Hermit Crabs: Rim-to-Rim Run
4 AM Wakeup. It’s 90 minutes to the trailhead and I’d like to start before daybreak, finding my way by the earliest signs of morning light. All three kids are asleep and the first thing to do is to move them inside the truck. The oldest wakes up, briefly. The other two are like warm taffy in our arms as we carry them from their beds to their seats.
No one wants to eat this early except me. It’s mandatory as I begin the struggle of keeping up with the caloric demand of what I expect will be one of the toughest runs I’ve ever done. Yogurt and granola is the first nutrition of the day. It’s nothing special. Whatever was on sale a few thousand miles ago at a forgotten grocery store. It lingers because Lauren doesn’t like it much and I had forgotten about it amid all the other meal prep of other more desirable foods. But it’s perfect for this morning. It slides down my throat quickly. I want it digested before I start running. After the granola comes a liter of Kool Aid with a generous dollop of Morton Lite Salt added to it. Electrolytes are arguably more important than calories given the girth around my midsection. I’ll be practically shoveling salt today in a manner that would make a cardiologist blush.
Stuff… I’ve got too much but everything is needed in theory.
Two liters of water in a Nathan water pack.
Two iodine tablets to treat two more if I don’t reach water stops in time.
Two ascorbic acid tablets that take away the iodine flavor.
A tuna fish sandwich with two teaspoons of sugar and one teaspoon of Morton Lite Salt added.
A head lamp in case my 8-hour run turns into 13 hours, the average time for completing this hike and well after dark.
9 GUs, little electrolyte syrup things, one for each hour of my planned excursion and one more as an extra.
A baggie with three more teaspoons of Morton Lite Salt
Another baggie crammed full of Cheez-Its
A few quarters because there is allegedly a pay phone at the bottom of the canyon and it would be nice to call Lauren
Headphones to listen to Fragile Things, a new audio book I’ll be starting today.
Cell phone, mostly for pictures because cell phone signal will be intermittent at best
So much shit, but not enough.
It was 32 degrees at the top of the canyon when I started. The heat index at the bottom of the canyon will be over 100 by the end of the day. A sweater would be nice but who wants to have a clingy sweater around their waist for 22 miles once the sun is up and the warming begins?
The mantra I use to taunt my boys is taunting me.
“Faster you move, faster you get warm.”
Lauren drives off as I go through a stretching routine, squeezing through the pain of a lingering overuse injury.
“I love you!”
“See you in a bit!”
She’s got her own ordeal this morning. The tradeoff for me running the 24 miles between the North Rim and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is she gets the joy of driving 90 minutes back to camp, prepping breakfast for three unruly kids, driving 5 hours in an almost complete circle, the fastest route from north to south. I joked that I might beat her to the far side.
A group of ladies in pink started out just in front of me. They are also doing the rim-to-rim trail this morning. I’m fine lingering behind them, letting them set a pace. They seem to know what they are doing, why rush it?
“Runner up! Ladies, let this guy past. He looks like he knows what he’s doing!”
“Thanks. Have a good-un.”
Well, that’s that.
The first mile or so is a set of tight switchbacks my dad warned me about. He scoffed when I told him my goal was to average 20-minute miles, an easy walking pace on level ground at sea level.
“You can’t do that. It’s not just steep but theirs the scree that takes your feet out from under you. And in some places, if you fall, it’ll be the last time you do.”
He and my mom did this same hike in their 60s, though they took three days to do it.
My first mile was 15 minutes.
My second was the same.
Gotta let the old man have it though. All those stories of walking barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways are just someone trying to stroke an old ego while needing special tools to tie his own fucking shoes. I promise myself, no braggadocio, no mocking sneers of “what scree?” Gotta be better than what I was taught.
Move on. Move on. Nothing to do but keep moving.
Three miles down. Man, I’m going fast. Could have hit a 10-minute mile on that one if I hadn’t tripped, stepping on my sunglasses that were wedged in the front of my pack. They shattered. And I have to pack out my own trash so I get to have these broken sunglasses along for the ride over the next 21 miles.
