Travel and Logistics
So we flew out at about 8:30 am from SJC to PHX. That means a 5 am wake up call for me, to get everything ready, pack the last minute things I forgot (like a flipping toothbrush!) and prepare myself for an hour’s worth of traffic. We met the rest of our party at the gate, and we were on to PHX! When we landed, we had some logistics to deal with (such as car rental, and dealing with a gaggle of people). We finally got it all together, and with my poor navigation skills, we made it to the meet up at Phoenix Ranch Market.
Holy Mexican Heaven! Nothing prepared me for this place. Shaun said it best with “Wow, I’ve never felt like shopping AND dancing before!” This place was an awesome Mercado, and had everything from awesome Mexican dulicitas, to every Mexican delicacy ready to be plopped on a tortilla and headed for my mouth. Smartly, I decided to take it easy and I chose a modest plato fajitas de pollos, para llevar, por favor! I was hoping to get mostly rice and beans and less chicken/peppers, but I ended up with quite the opposite. Oh well. After about 45 minutes of nomming, we scoured the store for hike-able/run-able goodies. My list included water, peanut butter, honey, bread, and one FRS. I also added an “Hecho in Mexico” coke to that for the finish line. It just sounded so tasty.
Packing the Bag
This is actually harder than it sounds. Part of this is because I stuffed a 100-oz camelback bladder into a 70-oz Nathan backpack… When it’s full, there’s not too much room for anything else. I also managed to stuff a PB&H sandwich in there, a Vespa (my current drug of choice), various Gu-type products, a few 5 hour energies, not one but two MP3s (I had a feeling that I might need them, plus one was loaded with mega funk (feel-good) hits, and one was filled with podcasts (helloooo distraction), a baggie of sunscreen (seriously effective), a baggie of bag balm (same), 4 butt wipes (I was feeling lucky), powdered Gatorade/Carbo Pro, a snake venom extractor (non-negotiable item), bug spray towlette, ALCIS packet, Chamois Butter packet, chapstick stuff, animal crackers, sunglasses, whistle, GPS watch, head torch, and awesomeness. I left my heat blanket and my dried mangoes. I only missed one of those.
I keep it no secret: I get AMS pretty badly. Once you get it the first time, it never gets better. This year alone I have experienced AMS at 10,000 feet (thank goodness for reusable pack-out bags), and I began to have it at our grand elevation of 6,800 feet. It starts with an unquenchable headache. As ibuprofen is a running no-no, I usually combat it with extreme hydration, but I was unsuccessful. In addition to the bone-chattering headache, I was also extremely nauseous. Shortly before I called it a night, I was pretty much useless.
Sleep is for Pansies
I was fortunate enough to conk out earlier on our 2 hour plane ride, so when we headed to bed around 6:30 pm, I was okay with whatever sleep we were going to get. I put a wet washcloth on my forehead to combat the AMS and keep me cool. I was really worried I was going to spend this precious downtime in the bathroom puking, but I lucked out. I also popped 3 mg of Melatonin. I probably actually got about 30 minutes of solid sleep, which is more than I can say for anyone else. Our 9pm “wake up” was … rough.
Pre Run Prep
The morning goal of every ultra runner is the accomplishment of the pre-run “sense of clear.” Please don’t make me explain that in more detail. I usually get up, eat immediately, and then get ready whilst things… brew. I was not successful in this task, but I had no fear that a few miles in I would probably need to find a bush. I will briefly mention that one of our runners DID accomplish his goal, which was narrated by another runner to my amusement with “Ah… these are the moments.” A week later I’m still laughing.
During this time, I double checked my packing, ate as much PB&H as I could, tried not to puke on anything. I taped up my feet with band-aids and duct tape (runner’s trick), and tucked my gaitors down.
Trailhead/ I’m a wimp
We convinced another runner’s wife to drive us to the start (we were like .5 miles from the start… and frankly, I’m a wimp). If I were in the market for a wife, Sally would surely be it!
