I didn’t sleep at all. After rolling around in my tent aimlessly for a few hours I decided it was time to get going. At about 4am, after a quick coffee and a couple of avocados, I left Mather Campground and drove toward the grand canyon visitor center to park. From there I ran a quick 1.5 miles or so to the South Kaibob TH.
I decided on the South Kaibob > North Kaibob > Bright Angel Route. First, because it gave me a chance to see more of the canyon, and even though it was 2-3 miles longer, it was a “less steep” ascent out of the canyon when I would need the relief most - I knew I would be feeling the hurt at that point. As a bonus, parking at the visitor center, about halfway between both trailheads, would let me tick off an extra couple miles to get me as close to my goal of 50 miles as I could bear, having to run to the South Kaibob TH from my car and possibly back to my car from the Bright Angel TH if my legs were still functional.
One of the most difficult parts of the day was just getting out of Mather Campground. I drove around for about 20+ minutes trying to find my way out. After flagging a family in a minivan down to ask for help escaping the campground, they laughed and told me to follow them out. Finally making it to the visitor center, I parked, stretched, ran to the South Kaibob TH, and descended into the abyss.
The weather was perfect - 55 degrees F at the TH and about 65 degrees F down at skeleton point - clear skies and crisp, clean air with this deep hypnotic purple and crimson red glow permeating down into the steep corkscrew below.
I was only at Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles in) when I knew that the stairs were going to be a major problem for my left knee that had been having some IT Band issues. I’m not a fan of stairs on any trail really as they force you into an unnatural rhythm and create a very awkward angle on your joints. Luckily though, I didn’t hit any mule trains on the way down and I knew that would save me some time.
When I finally made it down for my first glimpse of the Colorado River, I submitted to the pain, even though my knee was in a full blown rebellion against me, hinting for me to abort while I still could.
It was normal for the joints in my knees to start rubbing at that time, before I discovered how to stretch, strengthen, and foam roll properly, but usually only after about 25 miles in. I was only 9 miles in and knew I had about 40 something miles to go. This would be the going back point if I decided to give into the growing discomfort, but I dug in, and decided there was no way in hell I was going back, even if it meant not walking for a couple days. I was hell-bent.
After my first crossing of the Colorado, the terrain flattens out into one of the most exotic, single-track, slot-canyon trails I have ever been on. Or at least for the next 8 miles from Phantom Ranch to Manzanita Creek. The latter I knew was my only water stop on the entire north side of the canyon because the north rim would be closed for another couple of weeks.
I was in a nice groove, running about a 9 min/mile pace, listening to boulders crack into each other beneath the Bright Angel Creek beside me, crossing small suspension bridges, smelling the prehistoric red dust that came up with each step, becoming more and more comfortable with the pain in my left knee as my world above the rim began to melt away. I began to settle into this lush, Sonoran canyon-land.
I had only passed a handful of hikers at this point, but was more interested in catching up to the two running shoe prints that I had been seeing since I dropped in. At Manzanita Creek I bumped into two Canadian girls in full running gear who seemed super happy to see another runner planning on completing the same route. They confirmed they had left the trail head 45 minutes before me so I was convinced it was the two prints that I had been chasing all morning. This gave me some closure that I was making decent time, being right on schedule with the splits I had calculated beforehand. We talked for a few minutes while filling up on water, all of us thrilled about being on this epic run. I pressed on ahead though and told them I would see them on my way back down from the north rim. Off I went.
Passing Roaring Springs was another cool rush and a well needed distraction from the ever sharpening pain in my knee. I could feel the vibration of this massive waterfall thundering down into the canyon, reminding me how small I was. Farther up the trail I began to hear what sounded like helicopter blades, echoing louder and louder as I passed over and under misty bridges and aqua blue waterfalls. Finally, about ¾ of the way up, I came around the corner to the source of loud echoing blades. It was a helicopter lowering what looked like a generator to two workers harnessed onto the side of the sheer canyon wall. I was stunned that these two guys were just hanging onto the side of a cliff going about their work like it was normal, grabbing onto the slowly repelling machine, giving the helicopter pilot a thumbs up that they had control of it. I remember wanting to say something to them but I didn’t know what to say because I was so perplexed, so I just kept running up the trail smiling in wonder, smh.
At this point, I had passed a couple of runners who were on their way down. This surprised me because I hadn’t really seen any other fresh tracks earlier on the South Kaibob besides those of the two girls I just bumped into, so I assumed they probably just came down Bright Angel. I over-enthusiastically exchanged high fives with them, being so excited again to encounter other people on the same run as me. I noticed that none of them were wearing packs though which made me question if I was the only one wearing one, but then it dawned on me later on that most of them had probably stashed them at Manzanita to cut down unnecessary weight for the 5,000′ climb up the rim. Next time.
When I finally made it up to the north rim there was nobody. Just a bunch of left over snow. I had pictured this moment in my head, but I couldn’t have imagined how much peace and happiness I would feel as I rested my legs for the first time and slowly ate a bag of dried cranberries and some trail mix. I was as far away from safety as I had ever been and I had never felt better. What a strange and enlightening moment that was.
After about a 10 minute rest, my mind was back to the 24 mile challenge ahead of me with a blown out knee. The water spigot was dry which I knew was going to be the case reading every nps report I could, but nonetheless I was hoping to fill up at the slight chance the spigots were back on for the season. I also decided that on this rare occasion I would take some Ibuprofen I had packed, attempting to numb the increasingly sharp pain I was feeling. So I threw some pills in my mouth and a big handful of snow to wash them down. I packed some snow into the knee brace I was wearing as well as my hydration bladder to cool down and supplement whatever water I had left. Regardless, I felt amazing as these hardy calories coursed through body. I had only been eating gels up to this point (about 8 GU’s). The temperature had dropped to about 43 degrees F on the north rim so I put some layers back on, covered my neck and face with a buff, and dropped back into the gorge with an incredible sense of refreshment and vitality.
