Running the Canyon – Part 2 of 2 (now 2 of 3)

1 February 2012 in Memories, Trails/Hiking


Another Storm Rolls InAs I mentioned in the last blog, the beginning of our stay at the Grand Canyon put me in a running slump. I had a few false starts here and there, but what I needed was a goal to work towards. I think this is why people sign up for races. Without an end it’s sometimes hard to justify the means. So after hiking in and out of the Canyon with Lindsay on a two night trip and experiencing most of the terrain I would need to cover I decided to attempt a rim to rim solo run/hike. We only had a short time left in the Canyon. My mom was flying into Flagstaff at the end of our stay providing the perfect excuse for Lindsay to drive to the South Rim and pick me up when I was done.

So I began a pathetic training program that would leave me ill prepared for 21.5 grueling miles of trail. The only saving grace to my puny 3 mile trail run every other day was the elevation I was running at. At 8500 feet above sea level “the air is thin”. Actually if I remember right there’s not a lack of oxygen, but a change in how our bodies process it under increased barometric pressure. So if you train at high elevations your body is forced to adjust by increasing the number of red blood cells and in turn the amount of oxygen in your blood. Don’t quote me on all of that it’s been awhile, but I’m 95% sure that’s correct.

Sunrise All Black & White Anyhow I had a little hope that training at this elevation—though the mileage was less than 1/7 of what I would cover—was going to be somewhat adequate. The first portion of the run was all downhill. This would be easy on the lungs and get me out of high elevation. Then I would hopefully bare some benefit from the high elevation training once I hit the rolling hills of the second seven miles which were just 1000 feet above sea level.

When the eve of my “race” arrived I still felt ill prepared, but I reminded myself that the only person running this race was me. And in fact it was not a race, but a self-imposed challenge. I didn’t have to run the entire distance and I was certainly capable of hiking 21.5 miles in a day. My main concern became the fact that I would be attempting this by myself. If I should trip, fall, roll my ankle, or break my leg I would be left to crawl to help or wait for a passing hiker. This was a well trafficked trail, but it was towards the end of the season and hikers were fewer and fewer.

To help ease my mind we attended a ranger program called Death at the Grand Canyon literally the night before. Here I was told horrid tales of people making simple mistakes and losing their life because of it. Thankfully I knew I would be carrying enough water, food, and clothing both for hot and cold temperatures. I knew the terrain, the stops, the points for filling water and I would have Lindsay hiking a portion of the last leg to meet me. Should anything prevent me from reaching that point she would sound the alarm. After calming my nerves with these rationales the program actually served a valuable purpose in reminding me to be very careful and not to push myself too hard. I needed to eat and drink in careful balance at regular intervals whether I wanted to or not. Maintaining a proper body temperature, hydration level, and electrolyte level was key to my safety and success. So I left the program confident. I cannot say the same for Lindsay.

After checking my “gear” and supplies I was surprisingly successful falling asleep. I awoke at five in the morning, inhaled a large breakfast consisting of a scone, a banana, some orange juice, and a big bowl of cereal. I gave me body a little time to digest as I strapped on my running belt—which I had safety pinned to my cheap backpack in order to keep some of the weight off of my shoulders. With a kiss from Lindsay I was out the door.

I hiked a quarter mile up the campground entrance to the Bridal Path. Warmed up and eager to go I started my run a little early tacking on an additional 3/4 of a mile. I felt good entering the Canyon. The sun was a dim glow to the east and everything was dull and sleepy in the quiet hours before dawn. As I pounded down the trail—which initially after a series of switchbacks becomes a succession of irregular steps—I was very careful to stop before drinking or taking in the view. It can be difficult enough to walk these trails without a constant eye on the ground. Here I would need to maintain constant eye contact with the ground and my feet. So I began a rhythmic internal chant, “eyes down feet low, eyes down feet low, eyes down feet low.” The “feet low” part was a reminder that I only need lift my feet enough to glide over elevated obstacles. This terrain would do enough damage to my knees as it was, there was no need for high stepping.

Making my way down I felt good. I was running at a good pace, the adrenaline was surging through my veins, and the sun was just peaking over the eastern edge of the canyon. A warm yellow light began to paint portions of rock in brilliant highlights of orange and red. For the most part I had this beautiful place to myself, but occasionally I would come across hikers with heavy packs and hiking poles entering or exiting the canyon. A few of this hikers politely stood aside as I passed yelling “we got a runner” so everyone in there group knew I was coming. I don’t know exactly why, but this filled me with a burst of energy. I felt special in a way. It was a form of encouragement something akin to the feeling I got as strangers cheered me and my friends on as we bolted towards the finish line in our 10K. The few times this happened I felt as though I was being cheered on and it forced me to push myself and my pace a little more.

Roaring SpringsHaving hiked this first portion of the trail a handful of times before now I was happy to pass familiar landmarks and note the slow passing minutes of my watch. Having barely trained I had planned for the worst and was cutting all of my self-doubting estimates in half or more. As I crested a hill and rounded a turn I soon spotted the cluster of trees marking Cottonwood Campground. At seven miles it was my halfway mark for running and my one third mark for the entire trek. I had covered this distance in 1.5 hours well under that which I had planned for. As I barreled through I made a brief stop to use the pit toilet, eat a snack, and gulp down a Gatorade gel pack. Then I stripped off the last of my layered clothing and packed it away. After a ten minute break I was back on the trail.

Up until this point I had just been basking in the beautiful silence of the canyon and swimming in my own shallow and easily distracted or abandoned thoughts. But the next seven miles would be a touch more difficult and I felt maybe my mind would benefit from a little distraction so I put on a podcast and plugged my ears with earbuds and the comforting chatter of comedians discussing politics.

At this point I think I will extend this blog series to at least one more entry. It is already getting a little lengthy and the best and worst is yet to come.

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1 February 2012 Memories, Trails/Hiking

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