At the trailhead, I visited the porta-potty (no successes), stretched a little, and took a few pictures. I also took a second to mentally focus before the run. Yeah, it didn’t help. Pre-run nerves snuck up on me without my notice…
breathe in, breathe out
Holy Cow I’m running the Grand Canyon
Everything started off perfectly (except for the fact we were about ½ behind schedule). The weather was a cool 78*, the stars were out in full force, and the turf was soft and seriously downhill. We spaced out a bit to avoid dust, and we were just hauling along. Every step reminded me of how much my head was hurting, but the farther we descended, the farther I was from AMS. I figured at about 3 miles in, I’d start to feel better.
There wasn’t much for us to see at this time of night, save what the head torches illuminated in our immediate path. This was probably a good thing. We ran into a few hikers coming up (poor babies!), and our biggest obstacles were the rhythm ripping logs holding the trail in place (dubbed “The Stairmasters”).
Again, not much to see, but the sound was OVERWHELMING. The air around me was completely still, with that latent quality that heightens your senses and makes you keenly “present.” The sound of my soft footfalls echoed a little on the canyon walls, accompanied by a full orchestra of crickets, and somewhere below me a few bullfrogs were singing back up. This singular sonic event will be my favorite memory of the Grand Canyon.
breathe in, breathe out
That’s not a mud puddle
Had we waited until first light, we would have probably met the trail’s most famous hikers: the burros. Actually, they’re mules, used to pack in and pack out supplies, garbage, and people. They definitely leave quite an imprint on the trail. After about two miles of dodging mule-pies, I just gave up. Life is too short, and I wasn’t planning on getting out of this whole thing squeaky clean anyways.
I lunge for mud puddles like a dog lunges at a squirrel. They bring me sheer, unabashed joy. When I see one, it’s “game on.” In the dark, they were hard to spot, but I did my best. Then it occurred to me… I hadn’t seen a mud-puddle source yet. No running water, no springs, no telltale stream-lining brambles… In short, this wasn’t naturally made mud. Where there are mule-pies, there are probably mule-puddles, too.
In addition to the “Stairmasters,” the trail (at this point) was a good combination of sand and cue ball sized rocks. The hidden gems were little pieces of rebar sticking out of the Stairmasters, or sometimes, hiding in the soil just below them, conveniently out of the head torch’s illumination. Sneaky bastards.
Somewhere after the first water opportunity, and before the second, I took one fated step. I heard all the canyon sounds stop, and the air was once again still, and pregnant. I felt my under-foot grip go. I heard a loud “pop.” I saw the ground rushing towards me. In pain and utter disbelief, I pulled myself into a seated ball. I audibly told myself to “suck it up” and began to assess the damage. I was terrified to look under my running gaiters.
breathe in, breathe out
In a few minutes my running mates caught up to me, ready with advice and (most importantly) patience. We spent half an hour at mile 2.6, and I am forever grateful for their cool heads, their patience, and the time they allowed me to make my decision. I longed for the bed I had just left behind. I longed for sweets and caffeine that I given up months before. I longed for air conditioning. I had an excuse as to why I didn’t finish that everyone would believe, and that would allow me to enjoy these things without sacrificing too much ‘face.’ I longed for ibuprofen.
Eventually I realized my day, at mile 2.6 had to be over. I spent all my monopoly money on this trip, and I was also hoping it would be a really important turning point in my personal life. Now I was going to have to make the fateful (and lonely) trip back to the Bright Angel trailhead. But again, I had that ‘excuse’ that made it okay. Was this the person I become?
Sitting there on that rock, I heard my running mates go on. I heard their in-sync steps shuffling down the trail, and I thought of how many steps it would take for me to get back to the top. I heard them jumping off the Stairmasters, and I thought whether it would be easier to get to the bottom and nap before going back up. After all, I did want to see at least SOME of the Grand Canyon. I heard them stop and start like a two-man centipede over unseen obstacles, and pictured myself reclining in the hotel room, having a pity party with my pillow-padded pede. I heard their steps synch once again, and pictured what the ground looked like rushing past their feet. What untold worlds would those heels strike? What airs would those tongues taste? What would the eyelets behold? What earthy delights would the toe-balls grip and crush? What pure, unfettered freedom flows at the canyon’s bottom?
I got up. I ran on.
breathe in, breathe out