“Why the fuck am I doing this?” I grumbled. Yelling or shouting or some other violent form of expression would have been a more accurate reflection of the volume of my inner dialogue, but I didn’t want to alert the trail crew I had passed a few minutes before. Things echo among tall stone walls.
I had started down the Bright Angel trail 6 hours earlier, 5:10 am, give or take a few minutes (I forgot to check). The sun was far from rising but there was enough light that I briefly considered turning back and putting my headlamp in the car. (I didn’t). I was in my element: empty trails, runnable but still technical and steep enough to be interesting, soft pre-dawn light bathing a surreal landscape. I reached the 1.5-mile rest house at 5:30 am, trying to reconcile how speedy I felt with the slower pace I was actually running. Conserving I told myself, pacing smart to finish strong. Neither of these was true, but they made me feel better in the moment.
For context, I wasn’t chasing an FKT. I wasn’t even trying to run fast. I just had a time line in my head- 6 hours one-way, 7 hours back, for 13 hours round trip- that I’d framed my day around. I somehow still haven’t internalized the folly of such plans.
I loved every moment of the descent to Phantom Ranch- the surprise of green and leafy Indian Garden, the broad traverse above a valley, the rolling sandy cliffs alongside the Colorado. I reached the bridge at 7:10 and felt excited to be exactly where I planned to be and enamored with every bit of the experience so far- the trail, the light, the temperature, the lushness of the river.
I was running across the bridge, grinning at every day hiker like a goon, thinking how cool I must look, when WHACK- I managed to trip hard on nothing, grabbed at the bridge siding and slammed my right hand and knees hard into the metal grating. I stood up, shook it out and said, to no one, “I’m okay, just my pride.” When I stopped to take a picture of the trail distance sign at the far side of the ranch (only 13.4 miles until I can turn around…), I couldn’t use my right hand without sharp pains. Crap, I thought, but I just kept running, because you don’t really need hands to run.
The climb out of Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Camp is a gentle 6.4 miles through a tight, red canyon, aptly named The Box, alongside Bright Angel creek, and then through open desert meadows (if that’s a thing). I was at first excited for runnable terrain, but my enthusiasm faded when I passed a party at what I assumed was 4 or 5 miles in (because I was killing it, surely) and they informed me I still had 3.8 miles to go to the camp. This mini-blow to my ego wore on me over the next 50 minutes, and by the time I reached Cottonwood at 9 am, I was starting to get a case of the Negatives.
I really didn’t want to be grumpy. I had wanted to enjoy every moment of my time in this special place, and perhaps that goal in itself carries too much pride and ego. Who are we to expect running 46 miles in the desert to be easy? Who are we to expect to not suffer just because we are in a nice place?
And by the time I passed Roaring Springs (4.8 miles to the North Rim), I was definitely suffering. Primarily, I was hot. The temperatures were in the 80s as I climbed, despite it being only 9:30 am; the route was beautiful but exposed and unrelenting. I passed a few rangers and trail crews and tried to smile and look like I wasn’t dying inside. I battled with myself in my head. This sucks. But look how beautiful it is. I should just stop now and head back. You aren’t a quitter. Yeah but this is basically the top anyways, and everyone will understand how terrible it was. I took a few pictures to compensate for my shitty attitude. And then, eventually, way after I planned (11:55 am, to be exact), I finally reached the North Rim. To my surprise, there were two guys there, who chatted with me casually about my “jog”. I was in no mood for casual chatting. They let me know water was just a 10-minute walk down a snowy path (oh the irony), but to be careful as I’d likely punch through a few times. I was also in no mood to traipse through snow. I decided 20 oz. was enough to get 5.5 miles downhill. It wasn’t, and I probably knew that, but I really really wanted to get the fuck off that North Rim and start heading home.
The long, dehydrated descent led me back to my WTF question, initially posed somewhere before Supai tunnel. Why was I out here? I was clearly unprepared- post-Orcas, I did one 20 miler (Cottontail day) and one 15 – miler out on the Yakima course. I narcissistically assumed something as popular as R2R2R would be easy for a runner as “experienced” and “strong” as myself. 46 miles and 10,500 ft? That’s easier than half of Orcas! Thats how I settled on 13 hours as planned time- surely that would allow for me to go easy, swim, take pictures, and not suffer, right?
