05 Jun Grand Canyon 100 Mile
- Date: May 16, 2015
- Distance: 100 miles
- Direction: East to West along the Northern Rim (Out-and-Back) of the Grand Canyon, AZ.
- Ascent/Decent: 9,800 ft/9,800 ft
- Max, Min, Av Elevation: 9,800, 7,200 ft, 7,800 ft
- Running Surface: 55% single track, 35% double track, 10% Off-trail
- Finishing time: 29+ hrs
- Gear: Hydration backpack, Sunglasses, Hat, Brooks Cascadia running shoes, headlamp, warm running jacket, gloves, phone (for photos/music).
- Food: Olives (at aid), Quesadillas (at aid), Shot blocks, Trail mix, Gel Packs, Water, Electrolyte tabs.
- Highlights: Grand Canyon, California Condor sighting, Night running through GC national forest, Crazy Jug overlook, wild animals, Extremely tall Aspens, hallucinating from exercise.
- Terrain: What you would expect from high elevation desert terrain in late-spring. The first 20-miles were under 5″ of fresh snow followed by undulating single-track through Ponderosa Pines and Aspen trees. There were occasional sections of deep mud. Once runners reached the Grand Canyon the snow melted and gave way to ideal running temps. The evening brought in a light hail storm. Near freezing night-time temps caused some of the trail to become slippery in sections. The morning thaw brought on additional mud for the last 20 miles.
Training for this event:
Training for this race wasn’t easy for a number of reasons. 100-mile races require logging months of high millage weeks in preparation and in addition to the obvious there are also the abrupt surprises in life that make training that much less appealing. This was definitely the case leading up to my first 100-miler. Two sudden passings in my family followed by the passing of a friend at the base of Everest during the tragic Nepal Earthquakes was more than enough to derail my training program. Training runs leading up to the race felt more like therapy rather than progress. I knew that if I was going to start this race, let alone finish, I would have to find a way to do it through mental training and patience.
I pulled up to the cold and soggy pre-race meet up near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I knew that the following 48-hours were going to be challenging with the way the weather was looking. I spoke with a friendly volunteer who told me that temperatures overnight were expected to drop below freezing, which would inevitably turn the steady rain we were experiencing into a few inches of snow. Following this unwelcome weather forecast I grabbed my bib, an additional pair of gloves and made my way back to lodging. In my head there was a voice contemplating switching distances or not even showing up to the race. The absurdity of running 100-miles was slowly creeping in.
After a night of mild anxiety and a few hours of restless sleep I woke to find another unfortunate update, my right eye was nearly swollen shut from an allergic reaction. Maybe this was my brain trying to physically tell me to not run? I thought of who I wanted to do this race for and my thoughts quickly reshuffled to the starting line. Seeing how there was only an hour before the race, my only option for my swollen eye was to take a non-drowsy antihistamine and reluctantly walk past snow covered pine trees to the starting line of the race. At this point, I was thinking there would be nothing that could stop me from starting and finishing. I was going to run it relying on determination and willpower to honor my late Aunt, Uncle and friend.
Other questionably sane people.
Once the race began at 6 AM I was able to move past my anxiety and focus simply on moving forward without injuring myself on the snowy trail. Even though I didn’t get much training running on snow, I worked myself into a steady rhythm until I noticed a change in the atmosphere; The aroma of breakfast was drifting through the forest from an oncoming aid station. The lure of staying for too long and indulging in what is my favorite meal was too close for comfort. I narrowly managed to escape and continued with the steady rhythm I had built. I was feeling confident about my steady pace along the freshly trampled path leaving the first obstacle behind me.
The sun was steadily rising above head and the ground was beginning to thaw when the next challenge presented itself. Mud and ankle deep water slowed my pace to to a cautious walk. Each step resulted in the shifting of my entire body weight and the accumulation of heavy mud on my obnoxiously colorful running shoes. I resorted to running through the snowy sidelines of the trail instead of risking injury through the mud. Thankfully, direct sunlight beaming down on the trail eventually dried the muddy gauntlet of death and created more stable ground to run on. It wasn’t long before the rising temperatures forced me to ditch my windbreaker even though there was still snow on the ground. It was incredible to experience how drastic the northern Arizona climate changed over the course of a few hours.
