A Grand Day
Updated: May 5, 2021
It was twilight when I finally began hiking down Bright Angel Trail. Not quite dark enough for my headlamp, but just enough that I descended with extra caution so as not to slip down looser rocks. Surprisingly, Nick was near enough to have service; I kept my phone open to Find My Friends in order to gauge how close we were to one another. He had called me an hour before saying to expect them back on the South Rim later than the initial estimate, but that he was only 4.5 miles away. Nick and his friends were moving slowly, but still making upward progress. During that call, Nick suggested I hike down into the canyon with extra food and water if I didn't mind. Honestly, I was pretty bored at this point and leaped at the opportunity to assist in his final push. I continued to descend further and further, stopping to take a few photos of the moon rising above the cliffs. I hoped I would run into them soon as I glanced upward at the elevation I had so quickly lost. Darkness soon overtook me as I watched maybe 15 headlamps light up the trail in the distance.
About 6 months ago, Nick decided to commit to run Rim2Rim2Rim (R2R2R) in the Grand Canyon. Forty-six miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain, R2R2R has become a popular conquest in the ultra-running community. Runners will typically descend from the South Kaibab trail on the South Rim, ascend North Kaibab (6,000ft of gain here) to reach the North Rim, take this trail back into the canyon, then finally ascend the final 4,000 ft of vert via Bright Angel Trail back to the South Rim. Currently, the Fastest Known Time for this route belongs to ultra-marathoner, Jim Walmsley, who completed this insanity in a mere 5:55:20. Nick estimated that his attempt would take anywhere from 10-13 hours.
Our friends, Andrew, Rhianna and "Pro-Skier Nick (who also became known as "Nerk" on this trip), had agreed to tackle this behemoth of a run alongside Nick a few weeks earlier. Andrew is an accomplished runner who doesn't just finish ultra-marathons, he wins them. I was shocked to find out he rarely wears a hydration vest during races, instead opting for lighter hand held water bottles and filling up at aid stations. Rhianna is a local speedster who has run her fair share of ultra-distance races, and can keep up both physically and mentally with most men she shares the trails with. She has a habit of using "grand" as an adjective in her daily conversations, and I couldn't help but smile as she stammered over an equal, but different description for the Canyon. Nerk, who I used to associate more with his ski prowess, is actually quite the trail runner. He completed the Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup (WURL) last summer, surviving for 36 hours off of sheer will-power and gummy bears. I was relieved that Nick would have company, but more importantly support in case of an emergency. Together, they were in for an epic day.
After an ~8 hr drive from Salt Lake to the East entrance of the park, Nick and I finally arrived at a beautiful, secluded free campsite. Technically, the site was in the Kaibab National Forest, but just about 0.5 mile from the main road going through the National Park. It was sunny and relatively warm. After setting up the space, I sunbathed in my camp chair for a while hoping the weather would be this good tomorrow so I'd be able to read in my hammock while everyone else was out on the run. The rest of the group, who drove separately, arrived an hour or two later. The temperature began to drop, and we huddled around the campfire. Everyone prepped their packs, filling their bottles with electrolyte drinks and stuffing gels into pockets. Andrew sat beside me sorting through his bag of gummy bears, leaving the clear and yellows behind. We laughed, shared stories and made final plans for the day ahead. The air filled with a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and smoke. I can't imagine how they managed to sleep knowing the inevitable suffering that was to come in a few short hours.
Our alarms went off a 4:15AM. Outside was quite chilly at 32 degrees. I painfully got dressed in shorts and a thin long-sleeve as I had decided the night before that I would run with them part of the way into the canyon to Skeleton Point. Although we had initially agreed to start at 5:00AM, unexpected bathroom and parking issues arose pushing the time back to 5:30AM. We began the descent at South Kaibab just as the sun was rising. I gave some space between me and the rest of the group stopping to take photos of the breathtaking landscape. Nick and I had previously visited the Grand Canyon briefly back in 2017. We didn't have time for any long hikes that day and had settled for stopping at an overlook. I remember thinking it was beautiful, but not much else. This time I was absolutely inspired. The colors of the canyon intensified as the sun began to illuminate the cliff sides. Once at Skeleton Point, I could finally see the deep blue of the Colorado River. My eyes welled with gratitude. I sat for a while gazing in awe at the vast scene feeling so alive. Finally, the chill in the air became too much for my bare legs so I reluctantly turned around and power hiked back up to the trailhead.