Weird. Sun is already up but it’s not touching me. The canyon walls are so steep and narrow that the sun won’t penetrate to the bottom where I am until damn near noon.
I blazed through the first water stop without stopping—leaving most of the pink ladies behind for good. We’d been doing a dance of passing each other as either I or they stopped to take pictures of the sunrise. It’s still cool. I’ve not touched my water beyond the minimum of five swallows per mile. I went ahead and ate two GUs at 45 minutes in, not because I felt like I needed them but because they have trace amounts of caffeine to replace the cup of coffee I hadn’t had this morning, and because my pack is swollen with stuff and this lightens the load a tiny fraction.
The tuna sandwich I was supposed to eat at 10 AM is gone at 8:30 AM for the same reason.
“Shit, dude, you are going to be out of food before you reach the bottom at this rate.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You talking to yourself?”
“Yeah, you know that always happens.”
“Put on Neil Gaiman. This conversation is boring.”
After the first couple of miles with tight switchbacks and nerve-wracking heights, the trail mostly smooths out into relatively level stretches where I can stride out and go fast.
Man, I am comparatively flying. Nearly broke 8 minutes on that last mile. Not fast on pavement by any stretch but on the constantly shifting terrain that goes from dust bowl, to hard pack, to rock, to scree and then back again, it ain’t bad.
I take a few pictures because I promised I would. A few sunrises, a tunnel, shots of the canyon halfway lit up by the sun. There is an optical illusion of the light moving across the rock like something in time lapse photography. These angles. Wow. 10 AM and I still haven’t seen the sun directly.
Refill my water bag at Cottonwood Camp. I’d only had about a liter. I probably could have lasted all the way to the bottom because this is the halfway point. Should I be drinking more water? I don’t know. It’s still cool. The sun isn’t on me. I’ve peed twice. If I’m peeing that means good kidney function. If I have good kidney function, that should mean I have the right amount of salt, sugar, and water. I tell myself this. There is little science here. Those who have mastered the balance are the greats, the people with the records. The rest of us are scrubs just doing it for the love of the trail. I’m going to drink more.
The ranger at the backcountry office told me it was worth my time to go to Ribbon Falls maybe 0.3 miles off the trail. But I have to cross a creek without a bridge. I doff my shoes and socks and plunge across the creek, startling a lady who hadn’t heard me over the roar of the water. I put my shoes and socks back on, conscious of the iron dust that now cakes my bare feet. I hike to the falls. They are nice but not worth the time I’ve lost.
The ranger at the back country office told me that the benefit of going to Ribbon is avoiding a 300-foot climb by cutting along the creek back to the trail. Perhaps in hiking boots or with an extra dry pair of socks tucked away somewhere. I see no trail along the creek and end up in a swamp of rushes and bramble. My shoes are wet. I see the trail. I see a pair of hikers. I see one of the pink ladies. The water is moving fairly fast here. I am scared to enter it. I find a place where I can leap from one boulder to another. Whew. Now to get back to the trail without bumping into cacti.
I catch the pink lady.
“You’re making good time!”
“Yeah, you too.”
“Ribbon falls wasn’t worth it.”
“Maybe on a hike but not on a run. Going to get blisters from the water.”
“You need anything?”
“Nah, I’ll be alright.”
I truck on, wanting to get away from the source of embarrassment.
Still going fast. The mile that made up Ribbon Falls is still faster than my goal time. Go. Go. Go. Go.
Whew. Mule paddock. Gotta take a picture of that.
Go. Go. Go. Go.
I’ve made it to the bottom. Whew. I am 1 hour and 40 minutes ahead of schedule on what should be a 24-mile-run. Let’s go exploring!
Plenty of room here at the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River. It makes sense that someone said “I bet we could make a lot of money taking people down on Mules for a stay at the bottom of the canyon!” I’ll read about it later and find out that in a little more than a month, Phantom Ranch celebrates its centennial. That’s exciting. I don’t care about that now. I think about getting a sandwich but the line is long. I think about asking about the pay phone but aforementioned line. Pink lady arrives. I ask her about the pay phone as she’s done this trip before.
