I met Max at the Phoenix airport at 8:30 pm. We rented a car, bought dinner and drove four hours north to the Grand Canyon. We were planning on running rim-to-rim-to rim in the Grand Canyon, from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again.
We didn’t get into bed until 2:00 am, and we were up again at 5:30 to run. We started down the Canyon just as dawn was breaking, casting its gleaming morning sunshine across that great expansive desert landscape. We made good time down to the river, and started up the north rim feeling good. Pretty quickly, though, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to run strong. With my last race combined with recent hard training – most recently a 5-hour mountain run just two days before – I did not have the strength to put out a hard effort.
[Getting ready to run. Dakota Jones about to take off down the trail.]
Max, of course, was characteristically busting at the seams to go faster, and though I’ll give him credit for sticking with me all the way up to the north rim, painful slog though it may have been, he didn’t miss the opportunity to completely outclass me. He had this move where he’d run up ahead, set up the GoPro on a rock, run back down, run and hike with me past the camera, then run back and get the camera and do it all again. We must have gotten several hours of footage of me grinding my teeth while Max danced jauntily behind me.
[Max and Dakota navigating switchbacks in the Grand Canyon.]
At the north rim he could take the pace no longer, and after making sure of my health he took off down the trail, chasing. He may very well have had a chance at getting the record had he not stayed with my slow ass all the way up the North Rim, but I was at least glad to have had his company for the first half of the run.
As he ran off I gave up the speed element entirely and just tried to enjoy the day. It was a hot day, with temperatures in the main canyon climbing to above ninety degrees. I padded along at a comfortable pace, marveling at how enjoyable a run can be when one doesn’t have to worry about time and numbers. I paused to take in the beauty of a waterfall, I sat at Roaring Springs for some time enjoying the cold water and cool shade, and basically reveled in the experience of being amongst a landscape that was greater than myself.
I felt as if I had nothing left to prove in the Canyon. I had set the record just a few months before, and though I knew it could still be lowered significantly I had no desire to do it that day. I had been through that Canyon and travelled those trails. I had no more exploring to do in that particular section of the Canyon, but I knew that with the right mindset I could find things I hadn’t seen before. I started noticing striations along the cliff bands, islands of rock isolated by erosion, trees clinging desperately to vertical walls and the sheer amount of life that thrives in the desert. Everything from insects to large mammals to birds and fish live happily in the kind of landscape we instinctively view as desolate and barren. The organisms that thrive in the Canyon are particularly evolved to make the most of dry and hot conditions, so that they do best when humans can hardly conceive of surviving. The observation was invigorating. I felt more connected to the landscape than on my previous two runs, and I began to understand why ultrarunning has such a strong cadre of mid-pack runners: the experience of enjoying the area and the challenge is energizing.
[Sometimes, ultra running is more about the view along the trail than the pace at which you run.]
I occasionally thought of Max up ahead, charging toward the finish line, fierce competition in his eyes. And I knew that near the South Rim sat three photographers straining constantly for a sight of their two heroes pushing magnificently toward the limits of human achievement. But most of all I knew that I had let go of those considerations completely. I breathed in the smell of the cottonwoods and wished Max the best and simply hoped everyone would still be at the South Rim when I got up there.
I jogged down to Phantom Ranch and refilled my water one last time. The day was hot and the air stagnant. I considered buying a lemonade down there, but decided to wait until the top in order to really enjoy a cool, sugary drink. Crossing the bridge I stopped to marvel at the beauty of the place. It was a canyon within a canyon; the inner gorge housed by the greater Canyon, and the river in this sections flows between walls of rock more than one billion years old. My sense of human history is such that the bridge across the river, constructed in 1921, seems old. My conception of the age of the basement rocks is, therefore, nonexistent. I simply cannot grasp the immensity of such a time period.
What I could grasp was the immensity of climbing back up to the South Rim. Having done it twice before I was starting to recognize landmarks by which to gauge my upward progress. First, gain the level of the Tonto; then get to the base of Skeleton Point; then up to Skeleton Point; then to Cedar Ridge; and finally up to the Rim itself. A 4,500 foot climb in a series of five steps. I was surprised to find myself gaining strength as I climbed upward, rather than vainly struggling to keep moving as in my two previous attempts. I ran and hiked upward with a power I had completely given up several hours earlier when I fell apart on the climb to the North Rim.
Gaining height with considerable speed and soon encountering the multitudes of tourists that clutter the upper third of the trail I started to look for faces I recognized. Climbing the final few switchbacks I looked up to see if Max was waiting for me at the top, and was not surprised to find him looking at me with arms outstretched on the final stretch of trail. I soon joined him and we finished the run arm in arm, with a time of 7:39 – the fourth fastest ever.
I soon learned that Max had fallen apart on the climb back up to the South Rim and had relegated himself to a slow hike long before. Despite my Walden-style run through the Canyon, stopping to smell the flowers and enjoy the scenery, I had nevertheless caught Max at the final switchback. Forty-three miles, more than ten thousand feet of vertical, and we managed to finish at exactly the same time.
My runs in the Grand Canyon will soon disappear into the past like a balloon into the sky. I’m okay with that. I didn’t run the Canyon to become famous; I ran the Canyon to become better. A better runner, a better athlete and, ultimately, a better person. The lessons I learned from struggling in the Canyon have combined with all the lessons from my other adventures and created in me values that I can use to make the world a better place. For me, that means protecting the places I love most. And the Grand Canyon is one of those places.
Check out more of Dakota Jone’s writing on his blog, Living the Dream.