I got back to the van relatively early at around 8:30AM. In retrospect, I should have planned for maybe a longer hike or run down to the bottom of the canyon, but at the time, I was anticipating sleeping in and starting the run a little later. Instead, I spent the day casually wandering around the Village and Visitor Center, stopping to take photos from the main overlooks and driving into the small nearby town of Tusayan for coffee. I returned to the campsite to read after a while, but I came back to find that our camp chairs, table, and even Andrew's tent had been blown across the road. Instead of relaxing in my hammock, I struggled to anchor everything down despite the heavy winds. After an hour of hammering stakes and placing rocks onto the chairs, I took out a blanket and cuddled in the hammock to read, feeling satisfied. Maybe 30 minutes later, I heard a noise and saw that everything had yet again been blown into the neighboring site. I ultimately decided to pack up our belongings and drive to the trailhead to wait for the group to finish. Nick had sent me an update at around 11:30AM that he had made it to the North Rim and assumed it would take another 6-7 hours to make it back. I glanced at my watch. It was already 5:00PM. I eagerly drove back to the trailhead, hoping I'd be able to get some celebratory photos.
At 5:52PM, I got an update from Nick via our Garmin InReach Mini. "At phantom w a and n". My heart sank. Phantom Ranch was at the bottom of the canyon and a good 9 miles from the South Rim via Bright Angel. Something must have gone wrong, but I didn't know what. I couldn't do much at that point except trust that if he needed me to do anything, he would send another text. I settled in the back of the van to read knowing I'd have at least a few hours before they'd arrive. As I waited, I kept glancing between my book and phone, hoping for an update. Finally, the phone rang. The connection was poor, but Nick let me know they were 4.5 miles away. Andrew had some dehydration issues back at Phantom Ranch which delayed them, but everyone was fine and the group was moving now. After Nick's suggestion of meeting them somewhere along the trail, I hastily packed my bag.
I moved slowly on purpose. I realized that the faster I hiked, the farther the descent and the more remaining ascent I'd have to get back up. I was embarrassed to admit, but even after my relatively short morning run, my calves and thighs were especially sore and each step downward sent a pull into my right calf that concerned me. Nick's blue dot on Find My Friends was inching toward me, but at an aggressively slow pace. After a while, I got lost in my own thoughts and kept my eyes downward on the trail. I noticed occasionally a few weary hikers pass me, excited to finally end their adventure. Suddenly, a familiar bright light was a few feet away. I recognized it instantly. "Nick!?" "Hannah? Man, am I glad to see you!" I quickly took out some chips and water from my bag, which Nick devoured instantly. He was exhausted. Nerk was with him, also looking fatigued, but much fresher than Nick. He told me Andrew and Rhianna were slightly farther behind and that he would wait for them to catch up. Nick decided he needed to keep moving before he cramped up, so together we tried to tackle his last 2.5 miles and 1400 ft of gain.
"Come on, Nick! You got this!" Nick's energy was fading quickly; we were stopping every quarter of a mile to rest. I found myself offering cliche motivational words of encouragement, hoping something would give him a spark he desperately needed. Nerk suddenly appeared behind us, moving rather quickly. "We just got a little over a mile left! I'm feeling good so I'll meet you at the top" And off he went. Nick grunted, "He is in such great shape." "So are you," I added. Seeing him voluntarily suffer, accept vulnerability and face his weaknesses, but still keep trudging forward was a privilege. This is why I fell in love with the ultra-running community a few years ago. These people run these seemingly crazy distances and set out to conquer these impossible tasks like running the span of the Grand Canyon, and are somehow able to perform both mentally and physically. Every long run or race like this that Nick does, I imagine that he is shedding layers of himself. Becoming more and more self-aware, authentic, and resilient. I saw an athlete somewhere say that on a suffering/happiness scale of 1 to 10, most people live their lives in a 4-6 range, rarely experiencing the full spectrum. In order to experience a 10, we must also be willing to endure a 1. I think in a way ultras provide us with that opportunity. Looking over at him climbing up the last big push, I thought he was maybe at a 2. After turning a corner, we spotted Nerk up ahead. He came toward us and said, "Traditionally, I think people try to run it in for the last few feet" Nick in classic fashion, not wanting to do anything he doesn't want to do, walked straight past him and said "No." I laughed. Maybe this wasn't a 10, but it seemed pretty close.
The Next Day
Nick, Nerk, Andrew, and Rhianna all finished with blisters, chafing, and weary bodies. We drove in the dark toward Page, AZ where we luckily had already booked a hotel. Nick got some much needed rest on an actual bed plus a hot shower. He felt a little sore, but mostly normal the next morning. On our way out, we stopped at Lake Powell to soak up some sun before our long drive back home.
Nick had said the night before that this Grand Canyon run was the hardest thing he had done and that he wasn't sure if he was going to want to do another 50 mile race he signed up for this summer. I brought it up again at Lake Powell, where he smiled and told me, "We'll see." I smiled back glad to know his memory had already failed him and that these things don't have to stop.