The Grand Canyon is powerful. It is awe inspiring to see from the top. But from the bottom, it is a whole new world. There are not many times in life when you can voluntarily descend down into something so challenging and deep. From most viewpoints, you cannot even see the bottom. This is my journey in and out of the Canyon. South Rim to Phantom Ranch (20miles, 5,000ft of climbing) in 6 hours. Fair warning, it gets very “woo woo". For me athletic challenges bring about powerful physical, mental and spiritual shifts. It is the connection of the three that moves my life.
This is not a Summit to Conquer
Most people can relate to climbing up a mountain. Going from the ground to the summit, standing on top, seeing the world from a new view… You feel powerful, in control, accomplished. In truth you are just half way done, but for the most part, the work is done. When I look at all my photos of me on the summit of a climb I look assured and triumphant.
It is an entirely different experience to start at the top and descend down 5,000ft to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Looking up and seeing the climb out ahead is daunting. Half way through the journey and 90% effort still to go. The extreme heat of the morning descends quickly like smoke moving through a room as the sun lights up the narrow canyon walls. The only way out is straight up. When I look up, I am not triumphant, I am vulnerable. I am armed only with my small pack, hiking poles, massive amounts of salt, and gels. I am fully aware of the challenges ahead after just running down the trail I will now hike up.
During Covid I ran the South Rim to the river and back in a day for the first time. All the races were canceled and I used it as a way to test and use my fitness. It was a turning point in my athletic journey. I estimated it would take me over 7 hours to complete the 16 mile run/hike. I had food and water to last me for 9 hours. I like to be prepared, but mostly I was scared. I was scared I was not as strong as I thought. That I didn't have the leg strength or mental strength to get up the brutally steep climb out. When I hit the Bright Angel trail maker at the end in 4.5 hrs I was stunned. I went into the Canyon full of trepidation and self doubt and I came up knowing that I was capable of so much more AND started demanding more of myself from that moment on.
I have to Find Out!
I knew I HAD to run the Grand Canyon this summer. Ever have that feeling that you just HAVE to do something? I used to dismiss these feelings but the older I get, the more in touch with who I am at my core, the more I follow them. Logically it made sense, I signed up for this totally absurd Starvation Extreme Triathlon. This race is an absolute beast with a 25 mile trail run with 7,0000 ft of climbing. I mean what?! The Grand Canyon is a perfect place to train. But there was something MORE about this run. I knew there was something waiting for me down there. A lesson? Another athletic paradigm shift? Or something else. I didn't know what it was but I knew I had to find out.
Going back this time, I was aware of the intensity of the day and also of my own strength. This time, I was not going to stop at the river, I decided to make the trip an even 20 miles and run to Phantom Ranch and back. I also brought a more appropriate amount of food and made better use of the water stations along the way to lighten my load.
I started right at daylight, about 4:45am. It was going to be 107 degrees at the bottom and I do not mess around with high heat for a long day like this. I bombed my down trail and met with a big horned sheep in full on charge position. This guy was going to take me out on the trail, he was not budging at all. I reached for my hiking pole, but thought maybe a good old loud clap would scare him off. Yep! Did the trick. That was the first of many strange animal experiences.
I quickly made my way down the trail stopping every so often to just take in the sunrise. The way the light hits the canyon walls is spectacular. The combination of quickly descending down and the dramatic light changes makes the view look entirely different every 10 mins. Besides about ten hikers making their way back out, I was the only one in the Canyon. All I could hear was my feet skipping over the rocks and birds chirping.
The deeper you go, the more solitude there is and the harder it is to get back out. My mind kept circling to a familiar thought, one I had the last time I ran.
“Only I can get myself out, all I have is me.”
Two years ago this thought brought fear and anxiety. Was I enough? Could I do it? How much was it going to hurt?
Now, I welcome the thought. I trust my physical and mental strength. I tested over and over in the last two years. Starting that day in Canyon two years ago, I made the decision to trust myself. I kept taking on challenges and leaning into that trust. The more I leaned into it, the more I built the strength, confidence, and grit to take on even harder challenges. I had no doubt, no anxiety, no fear. I know I am strong enough to make it out no matter how challenging the hike out might be. Before, “All I have is me” was terrifying, now it is empowering. Same thought, totally different experience.
Call me Snow White
I made it down to the river in about 1:45 and made my way to Phantom Ranch. As I was filling up my bottles this giant black bird landed about 4 inches away from me and stared at me. I stared back, stunned. When it didn't move I started to chat with it. I have never been that close to a wild bird before and my first instinct was apparently to ask how his day was. We hung out for about 5 mins exchanging stares and curiosities.
I eventually started to make my way back and a deer crossed the trail in front of me. I slowed to not startle it and it walked up to me. Um, what?! I have been close to deer but I have never had one actually come up to me. So I again asked about her morning as we stared at each other.
