I leap off the rock where I am sitting and grab a large stone. Clutching it as a weapon, I scream at Shacky to come back, or for godsake’s—pick up a weapon. We are ¼-mile from the top of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim—just steps from finishing the R2R2R. It’s almost 1:30 a.m. and we started running at 5 a.m. yesterday morning. We are exhausted, and I’m a little delusional.
This is not our first encounter with wildlife. But it is the first time I feel compelled to pick up a weapon. Less than a mile ago, I was slogging behind Shacky when I heard him hooting, hollering and clapping. At first, I thought he had reached the top. When I realized that wasn’t the case, I worried he might have lost his mind. But as I turned the switchback, my blood turned cold when he told me to stand back—there was a mountain lion on the rock ahead, glaring and crouching toward us.
The switchback was set up in such a way that we would have to give our backs to the hungry cat in order to continue on the trail—something you never, ever do. So we tried our best to walk backwards up the trail, making loud noises to keep the animal away. Even after we had walked some distance, I was watching my back, certain I was only seconds from death.
And now this.
A few minutes ago, I had stopped dead in my tracks to see a huge deer staring into my face on my left hand side. It was so close I could touch it. It was a beautiful creature, and I yelled at Shacky to give me the camera. But Shacky didn’t think it was a good idea—the deer didn’t look too pleased and he said that they do attack if they feel threatened.
I immediately thought of the deer scene from The Ring 2 and backed away as quickly and quietly as I could:
As I turned away, I heard rocks fall behind me. I spun around and saw the deer had followed me, blocking the trail behind me and staring me down. Holy shit. We kept walking straight.
The next second, we almost stumbled into a deer blocking the trail right in front of us. The large animal stood defiantly and refused to budge. A deer in front. A deer behind. Both unafraid. There was nowhere to go.
I suggested we sit down and wait, to see if they would move. We sat. We waited. After what seemed like 10 minutes, it was clear the deer were not moving. I suggested we toss some pebbles at their feet, to make noise and hopefully scare them away. That’s when Shacky started throwing rocks right at it. I yelled at him to stop and hid my face, certain the deer would attack.
“What’s happening??” I asked, still too afraid to look.
“He’s not very impressed,” Shacky replied.
Dear God. This is how I will die, I thought. Death by deer. Only steps away from finishing our run.
Shacky finally got mad at waiting so long, and lunged toward the deer to push it off the trail. That’s when I grabbed the rock. I thought for sure, I would now have to bludgeon Bambi to death with my bare hands.
As Shacky approaches, the deer just grunts and bounds away. My adrenaline is so high, I just want to get the hell out of the canyon. The entire final climb for us has been in the dark.
We can no longer see the inspiration of the canyon, and although the moon is brilliant, the rocks often obscure it as we trudge through switchback after never-ending switchback.
We can see nothing ahead or behind us, so it is impossible to tell how much trail we have left. I think of Gordy’s story about Ron Kelley, who attempted to run 100 miles of the Western States course right after he did, and gave up after 97 miles. “He didn’t know how close he was,” Gordy said. And that’s how I felt now.
I know the end is close, but I don’t know when it will come. I hear Shacky yell ahead of me. “Come here! Hurry up!” Holy shit, I think, there’s another mountain lion. He’s calling me so we can die together. But it turns out to be the top. We made it! We are done! Over 20 hours later… we are done.
* * *
The morning started in much better spirits. The original plan was for our group to start at 3:30 a.m. to avoid the heat of the day, but Gordy thought that was a mistake.
Gordon Ainsleigh, the godfather of ultra running, had come along with us to run his first-ever R2R2R. Gordy was the first man who believed it was possible to run 100 miles in one day, and proved it.
Many on the trail recognized him from Unbreakable, or as the first man to run Western States 100. But really—he invented Western States 100. He pretty much invented long distance trail running.
I have never seen Unbreakable, but what intrigues me about Gordy is his limitless spirit. He doesn’t see boundaries when it came to running. Not for distance, not for speed, and not for temperature. Gordy shrugged off the heat of the Canyon, and said he wanted to start at dawn. Gordy’s friend Ralph, who had run the Canyon before, strongly agreed.
The 3:30 a.m. group would be going down South Kaibab in the dark, missing some of the most breathtaking views of the Canyon. The climb up Bright Angel, Gordy argued, wasn’t as scenic and we wouldn’t miss much doing that in the dark instead. Gordy was here to experience the Canyon and he thought an early start would be a mistake.
He talked us into joining him. Shacky was reluctant, because both heat and elevation are what he struggles with. But I was eager to follow Gordy. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, running into the Canyon with a legend, and I wasn’t about to let it slip away for a few degrees.
Gordy also convinced Christine to come along, so on Saturday morning Gordy, Shacky, Christine and I all hopped in the van. Then we sat there as we realized that none of us knew how to get to the trailhead.