(To be fair, I did do all of those things. I took a little lunch break when I got back to water at Manzanita -Trail Butter on a Honey Stinger waffle, with almonds- yum!!, dipped myself in Bright Angel creek a few times, and stared- breathlessly, due to both exhaustion and awe- at the countless scenic vistas and neat plants I encountered.)
It wasn’t the fact that I felt bad that brought me down mentally, or the fact that I was moving slowly, it was that I was moving slow and still feeling bad. So why did I even attempt it? Why do any of us endurance athletes do the things we do? In my delusional sun-baked state, I decided it’s to experience the limits of our humanness. We undertake these journeys to test in ourselves whatever it is that we value about being human. It’s the “Am I ________ enough?” question. For you, that ________ might be smart, or fast, or funny, or powerful… for me, yesterday, it was some mix of fit and tough. But in reality, it’s a pretty dumb question. Inherent within it is the assumption that there is some level one has to reach to be a satisfying human. By even posing that question, we set ourselves up for disappointment, even in the midst of incredible things. That idea, that I needed to prove I was in some way “enough” led me to beating myself up on what was an otherwise impeccably gorgeous and perfect day on one of my biggest bucket – list runs.
To be fair, testing limits is human nature (or at least mine) and I think a certain dose is healthy. But the measurement of oneself is a slippery slope, and I’ve too often ended up unhappy because of the high standards I put myself up to.
As I ran down, a hot wind blowing my face, literally all I could look at was the immense canyon around me. All of this existed way before I came along and will continue to way after I’m gone. My self-imposed struggle did not matter one bit to the canyon or anyone else within it. Maybe a few people outside cared, but in the very grand scheme of things, I was completely insignificant. Who cared how long it took me? Slowly, I found some peace with the tough day I was having. I stopped to swim, and when I started feeling especially tired, I walked (yes, even on the downhills).
By the time I reached Phantom Ranch again (3:15 pm) I decided I was done with running. Everything hurt, and even my slowest jog made my heart race. So I sat in the creek for a bit, chatted with some Arizona Conservation Corps crew while refulling my bottle, and steeled myself for the 9 miles back up to the South Rim.
I was kinder to myself now. I was determined to not spend any more time being upset about some stupid arbitrary time limit. I wasnt perfect in my forgiveness, but as I made my slow crawl up the canyon, my spirits began to lift. The climb up was almost entirely in the shade, and the light softened as the day approached it’s end. This comfortable state lasted until past Indian Creek. But at some point just before 3-mile rest house, even my lazy hike pace became a struggle. I have never been so physically and mentally worn out that simply moving forward feels like too much. My humility reached a new level. It was the moment I have always hoped to test in 100s, but never reached. I was facing my worst fear- failure- and in knowing I wouldn’t quit, I was “enough.”
Just being there was “enough.” Just caring about something sufficiently to travel 8 hours each way was “enough”. And so I put one pole, then one foot in front of the other. A full moon rose. I went up switchback after switchback. I passed dozens of people taking pictures, finishing up their day hikes. I passed the Bright Angel trailhead sign, at 7:19 pm, and the tears started coming. No one noticed, but they didn’t need to. They took their selfie – stick shots, with the vast wonder and all the miles I’d conquered behind them, and I didn’t even have one of those self-righteous ultra runner moments. I just simply sat, and stared out at the cliffs and drank my water. If we’re trying to prove something to anyone besides ourselves, eventually we’ll wind up disappointed. Even if when we’re able to rise above that base urge, sometimes we’ll also disappoint ourselves. But being in a space so large and empty and sublimely uncaring and yes, grand, allowed me to realize that just by existing, by doing what makes us happy, I am, you are, we are enough.
P.S. My hand is working fine now- a nice bruise, but fairly functional 🙂
P.P.S. Technical aspects (gear, food, etc. to come in a later post)