About 3 switchbacks down from the trail head or 400 yards or so I turned around the corner to hear a “Cack cack cack cack” of branches snapping in half that I will NEVER forget. I turned to respond with my eyes to see what my ears just heard.
I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it was big, and as quickly as my head could turn, whatever it was disappeared back up towards where I had just come from. I had read several reports of cougars being spotted in this particular area this time of year but I’ll never really know what it was. I was officially spooked though and started running like hell. All pain in my body disappeared as the adrenaline took over.
Shortly after this encounter I bumped into the Canadian girls again who were on their way up. I was coming at them fast and when I finally got to them I told them what had just happened. They immediately stopped in their tracks and turned around to come back down with me. I didn’t want to discourage them from missing the north rim but I think they could tell that I was genuinely spooked and that was enough for them. They followed me pretty closely for about a mile down until they were feeling a little more at ease, and they finally stopped to rest. I kept going, and this was the last I would see them. I was genuinely spooked, but as my downhill pace picked up and the endorphins started flooding through my veins, that fear transformed into exhilaration like I have never felt. This was now a true adventure.
Then, as quickly as my high surged to its highest point, the pain began to set in again. This time with a ferocity that still sends shivers down my spine thinking about it. I was now unable to control the limp that had been developing as my knee was almost completely locked.
At this point the temperature started spiking again as I made my return to the canyon floor. I was burning through water quickly and ran out about 2 miles before hitting Manzanita again. Water never tasted this good. There was a guy lying on the bench there getting some rest. He had his hat resting over his face but kept one eye peeking out at me, watching me nervously, gulping water into my mouth faster than I could swallow it.
I knew this upcoming section from Manzanita to Bright Angel campground would be the easiest and the perfect opportunity to make up some time that I had begun to lose from my slowing pace. It was about 8 miles of slightly downhill running. I went into autopilot, grinding my teeth, and wincing in pain at every uneven step I was forced to take. Somewhere around Cottonwood campground I found a nice river crossing and soaked my legs in the rushing cold water for a few minutes.
Throughout the day, I had this growing realization that even though I was in pain, all things were fair somehow. Nature provided as much as it could for me. It gave me snow to stuff in my knee brace and in my pack when I ran out of water. It gave me a gentle breeze when I was burning up, and a nice cool river to soak my legs in when they began to swell. Ultimately though, nature is impartial. It’s not there to soothe your pain. It’s not there to comfort you when things get bad. Nature is there to give you a glimpse into yourself. It’s there to remind you that you are alive. Each moment your heart is still pumping blood throughout your body is a good moment.
My legs still slightly numb from the ice cold soak in the river, I flew through the rest of the narrow canyon, past Phantom Ranch and back to the Colorado.
I had been contemplating going back up the South Kaibob knowing it was the shorter route, but I was determined to stick with the plan, knowing I would be seeing one of the most beautiful trails on earth, and finishing what I set out to do.
The sun was blazing down as I crossed the Silver Bridge during the hottest part of the day and ran the sandy banks of the Colorado River toward the bottom of the trail. I knew the hardest part of the trip lie ahead. They say the Bright Angel is the safest trail in the canyon, but 40 miles in, nothing seemed safe. Beautiful streams and lush gardens taunted me to stop and enjoy like all the other hikers and leisure seekers, but I knew I had to keep going. Surprisingly, I was still passing people on the trail pretty quickly and began to develop the feeling that I was on the other side of my fears, confident I would make it out. I knew looking up to the top was a big mistake and would check my growing confidence if I did. I could see it out of the corner of my eye, but I tried to keep a balanced approach, staying focused on the moment and each next step, but not forgetting to appreciate the desert paradise surrounding me.
At this point, I was helplessly tripping over rocks and smashing the tips of my toes harder and harder as I became more fatigued. I couldn’t lift my legs high enough to step over them anymore. I knew that my left and right big toenails were probably going to fall off. I couldn’t feel them anymore though. I knew this was pretty common with ultra runners and it used to gross me out quite a bit. Now, it was a sign that I was progressing. It was an initiation, a marker on my path to running long distance ultra marathons.
I made my final water refill at Indian Garden. Using the last of my salt tablets and the rest of my food, I felt like I had planned my nutrition pretty well, and now that the sun was beginning to set below the rim I was really bouncing back from a mental low. This was the most beautiful portion of the trip I thought. The final switchbacks were long and steep and took everything I had, but I felt good and really took in the beauty of the trail for the last few miles as I reflected on my day.
As my ears began to pop, I knew I was close. If I stopped at all at this point though my knee would completely lock up, so I kept a steady pace most of the way back up. With the help of some positive vibes from a hiker, my spirits were lifted just high enough to get me out with a smile. As I slowly and haggardly made my way past her, she asked if I was ok. Apparently I didn’t look so good, but I smiled, coughed, and nodded my head up and down in exhaustion. We had a couple quick laughs at my expense, questioning my sanity and the dirt covering my face, and then before I knew it, she was gone, several switchbacks below as I maintained course. I was still so focused on the end.
Seeing camera clad tourists with no hiking gear on was my sign that I was close. They had no idea what I had just done, and that was comforting to me, knowing that I had this little secret. They would probably never see what I saw or experience what I experienced that day. This was my moment of self-transcendence. This is what I had been searching for my whole life. Just over 12 hours and 49.2 miles later, I reached the Bright Angel trail head.