Friday, October 10, 2014


Well after much planning, preparation, training, patience and badly timed injury ... I finally arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at 5:30 am on a very dark October morning. It was strange and eerie standing there in the blackness looking into the enormous abyss that is the Big GC - one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. You can see it in pictures and videos but to be here and experience it makes all your senses tingle and come alive. It was surprisingly cold at the 8,500 foot rim. I was nervous, excited and eager as I stared into the void. I had no idea what to expect, of course I had done my research thoroughly but nothing can prepare you for the real thing, the silence, the mixed emotions, the unknown. I thought to myself, 'just go' and then deal with whatever happens. I was determined to have a great day as I knew I was fortunate to be here and lucky to have this opportunity. I had visualized this moment for over 9 months and now the time had come to embrace it. I felt incredibly alive and present and so off I went whispering in the dark - 'trust yourself, you can do this'. I was about to run nearly a marathon in distance, firstly descending 8,500 feet very quickly and at an impossibly steep and rocky gradient, then run along the 100 degree desert heat of the canyon floor before climbing all the way back out again to the South rim; over 700 people have died here in the past 100 years and over 250 people are rescued every year; I had to stay alert and focused.

      I was worried about snakes, wild animals, twisting or breaking something, falling, dehydration, hypernatremia, fatigue, muscle strains, exhaustion, exposure, vertigo, the list was seemingly endless but sometimes in life you just have to believe in yourself and your ability.... and so off I went. (Oh, and mobile phones don't work either!)
  I had received many pieces of advice but the three that stuck in my mind were from Bev - 'Cherish the experience', Ashley - 'Don't die!' and finally my son , Alexander, who said to me at the airport as we left, 'Give yourself to the Canyon' and so that's exactly what I did. I felt strangely calm and in the zone, this was it.
    The trail was quite technical in that it was rutted with many loose stones and rocks, my head torch picked out about 6 feet ahead but I guess that's all I needed to see. There had been storms the night before but fortunately it was now dry. All I could hear was my breath and my footsteps, I really had to focus on the trail as I knew instinctively that this was going to be a very long day. The Grand Canyon is immense, the Ranger guides say that you must allow 2-3 days to hike from one side to the other and I was going to run it all ... today! It's extremely intimidating and dangerous ... and you can feel it.
   My plan was the same as any ultra-marathon event, I chunk it into sections. If you imagine the whole thing in one go it will seem impossible so my first target was the Supai tunnel, a small cutting in the rock about 1,200 feet below. It was mostly trees at this point, dark and foreboding (I imagined a Bear at every corner) but very quickly the view opened up revealing glimpses of the canyon below. It's just huge, 'Shit, this is serious!' I said myself, ( you probably realise by now that I talk out loud all the time). Parts of the Canyon are 2 Billion years old and as it begins to tower around you, you feel very small. 

  I really wanted to get some miles under my belt as soon as possible and with no leg pain from my injury 6 weeks before because this was a huge concern on top of everything else, and so any slight twinge and I worried. Fortunately I have a brilliant physio, Helen Cooper McLeod, who had worked tirelessly on my leg and had shown me how to tape it correctly, otherwise I wouldn't have been here today. I knew this was going to be hard but I'd prepared and planned every detail and so I was ready. Many people with the best intentions had warned me not to do this but I'd made a decision  and so I had to ... I don't go back on commitments, especially to myself.
After about 10 minutes I relaxed a bit and tried to get into a rhythm, not easy when descending at speed and in the dark. I was strangely calm, yet focused and as I passed a hiker who had done it before I asked, 'Any advice?' He shouted back, 'Yeh,just keep putting one foot in front of the other'... and so that's exactly what I did. My cadence is about 180 strides per minute so that was going to be around 100,000 steps that I would take today ... and every single one had to be sure. Mind boggling I know but the human body is an amazing thing and I trusted it; I had too as the terrain was extremely difficult and unforgiving.

I reached the tunnel in about 15 minutes feeling good. I did not want to hit the ground too hard as this would trash my quads and  make the rest of the run unbearable. The trail now became much steeper as we went below the tree line and I began to feel a wonderful warm breeze coming up from below. I could see why it was so easy to have tragic accidents, if you don't concentrate you can be over the edge instantly. I followed the switchbacks to a small bridge and then began a gentle incline to the scariest part of the run. The canyon narrows and for about 20 minutes you run along a one metre wide path with a vertical drop off of thousands of feet, (and I get vertigo) however, as would happen many times today I felt calm and confident, it was even enjoyable in an odd kind of way. I was meeting the challenge and my own fears and was embracing them. It is so spectacular that I just kept feeling grateful to be there, I was deep in the canyon now and I was loving it. Later Sue would say that on all the videos and pictures I was smiling all the time.