* * *
Gordy was not the least bit concerned. In fact, he didn’t worry much about anything on the entire trip. He munched on an orange and told us to just drive, and eventually we did find the trailhead. We’re still not sure how we got there.
When we arrived at the parking lot, we didn’t see the van of the 3:30 a.m. group, so that worried us a little. Gordy just shrugged and said, “Don’t worry about that.” As it turned out, the early group got dropped off and the van was driven back.
Gordy wasn’t worried about water either. None of us knew were all the water stops were, and we all carried a ton of water. Gordy just had two handhelds and didn’t seem the least bit concerned. After Phantom Ranch, he would even convince Christine to dump some of her own water to lighten her load and run faster. She was reluctant.
“But I need water!”
“You can get water anytime you want!” said Gordy.
“No! I cannot get water ANYTIME I want!”
“You can always just drink from the river. If you get sick, it won’t be until next week or the week after.”
All that matters to Gordy is today. This run. Right now.
Christine was not one to “drink from the river,” but she did dump some water, and it did help her run faster. In fact, she finished the run ahead of us all and even ended up sharing her water with Gordy when he took a fall and spilled his own supply.
Christine would jump up and down at the North rim, full of energy, and smoke Gordy on the final Bright Angel climb. Gordy would scold her for going up alone in the dark, telling her about the mountain lions in the area.
“They don’t like French chicks!” she yelled back, before disappearing toward the summit.
Christine and Gordy did stick together for the most part, and Christine rolled her eyes every time someone would delay them to take a picture of Gordy or try to chat with him.
“Don’t you want my picture??” she demanded. “I am famous where I am from!” So they would take her picture too.
“Come on Gordy, time to go!” she would say when he stopped to sit or talk for too long. They were a good pair.
* * *
I took an early lead coming down South Kaibab. The stunning views made me catch my breath and thank God that we had the sense to start in the daylight. To say it was beautiful is an understatement. The Grand Canyon is not a place. It is an experience. It cannot be described. It must be lived.
The rock carvings descending for miles, with splashes of red and orange and brown against the sunrise can make you believe in God. Animals unafraid of human contact, fiery red sand slowly camouflaging your shoes and gear, cold caves and crevices offering the odd relief from the hot sun—it’s a different world. It’s a wonderland.
Every picture I took, I knew would not do the scenery justice. I couldn’t fit the entire landscape in my camera. I could focus on the runner, but not on the towering boulders above his head. I could focus on the rock, but not on the ant-sized conga line of runners traversing it.
Maybe once or twice in your life, you experience a run this joyous. I couldn’t help but running down that canyon as fast as I could, stopping dead every so often to let the others catch up. Gordy would later tell me I had “the happiest stride in ultrarunning.”
I felt like a bird who had just been set free. At one point, making the descent from the North rim, I was so far ahead of the others, it felt like I was all alone on the planet, just doing a training run at one of the seven wonders of the world.
It is runs like these—not money, and not assets—that make me filthy rich. I felt like I owned everything around me. I was swimming in wealth. Running fast was an expression of gratitude and joy. Like a child dashing toward her favorite swing, this was my playground.
Of course, the uphills weren’t as fast. I hiked many of the inclines, focusing on keeping a steady stride and a respectable cadence. If I looked up suddenly, the canyons would make me dizzy. So I looked down and tried to stay ahead of Shacky.
Shacky wasn’t having a good day. He wanted to turn back before reaching the North rim, but I refused to let him. I wondered later if I should have let him, since he was sick on the way back. He was having trouble with the heat and elevation, and had a rough time keeping any food down. A few times, he had to lie on his back to keep from puking, or put his head down in the shade.
I stayed with him until I was certain he would not turn back, and then let him make the last part of the final climb up to the North rim on his own. At the top, he was miserable and out of water.
* * *
There was no water source at the top of the North rim, unless you wanted to run a mile round trip to the ranger station and back. I knew Shacky was in bad shape on the climb, and would be out of water. I tried to preserve enough water for the both of us. When I realized I couldn’t do that on the hot climb, my plan was to give him my water for the descent and run dry all the way down.
I had almost half a liter waiting for Shacky at the top, but when I saw him I didn’t think it would be enough. I prepared to run over to the ranger station to fill us both up, just as a car pulled into the parking lot.
“Are you guys running R2R2R?” someone called out.
We looked up to see a young couple who decided to make a little trail magic happen by driving up with some water. They had enough for both Shacky and me. I thanked them profusely. We chatted for a few minutes—they were aspiring ultra runners, and they wanted their picture with Gordy as well. (Christine got one too.)
When we finally took off, I felt amazing and soon caught up to Gordy and Christine. I passed them and waiting at the next water stop for everyone to catch up. Shacky needed to lie down, so I waited with him while Christine and Gordy went off ahead.