“Huh. Never heard of it.”
“Back country ranger said there was one somewhere down here.”
“Have a good-un.”
I press on in an aggressive walk, wanting to take everything in but not wanting to lose my solid average pace. The ground is littered with the fibrous detritus that is left behind after a heavy rain flows through a horse paddock.
“That’s a lot of mule shit.”
“Talking to yourself again?”
“Neil Gaiman is better for washing dishes, not running through a canyon.”
“You could listen to The Martian again.”
“You know you can’t get enough of that Wil WuHeaton narration.”
I pull out my baggie of Cheez-Its. I’m walking anyway, might as well take the time to get some food in. This is my last solid food. I have four GUs left. I’ll save them for the final stages of the run.
I head upstream along the Colorado River to the Black Bridge. My direct route is actually across the Bright Angel Trail Bridge that is downstream from me, but there are some ruins here and if I can find it, a trail along the opposite cliffs that looks interesting. I read the signs, take it all in, cross the Black Bridge.
Where’s the trail?
Is it along the river? It’s called the River Trail.
Let’s check along the river.
Shit. Nope. I nearly fell in the river on a muddy bank with no signs of trail. Not here. I’ll find out in 20 minutes that I needed to go up the South Kaibab trail for a few steps. I don’t process that now, the first signs of fatigue. Back across the Black Bridge. Back across the river. I second guess myself. I look back. Nah, fuck it. Let’s just do the Bright Angel Bridge. I have places to be.
On the way to the crossing, I get water one more time. I tap into my salt for the first time of the day, adding a teaspoon to the bladder, not considering the fact that, at least for a little bit, the granules of salt will interfere with the delicate valves that allow water to come out of the bag.
There’s the phone. But it’s a collect call only phone. Can you make a collect call to a cell phone? Where do the charges go? Can I use the phone card I had back in college and still remember all the numbers for? There are 70 minutes left on it. I don’t know. I don’t ponder it further because I was able to text Lauren a mile before Phantom Ranch on a single bar of 4G, compliments of a Verizon tower newly installed in the park. With that, I feel no further obligation to check-in with this mysterious pay phone.
I cross the river for the final time and start heading out on the trail. I’m going uphill now. My quads are relieved. I am running in bursts now when the trail flattens out, but the majority of these last 9 miles will be aggressive hiking.
“Let this guy through! He looks like a rim-to-rimmer!”
I look down at myself. Holy shit. The sweat on my legs has mixed with trail dust. I look like I went wading in the mud of a dried-up clay quarry. My shoes have dried from my dip into the creek but left behind a sheen of brown dust that follows the outline of my toes beneath. My upper body is relatively clean and in good shape but those legs… Whew…
Mule train. Gotta get to the side. I slip into an alcove and let them past. $900 for people going all the way to the bottom. Lauren says it sounds like fun and wants to do it someday. Looking at the cloud of dust that stirring up behind them, I have my doubts. Mule train leader nods.
“What time you start?”
“Just before dawn.”
“Man, you are making good time boss.”
The third mule in line bumps me, despite being way off the trail. There are 7 mules. The last three people have handkerchiefs over their faces to keep out the dust. They don’t look happy. Lauren will have to do a mule train on her own.
My time is starting to slip. I knew this would be the case but I was so far ahead of schedule I don’t mind too much. Keep things under 30-minute mile pace. Run when I can. Walk when I have to. Pass a lady who is disturbingly red.
“Do you need sunscreen?”
“No, I’m just overheated.”
A fork in the trail. I have completely forgotten that I downloaded the trail on my phone, thus the confusion on the River Trail earlier. The junction is not marked well… East Tonto Trail… which is the East Tonto Trail… I am on the Bright Angel Trail…. I need to stay on the Bright Angel Trail… There is no sign for the Bright Angel Trail… just the Indian Garden Campground… I’ll go left for a minute.
