Running the Canyon – Part 3 of 3

3 February 2012 in Memories, Trails/Hiking, Traveling


Picking up from a couple days ago…I had just begun the second half of a 14 mile run through the Grand Canyon. For mental distraction I had a podcast playing, but it did little to subside my increasing fatigue or erase the 7 miles of trail I had already traversed. My knees were shredded, my feet were beginning to blister and I was entering uncharted territory when it came to distance. I had never ran more than 8 miles. On a trail with uneven terrain and hills the most I had done was 6.2 miles. In the last four months the longest I had ran was 3 miles.

For me, there’s a wall I hit when running. Sometimes it’s in the first mile, other times it’s 6 miles in. This wall has little relation to my training and dwells less in the realm of physical ability and more in the realm of the mind. Well before my body is spent my mind decides it’s had enough. Doubt sets in, confidence washes out, and the smooth long breaths become short and increasingly frequent. The steady patter in my chest begins to speed ahead of my feet and I find myself transitioning from cool and confident to manic and filled with self doubt. It can come on so abruptly that I know it’s all in my head, but that doesn’t change the physical reactions that take place.

I hit this wall early in the second half. By this point I had made good time. I had broken all previously held personal records and my mind wished to call it a day and walk the rest. I was well ahead of schedule and there was no need to push myself any harder. But a few things kept me running. One, I knew two friends of mine—who I’d ran my first race with—had recently completed a half marathon or 12.5 miles. I knew their time and while I knew I couldn’t match it at my current pace I knew the terrain I was covering was probably harder and the overall distance I would cover well exceeded the physical challenge of a half marathon. I had read just hiking a rim to rim was supposedly harder than a full marathon. Two, I honestly felt foolish walking. I don’t know why. I probably looked sillier jogging through the middle of nowhere, but when I approached people my pace increased and remained steady until they were out of sight. At the time I felt I was proving something to these complete strangers, but I was probably really proving something to myself. Which brings me to three, I was tired of giving up on myself. I hadn’t attempted this feat for a slight challenge. I wanted to really test my physical endurance and more than anything my mental fortitude.

I will admit the second 7 miles were covered by intermittent spells of running, speed walking and at times the feet dragging, hunched over stride of a zombie – with look to match. But the second 7 were covered in 1.5 hours. The exact same amount of time it took to cover the first 7.

I practically floated through Phantom Ranch, my second stop. I had covered 14 miles of tough terrain in 3 hours. I had pushed through my physical ailments and more importantly broken down long standing mental barriers. I was now free to bask in the remainder of the morning sun. After purchasing a couple bags of pretzels and a patch from the cantina to commemorate my accomplishment I walked down to the stream that cuts through the campground. Here I removed my shoes and socks and soaked my aching feet in the ice cold water. It was so cold I could only stand to keep one in at a time for about fifteen seconds then I had to switch. But it was very refreshing. So much so that I began to rethink a leisurely hour spent resting.

Eventually because of boredom, the fast approaching heat of the day, and what would prove to be a false second wind I began the last leg of my journey after less than a thirty minute break. About a mile in the repercussions of the day came rushing over me in a flood of weakness, pain, and exhaustion. This portion of the trail is steep, repetitious and sun baked. A large section of it is a series of seemingly endless switch backs. All set at the same 30 degree angle. All roughly forty yards. All completely exposed to the sun. And all lacking any inspiring views of the canyon.

In my darkest hours I have not explored these depths of hopelessness. Keep in mind less than a month ago Lindsay and I had covered 28 miles in three days with forty pound packs, 14 miles of which we covered in one day as it rained. But this was different because I was all alone. No one to talk to, no one to rely on. No security, and no safety net. No encouragement. I did encounter people, but they were all cheerfully frolicking down from the South Rim. I probably caused a few of them to question their day hikes. I was carrying little and must of looked near death by this point. It is doubtful they all came to the conclusion I had come from the North Rim. Some most certainly questioned their own stamina. I myself felt the need to explain what I had done. Looking so pathetic and drained so early and so ill equipped.

But I marched on. For some time I followed the slow march of a middle aged women with full pack. Slowly gaining ground on her until the moment I was forced to gradually pass, picking up my pace a little so she wouldn’t be continually eating the dust of my heavy feet dragging in front of her. Eventually I lost sight of her, but for awhile, after I’d take a quick break in the shade she’d come slowly lumbering into view. She was persistent. And I give her a lot of credit for doing it alone. Feats like these are difficult in and of themselves, but doing it alone is twice as hard.

When my feet and legs became pin cushions, pierced by a million needles and heavy from their weight I finally spotted Skeleton Point. This was an area just south of where Lindsay was to meet me. It was a much needed, inspiringly gorgeous view point. The beginning of a narrow spine that leads you the rest of the way up to the South Rim. But make no mistake I was still only a little over halfway up. But here, ahead of schedule I had time to sit and absorb the striking landscape. The impossibly deep canyons intersecting and forming an intricate maze fit for a giant. What wonders must lay untouched and unseen in these many facets? During the short breaks I would take covering the next mile or so these views made it all worth it. A day in a spa would not have been as refreshing. Though I only saw these views once, and briefly they are burned into the recesses of my brain, as clear as day.

I took several breaks both because I was beat and because I didn’t want to make it too far up the trail and deny Lindsay the chance to see these views. You might doubt the later’s truth, but when I did eventually meet Lindsay I back tracked following her to this point so that she wouldn’t feel rushed. As dead as I felt I wanted to share this beautiful place even if it meant hiking a couple hundred extra yards.

After giving Lindsay time to appreciate the view and wolfing down the two sandwiches she had brought me we began to brush the actual limitation of my being. These limits were no longer those constructed and enforced by my brain, but my body was weary and passionately protesting all forms of movement outside of the inflation and contraction of my lungs and the beat of my heart. This is the point where the roles reversed and the brain was forced to take the reins and crack the whip driving my tired body like a beast of burden.

In all honesty it took everything I had to get out the that canyon, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I accomplished something that day. Not in the eyes of anyone but myself, but it was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. I tested both my physical and mental endurance. I pushed beyond all of my self-imposed barriers and found out what I am capable of. I don’t say this to brag. I wish more to make a point. In this modern life of comfort and convenience we are challenged little, if at all. This leaves us to make assumptions about our own abilities. Without trial these assumptions become truth. And these truths translate into self-imposed limitations, not just in the arena of endurance or survival, but in all walks of life. Until we truly test our limitations we know nothing of our true abilities. And as I found on my death march out of the canyon sometimes the only way to push yourself to the limit is to give yourself no other choice.

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3 February 2012 Memories, Trails/Hiking, Traveling

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