Roughly 20-miles into the race, runners were rewarded with the first spectacular glimpse of the Grand Canyon. The awe-inspiring vistas were expected when registering for a race that boasts ‘unbelievable overlooks’, but the overwhelming sense of scale mixed with runners high is impossible to put into words. While pacing along Rainbow Rim trail at around mile 30-something, I caught glimpses of some insanely large California Condors casually gliding on the distant thermals. It was at that moment when I thought to myself that a California Condor was perhaps my spirit animal, and that maybe I was starting to hallucinate from the excessive amount of exercise I was putting myself through.
Potentially my spirit animal.
The evening came creeping in with a brief and ominous hail storm that obstructed the views of the Canyon. At first I was angry with the sudden change in weather that cruelly stole away the amazing views I had been admiring, but that feeling evaporated when I realized it was out of my control. Following the storm, warm sunlight spilled into the canyon causing the gigantic rocks below to glow bright orange. The beauty of witnessing a sunset after running over 50 miles was instantly burned into my long-term memory. It was a moment that demanded a pause of appreciation for what I was experiencing. As the sun waned and darkness crept over the forest, I realized that the hardest part of the race was most likely going to be the upcoming night run. I slowed my pace in order to reach into my backpack and take out my headlamp, jacket and gloves for the unforeseeably dangerous run through the darkness.
My biggest fear about the night time run was due to the fact that I was beginning to feel a lot of pain in my shins and neck, not to mention that my eye was still swollen from the morning. The thought of being an injured animal running in the middle of the night brought on a sense of primal fear that struck deep in my mind. There were no options but to continue the race while attempting to alleviate my shin and neck pain through subtly changing my running form. Since I had no pacer to assure me that the visions of mountain lions in the forest weren’t real, I was often victim of my own imagination and would frequently do double-takes from the impending sense of danger. At the aid stations I would eat as much hot broth (vegetarian) as I could handle before moving onwards to the next stops slowly tacking on more miles.
The most incredible part of the night had to be running past what felt like the gigantic jaws of Earth. I would occasionally come to points in the trail where I knew for certain that the distances I had seen earlier in daylight were just feet away from me; but all I could see was darkness. The sensation of running through the Grand Canyon at night felt like running on the mouth of a giant while it was fast asleep. I continued running along the path traversing alongside the unseeable bottom of the canyon below while occasionally gazing above at the millions of stars in the night sky.
The sun began to rise at around mile 70. I was tired and still hallucinating from the night before, but the relief of being able to see into the distance (still with one swollen eye) was a huge help. My body was still aching and I had resorted to using two broken tree branches as hiking poles to take pressure off of my feet. I was assured by an aid station volunteer that I was holding last place which didn’t phase me slightly. My mission wasn’t to win the race but to finish. I had run the longest i’ve ever gone in my entire life and the thrill of completing 100 miles was keeping me moving forward.
At mile 85 I started envisioning my favorite food trucks in the distant trees. The pain in my legs was excruciating but it had reached a limit. I kept assuring myself that I was going to finish the race and started thinking about my Aunt and Uncle to help me get past some of the physical pain. Funny enough, this worked extremely well. Once I began doing this I realized how helpful thinking about past memories of people who matter to me helped while dealing with physical pain. Once I realized how effective this process of simply thinking about other people was, I started thinking about more people who mattered to me. This practice felt like a breakthrough for dealing with pain. It seemed to be the fastest way to enter into the ‘mind over matter’ state which carried me to the final few miles of the race.
It was nearly mid-afternoon by the time I crossed the finish line. There was a small crowd of volunteers and racers at the modest event grounds who cheered me on as I hobbled past the finish line. I was rewarded a small belt buckle for completing the race made by a local artist that featured some natural plants found on the trail. I felt relieved to not have to run anymore but the breakthrough of thinking about my late Aunt, Uncle, friend Dan and other important people in my life was working so well that I could have kept moving forward if I needed to. This realization was both emotionally heart-warming and frightening at the same time. I might just run another 100-mile race.