Running the Grand Canyon
This story comes from a cross country road trip with two of my best friends/college roommates/track & XC teammates...
After our plans fell through to meet up with a friend in Salt Lake City we decided we should go visit the Grand Canyon instead. It was closer to our route, and well, it's the Grand Canyon!
We rolled into Flagstaff in the early afternoon. Since we hadn't originally planned on camping out we stopped at Target to pick up some gear. The parking lot was insane. As we walked inside I asked some other shoppers what was going on and they informed us that, "It's freshmen move in weekend at NAU..." (Northern Arizona University)
The three of us were amped up about seeing the Grand Canyon and put this energy to good use by running around the store and shouting "NAU!" to all of the new students and their parents. Our enthusiasm was generally appreciated and we received a good number of cheers, although the I'm sure we were driving some people crazy.
I purchased us a cheap 3-person tent, Alec bought a kid's camo sleeping bag, and Jeremy bought Flavor Blasted Goldfish, which he joyfully flaunted to all of the parents in the store saying, "Oh man, thank god they still have Flavor Blasted Goldfish! You can't survive college without Favor Blasted Goldfish!"
(Side note: I'm pretty sure target sold a record number of fish shaped crackers that day...)
Back out through the craziness of the parking lot we continued our shouting and NAU shenanigans receiving more cheers and excessive honking.
Arriving at the park we quickly pulled over and took in the massive view that is the Grand Canyon. It's common national park trivia knowledge that the average visit to the Grand Canyon lasts only 20 minutes. In a strange way I can sort of understand why. From the South Rim the scene is absolutely stunning, but at the same time it's size makes it almost inaccessible.
"I feel like we should go down into the canyon to really see it."
Alec and Jeremy totally agreed so we pulled out our map to check out our options. Since all three of us were on the same training schedule we were all due for a 13 mile long run tomorrow. When we saw that the Bright Angel Trail was 12 miles round trip we decided it would be the perfect route.
Having our plan for the morning we went to set up our tent. It quickly became apparent that our "3 person tent" was not built for 3 full grown adults. It's circular design meant that the middle person would be fine while the outside folks would have to sleep bent like a pair of parentheses.
Not wanting to spend too much time in our crammed quarters we decided to attend the evening ranger program. We were educated on wildlife, geology, park history, and finally trails.
"The Bright Angel Trail is an excellent way to see the canyon, but it is very challenging. Hikers should be prepared to spend the entire day completing this hike. Each person should carry a backpack with two liters of water, lunch, snacks, and plenty of sunscreen."
Jeremy, Alec and I exchanged glances. This was not at all what we had planned. Being avid cross country runners we typically went 12 miles without food or water and didn't think twice about it. We stayed after the program to ask the ranger some clarifying questions.
"Hi! So we were planning on doing the Bright Angel Trail tomorrow, but we weren't expecting it to take all day. Any chance you think we can do it faster?"
"Oh sure! You guys look like you're in good shape. I bet it won't take you all day. I've hiked it in 6 hours and a friend of mine has hiked it in 5. The most important thing is to get an early start in part so you can beat the heat, but mostly so you don't get stuck behind the pack animals."
"Okay great! How early is that?"
"You should plan to be on the trail before 6am. Just remember to carry plenty of water capacity. You can refill every 1.5 miles at the rest houses ."
"Right. Will do. Thanks for your help!"
So the next morning we woke up at 5am, broke down the tent, and ate a light breakfast. By 5:45 we were at the trailhead dressed in running shorts and t-shirts. We each carried a 16oz water bottle in one hand and a snack in the other. Jeremy tucked a camera in his hip pocket and we started our run.
Sure, this probably wasn't exactly what the ranger had in mind, but we were young, confident, and just a little bit stupid.
The first 3 miles were all downhill. Switchback after switchback after switchback. When we reached flat ground the sun was just starting to catch up to us. We stopped at the second rest house. Drank some water, topped off our dinky plastic bottles, and continued running.
The sun was lighting up the canyon and we were cruising along on the flat. The sights were spectacular and we were feeling good. We soon found ourselves at our destination, Plateau Point.
From here we could see down to the Colorado River and the canyon walls surrounded us. We were actually in the Grand Canyon!
The three of us celebrated by snapping some photos and eating the bars we'd carried down. We didn't spend much time though. The sun was rapidly heating up the air and we were only halfway through our run.
Again we cruised across the flat back toward the canyon wall. Our plan was to stop at the rest house right before the climb began so that we could top off our water bottles, but as we were running up to the turnoff a Park Ranger spotted us and lost it.
"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! What are you boys doing?! Oh no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no."
At this point we were still about 50 yards from her and the rest house where she was stirring up a scene. We hadn't actually stopped running yet so I quietly asked Jeremy and Alec, "Do you guys have enough water to skip this stop?"
The consensus was, "Yes. Just keep running." So we pressed on without missing a step, pretending not to hear the hollering from the rest house behind us.
The next mile and half were rough. The sunlight was now right on us with nothing to hide behind, and the switchbacking climb seemed like a never ending loop.
About halfway we caught up with a train of pack mules. They were going slow and with no way around them we were happy to have an excuse to walk. After only a few minutes of walking the mules stopped and we heard a shout from somewhere up the trail.
"Hey guys! You can pass us!"
We looked at the trail. Big burros in the middle, vertical drop off on the left, and vertical rock wall on the right.
"Oh, thanks! That's okay though! We don't mind walking!"
He responded without hesitation, "No way man! I've been watching you guys coming up the canyon. You're moving much faster than us! I'll keep 'em stopped so you can pass!"
The three of us exchanged nervous looks. "Uhhh, okay! We'll come up on the right side then!" I shouted back. I figured this way at least avoided the risk of falling.
"Oh! Hey! No! They don't like being passed on the high side! It makes them nervous and they might kick you!"
Well great, this just keeps getting better doesn't it...
I took a deep breath and started my shuffle around the mules, trying not to look down over the edge. One of the mules held its hind leg off the ground, cocked and seemingly ready to blast us over the edge if we did anything it didn't like.
Once passed the train we thanked the driver, although I'm not sure for what, and continued jogging on more so out of obligation than choice.
When we arrived at the last rest house my bottle was empty and my mouth was dry. It was a relief to refill and rehydrate. We took break to regroup and made sure we were ready for the last 1.5 mile climb. Our break was cut short though when we saw the train of burros coming up the trail. None of us wanted to make that terrifying pass again so we quickly set out in order stay in front of them.
This last stretch was the toughest. Ten miles behind us and 1.5 to go. After only a handful of switchbacks I conceded to walking; not something a seasoned distance runner does often or cares to admit to, but it happened.
Switchback after switchback I kept asking myself, "It's only a supposed to be a mile and a half. How am I not there yet?" When we finally I saw the rim the three of us regrouped and with renewed spirits we finished at a run.
Back at the car as we downed waters and sandwiches I asked Jeremy what time it was.
"What!? It's only 10:20! We did all of that in under 5 hours!"