Red face is below me.
“Am I going the right way on the Bright Angel trail?”
“I think so? I don’t know.”
“I guess I’ll find out.”
Maybe a quarter-mile down the trail I realize I am not going the right way. Some dim processing power down in the recesses of my brain notes that the canyon goes east to west. I am going east. I need to go south. This isn’t right. Dim processing power notes I have the trail on my phone and better look at it if I don’t want to die.
Shit, I went the wrong way.
Back toward Indian Garden. Back toward water. Last refill. Red face is at the water, lamenting to passersby that she thought she was ready for this because she runs marathons.
I have one bar of service and text Lauren.
“Approximately 4 miles left.”
I texted her an image of a sign with a vomiting hiker, warning about the dangers of hiking to the bottom and back in one day. I laugh because there was no sign on the far side. I’ve already done 23 miles so it’s a little late for me as a warning.
Hyponatremia has always been my enemy… Too much water and not enough salt. The problem is that many of the symptoms can look like dehydration. After wiping out on a few 100-milers, I’m starting to get the swing of things. I’m literally drinking salt water. Half of the bag is gone so I dilute what’s left with the fresh water from Indian Garden. Last water. Will it last 4 miles? A lone thermometer in the campground says the temp is 85 and it’s just a little after noon. The temp will continue to rise for the rest of my run. The sweat is no longer evaporating as it falls.
Even on the south rim I am often in the shadow. I reapply sunscreen one more time, though I am not sure if I actually need it.
The trail is getting crowded. The hike to Indian Garden and back to the top is 9 miles round trip, a sufficient distance for people who want to say they walked into the canyon but have no interest in going all the way to the bottom.
Most people yield, less out of any sort of courtesy than the fact that I look like something out of hell, dripping, muddy, and huffing as I rise in elevation. I was more than 8,000 feet above sea level when I started, then down to around 2,500 feet… Now back up to 6-thousand something.
I cross a fairly wide creek and realize it’s the one that took out my mom 15 years ago on that three-day hike with my dad. She slipped in the creek and landed on her back, pack flooding instantly and going from 30 pounds to maybe 80 pounds. The straps were too small for my dad to wear it and they sat on the side of the trail wondering what to do until a friendly day hiker offered to carry it for them, regretting the decision when he realized how heavy it was. I took a picture of the creek before crossing and sent it in a text to my mom.
“I found your nemesis.”
I try to pass a man going up hill with two women. He doesn’t want to yield. Like an ass on the highway trying to hog up the whole road. Fuck. It’s a flat part and I want to go fast. What fresh bushido his this? Showing off for the two women that are now 100 yards back on the trail? I briefly fantasize about body checking him off the trail for good. It’s not a steep incline. The cacti will stop him before he builds up too much speed. I don’t do anything. I just wanted to write about the thought process and well obviously I have achieved that.
On and on and up and up. I come to a pit toilet and realize I haven’t urinated since leaving the bottom of the canyon. That’s no good. I have to go .1 miles off the trail and up a flight of steps to use it but it’s too crowded to just whiz over the side of the mountain like Tyrion Lannister. I black out a little bit as I try to flex whatever failing muscles are responsible for this. That means low blood pressure which means insufficient fluids. I go ahead and start guzzling the rest of the water bag.
The rest of the run was uneventful other than the aforementioned trail hog catching up to me and abandoning any pretense of sticking with his lady friends because he just can’t stand the thought of me beating him in a race I didn’t know I was having. I let him pass, not wanting any more escalation.
Day hikers, little kids, a fucking toddler on foot. I must be near the top.
I’m at the top. Whew… I ponder continuing on to our campsite which is 1.5 miles away, but with my detours I am already well above a full marathon and I see no purpose in it. I check my text messages to see a response from Lauren about my four-mile warning.
She said I would probably beat her to the campsite. I hopped on a free shuttle bus and beat her to the campsite, checking in as she drove up a minute later.