When I got over the scariest part of the day, the suspension bridge across the river (I do not like heights and I do see the humor in running the Grand Canyon and not liking heights), I decided to hang out at the river for a bit. On my last run I was so afraid of the heat and challenging climb that I only spent about 5 mins at the river. I wanted to get in and out as fast as possible. This time, I trusted my abilities and I want the chance to take it all in.
My Dad and I rafted down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon three times when I was a kid/teen. The river holds so many amazing and warm memories I wanted the chance to sit on the riverbank. It was about 90 degrees (at 8am) and a dunk in the river was a great way to stay cool. As I sat there, water rushing down the river, my feet in the cold water, I was overwhelmed by the power and beauty of the Canyon. I had been here before and yet, I was seeing it in a whole new way.
As I sat there, a voice in my head said “you don't have time, you have to go.” I laughed and said “nope I am going to sit here and be still.” It is always amusing to me when fears like that pop up, even when we think we have worked through them. If you listen to your brain with curiosity enough, you know it will provide so many not useful thoughts and suggestions. It is up to you to decide which thoughts you take action on and which thoughts you ignore. I was definitely ignoring any “less than” thoughts today.
So I sat on a rock over this amazing river looking at the sun hitting the canyon walls and I was present in that moment. It was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. Alone and yet not. I was connected somehow to this powerful energy radiating from the Canyon. I was not other, I was seen and a part of the Canyon. It is hard to describe, but it is an energy that is now a part of me and I will use when I need to draw strength or be grounded.
The word that kept coming to me was reverence. Reverence for the Canyon, for everything around me, for the journey ahead, the journey it took to get here, and for myself. I brought myself to this exact moment of connection and beauty.
The last time I was here, I missed this. I didn't see the Canyon as I see it now. I missed the rushing river and the chipping birds. I was too preoccupied with my pace and heart rate to notice the deer in the bushes or watch the rocks falling off the edge. I was scared, unsure and on a mission to find my worth in the Canyon walls. I had the experience I was ready for and open to on that day. But I am not the same person and I am open to so much more.
I eventually came back to the reality of the day, that this heat was coming and I needed to climb out. I got out my poles (my new favorite thing) and started to climb. I quickly remembered how hard the climb out is! My mind started to go wild, trying to distract me from the pain in my legs and labored breathing. The mind never wants to stay in pain, it would much rather distract you with some ridiculous thought of the future or past, anything but the blazing hot trail in front of you. But that is not why I was here. I chose to take this journey because I wanted to experience it. I wanted to be fully in the moment, in reverence of it all. Every time I found my thoughts drifting I stopped. I called out things that I saw - rock, lizard, sun, bush, feet. I brought my mind to what was before me and around me.
This is not a great strategy for a PR. But I already knew my physical strength within these walls, what I wanted to experience now was my mental and spiritual strengths. I am quick to rush experiences, always trying to fit things in my calendar, rushing from one thing to the next to “get it all done” usually with my hair in a bun or hat after a workout. Some of it is the nature of balancing family/training/work but most of it is choice. “If I can just do one more thing…” This thought robs me of my present moment everyday. Just as I missed the Canyon before, I miss so much of my life rushing to make it all fit like a crazy game of Tetris. This was my opportunity to let it take as long as it needed and to be present and experience it all. I had the trust in myself to make it out, the reverence and awareness of the power and beauty around me, what was left was the patience to be fully in it.
I Made it!
As I climbed up higher and higher I started to see painfully unprepared tourists making their way down and up the trail. I stopped a few times to offer hikers gels, water and salt. It was jarring to come from such silence at the bottom to loud and struggling hikers at the top. More opportunities for patience and presence.
When I hit the trailhead after 6 hours of running/hiking I was energized. I had so much more left in my legs, lungs, and head. A great sign for my race in 2 weeks, but more importantly, instead of digging into the well to pull out a great “performance”, I filled my well with the power, beauty, and energy of the Canyon. I have never felt better after a 20 mile run than before. I was supercharged.
I sat down on the wall to take it all in and for one more Snow White encounter. A squirrel made its way over to me, looked at me then laid completely flat on its stomach about 3 inches from my leg. We sat there together for about 15 mins enjoying the wonder of the Canyon.
I am so glad I trusted myself to know I had to run the Canyon. There was something waiting for me in its walls. This time it wasn't about me pushing myself, racing for a PR, or proving to myself and others that I was fast or “good enough”. This was about trusting myself. It was about reverence for everything around me and the journey to experience it. It was about the patience it takes to be present and the journey to understand what is right in front of you. Once again, this world of endurance sports is a gateway to uncover the world around and the world inside. I am in awe of the Canyon I see now in a whole new way and I am supercharged for all the unknowns in not just the races, but all the journeys of life that lie ahead.