The trip down was obviously a lot faster than our ascent. I personally love the downhills so had fun opening up my stride when possible, but the constant switchbacks also made it difficult to pick up speed (while maintaining control). Jordan again led the majority of the descent, and whenever I was leading I heard a lot of "Please don't die" from behind :) He also commented on how sunburnt I looked, except it wasn't actually a sunburn. My skin was glowing a beautiful reddish tint from the canyon dirt sticking to my "glistening" arms. "It's magic," I said. "All I have to do is wipe it away and voilà! Sunburn be gone!!"
The descent was QUICK and we stopped at the Pump House Ranger Station at the bottom to refuel our packs, reapply sunscreen and soak our shirts and caps in the cool spring nearby. While there, we learned that this pump station sources its water from the roaring springs waterfall, which in turn is pumped to supply fresh spring water all throughout the national park! Afterward we were back on flatter terrain and it was a quick 1.4 miles to the Cottonwood Campground, where we topped off our hydration packs once again. At this point, we were roughly 8.5 hrs into our run and about to navigate the hottest part of the canyon (and longest stretch without a water source ~7.5 miles) during the hottest part of the day. That being said, the next section was also very run-able if you had the legs to do so, which I definitely did and decided to take advantage :)
After leaving Cottonwood Campground, I took charge of the lead and worked to maintain a steady pace. I was feeling energetic, focused and my rationale was the faster we got through this stretch, the sooner we would escape the heat. Though we were both running it was HOT and I could tell the heat/time on our feet was starting to take its toll... Things started getting a little crazy...
For a while, I turned back on my tunes and with one ear was listening to my music, and with the other to Jordan jabbering away behind me about this and that (he does the majority of talking when we run, not surprisingly at all :) Our conversation went something like this:
Jordan: "Not gonna lie, I wasn't sure you were gonna be able to do this, but you've proved me wrong"
Me: "ummm, okay... and I totally kicked your butt running up the north rim."
Jordan: "You're running so strong! See you need to go back to running ultras because you would be AWESOME. I mean, look how well you're doing considering you're basically running this off the couch."
Me, thinking: "Say what??? Off the couch?? Where were you in March when I was getting my butt handed to me training-wise??"
Jordan, a few minutes later (probably my favorite statement): "You remind me of a cactus."
I tried to think of a sassy reply, but just kept running, smiling and thinking "This kid is OFF the chain" Oh marriage :)
Shortly thereafter we passed a couple hiking that we had also pass a while earlier while running towards the north rim. A few seconds after running by we hear the guy shout to us: "My wife says you disgust her!" LOL. Thanks?
Needless to say, we were anxious to get Phantom Ranch which stood in the way between us and the final stretch of our run. But before we made it there, we passed another hiking cooling off in the Bright Angel Creek, which flows alongside the trail, and immediately followed suit. A quick blitz swim in the chilly water made a world of a difference, and then we forced ourselves moving again.
Again, we took our time refueling our packs and getting in some quality nutrition at Phantom Ranch. There were a lot of people congregated outside the main store so we spent a few minutes chatting with some folks. A nice gentleman, Bill, whom we had seen there earlier that morning asked us what we were up to, then told us we were "looking phenomenal" compared to a lot of other hikers/runners he's seen. "You're doing so great!" He said. Simple words but always nice to hear especially if you've been on your feet for 9+ hours with many more to go. With that we hit the trail again, shortly thereafter crossing the Colorado River prepared to make the final 7.5 mile ascent to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail.
I left Phantom Ranch feeling optimistic that the final climb would go splendidly and we could potentially finish the run in less than 12 hours. I mean we had THREE HOURS to run roughly 9 miles, but how quickly things can change!! As soon as we started gaining elevation and hit some softer terrain, my pace came to a standstill. For one, I HATED the sand that made it even harder on my calves to push off and this time didn't bother trying to run through it. So I hiked... SLOWLY. I could feel my energy levels dropping but I kept chugging along taking things one switchback at a time. We encountered a small stream crossing and while Jordan wet his buff, I dove right in without hesitation: "ALL I'VE WANTED TO DO ALL DAY IS LIE IN A STREAM. Please don't make me get up!" IT FELT SO WONDERFUL!!!
Jordan pulled me to my feet and we kept truckin' but still I was moving slow. I also wasn't hardly eating or drinking...partially because I had lost my appetite and partially because I was too out of it to focus remember to do so. I can't tell you how many times I said "Are we there yet? Are we to Indian Garden yet?" Too bad we still had another 5 miles of steep climbing to go. Jordan refilled on water again at Indian Garden, while I turned my music back on for extra motivation and went ahead. I knew it wouldn't take long for him to catch me. As I climbed, I could feel the wind picking up and I looked to see a storm brewing from across the canyon. We heard a few cracks of thunder indicating lightening was not too far away. GREAT!! When in need of an adrenaline rush!
Less than 2 miles later I concluded that I was essentially done "running" for the day and resorted to a strong effort of hiking. Jordan is trotting along ahead trying to keep me moving, and now it was my turn to spew out gibberish (followed by giggling, because apparently I also thought my gibberish was funny) Shortly thereafter, Jordan commented on me looking "green." I look down at my arms and were in fact green, but this time it definitely was NOT a reflection of the dirt. So I sat on a rock and Jordan forced me to eat, then told me to keep moving before I fell over because he couldn't carry me out of the canyon. My back was aching so I handed him my pack and he carried it for a while, giving me a break while also allowing me to lead so he could keep an eye on me.
About a mile later I figured I should probably eat again and pulled a chocolate huma gel out of my pack. I held it up pridefully and announced "This will be my LAST gel of the run!" followed by taking a bite and then almost immediately "YUCK! Chocolate was a bad idea. Goodbye gel" (still giggling and laughing...)
We passed the 1.5 mile rest house and could see the South Rim... we were so close! We were seeing more people! Where did they all come from?!? That got me going because I wanted to pass them. I kept talking about the "tunnel" that we had seen the day prior, roughly a quarter mile from the top. Where is the tunnel?? Why aren't we there yet? Finally I saw the darn tunnel! The trail flattened slightly and I attempted to run... yea... I made it about 5 steps :) With that, Jordan grabbed my hand and we took the final few turns of the trail together before finding ourselves at the trailhead once again, where we had started in the dark roughly 13 hours earlier.
The beauty of this run extends far beyond the naturally carved intricacies of the canyon shaped over thousands of years by the Colorado River. We set our sights on running rim to rim to rim because we wanted to experience the entirety of what the canyon had to offer, not just a small piece of it, and because we wanted to share in that experience together. I have no doubt that I couldn't have accomplished this run on my own without my partner in crime there to support me through the highs and lows of the day. The beauty of this run is also in that there were no awards, official times, or even t-shirts involved, and with that came no expectations and few worries. Our sole ambition in being out there was to have a fun time engaging in a sport that we love, taking in the beauty of God's creation, and creating beautiful memories together. And the beauty of this run is the faith and committment required to accomplish it: in regards to the preparation, to the day itself and to each other. Very much the same committment and faith required to navigate the highs and lows and varying terrains of marriage. And for that reason, I could not imagine a better way to celebrate and honor our first 5 years of marriage, and many more years to come!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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