From there, I perseverated on needing to use the bathroom, while Jordan went back and forth a million times on what he wanted to wear. I too made a complete outfit change from what I originally planned to wear. Our indecisiveness was an obvious sign of our nervousness, a way of procrastinating the inevitable. Thankfully, we were the only ones dictating the start time and thus felt no pressure to rush. Finally, we put on our hydration packs, strapped our headlamps to our foreheads, took a quick picture and made the 5 minute walk from the Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim to the Bright Angel Trailhead.
4:17 AM: After a quick picture with the trailhead sign, we take off into the dark abyss otherwise known as THE Grand Canyon. Naturally we were feeling both filled with excitement and anticipation as to what was to come of the day’s events, but also quite terrified of the unknown, especially in navigating the steep descent in the pitch dark. Jordan lead the way thanks to my uncanny ability to run off trail. The last thing we needed was me doing that in the dark and ending up off the side of a cliff!! Less than 10 minutes into the run, we ditched our extra layers, and within about 40 minutes it was light enough to turn off our headlamps. About an hour into our run, we caught our first glimpses of the sunrise over the horizon. Immediately we came to a standstill to simply take in the picturesque scenery around us, then continued to zig-zag on our way down the trail towards the Colorado River. Thoughts of a long day ahead was the last thing on my mind: we were like two children out for a day's adventure, naive to the challenges that lie ahead and just taking things one breathtaking viewpoint at a time.
At one point, I swerved to the side of the trail aiming to avoid a puddle which was filled with either rain or mule pee. In the process, I jammed my hand into the canyon wall and was left with a bleeding, swollen right hand. Oops! At another point, I twisted my left ankle bad enough to come to a standstill, but thankfully it dissolved and I was able to continue. From there, we ran past many small streams that trickled their way towards the Colorado River. Jordan stopped to wet his buff and hat, while I simply splashed my way through them.
5:49 AM: After about 1.5 hours we reach the Colorado River and the trail turns to follow the shoreline. There are two bridge crossings for the river, one for the Bright Angel Trail and one for the South Kaibab Trail. I'm can't remember why, but I decisively announced that we would take the second river crossing. Either because I was enjoying running along the river or because I knew as soon as we crossed over it the trail would take a turn towards gaining elevation, not losing it (or maybe just because I'm bossy like that??? :P) The bridge crossings were one thing I definitely worried about leading up to our run, but turns out they were very sturdy and really not too bad! We skipped our way across (literally) and turned south again to make our way towards the Bright Angel Campground, Phantom Ranch and North Kaibab Trail.
6:30 AM: We pass by the Bright Angel Campground and make our first bathroom-water stop before turning onto the North Kaibab Trail to traverse the canyon floor. There were plenty of opportunities to refill water along the trail, yet this next section was the longest we would run between water stations, approximately 6 miles. This section was by far my favorite, because the views of the canyon from below offered a unique perspective like no other and I enjoyed observing the different ecosystems that we encountered along the way (DYK? The canyon has 5 different ecosystems from the river to the rim!). Though it was less technical, flat-ish and very run-able, it was still a long stretch and at one point we stopped at a stream crossing just prior to Cottonwood to soak our hats and buffs and refuel nutritionally. Even though it was only about 9 AM, we could feel the temperature within the canyon beginning to rise. My stomach was upset with me and I knew I wasn't eating and drinking enough up to that point. Little breaks like these were key in the success of our day as they allowed us the time to enjoy our surroundings, recharge mentally and take in quality nutrition at a less rushed pace.
8:45 AM: After about 4.5 hrs / 21 miles, we crossed a bridge signaling the beginning of the steep ascent towards the north rim. At this point, according to our calculations, we should have only been about 2-3 miles from the top of the rim. Not bad, right? Having fueled up, I was feeling spunky and skipped my way up the trail, while Jordan sat back and kept saying "WHY ARE YOU RUNNING RIGHT NOW?!" This portion of the run literally "took my breath away." With the gain in overall elevation we could feel the air ever-so-slightly thinning, yet I was so busy being distracted by the gorgeousness that surrounded us to care. The landscape around us felt so surreal that it was as if we were running through a painting. It was the ultimate runner's high: certainly I had died and gone to heaven?? We walked as needed without guilt, knowing that it was only an opportunity to soak up the beauty of canyon around us with even greater detail. Words, pictures or even video simply cannot offer true perspective of what we were able to experience in person!!
10:00 AM: After what felt like endless climbing later, I thought for sure we were almost to the North Kaibab Trailhead. That is, until we ran into a park ranger who yelled encouragingly, "only 1.9 miles to go!" as we ran slowly trudged by. "ARE YOU FOR SERIOUS?!?" were the exact words that came out of my mouth, because up until then I had been thinking we were perhaps within a half mile of getting there. Making matters more challenging, we didn't have a good visual of where the North Kaibab trailhead actually was located, and the endless switchbacks of the trail deceptively added distance to what seemed very close as the crow flies. At this point, I was back to struggling and needing calories, while Jordan was catching a second wind and ready to make that final push to the top. We pretty much switched off leading the entire day like that: whomever was feeling stronger than the other would "lead the charge" and keep things moving while the other sat back and took pictures and caught some air. As we passed more and more people walking down the trail, we were energized with the notion that we were getting closer and closer to our turnaround point.
10:37 AM: Finally, after 6 hrs, 20 minutes total elapsed time, we had reached the North Kaibab trailhead and our turnaround point !! Here we took our time in refilling our hydration packs with natural Grand Canyon spring water, throwing away our trash and reorganizing our gear. I attempted to send out a few text messages to say we were alive, but service is so spotty in that area that nothing would go through (sorry coach!) After repacking, refueling and taking a few obligatory pictures, off we went back down the North Kaibab trail to retrace our steps...
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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