  I descended rapidly to 4,000 feet below the rim and after an hour arrived at Cottonwood Camp which consisted of 10 trees, 3 tents and a water tap and that was it, very rock and roll ... this was truly basic. After about 10 k the canyon opens out and I though I ran quickly I was mindful of rattle snakes and so kept a sharp lookout (difficult considering I have lousy eyesight).
     I now felt completely at one with what I was doing. I didn't worry about the journey ahead  and stayed completely focused on where I was and each new experience, I was cherishing every moment.  Occasionally I would pass some hikers and when they saw me they would shout to their friends 'Runner!' .. and would stand aside to let me pass, all very cordial, in fact this was now my new  name 'Runner' ... I quite liked it.
 I was now about a mile deep vertically into the canyon and my body felt good and I felt in control. I was mindful though that one bad slip and I could be in trouble so I kept my concentration. I noticed all the sights and sounds around me and just kept smiling saying 'This is great'. I so wanted to enjoy this experience and I was.
After another 30 minutes I entered a part called Box canyon where the steep rock walls crowd around you, it was amazing, these rocks are over 2 billion years old, I loved it.
 The weather was fortunately slightly overcast for the first 3 hours and so I kept relatively cool until I hit the mythical 'Phantom ranch' where the temperature soared as the sun came out. For many years I had thought this place was a haunted old relic of a few log cabins and when I arrived I saw about 3 people wandering around aimlessly and a few old cabins ... and so I was right after all.
I was now a mile from the river and getting quite excited. All my life I had wanted to come here. I had visited the GC many times but had never risked venturing down and now suddenly here I was ... and I was running it, life is very strange sometimes. I got quite emotional as I crossed the  mighty Colorado, it was stunning. I was completely alone and I felt all that I had wanted to feel, I stood on the bridge and just cried, it was overwhelming in every way. I was now at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it was fantastic I was crying and smiling at the same time, just heaven.
  My legs were aching but I didn't care, I just felt blessed and at one with the whole experience. I now ran along the river for about 4 k and then stopped briefly for the only time that day to put my head in the water ... it was like a baptism, I'd made it.
   After a few brief minutes it was time to move on and begin my ascent out of the canyon ... the hardest part and just as you are getting tired, but again I didn't care I  would embrace the climb as well.
   I know this may all sound too good to be true and I must sound like some quasi religious, tree hugging hippy but its just how I felt.
The first part of the ascent is called the Devils Corkscrew due to the steep switchbacks of the 1,800 feet climb. It was now very, very hot but I climbed well and half way up encountered a couple coming down who asked me if I'd come from Phantom Ranch; when I told them I'd come from the North Rim they were amazed and then she asked how old I was (I don't know why) and when I told her she shouted, 'Shut up! Shut up! that is so 'rad'.. she was hilarious. Her husband  then joined in 'Are you serious dude? Shit, I need to get in shape'... To be honest they inspired me as much as I did them and I shot off up the trail.
   It must have been nearing 100 degrees now, fortunately I always carry a lot of water, however you often forget to drink, even in the heat, its a weird thing but it happens a lot in ultra running and causes many problems. I kept my discipline. I took an S-cap (sodium) every hour and kept eating my gels and drinking my water even when I didn't feel like it.
 My fitness was surprising, even to me and I think I'm pretty fit, my legs ached as did my ligament injury from 6 weeks ago but mostly I felt good and very strong.
  I managed a light jog along a crystal clear creek, it was beautiful and I maintained this all the way up to Indian Gardens about a third of the way up. This was the only place all day that I'd been to before, as I had come down to here during my recce in February however in February I'd only ran for an hour down and it was cold so I bombed back up. Today I'd been running for 6 hours and it was boiling, this was going to be tough despite my fitness.
    A guy at the water tap asked if I'd come from the North Rim, I said 'Yes, how did you know?' He said 'Because you look like an ultra runner Bro' ... I love the yanks.

It was now another 3,000 feet straight up and I mean vertical, I knew it was going to be hard but I'd come this far and now I just had to see it through. This is not so much about fitness, it's more about 'grit', this is when this extreme sport sorts you out mentally and physically. It was very hot in the sun but fortunately the canyon walls are so steep that it creates its own shade as the trail winds up to the top, you just have to keep going and stay in the zone. It was relentless but many people who were hiking down asked where I'd come from today and there reactions, respect and positive encouragement kept me going. Many people ask me if I stop and take breaks when doing this type of thing, the answer is never, you just keep going all the time, the only time I had stopped all day was when I soaked my head in the river - which was about 2 minutes. As I continued to climb the hours now began to drag by as it turned into one big pain fest, again I had planned and expected this but as I say to all my clients 'the pain is not real its just your body's defence mechanism' .... mind you it felt pretty real to me at the time. (But 10 minutes after I finished I'd forgotten about it, that's why you never quit. 'You must do the thing you think you cannot do'.

At a little over 8 hours I rounded the final switchback just below the rim and yelled out to Sue, who I could see was sitting on a rock way in the distance, she saw me too, it was very emotional.
Somehow I summoned up the strength to run hard up the last bit and as I looked down at the canyon below I was mindful of how far I'd come. I thought about all the people who had supported, encouraged and believed in me, my son Alexander and my wife Sue who puts up with all this nonsense.

For the record I am 60 years old next month and I truly believe that you can do anything you want if  you decide to, you just have to keep in mind your goal and never falter. Life will always throw up problems but as long as your vision and belief is true then you will succeed. As I fell into Sue's arms she asked me how I felt and I just burst into tears, this was physically the greatest achievement of my life. I just felt blessed.

 ---> ---->

No comments:

Post a Comment