Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Rim to Rim to WTF

Like most things in 2020, my "race season" turned out a little bit differently than originally planned. 

Right before sunset, heading up the Bright Angel Trail of the Grand Canyon

It always takes me a few days to unfold from an endurance endeavor. I used to think that I wasn't fully present in a moment if I couldn't understand it right away, but it's just the opposite. I can't reflect upon an experience while I'm fully alive within it. I have to be physically and emotionally engulfed by the struggle with nowhere to hide, no backup plan, no escape route. Then after a few days when my body returns to homeostasis, and my hormones realize that they are not in fact being chased by a lion in search of dinner, I can begin to observe the ways in which I interact differently with the world around me. 

Rim-to-rim-to-rim is a double crossing of the Grand Canyon, totaling about 50 miles with just under 11k feet of elevation gain and descent. With the south rim elevation at 7k feet and the north rim at 8k feet, there can be dramatic temperature changes throughout the day and the park rangers make sure to discourage people from attempting this at all costs. 

It's not an actual event. We didn't have volunteers or support crews, or medical tents. We started our descent from the south rim at 4am on Saturday morning with our hydration packs, nutrition for the day, layers of clothing, sunscreen, and a few bandaids just in case. 

I thanked my body ahead of time for being resilient. For being capable enough to get me to the start line. For being the trusted, often disinclined vessel of my growth and creative expression. 

We had 2 hours of descending down the South Kaibob Trail in the dark and I kept stopping for brief moments to turn off my light, look up, and be absolutely mesmerized by the stars. It got hot right away, even in the dark, from all the heat being held in by the rocks. When we got to the bottom of the descent, around Phantom Ranch, I stashed a can of coke that I hoped I would find on the way back up. We ran for a lot of the way along the base of the canyon, noticing that it was a gradual uphill on our way towards the north rim. I made myself throw back some calories and continued to hydrate. 

Around 15 miles in, I needed to go faster and I took off on my own. I genuinely appreciated that we were there with a group of 8 NYX athletes but I love being alone almost as much as I love endurance. When I'm alone and not running, I enjoy spending time inside my head with my thoughts. But when I'm alone and I am running, I get to be inside my body. With all my feelings and sensations and knowings. 

That is my favorite portal.

My new friend Kendra (that I just met that morning) caught up with me on the climb up to the north rim and her pacing was helpful. She somehow had a lot of extra energy to talk to the people around us, which worked out really well for me so that I could benefit from being pushed by the small group we had joined, but not actually have to participate in conversation. 

We got to the north rim in 6.5 hours. It was getting hot on the way up but I felt surprisingly fresh. We stayed there for about 10-15 minutes, filled up with water, shoved some more calories into our bodies, then started the descent back towards home. If you've ever seen my quads before, you would know that those things are made for descending. I led us most of the way down, then Kendra led us through the base of the canyon, where temperatures reached over 100 degrees. 

I seem to have this interesting phenomenon happen to me where I feel totally fine but then I notice my heart rate shooting up and/or touch my arms or stomach to find out I'm completely bloated and in need of mass quantities of electrolytes. That happened running through the base. Around 33 miles in, I needed to slow down and start rebalancing my electrolytes. This balancing act is a combination of consuming salt tabs and forcing myself to pee as often as possible, since I lose such a low rate of fluid through sweat. 

Maybe I need to investigate a different norm for what feeling "totally fine" means.

We got to Phantom Ranch around 2:00pm, a full 2 hours before the heaven-sent ice cold lemonade stand closed for the day. I sat on a log for about 10-15 minutes, trying to drown out my my problems with lemony sugar-water. I remember staring into space, contemplating the paradox of how done my body felt combined with how far from done my day was. There were still about 10 miles left. All uphill. 

Endurance athletes have a few cliche phrases that we latch onto, of our own specific meathead variety. We like to talk about how quitting isn't an option. That's a great mindset to have when you're trying to push yourself in a race. But quitting is actually always an available background option, in the form of a medical tent safety net. 

This was my first time in a situation where quitting was literally not one of the options. You either made it out of the canyon to safety or you didn't. Phantom Ranch was when that reality set in for me. 

No idea where this was

Up until this point, I had enjoyed running with someone to keep me going, but now I needed to be alone with my suffering. I had nothing else to say about politics, or travel, or race experiences, or really anything at all. If someone had prompted me to produce words from that point on, those words would have been a disturbing reflection of the dark state of my soul. Nobody wanted that. Certainly not me. 

Towards the beginning of the climb up the Bright Angel Trail from Phantom Ranch was where I believe I exited my body. We had passed by several bridges on the way out, one of which was the landmark that I had distant memories of using to identify the location of my coke. On the way back to the south rim, I don't remember passing a single one of those bridges. 

This was also when I started pooping.

Miles 35-40 were a fuzzy haze of trying to stay conscious enough to continue adjusting my electrolyte balance, trying not to shit myself in between bathroom stops, and still hanging onto my arbitrary goal of finishing before dark. Indian Gardens was the water stop about 4.5 miles from the top. I got there 12.5 hours into my day (4:30pm), and I remember thinking that it couldn't be that difficult to cover 4.5 miles in 1.5 hours to make it to the south rim by dark. Never mind the fact that the last 4.5 miles ascend over 3k feet in elevation. I looked at the other zombie-inhabited over-achievers sitting around staring into nothingness, and I decided to keep pressing on. 

I had been so single-mindedly concerned about electrolytes for so long that I neglected to get sufficient calories into my body. I had been focused on controlling my heart rate from spiking, and at this point it started dropping. A little too low. 

My last few bathroom stops had morphed into explosive diarrhea off the side of the trail. After I ran out of "wilderness wipes," I began repurposing my used picky bar wrappers as toilet paper and then stuffing them back into my pack so as to not litter in the Grand Canyon. From that point on, most of my mental energy was spent in reaction to each time my heart rate would drop down into the low 50's: Do I dig around in my poop-infested pack for more calories or can I make it a few more miles to the top and wait for actual food?

The last 3 miles felt like an eternity. 

The last 1.5 miles felt like whatever is longer than an eternity. 

There is still over 1100 feet of elevation to climb in the last 1.5 miles and the most eloquent way that I can think of to describe that phenomenon is fucked up. I kept looking up to see the other moving headlamps in the distance to get a gauge for how much farther I would have to go. It seemed as though walking would not be a sufficient moving mechanism to reach the vertical height above my head that these headlamps appeared to be occupying. I assumed that at some point I would have to transcend my body and fly to the trailhead. 

I might have done that. I honestly don't remember. 

Views of some of the headlamps parading up Bright Angel at night.

True to form, I took a wrong turn right at the top and walked an extra 15 or so minutes to the next hotel down, completely missing what could only be referred to as a "finish line" in 2020. It was mostly just a trailhead with a sign. But there were people there, some of which I knew. More importantly, it would have been 15 less minutes of walking. And that is how my 2020 "race season" ended.

Looking back, I think there was a part of me that was craving an experience where the stakes were as high as survival. At least on a subconscious level, I wanted to be ripped open, emptied out, and stripped of all notions of past and future. At least for a moment. 

That's why I pursue endurance in the way that I do, where I could never be satisfied with just finishing. I want to live inside moments where the choice is to either fully exist in the present, or not exist at all. 

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