After a few minutes, Shacky was feeling better and I hoped the worst was over. We agreed to meet at Phantom Ranch, just before the final climb, and I took off after Gordy and Christine. I was running at a good pace, and passed a handful of groups—two sets of runners and three groups of hikers. The stretch was long and desert-like, but I do well in the heat and I was still mesmerized by the glory of the Canyon.
I pulled into Phantom Ranch not long after Gordy and Christine. They were filling up their supplies and getting ready to leave. Gordy looked roughed up, but Christine was still full of energy. Both were worried about Shacky, and seeing them worry made me worry even more.
Gordy walked around asking for “someone in authority” to possibly hook up a room in case Shacky couldn’t make the climb that night. I shook my head. Shacky couldn’t be THAT bad, could he? We’d make the climb, even if it took forever.
I watched Gordy and Christine take off and settled in for what I expected would be a long wait for Shacky. I had run the entire thing and Shacky was walking—I had no idea how far behind me he was. As it turned out, not that far. Shacky was hauling ass as best he could and arrived just minutes after me. But he wasn’t looking good.
He lay down in the dirt and I noticed he was shaking. His legs were shaking, and so was his head. I freaked out and brought up the possibility of spending the night at Phantom Ranch. He refused.
So we sat at Phantom Ranch until he was able to eat enough calories to make the climb. It took him a while to keep anything down. We were there for almost an hour. All the hiking groups and the runners I had passed came through and left before us.
One group of hikers were finishing the R2R2R—they had started at 2 a.m. that morning. They wanted to set the record for youngest and oldest to complete the R2R2R in one party—the boy was 17 and the oldest gentleman was 67.
“I dunno, I’m worried about that Western States guy,” the 17-year-old said. “He looks like he’s 95.”
“He’s 64,” I replied.
Before they left, he waved goodbye and said, “I’m pretty sure I’ll die out there.” They made it to the top before us.
I was really worried about Shacky, but as soon as the sun went down, he was ready to go. In fact, he was like a new runner.
Shacky is a moonchild. He comes alive at night. I’m the opposite—I die with the setting of the sun. I pulled out my headlamp and prepared for what I expected would be a long hike to the top.
“We’ll pray for you!” One of the campers called out behind us. I guess we looked pretty beat up.
But Shacky was picking up the pace, rejuvenated by nightfall. I tried to run, but realized I was tired. Too much fast running followed by long waits. I was burnt out.
There are two ways you can come up the South rim: via the Kaibab trail where we had descended, or via Bright Angel trail.
Bright Angel is longer, but less steep, and that’s what we opted for. In my mind, “longer but less steep” still meant that it would be a steady incline. I was OK with that. Instead, I found the trail relatively flat to begin, even making slight downhill descents for the first few miles. This irritated me because it was time on my feet without really getting me to my destination.
My fatigue translated into frustration with the trail and with my headlamp. Every time I looked, up, the top of the canyon looked no closer. Why weren’t we climbing?? I wanted to get to the top and be finished.
When the climbing finally began, my headlamp was playing games with me. I couldn’t gauge the depth of the path, so I’d find myself either stumbling, or expecting a big step where it was flat. I came down hard on my ankles a few times, misjudging my landings, and I was getting very irritated.
Halfway up, I remembered I had a hand-held light, and used that instead. I could finally see the shadows on the trail, and moving forward was much easier on my body. I kept my head down since I’d start to feel dizzy every time I looked up. I was worried about tipping right off the Canyon.
In the distance, we could see groups of tiny headlamps inching their way to the top. The last set of headlamps kept getting closer and closer, until they decided to step it up and put some distance between us.
It was impossible to judge how far we had left to go, and neither of us had a watch. When night came to the Canyon, all inspiration left me. I could no longer admire the rock walls. No longer see the rich ground at my feet. I wanted the sun to come back, or I wanted to be done.
I was holding Shacky back. He was full of energy and had to keep waiting for me to catch up. We both had trouble eating now, but Shacky faithfully stopped to get his calories in, while I blew them off. I wasn’t used to force-feeding myself.
The more time passed, the more miserable I felt. It was this final climb that made this one of the toughest runs I have ever done. A familiar feeling of exhaustion swept over me—it felt like the last 3 miles of my first 100. Pure torture.
This was slightly worse because there were scorpions at our feet and bats flying over our heads, making me jumpy. My nerves were shot.
That’s when I heard Shacky ahead of me clapping and yelling as if he’d seen a mountain lion or something…
* * *
Today, when I close my eyes to sleep, all I see is the Canyon.
Those red walls towering over me, carved to perfection with the sun travelling across the sky. In my dreams, I am still running down that dirt road. Still splashing water on my face from the Colorado river. I think a part of me will always wish for the Canyon. Until I can see it again.