better. Lets keeping going I yelled. I had eaten my entire burrito on the North Rim and with an already sensitive stomach I knew I should have stuck to gels. My body was having trouble digesting and the constant pound on the downhill wasn’t helping. We never did catch the men but we were clipping along quickly. Almost down the steep part of the down hill I had another one of the stomach fits. This time there was no time to kick a hole. Almost simultaneous to my proclamation of immediate need to shit, Libby loudly announced she was going to vomit. So here is the scene. Two girls on the trail. Trekking poles and backpacks yard saled on the trail. One with her pants around her ankles making loud echoing farts, and one with her hands on her knees saliva draining from her mouthing coughing and gaging. This is what a horrified hiker, runner, or backpacker would have seen if they crested around the corner of the fourth mile on the North Kaibab trail. Libby held it together and laid horizontal on the trail trying to combat the need to vomit. I similarly lost no liquids or solids. A minute passed and we were both feeling worlds better. We continued down the hill to the next place we knew we could get water. Laughing about how absolutely ridiculous what just happened was.
We filled up on water and continued on our way to Phantom Ranch. It was clear at this point that we could make it there before sunset. We quickly made it to our water stash and drink a bit before pouring the rest out. There was no need to carry extra weight on our back. We kept light conversation excited about how we were more than half way done. Pounding a gel here and there and skirting along the river. By the time we got to Phantom Ranch it was 6pm. We filled up on water and talked with some of the tourist we had seen 10 hours earlier. They observed, “It’s good to see you guys are still friends. Laughing and having good time even after all of that.” It was funny because it was true. We were just as happy and laughing as we were when we rolled in optimistic and fresh that morning. We sat by the water spicket for a bit eating and drink before we headed in search of a bathroom. A quick bathroom break and we would be on a non stop push for the finish. At this point 12 hours in and the entire South Kaibab trail of climbing left to do we thought it unlikely we would do it in under 15 hours. But at this point we didn’t care we knew we needed to get out and it didn’t matter how long it took us to get there.
We were on a non stop march. There was only one thing left to do and we weren’t getting there any faster. We switched our head lamps on and started the journey. The moon was bright but we needed to stay focused. This is when we came up with… the bubble. There is no life outside the bubble. The bubble has no concept of distance, no concept of time. There is no start and there is no finish inside the bubble. The bubble protects you. Don’t ever leave the bubble or the bubble will leave you. When your eyes stray from the bubble the bubble shalt make thy trip and stumble. This banter back and forth lasted for a few hours as we marched up the trail not letting hour eyes stray from the head lamp bubble on the ground in front of us. The elevation and distance seemed to fly by and before we knew it Phantom Ranch was just a light on the bottom of the canyon. We switched our headlamps off and decided to finish the final miles by moonlight. It was cool out but not cold yet. The sky opened up with a million stars and the moonlight illuminated the tops of the mesas. We had no idea how far we had left. My watch head died hours ago on the North Rim. We just knew it we would get there some how. Everything hurting and we still had a ways to go. Libby proclaimed “Climbing is so much easier than running.” Explaining and comparing running and climbing for a few feet. I had warned Libby about this phase. It happens in almost every hard run I have every done. It is the period where everything in the world is easier than what you are doing and you can’t imagine why any one would want to do this. You saying things like “Climbing is so much easier. I’m just going to take the next few months and do nothing but climbing.” It goes both ways though. Often on really hard climbs I will find myself thinking “Running is so much easier! It’s so simple and easy.”
Around this time however, I started to bonk hard. I had run out of water because I, in my delirious state, forgot to refill my water at Phantom Ranch. With no water I couldn’t eat the gels that I so badly needed and I started to inwardly moan with every step. At one point I found a nice looking bivy site off the side of the trail and I half jokingly stated we had reached our final destination. Libby was feeling it too. How glorious it would be to finally stop. To finally be done moving. The inward moaning turned to outward moaning and about a mile from the top Libby handed me some water from her pack and I took another gel. The feeling of life came back quickly and I knew we were going to make it out, which at moments I wasn’t totally sure we would. Out of no where there it was, the top. We had finally made it. Shivering we put on our puffy and finished out the final mile to the van. It felt unreal that we had made it up the South Rim in only 3 hours without stopping once. The clock showed 9:33pm when we check it at the van.
We high fived and celebrated that it was finally done. It however was far from done. We still had to drive back to San Francisco. When I finally sat down in the van my brain could tell my body to relax. It was over. There was nothing left to run. Relax. Even though it was cold I needed to get compression socks on my feet before the swelling began. But I couldn’t just put compression socks on I wanted all fresh clothing. So sitting legs outstretched in my bed I pulled my pants down. Immediately I started to shiver and subsequently my thighs started to cramp and spasm. Here I was unable to get my pants off of my ankles and shivering and convulsing. Every time I tried to left my leg up so I could reach my feet I was thrown into a world of muscle spasms and pain. This probably lasted for 15 minutes half naked and shivering. When I finally got the socks and pants on Libby was already sitting in the passenger seat wrapped in a blanket eating saltines. She was not about to take any of her clothing off it was too cold. Blasting the heat we headed for the California border. We drove all through the night exchanging stories from work and life. We were caffeinated from the gels we had eaten and riding a runners high. Not to mention we both knew that sleeping was not going to go as we wanted it to that night. Every movement would be painful. By the time we decided to bivy it was 2 am and we found ourselves at an Arizona rest stop only 20 miles from the California border. Libby promptly waddled out of the van to use the bathroom and I laid face down in my bed.
When Libby returned it had been several minutes but I had really lost concept of time. She was relieved to be back at the van and looked at me completely serious and said, “I really thought I was going to have to bivy in that bathroom on that toilet.” She had been unable to lift herself from the toilet and sat there contemplating how she would get out. It was kind of scary how helpless we were. We later after many bathroom breaks realized that the beta was to always use the handicap stalls. The extra handles allow you to lower and push yourself up with your arms instead of having to engage your thigh and leg muscles. We hunkered down there for the night and to no surprise slept terribly. In the morning we finished back to California. Just in time for us both to go back to work on Monday morning.